Third Sunday After Epiphany Nehemiah 8:1-12, Psalm 113, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Luke 4:14-21
It is very easy to accept that God is speaking to us, when we hear something which soothes our troubled minds or spirits. When I have hurt someone, I love the comfort that “love keeps no record of wrongs” brings. When I feel lonely, it is good to hear that God will never leave nor forsake me. In times when I am exhausted and burdened by the cares of others, I know that I can cast all my anxieties onto God. It is in grace that God bends to speak to us human beings, as small and fleeting as we are.
The rocks and the trees prove themselves to be more faithful that we, for they do not cease to stand in the place they have been planted, and they do not abdicate their place in God’s good creation. The rock without complaint remains a rock, and the tree does not beg for a different portion, twisting itself to become something other than what it was made to be. Yet we human beings are often so keen to be something other than what we are, so ill-at-ease within our own skin, so quick to despise our quirks and easily find fault with things that aren’t faults. It is a wonder that God would speak to us at all. I certainly never stand still long enough to listen, really.
I am too busy criticizing others or acting on some unrestrained impulse and then attempting to mitigate the damage of such passions that it seems the only time God speaks is when I have gotten myself so lost that finally, stuck down a narrow lonely road of fear, I would search God’s word for comfort, or finally seek out a Christian sister or brother who can speak something of God’s word to me. It is grace, it is only grace, which would cause God to come down, to condescend, to small and fleeting mortal flesh, and address us. And the very fact that we would be so addressed speaks of a belief God has of us, that we may not even have for ourselves.
That God would speak to us is a witness to his love for us. He needs nothing we can give him, yet he freely gives himself to us.
The notion of this grace, this dignity and love, is easily understood when God speaks comfortingly. Yet we might turn the page of our Bibles and suddenly see within it a word which strikes at the heart of our values or vices. Or worse still, a faithful friend may bring before our eyes some reproof or correction, a right calling to amend our ways to better live in the way God has commanded us to live.
Suddenly far from being a comfort, God’s word is a terror. When even beloved friends have to me some righteous word, I have quickly assumed the loss of my own belovedness, as though the love of others or even the love of God was earned by my behavior. To say it out loud, here before God’s table where we will be invited to share a feast, reminds me that this notion is plainly absurd. Yet I must confess how often it is that I neglect the hard scriptures, forget difficult teachings, and forgo fellowship so as to avoid the feeling that I am not loved, the very idea that God would be angry at me.
God’s word can feel like a terror, and the very fact that God would speak it to us then appears to be rooted in a burning rage, the smoke of which will choke us if we go anywhere near.
It is this terror we see in the People of God in our Lesson from Nehemiah today. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah sit together as a pair, telling the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile.
The Exodus and the Exile in many ways bookend the story of the People of God in the Old Testament. In the Exodus the people are saved from slavery in Egypt and set in a homeland where they can live in the grace and favor of God. Yet the people depart from God’s ways and are exiled from their promised land, being forcibly removed by the Babylonians and set to hard labor. The Prophets of the Old Testament not only warned that this would be the case, but also anticipate that God would restore his people to their land, and restore them to faithfulness.
Ezra and Nehemiah begin their story with Cyrus, who was the king of Persia, who after conquering the Babylonian empire declared freedom for the Hebrews and allowed them to go back to their land and restore their cities. Ezra was a priest and Nehemiah was a politician, and what can be seen in the two books named after them is the overlapping and deeply connected narrative of spiritual restoration, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. In a Biblical account of our faith, we are reminded that things like property, buildings, objects and art, are as much a part of our life of faith as are the ideas we have, the beliefs we confess, and the things we have learned.
Our Lesson from Nehemiah is a climactic moment in this story of restoration and rebuilding. After the work of building the walls of Jerusalem and defending their home from cruel and spiteful rivals and enemies, the people of God gathered around a purpose-built platform from which Ezra the priest would read. This reminds us that this day was planned, and the people were not compelled to come and hear the word of God, and they did not despise the one speaking it as in the case of the Prophets generations earlier. It was fitting that they should gather to worship God after this miraculous saving work had been done amongst them.
In Nehemiah’s telling of this moment he emphasizes the inclusive nature of this event – everyone, men and women and children – were present to hear this reading of God’s word. And with Ezra are a team of other Priests and Levites who will help the people understand what they are hearing. Here we see this relationship between the clergy and the people of God restored, to one of companion and trustworthy friendship, rather than the selfish and abusive practices of the Priests generations earlier. The fact that this even happens in a public place speaks of an openness from the political realm to the things of God, which the time before the Exile had seen a disintegration of.
This is a profound moment, where the people make themselves vulnerable to God’s word. They stand still. They listen carefully. The priests stand with the people and help them to understand what is being read. All people are included here, from the highest to the lowest, from the oldest to the youngest. All of God’s people are gathered as one to hear his word. The governor of the people declares that this day is set apart and holy, submitting civic life to serve the purposes of God.
And in this moment, the people are terrified. For what they hear seems hard, it seems impossible, and the people in understanding the word that God had given them might realize that the horrors which befell them 70 years earlier in the exile are, in hindsight, the consequence of their constant faithlessness to that word. They weep and weep, perhaps because in hearing these hard things they believe themselves to be wretched, beyond being loved by God.
Yet God’s word to his people is always a word of love, for he knows how weak and fallible we human beings are. If God was looking for perfection he would speak only to the rocks and the trees, which generation after generation remain faithful to their nature and calling. But as it is, God constantly condescends to seek and save our lost souls. He would not do this if he did not love us.
And so Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest make their mourning into celebration. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine. Have a party. Include everyone. Invite people who have nothing prepared. God has spoken his word to his people, and this is a cause for celebration not misery. Our God is a God of saving love, not punitive condemnation. God has fulfilled his purposes for his people, he has brought them back to their homes with a government which honors God and clergy who take the time and expend the effort and care to help all of God’s people to understand God’s words. This isn’t judgement. It is intimacy. This is a picture and a pattern for the flourishing of God’s people.
When the people are left alone with God’s word, it seems they hear only that they are terrible and wicked. They have to be told to be joyful. How strange human beings are, that somewhere in the deepest parts of our minds is the fear that someone is out to get us, that an everlasting gavel is ready to be struck against a metaphysical bench catching us out and confirming that all the vile things we believe about ourselves are in fact true. But Ezra and Nehemiah want to remind God’s people that this day, when they have understood God’s word, is a day of joy in itself. If God speaks to us, it is because of his love, and if we understand it is because in that love we have been given a mind with which to reason and faithful friends to help us comprehend.
The Exile and return of God’s people turns out to be an extremely significant moment in God’s redemptive purpose, for it is in this moment where the people are vulnerable, when they are beset of every side, that they call on God for strength and do the work given them to do, and in the crucible of this suffering the old faithlessnesses and idolatries evaporate, giving way to this moment of clarity and unity which certainly continues until Jesus’ day, inspiring a new way of being Hebrew rooted in hearing the reading of God’s word and creating an expectation that the mature will help the less mature and that those who are recognized as clergy have a duty to make clear and accessible the things God has said. This is where the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees come from, a noble tradition of faithful people using all their faculties to serve God’s people such that they will be more able to know how it is that they should live, and indeed helping to preserve the distinct identity of the people of God through a wide variety of political arrangements and relationships to empires and kingdoms around them.
Paul was of course a Pharisee and in his understanding of the rapidly developing Church he assumes that in many ways those yearnings and callings of the Hebrew people are not only also the yearnings and hopes of the Church, but are also realized and fulfilled. So just as the people to whom Ezra spoke are not left alone to privately hear God’s word, but are part of a community where those words are taught and explained, so too the Church is a body where every member has a rightful service to render to one another, a community where not only does every person hear and understand the Word of God, but also has gifts to give and unique ways to serve God’s purposes. This is the good news of the Church, both globally and locally, that we are not individuals left alone with our own corrupted consciences, but are brought into God’s family where everyone has a place, where we need not think that we are useless and terrible, but where every individual is indispensable.
And Paul understands that this new body of the Church is the visible witness that what Jesus preached, the good news to the poor, liberation of the captives, and the new sight for the blind, is indeed true and real. The Church, the Body of Christ, is the living testimony that the freedom proclaimed by Christ is available now, everywhere and to all people. Paul proclaims that in the Church all people, no matter where they came from or what baggage they may carry, have a place and a dignity the tapestry of which miraculously makes up Christ’s body here on earth, constituted by our common indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who though grace takes all of our vulnerability and particularity and transforms it into a saving work here and now, on earth, and all over the globe.
It will always be the case that when we read or hear God’s word we will hear and see things in ourselves which are not as they should be. Yet today, and indeed every Sunday, we meet and hear these words and then we share in a feast together. For we are not abandoned or alone before a cruel judge, but we have an advocate in Jesus Christ who stands with us and has invited us to follow him, teaching us in ways so diverse and particular, how to live in God’s ways. So not only today, but every day may we rejoice that we are not far off from God, but that he in his kindness has come near to us and has in love made us his witnesses in all the world. Sometimes we will rightly weep for our sins, for the harm we have done to ourselves, to others, and to God’s world. Yet that weeping ought not be a despair that we have been rejected on account of our weakness, but a remembrance that despite it all we belong to Christ and live in peace as his beloved people.