What if I announced we’re going stand outside and I’ll read to you all of the first five books of Scripture- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and THEN after about six hours, we’ll come in here and celebrate? Just like they did in Nehemiah! I don’t know why we don’t do that! But more importantly why DO we do what we do here? Minus the six hour part, what these people did is part of what shapes what we do when we gather to worship. What we do is called the liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people” in worship. If you look closely you’ll see parts of our worship there in Nehemiah. Standing for part of Scripture, getting low for confession. Our pattern of gathering, confessing, being forgiven, blessing, feasting and sending forth, has roots in what they did. And frankly our need for doing so does too. It has everything to do with the ongoing relationship between humans and God across time. But today we hear about the Israelites. They’ve come home. Back from living in exile for half a century. A time that started when they’d been not only conquered and overrun, but stripped of their land, their language, their religion and their identity. Now they come home struggling to remember who they were. Some were born never even knowing that the old stories they heard were true. “Home” was unrecognizable, and things they were counting upon lie in ruins. Their leaders began rebuilding but even when they gather for worship, enemies, exhaustion and divisions mean they’re still not sure it’s right. What if there isn’t anything to pass on? They beg to hear the words of their God- that seems so distant. We need you to help us remember who we are. We feel a little unglued. And the things we are supposed to do don’t make sense.
So Ezra reads their story to them, the story of God and the people. God creating everything to fit together, and created humans out of a desire for relationship. God freeing them from slavery for a relationship. God giving the joy of land and security and abundance saying, “I am the Lord your God and you are my people. All of this is for you.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says it was the memory of God’s gifts and that relationship that was the glue that bound the people together, keeping them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God. But years passed and they grew careless and cynical, their prosperity caused amnesia about who they really were, what they’re expected to do and to whom they’re accountable. It ends with them carted off to Babylon. Now for them to even hear their story, it takes more than a book because many of the people didn’t get the language. The Israelites spoke Hebrew but as exiles had to learn their conquerors’ language. For some it’s the only language they ever knew. It took not only Ezra and a book but those who knew the story and could speak the languages to translate so everyone could understand what was being said and what it meant. And they did because It was that important.
Important enough that everyone- men, women, young and old, are drawn together to learn who they are and how they got to this point. Their “Amens” at the end are a collective cry of recognition of just how far they’ve strayed and just how devoted God had been. The scope of God’s devotion and laboring overpowers them, and when set alongside the scope of their sins, they weep. And they’re scared-a God that powerful might decide enough’s enough. Frankly they wouldn’t be able to blame that response. How can anyone bridge the enormous gap between who we are and who we were made to be? This is not just their confession, it’s ours.
But as surely as the law reveals our sins, it also reveals our hope. The story of a God who keeps promises, promising Abraham he’d be the father of a nation, and assuring Jacob “I am with you and will protect you wherever you go.” A God who heard the cries of the oppressed in Egypt and delivered them. A God who forgives sins and helps those whose strength is gone. This same God says DO NOT WEEP. In spite of all that’s passed, do not weep. Because THIS day you have let God’s law fill your ears and it is a holy day. There is forgiveness as this day you have drawn near to God. Your being here is the joy of the Lord! God’s joy and ours- this is what it means to be a holy day!
And being here is our strength. Because every week we leave and it’s not long before we’re in danger of falling victim to amnesia as well. We too can lose sight of God’s gifts and the glue that holds us together, how we rely upon God. And if we take seriously our lives and confession, we come back like the Israelites, confused and unglued. But we get to come back! To confess and be forgiven and freed to worship God. That’s why confession is at the beginning.
Then we hear the word, and God invites us to feast. Again this day-Body,blood,grace. Bread and wine- for you.
It’s all designed to help us remember who we are, who God is and our call to help each other grasp how this shapes who we are to be. Because it’s that important.
And It all happens here together. It needs to be together. God’s word has authority, but it cannot live only in the pages of a book. It takes the “all” of community. Our faith is strengthened by hearing God’s word and by interpreting it together. None of us is able to be the sole source of strengthening our own faith. The glory and power are not in this book or a speaker or ourselves, but in what God brings forth in the midst of us as God’s people. We need to be glued together. That’s why we’re here.
So hear God’s Word anew. No matter where you’ve been, do not weep. Let God fill your ears and hear that this is for you, this holy day. Whether you are like me and often feel unworthy of this grace, remember our response to God is to thankfully radiate the glow of our joy farther and farther out. To share with those who haven’t heard, who have no joy, who know no feast, who feel no strength. May we be lifted up in forgiveness, filled with joy and strengthened by God’s Word that exceeds our expectations, and our reasoning, and then after the feast we sing- Thank the Lord and sing His praise! Tell everyone what He has done. Let everyone who seeks the Lord rejoice and proudly bear his name. For He recalls His promises and leads his people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving! Hallelu-jah- Praise God!
So go forth! Help others remember who they are. As we draw together in ever larger ways, being rededicated in God’s presence. Confessing, forgiving, worshipping, feasting and sending. Again and again. Until all who can understand, do. And tears turn into joy and we remember we are a people, not scattered exiles.
May God’s word fill our ears and hearts anew, inspire our speech, make us shine forth God’s love and glory for all to see. Our reminder and our mission starts again with this day. This holy day.