And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. - Nehemiah 8:9-12Sometime in the second half of the second century before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people were permitted by their Persian overlords to return to Jerusalem. The Persians had conquered the Babylonians, who had sent the Jews into exile. As a result of the Babylonian seizure and occupation of Jerusalem, the temple was destroyed and the city walls knocked down. Under the Persian king and his governor, Nehemiah, the people were permitted to restore the structures and the worship they housed.
In the 8th chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, the people are gathered, "the men, women, and those children old enough to understand" (v. 2, New American Bible, Revised Edition). The Priest-scribe Ezra reads from the book of the law, and the people weep.
They've been away for a long time, exiles in a foreign land. Many of them, the children in particular, may have never before heard God's law (which includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy -- along with their narrative stories, in addition to the Ten Commandments and other legal prescriptions). It is their history, their legacy, their founding documents. It would be something like Americans exiled to a foreign land regathered in Washington, D.C., to hear proclaimed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
That comparison, however, fails to do justice to the import of this gathering. The Jewish people are a nation not only tied to a parcel of land and a set of beliefs, but to a particular God who has called them and set them apart from all other peoples and nations and whose hand appeared to have been set against them. Remember, this is a time when every nation had its gods, and success in war seemed to ratify the power of that nation's deities. Israel was unusual, bordering on unique, in its worship of a single God -- a God who was, over time, not only seen as the top God, but the only God.
For Israel, that meant that no misfortune that befell them could be attributed to the superiority or favor of another god over his or her people. It could only mean that Israel's God, the one and only, wanted to punish them. The words of Israel's prophets are filled with invective against Israel's failure to do the one essential thing that God required -- remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God and God alone, abiding by the law and eschewing the worship of any other so-called god. The exile in Babylon was seen as the ultimate expression of God's displeasure with Israel.
Now the people have been returned to the land God promised to them. Do they not hear, in the midst of this grand assembly, Ezra reading the story of this promise? Are they stirred because they hear God's word to Abraham and to Issac, to Jacob and Joseph and Moses? The promise is made to those forefathers and mothers, and, consequently, to the people there gathered. Their very presence in Jerusalem is a sign that God has not forsaken them, but desires to renew his covenant with them.
Do they weep with regret for what has come before? With relief?
Ezra and the Levites insist they cease to weep and commence rejoicing. Prepare the feast! Leave no one out! This day that the Lord has made holy calls for a joyful celebration.
Many of us gather on Sunday to hear the proclamation of the promise. We do so, because it is our Sabbath the holy day, set apart for the Lord. We gather from our own exile. We can call our separation from the promised land sin, but it has many names. It is the alienation I feel from a friend who I have hurt by provoking a careless misunderstanding. It is the guilt I feel over choices I knew were wrong, but which felt easier in the moment than what I knew was right. It is the sinking feeling in my heart that I'm a disappointment to my parents or my spouse or my kids or my God. It is the anger and resentment over hurts unhealed. It is the ways in which I immerse myself in the temptations of the world -- possessions, power, glory.
I come to church from Babylon.
What is the word I hear proclaimed? Here's what Jesus says to us out of Luke's gospel today:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." - Luke 4:18-19I have heard any number of sermons calling me to go out and do likewise -- to proclaim the good news to the poor, release to the oppressed, and the like. That is, of course, right; we are the body of Christ, called to do as he did. But I cannot proclaim what I have not heard and taken into my own soul.
I am the poor who need to hear this good news. I am the captive that needs to be released, the blind one who needs to have my eyes opened, the oppressed who needs to be set free. I need to know that this is the year of the Lord's favor. This is the day for rejoicing.
Do we leave church rejoicing? Do we go forth to feast and share and celebrate? Do we know that we are called, today, to live in a holy city restored? That the temple has been rebuilt, and his name is Jesus, the Risen Christ? That, as a member of his body (1 Corinthians 12), I too am rebuilt, restored, reborn, raised from death to life?
Do you understand the words that are declared to you? How will you go forth eating, drinking, and rejoicing?