Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
On January 16, 2016, my family gathered around our fire pit to roast hotdogs and make s’mores. One week later, we spent the day sledding and making snow angels. Just another Virginia winter.
Sledding with young children can be a lot of fun, and it can be a lot of work. We received about 18 inches of snow, and when you are only about 36 inches tall, it can be quite difficult to climb those hills. Saturday we went to Gypsy Hill Park where we found a very steep hill, which meant some very fast sledding. But because of the steepness of the hill, my children could not carry their sleds back up the hill. So we shared the sled: they used the sled for going down the hill, I got the sled for going up. But it was even worse than I expected, because I would carry the sled up the hill, put a kid on the sled, send them down the hill, and then I would have to walk down the hill to get the sled and carry it back up again.
I slept very well that night.
Sunday, after the snow had stopped falling, we began our official “dig out.” The sidewalks, driveway, and steps all needed to be cleared. We have like having our little Prius for the gas mileage, but there are some disadvantages to having a small, white car in the middle of a snowstorm. We are hoping to find that car by March.
I’m sure that you have noticed that everyone seems to have their own approach to snow removal. We all have methods that we think are helpful, even superior to other people’s approaches. For instance, you have probably seen people who lift their windshield wipers off their windshield before a storm so that they don’t have to dig them out of the ice later. I’ve never tried this, so I can’t speak to how effective it is. But we have neighbors who you can count on standing their wipers up each night when there is a chance for even the slightest bit of snow.
There is a bit of a debate out there on the best approach to shoveling snow. Do you try to “stay in front of it,” or wait until the snow storm is over? I’m not talking about those who need to get the snow off their roof because of the weight and fear that a roof might collapse. I understand that this is an issue with some of the flat roofs, especially on some chicken and turkey houses here in the Valley. I’m talking about your sidewalk or driveway. Do you go out in the middle of a snowfall to shovel your sidewalk, even when you don’t need to go anywhere, or do you wait until it is finished snowing?
I grew up in a windy part of Ohio where the snow didn’t fall vertically and drifting was a major concern. So if you dug out your driveway while it was still snowing, that low point would cause the snow to drift in your driveway, leaving you with even more snow than you would have had if you hadn’t removed it in the first place. But here, we don’t get much wind. The snow falls slowly to the earth in a very peaceful manner.
Either way, you are going to have to shovel some snow. Either way will require some work, and even some pain. The question is which is best, to do it all at once or space it out over time?
We don’t often talk about Ezra and Nehemiah in the church, unless the church is going through some kind of building program. That’s when these stories really preach! So I thought it would be helpful to give you all a little bit of background information on these two gentlemen after whom two books of the Bible have been named.
Ezra and Nehemiah always seem to be linked together, at least in my mind. I can’t think of one without the other popping into my head. An interesting fact about these two books of the Bible is that they were originally believed to be one book. Ancient Hebrew scrolls include both books on one long, continuous piece of parchment. Somewhere through history we made the decision to break these into two distinct books, perhaps for those who would have been studying and trying to memorize these texts.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably written by the same unnamed biographer. We don’t know who wrote down these historical accounts, but we believe that person to have been doing so under the divine influence of the Holy Spirit.
Ezra was a priest, born into the line of Aaron. The book of Ezra actually traces his genealogy back to Aaron, perhaps to strengthen Ezra’s street cred as an authentic Israelite priest. Ezra, we are told, was vital in the process of maintaining the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and its teachings for the Hebrew people during the Babylonian Exile. Remember that around the year 586 BC the Babylonians came through and defeated the Israelites, taking Jerusalem, stripping all of the valuables from the Temple, and carrying the Israelites off into captivity. For a period of about 70 years they were cut off from family, friends, and the center of their religious life.
So when I say that Ezra maintained the Torah and its teachings, he likely wasn’t preaching and teaching the Torah like we might imagine. Ezra is simply trying to keep the Hebrew religion from dying out. He studied the Torah, memorized it, and considered ways in which he could remain faithful to the teachings of God even while he and his people were in exile.
Nehemiah is in a different position all together. He is a servant to the king Artaxerxes, which is a fun name to say. Nehemiah is the king’s cup bearer. If you think that our political system is corrupt today, you haven’t seen anything. Back in the Bible days it was so common for the king to experience assassination attempts that they often had one person assigned to bring them their drinks, just to make sure that they hadn’t been poisoned. The cup bearer was a person in whom the king put a lot of trust, though maybe not a lot of value. It was also common for the king to have the cup bearer drink from the glass first to prove that it hadn’t been poisoned!
Ezra’s story begins first under the rule of King Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus defeats the Babylonians and gains control over the exiled Israelites and over Jerusalem. Cyrus receives a message from God to send the Israelites back to rebuild the temple, so he does just that. Years later, when Artaxerxes becomes king, he gives authority to the priest Ezra to begin collecting valuable items for the temple.
It is at this time that Nehemiah gets word that while the temple is coming along nicely, the rest of the city is still in shambles. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that they now have all of this gold and precious jewels in the temple, but there isn’t even a wall or a sturdy gate around the city to keep out thieves. So Nehemiah is sent back to his ancestor’s city, Jerusalem, as an acting governor, to rebuild the walls and fortify the city. And that is the story that leads up to our text for this morning.
We often think of the Bible as a bunch of stories grouped together in one book. But I think that it would be more accurate to think instead of the Bible as one story, the story of God’s redemption. This story looks different at different times and places, but the same themes keep coming up again and again and again.
One of the foundational stories in the history of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus. The Hebrew people were enslaved by Pharaoh, made to work without pay and often in harsh conditions. But God brought the people out of captivity and revealed himself to them in a very real way by giving them the Torah. Torah is often translated as “Law,” just as it is in today’s passage from Nehemiah. But I think that to call the Torah the Law is incomplete. Yes, there is law in the Torah, but there is also a lot of history, teachings, and stories of great faith. The Torah includes not only the laws that we find in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but also the stories of God’s love for his people and his guiding them out of slavery. The Torah isn’t just a set of laws, it is a revelation of who God is.
So when we read in today’s passage that Ezra read from the Book of the Law of Moses, we shouldn’t think of them simply hearing of bunch of rules, but also stories of God creating human beings, and choosing them, the Israelites, to be God’s people. They heard the stories of the Exodus, and God leading the people through the wilderness and eventually into the Promised Land. And I’m sure that the similarities between the situation of their forefathers and their own was not lost on them. Just as God had led the Israelites out of Egypt and given them the Torah, so to had God led them out of captivity in Babylon and was now giving them the Torah. Not just rules, but stories of God’s love, God’s protection, and God’s deliverance. Stories of God’s grace.
Keep in mind that for 70 years many of the Israelites had not heard these stories and these teachings.
Ezra the priest, who has been studying the Torah, even in captivity, is told to make a public presentation of the Torah on the first day of the seventh month. This is not July 1st, as the Israelites did not use our modern calendar. The 1st day of the seventh month is actually the Hebrew holy day known as Rosh Hashanah, which is commonly referred to as the Jewish New Year. This wasn’t a day to stay up until midnight followed by a day full of watching college football games, but it was a day for the making of resolutions.
In Leviticus 23 we find the introduction of the holy feast that we now call Rosh Hashanah. And though Leviticus 23 doesn’t say much about this holy day, we know from Jewish tradition that it was set aside as a time of introspection, a time to think about your life. Sometimes this meant thinking about the mistakes that you had made and the things that you would like to do differently in the year to come.
So it is not by mistake that they ask Ezra to read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. As they began the new year, they were to think about all of the things that had happened to them and the things that they had done. They were to reflect on the ways that God had brought them out of captivity and back to the Promised Land, not just once, but now again.
There was grace, and then there was grace again.
When we think of grace, we sometimes fail to think big enough. Grace is forgiveness, for sure, but grace is more. Grace is any gift from God that we cannot earn and do not deserve. We say “grace” before a meal, and we say that some people move with grace. Grace is a gift. So the forgiveness that God offers is grace. And the fact that God works through people like the Israelites, in spite of all of their shortcomings and mistakes, well, that’s grace, too.
They construct an elevated platform for Ezra to read from, and when he begins reading, all the people stand up. We are told that Ezra reads from sunup until midday, probably about six hours straight. And I like verse 8, which tells us, “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” That’s right, Ezra was offering commentary on the text as he read it. He was doing some preachin’ right then and there! Six hours of preachin’, to be exact. Now you know why they stood. If they sat down they might fall asleep!
No, they stood because of what was being read. They stood because, as I’ve already said, this was God’s Torah, God’s self-revelation to God’s chosen people. This is how God had chosen to speak to his people and they stood out of reverence for these stories and these laws.
But also notice that we have two distinctly different responses from these people. Verse 6 says, “Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” That sounds like, well, praise! Amen and amen! In my mind the Israelites are getting a little Pentecostal on us here because the Spirit is moving! Now look at the second half of verse 9, where Nehemiah and Ezra say, “‘Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”
There are shouts of praise, and there is mourning and weeping. These are both appropriate responses to the grace of God.
Often we fall into the mistake of thinking of the God of the Old Testament as an angry god who simply looks over us with disappointment, just waiting on the opportunity to smite us or shoot down thunder and lightning from heaven, striking us dead where we stand. And then there is Jesus in the New Testament who loves us all, even the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. There is angry God, and there is loving Jesus. But as Christians, we also profess that Jesus and God are one in some kind of unique relationship. So if we have this angry god looking to strike us down and the loving Jesus looking to offer grace and forgiveness, then we are worshipping a bipolar god, or perhaps a god with multiple personalities.
No, we do not worship a god of multiple personalities. We worship the God of grace, the God of mercy. The God who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
There is an old, primitive way of understanding the earth as a flat piece of land that rests on the back of a turtle. One day a scientist was speaking to a group of these primitive people trying to explain to them that the earth was round and is floating in space while it rotates around the sun. A woman in crowd stood up and said, “Thanks for sharing this with us, but we all know that the earth is really flat and it rests on the back of a giant turtle.”
The scientist responded, “My dear woman, what then is the turtle standing on?”
The woman replied, “You’re not going to fool me. It’s turtles all the way down.”
This is how I feel when people start talking about the angry god of the Old Testament and the loving God of Jesus. No, I want to say, it’s grace all the way down.
Start in the beginning of the very Torah that Ezra read to the Israelites in our text today. It starts by saying, “In the beginning, God created…” God did not need to create. God did not need to create the earth, animals, plants, or human beings. God’s act of creation is God’s act of grace. God called Abraham; grace. God brought the Israelites out of captivity and then again out of exile; grace. Even God giving the actual laws and ethical teachings found in both the Old and New Testament are an act of grace. This is God telling us how we should live, not because God gains something from us living according to some rules. God’s act of grace in giving these teachings and laws are God’s gift to us.
The same God who brought the Israelites out of captivity and then out of exile is the same God who Jesus describes in the stories of Luke 15. This God is like a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep, who turns house and home upside down looking for a lost coin, and who rejoices when the lost son returns.
This is why Ezra and Nehemiah tell the Israelites not to weep at the reading of the Torah. Instead, in verse 10, Nehemiah says, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It is grace, upon grace, upon grace. God is grace, upon grace, upon grace.
Here is the problem with these messages on grace. A pastor can stand up on a Sunday morning and talk about an angry God who wants vengeance, who wants blood, and he doesn’t care where it comes from, and many people will sit in the pews and say “Amen.” But as soon as you start talking about the unconditional love of God and his offer of grace to all people, someone is going to call you a heretic.
Let me go on record today as saying that if preaching love and grace gets you the label “heretic,” then I’ll gladly wear that label.
You might be thinking, “But you can’t just talk about grace and forgiveness all the time because people are going to abuse it!” And my answer would be, “Yes they will.” When you talk about grace and forgiveness, without fail there will be people who abuse that gift. I know that, because I am one. I abuse the grace of God, and I’m sure you do as well.
When you preach grace, people will abuse grace. But I’m going to preach it anyway.
I’m going to preach grace anyway, because it is biblical. God created the world out of grace, and human beings abused it. But God came back to them with more grace. Time and time again, grace upon grace. Notice where today’s passage takes place. You would expect the reading of the Torah to take place at the Temple, the center of all religious activities. But no, this is done at the Water Gate, which isn’t a reference to a hotel in the DC area. You will recall that the Temple was also a place that was restricted. Only the priests could go in all of the way, Jewish men could enter part way, women and gentiles could only enter the outer courts. But the Water Gate, the entrance to the well where drinking water was drawn, was open to everyone.
The grace of God, which was, is, and always will be abused, was not reserved for the religious elite, the people who had it all together, or the perfectly pious individuals. The grace was, and is, and will be offered to anyone who comes to receive it. Grace is like the snow that falls in a Virginia storm. You can try to shovel away God’s grace every hour, but it is just going to keep coming back! It is going to keep coming back until there is no more grace. And guess what? God is grace all the way down.
There are no barriers, no signed contract that says you want fall again, and no demands upon you. Grace is freely offered because God is grace, all the way down.