Preached February 17, 2013 (Lent I)
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 6, 8-12 & Malachi 3:1-4
The Story, Ch. 21
Whew – you MADE it! If you are following along in The Story, you read the final scenes of the Old Testament this week. Congratulations! An accomplishment…
This week the lights fade at the end of the first act of the ongoing drama of God’s relationship with human beings throughout history.
Ezra and Nehemiah are leaders of a generation of Israelites who returned from exile to the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites remain under foreign rule; there is no return to the glory days of David and his heirs. But they do have some autonomy, ruled by a Jewish governor who reports to the ruler of the Persian Empire.
It is, as the prophet Zechariah describes it, a “day of small things” (Zech 4:10). Their return to the city occurs gradually, with none of the drama of the Exodus or the pomp and circumstance of the kings. The Temple is rebuilt, but without the extravagance of King Solomon’s Temple. The city walls are repaired with little fanfare.
It is, nevertheless, a day of hope. Their return to the promised land is a reminder to the Israelites that God has not forgotten them. They again have a Temple in which to worship (although the text never again says that the Spirit of the Lord dwells in the Temple as it did before the exile). Ezra and Nehemiah may live in “a day of small things,” but it is also a quietly hopeful day.
The task of the leaders in that day was to help the people reclaim their identity as God’s chosen people. The Temple and the city walls had been rebuilt; now it was time to rebuild faith and community.
So it is that we find the people assembling in Nehemiah, chapter 8, to hear the reading of the Law. They gather not at the Temple – where only the ritually pure men could go – but in the town square, where everyone is welcome. Men, women and children come together to hear the Word of God. It is the first sign of a new identity taking shape – in continuity with the past, but appropriate to their time and place. They hear the Word spoken out into the streets, in a new context.
There is another sign of changes: Ezra, the priest and scribe, reads the law – but he does so at the request of the people, and with the help of lay persons who read alongside him. It’s the first lay readers, right here in Nehemiah!
They read, the text says, paragraph by paragraph, pausing so that the scholars – the Levites – could interpret and apply the law. Hearing the Word elicited respect – the people stood in reverence! They knew this was important, that it mattered, this story of faith they were hearing. It is like the tradition in some African American churches, where members of the congregation will stand when the preacher says something that rings true. We know when something sounds like truth, even if we don’t fully understand it. So the people stood to say, “yes! There is truth here!”
Understanding that truth required some more explanation, though. Nehemiah 8:8 says that the priests “made it clear and gave it meaning, so that the people could understand what was being read.” It was the teaching and application of the story to their own time that led to understanding. The Law called them back to God and provided continuity with their ancestors; but in a new day and a new context, it needed fresh interpretation.
When they people understand what they are hearing, they are moved to tears. Standing in respect gives way to weeping and lying prostrate on the ground.
It’s hard to say why, exactly. Were they crying tears of regret as they realized how far they had strayed from the ways of God? Were they fearful tears, anticipating what judgment awaited them? Or were they tears of joy at the rediscovery of God’s Word and the reminder of God’s abiding presence and provision? Those details are left to our imaginations. Perhaps they were all mixed together.
Regardless of the source of the tears, Ezra urges the people to set them aside – to replace weeping with celebration! He reminds them that they have met God anew in the hearing and understanding of God’s Word – and experiencing God’s presence is always cause for rejoicing! “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9).
So they dry their tears and go on to their homes to prepare a feast for the celebration. They make plenty to share – especially with those who don’t have the means or the foresight to prepare their own meals. This isn’t a time to be stingy! God’s goodness overflows to the whole community.
It is only now, at the end of the story, that we know that the people have truly understood the divine Word that they heard. We know they understood because we can see that they lived it out. They responded to God’s extravagant grace by sharing with others. They passed on God’s blessing to those who had done nothing to prepare themselves for receiving it, who had not even bothered to attend the town-wide worship. It didn’t matter, right then; the gift of God’s presence was shared with the whole community. They had rediscovered their identity as God’s people who were “blessed to be a blessing.”
I like that the reading ends here. I’d like to just bask in the joy for awhile! And the people of Israel do – their celebration continues for 7 days, with Ezra continuing to read the word of God and the people continuing to celebrate God’s faithfulness.
And then, on the 8th day, they gather again for worship. They confess their sins before God, remember God’s mercy, and recommit themselves to obedience. They take an oath to obey the laws of God. (Nehemiah 9-10) The Word of God has led to great revival among God’s people!
In Nehemiah 11-12, the people return to their homes in Jerusalem and the surrounding suburbs. They settle into a routine of work and rest and worship and play. Life feels normal again. It is, again, “a day of small things.”
And by chapter 13, the memory of that great revival has faded. Nehemiah returns from a long business trip to find that the people had filled the Sabbath day with work and play, and were neglecting worship. They used their money for many things, but forgot to bring their offerings to the Temple treasuries.
God is faithful, but we human beings are not – at least not when left to our own devices. Apathy and self-absorption creep back into their lives – and ours.
It is into those days that the prophet Malachi speaks.
Malachi. If you’re like me, the only thing you really know about Malachi is that it is the last book of the Old Testament. Appropriately, somehow, Malachi ends the first act of God’s drama with more questions than answers. There are 22 questions in just 55 verses. It is as if the prophet speaks the questions into the emptiness of our broken world, and lets them echo through the ages:
Does God really love us? (Mal 1:2)
Will God accept us? (Mal 1:9)
Have we not one Creator? Then why do we…break faith with one another? (Mal 2:10)
Where is the God of justice? (Mal 2:17)
How are we to return to God? (Mal 3:7)
Why? (Mal 2:14)
With the questions hanging in the air, and God’s people turning away, the prophet declares:
The day is coming when the messenger of God will come. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify [the people] and refine them like gold and silver. Then…the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD” (Malachi 3:3-4).
It is a word of both judgment and promise; the refiner’s fire consumes but also purifies and strengthens. A silversmith uses fire to remove impurities and also to bring out the sheen of the metal, continuing to burn until he can see his image reflected back in the shine of the silver.
It was this image that stayed with the people of God through the next four hundred years of apparent silence, as generations waited for God to be revealed anew. What would be consumed by the refiner’s fire? What needed to be purified or strengthened? How long would the fire burn before the image of God again shone in human hearts?
This image is appropriate for us at the beginning of Lent, too, as we wait for God to be revealed anew at Easter. What impurities in us need to be consumed? What might be strengthened by the fire? How might we be purified so that we reflect the image of God in our lives?
Invite you to a time of prayer at the altar…inviting God to show you what needs to be removed and what needs to polished to a shine in your life during this Lenten journey…