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Singing the Lord's Song

A Homily from Nehemiah 8:1-10

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

January 21, 2001 (Third Sunday after the Epiphany)

We come today to one of the pivotal moments in the history of God’s people. It is a landmark story, a major turning point at a key locus in history. It is of such profound significance that the lectionary, which we share with most of the Christian churches of the world, places it at the end of the month when church attendance is often at a low point, cuts out verses, and uses it primarily to undergird a prophetic story about Jesus. In fact, the gospel reading that was chosen for today is such a tempting text – one that almost begs to be preached – that it is tempting to believe that the framers of the lectionary never intended this text to be preached at all.

Why? Why would such a key part of the story of God’s people be shoved off into the corner to collect dust next to all the texts that tell us to do things we don’t want to do? Perhaps because its easy to forget that this story, even taking place as it does long, long ago in a place far, far away - is our story. After all, those Hebrew Bible people did all sorts of weird stuff: sacrificing animals, tearing their clothes, wailing, weeping, gnashing their teeth, etc. Actually, having heard some of your reactions to yesterday’s political events; maybe we aren’t that different after all.

Certainly the fundamental pain that today’s text addresses is one which touches us all. Nehemiah asks us, what does it mean to be unable to hear the voice of God? What does it mean when God is silent?

By Nehemiah’s time, the people of God had been asking this question for several generations. Nehemiah writes of the end of the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” or “Exile.” The Exile was a time of profound grief for our spiritual ancestors. Their nation, set apart by God, had been completely defeated almost a hundred years earlier.

All of their leaders, their scholars, their priests, and most likely anyone who could read or write, had lived in exile, under house arrest, in Babylon. The children and grandchildren of those entrusted with the history of their culture grew up speaking the language of their conquerors – the Babylonians and the Persians – rather than the language in which their own sacred stories were preserved.

Surrounded by hostile strangers who judged them as different and inferior because of their appearance, their accents, and their strange customs – the voice of God seemed faint indeed.

We don’t know if – as part of their captivity under the Babylonians - they were forbidden the reading of sacred texts, or perhaps the absence from the Temple made it difficult. Maybe it was simply God’s people had turned away because they felt God has turned away from them. For whatever reason, by Nehemiah’s time the people of God had gone well over a common lifetime – perhaps two – without hearing the Word of God.

That’s a long time for God to be silent. I wonder, though, if it would be surprising to our own exiles today. They’re not as obvious or straightforward as Nehimiah’s, but they are here. They are those who journey through what seems a foreign land without friends and without comfort. Some of us don’t have to wonder, because for some of us we are those exiles. Perhaps as children we thought we knew who God was and who we are, but somehow things don’t seem so cut and dry any more. No matter where we search: the Bible, the Church, even – I dare say – our clergy; we cannot hear the voice of God. We hear words, perhaps even wisdom, but nothing to draw us out from our everyday world into the world of the Holy.

That’s where God’s beloved children found themselves in our story for today. In search of the Holy. It was the first day of the New Year and their first chance for celebration since their return home from a hundred years Exile. Finally, after so long in silence, the time had come to hear again the words of the Torah. Eagerly they gathered: men, women, and older children all together. It was unusual to have such an integrated crowd, but for something this holy, they wanted everyone who could appreciate it to be there. Once they were gathered, Nehemiah tells us that the crowd went and got the Scribe Ezra and told him to come quickly and to bring his scrolls when he comes.

I almost get the feeling that we should tell this story at Christmas, since the eager crowd reminds me of a group of children rushing their parents our of bed so that they can open their presents.

And what a present Ezra had for them. Clutched tightly under his arm was the heart of the people’s faith, their story, our story. Most translations say simply “The Law,” but the Torah is so very much more than that. As Christians, we like to give primacy to the gospels; but the real heart of who we are is in those first five holy books. It’s there that we learn that we were created in love – whether you believe that we were created in seven days or seventy billion doesn’t matter. From the first page we learn that we are not an accident, and that someone has been with us from the very beginning.

We learn that there are rules, and consequences for breaking them. We learn that we can be stupid, and forgetful, and unfaithful, and generally imperfect. We learn also that, no matter where we turn or how far we go, we can never move beyond the mercy of God. Like our very skins, the forgiveness of God is a gift we cannot leave behind no matter that we only remember it is there when it wounds us.

All of that is in there, and you don’t have to read far to find it. If your New Year’s resolution was to read the whole Bible through this year, and you only made it about two weeks – you probably still got it all. (That doesn’t mean quit, by the way, there really good R-rated parts won’t come along until April, so don’t give up.) But whether you read it from one end to the other or only in pieces, the wonder of the story cannot be overstated. This is not just an empty law full of rules and regulations. It is the DNA of our spiritual lives, the blueprint of who we are.

And so, with the morning mist still gathered around them, the people beg a groggy Ezra to start reading – to bring the voice of God into the midst. That’s just what Ezra does…

And it doesn’t make sense. You have to look very closely at verse 8 to see it, but it’s right there. Without interpretation, the people simply can’t get the sense of what Ezra is reading. There is considerable debate about why. Perhaps most of the people gathered spoke only Aramaic after a hundred years under the Babylonians and then the Persians – and they couldn’t understand Ezra’s Hebrew.

Maybe so, but not necessarily. The text that Ezra read was very likely almost identical to the Hebrew Torah we have today. It, along with other sacred writings have been faithfully and carefully translated into the book we call the Bible. It’s in plain English (along with plenty of other languages) and anyone who wants to can pick up a copy and read it. They can even, if they like, have James Earl Jones read it to them on CD or cassette. If that doesn’t scare the “Thou Shalt Nots” into ya, nothing will.

But people aren’t beating down our doors begging to hear more of the Bible. They aren’t calling all their friends shouting in their ears saying, “At last, at last…I’ve been searching forever but I finally found the answers and they’re in the Bible. It was like hearing the voice of God.” Even those of us who call ourselves believers are often – at best – lukewarm about studying Scripture.

My guess is that things in Nehemiah’s time weren’t much different than they are now. When you live in a world of past due bills and achy knees and crying babies its hard to hear … I mean really hear … words about faith and hope and eternity.

Whether or not God’s children could understand the words, they couldn’t hear the message.

That’s true for me personally. Some of the great words have really lost their salt with me. I’ve heard them misused and overused so often they just don’t stick with me. Saved is at the top of that list. Witness, miracle, angel, holiday are all on that list too. I know the words, but they often sound empty when I hear them. Add to that the fact that sometimes I read whole paragraphs out of the Bible and they don’t make any sense to me at all – and I’m trained in this stuff – and it makes sense to believe that God’s children, then and now, could hear the Word of God and not understand.

So much more so for our own exiles today. We wander in a world where on one side people shout – loudly – that nothing lasts, nothing is eternal, and you just have to take what you can get. On the other side, people shout just as loudly that there is a God and HE (and they always say HE) wants you to be just like them. Somehow, their pettiness, greed and bigotry isn’t supposed to keep us away.

Shouted down by it all is the soft voice of God, no louder than a groggy scribe reading to a hushed crowd on a chilly New Year’s morning. No wonder people don’t hear it.

Of course, that’s not the end of our story or even the end of verse eight. There were interpreters – then as now. There were people among them to help sort it out and bring sense to it all. Keep in mind, this was not a formal affair. All those gathered likely knew each other well. They had suffered together and – finally – found freedom together. The interpreters weren’t there to solemnify things, to come up with Seven Biblical Principles for Effective Whatever.

They were there to make it real for their friends and neighbors. With a touch, or a word, or a story to make it make sense.

And when the people finally heard the word of God AND understood, what did they do? They wept.

To come face to face with God, especially after a lifetime in darkness, is sobering stuff. We are reminded of our weaknesses and our failures – we see all the missed opportunities and the wasted time. Oh the wasted time. All around Ezra, as the story sinks in, people burst into tears of grief and mourning.

Here too is the importance of interpretation, of a friendly hand to ease the burden and guide the way. It’s funny that most people won’t take a hot pan out of the oven without mitts but their willing to read the Word of God without guidance.

Guilt, pain, fear can burn you just as easily, and they are often the first things that leap out at us. As a result, if we’re not careful we’ll spend the rest of our faith journey trying so hard not to tick off God that we never get a chance to dazzle Her (“be spectacular?”).

If, on your way home from church this afternoon you stop by Piedmont Park and ask the Joggers and the Frisbee Golfers why they’re not in church, I guarantee you they’ll have an answer. And many of them well say that they only hear in church just what Ezra’s audience heard: the story of their failure and their weakness.

Who’s fault is that? Not theirs any more than it was Ezra’s audience’s. It’s the Church’s, and that’s us and especially me and the rest of us you see up here on this big, wide pedestal.

To be the Word of God, the Bible requires all of the ingredients we see here in Nehemiah. First of all a crowd – and not just certain people: everyone. That means you and me and everyone we don’t like and everyone we do. Everyone.

It also must be read or spoken. You’d think that would go without saying, but our MTV-level attention spans often loose patience with even the briefest of readings.

Then, and here’s the key, it must be interpreted.

You can’t run around throwing out scripture verses like Mardi Grad beads on Bourbon Street and expect people to catch what you’re saying – or what God is saying. In Nehemiah’s time as now, for the story to be real we have to tell it, and it has to become our story.

Then, and only then, will people hear it. Then, and only then, will it transform us and the world we live in.

Ezra managed to do it. He must have been as much pastor as administrator and scholar; because he pauses … and looks up from his reading. Seeing the tears and hearing the sobs he rolls up the scroll and offers, instead, his compassion. Yes, there is grief in the words of the LORD. There is doubt and guilt too; but only, only, ONLY with the message of forgiveness, of hope, of mercy.

In our order of worship today there is an “Assurance of Pardon” (you don’t have to look – I won’t lie to you). If you forced me to give up all the other elements to the liturgy and the service except one…that would be the one I would keep – even over Communion and the Homily. Having it there is our way of doing just what Nehemiah did.

It’s our way of saying: before you stand before God to hear the voice of God, think first on all your weaknesses and failings and know, without question, that our perfect, Holy Creator – purely out of love and affection – forgives you completely – and does so as easily as you forgive a two-year-old who drops their toy on your foot.

If you read certain studies of worship and culture you’ll read that people don’t want that sort of formality any more. But we are a forgetful people. Just as Ezra’s listeners had forgotten the words of the Torah, so we forget. Gathering as we gather today, and walking through the paces of the worship service are how we remind ourselves. The prayers and the readings and most especially the pardon are all part of how the whole community and the vast history of the church and our spiritual ancestors help us to hear, rightly and clearly, the Word of God.

How then can we bring our exiles in so that they can hear it too? Not necessarily into this building or into any building.

You see, after Ezra walked among them and dried there tears, he told God’s children what God really expected of them, and so, they threw a really big party. That’s the question, and I guess it’s really two questions. The first part is, How do we get to the party ourselves, and then: How do we make sure everyone else comes too?