Intro to Scripture reading
This morning our second Scripture reading comes from the book of Nehemiah. As we prepare to listen, I wanted to take a few moments to put this lesser-known book from the Hebrew Scriptures into context. The book of Nehemiah reflects personal memoirs of a great leader in the Persian empire whose heart remained in Jerusalem. The king took note of Nehemiah’s care, and gave him permission to travel to Judah in order to rebuild it. Alongside the book of Ezra, Nehemiah presides over a community in severe conflict, dispute, and fragmentation.
The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attach from outside, but even more disruptively internal disagreement threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions arguing about who is in and who is out, who should govern, how the temple can be rebuilt, how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety and peace[i].
The majority of the book describes the literal rebuilding of Jerusalem, including its boundaries and gates and lengthy lists of those who had returned from exile. But our text today is about a different kind of building plan and list as the people gather together, one that may just speak to our understanding of what it means to be God’s people today. So together, let us listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church:
All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Matt-eh-thy-a, shee-mah,, An-eye-ah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and May-as-iah on his right hand; and Ped-eye-ah, Mish-el, Mal-ki-jah, Hah-shum, Hash-bad-day-nah, Zechariah, and Meh-shoo-lum on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Ban-eye, share-ah-bye-ah, Jay-men, Aack-kub, Shab-beth-a-eye, Hodiah, May-as-iah, Ke-lie-ta, Azariah, Joe-zah-bad, Hanan, Pel-iah, the Levites,[a] helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 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. 10 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.” 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
After the construction is complete, the real work begins. This passage from Nehemiah transitions readers from literal nuts and bolts to the components of another framework for living – worship. In these verses, we observe the people of God gathering just as we do week after week, eager for a fresh reading of holy Scripture, and finding strength and joy in the Word of the Lord. This, of course, was a time without paper pages and Bible apps on their phones; the people relied on scribes like Ezra to read the sacred texts, and reader and hearers alike relied on the movement of the Holy Spirit to bring about understanding. In these verses, we get both, a beautiful time capsule image of the people of God in worship. The greater context of Nehemiah and post-exilic Israel remind us that this is more than just a report of worship; it is a highly symbolic moment for God’s people starting anew. They gather at the gates of the city, a location in the ancient world meant for deliberation and judgment. In worship, the people affirm what kind of a community they will be: one that again looks to God’s law for wisdom and understanding. This is where they will find their unity and purpose once again.
There are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian isn’t one of them. We need to find community with other believers in order to make sense of our lives. Did you notice the number of times the word “all” was used in today’s text? Eleven times in just 12 verses. The writer of Nehemiah clearly wanted to convey not just a sense of unity from the people, but a broad understanding of inclusivity within the community. This hearing and understanding of God’s word wasn’t just for a few selected leaders. It was for everyone. Those lists of names? Daunting for the reader, and in fact the lectionary assignment skips over them. But I added them back in because they remind us, I think, of the great presence of community. It would be like sharing what happened in worship, and taking time to read out the names in the attendance pads you signed at the beginning of the service. Every name matters. Every person gathered in this community matters, both for the people of Israel and for us today. We need each other here, every one, to offer the best we can for worship.
The reason each person is so important? Because we each have a job to do. The theological word we use to describe the words we say in worship is “liturgy.” It comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which is composed from the words for work (ergon) and people (laos)[ii]. If you wanted to translate it the most literally, you get the idea that “liturgy” means the “work of the people.” In other words, it is something we do together. Our worship is “liturgical” because it invites everyone to take an active role in making it happen. Our worship is also work. Author Dean Chapman likens this kind of work to gardening. He writes:
I like to garden. I like to prepare the soil, arrange and plant landscapes, care for flowers and vegetables, and ultimately, enjoy the harvest. My back sometimes gets sort from all the bending, and I usually work up a good sweat, but overall, gardening is a pleasant experience for me. No matter how you look at it, though, gardening is work. There are no arcades at the mall attracting teenagers to spend their money for a chance to mix soil amendments or pull weeds. Gardening is work. It’s just that it’s worth it to me. Worship, likewise, is worthwhile work.
. . . [Later he notes]
Worship is not just any work, of course.
It is the very specific work of waiting upon God.[iii]
So what is the work we do in our worship? In some places, this is obvious. The Call to Worship and other moments have written responses for those sitting in the pews. We stand and sing together. We join in corporate prayers – sometimes the pastor even creates space for you to speak during the Prayers of the People – fair warning, that’s happening again today. We put gifts in the plates. All of this involves engagement from everyone who is here to make it the best offering we have to God. We do this because we believe that we are the priesthood of all believers. While some have specific roles to fill as leaders in the church, we all carry the great responsibility of making worship happen. In fact, worship is probably the greatest task we have as disciples.
Even in this time set apart for the pastor to ramble on for an extended period of time, there is work for you to do. Dean Chapman describes it this way:
Preaching is far more than one person’s commentary on scripture; preaching is the unfolding of scripture into our lives in the moment of hearing. . . . Preaching is the priest’s encounter with God . . . if you are listening only for a point, or an interesting idea, that’s all you will hear. You will have listened to God as you listen to a history lecture. You will have listened as an unbeliever, not as a priest. To listen as a priest is to tune your whole being to the sermon[iv].
The people gathered to listen to Ezra certainly got that this was their calling. They stood for the reading of God’s Word, and were attentive to Ezra from early morning to midday. They responded with joyful hands raised and the proclaiming “Amen, Amen!” This was no passive audience. They were engaged and energized by this experience of worship.
As Reformed Christians, our worship centers around the Word, just as the worship in our text today. You can see glimpses of it in virtually every component of our worship. Often our liturgy is taken directly from the Bible itself. The shape and substance of our worship is marked appropriately by the rich language found in the holy words of Scripture. Our worship is oriented this way because we have that same sense as the people of Nehemiah’s day that God’s law, the Torah, should be foundational to how we live our lives. And we gather week after week hoping to glean some new understanding that might inform what we do next. The Word is how we believe God is revealed to us, and through which we might be transformed to be more faithful. Carter Lester reminds us:
God’s Word can do all of that, because the Scriptures give us a lens to look at this world and our lives through God’s eyes. We are reminded of God’s presence and love when we otherwise might feel alone and abandoned; we are pierced with words of judgment when we might otherwise be puffed up with arrogance and self-satisfaction . . . When we gather together as God’s people, when we are conscious of coming into the presence of the living and holy God, when we center our worship on God’s Word, when we offer all of ourselves to God, we cannot help but be changed over time. We gather to give glory to God and to have God make a difference in us so that we can be sent to make a difference in God’s world[v].
The people who hear God’s word from the scribe Ezra are moved to the point of weeping. Their eyes are open and they reach new, perhaps profound levels of understanding. Lives are transformed; a community is shaped; all because of the power of God’s Word in worship.
The work of worship is worthwhile. Our time together, an hour or so on a Sunday morning in our case, is meant to define us – as individuals growing in faith, yes, but also as a community. Worship, then, is a risky endeavor. Novelist Annie Dillard captures this when she writes:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return[vi].
Worship takes us places. It equips us for the work of ministry by giving us a fresh vision for where God is leading us. It gives us strength to live into God’s presence. The people who heard Ezra’s reading were encouraged to transform from weeping to merriment, and to go enjoy the best that life had to offer, being sure to extend that richness to those who had none. The fruits of the work of worship become joy, for in the Word of God we find our hope – the root of all that gives us life and life abundant. So friends, may we renew our own energies in our worship, this week and every week, so that we too may be transformed for the work God has for us to do, in this Sanctuary, and in the world. Amen.
~sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, Heritage Presbyterian Church, January 27, 2019
[i] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10,” Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[ii] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship: Third Edition, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).
[iii] Dean W. Chapman, How to Worship as a Presbyterian, (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001).
[iv] Dean W. Chapman, How to Worship as a Presbyterian, (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001).
[v] W. Carter Lester, “Pastoral Perspective: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10,” Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[vi] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40-41., as quoted in W. Carter Lester, “Pastoral Perspective: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10,” Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).