Over the years as a parent I’ve discovered that one of the first signs that your kids are growing up is that they don’t ask you, “why?” as much as they used to. This is not to say the question is never asked as your kids get to the teenage years and beyond, but it’s nothing compared to that blessed time, around ages three and four, when it seemed like their every other word was “why?” “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” “Mommy, why does it thunder?” “Daddy, why is that dog barking?” “Daddy, why does that man have green, spiky hair and a big earring in his nose?” (That actually happened once while waiting in a hospital emergency room in Portland!)
And the beauty part, of course, was that every one of these “why” questions would lead to another; so even though as parents we wanted to answer each and every question with love, care and sincere enthusiasm, sooner or later we’d end up resorting to the all-purpose answer of the impatient: “Just because!”
Eventually, though, what happens is that the “why” questions come fewer and farther between; the children go off to school, and before long answers to crucial questions that once could only be found with Mom and Dad now come from teachers, textbooks and worksheets – not to mention Google and Wikipedia! And truthfully, that’s kind of sad; and not only because your babies have made their first steps into the world, but also because that world has now begun to become, well… a bit more commonplace. All too often and way too early, things like snowy mornings, starry skies and crawling bugs cease to be the great source of curiosity and wonder that they once were. It’s all part of growing up, I suppose, but along the way something of vital importance gets lost along the way.
In a very real way this connects to our reading of scripture this morning from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, these were what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed. All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.
To that end, two men of God come forward – Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship. Over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law. And with each new generation, there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves.
So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read. Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud! And what makes it even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God. But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
In fact, we find out that this reading of scripture went on “from early morning until midday,” some six hours, while the Levite priests circulated amongst the people interpreting the law, helping everyone there understand what was being read; we’re told that it was a service of worship and celebration of the highest order. That, in and of itself, is a pretty radical concept for us 21st century Christians; I mean, can you imagine us gathering for a six-hour worship service? Let’s be honest; after 90 minutes most of us would have been out the door to the Olive Garden! But such was the great power of what was happening in that worship that well over a half-day passed and these people didn’t even blink.
Even more interesting, though, is their reaction to actually hearing God’s Word being spoken unto them. First of all, it’s not taken lightly; unlike the countless speeches they must have heard as the rebuilding was going on, this was more than some inspirational pep talk. Moreover, though they were clearly being taught by what they were hearing, they weren’t responding as though they’d being subjected to an academic lecture. No, their reaction was much more profound; we’re told the people of Israel first reacted with great and utter humility – raising their hands and answering, “Amen, Amen,” then bowing their heads, worshipping God with their faces to the ground. That was in keeping with tradition and liturgy, and more or less to be expected; but then the people respond by doing something we don’t expect.
They begin to weep. They all start to cry.
We’re not told exactly what it was that set off the weeping. Perhaps it had something to do with the realization of how far they’d strayed from God’s path during all those years in exile. Or perhaps the tears were the result of their having heard, some of them for the very first time, the same promise of deliverance that God had given their ancestors when they’d been in bondage to Egypt and to Pharaoh. Or maybe it was the renewed hope that this city of ruins in which they stood would again rise up – and so would they, as a people of faith entering into a time of glory and prosperity.
Or maybe it was all of it combined – the point was that what they were hearing the Word of God (!), and it moved them in such a way that they could not help but raise their hands to heaven, fall upon their knees, and be moved to absolute tears. In this time of worship, their lives were beginning again, and they were filled with a passion for God’s Word; something that touches them so deeply that they cannot help but become completely involved with each and every part of that Word they hear!
Now, I don’t know about you, friends, but I read that and I have to wonder… when did we lose that kind of passion for the Word?
It’s a good question for us to ask; when it was when you and I were last truly moved by the Word of God. Or has it become so familiar to our ears, so utterly commonplace in our lexicon of our lives that we’ve lost the awe and the power of it? And if that’s the case, where has the wonder of it all gone?
Beloved, we come to this place Sunday after Sunday, we open the Bible and we read aloud that which consider to be the Word of God – God Almighty (!) But the question is, how do we respond to it? Does it touch our lives in any kind of real fashion? Does it move us to praise or to tears? Does it stir us, or maybe even disturb us, to the point where we can’t rest until we “get a sense of it,” to begin to understand its consequence for us right here and now? Do we even believe it; or have we heard it so much that it’s somehow stopped being real for us?
I’m reminded here of something Annie Dillard wrote in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. She suggests that none of us may even have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke as Christians. “It is madness,” she writes, “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 awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Central to our Christian faith, you see, is the belief that ours is a living God, and that even now God’s Spirit is moving in and through our lives – rousing us, guiding and leading us, radically changing us in love for the sake of his kingdom. That we’re ready and willing to be moved ought to be reflected in our worship and in our attentiveness to God’s Word. But, in all honesty, that can be a problem for us. It might have to do with fear, because certainly to be moved means facing the unknown; or it might be a lack of understanding of what God’s Word means for us (and truly, to wholly understand God’s Word is a lifetime endeavor, and even then requires a leap of faith). There are those of us who fight God’s Word tooth and nail, finding fault with everything it might reveal; and then there are some of us, for reasons we might not even understand, who simply don’t feel ourselves worthy to move with God.
My point in all this is that are many of us, many even some in this sanctuary today, who have indeed lived in exile; who have deeply longed to be at home with God, but have long felt in a place far removed from where God is. If you are one of those people, friends, I am here to tell you this morning coming home begins with turning to God’s Word.
It sounds simple, and really, it is. You need to open your Bible; you need read your Bible – and let me say this, it matters less where you start reading than that you do start reading; that you come to know it by immersing yourself in God’s word. Now understand that sometimes that Word will warm your heart and give all the reassurance and strength you will ever want or need; but sometimes it will shake you to the core of your very being. There will be times you will struggle to try and understand what is being said to you; but there will also be moments in which you will struggle because you do understand what is being said to you. But in praise and celebration, in tears shed and in wisdom gained, by God’s Word you will be moved to a greater understanding of yourself and of life. You will know the joy that comes in being grounded in the Word and of being at home with God.
Did you notice that at the end of our reading this morning, Ezra (and Nehemiah and the priests along with him) say to the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” And they then send the people out to celebrate, “to eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” and to share this feast with others. Friends, there is no Weight Watchers in Holy Scripture!
But moreover, there is also to be no lingering sadness; for when we are moved by the Word of God, there is only joy and strength. Dear friends, “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” and the Word of God is our guide; so let us rejoice in a true passion for that Word, blessing the name of the Lord as we do, day by day by day.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c.2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry