Thomas J Parlette
“All of the People Gathered Together…”
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Like most preachers, I tend to focus on the New Testament texts, choosing to preach on the Gospel stories or letters of Paul. But every so often, I like to take on the Old Testament lesson. Just for fun, I looked back over my sermon catalogue and found that over the course of 24 years of regularly preaching on Sunday morning, I have only preached on this text from Nehemiah once – and that was back in the late 90’s. So it’s about time I returned to this little known prophet.
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its wall. When he was serving as the cupbearer to the King in Persia, Nehemiah receives news that Jerusalem is in ruins – and Nehemiah is devastated. So much so that the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, releases him to go back home and restore his homeland. Our passage picks up when the city has been restored, at least partially, and now it is time for the people to experience the word of God read and explained.(1) So Nehemiah gathered all the people together… to do a few things.
First, all the people gathered to hear God’s word. I know this sounds like no big deal, but it’s really very important. Keep in mind that there was no internet, there was no printing press, books were hard to come by. And not everyone could read. So the public reading of documents and scrolls was a big deal. Also remember that the Hebrews had been in exile for decades, hauled off to Babylon, and only recently set free to return to Jerusalem. They hadn’t heard the word of God in years. For some of the younger generation, they had never heard the word, they had never heard of God’s history with the Hebrews and the promises made in scripture.
Secondly, Nehemiah gathered all the people in order to reclaim the God’s promises as a community. In this public reading, the people would be reminded of God’s special relationship to them as a covenant people.
And lastly, Nehemiah gathered the people to remind them that their strength was the joy of the Lord. No more weeping, no more mourning, no more “woe is me,” let us celebrate, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Nehemiah, and Ezra the priest, preside over a community in severe conflict, dispute and fragmentation. The effort to rebuild Jerusalem and restore Judah as worshipping community has not been easy. The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attack from outside, but even more disrupting are the internal disagreements that threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions arguing about who is in and who is out, who should govern and who shouldn’t, how the Temple should be rebuilt, and how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety and peace. In many ways, it sounds a lot like our own day.
But in these words of Nehemiah we have some good news of deep joy in a shallow world. The people are gathered to remember that no matter how many fears and failures we may have, no matter how many times we have to pick ourselves up, no matter how difficult it has been to get through an average day, let alone life itself, no matter what – God is leading us to a deep joy that is eternal in a world that is often focused only on the here and now.
Deep, lasting joy is not to be found in what happens to us, but in seeing through what happens to us toward an ultimate victory in the midst of temporary defeats. Gratitude is not for what happens to us but in spite of what happens to us.
There is a story told about a boy at his Bar Mitzvah, many years after Ezra and Nehemiah’s time. The boy watches the Hasidic masters come forward as he reads and watches them place a drop of honey on each page of the Torah. The boy asks what that means, and the master replies, “It stands for the sweetness of knowing God’s word and the joy God intends for us in the midst of the struggles and pain of life.”(2)
This deep joy, sweet as honey, comes to the world in several ways.
First, joy comes on the other side of our demand for justice. Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The long night for many people comes when they are too adamant in demanding justice that makes sense in this world, when all along what we really need, and what God gives, is mercy.
There was once a woman who hired an expensive artist to paint her portrait. The artist had her sit several times for him and then he went off to finish his work. A few weeks later, he came back with the portrait and presented it to his customer. The woman looked at it, frowned and said, “This portrait doesn’t do my face justice.” And the artist replied, “Ma’am, your face doesn’t need justice, it needs mercy.”(3)
Don’t we all. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting what you need, even though you don’t know you need anything.
We go through so much of our lives wanting justice. But joy comes when we grant the same mercy to others that we insist on having for ourselves. Most often we are not merciful because we have not allowed God’s mercy to touch us. And you can’t give what you do not have. Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” implies that we need to experience God’s love and mercy first hand in order to be loving and merciful to others. Too often we don’t hear or heed that advice. When we look beyond our demand for justice and concentrate on receiving and giving away God’s mercy, then we can also receive deep abiding joy.
Second, joy also comes on the other side of the walls we build, or sometimes when we move the walls we’ve inherited. During World War 1, there were some American soldiers passing through an area in France. One of their friends had been killed, and they wanted a place to bury him. They found a local church with a cemetery next door and asked if their friend could be buried there. The priest asked if he was Catholic. They said he was not. The priest apologized for the fact that it was a Catholic cemetery, and only Catholics could be buried there, but he also had compassion. “Why don’t you bury your friend just outside the cemetery wall.” The soldiers agreed and went ahead with a simple funeral.
Several weeks later the soldiers were travelling through the area again and wanted to visit the grave. They came to the cemetery but for some reason could not find the spot where they buried their friend. They went to the Rectory and asked the priest, “We can’t find the grave, what happened?” The priest looked rather embarrassed when he said. “After you left that day, I hated the idea that you had to bury your friend outside the cemetery, so I gathered some men from the church and we tore the old wall down and built a new section to include your friends grave.”(4)
The joy of God comes when, after reading all the earthly rules, we revise them in light of God’s law to be merciful to all. We spend too much time worrying about who belongs and who doesn’t. We should be thinking about inclusion rather than exclusion.
Third, joy comes on the other side of seeking treasure. There is an old Hasidic tale about Isak of Krakow. Isak, a young Jewish man, wanted to build a temple to God. But he was poor, he had no money. One night he had a dream in which he was instructed to go to Prague, the great capital city, and dig under the bridge that went into the King’s house and there he would find gold.
So, Isak went to Prague and started digging under the bridge when he was discovered by a guard. He decided in a split second that he should tell the truth. He told the guard that he had had a dream about the gold and come to dig it up. The guard began to laugh, “Oh yeah!? Well I had a dream last night too. I dreamt that in Krakow there was a man named Isak, and if I were to go to his home and move his stove and dig under his floor, I would find gold. But I’m not dumb enough to go all the way to Krakow and dig up your floor.”
After a hearty laugh, the guard saw that Isak was harmless and sent him back to Krakow. But on his long journey home, Isak couldn’t forget that dream the guard had joked about. When he finally got home, he moved his stove and dug up his floor, and sure enough, he discovered gold – and he was able to build his temple to God. Isak learned that what we seek is usually right under our nose, but most often we have to go on a long journey to find it.(5)
Joy comes when we stop seeking treasure, and see the treasure all around us, the treasure of everyday life. Joy comes when we live with the knowledge that in the sight of God, we are the treasure.
There was a woman who once wrote about a precious vase that her mother had owned. It was a family heirloom, a real treasure. One day, when she was just a child, she accidently bumped it and knocked it to the floor. The vase shattered into a million pieces. The little girl screamed in terror of being punished. Her mother ran into the room and said, “What’s wrong, why are you crying?”
“I’m sorry, I broke the family treasure! I didn’t mean to, it was an accident.”
Her mother was immediately relieved, and sweeping up the broken pieces, said, “It’s Ok, I don’t really care about the vase. I was scared because I thought you were hurt.”
The woman closed her story by saying, “It was at that moment that I realized I was the family treasure – and it has made all the difference in my life.”(6)
Joy comes on the other side of seeking riches and treasure and in realizing that the one who made us delights in us forever. That knowledge doesn’t lessen what happens to us in life – but it does lift us with the knowledge that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy will come in the morning.”
You know, most of life is built backwards. We think that we must seek joy rather than let joy find us. We think we need and must have more of what we have enough of. In fact, the greatest joy is to be found in the everyday moments when we allow God to find us. It is a great spiritual arrogance to believe that we can find God. We can’t. God finds us. When we are willing to go to places of service and caring, God finds us there with deep and indescribable joy.
The good news is that it is not up to us to find God. Instead, God is in search of us, and God will always find us. I’m sure some of you remember the days when missing children had their pictures on milk cartons. Well, one day a child was in the grocery store with his mother, and he saw one of those milk cartons, and a look of horror came over his face as he thought of a question. He asked his mother, “What would you do if I was missing?”
His mother leaned over, looked him in the eye and said, “If you were ever missing, don’t forget that we would never, ever stop looking for you.”(7)
Never ever stop looking for you.
Those are also the words of our God. God sees us when we are lost and will stoop as low as we are in order to lift us up. That’s where joy comes from. From the knowledge that God will never stop searching until we are found.
When Nehemiah gathered all the people together, that was what we wanted them to remember. It had been too long since they had heard and understood the word of God. They needed to hear once more the holy message that God will never stop searching until we are found.
And for that, may God be praised. Amen.
1. Kathleen M. O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 267.
2. Source Unknown.