January 27, 2013

“A Witness to Grace”
Nehemiah 8:3

81all 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.2Accordingly, 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.3He 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.5And 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.6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.8So 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.10Then 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.’

Soren Kierkegaard once observed that in worship God is the audience, we are the participants. We come from the messiness of life, trying to get kids up and hair combed; some come straight from the night shift; others from one disaster of sorrow or illness; another from a place of degradation and rejection; I do not know all of the specifics, but I do know that we gather here after getting through the make-up and costume departments so that we can ‘represent,’ that is, give testimony to God’s presence in our lives and our sevice in the Kingdom.

I once heard a story which illustrates this. One time Rev. Tom Long was asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

It was a great idea . . . on paper. But it didn’t work well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”

It is quite amazing, really, that we are able to remember to gather here on Sunday morning and give testimony, in front of God and everyone, that we are still God’s people.

It was Ezra who stood for so long before the audience of the people, reading the book of God’s law to them from early morning until midday. On that day there was something majestic, an authority at work. “The ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

Ezra himself was not the authority, of course, but the book, the law now reclaimed and remembered, the words given to Israel through Moses. The majesty and glory is in the book. When Ezra opens it in the sight of the people, they all stand up.

But not only the book. Ezra blesses YHWH, the divine name, the great God, and they lift up their hands and cry “Amen, Amen.” And then they bow their heads to worship this God, their faces to the ground. Then comes reading and interpretation, that the people might understand. They weep at hearing the law of God, and Ezra, Nehemiah and all the priestly teachers exhort them not to grieve but to go and feast, for this day is holy. The great meal, spread out among the people, is to be shared by all, with portions sent to those who have none.

The passage in Nehemiah describes a great liturgy, a public act whereby the whole nation is reconstituted and rededicated by the covenant and the presence of God. They greet, they bless, they worship, they listen. They are bidden to turn their tears to joy and to eat and drink in one vast and scattered banquet. The Torah makes them a people again. “This day,” says Nehemiah, “is holy to our Lord.”

Before the Word of God can be believed, remembered, or appropriated, it must be heard.

Karl Barth referred to the Word of God in its threefold form: written, living, and preached. The importance of the preached Word in the context of worship should not be underestimated. Just as the men and women of Israel were willing to stand for hours listening to the Word of God, so we, too, must be willing to invest the time, effort, and energy necessary to hear God’s Word. Jesus said, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear.”

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the midst of the Civil War, the slaves who lived within the realm of the Confederacy remained in bondage. Many did not know about the proclamation when it went into effect. Its authority was denied and nullified by local and regional power. Yet Lincoln, in both his words and his claim to authority over the whole of the split and rebellious Union, contended that the proclamation was nonetheless true and real. And so this flawed and partial emancipation became the herald of a fuller freedom, a fulfillment yet unreached. It was a witness.

In form and action, our liturgies are like the one that Ezra led. We bless and worship and listen and think. In some places we even stand up to honor the book and the word it brings to us. We acknowledge grief and are bidden to joy; we eat and drink, and provide some portion for the needy.

Are these little gatherings, then, for all that seems domestic and intimate in them, also occasions of public proclamation, gatherings where — as in Nazareth — we receive an authoritative word, not my words, a word that proclaims a reality waiting to be claimed? Are we imagining and enacting the shape of a future that claims our obedience? Do we believe in such a way that we are reknit as a body, members of one another, a commonwealth and not just people for ourselves? Are the words fulfilled in our hearing? Is God’s grace active and effective in our lives?

This Sunday I will stand and declare it to be so.

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