Third Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:13-31a, Luke 4:14-24
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Nehemiah is one of the books of the Bible we don’t talk much about. In fact, this is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Nehemiah. And it’s companion book, Ezra, doesn’t get read in worship at all. So I think we should take a little time to explore the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, to explain why reading the books of Moses aloud in public was such a big deal. And to do that, we need to take a look at the big picture of Judah’s history.
After the Exodus from Egypt and forty years wandering in the wilderness, God led the Israelites into the Promised Land and gave them a set of instructions to live by. Some of those instructions were what we think of as religious things—having to do with faith, worship practice, etc. But most of them were general rules for society. Don’t cheat people. Make sure that even the poorest people in your lands have access to things they need. Make sure that rich and powerful people can’t run roughshod over everybody or get out of punishment when they do evil. Make sure that people who fall into debt have a way out of it. Make sure that justice and mercy apply to everyone. Because God cares about more than just the religious stuff. God wants justice and mercy for all people. You cannot have a good and godly society where some people are exploited and some people get away with murder. You just can’t.
The thing is, the Israelites did not live up to those instructions. They kept failing. Sometimes by ignoring the religious stuff—worshipping other gods, and the like—and sometimes by ignoring the social stuff. Instead of a nation ruled by fairness and equity, they kept tipping further and further over into a society where the rich lived idle and opulent lives, and the poor got poorer and poorer and their lives got worse and worse. And they didn’t want to admit that they were not living up to the good and just and merciful society God wanted for them. And so they came up with all sorts of justifications for their unjust and unloving behavior. God sent prophet after prophet, and sometimes they listened and reformed things for a little bit, but a lot of the time they just … ignored the prophets. They ignored God’s word in their midst. And then, finally, in 587 BC, God stepped aside and let the Babylonians conquer them as punishment for their sins.
The Babylonians destroyed all the cities, leaving nothing but rubble and taking everything of value. They carried off most of the population—including all of the religious and civil leadership, and most of the wealthy people—to be slaves back in Babylon. They brought people from other parts of the Babylonian Empire to settle in Judah among the remnant of the Israelites left behind, so that it would be harder to rebel. And this was really hard. Some people lost their faith, but for the rest—both those in captivity in Babylon and those living in the ruins of their homeland surrounded by foreign strangers—they had to figure out what it meant to be the faithful people of God in exile. Did God not love them any more? What had they done to deserve this? Was God ever going to have mercy on them and rescue them? And through all of this, they clung to their faith, but they also clung to their memories of the good old days. They told and retold the stories of what life had been like back in Jerusalem, except they told them through rose-tinted glasses that ignored most of the problems that had led to God removing God’s protection and allowing the Babylonians to conquer them. If they could just turn back the clock—if they could just restore things as they had been—everything would be perfect.
And through this time, God still loved them and kept sending prophets to them, to reassure them and give them hope that this time of exile and slavery would not last forever. And, after about a century, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and everybody could go home! The first two waves of Israelites to return home to Judah were led by Ezra and Nehemiah. And when they got back to the land they’d spent a century idealizing, they were shocked. And horrified.
For one thing, all the cities were still in ruins, because the Babylonians hadn’t allowed any rebuilding. For another, there were people living in the land they’d once owned, who’d been farming it for a century and had no intention of giving it back to strangers who hadn’t been there in generations. Both those who had been taken and those who had remained had kept their faith and adapted it to their new lives … but they hadn’t adapted in the same way. The ones who had stayed had intermarried with the new tribes the Babylonians had settled among them. The ones who had been taken had adapted to life among the Babylonians and spoke with Babylonian accents and wore Babylonian-style clothes. The ones who had been taken thought the ones who had been left behind were mongrel half-breeds who’d thrown away the purity of Israeliteness and ought to bow before their betters. The ones who had been left behind thought the ones who had been taken were elitist, xenophobic thieves who were entirely too cozy with the empires that had conquered and oppressed them. And both sides thought the other side was unfaithful to God’s commands. And so, instead of coming together as God’s people reunited in God’s land, they fought. They built walls.
The ones who had been in exile in Babylon had had this beautiful vision of how perfect everything used to be, and they’d thought that if they could just get back to Judah, they could make everything perfect and beautiful as it used to be. But they were wrong. The past was gone, and there was nothing they could do to bring it back, and the more time they spent trying to force things to be the way they used to be, the harder things got. And again, they asked, “where is God? Has God abandoned us?” Because they were so focused on the vision of the way things had been that they could only see God’s work among them if God was doing the same things God had done before. But the thing was, God did love them, and God was working among them, and doing wonderful things. Life was never going to be the way they’d imagined it. The old kingdom that had been destroyed was never coming back. But they were still God’s people and God was still their God, and God would be with them and their descendants. The old kingdom of Judah was gone, but the Jewish people remained, God’s chosen people.
And that’s what’s going on in our Gospel reading. The exiles have returned, but to a place that is radically different than they were expecting or hoping. And they are just beginning to grasp that life is never going to be the way it was, that they’re going to have to face the reality of a life radically different than they had hoped or imagined. They’re going to have to do the hard work of figuring out what God is calling them to do now in this new world they’ve found themselves in. So there’s a lot of grief.
But also, they know that God is with them. And here is the story of how God had been with their ancestors, and promised to be their God, and live among them. And they’re hearing it read aloud in public for maybe the first time, because while the Babylonians didn’t forbid worship of God they didn’t allow it in the public square, either. And so even amidst their grief for what was lost, they have hope and joy because they know that they are not alone, they know that God is with them, and they know that these words they’re listening to bring life. So there’s a lot of hope and joy, too. It’s no wonder they cried.
Unlike those ancient people in our reading, we’ve never been exiled. We’ve never had our entire nation destroyed and turned into rubble. But we do have two things in common with them. First, we live in a world that has changed radically in the last fifty years or so, and is still changing around us. Things aren’t like they used to be, and it’s really easy for churches to look back in longing to the days when the pews were filled and churches had power and influence in society, and long for those days. It is really easy to think, “if we could just get back to those days—if we could make things like they were—everything would be great and all our problems would be solved!” But the thing is, we can’t turn back the calendar. We can’t make things the way they were, we have to deal with things the way they are now.
The second thing we have in common with the people of Nehemiah is that we are God’s people and God is with us and God’s Word is among us. No matter what happens, no matter what changes come, we are not alone. God loves us, and God is working in us and among us. Our job is to listen for God’s voice, and follow where God leads.