“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We just heard Jesus say that in today’s gospel. At first the people liked Jesus for saying that. They thought well of him. But we all know what happened after that. I wonder if many of us come to church in anticipation of seeing or experiencing scripture being fulfilled? In us?
Well, it happened for the people in today’s reading from Nehemiah. Just a wild guess here, but I don’t think the book of Nehemiah is at the top of your favorite scriptures. It’s not one of my go-to passages for comfort or encouragement. The push for racial purity in Nehemiah is a major interpretation problem for a sympathetic reading today, which is probably why I hadn’t read Nehemiah for at least 10 years until last week. And in my 29 years of ordained ministry (by the way, the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood was last Wednesday) I’m pretty sure I’ve never even referenced Nehemiah in a sermon. But as I read Nehemiah last week I was surprised to experience a ton of hope! In place of the chronic despair that seems to lurk just below the surface for so many of us these days, I found glimmers of hope, even among all the boring lists of names I couldn’t pronounce.
One of the things I really like about the Bible is how differently it reads over time, how I hear it differently in different times, how passages I’ve never paid attention to before, or how difficult to understand parts that I don’t like, can come alive in new ways. Of course it doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes it’s boring and I don’t read the Bible as much as I used to, but the motivation of preaching today spurred me forward, and I found some treasures hidden in Nehemiah. Let me tell you what I found.
First, a little background: The books of Ezra and Nehemiah together covers about a hundred years and tells the story of the people of Israel’s return from the Babylonian Exile. All the drama, intrigue, struggle, danger and hope the repatriated Israelites experienced would make an excellent Netflix series. The part we read today is actually near the end of the story. What came before what we read today was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the reestablishing of the community according to the Torahthe Law of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. All that is detailed in the book of Ezra.
The book of Nehemiah chronicles the third and last phase of the restoration project— the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s leadership. An entire chapter details that rebuilding, with all the names listed and the particular sections of the wall they rebuilt. There were even some women mentioned who helped. Government workers, goldsmiths, merchants, perfumers, priests, and temple servants rebuilt sections of the wall, many working on the sections right by their homes. And suddenly, sitting by my fireplace in my cozy living room, the long list of hard to pronounce names came alive to me: these were real people, whose names and work of restoration made it into a book that had endured for 2500 years. Each did their part. No one tried to do the whole thing, they all were committed to the common good and acknowledged from the outset that success depended on the “God of heaven.” And I was encouraged. If it happened back then, maybe something like that could happen again.
Lest you think it was a festive communal raising of the wall project, it was not. There was a great deal of opposition, even a death threat for Nehemiah. There were taunts and intimidation, burdensome taxes, 1 food scarcity, and the threat of armed conflict forced the Jews to organize themselves, so that half were standing guard and half were building, with a weapon in one hand and working with the other hand.
Despite everything that came against them, the wall around Jerusalem was rebuilt. And their enemies became afraid as they realized that this work had been accomplished with the help of the Lord.
Which brings us up to the part we heard today (from the 8th chapter of Nehemiah) When all the people, men AND women and all who “could hear with understanding” were gathered in the square before the Water Gate, Ezra was asked to read from the book of the law of Moses. Ezra stood on a wooden platform surrounded by 13 men, and when he opened the book of Moses all the people stood up. And Ezra read from the book of Moses from early morning until midday. And all the people stood and listened attentively. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, 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. Then 13 other men are listed—Levites— who helped the people to understand the law. Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to everyone: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had wept when they heard the words of the law. After all that struggle, the destruction of their homeland, the years in exile, the difficult return to a home now foreign to the majority who had been born in exile, the rebuilding of something they hadn’t even known before, and then hearing the words of God, the very words of life and promise and hope that many of them had never heard before— well, coming to that moment— gathered together as a restored community— is enough to make anyone fall on their faces in humble worship of the God who had brought them through it all.
Ezra continued: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions 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.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send” gifts to those in need “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Nehemiah 8-1-12)
This story from Nehemiah helped me see. I saw the parallels with some of our traditions, which made me begin to wonder and ask questions and imagine. I imagined Ezra reading in the midst of the people, on a platform, and everyone standing at attention to hear it. And I saw the Levites who had studied the law of Moses helping the people to understand, and I began to visualize the preachers and teachers down through the ages who study the Word of God and then help God’s people to understand this difficult book. I saw our own Gospel procession down the center aisle with all the congregation standing at attention and listening. And I saw those appointed to be proclaimers of God’s word, those who are set apart— which is what it means to be holy—set apart and standing on a raised platform giving the sense and understanding of what was read. And I saw myself, at the hearing of some of those sermons, fall on my face weeping in repentance at the understanding I had been given.
I began to wonder why the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem was so important that it was met with such opposition and suffering. When have I ever faced that kind of opposition, not of being a Jew, but of being someone who is seen as different, not acceptable in some way, a threat to others? I thought of the stinging question I’d heard in a sermon long ago: if you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you? And I realized that being a part of a “holy people” as the Bible refers to God’s people, a people set apart by God means embodying someone whose very identity IS other than 2 that of the surrounding culture. And I felt a wave of great joy that the purpose of walls about God’s City are there, not so much to keep others out but to set apart — to make holy— a people who are winsomely sacrificially lovingly different—like Jesus.
I began to see some rebuilders of the wall near me, people who are doing the restoration work for the City of God today. And I began to realize that if even I can recognize some of that rebuilding work around me, surely there must be millions more rebuilders out there. People whose names will never be famous or recorded in scripture, but whose names are known by God. Millions of people who are rebuilding and restoring, often quietly or even in secret, work that will never be acclaimed in any public way.
I was surprised that, in this previously unvalued book in the Bible the classic two pronged plan for a life of relationship with God was right there, in plain sight and I had not recognized it. The plan for those who are set apart to live as citizens of God’s City is the ORIGINAL R and R plan of REBUILDING and RECEIVING God’s Word. Each essential to the other. Building up right where you live in combination with listening for God, paying attention to what God has already said, and taking it in. Working and hearing God. Rebuilding and Receiving.
The power of scripture to connect the story of our lives with people long ago is the reason we read the Bible. To be reminded of God’s presence, to give us courage, to give us perspective and endurance and direction for our lives.
And then I remembered Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. After he rolled up the scroll and sat down, he said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Do we have the audacity to ask that of ourselves? I wonder if we dare to imagine that scripture is actually fulfilled, made visible in us when we do any restoration work. I wonder if we have the courage to be attentive to the holy scriptures that cause us to be the holy people of God, the people set apart by the walls of our baptism?
The Rev. Mary Green