Nehemiah 8, 1-3,5-6,8-10;
So, just because he told the king of his grief at the destruction of Jerusalem, Nehemiah has found himself managing a massive building project. He’s created systems of practical communication, using trumpets and everyone has been doing their bit, making it all work, and against all the odds. Opposition to the rebuilding has come thick and fast, bad press, attempts at stopping the project dead in its tracks, accusations of black holes in his accounts. And as if he didn’t have enough on his plate, in the midst of all of this Nehemiah, institutes a new regime of justice, of the forgiveness of debts, tells the officials to give back what they have taken under the old system. It was after that that the death threats came.
Its been like this during September 2015 – the Refugee ‘Crisis’ and a turning again from the ways of xenophobia for so many, grief at the destruction of life, and in the face of massive building projects – building walls and fences to keep people out. A different context but strangely similar, echoing down the centuries.
It must often have felt overwhelming. It is exhausting just thinking about the work involved. I see those in NGOs we work with in GRAMNet equally exhausted by the overwhelming need working even harder than before with 16-18 hour days.
And how do they celebrate this amazing new beginning? In Jerusalem the celebration begins by asking Ezra, the scribe, to read out the Law, in a language none of them understood, from daybreak until noon. In Glasgow, at the Vigil – Glasgow sees Syria – we will hear poetry in Arabic from the heart of suffering.
Now I don’t know about you, but I have to confess to not exactly finding Leviticus the most compelling of books in the Bible. Law is not really block buster entertainment. And I don’t know about you, but my idea of a party after 7 months of hard slog, does not involve getting up at daybreak to listen to some faceless representative of the Law Commission read out the equivalent of a solicitor’s letter, in a language I don’t understand.
This is a truly extraordinary happening – like so many of the amazing things that happen to God’s people, when God’s will is done and God’s love can break through. It’s a piece of theatre. Ezra stands on a platform, specially built for the event, attendants to his left and right. All the people can see him. Dramatic pause. And he opens the book. Everyone gets to their feet. These are people who have lost the knowledge of how to ‘do’ worship and religion. Much as people have done within secular societies in the west. Much of the book of Ezra, you may recall, has been focused on the recovery of the Law, the Torah, by God’s people. Ezra himself is not a soft touch. They may not know much else, but the people gathered together here know that this is a dramatic moment and they are on their feet. And as Ezra gives praise to God they all lift their hands and respond ‘Amen’ before bowing to the ground. God’s people had not done this for a very long time. This is a deeply encouraging piece of scripture, reminding us that, although we may have our cities destroyed, go out into exile, forget God’s law, lose the immediacy of practicing it daily in our lives – as much of our society has clearly done during the course of the last century – we can sill come back and come back, and God’s spirit will prompt us to worship together. Promptings – to light a candle, attend a vigil, keep silence, allow the tears.
But this wasn’t about one man reading aloud the Law for a passive people. This was communal worship and it involved others – the Levites, Jeshua, Bani, Akku – those who understood the language Ezra spoke and also the Law of God, those who had kept knowledge of the faith alive through the dark times – and they now went off to do work together with God’s people on the meaning of the Law. These were the cellgroup, or house group leaders of their day. Their bodies were the ones that made it possible for others to really hear and understand the word of God. This is not just a big event – though it is also that – this is the hard work of being alongside people as they learn, as they realise the full impact of the changes that faith and the Law of God demands of our lives.
The impact of listening is one that prompts the Israelites to worship – to raise their arms and to stand, and to kneel. But it is the work with the Levites that makes the difference: ‘For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law’. God’s Law is utterly unreasonable and listening and responding collectively, though vital, is not the same as understanding, deep within ourselves the magnitude of God’s Law of Love. Terrifying in its demands, absolute in its justice, uncompromising. The Hebrew text is sparse and direct in its expression of the Law (lo = no) – there are no comforting ‘thou shalt nots’ for the Israelites; No other Gods; no graven images, no wrongful use of my name, no acquisitive coveting, No stealing, No killing, no adultery, no crooked courts…honour your parents, honour the Sabbath, keep it holy!
No wonder the combined effect of a hot day listening to the Law and then taking the time to understand this Law was exhausting. All the things we ordinary mortals usually want to do compulsively, and take glee in, were right off the agenda.
Nehemiah’s answer is to put the Law into practice. “Food” he says, “ go and get your favourite food and drink – warm buttery croissant and steaming mugs of coffee, fresh bread, cheese, rich dark chocolate, wine – bring it back, share it.” And why, because this is the first day of the seventh month – sacred to God, the Sabbath, and this is how we are to keep it holy.
God’s word is here. As in so much of Scripture, is intensely political and practical, for it is about how we are to treat our neighbour as ourselves. The idea of the Sabbath, as a practice, sits at the centre of the ten commandments, and without a ‘No’ anywhere near it. It is a stunning counter-cultural example of justice. Justice, practicing the Sabbath will teach us, is about giving time and space to redefining our relations with others. It is worked out through Leviticus as a principle for the forgiveness of debts – jubilee. It is about a concern for our neighbour that releases us all from believing in a myth of scarcity. The Sabbath is about saying, it is enough, it is good and right as it is – I have sufficient. It is about believing God’s lyric of abundance: manna, after all, came everyday – enough, sufficient, and those who stored it up found it rotten when they came to take more than they needed.
In the Gospel reading Jesus, just out of the wilderness and a fairly rigorous building of the walls of himself, also opens the book of the Law and reads it, in Nazareth, on the Sabbath day.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
For the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind
To release the oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
He too knows how to do dramatic pauses – rolling up the scroll, giving it to the attendant, sitting down….but with a captive audience ‘all eyes were fastened on him’. Jesus does what Ezra had done before him, and he too proclaims the Sabbath, on the Sabbath – proclaims release and promise of good things for all who suffer oppression. ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’. By hearing God’s word, and attending to it we can begin to practice it, as Jesus did, in our very lives.
So often the experience of hearing the law, afresh, is recounted in Scripture in ways which are full of drama. Mount Sinai is not exactly a tame bedtime story – its like Mount Doom. Big things, memorable things, things we want to write down and retell, seem to happen when God’s people hear and understand the word of God in Scripture. This reminds us that how we read God’s word, how it is delivered, is as important as what we read.
And here we all are, God’s people, gathered in vigils, miraculously it seems to me in these twenty-first century secular days of greed. And we are gathered through the Grace of the faith and the great gift of those people who have made scripture come alive for us, who have continued to make sure that the great story, the Gospel, just keeps on being told and read in new and creative ways, ways that have touched our hearts and that can indeed touch the hearts of all. But this passage teaches us that this Sabbath work of hearing the word and even of understanding the word is not sufficient for us to be a people of obedience to the Law. We also need to live it.