Yr C ~ Epiphany 2 ~ Nehemiah 8:1-10
Have you ever been thirsty? I don’t mean being a little dry because of work or exercise or whatever and you need a glass of water. I mean, have you ever been really thirsty for something? Parched and suffering because you long for that thing so much. The kind of yearning thirst that goes way beyond the physical and grabs you at your core – panting, aching, feeling like you’ll die if you don’t quench it.
Have you ever been thirsty?
Have you ever been that thirsty for worship?
Have you ever been that thirsty to engage with scripture?
Have you ever been that thirsty to be in church? – parched, suffering, yearning, panting, aching, feeling like you’ll die if you don’t commune with God, with the Christ, with the Spirit?
Or is this whole church and spirituality thing no big deal?
I think this is one of those things we can take for granted because it’s so easy for us to access these things. There’s probably a church close to where you live, bibles are easily accessible and free on the internet, and we are free to publicly worship whenever and wherever we want.
But I wonder if we can be surrounded by water and still be thirsty because we forget to take the time to drink.
Things were quite different for the folks Ezra was talking to. This scene happened at the end of Israel’s time of exile when they were permitted to return to their homeland and begin to rebuild their lives. Their Temple had been destroyed, they didn’t have cell phones to read their bibles on, only special and rare scrolls, and they weren’t allowed to freely worship while they were in that foreign land.
Needless to say, they were thirsty! So thirsty!
So they’ve returned, have rebuilt the city wall, and they’re rebuilding a more modest version of the Temple, and now they are bringing back “the book” (a scroll) to be read publicly for the first time in generations.
1 All 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.
2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.
Approximately 42,000 people returned from the exile and it says that everyone who could understand was there, men and women, which is pretty rare. So there were possibly tens of thousands of people at this assembly.
Did you notice that the people demanded the reading? It wasn’t the scribe forcing it on them – they wanted it, they had thirsty ears!
And Ezra read the scriptures from early morn to midday! That’s around 6 hours!
How would you feel if I told you worship this morning was going until 4:30 – and you get to stand up the entire time?
As Ezra was reading ‘all the people’ answered “Amen, Amen,” and lifted their hands, and bowed their heads, and fell face down on the ground, weeping.
And the Levites, the church workers, went through the crowd and helped to interpret. They “gave the sense” so people could better understand.
And the people wept – maybe with joy, maybe because they were feeling convicted, maybe because they missed it so much – and they were told to go and celebrate for this day, this return to worship, this sharing of the proclamation and interpretation of scripture, was a holy day.
I think there are two significant thirsts that arise out of this reading for us today – one is worship and the other is scripture.
I hope worship is a powerful thing for you! And I often wonder how we could make our worship even more engaging, more emotional, and more powerful. I have found that as I open myself more and more to noticing God’s Presence in this place and in every place that when I forget to notice I begin to miss it, and yearn for it, and thirst for it.
My prayer is that you come here each week thirsty – not because you’ve been absent or distant from God’s Presence but because you’ve tasted it and drank deeply from it and once you’ve awakened you want more and more!
The bible has a special name for noticing God’s Presence: it’s revelation.
What happens when revelation occurs?
What happens when the Presence of God is made known through worship – through the proclamation of scripture and the interpretation and application of the Word?
Well, in Nehemiah it was said that the experience elicited a deeply emotional, worshipful response.
There were “amens” spoken in agreement (Can I get an amen?!), there were heads bowed in reverence, there were hands lifted in vulnerable openness, there were bodies so overwhelmed by the experience that they flung themselves prostrate, face down on the ground, there was weeping!
I don’t know about you but my typical experience of United Church worship throughout my life has not been marked by shouting amens, raising hands, or falling face-down, prostrate on the ground.
And neither do we do a ton of those at Faith United, but we’re definitely not the “frozen chosen.” The frozen chosen are those whose worship experience is characterized as reserved, traditional, formal, orderly, and showing little emotion or excitement. That ain’t us!
While I was on sabbatical I visited many other churches and I have to tell you that one of the things I missed the most was the feeling I get when I worship here at Faith United. There were many good parts in every worship I attended elsewhere, but none of the places moved my spirit the way it’s moved here.
So, powerful worship is a great thirst for us.
The other thirst I think the reading celebrates is a thirst for scripture.
What is scripture anyway?
It’s a chronicle of God’s Sacred Presence and humanity’s halting, faltering, uncertain response. It’s not a list of rules and regulations, and it’s not a history textbook.
It’s the story of how people of faith have tried to comprehend and respond to this Something More that we know is all around us – this Mystery that we’ve given the name God to. So scripture is powerful because it’s writing about the most awesome and awe-full thing there is – God, Spirit, Christ, Mystery, Sacredness, Presence – pick whatever word works for you.
I hope you have a profound thirst for scripture, not because God “wrote” the bible, or God is “in” the bible but because it’s a proven and reliable resource for revelation. We learn to see God “through” the bible.
But it’s hard – not because God’s hiding but because we need to wade through the history, the culture, the language, the theology, and the biases of the hundreds of people who wrote it. Scripture is often confusing, and can be downright misleading if you’re not careful.
Sadly, what can happen is that people end up downplaying the bible because a) they read it and realize that it isn’t 100% literally-factually true on every page and think therefore it’s not true at all, or b) they don’t have the appropriate tools to engage with it and give up.
In far too many of our United Churches, for example, scripture is an afterthought to the message of justice or compassion that’s being shared.
Hear me carefully – I’m not saying the messages of justice and compassion are wrong, I’m saying we suffer from cart-before-the-horse disease.
Scripture isn’t a supporting argument for our justice causes – scripture is our launchpad.
It’s our historic window into understanding how God’s Presence has been experienced by people through the ages and by revealing God to us inspires us to act compassionately and justly, echoing and sharing the love we have received.
Did you notice in the Nehemiah passage that as Ezra was reading the scripture to all the people there were other religious leaders moving through the crowd explaining and interpreting it for everyone? It says they “gave the sense” of it. Proclamation and interpretation are at the heart of gathering for worship – and they always has been!
Last week in a Facebook group for ministers that I frequent a minister, frustrated by not having enough time in their week, was lamenting on a Saturday afternoon about just getting to their sermon writing. In exasperation that person asked, “How important is our sermon to our congregation? We strive and carry on getting one put together each week–is this why people come?” Another person chimed in about their “pittance of a sermon.”
Here’s what I posted in response: “I would argue that the sermon is the single most important piece of our week and deserves/demands the biggest part of our time. That we all can’t do that because of so many other demands is a significant problem with church today.
“Sermons are certainly not the only reason people come, but for me it’s the most important because it’s the only place they can get a tailor made, personalized, contextually appropriate (and hopefully inspired!) interpretation and application of the gospel.
“Community, justice, support, and even music they can get elsewhere. The sermon is our unique focal point. It can take myriad forms and styles, but it’s still the main part, for me. I wish we all had more time to pour into them!”
(I ‘won’ the thread by the way – most likes!) 😉
At the risk of self-aggrandizement, what we’re doing right now is an indescribably important thing. Public proclamation of scripture and thoughtful interpretation and application of it is the one irreplaceable thing we do together.
As I understand my calling, my primary job is to be your resident theologian.
It’s much more than that, of course, but that is the one unique thing that with the education and formation that I’ve experienced I can bring and offer to this gathering of the body of Christ. We all have our ministries – every single one of us, not just clergy – and my special ministry is to try to “give the sense” of the scripture.
It is a profoundly important calling and I approach it with fear and trembling.
And this is why it tends to make me a little crazy when people suggest that “anyone can do it” because “it’s just talking about your faith,” or that “you can pick it up by doing it” and sidestep the weighty education and deep formation pieces.
Scripture proclaimed and interpreted shapes a community of faith. It’s so powerful. It ought to make us ache with longing to more fully embrace the Holy Mystery we call God. Our ears thirsting for more, and more, and more.
I don’t say this so you’ll all think highly of me, I say it to let you know how awesome and important and sacred I think this thing we’re doing right now is.
It isn’t my eloquence or insight that makes it holy – it’s the Presence of God – it’s the movement of the Spirit that works on me when I’m writing and then carries the words from my lips to your thirsty ears and moves through you as you ponder them. The sermon you hear may be nothing like the sermon I think I’m preaching – that’s the Spirit moving.
But in the end it all comes down to openness.
The gathered people, with thirsting ears, demanded to hear the scripture proclaimed and interpreted, and as the Spirit moved they said “Amen, Amen,” they raised their hands in worship – vulnerable and surrendering, they bowed their heads in prayer, and overwhelmed with the realization that God was surely in that place, enfolding and surrounding them, their knees gave way and they fell to the ground in joy and weeping for the loving Presence that had been revealed.
And at the end of their worship they were offered a blessing, saying
“Rejoice, go, eat (well!), drink (sweet drink!), for the day is holy and joy in the Lord is your strength!
Go, share your joy with those not here, for you now have refreshing drink for thirsty ears!”
And the people said,” amen, amen!”