Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the returned exiles in the public square, reminding them that the joy of the Lord is their strength.
Psalm 19 – The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a – The church is a body with many members. One member of the body cannot disown another.
Luke 4:14-21 – Jesus in his hometown synagogue, part 1. Jesus announces his job description at the Synagogue of his hometown: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Houston denominational leaders from across the city invite all Christians to join them for an evening of music, worship, and prayer as ecumenical groups gather to pray for Christian Unity in Houston and around the world. All are welcome. Please join us at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church on Friday, January 22, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.
This post will focus on Ezra, from the Old Testament reading in Nehemiah. The gospel readings for these next two Sundays are of Jesus in his hometown. Here you can read about Jesus in his hometown part 1 (Luke 14:15-21) or you can read about Jesus in his hometown part 2 (Luke 4:21-30).
After the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), come Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. Then the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings. Followed by Chronicle, Ezra, and Nehemiah. They are actually one book in Hebrew.
Ezra was a fifth century priest and a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6), during the reign of the Persian King Artaxerxes. He went up to Jerusalem from Babylon to reintroduce the Torah. Artaxerxes sent along a generous amount of financial support in this endeavor.
Nehemiah, “God comforts”, is the longer version of Nahum, “Comforter.” He was the governor of Judea under Persian rule, during Artaxerxes’ reign (465-424 B.C.). He started out as Artaxerxes’ Cup Bearer. A Cup Bearer was actually a high ranking officer, whose job was to keep the king from being poisoned; only an extremely trustworthy person would be put in this position. He asked to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city.
Our reading comes from Nehemiah 8. Of the first ten verses in this chapter, our text leaves out verses four and seven. I’m always curious about surgical edits, so here are the verses for your perusal, I can only guess they were left out because the framers of the lectionary felt they were too difficult for the average lay reader to wade through and irrelevant to the point of the text:
4: The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
7: Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.
Ezra and Nehemiah appear together in this passage, Nehemiah 8:1-10, though some believe verse nine, where Nehemiah is mentioned, is a later addition.
Ezra reads from the Torah. The people stand. Ezra also expounds on the Torah, so that the people understand what they are hearing. The day will later become Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
It becomes clear why the framers of the lectionary chose this passage to go along with Jesus’ hometown visit. Just as Ezra stands and reads from the Torah, Jesus stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah.
At Ezra’s reading, the people begin to weep. They have been through so much during the last forty years of exile. Their temple, city, and culture were wiped out. The restoration touches a deep chord. The tears are inevitable. But Ezra and Nehemiah told the people not to grieve, but to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It doesn’t take much for the preacher to tap into the irretrievable losses on our hearts and minds – a recent school shooting, a terrorist act, Katrina, or 9/11. Whether personal or public tragedies, all of us have been touched, some more than others.
What gives you strength in the midst of loss and tragedy? How do you get through it? When the rug has been pulled out from under you, and you’ve landed hard on your back, what buoys you up? What makes it humanly possible for you to get up in the morning? Be aware that there will be those listening to the sermon who are going through their dark night of the soul now. Some may be hanging on your every word.
Hope is the only way through. Hope comes in many forms. You cannot offer yours. One person’s hope seems trite to another. Each person must find their own.
The preacher is called, anointed by the Spirit, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to those in slavery, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and news of God’s favor.
Life can be hard. The struggles of life can only be borne through an abiding faith and hope that gives us joy and a peace that passes all understanding. The good news is that through God in Christ, we are offered such an abiding peace and joy. These are fruits of the Holy Spirit, given to sustain us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes I think that we spend all our lives, growing into the faith, hope, love, peace, and joy that will sustain us for our hour of trial. We pray, hear the word, and receive the sacraments that are means of grace, so that we grow to the place where we can say the best words of this reading from Nehemiah:
The joy of the Lord is my strength.