Nehemiah 8: 1-12; Luke 4: 14-21
Artist's impression of the Water Gate
with the projecting tower
[Reconstruction by artist Balage Balogh]
Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace
Our path when wont to stray;
Stream from the fount of heavenly grace,
Brook by the traveler’s way.
This lovely old hymn, 627 in our Hymnal 1985—the text a poem by Bernard Barton, a wonderful English Quaker poet of the early 19th century, honoring and celebrating the gift of Holy Scripture.
Bread of our souls, wheron we feed,
True manna from on high;
Our guide and chart, wherein we read
Of realms beyond the sky.
Just the right poetry I think to stir in our hearts with the readings appointed for this morning. These two dramatic and pivotal scenes, one of the Old Testament and one of the New. The priest Ezra at the Water Gate of Jerusalem. Jesus, at the synagogue in Nazareth. Two watershed moments in our spiritual heritage. Turning point moments. Key moments of identity and definition, in the great story of salvation.
For years now they have been returning. The wandering exiles of Jerusalem and Judah. An individual here and there. A family or two. Clusters. Some old and sick. Weighed down by the struggle to survive in distant corners of the world. Haunted by memories of their earliest childhood and stories of their parents and grandparents of the fall of David’s City before the roaring armies of the East. Years of siege, poverty, hunger, impossible warfare claiming the flower of the nation’s youth. The breaching of the walls, death, destruction, fire, plunder. The worst you can imagine. The holy Temple looted, ransacked. The King himself, descendant of David and Solomon, led away in chains. Every humiliation and degradation.
The survivors lined up and led out in a long journey to a longer captivity. Some sold into slavery. The national foreign policy of the Babylonians, to make double sure that no further rebellion would come, ever again. And they are scattered. Refugee camps, urban ghettos. Small groups across the empire, trying to make their way, simply to survive. Some in Egypt. Some making their way to ancient Iran, Persia. Living in destitution. And yet, as the years roll on, in these far corners, continuing to remember the old stories, to remember the prayers, and the songs--and continuing to hope.
Until finally the old empire of Babylon is overrun by a new force out of Persia, and Cyrus, the Great Shah, announces a new foreign policy about refugees. That all the exiles from all the many lands and peoples once conquered by Babylon and scattered across many lands and territories, may return to their homes. The event we remember so vividly in the poetry of the 40th chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, of course: Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. And the word slowly spreads. And over the next months and the next years, they begin to return. Exile, and return. Darkness, and then a new dawn. Sin and forgiveness. Estrangement and redemption. Brokenness and then healing.
Finally, the journey home: reaching the ruined City. Barely recognizable. And they settle in, begin to try to scratch out a living. The dream of return now seen in the harsh light of day. And there is discouragement. Disappointment. Fear. Hostility.
Like the ancient Hebrews in their journey across the Sinai, a sense of remorse. “At least back in the slums of Damascus there was food to eat, a house to live in.”
And the great priest Ezra steps in at this moment, to see with understanding that what is needed first is not the rebuilding of walls or the reconstruction of buildings, but a renewal of spirit, an openness and receptivity to God’s living presence. A reconnection of the deepest root of identity and purpose. And so, in those days, at the gate of the City, in what were still ruins, knee-deep in the ancient rubble, he calls the people together, and from morning until night, the Torah of God is--sung to them. Filling the air around them, repeated for them quietly by teachers moving among them. The precious Word.
And as they hear the ancient words, God’s love and God’s presence is made known to them, their identity, their purpose, made known to them. Hearing with their ears, and then with their hearts. To know who they are, and whose they are. And tears fill their eyes. They weep with gladness and sorrow, repentance and joy. What a scene this is: the Word falling upon them, as Barton says, like Manna from on high. God’s provision, God’s nurture, for his hungry people.
And Nehemiah the Governor sends them home. Still in the midst of the ruins. Still with a generation and generations of hard labor ahead of them Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them 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. That the power of the word to enter lives and to remake lives: for the joy of the LORD is your strength.
Pillar of fire, through watches dark
And radiant cloud by day;
When waves would whelm our tossing bark,
Our anchor and our stay.
And we spin ahead a few centuries, to that backwater synagogue in remote Galilee. And the boy who grew up in their neighborhood and grew to manhood there has now gone away and begun to make something of a name for himself. And this his first return. Boy next door now famous, controversial Rabbi.
And they come to hear him teach. And he reads the scroll, this familiar great passage from Isaiah, and sets it down. And he says to them, “today, here, now, in me, it comes to life.” And the old neighbors and friends are confused, even offended.
But for us it’s different. We see him. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. And the word he speaks into our hearts is the word that makes real the presence of God and the power of God, and our identity, and our purpose in him. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory. Glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Word that is for us the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Eternal Life. Word that is for us all we need, our beginning and our final destination. Who we are, and whose we are.
And so we open ourselves to that Word. Again and again. In the scriptures, our daily Bible reading and study, our liturgical proclamation, our sharing in the deep mysteries and sacraments, in our prayers, in our speaking and in our silence--as we rebuild walls and as we seek to be expressions of his care, his healing, in our relationships and in the wide world around us. Open ourselves to the Word.
At the Water Gate of ruined Jerusalem, after a long afternoon of listening and as the Books of Moses came to an end, they would have heard the priest intone the words from Deuteronomy, chapter 30: For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart . . . .
One last verse of Barton’s hymn –
Word of the everliving God,
Will of his glorious Son;
Without thee how could earth be trod,
Or heaven itself be won?
Blessing, and grace and peace to all this morning. In the word spoken by the Prophets, and in the Word made flesh, broken and poured out for us.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.