No one is left out of God’s kingdom. No one is left out among us at St. Jacob’s Lutheran Church…at least that’s the kind of Jesus-centered community we strive to be.
3rd (4th) Sunday after the Epiphany – January 31 (24), 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
No One Left Out – Pastor Evan Davis
Who here has read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah? Anybody? Do you know what they’re about? In Hebrew they‘re really just one book, because they tell one story – the story of the return of the children of Israel from exile in Babylon to their homeland, to Jerusalem. A little background. The Babylonians who conquered Judah have themselves been conquered by the Persians. If you’re ever tempted to think that in the Old Testament God only cares about the people of Israel, or that he only speaks through them, think again. It’s amazing – God uses the Persian King Cyrus as his mouthpiece. At the beginning of this story Cyrus decrees, The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.
3 Any of those among you who are of his people– may their God be with them!– are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel– he is the God who is in Jerusalem;
And so they go. Cyrus makes sure everybody knows they’re going under his authority and he gives them money and materials to rebuild the city and, most importantly, the temple. He evens finds all the gold utensils stolen from the first temple and sends them back with the people of Israel. It’s a hard process. A city and its walls and the temple don’t just come back overnight. The “people of the land,” the people already living there, and those Israelites left behind who never even went into exile, often oppose this process. Eventually the scribe and priest Ezra comes to the people from Babylon to teach them the law of God again (a lot of learning is lost when a whole generation is carted off as slaves…). And finally the Persians send Nehemiah as governor, general, and foreman of one of the greatest building projects of all time. Under Nehemiah the walls of the city are rebuilt, and when they’re completed, all the people gather together. The first thing they do is record everyone who made it back, the whole reunited family of Israel, by tribe and family. 42,360 plus slaves, singers, and animals – they kept tight records, this was important!!
Then, finally, they worship. This is the most interesting part of the whole story for me. Because notice – they don’t sacrifice an animal in this worship service. Generally, in the history of Israel, “worship” meant sacrificing an animal to God in the temple. Now that is still happening, and continues even to Jesus’ day, but notice what happens here – it’s something new. Ezra, the guy who knows the law, the torah, brings the book of the law, the scriptures. And he stands in the midst of the people, up high on a platform, and he reads it to them – all of them who could understand – and they listen. He teaches them the scriptures, not just to the priests or kings, but to all the people in a public place. This is worship we recognize, don’t we?
When he opened the book in the sight of all the people, what do they do? They stand up. Just like we do for the reading of the gospel. You wonder why we do that? For the same reason they did – because we’re hearing a Word from God. Because we show respect for God’s Word. Because we expect to hear something that matters for our life together. Ezra blesses the Lord and all the people answer “Amen, Amen” – can I get an amen this morning?
But that’s not all….verse 8 – they – that’s a group of teachers along with Ezra, not only read from the torah, but interpreted it, translated it, and gave the sense, they explained it, so that the people understood the reading. They preached! This whole pattern is the beginning of what became the torah service in a new place of worship called the synagogue, a meeting place. It’s where our worship comes from.
What comes next is maybe an experience you can appreciate…when the people hear and understand the law, they weep. Maybe out of joy, but probably because they learned just how far they fell short of God’s law. They were probably worried not only about things we worry about like how we fail to love our neighbor or envy the possessions or lives of others, but they’re probably aware that they’re not eating the right things or wearing the right clothing, and…they’ve married into foreign, non-Israelite families…all this was a big problem. But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the priests say a wonderful thing – “do not mourn or weep.” Indeed – “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.”
It’s the Lord’s day, they said. What you have done wrong pales in the face that this day is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it…maybe they remembered that psalm (Ps. 118). Go your way…eat the fat and drink the sweet wine the LORD has given for your health and life. But don’t let the abundance stop with you, no, send it on. Send it to those for whom nothing is prepared….for this day is holy to our LORD. That means nobody should be hungry. Nobody should be left out. Nobody should be left without the teaching of God today. Nobody should be left without the embrace of God on this holy day.
It hasn’t changed. That’s what we’re all about. We’re about to eat….maybe not the fat, but the sweetness and richness of this bread, and drink this rather sweet wine. Like the early Christians who took these words to heart, like Christians of every generation who have shared the bounty of God’s provision, we will let the abundance of this table overflow into the empty bellies of our neighbors.
Bishop Mauney of our Virginia Synod has recently challenged us to be “the church that feeds people.” Why not feed our neighbors on Sunday morning? Why not be the Church that welcomes you to the Lord’s table and the breakfast table? Think about it. Breakfast then worship, or worship then lunch.
Do not be grieved today. Do not exclude yourself from this table, or from the love of God. No matter what exile you’ve been through, today is a day of welcome. Of reunion. Of rejoicing. Like St. Paul said, sorry, whatever you think, whatever anybody else thinks about you, you’re a member of the Body of Christ. Just because you’re not a hand, that doesn’t make you any less a part of the Body. We need feet too. When we are united in God’s purpose for us, in walking his Way, we will be united even as we are different people who bring different gifts, different perspectives….we may differ sometimes on the how or the when, but not on the what, which is, spreading and living the love of God. You, all of you together, are the Body of Christ and individually members of it. We need everyone. We don’t need a bunch of heads, or a bunch of hands, or just feet – we need the Body.
So be the member God made you to be, arranged in the Body where he chose. And let us come together to build, to hear, to be taught, to understand, to shout praise, to offer prayer, to eat and drink the rich meal that is Christ himself, to respect one another, to suffer with those who suffer, to celebrate with those who rejoice. Let us be the community we imagine…let us be the Body so that those who need the Body of Christ may receive it, and become part of that Body with you. Amen.