2022-01-23 Epiphany 3
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
Was anyone else saddened to hear that Betty White died only a couple of weeks back? Only a few days shy of her 100th birthday too. I remember her best from the “Golden Girls” TV show. I just loved that show and watched it all the time! I used to tease my Grandma Schultz that she reminded me of Rose, the character that Betty White played on the show. I still maintain it’s because they had similar mannerisms, but Grandma’s convinced I said that because Rose was so dippy! But that’s just a coincidence! Probably my favourite character on the show was “Ma,” also known as Sophia Petrillo. She always had the witty one-liners that made you bust a gut. And, she would always start out by telling stories like this: “Picture it, Sicily, 1912, a peasant girl with olive skin meets a painter…” and so on and so on. It was that nostalgia to times gone by that drew you in like a moth to a flame. And it often does, when we think about the old days.
Our Old Testament reading appointed for today takes us down the same path today. “Picture it, Jerusalem, 445 BC. God’s people, who had been in exile for 150 years, are being allowed to return home.” Back to the holy land, back to the city of God. The Babylonian people showed them no quarter and utterly smashed their city down and burned her with fire. The only hope of keeping the people safe was to rebuild the city’s protective 9 foot thick walls. Nehemiah, a lay person, an organizer, and a man of courage and determination, takes up the call to rebuild the walls. In a very short 52 days, the people had rebuilt 2.4km/1.5 miles of stone walls. It was gruelling, back breaking work. And, through it all, the people had opposition, ridicule and even terrorism to contend with! But Nehemiah was above all, a faithful man of God, seeking God’s will above all else.
God’s people were being brought back to their home, their sacred city of Jerusalem. It was an amazing sight! Even though the people had suffered greatly for their sins while in exile, and justifiably so, God was faithful to them and was bringing them back, restoring His people. So the walls are complete and the city is secure once again by the Lord’s hand. But the story doesn’t end there. Far from it. The people gathered together “as one man” the scripture says, one body, the church, and Ezra the scribe brought the long forgotten book of the Law. The Bible, the scriptures, the Word of God was read publicly – from morning until midday. So, if you think the Lutheran Service is long, think again! And the people stood up, the same way we stand up for the reading of the Gospel. And, they bowed their heads in deep humility and reverence for God’s Word.
“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Neh 8:8-9). Why did the people weep? They wept because they realized how far they had fallen from God’s Word in their sin. They had certainly missed the mark of God’s perfection and their sinful lives reflected it. They were a people called to be the light of the world, shining God’s grace and goodness into the darkness. But rather, they themselves had become the darkness. And the Word of God shone like a mirror to the people of Israel, showing them their sins and they knew it. The Word cut them directly to the heart and they experienced what the book of Hebrews says: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
And now, dear friends, we have to ask ourselves the question. And that question is, ‘How much are we like the Israelites of old who neglected the scriptures?’ How many of us have a Bible that has an inch of dust on it? How about half an inch? OK, OK what about 1.27 centimeters of dust?! You get the idea and you know what I mean. Neglecting the Word of God has devastating consequences. You could just ask the Israelites 150 years before Nehemiah. What happened to them? They were carted off into exile. Why were they carted off? Because they didn’t care about God. They didn’t give a rip about His Word or His commandments! They adopted the crazy sinful ideas of the world around them, forgot who they were, forgot who God was, forgot His will for them. They lived sinful lives contrary to God’s will and, they didn’t care. Soon, that lawlessness consumed them and the only way God could save them from their sins was to allow them to hit rock bottom and be carted off into Babylon exile.
How much are we like the Israelites of old who neglected the scriptures? Probably more than we’d like to admit. The Bible says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). The Word of God, the Scriptures are what enlighten us. The world around us is thick darkness. And if we don’t have the light of the Scriptures to enlighten our path, then we most certainly will be tripping and falling all over the place in our sins. We can never read the scriptures enough. We can never think about them too much. But our problem is that we may not read or think on them at all! Just ask yourself, ‘Can I name the books of the Bible?’ Do I know the gist of those books? Do I know the details of those books? Can I quote the 10 commandments from memory? Can I quote any scripture verses at all? Who were the writers of the Gospels? What’s God’s will when it comes to today’s hot button topics like abortion or euthanasia? Can we answer with confidence or do we struggle?
If we don’t know the light of God’s Word we can’t be the light in the world. And in fact, we see that the darkness of the world seems to be growing darker all the time. Society is becoming quite hostile to the Word of God and the Christian message once again. The world never really liked Christianity very much because it calls a spade a spade. It denounces the evil ways of the world and calls people to repentance. Increasingly this message is falling on dead ears. People instead want messages of warm fuzzies and bumper sticker theology. But St. Paul warns us about following the darkness when he writes “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2Tim 4:3-4).
This is what brought the ancient people of God to ruin. They listened to the crazy ideas of the religions and people around them. They neglected the One true God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. They turned their back on His teachings and lived for themselves. And the people who were called to be the light were engulfed in darkness. Hearts grew cold and indifferent to sin and evil. It’s hard to strive to do God’s will when you don’t know what it is. The ancient Israelites realized their sin and confessed it. Indeed their sin and iniquity caused them to weep!
But to their sadness and repentance, the Lord’s messengers say “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. … Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9-10).
The joy of the Lord is your strength. The light and life of His word spoken and lived in the hearts and minds of His people. This is joy. This is strength. For today is the day of Salvation. Today is the day to repent and return to the Lord and to His Word. It’s vital that we do, for in the Scriptures we know who God is and all that He has done for us and for our salvation. In the pages of the Bible, we find Christ Jesus, His cross, His love, His forgiveness. We find the will of God and how that changes us from the inside out, giving us peace that lasts forever. It is the studying of the scriptures that make us wise for salvation. And it is in the living out of God’s word in love and service to our neighbours that illuminates the darkness of our world. All glory be to God now and forevermore. Amen!