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07.24.11 More than Words, Nehemiah 8:1-12

by on July 25, 2011

Summary Points

  • Why ritual and remembrance must go together
  • Some rituals in worship explained
  • Some new perspectives on the Lord’s Supper

As with many of us, the recovery of faith begins with a return to ritual. Ritual teaches us the faith by inscribing it on our bodies. For example, as children many of us learned to fold our hands, close our eyes, and bow our heads when we pray. This helped us to focus and listen for God’s Spirit. When we are experiencing difficulty with faith matters, returning to ritual often helps.

In 587 BC the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and exiled all the prominent citizens back to Babylon, present day Iraq. In 539 Cyrus the Great, a Persian from present day Iran, defeated the Babylonians and allowed all the exiles to return to their home lands. Since the Persians were tolerant of religious diversity,Temple sacrifices resumed immediately, and the Temple was rebuilt in 515.

Between 458 and 398, two important leaders emerged, Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor. Together they reestablished religious and political stability in ancient Israel. This passage recounts an event in the restoration of Israelite worship under Ezra the Priest. It is intended for everyone—men, women, and children of the age of understanding. It occurs at a place called the Water Gate, where even ritually unclean people could listen.

The Exile of Israel was even more traumatic than the events that scar our national psyche, like the bombing of Pearl Harboror the attacks of September 11th. But what is even more remarkable is the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah proclaimed peace and assurance to the exiles, urging them to be patient and to keep faith in Yahweh. These visions began to materialize with Cyrus the Great, and Israel’s faith began to recover.

And so ancient Israel, fresh back from the Exile, resumed their ritual sacrifices in theTemple. While Temple ritual was necessary, for Ezra the priest, it was also insufficient for the full recovery of faith. Beyond ritual, people also needed to remember.

Ezra turned to the “book of Moses,” probably consisting mostly of excerpts from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy would be appropriate with such comforting passages as 4:1, 4:7, 4:29-31, 4:34, 4:39-40. God had delivered their ancestors from Egypt, and now God was delivering them from Babylon. Ezra was calling the people to recommit their lives to the God of their ancestors.

For an entire morning, Ezra read from the book, pausing often to allow other educated members of the community to interpret the readings for the people. The image is one of small groups gathered around a teacher. Ezra read the book, and Levites translated the reading into words the people could understand.

Our Sunday morning worship resembles this assembly. We read the Scriptures, then we interpret them. In our Presbyterian tradition, we understand Scripture and Sermon together to be God’s Word to us. The book of Hebrews says God’s Word is living (Hebrews 4:12). It is this dialogue between our world and the world of the Bible that makes God’s Word alive today. The Bible is the ancient testimony of a community’s conversation with God. Christian worship is founded on this conversation, on the Bible, and it continues the conversation today.

We can also read and interpret the Bible outside of Sunday worship. Since the advent of print, audio, and internet publishing, everyone can have their own Bible and read it any time. And we have immediate access to interpretations at any time also.

What would happen if you read and interpreted the Bible on days other than Sunday? Can you imagine the impact on your life and our church if we did this?

As valuable as individual and small group house study are, they can’t replace Sunday worship. Church ritual and the communal hearing of God’s Word is too important to be replaced by domestic study. We see this modeled for us in Nehemiah 8 also.

Consider the ritual it suggests and describes. Ezra presents the book with ritual flare. Today some congregations process with the Bible lifted high. Others kiss the book upon closing it. Ezra would be pleased with these rituals of respect for God’s Word.

Ezra read the book from a platform built just for this purpose. Today we call them pulpits. In fact, our entire sanctuary and church should be designed around this purpose—to hear God’s Word. In worship, form must follow function, practice must follow purpose. And so we should adopt the best forms and practices to achieve the purpose of hearing God’s Word. In Ezra’s time, it was a raised platform so people could hear and see. In our day, it includes microphones and projection.

There are community rituals also. These helped the people “listened attentively.” When the word was read, the people stood up. In passages of praise, they raised their hands. They called out, “Amen.” In thanksgiving, they bowed down. They put their faces on the ground.

We have some ritual in our own assembly. We begin the reading and preaching of God’s Word with what’s called a “prayer for illumination.” We ask God’s Spirit to enlighten our understanding so that we may hear what God is saying to us. We say together, “Thanks be to God.” Some congregations stand when the Bible is read. Some congregations cross themselves at the hearing of the Word. Some of us praise God with uplifted hands, others sit and reflect, I benefit a great deal from kneeling.

When Ezra’s people heard and understood God’s Word, they began to grieve and mourn. They might have realized how unfaithful to God they had been. Maybe they thought the Exile was the result of their unfaithfulness. We also have those thoughts in relation to our own “exiles.”

Ezra taught the people that God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. Even when we would respond with mourning, Nehemiah 8 reminds us that this is a festival day, it is holy to the Lord, because our unfaithfulness must be seen in the context of God’s faithfulness. Worship reminds us of God’s faithfulness, and so it is a time of thanksgiving, joy, and celebration.

Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper to remind us of this. We come to the Table broken and discouraged, forgetful and unfaithful. But God is here, this is our holy communion, and we are invited to partake of “choice food and sweet drink,” for the Lord has spoken it, and we believe.

After the meal, Ezra charges the people to share a portion of their meal with others. It reminds me of an event in Jesus’ life. While walking through a crowded street he saw a crooked tax-collector sitting in a tree. Zacchaeus had climbed the tree so he could see Jesus. It was like his own ritual act of faith. When Jesus saw him, he called him down, and shared a meal with him. During that meal, Zacchaeus pledged to reform his life. He would pay back four times what he defrauded others, and he would give half his possessions to the poor.

These ritual actions on Sunday morning help us to hear and understand God’s Word. And understanding God’s Word means to remember God’s steadfast faithfulness, to rejoice with thanksgiving, and to share with others. In worship, we combine ritual with remembrance in order to have a relationship with the God who spoke and created the community of faith, and who continue to speak to our community today.

Questions for Further Reflection

  • What are some of the rituals you learned as a child and which you still practice today?
  • What other rituals characterize your life—like the special coffee you order or outfit you wear?
  • In what areas of your life are you experiencing a spiritual exile? How do the passages from Deuteronomy 4 apply to your life?
  • How does this passage change the way you view the Lord’s Supper? Have you been preoccupied with grieving and mourning? Did you realize God is calling you to share with others as a result of this meal?
  • What are some of the rituals in your church that are meaningful to you? What rituals are more meaningful now that you understand some of them better?
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