This week we hear a story of restoration after scattering, we remember how the hearing of God’s Word reshaped a community. The wood carving of Ezra the priest used as an image is by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from 1860.
We don’t often in the Revised Common Lectionary hear stories from when Nehemiah was appointed governor of Jerusalem by the Persian Emperor. The kingdom of Judah ceased to exist when Babylon invaded taking all of the educated and wealthy people away into exile. The book of Jeremiah tells the story of the deportation, the books of Daniel and Ezekiel tell the story of the time in exile when Babylon was the global super-power. Persia conquered and replaced Babylon and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the stories of the return to Jerusalem and the re-establishment of the people of God in the land of his promise.
This book is a story of restoration, I for a while though it may be applicable to this church when we return to having a building in Fort St John. I thought I would leave it on the shelf. But now, as Covid becomes endemic, restrictions are lifted and people who were scattered hopefully become re-collected to the body of the faithful- this story of restoration after exile may be pertinent to us now.
Nehemiah’s big project was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem so it would no longer be vulnerable to plundering and the people could begin dreaming of the future and cultivating inter-generational stability and wealth. Half of the men building the other half ready with spears to defend the city, the work was done. One of the more interesting leaders of Christianity today is Douglas Wilson, who describes what he is doing in Moscow Idaho as rebuilding the walls of Christiandom. That Christianity needs owned space, businesses and municipalities and universities that are unapologetically Christian and that have boundaries, have walls that keep out those who plunder Christian institutions to advance other interests. The old Christendom that the Anglican Church, using the British Empire, built has either collapsed or been taken over. So for us in our generation what does rebuilding the walls, resettling the culture need to look like?
Ezra the priest standing on a high wooden platform reads the story of God’s people and how God shaped them to those returning to Jerusalem. He stands above the people reading and then, together with the scribes explaining what is read. We call this kind of preaching exegetical preaching and it needs to be an important part of how we feast on God’s Word. The book of homilies, the standard for Anglican sermons are doctrinal topical sermons, and I do believe those are important and foundational. But two of our church’s most prolific and fruitful preachers, who are also some of the strongest historical advocates for the book of homilies, are known for their exegetical sermons: Lancelot Andrewes and George Whitefield. The people are in the end of today’s reading so filled with joy that they have grown in an understanding of the Word of God.
But before the joy the people groaned and wept at what they were hearing. Perhaps they wept because they heard the beauty of what had been lost, a kingdom and a nation set aside for God where they could pursue righteousness and love together, building one another up in that inheritance. Perhaps they wept because of their own sins, hearing from the law what righteousness looks like and knowing their inability to achieve it. The scribes told the people not to weep, for this day, this day of return and rebuilding was a holy day, a day set apart for God.
What does repentance look like for the people of God? It looks like a man abandonning what he is up to and going to make ammends. It looks like a man beating his chest uninterested in what others think of him crying to God for mercy and trusting that he has received it. It looks like a daughter running and clinging to her father’s legs saying: Father, I’m sorry, I love you, forgive me. We, the adopted sons and daughters of our God, have reason to trust that he will forgive us, a desire that being forgiven we might be close to him, and security in that relationship to celebrate.
Instead of mourning they feasted and shared meals and sent eachother food, and the next day they celebrated the festival of the booths. They build little structures from branches they found lying around Jerusalem and they spent the day in those little lean-tos remembering that they had once wandered in the wilderness to find God and find his promises. They spent the day remembering how God had revealed himself and cultivated them as a people. They spent the day remembering they were God’s people, and that the Lord was their God.
May we so remember, and be so gathered, and be so restored. Amen.