A few years ago, I spent a day visiting cemeteries with my mom and dad. My parents are pretty serious cemetery-visitors, going to 6 or 8 different cemeteries in southern Illinois on Memorial Day weekend, decorating graves of parents and grandparents and siblings and assorted family members. But I had been working on family history, doing some genealogy, and we were going to visit cemeteries where ancestors further back on the family tree, some of their great-grandparents and beyond were buried.
One of those places was Centerville, Illinois. There is a decent-sized cemetery there. We found some family members there, including the grave of my great-grandfather’s brother, John Wesley Russell. He died in 1898, and the tombstone was toppled over on its side. We never found the graves of his parents, my great-great grandparents.
We told my Uncle Leonard about our little trip to Centerville. “Centerville is where it all started for the Russells,” he said. He remembered that as a child, there was a relative who ran a store in Centerville. My great-great grandparents had moved there probably sometime in the 1840’s. Lewis Jackson Russell was a wagon-maker. The cemetery was filled with Russells and Funkhousers. We haven’t been able to trace the Russells farther back than that, although we know that a generation earlier, we were in Ireland.
Well, Centerville may be where it started for my family, as far as being Midwesterners, but there isn’t much to see there today. The town looks a lot like that fallen-over tombstone. There are maybe 4 houses standing and actually inhabited. That was the whole town. And there was nothing in the surrounding countryside. There were cornfields and beanfields, but the farmhouses were missing, the farms no doubt bought up by some big conglomerate. Nobody lived in the area. Not that it was ever a thriving metropolis, but Centerville was a long way from what it had once been. There had to be 100 times as many people in the cemetery as there were living in the town. It was a ghost town.
Jerusalem may have resembled a ghost town to the Hebrew people upon their return from being held captive in Babylon. In the year 587 BC, Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and carried off much of the population back to Babylon with them. They took the educated classes, the prosperous citizens, the skilled workers, the community leaders. Imagine Ames minus health care professionals and teachers and lawyers and engineers and artists and musicians and business leaders and computer experts and law enforcement officials. Only a small number of peasants had remained to hold down the fort. And ancient cities were very much like forts, surrounded by protective walls, usually several feet thick. These walls, complete with massive gates and watchtowers, inspired feelings of security.
Years passed and finally the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. Jerusalem was a sight for sore eyes, even for the many born in Babylon who had never actually lived there before. They were finally home. But home was nothing like it had been. They found Jerusalem in a shambles. The walls had been torn down, the temple destroyed. The narrow streets that had once held bustling market traffic were now filled with rubble.
Still, it was home, the land God had given to their ancestors. The returning exiles were poor and had few resources for rebuilding, but they nevertheless set to work.
One immediate need was to rebuild the city walls. Without the advantage of modern power tools, the building team accomplishes most of the work in fifty-two days. Now think about that for a minute. We’ve been waiting for months and months for Olive Garden to be built here in Ames, but working with no back hoe, no cranes, no power drivers or power saws or anything – just hand tools and animals and brute strength, they rebuilt the walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem in 52 days, which is pretty good if you ask me. The rebuilding and restoration of Israel had begun.
Ezra and Nehemiah emerged as the great leaders of the Jews during this time. Nehemiah had been the personal valet – or valet, if you watch Downton Abbey – to King Artaxerxes of Babylon, who allowed him to go back to Jerusalem to lead the rebuilding. He was the governor; Ezra was the priest. They led a campaign to rebuild Jerusalem. But just as daunting a task as physically rebuilding the city of Jerusalem was the challenge of rebuilding the nation as a people.
While in Babylon, religious observance was difficult for the Jews. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?“ they had asked. They had been unable to observe the Law and after a while they forgot about trying. They had begun to lose their identity as a people.
But now they were back in Jerusalem. Now the temple was rebuilt. Now the wall was rebuilt. Now was a time to return to God. Nehemiah makes plans for a city-wide revival. Ezra is the preacher. He gathers the people on the plaza by the Water Gate, which was securely imbedded in their newly-refurbished city wall.
It is interesting that this gathering does not place at the temple. You have just rebuilt the temple; why not meet there? And it is very interesting that it takes place at the Water Gate. (And by the way, if anybody asks you what the sermon was about today, you can tell them it was about Watergate.) There were several gates in the walls of the city. But what set the Water Gate apart was that it was not restricted to “men only.” At the temple, it would have been men only. At another gate, it would have been men only. But the text says that Ezra “brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” In this society where women generally were not much involved in the religious life of the community, this revival meeting was for everybody. This was a foundational event in the life of the nation. They were becoming a people again.
The Water Gate is a most appropriate place for the people to receive the living water of God’s word. Ezra rolls out the scroll of Moses and begins to remind the people who they are as members of the family of God. He advises this congregation that the Law of Moses is not a burden, but a gift, one they can receive with an attitude of gratitude. And they receive it that way. God’s instruction was not seen as cramping, restrictive legislation; it was understood as a compassionate guide, a path, a set of wise instructions about how to live together in justice and joy and peace.
The people were sitting on the ground, as was and is the custom in that part of the world, but when Ezra began to read, the people stood out of respect for the Law. And the Bible says that Ezra read from early in the morning until midday.
Early in the morning may vary from person to person--I know that for some of you, 4 am is early, and for others, 8 or 9 am is early--but any way you cut it, this was a lengthy reading of the scriptures.
As I read our text from Nehemiah, you may have noticed a lot of long, hard-to-pronounce names that really didn’t help us understand the passage. The appointed lectionary text leaves out those verses and I considered skipping them, but in the end decided to go ahead and read them. My thinking was, we read a few verses of the Bible and it begins to seem like a really long, drawn-out reading. We become impatient and we find it hard to listen. Yet here were people who listened to the scriptures read from early in the morning to midday. I figured a few long names and a couple extra verses wouldn’t hurt us.
And so the reading went from early morning to midday. During the scripture reading, there were priests--Levites--in the crowd, helping the people understand what was being read. The text says that they interpreted the reading. Since it was read in Hebrew, they may have been translating it to the more familiar Aramaic. And they helped them understand what it meant for them now, in this place, in light of their present circumstances.
The people are so hungry for God’s word that they listen intently. They are reminded that their covenant with God involves promises and responsibilities on both sides. God has chosen to enter into relationship with them. What really grabs our attention about all of this is the reaction of the people. They begin to weep. (And no, they weren’t just crying because the reading went on and on and on!) Not having heard the law and not having observed it for so long, they hear the Word of God and are powerfully moved. They are moved for all sorts of reasons.
Everyone able to understand is there. Everyone is included, even those considered ritually unclean. For them, this was a powerful experience – they too were part of the God’s community.
Older members of the nation may have grown up in Jerusalem. They had not dreamed they would worship again in the Holy City, and to hear the Law read openly, publicly, in a way that gathered the entire community, was an overwhelming experience.
Some had been battered by a lifetime of servitude, of oppression, living as aliens in a strange land. To now gather and hear the Word of God as free people, in their own land, in their Holy City, brought hope and possibility and renewal and literally gave them a future.
Some heard the Word of God read and then listened as it was interpreted, as it was explained to them. Some only spoke Aramaic and did not understand the Hebrew reading, and were grateful that it was explained for them. Some had not put it together before that these were not simply words inscribed on tablets centuries before, but that these words had meaning for them here and now, in this moment, and that God’s Word could lead them and guide them and direct them and comfort them, and they were moved to tears.
Others heard the Law of God and realized how far they had strayed, how far short they had fallen, and were convicted of sin. As they heard the Law read, they could check off the commandments they had broken. They were led to change their ways and moved to tears out of mourning over their sin.
Many in the crowd were weeping. But Ezra and Nehemiah said to the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” And what’s more, Ezra says to the people that they should go home and eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send food and drink to those who don’t have anything prepared. Don’t be grieved, live it up! For the joy of the Lord is your strength.
The reading of God’s word inspires repentance, praise, thanksgiving, hope, and action. The people gathered there that day were starved for God’s word. Some had not heard it read for many years; some had never heard at all.
How different it is for us. Most of us have multiple Bibles in our homes. It is the best-selling and most widely available book in history, but we mostly take it for granted and don’t read it very much. But in times of loss, times of pain, times of uncertainty, times when we need direction, times when we need comfort, times when we need to be challenged, we turn to the Word of God and it is there. It will guide us and inspire us if we will allow it.
Timothy Haut is a pastor and poet in Deep River, Connecticut. He wrote a poem called Ezra at the Gate: An Imagination on Nehemiah 8:1-10
His hands trembledLike the people that day at the Water Gate, when we come into the presence of the living God, when we center our worship on God’s word, when we consider its meaning for us, here, now, this day, in this place, when we offer ourselves to God, we cannot help but be changed.
As the old prophet stood before the crowd,
The old, the young,
All of them a remnant
Without a memory of this place.
The broken city,
The beloved desolation,
The citadel of shame.
Around him were the ones
Whose tears we still remember:
Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah,
Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah,
Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah,
Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah,
Whose rough hands, blistered,
Had held hammer and saw,
Had finished the fallen gate,
Laid the beams, fashioned the door,
Installed its bolts and bars.
Ezra saw Meshullam’s tears
As he read the old words,
The ancient law, Moses’ treasure,
Saw that he, and all of them,
Might dream again,
Though not yet of another
Who would raise up
Another broken city,
Restore this beloved desolation
For all of time.
Ezra’s heart leapt
At these wondrous tears,
Saw in them some goodness
In this new day, beginning
All of them waiting
For joy once more
To enter the Old Gate.
Ezra read the Law to the people, and they were moved. As Christians, we see the law not as a means to salvation and not as a bunch of arbitrary rules, but as a gift from God which can be positively summarized in Jesus’ commands to love God and love our neighbor. Seeing the Law in this way, Christ becomes for us not a rejection of the law or an end run on the law, but the fulfillment of the law.
We gather then to give glory to God and to allow God to make a difference in us so that we can go forth to make a difference in God’s world. And when that happens, we have reason to go forth and celebrate, like the people on that great day. For “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” Amen.