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Preaching at the Watergate

Nehemiah 8:1-12
David A. Davis
October 31, 2021
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 Today, October 31, according to our theological tradition, in the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Accordingly, October 31st is Reformation Day. So in celebration and acknowledgment, Noel Werner picked a Martin Luther hymn to begin worship this morning. The choice of this second scripture lesson, however, was not motivated by Reformation Sunday. We are continuing our adult education/small group/ preaching series on biblical stories of reunion and restoration. The text from Nehemiah I am about to read to you is simply next in line. But, as happens more often than not for preacher and congregation Sunday in and Sunday out when they come together and bring the world, church life, family life, and even the calendar to bear on a particular biblical text, Holy Spirit happens. As it turns out, Nehemiah chapter 8 has everything to do with the theology birthed in the Reformation.

I did the best I could with the list of names; both lists of names. You can be sure I did not get them all, or maybe even most, correct. But I had to try. You have to keep the names. You have to figure the two lists of names are there for a reason. The second group, the names identified as Levites, they are listed as those who “helped the people to understand the law.” But the reason or purpose of those in the first list; those who stood to Ezra’s right and left as Ezra opened the book, why that list is here is unclear. Maybe they were there to help with the book. But that’s a lot of helpers. Maybe they were there as representatives of each of the family groups that were there, heads of households so to speak. A sign of the patriarchal cultural and religious norms. Maybe they were selected and appointed witnesses to the reading of the law of God. Some form of ritual/liturgical responsibility. Or maybe the list is there simply to underscore and highlight how people driven this Water Gate event really was.

The people are everywhere throughout this scene. All the people were gathered together in the square before the Water Gate. The people told Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses. Ezra brought the law before the assembly, before the people, both women and men. As Ezra read from early morning until midday, the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.  Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. He was standing on the platform above all the people. When he opened the book, all the people stood up. After Ezra offers a blessing to the Lord, the great God, all the people answered “Amen, Amen”. They all bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The named Levites helped the people to understand, while the people remained in their places. They gave the sense, so that the people understood. Ezra 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.’ They said that because all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. The Levites stilled all the people telling them this day is holy. And all the people went their way to eat and drink and share portions those who had none. They went to make great rejoicing because they, all the people, the people had understood the words that were declared to them. To the people!

You have to keep the lists. You have to read the lists. You have to take note of all the people because the Water Gate is about all the people and the Torah. All the people and the word of God.

These last few weeks we spent quite a bit of sermon time filling in the story of Jacob and Esau, of Benjamin and his brothers. This morning, I offer the concise summary of Professor Jim Vanderkam from the series study guide. “After being exiled in Babylon, the Jewish people finally return to Jerusalem to find their beloved city and temple in ruins. Nehemiah begins rebuilding the city walls while the priest Ezra seeks to rededicate the temple. Both of these leaders were convinced that the national disasters of the past were caused by disobedience to the law and feared their contemporaries were repeating the sins of their ancestors.” So this preaching scene at the Water Gate, with all the people gathered around and the wooden platform built for the occasion and the reading and interpreting of the law comes to the fore amid Ezra and Nehemiah’s call for the people to return to the law. The return, the reunion, the restoration is not just to Jerusalem, not just the temple. It is a reunion of all the people and the law of God. All the people and the Torah. All the people and the Word of God.

The people and the Word. It is a relationship that rests at the very heart of Reformation history, tradition, and understanding. Scripture as the word of God available in the language of the people. The presence of the visible church where the Word of God is truly preached and heard and the sacraments rightly administered. The Protestant “watchwords” that uphold the affirmations of the Reformation, the affirmation that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is revealed in the scripture, “grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” Preaching as the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit as the community gathers and the scriptures are interpreted and the gospel is proclaimed. The Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, so that all the reading, all the study, all the interpretation is in and through the community and in service to the One who alone is full of grace and full of truth.

It is striking that the response to the reading and interpreting and understanding of the law in and among the people, the response of weeping is itself a collective, corporate, community response. All the people wept. There was no missing it; that square filled with tears. What is describe here as the response to the Word is not individual. This isn’t “I Come to the Garden Alone” kind of revival meeting. And Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites proclaim that the people’s response to the Word has be more than tears, go beyond the weeping. Do not mourn or weep. This day is holy to the Lord your God. The preacher and those who gave the sense of the law, they told the people to go and eat and drink and share from their abundance with those who had none. They told the people to rejoice and celebrate because the joy of the Lord is your strength. The Water Gate gathering finally broke up because the people went on their way to eat and drink and send portions and to make great rejoicing. Sending portions and making great rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declared to them. The sending away, it sounds like what happened after Pentecost, with all the people living together, sharing what they had, feasting and rejoicing and worshipping. All the people. The people and the Word of God.

More than tears, more than weeping. The response to understanding the Word of God is life together in the community of faith. The Jewish people returned to a familiar place yet heard the law of God, the Word of God in a fresh way. And you really can’t miss it. It was not about one person’s heart or relationship to God, it was about all the people. The preaching tradition with such strong roots in the Reformation, the preaching tradition entrusted to me, no, entrusted to us, affirms that our response to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our life together as a community of faith. It can’t be about one preacher, one person’s interpretation. One preacher in a living room at home on a Thursday recording on a cell phone. Oh, we could do it. We did it to keep us all healthy and safe. But that’s not how it is supposed to be. We’re supposed to do this together. The mantle of the reading and proclaiming of God’s Word passed on to us demands a preaching life, preacher and congregation that is about discerning our life together, our life together in the world, discerning how our faith informs not just what is going on inside our heart, inside our church, but in the broader community, in the city, in the world. Every Sunday when you and gather here, now in person and virtually, when we gather in this familiar place, the very promise of God is that we would hear and understand God’s Word in a fresh, dare I say, living way. The people of God and the living Word of God.

The people of God and the living Word of God. You and I, hear and listen and strain to understand. Yearning to get the sense of the Word for this time and this place. Discerning a faithful response when it comes to life together here and now. Yes, it would all be so much simpler for us and easier for the preacher, if it was just about you and God, you and your relationship with God, you and your salvation. But that was never how it was supposed to be. Remember all the people?

Yes, remember all the people. All the people and the Living Word of God. For the joy of the Lord shall be our strength. And our preaching life, our worship life, shall be a joyful feast. And we shall be sent forth in joy. And out of our abundance we shall send portions to those who have none. Because we are a people of the Word. We are the church. We are the body Christ. The hands and feet of Christ for one another so we can be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. And the only way to do that, the faithful way to that, the way God calls us to be the hands and feet of Christ to each and every Lord’s Day, to yearn together for a fresh experience of the Word of God.