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September 3, 2023
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church    
Lakeland, Florida                     

Psalm 119:1-8, 105-112
Books Nehemiah & Ezra

Grace to you and peace from God and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I have a friend named Lilly and when I walk in to her house, there is a large wall plaque right in front of me. It’s titled Our Family Rules. Perhaps you’ve seen a variation of this too. Here are some of the rules in her house: 

Say please and thank you.
Keep your promises.
Try new things.
Encourage each other.
Read – learn – explore
Make good choices.
Be courageous.

I don’t know if that is posted as a reminder to those living there or as an announcement to those visiting. But that’s how things go in her family. Always remember and never forget. I first heard that back in the day when Earl and I regularly watched the sitcom “One Day at a Time.” A mother and 2 daughters lived in an apartment and Dwayne was the building super. Whenever there was something important to be said, he prefaced it with, “Always remember and never forget.” Earl and I always remembered and never forgot that.

“Always remember and never forget” is at the reason for the story of Nehemiah, the governor, and Ezra, the high priest following the return from exile.

After the King’s proclamation of release in 539 BCE, people trickled back. This may surprise us – we may have expected that they would have come back in throngs. But think about it – they and their parents and grandparents had been living in Babylon for sixty years or more. And as the prophet Jeremiah told them,  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have children. Multiply there. Seek the welfare of Babylonia and pray for it because in its welfare, you will find welfare.” And so the people did. They established lives there in this new land.

So, when Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 BCE, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, was in charge. And he issued a proclamation that not only permitted but encouraged the Jewish people to return to their land, the land of promise. Now, the motivations for that encouragement may be suspect since he may have wanted an outpost at that furthermost edge of his realm. But that is neither here nor there. The fact is that the people could return and he blessed and gifted that return.

The first action to be undertaken was the rebuilding of the city wall around Jerusalem. A wall of defense against the armed forces of enemies in the areas surrounding Jerusalem, enemies who had incursions into the land, enemies who schemed to overtake it. And so it was that Nehemiah came back and took charge of this project, organized the people, scheduled the work and in record time, the wall was completed and the people rejoiced.

But according to prophets like Malachi and Zechariah not all was idyllic in the land of Judah. We hear words of hypocritical worship, empty praise, oppression of the poor, indifference to the needs of others. Not at all what life was to look like in the land of promise. 

Into this came the high priest, Ezra, sent from exile by the King of Persia, sent to tend to the hearts and spirits of the people of God. And so the Scriptures tell us that, upon the arrival of the high priest, the Governor, Nehemiah, called all the people from within Jerusalem and from the surrounding villages and towns, called them all. Thousands of them. Called to come and hear the word of the Lord to which they would be held to account.  This happened on the first day of the seventh month – a day that is still celebrated at Rosh Hashanah, observed this year beginning on September15. And the people gathered, thousands of people gathered in the square, and Ezra was handed the scroll of the book of the law of Moses, the Torah. And Ezra read the Torah to the people, word upon word, book upon book.

And upon hearing it the knelt and worshiped and the people wept as they heard the words for they knew how far they had fallen from Torah.

But remember the source of Torah, the source of what we call the Ten Commandments, hundreds of years before Ezra’s reading.  After God’s people were delivered from Egypt, they came to the wilderness of Sinai where Mt. Sinai is located.  They camped in front of the mountain and Moses went up the mountain and talked with God – rather, listened to what God was saying to him and then took those words back to the people. God said – tell them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples.” Identity founded in relationship created by God’s redeeming action.  This is covenant, a covenant into which we are drawn because of God’s steadfast love.

Three days later, Moses returned to the mountain that was engulfed in cloud and God spoke. And then followed words, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. The esteemed scholar Walter Brueggeman urges that we think about these not as a series of rules but rather as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and who we are as God’s people living in relationship with God and with one another.  Not rules – but gift. Kind of like the family rules in my friend’s home.

So it is that like the people gathered to hear the words of Torah from Ezra, we too gather each week. We gather to pray and praise. To repent and worship. To Feast at the Table. To hear the Word of God. And at the heart of this is covenant. The prophet Zechariah describes this – the people will call on my name and I will answer them. I will say “they are my people” and they will say, “The Lord is our God.”

And this is the heart of our covenantal relationship with God and one another. Now, the Ten Commandments, the Torah, the instructions that God has given us. Many of us have memorized them,  may have even learned Dr. Luther’s explanation of these commandments. What is noteworthy is that Dr. Luther took each commandment, noted what was forbidden and then also included words of positive action. You can find these on page 116 0in the very back of our hymnal. But permit me if you will this simple paraphrase:

Put God first in your life, really, first.

Use God’s name faithfully, not recklessly

Take time to rest fully in God’s arms

Recognize that you stand on the shoulders of many who came before you; remember and honor them.

Help and support those around you, rather than doing them any kind of harm.

Be faithful in your relationships with others, especially those closest to you.

Don’t take what isn’t yours – and when the hurricane is coming, help your neighbor with sandbags.

Watch your words; using them indiscriminately can hurt greatly.

Be content with what you have; don’t envy those with more.

That’s how it goes in our family of faith.

You see, we do this not so that God will love us but because God loves us. We do this not so that we can have covenantal relationship with God but because God has created this relationship with us in the waters of our baptisms, and God nourishes this relationship each time we come to the Table, and God sustains us together as we worship and pray and praise.

This, not walls or temples, not feasts or festivals, not prayer lists or potlucks, is at the heart of who we are – people of God, followers of Jesus, living together in the land of promise.

Thanks be to God.