Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Remembering Who We Are – Sermon 24th January 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10Luke 4:14-21

I once knew someone with a cat called Ezra. And I knew someone who was thinking of calling their new dog “Nehemiah”. For that matter, I once had a gerbil called Hezekiah. Majestic, half-remembered Biblical names have a mystique; we ought to know who these people are, but we don’t. But their names are so cool…

There they sit, those two books of Ezra and Nehemiah, somewhere in the Bible and in the backs of our minds. They sound like the books of two prophets – but they aren’t.  One’s the story of a cleric, a priest; the other’s the story of a civil servant turned community leader. The story of Nehemiah relates how a high-ranking Jewish servant of the Persian King, in the Persian capital, hears of the defenceless state of Jerusalem, persuades his royal master to give him leave of absence and even funds to go and repair the city’s defences. Much of what follows turns on the building of the city wall, and the hostility of the surrounding peoples, peoples with long-standing histories of suspicion and enmity towards the Jews. They don’t want a strong Jerusalem.  They threaten Nehemiah and try to denounce him as an insurrectionist, trying to defy the King’s authority and cause trouble in the province of Beyond-the-River,  as the Persians called Palestine. Yet he gets the job done.

The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, as we have them, are intertwined. The Book of Ezra comes first, and tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem under the patronage of king Cyrus of Persia – and yes, again, the neighbours are causing trouble, and being nasty. If you read straight through, Ezra and Nehemiah look like one story. But they actually come apart quite easily – as though they were spot-welded together.  There’s good scholarly reason to believe that they were originally separate, and didn’t overlap historically at all. But that’s an anoraky discussion that we really don’t need to get into here.   Jewish tradition has worked to plait together these two strands, the story as we have it in the Hebrew Bible is one with an important pattern to it. In fact, it’s arguable that the same basic pattern underlying the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah is what allowed them to be spot-welded together in the first place.

Here it is.

There has been a period of crisis and threat, followed by a period rebuilding and coping. Things have been held together. Things didn’t fall apart. They could have – things could have gone badly wrong. But the community came through. The people survived.

Yet in all of this frantic activity, all of this patching together, all of this stressing and worrying and frantic working just to get through things – just to survive – there hasn’t been time to think. There hasn’t been time to reflect, to take stock. And suddenly, they realize it. They call for Ezra, and for him to bring the Book of the Law. The Torah.

Now, the “Book of the Law” contains a great deal more than laws. Every part of the Torah is shot through with the history of God’s foundational dealings with Israel. What is read to the people is not just (“Just”!  As though that in itself isn’t a huge thing!) a statement of how God wants them to live. It’s also a telling of the story of God’s dealings with them, God’s promises to them, the way, the historical path, by which God has brought them to be the people they are.

In other words, just here, when all the panic, the sense of threat, the desperate activity of rebuilding, of improvising defences, of stopping things from falling apart, has stopped, the people take a deep breath, and hear once again the statement of who they are, and where they have come from.

That’s the pattern, and it’s a pattern that has woven itself deeply into the understanding of who we are before God.  In the midst of all the pressures, the frantic coping, the just-trying-to-hold-it together of life (and we know, all of us, that that is what life can be like!)  there comes a point when we just have to stop, and settle down. And usually, for us too, that means looking back.

It’s the pattern of faith amid real life.

And that’s why you see this pattern in an amazingly common little piece of our culture, beloved by many people who don’t often come over the threshold of a church. You’ll all know it, and some of you will have it on a plaque or a card on the wall of your home.  It’s the little composition called “Footprints”; depicting the journey of life as a walk across a beach, with God, over which the writer looks back.  

                                  … I noticed

                                that during the low periods…

                             when I was suffering from

                         anguish, sorrow or defeat,

                     I could see only one set of footprints.

          So I said to the Lord,

      “You promised me Lord,

         that if I followed you,

             you would walk with me always…


                                           Why, when I needed you most,

                                          you have not been there for me?”

                                 The Lord replied,

                          “…[W]hen you have

                  seen only one set of footprints in the sand,

       [that]  is when I carried you.”

You may treasure that passage. You may be unimpressed by it (though it’s sad, isn’t it, how easily, in our slick, dismissive culture, we slip into a state in which we can’t acknowledge the importance that some simple things have for people, just because it feeds our own sense of superiority) but it’s about something like what our story from the Book of Nehemiah is all about.

It’s about where we’ve come from, and about how God was involved in that journey, whether we could see it at the time or not. Whether we had time to see it, or not! Even if, perhaps, we were so distracted by events, or overwhelmed by circumstances, that we hadn’t the chance, in the sheer madness of getting through life, to think about God at all.

But there’s another similarity, too, between the story of Ezra reading the Law, and the shape and pattern of the “Footprints” text.  We look back, and realize that while we were doing all that rushing about, our life, our being, was in God’s hands. But our first thought is probably that we should have realized, should have remembered, should have thought about that. And so our first feeling is of guilt. But guilt is not helpful. Guilt isn’t what God, or faith, are about – although four and a half centuries of Protestantism, to say nothing of the closely related Catholic and Jewish variants of guilt, easily lead us to forget that!

Faith isn’t about guilt. It’s about getting us beyond guilt. It’s about God. The whole point of this looking back is not to grasp, with self-loathing, what bad, bad people we are, and have been for ever such a while now! It’s to grasp that, where we forgot, didn’t see, didn’t remember, God was still there. And – and this is where the Ezra story goes deeper than “Footprints” – it’s to remind us that even when we didn’t remember that, we were still God’s people. Who we are now, is who we always were – but then we didn’t realize, didn’t grasp it.

Yet today, here, now, we do.

And that’s the end of guilt…

And that’s the Ezra story from the Book of Nehemiah, in a nutshell. The people have been pressed, oppressed, almost crushed, by the sheer business of getting through all this. Yet they were God’s people. They were not nobody. And they never had been.  It wasn’t that they had forgotten – they hadn’t. But they desperately, desperately, needed to be reminded. And they needed to be stood up and told. And they knew it. And so they called for Ezra to read the Law to them, to tell them again, in God’s name, who and what they were. That they were God’s people, and that their dignity and delight was to live in his ways, and to bear witness to his love and faithfulness.

And that, my friends, is why you are here in Church this morning. To be told, authoritatively, who you are, and always have been. God’s people.  But it’s not the only reason.


Gospel Reading

Like the Jewish community in the book of Nehemiah, we need to be told that, whatever it looked like at the time, our journey through real-life-the-way-it-is has been a journey with God–that, whoever and whatever else we are, we are God’s people, part of the community that God has brought through, is bringing through, and will bring through.

That’s how our faith joins up with that of the Old Testament the faith of the Exodus and of the Exile. God brings us through.

And so we need to be still, we need to stop, and if we don’t, then sometimes we need to be made to. (That’s one I’ve learned the hard way over the last few months!)

But we can’t just stop. Because we are on a journey. We are a pilgrim people, and our journey is not only with God and in God. It’s also a journey towards God. It isn’t just where we have come from and where we are now that defines us, but where we are going.

In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus comes back home. Any minister will tell you that coming to preach to the church where they remember you in short trousers, and in Sunday School, is daunting. To speak with any kind of authority to the people who ran the world when you were wee is scary! Whatever you have done in the meantime…

In the synagogue in Nazareth, they have heard lots about him – and they want to see what it all means. And who he is – even though they know him.  The disappointing conclusions they come to we’ll look at next week, but their initial impression can’t help but to be impressed. Because into their settled, traditional, stagnating patterns of life he comes, and lays on them this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he tosses in:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This promise, this amazing, stupendous – you could even quite properly use the word “awesome”! – sketch of hope, promise, the future, this starts here, today! That’s the gauntlet Jesus throws down to the people who remember him growing up. And in it there is an implicit, but barely hidden, challenge. Grasp this now! Respond to it. Get up and start living this new actuality!

We looked at the “Footprints”poem earlier on. Some of you may have come across this parody of it. I don’t think it’s disrespectful of the original, and if you love “Footprints” I hope you won’t, either. I read it first, and understood it – when I’d stopped laughing – as an important supplement to what the original is trying to say. In fact, it occurred to me that it’s just exactly what the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, summing Jesus up and waiting for him to impress them, need to hear.

One night I had a wondrous dream, One set of footprints there was seen, The footprints of my precious Lord, But mine were not along the shore.

But then some stranger prints appeared, And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?” Those prints are large and round and neat, “But Lord, they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” He said in somber tones, “For miles I carried you along. I challenged you to walk in faith, But you refused and made me wait.”

“You disobeyed, you would not grow, The walk of faith, you would not know, So I got tired, I got fed up, And there I dropped you on your butt.”

“Because in life, there comes a time, When one must fight, and one must climb, When one must rise and take a stand, Or leave their butt prints in the sand.”

After all the striving and straining, all the battling and the sheer effort of holding it all together, after a period of being so immersed in the business of just getting through from one day to the next, the community of God’s people are so done, so worn down, that they need to stop, just stop, and hear again the story of who they are, and whose they are.

But that can’t last. Because what has to happen then is what happens in the synagogue at Nazareth. The challenge to go back out, to start living again, but this time in the knowledge that everything is different. That however much everything looks the same, we really are in a different world.

Faith is grasping the reality of God’s salvation and liberation in the midst of real life. And faith comes to life when we, just trying to get through from one day to the next, are made to stop, and told again who we are, and what we are, and how all the bits fit into a four-dimensional pattern into which God has woven himself.  And when we go out and live that. And that’s why, for us too, there is this pattern to the life of faith. We shamble in here from real life, and we sit, and we are read to, and it’s explained to us. Scripture is read and preached. We’re told that God has brought us through everything, to this moment.  And that our challenge now is to go back out into the world knowing that all things are in his hands, and that everything is different, and that we are set free.

As Jesus says, in the Nazareth synagogue:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: