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The Word from the Watergate

Sermon - 1/21/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Nehemiah 8:1-12

Thirty four years ago, the law was broken at the Watergate, in Washington D.C.  Two thousand four-hundred years before that, the law was read for the people of Israel, at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.

Now I suspect most of us probably know more about the more recent Watergate than we do the ancient one, which is too bad because that ancient story of the Water Gate is a very significant story in Biblical history, and for us as people of faith.  So I invite you to listen carefully to that story of the older Water Gate, as told in Nehemiah, and to follow along in your pew bibles.  

Ezra and Nehemiah are part of the historical books located after Kings and Chronicles, and before Job and Psalms, so it's in that section.  By the way, most scholars consider it to be the work of the same author, and the text has gotten a little bit interchanged over the years.  So follow along as we read this story:

When the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, 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.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

So why is this story important to us?  Ronald Osborne, the most significant church historian in Disciple of Christ, I think, very prominent in our denomination, and very much a beloved Elder of this congregation, wrote in his final book that was published just after his death in 1998, that this story signals the establishment of Judaism as a faith centered in Torah.  

Now we might think that a little odd, because we think Judaism was always centered in Torah.  What else could it be centered in?  Well, it could have been centered in the Temple, the temple was very important.  And in many ancient religious traditions, indeed, the Temple was the manifestation, the embodiment of the divine.  It was through the Temple that all things divine were revealed in human affairs.  So the Temple in Judaism was very important, but not as important as the Torah.

It could have been done through the Davidic Monarchy.  As Egypt was centered around the person of the Pharaoh.  Rome, especially after Augustus Caesar, who was declared the Son of God, the presence of the divine, in Roman religious imperial theology was mediated through the emperor, through Caesar.  So it could have been through the Davidic Monarchy, that was very important as well.  But it was not as important as Torah.

Judaism instead chose a third way, a way no other religious tradition of that time had taken.  With the destruction of the Temple and of the Davidic Monarchy by Babylon, Judaism found a new way to discern the will of God, to mediate God's presence in the world, that could be passed on from generation to generation through the sacred writings, the Torah.  The law.  And thus, for Jews, Torah is the word of God made written, whereas for us, as Christians, Christ is the word of God made spoken, made flesh.  I'll come back to that point in just a moment.

First I want to say a little bit more about this story in Nehemiah.  Ronald Osborne says:  "Like an enthusiastic director of epic films" (I'm sure Ronald had in mind Cecile B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments and all of that, we might think of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings) "the chronicler (meaning the storyteller, Ezra and Nehemiah), "loved to picture spectacular occasions.  In this story, he amasses a cast of thousands to give praise to God while a religious hero, Ezra, larger than life, dominates the scene".

And so on this platform, built for that occasion, Ezra unfolds the scroll of the book of Moses.  We're not told which of the books of Moses, there are considered to be 5, the first 5 books of our Bible.  In fact, later in the story, he quotes a verse that we cannot find, that is not contained in any of our ancient manuscripts of the Torah.  Similar to Leviticus 23, but yet different.  So which text he is reading really is not important, what really matters is that this is the first time that anyone among that cast of thousands has heard the Torah.  Keep in mind that they have been in captivity for 70 years.  An entire generation lost.  They've been busy rebuilding the city and the Temple and the wall.  Many people had given up on God, figured that God had abandoned them.

And so for 6 hours he reads from the Torah and somehow he manages to hold their complete attention.  I can't keep your attention for 20 minutes, let alone for 6 hours J.  Perhaps this is a little hyperbole.  In any event, their reaction to hearing the word is one of weeping.  They're so overcome with grief to discover how out of synch their lives are with this word of God.  They weep.  And ever since that day, the number of Kleenex used in a sermon has been used to rate the quality of the sermon -- is a 1, 2, or 3 hanky sermon? J

So Ezra says, and the leaders say to the people, do not weep.  This is a day to celebrate, not to mourn.  Eat, drink, and be merry.  Why?  Because now we can know how to best live in the world.  Now we can know for what makes peace and beauty, love and justice.  Now we know what God desires of us.  Now we can know what is good and true, and what is evil and false.  So be glad, let your joy in God shine forth.

And note this little hint that Ezra gives to us on how we are to live in this world with its great disparity of wealth.  He says, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared".  In other words, no one celebrates unless all can celebrate.  The great wedding feast in God's realm does not begin until the poor and the blind and the lame and the oppressed have also found a place a the table of the Lord.  

What about the others?  Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, Maaseiah, Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam?  And you thought I couldn't pronounce them J.  Of course, you wouldn't know J.  The way this story is written, it's almost as if the storyteller expects people to say "Oh, yeah, I know who that was".  We've never heard of these guys.  So why are they in the story?  They are there for one purpose and one purpose alone:  to help the people understand what they are hearing.

Note two times in the first part of the story, we are told 'men and women, and those who could understand' are gathered there.  And then two times in the middle of the story we are told that these 'assistants of Ezra helped the people to understand'.  And then finally at the conclusion of the story, the people go home rejoicing because they did understand.  Hmmmm.  I wonder what the storyteller is trying to get across to us here?  Is it important for us to seek to understand the stories, the scriptures, that we read?

Baptist preacher and author Calvin Miller was a guest in 1992, I was impacted by him, actually changed some of my preaching style because of him.  But at any rate, one of the things that struck me was that he shared with us that he wrote children's poems and stories in order to communicate the gospel to the congregation, so that they could understand.  So I bought a couple of his books, and I thought I'd share with you his one-minute Old Testament, so that we might better understand it:

In the beginning...It was night, til God said “Pow! Let there be light!” Then he made Adam and his wife, who ate the fruit and went kaput and very promptly got the boot.

Once out of Eden, they raised Cain-that kid was rotten in the main-he murdered Abel, ran away, and married...who? We cannot say! Some girl who lived out east of Eden (which is nowhere near to Sweden). 

Then Adam said, “Eve, Abel’s dead; we can’t find Cain. I think it’s time to try again.”  They tried again and in the main begot a very hardy strain till Noah came and brought the rain and sinful people were ashamed to find themselves washed down the drain.

Then God called Abraham of Ur and said, “You’ll be a father, sir!” Said Abe of Ur, “God, I’m not sure. Here comes my Sarah--look at her...this could really cause a stir. She’s older than Old Pharaoh’s setter--and never been a good begetter.” 

But they begat, and Isaac came, and he begat (somewhat the same) a set of twins. And Jacob who was one of them begat a dozen Jewish men. Jacob’s Joseph-quite a man-left the ancient holy land and down to Egypt brought the clan, where they camped out beside the Nile and there endured a life of trial. 

In Egypt they begat a mighty nation with a little concentration.  When they’d been down in Egypt for four hundred years or somewhat more, Moses said, “That’s long enough. Come now with me-I’ll split the sea.” And everybody said, “Gollee!” 

From a mountain Moses looked over, died, and Joshua took over. When Josh split the Jordan River, Caleb up and grabbed his liver, shouting out, “Well, did you ever!”.

For the next four hundred years, the judges ruled while thousands cheered. While Jepthah called, “Arise and fight, you Israelites. We’ll show our might to Canaanites, and Jebusites, and Perrizites. We’ll put up to flight the Hittites and the Gittites and the Moabites and Ammon-ites (but not termites or parasites). 

So Gideon led the Gideonites to war against the Mideanites. And Samson led the Samsonites (whose luggage was so very nice).  Then came Samuel, Saul, and David, who killed a Giant Philistine and later on became the king. Then Solomon and other kings, each one begat another king.  

The Major Prophets came along to tell the kings when they were wrong. And their rebukes were very strong. Isaiah spoke of days to come when all earth’s people would be one...and then the king of Babylon waged war till Israel was gone.

But they returned, and Ezra came-and rebuilt Israel again. Some Minor Prophets wrote a bit before God said, “Well, this is it. My Testament at last is done, and I must say-It’s sure been fun. Then Malachi just happened by and wrote another final book. God took a look and said, ‘Oh my, You’ve done it well--Thanks, Malachi!’ Let’s call it quits! The end! Good bye.

 

Didn't leave anything out, did it?  Now you understand.

Well, I can't condense it all to one minute (you wish), but I'd like to give you what I consider to be the essential pieces to understand this scripture.  

First of all, for us as Christians, Christ, not the Bible, is the word of God.  Kenneth Teegarden, the former General Minister and President (of the Disciples) about 20-25 years ago, said "The Bible is not the word, but it is an inspired and inspiring witness to the word, who is a living person, Christ".

And Michael Kinneman, who almost became General Minister and President, very prominent and influential in our denomination, writes:  "The word of God, Jesus Christ, keeps us from treating the words of scripture as if they were divine.  Christians don't worship the Bible, but the one to whom the Bible bears witness".

And so we see Christ as the word of God and the Bible which reveals that word to us.  The Bible contains words about God, who God is, what God is like, how the ancient faith community experienced God.

Secondly, then, the purpose of the Bible, why we read it, study it, take it seriously, is not because it is the revelation of God.  We hopefully will find in it revelations of God, but the reason for our study is that it helps us to experience for ourselves the revelation of God.  In other words, we read the Bible not so we can know about God, but so we can know God.  Very important distinction to make.  So that we can experience the revelation of God, just as those about whom we read in the Bible.  That does not mean we will have the same experience of the divine as did Elijah on the mountain (when he experienced God in that stillness), or Paul on the road to Damascus (experiencing that blinding light).  Our experience may be like that, or it may be completely different.  But the point is that it can be every bit as real, as powerful, and as life-changing as any of those that we read in scripture.

Third, the best way, I am convinced, we can experience that revelation is to read the Bible from an historical/metaphorical perspective, rather than from a factual/literal one.

I've shared before that we are "House" fans in the Bryant household.  That is, we watch that drama on Fox Television about Dr. House, who is a diagnostician in a hospital.  Every episode features some mind-baffling case that he has to solve.  Great show to watch, and if you do, pay attention to this:  in every single episode, Dr. House always uses a metaphor to describe some disease and how it functions in the body.  He might say something like "Well, the cancer is a thief that comes into your house and takes all of the good stuff (the healthy cells) and leaves all of the bad stuff (the bad cells) behind".  Now, his metaphors are much wittier than that, but through that he helps his interns to understand what is happening and how this disease is working and how the body functions.

My point is that the Bible is written much like that.  It uses metaphor mixed with historical facts, and sometimes it creates historical facts as metaphors in order to reveal the meaning which is more than historical.  Truth that is more than factual.  And when we read it strictly from that factual/literal perspective, we miss that greater, larger, more powerful meaning.

I'll talk more about that for those who attend the course on Jesus on Tuesday nights in February, because it is just so foundational.

Let me just give one example, from this story, in Nehemiah.  What is the significance of Water Gate?  We know the significance in American history of Watergate.  What is the significance here, in this story and in this text?

If we look at it strictly from that factual/literal viewpoint, well, it reveals something about where Ezra and the people were gathered.  They were near the wall, or inside the city.  It might reveal to us which direction they were facing.  Archeologists to have some clues of where it might have been.  And so we could stand there and have our picture taken -- there I am, standing at the Water Gate.

Maybe that might help in some little way, but not much.  

Think about it as metaphor.  What is a Water Gate?  It's that which lets the water into the city.  Think how important that would be in this newly restored city and newly rebuilt walls.  The life-giving water that provides drinking and cooking and bathing.  And how water is a universal symbol for life.  

Now you are the movie director, Cecile B. DeMille, Peter Jackson.  Your job is to tell this story in a way that reveals to your audience the power of Ezra's words.  The life-giving force that flows out of it.  The torrents of truth that come cascading out.  How are you going to do that?

Ah!  I'll put him by the Water Gate.  Now, you understand.

 


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