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:
the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their
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
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
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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!”.
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Ah! I'll put
him by the Water Gate. Now, you understand.