July 12, 2011

Wednesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 92, Judges 6:1, 11-16, 33-35, Lk. 7:11-17
Evening - Ps. 104, Neh. 9:5-15, Acts 14:19

For seven days the people gathered as one in Jerusalem, and each day Ezra and the priests read and expounded the Law of God to them. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this time. These people are returning to God on His terms. They are returning to the Bible. For hours each day they hear the Bible read and explained. Ezra probably started with Genesis and read straight through the five books of Moses, called the Torah, or Law. The significance of these books is that in them God invites the Jews into His Covenant, promises many great things to them, and tells them what they must do as their part of the "bargain." Basically, their part is to receive pardon from sin, and be lead into a new and better life with God as their God. God forgives their sins and wraps them in His everlasting love, gives them a land in which to dwell, and shows them how He is to be known and worshiped. They are the receivers in all parts of this Covenant. Even their obligations to love God above all else and serve Him in Godly worship are more like blessings than duties. It is light and life to the soul to know and serve God. The knowledge of Him is eternal life; His service is perfect freedom. The Jews were re-learning this during these days in the Scripture, and in learning them, they were re-dedicating themselves to being God's Covenant people. It has been many generations since something like this has happened in Jerusalem. Most of the Jew's history consisted of declining away from the Covenant and returning to idolatry and other sins. Times like this are rare, and noteworthy, and comparable to the Reformation in their scope and significance.

A very important part of this time is that, as the people heard the Covenant read and explained, they realised how far they and their ancestors had fallen short of it. More accurately, they realised that they and their ancestors had simply and intentionally rejected the Covenant, and that Covenant breaking was the habitual direction of their individual and corporate life. Their confession was no blanket statement. Fully one fourth of the day was filled with hearing Law, and one fourth spent in deep and honest confession (Neh.9:3). This is the kind of confession I wrote about during Lent, and you are invited to review those comments in earlier posts on this site, and read again of the nature, meaning, and process of true repentance. We notice that the first day of the reading of the Law was an occasion of great gladness. But now the Law has convicted them of their sin, and they are gathered to hear it in sackcloth and ashes, the garb of great sorrow before God. On the first day they rejoiced and celebrated. Now they confess sin and fast in their shame. I dare say the Church of our own time could benefit from such time in the Word of God, and that it would be much more of a "revival" than the emotional gimmicks found in many churches.

Nehemiah 9:5-15 begins a sermon, probably written by Ezra and preached by the Levites, probably those who aided him in the preceding days. Having spent the morning hearing the Word read and the afternoon in prayer and fasting, the Levites return to the pulpits with this sermon, which they preach simultaneously at various places to enable all the people to hear. The sermon continues to the end of the chapter and recounts their history from the call of Abraham (Abram) to their present hour. Verses 5-15 retell the call of Abraham and the Exodus, emphasising the grace of God in choosing Israel and blessing them as His people.

Tuesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.89:1-9, Judges 5:19, Lk. 7:1-10
Evening - Ps. 90, Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 9-12, Acts 14:8-18

Commentary

Tonight's reading covers an event so significant in the life of the Jewish people it is worthy to be equated with Passover, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Law at Sinai, and the moral/spiritual revival of Godliness in the time of Josiah the king. The event is the mass gathering of the Jewish people to hear the reading of the Law of God on one of the Old Testament feast days called the Feast of the Trumpets (Num. 29:1). The people have gathered in the street because the Temple can not hold them, and they have gathered to hear again the words of the grace of God, and the life to which they are called. To this point, the revival of the Covenant in Jerusalem has been sporadic, and based upon general knowledge and memory, rather than direct contact with the Scriptures. The people knew they were to offer sacrifices, so they did. They knew they were to rebuild the Temple, so they did. They knew they were to dwell in and possess the land, so they rebuilt the wall. All of these efforts were aimed at returning to God and being people of the Covenant again. They were good and necessary things, but apart from the Word of Scripture, they lacked unity of purpose and direction. The people worked from memory, not daily experience with the revelation of God. All of that changed when Ezra read the Bible to this great and solemn assembly in Jerusalem. This day is a return to Scripture.

The people had built a pulpit, a tower for this purpose. It was tall enough for Ezra to be seen by all the people, and all were silent as he ascended the steps. All of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside were there. People of great age who had built the new Temple stood beside children. Young families with infants stood beside grand parents.. All were quiet. All were intent on the proceedings. All who were old enough to understand realised this was a momentous occasion.

When Ezra opened the scroll, all the people stood, for they had been kneeling in the position of prayer. Verse 6 says Ezra blessed the Lord. This is the traditional, liturgical blessing said when the books of the Law, called the Torah, are opened in the Temple or synagogues, as it has been said for thousands of years. It is sung by the priest and followed by the amen of the people, also sung, in a manner very much like the amen at the end of a hymn today. The "amen" is the people's assent and commitment to the prayer. In it they affirm their assent to the meaning of the prayer, and beseech God to grant their request, or receive their thanksgiving and worship. It is as to say, "Let it be so, O Lord."

The gathering was so large it was impossible for Ezra to be heard by all. So, at strategic places throughout the area, other priests were stationed. Watching Ezra, they simultaneously mounted their pulpits, turned to the same passage of Scripture, read the same words, and gave the same prepared instruction on the meaning of the text. So, throughout the city the people heard the Word, prayed, and worshiped as one. When Ezra led the Jews in worship it had been nearly 150 years since these liturgies and readings had been publicly conducted by the Jewish people as a whole in Jerusalem, and it is a moving experience. It is another step deeper into the Covenant, another step back to God. And this time, it is the Scripture, not memory, which guides them.