Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
For the last couple of weeks our Old Testament readings have been pointing to the return of the Israelite people from after their exile in Babylon, and the work of rebuilding their community and the temple was ongoing. Today’s interesting passage from Nehemiah, takes us there. The previously exiled Israelites are in Jerusalem and the surrounding area (several generations later from those who were exiled). So there isn’t a direct sense of return or going back for the individuals concerned but a community sense instead. This is remembrance, rather than remembering for those there at the time.
Work on the temple was advancing and the walls were up. We tune in to Ezra and the Levite priests, gathering the people together in the square before the water gate. Ezra had within him the book of the law. It was a momentous moment, marking a significant new beginning for the people. They recognised the importance of worshiping God, as Ezra opened the book and what Ezra and the priests then did was standing together, they read from the law of God and interpreted it so the people understood what was being read. What I really liked about this account was that Ezra and the priests did this standing together. We have one of these readings where verses are missed out. Verse 4 and verse 7 to be precise and these readings contain the names of the priests with Ezra. I suspect this was done to make it easier to read (as the priests were Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkaih and Maaseiah at his right hand and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-Baddannah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left.
All this impacted on the people listening, and they wept as they heard the words of the law and the explanations. The solidarity of them standing together like this had an impact – Why weeping, listening to where they had moved away from the path God had set them perhaps, and conscious of God’s forgiveness and generosity in love that had brought them to this new point. Acknowledging their need for a fresh start, where they had fallen short and the sinfulness of the generations before them.
Ezra, stressed however it was not the time for weeping, but for marking their new start. Recognising the holiness, the presence of God with them on that day at that time, and their need to rely on God for their strength. What he actually said was for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Let go of the past, look forward, share with those in need and look for joy.
Joy is an interesting spiritual fruit, the work of God in us through his Holy Spirit gives us any joy we experience and it is about knowing Jesus. We can be very sad but also experience great joy through our faith. According to the justdisciple.com website. The biblical definition of joy says that joy is a feeling of good pleasure and happiness that is dependent on who Jesus is rather than on who we are or what is happening around us. Joy comes from the Holy Spirit, abiding in God’s presence and from hope in His word. So the joy the Israelites were to experience was based on unpacking of the word and the strength to do what needed to be done next – each individual step. I am not sure good pleasure and happiness quite capture the sense of it, maybe deeper inner contentment and a sense of the presence of God with us get’s closer to it.
If we turn to our gospel reading, Jesus is returning from the wilderness, to begin his earthly ministry, and is described as full of the power of the Spirit. This is likely to have meant he was feeling joyful in the power of God, that his time for teaching, a new beginning for him had come. Doing the work God has for us, does bring joy. Jesus marked this moment specifically on the sabbath in his hometown, by reading from the prophet Isaiah about what he had come to do. He is not standing with others (as he has yet to recruit disciples) but standing in a place where he is well known to mark this change God had wrought in him and his purposes for the next stage of his journey. Definitely a beginning and a beginning that changed everything for us.
Whatever was happening here it was a powerful experience. The passage says the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on him and the verse after where our gospel ended says: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. It was clearly an important moment. He was sharing his joy at God’s anointing and his mission ahead. It is asking us to rely on God’s strength in Jesus’ name and to be joyful in what God calls us to do in Jesus’ name. Joyful in the way that only God can give us through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
We have several hymns which pick up on the Spirit-given nature of joy. For example, in Sing Hosanna – give me joy in my heart keep me serving or the start of Love divine – love divine all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. The final verse of Jesus, good above all other, says Lord, in all our doings guide us, pride and hate shall ne’er divide us; we’ll go on with thee beside us, and with joy we’ll persevere. After the difficult times we have been traversing, I don’t think it would be inappropriate to be praying for the deepening of the spiritual gift of joy in our hearts and in the lives of our churches, to give us the strength we need for the journey ahead of us.
As we pray to be blessed, we should also recognise the need of standing together as Ezra did with his priests on his left and right and surrounded by the people. It has been fractious times we have been walking through together, where frustrations, anxiety and anger can be nearer to our surfaces and reactions than we want them to be.
I am going to end these thoughts with a story about dragons to illustrate our need for deepening joy in our love of God overflowing to others, and it is called the last thousand dragons.
There are many legends dealing with the extinction of dragons, but only one of them involves a certain Sir Emile, a brave knight who finished off the last thousand dragons. Like many others, Sir Emile spent years studying the cruel and wicked behaviour of the dragons of his time. However, his own particular conclusions were unique and unusual: dragons lived in a constant state of anger, which created the fire that came from their mouths.
So, when he decided to finish the dragons off, he swapped the normal weapons and armour of a knight for something rather unusual: a joke and a cart full of ice creams. When the first dragon came to eat him, Sir Emile shouted his joke at it. It was such a good joke that even the dragon had to laugh. Just as the brave knight had expected, this blew the dragon’s fire out. Just as the dragon was laughing, Sir Emile offered it an ice cream…
How refreshed and pleasant the dragon now felt, after years of having had a fiery throat! Taking advantage of the dragon having calmed down for a moment, Sir Emile offered it a piece of fruit, and to the dragon this tasted heavenly and the dragon felt delight and joy for the very first time.
Dragons didn’t normally eat fruit or vegetables, because the fire of their mouths burned such food and left it without any taste. So they preferred to eat cows or people, which, even though left a bit singed, at least tasted of something. However, when the dragon tasted fresh fruit for the first time, it felt so happy and joyful as it experienced the presence of God in creation through the fruit, that even its terrible appearance began to change. It had looked so bad because of its awful diet, but after only a few days of this new, healthier life, the dragon disappeared one night. All that remained of it was a beautiful butterfly with large colourful wings… Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995, https://justdisciple.com/biblical-joy, All songs reproduced under CCL license numbers: 1618191 and 217043, https://freestoriesforkids.com/children/stories-and-tales/last-thousand-dragons