Nehemiah 8:1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he 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.
4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood [the elders of Israel on his left hand]. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 Also [several men of the Levites] helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8 And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and 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. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him 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.”
11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And 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.
Last week, we were thinking about weddings. The gospel reading was about the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, and in my own mind, I was visualizing some of the weddings that I’ve officiated. Some of best moments of people’s lives happen at weddings. Or maybe some other time. If I ask you to think about the best moments of your life, can you do that? If you were in a bad mood, break into that, and allow yourself to visit a good time. Think of a good moment. Stay in that moment for now.
Think of where you are, whom you’re with. If you were eating, what was that good food?
Now go to a moment that wasn’t so good – a time when you were really struggling, when things weren’t going well at all. Maybe it was a brief moment. Or maybe it was something that stretched over time.
When I think about good times and bad times, I’m struck by how unpredictable it all was, especially the bad times. That thing that happened. And I never saw it coming. Never saw that one coming.
And, at least for me, I’m aware of how close together the good times and bad times were. Life really can be a roller coaster. Peaks and valleys. I know that God can get you through it. The Spirit of God in you will make sure you don’t get stuck in the valleys – if you are willing to trust, to move on, and walk through that valley with God.
I visited New Orleans with a mission group in 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina. I had never been in a place that experienced destruction on such a scale. So many families literally lost everything. The Jersey Shore is now a place where many people have to start over from scratch. Maybe you have seen places like this yourself – or lived there. Maybe that’s your story. There are countless stories of destruction and starting over. Our God is at his best when people are rebuilding, renewing, or being reborn.
The Old Testament reading was about people starting over. Talk about a bad time that stretched out over years. Nehemiah was the governor of the Hebrew people who brought them back to Jerusalem after 140 years of exile in Persia (around 400 BC).
The good news was that they were allowed to go back to their homeland. The bad news was that the city of Jerusalem was a heap of ruins, Solomon’s Temple had been long gone, and they were surrounded by enemies.
It looked like a huge problem – a survival problem. Just the kind of problem that gives people no other choice but to turn to God. They were at a turning point. They were starting over.
The first thing they did was rebuild the walls of the city for protection, which was a step of faith. They still had enemies all around, who were not exactly supportive of the rebuilding. I think this is true of all rebuilding projects. There is always someone ready to say, “Look who’s back! Who do you think you are?”
And in the midst of the taunts and the threats, God gives you permission to start over, to be restored. When you start over, it’s important not to go into hiding. Show God you believe, even when you’re not sure you do. God says to the Hebrew people, essentially, “If you build it, I will come.” In the gospel of Mark, the father brings his son to Jesus and says, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Next, after the walls started to go up around the city, the Hebrew people asked Ezra the scribe to bring out God’s word and read it to them. It had been a long time. Knee deep in trouble, they knew they needed to hear what God had to say, and this was a case of “be careful what you ask for.”
When they heard the reading of the law, which would have included things like the ancient stories from Genesis and the 10 Commandments, they started to weep. Their hearts were open to God, and they understood what God had to say to them. They realized how far they were from living the way God wanted them to live. Hearing what God has to say doesn’t always feel so good. Sometimes you weep. But it’s a good hurt, because God cares, and this – God’s Word – is an expression of love for God’s people.
But the story doesn’t end there. The end result of a connection with God isn’t a funeral. It’s rejoicing. Ezra tells them to go have a party. Celebrate. You’re free. God is in control. You have a new future.
“And 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.”
There is a time for serious reflection. Life is not easy, and this is life and death stuff we talk about here. We worship together, we hear God and understand. But if this moment of starting over doesn’t produce joy in our faith, we’ve missed the point. God’s people are commanded to have joy.
Sometimes we start over by choice. Sometimes we start over because of the consequences of things we do. Some turning points are what the insurance companies call an “act of God.” We have no control. Any control you thought you had is an illusion. All problems, all crises, have one thing in common: they give an opportunity to trust in God. It’s all about faith.
God’s word is important in this story. When the destruction came, there was a way to help the people find there way back to a spiritual and moral center, and this is still true. In a culture that demands entertainment and convenience, the word from God can be so inconvenient and easy to ignore. It is so easy to wander to a place where you know you are lost -without the direction we all need from God. And the GPS device in your car won’t help. Calling Onstar won’t help you figure out what to do or where to go next. The first step in healing is an honest look at where you need to go and then taking a step in that direction, then another step – trusting in God. And it’s great to know that God is still speaking.
Out of every problem, or crisis, or disaster, there are possibilities if God is in the picture. When we trust in God, when God is part of the flow of every day life, the possibilities are endless, crisis or no crisis, disaster or no disaster.
So You’ve Got Problems? Listen to this story from Norman Vincent Peale:
One day, I was walking down the street when I saw my friend George walking toward me. It was clear from the look on his face that he wasn’t overflowing with the ecstasy and exuberance of human existence, which is a high class way of saying that George was dragging bottom.
So naturally, I took the bait. “George! How are you doing?” While that was meant to be a routine question, George took me very seriously and for fifteen minutes he enlightened me on how bad he felt. And the more he talked, the worse I felt.
Finally, I said to him, “Well, George, I’m sorry to see you in such a depressed state of mind. How did you get this way?” That really set him off.
“It’s my problems,” he said. “Problems, nothing but problems. I’m fed up with problems. If you could get rid of my problems, I would contribute $5,000 to your favorite charity.”
Well now, I’m never one to turn a deaf ear to such an offer, and so I meditated, ruminated, and cogitated on the proposition and came up with an answer that I thought was pretty good.
I said, “Yesterday, I went to a place where there are thousands of people. As far as I could tell, none of them has any problems. Would you like to go there?”
George brightened right up and said, “When can we leave? That sounds like my kind of place.”
“If that’s the case George,” I said, “I’ll take you tomorrow to Woodlawn Cemetery because the only people I know who don’t have any problems are dead.”
Peale used to say, “If you have no problems at all – I warn you – you are in grave jeopardy – you’re on your way out and don’t know it! If you don’t believe you have any problems, I suggest that you immediately race from wherever you are, jump into your car and drive home as fast – but as safely as you can – run into your house, and go straight to your bedroom and slam the door. Then get on your knees and pray, “What’s the matter, Lord? Don’t you trust me anymore? Give me some problems!”
Are you living the “ideal” Christian life? No problems? The more we trust God, the more God might just give us some things to work on to test our faith in order to deepen it. And together as God’s church, if we step out in faith to build new things for Christ, if we plant new flowers in God’s garden, problems will come. That’s when we know that God will do things in us and with us that we never expected.
O God, you are the Lord of all our beginnings and all our endings. Give us the vision to see the new beginnings you’ve prepared for us. Give us courage to face the unknown challenges ahead. Help us learn from the mistakes we have made in the past. Help us forgive ourselves, that we may go on to write new chapters with confidence. Keep us secure in your peace. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.