For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been thinking about the promises of God and this series is called “Trusting in the Promise.” Just to refresh, here are the promises of God we’ve talked about. When the Hebrew people were in exile, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to say…
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare… to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11
Those words came to that situation when it was hard to have hope. In your own life, you might not think that you have much reason for hope. But God has a plan. God always sees a bigger picture. God says, let me take you to the new place. Let me take you there. But you’re going to have to trust in the promise I’m making. Which brings us to the next promise…
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:9
God’s grace (God’s love that we can never do anything to earn), enters your life through faith, and is confirmed by the power of God flowing through you. That can only happen when there is room for God to work in your life, that is, when you recognize how weak you are, and how much you need God. When life is derailed, you have a promise from God that when you find yourself at the weakest place, God’s power is about to kick in. Believe. Trust in the promise. Let God be God.
The power of flows through us for a purpose – to make the world a different place, to make a difference, and to help others believe in God. For that to happen, we need to surrender ourselves to God:
…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24
Do you see the power shift happening? Successfully living into the promises of God means more of God and less of us. Another way to say it is there is more to us when there is more of God.
Those are the promises that prepare us to hear the scripture for this morning. To set the stage…
It’s about 450 years before Christ, and against all odds, the Hebrew people have come home to Jerusalem from exile, fulfilling the promise God made through Jeremiah, and the place is a wreck. At first glance, this fulfilled promise didn’t look so awesome. There was a lot of work to do. It was a work in progress. The fulfillment of these promises takes time.
Let’s see what we can learn from their experience. Listen for the promise of God in this story.
Nehemiah 8:1-12. 1all 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 [the elders of Israel].
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. 7[And men of] 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.
…all the people wept… (so) Ezra said…“do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Did you pick up on all the emotion in that story? First, there was weeping. All the people wept… when they heard the words of the law. When they heard the reading of the law, which would have included things like the ancient stories from Genesis and the ten Commandments in Exodus, they started to weep. Their hearts were open to God, and they understood what God had to say to them. They understood that God loved them. And 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.
God’s word is huge 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 so easy to ignore. It’s easy for us to move away from God. Being God’s person, being God’s people, being the church, has never been easy. Anybody who tries to make you think it should be easy and convenient isn’t being truthful or realistic. Sometimes there are hard choices and weeping on the way back to God.
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. You are fulfilled. God is in control. You have a new future. Have some fun!
“And all the people went their way to eat 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, we think and pray about the things of real life here, together. We worship together, we hear God and understand. The Hebrew people stood on their history to face the future. We ask God to give us the wisdom to be the people God needs us to be in the towns where we live. It’s serious stuff. We stand on our history to face the future.
But if this moment of serious connection with God doesn’t produce joy in our faith, we’ve missed the point. The product of listening to God and responding to God produces joy. God’s people are commanded to have joy. Seriously! If our faith doesn’t produce fulfilled enjoyment, what’s the point? The joy of the Lord is our strength!
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 gives you permission to start over, to be restored, to move ahead.
In this story, God says to the Hebrew people, essentially, “If you build it, I will come.” That’s the promise. Their mission, their assignment, was to restore the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. What they built was faith, together. Out of every challenge, there are enormous possibilities when we trust the promises God makes, when we build faith together.
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, God will do new 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. Bless these intentions, and 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.