Some of you will know that my wife and I love watching The Repair Shop. People bring in treasured heirlooms in urgent need of repair, to a group of experts skilled in their own particular craft. Old teddies are re-stuffed and their ears sewn back on by the bear-ladies. Broken pottery is put back together by Kirstin in a way that you can’t see the join. Stopped clocks are made to go again by Steve, wearing 2 pairs of glasses at the same time, and Will just looks good in a tight T-shirt whilst doing things with French Polish.
It’s a programme about restoration. Not just of the items themselves but for the people bringing them in. People for whom the item is wrapped up not just in tissue paper but in all sorts of memories and associations, often with family members who have long gone. There’s usually both delight and tears when the repaired item is returned to the owner.
And you get the feeling that those doing the repairs are just as invested and caught up in it too. That this is more than just the demonstration of their skill – that they are moved by the significance of what all this means to those who have come to them for help. I sometimes wonder if the Church should or could be called The Repair Shop.
In an episode that we saw recently, a lady came in with a beautifully illuminated Koran. It had been her great grandmothers and had been passed down the female line from one generation to the next. She wished to hand it on, in turn, to her own daughter. But, because of constant use, the spine of the book was weak and the pages were loose and some torn. She wanted it restored before she passed it on. It clearly meant a huge amount to her and also to Chris, the expert restoring it, who treated it with great reverence and care. He couldn’t read the Arabic writing but he could admire the craftsmanship with which it had been made and the love in which it was held.
I have an old Hebrew version of Genesis which I showed to a Jewish colleague once. He was surprised – and, truth be told, probably a bit uncomfortable that I, a Gentile, had a copy. He said to me that, wherever I kept it, it must have a place of its own and not be sat next to any other book.
On this Bible Sunday, how much do we reverence God’s word? How holy is our Holy Bible?
Understood and observed
Our first reading today was from Nehemiah. Originally the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were together as one and were written around the 4th century before Christ. It wasn’t divided into two books until the 3rd century after Christ, by Origen, one of the early church fathers.
Ezra-Nehemiah describes the period just after the children of Israel have returned from exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah each had their own special skill. We’re told that Ezra was a priest and scribe dedicated to teaching the Torah ‘so that it would be understood and observed’ (Ezra 7:6,10). Meanwhile, Nehemiah was an administrator and governor of Judah. The book of Nehemiah particularly focuses on ensuring economic stability, the resettlement of the returnees and the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. It’s the Repair Shop but on a much grander scale.
Intertwined in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the first-person and third-person memoirs of these two individuals. Ezra’s memoir can be found scattered in both books and our passage from Nehemiah 8 is part of that.
The importance of Ezra, the person, can’t be overestimated. It’s Ezra who brings back scripture, the Torah, to the returning exiles. He reads and interprets it publicly and oversees the people’s recommitment to its teachings. In that sense, in Jewish tradition, Ezra is treated like a second Moses. He echoes Moses at Sinai. Those who preach here each week stand in the same tradition: publicly reading and interpreting God’s word and overseeing your recommitment to its teachings.
In our verses today, we are at the Water Gate which was directly opposite the Temple. It’s the first day of the seventh month, which later would be called Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year.
At Sinai, Moses records what God reveals. Here Ezra reads what Moses has written and he does it to a mixed crowd of men and woman from a raised wooden platform.
From first light
We’re told that the people stood up for the reading of God’s word. And that Ezra was reading from first light to midday and that ‘the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law’. I wondered about inviting you to stand for the duration of this sermon, in an act of solidarity, and then test you on how attentive your ears had been – but thought that might be a little unfair…
So, they stood in silence, all morning, whilst Ezra read scripture and interpreted it. And that might mean preaching and explaining – or it might mean literally that the people didn’t understand what he was reading.
Because during the exile in Babylon, most had lost their ability to speak and understand Hebrew. The day-to-day language of the people had become Aramaic instead. So, Ezra might well have been reading the Hebrew text and translating into Aramaic.
This is a bit like a priest reading a Bible in Latin and translating into English for the congregation before English copies of the Bible were available.
Go and have a party
And we’re told that the people were moved by what they heard and wept as they listened. But Ezra tells them to go and have a party instead. Not to be sad, for ‘the joy of the Lord is the source of your strength’. In the KJ version, it says that ‘they made great mirth because they understood the words that were declared unto them’. Other translations have ‘merriment’ or ‘rejoicing’.
Which end of that spectrum are we most weeks? Is it tears – or is it mirth and merriment when we hear scripture being explained in a sermon? I’m not going to ask for a show of hands!
Written in the margins
My grandfather was a minister in the Evangelical Free Church. I don’t have too many photos of him, but one is with him with his dog collar on going down a hill on a child’s tricycle at a Sunday School outing.
I have two of his bibles. He’s written in the margins of both, but one is also interleaved with copies of his sermons. To get an idea of the timeline there are plenty of mentions of JF Kennedy and Billy Graham.
He lost his wife, my Grannie, when she was about my age now. They’d met at theological college, and both intended being missionaries. But she’d always had heart trouble and that stopped them from travelling overseas.
Joy of the Lord
I wonder if her health was failing, or if there was a problem at the church he was ministering at, when he wrote this in the margins around today’s passage:
‘For the joy of the Lord is the source of your strength’.
Is it? Ah, if we could each make that a reality what a victory that would be. We behave as if it’s written for the joy of health, or the joy of wealth, or the joy of leisure or pleasure or wife or husband or children is the source of your strength.
If these things are stripped from us, then are we without joy? Or is the experience of HIS priority in all things the ‘Amen’ to this verse?
I have had to learn that it is not the joy of the flock but the joy of the shepherd of the flock that should be my strength.
Where is the source of your strength? Is it in the joy of the Lord, or is it in something else?
The Bible means many things to many people. It’s a library of songs and stories, proverbs and prophecies and legal prescriptions. There’s violence and emotion and beauty. It confuses some and is a delight to others. It’s a literary masterpiece, a cultural artefact – and it’s the revelatory, authoritative word of God for Judaism and Christianity.
The term ‘Old Testament’ was first coined by the North African Christian Tertullian who lived between 160 and 230 CE. The word ‘testament’ translates from a Greek word which means ‘covenant’. The church at the time proclaimed there were two covenants, the old one represented by the scriptures of Israel and a new one in what we call the ‘New Testament.’
The OT begins, as does the Hebrew Bible, with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Greek these are called the Pentateuch, in Judaism they are called the Torah which means ‘instruction’ or ‘law’. It would have been these books that Ezra read on his wooden pulpit that day.
The Christian OT then proceeds roughly in the chronological order of the stories which are told, though probably not in the order that they were actually written. Our OT finishes with Malachi and a prophecy that Elijah would return before the terrible day of the Lord. It’s a great set-up for the Gospels in the NT, with John the Baptist thought of as an Elijah figure preparing the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. The sequencing was designed to show the promise of the OT leading to fulfilment in the New.
What you may not know is that in Judaism, the sequence of books is different, and the term OT or Old Covenant isn’t used because that rather assumes that there is a new one. The Jewish designation for the collection of books is Tanakh. T is for Torah (Law), N is for Nevi’im (or the Prophets) and K is for Ketuvim (Writings). So, they’re grouped by the type of literature rather than by chronology. The last one, Writings, includes the books of Chronicles and our Ezra-Nehemiah.
A way back home
Instead of ending with Malachi, most versions of the Hebrew bible end with the book 2 Chronicles. That finishes with King Cyrus of Persia telling the exiles in Babylon that they can go home now. That YHWH had told him to facilitate the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and he was letting the people go and he wished for the blessing of YHWH to go with them. So, it ends not with the future fulfilment of Malachi but with a way back home.
In some medieval versions, the Tanakh ends with Ezra-Nehemiah, which we’ve been looking at today. As we’ve seen, the exiles have now returned and are rebuilding the city and their Temple.
Ezra-Nehemiah ends with these words: ‘Remember me, O my God, for good’. It’s meant to echo the first chapter in Genesis. God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and sees that it is very good. It’s to give a sense of completion rather than promise. So, in this sequencing, the Tanakh begins and ends with God thinking it was good. ‘Remember me, O my God, for good.’
On this Bible Sunday, all these ancient and modern thoughts of remembering and reverence, of re-building, repair and restoration, reminded me of a particular prayer on which to finish. It challenges each of us to ask what part we play in that ongoing work of sharing good news.
Jan Richardson wrote this prayer on an anniversary of 9/11, thinking of those brave souls who courageously went back into the buildings as they were collapsing. But you might think of the situation in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine. Or any natural disaster where people step into help. Or any tough position in your own personal circumstances.
Jan had this to say about it: ‘I am thinking about how the act of remembering asks us to do just that: to re-member, to put the pieces back together again, to sit with what was shattered and ask what we will create anew from the shards. I know how daunting this is, when our grief and fear and rage can be both overwhelming and numbing. We are not asked to do it alone. And, so, remembering is what we do together.’ And so, let’s pray…
Now, more than ever
Let us be the ones
Who will not turn away.
Let us be the ones
Who will go
Farther into the wreck
And deeper into the rubble.
Let us be the ones
Who will enter into the places
Of devastation beyond belief
And despair beyond our imagining.
And there let us listen
For the Spirit that brooded
Over the formless darkness,
And there let us look again
For the God who gathered up the chaos
And began to create.
Let us be the ones
Who will give ourselves
To the work of making again
And to the endless beginning
Of creation. Amen
- Berlin, A. and Brettler, M.Z. (2004). The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford.