Epiphany 3


Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Tuesday morning, on the first day of the week (the first day of my work week), I sat down and wrote on my To Do list, everything that had been booked on my cell phone calendar.  Needless to say, that calendar was fairly full but as I looked at my freshly prepared To Do list, I felt that this might be a week in which I could accomplish every task written down. 

And then I opened up my email…..

In front of me sat a bunch of emails from members of the congregation, from the Synod office, from colleagues in ministry.   Some emails involved requests for me to do a certain task or an additional task.  Some emails were of an FYI nature, but a serious nature to say the least.  Some emails were requesting my assistance and support.   And so, I thought, the journey begins.

And then, the phone started to ring…..

The phone calls I received were from people needing help in a variety of ways.   The process of walking alongside them begins.  

Then a family asked to come into the church in the afternoon to begin to talk about their sister’s funeral.   I had officiated at their mother’s funeral 13 months ago and now they were asking me to officiate for their sister who died suddenly and tragically in her home at the age of 53 years.  The process of assisting them in their grief begins.

And then, the door opened…..

During the day, someone walked in the door and said, “I need to talk to you.”  A journey with that individual has now begun. 

All of this occurred on Tuesday.   By late Tuesday afternoon, I paused and stared at my To Do list.   That To Do list looked a lot different and I realized that a great many of those tasks I had originally written down, would not likely get dealt with during the week.  

A NEW list stares back at me; I felt overwhelmed.

Beyond feeling overwhelmed, a great sadness enveloped me; here are people in turmoil and crisis and they have called upon me at the beginning of what was to be a very busy week.  I am already tired.  From whence will come the time, the energy, the ability and the strength to be of any assistance at all?  

By the way, I don’t think this is exclusive to me as a pastor.   Last week I had occasion to talk with a colleague of mine; I asked how it was going.   The response was quite similar to most things I had experienced on Tuesday.   My colleague was overwhelmed and very tired; so much to do and so little time to get it done.                                                   

From whence will come the time, the energy, the ability and the strength to be of any assistance to all those in need, all those who call upon us pastors?

By the way, this is not meant to be a “pity party” for the pastor; I do not think that this is exclusive to pastors.               

It would not surprise me to hear that a great many people, from many walks of life, feel overwhelmed by the events that swirl around them.  

As an aside, this past Monday, January 15th is called “Blue Monday.”   We have this “Blue Monday,” half-way through the first month of the New Year.   By Blue Monday, Christmas euphoria is over, the Christmas bills are coming in and most people have broken their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get in shape.   That would include me.                                    

It is easy to feel overwhelmed; it would not surprise me if people are enveloped by great sadness, or are in turmoil and crisis and feel exhausted even before they start.                                                  
From whence will come the time, the energy, the ability and the strength to deal with everything that swirls about us?

God only knows.  And yet, I think, God does know and God knows why. 

Wednesday morning, gathering myself somewhat, I sat down with the Scripture readings for Sunday and was immediately captivated by the reading from Nehemiah.    The following phrase caught my attention most of all:   

“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”

As a bit of an aside, I read that and somewhat sarcastically commented to myself, “Yeah I get it, there’s no crying in baseball.” 

At that point, the week did not seem holy and yet sarcasm and cynicism aside, I was indeed captivated.   What was going on here in this passage from Nehemiah? 

Briefly, the exiles of Jerusalem return from Babylon.  Approximately 570 years before the birth of Jesus, the massive military might of Babylon crushed little Israel, destroyed the Temple and took many influential people into captivity.  Roughly 70 years earlier, 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the exiles return to take on the task of re-settling in their homeland, of re-building the Temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. 

The people of Israel are overwhelmed with the task before them upon their return to their homeland.   In addition to the physical reconstruction of Jerusalem there is suspicion, fear and even paranoia over the management of this task, which does not fall under the kings of Judah, but the absentee landlords of Persia.  A struggling Jerusalem needs spiritual and political leadership.  

Despite being overwhelmed, the people are gathered together.   They gather on the first day of the seventh month, which today is Rosh Hashanah (the fall new year), which is followed by Yom Kippur and the Festival of Sukkot, or Booths.   They do not gather at the temple but at the Water Gate, where all are admitted.

The Temple was an exclusive place and not everybody could enter, but everyone was allowed to enter the Water Gate.   The location of this gate is uncertain, but its name suggests proximity to the Gihon spring, Jerusalem’s only natural water source, on the eastern side of the city (cf. Neh 3:26; 12:37). The Water Gate is on the way to the pool of Siloam, and would be associated with a water-drawing ritual during the week of Sukkot (see verses 14-18).

Ezra reads from Scripture; the people are saddened because their recognize their neglect of divine commands and they fear God’s wrath (2 Kings 22:11-13); the people begin to weep,

Despite their feeling of being overwhelmed, despite their weeping, despite their sense of inadequacy, despite their fears, Ezra says to them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”

Ezra also said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the 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.”

Rather than a national day of fasting, rather than remorse or being immobilized by fear and dread, they are to celebrate; they are to feast, they are to share their food, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (verse 10).

Despite all that they feel, God is on the move, God is doing something.   Yes they will be called upon to contribute to that “something,” yes they will be a part of God’s holy movement.   They are standing on holy ground; they are participating in God’s realm.  God will be with them, God will surround them with love and grace and they will not weep but move forward in the joy of the Lord.  Despite their fatigue, they will be strengthened for the journey and the task.

It is easy to get bogged down; it is easy to become frozen in fear and dread.  We tire easily.   What is going on in my life and why do I feel overwhelmed?   How can I even begin to deal with all of this?  

And if we wish to speak theologically we may ask:   Where is God?                                       

What is God up to?  God ONLY knows.   God wishes for people to be enveloped in God’s love and calls upon others of us to be agents of that love.                                                               
God’s reign or God’s realm is the joy of the Lord.  God wishes for the kingdom to come and God will give us the necessary strength to move ahead.   God will be with us and God will not abandon us.   God is with us and as such, this is holy to the Lord and we are invited to stand with God on holy ground. 

God willing, we will feel that strength that grace given to us and hopefully we will feel it lifting us so that our fears can be put aside, so that God’s joy will become our strength.

This God has promised.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.