There are many things you can do perfectly well on your own, but being a Christian isn’t one of them. Well, that’s not strictly true. There are many individuals who have walked the pilgrimage of faith alone, but these are extraordinary people. For most of us, community and common purpose are essential.
These things, community and common purpose, shine through the story of Nehemiah and Ezra. The people of Jerusalem had been through a tough time: warfare, exile and eventual return to the ruins left behind two generations earlier. With determination, good organisation and very hard work, first the temple had been rebuilt, then the city walls.
That’s the point at which we take up the story. We find the inhabitants of Jerusalem taking a break from their labours. But it is not just the physical city that had to be rebuilt. It was their community and, to an extent, their faith. For the Jewish people at that time, faith was centred on Jerusalem. That is why they asked – how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? – as they wept by the waters of Babylon. Many had, perhaps, forgotten the Lord’s song; some, maybe, had never learned it. In other words, after many years away from Jerusalem, their hold on faith was shaky and their knowledge of God sketchy.
They turned to one for whom that was not true, Ezra, variously described as a scribe, a scholar, and as a priest. Teach us about God, they said, the God of this place, the God of our ancestors. So he gathered them, everyone – women, men, children – all who could hear and understand. They gathered, not in the temple, but in a city square, a public place from which no one was excluded. There he read to them from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, then as now the most important scriptures for the Jewish people.
This was a highly inclusive gathering. If we are to read this story both as history and as parable, as I believe we must, then the first lesson this teaches us about worship is that it must be open to all – all genders, all ages, all degrees of faith, all abilities. We live in a terribly individualistic world. Worship reminds us of the limits of that. We can pray alone, meditate and reflect alone, study scripture alone, but we cannot worship alone. It is only together that we are the body of Christ.
The whole people of Jerusalem asked a man they recognised as learned to do a very particular thing. They asked him to read the word of God to them. I’m sure some of you will have had an experience such as this: at a wedding or a funeral, someone reads a poem. Often it will be quite meaningful, but hearing it does not feel the same as hearing a passage of scripture, even one you’ve heard hundreds of times before. I would argue that the reason for that is that the words of scripture are infused with the Holy Spirit. When we hear scripture read, we do not just hear about God. Rather, we actually hear God. Scripture brings us into the living presence of God.
When you see it that way, you can immediately understand the effect Ezra’s reading had on the people. Because they felt, some maybe for the first time, that they were in the presence of God, they bowed low to the ground and some were so moved they wept.
For us, this is a reminder of the centrality of the word to worship. Central to every service is the reading of scripture. What scripture says informs the prayers we say, the hymns we sing, the interpretation I offer, the music we hear. But without the reading of scripture we would not be so powerfully aware of God among us. It is scripture too which makes sense of the sacraments we celebrate.
Because, in hearing the words of scripture, the people encountered God, they had a strong emotional response. Some, maybe, were overawed by the sense of God’s presence among them. Some may have felt faith awakening within them. Some might have been overcome with regret for the loss of the Torah during the long years of exile, and with a sense of having been far from God. Some may have been brought to repentance. Still others may have been filled with joy, being sure again that God was among them, caring for them.
You can’t manufacture feelings, and I’m not encouraging you all to weep, but there is something compelling about this sense of the power of scripture and worship. I suspect that when we come with expectations, with particular needs we want met, with things in mind that we hope won’t happen because we don’t like them, then we keep the potential power of worship at arm’s length. But if we come with openness, seeking to encounter God, and if the worship lets scripture be heard with clarity and understood with depth, then something profound will happen.
We can forget too easily that worship can and ought to change lives and that this fact is a cause for celebration. Be joyful, Ezra and Nehemiah told the people. Be joyful because God is with you. And share that joy by celebrating with others, making sure no one is left out of the celebratory feast. It is a rather wonderful thing that eating together is the best way to celebrate that God is here.
I was in a pub recently and on the bar was a box with a sign which read: If you are afraid of change, leave it here. I thought we should get one for the church, not just to collect money, but to make a statement. We should not be a people afraid of change. When we gather as God’s people; when we are conscious of his presence; when we attend to God’s word in worship – over time we cannot help but be changed. We gather to give glory to God and to let God make a difference in us so that we can make a difference in God’s world. Every change that God brings about is a change for the better and every change God makes in and through us is a cause for great celebration. We worship in order to be changed and we worship because we are changed. The worship of the people, led by Ezra, was a response to God’s work, accomplished through them, of rebuilding Jerusalem. Through our worship, through our attending to God’s word together, God is remaking us, and continuing to build his kingdom.