God always welcomes us home

Our word Bible comes from the Greek word “biblia”, a plural noun meaning “the books”. Think books of the Bible like Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The first books were scrolls. Bound books opening on a hinged spine were a newer technology that the early church adopted and spread with evangelistic zeal. It would be 400 years before anyone tried to bind all 66 books together. It would be another 1,000 years before Gutenberg printed the Bible on a printing press. Gutenberg’s Bible was in 2 volumes and weighed over 70 pounds. In 1500 CE, scholars think that there were only 30,000 books in all of Europe. Neither Jesus or Luther lugged around a copy of the Bible!

You might think of your Bible like a bookshelf holding 66 stories, teachings, laws, parables, and plays. Our Jewish siblings organize their books into three helpful categories. The first five books are called the Pentateuch, or Torah, and contain the teachings and laws. The second section is the Prophets- books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Micah. The final section is the Writings with poetry like Psalms or Proverbs, plays like Jonah, and histories like Nehemiah and Chronicles. Christians might benefit from such organizing categories as well. First and foremost are the Gospels with the teachings, deeds, and parables of Jesus. You could add Acts to make a kind of NT Pentateuch. Second are church letters like Romans or Colossians. Finally, the Writings like Hebrews; James; 1st, 2nd, 3rd John; and Revelation. Such library labels might remind us which interpretive lens to employ when reading one of the books!

From the time of Jesus to well after Gutenberg, our books were generally not private possessions but belonged to the community, residing in synagogues, churches, or monasteries. Copied by hand on leather, books were expensive. Jesus did not carry around a Bible. Indeed, many small congregations did not have all the books of the Bible on their bookshelf. In Luke 4, we see the communal ownership of the books: “Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Jesus, who unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… Jesus then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” Jesus was literate, taking the scroll, finding the passage, and reading it aloud. Finding a passage in the scroll was not easy because there were no paragraphs, verse numbers, punctuation marks, or even spaces between the words. Most people only heard the scriptures aloud together with other believers. (Colossians 4) There was always a scholar or friendly face nearby to help the hearers unpack the context or ponder a question. The earliest disciples carried the Bible in their hearts and heads, memorizing large sections of scripture like Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount along with many Psalms and teachings. Innovations like Gutenberg’s press have moved  us away from communal experiences of the Bible towards our more isolated and individualized modern Christianity. The Books were originally written to be shared in a community, not read alone. 

It is easier to understand how the ancient church could lose a  scroll or two, if we remember that Biblical bookshelf image. On Thursday, I retrieved a commentary that Bishop McAlilly borrowed about a year ago. I only remembered it was missing a few weeks ago! 2 Kings 22:2 tells how, during a temple renovation, the workers found an ancient scroll, evidently their only copy. If you have ever lived through a renovation, you know how things get moved around. Some scholars speculate that crafts persons tiled over a secret wall safe designed to protect the valuable scrolls from foreign tribute takers or temple robbers. The workers took the found scrolls to the high priest Hilkiah who gave the lost scroll to King Josiah who tore his royal robe as a sign of repentance upon reading the lost teaching. King Josiah sent the high priest to “go and ask the Lord on behalf of all the people concerning the contents of this scroll that has been found. The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this (sacred) scroll.” The high priest sought out Huldah, a female prophet, to authenticate the scroll. Huldah authenticated the lost scroll as belonging in the sacred books. A female pastor not only preached but set part of the Biblical Canon. Still, it is hard to imagine the church losing a whole book of the Bible, but it did. Maybe Luther remembered this story when he advocated pushing Revelation off the Biblical bookshelf.  

Our story arose just after the Jewish Exile, around 500 BCE. Ezra and Nehemiah tell such a unified story, our Jewish cousins put the books together. These two books are newest books on the Old Testament bookshelf and Nehemiah appears to be written in Aramaic, the common language of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah served two non-consecutive terms as the appointed governor of the Jerusalem region of the Persian empire. Before that, Nehemiah served as the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah requested an appointment to be the governor of Jerusalem after hearing how slowly, poorly, and scattered the rebuilding of Jerusalem was going. Nehemiah’s parents, or grandparents, came to Susa as royal slaves after the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem 70 years earlier. The book of Nehemiah reads in first person like the governor’s reports back to King Artaxerxes.  

Both Ezra and Nehemiah tell us that after 70 years without a temple, the rebuilding was going slowly. When they broke ground on the new temple, with golden shovels and some lovely liturgy, the older people wept remembering the glory of Solomon’s temple and seeing the smaller foundation they were laying. (Ezra 3) Whenever we truly enter the post-pandemic season, we will have some rebuilding to do. We have unfinished rebuilding work after January 6, 2021, George Floyd, even General Conference 2019.  Post-pandemic, we might do well to remember how weeping may be part of rebuilding.   

Nehemiah 8 tells us how the people gathered for the first worship service in Jerusalem for 70 years. The worshippers gathering on the temple mount are not the same people who watched Babylonian troops loot and burn down the temple and then force them to sing worship songs while their sanctuary burned. (Psalm 137) They are children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of those exiles. Most of the Jewish families decided to stay in Persia instead of rebuilding Jerusalem; still the generational trauma of the exile lingered over them.

Ezra stood on a wooden platform unrolling the Instructional scroll. All the people stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. They bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Then the Levites, or deacons, helped interpret the scroll to the people, giving the sense of the text, so that the people understood the reading. As they read the Law, the people began to weep, for they realized that the Lord had commanded them to live in booths during the festival of the seventh month…. This was something that returning captives hadn’t done since the days of Joshua. It seems that the people had simply not practiced their faith for more than 70 years. They wept perhaps fearing God’s wrath but Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep. Instead, go and feast while sending meals to those who have nothing to eat! This day is holy. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is our strength! Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, myrtle, and palm to make booths, as it is written.” And the whole assembly of those who had returned from captivity made booths and lived in them. They seized a holy moment, built the festival booth, and rejoiced greatly.  

When we are scattered, exiled, traumatized, and defeated by Babylon or overwhelmed by Omicron, it can be easy to forget who we are as children of God. In Nehemiah 8, the people had neglected a sacred obligation for 70 years. They wept, surely fearing God’s punishment. But God’s word to the defeated, downcast, forgetful, and exhausted is always, “Welcome home.” So often we think of the Old Testament or God in general as a great angry punisher. I grew up with Love and a nagging sense of “should’ve, could’ve and ought tos”. Fear and shame usually pushes people away from God. But what does God say to people pressed hard and weeping amid generational regret? “Don’t mourn or weep. This day is holy to the Lord your God. Go and feast and send meals to those who have nothing to eat! This day is holy. Don’t be sad, because the joy of the Lord is your strength; go out and build those booths you have long neglected. Welcome home.” (adapted)

God is not in the “I told you so” business. Heaven has no place for retribution. Love never says, “you should have listened.” Love throws a party whenever a prodigal comes home,the overwhelmed finally find their footing, or the forgetful finally remember to worship. Jesus taught, “We must rejoice” whenever lost people find their way home. (Luke 15) I think repentance is really just a coming home to God. Perfect Love needs no groveling, retribution, punishment, purgatory, or pay-back. Repentance is that clarifying moment when we remember who we are and how deeply God Loves us. They failed for generations, and God called the people away from mourning into feasting and rebuilding. 

Perhaps God is not interested in our past successes or failures, but God beckons us into the future with faith, hope, and love. God does not care what we forgot to do yesterday or failed at a minute ago. God is present in the holy moment when we decide to rebuild, forgive, give, restore, and return. Paul says in Philippians 3, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Friends, such grace and love is good news for those of us living through this lousy pandemic. No doubt, we are forgetting to do some things that we need to do. Surviving might be enough right now! We are staggered, scattered about, stressed out, and spread thin. One day, today’s parents might crow, back in my day,  I did my work on my laptop, while teaching my first grader how to read, while tossing apple slices to my 3-year-old during a lockdown. Perhaps in some lesser vision of heaven, the stories of pandemic parenting will stagger us all into silence over your resilience!  Right now, I’m sure we are forgetting a few things that matter. If you did not get your festival booths set up or failed to make a pilgrimage to church, stop weeping.  Becoming aware of your deep  need for  worship is reason enough to seize the holy moment: to name that space holy and feast on God’s steadfast love. Be kind to your weary soul, feast, rejoice in God’s Love and then start rebuilding.  

Paul put it like this, “what then are we to say about hard times, suffering, and other bad days? If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So let us weep for our losses, even generational failures, but know it is a holy moment, whenever we are ready to come home to God and God’s steadfast love never fails. So let us rebuild knowing God’s love is the final word.  “Don’t mourn or weep too long. When you are in a moment of spiritual clarity, whenever you remember who you are, that is holy. This is holy to the Lord our God. Go feast, eat, and drink rich food, send meals to those who have nothing to eat! This day of insight and restarting is holy. Don’t be sad because the joy of the Lord is your strength. Go out and rebuild what you have maybe had to neglect to even survive. Go build booths and celebrate.” (Nehemiah 8 adapted) Amen.

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