Scripture: Nehemiah 8:8-12
Several months ago, I lost my wedding ring.
We scoured the house and couldn’t find it. I tend to play with it while driving so we shone flashlights around the drivers seats. No luck. I started watching videos on how to remove the drivers seat from our cars, just to make sure it wasn’t under there, but discovered with all the electronic wiring attached to seats now, I was likely to mess something up.
So for weeks, I went without my wedding band, grieving the loss.
In some ways, it’s just a piece of metal. It’s barely even real gold. The way my hands can swell, it goes from too big to too small, sometimes on the same day, which is really annoying. Any jewelry store would be happy to sell me a new one, perhaps one that was even more comfortable, one that has more actual gold in it.
But that was the band Dana put on my finger when we stood before the congregation and made our vows. That was the ring that I’ve worn since that day, representing the greatest gift I have received.
And so I grieved that it was lost.
In the city square, the people gather together having returned to Jerusalem from exile. Led by Nehemiah, the governor appointed by the Persian king, and Ezra, the priest, the people have rebuilt the city walls and begun to restore their lives in their home city. For seventy years, they have grieved the loss of their homeland. Most of the people gathered in the city square don’t remember Jerusalem; they weren’t yet born. But their parents and grandparents passed down the stories, told the tales, kept the imagination alive.
And now, finally, they were going about the business of rebuilding. They were restoring life in their homeland. What was lost was again found. And they rejoiced.
Until they gathered in the city square.
Ezra reads Torah to the people. When we hear Torah, we think of the law, and that’s true, but the word Torah means “instructions.” The stories contained in Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are instructive, too. In Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Potiphar’s wife, Moses, and Miriam, we see characters who show us what life lived with God is like. They do things we can emulate and they do things we shouldn’t do. In short, they live lives an awful lot like ours.
And so Ezra reads Torah, the stories, the law, everything. Imagine the scene. The people are gathered. Ezra reads to them, probably in Hebrew, which they don’t understand. So around the people are scribes, Levites, who help translate and interpret. They give the people what Nehemiah calls “the sense,” so they can understand what the scripture, what Torah, means for them and their lives.
They come to understand what God expects of them, what the path forward looks like. Ultimately, Torah gives instructions for an orderly society. That orderly society comes about because the worship of God is central to their lives. When the worship of God ceases to be central, order gives way to chaos.
The people get this. They understand. They realize how far they’ve strayed. They understand how much they are not living into God’s standards. They can see how their ancestors’ behavior led to the exile, led to the ruins of Jerusalem that still surround them. They realize how lost they’ve become. And they are grieved.
Set yourself in the scene. We’ve all been in crowds where a feeling washes over the crowd. Maybe you’ve been to concerts where energy and joy infiltrates everyone in a common experience. Maybe you’ve been to protest marches where you feel that sense of camaraderie and hope that justice will prevail. Maybe you’ve been to Black Friday sales, waited in line, and experienced the mad rush and sense of frenzy that washes over the crowd as the doors open.
Here, the same thing happens. A sense of grief washes over the crowd. As their sinfulness dawns on them, they grieve. And not just for the ways in which they have been sinful, although that would be enough to create grief. They grieve because they expect that God is angry with them.
It’s easy when confronted with our own sin to feel not only grief over the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others. It’s also easy to feel guilty, expecting that God is very angry, upset, aggrieved with us. Like a child who’s just upset his father, we suspect that God looks down upon us in our sin and says, “I’m very disappointed in you.”
Conviction is like that. The people are convicted as they hear the law. The covenant renewal service this morning offers the opportunity to experience conviction of our sins, which is never fun, nor easy. We all have known what conviction feels like.
And we, like the people, grieve.
One night, Dana and I got in bed at the end of the day. It’d been a long day and I shared with her how sad I was still that I had lost my ring. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glint of light. I looked and there, plain as day, in the middle of the bed, was my ring.
I grabbed it and put it on and rejoiced. Dana cried tears of joy. We were so grateful to have found what was lost, for weeks. I was so deeply happy and relieved. What was lost was now found.
How much more so when one of us is found again by God?
Nehemiah and Ezra say to the people not to mourn! It’s a holy day, a day set apart, for the worship of God! And how are they to go home and worship? With penance and many prayers asking for God to forgive? With weeping and mourning their sins? With many burnt offerings and sacrifices and guilt-inducing worship services?
Do Nehemiah and Ezra preach to them about how sinful they, indeed, are; how God likes that they feel guilty because that’s how they should feel; how they are sinners in the hands of an angry God and they had better repent or else God would smite them?
No, Nehemiah and Ezra tell the people to go home and feast! Not just feast, but, as we do at Thanksgiving and Christmas, make a major feast, together with family. And while they’re feasting, make sure they provide some food for those who might get left out somehow. Everyone should feast! In the words of Ecclesiastes, Nehemiah and Ezra say to go home and eat, drink, and be merry! Today is a day for rejoicing!
But how could that be when they’ve been so sinful, so wrong, and come to realize it through the reading of Torah?
Because the people who were lost are now found.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of parables about things that were lost. He tells a parable about a ring that was lost and, in one of the most famous stories, a son who was lost; whom we call the prodigal son. In all these cases, when what was lost is found, God’s reaction is the same: rejoicing that what was lost has been found. Forgiveness is immediate; so immediate that actually, God had already forgiven and was waiting for the person to be found, for the son or daughter to come home.
If that sounds like you, come home to God today.
If you feel like you’ve been lost, not in the sense of lacking in salvation, but just not being attuned to God, straying away from your faith, not being disciplined, come home to God today.
Maybe your life is great and your spiritual life is healthy. If that’s the case, if you feel at home with God, it’s always good for the soul to recommit, to be reminded of why we worship and are disciplined in our lives with God. Recommit today to stay at home with God.
Perhaps you’ve been very sinful and today, already, you feel the conviction of those sins. Perhaps you hold secret sins that you dare not tell anyone, yet, they rip apart your soul. Perhaps your sins are known and you’ve experienced shunning from those closest to you. Regardless, come home to God today.
Maybe you are lost in the sense of you haven’t committed your life to Christ. Today is a great day to come home to God for the first time.
God is waiting with open arms to receive you. God will throw a feast for you. God will share his love with you. You are already forgiven. Come home to God today.
For God rejoices when we return. No matter how far or how little we’ve strayed, all of us stand in need of renewing our faith, renewing our commitment to God. That includes me. And that’s what this service is all about: renewing our commitment.
And I say renewed very much on purpose. God’s not gone anywhere. We are the ones who put distance in our relationship, sometimes through sin and sometimes through neglect and sometimes because we realize there’s a deeper depth to plunge, there’s a greater love to know.
So all of us stand in need of renewal. It may feel like we’ve done wrong, it may feel like there’s too much distance, too much water under the bridge; it might feel like we’ve strayed so far we’re unloveable.
But, in truth, we have never been unloved. Because when we come, convicted of our sins, to confess and renew, God doesn’t say back to us, “I’m very disappointed in you.” No, God says, “I rejoice! For what was lost is now found.”
That’s amazing grace; the free gift of God’s love for you no matter what. That’s what the people of God, gathered hearing Torah as it broke their hearts, discovered. God rejoiced that his people, once lost, were now found.
Make that you this morning. There’s no disappointment; only rejoicing. Come home to God.
For you have never been unloved.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.