2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
A man takes a stand. He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests. Little by little the protest grows. Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved. More than a year passes and it still spreads. One man taking a stand changes the world.
This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world. We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting. Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.
It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand. He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church. The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence. The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it. Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors. Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew. Political and religious leaders began to take note. More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.
One took a stand with the church. That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side. He had tradition on his side. He had the majority on his side. The other took a stand with something different. He had a different, a better authority on his side. And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side. He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him. Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that is all you need.
And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.” Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement. Why was Luther willing to make such a claim? Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.
A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading. His name was Nehemiah. He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.
Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity. At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah. There were different phases of this restoration project. First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.
More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn. Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king. That’s where Nehemiah stood up. It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.
Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed. And the Lord blessed his work. The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life. The walls of Jerusalem were solid again. The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last. It wasn’t a large group. Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000. And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.
It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion. Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance. They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore. They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon. 6 hours! (Imagine if I would try that today?) And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.
And do you know what happens? The people start weeping. Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority. God’s Word stands alone.
You see, the people were now face to face with what God says. Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word. And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word? You start coming up with what matters all by yourself. You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe. I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.” That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today. The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”
I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs. We cannot stand. We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work. Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly. Israel tried their own way. And where did it get them? Their home was taken away. The capital was destroyed. Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled. They were exiled foreigners. They couldn’t do anything about it. They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians. They had to wait for permission to go back. They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes. The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.
Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard. God’s law has a way of doing that to people. By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead. It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason. Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction. It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it? By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life. But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”
I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve” Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened? The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it? They were just supposed to forget about it all? Yes!
But how? Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas. They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace. The Creator. The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it. The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey. The God who promise deliverance to his people. The God who loves his people like no one else can.
You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day. Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas. We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God. And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally. This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is the Word of God. It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with. This book is completely unnatural. It’s something that no one has ever come up with. And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word. Scripture alone stands up and rises above. It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us. It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church. And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts. That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone. Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.
When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own. He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks. And so he didn’t budge. Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down. He kept standing on God’s Word.
500 years later, we still stand on that platform. We stand on the law and gospel. We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil. We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still. Amen.