Daily Devotion

Friday, October 20, 2006

Recipe For Joy

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

The other day one of the ladies of the church stopped by my office and gave me this beautiful cookbook. It was put together by an organization she belongs to, and it contains about 500 recipes. Some of these recipes are very elaborate, like this one for lasagna. It has 19 ingredients and half a page of instructions. Some are very simple, like this one for holiday punch, which contains three ingredients and has the instructions, "mix together."
Each of us has our favorite recipes, the men as well as the women. We love the dishes themselves, and we also love cooking them. We memorize some of our favorites and make them whenever possible. Others we make only on special occasions.
The names that we give recipes sometimes don’t seem to tell a lot about them. Some bear the name of the person who originally thought them up, like Janet’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, or Aunt Molly’s Corn Meal Griddle Cakes. Other names are pretty cut and dried, like White cake, or Biscuits. Some of the names don’t give even a clue about what they really are, like Elephant Ears or Copper Pennies.
Recipes don’t always have to be for something we eat. We’ve all heard of a recipe for success, or a recipe for disaster. And we’ve all used recipes to make stuff that’s not meant to be eaten. I’ve seen recipes for stained glass and Christmas tree ornaments.
Not all of our attempts to use a recipe come out right. I’ve followed recipes to the letter, only to be stuck with a pot full of something inedible. Most of us have made fudge that had to be eaten with a spoon, if it could be eaten at all. There are many factors that determine whether or not our recipe comes out right - quality of ingredients, weather, altitude, what kind of stove we’re cooking on. Sometimes it seems as if nothing will come out right, no matter what we do.
When we’re looking for new recipes, I think most of us are drawn to ones with names that offer some sort of guarantee. How many of us have picked out recipes like No-Fail Fudge, Guaranteed No-Stick Pancakes, Never-Fall Cake, or Always Light and Fluffy Biscuits? These are the recipes that grab our attention. We want to make something that’s easy and that always comes out right.
We don’t think of our Bible as being a cookbook. There aren’t any recipes in it for bread or meat dishes or appetizers. You won’t find instructions on how to bake a casserole or stretch a few fish to feed five thousand. There are recipes in it though, for things we need as much as or more than we need food. There’s a recipe in today’s scripture, and that’s what I want to talk about.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel’s history from the first return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. to the end of Nehemiah’s second term as governor of Judah in 400 B.C. Apparently the material was first split up into two books by Jerome, who produced the Latin translation known as the Vulgate, which is the authoritative translation of the Roman Catholic Church. Before Jerome’s time, the account was treated as one book in the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
During the early centuries of the Christian era, the standard text, or the Masoretic text, was meticulously preserved by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes, who counted all the words in order to be sure that no one would ever add or take away a single one. When the rabbis did their counting, Ezra and Nehemiah were a single scroll, which explains why the story of Ezra is found partly in our book of Ezra and partly in the book of Nehemiah.
The book of Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the Temple after the people started returning from exile. The book of Nehemiah provides an account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. According to today’s text, Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries, although Ezra was probably much older. Nehemiah, as governor, was the political leader and Ezra, as priest and scribe, was the religious leader.
In those days, a scribe was a combination of lawyer, notary public, scholar, and consultant. They were among the most educated people, so they were teachers.
A great crowd of people had gathered on the square, in front of the Water Gate, which is thought to be a gate that led out to the spring of Gihon. The crowd consisted of men, women, and children, and they had Ezra bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. This would have been the Pentateuch, or Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament, which contain the law that God had given the people.
The Torah was considered holy, so just opening it would have caused the people to get quiet and pay attention. It says at verse 5 that when Ezra opened the book, all the people stood up. Then when Ezra praised God, the people raised their hands and responded by saying Amen, Amen. Then they bowed their faces to the ground and worshiped God.
Ezra read out loud from the Book of the Law from daybreak until noon. While he was reading, the Levites who were there mingled among the people and explained the Word of God to them, making it clear to them so they could understand what was being read. As the people began to understand what was being read to them, they started to cry.
Some folks believe that the people started to cry because once they understood the law, they realized how far they had fallen. They began to understand their own sin, and they were broken-hearted.
Others believe that the people started to cry because they finally began to realize that they were God’s chosen people. They were crying from happiness and gratitude.
I think it might have been a combination of both these things. You have to understand that these people had been in exile for a really long time. They had never seen their homeland, because they had all been born in exile. They didn’t know the Law of God because they weren’t allowed to worship or know God while they were in exile. They had been enslaved for so long that they didn’t have any identity of their own.
They could only think of themselves as property, or chattel, as low-life slaves with no worth or value beyond that which their owners had put on them. They didn’t have any scriptures to read.
Now here they were, free people who could live and love as free people, who could marry and have families as free people, who could own land and livestock as free people. Yet they weren’t free. They were still enslaved, only now they were enslaved to sin and ignorance. Their lives had been broken for so long they didn’t know how to fix them. They needed to hear God’s word, and they needed to understand what it meant.
When Ezra began to read from the Law, the people knew it was a holy book. They stood up and praised God and bowed their faces to the ground. But they really didn’t have any idea what the scripture meant until the Levites began to explain it to them.
We don’t know exactly what Ezra read from the scriptures, but we know it was from the first five books of our Old Testament. If we look at those five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy - we see that they’re full of laws and instructions for the people to follow. There are actually 629 laws set down for the people of Israel to follow, and some Jews still follow those 629 laws.
But the Books of the Law are more than just a laundry list of do’s and don’t’s. Those first five books of the Bible are full of the story of creation, of God’s love for his people, and of the people’s need for God. Time after time we can read of God’s love, and how he provided for the people, and how time and again the people turned away from God and he promised to destroy them, but later relented because he loved them so much he couldn’t bring himself to destroy them.
This is the stuff that Ezra was reading to the people. Maybe for the first time in their lives they were hearing that God created them, and breathed life into them, and set them above all other living creatures and, most importantly, loved them.
This is the message that God wants us to get when we read the scriptures, too. God wants us to understand that he is our creator - our existence on this planet wasn’t a chance mutation of some one-cell organism that crawled up out of a swamp. We didn’t just spontaneously appear one day and begin to serve our earthly masters. We weren’t hand-picked for a life of slavery and poverty and misery and illness. Each and every one of us was personally created by God himself. God chose to create us.
God is also our Parent. Call God Father, call God Mother. It doesn’t matter what you call God. God is our Parent who loves us more than we can imagine. God is our Parent who is proud of us. God is our Parent who disciplines us. God is our Parent who teaches us and shows us the way to live a life of joy. God is also our Parent who hears us when we cry out in pain, who puts his arms around us when we need comforting, who carries us when we’re not able to walk by ourselves. This is what the people were hearing from Ezra.
We have another name for God - our Redeemer. When we think of God the Redeemer, we naturally think of Jesus, the Son of God who gave his life for us. The people hearing Ezra didn’t have Jesus to think about, but God was still their Redeemer. He had brought his people out of slavery more than once. He had traded for them so they could come home to the land he had promised them. Isaiah 43, verses 3 and 4 tell us, "For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life." So God is the Redeemer of all his people, all who have ever lived, all who live now, and all who will live in the time to come.
This is what the people were learning from the scripture that Ezra read to them. And this is why they were crying. They learned that no matter how far they had fallen, no matter how heinous their sins were, no matter how far they were removed from God, God still loved them, and God forgave them, and they were still God’s chosen people.
Imagine how it must have felt for these people, who had been born into slavery, to realize that they were chosen by God to be his special people. All their lives they had been mistreated and told that they were worthless.
And now, here’s Ezra reading to them from the scriptures, assuring them that God loves them and God chose to create them and breathe his own breath into them. They learned that they were God’s own beloved children, special to him and special to the world.
After Ezra was through reading, he and Nehemiah and the Levites told all the people, "This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep." "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." Twice the people are told, "This day is sacred." But we don’t know exactly what that day was. We know it was the seventh month, but we’re not sure what calendar they were using, so we really don’t know what month it was.
What we do know is that after the Word was read and explained, then the people were supposed to respond. The Word had brought them joy, and in that joy they were to rejoice by feasting, by enjoying choice foods and sweet drinks, and by sharing with people who had nothing. God wants us to continue to do the same thing now. He wants us to read the Word. He wants us to explain, teach, and understand the Word. And once understanding has taken place, then we’ll be filled with joy - joy at understanding God and joy at understanding ourselves. And joy’s not really joy unless it’s shared, so we’re to share our joy with everyone, by celebrating, feasting, and by passing on what we’ve learned. Our joy won’t be complete until everyone is involved.
What we have in today’s scripture is a sure-fire, never-fail recipe for joy. First you take a helping of Scripture. Read it several times. Add a generous dollop of teaching and explanation. Mix well. The result is an understanding of God. Take this understanding of God, spread it liberally on our hearts, extract from it an understanding of who we are, and the final product is joy.
Joy comes from understanding who God is, because when we understand who God is, it leads us to understand who we are. And we are God’s beloved children. More than that, we’re heirs to God’s throne, brothers and sisters to Christ. Can there be any more joyous knowledge than that?
This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.