Summary: This passage gives us a no-fail 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.