Bible Explorations | Barry Ensign-George
Our new ‘now’
What was, what is, and the call of faithfulness | Read: Ezra 3:10–13, Nehemiah 8:1–12
Does it make you want to shout? Does it make you want to cry?
We live in a time of deep change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The PC(USA) that once was is no more, and this change brings joy to some and sorrow to others. Rejoicing and mourning, concern and hope, jumble together. Amid it all is the abiding call of God to live faithfully.
Celebration and mourning merge
Maybe our moment echoes that moment when the ancient people of God returned from exile in foreign lands and began to rebuild Jerusalem, at great cost. When the foundation of the new temple was finally completed, they celebrated with festival and worship: trumpets, cymbals, shouts of joy. Except not everyone celebrated. Those who remembered the old temple mourned, crying out.
But many . . . wept with a loud voice when they saw
this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so
that the people could not distinguish the sound of the
joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.
There is festival-worship and shouts of joy. And there is intense mourning. The sound of the two merges. Joy and mourning, triumph and weeping—both worship designed by careful planners and worship happening across their plans. All of it, real and honest. One inseparable from the other. One wonders: Did they listen to one another, celebrants and mourners?
How shall we live now?
Faced with a new reality, and living in the midst of circumstances not nearly so nice as what used to be their reality, the people of God needed to discern anew how to live faithfully. In order to do so, they turned to God and specifically to the word of God:
All the people gathered together into the square. . . .
They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of
Moses. . . . He read from it . . . [and] the Levites helped
the people to understand the law. (Neh. 8:1, 3, 7)
The word of God was read and proclaimed, and it had a dramatic impact:
And Nehemiah . . . said to all the people, “This day
is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”
For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:9–10)
One wonders what spirituality allowed the people to be so open to God’s call that they wept when captured by a vision that so sharply contrasted with their lives?
The returned exiles wrestled with the word of God, seeking to understand what it meant to follow God faithfully in a new context. That didn’t keep them from making mistakes. Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the community’s decision, for instance, to require those who had married foreign spouses to divorce and send the spouse and children away (Ezra 9:10–10:44).
Still, in the midst of their mistakes, God was at work. The word of God read and proclaimed and lived—this is what would carry the people forward.
Our new ‘now’
Our General Assemblies are complex things. Often, I think, they produce a roar of sound in which shouts of joy and cries of mourning are mixed together and cannot be separated. Such is, I suspect, simply the way of things.
Clearly this year’s GA happens in a new now. We are not what we were—not what we were 50 years ago, not even what we were three or four years ago. In the midst of joy and mourning and everything in between, our task is to seek to live faithfully, following our Lord Jesus Christ.
The word of God is there for us as well. We will make mistakes now as we respond to God’s word, as they did then. May we get as much right now as they did then.
Barry Ensign-George serves as associate for theology in the office of Theology and Worship.