Nehemiah 8:9
Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not lament, do not weep!”
I think to understand this reading from Nehemiah, we have to dig deep into the entire revelation of God through the Bible. I could spend a lot of time trying to develop each one of these examples, but the most important two or three I will expand my comments on.
The examples I am talking about are the examples of covenant throughout the Bible. There are a lot of examples, but there are, in my estimation, seven primary covenants between God and human beings. The first gives us the example by which we are to understand covenant theology. It is the covenant between God and Adam and Eve, which includes all of us.
It is why God rested on the seventh day. The seventh day is an indication of the covenant bond. And that is why the Lord’s day is a day of rest. But, it points ahead to all the other covenants.
The next covenant occurred with Noah and his family, and God sealed it with the promise never to destroy the earth by flood again, and by placing the rainbow in the sky.
The third covenant occurred with Abraham and God. God sealed this by a couple of different things. One of them was a specific ritual sacrifice of animals. The animals were killed, and the covenant was established saying that whoever broke the covenant, may the same thing happen to them as happened to the animals.
The fourth covenant was with Moses and the Israelites as they left Egypt. It was formally established with the giving of the 10 Commandments.
The fifth covenant was the covenant with David, and the promise that he would have an heir to his throne that would last forever.
Now, let us pause for just a moment and understand what the Israelites were expecting to have happen with this Davidic kingdom. They thought that they would be a world power for the rest of the time of the existence of the earth. That is how they envisioned the promise God gave to David. When they were overrun by Assyria, and taken into captivity, it was a major crisis for the nation.
And that brings us up to the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. They were in charge of the restoration of the city of Jerusalem after this Assyrian and Babylonian captivity. But they no longer looked at the nation as being something that was of an earthly kingdom. There seems to have been an idea of the restoration of the nation as a nation of priests to the world. That what they were supposed to be was to be followers of the law that God had laid down through Moses, and by following the law this way, be examples to the world.
This idea in the sixth covenant was prominent all the way to the time of Jesus. They believed they should be a free nation, and that is why they did not like the Roman occupation. However, they were struggling to see themselves as a nation based on a spiritual understanding of their identity. But they also had many people who held onto the idea that the Davidic kingdom would be restored.
This dichotomy in their thinking, namely that they were a spiritual nation, and they were a nation of power, left major divisions in the nation of Israel in the time of Jesus.
The people in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah understood the call to holiness that God was giving them. But it was still not enough. What it needed more of was the intervention of God himself. In the seventh and last covenant, which we call the New Covenant of Jesus, we receive that “more.”
So we are seeing in this first reading today a transformation in the minds and hearts of the people of God that led them to understand God was calling them to a deeper level of holiness.
That was amplified by the life of Jesus, and by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the early church. This amplification is our inheritance. We have come into the fullness of covenant with God, here in this seventh covenant. It began with God revealing himself to Adam and Eve, and then through Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Ezra and Nehemiah and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel… do I need to list more?
The entire revelation of God points to what Jesus did, and does, in our lives. The Israelites with Ezra were crying because they realized how much they had been failing to live up to the covenant that God had given them earlier. And that is why Ezra and Nehemiah told the people “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not lament, do not weep!”
We need to hear the same voice of God speaking to our hearts today. Not just a cry of lament because of our failure to live up to what God asks of us, but a cry of joy because he has forgiven us our failings and called us to live in the New Covenant of grace, won for us by Jesus on the cross. We need to listen to the voices of the Old Testament calling us to holiness. We need to listen to the voices of the New Testament showing us what it looks like to live that holiness.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge what we are seeing in our country in our day. The tragedy of the New York assembly cheering at the passing of a bill authorizing an open war on the unborn, at any time before birth. The terrible lies being told in the media to humiliate young Catholic men who were courageous enough to stand up to life, and to face persecution not only in front of them, but through the media. These two recent news events, in my estimation, prove how dangerous of condition we are in because we are ignoring the rightful covenant with God, his love and mercy.
I think in the days and years ahead, we as Catholics are going to have to stand before the world and face the possibilities of not just being shouted down, but being pushed down. But Jesus’ promise is that he will see us through to the glory of heaven, even if it means the terrors of martyrdom.
Lord Jesus send out your Spirit on your people in this day. Renew your covenant in the hearts of EVERYONE here. Help us to at once to cry in sorrow because of our sins, and to cry in joy because of your mercy.
You have called us to be your holy people. You have sent your Spirit to enable us to live in that holiness. Help us to seek you out in this New Covenant of grace. Help us to know with confidence that you want us to succeed in your holiness.
Lord, we turn to you as the people did in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. Each one of us has failed on our own to live up to your covenant, but you have given us the grace to live it, if only we will ask.
We are asking, Lord. Help us to live fully in your covenant here and now, that we may rejoice with you forever in the final covenant of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Amen.