Nehemiah 8:9-18 (New International Version)
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred 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 sacred 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 sacred 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. 13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths”-as it is written. [a] 16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. 18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
- Nehemiah 8:15 See Lev. 23:37-40.
The four Advent candles are, I suppose you would say, shrouded in some mystery. Not the kind of mystery that would stir someone to want to write a ridiculous book like The Da Vinci Code, but there is some mystery there nonetheless. Trying to settle on a single meaning, tradition or order for the candles is difficult. It’s difficult, that is, unless you just grab the first explanation you find and say, “That’s it!”
Take the candle that we lit for the first time this morning. Probably the strongest tradition in the western church says that it belongs in week three of Advent. Others say that it belongs in week four. Some say that it should be a different color than the other four. Others say it should be the same.
I don’t want to do a history lesson in all these different explanations. I just want you to notice that, in accord with the particular tradition that we are following, our third candle is pink, while the other four candles are purple. That’s because purple is the traditional color for repentance. That’s why it is the dominant color both for Advent and for Lent. Both are seasons of preparation that lead up to a major focus on what God had to do in order to secure our salvation, our forgiveness. Repentance is the appropriate response to that truth, since it is our sin that caused him to do this stunning and selfless thing for us. Our sins caused him to take on mortal flesh. Our sins caused God to die as our sacrifice of atonement.
But pink is the liturgical color for joy. That’s the color of the candle we light today. In the midst of a season of repentance, we light a candle of joy. How does that follow? The answer is holiness. It’s the same reason that Nehemiah and the other leaders of Israel told the people to feast and be glad, even though they had just become reacquainted with the Law of Moses and it had brought their horrifying rebellion against our perfectly faithful God into mournfully clear view. Holiness Is Cause for Celebration! And that’s why our Advent candle today is pink, the liturgical color for joy, despite the fact that the main emphasis of the Advent season as a whole is repentance.
It’s not surprising that we would have some trouble understanding this. After all, to discuss repentance in any kind of faithful, biblical sense, you have to lay blame for the sin and pain in the world, and the blame for sin and pain in the world is plainly with us, not with the Lord. We like to blame him, sure, but that just demonstrates the depth of our foolishness and rebellion. We are plainly at fault, but we don’t mind blaming our faultless God.
And I can only begin to imagine how hard that truth must have hit the Israelites that returned from Babylon following the great captivity. The Israelites had generally thought of themselves pretty highly because God had granted them so many privileges. Even though he kept telling them not to think of themselves as better than the nations around them in light of their privileged position in his plan of salvation, they did it anyway.
And do you know what the biggest casualty of their pride was? It was their drive to hear and study God’s Word. For them, the Word of God was built into everything their whole lives through, from their system of daily sacrifices to the Passovers and Sabbath, and even in the very architecture of the Temple itself. God had built his message of mercy and salvation into their very culture so that they would always know who to turn to for help.
What a joy and what a privilege to be treated this way by God, to be set apart from the other nations by such rich and abundant blessings from him! These abundant favors poured out on their people should have fueled the very deepest devotion and faith in their gracious God. But instead, it had caused them to think that they were better than other nations, somehow innately more compatible with God, despite being just as sinful from birth as every other people on earth.
Again, I can only imagine what earth-shaking sorrow they must have felt as Ezra the scribe read the books of Moses to the people, and they realized how very unfamiliar they were with these texts that were the very foundation of their special relationship with the one, true God. How it must have cut them to the heart to hear God’s predictions about their future unfaithfulness and how it would leave him no choice but to try to recall them with escalating levels of disaster, including exile.
Although, at the same time, it is not so hard to imagine. The Word of God that has been so abundantly poured into my life is also the foundation for my relationship with the one, true God. From the message of forgiveness that was poured into my heart at baptism to the body and blood of Christ that are in, with and under the bread and wine served from this very altar, God has built his saving message into my life. From the first day as I child that I can remember rejoicing at the simple message of Holy Week and Easter to the days of awe and wonder that I spent drinking in the deeper truths of salvation presented before me at our synod’s worker training schools, God has given me a privileged life marked by an abundance of his saving message.
And yet, as I read his Word today, despite all the time that I have spent with it in the past, I still hear words that cut me to the quick. As I read his Word today, I discover that, despite the privileges of a lifetime immersed in the truths of my salvation, I have sinned. You have, too, despite the life-changing message of God’s love and salvation being so readily available to you in this building that he has provided us here in Tawas.
So that’s why we should easily sympathize with the Israelites who returned from the exile and suddenly realized how little they understood or followed the Word of God that he had so carefully built into the fabric of their very lives as his chosen people. That’s why we might not so easily understand why there is a pink candle in the season of Advent when the rest of the candles in the wreath color the season with the purple shades of repentance and sorrow over sin.
But what Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites said to the Israelites who heard the Law of Moses being read still applies today: “This day is sacred [literally, holy] to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” “This day is sacred [again, literally holy] to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Do not mourn? The joy of the Lord is your strength? How can he say that when the holiness of the Lord so clearly points out our sin, ignorance, coldness and rebellion? How can there be any joy for me in the Lord when he is so amazingly holy?
Well that, believe it or not, is actually the key to our joy! When you understand what holiness is, you realize that holiness is a cause for celebration, not mourning. That’s because, while holiness can be a word for “sinless” or “perfect,” that’s not what it inherently means. Holy means “set apart for God’s special purposes,” like the special festival day that the Israelites were celebrating in our text or the time that they set aside to live in booths as a remembrance of the forty years when their forefathers lived in temporary housing during their wanderings in the wilderness, waiting for the day when they could enter the Promised Land. It’s the whole reason the the English language calls special days and commemorations holidays (literally, “holy days”), because we set those days apart for a special purpose.
And do you know what you are? You are holy to the Lord. That’s the reason that we can rejoice in the middle of a season dedicated to repentance and preparation. You are holy to the Lord, set apart from the rest of the world through the hearing of his Word of salvation. Even the very fact that you have days of mourning demonstrates this truth. You mourn because you hear the true meaning of righteousness in the Word and recognize how far you fall short. But by sending that message into your life, God is setting time aside with you and thereby setting you apart from the rest of the world. He is choosing you as his own and showering you with grace, mercy, and personal forgiveness from him!
All of this is cause for rejoicing as well as repentance. For just as the season of Advent leads up to Christmas and the season of Lent leads up to Easter, so this call to repentance this morning leads up to a message of salvation: Do not mourn, for the Christ-child is your lamb of sacrifice. Celebrate and be glad, for God has taken away your sin through Jesus’ mission on earth, and has set you apart as his very own by the power of that life-changing message!
In other words, thanks to this message of forgiveness, you are holy, set apart, and that is cause for celebration. True holiness doesn’t mean a life of wailing and deprivation. It means being chosen. It means being God’s special people. Celebrate it! Amen.
Advent 3 Holiness Is Cause for Celebration! December 13, 2009
Pastor Aaron C. Frey Nehemiah 8:9-18