“Half-Empty or Half-Full?”    Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-6, 8-10   January 24, 2010

A cartoonist successfully divided the entire human race into two types. The cartoon pictured two women at a well. Each has a bucket with which to draw water.
One woman, looking sad and bitter, remarks, "Life is terrible. Every time I fill this bucket up, it is empty within minutes."
The other woman, who appears at peace with herself, replies, "I think life is wonderful. Every time this bucket is empty, I can simply fill it up again."

Is the bucket always being emptied or always being filled? "Is the glass half-empty or half-full?"
Here’s another way to look at it.
Rabbi Lionel Blue tells the following parable in his Day Trips to Eternity: "It was announced in Tel Aviv that God was going to send a tidal wave, 30 feet high, over the city because of its sins.

"Muslims went to their mosques to pray for a speedy translation to the paradise of the prophet.

"Christians went to their churches to pray for the intercession of the saints.

"The Jews went to the synagogues and prayed, 'Lord God, it's going to be difficult living under 30 feet of water!'" (Day Trips to Eternity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987), 26.)
"Is the glass half-empty or half-full?"
Does it really make any difference how you see the glass, how you view that bucket?
If we think theologically, the answer is a resounding "yes.” We must choose sides. Clearly, for the people of God, the glass is half-full. The bucket is being perpetually filled. How?

Nehemiah 8: 10 “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah tells the story of a time when God's law had been missing in action. A remnant of the people of Judah had just returned from exile in Babylon, and their governor Nehemiah - a good and faithful man - led them in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and instituting social and religious reforms.

In chapter 8, Ezra, the scribe, cracks open the ancient book of the Law of Moses and begins to read it to the gathered people. They hang on his every word, from early morning until midday, and as he speaks, the Hebrew of the text is interpreted to them by people standing nearby.
You see, even though Ezra is reading the Scriptures loud and clear, the people cannot understand them completely until they are interpreted in the more familiar Aramaic. When they grasp what they are hearing, they are so moved that they weep (v. 9).
Ezra and Nehemiah took pains to insure that the people listening to the scripture really understood the spirit and the force behind it.
At first, the people only capture half of the message. They seem to easily grasp the reality of their failures. When the worshipers compare their lives with the strict adherence of God’s law, they are horrified at their complete inadequacy.
As obedient, worshipful human beings they are clearly half-empty. They respond with tears of regret, sorrow, and (I think we may assume) repentance.

But this is only half the message. Interpreting God’s Law cannot stop here. Nehemiah and Ezra step in, translating and interpreting the reading. They direct the people's attention to the greater truth that stands behind God's written law.    
The significance of this day’s event was monumental. The bigger picture is of a day made holy by the Lord's presence - of a people blessed to be able to freely worship God's presence. It is the very existence of this presence that must move the people beyond the experience of judgment and on to an open-mouthed, awe-stricken, exuberant sense of joy.

Acknowledging this joy (that God’s presence helps us obey his laws) reveals the total picture of humanity. We are not half-empty, but half-full. While it is true that we are flawed and fractured and thus may never be able to remain filled and satisfied for very long, we can nevertheless return again and again and again to the well of God's love and joy and draw from it all that we need to refill our strength of will and soundness of heart.

While Nehemiah and Ezra proclaimed that the joy of the Lord is your strength, the New Testament promises an even more astounding new reality - that Jesus came so that our joy may be full.                
In John 15:10-11, Jesus announces, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." And again in John 16:33 Jesus says, "I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! "

The persecution Jesus reminds us of comes in many forms - but always it seeks to puncture our already leaky sense of self-esteem and to fragment our rickety faithfulness.
This is why rejoicing in the Lord and proclaiming the glass half-full and the bucket fill-able takes more than a sappy sense of well-being - it takes "half-full" joy.
This God-focuced joy enables us to see the steady stream of God's love and fidelity flowing into our lives when we feel as though we are in the midst of a spiritual drought. Gutsy joy keeps us striving after obedience even when we realize we will always fall short of God's intentions for us.

One of the greatest examples of "half-full" joy is Robert Louis Stevenson, someone who was devastatingly ill from childhood on and was in pain almost every day of his adult life.

One morning toward the end of his life, when he was hemorrhaging so badly he could not even whisper, Stevenson wrote his wife and daughter a little note which read: "Mr. Dumbleigh presents his compliments and praises God that he is sick so he has to be cared for by two tender, loving fairies. Was ever a man so blest?"

Experiencing joy, feeling the laughter of loved life well up in our spirits and burst out of our mouths is a divine gift. C. S. Lewis believed that the ability to laugh at ourselves is as close as we get to true repentance in life.
Tears over our brokenness close us down, as we dwell on the empty portions of our lives. Laughter opens us up, allowing us to lift our faces to the Lord from the surface of our half-filled selves, acknowledging our incompleteness and awaiting the pouring out of God's spirit.

Unlike the Jerusalem Jews in Nehemiah, we do not have a problem with access to the Scriptures in our own language. What is remarkable about this passage is the power of the Word of God to penetrate the human spirit, to speak to the heart, to touch the deepest corners of the soul.
Our problem today is not access, but faithfulness. To "understand" the Bible means, quite literally, to "stand under" the Bible - to place ourselves under its authority, to take it personally, to allow our lives to be shaped by it and to give it our trust and our confidence.

When we seek to understand the Bible, we are doing more than making a reasonable effort to understand what the words mean. Instead, we are "standing under" Scripture's view of God and humanity and sacred history, and giving it not only the insight of our brains, but also the allegiance of our hearts.
Luther once observed, “If we hear the Word of God, and it doesn’t offend us, then we have not heard it.”
This is why all the people of Judah wept when they heard the words of the law, and then went their way to eat and drink and to make great rejoicing. They wept and rejoiced, in heart and mind, "because they had understood the words that were declared to them" (8:12).

Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet/President, spoke these words from his years of suffering oppression and persecution: "I am not an optimist, because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure everything ends badly.
I just carry hope in my heart.... Life without hope is an empty, boring and useless life. I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me. I am thankful to God for this gift. It is as big a gift as life itself." (Reader's Digest, February 1991.)
However many your fears and failures; however many times you must pick yourself up from the hurts and pains of life and go on; however difficult it is to get through each day - the joy of the Lord can be yours. Amen.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
  June 2021  
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