3/3/02 10.30 a.m. Nehemiah 8:1-12
Last week we started our four week sermon on the Bible by looking at 'Burning Words' in Jeremiah 36. When we examined that passage we learned that the Kings and the people of Israel had been faithless, worshipping foreign gods and sacrificing their children in fire to these gods. Jeremiah warned that, unless they repented, God would judge his people by sending Babylon to destroy them. This happened and, eventually, the conquering Babylonians took many Jews to Babylon. The Babylonians had also burned the Temple in Jerusalem and destroyed the city.
The exile in Babylon lasted seventy years. It was nearly a hundred years after God's people had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon that God called Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Though the temple had been rebuilt, the city was barely occupied. More Jews lived in the outlying villages and towns than in the holy city. They were in danger of losing their identity because the city lacked a wall. In those days a city without a wall was easy pickings for any band of robbers. Jews, concerned for security had mixed with all kinds of foreigners in small villages outside Jerusalem. There they were intermarrying and gradually losing their own language, culture and, most importantly, their own religion. A wall would give them a chance to make Jerusalem a truly Jewish city, keeping it safe and controlling who came and went.
God raised up Nehemiah, a waiter in the ruling Persian court, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When Nehemiah heard of the difficulties his people were experiencing, he took his career, and probably his life, in his hands and spoke to the king, asking for his help. Soon after he was touring, by night, the broken-down walls of a city he probably had never seen before. Nehemiah was a man of prayer, action, justice, compassion, humility and organizational ability. Despite local opposition from Gentiles the wall was rebuilt. It was then that we get to Chapter 8 when Ezra brought out and read the Law of Moses.
The walls and gates of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. Now the community of God's people had to be rebuilt. This had to be focused on God's word. In the past God's people had relied on wrong things like Kings and the Temple. But the Kings had failed to follow God, and the Temple had resulted in people becoming complacent about their religion, rather than having a radical trust in God.
Nehemiah 8 happened on Oct. 8, 445 B.C. This was the New Year's Day of the civil calendar (see note on Lev 23:24), celebrated as the Feast of Trumpets (Nu 29:1-6), with no work and a sacred assembly. Women did not usually participate in assemblies, but were brought, together with children, on such solemn occasions
We will be looking at their response to God and His word, and seeing how this relates to us, today. These will begin with the letter 'R'.
The people of God, men, women and children all came together to worship Him and hear His word. There are times when it is right to read the Bible on our own, but also times when coming together to read and understand the Bible is important. This lasted from daybreak to noon, some five hours. The people had instigated this, they asked Ezra to read from the Law, verse 1.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
In this service we stand for the gospel reading. Some people will put a hand or two up in the air when we sing an uplifting song. I even see some people swaying and dancing to some of our songs. But, generally, we are not very demonstrative in our services. This probably reflects on our churchmanship, which is low, and our nationality, which is British - stiff upper lip, etc. I know that infirmity would also prevent a number of people here from bowing down with their faces to the ground.
But if we were supporting our football side we would shout until we were hoarse, jump up and down, even weep, as some of the Tottenham supporters did at the end of the Worthington Cup Final last Sunday. Perhaps we need to be more demonstrative in our reverence and worship of God.
I wonder how we feel when we have the second Bible reading followed by the sermon. Do we think, 'Where have I put my sweets ?', or 'I hope the this doesn't rustle too much as I unwrap this' ! Or perhaps some relax and make a mental list of the jobs they have to do in the following week. Maybe some think, 'I wonder what he's running on about this week' !
We should be reverent and receptive, ready to hear what God has to say to us. This is because God's word is relevant to us, even today, nearly 2,500 years since Nehemiah. The reason for this is that God does not change in the grace and mercy he shows to humankind, and the response he requires from people of penitence and faith. Humankind has not changed either since Adam took a bite from the forbidden fruit. We all put ourselves before God.
We need to approach our worship and teaching humbly, prayerfully, openly, expecting God to lead and guide us through His word in the power of the Spirit.
For this to happen the word of God has to be...
Mark Twain said, "It isn't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that are the problem. It is the parts of the Bible that I do understand."
In verses 7 and 8 we read that the Levites, the priests of that day, went about explaining the meaning of the Law to the many people who were there. The purpose of this was so that the people could understand what was being read ( verse 8 ).
For God's word to be relevant to us we need to understand what it means. This may not be straightforward. We may need to understand the historical background, which is why I have spent time outlining this at the start of this and last weeks sermon. We may need to understand the cultural background to see why somebody did something. We will need to understand where a reading fits into salvation history. What type of literature is it ? Is it history, like today's. Or poetry, like the Psalms. Or law, like the ten commandments ? Or teaching, like today's gospel reading ? Or an account of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles ? Or a letter to an early church ? Can we discover, for example, why the letter or the gospel was written ?
Once we have understood what God's word meant when it was written, we then have a responsibility to relate it to our lives and situation. This should involve us in observing our society with a Biblical understanding. It has been suggested that a good Christian studies the Bible and the newspaper to live a godly life and make a godly response to the world today.
I was encouraged to read a recent Church Times survey ( 25/1/02 ) where 77% of respondents said that sermons helped them in their faith. 16% were unsure and & 7% said they didn't help. Interestingly, only 8% said that Sunday worship in their church is usually boring !
From verse 9 onwards we observe more responses to God's word...
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.
The people heard the word of God, discovered that they and their ancestors had failed to follow God's will, and were sorry and wept. Chapter 9 relates how, later on, they confessed their sins and the sins of their forefathers.
As we come to God's word we have to be prepared to repent. The Greek word for this is 'metanoia' which, literally means 'to change one's mind'. We have to be prepared to let the Bible read us. As chorus the of the children's song that we have just learned goes :
"But there's one book that reads me
It tells me what I should be
Shows me how to live,
How to love and give
The greatest book is the Bible"
( cf 'The Bible' MIDI tune & lyrics at http://www.acay.com.au/~pgrant/paul's1.htm )
The Christian life should be a continuing and continuous process of growth involving, amongst other things, confession of sins, forgiveness from God, and dedication to moving forward afresh in obedience to his good and perfect will. Paul wrote about this in Romans 12: 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will.
The Jews didn't immediately confess their sins, but did another R, they...
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.
I remember attending my youth group in Norwich and discussing how to share our story of faith. We agreed that it would be good when we share our testimony to actually look happy about it. Someone recalled that they had seen a believer begin by saying, with a glum face and a monotone voice, "I'm really glad that I am a Christian..."
Whilst there should be serious times such as confessing our sin, or studying and reflecting upon God's word, it is important that we rejoice. We can rejoice in who God is, what he has done in history, and what he has done for us. There are elements of this in the prayer of the Jews in Chapter 9:5b.ff.
Joy is a gift from God founded in His word and flowing from his forgiveness. It is not about feelings, it is deeper than that. It is about the fact that we are forgiven sinners because of God's undeserved favour shown in the death of Jesus for us. Jesus blood cries out on our behalf all the time whether we are happy, or sad, or somewhere in between.
The next day, the Jews discovered that the law they mourned over commanded them not to weep, but have an eight-day celebration involving camping outside in booths (verses 13-18).
There were some who too poor or ill-prepared to celebrate with the best food and drink so Nehemiah commanded that they receive...
Verse 10, "...and send some to those who have nothing prepared"... 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food
Earlier in Chapter 5 Nehemiah had criticized Jews who had been enslaving fellow Jews and charging interest on loans. At the same time Nehemiah and his helpers did not take any food, silver or land which he could have demanded as Governor.
Our worship of God should involve us giving. To those who are less fortunate than ourselves and to the church. At the P.C.C. meeting last week we examined the income and expenditure for the last few years and also a projection for the next year. If we are to balance income and expenditure this year, which includes paying two unpaid share payments due last year, our weekly giving would need to increase by another half. Our reserves have fallen dramatically over the last ten years and we all need to examine ourselves afresh and see if God is calling us to give more.
I remember Brenda Thompson, who used to attend this church before she died several years ago, telling me a story of a Vicar leading a church in a similar situation. He said to his congregation, 'I've got good news and bad news about our financial crisis. The good news is that we've got the money. The bad news is that it's in your pockets.'
This, however, should not blind us to people who are in need. That is why I invited Joe Smith to come and share with us three weeks ago. Galatians 6: 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
As God's people we need to study the Bible regularly.
776 regular churchgoers in England and Wales were asked how often they read their Bibles outside church: 16% said every day; 9% several times a week; 11% once a week; 9% once a month; 16% several times a year; 7% once in the past year; 14% had not read the Bible in the past year; 18% had never read from the Bible at any time in their lives.
So the good news is that more than 1 in 3, 36% read the Bible at least once a week.
The bad news is that nearly 1 in 3, 32%, have not read a Bible in the last year, if ever.
John Calvin, the reformer, said, "The Lord does not shine upon us, except when we take His word as our light." ( italics mine )
Lord, the people waited expectantly to hear your word,
help us to come to the Bible with anticipation.
The people wept because they had neglected your word,
help us to be sorry when we ignore the Bible.
The people tried hard to understand,
help us to work at understanding the Bible.
The people celebrated because they understood,
help us to celebrate because you have spoken to us through the Bible.