Don’t waste your Sunday (Nehemiah 7:73-8:10)

Humans are celebrating creatures by nature.  Weddings, birthdays, graduations—the larger the event in our lives, the greater the milestone, the more we crave the presence of family, friends, music, and all the other elements that turn a gathering into a blowout.

We’ve emphasized this facet of human nature throughout our series, really.  We are, after all, “better together.”  Emile Durkheim, the French social analyst, made his life’s work out of trying to explain the nature of humans in groups.  “The very act of congregating,” he writes, “is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.  Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” [1]

Now that the both the Temple and the city walls had been completed, what did Ezra and Nehemiah do?  They had a revival service:

73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.

And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns. And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 7:73-8:1)

Indeed, this was a revival service, an experience magnified by the electricity between the people gathered “as one man.”  What we’re about to witness, you and I, is something known as a “covenant renewal service.”  In the coming chapters, the people of Israel would revisit the relationship between God and his people, they would confess their sins, and they would reaffirm their devotion to God.

THE READING OF THE LAW

Here’s how Nehemiah describes this ancient church service:

2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)

In verse 8 we read that “they read from the book…and they gave the sense.”  Gave the sense?  That means that didn’t just read the Bible; they took time to explain what it meant.

Why would the Bible occupy such a prominent place in this whole ceremony?  Allen Ross writes that “they wanted to make sure their worship was right:”

“It appears that the believing community was trying to recapture the spirit and form of worship as it was legislated by Moses, developed by David, and reformed by Hezekiah and Josiah.  In fact, we know that 1 and 2 Chronicles were written about this time for this very purpose—to inform the Jewish people of what was supposed to be by reminding them of the history of the faith and especially temple worship, and to show them what it would take to restore it.”[2]

HOLINESS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH GLOOM

But what we should also notice is that this was meant to be a revival service in the truest sense.  Nehemiah even emphasized that their devotion to God didn’t have to lead to sorrow.  There’s joy to be found in the presence of God:

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10)

The word “Holy” means to be set apart for God’s purposes.  To behold God’s purposes—to reflect on them at specific times or occasions—this promotes in us a sense of joy, a joy that springs from the confidence we have in God’s enduring character.

DON’T WASTE YOUR SUNDAY

Our Sunday mornings don’t necessarily resemble the exhilarating revival preaching from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

As a matter of fact, more often than not, our Sunday mornings are positively…ordinary.

So much so that if you walk into a church service expecting something extraordinary to happen to you, you may walk out of the building disappointed.  If that’s the case, it’s tempting to find something better to do on a Sunday than occupy a seat.

But we may have missed something crucial.  The word “Church” doesn’t refer to a Sunday service; it refers to a community of Christ’s followers.  We gather at a weekly service because it is there that—like Nehemiah—we remind one another of the relationship we have with God, this time mediated through the work of Christ.  For centuries, communion—the taking of the bread and cup—has served as the climax of the service, for it is in these elements that we recite and rehearse the gospel with one another.

So essential are these gatherings that in the ancient world, the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers this way:

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Church community really does transform you—so long as that community is infused with the supernatural power of God’s presence in the Spirit.  Church services have a place in that transformative process.  But while we might expect this to take place on any given Sunday, the truth is it might well take a lifetime of Sundays.

 

Don’t waste your Sunday.  Make time for one another.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

[1] Emile Durkheim, quoted in Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 262.

[2] Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 353.

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Canning and Preserving an Attitude – Nehemiah 8

Imagine if all the pieces to a fabulous mansion home were dumped in your yard absolutely free. Every last thing you would need was there in a big pile – blocks, stones, boards, appliances … everything, down to the last nail and screw. But, there were no directions or prints as to what the house even looked like, let alone how to construct it. Imagine not knowing if it was a Colonial, a French Revival, Mediterranean, or Gothic. And to top it off, you get fined for every month you don’t complete it, but you’ll be arrested if you just carried it all away and dumped it. The great blessing became a great curse.

That is perhaps how the Jews of Nehemiah’s time (400s BC) felt about the Law of Moses – the Covenant given to them 1,000 years earlier. It was a law and agreement between the people and God, promising blessing for obedience, and curses for disobedience. Most of the 1,000 years since Moses had proven the curses part, that much was for sure. But the problem for the people also was that there was little access to even know the very Law they were supposed to follow. It was not as if they all had a copy of it on the bookshelves at home.

The entirety of the Law itself had at one point in history gotten lost in the ruins of the Temple (in the time of Josiah). After that, the nation had been carried off into years of servitude in Assyria and Babylon. And though it was great to be one of the surviving remnant few who lived in Jerusalem and Judea, and who had recently been led by Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city, these people knew very little about the Word of God beyond verbal traditions and stories. Ezra had come to teach them and they were grateful for this; and as his teaching was put on hold for a couple of months of building, now, there was a great gathering of the people on a holy day to hear the reading of God’s Word.

Let me give you the portion of the sentence from verse 1 today that is actually stuck back in the previous chapter … When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, <now 8:1>  all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So the people were hungry to hear the Word. This occurred actually at this very time of the year. This is no small gathering of people – at least 30,000 to as many as 50,000.

The scene is not precisely explained, but Ezra is at the center of it on a large platform, surrounded by other leaders and Levites. Notice the great reverence of the people for the Word! Apparently what was happening here is that Ezra would read a section, and then the Levites would break the group into smaller groups and explain to the people what the meaning of the text was. This is interesting, because this process is essentially what we are doing during a sermon on a Sunday morning … or, like right now with this devotional!

Notice also the reaction of the people to all they are hearing and experiencing – they were weeping as they heard the words read to them!  Why?  Because, so many of them were coming to understand for the first time (or in a renewed way) how the nation had failed to obey God and all of the pain that it had brought upon them – down to that very day. But Ezra encourages them to not weep, but to rather rejoice. Unlike their ancestors, these people were ready to hear and to obey God’s Word. He told them to go and celebrate, for this was a great day. They did celebrate and began even to observe feasts that had been forgotten for years.

There are so many places to begin to apply this passage! Perhaps you are thinking of some as you have read along to this point. But I’ll just pick two things …

1.  The riches of our resources – Here are people who knew so little and had no access to learn much more. But their hearts were quick to love God’s Word and to obey it. What does that say about us? We have multiple versions of the entire revelation of God; we have resources of written explanations that would take us to the moon if stacked together; we have at our internet fingertips a cache of resources upon God’s Word that add up like the sands of the sea. And this is true at TSF. Why should God be patient with any of us who are not serious students of his Word – who fail to plug into all we have and flippantly go through the Christian life undernourished and distantly connected to the Lord?

2.  The grace of God and desire for blessing – We often think of the Law as a giant list of things that can’t be done or have to be religiously performed to appease God. And lots of folks also see the whole Bible and the message of Christ and the Church in the same way. But God wants relationship and worship and obedience so that he might bless us, not curse us! He’s in good shape; he does not need us … but he wants us to love him and serve him and live in fellowship – in order that he might shower upon us his grace. For that to happen, we must know and grow in his Word.

And so ends our second week of emphasis upon the Scriptures. I trust you see why the staff and elders included this so prominently in the vision statement. There is no success without it, and there is no gaining it without commitment and work. I’m sorry for your bad luck if you don’t see yourself as much of a student or learner. You’re going to have a difficult time with this Christian life, or be stuck in a mediocre lifestyle of just getting by. THAT is not our vision. I’d rather open the lid of “a can of attitude” that looks like these people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

8:1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

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. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy 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 holy 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 holy 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.