Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1333
Dr. Ed Pettus January 14, 2018 Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-12
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
"The Joy of the Lord"
Returning From Exile
It is probably difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews to be in exile, displaced geographically and in someways displaced in their relationship with God. It was because of their rebellion and sin that God used Babylon to execute God’s jusdgment upon them. Babylon had taken the Jews captive and drove them into exile around 587BCE. About 60 years later, give or take, Babylon was defeated by the Persians, Cyrus was the king of Persia. Cyrus had a different attitude toward the Jews and allowed them to go back home. Zerubbabel was the first to lead some of the Jews back to rebuild the temple. Ezra comes about 60 years later to rebuild the Jews themselves according to the word of God. Nehemiah comes a few more years later with more Jews and they rebuild the wall of the city. The wall is completed in chapter 6 and then chapter 7 lists the exiles who had returned. In chapter 8 we get the gathering of the Jews.
A Call to Assemble
We don’t really know how they knew to come together, the text just says all the people gathered together at the square. It was a town hall meeting and everybody came. Someone must have called a gathering of the people. A public address was send via Facebook or Twitter or email! Maybe it was a celebration of the completion of the wall or perhaps a regular meeting like we have each Sunday. It is something of a worship setting because they request that Ezra bring out the book of the law and read it. Imagine this setting. 1. Everyone stands. 2. Everyone is attentive to listen to the reading of the word for more than an hour, more than two hours, maybe three, just says from early morning to midday. This was possibly the first day of the seventh month when the Jews were to practice a day of rest, it is what has become the modern practice of Rosh Hashanah. This may have been that day and so people would have been gathering to rest and make an offering to God. What ever the reason, Ezra has them all together ready to listen to a reading from scripture, or maybe more accurate, to listen to ALL the scriptures! They call on them to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. It could have been the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or it might have been Deuteronomy, or it could have been portions of all that Moses had written.
Attentive to the Word
Several observations here:
1. They called on Ezra to bring out the book. They had experienced years of exile. They had been displaced from home, from God, from the teaching of the Word.
2. They were now home, secured behind a wall (gotta build that wall).
3. They are yearning now for the spiritual security like they have in their physical security. And they know where to get that – in the Book of the Law.
4. They were attentive to the Book (v. 3).
5. They read from the Book and they gave them understanding (v. 8). They taught them what it meant so that they had understanding.
It is here in the Word that we receive life. We receive grace and mercy. We receive hope. We receive re-formation of heart and mind and spirit. We receive understanding. It is here, in our book, in God’s book, that we find truth and the One who is Truth...truth, small case, in what God has said, and Truth, upper case, in Jesus Christ who is the Truth. You know the scene, when Pilate asks Jesus what is truth? Jesus does not respond, but I think that non response was a look of, “you’re looking at Truth”! Isn’t interesting that only John’s gospel has this question of truth from Pilate’s lips. This is also the only gospel that has Jesus proclaim, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14.6).
As the Israelites were attentive to the Word of God from the Torah, so too are we attentive to the Word of God in the entire Bible. So too are we attentive to the Truth, that is, to Jesus Christ Himself. We attend to the teaching of the Word and the Spirit. We guard our hearts and minds in the Truth. Be thankful today that we don’t have to stand for 3-4 hours to get a reading and teaching in the Word. But seek more time in the Word this week!
Responsive to the Word
The next thing we see in Israel is their response to the Word. They wept and worshiped. There must have been a sense of sinfulness in not doing what the Lord had commanded in the Law. There must have been a great sense of reverence for the presence of God in hearing the Word. What would bring such a response? The Word is sharper than a two edged sword (Hebrews 4.12).
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
I think the primary reason the people wept was the Word’s ability to pierce our souls, to help us see the intentions of our hearts. It is a frightening proposition but, at the same time, a welcomed discipline from the Lord’s mouth. His word leads to repentance, which will eventually lead us to thanksgiving, praise, obedience, love, grace, hope, and so forth.
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.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
The people were grieved and wept. But Nehemiah and Ezra and all those who taught on that day told the people not to grieve. Don’t be saddened over what you have heard, but rejoice.
Celebrating the Word
Rather than weep and mourn, rejoice! Celebrate! Sing! Praise! Dare I say it – party! This is our ultimate response to the Word. Even if there is a conviction of sin, a sorrow in hearing what we have done or failed to do in accordance with God’s Word, there is, in the end, forgiveness and empowerment to go and do what is commanded. So at the end of the day, and the end of the reading, at the end of things, there is rejoicing. Mourning is turned to dancing. The blind see, the deaf hear, good news is preached to the lost.
Some traditions have the congregation stand for the reading of the Word, usually for the Gospel reading. I’ve always admired that practice but I also find it odd to only stand for the Gospel. It seems to me that if we are to stand at all, we should stand for all the readings of Scripture. It is not a Presbyterian practice, but we do have particular time for reading of the Scripture and we do revere that reading and we do respect the authority of what is read. In the end the greatest respect we can give the Word is to do it!
Celebration is a great response to reading and hearing and learning what is being said in God’s Word. We can only celebrate it if we are engaged in it. We can only celebrate it if we have the same yearning for the Word as the people did in Nehemiah’s time. I would encourage you, if you do not have a yearning for the Word and a celebratory attitude upon reading and hearing, ask God to give you a spirit of joy and celebration over this Book of God, the Holy Scriptures.
The Joy of the Lord
The last point I want to highlight today is the opposite of the weeping and grieving that followed the reading of the Word. Instead they are told to receive the joy of the Lord, which is their strength. Not our joy, but the Lord’s joy. It’s like that passage in Galatians 2.20 when the grammar of the Greek gives the possibility of having our faith or Christ’s faith. God’s joy or our joy. I’ll take God’s joy every time. Jesus speaks of this joy again in John 15,
9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 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. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
This is what makes joy complete and full within us - to abide in God’s love and God’s Word. And most important, it is the joy of Jesus Christ that dwells in us.
The joy of the Lord is such a powerful thought. Happiness comes and goes. Happiness is a momentary feeling. But joy is deeper in our being. Joy resides deeper precisely because it is the joy of the Lord. That joy is a gift to us. Some things might make us happy, but God gives us joy. Think of the Christmas hymn, “joy to the world the Lord is come”. It is with the gift of Jesus Christ that joy has come, also a gift. This is what Nehemiah reveals to us, the joy of the Lord is your strength. Not my happiness, not my accomplishments, not my successes that bring a temporary sense of glee, but the joy of God is our strength. Joy cannot be contained, for it bursts forth by God’s grace.
Two scenes are before us today. This first is an ancient story of rekindling the heart of a people by reading and teaching God’s Words. The second is us, today, this day, as we read and hear the Scriptures read and taught. Will we weep or grieve, or will we rejoice and praise? It all depends on how deeply we trust in what God has said. The beauty of the end of Nehemiah 8 is that he commands them to rejoice in the Word by going out to eat and drink. God commands us to do the same today! Amen.