Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-10 Commentary
This passage will deeply move every preacher who reads it, either to joy or to sorrow, to gratitude or to envy. I mean, what happens here is a preacher’s dream. The whole congregation– men, women (not typical in a Temple service), and children old enough to understand what was going on—spontaneously gathered for worship. They begged for the Word of the Lord to be read for them; they are unified in their desire to hear the Word. Even though the reading went on from dawn until noon, no one got bored, no one left, no one tuned out. They listened intently.
Indeed, when the reading began, all the people stood up in respect for the Book. Upon receiving the blessing of the “preacher,” they all raised their hands in worship, shouted “Amen, Amen,” and then fell on their faces in prostrate worship.
As they listened, their hearts were pierced by the Word and they began to weep, probably in sorrow over the sins they had not recognized until they heard the will of God in the reading. And when the priest and his associates announced the Good News, they responded by wiping away their tears, celebrating God’s goodness at lavish feasts, and sharing their bounty with those who had little.
Who wouldn’t love to lead a worship service like that? Contemporary preachers might rejoice that such a service could happen, or we might weep because such a thing doesn’t happen to us. So, we might be filled with gratitude for the power of the Word, along with just a bit of envy that our congregations don’t respond this way to us when we read and preach.
So, this is a great text for preachers, but what does it have to say to the average church goer? And what in the world does it have to do with this season of Epiphany?
We can begin to unpack the wider meaning of this text by asking why the people spontaneously gathered for worship. What was the occasion? Well, it was the first day of the seventh month, which was New Year’s Day on the civil calendar (later called Rosh Hashanah). In that month, Israel also celebrated Yom Kippur and the Feast of Booths, in which Israel remembered their wilderness wanderings. So this was a sacred time, a time of looking back and a time of new beginnings.
What’s more, the returned exiles had just finished building the walls of Jerusalem. It was near the middle of the fifth Century; Israel had been back from Exile for nearly a hundred years. When the first returnees arrived, they found their homes destroyed, their fields choked with weeds, Jerusalem in ruins and their Temple a charred mass of rubble. The people were glad to be home, but home was a mess. They were so disheartened that they didn’t make much progress in rebuilding their nation.
Because they settled in their villages and towns, Jerusalem remained largely uninhabited and in ruins for nearly 75 years. Yes, they had built a Temple, but it was a poor copy of the original. And God had not filled it with his glory as he had at the First Temple.
Israel was living in one of those “in between times.” Behind them were the mighty acts of God exhibited in the Exodus many years ago and in the return from Exile more recently. But God had not yet ushered in the magnificent revival of his Kingdom under a Davidic King as promised in Isaiah 40-66 and the other prophets. They were living between two comings of God, the past they dimly remembered and the future they had been promised. Now they were just average people living in a hostile environment, just aching for God to return in his glory and save them to the uttermost. It was not a glory time in Israel’s history. The people were disappointed, and they grew disillusioned, and that led to laxness toward the Law of God.
But then Nehemiah came from Persia and under his leadership, the people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Indeed, they finished the work in only 52 days. God had not shown up in all his glory, but at least the walls were up and the Temple was standing. It was a pregnant time– the beginning of a new year, and they were about to gather for one of their major festivals celebrating God’s past actions on their behalf. I suspect there was a sense of expectation in the air. Something was going to happen. Or so they hoped.
They couldn’t compel God to show up, but they could compel their leaders to read God’s Word. And that’s when God showed up, not in the glory of liturgy and sacrifice and architecture, but in the simple reading and explaining of God’s Word. That Word was an Epiphany of God’s glory—not a visual Epiphany, but an audible one.
The application to 21st century North America Christianity should be painfully obvious. We are living between the times of Christ’s first and second coming. This is not a time of great glory for the church. Indeed, rather than gradually rebuilding the shambles of “the Temple and the City,” we are experiencing the gradual deterioration of the church. Membership is down nearly everywhere in the West while the cultural environment is increasing intolerant of a Gospel that makes exclusive truth claims. The “None’s” and the “Spiritual But Not Religious” offer soft opposition, while the militant atheists in the West and totalitarian regimes in the Middle East and in the Communist bloc launch frontal assaults.
We need God to show up, if not for the world’s sake, then for ours. So, we work with liturgy and sacrifice and architecture, with new programs and changed worship and re-engineered models of ministry. We do everything we can to show ourselves and the world the glory of God and his Gospel. Many of our efforts are laudable and helpful, but this text urges us not to forget the central thing.
It is in the reading and explaining and applying of the Word of the Lord that we will receive an Epiphany of God’s glory. That and that alone will move people to genuine worship, to the raising of hand and the shouting of “amen” and the physical or spiritual prostration of our lives. That and that alone will move us to tears of sorrow for our sins and to shouts of joy for God’s salvation. That and that alone will lead the church to glad generosity to the poor and to exuberant celebrations of God’s goodness in the great feasts of the church year. The reading from the Psalms for today (especially the second half of Psalm 19) sings the power and beauty of God’s Word. When the Word is read and explained, the glory of the Lord will be manifest to all.
In this reading from Nehemiah, it was the Word of God that transformed that day into a day that was sacred to the Lord—not the calendar, not a set of rules, not an elaborate liturgy, not sitting in a building, but the simple act of reading and listening to, explaining and obeying the Word of the Lord as it is found in the Book. It is when people meet together, men and women and children, literally or figuratively stand at attention, and listen intently to the Word that an ordinary day becomes a sacred day.
In that communal activity centered on the Word, God’s people are strengthened for the struggle to promote and build the Kingdom of God on earth. As Ezra and his associates called the people to rejoice in response to the Word, they speak a lovely word that has helped and puzzled generations of Christians. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Note, they do not say, “The Lord is your strength.” That would be easy to understand. It sounds like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
But Nehemiah 8:10 focuses on the joy of the Lord; that’s what gives strength. And that’s what makes this such a special text. It’s not the Lord’s strength that gives us strength. It is the Lord’s joy. What does that mean? Well, I think it means, first of all, the Lord’s joy in us, the kind of joy that a parent has over a child. That’s what gives us strength when everything is gloomy. The Lord of heaven and earth rejoices over us, clapping his hands in delight over us. What a glorious picture!
And the Lord gives us joy in himself. As his Word reminds us of God’s character and his acts on our behalf and his promises to us, we are filled with joy, even if we cannot see his glory in the world around us. Of all things we might rejoice over, our chief joy should be the Lord himself. “Rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4).” That joy in the Lord gives us strength to go on. And when we can’t find the joy because life is too tough, when the “in between time” lingers on for years and then centuries, God himself gives us the joy that is the fruit of the Spirit.
The Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Epiphany pulls all of this together. In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus gives his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Following the pattern established here in Nehemiah, Jesus reads a portion of Scripture (Isaiah 61) and then explains it to the assembled crowd. He explains that this ancient word about the anointed servant of the Lord, this word about preaching good news to the poor and the blind and the lame and the imprisoned, this Gospel word has been fulfilled in their hearing.
He means that he is the prophecy fulfilled. He is the anointed one. He is the One about whom the Word of the Lord has spoken for centuries now. He is the One sent by the God who rejoices over his sinful people. Jesus is the “Joy of the Lord” in person. Jesus is the one who will bring his own joy to all the people. The joy that is centered on Jesus is the strength of God’s people until he comes again.
Even as the glory of the Lord was revealed to the people as Jesus read and explained the Word that day, so the glory of the Lord is revealed to our people as we preachers explain that Jesus is our joy. Preach it, brothers and sisters, and give your people an Epiphany.
This illustration will date me, but as I read about the joy of Israel when the glory of the Lord was revealed in the Word, I thought about the “glory days” we used to enjoy in high school. When I was a freshman, the basketball team of our tiny Christian school went undefeated. They beat everyone, including major public high schools around the state of Colorado. It was an impossible feat that brought great glory to Denver Christian High School.
As a reward for that accomplishment, the school administration gave us all a “glory day,” a day filled with a celebration in the gym, a march around the school, refreshments for all, and then, best of all, the rest of the day off. From that day forward, we students pushed for a “glory day” whenever we had any small victory. The administration wisely refused. But the memory of that one glory day stays with me a half century later.
I’m sure those who were part of that glory day in ancient Israel never forgot either. Would that every Sunday were a glory day for all God’s people as the Word is read and we celebrate the victory of the Lord Jesus.
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