Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 23, 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Commentary
Quick! What is your favorite verse from the Book of Nehemiah?
Ask that of most churchgoing Christians and the answer is likely to be, “Ummm . . . Not sure.” Although some people may be familiar with the overall storyline of Nehemiah, mostly the specifics are not widely known. So if you said to someone, “How about the verse that says, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’?”, the odds are they would say, “I didn’t know that was from Nehemiah! I thought it was in a psalm or something.”
But no, it’s in Nehemiah 8 and it is the best-known verse in this book that actually has relatively few (if any) other verses most people know by heart.
The Lectionary carves up Nehemiah 8:1-10 apparently out of deference to people who don’t like trying to pronounce lists of Hebraic name because that is in the deleted verses 4 and 7 but if you don’t mind practicing those a bit, you can just read all 10 verses in worship.
In general Nehemiah 8 sounds vaguely like a dream come true for preachers. After all, there stands Ezra in what amounts to a pulpit with a large throng of people in front of him. He reads and explains the Word of God. The people had not had a chance to hear it just this way in decades. In fact, probably most people there that day could never remember a time when they got to soak up the very Word of Yahweh as it had been handed down from the time of Moses. So they stood in rapt attention, hanging on Ezra’s every word.
There was much they understood but the tougher points were nicely explained by Rev. Ezra. He made it possible to understand . . . to understand nothing short of the very Word of God, the will of Yahweh for his people. Although we were not told this along the way, we find out in verse 9 that as it turned out, the people had been so moved, so convicted, so arrested by Ezra’s explications and readings, they were weeping. Since we’re not really told why they had started to cry, we can only speculate. Ezra tells them not to “mourn,” which may indicate that what was behind the tears was a certain sadness at how out-of-alignment their lives had been vis-à-vis God’s will for his people.
But maybe it was more than that.
Maybe what set their tear ducts to flowing was the beauty of God’s revelation, the sheer wonder of getting to hear something proclaimed in public that had not been heard for so very long during Israel’s long period of Babylonian exile. Now they had come home. Granted, it was a ramshackle wreck of a place to which they returned and the work required to set things to right was daunting. But they were home and, as such, were eager to lap up the words of Ezra in that he was speaking the Word of Yahweh.
This is kind of a preacher’s dream come true! An attentive audience. A congregation eager to hear what you have to say and not merely willing to tolerate another sermon en route to the end of the service. They listened. They weren’t glancing at their watches, weren’t nodding off, weren’t wearing expressions on their faces that could indicate concentration but could just as easily signal either boredom or deep anger (or both!). Yes, we preachers know what it is to look out into the faces of our congregations and see such a variety of expressions, each of which betrays one state of mind or another. Seldom, though, are the people as attentive as Nehemiah 8 depicts the returned exiles as being.
This is a curious passage. It is made all-the-more curious near the end when Ezra tells the people that instead of crying over God’s Word (for whatever the reason) they needed to go home and feast. They needed to celebrate. They needed to put on the fatted calf (insofar as these still-poor exiles were able to do that at least) and just have a great time, being sure to share their food and drink with those who could not join the feast without some outside donations. And so the passage that begins, as it were, “in church” concludes with a delightful portrait of a banquet. The sounds of crying over the beauty (or the challenges) of God’s Word get replaced in the end with the clinking of stemware, the smacking of lips, and the convivial sounds of laughter and conversation emerging from the homes of the Israelites as they gather around tables laden with good stuff.
Perhaps it tilts us too much in the direction of making an allegory out of this passage but perhaps what we can see here is more than just a preacher’s dream of a hyper-attentive congregation that is truly eager to be engaged by God’s Word and the preacher’s words. Maybe what we see here is a portrait for how God’s people should receive, and respond to, the Word of God at all times. We are mostly too blasé these days. Maybe were we deprived of God’s Word for a long time like these former exiles had been we’d likewise come back to church and to the hearing of God’s Word with something approaching their level of eagerness.
But perhaps the real “trick” is to keep up our joy in God’s Word even short of such periods of forced deprivation. Maybe the eagerness we see here really can and should be our attitude toward the Word of the Lord at all times even as we should respond to that Word with the joy and festiveness with which this Lectionary passage concludes as the people engage in their various celebrative feasts.
If so, then let’s admit as preachers (since it is mostly preachers who read these sermon commentary ideas) that just that joy, eager expectation, and raptness of attention needs to start with us. Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Blink that we human beings are pretty good at making snap judgments about people within the first 20 seconds or so of an encounter. We size people up in a big hurry and, for better or for worse, the decisions we make about the people we meet (he’s kind of gross, she’s fat, he’s remarkable, she’s intriguing, etc.) stick with us and are hard to shake. People can size up their preachers in a “blink” as well. We preachers can convey a lot in a hurry. People will know soon enough if we are swinging into the pulpit with zeal and with a giddy eagerness to share the fruits of that week’s sermon preparations and writing or whether we’re dragging ourselves into that pulpit, feeling vaguely bored by our own sermon even before we utter the first word of it.
Preachers who want their people to be enthusiastic receivers of God’s Word need to let the enthusiasm start within their own hearts. Preachers who want God’s Word to elicit rapt attention and a full range of emotional responses in the congregation need to be attentive themselves, letting the Holy Spirit convict their hearts and souls during the week by never approaching the Bible with a bland, “Well, time to get up another sermon” attitude that over time inures us to being surprised by the Word, moved by the Word, delighted by the Word.
Nehemiah 8 may well be a passage to help preachers and congregations alike “recover their first love,” so to speak: namely, our love for that old, old story that is finally never old but is ever fresh, ever new, ever surprising and, for those reasons, ever a source of delighted joy and celebration!
Oh, and when you’re finished preaching, tell the folks to go home, to tuck into that Sunday noon pot roast, to raise a glass of Cabernet, and to see also all that as an extension of a feasting on the Word and on all the goodness of God’s good creation!
Over the course of church history we have developed all kinds of new things. The Orthodox developed their fine tradition of iconography. Skilled composers have set the gospel truths to music in chants, oratorios, hymns. Artists have painted untold numbers of masterpieces depicting biblical scenes, and manuscripts of the Bible have long been adorned in a variety of visual ways. In more recent times filmmakers have dramatized biblical stories, and for ages now preachers have pulled in lots of cultural illustrations to help make the Word of the gospel more vivid for people’s lives.
But in a day when some people believe the spoken and written word is just generally a dying breed, in a day when some churches seem to think that glitzy technology and entertainment formats borrowed from television are absolute necessities if people are going to be reached, in a day when even many preachers shun the trappings of traditional proclamation so that they can instead sit on a barstool and just casually “chat” and “share” with folks who would be put off if they really thought they were being preached at–in a time of flux and change like this, we need to savor and return to the one thing the church has traditionally believed: namely, it is the telling of the gospel’s truth that is God’s power at work to generate faith in people’s hearts.
Maybe we’ve begun to lose faith in the power of words. Maybe the true Word gets drowned out today in the cacophony of words that cascade over us day after day. Advertisers are constantly blitzing us with flurries of words–words that mean nothing. The talking heads on 24-hour cable news channels never shut up yet seldom strive for thoughtfulness, contenting themselves with idle chatter.
But I will be so bold as to say that if you do not believe in the power of at least one Word, then you are missing something fundamental to the faith. We need to believe that the Word of the gospel–all by itself, unadorned, without video accompaniment–has the power to change lives. We need to believe that passionately because only by so believing will we be motivated to keep on speaking that Word ourselves. You don’t need a pulpit to tell people what you believe. You don’t need PowerPoint. You can be as plainspoken as they come. You may stutter, you will likely bump into questions you can’t answer. Probably at some point you’ll run into those who think you’re pretty simpleminded still to be believing in those old gospel “myths.”
That’s OK. If you believe that the gospel contains the power of God, then you’ll keep telling the old, old story. If you do, then somewhere along the line, whether you ever find out about it or not, the very power of God is going to burst forth in someone’s heart. This Word can do that!
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