Monday, November 14, 2011

celebrating Jesus in Nehemiah 8

this is my sermon from 10/23/11 at harrisburg first church of God, from Nehemiah 8.

good morning. for those of you who don’t know me, my name is walt raudenbush, and i’m one of the teachers here at first church. today we’re continuing in our sermon series “for the city” from the book of Nehemiah. for those of you who like structure, i have four points today: the Word of God, our response, God in history, and Jesus. i’ll give a quick recap of the book, and then we’ll dive in to today’s text.
the book starts with nehemiah, a godly man living with his people who have been exiled from jerusalem for decades. God breaks nehemiah’s heart because the city of jerusalem was in ruins, and he tasks nehemiah to return there and rebuild the city with his fellow jews. nehemiah returns to the city, lays out a plan before the people there, and with God’s help the work goes forward. along the way, opposition arises form various corners, both inside and outside, but nehemiah and his people do not give in. instead, they trust in God and continue the work of rebuilding the city. nehemiah also had to correct some of his own people for their mistreatment of their brothers, who repented or turned from their oppressive ways and followed God’s ways, honoring their fellow men as image-bearers of God. despite these problems, the wall around the city was finished in the incredible time of 52 days. and that’s where we pick up the story in Nehemiah chapter 8.

the chapter starts with all the people of jerusalem gathered together to hear God’s Word. they had spent the better part of two months working ‘round the clock standing guard or working construction. they’re tired, they’re sore, and they’re glad to finally be safe in their city. so what do they do with their first day off? they call ezra the priest, for whom the previous book of the Bible is named, and they have him read God’s Law to them. they want to hear from the God for whom they’ve labored so hard, so in this pre-literate culture, they have the scholarly priest open God’s Word for them. we know from earlier in the Bible that ezra had spent a great deal of time seeking to understand the Scriptures.
so ezra, as he reads to them, he “gives the sense of it” to the people, helping to explain what exactly the text means. in essence, he preaches a sermon to them, taking the Word of God as his basis and working through It, helping people understand and unpacking the text for them. and since that was written into the Bible, i get to preach on preaching, because we follow the same pattern, as various teachers who are a part of the church help us to understand what the Bible means, not just the straight-forward meaning of the text, but its implications about who God is and its application to us in our thoughts and actions. this happens not only on sunday mornings, but in home groups and Bible studies, as well as the plethora of media available to us in our technological age. something to consider: if you have a long commute like i do, perhaps spending that time listening to an audio Bible or recordings of sermons, which are widely available online or on tape or cd.
now notice something here: the people were gathered together for worship, all 50,000 of them. everyone was there, both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, across every societal division, anyone who could listen and think was there. imagine if God moved here in such a way that the entire city of harrisburg was shut down on sunday to meet as His people and worship through the preaching of His Word and the singing of His praises. that would be something, and it could happen, so let’s keep praying for it and seeking the advance of the gospel in this city, to see such a day in our time.
one thing to note: theirs was an age where most people couldn’t read very well, and there were very few books available to read. nowadays, we have giant bookstores and public libraries, and most of us have multiple copies of the Good Book. consider the privilege that is, and do not take it for granted.
also, notice the time indicators here. it’s so easy to read right over the details, but it says ezra preached from early morning until midday, roughly 6 hours. i’m not going to go that long today, which most of you are probably thankful for, but i want to impress upon you their example of earnest desire to hear from God, and prod us awake, that if we truly believe that the Bible is God-breathed, then we ought not to take it lightly, but rather treasure it and take advantage of the availability of Scripture and solid Bible-teaching.
ezra preaches from a wooden platform, above the people. this is not because ezra was in some sense better or more holy than the rest of israel. he was, in himself, just a man. but on that day, for that purpose, he is raised above them. why? because he was the messenger of God preaching the Word of God, and the Word deserves that place. you see, we can hold the Bible in one of two places. we can have it under us, reading it as a nice book with some good things to say, pulling it out when it suits our fancy, following it when it confirms what we already want or believe. or we can hold it above us, letting it have its place of authority over us, so that we submit to it, whether it agrees with us or not, we change to it. in this, its rightful position as inspired of God, we cannot avoid the parts that make us uncomfortable or that challenge our ways of thinking or acting. while we can ask questions and seek to gain understanding, we cannot dismiss what we do not like or cut out what we do not agree with. the question is, do we read the Bible, or do we let the Bible read us?

now we see in this next section the people’s response. their response is fourfold. they start with awestruck worship. in the Law, they see not only a list of commands, but a picture of the character of God. they see that He is holy and awesome, righteous and perfect. they lift their hands and bow down, and they cry aloud the blessedness of God.
their response is also to weep. but why do they weep? what has caused this great sorrow? for what reason are their hearts broken and their souls troubled? you see, they’ve just read through the Law of the Lord, which most of them have not heard much if any of while in their exile in babylon, and they realize that they have not lived up to it. now in our day and age, no one is expected to be perfect. our culture is full of “do your best” and “nobody’s perfect”, and while our anti-perfectionist mottos can be helpful and encouraging, i fear that we often forget that we are called to be perfect, for we are told “be perfect, as I am perfect, I am the Lord.” in our accepting of our limitations, we lull ourselves into complacency and comfort ourselves with a false sense of security when we come across the absolute demands of God and His standard. it goes so far that we barely take the Scriptures seriously. but the people in the text, when they heard from God, took Him seriously, and in so doing they were compelled to respond. they see how far they have fallen short, and they are deeply grieved by it.
thankfully, the text does not stop there, or else they and we should be left helpless and hopeless. ezra and his fellow leaders command them not to weep but to celebrate, to share in feasting and rejoicing with good food and drink. but why, if they were guilty, would the Bible teachers tell them to react in the exact opposite way? what is their reasoning for such an emotional about-face? the joyful news is that not only is God a holy and just judge, but He is merciful and forgiving. over and over in the Scriptures God described Himself as “a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” nehemiah quotes a merciful promise of God from the Law in chapter one, that “if you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make My name dwell there,” and in this returning to jerusalem God fulfills His promise. and so the people are made to understand that, though they are sinful, God is providing a way back into relationship with Him, that they need not live in fear but can rejoice at the closeness of their Creator and King. and so their sorrow and repentance brings forth joy and celebration at the Word of God.
the last part of their response is obedience. they celebrate the festival of booths, also called the feast of tabernacles. the purpose of this feast was to remember the ancient israelites deliverance from slavery in egypt, how they traveled for many years in tents and huts, without permanent dwellings. so the people made temporary huts and lived in them for the week, as a remembrance of that part of their history.
this brings me to my next point: their reason for celebrating this is that God not only reveals Himself in Word and meets with His people in covenantal relationship, but He acts in history. over and over the psalms tell us to declare His mighty acts, and the Law commands us to tell of His deeds from one generation to the next. these things remind us that our God is not passive; He does not sit back and merely watch as the history of our world unfolds. rather, He is active in it, and works to display His glory, the radiance of His perfections. God shows in His works that He is not good and faithful and gracious and just in word only but in deed and in truth, and remembering these proofs of His goodness remind us that He is so, even when we question and doubt and struggle to trust. He works not only on the grandiose scale of nations but also in personal history. let me encourage you in this: when you pray, write down what you ask of God, and keep track of how He answers. it can greatly increase your confidence in His faithfulness.

lastly, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture, because this passage is not alone, nor is the book that contains it isolated. it is part of one big book about one thing, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. and as we take this bigger picture and look back at this morning’s text, we see that Jesus is all over this chapter. the chapter starts with the Word of God, and Jesus is ultimate revelation of God, the exact image of deity, the incarnate Word. and like the Law, the Gospel starts out with the fact that we are created by God and that we have fallen short. and like our text, the Gospel does not stop with sorrowful repentance, the turning from sin to God, but it continues with rejoicing in renewed relationship with God, which is ours because we were purchased by Him on the cross of Christ. therefore, instead of mourning over what we should have done or what we shouldn’t have said, we can rejoice in our God who is making us new. and lastly, we can look back at history, both on the grand scale of the progress of the gospel in the world at large, or the work of God in our own lives, and see how He is near and active in and around us, and that He’s not done with us yet. and that is very good news.
so now, we’ll sing a final song in response to God’s gracious love toward us, and then i’m off to celebrate His goodness with my family. how will you celebrate Jesus today?

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