Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

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.

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.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

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. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)

Joshua 1:1-11 – On Meditation and Courage

Day and night, think about it.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

So, Joshua ordered the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own.’” (NIV)

The ancient Israelites were delivered from Egyptian bondage, wandered through the desert for forty years, and, after the death of their leader Moses, were poised to enter the land promised to them. It was going to be no cakewalk. There were pagan peoples entrenched in the land and it would be a huge accomplishment to conquer their territory. Joshua, the young aide-de-camp of Moses, now leader of the people, would be the one to go before them in battle. As you might understand, Joshua was likely nervous, perhaps even downright scared. 

So, the Lord came to Joshua and told him to be strong and courageous, to not be afraid to claim the good promise of the land. The path to success for Joshua, as well as all of God’s people, would not be by the physical sword but by the sword of the Lord, the Word of God. The Lord was plainspoken about the need to intimately know the Law given to the people and to continually meditate upon it. Being careful to do everything written within it, Joshua would find both the courage and the wisdom to lead the people to victory.

It remains true for all God’s people that faithful knowledge, sage wisdom, and careful adherence to Holy Scripture comes through meditation upon its contents. There is a great need amongst believers to continually ruminate on God’s Word. We may sometimes wonder how to address and deal with certain situations and problems that seem as large as taking the Promised Land. The place to begin is by going to the Word of God – not so much in an anxious, hasty, or impatient question-and-answer sort of way which looks for a quick response; but instead, in a slow, deliberate, contemplative way. 

Lasting and genuine spirituality, as well as a sense of settled success, comes not only through acknowledging the Bible is God’s Holy Word; it develops through meditating upon it consistently and continually.

Scripture memorization is a discipline worth pursuing. Having large chunks of Scripture within our minds and hearts helps us to home in on relevant and helpful verses, narratives, and messages when facing challenging situations and adverse circumstances. 

What is more, when engaged in tedious work, we can engage our minds in the practice of contemplation on those verses we have committed to memory. Meditation on God’s Word is a necessary practice if we want to have success in living the Christian life.

Courage and meditation are a package deal. Bravery and contemplation are meant to be wed together. One rarely comes without the other. Which means the realization of our good dreams for self and world need the practice of Scripture meditation.

God Almighty, my delight is in your law, and on it I meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2).

O how I love your law! It is my meditation, my food and drink, all day, every day (Psalm 119:97).

I will meditate on your precepts and honor your ways in all I do and say (Psalm 119:15).

I am determined to lift my hands to your commandments, which I love; and I will meditate on your statutes (Psalm 119:48).

I look forward to the wee hours of the night because it provides me the space and the quiet to meditate on your word (Psalm 119:148).

In fact, I meditate on all your doings through both day and night; I ponder and consider the works of your hands (Psalm 143:5).

I pray through Jesus Christ your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign forever. Amen.

Psalm 119:97-104 – God the Teacher

I deeply love your Law!
    I think about it all day.
Your laws never leave my mind,
    and they make me much wiser
    than my enemies.
Thinking about your teachings
    gives me better understanding
    than my teachers,
and obeying your laws
makes me wiser
    than those
    who have lived a long time.
I obey your word
    instead of following a way
    that leads to trouble.
You have been my teacher,
    and I won’t reject
    your instructions.
Your teachings are sweeter
    than honey.
    They give me understanding
    and make me hate all lies. (CEV)

We live in a wonderful, complex, beautiful, broken, and upside-down world. The information we access, the choices we make, and the networking we engage in all require a great deal of wisdom.  Throw into the mix the reality that most things rarely go as we plan, and you have a recipe for disappointment and/or frustrating anger.  So, is there a path, a way of approaching this world that can help us navigate all its twists and trials?  Yes, there is a light through it all. Today’s psalm informs us how to proceed.

Wisdom in the Old Testament is the ability to take revealed truth and put it into concrete daily practice. So then, a life marked by the love and study of God’s Word brings both right living and enjoyment. God is our teacher and faithfully guides us into grateful living through his promises and commands. We can put ourselves in a position to sit at the master’s feet and receive gracious instruction for life.

Lectio Divina is one way of doing just that: allowing God to teach us through his Holy Word. Lectio Divina is an ancient Latin term which means “spiritual reading.”  It means to read Holy Scripture not just to know its contents, but to experience its power to restore, heal, transform, provide wisdom, and draw close to God. 

Lectio Divina is a simple way to prayerfully read the Bible, meditate on its message, and listen for what God may be saying for us to do.  It can be done privately, or with a small group of people.  The goal for the Christian is to become more Christ-like.

Lectio Divina is based upon reading a selected text of Scripture three times. Each reading is followed by a period of silence after which each person is given the opportunity to briefly share what they are hearing as they listen to God (if done in a group).

First Reading

During the first reading, read the text aloud twice. Read slowly and carefully. The purpose of the first reading is for each person to hear the text and to listen for a word, phrase or idea that captures their attention. As group members recognize a word, phrase, or idea, they are to focus their attention on it, repeating it within their minds several times.

Second Reading

During the second reading, read the text again. This time, listeners are to focus their attention on how the selected word, phrase or idea speaks to their life that day. What does it mean for you today? How is Christ, the Word, speaking to you about your life through this word, phrase, or idea? What is Christ, the Word, speaking to you about your life through this word, phrase, or idea? After the reading, a brief period of silence is observed and then group members share briefly what they have heard.

Third Reading

Read the text again. This time, listeners are to focus on what God is calling them to do or to become. Experiencing God’s presence changes us. It calls us to something. During this final reading, focus on what God is calling you to do or to be.  After the third reading, there is a period of silence, then group members share what they are being called to do or to be.

The psalms, especially Psalm 119, are meant to be read over-and-over again, to be used for prayer, worship, and study. Devoting ourselves to the psalms and grafting them into our lives is one of the best practices we can do to live a healthy and happy spiritual life.

Almighty God extend your goodness to me according to your Holy Word. Teach me knowledge and good judgment because I trust your commands. I seek to obey your wondrous Word. You are good, and what you do is always good. Teach me your decrees through Jesus Christ my Lord in the wisdom of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-9 – Paying Attention

Calvin and Hobbes - paying attention

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders, and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

My wife and three daughters all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). Although many people believe this to be a disadvantage, I have noticed that since their brain chemistry doesn’t have a good filter for filtering all the stimuli they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it.  Whereas you and I might take this for granted, the women in my life know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

The ability to pay attention and listen is necessary for a sustainable Christian life. The consequence of not developing such competency is that we will drift away – our minds will wander and allow other competing voices to overwhelm the singular voice of Jesus.  Taking salvation for granted may be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work, so we neglect to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth.  We are meant to have continual reminders of Christ’s redemptive events. We are to avoid the precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices. We need an intentional plan for paying attention without assuming we will be focused. Along with paying attention to our physical health and being vigilant about keeping the coronavirus at bay, here are a few ways of daily being mindful of our spiritual health:

  • Read the Scripture each day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Hold a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
  • Journal your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Set a consistent time and place for bible reading and prayer.
  • Use different translations and versions of the Bible to read.
  • Go outside occasionally and pray while walking.
  • Focus on your breathing, and consider using breath prayers, i.e. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
  • Drink some coffee, tea, or something soothing, and picture the comfort of Christ coming into your life.
  • Be aware of distractions and acknowledge them without judging yourself.
  • Observe the Christian Year and the Daily Lectionary.

While some might argue that observing Lectionaries, the Church Calendar, Christian seasons, and worship liturgies are vain repetition, I insist otherwise: We are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  Like a beach goer on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we can be unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.

Forming habits of worship, fellowship, service, and piety are essential to deliberately maintaining attention to Jesus. Perhaps if we all had spiritual A.D.D. we would be more intentional about grafting reminders and practices into our lives.

Ignorance does not come from a lack of education; it comes from a failure to pay attention to the most important things in life.

God pays attention to us in a special way, different from all other creation. As the only creatures for whom the image and likeness of God resides, we have an innate sense of connection with the divine. Paying attention to things, especially to what Christ has secured for us through the cross, reflects the God who is continually observing humanity.

May your contemplation of Christ and his redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension be always fresh and continually meaningful.

Soli Deo Gloria.