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)

Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:1-8 – A Prayer of Confession

The Prayer by Constantin Brancusi 1907
“The Prayer,” by Constantin Brancusi, 1907

The Israelites gathered for a day of fasting. They wore sackcloth and put ashes on their heads to show they were sad and upset. Those people who were true Israelites separated themselves from foreigners. The Israelites stood and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood there for about three hours, and the people read the Book of the Law of the Lord their God. Then for three more hours they confessed their sins and bowed down to worship the Lord their God…. 

They said, “Stand up and praise the Lord your God! God has always lived and will live forever.

People should praise your glorious name.
May your name be lifted above all blessing and praise.
You are God.
Lord, only you are God.
You made the sky and the highest heavens
and everything in them.
You made the earth
and everything on it.
You made the seas
and everything in them.
You give life to everything.
All the heavenly angels bow down and worship you.
You are the Lord,
the God who chose Abram.
You led him from Ur in Babylonia.
You changed his name to Abraham.
You saw he was true and loyal to you,
and you made an agreement with him.
You promised to give him the land
of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites.
But you promised to give that land to Abraham’s descendants.
And you kept your promise because you are good.” (ERV)
 

We have many examples in Holy Scripture of people coming together for corporate prayers to confess sin. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a representation of such a confession. I understand that many churches, especially in the western world, jettisoned prayers of confession in their corporate worship services long ago. Eschewing rituals, such gatherings of believers have the inclination to be neither liturgical nor focus on such a negative subject as extended focus on sin through confessing prayer.

Yet, here we are, in the Bible, with a prayer of confession before us. There’s no getting around it: without prayers of confession, we are left in the realm of human pride and hubris – believing we can tackle whatever is in front of us with a solid dose of Protestant work ethic and robust free will. I hate to burst your bubble (no, I confess I really like bursting bubbles!) where there is no confession of sin, both personal and corporate, there is no righteousness and no eternal life.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Prayers of confession invite us to voice what is in the darkest places of our hearts. – to be raw and real about our own sin, as well as the sins of the world. Speaking aloud such words do not come naturally, which is why we need to graft these types of prayers into our life and worship. Naming with honesty and sincerity our personal and collective sins becomes liberating when we sense the immensity of God’s grace. Whereas in most situations, we do not feel safe to name our sins, in the presence of God we are empowered by his love to call forth and bring to light the deepest and darkest shadows of our personal lives and of our society.

A full-frontal prayer of confession acknowledges that our sin is more than a random example of bad judgment. We are sinful people, living in a sinful world, and we absolutely need a Savior! Our confessions of sin also acknowledge and bring to light that sin is a power that resides not only within individual persons but also has infected every society, institution, structure, and even church. An authentic confession of sin admits complicit participation in the structures of evil which exist everywhere.

What is more, a simple observation of the Israelites’ prayer notices that they were not only repenting of their own sin; they freely recognized and professed their ancestor’s sins, as well. Sin never simply dies with the person – it infects and influences the next generation. And unless we come to grips with this terrible reality, we will keep perpetuating the sins of our ancestors.

Which is why it is so vitally important that right now the people of God admit and confess the sins of their slaveholder ancestors, as well as affirm our implicit bias against people different than us and our complicity in perpetuating racism through our silence, unquestioning allegiance to particular political parties, and assuming we should always be in power because we are the best persons to do it. So, then, here is a prayer of confession concerning our present situation of racism:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we and our ancestors have done in the past, and by what we have left undone in the present through: allowing racism to continue and evolve in our social systems of economics and education; not reforming criminal justice; discriminating in housing and practicing gentrification; and, suppressing voting rights. In our racial geography and, painfully, in the continuing segregation of our churches, we have been complicit in racism through the betrayal of silence.

Holy God, we have not loved people of color as ourselves. We confess we have let ourselves off the hook by viewing racism as mere individual behavior, language, and overt hostility; and, have failed to see racism as systemic and structural, harming people of color in very specific, measurable, and tangible ways.

God Almighty, in your mercy forgive us for being racist, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be so that we, along with all people, may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of Jesus Christ in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nehemiah 1:1-11

            Prayer is not a passive activity.  If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority.  It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.  Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people.  In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do.  Our personal and corporate holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.
 
            When faced with the reality that Jerusalem was in trouble, Nehemiah prayed.  In prayer he owned the problems that Jerusalem faced.  He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of his covenant with his people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would repent.
 
            Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that did not ignore what was going on in his native land, but wept, mourned, fasted and prayed.  He had a deep concern for and was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble.  Rather than being preoccupied with himself, or turning his back on what was going on and focusing on his own new life in Babylon, he sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.
 
            In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God.  He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.  Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned.  If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.
 
            There is a season for everything.  Deer season may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate.  We all have our challenges to face.   Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayer that is biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for our lives and for God’s people.
 

 

            Most merciful God, I confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.  For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.