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)

Romans 12:17-21; 13:8-10

            Not everybody is likable.  We all have others that drive us crazy on the inside with their annoying habits or ungodly ways of life.  But sometimes we might experience much more than being irritated.  Raging vitriol that results in verbal persecution; becoming the targets of evil intent; and, in some cases, finding ourselves victims of violence done to us or a loved one can stretch our Christian sensibilities to their maximum.  It is understandable that in such cases we would be upset, angry, in grief, and desire justice.
 
As we reflect back on Reformation Day and the great truth that we are justified apart from any work of our own but by grace alone through faith, this helps to give understanding as to why we do not take vengeance into our own hands.  We are clearly exhorted in this passage of Holy Scripture to “repay no one evil for evil” because “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  If justification is a work of God to rescue and redeem sinners from their plight, then wrath is also a work of God.  Just as to be justified is initiated and made possible through Christ by faith, so vengeance belongs to God, as well.  Our part in the whole affair is to trust God that he will take care of judging the world.  Judgment is way above our pay grade.
 
What is within our purview is showing love, even to those whom we consider enemies.  If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we will leave plenty of room for God to do what God does best:  either show mercy to sinners; or, execute judgment upon them.  It is really all his business what he does with his creatures.  Our business is coming under the lordship of Christ and allowing God’s new creation to work itself out through us.  We are to work for the kind of justice that provides others with what they need, not what they deserve.  The world cannot become a better place if we keep insisting on playing judge, jury, and executioner.  Sometimes the best way to show love is to sincerely pray for the person for whom we have such difficulty loving.  Who do you need to love today?
 

 

Just and merciful God, you are the rightful Judge of all the earth.  Help me to trust in you to the degree that I can give room for you to do whatever you want to do in others’ lives.  I pray you will grace many people with the repentance that leads to new life in Jesus.  Amen.

Luke 10:25-37


            In Christianity there is no justifying self.  The kingdom of God turns on grace, not more or harder work.  On this day, Reformation Day, Christians remember the famous posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Justification by grace through faith, apart from human effort, is the great theological emphasis and legacy of the Reformers.  I suppose one would expect to look at the books of Romans and Galatians on such a day.  But to the gospels we go….
             The parable of the Good Samaritan is just as famous, but perhaps not so much when one is thinking of the Reformation.  Yet, Luke gives us insight into the thought process of the person for whom Jesus told the parable.  The man sought to “justify himself.”  When we look at the parable from the view of justification, we see the perspective of the wounded and hapless man, the victim of robbers.  He was left for dead, and, indeed, in the story we know that he would die apart from help – the kind of help the man could not do for himself.  He was completely dependent on someone to rescue him from his plight.
             The Samaritan, the Christ figure in the story, comes and shows the man mercy.  This grace was free, lacked any sort of favoritism, and full of sheer kindness.  Without the Samaritan’s actions of binding up the man’s wounds and getting him to a safe place, the victim would have died.  
             Today is a special day to celebrate the wonderful and glorious reality that Jesus Christ saves people from their terrible plight.  His mercy is not dependent on what kind of people we are, but simply based on need.  God graciously gives us the gift of faith and the mercy of deliverance.  By Christ’s wounds we are healed.  Take some time this day to reflect on this most gracious of truths that we do not need to justify ourselves, but as Christians already possess justification by grace alone apart from human effort.  Read the parable of the Good Samaritan carefully and slowly, absorbing it from this angle of the inability to justify ourselves and the incredible mercy of Christ.  Let this sink deep in your soul to bring wholeness and healing.
             Merciful God, you sent your Son to rescue me from my sinful condition.  Thank you for the great grace you have shown through Jesus to save me and justify me so that I need no longer try and justify myself before others.  Amen.

Reformation Sunday

 
 
We all may be familiar with the fact that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church which sparked the Protestant Reformation, but we are probably less familiar with the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.
 
            In his Disputation, Luther contrasted two opposing ways of approaching Christianity.  He called these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin.  It is the death of Christ that is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin.  It is through being crucified with Christ that we find the way to human flourishing and life.  In other words, righteousness is gained only by grace through faith in Christ.
 
            The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross.  For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning that we readily see.  You perhaps have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like.  My guess is that it probably has something to do with an actual sinful lifestyle or particular evil acts. 
 
            Luther, however, insisted that the worst of sinners are those people who do good works, who pursue a theology of glory.  More specifically, the wicked person is the one who has clean living and does all kinds of nice things, but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions.  Another way of putting it is that the wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for him/herself, rather than giving glory to God.
 
            Our good works, Luther insisted, are the greatest hindrance to being a truly righteous person and living in the way of the cross.  It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone.  It is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word.  The only remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives life apart from that cross, trusting in him/herself so that people can recognize them and give them their due respect and praise.
 
            Here is what Luther had to say in a nutshell concerning his thoughts:  “It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”
 
            So, then, the answer to this problem of doing good works out of our intention of gaining glory for ourselves is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and being connected to the vine of Christ. 
 

 

            Reformation Sunday is a time to remember, and a time to repent.  We remember that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.  We also take the time to repent of our works done apart from Christ and acted for the accolades of others.  Perhaps what we need today is another Reformation, that is, a reformation of spiritual habits that truly connect us to the vine of Christ – practices that shape our lives around the person and work of Jesus, and not around the idols of our hearts that make us look good and impress others.  What will you choose on this day?