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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Nehemiah 8
January 27, 2013 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

         We camped on the street in Pasadena forty years ago. We wanted to see the Rose Parade. So we took sleeping bags the day before, laid them at the curb and tried to sleep. The next morning we picked up the bags  and stood as people pressed in around us. We took turns holding our spots and going to the restroom. By parade time there was nowhere to sit. We were standing for hours, until the floats went by. I’d never do it again.

         I guess one reason I don’t like to go to football games is that if it’s a good game, you spend much of it on your feet as the whole crowd stands to watch what happens and cheer. Most of us wouldn’t like an Orthodox church service where the congregation stands the whole time. Yet here in Nehemiah 8, we hear that while Ezra read the Torah from sunrise to noon, all the people of Israel stood and listened.

         Everyone came. The reading was not Ezra’s idea. Verse 1 says they gathered before the Water Gate and “They told scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses.” Verse 2 tells us men, women and children old enough to understand were present. Verse 3 says they all were “attentive to the book of the law.”

         As scandal broke over the White House in the 1970s regarding a break-in at the Democratic National Convention headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., I’m sure our pastor was not the only one who chose one Sunday to preach from this passage in Nehemiah and say, “Let’s talk about a different Water Gate, a better one where people stood up and listened to God.”

         As we begin this new year, we’ve chosen to focus on the Word of God, to listen to it attentively by reading through its greatest texts. Though we may not stand for hours to hear it read aloud, my hope is that our reading and study together can capture some of the spirit and enthusiasm for God’s Word that is displayed here at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.

         This reading of the Law took place in a worship service. This is one of the few places in the Bible where we get a detailed description of how worship was structured. This event became a model for Jewish worship in a synagogue. We see that in our Gospel lesson as Jesus Himself reads aloud from Scripture.

         The date in verse 2, the first day of the seventh month, means this was a celebration of the Feast of Trumpets, Rosh Hashanna, the spiritual New Year festi­val. The chronology of the book of Nehemiah is unclear, but it looks like this gather­ing happened within a week or so of completing the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. It cele­brated a new year and a new era in their lives. These people had come home from exile in Babylon. They had a country of their own again. They came to praise God for what He had done for them.

         The Water Gate assembly displays what are still the three basic parts of a worship service. First, we gather and acknowledge God’s presence. Second, we listen to God speak through His Word. Third, we make an active re­sponse to God. Those movements happen here in Nehemiah 8, as we see the events of that day unpacked in verses 5 to 12.

         Verses 5 and 6 tell how they entered God’s presence, honoring Him by standing, then calling out “Amen, Amen,” then bowing in humility and worshipping “the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

         Verses 7 and 8 detail their attention to the Word, telling us how a whole cohort of Levites explained the reading from the Law, helping the people understand it.

         Then verses 9 through 12 give us how they actively responded to what they heard, first with sorrowful conviction and then with a feast of rejoicing.

         We do exactly those same three things when we gather here in God’s presence and praise Him, then listen to reading and the explanation of Scripture, and then come with joy to the feast of our Lord’s Table.

         This was a gathering of the people’s own desire. They came to­ the Water Gate by choice. They told Ezra to bring out the Book. Verse 4 literally says that Ezra stood “on a high wooden platform they had built for the occasion.” Their celebration of the new year was the act of the whole assembly, not just their leaders. The people did this, not just the priests.

         Verse 5 describes the beginning of the service, their acknowledgement that they had come before God. Opening the Book was made into a ceremony. It was a scroll, a large one. Ezra carried it out on the platform above the people so all could see, and then rolled it open. As he did so, we read, the people stood up in honor of the Word of God.

         That’s exactly why here in our church we stand for the reading of the Gospel. We honor the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ by standing to hear the Good News contained in the four books which tell us about His life and atoning ministry. Standing focuses our minds and our bodies on the truth which is at the center of our faith.

         Beth and I attended Good Friday worship at Sacred Heart Cathedral while we were at the University of Notre Dame. It was a surprising and awe-inspiring experience for a couple of recovering Baptists. The huge space was dark. Every decoration, every cross in the sanctuary, had been removed. There was no organ prelude, no music. The service started with the slow, pounding of a bass drum. Then the Cross was brought forward in a solemn procession of priests and acolytes.

         And we stood. After the procession, the Gospel lesson was read: John chapter 18 verse 1 through chapter 19 verse 42, two long chapters, fifteen minutes of reading. Beth tells how she got tired and her feet hurt, but then it came to her: “Here we are reading about how the Lord suffered for us, and I’m uncomfortable just because my feet are tired?” Standing, we heard the story of the trials and pains of Jesus in a whole new way.

         Of course, in Jerusalem, there were old people and children, disabled people, who did not stand for six hours. But others could and did. They praised God with their whole being, including the posture of their bodies. Those Jews stood to honor God’s Word and bowed down in humility to listen. They were wholly absorbed in worship. That is our own goal, to worship our Lord with all that we are.

         The things we physically do in worship are not just empty ritual. You and I cannot worship completely without our bodies involved, without doing something. Shaking hands with each other at the beginning has a purpose. It pulls us together as God’s people. Standing to sing praise songs, bowing heads in prayer, even holding a hymnal in our hands for some of the songs, are all ways to put ourselves actively into the worship of God.

         There was preaching at the Water Gate in verse 7 and 8. Levites either explained the reading from the platform or possibly circulated in the crowd to explain while Ezra read. They made sure every person there heard and understood what God said in His Word.

         That’s why we have a children’s message and offer children’s church each Sunday. So the youngest of us have a chance to hear God’s Word in a way they can understand. And it’s one reason why we have written copies of the sermons available before the service. Those whose first language is not English or who have trouble hearing or following what is said aloud can read along and understand.

         The Levites’ explanation of the meaning mentioned in verse 8 may have been just a translation. Hebrew was being replaced by Aramaic as the Jews’ common language. They may have needed the reading translated into everyday speech. Or perhaps the Levites added clarification of how the ancient Law ap­plied specifically to people in that time, like a sermon applies God’s Word to our lives today.

         The main goal of preaching and teaching in worship is the same as it was back then. We come to understand what God is saying, and out of that understanding rooted in our minds, to have a change occur in our hearts. Worship in­vites us to know what God says so that ultimately we may do what God says.

         Some­thing like what happened among the people who heard Ezra read the Law needs to happen to you and me. Verse 9 tells us people were weeping. Years ago I talked over this passage with a friend who said, “Of course they were crying, they had been standing for hours. They were tired.” But that’s not it.

         Tears of conviction fell from their eyes. As Ezra read the words of Moses giving God’s law, they realized how they had broken that law, failed to keep it. They learned how they should show love to God and to each other, and knew they had not done it. It was too long since God had been honored in their lives, much too long since they had honored one another as people of God. They broke down and wept because they realized their sin.

         The Our Daily Bread devotional magazine told the story of Alexander Rostovzev, a Russian actor. He played the role of Jesus in a sacrilegious play entitled “Christ in a Tuxedo.” In one scene he was to read two verses from the Sermon on the Mount, then remove his robe and yell out, “Give me my tuxedo and top hat!”

         As Rostovzev read the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted,” he began to tremble. Instead of following the script, he kept reading Matthew 5. All over the stage his fellow actors coughed, stamped their feet, whispered to him, trying to get him back on track. He ignored them. Finally, he paused, remembering a verse from his childhood in the Orthodox Church and whispered, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into thy kingdom.” He was convicted of his sin by God’s Word.

         There is enormous power in God’s Word to change our hearts, to convince us of our sin and failure, to call us out of all our wanderings into the Lord’s straight and narrow way. If we are honest with ourselves as we hear the Word in true worship, then we should be gripped with remorse and sadness. We will shed some tears of regret for our sins.

         You and I are meant to be convicted when we hear and understand the Bible. Un­less we are convinced of our sin, we have not really heard the Word of God. That’s why we include a prayer of confession in worship when we celebrate Communion. If we listen to the Scripture and come away just as sure of ourselves as we were before, then we have not understood. We are sinners in need of grace.

         However, conviction and weeping is not the full response to God’s Word in worship. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest did not want the people to make that New Year’s Day a national day of gloom. They wanted it to be a day of joy. Verse 9 says Nehemiah, Ezra, and the rest of the Levites, cheered up the people. Their weeping was not bad, but it was not where the worship service was supposed to end.

         They spoke words of assurance. Nehemiah sent them home to enjoy a feast. “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” it says in the NRSV. There’s a great way to end a long worship service. We do it with snacks every Sunday and we do it with the greatest celebration on those Sundays and other times we come to the Lord’s Table. Eat and drink. Enjoy. You’ve humbled yourself before God, now celebrate how good He is to you.

         But there was something else not to forget. Eating their rich food and drinking their wine, they were also to send portions of food to their neighbors who did not have any. Everyone was to be included in the celebration. We can do the same here by remembering every time we come for Communion on the first Sunday of the month to bring food to place in the Food for Lane County barrel for our neighbors around us who have little to eat.

         Standing before God’s Word convicts and saddens us, but ultimately it’s meant to bring joy. We don’t confess our sins without remembering that “In Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven.” That’s the complete Word of God about our lives. We may weep because of our sins, but in the end we rejoice because God is gracious and forgives us. As Nehemiah said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It’s true in our own worship. We rejoice in the Lord and go away stronger.

         G. K. Chesterton wrote that “Joy… is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Our joy is not always visible. Like those ancient Jews, we have lots to be sorrowful about. Chesterton noted that people sometimes say paganism is a faith of gladness while Christianity focuses on sorrow. But, said Chesterton, the truth is people who don’t believe are forced to be glad about little things because they must be sad about big things. For a pagan, the universe ultimately has no meaning and there is nothing beyond the grave. The big things are all dark for the pagan and the atheist. All that’s left is little pleasures, small joys.

         But the Christian can be sad about little things because God has assured us of joy in the big things. Death is not the end. We look forward to an eternity of gladness and therefore we are more willing, more able to put up with small and temporary sadness. The biggest matters in life are for us are full of light and peace and joy.

         God wants to welcome us into joy through His Word. Augustine tells how he was in bitter sorrow over his sins. Like the Jews listening to Ezra, he heard just enough of the Bible to know he was far from God. He sat in his garden weeping over his lost soul. But then he heard a voice like a child’s saying “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!” “Take up, and read! Take up, and read!” He picked up a Bible lying near him and read the first words he found, Romans 13:14: “Clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” He says “No further did I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light, as it were of peace infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” And joy came to him.

         Hearing God’s Word brings us out to stand in the light and joy He means for us. Verse 12 says those people in Jerusalem went home to celebrate. They ate and drank and sent food to their poor neighbors, all “with great rejoicing.” The reason is simply this: “because they had under­stood the words that were declared to them.”

         If you and I stand and listen to God’s Word with true attention, then we will be convicted. Not one of us can escape the conclusion, “I am a sinner. I have not done what God says to do.” Yet God’s Word does not end with that message. The conclusion is that God forgives sinners, that Jesus Christ His Son died and rose again for us, that by His Holy Spirit He gives joy to sinners. The last words of this blessed Book we are reading together are “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” That grace, that joy be with you. Stand up, take up this Book, read, and rejoice.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated January 27, 2013