Nehemiah 8 from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.
Today, many celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”. The word is derived from Old Irish and means roughly “summer’s end”. The festival celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”. It is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the next became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit. The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows or All Saints Day when the church celebrates the unity of the church, visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, the church penitent and the church triumphant.
But on All Hallows Eve, the 31st October 1517, a 34 year old Augustinian monk gave us another reason to celebrate today, when he nailed a statement to the door of the Schlosskirche in the Saxon town of Wittenberg. And so today also marks the first day of the Reformation. What triggered Martin Luther’s historic challenge to the Church of Rome was Pope Leo X’s decision to complete the rebuilding of Rome’s ancient and crumbling St Peter’s Cathedral. Or rather, should I say, how Pope Leo proposed to pay for the work. In order to raise the funds needed, he authorised Bishops to sell indulgences promising to deliver souls from Purgatory. One particularly energetic salesman was Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was a German Dominican friar assigned by the Archbishop of Mainz to collect the revenue in that part of Germany. Using a drum to gain attention, Tetzel apparently wrote praise songs with imaginative words like “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel sold pardons for murder, for incest, theft, adultery, perjury and other crimes, all for hard cash. The pardons not only covered past sin but future sins also. With the blessing of the church, therefore, recipients could indulge themselves in the belief that they had bought their forgiveness. Luther vowed ‘to beat a hole in Tetzel’s drum’ and that is why he pinned his 95 thesis to the door of the church in Wittenburg.
On this very same weekend, in 444 BC, a similar Reformation occurred in Jerusalem. On this very day the residents of Jerusalem confessed their sin and renewed their covenant with the Lord, taking an oath of allegiance to God under their new Governor, Nehemiah. Nehemiah chapter 8 describes what led to that historic event. As we read it together, I want us to discern the abiding principles that will lead to another reformation, personal and corporate. There are really two parts to the story of Nehemiah. The first six chapters tell of the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem.
The last seven chapters tell of the reformation or renewal of the people of Jerusalem.
1. The Need for Renewal
1.1 Material Dissatisfaction
“The total given by the rest of the people was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver and 67 garments for priests.” (Nehemiah 7:72)
They had finally made it. The walls were built, Jerusalem was secure. They were becoming prosperous. 20,000 darics of gold was about 1.1 metric tons. They could now settle down in their own towns in the surrounding countryside and enjoy the abundance of God’s provision. Settling down, surrounded by everything you need reveals only one thing. Dissatisfaction. Because we cannot find our deepest fulfilment in possessions. The need for renewal begins with material dissatisfaction, and,
1.2 Spiritual Thirst
“all the people assembled with one accord 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.” (Nehemiah 8:1)
Let me ask you, what is your primary reason for being here today? The Israelites gathered at the Water Gate, in their families for one purpose. They congregated to hear the Word of God. They asked for a Bible Reading. Renewal began with a dissatisfaction and with a thirst for God’s word. All the great events in Church history have begun in this same way. I recently discovered the biography of Bishop Francis James Chavasse. He helped found Wycliffe Theological College in Oxford in 1887 when he became Bishop of Liverpool. As the first principal of Wycliffe he wrote:
“As might be expected, the opening of the Hall was not received with enthusiasm in a conservative University. Evangelical principles were not in accord with the prevailing tone of Church life in Oxford, and the idea of planting a theological college was opposed by most of the leading Churchman of the day.”
Nevertheless the college thrived because it satisfied the thirst of many students for an understanding of God’s word, even the Greek New Testament studies at 7:30am in the morning before breakfast. As a result Wycliffe became a leading institution in training and sending missionaries throughout the world.
So what are you standing for your assurance? What are you using to quench your spiritual thirst? You will never be satisfied on a diet of praise songs and experiential books, useful as they are. Your spiritual thirst will not be met with fresh coffee after the service, or even around the baptistry, nor from the Lord’s Table. It is met by the Lord when His word is opened and read and digested and obeyed. Our praise, our study, our fellowship, even our baptism and communion find their meaning, find their significance only through the Word of God rightly interpreted.
All other activities are subordinate to this one. Much confusion and controversy in Ecumenical circles would be silenced if people realised where reformation and renewal begins. For unless the Word is taken seriously we are left adrift on a sea of fallible tradition, of fallen reason and subjective experience. Renewal begins when we realise that materialism won’t satisfy, and when, as a consequence, we thirst for God’s word. The Need for Renewal.
2. The Process of Renewal
Sometimes we are given the impression that charismatics have a monopoly on “renewal in the Spirit”, and evangelicals have a monopoly on “reformation through the Word”.
As if these were mutually exclusive, the one emphasising the Spirit, the other the Scriptures. This is a false dichotomy. Rebirth and renewal describe the same process:
“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6).
Authentic renewal only comes through our response to God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures, and through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. It comes from nowhere else.
You cannot separate renewal from reformation. As we look at the process of renewal in Nehemiah 8, remember when Nehemiah uses the term “Law”, he means the first five books of Moses. That’s what they were getting so excited about. There was firstly,
2.1 Reverence for the Word
“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…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.” (Nehemiah 8:3-6)
- The Word was read aloud for hours (Nehemiah 8:2)
- The people listened attentively (Nehemiah 8:3). If they’d had their own copies, they would have underlined the commands and made notes in the margins……
- The Word was read from a high pulpit (Nehemiah 8:4)
It was specially constructed for this purpose. Go into a Lutheran Church on the continent and what sticks out?
The pulpit is massive. When we visit Israel next year we will visit the Church on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee dedicated to the “Sermon on the Mount”. Ironically it has no pulpit. Why? The denomination has not yet been touched by the Reformation. In many churches today you will find a permanent altar but a moveable lectern. What does that say?
- The people stood respectfully (Nehemiah 8:5) If you ever have the opportunity go to an Greek or Russian Orthodox Church you will see how they reverence the Word. Before the Bible is read, the priest walks around the Church with the Scriptures, and reverently kisses them before the reading. I think we have gone way too far the other way when we use our Bibles as table mats for our coffee cups at home groups. If not standing, perhaps we should remain silent a little longer after the Bible readings to remind ourselves that we have just heard God speak, then allow Him to apply it to us personally.
- The Lord so revealed was praised (Nehemiah 8:6). Notice that worship resulted from the reading of God’s word. Worship of God came spontaneously from the reading of God’s word.
Scripture reading was not merely an interlude between times of worship. It was central and it was lengthy. Indeed, they got quite emotional all because of a Bible reading. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. We might think such a posture would cramp your style, but no, this was how they showed their reverence for God, by bowing in humble submission, falling at His feet in adoration. They sensed they were in the presence of God. All because God’s Law had been read. There was a reverence for the Word.
2.2 Revelation through the Word
“The Levites… 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 8:7-9)
On either side of Ezra were the Levites. Their job was to explain the meaning of the Scriptures, as Ezra read to them. Not only did the people listen reverently and attentively. Because its meaning was made clear, but they understood it. They understood how the Lord wanted them to live. The Holy Spirit opened the people’s minds to understand the Word of God so that inner renewal took place. Your mind matters. You cannot worship God or please Him without using it. That’s why every service should be a learning experience. This raises the question “how does God communicate with us?” He uses many different ways, He uses pain, our conscience, advice, dreams, and many other ways. But these are all subjective and therefore fallible. The ultimate way He communicates with us is through His living and active Word, sharper than any two edged sword. The Scriptures are literally God breathed. God speaks to us through them as they are reverently heard, correctly handled, rightly interpreted, appropriately applied, and willingly obeyed – and for each step in this process, we need to engage our minds.
The cults will try and disengage your mind from your experience. Our responsibility is to understand God’s word for today and obey it, not to go enticed by new and exotic teaching about life in heaven or about events not mentioned in the Bible. The reading of God’s word here brought the people to repentance. But that doesn’t mean we have to dress in black and go about in mourning. Look at verse 9 again.
“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 8:9)
What caused their distress? The realisation that they had been ignoring God by disregarding his word. They had grieved God. They had compromised themselves morally and begun to worship other gods as well. Renewal begins when we realise our thirst for God. Renewal continues when we reverence His word. Thirdly,
2.3 Rejoice in the Word
“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.” (Nehemiah 8:10-11)
Their grief was real. But joy is never far from wholesome, healthy grief over sin. For repentance is always provoked by a God of mercy who forgives and restores. Soon a celebration was under way. Because this was a sacred day, Nehemiah told them to go home and have a party. There’s nothing incompatible here. The early church knew nothing of dull or solemn services. They called their meetings “Agape” meals or even “love feasts”.
Jesus invites us to be his guests at a celebration meal held in His honour. Renewal brought rejoicing. The Need for Renewal, the Process of Renewal and
3. The Results of Renewal
Renewal begins as people break down and weep over their disobedience. Three positive results followed.
3.1 A generosity toward those in need
“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.” (Nehemiah 8:12)
The party was open to all, because God’s blessings were for all. God had been generous with them, they were to be generous with others. Authentic renewal reaches the deepest recesses of our pockets. How we apply this depends on our circumstances. It could mean baking a cake for someone, or leaving a bag of shopping on someone’s door step. Your home group is a natural way to reach out too. See our church social events like the Wentworth Bonfire next weekend as a priority. They are great ways to welcome people and show we care. Renewal brings reconciliation and generosity. Renewal does not take us away from this world but into it. A generosity toward those in need.
3.2 A deepening love for God’s Word
“On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 8:13-15)
Renewal is a process, a deepening process, of coming closer to God. How does this happen? Renewal brings a thirst for God’s Word. More than a mere passive listening, the fathers of each family formed a special Bible study group to learn more about God’s will. Why? So they could teach their families. They took their responsibility very seriously. That’s a sign of genuine renewal. Maybe you feel too busy to be in a Home Group or Community Bible Study group. Let me tell you this. Your family will suffer more if you’re not in God’s word daily, than if you spend too much time at the office. Where else do we find out how God wants us to live than from the Maker’s Instructions?
Authentic renewal does not take people away from the Scriptures. Renewal does not lead them on from the Scriptures but back to them in a quickened interest. They wanted more. They studied God’s word, then shared it in their families. Renewal brings reconciliation and generosity, renewal brings a deepening love for God’s word, and thirdly:
3.3 An interest in Their History
“So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.” (Nehemiah 8:16-18)
The effect in Jerusalem was dramatic but may not at once seem all that significant. Israel had forgotten her heritage, forgotten the mighty work of God in her past. The people showed a renewed interest in the Feast of Booths. The history of the feast goes back to their earliest days in the Promised Land. It was designed so that the Israelites would never forget that their ancestors had lived in tents in the wilderness. Once they reached the Promised Land and having tasted its fruits they were to make booths of branches and palms at harvest time each year as a commemoration.
The people’s dependence on God, their gratitude to him would be reawakened. This celebration therefore lifted their morale as they remembered what God had done for them. It was no accident they were a nation once more. They were discovering their roots once again.
Renewal will bring a deepening interest in our history as a church so that we can celebrate, like today, that we are members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the living and the dead. The history of God’s dealing with our ancestors is our heritage and our bloodline. It is a healthy antidote to an arrogance that thinks our generation alone has rediscovered Gods ways.
It provides us with the inoculation we need to discern where new teaching departs from God’s historic ways. Authentic renewal brings not only generosity toward the needy, a thirst for God’s word, but also an interest in God’s work in history. For then and only then, we can rightly praise Him and experience the renewal of His Spirit because we are being reformed by his Word.