In April, The Guardian reported the findings of a Gallup survey, which showed that the UK is among the least religious countries in the world. In a global ranking of 65 countries, the UK came six places from last, with 30% of the population calling themselves religious. While 53% of people said they were not religious, 13% are convinced atheists. This compares with 94% of people in Thailand who said they were religious and 93% of people in Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia and Morocco. At the bottom of the list was China where only 6% of people are religious and 61% said they are convinced atheists. The other countries below Britain are Japan, where just 13% of people are religious, Sweden with 19%, Czech Republic with 23%, and the Netherlands with 26%.
At Carnival Capers last month we conducted our own survey of religious opinion. Gallup questioned 63,898 people – about 1,000 from each country. Our sample by comparison was far too small to be statistically significant. However, the results do provide an insight into local views. To the question, “What do you think is the greatest need in this area?” Loneliness 50%; Stress 40%. When we asked the question “The most important thing to me in life right now is…” Family 80%; Good relationships 40%; God or spirituality 20%. Incidentally… No one mentioned work. We asked people about meaning in life: Fulfilled 40%; Still searching 30%; Confused 20%; Disappointed 10%. So the majority are still searching for meaning in life. And when we asked, “If you could know God personally would you be interested?” Yes 70%. No one said ‘No’. What do the findings reveal? Most people see loneliness and stress as the biggest issues in life, think family and good relationships are most important to them. The majority have “tried” Christianity, do believe Jesus is the Son of God, rarely or never attend a church now, but are searching and would like to know God personally if it were possible. I suspect those results could easily be replicated almost anywhere in the world. And had we undertaken the survey in Nehemiah’s day, I am sure we would have found similar results. Human nature has not evolved or changed over time.
In 1670, Blaise Pascal the French philosopher wrote Pensées, in defence of the Christian faith.
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Pascal was describing what St Augustine had expressed a thousand years earlier in his memorable short prayer, “You have made us for yourself O God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
But how can we find this rest? This renewal? Please turn with me to Nehemiah 8. There are two parts to the story of Nehemiah. The first six chapters describe the reconstruction of the walls. The last seven chapters tell of the renewal of the people. Today in chapter 8, Lets observe the abiding principles of how the Lord brings renewal.
- The Need for Renewal
As we found among those surveyed at Carnival Capers, the need for renewal begins with a sense of emptiness, loneliness, a searching.
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… and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns. ” (Nehemiah 7:72-73)
They had finally made it. The walls were built, Jerusalem was secure. They were becoming prosperous. 20,000 darics was the equivalent of over one ton of gold. 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 needed reveals only one thing. Dissatisfaction.
Because we wont find our deepest fulfilment in possessions. How do we know there was material dissatisfaction?
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 people gathered at the Water Gate for one purpose. Notice the people asked for a Bible reading. Renewal began with the realisation that materialism doesn’t satisfy and with a thirst for God’s word. How are you quenching your spiritual thirst? You will never be satisfied on a diet solely of praise songs and ecstatic experiences. Your spiritual thirst will not be met around the baptistry, or at the Lord’s Table or around the kitchen hatch after the service.
It is met by the Lord himself when His word is opened and read and digested and obeyed. Our praise, our study, our fellowship, even our baptism and communion find their real meaning, they find their true significance, as the Word of God is rightly interpreted. This is where genuine 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.
- The Process of Renewal
Some Christians suggest that “renewal in the Spirit” is a separate experience from faith in Jesus – an add on, or second stage, as if rebirth and renewal were different experiences. This is a false dichotomy. Rebirth and renewal actually describe the same process.
Notice how the work of conversion is explained in Titus 3,
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. 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 Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-6).
As we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place, we are born again, we are renewed by the Holy Spirit, into a living relationship with God our Father. All three persons of the Trinity at work in the miracle of conversion. We cannot separate renewal from rebirth. And remember the Scriptures being read were the five books of Moses. That’s what they were getting so excited about.
2.1 Renewal Begins with a Reverence for God’s 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 several 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 pulpits.
The people stood respectfully (Nehemiah 8:5)
If you ever 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. We have gone way too far the other way when we use our Bibles as table mats for hot drinks. No wonder Muslims are appalled when Christians place their Bibles on the floor. If we don’t stand to hear God’s word, perhaps we should remain silent a little longer after the Bible readings to remind ourselves that we have just heard God speak.
The Lord so revealed was praised (Nehemiah 8:6)
Notice that worship resulted 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. 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 because the law of God had been read. Renewal begins with a reverence for God’s Word
2.2 Renewal Deepens Through the Revelation of God’s 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 it to them. This is the basis for expository sermons. The length and the content of a sermon will tell you as much about the preacher as it will the congregation. A five minute “blessed thought” will never satisfy a hungry soul. The Reformation occurred because the Scriptures were translated into English. Without it we would probably still be holding services in Latin. In Nehemiah 8, we learn that not only did the people listen reverently and attentively. Because its meaning was made clear, 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 could take place. Your mind matters. You cannot worship God or please Him without using it. That’s why every service should be a learning experience.
God may use many different ways to communicate with us. He uses pain, our conscience, advice from friends, dreams, circumstances, and many other ways. But these are all subjective and fallible and need testing. The ultimate way He communicates with us is through the Scriptures – His living and active Word, the Word of the Spirit, which is 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 the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The reading and exposition of God’s word in Jerusalem brought the people to repentance and renewal. But that doesn’t mean we have to wear black clothes or ban festivals like Christmas like the Puritans.
“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 ignored God by disregarding his Word. Renewal begins with a reverence for God’s word; Renewal deepens through the revelation of God’s word.
2.3 Renewal Culminates in Rejoicing in God’s 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)
Joy is never far from wholesome, healthy grief over sin. Scriture reveals a God of mercy who forgives and restores. Because this was a sacred day, Nehemiah told them to go home and do what?
Have a party. There’s nothing incompatible or contradictory here. The early church knew nothing of dull sermons or solemn services. They called their meetings “Agape” meals, even “love feasts”. It would not inappropriate to put a sign up outside Christ Church “Party in God’s House. All welcome” because Jesus invites us to be his guests at a celebration meal held in His honour. The Need for Renewal (8:1), the Process of Renewal (8:3-9) and
- The Consequences of Renewal
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)
This party was open to all, because God’s blessings are for all. God had been generous toward them. They were to be generous toward others. Authentic renewal reaches the deepest recesses of our pockets. It could mean baking someone a cake, or leaving a bag of shopping on the doorstep of someone going through a hard time. Your home group is a natural way to reach out too. Maybe hold a supper on the fifth Wednesday to invite friends. In the autumn we have several special events to invite family and friends – the Harvest Festival supper and Wentworth bonfire are just two to look forward to. 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 leads us to be generous toward those in need.
3.2 A Desire to Proclaim 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 more of God’s Word. More than a mere listening, the fathers formed a Bible study group to learn how to apply God’s word. 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 CBSI group. Let me tell you this. Your family will suffer more if you’re not studying God’s word, 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 us away from the Scriptures but back to the scriptures with a quickened interest. They wanted more. They studied God’s word, then shared it in their families. Renewal brings generosity toward those in need, and a deepening love for God’s word, and thirdly:
3.3 A Celebration of Salvation 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)
Israel had forgotten her heritage, forgotten the mighty work of God in history. The people showed a renewed interest in the Feast of Booths and their ancestors earliest days in the Promised Land. It was celebrated annually so that they would never forget that their ancestors had lived in tents in the wilderness. They were to live in shacks of branches at harvest time each year as a reminder of how God had delivered them. This celebration therefore lifted their morale as they remembered what God had done for them. They were discovering their roots in order to trust him with their future.
Renewal will bring a deepening interest in our history as a church as well. We are members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is why our calendar celebrates the central events of salvation history: Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Advent. The history of God’s dealing with our ancestors is our heritage and our bloodline.
It is a healthy antidote to the arrogance that suggests our generation alone has rediscovered Gods ways. It provides the inoculation we need to discern where ‘new’ teaching departs from God’s historic ways. Today we have considered renewal and how to experience it: The need, the process and the consequences. Authentic renewal brings a generosity toward the needy, a deepening thirst for God’s word, and a celebration of God’s redemptive work in salvation history.
To know Jesus and …. make Jesus known. Lets pray.