The Third Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord
February 6-7, 2010
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 8-10
Dear Friends in Christ,
I have found that these later books of the Old Testament are often unfamiliar to our people. This ought not to be so. There is much here that is worthy of our consideration.
Our story begins with an amazing event - an event prophesied by Isaiah, over two hundred years before, when he wrote: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: "I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself... who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose'; saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.'” (Isaiah 44:24, 28) And indeed, when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon, he ordered the Jews to return to Judah and to rebuild their temple as well as the city of Jerusalem. It did not happened easily or quickly. But eventually, at the time of Nehemiah, the task was completed. The first exiles returned, by order of Cyrus, under the leadership of Zerubbabel - a descendant of King David. The high priest of this time was named Jeshua or Joshua son of Jozadak. They built the second temple. A second wave of exiles returned under Ezra. Then a third wave came under Nehemiah. Under Nehemiah’s leadership they completed construction of the wall of the city of Jerusalem. Enemy raids were so frequent at that time, that many of workers worked with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.
When that work was completed, Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people and read to them from the Law, that is the Torah. By this we mean the books of Moses. During the exile of the Jews in Babylon some things about their religion changed. A new religious structure came into the being - the synagogue. The leaders of the synagogue were the rabbis. This word, rabbi, simply means teacher. Some rabbis simply passed on the oral tradition. Very few of those early synagogues would have had any portion of the Bible. But there were a few copies of the Bible at that time. And some of the rabbis virtually memorized it. So you have a few expert theologians at this time, like Ezra, but most of the people had never actually heard God’s Word. So for most of the people gathered in Jerusalem, in our text, this was the first time that they had actually heard the Bible read. The people responded by worshiping God and listening as those who knew the Bible taught them.
Among the things that they heard was a command from God, through Moses that they were to celebrate a feast in the seventh month of the year. Part of that feast was that for seven days they were to live in tents or booths. This was to commemorate the years that Israel wondered in the wildness before entering the promised land. But this command had never been kept. The people, now, for the first time, celebrated the Feast of Booths. And each day of feast they would gather and Ezra would read from the writings of Moses.
But the people were not done. In chapter 9 we read: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God.”
That’s right they listened to the Scriptures for a quarter of a day. Probably this meant of the daylight hours. So somewhere between three and four hours. That’s a long Scripture reading. Then the priests and Levites gathered on the steps to the temple sanctuary and they intoned a long prayer of confession and praise. How did they praise God? By recounting all that God had done for His people. And throughout the prayer they repeat several times how God was patient with them, how God forgave their sins and restored them to His presence.
This raises for us an important question. How do we praise God? Many people think you do that by making a great ruckus and blathering endless “alleluias” and “hosannas”. Much of contemporary worship is dominated by so called “praise choruses.” I would submit that most of these offer no true praise to God at all. They are mindless nonsense. True praise of God starts with talking about who God is and what He has done. True praise of God sounds like these words from Nehemiah 9: “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham...” (Nehemiah 9:6-7) Praise of God is always connected to the knowledge of what God has done, and how what God has done effects us.
This then raises a question. How do we know what God has done? Well, when I was very young I would sit next to my father while he read from the Bible or on my grandmother’s lap while she read from a Bible story book. They taught me what God had done. But how did they know? How do I know that they got it right? By the way, they did indeed get it right. How did this happen? Because they had a reliable source for their knowledge. That source is the Bible - God’s holy Word. So praising God starts with God’s own word. We learn those words, and what those words mean, and then we speak them back to God. That is true praise. True praise takes work. It is the path less traveled. It means reading and study. It means being a life long student. But then what is Christ’s word for us? We are His disciples. A disciple is a learner, a student.
In the days of Nehemiah, the people dedicated themselves to learning God’s Word. They praised God by recounting all that God had done for them and their forefathers. They praised God by confessing their sins and their fathers’ sins. Why is this praise? Because it is truth. God always rejoices when we speak truth. Also, we are acknowledging God’s power to forgive our sins. But we today have far more to speak back to God. For in the days of Nehemiah, they looked forward to the day when God would dwell among men and be the perfect Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. They had been promised that the Messiah would come into the temple that they had built. And we know that He did come and appeared in that very temple. He came and bore our sins to the cross. He rose victorious over sin and death, giving to us also victory over sin and death. And we praise God by recounting all these things.