First Mennonite Church
February 6, 2022
Spiritual Renewal Through the Word of God
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-12
Nehemiah chapter seven gives the list of the returnees from Babylon, in all, about 50 thousand people. The last verse in that chapter says that by the seventh month, the Israelites had all settled in their towns. Chapter eight begins by telling us of the massive gathering in Jerusalem. The people requested Ezra, the scribe, to bring the book of Law and to read it to them. They wanted to hear the word of God.
Although Torah was understood as the legal material for instruction, it was also the collection of accounts and teachings that circulated via oral transmission. But in Nehemiah chapter eight, the people were specific in their request. They wanted to hear the “Book of the Torah of Moses” (8:1). They wanted to hear the Torah from a written text.
There could be at least two reasons why the request to have Ezra read the sacred text. During the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, Judah was still a very oral society, with literacy at less than 3% and restricted to the elite. Most people did not have direct access to the Word of God. Therefore, Ezra was part of the 3% literate. He was by profession, a scribe.
The other reason for the request was because the text was written in Hebrew, while the returnees may have been more fluent in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonians.
Ezra brought the scroll before the people. The assembly was made up of “men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” Grammatically, the Hebrew word for “men” can be understood as inclusive of both genders. In very few passages in the Bible we see women being mentioned as participants of public gatherings. Such mention of women gathered together for a public worship is to emphasize the inclusivity of this event. And those “who could hear with understanding” clearly refers to children. The assembly was comprised of an intergenerational group of men and women and where the old and young came together.
Let me pause here for a second to reveal to you one of the burdens in my heart about our congregation. I am greatly concerned for the children among us. We do not have a children’s ministry where our children can receive biblical instruction. We need a children’s ministry that is more than just to keep the children busy. We need someone with a passion for God and whose heart has a burden to nurture our children in the way of the Lord. If we do not address this need, we risk of losing the following generation in this congregation. So, I invite you to pray with me about this very important need and to follow the Lord’s leading if he calls you to do something about it.
The worship service
Ezra stood on a wooden platform in front of the assembly. And when he opened the book, which might mean, when he unrolled the sacred text, the people stood up. By standing up when the scroll was opened, the people demonstrated their reverence for the word of God. There are churches where worshipers stand for the reading of Holy Scripture. (That is what I invited you to do this morning).
Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the Great God and the people responded with Amen! Amen! Lifting up their hands and bowing down to the ground. As we see, worship includes the use of our voices, but also expression with our body.
The worship service was not the reading of the Law for merely a few moments. Ezra read from the early morning up to midday and the people listen. Ezra read for about 5-6 hours and the people were still attentive. The people had a deep hunger for the Torah. For many, it was the first time they ever worshiped in Jerusalem. For many it was the first time they ever heard the word of God. The people had a deep hunger for the teachings of God.
As Ezra read, the Levites “gave meaning” to the words. The Levites interpreted the Torah to the people. Once again, this act of giving meaning to the word or of interpreting the law of God might have been a needed task especially for those returning from Babylon. These second or third generation Jews most likely did not speak Hebrew, but Aramaic, the language of the Babylonians. The task of interpretation and of giving meaning to the word also reminds us that sometimes the Bible is not self-explanatory as some believe it is. “It means what it says,” some say. Sometimes, we need the help of interpreters to help us understand the Holy Scriptures.
Upon hearing and understanding the word of God the people were stricken in the heart. They started weeping. Their emotional reaction to hearing the word could have been triggered by guilt. It was by hearing the word that they fully grasped the reason for their exile. They also understood that by turning to God, God would rescue them and bring them to the homeland, which to them as returnees spoke profoundly. However, when the people began to weep, Nehemiah intervened. “Do not mourn or weep. This day is holy to the Lord your God,” he said. Then he commanded the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).
Nehemiah chapter eight gives us an astonishing image of a communal Bible reading experience. This took place at the request of the people. The assembly was a diverse group of attentive people, hungry for the word of God. Upon hearing and comprehending the word read and interpreted to them, reverence, turned to grieving, but their grief turned into joy and celebration.
I love this passage because it questions the level of my desire for the word of God. When was the last time that I read the scriptures with sustained attentiveness that time did not matter to me? When did it to you? When I see what happened here, where the assembly stood up for hours hearing the reading and interpretation of the Word, I wonder how much longer could we go in the service past 12 P.M. without discomfort and desperation begin to show in our faces? (Especially today with Super Bowl this afternoon)
When was the last time that the word of God moved you to worship God? When was the last time the Word broke your heart to the point of weeping? When was the last time that we allowed the Good Book to draw us closer to the community of faith that we couldn’t help but celebrate and share the goodness of God with it?
The word of the Lord is powerful. The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart, says Hebrew four, verse 12. What we see that happened is not magic. Neither was it manipulation. But that is what happens when the people of God consent to listen to God’s Word with their whole hearts, to receive what’s read in a spirit of openness and vulnerability. It is what happens when God’s people genuinely express their comprehension of the Word and are moved to celebrating God’s goodness with others.
My loving brothers and sisters, if spiritual renewal is ever to happen among us, it will start by giving an undivided heart to hear the Word of God. It will be by being open and vulnerable to the Word, allowing ourselves to be broken, reshaped, and used by God’s living Word. The end result will be joyous celebration in community.
May the Lord arouse in us a hunger for his Word. Amen!