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“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”
It’s the seventh month. We’ve come full circle. “When the seventh month came, the people of Israel being settled in their towns- all the people gathered together.” (Neh 7:73-8:1a) is how our story this morning starts. You will remember when we started this journey with Ezra and Nehemiah (and let’s not forget Zerubabbel and Jeshua) 7 weeks ago we heard this - “When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were gathered in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem.” (Ez 3:1). Zerubabbel the governor and Jeshua the priest set up an altar that day and the people who had been without a song had a song again.
It's my prayer that you’ve come to see what might be familiar territory in a whole new light. It’s my prayer that we have come to see part of what it means to be the people of God – a people who were once far off and have been brought near in Christ. It’s my prayer that we have come to see (and will continue to come to see) things like praise together, worship together, praying together, confessing together, planning together, pledging together, acting justly together, trusting God together, and resting in God’s promises together, in a whole new way.
We’ve been looking at a story of returning, rebuilding, and renewal. The return has happened. The rebuilding is complete. The people long for renewal. The story is not simply about the leaders (though they’ve been great and they’ve acted as catalysts). It was never simply about Ezra and Nehemiah (and isn’t it great here to have Ezra back in our story and to see him standing up there with Nehemiah?). It’s the seventh month. It’s New Year!
So it’s a good time to talk about being renewed. There’s something very joyful about newness isn’t there? Something very joyful about being made new. May God make us a people who hunger and thirst for renewal and new life. There’s no end to new life in being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ May we be coming ever more to grasp in our hearts that renewal, revival, new life, must start with us. It must start within me. It must start within you. May God make us a people who take initiative the same way the people of Israel took initiative and gathered themselves at the Water Gate and told the scribe, Ezra, to bring the book of the law of Moses. The Pentateuch. The word of God that told them of God’s creating act, that told them of God’s saving delivering act, and that told them what constituted a good and fitting and proper response to God’s steadfast love – for all of life.
Because this is an all-of-life thing. It’s a foundational thing, this Christ-following life. It’s not simply a hobby or an interest if we’re taking it seriously. It’s not simply another weekend option if we’re taking it seriously. The people gathered by the Water Gate, which was a busy gate. The spring of Gihon was outside of it. It’s where people would go daily for their water – a necessity of life. No indoor plumbing in 5th cent. BC Jerusalem. The people long to hear the word of God, and the word of God is not just meant to be sequestered away in a church or compartmentalized into something we pay attention to once a week, or once a month or twice a year or…. It is to have a centrality in our life and it is to affect everything – all we do, say, eat, buy. It’s a big deal. We are all called to be theologians, and by this, I don’t only mean those who formally study theology or famous people who have written reams about theology. Someone has put it like this – “Today, even more, not just the pastors and “experts” but all believers should “do theology,” reflecting together on the application of biblical, ethical principles to every area of life. To do theology or theologize is to apply biblical principles to every aspect of life. The Bible must never be allowed to become the sole property of scholars and ministers.” To “do theology” is a call on all our lives. We’re called to do it together and with a lot of humility. The great theologian Charles Schultz once had Snoopy writing a book on theology. “I have the perfect title,” thinks Snoopy. “Has It Ever Occurred To You That You Might Be Wrong?” We need to approach this word with a lot of humility and a lot of dependence on God.
This word is foundational to our faith. You may be saying “Well that’s so obvious that it hardly bears saying” to which I would reply “Is it though?” Is it something we believe or say that is obvious yet functionally it’s not quite reflected in our lives. It’s easy to leave it aside. I’ve done it. Left my Bible gathering dust somewhere. We’re called to it every day. We’re called to it together once a week. It’s a big deal. This is why we have big Bibles. I like big Bibles, I cannot lie. I’ve taken to holding a Bible in my hand and reading from it as I preach. I heard a pastor called Daryl Johnson advocate this some years ago (like 8). It took me a while to come around, but I’ve come around. It works for me. You know I’m a big believer in symbols and symbolism and images and imagery. Why does the church have a giant Bible in the sanctuary? Why do we have it in the sermon shot every week? Why did many families keep family Bibles? It wasn’t just to record births and deaths and marriages. Maybe the family Bible is a practice to return to. It symbolizes the centrality to Christian faith and life of the word of God. I’m not saying these things to hector us or shame us into reading our Bibles. I’m saying it so we can pray for God to stir our hearts to thirst for God’s word the same way the people of Israel thirsted for it in our story by the Water Gate.
The action here is driven by the people. If we long to return, rebuild, and be renewed, don’t look to your leader to accomplish this on your behalf. This is not a cop-out, we’ll put our hands to the work. It’s not an abrogation of responsibility and I pray that God makes me and all church leaders catalysts like Zerubabbel and Jeshua and Ezra and Nehemiah were. Renewal needs to start from within each and every one of us. Look at how many times “people” occurred in our text – “When the seventh month came – the people of Israel being settled in their towns – all the people gathered together…the ears of all the people were attentive… Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above the people, and when he opened it all the people stood up… all the people answered “Amen, amen,”…the Levites helped the people to understand…They gave the sense so that the people understood the reading…” I could go on but you have the idea. “They told the scribe, Ezra, to bring the book of the law of Moses (the Pentateuch) which the Lord had given to Israel.”
What a wonderful thing! This was not Ezra announcing a church service on the first day of the seventh month from early morning to noon – all welcome and hope for the best. This was the people gathering and saying “Read to us from the book of the law of Moses which the Lord has given to us.” May God give us the same hearts. Look at the elements here that we carry on to this day in our worship together. Ezra stood on a wooden platform and he opened the book in the sight of all the people – not to elevate the person but to elevate the big-dealedness of hearing God’s word. When he opened it all the people stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord (praise!) and all the people say “Amen amen” and lift up their hands. They bow their heads and worship God with their faces to the ground (and last week we talked about fear of God as awe and holy reverence). Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand…they gave the sense, so the people understood the reading.
Digression on the list of names here if I like. These Levites help the people understand. When all is said and done, the people leave to go have a fellowship meal. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
What does this tell us about God’s word? It bears interpretation. Interpretation is a communal act. The Reformers talked of sola scriptura to emphasize the Bible’s foundational importance to faith. It doesn’t mean we approach it solo. The Bible has been used to justify all kinds of things from slavery to sexism. Here’s another of those tensions in which we live as followers of Christ and people of the book. The question has been asked, “Did God write the Bible?” The Bible is inspired by God (1 Tim 3:16). The Bible was written and copied by a vast number of people in a variety of languages (and part of interpretation is translation), in a variety of social and historical contexts. We need help to interpret it and we’re thankful for those who have helped us, who are helping us and will help us, and pray to God to enable us to help others understand too.
The other thing to remember here is that God’s word can cut us to the heart. Peter tells the good news to a crowd in Jerusalem in Acts 2. Peter tells of the promise of the Holy Spirit which has now come about. Peter tells of the one who was spoken of by David the prophet who has been raised up and freed from death to make new life with God possible and that God has made this man Jesus, Lord, and Messiah. The people are cut to the heart and say “What should we do?” and Peter tells them “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37b-39)
These people who were far away and have been brought back are cut to the heart. I hope we’re not frightened to show emotion in worship. I know we’re pretty cool in Toronto. Clap politely for an out at Jay’s game. Pretty much sit silently at a Leaf’s game until a goal comes. Sit quietly in church. We talk about encountering God in worship together and sometimes I wonder what would happen if we really encountered God. Would we fall down on our faces? Would we weep? Laugh? Shout “Amen amen!”? The word of God here has reminded the people of how far we fall short. They begin to mourn and weep. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not where we end though. Blessed are those who mourn, said Jesus, for they will be comforted. “No no,” say Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites, “This day is holy to the Lord your God, do not mourn or weep.” Then he (presumably Nehemiah and let’s go with that because Nehemiah was such a practical man) said to them, “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)
This is the last we hear of the community in Jerusalem until we hear about a man who called people to follow him in it around 450 years later. The seventh month is the month the Festival of Booths is celebrated and we remember that from when we started this journey. In Neh 8:17 we find out that the Festival of Booths is celebrated in a way it hadn’t been since the days of Joshua. Perhaps some fullness of meaning of God’s provision and protection was recaptured. In John 7 we read that Jesus stands up on the last day of the Festival of Booths and cries out this invitation – “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let who one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” The understanding of God which was made known in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day through the reading of God’s word has been made known in a whole new way in the person of Christ Jesus, who brings new life for all. “Look I am making all things new,” is the voice which we will one day hear. May we come back to this table today and see it as if for the first time. A remembrance of Christ’s death. A place where Christ is revealed to us in new ways. A reminder that we who are many are one in Him. A reminder that we are connected in the Holy Spirit to the great cloud of witnesses. A foretaste of the great wedding banquet of the lamb around which we will all gather. The joy of the Lord is our strength dear friends. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.