Nehemiah 8:1-10

3rd Sunday after Epiphany – 1/23/2022

What do you think of Christian worship? That's a loaded question. That's one topic on which you can be sure that almost everyone has an opinion. But what has shaped our thoughts and feelings about the worship service—our experiences? Tradition? Personal preference? Contemporary fads? Or God's teaching in His Word?

This morning in our Gospel reading from Luke, we find Jesus in worship at the synagogue in Nazareth. Respected as he was as a visiting rabbi, Jesus had been invited to read the appointed Scriptures for the day. What ensued as he did so was a remarkable experience for all in attendance. It proved spellbinding to hear Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, read these words of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor... to set at liberty those who are oppressed." But then, to hear Jesus say to His hometown folks, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," let's just say that must have sent the listeners over the edge in awe! Never had there ever been a service quite like it. Every hair on their bodies must have stood straight up, with their skin tingling as the Incarnate Word and the Inscripturated Word came to be one in their ears!

But as fantastic as it must have been for those people to be there that day and be so transfixed by this divine wonder, it is equally a marvel and miracle every time in our worship services when the Word of God is read, preached, and taught. For through that word, the Incarnate One comes to meet us. It is His voice that we hear, which proclaims to us God's good news for us. It is His presence that has drawn us near so that He may be with us. His power enters us through our ears to free us from every evil force of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature through the forgiveness of our sins He is offering us.

Today, I want us all to consider our attitude toward this inscribed Word of God. How do we receive it? Do we accept it as God's words to us or simply the pious words of men about God? Is His Word, as it has been handed down to us in the Holy Bible, something we crave, long to hear, and beg to hear, or something we are content to hear on special occasions as part of our sacred tradition? Is God's word the main thing or secondary to the music—even incidental to our worship—in our lives?

Our Old Testament reading today, as you heard, is from the 8th chapter of Nehemiah. I believe it can be of immense value in assisting us all to rightly revere the inscripturated word, as contained in the Holy Bible, as God's word. It lays out what proper reverence for God's Word is all about.

First, allow me to set the stage for you. The incident in the text took place at the time of the return of God's people to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. The city had lain in ruins for most of that time. Something quite extraordinary had also just taken place. In just 52 days, the returned exiles, under the direction of their governor, Nehemiah, had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. That was no small feat. When the enemies of Israel heard that the walls were completed, they held this to be a sign that the LORD, the God of Israel, had been with them. He assisted them in completing this monumental task. Friends and foes alike viewed it as a genuine miracle.

It was now also the first day of the seventh month on the Jewish calendar, the month of Ethanim or Tishri, comparable to September or October on our calendar. This month was always the highlight of the Jewish worship cycle. It was the time of three major festivals: the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. Remember that these festivals had not been observed for those 70 years while the people were in captivity in Babylon. That indeed left a big empty hole of craving in their lives.

On top of this, God's gracious action in bringing them back to Jerusalem and enabling them to rebuild the wall so quickly made them eager to worship the LORD in true thanksgiving. Accordingly, as our text notes, "all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel."

Here, we are shown the first aspect of proper reverence for the Word of God. It is an eagerness, longing, and craving to hear the Word. No one commanded the people to listen to the Word. The people asked the priest Ezra "to bring the Book of the Law of Moses."

The book of the law of Moses does not mean they wanted to listen to the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the Ten Commandments would have been included in the Book of Moses; in fact, they are there twice, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. But you see, The Book of Moses was the Hebrew way of speaking about the whole Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, which were penned by Moses but given to him by God. As such, The Book of Moses contained much more than the Law; it also had God's words of promise that He made to the people: He would save them and be their God. It also contained the promise of the Messiah, the Seed of the Woman, who would come and crush the head of the serpent and save all the nations.

What else could the people want to hear what the Word of God had to say to them? They craved to know! Above everything else, they recognized that they needed to listen to the Word. So they implored Ezra to read it to them.

Such a desire or craving for the Word would be synonymous with that young child who implores his mom, dad, or grandparent, "Please read me a story! Please! Pretty please! I'll go to sleep then if you would just read me a story."

Do you and I find ourselves imploring our pastors, our spiritual leaders? "Oh, please bring out the Word of the Lord and read it to us! Pretty please! Could we have another worship service? How about another Bible study? Could we, huh? Pretty please!" Do we find ourselves coveting time every day to read and study the Bible?

If we don't have this craving for the Word, why not? Is our lack of desire because the Word is just too accessible to us? Most of us have multiple copies of the Bible. Some of us even have the Bible on our smartphones, which we carry everywhere. Also, unlike many in Israel, we can all read. We are not dependent on someone else to read it to us. Do we take the accessibility and availability of the Word for granted? Or is it sheer laziness that we don't read, study, and listen to the Word of God more? Or, even harder to admit, could it be that, in reality, we have little or no reverence for the Word of God?

A craving to hear God's Word is not natural to us sinful mortals. Our sinful nature despises anything associated with God. It wants nothing to do with His Word. We want to do the complete opposite of what God tells us. We would rather listen to the lies and deceptions of the world, the devil, and our sinful lusts.

What truly creates a craving to hear the Word of God is not the command of God or our spiritual leaders; it is the knowledge of all God has done, is doing, and will do for us. We are like these people of Israel, who craved to hear from the One who brought them back to Jerusalem and aided them in rebuilding the wall so quickly. We who have been rescued from sin and death and freed from the captivity of sin through the word-enabled waters of Holy Baptism ought to feel an actual "burning in our bosom" to hear the Word of Christ, who has so graciously redeemed us. Where there is such a craving for the Word, there is a true reverence for the Word!

If we revere the Word of the Lord, how would that reverence be reflected in how we receive it? In other words, do we listen to the reading or the preaching of the Word as words of truth from God's mouth or simply the words of a man, even a famous man like Moses? People the world over demonstrate a certain respect for the Holy Bible. It is even still taught in specific classrooms at most universities. It is taught, however, not as the truth spoken by God but as beautiful words of prose, like Shakespeare, Dante, or any other classical or contemporary book considered a piece of great literature.

Contrast this with how these people in Jerusalem received the Word. When Ezra mounted his raised pulpit and opened the book, the people stood on their feet out of respect and bowed low with their faces toward the ground to acknowledge that they held this word as the very holy words of God Himself. Their actions clearly said that they were not receiving these words as simply the words of men, no matter how beautifully they had been composed and written. No, they acknowledged that these words might have come to them through the pen of Moses and now the voice of Ezra, but they were the words of Holy God Himself—words they were not worthy to hear—words, none-the-less, that they were genuinely thankful to hear!

Perhaps because we have made the Bible as accessible as any other book, we have encouraged people to think of it as merely a book. But it is not simply a book. The apostle Peter tells us of the Holy Scriptures: "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Pet. 1:20, 21). Jesus, too, said to His apostles, upon whom He had placed His Spirit and sent to proclaim His Word, "He who listens to you, listens to Me."

Accordingly, the hearing of the word is the hearing of God's voice. It is not merely the words of men who think they speak the truth. The Word of the Bible, read and preached rightly, is the voice of God speaking the truth—the truth of righteousness—the true revelation of who God is—the true Word of salvation—the true Word in the flesh speaking into our ears!

The liturgy handed down to us, much of which flows right out of the first-century synagogue, attempts to reinforce this in our minds with the collect, a prayer to God petitioning God for all our needs immediately preceding the reading of the appointed Scripture readings. This reverence is further encouraged by exchanging with one another the expression, "Hear ends the reading of God's holy word... Thanks be to God!" and often by taking a posture of respect, standing in the presence of the Holy Gospel.

Another way these people of God showed their reverence for the Word of God was to declare the day that the Word was read and expounded upon as a "holy day" itself. Holy is defined as set apart for God or God's use. It is a holy day when God's word is proclaimed in its truth and purity and received with the eagerness and humility of faith. The word itself sanctifies the day; that is, it makes the day holy for God's purposes.

That is why the apostle Paul explains why we ought not to treat one day, the Sabbath, as more holy than any other day. Whenever the Word of God is preached and received in faith, it is a day set aside for the glory of God. Today is a holy day. Not because it is Sunday, but because we stand here in awe to hear the Lord speak to us. It is a sacred day when we take time out of our schedules tomorrow to read and meditate on God's Word. His word sanctifies the day, just as it sanctifies us to be God's holy ones, the redeemed of the Lord.

When we regard the day God's Word is read and proclaimed as holy for us by our attendance and our reception of that Word in faith, we genuinely regard that Word as God's Holy Word! Likewise, when we, in faith, seek to live following that word each day, we also demonstrate that God's word is truly holy to us!

Finally, a true reverence for God's word also receives that word in the complete joy of the blessings that it brings. Our text says that when the people first heard the law's words, they wept. You can be sure that the Law of God convicted them of their past failures to live according to God's will as expressed in that Law. In their repentance, they wept. However, Nehemiah, the governor, Ezra, the priest, and all the other Levites who were on hand to expound upon the word all said to the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep... Go your way. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine, and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Despite their sin and former disregard for God's Word, these preachers assured the people, "The LORD is (still) your God." God had not cast them off. He had graciously kept His promise to return them to the land He had given them. He had forgiven them. Therefore, they needed to hear the Word of God, not only the Law that convicted them but also the Gospel, the good news that He had forgiven them in His grace and for the sake of His promised Messiah, who would be the sacrifice for their sins.

Accordingly, on this day, they had nothing to mourn. The Word of God had assured them that instead of being under the curse of God because of their sin, they enjoyed God's forgiveness and the blessing of being His holy people, heirs of His kingdom.

Hearing this good word from God was and is a "day of God's favor." It was for Israel, and it is now for you, God's New Israel, a day to celebrate. It's a day to revere God's Word by enjoying the blessings God gives through His Word with the thankfulness and joy of faith. It is no time for mourning, even if that word clarifies our sin and unworthiness before God, for the word of the law exposes our sin so that the word of the gospel can be applied to it and cover our guilt according to God's grace earned and given us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The time to mourn is when God is silent—when we either do not have the opportunity to hear His Word or choose not to hear it to do something else. Anytime God speaks to us, He has not abandoned us and is still reaching out to save us. Wherever and whenever God's Word is proclaimed to us, it is a time of true grace: grace was declared, and grace was given! It is a day of the Lord's favor.

Brothers and sisters, who have come here to worship your God, now is not the time to weep, feel defeated, or be discouraged. No matter what has happened in your lives this past week, month, or even year, through this liturgy of God's Word, the Word of God made flesh is speaking His powerful, saving Word to you. He is meeting you in your ears, in your hearts, and even in your mouths. He is also coming to you in the bread and wine, the vehicles of His very sacrificial body and blood, by the power of His word of promise.

Your presence, attentive listening, and joyful receiving of His Word in faith truly revere and honor God and His Word. That also means it celebrates Him and His grace toward you in Jesus Christ. This joy from the Lord will be your strength. His good word will calm your troubled spirit and encourage you in faith to persevere to the end! To God be the glory! Amen!

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