Reverence for the Word (Nehemiah 8:1-10)
3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 23, 2022)
What do you think of Christian worship? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? That’s one topic you can be sure almost everyone has an opinion. But what has shaped our opinions and feelings about the worship service: experience? 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 turned out to be a truly remarkable and astounding experience for all who were in attendance. It proved spell-binding 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,” well, 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 to be so transfixed on 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 and that proclaims to us God’s Good News for us. It is His presence that has drawn near to be with us. It is His power that enters us through our ears to set us free from every evil force of the devil, the world and our own sinful nature through the forgiveness of our sins He is offering us.
Today, I would like us all to think about our attitude toward this Inscripturated Word of God. How do we receive it? Do we receive it as God’s very 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, in fact, beg to hear or something we are simply 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 deed, to our life?
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 for us what true 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. This was no small feat. Even the enemies of Israel, when they had heard that the walls were completed, held this to be a sign that the LORD, the God of Israel, had been with them and 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: Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. Keep in mind that these festivals had not been observed for those 70 years while the people were in captivity in Babylon. That truly 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 for us, “…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 true reverence for the Word of God. It is an eagerness, a longing, even a craving to hear the Word. No one commanded the people to listen to the Word. It was the people themselves who asked the priest Ezra “to bring the Book of the Law of Moses.”
By the way, the Book of the Law of Moses does not mean they simply wanted to listen to the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the Ten Commandments would have been included in the Book of Moses, in fact, it is in 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 Moses by God. As such, The Book of Moses contained much more than the Law, it also contained God’s Words of Promise that He made to the people; that He would save them and be their God. It also contained the promise of the Messiah, the Seed of the Woman that would come and crush the head of the serpent and save all the nations.
What else could the people possibly want but to hear what the Word of God had to say to them. They craved to know! Above everything else, they recognized that they had a great need to hear the Word. So they implored Ezra to read it to them.
Such a desire or craving for the Word would be synonymous to that young child who implores his mom or 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 pastor, 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 sort of 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 smart phones that we carry with us everywhere. Also, unlike many of Israel at that time, we can all read. We are not totally dependent upon someone else to read it to us. Do we just take the accessibility and availability of the Word for granted? Or is it shear 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 to what God tells us. We would rather listen to lies and deceptions of the world, the devil, and our own sinful lusts.
What truly creates a craving to hear the Word of God, is not the command of God or our spiritual leaders, but it is the knowledge of all God has done, is doing, and will do for us. Like these people of Israel, who just craved to hear from the One who brought them back to Jerusalem and aided them in rebuilding the wall so quickly, so we who have been rescued from sin and death, freed from the captivity of sin through the Word empowered waters of Holy Baptism, ought to feel a true “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 do, revere that 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 certain classrooms of most universities. It is taught, however, not as the truth spoken by God, but as beautiful words of prose, like Shakespeare, or Dante, or any other classical or more contemporary book that is considered a piece of great literature.
Contrast this with how these people of Jerusalem received the Word. When Ezra mounted his raised pulpit and opened the book, the people stood on their feet out of respect and then 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 marvelously 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 truly 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 merely 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 own 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 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 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 to be a “holy day” itself. Holy means set apart for God or God’s use. Whenever God’s Word is proclaimed in its truth and purity and received in the eagerness and humility of faith, it is a holy Day. The Word itself sanctifies the day; that is, makes the day holy… for God’s purposes.
This is the reason the apostle Paul gives for why we ought not 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 to 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 holy 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 in which God’s Word is read and proclaimed as holy for us, by our attendance and our reception of that word in faith, we are truly revering that Word as the Holy Word of God! Likewise, when we in faith seek to live in accordance with that Word each day, we also demonstrate that God’s Word is truly holy unto us!
Finally, a true reverence for God’s Word also receives that Word in full joy of the blessings that Word brings to us. Our text says that at first when the people heard the words of the law, 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 contrition 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 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.”
In spite of 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. In fact, He had graciously kept His promise to them to bring them back to the land He had given them. He had forgiven them. They, therefore, needed to hear the whole 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 about. 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.
This day, then, the day of hearing this Good Word from God, was and is a “day of God’s favor.” It was for Israel and 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 in the thankfulness and joy of faith. It is no time for mourning, even if that Word makes clear to us 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 real time to mourn is when God is silent… when we either do not have opportunity to hear His Word or chose not to hear His Word in order to do something else. For anytime God is speaking to us, it means He has not abandoned us, but is still reaching out to save us. Wherever and whenever God’s Word is being proclaimed to us, it is a time of true grace; grace proclaimed and grace 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, today, 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 as He is also coming to you in the bread and wine made the vehicles of His very, sacrificial, body and blood by the power of His Word of promise.
Your presence, attentive listening and joyful receiving in faith of His Word truly reveres and honors God and His Word. That means also that it is truly a celebration of Him and His grace toward you in Jesus Christ. This joy of the LORD will be your strength. His Good Word to you will calm your troubled spirit and embolden you in faith to persevere to the end! To God be the glory! Amen!