Our world has faced unprecedented levels of disruption these past several months. At times, it feels like living on the film set of an apocalyptic movie. The spread of COVID 19 has reminded us of our fragility and how we’re not in control of our own destiny as much as we thought we were. We’ve also realised that we need each other more than ever.
But as we seek to rebuild in this time of major disruption, and with many uncertainties still ahead, how can we, God’s people, experience spiritual renewal? And where can we find the resources we need to face a brave new world with hope? But not the Brave New World imagined by Aldous Huxley I have to say!
Bible Sunday is an opportunity to reflect on these questions. Today we’re going to look at Nehemiah, one of my favourite bible characters/books of the OT. One of the wonderful things about God’s Word is that it always speaks into our lives and is seems particularly pertinent to us today. At the heart of it is a story of Israel recovering from a time of major disruption and experiencing spiritual renewal through God’s word.
- A Short History Lesson
Before we look a little closer at this passage, I want to look at the back story that puts Nehemiah 8 in its original context. It’s the fifth century BC and the Israelites have been through the traumatic experience of exile. A century or so before, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and forced most of its inhabitants out of their homeland. Exile in Babylon proved to be an incredibly tough experience. Psalm 137:1 By the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept in a strange land. Words made famous by Boney M in 1978.
Fast forward 70 years and the Persians took over from the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem and they began to rebuild their old lives. If exile was tough, trying to get back to a ‘new normal’ amid so much uncertainty was even harder. It sounds familiar doesn’t it? Lockdown was/is hard but rebuilding on the other side feels even more challenging.
When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he managed to mobilise the inhabitants to action: the walls of the city were rebuilt, and the people began to feel secure again. One of the enduring of images of this book is of people rebuilding the walls with trowels in one hand and swords in the other (4:17b).
Nehemiah recognised whilst the city was functioning, there was a spark that wasn’t quite there. That even though the walls were rebuilt, there was something missing. He accepted that their security wasn’t only to be found in physical walls and buildings, important as they were, but in the people’s relationship with God.
And so, Nehemiah, recognising the strategic importance of the Word of God in the historical life of their community life, calls the people together and arranges for Ezra the priest to conduct a public reading of God’s Word.
- The Bible Is For Everyone vs 1-3
Nehemiah knew that after the trauma of exile, and the exhaustion of rebuilding Jerusalem, the people of Israel needed to hear again from the truth of God’s word. So, Ezra read the ‘Book of Moses’ to them. We’re not sure which sections of the Torah Ezra read. Perhaps he brought Leviticus or Deuteronomy to life?
I’ve often wondered what it must feel like to reach the pinnacle of your career. What would it feel like to walk up those steps at Twickenham and receive the Six Nations Championship as captain of the England Rugby Union team? For a footballer, it might be walking up the steps at Wembley.
For a member of the armed forces, it might be to receive a Military Cross. For a writer, it might be to win the Pulitzer Prize. A mountain climber to stand on the peak of Mount Everest. etc. I suppose I should talk about being enthroned as Archbishop! Not!!
Such experiences represent the highest point that one’s profession can offer. Ezra had reached such a pinnacle. Ezra 7:10:
… Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. After the people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, Ezra was called by the entire populace to come and teach them the Bible.
Ezra read from Israel’s sacred Scriptures and the people lapped it up. God’s Word had been missing from public life for several generations. But did you notice that instead of meeting in the rebuilt Temple where only Jewish males could enter, they assembled in a public square so that everyone could come and listen – men and women, young and old, literate and illiterate.
Imagine the scene. Ezra stood on a large platform built especially for the occasion. Thousands gathered round and as he read from the ‘Book of Moses’ you could have heard a pin drop as young and old listened attentively to the Scriptures. Rarely in the Bible is there a display of such diversity and it’s God’s Word that provided the gathering point.
Too often we place unnecessary restrictions around the Bible. We think it’s a technical book for priests or a scholarly book for academics. However, the Bible is a book that gives meaning, strength, and hope to thirsty souls.
I love that song we often sing: All who are thirsty, all who are weak, Come to the fountain, Dip your heart in the stream of life. God’s Word brought life to families, both adults and children. In fact, as we meet in here, Messy Church are meeting in the hall and learning about the Wise and Foolish Builders. We mustn’t leave the Bible locked up in the Temple. More than ever we need to offer the Bible to our thirsty world.
- The Bible Gives Us Hope vs 5-8
The Bible is a source of wisdom, comfort, and hope for everyone. As the Israelites listened to Ezra reading the Torah, it was clearly a powerful experience. What was it that was so captivating? After all, for us there is always more to watch on Netflix and Sky. Why bother with the Bible?
Perhaps the key for Israel, and for us, is that the Bible helps us feel part of a larger story that makes sense of our experiences. As Ezra read Israel’s history, including God rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt, making a covenant with them on Mount Sinai and declaring them his ‘special treasure’ (Exodus 19), taking care of them in the wilderness when they were vulnerable. This wasn’t just dusty old history. It was their story.
As Ezra read extracts of the Bible, the Israelites felt part of something steadfast and certain. It gave them confidence to face their challenges knowing that God was, and would be, faithful. This is why we need the Bible. As the coronavirus exposes our fragilities, the Bible reminds us that we are part of a larger story, stretching back to creation and forward to a new creation. We may experience some chaos in the middle but the great author has an overarching plan that will not fail and He promises to take care of his people. You won’t get that from Netflix. It’s why we need the Scriptures.
Ezra wasn’t trying to create an interest where there wasn’t any. He was carried along by what the Spirit of God was doing – it was a Revival. An interesting fact about this revival in ch8 is the physical expression of their worship. The people started out seated on the ground and when Ezra read, they leapt to their feet. When he began to praise God, vs6 “… all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ The people found the living, majestic, intimate, Fatherly God in the words of Scripture.
That said, sometimes the Bible doesn’t always make sense, does it? It can often be complex, even disturbing. If you’ve experienced that, you’re in good company. As the crowds listened attentively to Ezra reading the Scriptures there were clearly moments when they found it confusing.
God’s word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life changing power. So said the American writer Warren Wiersbe. So, the Levites, and others trained in the Torah, went out among the crowd ‘making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’ (vs8). Bible teachers were moving from group to group, family to family and asking, ‘How are you finding it? Do you need any assistance?’ It reminds us that it’s OK to struggle with the Bible and to ask for some help which is why Home Groups discussions are so important.
You may recall I committed myself a few weeks ago to post a Bible verse of hope on Twitter and Facebook everyday as my commitment to remember the hope we have in God because of Jesus in these challenging times. Many of you have commented on this. One such post was taken from Psalm 130:5:
There are many great resources that can help make the Bible more accessible. The Bible Society’s online shop has books and resources that can really help. We have lots of sermons and notes on our website that can also help you grow in faith. Many of you have more time on your hands than ever before, how much of that time is given over to Bible reading?
- The Bible Creates Community vs 9-12
When writing my M.A. Dissertation a few years ago, I came across the research of American anthropologist Victor Turner, and his use of the word Communitas – something which is created as a consequence of a profound communal experience which unites many people together in an unusual way. This was certainly true here in Jerusalem in front of the water gate.
After Ezra had finished reading, he suddenly realised the people had started crying. They got so emotional that Nehemiah stepped in to try and coax them out of it: ‘Do not mourn or weep’ Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet wine.’ That’s an unusual request for a leader to make! Where did all their emotion come from? Well remember how the Israelites had faced significant loss, disruption and uncertainty and kept going through it all. As the Bible was read it was like the lid was lifted. They encountered words of comfort and hope. They may also have felt a sense of conviction and remorse. Either way, Scripture created a safe space that allowed emotions to surface and deeper things to be discussed.
As a society we’ve been through a lot recently We’ve experienced loss and high levels uncertainty. We probably don’t realise how much we’ve been holding in and the toll it’s taken. The Bible can help us as a Christian community to express our emotions as part of a process of healing and renewal.
Nehemiah 8 finishes with a scene of celebration, as tears of sorrow transition to feasting and rejoicing. As Nehemiah famously put it: ‘The joy of the LORD is your strength.’ The Israelites responded by putting the Scriptures into practice and shared what they had with the poor and those in need (8.10).
One thing the pandemic has taught us is to be aware of our neighbours’ pain and to show kindness, support, and concern for each other. I met with members of Billericay Foodbank last week, which is a wonderful example of church and community coming together to serve the common good.
After a period of disruption, God’s people experienced a new depth of community as they gathered around God’s word. Over the next few months, no doubt we will have reason to cry together and celebrate together. Healing and renewal comes when we gather together around God’s word.
The life of the Israelites had centred on the Temple, or the Monarchy, or the Patriarchs. This time, however, they were a people of the Book, a people for whom the Torah was the sustaining thing. And this Book could never be taken from them again. Whatever political or cultural changes come about; whatever uncertainties come our way The word of the Lord lasts forever.
And God’s Word is always relevant. It tells us the truth about Him. It displays His person, His character, His aims, His beauty. It reveals His plans and purposes for His people, His church and His world.
In this marvellous passage of renewal, revival, and reformation in Jerusalem, we see repentance leading to tears of sorrow and gladness. They weep as they listen to the words of the Law. When did you last see a congregation or a deanery, or diocesan, synod weeping before the truth of God’s Word? I long to see that in the Church of England which is in a desperate need of reviving and renewing. When we are so moved by the Spirit of God, by the Word of God and by the goodness of God, that repentance with tears of sorrow and gladness flow bringing blessing and rejoicing.
Nothing compares with knowing that we are doing God’s will, as the Israelites discovered. They moved from a place of discouragement, sorrow, and hopelessness to become a community who had a strong commitment to each other, having accomplished something they thought was impossible.
And it was because of this they wanted to know God more. They longed for the reality of God’s presence and, in order to do so, had a hunger for His Word; did all they could to understand His Word; found Joy in His Word and were Obedient to His Word.
We can’t go too far wrong than to follow their example, can we?