Sermon on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
God’s Powerful Word Inspires
1. Renewal, 2. Repentance, 3. Rejoicing
“Let there be light.” “Be still.” “Little girl, I say to you, ‘Get up.’” “Come out of him.” “Be opened.” “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” “Lazarus, come forth.”
There is power in those words. They aren’t magical. There’s no hocus pocus or abracadabra going on. Those words simply have true power. For the one speaking them is true God. And when God combines his power with human words—and thus they become God’s words—miracles happen. The universe is made. Storms are calmed. Demons are cast out. The dead come back to life. The blind can see. The deaf can hear. The paralyzed can walk.
Maybe you would like to see a little of God’s power. Maybe you would like to have God touch you and change you and help you. Maybe, just once, you would like to see a bit of the miraculous in your life.
Listen to Peter, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Listen to Paul, “All Scripture is God breathed.” Do you want miracles? Do you want power? Do you want God to work in and change your lives? Then open up the Bible. Then come to church. Then listen to the Bible.
Peter and Paul remind us that the Bible is not man’s word, it is God’s Word, holy and inspired. We just reviewed what God’s Word can do. We know that God’s Word is powerful.
That powerful Word of God can and will change your life. Today we have chance to see the life-changing Word of God in action with the people of Israel. As we review the words of Nehemiah 8, listen to and learn from the Israelites. See that
God’s Powerful Word Inspires
To say that the Israelites took the Lord for granted might go down on record as the greatest understatement of all time. You may be familiar with many of the miraculous things that God did for his people. He led them out of slavery in Egypt through the middle of the Red Sea. He provided water and food out of nowhere when they were in the desert. He crushed their enemies so that they could take over as their own the promised land of Canaan. Yet we read in the Old Testament that time after time the Israelites forgot about God. They strayed from his decrees. They worshiped other gods. They indulged in all kinds of worldly sins. They killed his prophets. After centuries of sin, God finally punished them by allowing them to be swept off into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians. The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was destroyed. The people were scattered across the world.
But 70 years after being taken captive, God mercifully allowed his people to return. First they returned with Ezra the priest and they rebuilt the temple. Not long after, Nehemiah returned as governor and he helped to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. Needless to say, the Israelites readily recognized that it was God’s gracious mercy that allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild what they once had. So they gathered in thanks to rededicate and renew their lives to the Lord.
Nehemiah records what happened. Listen again: “All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women, and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law . . . Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground . . . They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”
The people had been so removed from the Word of God in their sinfulness, that they didn’t even understand what it said any more. It had to be explained to them. We’re actually told later in this chapter that when they heard about one of the feasts God had commanded, they celebrated it unlike it had been since the time of Moses and Joshua almost 1000 years before. Clearly, God’s Powerful Word Inspired Renewal in their lives. They stood in honor of God’s Word (Sound familiar? We do that when the Gospel is read!). They bowed low and humbly worshiped. They listened attentively for hours.
Which kind of Israelite are you? Are you a pre-return or post-return Israelite? What would you think if I opened up the Bible, and just started reading—and kept reading, and kept reading for hours? It says those Israelites listened to the Word of God from daybreak until noon! Pastors usually get the impression that if the sermon is approaching 20 minutes they better cut it off. If a worship service dares cross the one hour mark, congregations can get a little squirmy. Back in Wisconsin where I’m from, it is a known fact that you dare not have a late church service that goes past noon, otherwise most will get up and leave so they can get home for the kickoff of the Green Bay Packers game. That’s not a joke. That’s actually true.
Which kind of Israelite are you? Are you the Israelite that hardly even knows what God says—even though his Word has been around your whole life? Or are you the kind of Israelite that would gladly listen from daybreak till noon—your love for God’s Word is so great that you wouldn’t dare miss church or a Bible study? You can be like that, like these Israelites at the time of Nehemiah, because God’s Word is powerful.
An interesting thing often happens. It’s interesting, but not surprising. I’ve actually witnessed this myself. When people find excuses not to come to church and not to come to Bible study, when people get too busy for God and their time with him and his Word is sporadic at best, their faith often flutters. However, the amazing thing is that when people dedicate themselves to reading the Bible and to coming to church every week and to listening attentively to the Word of God, they actually grow in faith and knowledge and zeal for the Lord! It’s amazing, but it’s not surprising. For God’s Powerful Word Inspires Renewal.
The Israelites did more than rededicate and renew their lives that day. Listen to what happened next in verse 9: “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” They were cut to the heart. As they heard the Word of the Lord and the laws and commands he had given to them, they could not help but weep and wail over their sins. They heard what God demanded and knew they had fallen far short. So they repented of their sins. They weren’t only sorry for their sins, but as they confessed their wrongs, they also committed to changing and doing what is right. In fact, in the next chapter of Nehemiah (chapter 9) the Israelites joined to confess all the wrongs they and their forefathers had committed for years. The confession is so long it spans 32 verses and about two pages of the Bible!
God’s Word has the same powerful affect in our hearts. When we hear about God’s commands and demands it cuts us to the heart. It’s like looking into a mirror that reveals all the ugly flaws and blemishes. God says things like, “Pray continually,” “Remember the Sabbath Day,” “Do not even look lustfully,” “Do not take my name vain,” “Do not hate,” “Do not be greedy,” “Be content,” “Do not worry,” “Do not doubt.” We could go on and on and on. Those are just a few of God’s standards and demands. We all know that we have fallen way short of his glory. Moreover, God says he hates sin and hates it when we sin. God hates sin so much that as a holy God he can do nothing but punish sin. God says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”
I can understand why the Israelites were weeping. Hearing the Word of God, they knew they had fallen short of God’s glory as they constantly disobeyed him. That’s the power of the Word. It makes you sit uneasy in your chair. It makes us squirm. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us shed tears of sorrow. We have sinned against the Lord. Like the Israelites, we too will change. God’s Powerful Word Inspires Repentance.
Nehemiah didn’t leave the Israelites hanging in despair. They were weeping with sorrow as they repented of their sin, but Nehemiah says in verse nine: “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” Then in verse 10, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The Israelites had disobeyed the Lord in so many ways. They had endured the repercussion for their sins as their homeland was destroyed and they lived in exile. They were trying to regroup and rebuild their land which was in shambles. And now they were smacked in the face once more with all their terrible sins. Yet Nehemiah told them not to grieve, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
We aren’t much different than the Israelites. We have disobeyed the Lord in so many ways. Likely, we have often seen repercussions for the bad choices and decisions we have made in our lives. We all could probably compare all the troubles and difficulties and struggles we face in this world. Perhaps disasters like the earthquake in Haiti might just be wake up calls from the Lord to wake us up from spiritual slumber and to remember what is most important. And most like the Israelites, we too have been smacked in the face with God’s law and the terrible sins we have committed.
But “do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” What is that joy? It’s comfort knowing that God so loved the world. It’s peace knowing that God sent his one and only Son. It’s hope knowing that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. The Israelites could be filled with joy because they still could put their trust in the promised Messiah. So also we put our hope in the Messiah who did come. Jesus Christ, who is called the Word made flesh—that Word of God revealed the Father’s love to us as he came to live and die for us. Paying our debt and forgiving our sin, he has given us the sure hope of life in heaven. That is the gospel message of God’s Word, the Bible. That is what is so powerful. That is what inspires renewal. That is what inspires repentance. That is what inspires rejoicing.
There was a man named John who was in his young 20s. John was one tough dude. He was very active in MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts. He carried the typical manly and “scary” persona of a 20-something who likes fighting. One day his family went to a church event, a community picnic, held by Victory of the Lamb, a church in Milwaukee, WI. Pastor Ben Kuerth talked with John at the event and invited him to church, but he didn’t seem very interested. Well one day John showed up at church, if anything just to bring his 3-year-old to church. There John heard the Word of God and the good news of Jesus his Savior. Slowly that Word took root and grew in his heart. He went to church some more. John took some instructional classes with Pastor Kuerth. John ended up joining the church!
One Sunday John waked into church late—really late—almost at sermon time. After the service Pastor Kuerth asked him why he was so late. John said he got up that morning and his car would not start. He tried to fix it but he couldn’t. So John said that he got out his 10 speed, bundled up his kid, and peddled 5 miles in freezing WI temperatures because nothing was going to stop him from hearing the Word of God that day!
That’s the power of the Word. Read it. Study it. Listen to it. Be around it. God’s powerful Word will work—it will cause in you a renewal, it will cause you to repent, and it will cause you to rejoice.
Speak, O Lord, as we come to you to receive the food of your holy Word.
Take your truth plant it deep in us, shape and fashion us, in your likeness.
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