From Mourning to Celebration

In this world of hype and confusion you cannot expect the scriptures to fight for your time – you have to consciously give God attention. Only then will you understand the depth of his love for you.

Introduction: Why did God call his people together?

Imagine you are in school preparing for what should be math class and instead they say, “put your books away we are having an assembly.” You have to line up and then go down the hallway toward the auditorium. You see other classes of people streaming out of other doorways like tributaries into a river as you all bend your way to the assembly.

The natural question is then “why are we here?” Why have we interrupted our natural flow of school to gather in the auditorium? This must be an important message – don’t do drugs, don’t drink and drive, bullying people is wrong, be careful when you go online.  If you have gathered everyone together and cancelled your normal routine there must be a reason.

Today as we continue our study in the book of Nehemiah we see that the people have completed the building. The wall around the city of Jerusalem is finished, but instead of sending everyone home Nehemiah gathers them together. The message he has for them is important. It is important for them and it is important for us.

Transition: Nehemiah gathered the people because he wanted to read the law of God to all of them  so they could know what it means to be the people of God.

Gathering for the word – making time, and standing under it

Why did they gather?

They stopped everything and assembled to hear the word of the Lord read out loud. Part of this may have been a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, but more importantly they had to learn the law so that they could be the people of God. They built a wall around the city to protect them from external enemies. But the enemies outside were not the reason the city was destroyed. They were destroyed because God allowed it due to their disobedience. Their greatest weakness was not a wall but the condition of their hearts and only the word of the Lord could fix that.

The problem in that day was that people did not have a copy of the law and many had not been raised in it. They needed to come together and hear the reading in order to know the Law.

Our problem is different. We have access to the scriptures but we are overwhelmed with content and the noise of the culture.

Application: you cannot expect the word of God to hype itself and fight for time. You have to make time. You have to come to the courtyard and stand under the word. Find a time in your routine where you do nothing but read the word and pray through its meaning. Make it a regular part of your life. It is the only way you can become the person God created you to be.

            Reverencing the word – we stand under it

The whole structure of this reading points to the high view they held of the Law. They didn’t worship the law – it is not a relic and not a magic book. It is to be revered because it reveals God and it is God whom we worship.

But notice that reverencing the word and seeing it as authoritative does not mean that they all understood everything

The Levites were there to explain the word. Part of that explanation was translating because many of the Jews would not have understood Hebrew growing up as they did in Babylon. But part of it may also have been explaining the intent and meaning of the law so that everyone could grasp its relevance.

The application for us is clear. When we come to the word we come open and we come listening. We will not understand everything we read but we come to it as the authoritative revelation of God.  There must be a willingness to allow the word to speak to you and a willingness to do some study to fully grasp what it means. We can do this by going to a small group, ministry class, or buying a study Bible. These are easy, first steps.

Understanding what God’s word means to us: conviction and celebration

The people understood the law and it made them weep.            Their sadness came from learning that they had been a disobedient people and that the exile to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem were because of that disobedience. The warning was very clear in the book of Deuteronomy: if the people broke the covenant of God through unfaithfulness they would be taken into exile. Now the history of Jerusalem made sense.

But Ezra and Nehemiah wanted them to rejoice, not mourn. Why? The sadness came from understanding the justice of God, his sovereignty, his complete freedom to justly punish his nation. But the joy came from realizing that, he had brought them back and now they were to realize that their God had not rejected them. He had disciplined them but not rejected them and now he was doing a new thing.

When we meet around the Lord’s Table for communion we meet around a table that reminds us of a death, the death of our Lord Jesus. Contemplating that death can sober us. We see the punishment that should have been ours. We see the seriousness of sin and the love of God. But it is also a table of rejoicing. This table, these elements, remind us that the love of the Father is deeper than our disobedience. We are a wayward people and the death of Jesus reminds us of the depth and ugliness of our sin. But God’s love and God’s grace are deeper, more faithful than our unfaithfulness. God’s love is so profound that he would rather die himself than see us drift away. That is what this table means.

So today as we come to the Lord’s table is it right for us to mourn or repent if it reminds us of our sin. But let God wash that mourning and that guilt away. This is the table of new beginnings, of restoration and of return. And that makes it a table of rejoicing.