75 years ago this week, the whole nation came together and celebrated the end of World War 2. VE day in May 1945 was a time of national celebration. A time when everyone could express joy and relief that the war was over. After 6 long years, Nazi Germany had surrendered and no longer threatened our national security.
In Nehemiah chapter 8 this morning, we see a similar national celebration, when all the people of Israel came together as one. Just like on VE day, the Jewish people poured onto the streets to mark the completion of Jerusalem’s Wall. It was a time to rejoice at what had been accomplished under Nehemiah’s leadership. No longer were the Jews in trouble and disgrace. Their capital was now secure, and God’s special city was no longer a source of embarrassment and shame.
But now what? Having rebuilt their city, it was now time for the people to rebuild their lives and rebuild their faith. The completion of the city walls provided an opportunity for spiritual renewal among the people of God. Having been delivered from the ordeal of exile, God’s people were looking to renew their relationship with him. They were looking to revitalise their faith.
Like the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s day, and like the people of Britain in 1945, I hope we all will be able to celebrate together again soon. I look forward to the day when as a church and as a community we can to celebrate together the defeat of the coronavirus.
But the present situation does provides a unique opportunity for spiritual renewal, a unique opportunity for many people to invest in their relationship with God. There are already some promising signs – many people nationwide are tuning in to online Church services like this one, apparently more people are praying, and Christian book sales are on the up. Its encouraging to see that people’s appetite for God seems to be increasing as our earthly sources of security are shown to be so fragile and flimsy.
So the big question is: How do we grow spiritually? How do we deepen our relationship with God?
For example, do we need to engage in special mystical practices or perform certain rituals? Or do we need to go out and buy some sacred crystals or healing water?
Thankfully the clear answer from today’s passage is “No” – to get closer to God we need to turn to his written Word – the Bible – and listen to what he has to say. Because the crowd in Jerusalem turned to Scripture to rebuild their faith – they asked Ezra, their priest, to read the “Book of Law of Moses” to them.
As you may be aware, the Law of Moses is first 5 books of our Bible, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If you have ever read them, you will know that these Old Testament books aren’t simply lists of laws – they include great stories too, plus words of wisdom from God, and promises of future blessing for his people.
In short, this Book of the Law was a letter of introduction from God, a kind of love letter inviting people into a closer relationship with their Creator.
No wonder Nehemiah’s contemporaries wanted to hear it read – and we should be equally eager to hear God speak to us today through the Scriptures. In particular, I want us to take away two simple truths from today’s passage:
• Firstly, Good leaders teach God’s Word;
• And secondly, Good people listen to God’s Word.
Let’s briefly look at both in turn…
Good leaders teach God’s Word!
Firstly, Good leaders teach God’s Word. Verse two tells us that Ezra obeyed the crowd’s request: “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 until noon”.
Ezra was able to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the crowd by giving them a reading from the Old Testament. Its noticeable that Ezra doesn’t try to put on a show to impress the crowd. – there are no flashing lights, smoke machines or special sound effects! He simply reads Scripture out loud whilst standing on “a high wooden platform built for the occasion”. Ezra wasn’t trying to entertain, but to educate and explain.
Verses 7 and 8 today tell us that Ezra was assisted in his task by a number of colleagues. At least thirteen Levites are named in our passage, and they helped Ezra to read from the Book of the Law, make it clear and explain its meaning.
You see, Ezra and his colleagues recognised that their most important duty as ministers was to teach God’s Word to his people. That remains the case for Christian ministers like myself today. Above all else, we are to carefully explain and apply the truths of the Bible to our congregations. Sometimes we will proclaim it from a pulpit, sometimes we will teach it to a midweek house group, and sometimes we will share it beside a hospital bed.
Whatever the context, God’s Word should always be at the top of the pastor’s toolbox. Whatever else you ask of us, faithful Bible teaching should be what you most want to receive from your vicar, priest or pastor. Good leaders teach God’s Word!
Good people listen to God’s Word!
Finally, the second lesson we should take from today’s reading is that Good people listen to God’s Word. Spiritual hunger can be satisfied by Scripture. Reading and believing the Bible really does build our relationship with the Lord.
Its quite clear that the crowd in Jerusalem took Scripture seriously. We’re told that they all stood up as the book was opened and listened attentively as it was read. And as a result they understood what they heard.
We’ll see effect of this listening on their lives next week. Next week we’ll see how the Jews new understanding affected their actions and attitudes. We’ll see how their encounter with God’s Word prompted both repentance and rejoicing.
But in the meantime, may we all be equally attentive to God’s Word today. Whether we are listening to a sermon on Sunday or quietly reading the Bible on our own, may we approach God’s Word with reverence and respect. As we open its pages and hear it explained may we be expectant and alert. Expectant that God is about to speak to us, and alert to its implications and applications for our lives. God’s Word never returns empty, it always leaves a mark, it always has an effect on our hearts and minds.
Living in 2020, we are lucky enough to have the whole Bible. Unlike the people of Nehemiah’s day, we know how the story ends. Above all, we know that all God’s great Old Testament promises were fulfilled in Christ, his Son.
In the words of the apostle Paul, listening to the Bible makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. And it makes us “thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So if you want to grow in goodness and godliness during lockdwon, pay attention to God’s Word. If you want to develop spiritually in this coronavirus season, listen carefully to the teaching of the Bible. Even in self-isolation, God can speak to us all.