Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? Maybe you resolved to improve your health, by drinking less, or giving up smoking, or by losing weight? Maybe you’ve resolved to work less, or to work more, or to change your job. Maybe you’ve resolved to repair or improve relationships with your family, your neighbours or your friends.
We are 3 weeks in to January now - I wonder how you are getting on? Is it easier than you thought, or harder? Are you persevering, or have you given up?
Since we are here in a church service, maybe you have resolved to get to know God better this year. That’s a great resolution to have, whether you would call yourself a Christian, or not. Most Christians find, at one time or another, that our relationship with God feels a bit stale, like God is a bit distant. Sometimes this lasts for a few weeks, sometimes it’s a few years. How can we go about restoring that relationship? How do we get God back into our everyday lives?
We are in the middle of a sermon series looking at the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. Nehemiah was a Jew, living about 450 years before Jesus. And Nehemiah made a resolution about the city of Jerusalem. The background to his resolution was that the people of Israel had wondered away from their relationship with God; they had allowed that relationship to grow cold and stale. Now, that wasn’t true for every single individual, by any means, and there had been periods of brief revival. But that was certainly the general picture. And so God, true to his promises as ever, had caused Israel’s enemies to destroy the city of Jerusalem and carry the people off to exile. A little while before Nehemiah’s time, the people had been allowed to return, and the Temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt, but the city was otherwise in ruins - it was ‘unfit for purpose’.
Two weeks ago, our guest preacher Andrew Bellis showed us how Nehemiah’s concern for the state of Jerusalem provokes him to pray to God, and then to act - to get permission from the King to travel to Jerusalem himself. Last week, Phil helped us to see how Nehemiah worked to rebuild the city walls, trusting in the Lord for success. That took us up to the end of chapter 6 of Nehemiah. In chapter 7, Nehemiah gets the city up and running again - he appoints gatekeepers and a governor. But the people don’t move in yet - they are not yet ready to live again as God’s people in God’s city. Before that can happen, the relationship between God and his people needs to be restored.
We can see three ways in our passage today that God uses to restore his people.
1. God restores his people…through the reading of his Word
Have a look with me at the start of our passage: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, 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.
This seems to have been a pre-arranged event. The people have all travelled in from their respective home towns, and a special wooden platform has been built for Ezra and the officials to stand on.
But it’s also an important event. We can tell that from the number of people involved - not just the men, who were responsible for teaching God’s laws to their families, but everyone - all the men and women and presumably children - all who were old enough to understand.
We can also tell that it is important from the names of those involved. Ezra is described as a ‘scribe’ or a priest, but it’s clear that he is not just any old priest. In fact he is introduced the previous book of the Old Testament - if you flick back, you can see that it is called ‘Ezra’. Both books - Ezra and Nehemiah - are likely to have been written by the same person, and indeed they were later considered as a single book in the Jewish Scriptures. In Ezra, chapter 7, Ezra is described using these words: “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.”
So Ezra is basically the leading expert in Scripture - a bit like a Professor of Theology at Oxford University, or the Archbishop of Canterbury - and he’s been chosen to come and provide this reading to the people. With him on the platform are 13 other named officials.
But it’s not the presence of Ezra or his officials that make this an important event. I don’t know if you noticed in verse 1, but it’s not Ezra that is giving the orders, nor is it Ezra that the crowd have come to see. No, the real guest of honour is the Book of the Law of Moses, which Ezra is commanded to read. This probably refers to the Pentateuch, which is the 5 books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) forming the first 5 books of the Old Testament.
And the reason that the Book of the Law is given such high significance is that it is the very Words of God - it is how God communicates himself to his people. Now, if you look back at the start of the Bible, at those 5 books, you will see that it is not just a record of God speaking - in fact, we see the actions and words of many different people recorded. We see people who rebelled against God and those who obeyed. And sometimes, such as when Moses stood before the burning bush in the desert, we have recorded the words that God himself spoke.
But the claim of the Bible is that God caused these words and actions to be recorded for us. As the apostle Peter says in 2 Peter, chapter 1: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus himself quotes from Psalm 110 written by King David, but says that David was speaking by the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36). That is what we mean when we say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ by God. It’s not like a musician saying that they were ‘inspired’ by a beautiful sunset they saw - we mean that the words which were spoken or written by human beings to make up the original language of the Bible, were put there by God.
The Bible is God’s message to the world. It is God speaking, setting out his priorities for his people, and showing his people what he is like. So then, when the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s day want to restore their relationship with God, it is entirely appropriate that they should read from the Scriptures - huge chunks of it! Not just for 3 minutes, or 5 minutes but for several hours - from dawn until noon.
And for us as a church family, it is absolutely essential that we should have God’s Word read every time we meet together. It is one of the most important things we do on a Sunday. We cannot worship God if we don’t keep reminding ourselves of his character, and to do that, we need to be reading the Bible together.
But we don’t have to restrict ourselves to reading the Bible in church on a Sunday. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which was a rediscovery of the truths about God found in the Scriptures. And one of the most widespread benefits to come out of the Reformation is the availability of the Bible translated into local languages. Prior to that, the Roman Catholic church would only permit the Bible to be read in Latin, which most people couldn’t understand. But of course, now, you can pick up a Bible to read in English. If you have a smartphone, you can even download a copy for free. Or, if you’re not much of a reader, there are some excellent audio recordings available.
A great habit to get into in 2017 would be to try to read a little bit of the Bible every day. Maybe on your commute to work, or over a quick coffee break? Read the Bible and see for yourself what God has to say.
So, God restores his people through the reading of his Word. Secondly, God restores his people through the hearing of his Word
2. God restores his people…through the hearing of his Word
Now, I know what you might be thinking - didn’t I just say this? There’s a subtle distinction between the Bible being read, and the Bible being heard. It’s a distinction that those of you with children will know well. It’s one thing to know that you said “Come on kids, time to go, get your coats on” when they were only 6 feet away from you. It’s quite another thing to assume that your children heard you, and are planning to make a move any time soon.
And so our passage wants to make very clear that the Israelites didn’t just have the Bible read as some sort of ritual or tradition. No - verse 3 tells us that all the people listened attentively as the Book of the Law was read.
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? If we want our relationship with God to improve, and we know that we can receive that through reading the Bible, then of course we need to listen. But maybe there are some practical steps we could take to help others to listen? For example, maybe you could join our creche team so that parents are able to stay in the service to hear the Bible reading and sermon while their children are being cared for. Or perhaps you could give someone a lift so that they can get to church every week?
3. God restores his people…through the teaching of his Word
Thirdly, we see that Ezra doesn’t just read the Scripture. He’s also arranged for 13 Levite scribes to teach the people. The emphasis here is on understanding - on talking to the people and making sure that they understand what is being read. So, verse 8 tells us: “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.”
Getting to know God as we read the Bible isn’t just something that happens by magic. Just as we need to engage our ears to hear what is being read, we need to engage our minds to understand it. That will happen at different levels for different people, depending on our abilities, our emotional needs, and our prior knowledge, but it’s something that all of us need to take part in.
I love watching detective dramas on TV. But, like most of us, I’m a busy man, so occasionally I will try to watch at the same time as I’m doing something else, like reading a book. And of course, it doesn’t work, does it? You can’t follow the twists and turns of Inspector Morse if your brain is not engaging with it at least a little bit!
This emphasis on understanding and teaching is something that continues through the New Testament. Jesus frequently berates the Pharisees for their failure to understand the Scriptures they were supposed to be teaching others. In the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
In Paul’s letters, he particularly talks about the need for churches to have teachers who will help people to understand the Scriptures. It is the most important thing that Phil and Ken do here at St. Michael’s, and we need to give them our support as they do that.
I have a couple of practical suggestions for ways that we can do this - and I have to confess that I am speaking to myself here as much as I am to you. These are certainly things that I could do much better myself!
Firstly, do pray for our preachers each week as they prepare.
Secondly, please come along on Sunday ready to learn. One way to do that would be to pick up a copy of our termcard, and have a look at the Bible passage yourself in advance. It won’t take long to do, and it means that you’ll already be thinking about the passage even before the preacher gets up to speak.
Thirdly, join one of our homegroups, if you haven’t already. Our homegroups are a great environment for looking at a Bible passage together, asking questions and helping each other to understand it.
So, then, God renews his people as the Bible is read, heard, and understood.
A word of warning, though, as we finish. If you read on to the end of the book of Nehemiah, you’ll find that things don’t end well for the people. Despite Nehemiah’s hard work in rebuilding the walls and gathering the people together, despite the reading of Scripture, the Israelites don’t become a faithful people for God.
You see, no matter how much we read the Bible, we can’t remove our need for a Saviour. In fact, the opposite is true - reading the Bible should make us more and more grateful for the Saviour that God has provided - his Son, Jesus Christ. That is why reading, hearing and understanding the Bible leads to our restoration - it leads us to Jesus.
Let’s pray: Father, thank you for your Word, the Bible. I pray that we would read it, that we would hear it, and that we would understand it, and that it would show us more of Jesus. Amen.