One Holy Passion
April 29, 2001
“Christians: Party Animals?”
A funny thing happened on the way to the sermon! I had it all lined up and figured out, and then it became clear that God was asking me to change my mind and my approach to the remainder of this sermon series. You know how at the circus the car door opens on the little VW bug and about 30 clowns pile out? Nehemiah 8 is like that. I had figured, heading into this week, that I’d handle this chapter in one week, and that would put us on pace to finish the book by the last Sunday our students were in town. To the students, sorry! We’re not going to get it done; thankfully, we hope to have our sermon stream operative on our web site soon, and if you care to, you can hear the last couple of messages in this series in the privacy of your own home! And by the way, the sermon title for today was chosen when I had in mind to preach the entire chapter as one; frankly, it won’t make much sense at all to you today; come back next week for the exciting sequel when things will start to come together.
When I got into the middle of Nehemiah 8, I realized I was in trouble—at least if I hoped to preach it all in one week, because this is a jam-packed practical chapter that will hit us between the eyeballs if we’re listening to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit. This is a rich mine of truth, and I am very excited today to have the opportunity to share with you, but before I begin, let me answer one question that the more observant of you are asking: what happened to Nehemiah 7? Didn’t we finish Chapter 6 last week? Why aren’t we dealing with Chapter 7 today? Let me say this: every single part of God’s Word is inspired, and according to Paul is profitable, and I believe that that is true. That being said, different parts of God’s Word are profitable for different things and in different ways; not all of God’s Word makes for ideal preaching material—there are portions of it that are good to know but not to necessarily spend time sermonizing about. So I’m going to ask you to take 15 seconds right now to do one thing, and then I’m going to ask you to do another. Take 15 seconds now and scan down Chapter 7. Now, say, “thank you, Pastor Harvey”.
Now that that is out of the way, let’s look at Nehemiah 8, but we’re going to actually begin in 7:73. (HAVE PEOPLE STAND; READ SCRIPTURE AND PRAY)
Sunday, September 16 of this year will likely be a pleasant early-autumn day in the city of Pittsburgh. I imagine that the sun will be shining, the early-afternoon temperature around 70 degrees; people will be in shirtsleeves enjoying the remaining remnants of summer. In downtown Pittsburgh, a spectacle will be taking place, and it might come the closest to approaching a phrase we find in Nehemiah 8:1, where it describes people gathering together “as one man.” Yes, perhaps that warm autumn day yet future in downtown Pittsburgh will come as close as we can imagine to people gathering “as one man”, for down the hill and across the gentle Ohio from Mt. Washington tens of thousands of screaming fanatics will hail the opening of the yet-to-be-named stadium that will house the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, and those fans will cheer “as one man” as vociferously as they can, for in town that day will be the hated Cleveland Browns. I say that the gathered throngs will cheer “as one man”, that is, unless Dave Urey manages to sneak his way in!
Hold that stadium thought for a few moments, for I intend to return to it. “As one man” the people called for Ezra the priest to read to them the Word of God. What a heartwarming sight it must have been for Nehemiah, fresh from the completion of the rebuilding effort, to now see the people desire to be fed from God’s Word, so long neglected. Nehemiah’s ambition was not merely to rebuild walls but to revive a spiritual community to the glory of God, and I wonder if his heart didn’t leap within him as he saw the fruits of his long labor coming full term! Reforming a community is more exciting work than building walls anyway! As exhilarating as it must have been to see the rubble rise into walls, it had to be more so to see these hard-working people eager to hear the Word of God. Now, Nehemiah’s memoirs give way for a few chapters to third-person narratives, and we read of God’s working in people’s lives.
Our main question for the morning is
How did the People of God approach the Word of God? They were:
“As one man” they gathered, bound together, no doubt, by many things, but none more important than this, their common desire to hear the Word and allow it to speak to their questing hearts. This cemented them together—a focus on the Word. In our doctrinal statement, the first article speaks of our commitment to the Scriptures; we believe it is God’s Word to us, not our ideas about God. We believe then the next reasonable thing, which is that if it is God’s Word, then when God transmitted it to us, it was without error. Quick point, especially to you students who are here for a time and then will likely be gone: never involve yourself with a church which doesn’t stand strong on the inerrancy of the Bible; never waste your time listening to some preacher who doesn’t believe this. Heresy generally begins at this point! We further believe that this Word is our final authority, since it comes from God. This book tells me what I need to know to be saved, to live life abundant.
Sometimes newcomers wonder what makes our church, and by extension, the E Free denomination, work. After all, we freely admit that we welcome people from diverse denominational backgrounds; we have folks who disagree with each other on all sorts of relatively minor points of doctrine, and on points of lifestyle as well. How can Calvinists and Arminians co-exist peacefully? How can people who approve of tongues-speaking possibly worship alongside people who don’t believe in that? How can dispensationalists, non-dispensationalists, and people who wouldn’t know a dispensation if it bit them all get along? The answer is pretty simple: we agree not to allow Satan, the master of divisiveness, to focus us on our differences, because we are too busy focusing on the Word! We agree, we are “as one man”, on the most important stuff, beginning with an attitude that says, “God’s Word is the Truth, and we bow before it, longing to know it and willing to obey it.”
They asked for the Word of God to be preached to them. They stood for hours to hear it preached and explained. They responded to it in dramatic fashion. The word “enthusiasm” comes from two words: “en”, meaning “in”, and “theos”, which is the Greek word for “God”. These people were into God, and so we say they had enthusiasm. Go back to that Steelers game we started with. Grown men and women hesitate not at all to get enthusiastic about one man throwing a piece of stuffed pig hide to another man and watching that second man cross a white line. They will scream and holler and high-five each other and smile from ear to ear and sing the praises of the men who engage in such. They’ll sit in the cold and rain and snow to do it. Then, of course, those same people will call us fanatics because we go to church instead of to the tailgate party! But some of those people who root so vociferously for our sports teams or our NASCAR drivers are the same people who will come to church and not even sing because they are self-conscious! Hold that thought for later; you’ll hear it again!
Ezra brought the Law of God before all of the adults who could understand (assumedly, the kids went to Children’s Church!) and he read it from early in the morning until noon (please, no more comments about long sermons!). Notice that their enthusiasm made them
That is the third point I want to emphasize, and that is what verse 3 tells us. All who could understand shut up and listened up! This is what the Law envisaged: “a wise and understanding people”, people taught from childhood the Scriptures and what the meanings were behind the words of Scripture, and the significance of the rituals they observed. The religion of pagans was mindless superstition, and the downfall of sinning Israel was, according to Hosea, a lack of knowledge. Here is a pull-over-and-park point: the importance of balance in the Christian life between intellect and emotion. We can err on either side of the equation. To say that we need one and have no place for the other is a dangerous situation. Remember how Nehemiah engaged both his emotion and his intellect prior to exercising his will in dealing with a situation? So we ought as well. God desires us to praise Him with our entire beings, checking neither our minds nor our feelings at the door.
But there are churches and Christians today which thrive on getting people emotionally fired-up, giving them a spiritual buzz devoid of much Bible content. And by the way, it is probably fair to say that there are branches of the Christian faith today which tend to make this error more than others—and some of you can discern some of those branches I’m talking about—I’ve seen this true many times in churches that would proudly call themselves “fighting fundamentalists.” Some of the sorriest, most content-free preaching and teaching I have ever heard has come from the pulpits of some of the churches that are the quickest to profess a genuine love for the inerrant Word of God. On the other hand, there are churches which seem to focus so much on doctrine and teaching, on precise, minute doctrinal correctness, that there is no place made for emotion. And generally what you will find is that there is little love in those types of churches as well. We have a number of folks who make up part of this congregation who would testify that they have been in churches which will dot every theological “I” with precision and cross every ecclesiastical “T” with certainty, but which have forgotten Paul’s words in I Cor. 13. There he says to us, “If I…know all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing!”
Excuse my tangent there, but they were attentive because they desired so much to understand the truth of God’s Word. When they heard it, they listened—setting for us a pattern to emulate. How serious are you about the intake of God’s Word, the Bible? I was challenged and encouraged this week by our two most sickness-ridden folks, Marge Campbell and Paul Myers. Paul called bright and early Monday morning to ask me what the best Bible translation was, because he wanted to drink in God’s truth. I managed to set him up with the Bible on cassette in the NAS version. Later in the week, Marge called and was looking for a book about Jesus. I didn’t have it, but I set her up with a bunch of tapes by this particular author, and she thanked me for helping her with these materials. Perhaps we could excuse these individuals from a desire to grow in their walks with God, but they wanted to grow anyway. We might assign to them plausible excuses—what is your excuse?
Notice the first response we see, in verse 5. They stood up when the Word was opened. This was a response of reverence, a response that indicated that they knew that the Scriptures were worthy of respect. This was not the veneration of the scroll, per se, as though it were some religious relic, but it gives evidence of the respect that the people had—they knew this was something different! I asked you to do this this morning, and I may well make this a habit, because it says something about the attitude we should take when we approach God’s Word. I take issue with the carelessness with which we sometimes treat our Bibles. I instruct my children, for instance, not to place the Bible on the ground. Place it on a table, but don’t put it on the ground. What I mean to teach by doing that is that the Bible isn’t just any other book! It deserves our respect, I think even to the degree that we are more careful with the way we handle it on a physical plane—not because I think it is a sin to put the Bible on the floor, but because we need the regular reminding that God’s Word is holy. Calvin said, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence we owe to God, since it has its only source in Him.” The people stood up, apparently spontaneously.
Verse 6 tells us how they worshipped, how they responded to God and His Word. They responded physically; they said, “Amen!” when they heard the Word. Think we ought to do that sometimes? They lifted their hands. I had a conversation with a good Presbyterian friend of mine named Bruce this past week. We were talking about this very thing, about how difficult it is to be demonstrative in church in this way—difficult, that is, if you come from that staunch Presbyterian background. It’s tough for me—there are several flavors of Baptists in the south, but I come from the more subdued stratum. It isn’t the easiest thing to raise my hands physically, though it is getting easier, probably because I am caring less and less what people think. In school, when you knew the answer, you raised your hand. Perhaps that is appropriate for us too.
And then they bowed down to the ground. They responded by worshipping God in bowing down with their faces to the ground. This indicated a humility which demonstrated a willingness to obey what they were about to hear. All of these things made up their worship: standing in reverence to the Word, shouting “Amen”, lifting their hands to God, and falling on their faces before Him. When we think of worship, we often think of singing—and to be sure, that is one way we can worship God. But the word worship is much broader than that. Maybe you remember the old worship chorus, “Let’s Just Praise the Lord”. I read an article one time the title of which was, “Let’s Not Just Praise the Lord!” The author’s point in part was that worship is limited if we think of it only in terms of “praise and worship”. Worship is an active response to God whereby we ascribe to Him the glory that is due His Name, and we do that in a whole variety of ways, but worship is a response.
We can see this in their response of falling down to the ground as well. They understood that they must yield their wills before the Word.
In verses 7-8 we are told that Ezra had assistants, not the ones mentioned in :4, but others, whose job it was to explain the Law to the people. We aren’t certain exactly how this worked, but we do know that we can see from this the importance of the teaching and understanding of the Word, and the importance of having a teachable spirit. Your growth as a Christian will stop in its tracks and you will stagnate and be of little use to the Kingdom of God the moment you become unteachable. Always have a teachable spirit!
And notice the importance of preaching and teaching. It’s important to strike a balance when we think about this. One of our most cherished doctrines is the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. On the basis of the shed blood of Jesus, He is our One Mediator, I Corinthians tells us, and we come to God, not through some priest, but directly through Jesus Christ. He is our High Priest, and he is all you need. You don’t come to me to confess your sins—though with some of you, that could sure be fun! You go directly to God through Christ. Another sense of that doctrine suggests that I have the ability and the charge to interpret Scripture without having to rely solely upon others to do so for me. And that is why reading your Bible is so important! But there is a balance to be struck, and in our individualistic American society, some don’t want to hear this part of the equation, and that is this: God has given to His church gifts known as teachers and preachers. Some preach. Some teach. Some study and write. We are foolish—and unteachable—if we look disparagingly at these gifts of God to the church. I have bookshelves lined with books, and when it comes to the commentaries, one thing is true of every one of them: the people who have written them know the Bible better than I do! I’d be foolish not to call upon these friends to assist me every week. That is part of being teachable on my part!
Why did they approach the Word of God this way?
1. They were hungry!
The pastor is one who is charged with the responsibility of feeding the Word to the flock—the role of the flock every week is to come hungry! These people wanted to hear what God had to say. I’d suggest that there might be a word here for us? There are things which you can do to prepare for the proclamation of the Word of God in such a way that it will be to you like nourishing food—and there are conversely things which can be done to dull our spiritual appetites. I’d give you one simple encouragement to act upon every Sunday: enter this place with a reverent spirit; try to arrive in time to take a moment to prepare your heart prior to anything happening from this platform; tell God you are ready for what He wants to teach you. The people were hungry.
2. It is the Word of God!
We have enough of the so-called wisdom of this world to go around; one thing I hear and see regularly that is an encouragement to me is the hunger that many of our people have to hear the Word of God. I was speaking to Jan Dalton recently, who heads up Children’s Ministry here and who is profiled in our Fellowship Focus. She was talking about so many of the kids’ curricula on the Christian market today and how it is long on bells and whistles but short on Bible, and her goal is not to entertain kids but to teach them the Word. I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of person I want heading up our Children’s Ministry, because the Word of God—and not bells and whistles—is what changes lives!
3. It changes lives!
And that is point number last. It changes lives. Your life need changing today? Yes. God’s Word can change your life when you take it seriously, like the people in Jerusalem did!
I don’t fly much, though I’m not afraid of flying. It can be a little pricey, and my budget doesn’t always accommodate it. One thing I know is that, when you’re getting ready to land, the runway looks like a tiny narrow strip. Some people say that the Bible is narrow; that living by it is restricting and difficult. Maybe sometimes, for it cuts against the grain of the way we think. But next time you hear someone say that, remember the runway. It’s narrow. But landing on it—instead in the cornfield or in the water—is the way to safety. And so it is with God’s Word. When we humbled ourselves before it; when we take it in and take it seriously; when we allow God to work in our hearts through it, it will change our lives in ways we so desperately need!