Summary: The work’s finished! The people flock back into Jerusalem to celebrate. The people demand that God’s word be read to them! They show their renewed hunger for hearing God’s word.
Sermon by Rev George Hemmiongs
I have great news this morning. Wonderful news. The building project’s over! The work’s finished! It seemed impossible, but it’s happened. The builders have been hard at it, working night and day. Despite all those naysayers, despite all the doubt and objections, the last stone has been laid, the clean up’s done, the job’s finished! If only this were true of our building at Station St! That would be a real miracle, if it were finished this quickly. We still have a while to wait, but this is the message that came to Nehemiah. After just 52 days, the wall around Jerusalem is finished. It was, as we’ve heard a monumental task, plagued with some stiff opposition and no shortage of challenges. But the people have worked hard, and with God’s blessing, it’s all over! You can imagine their sense of excitement and pride. So just as when we finish our building I’m sure we’ll have a big celebration, it’s no different for the Israelites. The wall’s done, now it’s time to party!
So, a few days after they’d gone home for a rest, the people flock back into Jerusalem to celebrate. No doubt Nehemiah has planned all this out. He’s told them to come back on the first day of the new month, and they do. Men, women and children, all those who can understand, come flooding in. Just as everybody got involved in the work, everybody comes together to celebrate. But then they do something surprising. Instead of demanding the music to be turned up and the party pies be brought out, they call for something else. The people demand that God’s word be read to them! They show their renewed hunger for hearing God’s word. One of the curses the prophet Amos had pronounced was that:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD. Amos 8:11
The people are responding to that hunger. The demand that God’s word be read to them, and the show they’re expecting him to speak. They cry out ‘Amen, Amen,’ and they worship the Lord as Ezra prepares to read.
This is the surprising thing. Instead of jumping straight to the food and drink, the people celebrate by reading God’s word. They realize that even though the Wall is finished, the work has just begun. The goal isn’t just a walled city, but a rebuilt nation full of spiritually mature people. If the people aren’t obedient, if they aren’t dedicated to God, it doesn’t matter how solid the new walls are. The city, the nation, has to be built on solid foundations, and that’s God’s word. They’ve got a renewed desire to study the scriptures. So they don’t want a party filled with food, drink and music, they want a bible-study party! What a great way of celebrating something, to turn around and get stuck into God’s word!
Nehemiah knew all this, so he’s planned ahead. He organized for the people to come back and he’s enlisted the help of Ezra. Ezra’s a lot like Nehemiah. He’s also returned to Jerusalem, though to oversee the rebuilding of the temple. Ezra’s a scribe and a priest, devoted to reading God’s word and explaining it to people, so he’s the right man for the job. Ezra ascends the tower Nehemiah’s had specially built for the occasion, surrounded by leaders from the community.
Then he begins the mother of all bible studies. Ezra begins reading sometime in the morning from the Law of Moses, and he keeps going for six or seven hours! Hands up who here’s ready for half a day of reading? I once saw someone start looking at their watch two minutes into a five minute homily, but here the people are listening intently the whole time. But it’s not just about hearing the word read out. It’s about renewing their understanding. So a number of the Levites are scattered amongst the crowd to explain it to them. A little bit is read, and then the explain it. They help interpret God’s word so that everyone can understand it. Well, after six hours of this Ezra & Nehemiah notice the people are weeping. Not as you might imagine because they think the reading’s never going to end and they just want it to stop. No, it’s because as their understanding is being renewed so too are their hearts. Ezra’s been reading from the Law of Moses, the account of how God had rescued his people from Egypt. They’ve been reminded of how God made a covenant with his people at Mt. Sinai, promising to bless them, to be with them, to give them land of Israel. They’re being reminded of the goodness and greatness of God.