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Sermon based on Nehemiah 8:1-10
I majored in History at UNC Charlotte and while I took courses in European, Latin American, and Civil War history, my favorite courses dealt with modern American history. Perhaps my favorite textbook which I still own today was entitled, In the Shadows of FDR. This book talks about how Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy influenced future administrations. I read this book in a course called the American Presidents. In this course we learned about one event that has shaped our political history and the office of the president forever. Early in the morning on June 17, 1972, police discovered five intruders inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The burglars were there, it turned out, to adjust bugging equipment they had installed during a May burglary. This burglary took place at the Watergate Hotel in 1972 and ultimately brought down the Presidency of Richard Nixon. Watergate remains one of the most mentioned presidential scandals of modern time and changed forever the lives of many who were part of that administration. In fact, a whole new vocabulary was introduced into our political dictionary. Any potential political scandal is now quickly identified by the suffix “gate.”
This morning we are going to talk about another Water Gate experience that you may be less familiar with. It was at this Water Gate that the priest Ezra shared God’s Word with the people of Israel. This story is found in our Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah. Some of us might wonder what exactly a Water Gate was and it’s a rather simple explanation that first begins with a history lesson. Archaeology over the years have uncovered that ancient cities of the Bible were often more like fortresses where the perimeter consisted of a massive stonewall with gates to permit or prevent the entry of people. In times of war, enemy forces often concentrated their attacks on these openings, typically the weakest part of the city wall. Gates were the center of city life and understanding their important role brings new light to many biblical stories, especially this one from Nehemiah. Nehemiah is historically regarded as a continuation of the Book of Ezra with the author of this book believed to be Nehemiah himself.
The book of Nehemiah records a time when Israel is coming back into their homeland after spending 70 years in exile. Nehemiah was among the Jews of the exile to Babylon. After the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, Nehemiah found himself as the royal cupbearer in the palace of the Persian king. That trusted and responsible position made possible Nehemiah’s role in biblical history of being made the civil governor of Jerusalem. When Nehemiah arrived, he quickly made a survey of the fallen city, and organized the people to make the restoration of Jerusalem possible. Despite opposition, the wall was rebuilt in 52 days with the rest of the work completed in about 6 months. People have often used the first six chapters of Nehemiah and the story of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem to think about the necessity of rebuilding our own lives, our church and even society. Nehemiah worked closely with Ezra, the priest in restoring not only the city, but also the people’s obedience to God. Our passage picks up this morning where the book of the law had been discovered and Nehemiah calls together the people at the Water Gate and has Ezra share a public reading of God’s law. Following this reading a revival of moral and spiritual rebuilding took place among the people of Israel. As we examine this revival more closely we learn Ezra is the key figure in this process. The law of God is the key document. The people of God are active participants. The Spirit of God is the empowering agent.
There are some important lessons learned from this Water Gate experience. The first lesson we learn is that we must hear the Word. We would be wise to follow the advice of Jesus who once said after sharing the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s gospel, “Let anyone with ears listen! Before the Word of God can be believed, remembered, or appreciated it must be heard. Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the 20th century once referred to the Word of God in its threefold form: written, living and preached. It would appear that the people of Israel experienced the Word of God in each of these ways. Everyone came together because they had a hunger to hear the Word of God. This hunger was so intense they told Ezra to simply open the Book of the Law of Moses and read. Just as the people of Israel were willing to stand for hours listening to the Word of God, we also must be willing to invest the time, effort and energy necessary to hear God’s Word. Perhaps the best way to hear the Word of God is to read the Word of God. Have you ever wondered how much time it takes to read from Genesis to Revelation? Studies have shown that if you would read the Bible at pulpit speed, which is slow enough to be heard and understood, the reading time would be 71 hours. If you break that down into minutes and divide that over the course of 365 days you could read the entire Bible in only 12 minutes a day. That is such a small amount of time for us to read something that reveals God in his fullness of life through Jesus Christ. Over the years it has been said that the Bible strengthens, encourages, comforts and challenges us. Our challenge is to open not just our ears, but also our minds and hearts to reading and studying God’s Word.
As the Word of God does these things, we learn a second lesson from the Water Gate. We must offer a response to the Word.The Israelites had different stages of reaction and response to the law as they heard it being shared. First, they fell into repentant sorrow. Instead of responding with anger or indifference, as one might expect having not heard the Word of God in such a long time, they were moved to grief because of their deep humility and their love for God. Upon recognition of their sinful ways, they began to praise and worship God for several hours from early morning until midday as Nehemiah records. Finally they celebrated as recorded later in this 8thchapter of Nehemiah, the “Festival of Booths” which was a special harvest festival in Jerusalem. From all over Israel, the people packed up their belongings and came to Jerusalem. On every available piece of land they built temporary shelters (called tabernacles or booths) and lived in them to remind themselves of the time their ancestors lived in the wilderness. All of these actions, which helped these people in their spiritual growth, were a result of responding to God’s Word.
How do we respond to God’s Word in our day-to-day lives? Theodore Roosevelt, a former president and cousin of Franklin Roosevelt once said the following about God’s Word, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”For those of you without much knowledge about the carpentry trade, there is an instrument often used for sawing boards for flooring known as a carpenter’s square. This is an L shaped rule that forms a right angle. If a person cuts a board for flooring at something other than a right angle, the fit will be crooked. I share this information because as Christians, the Bible is the instrument by which our spiritual thoughts are to be squared. For me, the written word points to the living word of Jesus Christ. We must remember that we do not come to church to worship the Bible rather we come to church to worship the God whose story is contained in the Bible. This story tells us that God creates, God redeems and God makes us holy or blessed. We are to respond to God’s actions in faith, love and hope.
One final lesson we learn from the Water Gate experience is that the Word of God produces in us power and celebration. Nehemiah writes, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” As we talk about the power and celebration of God’s Word John Richard Green, in his book A Short History of the English People offers an interesting commentary of Queen Elizabeth I as queen.Elizabeth inherited a very difficult situation in her country. There was dissension between Catholics and Protestants that tore at the very foundations of society. In addition, her predecessors had bled the royal treasury dry. Despite what appeared to be insurmountable problems her first order of business was an attempt to eliminate religious unrest. Green writes, …England became a people of the book and that book was the Bible. It was read at churches and read at home, and everywhere its words… As a mere literary monument, the English version of the Bible remains the noblest example of the English tongue. But far greater was the effect of the Bible on the character of the people…
The Word of God also had quite an effect upon the character of God’s people in Israel. Many years of slavery had made them a joyless nation and they were able to reclaim their joy. Some might say that in America we are a joyless nation. We have our own realities of bondage: a nation divided by political preferences, economics and even race. Some might go so far as to say we are a joyless denomination given all the events that have transpired in the Moravian church over the past year. Despite those things going on in our lives and churches that can bring us despair, reclaiming joy starts with that connection to the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ.
One of the best ways we can stay connected to Christ is to be open to listening to God’s call in our lives. There was once a young boy who was given what he considered to be a priceless gift, his late grandfather’s gold pocket watch. One day while playing in his father’s ice plant, he lost this watch amidst all the ice and sawdust. He searched and searched for this watch and became frantic with worry because he could not find it. Finally he realized what he needed to do which was to be quiet and still and begin listening. In this silence he heard the watch ticking and was able to retrieve this gift.
In the busyness of our lives it is important that we spend time with God and listen to His teachings through Scripture and recognize that we all have been given a priceless gift in Jesus Christ. All the lessons of the Water Gate experience and within the Old Testament point each of us to the cross and that great gift God has given us through Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. For us real revival and real change begins with God.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
January 27, 2019