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Mar 08, 2015

We Need Another WaterGate

Passage: Nehemiah 8:1-12

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Rebuilding the City

Keywords: bible, hunger, joy, renewal, repentance, word of god


This chapter introduces us to Ezra and the spiritual renewal that happened New Year's day with the nation of Israel when the Word of God was read. It examines spiritual hunger, how it is developed, the centrality of the Word of God and the work the Word does in conviction and joy when people are hungry for God.


We Need Another Watergate!

Nehemiah 8

March 8, 2015


INTRO:  It was 1973.  I was a junior in high school. The nation had just extricated itself from the Vietnam War.  But the result was turning out to be about as successful as our withdrawal from Iraq.  The Cold War was in full swing and the word detaunt was being used in international politics.  China was just opening up to the West for the first time in 40 years.  Vice President Spirrow Agnew had recently been forced to resign.  Abortion on demand had just been legalized by the Supreme Court.  And Richard Nixon was in the White House for a second term. 

            Then it happened. A couple of reporters with the Washington Post broke a story that would make history in American politics and around the globe. It would end in the first-ever resignation of an American President and the swearing in of the first President of the United States not elected by popular vote of the people, Gerald Ford.  A simple office complex in Washington, D.C. became forever a part of our historical landscape.  Its name was Watergate. 

So who in their right mind would dare to suggest that we really need another Watergate???

Well, if you open your Bibles to Nehemiah 8, you will find the answer to that.  In this chapter we are introduced to the priest Ezra. Ezra came rolling into Jerusalem around 458 B.C. (acc. To Ezra 7:8-9) to deal with some sin issues among the people of God.  Not much is said about him for nearly 13 years until Nehemiah comes along, completes the rebuilding of the city wall and calls an assembly of all the Jews once again.  It is that assembly that we read of in today’s Scripture. 

            So I’d like to invite you to do something which that assembly of thousands of Israelites did at the first Water Gate.  Would you please STAND as we read God’s holy Word today from Nehemiah 8?

all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.

So on October 8 Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included the men and women and all the children old enough to understand. He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. To his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. To his left stood Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam. Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.

Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—then instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places. They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

11 And the Levites, too, quieted the people, telling them, “Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day.” 12 So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.

Now, if we were going to imitate what happened that day, I would ask you to remain standing…for about another 5 hours …as I read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy… but I won’t.  I would really like to see you all back next week! J

What we just read is one of the Bible’s clearest examples of what we might call a historical spiritual revival.  A whole group of God’s people had their spiritual lives set on fire, their hearts radically transformed and their experience with God definitively altered.  It was something God was doing in a whole group of people…and He was doing it at a very deep heart level. 

      We’re not told who exactly convened this public display of spiritual hunger. What we do know is that it was after the summer’s harvest (Sept-Oct).  It was “the first day of the seventh month,” which fell on Oct. 8th of that year 445BC and actually was the Jewish New Year. It was celebrated with a religious holiday called The Feast of Trumpets.  You’ll find it explained in Numbers 29:1-6.

      This month of Ethanim (or Tishri as it was called after the Exile), had religious holidays on the 1st day (Feast of Trumpets), the Day of Atonement on the 10th, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the 15th-21st.  Over 1/3rd  of the month (9 “feast days” plus Sabbaths, probably 2-3 that didn’t fall on the feast days) was set aside exclusively for celebrating their relationship with God (religious holidays).  The entire 7th month had more religious holidays than any other month of the year.

       It was almost as if God was inviting people at the beginning of their New Year to take more time to engage with God, to do business with Him, before they jumped into their new year to do every other kind of business they needed to. 

NOTE:  Here is this consistent pattern by God in Scripture again:  get things right with God FIRST and then the rest of life gets right.  But put off getting life right with God and the rest of life never really “gets right.”   

I have to wonder what made this particular New Year celebration day so different from all the others.  Ezra had been in Jerusalem 13 years already.  The Temple worship had been happening that long and more.  They were being led by a man of deep personal spirituality.  According to Ezra 7:10, Ezra’s life passion was all about God’s word.  “Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the Lord and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel.”

      Here is a very godly, patient man.  He’s been immersed in God’s word for years, primarily so that he can “obey” God.  That is the kind of spiritual leadership God can bless—spiritual leaders who don’t just study God’s word so they can be great teachers of preachers but so that their own lives can be impacted deeply first.  But then, Ezra had a passion to see the rest of his nation understand and obey God’s call on their lives too.  And after 13 years of ministry in Jerusalem, something finally broke loose.

      Their New Year’s Day was not a day to sleep in or sleep off your New Year’s Eve hangover!  People got up before daylight and started making their way in the dark pre-dawn hours of the morning to a big open assembly area at “the square before the Water Gate” (vs. 1).  And as the first rays of sunlight hit that square, verse 1 tells us that the crowd of worshippers started calling out, “Bring out the book!  Bring out the book!” 

ILL:  It must have felt a bit like Bloomsday feels in Spokane.  There you are, tens of thousands of people, packed into Riverside Ave., waiting for the race to begin.  Whenever I’m in a crowd like that or some sporting event like Safeco Field, I wonder what it would be like to be in a huge arena with tens of thousands of people hungry for God, hungry to hear His word, gathered together because of their common love for God. 

Well verse 5 says that all the people stood as Ezra read the Word of God from “early morning until midday” (vs. 3)

What’s the longest church service you’ve ever been to?  Hopefully you’re not saying to yourself, “Today’s!”  J 

You know, it’s not really the number of minutes or hours a service runs, is it?  I’ve been in…no, I’ve preached some services…where a half-hour seemed to drag on forever.  And then I’ve been in some…and even preached a couple…where two or three hours of meeting with God seemed way too short, something you never wanted to end.  That’s happened to me all over the world:

  • In Dilla, Ethiopia where 2-3,000 Ethiopian pastors and wives came together for their annual conference in a nation where the Gospel is sometimes persecuted.
  • In a graduation service in New Delhi, India where hundreds of church planters were commissioned to take the Gospel to a nation where some of them will be killed.
  • In Atlanta, GA with 40,000 pastors from across the nation.
  • In Moscow, Russia in the days of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Gulag when I saw Russian Christians risk their jobs, their futures and their security to pack out a large Baptist church on a Sunday evening so they could hear 3 different preachers give 3 different messages and sing hymns together as if it were the last time they might be able to sing praises together to God.   

You know, hunger makes all the difference in the world to the flavor of a meal.  Spaniards have a saying that “Hunger is the most important ingredient to a great meal.”  The same is true when it comes to the bread of God—the Word of God.  The people of God in chapter 8 were calling out for the preacher of God to bring them God’s word.  There was hunger, deep hunger for

APP:  What do you think leads God’s people to this kind of spiritual hunger?

  • Exercise:  When we are burning spiritual calories serving others, loving on people, pouring out our lives for others, we’ll find we really need more spiritual food.
  • Needs/desperation:  when we’re facing challenges, difficulties, trials of any sort, that is one of God’s ways of getting us to spiritually salivate for what really satisfies our souls.  (Samaritan woman at the well—living water, empty life.) 

ILL:  One of Socrates’ disciples once asked him what was the best way to acquire knowledge.  So Socrates took him to a river, walked him into it and promptly plunged him beneath the surface…and held him there!  Finally, after much struggling and panic, the man broke loose and came up gasping.  “When you want knowledge as much as you want air, then you will get it,” Socrates shouted at him. 

David wrote in Ps. 42:1--As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

  • Good cooking:  Even if I’m not starving, smelling a great soup on the stove or bread in the oven can make me want to sit down for a meal.  When we really find the Word to be desirable, when we understand its implications and applications, then it’s a lot easier to take the time to sit at God’s table and dive into the Word.  (Bible studies, devotionals, preaching)
  • PRAYER:  When my soul lacks hunger, one of the most important ways I’ve found to change that is to ask God to grow my hunger. 

[STOP and PRAY together for hunger, to be people of The Book.] 

So if we’re looking to BE a spiritually awake, alive and strong people of God, a deep hunger for the Word of God is essential.

Secondly, if we’re going to be a spiritually awake, alive and engaged people of God, it will take serious digging into the Word of God.  Verses 3 and 5 indicate that the people were on their feet for 4-5 hours and attentive to the reading of the Word that morning.  Like anything in life worth doing, experiencing the power of the Word and the presence of God in His word takes effort. 

  • I’m pretty sure just about everybody there had a good night’s sleep the night before.  I think Satan is more than happy to let us go to church or Bible study after a short or lousy night’s sleep.  The Jews knew that a day started in the evening.  So if we want to be people revived and renewed by the Word of God, we’ve got to get to bed on time and do whatever we need to do to make time in God’s Word, be it daily or at special times like church, a time in our day when we’re alert enough to really connect with God. 

Some of the effort that it takes to experience God through His Word involves digging below the surface.  What I mean by that is, how we handle God’s Word must be unique from how we handle other books. 

There are 1.5 million different books published every year.  Thankfully the Bible is THE most published book in the world. But that doesn’t mean we will benefit from it.  But skimming over passages of the Bible helter-skelter will not bring spiritual renewal in our lives.  You can read any other book in the world and not need the Holy Spirit.  But we cannot read the Bible and hope to have it radically change us without having the Holy Spirit open our minds and hearts and show us how it should be applied to our life. 

We can read poetry and be touched by its imagery.  But we can’t read biblical poetry and be transformed by it without taking time to let it sink into us and let God’s Spirit kneed it into our hearts like yeast kneeded into dough. 

We can read history all day long and not have it change us.  But to read biblical history and have it transform our living, we will need to ponder and study and discuss it with others while at the same time asking the Spirit of God, “What do you want me to DO with this?” 

Part of “digging below the surface” in God’s Word involves consulting others who have given time, prayer, attention and good study themselves to what it means. 

The words “understanding” and “meaning” occur about 6 times in this chapter.  Vs. 8 says, “8They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.”

      The meaning of “making it clear” carries the idea that the Law was explained to the people in a language they could understand.  That may have involved simply updating the flow of the Hebrew to a form that was easily understood now some 1000 years later.  All languages evolve in their expressions and forms year by year. 

      That’s why it is appropriate to be coming out with updated versions of the translated Scriptures as time passes.  To say that only one translation in any given language is “the only accurate translation” and all others are heretical betrays one’s own lack of understanding about language, translations and particularly the Scriptures. 

What is important is that people really understand what is being read…or what has been written.  Sometimes we need someone else to help us “put the spiritual cookies on the lower shelf.”  That’s why we have teaching in our worship services.  That’s why Bible Study groups are so important.   That’s why we offer Theology 101 every Wednesday.  That’s why listening to good Bible teachers on the radio or TV or internet/podcasts are good and accessing good books and commentaries are useful.  None of us has enough understanding of God’s word.  We all need to be constantly growing in our understanding of its meaning. 

      The first question in each of our minds whenever we encounter God’s word must be, “What does it MEAN?”  We have no hope of it transforming our lives until we accurately understand what it means.

ILL:  Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain), not a particularly religious man by any means, decided to stop in at a church one particular Sunday. After the service, Clemens met the pastor at the door and told him that he had a book at home with every word the preacher had preached that morning.  The minister assured him that the sermon was an original.  Clemens still held to his claim.  When the pastor asked to see the book that had his sermon in it, Clemens said he would send it over in the morning.  So the next day, when the preacher received a book wrapped in brown paper, he eagerly opened it.  What he found was a dictionary with these words written in the flyleaf:  “Words, just words, words, words.” 

      But we cannot stop there. Too many Christians think they are really growing, really being transformed if they just THINK about God’s word.  Anybody can THINK about God’s word.  Anyone can LISTEN TO and HEAR God’s word and not be changed.  If we don’t make decisions to ACT upon it and put it into practice, there will be no life-change in us or in our church or in this city. 

      Every time we read or listen to or study the Word of God, we must ask ourselves and the Holy Spirit, “So, what should I DO with what I now know?” 

      Here lies, I believe, the greatest single challenge for most American Christians.  We have the word of God.  We may even read the word of God.  But do we “understand” it to the degree that it touches us mentally, emotionally and relationally?  Does our encounter with it move us to be different people? 

This brings us to the 3rd critical means of experiencing spiritual renewal and vitality.  It’s found in vs. 6--Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Spiritual renewal takes a response of WORSHIP to the Word of God.  The order of events that day is not totally clear according to this passage.  But what is clear is the priority of the Word of God and the active responses of the people.  Worship is never truly a spectator sport. 

APP:  This is one of the reasons we have consciously chosen at Mosaic not to make music or musicians or even the Sunday program the main thing.  The more passive worship becomes, the greater the chance that the medium becomes the message.  And if the medium of our corporate worship is a few people doing most of the worshipping, then we’ve missed the true nature of worship…and we will miss the true experience of spiritual renewal and vitality. 

            This text also presents us with another important truth about worship:  it should involve us body, soul and spirit.  In this passage, the people shouted their “Amen” as a verbal response, a vocal commitment of “So be it” to the proclamations of the Word. 

ILL:  Doing a pulpit swap with Elder Ezra Kinlow of Holy Temple Church of God in Christ.  If you don’t know, it’s a classic Pentecostal African-American church with soul!  I’m afraid his church got the short end of the stick.  There were more “Amens” the morning he was in my pulpit than I heard in 10 years of my preaching.  J

I don’t think the presence of “Amens” is the definitive mark of spiritual vitality.  But a personal, decisive and demonstrative response to the truth of God’s word probably is.  To verbally commit to obedience is always a good thing.  To bodily respond to God is always a good thing. 

            In this renewed worship experience, people shouted “Amen!”  People “lifted their hands” in praise to God.  And people “bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”  Really! 

            Do you think the ground out in that public courtyard was any cleaner than this floor?  I seriously doubt it!  Do you think washing clothes was any easier in those days? Don’t you believe it.  Then what would compel thousands of people to get down on their faces?  Only a far deeper concern for how they were responding to the Lord than how they were perceived by their friends and neighbors. 

            I don’t know what it is about kneeling or prostrating myself on the floor in the presence of other people. I find it very uncomfortable to have someone come into a room where I’m in that position before God.  And I’ve noticed that they usually find it pretty awkward too.  

Why is that in our American culture?  Might it be that we are such a proud or private people that we haven’t really developed the practice of humbling ourselves before anyone, even God?  If you go to the local mosque out on E. Sprague and sit in one of their services, YOU will be the odd-man-out if you’re not on your face.  Muslims don’t have difficulty putting their face to the floor 5 times a day.  Why have we Western Christians developed such aversion to public display of heart-demonstrating worship?  Why is it that the mainline, Roman Catholic and state churches rather than our churches kneel and bow regularly in their services? 

            I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think God demands a particular posture in worship.  But I will also tell you that I think the more postures we have discounted and discarded, be it raising of hands or bowing of bodies, the more likely it has become that our worship lacks real passion and even obedience. 

The middle of this chapter leaves us with a curious paradox:  grief over sin mixed with joy under God. 

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

            Apparently there was some serious conviction under the living Word and Holy Spirit that was taking place.  As the people heard, perhaps many for the first time, what God wanted them to do and be, the reality of where their lives really were came crashing down on them.  There was a virtually spontaneous and Spirit-moved conviction that caused real sorrow of heart, real tears of regret.  This wasn’t some worked-up emotional display.  Something happened that caused the Word to cut like the two-edged sword it is, right to the heart.  This is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit.  When the Word of God has this kind of effect on people, it is definitely a God-thing. 

APP2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Two of the four benefits listed here of the Word’s work in our lives have to do with conviction—“reproof” and “correction.” Whether it’s in our daily time with God or weekly time in Bible study like this, if the Spirit of God isn’t pointing out things that need change in our lives, we need to call out to God for a fresh work of the Holy Spirit. 

That deep conviction of the Spirit that can produce heart-felt sadness over our sin must, however, be combined with something Nehemiah pressed for that day of national spiritual revival.  Look at vs. 10.

10 And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

11 And the Levites, too, quieted the people, telling them, “Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day.” 12 So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.”

Godly sorrow that brings true repentance is not a sorrow that should weigh us down or leave us depressed or discouraged.  Depression and discouragement are tools of the Enemy.  Once repentance has cleared the way for renewed and deepened fellowship with God, the “joy of the Lord” is to become our experience. 

            Just what is “the joy of the Lord”?  Is it some mysterious outpouring that God pours out on certain people? Apparently not, at least from this text.  It is something we can choose to experience by undertaking certain activities and attitudes.  Nehemiah encouraged people to do a couple of things:

1.)    Celebrate Spirit-led understanding of God’s word by enjoying a feast of good food and drink.

2.)    Celebrate Spirit-led moves of our hearts by sharing food with people who have less than us, particularly meals and food. 

How much joy do we miss because we don’t feast together?

How much celebration and happiness do we forfeit because we don’t share our food and meals together, talking about what we’re learning in the Word, about what the Spirit is working on in our lives? 

  • It’s a shame that we’ve let the bars, clubs and pubs of our day out-celebrate the church. 
  • It’s a shame that people who go to church on Sunday morning leave the worst tips when they go out for Sunday lunch or brunch. 
  • It’s a shame that we don’t have more parties together as God’s people.

Q:  How many of you college students would love to get into someone’s home for a couple of hours a week just to share a meal?

Q:  Which do you prefer: sitting around a table, sharing a meal with brother’s and sisters in Christ in a home OR sitting in a circle at church and discussing some passage or topic? 

Really what Nehemiah and the Levites were calling people to was hospitality in small groups in homes.  I’ve got an informal survey:

  • How many of us like to go out to lunch of dinner with friends?
  • How many of us like to get into someone’s home over a meal?
  • How many of us have liked the experience of doing a small group that shares a meal together (like Alpha course)? 

But it isn’t just about the food.  Vs. 12 lets us know that it was the Bread of Life, the Living Word combined with good food that produced a joy in the Lord.  Content, not just condiments, matter. 

Q:  How many of us are currently in a small group of some sort that shares a meal together regularly?  [Hands] 

How many would really like to be? 

What are you waiting for? 

Why not open your home? 

Why not invite some people you know along with some you don’t? 

Why not start an Alpha group in your neighborhood, your home? 

Why not talk with any of your pastors if you need help.

Why not plan to have an extra 2-4 people at your table every Sunday afternoon?   

Study Questions for Nehemiah 8

  1. The gathering described in Nehemiah 8 occurred during the Feast of Trumpets.  Read Numbers 29:1-6 and describe what it was to involve, what it celebrated and why it was important to begin the Jewish New Year this way.
  2. The seventh month in the Hebrew calendar included the Day of Atonement and the 6-day Feast of Tabernacles. Why do you think God put so many and these particular religious holidays in the New Year month? Why do you think God put such an emphasis on the beginnings of years, months (New Moons) and weeks (Sabbaths) for the Jews? 

When it comes to fresh beginnings of years, months, weeks or even days for you, what role do spiritual celebrations and worship play in your life?  What might you change about your encounter with God’s word, worship and fellowship that could open your life up to more spiritual renewal? 

  1. If spiritual hunger is one of the most important ingredients to experiencing spiritual renewal, how can we develop or increase our spiritual hunger for God’s word?  How have you seen God develop more hunger in your life in the past?  What could you do that you don’t normally do that might develop more hunger for God’s Word in your daily life?
  2. When it comes to digging into God’s Word, what have you found helps you the most to both understand what a passage means as well as put it into practice?  What might God be asking you to put into practice this week from this passage?  Share that with the others in your group,
  3. Why do you think God desires that worship be one of our primary responses to His Word?  How do you prefer to make worship an active response to God and His Word?  What helps you worship more deeply?  What doesn’t?  Are there certain ways of worshipping that you prefer to do privately?  Publically? 
  4. Nehemiah 8:10 tells us that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  How so?  How do we get such joy?  How might we increase that joy in our lives?  How do verses 11 and 12 indicate God’s joy might grow in our lives?
  5. How might you, your family or your small group celebrate God’s Word and work more using shared meals?  What will you do in the next month to make shared meals more important and meaningful to your spiritual renewal?