Sermon Ideas For Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Part 1
Fallen humanity cowers when faced with God's law. Under sin, and burdened by guilt, we assume that the law judges us with no further end than condemnation. This, of course, was the story of Adam and Eve in the garden; one of the first effects of the Fall was a shrinking from the presence of God out of fear. The message of Ezra and Nehemiah point to another dimension of the law. For the community of the redeemed it is a source of joy. To be sure, the Word comes as judgment; but because it is God's Word, the law of Jesus Christ as well as the law of Moses, it comes for salvation. We should not force a dichotomy between law and gospel in careless terms. The apostle Paul may help us to understand a false appropriation of the law. Nehemiah 8 may help us to understand that all articulations of God's will, from the law and the prophets through the gospels and the epistles, sound freedom. They are cause for joy because it is through God's law, as a genre of God's Word, that God redeems.
The redemption spoken of in Nehemiah 8 is the restoration of Israel to Palestine from captivity in Babylon. Cyrus was the human agent initially used by God, the temporal means, as it were, to effect the movement of Israelites back to Judah. Royal decrees by Cyrus, Darius I, Artaxerxes I, and Artaxerxes II allowed Israelites to resettle Jerusalem. Lest the people of God conclude, however, that political powers determined their restoration, the Ezra-Nehemiah story builds to this moment. Staged in a publicly dramatic act, Ezra and Nehemiah read the law as a celebration of the redemptive power of God's Word. The day was "holy to the Lord" (Neh 8:9) because God was glorified as the agent of Israel's redemption in the law.
There are two striking aspects to the appropriation of the law of Moses by the people in this passage. First, when the law was read to the people they recognized their sin. They humbled themselves and wept for their apostasies. This was in some sense good and proper. What the eighteenth-century Methodists and Calvinists called "evangelical humiliation," a sense of one's sinfulness, ought to proceed from an appreciation for divine law.
Second, the people yet needed to move beyond their humiliation to joy; to a perception that the law that judged them also effected their restoration and therefore was cause for celebration. Here they needed the teaching of Ezra and Nehemiah, who stepped in as interpreters of God's Word. (Pastors, take heart! Here is an ancient legitimization of the special calling of preacher—to point to the word of grace where people hear nothing but condemnation.) They showed a humbled Israel that the divine law was indeed an agent of redemption as well as chastisement; it came as mercy as well as judgment. So we must labor diligently to grasp how the moral demands of God's Word contain the joyful strain of redemption. The scribe Ezra, the civic leader Nehemiah, and the priests all called the people to a holy celebration grounded in complete confidence that a true knowledge of God's law was cause for joy.
When the apostle Paul used the term "law," he often referred to works righteousness. The law that could not save, in Paul's terminology, was the law working through the flesh: self-serving and self-directed attempts at righteousness (Romans 8; Galations 3). This is not the meaning of the law as presented in Nehemiah 8. Here, a true reading of God's law as God's Word presents it as redemptive in and of itself, because it is the means of providence. God moves history through God's speech. God created by his Word; God redeems by his Word. God called Israel into being by the covenant promise itself, part of God's law. God likewise shaped Israel into a nation through the Davidic covenant. God brought Israel to the point in this text through the working out of the prophetic promises in Second Isaiah. So John the evangelist could draw on the trope of "the word" as the single representation of the redemptive center of all of history, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-5). This is also why Jesus Christ did not contrast his ministry, the gospel, to the law; but presented it instead as the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17).
The more Israel rediscovered the message of God's law, the more they pursued a program of moral and religious reform. Finding in the law the word of their salvation, they found the author of that law to be their savior. This provided joy and confidence. The result of a genuine appropriation of the joyful message contained in God's law was obedience.
When we hear the law of God as condemnation we run from it and remain inactive or even hostile to God. When we hear the law as a proclamation of the sovereignty of God over our lives we gain courage to obey. Joy gives strength to come alongside God's Word as it works and shapes history in the grand story of salvation.
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