Monday, December 12, 2011

Restore Us, O God; JOY!


...all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.  He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.   Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.  7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.  And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”  And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
On the second day the heads of ancestral houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to the scribe Ezra in order to study the words of the law.  And they found it written in the law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”  So the people went out and brought them, and made booths for themselves, each on the roofs of their houses, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim.  And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.
                                                        Nehemiah 8:1 - 17 (NRSV)
Happiness is certainly the theme of most holiday celebrations.  You can see it on the faces of people at Thanksgiving gatherings, and in the sparkling eyes of children when they first see a load of presents under the tree on Christmas morning.  Unbridled happiness is on the faces of those goofy people who gather in Times Square each New Year’s eve.  They are the party-goers:  hats, noisemakers, swizzle sticks and glazed eyeballs.
Elizabeth and I celebrated New Years Eve somewhat differently a few years ago.  We had the flu!  Our swizzle sticks were immersed in chicken soup.  When the “ball” finally dropped at midnight, I awoke because of the noise.  I nudged Elizabeth and kissed her “Happy New Year”.  She grunted, “Oh, yeah…whatever…zzzz.”
It wasn’t all gruesome though; earlier that night Elizabeth had decided to bathe the dogs.  (We were “grand-dog” sitting at our daughter’s house).  When Elizabeth decides to bathe dogs, they have no choice.  One by one they were herded into the hall bathroom. 
Being the sickest, I shouted encouragement from the living room while I watched the ball game.  When Elizabeth got to Cole, the Rottweiler/Bloodhound-mix puppy (85lbs and Buffalo-sized paws), things got out of hand. 
 Cole decided to exercise his “I want outa here” option.  He tried to bite the water, soap, scrubby-thing and shower curtain.  He understood that “nipping” Elizabeth was out of the question, so he just struggled to end the torture as best as he could. 
The sounds were amazing.  I expected to hear, “No, Cole.  Stop, Cole; Cole, cut that out.”  What I heard was high pitched laughter…no words, just Elizabeth’s unmistakable, inimitable laugh.  She was having a grand time with Cole giving Elizabeth a really good bath. 
Later Elizabeth explained to me that Cole had grabbed the soap bottle and flung it across the bathroom.  As Elizabeth reached to retrieve it, the pooch got himself half-out of the tub; his back legs were swimming, leaving a wake like the Titanic.  With water and suds flying everywhere, my bride was attempting to “re-tub” the front half of the dog, while the back end was objecting.  It was an epic struggle!
A few moments after the clatter began Cole emerged from the bathroom with Elizabeth in hot pursuit.  She had Cole by his stubby tail with one hand, and a buzzing hair dryer in the other.  It is an incredible thing, this joy that won’t be stopped; especially when it is connected to a Rottweiler/Bloodhound mix puppy that won’t be stopped either. 
Cole was getting down the hallway as fast as his legs would carry him, considering he was dragging Elizabeth behind.  I don’t know whether it was the hair dryer or Elizabeth’s laughter that scared him the most.  Elizabeth rather enjoyed the ride!
I like joy; I like the genuine kind that starts deep down within and bubbles up to the surface.  It is irrepressible, unstoppable and it is what Jesus died to bring to our souls – joy unspeakable and full of glory! (1 Peter 1.8)
There was no joy like that in Jerusalem 2,500 years ago.  God’s people, the nation of Israel had been held captive for 70 years in Babylon (modern-day Iraq).  Nehemiah, a captive Jew, begged-for and got permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its walls.  The building project was successful, and the infrastructure of a fledgling government was in place, but the main ingredient (for God’s people) was still missing.  There was still a lacking in worship, genuine worship.
That is so much like today.  There is plenty of infrastructure and superstructure.  We have built a society so structured that it stands without God’s help at all.  Today, amid all the laughter of entertainment, parties and such, we are a joyless society.  There are walls of government protection, but we are isolated from God.  Everyone is seeking happiness – the pursuit of which is even guaranteed in our most revered American document, the Constitution.  Unfortunately we have just the same as the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s day – plenty of reform, no revival. 
The next step for Israel was revival, started by a public reading of God’s Word.  Let’s look at what that word did for Israel, and perhaps discover what God’s Word will do in us if we will follow the pattern.

Reclaim Joy

Nehemiah’s group, like our society had a real need to reclaim their joy.  Seventy years of slavery had indeed made them a joyless nation.  King David knew something about bondage.  After his gross sin with Bathsheba his life was totally without joy.  He had all the women, money and power a man could imagine, and his life was miserable.  Out of his depths of despair and remorse he prayed to God:
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation... 
Psalms 51.12a
We in 21st century America have our own bondage realities:  debt, terrorism, war ominously peering at us from the horizon.  However, reclaiming joy is not about national image, safety or stock market trends.  It is not even about health or family relationships.  Reclaiming joy starts with that all important connection to the Author of our joy. 
When Ezra began reading the Holy Scriptures to the children of Israel they began to mourn and weep.  God’s Word had uncovered their lack of worship, and they sensed their lacking before God.  When Nehemiah and Ezra saw the peoples’ deep remorse for their sins they told the people to stop weeping – a holy restoration of relationship with God was being re-established through their repentance.  They were to go and rejoice and celebrate their spiritual homecoming; the joy of the Lord was theirs, and their strength! (Neh 8.9-10)

Reclaim Reverence

Ezra the priest stood in a pulpit to read aloud the Scripture, and all the people stood with him.  This is a reverence I am glad to say we observe.  Each week you are invited you to stand as we read the Gospel text.  We stand hear God’s Word in reverence.
One item worthy of note about the pulpit…it was especially constructed for this event.  That demonstrates that they had taken time to prepare for worshipping God.  That is reverence.  It matters little whether the pulpit is wooden, steel, glass or stone; it matters that we reclaim reverence for worship.  That takes effort, time and resources!
Incidentally, did you notice the people stood and listened to the reading and explaining of God’s Word for 6 hours!  Most churches would have a lynching if the sermon went on for one hour!  Truthfully, however, it is hard to blame some congregations for being bored with boring sermons.  One lady in a church service said to another when the pastor had gone past the appointed time, “My, he certainly preaches long.”  The other lady replied, “Oh, no, dear; it just seems that way.”
There is a principle we see here about reclaiming reverence for the worship of God:  Your reverence in worship is directly proportional to how much it costs you to worship.  Friend, think about what you put into this worship service this morning.  If all it costs you is the time to get cleaned up, put on your Sunday best, write a check for the offering and then show up to go through the routine – your worship has cost very little, and you will not revere what happens, should God actually speak here this morning.
The Israelite nation – every one that could stand there and understand, stood for 6 hours.  Now, that in itself was not the cost; it was the sorrow over their sins that cost.  Putting aside their pride and turning empty hands heavenward was their cost.  When the people began to understand the concept of worship they began to reclaim their reverence for costly worship. 
They were like their first King, David, who was seeking to build an altar for worship and a man offered him a free plot of land to build his worship spot.  The king turned it down with this explanation:
…neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the LORD my God
of that which doth cost me nothing.
2 Samuel 24:24b (KJV)
For the nation of Israel reclaiming joy started with reclaiming reverence, and then…

Reclaim Understanding

As we read the list of all those men who stood with Ezra, we also saw there were other men who stationed themselves among the people.  As the passages of God’s Word were read there were certainly some questions as to what it all meant.  These folks had spent their whole lives in captivity without access to God’s Word.  They were not accustomed to worship or hearing the Word of God.  In addition, most of them spoke Aramaic; the Scriptures were in Hebrew. 
“Giving the sense” Neh 8.8 implies translating of thought.  Upon first hearing it read, the different language raised questions as to how they were to apply it.  By providing teaching along with the reading, the collective understanding of God’s people was awakened to serve Him better.
In the New Testament we read that God provides for the church pastors and teachers for instructing the congregation Eph 4.11.  This is the same sense as what we see in Nehemiah – reading the Word of God, and explaining it (exposition). 
Exposition was part of the process of reclaiming joy.  Hearing the Word of God helped them reclaim their reverence for worship, and the exposition of the Word aided in reclaiming understanding of who they are in God’s eyes.  Hearing and understanding God’s Word opened for God’s people an understanding of how they were sinning against God and His love for them, which led them to:

Reclaim Repentance

Repentance is part of that process which leads to a reclaimed joy.  Many scriptures speak of revival and renewal.  Here are a two of my favorites:
Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:
Joel 2.12
And there is the four-fold formula for revival:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.  2 Chronicles 7.14
The people of God were given a clear understanding of God’s word.  Hearing the message of God’s eternal heart and love for man, they understood clearly that they were in violation of their God in many ways.  Their hearts were pierced, their conscience pinched – repentance followed as hearts turned to Almighty God.  It was a revival.
This was not the first time a revival had occurred.  In 2 Kings 22-23, we read of an account 150 years before Nehemiah.  In renovating the temple and restoring worship to Jerusalem, a portion of God’s Word was discovered behind a wall.  The young king, Josiah had it read to the people, and repentance followed.  It was a revival.
Always, when the Word of God is held up, God’s people will return to Him. 
Revival is what reclaims joy. 
Revival makes the difference between emptiness and meaning. 
Revival is our heritage as the people of God.
Now, that is the exposition – what the Bible passage meant in those days when Nehemiah and Ezra led the people back to God.  What does it mean for us today?  We need:


I want to suggest three parts of an application for us, based on the pattern of Nehemiah.  We can agree that reclaiming joy is a “bull’s eye” goal for us.  Based upon the pattern we just read, genuine revival in a church, an individual or a nation begins with reclaiming reverence for the worship of God, understanding of the Word of God, and repentance over our own sin against God.  These are indisputable; the question is “what shall we do”?  A three-part answer:
I.  Use the Booth
The people of Nehemiah’s day celebrated the Feast of Booths.  It was a reminder of God’s provision and protection during their wilderness days.  Every year in the seventh month they left their homes and stayed in makeshift shelters (booths) for ten days.  It reminded them they were still dependent on God. 
You recall before crossing Jordan and occupying the Promised Land they wandered for forty years in the Sinai desert.  In all that time
·        they didn’t plant food – God gave it new every day. 
·        they didn’t make clothes or shoes, God made it all last for forty years. 
Protection and providence…they were dependent – totally dependent on God alone for everything for four decades in a hostile wilderness. 
By Nehemiah’s day they’d forgotten all that providence and protection; they were like we are in America.  We’ve forgotten how dependant we are on God.  We ought to weep and mourn over the state of morality and worship.  We need that; we need a “booth mentality”.  We need to remember how dependent we are on God – not our 401k plans, or Food Lion and Wal-Mart. 
We built some booths for our Jerusalem Walk.  They were only meant to be temporary.  That’s the booth mentality – we are just “a-passing” through this world.  We are not home yet. 
A booth mentality helps you remember the frailty of life.  You probably recall the ice storm in this area back in ’03.  If it hit here as hard as in Thomasville, it caused many of you to leave your comfortable homes and seek heat elsewhere.  You know what the booth mentality is – you survived and helped each other.  You focused on what was most important.  Your minds were not on the trivial. 
You also didn’t feel so secure.  The power came back on, went out, came back on…went out.  And so it went.  You did without the convenience of power on demand.  You will not again take for granted the power you lost.  That is the reason for booths.  God’s providence and grace are more certain than Duke Energy or Randolph Electric, and so we take it for granted. 
We need to live in a booth every now and then.  We need to remember his sacrifice on a cross, even more than the sacrifice of who took you in during the ice storm.  Remember His love for you more than the one who brought you a hot meal.  Use the booth, and…
II.  Read the Book
     Part of reclaiming joy is available through understanding (clearly) God’s will for your life, and how God expects you to live.  The Word of God provided the accurate picture of life for Nehemiah’s people.  The writer of Hebrews told us the effectiveness of that Word is still sharp as a two-edged sword! (4:12)
In Ephesians we are told to put on the whole armor of God.  To understand the Word of God you must apply yourself to read it.  To have the Word of God effectively work in your life you must read it with an eye towards applying it to your life.  In other words, don’t just read it – spend much time in the word to comprehend or understand it.  Then, allow IT to comprehend or direct YOU!
Remember the pattern:
1.     Joy is reclaimed when there is reverence.  Living in the booth will help. 
2.     Joy is also reclaimed when there is understanding; read the Book to put it in practice in your life.  And then…
III.  Bless the Brotherhood
When Ezra stood to read the Word, men stood with him – that’s a brotherhood!  When the Word was read, those men lifted their voices and blessed the Lord – that’s a Believing Brotherhood!  They built a pulpit, they worshipped at a cost.  I call it “Hallelujahs, Hammers and Happiness” – They worshipped long, loud and lovingly.  They worked together hard.  And it made them happy.
We are called to joy as believers.  Sometimes it is easy to sense something is wrong in the family – especially when joy seems to be absent.  Sometimes it takes an ice storm, or a Rottweiler throwing your soap out of the bathtub and dragging you down the hall to bust the laughter bubble. 
We need to remember it is the joy of The Lord that is our strength.  You can do that if you live in a booth once in a while, and read the book, and bless the brotherhood. 
So…do you want some strength and joy? 

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