Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany based on Neh. 8:1-10
Dear hearers of the Word: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
What on earth is going on in our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah? It certainly isn’t a normal occurrence these days. In fact, it’s quite bizarre. All the people of God gathered together like a huge mob. They weren’t rioting but they were making demands. They demanded that Ezra the scribe read the Scriptures to them. Not just one or two lessons, but from early in the morning until midday. The people gathered together as one man and demanded that Ezra and the Levites do their job and read the Scriptures to them, and explain the Scriptures so that they could understand. And they did this for some six hours. What on earth would possess these people to make such a demand? Why were they so intent to hear God’s Word? Weren’t there other things they’d rather be doing?
The reason is that God’s people had been through quite the ordeal. They had been living their normal lives, going about their business. As time went on, they got busy with things other than hearing God’s Word. As time went on, they got caught up in worldly things. They got caught up in idolatry. They fell into adultery and other kinds of sin.
God sent His messengers to warn them to turn from their sin. But they thought that they could do whatever they pleased, and because they were God’s people, God would just overlook and ignore their sin. God sent His messengers to read His Word and to explain it so that the people could understand, but the people didn’t care to hear it. After all, life was good. They saw no sign that God would do anything about their indifference to His Word.
To top it off, there were false prophets who preached and told the people that everything was fine. Jeremiah records the message of the false prophets, “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (Jer. 23:17) These false prophets were telling the people what they wanted to hear. Just follow your heart. Do whatever you want. Don’t follow God’s Word. Everything is going to be just fine. Don’t listen to the preachers who tell you to turn from your sin.
Still God was patient. For decades, God still sent His preachers with His Word. He still sent His messengers to warn the people to turn from their sin and to warn the people that these false prophets were not speaking God’s Word but their own tales. God sent warning after warning but to no avail. The people did not want to listen to God’s Word.
As a result, God gave them into the hand of the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated them in battle. He destroyed their cities. All their architectural marvels were demolished to rubble. He even wiped out much of the natural ecosystems in their land. Nebuchadnezzar exiled all the royalty to ensure there would not be an uprising against him. He forced the soldiers he hadn’t killed into his own army. All the artisans, craftsmen, musicians, and any other skilled trades were forced to serve Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were left to work the vineyards and the fields to yield revenue for Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar even destroyed the Temple, meaning no more sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins.
Zedekiah, the king of God’s people, was blinded before he was bound and exiled to Babylon. But he was forced to watch one last horrific thing before he was blinded, which was the last thing he ever saw: his sons were slaughtered before his eyes, and his royal line was thus ended.
The exiles in Babylon saw a future with no hope. They had turned their backs to God and now they were exiled with no hope to ever return home. Their sins had resulted in this horrible situation. If only they could go back and hear God’s Word and do things differently.
Their warfare wasn’t just with Babylon; it was with God. It was God who brought this disaster upon them because they refused to listen to His Word. But did God spurn them forever? Did He reject His people forever? No, God did not reject His people forever. He sent them His Word of comfort.
Even in exile, God sent His Word through His messengers to the people. God even sent them promises of forgiveness. He still called Himself their God and said that they were His people. God still sent them the message of repentance, but now their hard hearts had been softened and they were ready to hear His Word.
And God brought His people back to their own land. God sent Cyrus, king of Persia, to conquer Babylon. Then God turned Cyrus’s heart to send His people home and even to support the rebuilding of the Temple that had been destroyed.
In Nehemiah, from where we read, the rebuilding of the Temple had been finished, the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, and the people were back home. The Temple sacrifices could resume. The feasts and festivals of God could resume. And the people wanted to hear God’s Word.
They didn’t want a repeat of the exile or the destruction of their cities, so they demanded that Ezra read the Scriptures to them. They were ready to hear God’s Word for hours at a time because now they understood the value of God’s Word. No longer did they want to follow their own hearts because their hearts had led them into sin and exile. No longer did they want to follow false preachers who encouraged them to do whatever they wanted because that had led to death and destruction.
God used this horrible destruction and exile to crush the pride of His people. He turned them away from their sins back to Himself, and He forgave their sins. Let us pray that we do not need such a harsh lesson to turn away from our sin.
We have the great gift of God’s Word. Let us be more willing to hear it and learn it now than God’s people were before the Babylonian captivity. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He wants us to turn from our sins and receive forgiveness, because He loves us. He sends His messengers to warn us of the dangers of sin so that we would avoid the horrible consequences of sin.
God has gone so far to save us from our sin. He’s gone to the point of sending His only Son to die in our place – Yes, to die for us who have rebelled against Him and His Word. We who have neglected and despised His Word are given the forgiveness of our sins. We who have followed our hearts instead of God’s Word are shown mercy and steadfast love instead of punishment. If we harden our hearts to His Word, He may even destroy our nation and lead us into exile to soften our hearts so that in the end we will be ready to hear His Word and receive His forgiveness.
God has already accomplished everything for our forgiveness. Jesus’ death has paid the price of our sins. God gives His forgiveness to us freely, without any merit or worthiness in us. He baptizes us into His name and calls us His people even when we struggle to do what is right. He absolves us of all our sin with His Word that declares us righteous. He gives us the true body and blood of Jesus to eat and to drink so that we would remain in the faith and be strengthened in it, even if we have to suffer in this world of sin.
And God has given us His precious Word. In His Word He tells us of His love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. In His Word He tells us that He is our God and we are His people. The more we hear His Word, the more we want to hear. The more we hear, the more we understand and the more attentive we are to it. God’s Word is a great and precious gift for us to treasure and read and hear.
I pray that you will demand from me that I read you more of God’s Word; that you will ask for longer sermons and longer Bible classes; that you would gather like a mob and demand that I read to you all morning. I pray that God would instil in all of us a great desire to read and hear His Word and save us from destruction and exile. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.