Hearing the Word and Responding
- Realize that God is really speaking to us through worship.
- Be open to what God has to say to us during worship.
- Explore what happens during the prayer and song of preparation, the Scripture reading, and the sermon.
The people of Israel have been released from exile, and they are struggling to rebuild their lives and the key city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah felt called by God to take a leave of absence from his job as cupbearer to the Persian king to lead the rebuilding effort. They are now nearing the end of the tremendous work of rebuilding the city's walls, and Nehemiah and Ezra the priest call for a great assembly of the people to rededicate themselves as God's covenant people. It was a covenant assembly, which is essentially what our worship services are.
One of the essential elements of this covenant rededication assembly was the reading of the Torah, which was probably the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) in some form. Note carefully what happens. They build a high platform so the law can be read before the great congregation of men, women, and children. The "worship service" begins with worship, s Ezra calls the people to "praise the Lord , the great God," and the people cry, "Amen!" then "bow down and worship the Lord ." Then the law is read, a reading that goes on from daybreak till noon, while all the people "listened attentively." Now that's a long Scripture reading!
But there wasn't only a reading. While the law was being read, the Levites were out among the people, "making it clear and giving the meaning so the people understood what was being read." Scripture doesn't say much about how that happened, but we can assume the Levites answered questions, explained difficult parts, and generally applied the reading to the people's present circumstances. It was just the sort of thing that happens in a sermon. Yet it was different too---perhaps more dialogue than is typical in our worship services.
This reading and explaining of the law of Moses aroused deep feelings of sorrow and repentance among the people. They realized how they had strayed from God's commands over the years, including during their time of exile, provoking the judgments of the Lord. They began to weep. But Nehemiah told them that this day was not the time to weep, but rather to celebrate, for "the joy of the Lord is your strength."
All this is a powerful reminder of what worship means, especially that central part of worship: the reading and explaining of God's Word. It's what we do each Sunday as we gather for our covenant renewal service. The Word is read and then explained and applied to our lives. Why is this central? Because, while the whole worship service is a dialogue between God and his people, this is the special moment when God addresses us. God reminds us from his Word of who he is and who we are as God's people. It is a word of love and judgment, of grace and truth.
This story reminds us that, while we can expect tears of repentance at times, worship should be marked with joy because the God who addresses us in his Word is a God of compassion and mercy. God stands by his covenant despite our sin and rebellion. Any worship, or sermon for that matter, that is all about guilt and sadness doesn't fit the covenant or the fact that we have a covenant redeemer, Jesus Christ.
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