My musings yesterday on the Word brought to mind a text I read a few weeks ago in the first testament of the Bible, found in Nehemiah 8.
I'd like to share the story with you.
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And 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.
8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 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 as they heard the words of the Law.)
10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 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.
Ezra and Nehemiah - leaders of the people of God - call everyone into the public square to read the Bible together. They do so from early morning until midday, which conservatively means at least four hours of hanging out together and listening to the Bible (by the way...would love to do this).
It was only after reading for hours together that the preacher got up, and began to preach and explain and apply God's Law, so the people could undertand its implications for their lives (see 8:8, "..they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.").
There you stand in the midst of a great throng of people. You've been watching and listening as man after man has ascended the wooden platform raised slightly above you (so all could hear and see), as the Bible has been read for hour after hour (8:4-5). You've listened carefully as then the teachers ascended, and clarified, explained, and illustrated what you had already heard, increasing your understanding, all of it washing over you in one great wave.
And then you hear it.
Someone is weeping softly. And then another, and another. You look around...on many of the faces tears are streaming down cheeks. People are lifting their cloaks and drying their eyes. And it doesn't slow down, it only increases. People begin to wail and cry out. They fall to their knees, faces to the ground, lifting up their hands, shouting forth words of worship and praise amidst the great cacophony of weeping and mourning.
And then you yourself fall to the ground, under the same power working in those around you. Namely, this Word from Yahweh is living and active, it is sharper than any two-edged sword. It has cut deep into your own heart, and into the hearts of those around you. Merely hearing the Words of Yahweh spoken has brought about conviction, repentance, and transformation - in the very moment the words have been read and taught!
With your face still to the ground, as you listen to change happening, a new voice emerges. You slowly raise your head, and you realize Nehemiah has come to the stage.
"Beloved. Dear friends. Brothers and sisters, please, quiet down...quiet for a moment, I've something to say to you.
This day is holy to Yahweh your God. Do not mourn or weep.
While we recognize that God's Word has pierced you and brought you to an understanding of your sin, in your repentance, forgiveness is yours. Do not be grieved! Let your mourning be turned to gladness, and your sadness to joy. For the joy of Yahweh, this delight he has in you, is your strength! I understand your grief, but now be glad that these Words have enlightened your eyes, and made you aware of your sin, and even more, that Yahweh delights in your repentance and obedience!
So now, as you prepare to leave this service and go, I have some instructions for you. Do not grieve. No longer mourn and weep. Rather, as you leave this time together, go, lay out the table with the best food and line it with pitcher after pitcher of sweet wine. Set out a feast, and invite some folks over. And if you know of anyone in your neighborhood who has neither, and they can't come to your home, send some food and wine to them as well.
Because here is what God wants you to do because of what you now know and understand - he wants you to celebrate! He wants you to bust out with great rejoicing because of how the Scriptures have transformed you!"
And there you stand, with all your friends. Again you look around, but now the faces that were once covered with tears, are now covered in smiles. The throats that were filled with mourning, are now filled with shouts of joy. People are slapping each other on the backs, talking, laughing, and making plans. It is going to be a great day of eating, drinking, and rejoicing - all because of the power of words from a book...
This Sunday, we too will read from God's Word on a stage. And a man will stand up and give the sense of it.
I wonder...are you willing to believe that what happened in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra can still happen? Are you eager for transformation? Could you make plans to invite some friends over, set the table with the best food and drink, and rejoice over God's Word and the transformation possible within it for us? Doesn't this sound like a great way to spend a day together?!
See you Sunday.