Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Day for Big Macs and Milkshakes

A Day for Big Macs and Milkshakes

Sixth after Trinity

Old Testament: Nehemiah 8:1-12 (KJV)

1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.
2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:
6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place.
8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.
12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.

One idea among many about proper diet is that we should eat foods low in fat and sugar. Let a husband, whose wife feeds that, go on a trip and and there’s a good chance he’ll get in line at McDonald’s for a Big Mac and milkshake.

It’s really hard to celebrate with low fat and sugar foods. Celery and carrot sticks are not celebration fare. Nehemiah 8 tells us about a day when the priests told God’s people to go home and celebrate with fat meat and sweet drinks.

1. Reading God’s Word

a. Background

God moves the hearts of rulers to fulfill his purposes. In 538 King Cyrus decreed that Jews exiled in Babylon could go home to Judah. A first wave returned. Life was hard, and resources were limited, so they built an altar but did not rebuild the Temple. However, the Temple was most important for it was necessary for the worship of the Lord. God used the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and priest Joshua for a great building campaign. By 516 the Temple was complete.

A half century later in 458 a priest named Ezra, who had been born in Babylon, went to Judah to teach people the law. He has some success instituting reforms, but there was much still needed for the physical and spiritual welfare of the people. About 445 Nehemiah came as governor. Immediately he saw what must be his first priority. Almost 100 years after exiles began to return, the city walls still had not been rebuilt. With Nehemiah’s energetic leadership the walls got rebuilt within a few months. The people were now safer.

b. Book

Then it was time to shift to the spiritual welfare of the people. That is the background for Nehemiah 8. On a designated day the people gathered near the Water Gate. The crowd was inclusive - men, women, and all who could understand. They called for Ezra to bring the Bible, the Book of the Law of Moses. This Book was not just a book of Moses. It was God’s Word, for the LORD had commanded it. When we read the Bible we should always remember that whether it is a Psalm of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, the prophecy of Isaiah, the Gospel of St. Mark, or a letter of Paul, it is God’s Word to us. When we read the Lessons the reader reminds us that this is “The Word of the Lord,” or, “The Gospel of the Lord.”

c. Priests

Ezra and the other priests did two things with the Book:

First, they read it. Whether it was all five Books of Moses, or a part, a great amount was read, for they read from early morning till noon. In some churches that gather great numbers, you will hear very little Scripture read, sometimes only a verse. It’s not that way with Anglicanism. Today we had three readings, a Psalm and the Old and New Testament Lessons, plus other portions of Scripture that are included in the Liturgy. When we celebrate Holy Communion, there are four Lessons.

Stephen Neill in his book Anglicanism tells us that Thomas Cranmer said the Anglican Church is “the greatest Bible-reading Church in the world.” He had and the other Reformers “fell in love with the Bible.” He believed that it was “the living word of God to every man” and that when people were exposed to the Bible it would “make its way into their hearts and consciences.” (Neill, p. 54). Alan Jacobs in his The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography says that Cranmer wanted to assure that everyone understood the plan of salvation, and that “the first requirement of that understanding was the reading of Scripture.” (Jacobs, pp. 16,17).

Second, they explained it. The priests “caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” The Word of God comes to us in two ways in worship - the reading and the preaching of the Word. The first business of preaching is to explain the Bible so that people can understand what it says. One of the great problems Cranmer faced in England was that the church’s priests were not competent preachers. So he composed a Book of Homilies on essential subjects to be read in the churches. But how much better it is to have pastors who can and will study the Bible till they understand it and then compose homilies to enable particular congregations to understand what the Bible says and what it tells them to believe and do.

2. Receiving God’s Word

As Ezra and the priests read and interpreted the Word of God the people received it in five ways.

First, they listened. “The ears of all the people were attentive to unto the Book of the Law.”
There is no blessing in the mere reading of the Word of God by a lector. The Bible is not magic as though grace were given by being in room in which Scripture is read. People have to hear, which puts a great responsibility on those of us who read to read distinctly and loudly enough for people to hear.

But, if lectors must read so that people can understand, those who listen must give pay close attention, seeking to comprehend the words that are read - “to hear them, read, mark, and inwardly digest them.” In Cranmer’s day people could only listen, as the only access most had to the Bible in print was the copy in every church that was chained down. But we have our Bibles. I think it helps us when we can simultaneously hear and read the Bible in one translation so that the Word enters by through the ear gate and the eye gate. Whether we practice that or not, the responsibility of each hearer is to listen attentively, striving to understand.

Second, they reverenced. When Ezra opened the Book, the people stood up. I know it makes me sound old to say this (which, of course, I am!), but I was taught that when an adult woman or any person older than you entered a room, you should immediately stand up. It was a physical act of respect. That is why the people stood when Ezra opened the Book.

They also bowed and worshiped the Lord with their faces toward the ground. American protocol is that the President is not supposed to bow to any foreign head of state. The reason is that bowing is a sign of submission, an act acknowledging superior dignity and authority. When the Jewish people bowed as Ezra read, they were submitting themselves to God’s authority as he spoke through his Word.

It is not so much the particular posture that matters. The quick guide to Anglican worship is that we “stand to sing, sit to listen, and bow to pray” which is fine. But, whatever our bodily actions, we reverence God’s Word by honoring it and submitting to it.

Third, they praised. As Ezra prepared to read, he blessed the Lord, the Book’s Author. Blessing the Lord is not giving God a blessing he would not otherwise have, but acknowledging his greatness, goodness, and glory. The people responded, “Amen, Amen,” as they raised their hands raised upward to God. Many Christians think the “Amen” is roughly the same as saying, “The end.” But it means, “I confirm it,” or “I agree with it,” or “Let it be so.” It is one way we make our own what another person has said. When the people said, “Amen,” they showed their agreement with Ezra’s blessing of the Lord. When we read the Psalm, we respond, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” When we hear the Old Testament or Epistle, we respond with, “Thanks be to God,” Before the Gospel, we say “Glory be to thee, O Lord,” and after the Gospel, “Praise be to thee, O Christ.”

Fourth, they mourned. The initial reaction of the people as they heard the reading of God’s Word was to mourn and weep. Because they realized how far short they fell as a community, as families, and as individuals from what God said in his Word. They experienced conviction of their shortcomings and sins. This is a response to God’s Word that many churches and Christians know little or nothing about. In some churches the last thing desired is for people to feel bad. Joel Osteen, for example, says he preaches only positive sermons because he figures people already feel bad enough about themselves. I believe one possible reason that so little Scripture is read and some parts always avoided is that churches are afraid of people being uncomfortable. But, mourning for our communal, family, and personal sins is one healthy response to God’s Word.

However, Nehemiah and Ezra told the people this was not the right response on this day. This holy day is not for mourning.

Fifth, they partied. The right response was to go home and throw a party. This was a day to prepare fatty meats and sweet drinks, food appropriate for celebration. They needed to share so they everyone could celebrate.

What were they supposed to celebrate? They celebrated that God spoke to them through the Scriptures. One of the worst things in a relationship is for one person to be uncommunicative. Communication is essential to a healthy relationship. In Scripture God speaks to us.

They celebrated the story of God’s salvation, his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his preservation of Israel through the more than 400 years in Egypt, and his intervention to deliver them from bondage - all of which is a wonderful picture of what God has done in Jesus Christ to save us from Satan, sin, and judgment.

They celebrated the renewal of their relationship to God. Though they had neglected God’s Word and their relationship with him, he did not write them off. They were still his people; his covenant with them stood; he would renew his fellowship with them and blessings to them. Their reading of the Word, listening carefully to it, and understanding of it, enabled them to return to the Lord and renew their relationship with him.

They had joy in God’s Word, God’s salvation, and their relationship with him. This joy would strengthen them to serve the Lord even in all their hardships. It’s much easier to serve the Lord with a smile in your heart than a grimace on your face.

God still speaks through his Word. Listen. Understand. Rejoice. Go have a Big Mac and a milkshake.

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