Americans have never been unhappier and the worship service in America has never been emptier. A survey conducted in May of 2020 found that just 14% of American adults considered themselves “very happy”. They have conducted this survey since 1972. In the past 50 years the percentage of people who rated themselves “very happy” had never dropped below 29%.
We all experience seasons of unhappiness. Stress can creep into our lives slowly, or broadside us like a freight train. We never want to minimize the challenges we face. This passage does not suggest a shallow response. We cannot place a happy mask on our face and expect the pain to disappear. Regardless of your present state, this is a critical time in our world to understand how we can increase the peace and joy that we and our neighbors experience.
Another survey (2019) showed that those who were actively religious were 44% more likely to rate themselves “very happy”. In other words, you have a good chance of increasing your joy simply by attending a church worship service more regularly! So I’m preaching to the choir this morning.
Recap and Preview of Passage
The people in our passage have apparently remained standing (Neh 8:5) somewhere near the Water Gate as they listened to Ezra preach from “the Book of the Law of Moses” for five to six hours (Neh 8:3). Last week, we considered the priority, posture, and purpose of preaching in Neh 8:1-8. If you missed it, you should give it a listen—though I can’t do anything about the happiness you already forfeited by not being here.
The focus this week is on how the people responded to the preaching of God’s Word. Interestingly enough, the first response to Ezra’s preaching was not joy, but sorrow. The Law of God brought everyone under the conviction of their past and present rebellion. Ironically, this is the very reaction that prepared them to experience true joy and lasting peace.
Read Nehemiah 8:9-12.
A Worship Service Should Involve Mourning (9)
Remember, this is “the first day of the seventh month” (Neh 8:2). It was the Feast of the Trumpets, a festival that kicked off an important season of celebration in the Jewish calendar. It was “a day of solemn rest” accompanied with the blast of trumpets and food offerings, as the people remembered God’s work in the past (Lev 23:23-25).
The Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26) and the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:33-44; Neh 7:13-18) followed. Every seven years they were to read more extensively from the Law, as Ezra has already done (Deut 31:10-13). That would make this a sabbatical year, “a year of release”. Farmers took the year off to give the land a rest (Ex 23:10f). They forgave debts (Deut 15:1-3) and set Hebrew slaves free (Deut 15:12-18). It makes sense considering Nehemiah’s rebuke of the abuse of debts and slavery in chapter five.
Why would God command them to follow such an elaborate religious calendar?
Festivals were a time of holy celebration. They learned about God’s preservation of their ancestors. Children learned about their heritage in a fun and engaging atmosphere. Imagine spending a week camping under the stars, with temporary shelters, as you remember God’s preservation of the Israelites while they wandered in the wilderness. The experience ingrained these events and laws in their minds.
Last week, I emphasized the importance of children attending the worship service along with their parents. We believe this is a critical aspect of the way we nurture them in the admonition of the Lord. I encourage you to read the brochure that we have prepared for visitors titled “Children in Worship”. You should’ve a copy of it in your bulletin this morning.
However, while we believe it is crucial for them to learn in the context of a worship service, we also recognize the value of learning in an interactive way. They should have fun during the fellowship time. Kids learn best in a relaxed environment.
Let’s make our potluck fellowship intentional, kids too. Have fun asking and answering questions about church and worship and stories from our past. How has God sustained your faith? What are the ways God has sanctified you in the past year? What are your hopes for 2022?
This sets up Ezra and Nehemiah’s dilemma. While everyone was preparing for an important festival, the preaching of the Law had left them in tears. The party is about to begin but everyone is weeping? And these aren’t tears of joy, they are tears of conviction.
Convicted By the Preaching of God’s Word
The righteousness of a holy God had been revealed as Ezra preached from the Law for five to six hours. It was as if he had held up a mirror that exposed all of their filthiness, rebellion, and empty religiosity. It was entirely appropriate for them to respond with a deep sense of conviction over their sin. When the Spirit is at work through the preaching of his Word, this kind of response is inevitable.
Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites now find themselves comforting the people so they can indeed enjoy the celebration as God intended. They were responding as guilty people should, but it was important they not stay in that emotional state. It was not possible for them to earn forgiveness by the amount of tears they cried. They must trust in the assurance of pardon that God provides to those who truly repent.
Have you grown emotionally indifferent to God’s Word?
This passage calls us to repent of any emotional indifference to God’s Word. Have you forgotten the God who created you to glorify and enjoy him? Have you forgotten that he has revealed his will on every page of Scripture? Are you reading it daily? Do you weep over it often?
I pray that this passage will convict you this morning–in this worship service–as the Law of Moses convicted those Israelites who stood at the Water Gate almost 2,500 years ago. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would continue to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). It was how the people responded to Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost. They were “cut to the heart” and sought the instruction of the apostles (Acts 2:37).
This ought to be your prayer every time you sit under the preaching of God’s Word, and every time you read it with your family, and every time you read it on your own. Pray for the Spirit to bring fresh conviction of sin because it is a sign that your heart is still shaped and warmed by the heat of God’s Word!
God does not abandon his people in their conviction, but he offers the swift comfort of the gospel.
› That is the root cause of the joy that you should always experience in worship.
A Worship Service Should Involve Rejoicing (10-11)
The spiritual leaders are all unified in bringing comfort and encouraging the people to celebrate with joy. Ezra tells them,
“Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine…”
The fat was the choice portions and sweet wine was reserved for special occasions. Ezra is telling them to enjoy the feast! They will return to a sober confession of sin (Neh 9), but this was a time for joy!
This emotional transition is precisely what God promised would happen with the coming of the new covenant. Those who mourn would experience joy! God promised, “I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jer 31:13). Jesus taught this in his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
No One Left Out
No one was left without a plate and a cup! They were encouraged to remember those who had “nothing ready” (10). Whether this was due to poverty or their own neglect, on this occasion, portions were shared with those in need.
The priests accepted the sacrifices of the people who provided enough to cover those who had nothing. Everyone was expected to be there. Everyone was expected to contribute. But wherever that was not possible, provision was made to accommodate everyone—so that everyone could celebrate.
The priority was that everyone would recognize that “this day is holy to our Lord” (vv.9, 10, 11). As a holy day, it was set apart from other days (Lev 23:24). It was not an optional holiday. They could not simply decide to work through the day. They were required to be there, but it’s also a picture of God’s grace.
The grief and heartache the people were experiencing on account of their sin was to transition into “the joy of the LORD”. This is the only kind of joy that can cause us to persevere.
Delighting in God’s Law
We might expect God’s promises to be delightful and his commandments burdensome. But, Scripture presents God’s Law as a delight. His commandments are for our good. He didn’t flare his nostrils commanding his children, “Go and celebrate the Feast of Trumpets!”
God is ready to forgive you and to turn your mourning into rejoicing!
Mourning Over Sin
For many of us, repentance is only associated with giving a good apology. If we really messed up, then our apology needs to be extravagant. There is some truth to that among humans. The level of the offense determines the level of apology.
This translates to our spiritual lives as well. There are indeed various degrees of sin. “Some sins…are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (WSC 83). Some sins cause a greater level of offense to God. For instance, adultery is a heinous sin in all of its forms, but physical adultery is worse in the sight of God than adultery of the heart (Matt 5:27-30). Both forms are sinful and need to be repented of, but one is worse than the other. If a pastor commits adultery it adds another degree of heinousness to the sin.
However, all sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, now and for eternity (WSC 84). Even the lighter sins are significant enough to require the full wages of sin, namely death.
Rejoicing in Reconciliation
How we remedy the situation is where things get different. Humans require greater levels of sacrifice to repay the debt that our offense caused. If you have an affair, your spouse is going to need a long time to reconcile—if it’s even possible.
But God is never reluctant to reconcile when we truly repent and believe in Jesus (WSC 85). Even if we committed the most heinous sin of all time, the grace and mercy of God is sufficient to cover it!
Just as regular mourning with conviction over our sin reveals a depth of sincerity to our worship, so the result of joy and celebration should also be routine occurrences. Paul commended himself to the Corinthians as one “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). Both reactions are typical of a people in frequent communion with God!
We should avoid two extremes
1. Never take anything seriously. Everything is a joke. Worship is for entertainment. Avoid mourning.
2. Only act serious and stoic. Suffer more. Fun is a distraction. Avoid joy.
Unfortunately, we all know people in those extremes. It is a sign that they have not spent much time in communion with God. Because, if they had, they would not criticize emotional reactions that God encourages.
When you commune with God through his Word and live according to his will, you begin to experience the heights and depths of human emotions that make life worth living! Seek communion with sacred divinity if you want to experience all that humanity has to offer.
› The combination of mourning over your sin and rejoicing over God’s forgiveness will lead to gratitude.
A Worship Service Should Involve Gratitude (12)
The people did not hesitate to obey all that was commanded. Their obedience, in part, reveals the authenticity of their repentance. They should not wallow in the mire of their sin attempting to repay the debt by their tears. God’s forgiveness was not delayed any longer than he had supplied the grace for them to repent. As soon as he enabled repentance, he was prepared with forgiveness.
Instead of prolonging their mourning, they could rejoice like the prodigal son. After squandering his inheritance with a wicked lifestyle, the prodigal son returned home willing to become a slave in his father’s house. Instead of requiring the son endure a prolonged season of penance, the father clothed him in the best robe, gave him a ring, put shoes on his feet, and then threw a celebration in his son’s honor (Lk 15:11-32)!
God’s grace is greater than the offensiveness of sin
These Israelites had lived most of their lives indifferent to God’s will. As they heard the Law, it brought such deep conviction that they wept. The Law had wounded their pride. While their offense was great, God’s grace was greater than all their sin! Their willingness to celebrate shows that they understood forgiveness.
The people grasped the truth and acted in accordance with that truth. They repented when the truth brought conviction. They rejoiced when the truth brought comfort. That is the gratitude that should always characterize the Christian. “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10)! The same gospel that saves continues to motivate us to repent and believe.
Preaching should routinely provoke conviction for sin, and it should always provide comfort from the gospel.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God personified! In his prologue, John describes Christ’s first coming as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Revelation 19:13, he describes Jesus: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” To engage with the Word of God is to commune with Christ!
Has God’s Word captured your heart so that his will triumphs over all other desires and needs? Do you delight in it more than the taste of honey (Ps 119:103)? Do you meditate upon God’s Word in the middle of the night (Ps 119:147-148)? Is it more valuable than wealth (Ps 119:14)?
A proper worship service will involve mourning, joy, and gratitude. Let’s pray for those reactions even now!