Nehemiah: Festival

Sermon by on January 4, 2009

Nehemiah 8:13-18

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

January 4, 2009

Nehemiah 8:13-18

“Festival”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

We’ve been parked in Nehemiah for a couple of weeks now,
and there’s been an interval in which we were looking elsewhere over the
Christmas period, so we need to remind ourselves just a little, I think, of the
immense significance and uniqueness in some ways of what took place on this day,
early September 444 B.C., in Jerusalem.

They had been summoned back into the city. And you
remember for an entire morning, perhaps four or five hours, they stood in a
square in Jerusalem and heard Ezra and a band of thirteen along with him read
from the Law of Moses…read from the first five books of the Old Testament. There
among the crowds that were gathered that day were thirteen others who translated
from the Hebrew text into the Aramaic language, which after the exile was the
predominant language that the Jews, including those who lived in Jerusalem,
spoke. One gets the impression that they didn’t just translate those Scriptures,
but they also interpreted and perhaps even applied those Scriptures. What a day
it was!

You remember that as they gathered that day and they
heard the Law of God being read, it was a revival. It was an extraordinary act
of the Holy Spirit bringing these people in Jerusalem and the towns and villages
round about, bringing them back to a sense of God and of the majesty of His
word. It was an extraordinary day. There had been days like it in history, in
periods of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. And you remember as they heard
the word of God being read, they began to weep…to weep because of their sin.
Next Lord’s Day we’re going to turn the page to chapter nine of Nehemiah, one of
the great chapters of confession in all of Scripture…extraordinary confession of
their sin. But that’s still in the future. They began to weep, and do you
remember? Nehemiah exhorts them not to weep, but to rejoice. This was not a day
for weeping; this was a day for rejoicing because “the joy of the Lord [verse
10] is your strength.”

Now all the people have gone home, and it is the next
day…and the heads of households, including priests and Levites, are going to be
summoned back into the city for more Bible study. You just can’t get enough of
the Bible. Let’s turn to verses 13-18 of Nehemiah 8. Before we read the passage
together, let’s look once again to the Lord for His blessing.

Lord our God, we thank You for the Scriptures. We
thank You for the Bible. We pray as we begin a new year that this might be a
year in which we might find ourselves much in the Scriptures. Help us, O Lord,
in our resolve to read the Bible, and study the Bible, and love the Bible, and
pray over the Bible. We ask, O Lord, as we do so tonight here in this service,
help us once again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’
sake. Amen.

This is God’s word:

“On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the
priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the
words of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had
commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the
feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in
all their towns and in Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of
olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is
written.’ So the people went out and brought them and made booths for
themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house
of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of
Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made
booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to
that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great
rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the
Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day
there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.”

Amen. And may the Lord add His blessing to that reading of
His holy and inerrant word.

Well, it’s the next day. Evidently the women and
children are at home. The heads of households and the priests and the Levites
are gathered together once again in Jerusalem to hear Ezra (and perhaps some of
the others) read and study together the Law of God. And what they discover as
they read the book of Leviticus, the book of Deuteronomy, the book of Exodus —
all three books make mention of the Feast of Booths, or the Feast of
Tabernacles. It had been a long time since they had celebrated the Feast of
Booths. But perhaps (and commentators conjecture) the festival hadn’t been
entirely forgotten. Perhaps it was being kept privately in people’s homes, and
perhaps in more family devotions, but the strict command to erect booths (huts,
lean-to’s, shanties) in Jerusalem and to gather together for seven days and then
to have this solemn assembly at the end of the seven days — that had not been
done in a very long time.

You know, sometimes when you read Scripture you’ll
discover that it reads you. Sometimes when you read Scripture you have one of
those moments and you think, “I’ve not seen that before…well, I must have seen
that before! I’ve read that dozens and dozens of times.” But it comes home to
you as something new and fresh. I wonder if you’ve had that experience. You read
the Bible and you discover something that God is saying to you, something that
God is perhaps requiring of you that you knew was there…it’s just that you
ignored it. And now it’s coming home to you with fresh force and power.

Perhaps it’s a word about tithing. Perhaps it’s a
word about keeping the Lord’s Day. Perhaps it’s a word about honoring of
parents. Perhaps it’s a word that is specific to you tonight. You know what it
is. God has been addressing you, speaking to you in these past days. Perhaps
it’s a word from the sermon this morning. And God is speaking to you through the
Scriptures.

Well, that’s what happened on this day. It wasn’t
just a personal thing; it wasn’t just a familial thing; it was a collective
experience of the people of God that God was requiring something of them that
they had not been doing.

I. An act of obedience.

And that’s the first thing I want us to see:
an act of obedience.The Bible says we have to be doers as well as hearers of
Scriptures. We’re not to be just sermon tasters. We’re not to be just sermon
critics (yes, that one’s nine points…that one’s four points…that one we won’t
talk about)! We’re to be doers of the word. The word is to read us and address
us. “Little children, let no one deceive you,” John says. “Whoever practices
righteousness is righteous.” That’s what happens here. They discover in the book
of Leviticus, in the book of Deuteronomy, in the book of Exodus…they read about
the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles. It would take place in the
seventh month after the Day of Atonement, which took place on the tenth of the
seventh month. On the fifteenth of that month and running for a week there would
be this entire week of celebration known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of
Tabernacles. And they immediately obey. They immediately obey! There’s a
collective act of obedience on behalf of the people of God.

Now, there are two ways you can respond to a
commandment in Scripture. The first is you can throw up your hands and say,
“Legalism!”
If I had a penny for every time I heard the word “legalism,” I’d
be a very rich man! What is legalism? Legalism is trying to earn the favor of
God, trying to do something, trying to obey, trying to comply with the
commandments of God in order that God may look more favorably upon me.
Well,
that’s wrong. That’s wrong in every part. We’re not here this evening in order
to try and win the favor of God. We are miserable sinners. We’ve sung three
hymns tonight, all of which have addressed that very issue — that we’re
miserable sinners.

“Nothing in my hands I bring;

Simply to Thy cross I cling.

Naked, look to Thee for dress;

Helpless, look to Thee for grace.

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

I can’t win the favor of God by reading more Bible or
praying more or attending church more. See? That’s legalism. That’s a good
definition of legalism. Legalism is adding to the commandments of God. The
Pharisees were adept at doing that. It’s part of the encounter of Jesus with the
Pharisees. They were adding to the commandments of God. The Judaisers that Paul
is addressing in Galatia were trying to win the favor of God. They half believed
in gospel and in grace, but they also believed in trying to obey in order to win
the favor of God. Now, the Pharisees were adept at adding to the commandments of
God. That’s legalism.

I love…more than I can tell you, I love that section
in The Westminster Confession of Faith. It’s in Chapter XX, and it’s the
Second Section, and it’s the heart of The Westminster Confession. It’s
the heart of Presbyterianism. It’s our roots:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines
and commandments of men….”

I love that. God alone is Lord of the conscience. We are to
obey only insofar as God has commanded, no more and no less. Only God has the
right to impose upon my conscience an ethical imperative. To go beyond that is
legalism.

Now there’s another error that’s the opposite
error. It’s what we call antinomianism.
There’s legalism and
there’s antinomianism. Antinomianism loves to use the word “grace.” And
because it uses the word grace, it sounds right. It sounds orthodox. It sounds
very gospel: “Don’t you be demanding anything of me, because I live under the
umbrella of grace.”
Oh, if I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, I’d
be a rich man, too! It is equally a plague, because grace changes. Grace gives a
new heart — a new heart that doesn’t say, “I don’t have to obey God anymore,
because I’m under the umbrella of grace. I’m a child of God. I’m a son. I’m an
adopted heir of God and a joint heir with Jesus Christ, and I don’t need to obey
anymore. So don’t you force your ethical imperatives upon me.” No, grace
changes. It gives me a new heart, a new desire, a new will, a new resolve.
Because I’m a believer, because I’ve tasted grace, I want to obey. Because I
love God, because He has loved me, I want to obey.

That’s what you see here. What you see here is
the evidence of true grace. What’s the evidence of true grace? That they
have a desire to obey.
They read a law, they read a command, they read
an imperative, they read an ethic…in this case, it’s the Feast of Booths, the
Feast of Tabernacles. It could be anything, but in this case it’s the Feast of
Tabernacles. And God is saying, ‘You are to do this. This isn’t a choice. This
isn’t just something for mature believers or elite believers, this is for
everybody. This is a command that I’m making to all the people of God under the
old covenant.’ And they obeyed. It’s a beautiful thing. They obeyed. They obeyed
instantly. They obeyed willingly. They obeyed with all of their hearts. They did
what they read in Scripture.

Now, my friends, there’s an application there,
isn’t there? Are you reading something in Scripture addressing an aspect of your
life?
It’s the first Sunday of the year. You’ve perhaps made a
resolution…perhaps some of you have already broken it. You resolved to read the
Bible, perhaps, a little more. What is it that God is saying in Scripture? ‘This
is how I want you to live your life; this is how I want you to be as a father;
this is how I want you to be as a Christian; this is how I want you to be as a
church member.’ And are we doing it? Well, let these brothers and sisters of 444
BC be an example to us of how to not only read the Bible but do the Bible. An
act of obedience.

II. An act of celebration.

Secondly, it was an act of celebration. I want to say
something about the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles…Sukkot. The modern
Jews celebrate Sukkot in late September or early October — it changes. It was
the fifteenth day. It began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the
Hebrew calendar. They were to bring branches. You know, children — boys, girls,
this was great fun! You’d gather branches — olive branches, myrtle branches,
palm branches. You’d bring them to Jerusalem and you’d build. Those who lived in
the city would build on the roof of their house. Those who did not live in the
city would build elsewhere. Some of them built in the square, next to a
wall…perhaps in the corner…that would mean you’d only need two walls and
something by way of a roof. It was like camping, camping out for the night.

I mean, what child [except me!] doesn’t like that? [Laughter.]
I camped out one night in Britain. It rained. We got up early in the morning and
went home. That was my experience of camping in Britain. It was not very
pleasant. But we did camp in the south of France. That was like camping
at Twin Lakes! With air conditioning and a fridge, and a cooker, and a bathroom
about fifty steps away. Now, that’s camping!

I can only imagine that children loved Tabernacles —
to camp out for seven days, to cook out, to have roast lamb cooked outside on a
barbecue for seven days, it was enormous fun. It was a joyful, joyous
celebration.

Tabernacles commemorated two things. It was a
reminder, of course, of the wilderness era. ‘Remember how your forefathers lived
for forty years in the wilderness, camping out with the stars of the Sinai
Peninsula as their roof, eating manna and quail,’ it said in a very forceful
way. It was a vivid reminder of God’s protection during a time of great
hardship. God had protected them. God had led them all the way.

“All the way, my Savior leads me;

What have I to ask beside?”

In times of difficulty, in times of trial, in times of
testing, God had been with them.

It was a reminder of the tenuousness of life. You
know, living out in a tent, especially if it was raining…or living under
branches that are full of holes, and it’s windy and drafty and it’s raining…it
was a reminder of the tenuousness of life. Life is fleeting. Life is passing by,
because “here we have no continuing city. We seek a city which has foundations,
whose builder and maker is God.” We need to remember that.

On the first of January I was listening to [forgive
me!] CNN on the radio. And the doctor who’s Asian was doing a little spot about
longevity of life. He was suggesting things like, you know, if you drink two
cups of coffee you’d add a year to your life. If you drink a glass of red wine,
you could add another six months to your life, and so on. It wasn’t the nonsense
that he was saying that was drawing my attention so much as what lay behind it:
the insatiable desire to live forever, to live as long as possible, to find that
elusive elixir of life.

What slavery…what bondage, forever looking for that
elixir that will make you live as long as possible. A dear friend of this
congregation in my hearing in the last few days said, “Oh, just let me go home
to heaven and be with Jesus.” Because we know what we are. We are the children
of God. We know what we are. We are adopted heirs of God, and joint heirs with
Jesus Christ. God has promised to us an eternal city. Tabernacles was a reminder
of that — of the fleetingness, of the tenuousness of life.

But Tabernacles was also of course a harvest
celebration.
It’s called in Exodus the Feast of Ingathering. You know, it’s
late September or early October. It’s when all the fruit and all the cereal and
all the crops have come in. It’s …well, some churches have Harvest
Thanksgivings. It’s partly based on that Old Testament ritual of the Feast of
Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Ingathering. It was a
reminder that God provides, and whatever blessings you have, remember God has
given them. What better a way to be reminded than to have to camp out for seven
days under some myrtle branches in the wind and rain? Then you’ll be grateful
for that bed and a nice hot meal! I can’t help but think that that’s where we
should be tonight. As Ligon was telling us this morning in the announcements of
the extraordinary kindness and generosity of the people of God here at First
Presbyterian Church in giving, I had a friend calling me from London this
afternoon. They’re facing similar economic difficulties to the ones that we are
in — tightening their belts and worrying about how to engage in certain acts of
ministry as a consequence. I felt almost embarrassed to say to him how generous
the people of God at First Presbyterian Church had been. No…how generous God has
been to us. What a great God we have!

Tabernacles was a reminder of all those things.

III. Great rejoicing.

But you notice a third thing here. It’s an
extraordinary statement. We read at the end of verse 17, “And there was very
great rejoicing.” There was great joy. They had obeyed the commandment of God to
celebrate the Feast of Booths, and they experienced great joy.

You know what that’s saying? That joy comes
through obedience
. There’s nothing like being at the center of the will of
God. There’s nothing like it. There’s absolutely nothing to compare to knowing
that you’re in the very center of what God wants you to be and where God wants
you to be. There’s nothing like that. That’s where contentment is found. Where
can I find happiness? Where can I find joy? Lasting joy?

“Solid joys and lasting
treasures,

None but Zion’s children know.”

Where can I find that? In obedience to God. In
doing the will of God
. And there is absolutely nothing about that that is
counter to the idea of grace. These people in Jerusalem were doing precisely
what God wanted them to do, and in the doing of it they found great joy and
great contentment and great happiness.

There’s a rabbinical saying that says that you’ve
never seen joy until you’ve been to the Feast of Tabernacles at Jerusalem. Their
joy was very great. You know, joy…joy is something that Paul commands. You know
you can choose joy. You have this choice tonight. You do. I said last week — was
it last week or the week before? — that some of you are very grumpy. And one of
you who knows me too well says, “You were talking about yourself!” And I was. My
wife was away. I had cause to be grumpy, I thought. Choose joy. Choose to be on
the Lord’s side. Choose to be where God wants you to be, because that’s where
you’ll find happiness. The world can never bring you this happiness. The
security that the world offers can never bring you the joy that these folk
experienced on that day in 444 BC, because it came by their deliberate
willingness to do what God had asked them to do.

Is there anything better for us in the year that lies
ahead than to be right there? I want to be where You want me to be. I want to do
what You want me to do. As I read this in the Scriptures, as I read it and
rightly interpret what I read in Scripture and it comes to me as a ‘thus says
the Lord, this is what I want you to do’
Lord, when I hear that, give me
a willing heart. Give me a responsive heart. Give me a full heart.

You can be here tonight…I sometimes look around in
any church (and ours is no different)…you can look at some of our teenagers and
you can tell the ones who want to be there and the ones who don’t really want to
be there. They’re there because Mama says they’re going to be there, or Dad says
they’re going to be there. Well, I’m not speaking now to teenagers. I’m speaking
to all of us. In our worship, are we saying I really want to be here because
this is where I find pleasure, this is where I find happiness, this is where I
find true and lasting joy?

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace
in believing,” Paul says. Let’s pray together.

Lord our God, we thank You for Your word. It is
old and yet ever new, and it reads our hearts like an open book. We want tonight
to be out and out for You. We want to know that joy, we want to know that
happiness, we want to know that true contentment that is to be found in the very
center of Your will and purpose for us. We want to be doers and not just hearers
of the word. So bless us, and go on blessing us, because we ask it in Jesus’
name. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord’s benediction.

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