Celebrate, Good Times, Come On!

Nehemiah 8:1-12

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 19, 2006


            You might think it a strange thing, that when I was contemplating a sermon title for this text in Nehemiah, my mind immediately thought of the song ‘Celebration’ by the 1980s band, Kool and the Gang.


            No doubt, many of you have heard the song played at wedding receptions and other festive occasions, and so I it will not be necessary for me to sing any part of it for you this morning.


            Everyone likes a celebration. We like to be in a context where everyone is happy and having a good time. And have you ever noticed that good celebrations are seldom short? Christmas parties go on for hours. Wedding receptions often last into the wee hours of the morning. Folks are not eager to depart from a lively celebration.


            What does that say about a church service that scarcely surpasses the one-hour mark? We may sincerely enjoy the singing, we may delight in watching the children at the front, and we may even find the sermon to be instructive—but a celebration? I haven’t heard too many people refer to a church service in this manner. I have never heard a Christian explain to an unbeliever that what happens on Sunday morning is tantamount to attending a party.


And yet, celebration is the dominant theme in Nehemiah chapter 8. What we find here is, within the context of a religious service,  a command from the religious leaders to throw a party!


If ever there were a time when we would hope to find in Scripture transferable principles for our lives, it is now. How can we, as a local gathering of God’s people, get to a point where what we are doing is regarded as a vibrant celebration?


Having followed the story of Nehemiah along, we recognize that the road to celebration is neither easy nor is it automatic. Rather, the road to celebration has certain ingredients. My hope this morning is to identify these ingredients in order to help us increasingly become a community of God’s people marked by celebration.


Firstly, we note that something tangible has been accomplished. Fifty-two days of hard labour has led to the complete restoration of the walls of Jerusalem. The builders had to endure threats from nearby enemies. Additionally, their work was hampered by severe internal strife. Nonetheless, the vision was fulfilled; the walls were rebuilt—something tangible had been accomplished.


Secondly, we note that the people within Jerusalem were experiencing a time of peace. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, who had played such prominent roles as opponents of restoration in previous chapters, are nowhere to be found in chapter 8. In this chapter, we find that warring had given way to worshipping—the people were experiencing a time of peace.


These first two ingredients—the accomplishment of something tangible and the enjoyment of peace—are usually sufficient for most to embark on a celebration. But, not here. For the people of God, we recognize that vision fulfillment and peace are not something we can bring about on our own. We need God’s assistance to fulfill visions and to establish peace. Recognizing this, the people of God in Nehemiah’s day were eager to engage in worship.


This third ingredient is significant for our application. Imagine for a minute, that through all kinds of adversity, you receive a promotion at work; imagine that you, or a close family member graduates from University; imagine that you win a prestigious award. Your instinct is to throw a party and ‘open a bottle of bubbly’, as they say.


For the Christian, however, we must be sure not to miss this very important step. Because all that we have, all that we are, and all that we accomplish is from God, we must be diligent to engage in genuine worship—giving thanks to God for all His mercy.


This is what the people in Nehemiah’s day did. A service of worship was not forced upon them by the religious elite—they pleaded for it! “They asked Ezra . . . to read to them from (the Law of Moses)” (8:1,2).


This was no token invitation. Nehemiah records that the Law was read “from early morning till noon” (8:3). And lest there be any question about the people’s attentiveness to such a lengthy reading, Nehemiah also notes that, when the Law was read, the people “listened carefully” (8:3).


I worry that the average person sitting in a church pew this morning does not listen to the Scriptures read and expounded as carefully as he or she ought. Perhaps I should not universalize my own experience, but I find that when I am where you are—when I am sitting in a pew listening to a Bible reading or to a sermon, I do not listen as closely as I ought.


I know what it is like to take the Word of God for granted, and I suspect that I am not alone. I think this is, in part, due to the constant availability of the Scriptures to us. We have Bibles in our homes and in our Church. And, if we do not get to a church service, we can hear a sermon on the radio, on the TV, and even the Internet.


The people of Nehemiah’s day did not have such access to the Scriptures. They were, in large measure, a displaced people. Some of these folks, born in captivity, would not have been fluent in Hebrew. Consequently, the Law of Moses would have been unfamiliar to a great many Jews of that time. Thankfully, this lack of access meant that none of them would take for granted how special it was for Ezra to open the book of the Law.


The mere sight of the book being opened in their midst was enough to inspire the gathering to stand up (8:5). When Ezra began to read, the people responded audibly, “Amen, Amen!” (8:6). Later on, they “bowed low” at the hearing of the Law (8:6).


We see here that before the people would engage in any celebration, they were first committed to engaging in genuine worship.


In verse 9 we read that the response to the reading of the Law was emotionally charged—Nehemiah says that “the people started crying” as the Law was read to them. What, precisely, was read? We don’t know. Why were the people crying? We might be tempted to think that these were tears of joy if it were not for the text that follows. Later, in the same verse, Ezra implores the people “don’t be sad”. Nehemiah exhorted the same (8:10), and the Levites encouraged the people not to “worry or mourn” (8:11).


It appears that the people’s engagement in genuine worship had led to genuine repentance. We naturally infer that the worry and grief that was expressed during the reading of the Law was connected to the people’s realization that they had neglected the Law of God.


They grieved over their disobedience and they were likely worried about the future consequences of their disobedience. The people, en masse, were engaging in genuine repentance.


Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites then moved quickly to transition the people into engaging in a vibrant celebration. We should not conclude from this that the repentance of the people was inappropriate and that is why the leaders had to correct them. Chapter 9 and 10 in their entirety are dedicated the describing the process of repentance that was engaged.


Repentance would not to be glossed over, but once the leaders recognized the sincerity of the people’s regret, they were compelled to order a vibrant celebration.


These are the ingredients necessary for the people of God to engage in vibrant celebration: Something tangible must be accomplished. A spirit of peace must be prevailing. Genuine worship should be engaged. Genuine repentance should result. And the sum of these things should launch the people of God into a first class celebration!


This is exactly what transpired in Jerusalem that day. To get things going, Nehemiah and Ezra issued this refreshing command, “Enjoy your good food and wine and share with those who don’t have anything to bring” (8:10).


Translation: ‘Go throw a party! Celebrate Good Times, Come On!’


‘Bring out the beef tenderloin and your best bottles of Merlot. Oh, and make sure you bring extra in order that the poor among you can participate and be well fed.’


Indeed, a special celebration was taking place. What strikes me is the new emphasis. There is no mention of the wall in Nehemiah 8. No doubt, the completed wall is the reason for their gathering, but apparently it wasn’t long before the focus of the people shifted to something more important. If the wall was dedicated with a special ceremony, it is not mentioned here. But only the reading of God’s Word, and the people’s response is highlighted.


And when Nehemiah and Ezra implore the people not to be sad, they do not point to reconstructed walls as the reason for their happiness. Rather, the message is, “Go, eat and drink . . . Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).


What was the cause for celebration? Walls being built? No—the walls were the overflow of something greater. The reason for the celebration had to do with the fact that the people had experienced a powerful interaction with the Lord.


This leads me back to thinking about all of the present gatherings of God’s people on this earth. Are we marked by celebration? I’m not asking if we sing or smile, but I’m thinking more of the Spirit behind what we are doing today. Is our vibrancy palpable?


There is a danger in my even asking the question, because if there is any doubting our vibrancy, one temptation will be to contrive a covering of cheerfulness to give an appearance of vibrancy.


What every congregation needs, however, is a powerful interaction with God. When we accomplish something tangible by His power, when we experience the peace He provides, when we engage the Lord in genuine worship and demonstrate genuine repentance—it is then we will find ourselves marked by a Spirit of celebration.


Have you ever considered why the local tavern often outdraws the local congregation? Is it not because of a prevailing perception that a person will have a much better time at the tavern than they could ever have while attending a Sunday morning service?


Such a perception may reflect some degree of reality, but such a perception does not reflect God’s intention for the local church! I see in Nehemiah 8 a God who wants us to enjoy Him to the fullest! Throw a party! Spare no expense!


If we have experienced the Lord, if we have experienced the cleansing power of Jesus Christ, we must be ever marked by vibrant celebration.


Celebrate good times, come on!