Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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Nehemiah 8:9-10

Matthew 11:28-30

This morning, we continue an unintended sermon series on books of the Bible we don’t pay

a whole lot of attention to.  Last week, we delved into the Old Testament book of wisdom

literature called “Song of Solomon.”  This morning, we open to another frequently overlooked

Old Testament book – this one not poetic, but historical – entitled “Nehemiah.”  The book is

named after and probably written by a Jew who lived during the 5th century B.C.  He was one of

many Jews living in exile in Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar around 585. 

Following Babylonia’s subsequent overthrow by  the Persians in 539, the Jewish exiles were

given much better treatment.  In fact, Nehemiah himself was appointed to a position of honor

and trust as royal cup bearer to a certain King Artaxerxes.  And don’t worry.  That won’t be on

the final exam.

      Sometime later, Nehemiah was released from the king’s service, and permitted to return to

his beloved hometown.  But he arrived to find Jerusalem and the temple utterly destroyed.  Un-

der Nehemiah’s leadership, the walls of the city were eventually rebuilt, and the temple itself

restored as the center of Jewish religious life.

     The passage under our consideration this morning follows the reading and the interpretation

of the Mosaic Law by Ezra, who served a dual role as scribe and priest.  Reestablishing the

temple in Jerusalem necessitated first a reinstitution of God’s Law.  The many who heard Ezra’s

‘sermon’ were cut to the heart.  As they considered the vast gulf between the requirements of

God’s Law, and their own inability to live up to it, their response was one of sadness, guilt and

shame.  Yet Nehemiah and Ezra wanted the people to understand that the Law of the Lord was

never intended in the long view to bring grief and hardship; rather, liberation and celebration. 

Let’s turn our attention now to the 8th chapter of Nehemiah beginning at the 9th verse.

(Read Nehemiah 8:9-12)

      When we come to church on the Lord’s Day each week, how are we to come?  Are we to

approach God’s house with grief and sadness, burdened by our inability to live up to the letter of

God’s Law?  Or are we to come as a people liberated – not from God’s Holy Law, but through it;

then sent forth to celebrate the reality that we are justified by the One who has, in Himself,

perfectly fulfilled God’s Law?

      The late humorist Erma Bombeck offered this commentary on the uptight joylessness often

perceived to be the church’s modus operandi:  “In church the other Sunday, I was intent on a

small child who was turning around smiling at everyone.  He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming,

kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag.  He was just smiling.

Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater

off Broadway, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’  With that, she gave him a firm pinch, and

as tears rolled down his cheeks, added, ‘That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers.  Suddenly, I

was angry.  It occurred to me the entire world is in tears, and if you are not, then you’d better get

with it.  I wanted to grab that child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about my

God.  The happy God.  The smiling God.  The God who had to have a sense of humor to have

created the likes of us….. By tradition, one wears faith with the solemnity of a mourner, the

gravity of a mask of tragedy, and the dedication of a Rotary badge.  ‘What a fool,’ I thought. 

Here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization - the only hope, our only

miracle, our only promise of infinity.  If he couldn’t smile in church, where was there left to go?”

      It is sad, but true that too many Christians respond to God’s word with an uptight joylessness

rather than a liberated and liberating joy.  Yes, it’s as true for us as it was for Nehemiah’s and

Ezra’s audience some 2500 years ago that, try as we may, we cannot perfectly observe God’s

Holy Law.  When we are in the presence of Almighty God, we sense a vast gulf between God’s

holiness and our sin.  Yet even half a millennium before the coming of Christ, there is a word of

grace:  “….do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

      I believe this word of grace is especially prescriptive for we who live on this side of the cross

and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because the cross of Jesus bridges once and for all that

vast gulf between God’s holiness and our sin.  And the empty tomb reminds us that there is re-

demption and joy-filled life beyond the cross.  Jesus, all at the same time, embodied the Law,

carried our sin, and overcame the power of sin and death.  In doing all this, God -- through the

person of God’s beloved Son – liberated us from the guilt and burden of our imperfect human

condition.  That is what Jesus meant when He once said to the crowds who groaned under the

weight of their sin:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavily burdened [by the Law, by guilt,

by shame, by your inability to perfectly be all that God desires you to be] and I will give you rest. 

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will 

find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

      But there is a catch.  We have to say “Yes” to Jesus’ offer, and then be willing to live that yes

out; for Jesus will not force Himself upon us.  Now does this mean that when we say “Yes,” God’s

Holy Law no longer applies to us;  that we get some sort of grace exemption; that we no longer

need to turn from our sin?  Certainly not.  What it does mean however is that we are no longer

dead in our sin.  Nor are we condemned by God’s Law.  Quite the contrary.  We are freed to live

a life of deep and effusive joy, knowing that in spite of ourselves, God is firmly on our side.  That

doesn’t promise or even suggest life on some primrose path.  We will fall short of God’s best

intentions for us.  We may suffer the consequences of our sin.  We will likely find ourselves wan-

dering off the pathway of righteous living.  But we have an advocate in the crucified and resur-

rected Christ who will pick us up when we fall short;  will comfort and sustain us as we pay the

wages of sin;  will lead us firmly yet gently back to the right road like a Good Shepherd.  All this is

cause for celebration; not occasion for grieving.  And as Nehemiah and Ezra so rightly articulate,

perhaps foreshadowing the coming of the world’s Savior, “…the joy of the Lord is our strength.”

So, in the Lord’s house, on the Lord’s Day….. feel free to smile away!


Almighty God, fill us with the joy befitting those who are loved, redeemed, and called to

freedom inJesus Christ.  Free us from whatever binds us, be it guilt, shame, sadness, our failure

to be all that You’ve created and called us to be, and set us upon the path of liberation, through

Your Holy Law, and through Your Holy Law fulfilled in grace.  This we pray in the name

of grace’s clearest image, even Jesus, our crucified and resurrected Savior.  Amen.

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102