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Nehemiah 8:1-12

A Communion Sermon by Mark Horne
Originally preached July 1, 2001

Copyright © 2004


remember a story one of my professors, Jerram Barrs, told my seminary class one day about how Francis Schaeffer—the late Presbyterian apologist, missionary and cultural critic—shared the gospel with his atheist father who was dying of cancer. After telling this man that Jesus had died for him, this former atheist replied, (as I recall the story): “How can a worm accept such a thing?” And Francis Schaeffer, after praying for wisdom in how he should answer, replied: “How dare a worm refuse?”

That was a good answer!

How dare a worm refuse? How dare a sinner under the just sentence of death refuse freely given pardon and the promise of life?

Here in our passage this
morning we have a people utterly torn up by the reading of the Law of
God. Their sins have been exposed by God’s holy standard and they are weeping and mourning as a result. And does Ezra, or Nehemiah, or any of the Levites encourage this. No, they tell the people to cut it out! “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep” (v. 9). “this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved” (v. 10). “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved” (v. 11). Instead, they are supposed to be celebrating in a feast and sending food to those who don’t have any. “The Joy of the Lord is your strength” they insist.

The application of this passage to us is not hard to see. Here we have a message from the Bible followed by a holy feast. This is a sermon followed by the Lord’s Supper. Yet often I wonder if our brand of piety regarding the Lord’s Table doesn’t, by Biblical standards, lead us into spiritual perversity.

Think of the parables Jesus taught. Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 16? Having squandered all his inheritance and being reduced to eating with pigs, would it have been right for the son to say, I am so unworthy of my father’s favor I will have to stay here and not be presumptuous by approaching my father’s house? Or once his father had rushed to meet the son on the road and called to his servants to clothe his son in robe, ring, and sandals, and to slaughter the fattened calf; would it have been right or pious for the son to say, “No, Father, I cannot accept those things from you because I am unworthy?” The father already knew that the son was unworthy! That would be no excuse for the son to refuse his father’s forgiveness. Remember: it is the older son, the son who stands for the Pharisees, who insists on remembering the Prodigal’s past sins and claiming on that basis that there should be no feast for him. Does anyone dream for a moment that it would have been virtuous for the Prodigal to dredge up the record of his own past sins and used them to excuse himself from dining with his forgiving father? He whom God has forgiven, let no man condemn. He to whom God offers fellowship, let him not refuse such an invitation under any pretense.

Or imagine the story in Matthew 22: The Parable of the King’s Wedding Feast. The King invites people and they turn him down, giving outrageous excuses. Now, will anyone tell me that if one of those invited had said, “Well, King, I would like to come, but I’m far too unworthy,” the King would have replied, “You have answered well! I gladly excuse you from attending my feast today.” Not a chance! The King knows, better than you will ever understand, how unworthy you are. Nevertheless, he invites and summons you to the fellowship of his forgiven children. Do not come up with any pretense for rejecting his love.

Now what I am preaching from this text, is real simple. Grace precedes righteousness. That is our doctrine, after all. All I’m doing this morning is encouraging us to actually see our doctrine in how the Bible presents to us the feasts of the Lord, which all culminate in the Lord’s supper. In other words, I want our worship to be brought into conformity with what the Bible teaches both about the worship itself, and about salvation.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

I almost feel I am insulting your intelligence by reading such a well-know passage. But when it comes to common piety regarding the Lord’s Supper, I wonder if we ever really apply the great truth contained in Ephesians 2:8-10. Grace precedes righteousness.

And in our passage this morning, we see a people struck to the heart due to their disobedience to the word of God. As a result, those people begin to grieve and mourn for their sins. And that reaction is inappropriate. It is sinful. This is a Holy Day and grieving is unlawful. The father is calling for the Prodigal son to be clothed in garments of glory and beauty and to eat from the fattened calf. The king is inviting a rebellious people to his wedding feast. How dare a worm refuse such an offer?

What I want to do now is make three short points based on this passage. I won’t be saying much about the exposition of the word of God recorded in the first part of our passage, but rather about their reaction to it in verses 9 through 12. My three points, in quick succession are:

1. Holy days are feast days.
2. We don’t earn the right to feast, but we are invited by free grace in order to equip us for godliness.
3. We must not refuse the invitation on the excuse of any guilt according to falsely austere

Now these points could almost be given to you in any order since they overlap and entail one another. What I’m asking you to do is to look at and apply to your life the doctrine that God’s grace precedes any of our righteousness.

My first point then is that Holy days are feast days.

Three times in this passage, in verses 9, 10, and 11, the Israelites are exhorted to have a party rather than to mourn and
weep because the day is holy. Do you understand what
that means? A Holy Day is not a day of fasting but a day of feasting. Our word “holiday” is derived from the term “Holy Day” and that is quite appropriate. It is a day of celebrating. Let me read you a few descriptions of these feasts just to give you some idea of the mood that God is setting for us:

As one example among many, we read about what is to be done regarding the tithe in Deuteronomy 14.22-27:

22 “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you
sow, which comes out of the field every year. 23 “And you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the first-born of your herd and your flock, in order that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 “And if the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, 25 then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 26 “And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 “Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.

Now, our own Lord’s supper doesn’t look a great deal like this. That’s because Paul makes it clear that the context of an actual feast isn’t absolutely required. When the Corinthians begin abusing the Lord’s supper by holding a feast in which the poor are not given an equal share, he suggests that they eat at their homes and restrict Church worship to the Lord’s supper with bread and wine. Nevertheless, this gives us an interpretation of what we are doing. Don’t let the length of time it takes to distribute the elements fool you. This is not a time for prayer or meditation. It is the time for a celebratory meal—a taste of the kingdom and a toast to the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think our tendency is to allow the tokenism of the Lord’s Supper make us imagine that it is a kind of fast, rather than a feast. That’s why I’m quite happy that we get to use real bread instead of bland soup crackers at this church. Please, take a healthy piece. Don’t starve yourself. We may not think it is spiritual to spend five minutes chewing on bread in church, but God didn’t spend all this space in his written word associating feasting with his worship for no reason. Chew on the grace of God.

Incidentally, that is why I am pastorally concerned about tiny cups of grape juice being served for what is supposed to be the cup of the Lord’s blessing. You are missing an opportunity. Someday maybe you’ll visit a church where you will get a chance to hold a glass of wine in your hand and ask, “Could God possibly love a sinner like me?” Then answer of the Gospel, in that context, will be impossible to miss.

Now for my second and more elaborate point: We don’t earn the right to feast, but we are invited by free grace in order to equip us for godliness.

Did God deliver the Israelites from Egypt because they obeyed the Ten Commandments? No. He saved them from Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments. But more than that, he fed them first, both in the initial Passover and in the manna from heaven and the water from the rock, before he gave them the Ten Commandments. When Paul writes the Ephesians that they’ve been saved by grace and not by works but to good works, he is giving them a summary snapshot of the Exodus and other stories of God’s deliverance. You eat to grow; you don’t grow in order to eat.

And that, by the way, is exactly
the reason that Nehemiah gives to explain to the Israelites why they must celebrate rather than grieve: the joy of the LORD is your strength (v. 10). Don’t think of joy as general happiness only, but think of it in this context as the joy of a festival day with eating and drinking and making merry. That public rejoicing is their strength. The Hebrews are suddenly aware of their sin and misery due to the reading of the Law, but the only antidote is the grace of God which will strengthen them to walk more closely with their God.

Imagine a foot racer in training. One day this athlete is told by his coach to run the hundred-yard-dash. So he runs as fast as he thinks he can while his coach uses a stopwatch. When he’s done in a few seconds, his coach just shakes his head. “You should be able to do much better than that,” he says. “From now on, no more eating or drinking until you cut a half-second off your time!” Now how would that sort of restriction help? It wouldn’t! The athletes time would get worse and worse as he starved. Common sense says that without a healthy diet no one can improve his or her athletic ability. If you don’t eat, you only will get worse.

And yet when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, people will often act like their week must have attained to a certain level of sanctity or else they must not eat and drink from the Lord’s Table.

Which brings me to my final point: We must not refuse the invitation on the excuse of any guilt according to falsely austere piety.

How dare a worm refuse? God knows you’re a sinner better than you ever will. That’s the whole point of elements that correspond to the offered body and the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s supper is an enactment of his Gospel—a sacramental participation in his sacrificial death and in his glorious resurrection. This is a meal for sinners, not for angels. And yet we can treat it as if it is something to be earned. But the word of the Lord through Nehemiah is clear. Weeping—and, by implication, fasting—is forbidden. This is a holy feast for a holy day.

Now, it is true that those engaging in ongoing sin should not participate in the Lord’s Supper. By ongoing I do not mean a sinful habit per se, I mean things like keeping a mistress or currently holding a stash of a controlled substance of pornography in a hiding place. You need to leave your sins behind when you enter into worship, including the Lord’s Supper.

But if you’ve yelled at your children too much this past week, or you let your language degenerate before your co-workers in a way that is not a good Christian witness, do not harm yourself further by refusing the grace of God. God has invited you here to strengthen you against those challenges in the future. Don’t imagine that punishing yourself by rejecting the means of grace is somehow a pious act. The joy of the Lord is your strength. No more grieving.

Let me put this another way, if you think you are supposed to remain a member in good standing in the Church of Jesus Christ, then you should be participating whenever possible in the Lord’s Supper. You do not have a right to refuse to participate. God is calling you to table fellowship with himself because he loves and forgives you and wants to strengthen you in his joy for the future. How can you possibly turn him away? You can’t. So don’t.

I close with a quote from the Puritan writer, Walter Marshall in his 1692 work, The Gospel
Mystery of Sanctification:

By nature, you are completely addicted to this legal
method of salvation. Even after you become a Christian by believing the gospel, your heart is still addicted to salvation by works. In your heart you still want to make the duties of the law come before the comforts of the gospel…You find it hard to believe that you should get any blessing before you work for it…This is the mindset you tend to fall into: You sincerely do want to obey the law of God. Therefore, to make sure you obey the law of God you make all of God’s blessings depend upon how well you keep his law…Some preachers even
tell you that you had better not enjoy the blessings of the gospel! They tell you to diligently obey the law first, and that only by doing this will you will be safe and happy before God. Just keep in mind, however, that if you go this route, you will never enjoy your salvation for as long as you live in this world.

Grace precedes any works of ours. The Gospel blessings precede our doing anything that pleases God. The Lord’s Supper is a free gift that you cannot earn and to which you already have a right. Don’t refuse the grace of God.

Copyright © 2004

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