The key to continuing to grow throughout our lives, regardless of what area of growth we desire, is to begin, make a commitment, and then keep showing up. Once you discover what it is that you’d like to do, become, or know; make the commitment, and then keep showing up. I don’t mean to just be a warm body filling space. By “showing up” I mean to be fully present, to be wholly invested, to be acutely attentive one day at a time, day-after-day-after-day. There will be days that you won’t feel like showing up. It’s much easier to sleep in, chill out, and take it easy. You can do that, but to consistently make the choice to follow that path will never get you where you would like to be one day. To be able to look back one day and see tangible growth, you must show up, give it all you’ve got, and never give up. This simple principle is taught in sports, the arts, business, parenting, marriage, and even in ministry.
This morning I’d like for us to focus on discipleship, the commitment to daily growth in our walk with the Lord. The important principle of continuing to show up is indispensable if you want to be a disciple of Jesus. Continuing to show up is also one of the biggest problems we have to deal with in the church with the followers of Jesus. Eugene Peterson in his great book, “A Long Obedience In The Same Direction” has written,
We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture, anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 15-16.)
That is so good! There is “little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness,” Dr. Peterson says. I call this apprenticeship in holiness, discipleship. If you will take out your Bible and turn with me to Nehemiah 8:13-18. If you will remember, in our time together last Sunday, we covered the first twelve verses of this same chapter. We read that on the “first day of the seventh month” the people had Ezra bring the book of the law, the Word of God, and he read to them for hours. Let’s read the next section of Nehemiah 8, beginning in verse 13.
13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters”– as it is written. 16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. 18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly. (Nehemiah 8:13-18 NIV)
What we learn in the opening verse of this Scripture is a really good sign! Why does this section of Scripture excite me so much? Well, did you see the very first verse? What day was it? It was the “second day of the month…” The people had asked Ezra to read to them from the Word of God on the first day of the month. Now, we read that they showed up for day two! That’s a great sign! I briefly mentioned last week that the seventh month on the Jewish calendar was the most special of all months on their calendar.
During the days of Moses, on Mount Sinai, God gave His people feasts to observe throughout the year. You can read about them in Leviticus 23. Sabbath occurred every seventh day. Some feasts like the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement took place on a single day. Others, like Passover, First Fruits, and Pentecost lasted two days. The Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Tabernacles lasted for an entire week.
In Nehemiah 8 we read about the “first day of the seventh month” but there is no mention of the Feast of Trumpets which takes place on that day. There is no mention of the Day of Atonement which takes place on the tenth day of the seventh month. But when we come to our Scripture for this morning we learn that while Ezra was reading to the heads of the households they discovered something vitally important. Let’s read verses 14-15 together again.
14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters”– as it is written. (Nehemiah 8:14-15 NIV)
They discovered that God had told them, through Moses, that they were to live in temporary shelters, what we know as the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths. How did they just now discover this? Let me let you in on a little secret. Back in Ezra 3 we read that the first group of exiles who returned to Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, but in the rest of Ezra and thus far in Nehemiah there’s been no other mention of the celebration. It has been about 100 years since the first group of exiles had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. What had happened? Why now are these folks discovering what was written in God’s Word?
I believe that during those years living in Babylon many of God’s people lost touch with who they were, who they were called to be as God’s people, and they forgot the observances God had given them to remind them of these important truths. That’s not to say that all of God’s people forgot. Remember Ezra was born in Babylon and yet he was a man who was devoted to learning, living, and teaching God’s Word. We read about that back in Ezra 7. There were faithful men and women of God who were either carried away into exile or were born in Babylon and yet they continued to worship and serve the Lord. They were a remnant, a small number, compared to the many who forgot. There’s no doubt that many of the heads of the households who had heard Ezra read from the Word of God on day one had forgotten, but hearing Ezra read from God’s Word made them want more and that’s why they showed up for day two. I want us to go back to verse 13 so that I can show you something that has made a deep impression on me this past week. Let’s read together.
13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:13 NIV)
They “gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law.” I want us to focus on the word, “attention.” The Hebrew word translated, “attention” in the New International Version is translated, “in order to study” in the English Standard Version, “even to understand” in the King James Version, and “to go over in greater detail” in the New Living Translation. All of these translations are based on the Hebrew root word, “??????” (sakal) which means, “wise understanding, to look at or upon, to give attention to, consider, or ponder.” The heads of the families who had gathered around Ezra to hear God’s Word weren’t nodding off, they weren’t looking at their watches wondering when it was going to be over, they were locked in, hanging on every word, and willing to listen to what Ezra was teaching from God’s Word because they wanted to understand God’s Word and God’s will for their lives. And giving attention to God’s Word is God’s will, not only for those who had gathered around Ezra that day, but for you and me as well.
We need to ask the question, “To what are we to apply this locked-in attentiveness?” And the answer is, “You can be attentive to absolutely anything in life, but if you want to know and understand who God is, what God is like, and what it means to walk in relationship with God then you’ll need to be attentive to God’s Word and apply it to everyday life.” This is truly what discipleship is all about. I say you can apply attentiveness and focus to anything in life because we see this all around us and we also see the outcome of a life lived with such devotion and focus. Let me give you just one example.
Have you ever heard the name Avi Schiffmann? Probably not. Avi is only 17 years old, but he has created a coronavirus tracking website that has 30 million visitors a day. Avi will be a senior this year at Mercy Island High School outside of Seattle. Avi is a “C” student, but it’s not because he isn’t brilliant, it’s because he is focused on one thing…coding computers. Avi calls himself a “terrible student…mostly because I spend 100% of my time on other interesting things.” He started teaching himself to code when he was 7 years old by watching Youtube videos. He started working on the coronavirus tracking website while his family was on a ski vacation. He said he skipped a day of skiing to work on the idea he had in mind. He said he put in 50 hours straight at one point. He’s up all hours of the day and night working on his project. He’s even turned down an $8 million dollar offer for ads on his website. When asked why he turned it down, Avi said, “I’m only 17, I don’t need 8 million.” I’m sure most of us would agree with Stanley Kubrick’s character, Jack Torrance, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Avi wouldn’t characterize his long hours as work…giving so much of himself to his project is his passion.
I’m not saying that we need to stay up for 50 straight hours studying the Word of God to become a disciple of Jesus, but what I am saying is that we need to spend time with God, in the Word of God, in prayer, each and every day so that we might grow in our relationship with Him. It’s good to be attentive, to be focused, to strive to grow in becoming a better husband or wife, parent, athlete, or to excel at our job, but these all pale in comparison to growing in our relationship with the Lord.
It’s interesting that this same Hebrew word that we’ve been talking about, used in Nehemiah 8:13, is used in Jeremiah 9:24. Let’s back up a verse and begin in Jeremiah 9:23. Read it with me.
23 This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, 24 but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV)
We celebrate the wise, the strong, and the rich in our day, but God places a higher priority, a much greater value on knowing and understanding who He is. There’s our word again, in verse 24, “understanding.” Understanding what? Well, let’s take another look. God says there is real value in understanding, having a grip on who God is, and what He does–that He “exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth,” and in these He takes great delight. Do you know why God places such importance on His people understanding this? It is because if we understand who God is and how He interacts with us, we can then know that He is calling us to interact with others in the same way.
We need to talk about this just for a minute. We are hearing lots of talk about justice and righteousness right now in our society, but the problem is that we are defining these terms according to what we think they mean instead of understanding them from a biblical perspective. You want to know what justice means then dig deep into God’s Word to find out how He exercises justice. You want to know what it means to live a righteous life in relationship to others then dig deep into God’s Word to learn how God deals with those who have sinned against Him. Our society, our law courts, our most brilliant thinkers will never solve the problems we are facing until and unless they turn back to the Lord and learn from His Word.
Back to our Scripture for today. The people who had gathered around Ezra wanted to learn, they were attentive to everything He read from God’s Word. Secondly, they acted on it. We learned in verse 14 that they discovered that God had commanded His people to live in temporary shelters during the festival. We don’t find any pushback whatsoever. Nobody said, “That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to have my neighbors see me gathering sticks and making a lean-to for my family to live in for a week!” Let’s take a look at what happened when they discovered this command from God. Turn with me to Nehemiah 8:16-17.
16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. (Nehemiah 8:16-17 NIV)
The heads of the families heard God’s command and they acted on it. This is a mark of a growing disciple. A disciple of Jesus is one who discovers truth in God’s Word and acts upon them, applies them to their everyday lives. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15 NIV) John, one of Jesus’ disciples, wrote,
3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:3-6 NIV)
Before we can “do” we must first “know.” There is an abundance of knowledge in our world today, but there is a famine for the knowledge of the Word of God. We have at our fingertips the greatest resources for learning that the world has ever known and we are using these resources to learn all kinds of things except for the Word of God. It’s not that we don’t have God’s Word or the tools to learn God’s Word or those who are willing to teach us God’s Word, but it simply boils down to this: We are more interested in other things. We aren’t the first generation or the first nation to make this choice. In Hosea 4:6, God spoke to His people.
6 My people are being destroyed because they don’t know me. Since you priests refuse to know me, I refuse to recognize you as my priests. Since you have forgotten the laws of your God, I will forget to bless your children. (Hosea 4:6 NLT)
Did you notice? God said His priests refused to know Him. God had given them and He has given us so many opportunities to know Him, so many resources by which we can know Him, beginning with His Word, but we must make knowing Him our priority. Let me close by sharing with you about the Feast of Tabernacles, another tool God gave His people to be reminded of who He is and what He does.
The Feast of Tabernacles, gathering branches and living under a lean-to for a week, was given to God’s people by God so that they might never forget the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness camping out under the stars. The Feast of Tabernacles was also given as a reminder for the people to give thanks for God’s provision. Let me explain.
There were three growing seasons in Israel and all of the major feast days of Israel coincide with these harvests. The first growing season culminates with Passover as the barley harvest is gathered. Second comes the wheat harvest which aligns with the celebration of Pentecost. Last of all, at the end of the summer, after a long growing season of grapes, pomegranates, and olives and before the rains come, God’s people gather for the Feast of Tabernacles. Each of these feast days celebrated God’s goodness and His provision for God’s people, not just materially, but spiritually as well.
Now, here’s the thing. Before the Israelites moved into the Promised Land the Canannites lived in the land and they experienced the same growing seasons. Growing seasons don’t change simply because God’s people move into the neighborhood. The Canaanites had their own celebrations at harvestime, but their celebrations focused solely on fertility. God established His own feast days for His people because He wanted them to know that He was more than a Provider of rain and a bountiful harvest, He’s a Deliverer. God gave His people reminders so that they wouldn’t forget. At the Feast of Tabernacles He wanted them to celebrate the bountiful crop, He wanted them to be grateful for His provision, but He wanted to remind them that they were as dependent on Him in the present as they had been dependent on Him in the past, while their ancestors were leaving Egypt and making their way to the Promised Land. They hadn’t freed themselves, He had brought them out of Egypt.
As they slept and ate under those lean-tos they were to remember how their ancestors had nothing, they were weak and fragile, but God provided for them for those 40 years. Bring in the harvest, enjoy the fat of the ram, the goodness of the pomegranates, figs, grapes, and olives, but recognize how fragile life is and you still need Me. God was teaching, He was reminding His people: You still need Me just they needed Me and just like everyone who will ever live will need Me. What a blessing to have reminders of our weakness, frailty, and God’s provision! And the Jewish people are still remembering today whenever they celebrate these feasts given by God.
Oh my friend, this is truly the outcome of a lifetime of discipleship. There is so much to learn, so many great opportunities to learn more and more about our great and glorious God. So many reminders of His love for us, His provision for us, and His deliverance from the shackles of sin and death into a new life found only in Jesus Christ. Like those in Nehemiah’s day we are truly dependent upon the Lord. Do you know that? If we’re not in God’s Word, spending time with Him in prayer, being attentive to what He wants to teach us then we’ll easily forget.
I want to invite you this morning to think about what we’ve been learning from Nehemiah 8. Are you attentive to the voice of God heard through Scripture? Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to teach you, convict you, encourage you in your daily life? When you discover new things, new insights, commands from God do you seek to implement them into your daily life or do you turn away and go back to what’s comfortable for you? I want to urge you today to commit your life to Jesus and to becoming His disciple.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 12, 2020