Sacred Joy In the Assembly


The VitalChurch UK team is working with a church that held a “Sacred Assembly.”  The following are notes from a sermon that was the final step to assist the church in their preparation…

Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine with me for a moment…What if you lived in your house (or flat) with your family and it had no front door. And to make matters worse, there was no law enforcement to speak of – and bands of marauders would regularly descend upon your neighbourhood.

How would that change the way you live? How would it change the way you slept?  How would it change the way you work – or planned your day?

That’s what it was like for the people who lived in the city of Jerusalem for several decades before Nehemiah came on the scene.  The account of Nehemiah follows the humiliating defeat of the Jewish people by Babylon, the survival of a demoralized remnant in Jerusalem for 70 years, then their improbable efforts to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.

Here’s what we need to see about Nehemiah as we prepare our hearts to allow the word of God to speak to us this morning: Nehemiah prefigures Jesus.

  • Nehemiah left the comfort and opulence of the king’s palace to go and identify with, serve, and lead a bunch of broken and desperate people. Jesus did the same thing. He left the comfort and perfection of the King’s palace to step into the brokenness, desperation, and shame of humanity.
  • Jesus is the better Nehemiah who came in obedience to the Father and out of love for the Father and laid His life down as a sacrifice for sinners to rescue us and spare us. We want to (always) acknowledge Jesus as the wise Rebuilder, primary Leader, and Senior Pastor of His Church.

From the safety and security of the palace, we read in Nehemiah 1:3-4 that when Nehemiah heard his people’s “great distress and reproach,” that he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days on end (1:3–4).

The first of 12 prayers prayed throughout the book:

“Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

He took four months to pray, fast, repent on behalf of the sins of his “father’s house,” and to plan.  He presented his plan to the king and secured both the confidence of the king (and queen – Esther??) as well as the resources to carry out his plan.  Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem and after some preliminary investigation and planning oversaw the rebuilding of the city wall and the gates in just 52 days.  Stiff opposition was consistent throughout Nehemiah’s ministry in Jerusalem.

Once rebuilt, the people gathered in the city square as God’s community to hear Ezra read and teach the Torah. The outcome of rebuilding wall was that God began to rebuild His people.  The walls give them a safe place to rebuild their lives and people, both from the surrounding area as well as Jews returning from their captivity, return to Jerusalem and begin to repopulate the city for the glory of God. (A picture of a transition season.)

They begin to study the Scriptures again and in hearing them expounded by Ezra (and the other priests), a deep and gripping repentance overcomes them. And as a result, they begin to experience revival.

Takeaway: Repentance is the unlikely route to our joy.

Overview of Nehemiah:

Chapters 1-6 describe the restoration of the wall and the gates of Jerusalem.

Chapter 7 serves as a transition chapter.

  • Nehemiah wanted to give credit to those who had returned to do the work during the crises.
  • Nehemiah was transitioning from rebuilding the wall and the gates to instituting specific reforms as they repopulated the city of Jerusalem in order to re-establish Jerusalem as the vital centre for the active presence of God – as well as Jewish national and spiritual life. (Today, that centre is the Church, not a temple — or a city.)

Chapters 8-13 describe the restoration of the people of Judah. In many ways, chapter 8 is the high point of the book and of the history of Israel as a whole.  Why?

  • God’s people were re-established as a people of the book. This meant more to them now than ever.
  • The visible greatness of impressive institutions such as King David’s reign and King Solomon’s temple had disappeared. Only the promises of God remained.

Focusing in on chapters 8-9 they can be divided up into four main points:

  1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.
  2. *8:9-12: God’s people re-establish the joy of the Lord as their strength. [Sacred Joy]
  3. 8: 13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.
  4. 9:1-38: God’s people call for a Sacred Assembly as they re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We can view these four points from Nehemiah as an overview of the transition season here at Bethany. We will take a quick look at all three of the four points this morning, but we will spend the majority of our time in Nehemiah 8:9-12, so I would like for us to read those verses now.

We will consider each of the four points:

“Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” –Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NASB, emphasis added)

Let’s look at them one at a time:

1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.

They gathered together to listen, learn, and worship “as one man” (v. 1 ff); they became unified and focused as a nation. (Ezra had arrived in Jerusalem 13-years before Nehemiah did.)

When they heard the Torah read the people began to repent, mourn, and weep (v. 9).  God’s people were beginning to get back on track. The safety and security of the wall helped them to refocus and re-establish??

An important part of the task of VitalChurch at Bethany has been to take time to consider your past, your present, and your future.  We have invited your input each and every step along the way…  There has been a rebuilding of theological and governance systems – and more recently adding to the staff to nurture and disciple the young people in the church as well as reach out to those in the surrounding area.

2.  *8:9-12: God’s people are re-established in the joy of the Lord, which became their strength.

Nehemiah and Ezra said, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” –Nehemiah 8:10

There was repentance that led to joy. Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.  How does this happen?  Let’s look first at repentance and then see how it builds into joy…


Within the safety of a rebuilt wall and a re-established governance model, the people witnessed the faithfulness and mercy of God and the people became emotionally safe enough to hear and receive the Word of God, which generated in them a deep and convicting repentance.

“You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.” — Anne Lamott

How shall we define repentance?

Repentance is an internal shift in our perceived source of life, and it involves the response of humble hunger, bold movement, and wild celebration when faced with the reality of our fallen state and the grace of God –Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart

C.S. Lewis describes repentance as the “process of surrender…full speed astern.”[1]

There is a gospel repentance that will repeatedly tap into the joy of our union with Christ in order to weaken our need to do anything contrary to God’s heart.

Repentance is the first 4-Beatitudes (Mat 5): Acknowledging our spiritual poverty, mourning over our own brokenness and the brokenness of sin-sick world system, becoming humble learners, which result in a deep thirst and holy hunger to know and embrace God’s gift of righteousness.

Repentance is Isaiah encountering the glory of God in Isaiah 6 — just walking into church one day and he encounters the glory of God.

When Isaiah is in the glorious, exhilarating, and disturbing presence of God, honesty, confession, and repentance erupt out of his soul.  Isaiah sees with disturbing clarity that his heart is sinful and incongruous with the weighty presence of God.  Then, when he repents and confesses his sin God begins to explode into his life.  Isaiah most likely thought the wrath of God was going to kill him when the seraphim picked-up the fire with the tongs and began to fly toward him.  But instead of death, there was cleansing and healing. God’s holiness did not destroy Isaiah; it (actually) cleansed him.  Isaiah’s self-image was deconstructed and reconstructed on the spot in the temple that day.  Once we’ve had an encounter with God He becomes more real than our needs, personal preferences, and desires.  And as we realize we are more sinful than we ever dared to believe, we simultaneously see that we are more loved than we ever dared imagine – and joy springs up in our hearts — and we surrender ourselves afresh into the service of the Living God.  Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” –2 Corinthians 7:10

The joy of the Lord

Paul asks the Galatian church…“What has happened to all your joy?” –Galatians 4:15 (NIV)

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” –C.S. Lewis

To truly begin to understand joy we must distinguish it from happiness.

The words happiness and happenstance come from the same root word. The prefix “HAP” means “luck.”  So, we can say that happiness, like happenstance, is circumstantial.  They come and go in life.

Happiness is external, while joy is internal. Happiness depends on “happenings.” You’re just lucky or fortunate…

Joy encompasses and transcends both happiness and sadness. Joy is like the sun, always shining even when night falls or clouds cover it.  Happiness is like the moon – waxing, and waning.

Christian joy is a deep and calm delight in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as we encounter the beauty, majesty, and holiness of God in the gospel and we thus surrender our vain attempts to achieve happiness and contentment in our own strength.

Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about joy (look at the back of your outline, at the bottom):

  • “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 8:10
  • “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” 14:17
  • “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” 17:13

It was not the wall that made the returning Jewish refugees strong – it was finding their joy in God that became the basis for their strength.  The joy of the Lord would unite them, encourage them, make them brave, and stimulate them to serve God’s purposes.

3. 8:13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.

We see that team ministry began to flourish in their midst.  Nehemiah, Ezra, along with the priests formed a leadership team that provided enough safety and security for the people to turn their attention more completely to God and His Word – which they did…

Until now, Nehemiah has been in the forefront. He was a gifted leader and administrator who could organize and mobilize people to get the wall built.  But when it came time to teach the Word, he took a back seat to Ezra, who was skilled in the law of Moses.  Ezra had set his heart to study it, practice it, and teach it (see Ezra 7:6, 10). These two men, along with the priests, illustrate beautifully the principle of team ministry.

This is the role of VitalChurch. We have experience in helping to build the walls of team ministry, good governance, healthy systems, and we provide consistency and a focus on a theological perspective that keeps the gospel at the centre.  (In most churches we work with there has been a theological drift.)

They prepared themselves for a Sacred Assembly (v. 18c): “and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly…” –Nehemiah 8:18c

4. 9:1-38: God’s people re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We will see how this works tonight…

What we see in this chapter (vs. 5-38) is the longest single prayer recorded in the Bible.

It is a corporate prayer of repentance. Upon completion of the wall, the people gather together to worship and hear the reading of the Torah.  In chapter 8 we learn that Ezra and other leaders preached and taught the Scriptures for an entire day, and after that, they came back to learn more.  As the Word of God was read and proclaimed the people’s hearts were convicted as they realized that God had been faithful to them, but they had not been faithful to Him.

This prayer is an expression of their desire to repent and return to their God.

Chapter 9 is a sacred assembly — a time to come together and confess both corporate and personal sins.

Remember what Nehemiah prayed in 1:6: “Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

The wonder of the gospel that ultimately captures the wandering and wounded heart is that in spite of our sinfulness and selfish desires God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ to die for us, and His Holy Spirit pursues us individually — and as a church.

God’s faithful pursuit is not stymied by our anger or ambivalence, our lack of faith, or our refusal to trust.  The only thing that will ultimately produce change and joy in our lives is recognizing our sin and receiving God’s grace.[2]

Some people may be sitting here saying that all sounds fine – but that was the OT and we now live under a New Covenant, so a Sacred Assembly is not necessary.  To that person I would say that Revelation chapters 2-3 are a call for these seven churches to consider their ways – remember there was both affirmation and rebuke.  Let’s close by considering what Jesus (through) John spoke to the church at Laodicea:

“I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore, be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” –Revelation 3:18-20

V. 20 is often used for evangelism yet please notice it is addressed to a church. There are seasons in the life of every church where the Holy Spirit comes alongside.  To open the door is to recommit and return afresh to the leading of Jesus Christ as the Senior Pastor of the church.

How To Start a Revival

James Burns asks the question:  Do we want a revival?  Do we really?  And then he answers…

To the church, a revival means humiliation, a bitter knowledge of unworthiness and an open humiliating confession of sin on the part of her [pastors] and people.  It is not the easy and glorious thing many think it to be, who imagine it filled the pews and reinstated the church in power and authority.  It comes to scorch before it heals; it comes to [convict] people for their unfaithful witness, for their selfish living, for their neglect of the cross, and to call them to daily renunciation and to a deep and daily consecration.  That is why a revival has ever been unpopular with large numbers within the church.  Because it says nothing to them of power, or of ease, or of success; it accuses them of sin; it tells them they are dead; it calls them to awake, to renounce the world [system] and to follow Christ.[3]


[1] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity: 44.

[2] Adapted from Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart.

[3] James Burns. Revival, Their Laws & Leaders, Hodder and Stoughton 1909:50.

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