Posted on November 21, 2016 by Chris Wiles
Humans are celebrating creatures by nature. Weddings, birthdays, graduations—the larger the event in our lives, the greater the milestone, the more we crave the presence of family, friends, music, and all the other elements that turn a gathering into a blowout.
We’ve emphasized this facet of human nature throughout our series, really. We are, after all, “better together.” Emile Durkheim, the French social analyst, made his life’s work out of trying to explain the nature of humans in groups. “The very act of congregating,” he writes, “is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” 
Now that the both the Temple and the city walls had been completed, what did Ezra and Nehemiah do? They had a revival service:
73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.
And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns. And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 7:73-8:1)
Indeed, this was a revival service, an experience magnified by the electricity between the people gathered “as one man.” What we’re about to witness, you and I, is something known as a “covenant renewal service.” In the coming chapters, the people of Israel would revisit the relationship between God and his people, they would confess their sins, and they would reaffirm their devotion to God.
THE READING OF THE LAW
Here’s how Nehemiah describes this ancient church service:
2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
In verse 8 we read that “they read from the book…and they gave the sense.” Gave the sense? That means that didn’t just read the Bible; they took time to explain what it meant.
Why would the Bible occupy such a prominent place in this whole ceremony? Allen Ross writes that “they wanted to make sure their worship was right:”
“It appears that the believing community was trying to recapture the spirit and form of worship as it was legislated by Moses, developed by David, and reformed by Hezekiah and Josiah. In fact, we know that 1 and 2 Chronicles were written about this time for this very purpose—to inform the Jewish people of what was supposed to be by reminding them of the history of the faith and especially temple worship, and to show them what it would take to restore it.”
HOLINESS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH GLOOM
But what we should also notice is that this was meant to be a revival service in the truest sense. Nehemiah even emphasized that their devotion to God didn’t have to lead to sorrow. There’s joy to be found in the presence of God:
9 And 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 wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10)
The word “Holy” means to be set apart for God’s purposes. To behold God’s purposes—to reflect on them at specific times or occasions—this promotes in us a sense of joy, a joy that springs from the confidence we have in God’s enduring character.
DON’T WASTE YOUR SUNDAY
Our Sunday mornings don’t necessarily resemble the exhilarating revival preaching from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
As a matter of fact, more often than not, our Sunday mornings are positively…ordinary.
So much so that if you walk into a church service expecting something extraordinary to happen to you, you may walk out of the building disappointed. If that’s the case, it’s tempting to find something better to do on a Sunday than occupy a seat.
But we may have missed something crucial. The word “Church” doesn’t refer to a Sunday service; it refers to a community of Christ’s followers. We gather at a weekly service because it is there that—like Nehemiah—we remind one another of the relationship we have with God, this time mediated through the work of Christ. For centuries, communion—the taking of the bread and cup—has served as the climax of the service, for it is in these elements that we recite and rehearse the gospel with one another.
So essential are these gatherings that in the ancient world, the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers this way:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Church community really does transform you—so long as that community is infused with the supernatural power of God’s presence in the Spirit. Church services have a place in that transformative process. But while we might expect this to take place on any given Sunday, the truth is it might well take a lifetime of Sundays.
Don’t waste your Sunday. Make time for one another. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
 Emile Durkheim, quoted in Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion. (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 262.
 Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 353.