And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them. – Nehemiah. 8:9-12
Upon hearing the word of God preached to them for the first time in a very long time, the people felt convicted of their sin of neglect of the law and other sins as well. The people had asked Ezra to teach them. They had listened to 6 hours of preaching, and now they were full of sorrow for their sin.
Ezra, recognizing this true sorrow for sin, could see that the people were repenting of their ways and were now spiritually ready to be taught the word of God more deeply. Knowing that to commit their lives to God’s service is a great effort, and that they had been standing for 6 hours, Ezra tells the people to go home and refresh themselves. But his command was not just to go home for a simple meal. He wants them to have a feast of the best that they have. They are also to send food and drink to the poor among them so that everyone could enjoy the feast. This feast was to remind the people of the mercy of God toward Israel. Their repentance was not the cause of the mercy of God. It was evidence that God had already had mercy on them and blessed them to see their sin so they could repent. It was then fitting for them to have a feast in the liberty of the mercy of God.
Most corporate worship services look nothing like this event or anything like the first century church for that matter. The message from mainstream pulpits today is basically a feel-good, motivational message telling the people what God wants to do for them with material blessings if they will just let Him. There is no moral absolute described and therefore no sorrow for sin. This kind of worship breeds congregants that are eager for the feast but see no need for repentance to precede the celebration. They just want the party. If the message does not encourage transforming your life to be more like Christ, then it is a message that encourages you to be comfortable where you are and continue to conform to the world. This is not the gospel.
Our church service today should look much like this event in Nehemiah which is strikingly similar to the first century church. The focus should not be entertainment, but a prompting to holiness and following Jesus. I believe one of the most concise instructions for preachers of all generations can be found in Isaiah chapter 40. There we read that the message to the people of God should be one of “double” comfort.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. – Isaiah 40:1-2
Before you jump to the conclusion that the preacher’s message should make people feel “comfortable” where they are at, continue reading. We find that the first part of the message of comfort is to tell people their condition without the grace of God. “All flesh is grass” is a statement of complete depravity. When people see their sinful condition, they will mourn, but they will also see the need of a Savior! Only the child of a God who has truly seen his sin can truly rejoice in the double blessing of mercy and grace.
Once that true repentance is felt, the feast of liberty in Christ should come forth in the way the person lives. Once they see that, without Christ, they are nothing, they can fully understand that they have everything they need in Christ. Their salvation is not based upon their works or will. They can lay aside that burden and take up the yoke of mercy and grace. They can go a have a feast of the best blessings of God, and share it with all those around them.