Nehemiah 8:10, "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."
This morning, sometimes we judge things based on the response. Have you ever seen someone down because they did something but did not receive the feedback they were looking for? Perhaps a writer did not receive the constructive criticism or encouragement that he expected/desired. Perhaps a child did not receive the affirmation from the parents that was desired. The list could go on. Yet, what if we looked further? Some judge things based on the response, but there can be situations when people judge the response to their response. Some of my greatest unintentional offenses came when I did not respond as expected/desired to someone else's response to me. Perhaps I said something other than they wanted, or perhaps I said nothing when they expected something. Considering the field of response to a response, let us examine a particular portion of that field as it relates to preaching.
Our study verse is found in one the most delightful chapters for me to read in the Old Testament. The whole chapter is chock full of good nuggets that help to exemplify a good pattern of worship for us to follow today. As a humorous side note, I sometimes use verse 3 to justify my long-winded preaching making the claim that, "I have never gone from morning to midday, which is approximately 6 hours!" Moving into the realm of our verse, what has happened? Our verse shows Nehemiah speaking to the people at the conclusion of Ezra's "all morning reading" of the law. Yet, Nehemiah's speaking to them is actually a response to their response. His language shows a good example for ministers today.
What transpired immediately before Nehemiah's response? The people wept when they heard Ezra read the law. What is there to weep about? Paul asserts in Hebrews 10 that the law served as a reminder or memorial for sin. Every year (particularly at the atonement sacrifice) the people recalled to mind their sins for that year and cleansed their conscience through the sacrifice of animals. Therefore, this reminder of sin should cause a pained conscience to mourn for coming short of God's glory and requirements. Since Ezra had read the law all morning, it seems the people responded properley – they mourned – to the reading.
When the proper response comes forth, an opportunity for the proper repsonse to the response is seized by Nehemiah. The people rightfully mourned for their shortcomings in the sight of God. What pointed that out? The reading of the law. Correlating that to today, what should be the proper response of coming face to face with our shortcomings through the reading of the Bible, sting of conscience, or some other medium? We should mourn that we have brought a reproach upon God in our thoughts and deeds. Yet, just as surely as that should be our response, we should not remain perpetually in that condition.
Nehemiah stands this day on the cusp of a pivotal moment in these people's lives and even the future of the nation. They have returned from captivity, rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, and now have a fresh reading of the law upon their minds. They are well acquainted both personally and nationally that God had judged them and rightly so. They had stumbled and come short of what His law required. Such thoughts should spark mourning. We today, particularly as ministers of the gospel, stand at a similar cusp and pivotal moment in the lives of many of God's people. They see that they were in bondage, and hearing the Lord's word renews their conscience to mourn for their sins.
Nehemiah sees the people respond properly and frames his response accordingly. Is it a time for Nehemiah to rake them over the coals? They already mourned for their shortcomings, so that response is not only unnecessary but also harshly wrong. Is it a time for Nehemiah to excuse their sins? No, for children of God should never be made to think that consequences do not exist for our actions. Rather, the people are at the place ready and prepared to hear how good God has been to them. Encouragement in the service of God is the necessary and right response at this moment.
What do preachers today desire to see and feel in those that they minister unto? They desire to see people wanting to do better than they have, for they understand all too well that they have stumbled in pursuit of serviing God. Preachers today do not desire to see self-justification or self-promotion any more than Nehemiah would have desired to see those people then excuse their behaviour. But, when a proper response is witnessed, here is the message.
Nehemiah begins talking about eating fat and drinking sweet. What is the message today? Yes, we have stumbled, come short, and deserve the worst for our transgressions, but there is sweetness in the nectar of the gospel waters. What a child of God needs to hear when at the door of mourning is the wonderful story of Christ and His finished work. They need to hear that He loved us enough then to die for us, and He loves us enough still to care for us daily with benefits even though we daily stumble. The fatness of the gospel declares how lean and destitute people have been made rich by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What a wonderful message to those that truly feel to need His help!
Further still, the comfort that the gospel message brings should then bring another response. Is it more mourning? No in no wise, for Nehemiah encourages them again not to be sorry. The greatest message of God's riches and grace should bring the ultimate desire to walk better than ever before. Even though we have stated it many times, it bears repeating that the grace of God, when properly understood, does not derive the actions that some seem to believe it does. I have heard it said that grace will either: 1. rock people to sleep, or 2. fatten them up beyond any profitable use and good works. A fellow minister even reported that he heard a sermon (so-called) that equated grace to filling a saucer with milk so that God's people – like pigs – could tank up and become engorged on it. The end result would be a bunch of fat pigs that waited at the saucer "oinking" for more milk. Perish such thoughts of comparison!
Grace does provide sweet and fatness (as Nehemiah) here references the message, but the end result is neither fat unprofitability or sleepy service. Rightly understood grace brings a spirit of service like nothing else can. How can I show forth what I feel for One that has done so very much for me? As the refrain from the old hymn states, "The Lord has been so good to me, I will on Him depend. And every day where'er I be, I would His truth defend." A true teaching of grace stirs the spirit to serve Him, depend on Him, and show forth His truth in good defense and earnest contention for the faith. What is one of the key marks to look for in this?
Nehemiah's next thought is that after eating the fat, drinking the sweet, we should not be sorry but rather give portions to those that have none. In other words, he encouraged those eating these dainty things to assist and give to those that are less fortunate. If God gave us things – being less fortunate ourselves – a perfect way to show our appreciation for what He has done is to help those that are doing poorly. No, we cannot give them what He gave us, but we can show forth the spirit of grace by bestowing kindness upon those that cannot repay and require nothing from them by way of restitution.
One could point out that these Israelites were not too well off themselves. The are freshly released bondmen and women, seeing their home country for either the first time or for any elderly ones the first time in a long time. They have had to take pains and efforts to restore the city, and certainly they did not have much in the way of natural possessions. Yet, Nehemiah encourages them to help those with no portions – poorer than themselves. Many of God's faithful are poor and afflicted (Zephaniah 3:12), yet there are still many poorer than we are. True observance and appreciation of grace seeks to bestow kindness on those less fortunate than we are. (Romans 12:16)
Nehemiah concludes by telling them that their strength is the joy of the Lord. Today, our strength is the joy of the Lord. We should joy in His service. The only way to joy in it is to properly respond when we see the error of our ways. To do that, we sorrow with Godly sorrow unto repentance, and rejoice in hearing one more time how much He loves us and seek to do better. The next time we meet in service and worship, let us recall to mind that it is a holy day (as this day was to them). Let us remember that we have come short and do not deserve His blessings. But, as those sweet rivers of the gospel come rushing forth from the Rock our Saviour, may we drink the sweet, eat the fat, and leave striving to show forth that grace in our lives to others. Ministers desire to see the response of hunger and thirst after righteousness with sincere sorrow for sin, and we likewise desire to respond with the heavenly message and bread from on high. But, finally, all of us should desire the last response to be better service to our Master who has been so very good to us.