9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.
10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”
12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.
As I write this at the beginning of the Advent season (the time leading up to Christmas), I remember something I once heard and which I have passed on to many: “The heart of the gospel is ultimate giving.” After all, “God so loved the world that He GAVE His only begotten Son…” You know the rest of John 3:16. Our Almighty God was not required to give anything to us, but He most certainly did. Out of the riches of His mercy, God gave us His beloved Son, so that we might be returned to Him and find eternal life. And the fact that Jesus gave of Himself so humbly and willingly just compounds our debt to the living God, who deserves from us all that we can give.
Before the Jews had been led away into captivity, prophets had come to them and spoken of their crimes and the things God desired of them. The Lord spoke through Isaiah this way:
16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
“Cease to do evil,
17 “Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.”
Pride and greed and idolatry had caused the Jews to give up on love and compassion and mercy, and so God drove them out of the land promised to their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord was a bit more harsh in the way He spoke about Jerusalem through Ezekiel:
48 “As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done.
49 “Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
50 “And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit.
51 “Samaria did not commit half of your sins; but you have multiplied your abominations more than they, and have justified your sisters by all the abominations which you have done.”
A scathing indictment indeed! But after a remnant of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the wall, the words they heard that day were these:
27 “The eternal God is your refuge,
And underneath are the everlasting arms;
He will thrust out the enemy from before you,
And will say, ‘Destroy!’
28 “Then Israel shall dwell in safety,
The fountain of Jacob alone,
In a land of grain and new wine;
His heavens shall also drop dew.
29 “Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
The shield of your help
And the sword of your majesty!
Your enemies shall submit to you,
And you shall tread down their high places.”
Such redemption! Such grace! Such life so undeserved! Having heard all that Moses had written in the law, and having LIVED through the prophecy Moses had spoken about them (Deuteronomy 31:29), surely the hearts of the Jews had felt convicted as they listened that day in the square in front of the Water Gate. They were standing in the midst of the rubble of God’s judgment, and they were surrounded by the mighty wall they had rebuilt through His power and mercy. The new wall of Jerusalem was a physical reminder of God’s grace and protection! Knowing their part in both the destruction of Jerusalem and her newfound redemption, how could they not weep?
But they were commanded to rejoice and to return to what God intended, to “send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared” – i.e. to the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger among them (Deuteronomy 26:11-13). They were commanded to “be still” and know that the Lord their God watches over them. Now that they “understood the words that were declared to them,” they were commanded to LIVE and to GIVE.
The redemption we have received through Christ Jesus is greater even than the rebuilding of that wall around Jerusalem. God’s abundant mercy enables us to partake of eternal life through faith in Christ, and to avoid the eternal judgment of those who refuse to believe in Him. (John 3:17-21) Washed “white as snow” by the blood of the Lamb of God, redeemed from the bondage of our sins by the King on a Cross, how can we not weep? How can we not feel remorse for our past and pity for Him who died for us? And how can we not feel unworthy of the amazing love of this God who GAVE so freely to us when we were so undeserving? (Romans 5:8) How can we not be humbled by this Child in a manger in tiny Bethlehem, this Lord of lords who laid aside His own glory to bring us to glory?
Sometime during these weeks of Advent, we will likely see several films or read stories about people who give freely and find their lives transformed. But will we awaken like Scrooge on Christmas morning and find that all that money we spent on ourselves should have been spent on merciful gifts for the poor, the fatherless, the stanger among us? Or will we spend hundreds of dollars on gifts for friends and family, only to realize too late that we barely put anything in the little red pot at the shop door? And what example are we setting for our children if the heart of the gospel is not focused on that manger but focused instead on the gifts people brought to their King?
Today let us meditate on the gospel – those “good tidings of great joy” proclaimed by the angels above the shepherds near Bethlehem:
“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Know that the heart of the gospel is God’s great love and His great act of giving. Know that His mercies are new every morning, that His forgiveness is greater than our sins. Know that there IS a Savior, there IS a Christ, there IS reason to rejoice. And just like the remnant of Jews in Jerusalem that day who listened to the Word of God and wept, we should remember that we who are called to believe in Him are called to live and to give.
Blessed Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of Your Son, who came into the world a defenseless babe and who now reigns on high with You. Praise be to the Lord our God! Remove from me this heart of stone, O Lord, and give me a heart of flesh and blood, a heart full of Your mercy and unending love. Teach me to be so holy, so forgiving as You. Command me to rejoice in You, for I have seen Your mercy and know Your love. Amen.