Please do not be put off by the topic of Law / Torah, and, certainly, please do not mourn and weep as Ezra's audience did when confronted with the torah! This passage is not about legalism and rigidity. It is about finding life, finding true joy. It would make for a great sermon or homily this Sunday.
Do consider fashioning your sermon around Nehemiah 8. There is so much misunderstanding about applying God's torah, about biblical authority, and about related themes these days, we need the insights of this passage!
A few things to notice. First, God's teaching is not being forced or shoved on folks. The people have requested Ezra to bring Moses' books before them (v. 1). God's people naturally long for God's teaching, because it restores our souls and nurtures our relationship with God (cf. Pss 19:7-9; 119:72).
To his credit, Ezra makes God's word in Scripture easily available to everyone who longs for it. He reads it to the people outside the temple area, in an open public area where even ritually defiled folks could be present (8:1). Men, women, and children are all included (8:2).
Hearing the reading, the people sense their distance from God and weep, but Ezra will have none of this type of reaction (8:9). This is a time of new beginnings, a time of renewed intimacy with God. God's torah is a wedding present. It allows for a tangible commitment to God and for growth in the relationship. The torah gives form and structure to the love of God.
The torah's meaning is not simplistic, black and white, and self-evident. Understanding Scripture requires translation, interpretation, and pause for reflection. Do not allow the people in the pews to miss how the Levites help the people understand the law (8:7-8). The church today is struggling against divisions that threaten to tear us apart. We greatly need to understand that Interpretation and New Learning always accompany the understanding of Scripture (בין ; cf. Ps 119:27). Understanding and insight (שׂכל--8:8) are not automatic. Working hard on Scripture's meaning is in no way an act of unfaith or a questioning of Scripture's authority.
Comments Welcome. Expostion of Nehemiah 8 to be continued; stay tuned...