Nehemiah 9:26-31 – Judgment and Grace

“Repentance of the People” by German painter Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

But despite all this [God’s blessings] they were disobedient and rebelled against you. They turned their backs on your Law, they killed your prophets who warned them to return to you, and they committed terrible blasphemies. So, you handed them over to their enemies, who made them suffer. But in their time of trouble, they cried to you, and you heard them from heaven. In your great mercy, you sent them liberators who rescued them from their enemies.

But as soon as they were at peace, your people again committed evil in your sight, and once more you let their enemies conquer them. Yet whenever your people turned and cried to you again for help, you listened once more from heaven. In your wonderful mercy, you rescued them many times!

You warned them to return to your Law, but they became proud and obstinate and disobeyed your commands. They did not follow your regulations, by which people will find life if only they obey. They stubbornly turned their backs on you and refused to listen. In your love, you were patient with them for many years. You sent your Spirit, who warned them through the prophets. But still, they wouldn’t listen! So once again you allowed the peoples of the land to conquer them. But in your great mercy, you did not destroy them completely or abandon them forever. What a gracious and merciful God you are! (New Living Translation)

Much of the Old Testament is a rhythmic pattern of God’s judgment and grace. The storyline often goes something like this: 

God makes promises and gives commands. 

People get stubborn, refuse to listen, and disobey. 

God responds with judgment. 

People cry out in their distress.

God gives grace and fulfills divine promises. 

People enjoy, then get stubborn again…. 

The promise of God always involves judgment and grace. Proclaiming only a message of judgment without grace brings despair, death, and hell; there is no hope. Speaking only of grace apart from judgment is oxymoronic – it doesn’t exist because there is no need for grace if there is no judgment; grace is an undeserved mercy given freely by God in the face of our stubborn obstinate selves.

Nehemiah chapter nine is a beautiful prayer of confession. Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, the people released their obstinacy; they realized exile occurred because of their own stubborn refusal to listen to God. So, they repented. 

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

C.S. Lewis

The ancient Jewish people acknowledged their checkered past of ignoring God’s prophets, and they bellied-up and took ownership of their past choices. And God was faithful. Even though the city of Jerusalem had been overtaken and the people sent into exile, God brought them back and the broken wall was rebuilt.

It’s never too late to turn from a past filled with poor decisions, broken relationships, and spiritual disobedience. The time of confession is available, and the time is now. God’s grace always overwhelms our dubious past. 

The appropriate response to today’s Old Testament lesson is to spend some time in confession to God. This chapter, along with Nehemiah chapter one, are good places to begin with understanding just what to say to God. 

For the Christian, confession ought always to conclude with accepting the grace available to us in Christ. 

Today is a new day and a new Christian Year. Let it be a life with the love of Jesus implanted in your heart. As we enter the Advent season, allow that love of Christ to gestate within your soul. Anticipate the birth. Look forward to the Nativity. Long for Christmas and the inbreaking of God to this earth.

Holy Lord, in this time of Advent, we confess we often are distracted by the season’s busyness, by the stress of commitment, and even by putting our own traditions ahead of the true meaning of Christmas. We confess we also often prefer being sentimental to being sacrificial.

Forgive us for all the times we have missed seeing You in our midst, for all the times we have doubted Your presence, and for all the times we have failed to hold the holidays as holy days. Pour peace into our lives and let us be bearers of Your peace to others. Remind us that this is a season of waiting and preparation for the greatest Gift of all. In the holy Name of our Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Daniel 9:15-25 – A Prayer of Confession, Part 2

“But now, my Lord, our God—you who brought your people out of Egypt with a strong hand, making a name for yourself even to this day: We have sinned and done the wrong thing.” My Lord, please! In line with your many righteous acts, please turn your raging anger from Jerusalem, which is your city, your own holy mountain. Because of our sins and the wrongdoing of our parents, both Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace to all our neighbors.

“But now, our God, listen to your servant’s prayer and pleas for help. Shine your face on your ruined sanctuary, for your own sake, my Lord. Open your ears, my God, and listen! Open your eyes and look at our devastation. Look at the city called by your name! We pray our prayers for help to you, not because of any righteous acts of ours but because of your great compassion. My Lord, listen! My Lord, forgive! My Lord pay attention and act! Do not delay! My God do all this for your own sake because your city and your people are called by your name.

While I was still speaking, praying, and confessing my sin and the sins of my people Israel—while I was still praying my prayer for help to the Lord my God about my God’s holy mountain— while I was still speaking this prayer, the man Gabriel approached me at the time of the evening offering. This was the same Gabriel I had seen in my earlier vision. He was weary with exhaustion.

He explained as he spoke with me: “Daniel, here is why I have come: to give you insight and understanding. When you began making your requests, a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you because you are greatly treasured. So now understand this word and grasp the meaning of this vision! Seventy weeks are appointed for your people and for your holy city to complete the rebellion, to end sins, to cover over wrongdoing, to bring eternal righteousness, to seal up prophetic vision, and to anoint the most holy place.

“So, you must know and gain wisdom about this: There will be seven weeks from the moment the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until a leader is anointed. (CEB)

We learn to pray through praying the prayers of the Bible. One of the great wrestlers of prayer in Holy Scripture is Daniel. His prayer when disaster overtook the people of Jerusalem is apropos for us in our national disasters of egregious sin. Today I take the second part of Daniel’s prayer and use it as my own prayer (this is a continuation from yesterday’s prayer of confession).

Prayer is an act of subversion. It challenges the status quo. It looks evil in the face and gives it a name. Real change begins with the step of real prayer, and real prayer is modeled after the great prayers of Scripture. The season of Lent, with its focus on repentance and spiritual discipline, is the appropriate time to offer prayers of confession and express fealty to the God who deserves it.

Our Lord God, with your own mighty arm you brought our forefathers from religious harassment to a place of religious freedom. You graced us with liberation to become what we could not in other places. Through this you made yourself famous to this very day, but we have sinned terribly.

We turned around and did to others what they did to us.

We have been unequal in our treatment of all people. In our pride, we think we are better than others, even though we have been called to treat others better than ourselves.

We keep killing one another with words and then with guns, all the while justifying our behavior through inaction and spiritual gerrymandering. Meanwhile, our children and our neighbors keep dying. 

In the past you treated us with such undeserved kindness. We now beg you to stop being so terribly angry and hear our plea for your grace to awash us again. Although we have suffered public disgrace from our own stupidity, we throw ourselves upon your great mercy.

I am your servant, Lord God, and I beg you to answer my prayers and bring honor to yourself by having pity on our grieving families as well as the people who have forgotten you. Please show mercy to us, not because we deserve it, but because of your great kindness. Forgive us! Pay attention to us, even though we failed to give you the time of day. Hurry and do something, not only for us, but to bring honor to yourself through Jesus Christ our Savior in the might of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

Daniel 9:1-14 – A Prayer of Confession, Part 1

Daniel the Prophet by Sefira Ross

In the first year of Darius’ rule—Darius, who was Ahasuerus’ son, a Median by birth and who ruled the Chaldean kingdom— I, Daniel, pondered the scrolls, specifically the number of years that it would take to complete Jerusalem’s desolation according to the Lord’s word to the prophet Jeremiah. It was seventy years. I then turned my face to my Lord God, asking for an answer with prayer and pleading, and with fasting, mourning clothes, and ashes. As I prayed to the Lord my God, I made this confession:

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps the covenant, and truly faithful to all who love him and keep his commands: We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws. We have not listened to your servants, the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our leaders, our parents, and to all the land’s people. Righteousness belongs to you, my Lord! But we are ashamed this day—we, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, all Israel whether near or far, in whatever country where you have driven them because of their unfaithfulness when they broke faith with you. Lord, we are ashamed—we, our kings, our leaders, and our parents who sinned against you. Compassion and deep forgiveness belong to my Lord, our God, because we rebelled against him. We did not listen to the voice of the Lord our God by following the teachings he gave us through his servants, the prophets. All Israel broke your Instruction and turned away, ignoring your voice. Then the curse that was sworn long ago—the one written in the Instruction from Moses, God’s servant—swept over us because we sinned against God. God confirmed the words he spoke against us and against our rulers, bringing great trouble on us. What happened in Jerusalem has not happened anywhere else in the entire world! All this trouble came upon us, exactly as it was written in the Instruction of Moses, but we did not try to reconcile with the Lord our God by turning from our wrongdoing or by finding wisdom in your faithfulness. So, the Lord oversaw the great trouble and brought it on us, because the Lord our God has been right in every move he has made, but we have not listened to his voice. (CEB)

The world’s sins are legion. Our own sins are too many to count. They are a crushing load. Put all together, the heap of sin is piled all the way up to heaven. We all have sinned against God and one another in the things we have done, and those things we have left undone.

Devout believers are to remember they belong to God and enter this season of Lent with focused prayer, repentance, and fasting. I have always encouraged folks to adopt the prayers of the Bible and use them as their own.  I also often personalize the prayers for contemporary use. This is what I am doing today with Daniel’s prayer of confession.

Denial is not an option. Simply wishing things were different does not make it so. For the Christian, change begins with looking evil square in the face, calling it what it is, and confessing it. Daniel did just that because of his people’s indifference. I have taken the liberty to form Daniel’s prayer as the basis for my own. It is not the entire prayer of Daniel. The rest of the prayer comes with tomorrow’s reading. But for today, it is confession…

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps your promises and is truly faithful to all who love you and keep your commands. 

There is no good way to say this: We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws to love you, and love our neighbors.

We have forsaken self-care and rest, tossing the notion of Sabbath aside as an antiquated observance.

We have dishonored our parents by turning aside from their instruction. They taught us better than we are living. And we have ignored our ancestors in the faith who kept your commands and followed your ways.

We kill one another with guns we have stockpiled like cans in a pantry, not to mention the murderous words we continually breathe on those we hate.

We have failed to keep fidelity with our spouses and treat them like second-hand items.

We steal land and resources, lie through our teeth, and cheat others with an envious eye which is neither satisfied nor content with the blessings right in front of our faces.

We have not listened to your Son, the Lord Jesus, or to your Holy Spirit speaking to us in your Holy Word. The people of this land have given you the stiff-arm through the allowance of systemic evil, structural racism, inattention to the poor and needy, and calling injustice justice. 

Righteousness belongs to you, Lord! But we lack seeing our own guilt. We, the people of this created world, have broken faith with you by insisting on our own way of doing things.

Our uncivil words and unloving behavior have drowned your voice to us. Our ears have become deaf to the teachings you gave us through your messengers.

We all have broken faith with you by not heeding your warnings to forsake hate and embrace love.

A curse has swept over us because we sinned against you, God, with impunity. Our children are at risk, even dead, yet we continue to bicker and fight amongst ourselves while destruction continues to abound through the hands of unstable people.

God, you have brought great trouble on us. This dangerous morass of immorality and injustice is our own doing, and yet we stubbornly remain independent and do not seek divine reconciliation by turning from our wrongdoing or by finding wisdom in the faithfulness of your loving character and compassion. 

Lord, you have been right in every move you have made in giving us a clear moral code with the Holy Spirit to help us, but we have neither heard nor heeded your voice of truth….

1 Samuel 15:10-31 – Rationalizing Disobedience

King Saul by William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest. “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”

But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” So, Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (NIV)

“You cannot compensate by sacrifice what you lose through disobedience.”

edwin louis cole

God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites (the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and viewed as the archetypal enemy of the Jews). Saul obeyed only some of the instructions, but not all of them. King Saul rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king. God wants no monkey business when it comes to obedience.

Whenever I come across biblical characters like Saul, I find myself trying to distance from them. Yet, oftentimes, when I take the time to sit a bit with the Scriptures, I realize I can have some of the same propensities as their behavior. In today’s Old Testament lesson, I am like Saul whenever:

  • I say I will do something and then get busy and not do it. I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
  • I justify a purchase of something I do not really need but want with the excuse that I put a lot of money in the offering plate for God.
  • I slander another person, even though it is forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I am protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
  • I keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up. I dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with needing to save my energy for people who want it….

I could have kept going with this little exercise, but I got too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore. So, before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with the story for a while, being mindful and aware of any unacknowledged disobedience.

Rationalization is the way of sinners.  Repentance is the path of saints.  Which road will you choose today?

Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions.  I am sorry for all those times I found creative ways to circumvent your teaching.  Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.