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.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 – A Prayer of Solidarity and Confession

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. (New Living Translation)

I believe that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God. Jesus said it clearly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV) 

There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God. The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer is not a passive activity. If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority. It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people. 

In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do. Our personal and communal holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

When faced with the reality that his hometown, Jerusalem, was in trouble, Nehemiah, the king’s wine steward, prayed. In prayer he owned the problems Jerusalem faced. He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of the covenant with God’s people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and he held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would only repent.

Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that was attentive to what was going on in his native land. Hearing the tragic news of the city’s condition, he immediately wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed.

Nehemiah was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble. Rather than being preoccupied with himself and his own situation as an exile in Babylon, Nehemiah sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God. He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.

Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned. If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.

There is a season for everything. Hunting seasons may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate. We have our challenges. Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayers which are biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for the church and the world.

Let us continually have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will and implementing that will through God’s love.

Almighty and gracious God, we lower our heads before you and confess we too often forget that we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you and your incredible mercy. For these things we ask your forgiveness and strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may witness to the love of Christ in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us to closely and tightly in your good strong hands. Build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So, on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)

Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.