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.

Nehemiah 9:1-8 – A Prayer of Confession

The Prayer by Constantin Brancusi 1907
“The Prayer,” by Constantin Brancusi, 1907

The Israelites gathered for a day of fasting. They wore sackcloth and put ashes on their heads to show they were sad and upset. Those people who were true Israelites separated themselves from foreigners. The Israelites stood and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood there for about three hours, and the people read the Book of the Law of the Lord their God. Then for three more hours they confessed their sins and bowed down to worship the Lord their God…. 

They said, “Stand up and praise the Lord your God! God has always lived and will live forever.

People should praise your glorious name.
May your name be lifted above all blessing and praise.
You are God.
Lord, only you are God.
You made the sky and the highest heavens
and everything in them.
You made the earth
and everything on it.
You made the seas
and everything in them.
You give life to everything.
All the heavenly angels bow down and worship you.
You are the Lord,
the God who chose Abram.
You led him from Ur in Babylonia.
You changed his name to Abraham.
You saw he was true and loyal to you,
and you made an agreement with him.
You promised to give him the land
of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites.
But you promised to give that land to Abraham’s descendants.
And you kept your promise because you are good.” (ERV)
 

We have many examples in Holy Scripture of people coming together for corporate prayers to confess sin. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a representation of such a confession. I understand that many churches, especially in the western world, jettisoned prayers of confession in their corporate worship services long ago. Eschewing rituals, such gatherings of believers have the inclination to be neither liturgical nor focus on such a negative subject as extended focus on sin through confessing prayer.

Yet, here we are, in the Bible, with a prayer of confession before us. There’s no getting around it: without prayers of confession, we are left in the realm of human pride and hubris – believing we can tackle whatever is in front of us with a solid dose of Protestant work ethic and robust free will. I hate to burst your bubble (no, I confess I really like bursting bubbles!) where there is no confession of sin, both personal and corporate, there is no righteousness and no eternal life.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Prayers of confession invite us to voice what is in the darkest places of our hearts. – to be raw and real about our own sin, as well as the sins of the world. Speaking aloud such words do not come naturally, which is why we need to graft these types of prayers into our life and worship. Naming with honesty and sincerity our personal and collective sins becomes liberating when we sense the immensity of God’s grace. Whereas in most situations, we do not feel safe to name our sins, in the presence of God we are empowered by his love to call forth and bring to light the deepest and darkest shadows of our personal lives and of our society.

A full-frontal prayer of confession acknowledges that our sin is more than a random example of bad judgment. We are sinful people, living in a sinful world, and we absolutely need a Savior! Our confessions of sin also acknowledge and bring to light that sin is a power that resides not only within individual persons but also has infected every society, institution, structure, and even church. An authentic confession of sin admits complicit participation in the structures of evil which exist everywhere.

What is more, a simple observation of the Israelites’ prayer notices that they were not only repenting of their own sin; they freely recognized and professed their ancestor’s sins, as well. Sin never simply dies with the person – it infects and influences the next generation. And unless we come to grips with this terrible reality, we will keep perpetuating the sins of our ancestors.

Which is why it is so vitally important that right now the people of God admit and confess the sins of their slaveholder ancestors, as well as affirm our implicit bias against people different than us and our complicity in perpetuating racism through our silence, unquestioning allegiance to particular political parties, and assuming we should always be in power because we are the best persons to do it. So, then, here is a prayer of confession concerning our present situation of racism:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we and our ancestors have done in the past, and by what we have left undone in the present through: allowing racism to continue and evolve in our social systems of economics and education; not reforming criminal justice; discriminating in housing and practicing gentrification; and, suppressing voting rights. In our racial geography and, painfully, in the continuing segregation of our churches, we have been complicit in racism through the betrayal of silence.

Holy God, we have not loved people of color as ourselves. We confess we have let ourselves off the hook by viewing racism as mere individual behavior, language, and overt hostility; and, have failed to see racism as systemic and structural, harming people of color in very specific, measurable, and tangible ways.

God Almighty, in your mercy forgive us for being racist, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be so that we, along with all people, may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of Jesus Christ in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nehemiah 1:1-11

            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 corporate holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.
 
            When faced with the reality that Jerusalem was in trouble, Nehemiah prayed.  In prayer he owned the problems that Jerusalem faced.  He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of his covenant with his people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would repent.
 
            Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that did not ignore what was going on in his native land, but wept, mourned, fasted and prayed.  He had a deep concern for and was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble.  Rather than being preoccupied with himself, or turning his back on what was going on and focusing on his own new life in Babylon, he 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.  Deer season 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 all have our challenges to face.   Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayer that is biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for our lives and for God’s people.
 

 

            Most merciful God, I confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.  For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Nehemiah 5:1-13

            Nehemiah was a faithful follower of God who had been taken into exile to Babylon.  But, through his initiative, Nehemiah laid plans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the broken down wall which surrounded the city.  Once Nehemiah arrived and arranged for work teams to busy themselves on the wall, he discovered there was much more to rebuild than just a physical wall.  A wall of separation existed between fellow Jews based on economics.  The poor were being taken advantage of as their fellow Jews were exacting usury from them.
 
            Nehemiah’s response is instructive for us.  He did not ignore the situation and only focus on the wall.  He firmly and squarely addressed the problem, and was downright angry about the circumstance of Jewish families essentially living in a state of slavery.  Nehemiah was clear, concise, and direct about the nature of the problem.  He threw himself into being part of the solution instead of only complaining about what was happening.  Nehemiah did not over-involve others in the process of handling the conflict, but handled the issue by taking counsel with himself.  Finally, he attacked the problem without alienating others, and held people accountable for their actions and their promises.
 
            Packed into these few paragraphs of Scripture is a sort of case study of how to engage significant problems and conflict.  This is a section of the Bible not to quickly read over, but to ponder, examine, and absorb Nehemiah’s dealing with the situation.  We all need some guidance and direction when it comes to confronting the problems that surround us.  Let this story serve us well in addressing the issues in our lives.
 

 

            Holy God, you have a special concern for those who are poor and needy.  Enable me to live and speak wisely into the crucial needs which exist around me, so that Christ might be exalted through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.