Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

Rejoicing and repentance (Neh 8:9-9:3)

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If you’ve been following the news over the past week, you will know that there has been a lively debate over exactly how many people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Supporters of Trump claim many hundreds of thousands of people turned up in Washington DC to hear him recite his oath of office and give his inaugural speech to the nation. But many in the media suggest the figure was far lower, with many fewer people present than when President Obama first took office in 2009. From the photographs I’ve seen, it does seem the crowds were rather more numerous eight years ago than they were last week!

But whatever the truth was in Washington, in our reading from Nehemiah this morning we certainly do meet a large and enthusiastic crowd. A crowd of Jews who gathered in the city of Jerusalem in 445 BC to hear God’s Word being read. If you were here last Sunday, you’ll remember Mike Dowler set the scene for us. A priest called Ezra read the words of the “Book of the Law of Moses” to the assembled crowd:

  • Words from God which we now call the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
  • Words which describe God’s creation of the world, his promises to the patriachs, and his exodus rescue of the Israelites from Egypt.
  • Five books of the Bible that also contain countless rules and regulations describing how the Jews should live as God’s people in God’s world.

So thanks to Ezra and his fellow priests, the Jewish people were once again able to hear God’s words and understand their true meaning.  No wonder they turned up en masse and were full of enthusiasm. Mike challenged us last week, didn’t he, to be equally eager to heard God’s word today. He encouraged us to listen attentively as the Bible is read and explained here every Sunday, and to take time during the week to read God’s Word on our own. The people of Jerusalem knew that it is a great privilege to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and so should we today.

This morning I want us to look at the way the people of Jerusalem responded to God’s Word. I want us to look at the rejoicing and repentance that followed Ezra’s public reading of the Bible. I want us to see the right ways we can respond to God’s words today.

But let me pray before we begin: Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a speaking God. Help us to learn from your written word today, and teach us to respond rightly to your voice. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

1. Respond to God’s words with rejoicing and repentance

We rejoin the story in verse 9 of chapter 8, with Ezra and Nehemiah encouraging the people to rejoice. Nehemiah and Ezra were a great leadership team, a pair of men committed to the spiritual renewal and growth of God’s people - I hope Ken and I can do a similar job here at St.Michael’s!

Listen again to some of Nehemiah’s words in verse 10: “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.” You see, Nehemiah knew that joy should be our first response to God’s revelation. Our immediate instinct having heard from God should be to rejoice and give thanks to him.

Those Jews in Jerusalem had much to celebrate, didn’t they? Not only had God brought them back from exile in Babylon and helped them rebuild their city wall – he had also just spoken to them as the Scriptures were read. They Jews could celebrate a fresh start in their relationship with God. Verse 12 tells us they celebrated with a great party: “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.”

As Christians, our first instinct should also be to rejoice when we read God’s Word in the Bible today:

  • We should praise God for the privilege of hearing from him, the privilege of being personally addressed by our Creator.
  • We should also praise God for what the Bible tells us about his character – his goodness, grace and mercy. Goodness, grace and mercy supremely shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • And we should praise God that his Word guides us as God’s people today, just as it guided those Jews in Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. It provides precious instruction and advice for our life as disciples of Jesus. It provides light in a dark world. Certainty in a world of apparent chaos and confusion.

Praise and thanks to God should be a key part of our worship here on Sundays, and included in every Christian’s personal prayers.

But rejoicing isn’t the only right response to God’s word. There is a place for true repentance too. When we come face to face with God’s words, we should also be moved to confession and driven to re-commit ourself to obedient service of him. When it is sincerely read and properly understood, Scripture will convict us of our sins and challenge us to mend our ways.

It certainly had that effect on the Jews of Jerusalem, didn’t it? Verse 9 today tells us that “all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the law.” As Ezra read the words of Scripture to them, it showed the assembled crowd how far they had fallen short of God’s standards. It convicted them of sins that they had committed, it exposed years of disobedience to God’s good rules and regulations. Its no surprise therefore, that the start of chapter 9 tells us that once their party was over, “the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.” In fact, if you were to read the rest of Nehemiah chapter 9, you will see that the whole chapter is a long prayer of confession. The whole people of God took time out to say sorry to God.

Today, there is no doubt we should do the same. We can’t read the Bible, especially the New Testament, without realising how far and how often we behave badly. No honest person can read the Gospels and say that there life is just as good as Jesus’. You see, a serious, sincere reading of Scripture should always lead us to confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. That’s why its right that our Sunday services here at St.Michael’s always include a confession for our failings over the past week. And its why our private prayers should always include a confession - a time of saying sorry to God for our wrong thoughts, words and deeds.

True repentance is more than just saying sorry, of course. True repentance includes a re-commitment to obedience. A re-commitment to live God’s way in future. And verse 14 of chapter 8 today gives us one little example of how the Jews of Jerusalem and Judah re-committed themselves to God. Because as they heard the law read, they realised that they had not been observing the festival of booths. The festival of booths is a command of God found in Leviticus chapter 23. A festival in which the Jewish people were to live in temporary shelters for a few days. Shelters made of branches and leaves. This festival was designed to remind the Jews of their exodus from Egypt, when they lived in temporary dwellings in the desert during their journey to the promised land - much as Christians eat bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death for us on the cross.

By reinstating and observing this special festival, Nehemiah and his fellow Jews were showing their re-commitment to God, and their desire to obey him wholeheartedly. This re-commitment is made more explicit if you read chapter 10, when the whole Jewish people publicly recommit themselves to God, and promise to try and keep his commands in future.

Today, I hope we share the same desire to live whole-heartedly for God. To obey his commands and imitate Christ whenever possible. In the words of our post-communion prayer, let us “live and work to God’s praise and glory”.

2. Rejoicing and repentance requires God’s help

 As I finish this morning, I hope we’ve learnt from our passage in Nehemiah the value of rejoicing and repentance. I hope we will want to imitate the people of Jerusalem’s enthusiasm to praise God and recommit their lives to him.

 But that’s not quite the end of the story. Because true repentance requires God’s help – two thousand years ago and today. We can’t be righteous on our own. If you were to flick forward to the end of Nehemiah, to chapter 13, you would see that the people’s repentance wasn’t total. They had several wobbles in the months and years ahead. In chapter 13 Nehemiah tells us that the people failed to live up to their promises in various ways. For example:

  • They failed to give generously to the work of the Temple.
  • They even provided accommodation in the Temple for one of their worst enemies, a man called Tobiah.
  • And many other Jews broke the Sabbath rest, married foreign wives and committed other sins.

It required correction and discipline by Nehemiah and other godly leaders to keep the people on track. The people’s obedience to God was imperfect and incomplete – just like ours today in fact. True repentance and consistent obedience to God requires his help. Help we need to take advantage of today:

  • We too need to receive correction, guidance and discipline by godly leaders. That’s part of the task Ken and I have been given here.
  • We too need God’s constant forgiveness and grace for all the times we fail him. Grace and forgiveness we can receive by faith in Christ alone.
  • And finally, we need the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. A Spirit who will write God’s laws on our heart, and give us the inner strength to obey them.

So let’s pray for God’s help now: Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a speaking God. Help us to respond to your word with rejoicing and true repentance. Forgive us for our failings and empower us by your Holy Spirit. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.