Repentance and What Comes Next
I heard someone call October a month of Halloween. He was lamenting that such a beautiful season would be tagged as a prelude to a costume celebration lasting a few hours on the last day of the month. Of course we all know that Thanksgiving to December is all a prelude to Christmas – or more specifically, Christmas shopping. Unfortunately that shopping season has started to swallow November. I would like to propose that November become a month of Thanksgiving. Instead of stopping to say thanks for a few moment on the fourth Thursday, why not use the weeks leading up to that day as a time of reflection on all that God has done in our lives.
The Jews regularly reflected on the past deeds of the Lord. There are many places where a Psalm, argument or prayer begins with a recitation of all the works of the Lord. This week in Nehemiah 9 we have one of those instances. The gathered people of Jerusalem, having finished the wall and having celebrated the feast of Tabernacles, now recite the deeds of the Lord. This is a time of thanksgiving that is also something more.
This morning we look at thankful praise and where it leads.
The people gather to remember the deeds of the Lord and repent of their disobedience.
The people have gathered together and a leader enters into a time of extended praise and thanks giving. He praises God as creator (v.6), as the faithful covenant God of Abraham (7-8), and as the one who rescued the nation from slavery in Egypt (9-11). He goes on to praise God for preserving and protecting the nation during the desert wanderings (13-21) and giving the nation the Holy Land (22-25).
Application: Have you ever taken time to thank God for creation? Before you get to all the specific ways God has blessed your individual life can pause and thank him for life itself? God is a God of life and all life comes from him. The breath we take and the life we have to face the day are all gifts of God.
Have you ever looked back at the course of your life and thanked God for his faithfulness to you?
Have you ever celebrated God as the one who rescued you from slavery? The Jews had been rescued from political slavery in Egypt. We have been rescued from spiritual slavery through Jesus.
In this prayer the Jews state that God gave them the Promised Land. Obviously that leaves out a lot of detail. There were leaders who inspired the people and plans that were followed. Treaties were made and the tribes took up residence in the nation as the original inhabitants were driven out. But in this prayer all that is placed in the background. God has given them the land.
Have you ever looked at the blessings in your life –your possessions, house, job — as a gift of God?
The Jews often gave extended thanks to God for his work in the past. We can begin to thank God more robustly if, like the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, we thank God for being creator, for being faithful to his promises, for rescuing us and for giving us everything we have.
But something else happened as the people gave thanks. They realized that while God has been faithful to them, they had been unfaithful to him. Each step of the way this leader praises God but honestly remarks that the people could not remain centered on God. They disobeyed his law and turned away from him. Look at verse 16.
“16 “But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. 17 They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery.”
Even as they admitted their sin they upheld God’s faithfulness.
“But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them …
30 For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. 31 But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”
Sometimes when we look back at the way God has been good to us we are not only thankful but we are convicted of our own unfaithfulness to God. It is important at time like this to reaffirm God’s character, that he is merciful and slow to anger, that he is abounding in love. God is unlike any other being in that he is completely good. Everyone else treats us as we deserve or worse. Everyone else is secretly working for themselves. Only God is wholly merciful and good. It is the recognition of that goodness that breaks our hearts. This is what it did for the Israelites gathered that day. They confessed their sin and then vowed to live differently in a few very tangible ways.
32 “Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes—the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly…
We are in great distress.
38 “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”
Their thankfulness led to remembrance which led to repentance which led to resolve.
Look in chapter 10, verse 28:
28 “The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— 29 all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.
The people realized that they had failed to live obediently which meant that they did not live any differently from the cultures around them. Their hopes and dreams, their values were all formed by the nations around them rather than the by the Law of Moses. Thus their whole reason for being had been compromised. If they did not live as a rescued people, grateful to the God who saved them, then how would anyone else come to know God. In realizing this they made an agreement to obey the Law more carefully in three specific ways, all of which are applicable to us – even though they don’t look applicable to us.
30 “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.
31 “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.
32 “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel[b] each year for the service of the house of our God: 33 for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, at the New Moon feasts and at the appointed festivals; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings[c] to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.
Like the Israelites we live as rescued people grateful for what he has done for us. We do not worry about arranging marriages, keeping the Sabbath or funding the temple. But their resolutions and their resolve raises questions for us.
Does your relationship with Christ make any difference in your life in the area of sexuality, work or money?
Sexually – we are called to be faithful to our marital vows because God has been faithful to us. We obey him in this area because he has rescued us and we want to love as he loves us. We are self-giving in marriage and obedient outside of marriage because he has given his all for us.
Work – the Jews kept the Sabbath which must have been very difficult as they sought to restart their shattered economy. Why would God ask his people to take the seventh day off? Not only does it make the nation different it also reminded them that it is God who runs the universe, not them. For us it challenges us to get our identity from God rather than work. We don’t worship work; we rest because God is the creator who runs the universe.
Money – like the Jews we give because everything belongs to him and we are stewards of his gifts. The people around us give often to charity; usually they give from their excess. We do not give from our excess but from the first fruits of our labor as an act of worship.
So let us make this month a time of extended thanksgiving. And perhaps the thanks will lead to repentance and then to resolve.