July 15, 2010 David Balzer

Nehemiah 8-9: Real Repentance

I was talking to a lady yesterday at Blacktown Festival. She was 84, and she was telling me how she’d seen Blacktown change over her lifetime. She’d lived around here most of her life

–except for a few years after her husband retired. When they bought some land out west, and moved there. They thought it would be nice to move out of the city. And to slow down a bit.

But it didn’t take long before her husband wanted to move back. He was BORED. Things were too slow.

He longed for things to be different. But it didn’t turn out quite the way he’d thought.

Do you long for things to be DIFFERENT? Are you sick of the rat-race? Tired of the grind? The hustle, the hassle, the futility of doing the same things week after week. And nothing seems to get any better.

Perhaps you’ve thought this way last time you were on HOLIDAYS. And life just seems to be PERFECT. Your family actually GETS ON with each other. There’s time to talk, and eat together. You SLEEP better. You get to read those books, and watch those videos you never get time for during the year.

You’re in a beautiful spot. Great scenery. You walk around and just ENJOY what God’s made.

But holidays always come to an end. And you come back to reality. And before long, you’re longing for things to be DIFFERENT?

It’s certainly an experience for THOUSANDS of people. Our generation is the generation of the SEA CHANGE. Sell-up in the big smoke. Move to the coast.

(Or if you like the bush, you have a TREE-CHANGE).

But the principle is the same. Down-size. Enjoy living on less. Enjoy LIFE MORE.

That’s the DREAM.

But the reality is often about under-employment, or unemployment. Of loneliness, and boredom. Of not being accepted by the locals. Of not having the services and comforts you’re used to. Of things not really being the PARADISE they thought.

Longing for something BETTER.

That desire for something better – it’s really a human CONDITION. And it’s often about GREED, or LAZINESS. But not always.

Let me suggest that there’s something GOOD about longing for something better. Can I suggest, that rightly understood, it’s a GODLY DESIRE. At its best, It’s a hunger for perfection. A longing for the ULTIMATE life. ABUNDANT life.

That longing we feel is THE SHADOW THAT ETERNITY CASTS ON US. The result of being made in the image of an eternal God. Made to be in a relationship with him.

God WANTS us to be longing for something better. It’s a thirst we can PARTLY satisfy through the Spirit-filled life of the Christian. Walking with Jesus.

But it’s a thirst that will only be FULLY satisfied in the new creation. But we’ll come to that a little later.

Longing for something different. For things to be better. That’s what Israel is up to. We’re up to the end of Ch 7 of Nehemiah. And things are looking pretty good.

We’ve come to crunch time. Where the rubber will meet the road. Because all the ducks are lined up. The people have returned, the temple’s finished, the city walls are complete. The people have been settled in their right towns. And the non-Israelites have been expelled.

All the parts are in place for a GENUINE NEW BEGINNING. A fresh start. Ready for TRUE REPENTANCE.

Because that’s got to be the first step in this FRESH START. Real repentance. Everything depends on THAT.

And, just like WE do with New Years Resolutions, the Jews pick THEIR New Years Day to make a fresh start. First day of the seventh month. Rosh Hashanah.

It’s an extraordinary picture that’s painted. Everyone’s assembled back in Jerusalem. There’s a huge gathering in the main square.

Now a lot of people these days reckon church services are too long and too boring if they go over 59 and a half minutes. But get a load of this. Here’s a church service that starts at daybreak. And it’s still going at noon.

And can you see, there’s a real sense of UNITY. Chapter 8 verse 1 says the people assembled AS ONE MAN. And as you read through the passage, you see the same phrase over and over again. ALL THE PEOPLE. All the people. And they’re here for one reason. United. To hear the Word of God.

Ezra the Scribe brings out the book of the Law of Moses, and he stands up on this huge wooden stage at daybreak, and he starts reading.

The book of Genesis. The book of Exodus. The book of Leviticus. The book of Numbers. It’s half past nine. The book of Deuteronomy. It’s eleven o’clock. Must be time for a coffee break.

But no. The book of Joshua. And on he goes. The LAW THEY WERE GIVEN BEFORE THEY CAME INTO THE LAND. The blessing if they kept it. The curse if they didn’t.

And it says in verse 6, Ezra PRAISED THE LORD, the great God; and ALL THE PEOPLE lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the lord with their faces to the ground.”

And then there’s more. The Levites – and you can see their names recorded in verse 7 – they start INSTRUCTING people in the law, spelling it out, explaining it so all the people can understand it.

Verse 8 says “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it CLEAR, and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”

And it all sinks in. God’s Word has shown the people EXACTLY what they’re like. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I saw a tragic home video on Australia’s Funniest Home videos a while ago. Someone behind the counter in a newsagent had filmed a customer browsing the magazines. The problem was she must have recently visited the bathroom/ because her dress was tucked into the top of her undies. Very embarrassing.

But instead of telling the lady, this person had videotaped it!

Now it would surely have been embarrassing for the lady to be told. But how much worse NOT to be told. Much better to be TOLD what you look like.

If she’d known/ she could have straightened herself up, and not had to put up with her most embarrassing moment being broadcast on national television.

If only she’d had A MIRROR.

And a mirror is exactly what God’s given us when it comes to OUR embarrassing bits. But I’m not talking about our personal hygiene. I’m talking about our SIN.

And that mirror is God’s Word. It’s a mirror that shows us what we’re REALLY like. Shows us the way GOD sees us. And for sinful people / that’s not A PLEASANT THING.

It certainly wasn’t for the Israelites. You can see in verse 9 that when they understand it, the people are cut to the heart. And they mourn and weep. Because they know how far they’ve strayed.

When was the last time YOU wept because you caught a glimpse of the AWFULNESS of your sin? Or the WONDER of God’s grace?

For me, it was last Thursday. A High School Scripture seminar on CONFIDENCE. Confidence in the FLESH vs confidence in God. And I was reading out Paul’s testimony in Phil 3 to the other teachers before we started. And as I did, I realised they wer MY words. And I realised what a TREASURE I had to be FORGIVEN.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.  NIV

That was ME. And it was the same with Israel. The people HEAR the Law. They UNDERSTAND it. It’s RELEVANCE. It’s IMPLICATIONS. And they WEEP AND MOURN.

And it looks like a case of GENUINE REMORSE. But IS IT?

Here’s a whole nation that’s gone off the rails. And the time has come to put things right. And REPENT. And we’re going to see them doing it.

But all the time we need to keep asking the question, is there going to be a REAL CHANGE OF BEHAVIOUR? Or is it all just EMPTY WORDS?

But at this point, Nehemiah stops them. The words have been said. And the tears have been spilled.

Because it’s the first of July, and according to the law they’ve been reading, the first of July’s A VERY SPECIAL DAY. The day they celebrate the way God first brought them out of captivity in Egypt all those hundreds of years ago. The day they celebrate the way Moses stood up to Pharoah. And led them out through the Red Sea. And they camped in the wilderness in little huts.

Now at Easter, we have Easter Eggs. And at Christmas, we have Christmas trees. But to celebrate the Festival of Booths, the book of Leviticus says the Israelites had to go out and get tree branches. And bring them back, and make little lean-to cubby houses. And camp in them. As a reminder of those days in the wilderness.

And so you can see in verse 16, that’s exactly what they do.

“So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God, and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the gate of Ephraim.”

Try to imagine the scene. These little leafy huts scattered all round Jerusalem. And people camping in them. Celebrating with good food and good drinks. And it says in verse 17, the whole company who’d come back from the exile built the booths and lived in them.

And there’d never been anything like it since the days of Joshua. Those hundreds of years before. Because it’s like the same thing all over again. God’s brought them BACK to the promised land. They’d been exiled. AND NOW THEY’RE BACK AGAIN. Back to square one. Ready for a fresh start.

And, in v18, we see that the party went on for a whole week!


Jump forward to Chapter 9. There’s another great gathering. It’s three weeks later. And you can see in verse 1 they’re fasting and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Signs of REPENTANCE. Signs of REMORSE.

They’ve separated themselves from foreigners, it says in verse 2, and they’re ready to get serious about being the people of God. It says “They STOOD IN THEIR PLACES AND CONFESSED THEIR SINS and the wickedness of their fathers.”

You know, there’s an old saying. If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps the people are finally ready to learn the lessons of history.

Because they’ve heard the Words of God’s law read to them. And they know they’ve blown it. And from verse 6 onwards, you hear what they’ve learned. It’s like a summary of the history of Israel. A summary of the Bible so far.

And it’s all part of one very long prayer of confession to God that lists all the great things God has done for them. And the way they responded. By spitting in God’s face.

It’s one big to-and-fro. Down through history. First God BLESSES them. Then they turn away and show they don’t DESERVE it. Then God FORGIVES them, and blesses them. Even though they don’t deserve it. Then they SIN AGAIN. Then God forgives them AGAIN.

And so on, and so on.

Look from v7. God chose Abram. Made a covenant with him. And KEPT his promise (v8) because he’s RIGHTEOUS.

Then He brought his people out of Egypt. Brought them to Mt Sinai (v13), and gave them just and right laws and decrees and commands. He gave them manna and water.

But verse 16. “they, our forefathers became arrogant and stiff necked.” And they didn’t obey your commands.”

That’s what the Israelites were like. Chosen by God to be Holy. Given God’s law, like no other nation on earth. And they respond with DISOBEDIENCE. Time after time.

And STILL God didn’t give up on them. V17 “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,

Or v19 “Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

And the blessings just keep pouring out. V20 all the way to the end of v25. And the people are in the land, enjoying its abundance. Living in peace.

But v26. They’d learned NOTHING. They were disobedient and rebellious.

And when God handed them over to their enemies as punishment, and they cried out to him. V27 He forgave them. Again. And rescued them.

And the cycle repeats in v28.

And v30.

Neh 9:30-31: For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to 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.  NIV

And finally, down in v33. The lesson learned from history. Summing the whole thing up.

Neh 9:33-34: In all that has happened to us, you have been JUST; YOU have acted FAITHFULLY, while WE did WRONG.  NIV

That’s their prayer. I guess it’s a prayer of repentance. And behind it all, I guess they’re saying, THAT WAS OUR ANCESTORS. But WE… we’re going to be different.

We’ve learned our lesson from history. This time, we’re going to get it right. This time we’re going to be OBEDIENT.

And you can see the POINT of the prayer from v32. All the way through, the emphasis has been on God keeping his promise. Promises that’d focussed on THE PROMISED LAND.

V8. Giving Abram THE LAND.

V15. THE LAND you’d sworn with uplifted hand to give the.

V22. “You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers.

V24. You subdued before them the Canaanites, who lived in the land; you handed the Canaanites over to them, along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with them as they pleased. 25 They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.

And now, the tragic IRONY of it all, is that, as the people pray, they’re IN the Promised Land. But they’re SLAVES. And that wasn’t part of the bargain. As Super nanny would say , THAT’S NOT ACCEPTABLE.

And their prayer is for God to do something about it. They’re LONGING FOR SOMETHING BETTER. Look at v32.

“Now therefore, O our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love, DO NOT LET ALL THIS HARDSHIP SEEM TRIFLING IN YOUR EYES-the hardship that has come upon us, upon our kings and leaders, upon our priests and prophets, upon our fathers and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today.  NIV

And v34.

Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. 35 EVEN WHILE THEY WERE IN THEIR KINGDOM, ENJOYING YOUR GREAT GOODNESS to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.

36 “But see, we are slaves today, SLAVES IN THE LAND YOU GAVE OUR FOREFATHERS so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, ITS ABUNDANT HARVEST GOES TO THE KINGS YOU HAVE PLACED OVER US. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.

They’re in the land, but they’re SLAVES. It’s not really FREEDOM at ALL. They’re in great distress. And they long for God to DO SOMETHING.

And they recognise that it all begins with REPENTANCE. We’ll see next week whether their repentance is real, or whether it’s just words.

Longing for something different

But the thing I want us to think about/ is their LONGING FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Their longing for freedom.

1. They trusted God’s faithfulness

The first thing to say is that they were RIGHT to trust the faithfulness of God. TO THROW themselves on his MERCY. Because he DID promise them the land. A land where they’d be free. A land where he would be their God. And they would be his people. A land of FREEDOM. Of PEACE.

And so, to come to God in REPENTANCE, trusting his promises is exactly the RIGHT thing to be doing.

2. Longing for a HEAVENLY country

But where they went wrong was the OBJECT of their longing.

We might long for life to be one long beachside holiday. For the sea-change. The down-size. But that’s not realistic. And it’s so temporary. Idealistic.

And Israel longed for a promised land where they’d be masters of their own destiny. Ruled by their own king. Working for their own prosperity.

Which might have SOUNDED nice. But it was just as unrealistic. Because you’ve only got to look at their PRAYER to realise that just being in the land, and having your own king ISN’T ENOUGH. Sinful people will always mess up paradise. That’s the lesson of history.

And for another 400 years, the pleading of Israel continued. Reminding God of his faithfulness and righteousness. Reminding him of HIS PROMISES. To bless them, and be their God. And bring them into the land.

And about this time THE PHARISEES started to develop. And their big thing was that if they could JUST BE HOLY ENOUGH. If they could just OBEY GOD’S LAW CLOSELY ENOUGH. Then God would finally deliver them. And bring in his kingdom.

And the LONGING continued through the reign of Alexander the Great, and into the rule of the Romans. And still no sign of God keeping his promise.

400 years. It must have seemed like an eternity.

But God hadn’t forgotten. When the time was right, he sent Jesus. His chosen King. The one who would answer YES to all God’s promises.

And the FREEDOM he would bring. And the KINGDOM he would begin. Wasn’t quite what Israel had been longing for.

But it’s the kingdom that WE long for. It’s God’s ETERNAL kingdom. A kingdom that stretches WAY BEYOND the physical boundaries of earthly Israel.

And the ironic thing is/ the kingdom which Jesus began. The kingdom WE long for. Is the very kingdom that TRUE ISRAEL longed for. That those who TRULY REPENTED hoped for.

Listen to what the letter to the Hebrews says, talking about the Jews. Heb Ch 11 v13

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …16 Instead, they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.  NIV

And down to v39.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  :  NIV

God had something MUCH BETTER planned for Israel. For his people. Much better than an EARTHLY king. Much better than an EARTHLY kingdom.

And it was all about his Son Jesus. Hebrews continues into Ch 12.

Heb 12:1-3: 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  NIV

That’s the future we need to be longing for. Forget the sea change. Or the overseas holiday. Forget the bigger house. Forget the new job.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. The one who BEGAN your faith. Who completed it. And who’s sitting at the right hand of God. Waiting for you. Waiting for you to begin an eternity spent with him.

That’s something better that’s WORTH longing for. That’s worth LIVING NOW for. Run the race with perseverance, with your eyes fixed on Jesus.

Live NOW with Jesus as your king, so that your future would be spent with Jesus as your king.

That’s a future WORTH longing for!

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