Summary: This sermon is from a series I preached on Nehemiah’s one holy passion, the glory of God.
One Holy Passion
May 20, 2001
David Wells, in his book God in the Wasteland, laments the weakness of contemporary evangelical Christianity, and traces it to our shallow understanding of the person of God. He says that the problem is
¡§that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, His grace is too ordinary, His judgment is too benign, His gospel is too easy, His Christ is too common.¡¨
It is as though we have marginalized God, domesticating Him to serve our purposes. His greatness awes us less than it ought; His power we give lip service to but fail to appropriate for daily living. His grace we take for granted, and we are something less than amazed by it.
This was not the case with the people in Jerusalem, though, at least not when we come to Nehemiah 9. The miracle of the wall was not the only miracle in this book, as we have seen, and in chapter 8 we have been challenged by the response of the people to God¡¦s Word. Chapter 9 builds upon this, as the people, on the day after dismantling their ramshackle booths, gather for a day of solemn assembly, not on the actual Day of Atonement, but in a setting similar in some respects. The people gather to focus themselves upon adoring God, reflecting on His true nature, His awesome works in history, His amazing grace despite the habitual nature of their sin.
Let¡¦s stand together as we read God¡¦s Word today. (PRAYER)
May I repeat something I said two weeks ago, and reiterated last week? In the Christian experience, grief and gladness are never far apart if we are to live in the right balance. We are not created to live in mourning over sin; God wants us to live rejoicing in His salvation. But the path to real rejoicing goes through the valley of sorrow over sin! Here we find the people entering the valley of sorrow over sin¡Xand taking a God-pleasing response to their sin. I want to speak today about the nature of true repentance as we see it taking place in Nehemiah 9.
The Nature of True Repentance
I. It is prompted by the Word and work of God.
I will spend only a brief moment here, because this has been the focus of our previous studies together. It bears being said again, though, in this confused age in which we want to make much of man and seemingly little of God: God¡¦s Word has done its work of convicting minds and hearts, and God¡¦s Spirit has done His work to bring this about. The focus of chapter 8 has been God¡¦s Word to the people; the focus of this chapter continues this theme but with greater emphasis upon the people¡¦s response. We are not going to be able to understand God¡¦s character nor realize the depth of our sin so that we can respond as these people did unless and until the Word of God works in our minds and the Spirit of God challenges our hearts. The people didn¡¦t just have some vague feeling of dis-ease; they clearly saw how they had failed God because they learned what His Law said about His nature and about their own failure.
II. It is characterized by genuine sorrow.
Fasting is not a ¡§fun¡¨ activity. One doesn¡¦t fast as a means of enjoyment, generally speaking, because God has wired us to experience hunger and thirst, and after a time, of course, it hurts! Nehemiah tells us that the people fasted, and dressed in sackcloth, which was a goat-hair garment which irritated the skin severely. The hungry mourner would sit on the ground in this itchy, irritating clothing and pick up the gray ash and reddish-brown earth and sprinkle on his head. Sounds like fun, huh? Of course not. This confession time was not a light/momentary thing. It was the serious recognition of the fact that we are steeped in sin, dominated by it, and as such abased before a holy God. Isaiah 6:1-5 gives us an insight into what it is like to stand in the presence of a holy God. We read in Luke 5 of Peter¡¦s encounter with Jesus and his reaction of shame at his own sinfulness in the presence of God Incarnate. Contrast this with a well-known contemporary preacher who described Jesus as coming and speaking with him as he shaved in the morning. Just kept right on shaving and had a little talk with Jesus! Fill in your own expression of disgust here.
Here¡¦s a fair question for us today: to what trouble do I go to demonstrate the seriousness with which I take my own sin, and the sorrow I feel over its existence? What do I call ¡§repentance¡¨? As we continue in our study today, keep that question in your mind. These people had a custom, a tradition, if you will¡Xand there is certainly nothing wrong with tradition¡Xthat they would physically demonstrate their understanding of the gravity of their sin and their sorrow for it by wearing itchy, uncomfortable clothes, heaping dirt on their heads, and going hungry. I¡¦m not suggesting that we physically do that¡Xbut I am saying that when we understand our sin and God¡¦s holiness, we can¡¦t treat our sin as some little light inconvenience.