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Nehemiah: Confession

February 8, 2014

Confession – they say it’s good for the soul. And nowadays you can do it online on numerous websites. It’s anonymous and we’re told, it will make you feel good. Celebrities confess their darkest secrets for everyone to read in our glossy magazines. Which always raises the question in my mind, how can you call it a secret if you’re telling everyone?!

 

When we think of confession sometimes too we think of a priest in a confessional, listening to the sins of his parishioners and dishing out Hail Mary’s. More than once we’ve seen it used in those settings to confess even to murder itself, only for the confessor, feeling he has done his bit, to go on to his next victim.

 

But today we hear about a confession, unlike the tabloid revelations or the shallow confession of the murderer in the Agatha Christie plot. This is a confession meaningful in every sense. Firstly because it is sincere, secondly because it produces a change, and thirdly because it results in action.

 

Let’s read this confession from Nehemiah 9: 29 – 37.

 

Not much to go on is it? There is a great deal of context we need to add to fully make sense of those few verses, but let’s just look at those verses first before we dig further around the edges.

 

On the face of it, we might look at this as the culmination of a 12 hour church service, half Bible reading and Bible teaching. half confession and worship – nothing that unusual. But this was not a religious service. This was the gathering of a nation. Earlier that month Ezra the scribe had stood on the plinth in the square and read. It was if in this day and age the people of this country gathered in town centres at the big screens to listen to God’s word – and weep and celebrate as they rediscovered what had been lost! And now they were back again to confess their sin and rebellion against God. This was a big event.

 

They reminded themselves of God’s life giving power in creation, of his fulfilled promises to Abram, a nation’s miraculous delivery from Egypt, the giving of the Law. The parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and cloud leading them, the manna feeding them, the land provided for them.

 

But on the other side of the coin, in spite of all God’s provision, they remember a nation’s rebellion, their desire to return to Egypt, their worship of a golden calf, their blasphemies against the God who delivered them.

 

But God had still led them in those wilderness years, faithfully, providing that even their clothing did not wear.

 

God’s people though hid his law behind their backs. Out of sight, out of mind. Repeatedly the people failed, God delivered them over to their enemies, the people cried out to Him, and He delivered them.

 

And in these verses we’ve read, the pattern continues. Arrogant, disobedient, law breakers, turning a deaf ear to God’s spokesmen, the prophets.

 

The people of Jerusalem had been attacked, routed and taken into captivity, into exile in Persia in 586 BC.  The 400 year old temple, built by Solomon with no expense spared was reduced to rubble and the city’s walls demolished. And a crushed people couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all their fault. God had warned them this would happen.

 

But again, in the 140 or so years that followed, God is great in mercy and does not abandon his people. A number of the exiles had now been able to return to Jerusalem. They were back home, but life was by no means the same. Those glory days were gone – a distant memory.

 

In this prayer, the people point to their present troubles, recognise that God’s actions have been just, and are looking for God’s intervention again.

 

Their kings, leaders, priests and fathers had not followed God, and had carried on in their evil ways – and look where it had led. Like Oliver Hardy they could point back at their forerunners and say “This is a fine mess you’ve got us in to!” Slaves in their own land, but significantly there is no such finger pointing, as the people confess it is all “because of our sins…”

 

It is often a feature of old testament prophets, that they do not stand far off pointing the finger, but rather stand along side the people and acknowledge “we have sinned”.

 

When we look at the ungodly society in which we live, we Christians tend to see ourselves as the victims. We should have more protection of our rights, more religious freedom. Nehemiah would suggest that we are to blame! It is not time to point the finger of blame, it is time to lead the confession of the people.

 

And God restored the city and his people once more, as they returned to his word and his law.

 

This all sounds too big and way and beyond anything we can really dream of. But God moved. But it was no accident that God moved, because there were those of his people who dared to take a stand. Chiefly we are told of two people, Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra’s side of the story is told more fully, surprisingly, in the book of Ezra. The book of Nehemiah covers the life and work of the other chap.

 

All this was possible because there were men who were ready to take risks and commit themselves wholeheartedly to God and his people. They had laid the foundations for all that God was now doing among his people.

 

And this morning it could be that someone here is being challenged to be a Nehemiah. I hope so anyway!

 

Nehemiah was one of those who remained in Persia. He had made something of himself. He had a responsible position, cup bearer to King Artaxerxes. Working in a palace made famous by the likes of Daniel and Esther.

 

Relatives visiting from Jerusalem had updated him on the state of things back home, trouble and disgrace, the walls of Jerusalem in rubble. Sad news.

 

As Nehemiah heard the sad tales of life back home he wept. And we too might have a sense of desperation and helplessness as we look at the land and the world in which we live. But Nehemiah’s reaction was not just to be sad, to feel bad, but to act, even at risk to himself, with utter commitment, to be part of the answer to the problem.

 

When Jesus acted we are often told he was filled with compassion. Be it for a hungry crowd, or a sick crowd. His compassion, like that of Nehemiah, was one that acted. His healings and miracles were not just dry routine acts, because he was God and he could do that kind of thing, it came from a broken heart. Remember before one of his most spectacular miracles, the raising of a dead man to life, comes the shortest verse of them all – “Jesus wept”. And that compassion, that sadness was not self centred, but flowed into action.

 

Nehemiah’s weeping led to prayer, setting the tone by confessing a nation’s sins to God. Nehemiah sought God’s help. And this he did for some days, not just for a few minutes at the end of his quiet time.

 

He had patiently waited, spending over 3 months waiting for the right opportunity to speak to his king. And then it was the king who brought up the subject, as he noticed his servant’s sadness. A dangerous thing to be seen to be sad in the presence of a Persian king. Nehemiah faced his fear and made a request for leave to go back to Jerusalem, and the king granted his request.

 

We then read of a man who masterminded the rebuild the wall project, in the face of threats to his life, provided for the poor and made a number of legal reforms. This was a man called to a task, who refused to be beaten whatever the odds. He gave 12 years of his life to complete the work given to him, and would revisit for a few years again later on. Here was a man determined to see it through, not put off by the name calling, the hard work at hand, or even the threats to the very lives of him and his companions. This wasn’t just a quick flash of enthusiasm. Nehemiah was in it for the long run.

 

The tasks around us seem huge and beyond us. Of touching a community, of changing a town, healing a nation, feeding the homeless, making poverty history, winning the world with the gospel. Winning your friend with the gospel.

 

But we are the ones called to do it. Inadequate but obedient people in the hands of an adequate and faithful God, who equips us for the tasks that face us. Gordon Brown spoke of how our faith cannot be a private thing. “Engagement in public life is something that can make a difference…it is important that people…play their part in making for a stronger community.” Whether it’s large scale action or just the daily acts of kindness which reveal the love of Jesus, faith is to be lived out. This is true confession.

 

At the age of 71, George Verwer, the founder of mission organisation can look back on 55 years of winning people for Christ. And that as a result of a woman who knew little about him as he passed by her door, but prayed that he would become a missionary. Who knows where our prayers may lead?! Converted at a Billy Graham meeting in 1954, he returned to school (for which the same lady had also been praying) and got elected as president of the student council – a position with clout! He got permission from the headmaster to distribute copies of John’s gospel. He then spoke at a meeting of around 600 fellow students, where 125 stood and believed in Jesus. And that was just the beginning of his work.

 

Where are you this morning? Are you one of those people living in the ruins of Jerusalem, but just getting on with it? Life is far from perfect, but what can I do about it? Really? I’m just one person, the only Christian in my class, my family, my workplace.

 

Or do you dare to be a Nehemiah? Do you sense a sadness in your heart. A sadness at what you see around you in the world, the country, this city, the community around this school, your family, your own heart. But a growing sense that this isn’t what it is meant to be, and, in God’s strength, that it’s not the way it’s going to be. And God is calling you. There is something for you to do. It could be here – it could be there. It could be short term or long. A quiet word at the right time or a voice to reach thousands. An invitation to an Alpha course or a lifetime of ministry

 

With Tim Hughes, you sing “There must be more than this, Spirit of God come breathe within!”

 

There may be a need for confession, to recognise our own shortcomings, our own contribution to this fine mess we find ourselves in. And a determination, with Jesus’ strength, to make a difference. This morning could be the start of something beautiful. It could be the start of something big. It could be that we need as a church to confess with one voice and call on God to visit us with the power of Spirit and equip us for his mighty works.

 

God wants to build something great and he’s calling us to work with him. Do we dare to ask him to use us?!

 

 

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