An Enduring Legacy: “A Change is Gonna Come” – Nehemiah 9

mud bowl 2Did you ever get SO DIRTY, so incredibly cruddy, that you couldn’t wait to get into a hot shower? I remember just a few years ago, our family gathering that happens each Thanksgiving up north, included a family football game. I don’t play anymore – but I used to look forward to it for months. It was a perfect MUD BOWL, played on the thick, dark mud of northern New York state – and it took more than one shower to get it all off of your body – if you played the game well! Just like PEOPLE get dirty, nations get a layer of filth on them by practicing and tolerating terrible injustice and sinful behavior. In my lifetime, the prejudice of color is one example I have watched passing through successive showers. I remember this from my earliest years, and because I come from a family that adopted interracially, I probably became a bit more sensitive to it in my youth.

When I was only two years old, back in 1963, Musical artist Sam Cooke was again at the top of the charts. The African-American recording singer-songwriter was commonly known as the “King of Soul” in those days, writing and collaborating with soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston, Otis Redding and James Brown. In fact, between 1957 and 1964 Cooke racked up no less than 30 “top 40 hits” in the USA. By 1964, at the age of 33, he lay in a pool of his own blood, fatally shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. The courts ruled Cooke was drunk and distressed, and his death was ruled a “justifiable homicide” (something that since that time has been widely questioned). One of the moving tunes written and recorded by Cooke was the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a ballad of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The words and music will stir you even this many years later… Here’s the truth: Sam was right… change has been coming in race relations in America, albeit slowly and with great difficulty. Sometimes dirt takes great effort to remove – and the stain of civil injustice certainly has taken that…

At the same time, and perhaps even CLOSER TO US, sometime the removal of stains and dirt isn’t a SPORTS issue, nor a NATIONAL issue – but a PERSONAL ONE. Sometimes the change that is needed ISN’T about DIRT – but about SIN. The personal habits of my life may be a reflection of the SIN of my times… and that must be dealt with. Isn’t it possible that many of us have adjusted our eyes to the spiritual darkness of our generation, and now see what once was very DARK as NORMAL?

HAS THAT HAPPENED TO YOU? Have you begun to adjust the standards of your life away from a vibrant walk with the Lord and desire to please Him, and adopted the lesser standard of what others around you accept as NORMAL? It DOES happen…and when it does – CHANGE IS NEEDED. Cleansing is necessary. We need a good scrub…

Think back to the story we have been following from the fifth century BCE. Nehemiah the wine steward recorded in his journal an account of the aftermath of a stirring holiday service of worship and learning, where the people of Israel were challenged by the Word of God. In the face of conviction… change came. In fact, chapter nine lays out two phases of the change that follows acknowledgment of sin in our lives– the active repentance that brought about a careful cleaning up, and the celebration that followed a cleaned up community.

Key Principle: Great worship follows thorough cleansing. Celebration flows without hindrance from a cleaned heart.

Today we want to look at what happens when hearts are cleansed, and guilt is released. We want to feel the release of cleansing, and sing the song of the man or woman free from remorse. It is an exciting opportunity to look back at a great moment…

Part One: “Community Clean-Up!” (Nehemiah 9:1-3)

Before the celebration, there is the cleansing. Before the cleansing is the conviction. Nehemiah 9 is a careful record of what happened at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot).

• Remember to seventh month festivals include: Rosh Hashanah (Feast of Trumpets – 1st day) and Yom Kippor (Day of Atonement – 10th day) followed by the week long Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles – 15th-22nd).

• Following Sukkot, they held a special worship day (8:18). Two days after Sukkot ended, the people weren’t done! They wanted to hold a special meeting to mourn before the Lord concerning the sins of their fathers, and their own sin.

• The scene was one of sorrow and mourning, times of confession testimony and seeking the Lord in his Word and worship (9:1-3)! The scene is so important for our instruction, that God amplified the scene in 9:4-38.

Nehemiah 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. 2 The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for [another] fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.

I am not asking you to tear off your clothing and begin mourning in dirty clothes – that isn’t the point. The record of what the people DID offers us a pattern for action WHEN GOD CONVICTS YOU OR I OF SIN. Look at the eight responses to conviction:

(1) Changed pattern (“assembled with fasting” –9:1) When God spoke, they took Him seriously. They didn’t “blow off” His conviction. They showed outwardly they WEREN’T READY TO GO ON WITH LIFE until something changed. When something really matters to us, it takes precedence over our normal patterns of life. If a loved one is rushed to the hospital, dinner plans are shelved. It doesn’t matter if we eat or sleep – only that we are at their bedside or waiting in the hallway outside for the words of the doctor about their condition. You KNOW that is true! The people were so convicted about sin, that fasting was a natural thing. It was but one way to break away from the normal structure of their days to seek the face of God. Am I the only person who organizes his waking hours around MEALS and FOOD? I don’t think so! Fasting was a symbol of focused priority! The denial of food is not specifically helpful… It is only helpful if the time is filled with seeking God!

Here is the one thing that so strikes me about this record: Look how the conviction wounded them! When was the last time God spoke to you about things in your life, and it rocked you so deeply you couldn’t go on with regular life until you stopped and sought Him? Those words are as much self-convicting as shared.

(2) Changed dress (sackcloth). The text tells us people put on the alternative garment of sackcloth. In a time of intense seeking of God, every vain pursuit slips away as we pull all our energy to come before Him (9:1). People in the hospital bed that are struggling to breathe aren’t worried about their hairdo! In fact, people who are sitting vigil by a bedside aren’t dressed to impress. When conviction over sin is heavy – the need to look good slips away. The need for outer comfort is dwarfed by the need for resolution with God. The outer garments symbolized for others around them not to engage them in trivialities – but to identify the intensity of their focus on their walk with God!
Let me ask you honestly: Does your walk with God EVER mean more to you than how people view you? We are on the planet for a short time, and then have eternity. Isn’t it worth considering how much weight we place on the eternal versus this life?

(3) Put on dirt. The people knew they were guilty, and in a time of intense repentance they symbolized (visualized) their sin with the dirt upon them. Was that really helpful? I think it was! One of the temptations we have in our modern life is to minimize a sense of sinfulness and rebellion and rationalize our responses to situations. We don’t learn in our society to take sin seriously at all. In fact, we learn to be victims with titles that excuse us from our own chosen behaviors. We learn from lost men and women that “we are basically good!” in spite of the fact that God’s Word clearly teaches the opposite.

It is worth remembering that God loves pictures. When we come up close to Him – His kindness leads us to repentance. Yet, our sin continues to be a weight. Recognizing our guilt is essential to having a real relationship with God (9:1b). God only cleans the one who recognizes he is dirty! He only fills the one who recognizes he is empty! He only draws near to those who decide to stop running and turn toward Him! When the people put on dirt, it wasn’t for God’s benefit – it was for THEIR BENEFIT. Just as the waters of baptism cleanse NO ONE, but symbolize the cleansing God already provided, so the dirt didn’t MAKE them sinful, but symbolized the stains already within.

(4) Got alone with their “believing family”. Look again at 9:2 “The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” The world was not the appropriate place to “air the dirty laundry” of the family. There is a time for testimony, and there is a time for corporate repentance and confession – but this is a “family affair” (9:2). Believers must learn as they mature the appropriate forum for confession and restoration to God. Public sin must be publicly dealt with, while private sin can be shared with God and perhaps those closest to us. Yet, none of the restoration process was to be performed before the lost world.

Even today, in the church, we ask that people who do not know Jesus not attend our time of Communion. It ISN’T because we don’t love visitors – it is because the invitation was to God’s people to do business with God concerning the body of Christ – the other believers. One of the reasons we come together is to celebrate God’s work through Jesus – but we are commanded to DO IT TOGETHER and be a part of one another’s lives. We offer testimony to one another, but not for public consumption – it is for the believers we are linked to in fellowship. Failure to consider the others in the flock in the performance of the communion and in particular the Love Feast sent some to glory early in Corinth. We need to take seriously that even in repentance there are rules – and in this case it was a FAMILY THING.

(5) Don’t neglect that in the record of 9:2, they made public confession of sin. Public recognition and confession of sin – even of our NATION helps a beleiver recall that we are all together in Him – and we are all in need of His care. We all sin, and we all need cleansing from the throne of God. Doing it together helps us to stand together in accountability, and to be humble before one another (9:2).

(6) Look at the way they confessed “the iniquities of their fathers” in 9:2. They identified with “history of sin” (both sinful nature and acts). Their confession was not just THEM, but included viewing themselves as a part of the society from which they came. God wants us to recognize the impact we have on others BUT ALSO the impact they have on us. (9:2).

Because our eyes easily adjust to spiritual darkness around us, we need to stop and confess the sins of a nation in which we live – so that we may be again sensitized in the exercise to what God sees in our world. We cannot simply distance ourselves from the sin – because the national penalties will be shared by our families as well.

• There is a price every American believer is paying for the wholesale slaughter of the unborn in the nation.

• There is a price all of us are paying for the rising natural humanism that is emerging as our state sponsored religion and making efforts to purge all other faith forms.

• There is a corporate price we will all pay as part of a nation that teaches rights but mutes responsibilities.

• There is a national and personal price we will all face, and are facing, for the entitlement of excess and waste publicly that we have grown accustomed to in our day.

By engaging in prayers of confession, we make distant sin OUR SIN, because the penalties will also be OUR PENALTIES. Why is that important? That practice helps us to be balanced and prepared when judgment comes. When the value of our currency suddenly drops – and if we stay on this course it most certainly WILL drop – we will not feel as though God has PERSONALLY ABANDONED US as we face tight belts and renewed struggles unlike those of the past few generations. We will understand it ISN’T God PICKING ON US, but rather that we are part of a larger national system – and we all face what we have allowed and accepted. I don’t say that to frustrate you – but to teach the truth of the Word. We ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Even if America rejects Christian teaching and principle – American Christians will STILL be subject to the EFFECTS of a pagan government. When those effects become evident, we should not feel forgotten by God. We aren’t.

Before we go on, drop your eyes lower in the passage where Nehemiah offers some specifics on the content of the confession (Nehemiah 9:16-30). This adds texture to the simple words “iniquities of their fathers” and makes what they said more plain– It is all OUR fault! Confession is a frank look at motivations, not just allocution of a list of actions! Look closely at 9:16ff:

Nehemiah 9:16 “But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments. 17 “They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; And You did not forsake them. …30 “However, You bore with them for many years, And admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets, Yet they would not give ear. Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. 31 “Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them, For You are a gracious and compassionate God.

Nehemiah outlined their confession from arrogance, stubborn rejection, blindness and repeated refusal to listen to God, but he DIDN’T STOP THERE. He revealed the people pressed on to make the point that God’s character did not let Him walk away. God judged to get their attention – and cleansed to get them back!

(7) Investigation into God’s truth (from His Word). Nehemiah 9:3 said: ”While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for [another] fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God. It was the Word that lit the path for them to know God’s will. Believers must recognize that truth…We will never be equipped to serve and live for God by simply “feeling bad about sin”. We will never have a word adequate to transform a generation by deeply drinking in the principles of counseling. The power of the church comes from the Spirit of God at work through the Word of God.

Dear ones, I get concerned in our day that even pulpits don’t reflect that truth! I have sat in some messages and felt I was in a self-help seminar, learning good things that were placed before me as the answers to life. Yet, the Word of God was only vaguely mentioned. As foolish as it is to put our trust in horses and chariots – it is also a fool’s errand to place our trust in the insights and observations of men apart from the Word of the Creator. Faith is seeing it the way God says it is – not the way my fallen eyes see it in a mutinous world! Faith comes by hearing what God said and seeing it as the answer. God’s Word is not ONE of the options, and Jesus is not ONE of the ways to God. He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE – or He and His message is simply a lie. Every other source of insight must be filtered through His Word to be valid –even if it APPEARS to be true.

(8) Verse three ended with the fact that the people proclaimed the rightful place of God! The true response to seeing God as He is includes feeling our guilt, crying out for His cleansing, and receiving His love! (9:3). It doesn’t END in tears, but in CELEBRATION. The rest of the passage celebrated God and His grace in the face of their sin!

Part Two: “The Content of Praise” (Nehemiah 9:4-38)

God’s Word moved in to show us up close a portrait of what happened when God’s people took SIN SERIOUSLY and cried out to God for cleansing and love.

The cry of the people (9:4,5). The worship leaders (Levites) cried out to God in prayer (4)! They called to the people to stand up and bless the Lord and lift up His name (5)!

Nehemiah 9:4 Now on the Levites’ platform stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani [and] Chenani, and they cried with a loud voice to the LORD their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah [and] Pethahiah, said, “Arise, bless the LORD your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed And exalted above all blessing and praise!

Don’t be offended when I tell you this wasn’t a quiet prayer circle – it was a loud and simultaneous praise of God by many at one time. I LOVE to be a part of that kind of celebration when I get the chance. Whenever I go to speak at a specific church up north, the elders of that church gather around and place their hands on me as each is praying out loud – all at the same time! It sounds like a riot is about to break out, but it is enriching, and it is praise filled. It is lifting! The people in our text were praising, they were LOUD, and they exalted God. This wasn’t the ONLY WAY to pray – but neither is the QUITE WAY!

The content of the praise (9:6-15). Look more closely as what praise looked like as a people washed by God’s love came together!

They cried out: Nehemiah 9:6 “You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host, The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them And the heavenly host bows down before You.

They began with His MASTERY – You are LORD!. They moved to His OWNERSHIP of all things – You are Creator! They acknowledged His RANK – all the host of Heaven bows to the Commander in Chief.

They continued: 7 “You are the LORD God, Who chose Abram And brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees, And gave him the name Abraham. 8 “You found his heart faithful before You, And made a covenant with him To give [him] the land of the Canaanite, Of the Hittite and the Amorite, Of the Perizzite, the Jebusite and the Girgashite– To give [it] to his descendants. And You have fulfilled Your promise, For You are righteous. 9 “You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, And heard their cry by the Red Sea. 10 “Then You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, Against all his servants and all the people of his land; For You knew that they acted arrogantly toward them, And made a name for Yourself as [it is] this day. 11 “You divided the sea before them, So they passed through the midst of the sea on dry ground; And their pursuers You hurled into the depths, Like a stone into raging waters. 12 “And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day, And with a pillar of fire by night To light for them the way In which they were to go. 13 “Then You came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. 14 “So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses. 15 “You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger, You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst, And You told them to enter in order to possess The land which You swore to give them.

You are the One who CHOSE Your people (9:7), the One Who KNOWS THE HEARTS OF MEN (9:8), and the One who GAVE US A PLACE among the nations (9:8b). You drew us from BONDAGE (9:9-11) and led us to our home (9:12). You GAVE US THE TRUTH of Your Word (9:13-14) and provided for our needs (9:15).

Skip down to the covenant of change before God the people committed to initiating (9:32-38). The people proclaimed: “We will change!” The promise to change was only valid when they identified and agreed with God concerning the specific cause of their affliction! This was not a general amnesty, but acceptance after specific confession and commitment to repent!

Nehemiah 9:32 “Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness, Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You, Which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people, From the days of the kings of Assyria to this day. 33 “However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. 34 “For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law Or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them. 35 “But they, in their own kingdom, With Your great goodness which You gave them, With the broad and rich land which You set before them, Did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds. 36 “Behold, we are slaves today, And as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, Behold, we are slaves in it. 37 “Its abundant produce is for the kings Whom You have set over us because of our sins; They also rule over our bodies And over our cattle as they please, So we are in great distress. 38 “Now because of all this We are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document [are the names of] our leaders, our Levites [and] our priests.

Look at the progression from:

(1) Appeal: Don’t discount the affliction we feel, though we deserve it. Lord, we truly are sorry. We trust your justice – YOU are the standard (32,33).

(2) Admission: We admit it – we have sinned! We have denied you and consistently done evil in spite of your goodness (34,35).

(3) Anticipation: We are not free because of our sin – and yet we are blessed by your goodness! (36) We long to be free again! (37).

(4) Agreement: We will agree to change, knowing by faith that You are a just God! (38).

Great worship follows thorough cleansing. Celebration flows without hindrance from a cleaned heart.

When we recognize our sin, cry out to God, admit our wrong and connect the wrong with our state of affairs – God waits on our agreement to walk away from the sin. It isn’t enough to FEEL BADLY if we are only going to do it again tomorrow.

Is the whole experience – sin, pain, judgment, repentance – all BAD? No, not at all. We learn much in the process of being healed and restored… In 2001, Tim Goeglein started running the White House Office of Public Liaison, providing him almost daily access to then President George Bush for seven years. Then it all ended abruptly on February 29, 2008. A well-known blogger revealed the startling fact that 27 out of 39 of Goeglein’s published articles had been plagiarized. By mid-afternoon the next day, Goeglein’s career in the White House was over. Goeglein, who admitted his guilt, said that this began “a personal crisis unequaled in my life, bringing great humiliation on my wife and children, my family, and my closest friends, including the President of the United States.” Goeglein was summoned to the White House to face the President. Once inside the Oval Office, Goeglein shut the door, turned to the President and said, “I owe you an…” President Bush simply said: “Tim, you are forgiven.” Tim was speechless. He tried again: “But sir…” The President interrupted him again, with a firm “Stop.” Then President Bush added, “I have known grace and mercy in my life, and you are forgiven.” After a long talk, a healing process was launched for Goeglein, which included repentance, reflection, and spiritual growth. “Political power can lead to pride,” Goeglein later reflected. “That was my sin. One hundred percent pride. But offering and receiving forgiveness is a different kind of strength. That’s the kind of strength I want to develop now.” (Warren Cole Smith, “Wins & Losses,” World magazine, 10-23-10, p. 11. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Love and Longing, 5/13/2011).

When repentance leads to a flood of tears, it is grace that wipes those tears away. A simple cloth becomes the act of favor that renews the fallen countenance of one who has both failed and re-risen by God’s irresistible restoration call. They hear His gentle voice as He stretches forth His powerful hand. You are forgiven! Let the celebration begin! All Heaven bursts with applause – one which was lost is found! God removes darkness, and re-opens the heart to celebration. Don’t you want that? The gift is waiting for you.