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Rejoicing and repentance (Neh 8:9-9:3)

If you were with us last Sunday, you’ll remember that a priest called Ezra read out “The Law of Moses” to a great crowd that had assembled in Jerusalem

Thanks to Ezra and his fellow priests, the Jewish people were once again able to hear God’s words and understand their true meaning. We were challenged to be equally eager to heard God’s word today, whether that’s by listen attentively as the Bible is read and explained in Church, or whenever we read the Scriptures on our own. The people of Jerusalem knew that it is a great privilege to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and so should we.

But what should our response be to God’s Word? As human beings, what are appropriate reactions we should have to hearing God speak to us in Scripture?

This morning I want us to learn lessons from the way the people of Jerusalem responded to God’s Word. In particular want us to look at the rejoicing, repentance and renewal that was prompted by Ezra’s public reading of Scripture.

Rejoice at God’s goodness!

Firstly, let us rejoice at God’s goodness. We rejoin the story today in verse 9 of chapter 8, with Ezra and Nehemiah encouraging the people to rejoice.

Listen again to Nehemiah’s words in verse 10: “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

You see, Nehemiah knew that joy should be our first response to God’s revelation. God is good, and his words and deeds so often include good news, grace and mercy. Things that should move us to rejoice and give thanks to him.

The Jews in Jerusalem certainly had much to celebrate, didn’t they? God had rescued them from exile in Babylon and helped them rebuild their city wall. They could celebrate a fresh start in their relationship with God. Verse 12 tells us they celebrated with a great party: “All the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

As Christians, our first instinct should also be to rejoice when we read the Bible and reflect on what God has done for us. Above all we should also praise God for the goodness, grace and mercy he has offered to everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ.

Verse 10 is wonderful isn’t it? “The Joy of the Lord is your strength” says Nehemiah. As Christians we too can have joy in the Lord in every circumstance. Even in times of great hardship and suffering, we can have joy in the Lord. Whatever our circumstances on earth, Christians can experience inner contentment and joy from knowing that we are loved by God, that we are saved by Christ, that we have a certain hope of Heaven, that we are destined for glory.

The joy of the Lord is something we can have over (not under!) every circumstance.

So, as Christians, joyful praise and thanks to God can be a consistent component of our lives – just as it was for those Jews in Jerusalem.

Repent of our sin

But rejoicing isn’t the only right response to God’s word. There is a place for true repentance too. When we come face to face with God’s words, we should also be moved to confession and prompted to repent of our wrongdoing. God so often uses Scripture to convict us of our sins and help us amend our ways.

It certainly had that effect on the Jews of Jerusalem, didn’t it? Verse 9 today tells us that “all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the law.”

As Ezra read the words of Scripture to them, it showed the crowd how far they had fallen short of God’s standards. It convicted them of sins that they had committed, it exposed years of disobedience to their good God.

Its no surprise therefore, that the start of chapter 9 tells us that once their party was over, “the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.” In fact, if you were to read the rest of Nehemiah chapter 9, you will see that the whole chapter is a long prayer of confession. The whole people of God took ‘time out’ to say sorry to God.

Today, there is no doubt we should do the same. We can’t read the Bible, especially the New Testament, without realising how far our lives fall short of perfection. No honest person can read the Gospels and say that their life is as good as Jesus’.

You see, a serious, sincere reading of Scripture should always lead us to confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. That’s why its right that our Sunday services always include a confession for our failings over the past week. And its why our private prayers should always include a time to say sorry to God for our wrong thoughts, words and deeds.

Renewal – with God’s help!

True repentance is more than just saying sorry, of course. True repentance includes a re-commitment to live God’s way in future. In today’s passage we see that the Jews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles for the first time in years. They built shelters on their streets and rooftops as a way to remember the Exodus, when the Israelites lived in temporary shelters in the wilderness after God had rescued them from Egypt. But more generally, by celebrating this feast they were demonstrating their recommitment to God’s laws.

This renewed commitment to God is made even more explicit in Nehemiah chapter 10, when the whole population publicly rededicate themselves to God, and promise to try and keep his commands in future.

Today, I hope we share the same desire to live whole-heartedly for God. To obey his commands and imitate Christ whenever possible. As we say in our liturgy, let us “live and work to God’s praise and glory”.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Because true repentance and renewal requires God’s help – two thousand years ago and today.

If had time to flick forward to the end of Nehemiah, to chapter 13, we would see that the people’s repentance wasn’t a complete success. They had several wobbles in the months and years ahead.

Towards the end of his book, Nehemiah tells us that the people failed to live up to their promises in various ways. For example:

  • They failed to give generously towards the work of the Temple.
  • They even provided accommodation in the Temple for one of their worst enemies, a man called Tobiah.
  • And many other Jews broke the Sabbath rest, married foreign wives and committed other sins.

It required correction and discipline by Nehemiah and other godly leaders to keep the people on track. The people’s obedience to God was imperfect and incomplete – just like ours today in fact!

Deep and lasting renewal of our lives requires God’s help. Help we need to take advantage of today:

  • We too need to receive correction, guidance and discipline by godly leaders.
  • We need God’s ongoing grace and forgiveness for all the times we fail him.
  • And above all, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to get to work in our lives. A Spirit who will write God’s laws on our heart – and then give us the inner strength to obey them.

So as we finish our journey through Nehemiah today, may we all imitate the example of the people of Jerusalem. May we be people who rejoice in the Lord. People who repent of our sin, and people who pray for the renewal of our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

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