Nehemiah So Far
If you don’t know Nehemiah’s story, I highly recommend you give it a read, but let me give you a summary of what is going on up until this point. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who had risen to prominence in the Persian Empire to become one of the most trusted men in King Artexerxes’ inner circle. He had already allowed the people of Israel to return to their land after the 70 year Babylonian exile, but things weren’t going very well for those who had returned.
If you recall, Jerusalem was basically leveled by Nebuchadnezzar, but under Ezra, they had come back and rebuilt the temple and re-established the Jewish feast and sacrifices. They had wanted to rebuild the huge wall that protected Jerusalem, but after some opposition, the people gave up and left it in ruins.
By the time we get to Nehemiah, Ezra is the leading priest in Jerusalem, the temple is built, but the walls and buildings of the city are still in shambles, they are ruled by greedy landlords, and the hope and religious life of the people is falling apart.
The story of Nehemiah kicks off with his brother Hanani coming and telling Nehemiah about the problems in Jerusalem, especially about the walls. The problem had been around for about 50 years, but but the news hit Nehemiah in a new away, broke his heart, and he began to pray about it. As he prayed he sensed that God was calling him to be the one to come and rebuild the broken city.
One day he came before King Artexerxes, as he had many other times, but this time he looked very sad. This was a problem because it was incredibly dangerous to look sad in front of a Persian king. His presence should be so delightful to you that if you don’t look happy to see him, he could kill you! But Nehemiah’s heart is so broken he can’t hold it in any longer and the king asks what’s wrong. Nehemiah feels great fear, says a quick prayer, and then makes his
“big ask” to have some time off to go and rebuild Jerusalem.
This was an outlandish request that came out of nowhere! He wanted to leave his position as royal cupbearer to become Governer of Judah, his home nation, and rebuild the defensive walls of a city that had been conquered. This could have easily been interpreted as the precursor treason and even war – but God was with him and the king decided to help. He gave Nehemiah his position, letters of passage, soldiers to protect him, and all the lumber they would need for the project. God was clearly answering prayers!
When he arrived in Jerusalem he took a quick three-day break to rest, think and pray, and then took a secret night tour of the damage so no one could see him – especially his enemies. After seeing what needed to be done he called a meeting with the whole city and surrounding area and then told them what God had laid on his heart. He told them the plan, that God had already done miracles to provide for them, and that because of God’s help it would be a success. The people agreed and they all set to work.
As soon as Nehemiah went public, the opposition kicked into high geer. Three men named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem lobbed their first volley. They accused him of rebellion, sedition, and implied that if they didn’t quit rebuilding that they would tell the king who would come and wipe them all out. Nehemiah wanted Jerusalem to be strong and secure, to be in a deep relationship with God, and know He is their strength. But the enemies wanted Jerusalem afraid, weak and dependent, able to be manipulated and easily threatened, and a strong governor building a new city of people with a strong faith, behind a huge, stone wall would be a problem.
Practically, this hurt the enemies pocket books too. If the city started living by Mosaic Law, then they would start keeping the Sabbath, not charging interest, taking care of the poor, sharing their goods, and generally being more content – which was really bad for business. They would lose their financial grip on the city. The moment the people started to get into a healthy relationship with God and one another the enemies became very active.
Have you ever experienced this? If you have been a Christian for any length of time, then you probably have. You feel a tug at your heart, discover something that causes you to weep, something that you know needs changing – in your life, your family, or your community – and you feel a distinct call from God to do something. God starts to provide, and things start to look like they are going the right way. You feel like you’ve found your purpose. You are working, God is active, people’s lives are changing for the better – it’s all good.
And then WHAM! out of nowhere comes opposition to your work. Your relationships get more difficult, finances start to get strained, people start to treat you unfairly, the rules seem to be against you, people seem to misunderstand you, and your helpers abandon you.
Here’s what’s happening. Maybe you’ve been told that whenever you are in God’s will things will be easy, but that’s not usually the case. Most often, when anyone attempts to do God’s work, God’s way, for God’s glory and the good of those around them, there will be opposition. I’ve faced a lot of trouble in my time, as have many of you, but never so much as when I’m working on a God ordained project. Actually, that’s one of the ways that we can know we’re on the right path – by the level of opposition. I’m pretty sure that’s why a lot of us are facing some of the struggles we are these days – because we are trying to follow God’s will and our spiritual enemies are stirring up trouble against us.
And this isn’t just for people in ministry like pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons and teachers. This is for all of us who are trying to follow God’s will for our lives – whether he called you to be a mother, husband, parent, encourager, administrator, counsellor, reconciler, worker, artist, musician, or any other kind of servant. When you find the groove God has carved for you most often, the enemy will rise up to try to discourage you and stop you.
What I want to do today is take a look at some of the ways that the enemy tried to discourage Nehemiah and Jerusalem as they tried to do the very practical work of rebuilding the walls, and draw out some points to help us know how to respond when the enemy rises up against us and our own projects.
So, take a moment to consider what God has been asking you to do lately, or what you know your spiritual gifts or mission in life is. As you’ve been praying, reading your Bible, and talking to fellow Christians, what has God been impressing upon you to do? And then let’s take a look at what Nehemiah faced and how He responded.
“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?’ Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!’” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
Here’s the first attach, and it’s the easiest to spot and most relatable. As soon as we claim to be followers of Jesus, or especially when we say something like, “God’s word is true, He has given men a mission, and I’m going to do what He says.” That makes people crazy these days. So their natural response is ridicule.
If you’ve ever shared your faith or been obvious about your belief in Jesus, then you’ve probably faced ridicule. The internet and media are full of people mocking Christianity.
This is standard operating procedure for the enemy. Joseph was mocked by his brothers. Moses was mocked by all sorts of people. Goliath mocked David. Pharisees mocked Jesus. This is the first thing the enemy does. He uses ridicule and insults to hurt our feelings. Anyone who is known for having amazing faith in God has faced abuse for it.
They start by mocking their strength: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves?… Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?… if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” They were a broken people in a broken city; a bunch of farmers who were mostly poor and starving. They wern’t professional wall builders. They weren’t warriors or strong men. They didn’t even have good materials! They’re trying to use broken, burned, brittle rocks to build a strong wall. It’s impossible! What a joke!
What was the enemy saying? “You’ll never be able to do it. You’re too weak, too stupid, too unskilled, too tired, too broken. You’re not the kind of people that do this kind of thing. You should quit while you’re ahead. You think God is going to magically make you a success? That’s not how it works in the real world! There’s no way God called you to that mission. You don’t have the ‘right stuff’? You’re too sinful, too ignorant, too weak.”
Were they weak? Yes! But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? As we said last week – it is when we are weak when we are strong, because it is then that God can do all the work so He can get all the glory!
You’ve probably heard this kind of thing before. I know I’ve heard it many times with the churches I’ve pastored. “We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the people. Preaching the Bible is boring and irrelevant. No one wants to listen to that anymore. No one can sit through a sermon anymore. If we don’t have the best music, a great sound system, awesome visuals, and a big church with lots of ministries, then we shouldn’t even try.”
What’s the implication? Everything is wrong with this project. All the materials are wrong. We should just give up.
Have you heard that kind of thing for your own ministry and life mission? “No one stays at home and cares for the children anymore. The job that you love doesn’t make enough money, you should quit. Families don’t just hang out anymore, you need to be busier. The people you are trying to help are a lost cause. You are too young, too old, too inexperienced, too nervous. You are the wrong stuff, and you should just quit.”
I’m sure you have heard this. We’ve all faced the insults and mocking of the enemy when we try to do what God asks us to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Prayer
What was Nehemiah’s response? First, it was prayer. Look at verse 4-5:
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
He turns the problem over the only One who can do something about it. We can’t shut the mouths of our enemies. We are not to return evil for evil. We’re supposed to be like Jesus. As 1 Peter 2:23 says,
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Romans 12:17-21 says,
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is how a person who has faith in God responds to people who ridicule, mock and persecute them. They trust that God will deal with them. In other words, don’t worry about punishing those who are causing you problems, God will take care of them. Turn the problem over to Him and He’ll see that it’s taken care of properly. God has promised to protect and defend you (2 Thess 3:3; Deut 31:6; Psalm 23, 46:1; 2 Cor 4:8-9). Your job is to do what God has asked you to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Back to Work
Which leads us to Nehemiah and the people’s second response. They got back to work. Look at verse 6, “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They turned their problems and anger over to God and got back to work. They didn’t sit and stew, didn’t fall apart, didn’t get caught up in a big debate. They just got back to work and worked even harder. They ignored the enemy who was saying they couldn’t do it and proved that God was going to give them victory.
And now, the wall was half done and things were going well right? Their success shut up the enemies, right? Sadly, no. Look at verse 7-8, “But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”
Does their success cause their enemies to back off? No. It causes them to work together! Jerusalem and Nehemiah weren’t just rebuilding a wall – they were rebuilding their relationship with God and each other – and Satan and their enemies hate that.
How does Nehemiah respond? Same as before! Verse 9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” Pray and get back to work – this time with security guards! When the enemy is coming against us, we are to pray and get back to work. When the enemy redoubles their efforts, we are to pray and do what is necessary to protect ourselves – both physically and spiritually.
What does this mean practically? Well, whatever your mission is, it means you need to bathe the mission, yourself, and your mission field (whether that’s your family, your community, or your job) in prayer – and keep working. And when the enemy steps up their game – you step up yours too.
Prayer shows that you trust God to deal with your enemies. It also says that you intend to do things His way. That means that you allow God to fight for you – but that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Get stronger locks. Buy a better firewall for the network. Take a long, hard look at your schedule and lock in the time you need to pray, prepare, serve, worship, eat and rest. Do the important things that make sure that the enemy doesn’t get a foothold in your life.
Let’s end with one more place that the enemy attacks. Look at verse 10-11,
“In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’ And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.’”
What do we see here? Discouragement and Intimidation. This is “in Judah”. All of the battles, ridicule, late nights, and stress of the work caused a huge amount of emotional fatigue and depression. They were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. They say, “There is too much rubble. [We’re] By ourselves…” Was there any more rubble on the ground than when they stared? No. It’s not like they were going out and importing more rubble to spread around. In fact, there would have been less since they were using it to build the wall. Were they alone? No! What had changed? They were tired. After so much fight and frustration, they were starting to get pessimistic, depressed and worn down. It happens to all of us.
The enemy capitalized on this by spreading rumors: “We’ll come and kill you and you won’t even see us coming!” Did they have a wall? More than half of one, yes! Did they have security guards? Yes! Was God on their side? Yes! Had He ever let them down? No!
What had happened? Some of the workers had taken their eyes off God and were only seeing the problems. They stopped looking up and only saw the mess, the enemies, and the junk surrounding them. It looked too hard and they got discouraged.
And something else was happening too. We learn in chapter 6 (6:17-19) that there were some people among them who were actually working for the enemy. Instead of being encouragers they were discouragers who were sowing seeds of discontent. They didn’t think God was going to do the work, so they kept telling people how hard the work was, how there wasn’t enough help, that the enemy was too big, that Nehemiah was a bad leader, that they were too hungry and too tired and that no one cared. They told the people around them to forget about working together and to think of themselves more. Proverbs 6:19 says that God literally hates these kinds of people.
I’m sure you’ve felt this too. Things go great for a while. Decent successes, the enemy thwarted. Sure, there’s hard work, but you are full of faith. But after a time – a few hours, a few days, a week, a month, a year – the rubble around you doesn’t get smaller, but starts to look like it’s growing, the problems seem endless, the work seems harder. People around you, who you thought were supporters, start to get tired, wander off, or fill your ears with complaints. They drag you down and you start to get disheartened. Now, instead of worship songs and thanksgiving prayers, you start to pray like David in Psalm 13:1-2), “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” This is taking forever, God. How long is this going to take? Where are you?
Discouragement is one of Satan’s favourite weapons. If he can’t knock you down with one punch, he’ll wear you down over time. If he can get your eyes off of God, away from those who are trying to encourage you, away from the worship songs that remind you of God, away from your times of prayer – and get you to skip small group, skip church, skip your quiet time, stay up too late, eat poorly, and ignore your friends – then he doesn’t have to stop us with anything huge because discouragement will take over and we’ll just quit.
He’ll wear us down until we don’t have the strength to take even a little punch. Where we would never have thought we would do that really bad thing – get drunk, do drugs, be violent, cheat on our spouse – now, after wearing us down with ridicule and mocking and rumours and constant grumbling about how hard things are – all it takes is a little push. You’ve probably experienced this.
Nehemiah’s Response: Reminders
So how did Nehemiah respond to this discouragement? What can we do when discouragement starts to take over and we feel like the job is too much? He reminded them of the truth. Look at verses 13-14:
“So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’”
Who does Nehemiah turn to? God. “I know you are discouraged and afraid. I know you are losing heart. But you need to remember the Lord, who is great and awesome! Think of what He has already done and what He has promised to do. He has brought us back from captivity, rebuilt the temple, restored the priesthood, restored the feasts, and helped us to build more than half the wall… don’t get discouraged yet! God has the resources to do this and He has proven He is on our side! Get your eyes off of the enemy, off of the rubble, and raise your eyes towards heaven. Shot your ears to the lies, insults and fear; to all those who say we are going to lose. Walk by faith, not by sight, and know that God has already declared this victory. It is our job to keep stacking stones.”
What else does Nehemiah do? He reminds them why what they are doing is so important. Why they can’t quit. Because this isn’t just about them.
The mission God has given us in this world isn’t just about our own growth and contentment. Our pain and struggles and fear isn’t just about us. Our life is not about us, but about God and those around us. We can’t quit because there are people that depend on us. “Remember the Lord”, and remember why you need to keep on fighting, keep on building, keep on striving, sword in one hand, trowel in the other: for your family.
Your life isn’t just about you. It’s about your mother and father, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, your church, and all those who will follow in your legacy. You don’t just fight for you – you fight for them. Your faith and obedience will ripple for generations – as will your sin. If you give up it will affect more people than you realize. You and I are not fighting merely for a prize we get to keep, but for everyone around us too.
The individualism that has overtaken our culture – where my choices, my behaviours, my beliefs, my decisions are mine alone – is not how the world works. We are part of a family, community, and what we do or don’t do ripples out and touches everyone.
What is Lent?
We are currently in the traditional season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Most Protestants, Baptists included, don’t really celebrate much of the liturgical calendar, but the Lenten season has been celebrated by many Christians around the world since the third century.
Evangelicals usually avoid it, though it’s making somewhat of a comeback these days, because it’s associated with the rituals of Catholicism and old-school Christianity. The idea is that since the protestant reformation, we have thrown off the shackles of mindless pharisaical religion and now live as modern worshippers of God who follow the Bible and not the rules of man. But I think that by ceasing the practice of many of these traditions we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost some very powerful tools of Christian discipleship.
The protestant reformation was all about combatting false teachers who had moved away from the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and were telling people they had to do certain things (like go in pilgrimages, say certain prayers, do penance, and give the church money) before God would forgive them.
But the protestants didn’t just get rid of the false Roman Catholic teachers, they also demonized many of the teachings of the traditional church, including the church calendar. The thinking was that since the Roman Catholics came up with it, it must therefore be wrong. In my opinion that’s too closed minded. I believe we can get a lot of benefit by participating in some of these traditions. Though they were eventually corrupted and used to manipulate ignorant people, they began with good intentions. Christians were encouraged to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus throughout the year, celebrate the saints and martyrs that had come before, and practice many important spiritual disciplines.
Lent is a period of 46 days – 40 regular days and 6 Sundays – that the church fathers set aside as a time of reflection and preparation before the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of sadness, lamenting, suffering and sacrifice, we choose to take a period of time to be more like Jesus and meditate, mourn, repent and fast.
Christians traditionally stopped eating certain foods and avoided celebrations so they could contemplate the meaning and significance of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave us on the cross. We choose to take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, how much our personal salvation cost, what that means to us individually, to our family, and to our church.
It is a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual exercise – something we are not very good, and is grossly undervalued these days. Lent is a time of prayer, meditation, fasting and repentance where we confront the sins in our life and try to put them to death. It’s a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus. It’s a time to give a special sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God as an act of worship. It is a time to practice self-discipline and open ourselves to the amazing thing that God has done to save our souls.
We are Consumers
In the theme of thinking less of ourselves and more about God and others, I want to take some time today to address something that many of us struggle with – selfishness. If the season of Lent is about giving something up (like TV time, desserts, celebrations, internet) so that we can replace it with something better (a deeper relationship with God and a clean spirit), then the temptation to go along with that will be toward selfishly wanting to have it both – to have our cake and eat it too.
That’s what our society is all about, right? That’s the consistent temptation of where we live, isn’t it? Our society worships at the altar of consumerism. We are trained from very a young age that life is about accumulating pleasurable things and avoiding painful ones. We are born to go to school to get a job to get the money to buy the things that will make us happy. We find a person to live with that will make us happy and ward off pain. And if the job or the relationship brings pain, we get rid of it and get a new one.
Christianity doesn’t believe that. Christianity doesn’t agree with consumerism. Humans are not products, nor are the only valuable when they are contributing to society. Christians believe that all people, from their conception to death and at every stage in between – and even beyond death – have inherent dignity and worth. Every life is sacred and worthy of love and protection. Even the lives of our enemies are worth love and protection.
That’s what Jesus demonstrated to us when He died for us, His enemies. He came into the world that He created for goodness and perfection, but sinned, rebelled and destroyed itself in an attempt to usurp His position as God. But God made us His image bearers, and He loved us so much that He was willing to trade the life of His Son for us. Jesus was willing to trade His life for a bunch of disobedient, stubborn, gluttonous, vile, sinners who keep straying from His way, opposing His authority, abusing His goodness, twisting His privileges, and selfishly destroys His creation and continuously hurts the people around them.
But He came. He demonstrated the opposite of consumerism. He showed perfect unselfishness. He gave everything, received nothing, so we could have everything.
Nehemiah and the Wall
Nehemiah 5 describes a group of people that are just like us – people who have been saved from slavery to a foreign power, brought back to the promised land, but have to work with God every day to restore the ruins that were created by their own sin and rebellion. That’s the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites, but it’s also the story of every Christian.
The Jewish people had rebelled against God in every way possible and were disciplined by Him through being captured by their enemies (the Babylonians) and sent into 70 years of slavery. After that time, God brought them back to their land so they could start again. The land they returned to, especially the city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. The temple, homes, gates and defensive walls were all broken and burnt.
God raised up two important men, Ezra and Nehemiah to guide the people to rebuild their faith and their city. Ezra taught them the Bible and Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the city. They faced many challenges from enemies outside the walls, but the work continued as people grew in faith and strength.
Then comes Chapter 5. If the story of Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the people of God, then Nehemiah 5 shows what happens when Satan alters his attack against them from opposing them from the outside to tempting them from the inside.
Exploiting the Cracks
The wall, at this point, is a little more than half done, and the enemies outside the walls have been dealt with. Satan sees he’s not going to be able to shut down the city and the people by attacking them from outside the wall, so he changes his tactic to see if he can corrupt them from within.
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.’ There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.’” (vs 1-5)
So there’s the switch. The troubles move from outside the camp to the inside – which is a common tactic of the Enemy. If he can’t rattle our church or our families by having people attack us, he’ll switch to having us hurt ourselves.
The walls were being built up so there would be no cracks in their defenses, but the cracks were showing in their relationships. It’s not that they weren’t there before, but now that the community was coming together, the city was being rebuilt, the spiritual reformation was occurring, Satan chose to use one of the existing problems toward his advantage – and that problem was selfishness.
This will always happen, and continues to happen today. When revival and Godly spiritual growth is about to happen to an individual or to a group, whatever cracks are there will be exploited. Whether it’s a church, a friendship, a marriage, or a leadership team, the sin will be exposed and the fractures will deepen.
To the church in Ephesus Paul gave the warning to watch their relationships because their enemy would exploit their weaknesses:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27)
He told them to watch themselves for lies, and be careful with their anger, because their words to each other would give an opportunity to the devil to create divisions within the church.
You’ve no doubt seen this in your own homes. A husband and wife decide to recommit their lives to Jesus and strengthen their marriage. Suddenly all manner of hell breaks loose on them from the outside – job issues, money issues, car issues, illness all come at them, but they stay together and remain strong. The next attack comes from within. Satan looks for the crack in the spiritual armour – and it’s often selfishness.
The man starts to believe he deserves more “free time” because he’s earned it and spends more time away from his wife and family… or he believes he deserves something new and shiny so he spends more time at work. The wife feels likes she deserves more help because she’s doing everything, all the time, for everyone… she’s the victim, she deserves more respect, more free time, more presents, more affection, and since she’s not getting it, she’ll go get it herself from something or someone else.
It’s the same for the individual. They recommit their lives to Christ and all hell breaks loose. And then the inward battle starts. Fatigue, pride, anger, fear start to become more present – thoughts that never occurred before start to bubble up. That’s the spiritual battle we face.
It’s the same in a church. We commit ourselves to one another, preach, teach and sing the Word of God faithfully, serve one another, and commit to staying here. We are attacked from the outside, and it doesn’t shut us down, but causes us to grow closer to God and one another. Then he attacks us from the inside.
Like a boxer exploiting his opponents cuts and bruises by hammering on them until they break open, the enemy starts to hammer on the sins he finds in the individuals in the body. And, very often, the sin he hammers on most is selfishness and pride.
Little things that were never a big deal before – like the format of the bulletin, the name of a ministry, where someone sits, the placement of furniture, the clothes someone wears, people being late – start cause more frustration. Critical thoughts abound. People forget that God is the great provider and start talking about nickels and dimes. Relationships get stressed out. Volunteers feel unappreciated, leaders disconnected, bitterness starts to grow. Worries about attendance and finances and too few committee members start to take over conversations – and people start to look for where to lay the to blame.
None of these are new problems, but it keeps the church from concentrating on their mission. As long as they are arguing and stressing about the temperature of the room, how much ink costs, the colour of the music leader’s socks, they aren’t thinking about building their relationship with God or others – and Satan’s happy.
The attacks are subtle. We would so much rather have a frontal attack, but Satan knows that’s where your strongest – so he tempts us with pride, selfishness, laziness, fear, anger, lust, holding grudges, causing division, being overly critical, or giving in to distraction. We sense God calling us to go deeper, and at the same time the enemy is trying to set us up to be our own worst enemy.
I know I’ve been through this. I get more sensitive to what people say and see simple comments as attacks. “What did they mean by that!?” Innocent and helpful criticisms meant to help me do my job better throw me for a loop and I’m up all night wondering why that person doesn’t like me and if I’ll be fired at the next meeting. Satan takes my besetting pride and fear of man and presses on it until I’m half-crazed with worry and aren’t concentrating on anyone except myself and my own feelings.
When we commit ourselves to serving God, doing His will and living out his plan for our lives, we become a spiritual target. You may have been feeling that over the past while as you’ve been coming here – I know many of you have had the desire to connect deeper with God. But there is something nagging at you, trying to shut that down. It doesn’t want you do think spiritually, give up that sin, rebuild that relationship, or change your plans to line up more with God’s. The devil has ramped up his attacks and you’re feeling it.
All the little cracks get exploited and pounded on – and that’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. And the crack that Satan found and exploited was selfishness.
Exploiting the Poor
The Jewish brothers were taking advantage of the scarce resources and growing population and giving ample opportunity for the devil to have a field day with God’s people. The taxes were high because they had a foreign king and had to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so people had to borrow money against their homes and lands to pay their taxes. There was a famine in the land and people were on the edge of starving to death. So they would mortgage themselves to the hilt so they could by food for their families, but because of the drought, their crops weren’t paying off their debts.
But not everyone was poor. There were a group of successful Jewish businessmen and landowners who had left the exile in Babylon with a lot of money, and they were more than happy to lend it to those who didn’t have any – at a price.
The poor people, on the edge of starvation, were putting up their land, their homes, and their cattle – but it wasn’t enough. The only thing they had left was their children, and so they sold them to be slaves of the wealthy. And when that wasn’t enough, they sold themselves. They had to choose between starvation and slavery, and the wealthy men were snapping up houses, lands and slaves all over the place. Hostile takeovers, guaranteed forclosures, and the added bonus of free, slave labour.
In the Law given to Israel by Moses, we learn that it was fine for a Jewish person to lend to another Jew, but God forbid charging interest and exploiting people. Deuteronomy 24:10-14 teaches how God wanted His people to lend money to each other:
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Basically, God is making sure that wealthy people don’t exploit poorer ones. If a man is so poor that the only thing he has left is his last blanket, and you take it as a pledge for the money you’ve lent him… at least give it back at night so he can sleep on it! Don’t go stomping into someone’s house and take whatever you think they owe you – stand outside and wait respectfully. If someone is just barely eking out a living, give them pay at the end of the day – don’t make them wait for it – because they need it more than you do! God told people to work hard to pay off their debts, but also had a lot to say to the lenders.
And those laws were governed by love, not greed or selfishness. In fact, if a person was totally destitute, the rich person was supposed to simply give the money as a gift!
Loving People and Using Things
What it comes down to is Loving People and Using Things. The greatest definition of Selfishness I’ve ever heard is: Selfishness is loving things and using people. Christians are supposed to love people and use things… or even better, use things to love people… but selfishness means Loving Things and Using People.
Warren Wiersby says in his commentary:
“When the Devil, or the enemy, fails in his attacks from the outside, he will begin or intensify his attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness.”
We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And those spiritual powers spend a lot of time tempting people and messing with relationships among the people of a community of faith by playing upon their fear, greed and selfishness. Fear of losing something that they want, greed to get what they want their way, and selfishness to take it from others who need it more.
And that destroys our witness and our relationships. A few people end up rich and happy while others die away. Good deeds are replaced by a lust for good things. Godly spirituality is replaced with a religion that worships religious things. Worship of God is replaced by worship of control and security. The costly risks that God asks us to take are forgotten and pushed aside so we can keep our treasures on earth for as long as possible.
When selfishness takes hold of a soul, a community, a church, or a nation, Godly Spirituality and a relationship with Jesus cannot continue. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
James echoed Him saying:
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
And the Apostle Paul did the same saying:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
We must be very, very careful to Use Things and Love People – never to Love Money or Things and Use People. If we get that backwards we will give the devil a foothold in our souls, homes, work, ministry, and community. Jesus loved people and used things, so should we.
How To React to Selfishness
So what should we do? I believe that Nehemiah sets a good example for us, because his example is like Christ’s.
1. He Got Angry
First, we see in verse 6, he gets angry. “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” His first reaction to selfishness was to be action. Jesus did the same thing when he saw the selfishness of the money changers in the temple. This is a good, godly reaction to seeing people who are being exploited and abused by people who have means. We are right to get angry.
Selfishness is far too common among God’s people. It happened in Nehemiah’s time. It happened in Jesus’ time. And it happened again in Paul’s. He had to confront the Corinthian church because there were people that were starving in their church meetings while others were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Selfishness among believers is a perennial problem that has to be continuously confronted by angry saints.
2. He Thought About It
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin” and part of that is taking a minute to think about what you’re going to do. That’s exactly what Nehemiah does. In verse 7 it says, “I took counsel with myself…”. He wasn’t so tied up in the building of the walls that he didn’t have time to deal with the needs of his community. His job was to fix the rebuild the city, not mediate economic reform. But when he heard the outcry, saw the injustice, witnessed the greed, he took some time away from his work to think (and we can assume pray) about it to come up with a solution.
3. He Accused
The third thing Nehemiah did absolutely shows the heart of Jesus. Verse 7 again, “I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’”
He got them together and flat-out accused them. He pinned them to the wall. He showed godly passion and conviction, knew his Bible, and knew what was wrong, and accused them using Biblical words. He does it privately at first, not publically, so that they are not embarrassed, and so the emotional charge doesn’t deflate morale and harm people who aren’t directly affected.
We must learn this courage! This is all over scripture:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Jesus in Matthew 18:15)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
When we see sin and injustice, selfishness and ungodly behaviour, we have the responsibility to go to our brothers and sisters and accuse them.
4. He Taught Against It
After accusing the smaller group of nobles and officials who were part of the problem, it says at the end of verse 7 that Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”. He gave a general warning to everyone involved in the sin. He privately accused the worst offenders to their face, and then, essentially preached a sermon to everyone else warning them of the same corruption.
Nehemiah was in a spiritual battle. He knew that Satan wouldn’t give up without a fight. He reminded all the people that God had freed them from Babylonian slavery, and how hypocritical it was for them to force these same people into slavery under themselves! He says, “Your selfishness – you’re using of people and loving things – is making us look like fools to the nations around us!”
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and that works both ways. The world is watching us and is looking for any excuse to call us hypocrites. They will either see us loving one another and trusting God… or using one another and trusting ourselves. We destroy our witness if we are selfish individuals, selfish families, or a selfish church.
5. He Made Them Give it Back
The next thing Nehemiah does is to tell them to make it right.
“Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (vs 11)
And to their credit they do. And Nehemiah goes even further.
“And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said ‘Amen’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (vs 12-13)
Nehemiah knew how dangerous and insidious the sin of greed and selfishness is, and so he forces them to make a public confession and an oath. That’s how you heal a deep hurt. That’s how you show repentance. That’s how we honour God. We ask forgiveness, and then make it right. Turn selfishness to forgiveness and promise not to do it again – and ask God to help us keep our word.
This shows everyone around how serious we are about following God, dealing with sin, loving one another, and committing ourselves to living by His Word. And the assembly ends with an AMEN! God is worshipped, the hungry fed, relationships restored, debts managed, the rebuilding of the walls continues, and God is honoured. It was hard work, and very costly for some, but it was the only way they could expect to receive God’s blessing on their lives.
6. He Demonstrated Generosity
And the final thing Nehemiah does was to go above and beyond. Satan was trying to corrupt the people through selfishness, so His response was to be overwhelmingly generous. He poured cold water all over hell’s flames by not only doing what was right, but by doing even more.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (vs 14-19)
A faithful believer will set the example of how to do it best. He trusted God for provision and lived generously with others. That’s what good Christians do. He refused to give the devil a foothold in his city, his work, or his life. Satan tried to destroy the work through selfishness, he fight with generosity.
That’s my hope for us too. As we enter this season of Lent, my prayer is that we use it as a time to refocus our lives away from loving things to loving God and His people, from storing our treasures on earth to storing them in heaven. Not to be known as a philanthropist, but because it’s the good, godly, Christ-like thing to do.
Let’s talk about Nehemiah 8. But before we do, let me give you a quick background to what’s going on. After the peaceful reign of King Solomon, the son of David, was over, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Israel to the North where 10 tribes were living, and Judah to the South which were the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi.
Not long after the split, the Assyrians came in and took over the Northern kingdom, conquered them, scattered or enslaved the people living there, and basically wiped out the northern kingdom. The Southern kingdom of Judah remained, so some of the people from Israel fled south and it grew. Many of them moved to Jerusalem and it became a very large city. To defend themselves they built huge walls around the city.
Meanwhile the kings of Judah are going back and forth between trusting God to protect them and allying themselves with pagan nations. King Hezekiah does the right thing and trusts God, but when his son Manasseh takes the throne he stopped worshipping God, put up idols all over the place, allied himself with the Assyrians, started performing child sacrifices and killed off many of the prophets of God. His son, Josiah, took over the throne at age 16 and stumbled across a copy of the first 5 books of the Bible, the Torah, and was convicted by God to clean things up. It was hard because his father kept working against him, but He did all he could.
The kingdom of Babylon is on the rise and they take over the Assyrians. Because the people of Judah had rejected God, built idols and rebelled against His law, God prophesied through Isaiah and Jeremiah that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, would attack Judah, the walls of Jerusalem would be destroyed, the city would be ruined, and all the people would be exiled to Babylon. There they would live as outcasts and slaves for 70 years. After that time they would be allowed to come home again.
Rebuilding The People
What we are about to read here is the story of the Jewish people who had come back from exile to Jerusalem to find it absolutely ruined. The first seven chapters of Nehemiah are all about the rebuilding of the walls so the city will be defensible once again. But then, in chapter 8, the story turns from the rebuilding of the city, to the rebuilding of the people within the city.
Nehemiah was a Jewish man and a trusted official – a cupbearer – under the king of the Persian Empire (who, by this time, had taken over the Babylonians). Nehemiah had heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem and was heartbroken for his people and his city. He talked to God about it and then asked the king if he could leave and help rebuild Jerusalem.
Ezra also worked for the king of Persia, but was a teacher of the Law, a descendant of the High Priest. In an amazing miracle, he was given a mission by the king to lead a group of Jewish people back to and teach them about the laws of God. When he arrived he saw a lot of the same sins that got them in trouble in the first place, and it broke his heart.
So there are your two leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, tag-teaming the rebuilding of the city and its people by teaching them to how rebuild their homes, their lives, and their hearts. What we read in chapter 8 is the story of Ezra, as he finally takes all of the people, gathers them together behind the city wall, appoints small group leaders, and then reads the entirety of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – , the Book of the Law, the Torah.
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
So that’s the picture. Ezra reading the Bible to the people, in full, and then a group of appointed bible teachers explaining it to anyone who didn’t understand it. And as the understanding of what God had written sank in, people started to change.
Sin Sinks In
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:9)
Their spirits were stirred and their emotions were gripped when they began to understand what the Bible was saying to them. They began to understand the depth of their rebellion against God, and the enormous grace God had shown them even though they didn’t deserve it. They read of the creation of the world, and the perfect place God had created for them… and how that was marred by sin. They read of the jealousy of Cain towards his brother Abel and felt it prick their hearts as they realized they had done the same thing their own brothers.
They listened to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and realized how much God loved them and would go to any lengths to redeem them and save them. And they listened to the story of the people who refused to even go into the Promised Land… the land they were currently standing on… and how they instead of trusting God, they would wander the desert for 40 years.
And they looked up around them, at the city they had been working so had to rebuild – the capital city of their Promised Land – and realized that they sat on holy ground because it was a gift from God, and God dwelled in a special way in this place. Then they remembered why they had been sent into exile, how they had rejected this God, His law, His prophets, His warnings, and began to see how even though they had returned from their exile, that they were still doing the very same thing. They were face to face with their sin, and they couldn’t escape it.
Then Ezra began to read the 10 Commandments and the people realized that they had broken every one of them, and they stood guilty before God. And they wept.
They read of the blood sacrifices, the lamb that was slaughtered after the High Priest placed the sins of the people on its, this one symbolic act that was required to cleanse the people from their sin. The read of the scapegoat that would be ceremonially driven from the city to show the people how God was driving away their sin. And the bull that would be slaughtered before their eyes, its blood spilled, because that’s how serious God takes sin.
And it sinks that it had been a long time since they had repented. A long time since they had been obedient to fulfill the law. It had been years and years since most of them had celebrated the Day of Atonement. Decades of sin – years and years of guilt – was piled up against them. God had a right to be angry.
If you are a Christian, or if you’re not but God’s been working on your heart, then you know what this feels like. God starts to get hold of our hearts, and we begin to understand what the Bible says about us. It is absolutely appropriate, when we come face to face with our sin, fr it to bring an emotional response. In this case, we’d call it conviction, guilt, shame, and fear. They saw themselves through the eyes of God – contrasted their lives against his perfect, moral law – and it’s something they hadn’t thought about before, or hadn’t thought about for a long time. They weren’t “good people in a bad situation”. They were depraved, broken, lost, sinners. Under the wrath of God, surrounded by evidence of His righteous judgment, and their hearts broke.
There is power in the public reading of the scriptures. The Bible contains the best news, and the worst news, in history! The world is condemned, sin has separated us from our Creator, all hope was lost, and we are all destined for hell because of the perfect and necessary judgment of God. And we can’t argue with it. We cannot stand before Holy God and argue that we’re good people – our consciences testify against us and what we read in the Bible won’t allow it. That’s the bad news. But it is absolutely necessary to hear and understand the message of the total depravity of our hearts before we can grasp the amazing grace of salvation through Jesus Christ.
We don’t really like to talk about sin – at least not our own. Our society, in general, prefers to deflect blame onto someone or something else. It’s never our fault, and therefore none of us ever really sin. It’s not a new thing. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake.
Adulterous men and women blame their spouse for driving them into the arms of someone else. Corrupt business leaders say it’s the economy that made them steal from so many people. Thieves blame the security system saying that if they didn’t want it stolen, they should have protected it better. People with addictions blame the substance, the manufacturers, the pushers, or the peer pressure. Gossips blame the tabloids and the people who listen to them. Slanderers blame the object of their scorn. Jealous and envious people blame the advertisers. Pornographers blame the consumers. Perverts blame the objects of their lust. Parents blame schools, schools blame parents. Everybody blames the government, and the government parties blame each other. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault.
But one of the core messages of the gospel is that we are sinners and that when we stand before God one day, He is going to pull out our rap-sheet, all of the excuses in the world are going to melt away and all that will be left with be us, our guilt, and perfect judgment of the all-knowing God of the universe.
The Importance of Guilt
Christians, those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, know that the first step to freedom in Christ and being saved from sin, is to admit guilt. Admit we are sinners. Admit fault. To say, I am a sinner who has willingly, and willfully broken the law of God over and over. I wanted to, I chose to, I meant to, and I did it again and again.
I worshipped things that weren’t God. I stole things that weren’t mine. I lusted after people that weren’t married to me. I lied. I promised things to others and didn’t follow through. I promised things to God and didn’t follow through. I used God’s name as a curse word. I worked for my own glory, and my own fame, as much as I wanted, not giving glory to the One who created me but taking it for myself. And often as I worked, I did it at the expense of others. In my anger I’ve wanted people to be dead, and I’ve done things to hurt them. I did it. No one made me. I am without excuse. If I were put on trial for everything I’ve ever done or thought… I would be guilty a million times over.
And when we come face to face with that sin, it will either harden our hearts to God – causing us to tell God to get lost because He just makes us feel bad – or it will break us, causing us to fall on our face before Him in sadness, fear and repentance.
My prayer is that our sin breaks each one of us. That come face to face with our sin destroys the pride that makes us think we are our own highest authority. That it destroys the image in our mind of how good we are, how lucky God is that we call ourselves one of His people, how blessed people should be to be around us. That it obliterates that false theology of believing that we are good enough to be in the presence of Holy God in Heaven, because we know in our very soul, that we’re not.
Coming face to face with the reality of our sin is supposed to breaks our hearts, just as it breaks God’s. There’s a reason God chose blood to represent sin. Because it’s disgusting, scary, horrible, repulsive and permanent. Sin kills. And when we figure out that we are sinners… not just people who make mistakes and have good excuses, or just need to try to do better, or deserve a second chance because deep down we’re good people … when we start to see our sin, and revile it – it becomes disgusting to us – and we learn the consequences of our sin, it should break us. And it’s right that it does.
That’s exactly what the people who were listening to Ezra read the law felt. They wept because they felt guilty, they felt ashamed, they felt the conviction of God weighing heavy on them.
I hope you have felt that. I hope that you haven’t been sold some kind of garbage that God is going to let everyone into heaven because He loves everybody so much. I hope you don’t believe the nonsense that says that you people are basically good on the inside. We’re not. Without Jesus, I’m not, and neither are you. Without Jesus, we are dead in sin, absolutely selfish, lovers of idols, and children of hell. We are people in rebellion against God, on the path of destruction. It is only because of His common grace to this world that most people can draw their next breath, because if He called in their chips today… they would be condemned.
Anyone who has not dealt with their sin will be exposed and judged. That is why these people wept. And why anyone who has not dealt with their sin, who harbors unrepentant sin, who hasn’t come to God for forgiveness, should weep.
The Good News!
But that’s the bad news! And Nehemiah and Ezra, after they had read the law, looked out to see the people’s hearts breaking, and their weeping, and realized that even though their conviction and guilt is right – that they haven’t grasped the whole truth of what was just read in the scriptures. They didn’t understand the whole story!
“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’” (Nehemiah 8:10-11)
They were saying, “Listen everyone! I know you’re heart is broken because you have seen your sin… but you need to remember… this day is holy to God. It is set-apart and special to Him. This is the day where the hearts of His people broke before Him. Where, after such a long time, His people finally figured out how far they were away from Him, and wanted to be different. The children of God finally looked around and saw that they were living in sin and slime and rebellion… and they got up and wanted to come home. And they humbled themselves before Him, and repented, and God is absolutely pleased today!”
I can almost see Ezra rolling back the scroll of the book of Exodus 34:6-7 and saying, “Everyone, remember!
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”
…God’s got it all in perfect balance! Your fathers were the ones who rebelled. But you are the thousands who have turned their hearts back to Him and He will forgive you. To you He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and will always be faithful to you. Do not grieve today, but give thanks! ‘The Joy of the Lord is your strength!’ He has joy because of you, and will share that joy with you!
You can’t have God’s joy when you are still in your sin. It’s impossible. That kind of radical freedom, absolute peace, and powerful, overflowing love is only possible when God gets a hold of your heart, forgives your sins, cleanses you from your unrighteousness, and sets you on the straight path that leads to life and eternity with Him! Do not let grief be the end of this day! No, know that because of your repentance, your hearts are right with God, and there is great joy and rejoicing in Heaven because of you.”
I hope you know both sides of this today. I hope you have felt the conviction of your sin, and have turned to God for salvation.
Jesus was the final sacrifice of the old system of the Law. He was the perfect Passover lamb. His blood was shed for your sin and mine. His perfection completed the entirety of the Law of God, and He offers to exchange His righteousness for our guilt and sin. I hope you’ve felt conviction and guilt and shame – and that you know what it’s like to be forgiven and purified and made new in the name of Jesus Christ.
I hope you have wept over your sin – and now know that the Joy of the Lord is your strength!
A Real Thanksgiving
And now we come to the even better news. What is the proper response when you finally realize all of this is true? What should happen when you finally figure out that the burden of your sins, your condemnation to hell, has been lifted from you, atonement has been made by Jesus for your soul, God is your Father once again, and you are His forever and no one can take that away? What’s the right response?
The right response is to have Thanksgiving Dinner! Verse 12, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
That word “because” is the most important word in that sentence. When these people sat down to eat that day, they had a real thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t do it out of tradition. It wasn’t because it was on the calendar. They didn’t just get the good wine, order a turkey, and invite everyone over because they wanted to be with their family. They did it “because they had understood the words that were declared to them”.
Words of life. Words of hope. Words that changed the way they saw themselves, the world, and their God forever. Words that drew them into a brand new relationship with their Father in Heaven that they hadn’t had for years.
We need to do the same thing. Did you know that the original act of parliament from January 31, 1957, which created the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada says this:
“A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
It was started as a day to thank God for His abundant blessings to us.
So let me encourage you that when you come into the Thanksgiving season, that you do it with a mind towards the grace God has shown us in Jesus Christ. He loved the world so much that He sent His one and only son, that whoever would believe in Him wouldn’t have to die in their sins… but would be able to have eternal life with Him forever. And He walks with us throughout our entire life, and promises to never leave us nor forsake us, no matter what.
Praise God that it’s not about how good we are, but how good He is. It’s not about how much we punish ourselves, it’s about the punishment He took for us on the cross. It’s not about how religious we are, because religion without Jesus only leads to death. Those who understand this have the most reason to give thanksgiving because they have experienced the resurrection of their souls – they have gone from death to life.
I hope that’s true for you. I hope you have admitted your sin and turned to Jesus. Today is the day of salvation. And a day to begin giving real thanks.