It’s been a troubling week again this week as we read about the race riots and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia and the 17 people killed in Barcelona, Spain just this week. It is strange how these things come in waves. Before now I hadn’t really considered how vehicles could be used in a terrorist attack, but now it doesn’t even come as a surprise to hear that someone has rammed people a crowd with a car and killed people. It turns out that suicide bombings are hard to do and more preventable than a vehicle attack, and so we are going to read about this more and more.
What do we do with all this? For a while, up here in our small town in Canada, it was easy to start to think that we were over all this hatred, but in a very short time we witness hatred off all kinds – nationalism, racism, religious – leading to violent outbreaks all over the world – even in our own back yard. Type in “Canada” and “Racism” into Google News and there’s plenty to read.
Fear and prejudice are dividing people more every day. Facebook, YouTube, and our favourite news channels don’t simply tell us what is happening, but turn into echo chambers of what we want to hear so that we’ll keep clicking and watching – which fuels tribalism and separation as we hear less and less diversity of opinion and more and more of ourselves reflected back at us. It’s easy to slip into an “us and them” mentality where I and the people like me are the good guys and everyone else is stupid, evil, and unworthy of our attention or love. And I know for a fact that we are not immune to this here because I’ve heard it and seen this type of thinking from my own friends and fellow believers as they publically denounce other nations, people groups, celebrities, news organizations, movements, religions – even other believers, churches, and pastors. We become more known for what we are against than for what we are about, which not only fuels separation and tribalism, but a prideful, elitist mentality that makes us think that we are better, smarter, and holier than everyone else.
Think about it for a moment. If I asked you to list all the groups you are against, it would be much easier than to list the ones that you identify with and have compassion for, right? I’m not going to list them here because it’s the only thing you would hear and remember from this sermon, but consider for a moment the groups and people you have seen, or have personally vilified over the past weeks, months and years. The people you believe you are better than, smarter than, holier than– and who should just shut up or go away. That’s not love, that pride. That’s not humility, that’s fear. That’s not a Christlike heart, that’s closed-minded prejudice.
Our Role in Salvation
We talked about this over the last few weeks, and even over the past months in our study of 1 Corinthians: Christians are not better than others. We are simply a group of those God has chosen to show the truth to. Yes, that is a bold claim these days – the claim to an exclusive truth – but that’s what we have. We believe that the claims of Jesus Christ being the way, truth and the life, and that no one can come to God except through Him are true – and that every other way is false.
But that shouldn’t lead us to pride, but humility! Remember the verse from Ephesians 2:8-9 last week? We emphasized how much our salvation is not our doing! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
What do Christians believe about our role in salvation? That we are saved “by grace”, “not our own doing”, “not a result of [our] works” meaning that what Jesus did for us on the cross by taking our sins upon Himself and dying in our places is completely undeserved. It was an act of grace. This is the most distinctive feature, the most special thing, about Christianity, which comes right out of the Bible. There is no other system of thought, no other religion, either past or present that teaches that the path to life, peace, heaven, and God, is an act of divine, completely undeserved favour.
Most other religions (like Bahai, Buddhism, Hinduism) believe that hard work and good deeds will lead to their life’s fulfilment and is their path to God, or freedom, or becoming a god, or whatever their version of heaven is – and that if you don’t do enough you get punished in some way. Islam believes that when you die your deeds will be weighed by Allah and if the good deeds (like prayer, pilgrimages, and generosity) outweigh the bad then you can get into heaven. The only way to really guarantee that you will go to heaven is to be martyred, or die in service to Allah, which really tips the scales. Other religions like Jehovah Witnesses or Mormonism have used some Christian language to give their religion credence, but rewrite or add to the Bible to include a whole bunch of extra works and financial giving that needs to be done or you will be rejected by God. Some who call themselves Christians, like Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have drifted from the doctrines of grace and teach that not only do you need to believe in Jesus, but you need to check off a series of good-deed and religion boxes or you can’t get into heaven. They also teach that even if you believe in Jesus you can lose your salvation by doing bad things – and have a list of ones that are so bad that you can never be forgiven for them. That’s not what the Bible says either.
Last week we talked about the Doctrine of Total Depravity, the belief that everyone, by their very sinful nature, is bent away from God and would never choose to obey Him – and that even our supposed good deeds are still unacceptable to God because they are still tainted with our own selfishness, greed, false motives, and lack of insight.
In this world, it is only Christians that teach that humans cannot do anything good, or achieve any benefit in the afterlife, by our own works. We believe we are utterly and totally dependent on the grace of God.
Believing in the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity has some serious implications for how we think of ourselves and others, doesn’t it? In one sense they can bring us to despair. We love to think that we are the masters of our own destiny and have the ability to impress others, even God, with our good deeds – and finding out that we can’t, can be a blow to our ego. On the other hand, this can also lead to a deflating depression where every time we start to feel good about ourselves we are reminded that we are utterly weak and wretchedly sinful. Wrongly applied, it can lead to a sort of depression that makes us feel worthless.
And so most people ignore it. It’s hard to tell people there is nothing they can do to save themselves because they are totally depraved sinners who are dead in their transgressions. And so the gospel gets repackaged to emphasize the more positive side, telling people that Jesus loves them, that they are special, chosen, children of light, separate from the dark and messed up world – which is all true, but not the whole story!
The Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity don’t merely end in a depression funk where nothing matters – that’s only where it starts because that is where it must start. It’s meant to drive us to the bottom so we must look upward in worship and thanksgiving. Multiple times in the Bible it says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 29:23; Matthew 23:12; Luke 1:52; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) And scripture gives us many different stories that emphasize the point.
Naaman had leprosy and was sent to be cured by the prophet Elisha, but didn’t like that the solution would be as simple as washing in the Jordan river seven times. He wanted something grand and dramatic and instant, not something so humbling that took so much time and obedience, so he got mad and was about to go home. It was only when he humbled himself that he was clean.
Jesus opposed the prideful Pharisees who thought their way was better than God’s. The rich young ruler came to Jesus, pridefully believing he had earned heaven, and Jesus sent him away grieving after being shown that his faith was in his riches, not God. Peter pridefully claimed that he would never deny Jesus, and Jesus told him that he wouldn’t just do it once, but three times.
The young, arrogant, powerful Pharisee named Saul, who hated Jesus and helped to imprison and kill Christians, was stopped dead in his tracks and struck blind by the Lord Himself so he could understand who he was really opposing. And later, while suffering on the mission field as an Apostle of Jesus, he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
This is what the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity do for us, they humble us and make us look up to God as our helper and strength. They make us realize that we are not wise, but God our Father is and He will share that wisdom with us. We are not good, but Jesus is, and He will share that goodness with us. We are not helpful, but the Holy Spirit is, and He will make it so that we can be.
Therefore, when we look at these terrible situations in Charlottesville and Barcelona – and many other atrocities committed in the name of racism, prejudice, hate, and fear, throughout the world and here at home – we can utterly condemn them as sinful and wrong – but never use them as a way for us to feel superior to others. Instead, they become a reminder of the sinfulness that still dwells in our own hearts and how far we have come because of what Jesus has done in us.
Both Christians and non-Christians I know look at those events and feel the same swells of fear, pride, and hatred. Fear of people different than them and therefore worse. Pride that they and those like them are the ones who are right and good and correct. And then feelings of hatred swell and the desire for revenge takes hold. Now, maybe they aren’t the ones who are going to drive a car through a crowd, or bomb a building, or bring clubs to beat down people that disagree with them – but when someone does, they are secretly glad, saying they “got what’s coming to them”, which Jesus says in Matthew 5 and John in 1 John 3:15 is no different than murder because they have murdered them in their heart (Matthew 5:21-22).
A right thinking sees these events and it brings them sorrow. Sorrow for the sin in this world, for the evil perpetrated, for those who died not knowing the Lord, for the judgement on those who committed the crime, and then – sorrow for all the sins in their own heart that are no different than those they just watched. It drives a right thinking Christian to God in prayer, to their knees in repentance, to righteous anger at the sin, and to a desire to help.
Racism is Unbiblical and Unchristian
We look at the prejudice and racism and we condemn it as ungodly and unbiblical. We know the church has dealt with this from the very beginning as the Bible shows us that sectarianism and nationalism even started to infect the church even as it was forming. But it was wrong then and is wrong now.
- All human beings of all races are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).
- God shows no partiality based on external difference. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
- Jesus told us to love our neighbour and then told the parable of the good Samaritan highlighting the sins of racism and nationalism (Luke 10:25–37).
- In Ephesians 2:14 we read that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between peoples. Jesus smashed all those walls between us where we think we are better than anyone because of something external to us.
- Galatians 3:28 we read that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Racism and prejudice are wrong and sinful. Jesus died for those sins, and Christians should obey Him by loving all people, regardless of their race. But these events don’t just remind us that something is wrong outside us but remind us of where our own heart is darkened in this area.
It should cause us to reflect on how we have disobeyed God by thinking our enemies are other people and not sin and Satan. Ephesians 6:12 says,
“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.”
We should ask ourselves where our own racism and prejudice lies. Who do you hate because of their skin colour or nationality? Who are you prejudice against because of your upbringing? Who are you painting with the same hateful brush, lumping them in with all the others, because it’s easier than seeing them as individuals? Whose souls and eternities do you not care about? Who do you prefer because they are more like you? Who have you deemed unworthy of your attention or time? Are you sitting in an echo chamber that only feeds you what you want to or are you seeking through and turning all those thoughts over to God, judging them by the standards of God’s word?
A Hinderance to Evangelism
I know these stories are troubling, and I know that they can cause a “visceral” reaction within us – visceral means that we create by deep inward feelings rather than intellect – but I beg you not to let them. We are not immune to this and are going to see this more and more in our country and our area. We, in our church, are not immune to racism and prejudice, and we cannot allow them to take hold of our hearts.
We have been talking a lot lately about sharing our faith and this is directly connected. I said that we need to show people love before we share our faith, right? Well, if we hate these people because of our prejudices then we certainly won’t become friends with them, nor show them love, and therefore we will never be able to share with them. What group of people have you decided are not worthy of your love or the gospel?
I said that we need to pray before we share our faith. Are you praying for the salvation of the people you hate because of the colour of their skin or the nation they come from or the history you have with them? Probably not.
I said you need to tell them your story, right? Does your story include segregation, fear of certain people groups, and hatred against certain kinds of people? Or does your testimony share how you obey Jesus by loving the whole world, just as He does.
And I said you need to be patient with the people you are sharing with, right? Are you patient with those you hate? Jesus has given you much patience. He knows your thoughts and has watched as you claim to be one of His people but continue to sin, dismiss His Word, and reject His Spirit – but He still died for you, didn’t he? He traded Himself for you. He keeps forgiving you, loving you, helping you, equipping you, and listening to your prayers, doesn’t He? Why is he so patient? Because of His Amazing Grace and love for you. Are you showing the same to others? These events should cause us to reflect on and reject our own sin.
Gollum and Frodo
I know it’s not quite right to have an illustration at the end of the sermon, but this one, I think, will close us out well. All of this reminds me of a scene from Lord of the Rings.
For those who don’t know the Lord of the Rings, the ring as a sort of sentience, It’s alive and evil and corrupts all who wear it. There was one person who wore it for far too long. Smeagol found the ring one day while fishing and it immediately corrupted his heart. As he wore it he became more and more evil, more and more corrupted, until he was driven from his home town to live in a cave in the mountains of an enemy land. The ring gave Gollum unnatural life for hundreds of years, corrupting him inside and out until he was almost utterly consumed.
After hundreds of years, one day, when the hero of the Hobbit, Bilbo was wandering through the cave, the ring abandoned Gollum in order to find a new owner to corrupt in hopes of being taken out of the mountain. Gollum attacks Bilbo to get it back, but the ring turns Bilbo invisible and allows him to escape. But right before he is about to escape the mountain Gollum blocks his way and Bilbo is presented with a choice – kill Gollum or try to rush past him. He pulls his sword to put this vile creature to death, but instead of allowing his hate and fear to control him his heart fills with pity and Bilbo chooses to jump past instead.
In Lord of the Rings, the ring has passed from Bilbo to Frodo who has been given the task of destroying it – and we can see throughout the books that it’s slowly corrupting Frodo too. But Gollum has not gone away but is always following, always hoping to kill Frodo and get the ring back.
Then this happens:
JRR Tolkien used the Ring as a symbol of sin and Gollum as the creature who has been totally corrupted by it. He is a hateful creature breathing lies, curses, and threats at all times. Frodo feels it would be best if Gollum would have just died. The world would be better off without him. Gollum is hateful and deserves to be hated and dispensed with. He’s in the way, stopping the good people from doing good. But Gandolf, a sort of Christ figure or at least Biblical prophet type in the book, does not hate him – he pities him.
And then he speaks these words: “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
This reminds me of the Parable of the Weeds that Jesus told in Matthew 13:24-43.
“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’’”
Just as Frodo wanted to kill Gollum, the servants want to go out and pick out all the weeds in the garden, but the farmer says no, stating that his servants are not wise enough or careful enough to be able to do the job without messing up the whole field. They are not reapers and though they think they know what they are doing, they would be pulling out good plants with the bad and would do damage to the crop. He says, “When the time is right I’ll let the reapers do it because they’ll do it right.” And in the next verses we learn that the reapers are angels sent by God – not humans.
What’s the point? We are too much like Frodo and the servants, wanting to hastily jump in with our poor judgement, prejudice, racism, and ill motives, and try to do God’s job for Him. That’s not our job. What does God want? For us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. Our job, according to Jesus, is to love God, love our neighbour, and love our enemies – not dole out our own poorly conceived, ungodly, prejudice plans. We must repent and ask forgiveness for such thoughts….
 Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Grace”.
Last week we talked about how scary it can be to talk about our faith and some ways we can get over the fear of sharing what Jesus is doing in our life with the people around us. It essentially came down to four things: show people love before you stress about sharing the gospel with them, remember to pray and give yourself and the whole situation over to God, tell them your story and not someone else’s or a list of memorized steps and prayers, and finally, to be consistent but also patient with them and God, knowing He has it under control.
Knowing those four things takes some of the stress off the situation because it makes sharing our faith much more natural rather than forced. It’s stressful to talk to a stranger, it’s easier to talk to someone you have gotten to know. It’s stressful to have to regurgitate steps and techniques that you’ve memorized, but it’s easier when you simply tell your own story of what God has been doing in your life. It’s stressful when you think you are alone, or that all of eternity hinges on you getting this moment right, but it’s a lot easier when you know that God is with you and everything will happen in His timing.
I really appreciated Justin’s story from the video. And parts of his story line up with what I talked about and then parts of it don’t. Which isn’t surprising since everyone’s story is different, right? He had a teacher who he knew cared for him, but instead of talking to him about Jesus directly, the teacher invited this messed up drug-dealer to church – and He went! So who did the work there? God did all of it, right? The teacher was kind and gave the kid an invite, but it was God that got this rebellious teen to walk through the door of a church alone. Justin got saved his first time at church. That’s totally God, right? The teacher wasn’t even going to pray with him! He didn’t believe that God was going to save this kid on his first night at church – but He did!
And you can hear the resolve in Justin’s voice during the second part of the video, right? He feels an urgency to share his faith with the people around him. He hates the idea of people going to Hell because he hasn’t shared with them. He even feels a sense of guilt – misplaced guilt, I would say – for not sharing Jesus enough with his friend who committed suicide. It’s God who saves, not Justin, but I appreciate his passion.
But his story and his mission, though very personal for him, is also a universal one. It’s told all through scripture, and has been repeated for thousands of years. Justin was a sinner who couldn’t care less about his soul, God, Jesus or God’s people. But God was working in his heart, even when He didn’t know it. He met someone who showed him love and had the courage to invite him to a better way. God worked a miracle and gave him the choice between two roads that led either to Jesus or away from Him. He walked towards Jesus and the stirrings of his heart were explained to him by one of Jesus’ preachers. He felt compelled to renounce his sin and gave his life to Jesus by confessing not only to God, but to the one who had given him the first invitation. And now he lives his life as one with a fire in his bones that compels him to share this message with all the other people who are lost like he was.
That’s evangelism in a nutshell, and it’s the natural thing for Christians to do. The more we understand what we were saved from and who our saviour is, the stronger the compulsion to share that message.
More Forgiveness More Love
Turn with me to Luke 7:36 and let’s read it together:
“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” [Simon was the name of the Pharisee whose house Jesus was eating at.]
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
Look at what she does. She had no doubt been listening to Jesus public teaching and had been deeply moved by it, and was desperate to meet Jesus. She hears where Jesus is and drops everything to come. She runs to a place where she knows she is despised and unwelcome – to a Pharisees house. She brings something valuable to her, a very expensive alabaster jar of perfume, as an act of atonement or repentance, showing her sorrow for her sin and desire to make it right. She stands behind him, not feeling worthy to even speak a word to Jesus. She weeps. Not because she is afraid or sad, but from the grief of her sinful life, the desperation to be forgiven, and to have the destruction of her soul repaired by Jesus. One commentary I read gave a beautiful thought:
“The tears, which were quite involuntary, poured down in a flood upon [Jesus’] naked feet, as she bent down to kiss them, and deeming them rather fouled than washed by this, she hastened to wipe them off with the only towels he had, the long tresses of her own hair…”
She kisses His feet. The word here means she kissed his feet repeatedly, over and over an act of reverence, thankfulness, and humility. Jesus was her Lord, Master, Teacher, and Saviour, and she showed it publically and with great humiliation.
Contrast that with the Pharisee. Now, was Simon less of a sinner than the woman? No, of course not. His sins were just less publically known. Simon considered himself worthy of the presence of Jesus at his table – in fact, he may have even felt that he was equal to Jesus. So he didn’t even bother to show Jesus the most basic hospitality. No kindness, no greeting, no service. This woman knew she was a sinner in need of a Saviour – Simon did not.
The Pharisee was aghast that Jesus would let such a sinful person touch Him. Jesus had the reputation of being a Prophet, someone who was close to God and had a special connection to Him, someone who was holy, with special knowledge that no one else had. So Simon thought, “This guy must be a really bad prophet if he can’t even tell who this woman is. He can’t be who he says he is. He can’t be as holy or important as I thought he was. I’m a much better teacher and much more holy person than Jesus. I’d never let this woman anywhere near me!”
Jesus knew what Simon was thinking and even while the woman was still washing and anointing His feet, Jesus gets Simon’s attention and tells the parable of two people who were forgiven their debts.
He inherently knows the answer to Jesus question, right? It’s common sense. A denarii is the equivalent to the average worker’s daily wage. One person owed a year and a half’s worth of debt. So take your annual household income and add 50%. The average household income in Canada is about $76,000, so that means that the first person owed about $115,000 dollars. By contrast the other person owed about $11,000.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been forgiven a debt of any substantial size, or given a gift of something fairly expensive, but it’s a pretty amazing feeling. And, in human terms, the amount of amazing feeling you get is generally commensurate with the amount you’ve been given or forgiven. Not that I recommend playing the lottery, but think about it. Who celebrates more, the one who wins $20 off a scratch card or the one who wins the million dollar jackpot? Who feels more accomplished, the team that leads the entire season and then wins the cup, or the underdog team with the new coach, that struggled with injuries, and eeks out a second period overtime win in game 7?
In the same way, the one who knows the depth of their sins and knows they’ve been forgiven much will love much, but “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Are You A Sinner?
If you know you are a sinner doomed to hell by your own hand, unable to save yourself, but plucked from death and reborn anew by the amazing grace of Jesus, your love for Jesus and for God will be far more than the one who thinks they are mostly good, who believes they have earned their own place in heaven, who commands their own life, or just needs God to occasionally step in when things get a little too difficult.
In recent years, for those who still sing hymns, some churches have taken to changing the words to the great John Newton hymn, Amazing Grace, because the original version is too unpalatable. The original lyrics say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But, understandably, most people don’t like saying they are wretches, but they like the song, have some nostalgia for it, or like the idea of getting grace from God, so they change the words to “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me” or “that saved and set me free”. That’s much better, they think.
The problem with that is that we are wretches. For many years John Newton was a vile human being: A runaway, a rebel, a military deserter, and a convict. To get out of prison he begged to work on a slave ship, the vilest of positions, where his racism ran rampant and he helped to kidnap and kill people, living with complete moral abandon, working hard to tempt and seduce others to sin with him. One night there was a great storm where he thought he would die, and suddenly verses he had learned as a child sprang to mind and he begged God for forgiveness and help. God intervened and not only saved his life, but his soul. He changed his life and started to work to clean up the slave trade industry until he became so disgusted that he quit and joined the ministry. Newton took to writing hymns and poems for his church’s Thursday evening prayer service, and one of these was Amazing Grace. The guilt and shame of his former life never left him, and near the end of his life when he was getting more feeble and sick, as people kept wondering if he would retire, he would reply,
“I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
John Newton knew well the wretchedness of his soul and how amazing the grace of Jesus must be that He would be willing to save him. But we have lost that these days. People today don’t like to talk about “sin that leads to death”, but instead about “brokenness that needs healing”. If they believe in an afterlife, or a sort of heaven, when you ask them if they are going when they die they will say, “I hope so. I think I’ve been a good person.”
Too many Christians don’t know if they are saved or not, because they believe that their salvation is based on how obedient or loving or good they have been, rather than on their faith in Jesus. I’m not against new music or new worship songs, but it is not good that so many have turned from singing the old hymns that said things like, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” “What, I’m not a worm!” we argue. “I’m a good person!”
Many will no longer sing, “I need Thee, precious Jesus, for I am full of sin; My soul is dark and guilty, My heart is dead within. I need the cleansing fountain Where I can always flee, The blood of Christ most precious, The sinner’s perfect plea.”  “I’m not full of sin, I’m a good person.” “I’m not dark and guilty, I just need a little help.” “My heart isn’t dead within me, I have lots of feelings and love.” “I’m not dirty, I don’t need a cleansing fountain.”
But that’s not how scripture teaches it. That’s not what Christians believe. God says in the Bible:
Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Romans 3:10-18, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
And some say, “That’s only talking about really bad people. That’s not me. I’m a good person.” To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Turn with me again to Ephesians 2 and let’s read it together. This is a passage we have read many times, but we must never allow to stray far from our memory.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
That is the condition of our soul were it not for the Amazing Grace of Jesus Christ. You and I are not good people in need of a little help. Our souls are not sick and in need of a doctor. We are not drowning and just need to grab onto a life preserver. Without Jesus we are walking corpses, dead in our sins, citizens of an enemy kingdom, children of disobedience, living out the passions of our flesh, selfishly doing whatever we think is best for us, under the rightful wrath of God.
Isaiah 64:6 uses four similes to describe what Gods sees when He looks at us: “We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain favour with God any more than someone can bribe us by giving us a used menstrual pad. It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It is imperative we understand this. It affects your prayer life, your worship, your humility, your desperation for God’s word, and your passion for sharing your faith. The woman atJesus’s feet knew she was a sinner and wept at His feet seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God, which she received. Justin from the video knows he is an undeserving sinner saved from Hell, and he is compelled to tell others. John Newton knew he was a pitiful wretch who was only saved by the Amazing Grace of God and he was compelled to tell others. I too, though I have known God all my life, was saved as a child, know that I am a depraved sinner who, left to himself, would sin myself into oblivion. I cannot judge anyone else as worse than me! But by the Grace of God go I. There is no bottom to my selfishness, greed, and sin – and praise God there is no bottom to His Amazing Grace found in Jesus Christ… and knowing that I am compelled to tell others.
Now keep reading in Ephesians 2:4:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The question is, do you know this? How much of a sinner do you think you are? Do you know the name by which you are saved? Were it not for God, how much of a sinner you would be? Do you know the One who has redeemed you and what you have been redeemed from? Do you thank God every day for His Amazing Grace to a wretch like you?
The one who knows the depth of their sin and realizes how much they have been forgiven will love Jesus more, pray more, worship more, and talk about Jesus more – they are motivated to share the love and forgiveness of God with others because they know how much they are loved and forgive. But “he who is forgiven little, loves little”, prays little, worship little, loves little, forgives little, and talks about Jesus little.
 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
The Christmas story has been told so many times that, to some, it can lose its potency. We all think we know it so well… Mary, Joseph, Manger, Wise Men, Shepherds, Herod, etc., etc. I want to ask you to try to listen again for the first time and thentake a look at the first people to hear the good news of the birth of Jesus.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ( Luke 2:8-20)
We talked about this a bit last week, but it’s such a striking story that it’s worth digging into because it’s pretty amazing to consider that the first people to hear about the birth of the most important person in history were a small group of shepherds sitting in their field, in the middle of the night.
Think of what we do when a child is born! We put it in the newspaper, the church bulletin, call our family and friends, post pictures on Facebook, and tell as many people as we can, as quickly as we can.
We would have sent the angels to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, to wake the High Priest, to sing “Glory to God on High!” in every part of the world so everyone could see. We wouldn’t have even waited until people were awake to let the trumpets ring! We would have arranged the clouds and stars to say “The Messiah has been born!”
But God goes a different direction.
Outcasts & Rebels
Something you need to know about shepherds, which I alluded to last week, is that they were actually outcasts in their society. We romanticize them because David was a shepherd, and we love the picture of God as our shepherd from Psalm 23, we have shepherds in our nativity sets (and they seem nice), Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and we have little pictures of sheep and shepherds all over the place on our Christian mugs and posters. But during the time of Christ, shepherds were actually social rejects that nobody liked or trusted.
It would be like having pictures of the guys who collapsed Enron or Nortel, or the shady construction companies that overcharge people and then do shoddy work, or used car salesmen or pawn-shop owners, on our coffee mugs and nursery walls.
Their work made them continuously ceremonially unclean, and therefore they couldn’t associate with good, religious Jews. Going to the temple was almost prohibitive for them so they just didn’t. Their reputation was tarnished and they stayed on the outside of society, and were generally considered to be untrustworthy and unlikeable. Sure, they needed them – to buy their sheep for sacrifices in the temple – but they didn’t like them.
Think of them the way that we think of gas companies or phone companies. We need their product, but we don’t really want to be associated with them, right?
But that’s who God chose first. And I think the reason is because God wanted to demonstrate that He didn’t send His Son for the special, wealthy, loveable, or elite of human society, but for everyone, even (and especially) broken, rejected sinners.
The angels announce in verse 10, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Those words, “all the people”, are the Greek words PAS LAOS. LAOS is where we get our word “laity”, as in “lay people” or “lay worker” or “commoner”.
The good news of Jesus was given first to common people. This is a theme throughout the life of Christ. He is continuously found speaking to, doing miracles for, teaching, eating with, and associating with regular people. That was one reason the Pharisees and religious elite found Him so perplexing and annoying. They had built a big wall between themselves and all the “unwashed masses” that weren’t like them. They were the “holier-than-thou’s” and everyone else was beneath them.
And yet when God sends His Son, the first people He tells are the common, hard-working guys that are just out there doing their job, never expecting any kind of special treatment. They were rejected by “good society” but God gives them a special place in history.
Many of us wouldn’t be getting the invite to visit Jesus in the stable. It would be the poor, immigrant who is working at a low-paying but can’t find anything better because of discrimination and intolerance. The angels would be appearing to the group of homeless people and prostitutes huddled under an overpass to keep warm. He would come to the senior citizen’s home or the women’s shelter, to those who have had to leave their home, are in debt up to their ears, have little hope and feel forgotten by the ones who they thought cared about them.
That’s an amazing think the shepherd’s story teaches us. God introduces Himself regular, normal, struggling, sinful, hurting folk, in a spectacular way. He doesn’t give the good stuff to a a certain age, economic, or ethnic group. The message to the shepherds, and to us, is that a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not just for certain people – but for everyone.
An Understandable God
This shows up all over scripture. God speaks to people in ways they can understand. Sometimes movies and books portray God as confusing – as though He speaks in riddles. But that’s not the case! God is extremely clear about what He says, all the way though scripture – it is we who complicate His message by our disobedience, ignorance and willful attempts to twist His words.
The New Testament is written in the common language of the day, using words everyone could understand. Jesus taught mostly using simple stories, not complicated theological jargon. And we know He loves using regular, normal, everyday people to do amazing things for His glory and to grow His kingdom. That way He gets the glory, and people get to be involved with something that is on an eternal scale.
Look at what the shepherds got to do! They ran away from their sheep (something a shepherd would not normally do) and were the first people to see Jesus, and then ran all over town spreading the good news!
Instead of doing what we would do, using the religious elite like pastors, priests, teachers and politicians – or even angels from Heaven – God’s plan was to use normal people to tell Bethlehem about the Messiah.
And He’s still doing that today. God doesn’t work primarily through people like Billy Graham or other famous Christmas. People like me are not His primary workers. Billy Graham brought people to God. I’m someone who was given to the church to help equip people for what God wants them to do. It’s you and other normal people that God works though most.
“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is WRONG
The words “God helps those who help themselves” is NOWHERE in scripture! Neither is “God helps those who deserve it”. It’s just not there! God’s grace is amazing because it is for those who need it, who don’t deserve it, and can’t help themselves.
- “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
- When His disciples were asked, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus answered, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:16-17)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 )
This is all over the Bible and the very foundation of how we understand the Gospel! We need to understand that when Jesus came to earth at Christmas He wasn’t coming to simply give us an example to live by – no, He was coming to save us because we couldn’t save ourselves. He was coming out of love for people who didn’t love Him. He was coming to resurrect dead souls and make His enemies into friends.
- “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)
That word “propitiation” means Jesus was the One who satisfied the God’s wrath against sin on our behalf. His judgement of sin is right and good and punishment must be given to sinners. But Jesus came to earth as a baby so He could grow up and take upon Himself the full measure of God’s hatred for sin — the punishment we deserve.
- “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)
More than this, Ephesians describes the state of our souls before the coming of Jesus as being dead. Dead people can’t help themselves. No doctor would walk into a morgue and look at a dead body and say, “I’ll help him get better when he can help himself.” That’s ridiculous. But that’s what people are saying when they say “God helps those who help themselves.” Before Jesus changes our hearts, we are corpses… enemy corpses… unable to do anything to save ourselves.
- “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Do you see that? That’s what Jesus came to at Christmas. He didn’t come to a world that deserved Him. No, he came to surround himself with people who were dead in their sins, following Satan, disobedient, more interested in the desires of our flesh than what God wants, and were, along with all mankind, under God’s WRATH. Thank God for verse 4.
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Another reason that “God helps those who help themselves” is wrong is because it assumes that we can actually do something good before we are saved. From God’s perspective, that’s impossible. The Shepherds didn’t do anything to deserve to hear the gospel from the angels, and we can’t do anything to deserve salvation!
When the prophet Isaiah described the state of affairs of a group of people who have turned away from God he said this:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6-7)
Theologians call this the doctrine of “Total Depravity”. It means that unless we are washed by the blood of Jesus, we are stained completely black from the inside out, not one ounce of good left within us.
The term “polluted garment” is a very strong one. Other translations use the word “filthy rags” or “permanently stained rags”, but it doesn’t quite capture the picture – and it’s a gross one. The word to describe all of our “good deeds” before salvation is the word “polluted” or “filthy” and it’s the Hebrew word IDDAH, which literally means “the bodily fluids from a woman’s menstrual cycle.”[i]
We sometimes ask the question, “But what about all the good people who don’t believe in Jesus? What about all the really nice people who are so moral and good? Won’t they be able to go to heaven and say, ‘I did good things for you, God! I was a good person!’”
The Bible says that since they are still in their sin, in rebellion against Him, are enemies of God, are playing for team Satan, and that even their so-called “righteous acts” are as repugnant as a soiled feminine hygiene product.
Now, to give this context, remember what was happening when Isaiah wrote this. The Israelites had turned their backs on God, were worshipping idols and demons, and making sacrifices to God on pagan alters. They thought they were doing something good, but it was all stained by sin. There is no way to impress God as a pagan unbeliever.
There was an old sketch on SNL where Stewart Smalley would stare into a mirror and do a daily-self-affirmation where he would say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” It was a joke – but it really is the basic mantra of all self-help gurus. It’s the belief that most people have for the afterlife too. And it’s total garbage.
Martin Luther once said,
“The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”[i]
When Jesus talked about the judgement of all people in the end He said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is why He said that. Good works do not impress God, and they cannot save. They are like “filthy rags”.
What does this mean for us today?
First, if you’re feeling the conviction of your sin, then realize that God isn’t expecting you to clean yourself up before you come to Him. You don’t need to stop sinning in order to be saved. No, the difference comes in that you must hate your sin. As long as you love your sin, make excuses for it, make allowances for it, and tell God that you love it more than Him, then you cannot be saved. Thinking you need to clean yourself up, or that you need to do so many good deeds to impress God first, is a satanic lie that actually keeps you from God.
Salvation comes when you realize that you are a sinner, that you cannot save yourself, that you start to hate your sin and want to be free from it, and come to the only one who can forgive you. That’s what “Repentance” means. It means turning around and walking the other way. You know you are wrong, admit you’re wrong, come to Jesus and say,
“I’m wrong. I’ve been living wrong. I’m a sinner and I can’t get out from underneath. There is no amount of good deeds I can do to make up for my sin, and no matter how much I try to do, I always feel guilt and shame. Jesus, be my Lord, be my Saviour. I accept your salvation. I accept that you died on the cross for me, and I will spend the rest of my live living in a way to say ‘thank you’.”
1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s not about feeling forgiven – it’s about accepting that you are forgiven because Jesus did everything that was necessary. The feelings will come later as you live out your faith. Know you are saved and cleansed because God always keeps His promises.
Remember the words of the Angels to the Shepherds,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Second, if you are a Christian today who has fallen backward, has allowed sins to pile up, or is drifting away from a life of consistent prayer and bible reading, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re too far gone. Don’t believe must come to God perfectly or you shouldn’t do it. Don’t think it’s too late to start praying. Don’t believe that you’ve got too much back-logged sin to confess, or too much to say to start praying again, too much to read to start reading again, too many back-payments in tithing to start giving again.
Jesus wants you as you are today. Ask forgiveness and just start today. I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God wants back-payments. You don’t need to “catch up” your prayer life or bible reading. Just start today. Don’t be paralyzed by guilt or shame. Stop making excuses, confess your sin of neglect, ask God for help, ask a Christian friend to hold you accountable, and start being obedient today.
And third, if you’ve come to church, or go to a small group, work in one of the church ministries, or simply feel a draw to talk to your family or friends about Jesus and feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and mistakes you’re making, don’t get down on yourself thinking that God is disappointed in you.
It’s ok you don’t know all the right words, know exactly what to do, or what the “rules” are. It’s ok if you stumble through a song, feel shy praying aloud, or drop the ball in some area of work. God listens to your heart and your motivations. God doesn’t just hears prayers if they are formatted properly, using special words. He doesn’t just accept worship from professional singers. He doesn’t just use people who are talented and confident. No, God uses regular people most of all – in fact, He prefers it! Normal, nervous, dependant, obedient people are His favourite way of affecting the world.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
So let’s do that this Christmas. Let’s “boast in the Lord” and be thankful that the first people He told were normal, messed up, sinful shepherds – people like us. Let’s be thankful that we cannot save ourselves, because then we’d always be stressed out that we’d done enough, or be prideful thinking about how great we are. Let’s be thankful for the one who came and saved us, who keeps saving, and who will always save those who come to Him and ask.
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.