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Real Repentance

Date: Aug. 18, 2013

Author: Bob Henkins

Nehemiah 9:1-10:39

Key Verse: Nehemiah 9:17, 10:29

“They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,”

“all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.”

Here’s a short summary of what’s happened in the book to this point so far. God called a man named Nehemiah to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and start a church there. So he left the capital city of Susa where he worked for the king and in 52 days the walls of Jerusalem, which had laid in ruin for 141 years, had finally been rebuilt. Then we saw, from last week’s passage, around 60,000 people moved back into the city and one of the first things they do is have a worship service. When they got together all of them stood as Ezra read the first five books of the Bible, they worshipped God for about five to six hours. And during that time their hard hearts began to soften and they experienced this incredibly great joy because they had never celebrated like this before. They began to hunger for God’s word and studied the scripture for seven days straight. And through this study, God’s people realized just how holy and good God is and how sinful and bad they were. And today’s passage occurs about 2 days after they had finished their initial celebration and it’s going to show what their response is after receiving the grace of God.

Let’s take a look at verse 1. “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.” As a group, all of them come to God in the same way, dressed with these scratchy uncomfortable clothes, hungry and covered in dirt. What does this show about them? Most people want to look nice when they come to worship God but theses Israelites look like a bunch of homeless people. However it wasn’t because they were poor that they came like this, it was intentional. And from their outward appearance we can see their inner heart as they realized how their actions and attitude, their sin, had made God grieve. And so they humbled themselves before Almighty God as they began to repent. It had been 2 days since their celebration and reading of God’s word and it seems that they spent considerable time repenting of sin. Their eyes had been opened and for the first time they could see that their sin was the problem and that repentance was the answer.

Verses 2 & 3, “Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.” (v2-3) Sometimes it’s hard for us to see the sins of our parents. It could be that we’ve had pretty good parents who have tried their best to love and serve us. Or maybe there have been some really terrible sins in our family that we don’t want to deal with, or maybe our culture forbids us to dishonor our parents, so we conveniently overlook them. But the truth is, if we don’t acknowledge the sins of our parents and the fact that our parents are sinners, especially our fathers, we have a habit of repeating those sins. There is a saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” which means that we tend to follow in our parents footsteps. So if your father avoided conflict, then you avoid conflict. Or if your mother was really proud and self-righteous and then so are you. Whatever it is, there is this natural inclination to repeat sin from one generation to the next. However when confessing the sins of our fathers and previous generations, we’re acknowledging that part of who we are has been shaped by the family we were raised in. And by confessing our sins personally, we’re taking personal responsibility for the sins of our family. We’re acknowledging those patterns and habits of sinful thoughts and behaviors that have been passed down to us. And in so doing then we’re being honest about sin and can finally break that chain. However, this seems to be the opposite of what actually happens in reality. People may be able to see the sins of their family but instead of repenting of it, they use that as an excuse for their own sin. There may be recognition of sin but not a repentance of it. For example, my dad used to be angry with me and now I’m angry at everybody else or my mom was a gossip and now I’m a gossip, but it’s not my fault, they made me like this. This seems to be the world we live in. Rather than repenting and confessing of personal and family sin we can sometimes either; idealize our family by ignoring the obvious or use it as an excuse to justify our own sin blaming them for our transgressions. But these Israelites are not doing this. They are actually confessing their sin individually and corporately and even generationally back into their past.

In the New Testament we’re told to confess our sins to one another. This is not something that happens anonymously or in private but actually people getting together and confessing sin publicly for all to hear. This is what they are doing, gathering and talking in a loud voice. And you can see in verse 4 they are talking to God, so we find that their confession is actually a prayer to God. After all what is prayer but communicating with our heavenly Father? And they say that the key to a successful marriage is what? Communication. That’s true because at the heart of any relationship is communication. You speak, I listen. I speak, you listen. You reveal yourself to me; I reveal myself to you. We get to know one another and our love grows through intimacy and our connection. Likewise prayer is essential if we want to have a fruitful relationship with God. And I know that some of you will complain, “Do we have to pray?” And to that I would say, “No – you get to pray.” This is a privilege that, as Christians, have. We get to communicate with the one who created all things, what a privilege is that. If we got a chance to speak with the president, or a famous athlete or actor, or someone we admire, we would jump at the chance. But how many of us will actually get that opportunity? Not many, but we have the privilege to speak with Almighty God. I know the next thing someone will complain about is, “I don’t know what to pray about.” To that I would say that in chapter 9 we find one of the longest prayers in the Bible. We already know that Nehemiah prays a lot. He has short prayers and long prayers and I want to point out 5 things that we learn from their prayer. First, prayer must be Biblical. Second, prayer must be God centered, prayer must be humble, prayer must be repentant and lastly prayer leads to transformation and a covenant with God.

My first point is, prayer must be Biblical. What do I mean by that? Well, if you find that you don’t know what to pray about, I would say that you’re probably not reading your Bible enough. Because our prayer should be in response to God’s word. In a satisfying relationship there should be two way communication, if it’s one sided it won’t work. So how does this work with God? God speaks to us through the Bible and we speak to him in prayer. That’s how we get to know him and our relationship of trust and transformation grows in the communication that God has with us. Prayer comes from scripture. So if you have trouble praying, I suggest that you pray and read your Bible and when you come across a section that says God is loving, stop and pray, “Holy Spirit, help me remember the times that You have been loving to me.” And then as He brings those things to remembrance just take time to thank God for loving you. Or for example when it says that God will never leave you nor forsake you, stop and thank God for those times when you’ve wandered from Him but He didn’t give up on you. Or the times in life where you were struggling and hurting and you realize that God loved you and He never left you or forsake you and He’s been with you every step of the way. If you go about it like this, your prayer time will grow deeper and longer as you communicate with your heavenly Father.

Secondly prayer must be God centered. When we look at the Israelites prayer God is mentioned all over the place. Take a look at verses 5-6. “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.” It almost reminds us of Jesus’ prayer, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come your will be done….” It begins with glorifying God and remembering all that he has done for them. Highlighting some of the phrases we see, “God kept his promise, he saw their suffering, he heard their crys, he sent them signs, he divided the Red Sea, he led them by day & night, he came down to them, he spoke to them, he gave them decrees to help them live together, he gave them bread and water, he forgave them, he was gracious and compassionate to them, he was slow to anger and abounds in love, he never abandoned them, he sustained them for 40 years in the desert, even their cloths didn’t wear out or their feet get swollen from walking. Amazing. God made them fruitful with numerous sons, he gave them land, he subdued their enemies, he saved them from their enemies, he gave them people that them his word. Their prayer is extremely God centered. Normally when we’ve done something wrong we are defensive and we put up our guard and we are ready to justify ourselves. But when we come to God in prayer like them and we begin to realize just how much God loves us and we remember all that he has done for us, we see that God isn’t going to attack us, he’s going to love us and this naturally allows us to bring our guard down and we can let God into our lives and so our broken relationship can start to heal.

Normally we don’t like to talk about sin because that’s how sinners are. From Romans 1 we learn that we like to suppress the unrighteousness of our deeds. We like to suppress the truth and don’t want to talk about our sin. So we’ll even redefine our sin by saying things like, “That wasn’t a sin. That was a mistake.” So this brings me to my third point, our prayer should be humble. When our prayer is Biblical and God centered we naturally become humble as we see our sins before the Almighty God who has been so gracious to us. If you take a look at their prayer we see after how loving God has been, they acknowledged how sinful they have been starting in verse 16. Look at how they described themselves and their forefathers. As arrogant, stiff-necked, disobedient, refused to listen, failed to remember, rebellious, idolaters, blasphemers, they killed his servants, they did evil, they didn’t pay attention to his commands, they didn’t serve him, they abandoned God over and over again. How would you respond to a person if you asked them to tell you a little about themselves and they said something like this – would you still want to be friends with them?

Getting to my fourth point, after they are humbled, their prayer must be repentant. It must be death to sin and living for righteousness. However most Christians don’t have a clear understanding of what repentance truly is. It’s a word that we tend to use a lot. It means that we put to death our sin and go and live a new life. That we were living, thinking, and acting one way but after repenting we turn from that and go a completely different course of life. But the problem is that so many people practice varying counterfeit forms of repentance. I will touch briefly on a few of them. The first is mere confession. Confession is really good but it’s not enough. Mere confession is: after you sin the Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin and you actually agree with God that your actions violated God’s law. And so you confess your sin. So far so good. But that’s where it stops. Mere confession is someone that feels bad about their sin, but doesn’t really change. They may try their best for a few days but eventually they go back to their old ways. We see this happening all over this passage. The Israelites sin and they get themselves into a difficult spot, they cry out to God in confession and God delivers them out of that tough spot and after a short time to go back to their old ways. There is no accountability. Verse 28 sums it up, “But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight.” These kind of people are stuck in this rut driving in circles making no forward spiritual progress.

The next form of counterfeit repentance is worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow is spoken of in 2 Corinthians 7:10. Paul says that worldly sorrow leads to death. Non-Christians can feel sorrow. It’s called worldly sorrow. And Christian who think in worldly ways can have sorrow, but it’s worldly sorrow and not repentance. Worldly sorrow is the person who feels really bad. They become very emotional. Here’s the key. That emotion is manipulation. They are trying to appear sorrowful so that you won’t press them to repentance. It’s a trick so that they won’t be held accountable. This person is like Judas who regretted his sin but never truly repented.

The third form of counterfeit repentance is self-righteousness. This is the kind of person that can point out other people’s sin but they never truly repent of their own sin. It is like the person Jesus spoke of in the story in Luke 9 where there’s two guys who go into pray. One guy who’s a sinner prays, “God, I’m a sinner have mercy on me.” But the other guy says, “God, thank you I’m not like that guy.” Now that’s self-righteous pride. These people confess the sins of others but not their own. If you point out sin in their life they freak out. They don’t repent well.

And the last form of counterfeit repentance is religious repentance. This is where they act out of fear of God’s punishment. They think if they punish themselves they can be right with God. Martin Luther thought repentance was whipping himself until he fainted, but still there wasn’t any real change in his life. We have no power to make ourselves righteous. We can’t take it into our own hands. It has to come from God. Real repentance comes from a deep personal relationship with our heavenly father.

Ultimately prayer leads to real repentance that leads to transformation and a covenant with our heavenly father. And as a sign of their repentance the Israelites make a written binding covenant with God to hold them accountable. They realized that they were sinners and so they wanted to make sure that they would do what is right.

The specific ways they want to obey God were to 1) to commit themselves to God, 2) to obey the word of God, 3) to marry a godly person, 4) to worship God as their first priority, 5) to give their first and best to God. This reminds me of the Puritans in early American churches. They wanted to give God their best so actually paid a man to make sure they wouldn’t fall asleep in church. And what he would do it walk around during the worship service with a long stick that had a feather on one end and a brass ball on the other. And if he saw someone sleeping, he would reach into the pew with the stick and if it was a woman he would tickle her with the feather end and if it was a man he would smack him on the head with the brass ball end. This would hold them accountable at least during the worship service.

In short, we need real repentance as we live before God. We need to come to God in prayer so that our eyes can be opened to see how loving and patient God has been toward us and how sinful we have been toward him. When we do, our heart will be opened toward him and sincerely repent. I pray that each of us my experience the joy or real repentance.

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Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

  “I abhor the pride of Jacob
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