I CONFESS THE SINS...There's a wise saying that when you point a finger of blame at another, you always have at least three fingers pointing right back at yourself. Jesus said it best in Luke 6:41: "Don't focus on the speck in your brother's eye while ignoring the log in your own eye.”
Indeed, playing the blame game is as old as time itself, since it was first introduced in the Garden of Eden. And for thousands of years, we religious folks been doing a pretty good job of using the same excuse for our sins. It’s high time we learn the hard lesson that blaming others doesn’t really define who “they” are. It actually defines who “we” are.
Today's powerful lesson unfolds through the Godly wisdom of a prophet named Nehemiah. He lived in the capital city of Susa in Persia around 450 B.C. While serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was given the unenviable task of guarding the King's cup and tasting it to insure it was not poisoned. On the positive side, the position required that one be regarded as totally trustworthy, which usually carried the reward of a high position in the kingdom. Indeed, Nehemiah was appointed prime minister and master of ceremonies in the palace of King Artaxerxes.
Historical records also suggest that the position of cupbearer was as influential a position as the Queen was to the King. Ironically, through the influence of the great Queen Esther in the court of King Xerxes in the very same palace, the people of Israel had been saved from annihilation only a few decades earlier. Some historians even speculate that King Artaxerxes was the stepson of Queen Esther, and son of King Xerxes.
Our lesson begins with the opening words of Nehemiah. "In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.' "
The scene is the 9th month of Kislev on God's appointed calendar, which is the month of November 9-December 8 on our 2018 Gregorian calendar. So right at the very beginning, we can see the power of God's timeless word as it crosses the chasm of 2500 years to minister to another great nation and people in desperate need of God's wisdom and direction.
When Nehemiah heard the bad news that the people back in Judah were suffering in their homeland, his first reaction was not to seek justice through his political alignment or to use his influential position to motivate the people to rebel against the offending government.
What did Nehemiah do? "When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven." Nehemiah 1:4.
“Then I said, 'Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.' " Nehemiah 1:4-6.
"I confess the sins..." Yes, Nehemiah's first action on behalf of his people was to confess his nation's sins as well as his own. He laid it all out in repentance and humility. Wonder what would happen within our own nation today, as we face religious prejudice and persecution, if the very first thing our leaders and we Christians did was to follow Nehemiah's example of reverence and humility before God? Or have we become so full of our "religious" selves, seeking to "right a wrong", that we no longer need to seek direction from the Almighty Himself.
Sadly, most of us know down deep in our souls that having to pose these kinds of questions means we Christians have a serious "pride" problem. Perhaps this would be a good time for God's timely reminder in Proverbs 16:18 which is quoted by Peter and James in the New Testament: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." We should also be reminded that Peter and James were not preaching to the heathens of the world, but to the leaders and members of the early church redeemed by Jesus Christ Himself!
The rest of Nehemiah's prayer is just as powerful as the beginning. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
His prayer petition ends with the curious statement about granting him favor in the presence of a man. Then Nehemiah identifies himself as "cupbearer to the King."
This is clarified in the following chapter when Nehemiah asked God to grant him success when he humbly asked the King's help for the people of Judah. Further in chapter 2, Nehemiah privately gave God all the credit for the plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Not only did Nehemiah receive the King's help, he returned to Jerusalem as its appointed governor for 2 separate terms. Because Nehemiah was a close confidant of the King, he was also allowed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which could have threatened the Persian kingdom itself.
Nehemiah successfully completed rebuilding the wall in only 52 days, despite resistance from surrounding foes. In the end, even their enemies could clearly see that God was behind it all. "So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God." Nehemiah 6:15-16.
God continued to work through Nehemiah's governorship in Jerusalem to bring about a spiritual awakening to the people of Judah. Not only did they confess their sins as a nation, but also the sins of their fathers.
"...The Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. 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 were 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." Nehemiah 9:1-3
Wonder what would happen here in America if we Christians followed ancient Israel’s example. Their national confession of sin freed them to praise God in an awesome and magnificent way with these immortal words: "Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. 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."
And it all began with the humble words uttered by just one man in repentant prayer on behalf of himself and his nation.
"I confess the sins..."