Rebuilding Requires Confession
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
We build up the church as a gospel culture by honestly confessing our sins; rebuilding requires it. But confession isn’t easy. How do confess our sins? Three ways: (1) Celebrate God’s goodness, (2) Say the same thing about your sin that God does, (3) Rejoice that His mercy is more.
Nehemiah 9: 1-37
NICOT commentary on Nehemiah
Tyndale commentary on Nehemiah
ESV Study Bible
Do you find the idea and practice of confessing your sins a little difficult? I do. I grew up in a home with a Catholic mother, a Jewish father, but had very little religious exposure or education. When I was in high school, I became intensely interested in God and religion, so I began attending Catholic Mass and even going to confession with the priest, which made me quite uncomfortable. As a result, even after receiving and resting in Christ alone for salvation and becoming a Christian, I’ve struggled at various times with the practice of confession of sin. “Am I doing it right?” “Am I sorry enough?” At other times, I’ve relied more on personal resolutions than honest confession. In biblical terms, I’ve opted to rend my garments rather than rending my heart before God. Like me, confession of sin may be a complex, difficult, or uncomfortable topic for you. And then we come to our passage for today and discover that the big idea that unifies our passage is: rebuilding requires confession. Rebuilding requires confession; saying to God the same thing about our sin that God does. Before we dive into the details of our passage, let’s pan back for a moment. Remember that our particular focus as a church this ministry year is strengthening our gospel culture. A gospel culture is church that makes the truth of the gospel visible through our life together. At the heart of a gospel culture growing strong is a people who say the same thing about their sin that God does because when we do, we experience the truth that God is gracious and merciful through Christ, we become shockingly gracious and merciful toward each other, we rejoice in our salvation, and the world sees in us the difference that Jesus really makes. We build up the church as a gospel culture by honestly confessing our sins; rebuilding requires it. But confession isn’t easy. How do confess our sins? Three ways: (1) Celebrate God’s goodness, (2) Say the same thing about your sin that God does, (3) Rejoice that His mercy is more.
CELEBRATE GOD’S GOOD GOODNESS (9:1-15)
Last week, we watched God’s people participate in the feast of booths as an act of renewed commitment to be doers of God’s word. Now in Nehemiah 9, we watch as all of God’s people voluntarily remain in the heart of the city in order to confess their sins to God. But very interestingly, they begin their confession with celebration; celebrations of the goodness of God. This is so important. Life-giving confession doesn’t begin with our sins, but with seeing, savoring, and celebrating God’s goodness. Pastor and theologian Kevin DeYoung writes, “Divine goodness is the overflowing bounty of God by which he who receives nothing and lacks nothing communicates blessing to his creation and to his creatures.” In Nehemiah 9, the prayer leader begins by celebrating God’s goodness in creation and preservation. Nehemiah 9:6: “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. Do you ever pause to celebrate that the universe exists, that you’re alive and bear the image of God, that springtime is coming, and that there is breath rather than death in your lungs? We have all of this because the Lord is the holy, unrivaled creator and king who spoke all that is seen and unseen into existence by his word, created you for the joy of knowing and representing him, and actively preserves your life every moment. Celebrate his goodness as creator and preserver. Then the prayer leader moves from celebrating God’s goodness in creation to his goodness in election. Nehemiah 9:7: You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. God’s goodness is seen in that he did not leave the sinful nations to languish, but chose Abraham to be the father of a multitude of people who would extend God’s blessing to all nations through Christ, even down to us. We celebrate God’s goodness in creation, election, and redemption. Nehemiah 9:9: “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea…” In his goodness, God saw the affliction of his people in Egypt, redeemed them from slavery, and brought them safely into the land he promised to Abraham. And he has redeemed us from a slavery far worse through Christ. Friends, confession doesn’t begin with your sins, confession begins with God’s goodness. When Jesus himself taught his disciples what to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer as a guide. And in the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be your name” comes before “forgive us our debts.” So very practically, if you want to learn to confess your sins, and if you want to experience confession of sin as life-giving, joy-inducing, and guilt-assuaging, then don’t start with your sins. Instead, model your daily prayer after the prayer that Jesus taught us and spend time celebrating God’s goodness in creation, election, redemption, and a myriad of other ways that you see in and around your life. You can celebrate through prayer and song! Celebration precedes confession. Why is this the case? Why do we celebrate God’s goodness before we confess our badness? To answer, let’s look at something called The Cross Chart from The Gospel-Centered Life by Bob Thune (Please put in PowerPoint).
You’ll notice that at conversion, we have a relatively small awareness of God’s goodness and holiness and a relatively small awareness of our sinfulness, with the result that our awareness of the wonder of what God has done for us in Christ is relatively small. But the more that we celebrate and grow in our awareness of God’s goodness, the larger and more wonderful the cross of Christ is in our hearts. Rebuilding requires confession, but confession begins with celebrating God’s goodness because only then will we be truly aware of the wonder of the cross. But celebrating God’s goodness is where confession begins, not where it ends. Let’s turn to the second ingredient in life-giving confession…
SAY THE SAME THING ABOUT YOUR SIN THAT GOD DOES (v. 16-18, 26, 28-30, 33-35)
When you do confess your sins, what does it sound like? “I made a mistake”? “I slipped up”? “I sinned?” Does it sound a little defensive? A little vague? A little self-justifying? Listen in for a moment. I want to list just some of the words and phrases that God’s people use in Nehemiah 9 to describe their sins and the sins of their father. “They acted presumptuously” (9:16) – Presumption is when, because of God’s goodness, we lack nothing, but still appreciate nothing. They stiffened their necks (9:17) – After God brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground, their turned their eyes back to Egypt and desired to go back to slavery rather than following the Lord. That’s what we do whenever we look at sin as appetizing rather than abhorrent. They refused to obey – When God’s people fashioned a golden calf and worshiped it, they didn’t slip up, make a mistake, or act in ignorance, rather, they refused to obey. When we look to something other than the Lord for safety and security, hope and happiness, we’re not messing up cause we’re all human after all, we’re refusing to obey. Even after the episode with the golden calf, the Lord brought them into the Promised Land and they ate, were filled, and became fat and happy. Nevertheless, they were Disobedient (9:26), rebelled (9:26), and cast God’s law behind their backs (9:26). When life is good and we “drift” from God, we’re really being disobedient, rebellious, and casting God’s law behind our backs. Even after God brought his people out of exile and back into the Jerusalem during Nehemiah’s time, they acted wickedly (9:33). Disobeying or ignoring God isn’t a slip up, we are actually acting wickedly. Now, here is what I don’t want you to miss. The words that they’re using to describe their sins and the sins of their fathers are the same words that God used throughout the OT to describe their sins. Here is the point: when you confess your sins to God, say the same thing about your sins that God does instead of being general, vague or self-justifying.
Why is it so important to say the same thing about our sins that God does? Because it’s the path toward infectious joy that makes the real Jesus non-ignorable in our generation. Let me explain. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus says, “Blessed [truly satisfied and joyous] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Sinclair Ferguson says, “Jesus is describing the person who sees his spiritual bondage, is conscious of the debt of his sins, and knows that in himself he is dispossessed before God. All he can do is cry for mercy, and depend on the Lord.” The blessed, truly joyous, person isn’t worried about making excuses or exhausted from keeping up appearances but comes to Jesus with nothing but the empty hands of faith to receive again and again. Over the years, Citylight Church has had the privilege of working and partnering with The Whosoever Gospel Mission. The Whosoever Gospel Mission is a Christian nonprofit organization whose purpose is to provide shelter, rehabilitation and other assistance to homeless and/or needy men in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area. The men who graduate from the mission are among the most joyous I’ve ever met because they’ve truly hit rock bottom, see their true spiritual poverty, and rest in God’s grace alone. Joy in the gospel comes as we celebrate God’s goodness and then honestly say the same thing about our sin that God does. Perfunctory celebration and confession only shrink our joy in the gospel. Let’s take a look at that cross chart again (new chart on PPT).
Without celebrating God’s goodness and holiness, we mistakenly believe that we can perform well enough to live up to God’s standard. Without growing honestly in confession, we mistakenly pretend that our sin isn’t that big of a deal. The result is that the wonder of the cross shrinks in our hearts. But when we cultivate poverty of spirit by celebrating God’s goodness and saying the same thing about our sin that God does, then we’ll know the true joy of the final ingredient of confession…
REJOICE THAT HIS MERCY IS MORE (v. 17-25, 27-33)
Rebuilding requires confession that begins with God’s goodness, proceeds to our sinfulness, but culminates with God’s mercy that is greater than our sins! The prayer in Nehemiah really traces the narrative of God’s mercy from one end of the Old Testament to another. After bringing the offspring of Abraham out of slavery in Egypt and making a covenant with them as his very own possession, the people stiffened their necks, committed blasphemy, and appointed a new leader to take them back to slavery in Egypt. But God’s mercy was more! Nehemiah 9:17b: But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. He is good, we sin, but his mercy is more. So, then God graciously brings his people through the wilderness wandering and into the land that He promised to Abraham. They were fat, happy, prosperous, and rebellious. They killed the prophets and were subdued by their enemies. But God’s mercy was more. Nehemiah 9:27: Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. He is good, we sin, but his mercy is more. So, the people persisted in disobedience and as a result they were conquered first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and hauled off into exile to foreign lands. But God’s mercy was more. Nehemiah 9:31: Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. He is good, we sin, but his mercy is more. Nehemiah 9:33: Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. God is good, we sin, but his mercy is more. Friends, God is still good, we still sin, but we can confess and rejoice because His mercy is still more. In fact, we have the privilege of seeing the full extent of God’s mercy because God ultimately shows his love in that when were yet sinners, Christ died for us, the ungodly. God’s mercy is still more because in the fullness of time He sent forth His Son, born from the family line of Abraham to be a Savior far greater than the Judges in order to rescue us from a slavery worse than Egypt and a judgment worse than exile. God’s mercy has reached its pinnacle in sending His Son to live the righteous life we need, die the atoning death we deserve, and rise to secure mercy for us forever. Rejoice because his mercy is still more. And because His mercy is more than your sins and because Jesus has paid for every one of them, we’re safe to be a gospel culture that shows off the grace that is in Jesus by celebrating God’s goodness, saying the same thing about our sin that God does, and rejoicing because his mercy in Christ will always be more.