Have you ever been to a party that suddenly went bad? A time that was supposed to be a celebration that out of nowhere became filled with tension, sadness or even strife? After the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem all of the people of Israel gathered at the Water Gate for a celebration that called for the reading of the Book of the Law. After years of captivity and shame, Israel was finally returning to it’s former glory. The Temple was rebuilt, the walls were rebuilt, the people had returned to their cities to rebuild their homes and now, the last but most important step, they were rebuilding their relationship with God by a public reading and respecting of His Word. As Ezra was reading the Law the people listened intently. They started with excitement, they could not wait to hear what the Law said, but as they listened they became alarmed because they did not measure up. The people began to weep. They were touched with conviction but it seems this was more than that, it seems that they began to be consumed by grief. They lost sight of the purpose of the day, they lost sight of the newly and miraculously built walls, they lost sight of their return to their Promised Land, they lost sight of God’s forgiveness and deliverance and their attention was set on their sin, again.
I have begun to learn that there is an enormous difference between our thoughts of salvation and God’s. We have allowed salvation to be less in our eyes than it is in God’s. Most of our concepts of salvation language has become reduced to simply eternal places, heaven or hell. The reality of salvation is that eternal life has already started, we are not heading for eternity we are living in it now. Jesus’ promise of Abundant Life was not simply for after death, it is for the present moment and extends forever. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. We are not saved for or from some point after death, we are being saved right now. We are seated with Christ right now, He in us and we in Him. I share this because I feel that we have found it easy to believe in a salvation that takes affect after death and ushers us into heaven rather than hell, but it has become difficult for us to believe in a salvation that right now, at this moment, removes guilt and shame, removes fear and anxiety, and welcomes us not only into the presence of God but also welcomes the Spirit of God to come and dwell within us.
We need more than a deliverance from sin, we need a deliverance from everything that was attached to us through sin. We need a deliverance from shame, from guilt, from fear, from worry, from judgment, from the power of the flesh and from the worldly images and concepts of God that have built up in our minds. Consider all of the miracles that God had done for Israel. Some timelines state that on the day that they gathered at the Water Gate, it had been over 140 years since they were originally taken captive to Babylon. The same timelines say that it had been 70 years since Zerubbabel had returned to begin rebuilding the temple and 15 years since Ezra had returned to re-establish the Law of God among the people. Generations had lived and died, kingdoms had been raised up and torn down, and yet God was present, true to His promises, faithful to His love and generous in His gifts. This was not a day to be ashamed of the past but to celebrate and give God praise for the moment. This was not a day to weep, it was a day to rejoice. I believe that Nehemiah and Ezra stopped the mourning of the people because this day was not about them, it was about and for God. You see, being forgiven should not make us sorry again for our sin, it should make us grateful to God. Being set free should not make us ashamed that we ever needed deliverance, it should make us aware that even when we were sinners Christ died for us. Seeing the blessing of God should not remind us that we are not worthy it should overwhelm us with the truth that God has loved us with an everlasting love.
Repentance is necessary. Some 23 days after this scene in Nehemiah the entire nation gathered again and this time they came together for one purpose, to fall on their faces and repent of their sin and the sins of those that had come before them. God desires and requires that we repent of our sin, but once He has forgiven us we must then walk in freedom. We must not allow the past to hold us with it’s long arms of shame and guilt, we must tread boldly as sons and daughters of God, birthed by the death and resurrection of Christ, grafted into the Vine not by works but by His love. I believe that today is a day to be delivered from sorrow, delivered from guilt, delivered from shame and delivered from the wrong notion that says that we must prove our worth and earn God’s forgiveness. We have been saved by grace, forgiven by mercy and set free by love. May we put our faith in God’s grace, our hope in God’s mercy and our lives in His love. As Nehemiah and Ezra raced through the crowd exhorting Israel that day thousands of years ago, I share with you today, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”