It happens to be a very familiar biblical scene, with sackcloth and fasting, with ashes on the forehead, and with confession of sin, similar to what we share on Ash Wednesday, or on what we read in the prophets like Jeremiah and Joel, or Jonah and Isaiah. There is a “going back” to basics, and there is a deep recognition that the future needs to be better than the past.
This is part of the reason, we think, the people pulled out the book of the Law, probably the book of Deuteronomy, as it is in Deuteronomy that Israel learns to confess the basics of its faith and remembers its identity and purpose: The Shema – or, Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. It is very similar to what we hear in Nehemiah where Israel blesses God and devotes its life to God (Nehemiah 9:5): remembering all that God has done for the people – in calling Abraham and Sarah, in leading Moses and Miriam, in making covenant at Sinai, and in settling in the Land, and then in rebelling against God and forgetting God’s ways.
All of that is in Nehemiah, and it is a reminder about what “matters” most, or about putting “first things first.” Nehemiah slows down long enough to lead the people in the direction of honoring God and then sharing in the goodness of God with others.
Again, this is confession, and like all confession, it requires humility: which says, “Hey, I am not in control, but I will continue trust God.” A confession, which says, “Hey, I am going to make mistakes, and I have made mistakes” but which relies on God’s forgiving grace and keeps an open heart. A confession, which says, “Hey, I am part of something much bigger here, and I cannot always see the whole, so I know I need patience to understand.” A confession is not an attempt to beat ourselves up with guilt and shame. No, a confession is God’s invitation to us to recognize how we all depend on God in the first place and to remember that if we forget what matters most we need to realign ourselves with God, to turn to God. I believe that it is what Jesus meant when he said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God!”
How may we continue to put first things first? How do we place our priorities in perspective? How is God calling us to share in God’s life?
Pastor Andy Kinsey