First Mennonite Church
February 13, 2022
Rebuilding, Renewal, and Now, Recommitment
Text: Nehemiah 9:1-8
The account given in chapter nine is the continuation of events following the reading of the Law of the Lord at the square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem, we saw in chapter eight. Twenty-four days later, the people were still gathered. Hearing and understanding the Word of God stirred in the people’s heart the desire to deepen their reconnection with their God. They lingered around the temple with the pursuit of fully recommitting themselves to the Lord. Therefore, the people dedicated a quarter of the day to reading the scripture. They wanted to know more about God, through his word. They saturated themselves in the word of God. They also dedicated part of their time to confessing their sins.
In verse one, we read that the Israelites were fasting and in sackcloth and with dirt in their heads.
In ancient Israel, repentance and mourning involved visible evidence. When Jacob recognized the tunic as belonging to Joseph, soaked in blood and assuming he was dead, Jacob tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and mourned his son (Genesis 37:34). David did the same when he pleaded with God for his ill child (2Samuel 12:16). When someone was mourning the death of a loved one, they also put ashes on their heads or shave their heads. That is what Jeremiah said the people in mourning would do (6:26). Tamar, one of King David’s daughters, tore her robe and put ashes on her head when she was raped by her brother (2Samuel 13:19). But putting on sackcloth and ashes on the head was also signs of repentance and seeking God. Thus, we see that those who were trying to reconnect with their God doing visible expressions of repentance and mourning for their sins. We read: They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.
The Israelites became aware of what God told his people through Moses. They were convicted of their sinful ways, by drifting away from the covenant God established with their ancestors. Sin is lack of conformity with the word of God. Sin can only be defined in reference to what God says about the way we should live. For that reason, not only does murder, stealing, adultery or others egregious forms evil is sin, but simply living a life away from God’s will for us.
You have heard the expression: Sin by omission and sin by commission. Let me define the second one first. Sin by commission is sin we commit by doing the things we should not do, but we do it anyway. The commandment says, you shall not covet, and therefore when someone covets, that is sin by commission. On the other hand, sin by omission is sin we commit by not doing the things we are commanded to do. Interestingly, most sins of omission have to do with acts of kindness and mercy.
James says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4:17). And as we know, James emphasizes the importance of having a faith that is demonstrated with good works.
In Matthew, Jesus reminds us that in the day of judgement, those condemned will be surprised to know that their condemnation was because they knew what to do, but did not do it. “I was thirsty, but you did not give me a drink. I was sick and in prison, but you did not come to visit me. I was naked and homeless and you did not clothe me nor invited me in. . . .Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25: 42, 43, 45). Here, Jesus clearly indicates that lack compassionate acts will be considered sinful.
The people also fasted and worshipped.
Fasting is a much-abandoned spiritual practice among Christians. Richard Foster says that while doing his research, he found that there was not a single book written on the subject of Christian practice from 1861 to 1954, a period of nearly one hundred years. Living in a culture where we are bombarded with food advertisements and where all kinds cooking shows on TV abound, the practice of fasting might seem out of place or outdated for people both inside and outside of the church. We live in a time where if we do not have three complete and balanced meals in a day and some snacks in between it’s considered as being close to starvation. Or, that if we miss one meal our digestive system can be disrupted or that we can cause serious injury to our health. Therefore, fasting is not only seen as outdated, but even as a dangerous practice.
In rare cases where fasting is practiced, its purpose is sometimes misunderstood. In some cases, fasting has been taken to be like a tool to twist God’s hands in the favor of the practitioner, or in other cases, for the purpose of showing spiritual prowess. (The case in my town)
Therefore, one question you might be asking in your mind is, “Are we commanded in the Bible to fast?”
To be clear, a commandment, as such, to fast cannot be found in the Bible. Jesus spoke about it as we saw in the NT reading of today. When he was speaking about the proper way to give alms and to pray, he also made reference to fasting. He said, “When you fast . . ..” Thus, he implied that fasting was an integral practice of devotion towards God, just as are giving and praying. When commenting about this part of Jesus’ teaching, Martin Luther wrote: It is not Christ’s intention to reject or to despise fasting . . . it was his intention to restore proper fasting.” In this reference to fasting, Jesus did not say, “You must fast” nor “If you fast,” but, “When you fast.”
The other occasion Jesus made reference to fasting is when he was questioned why his disciples do not fast as those of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees. Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast (Matthew 9:15). Jesus was not referring to the three days he would be in the tomb as the time when he would be taken away from his disciples. He was talking about the time when he no longer is physically in the world. And that time includes our time. This is the time when the disciples of Jesus will find necessary at times they need to fast.
Why should we consider fasting in some cases? In Zechariah 7:5, the Lord commanded the prophet to ask on his behalf:“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? This goes in line with what Jesus said. Every form of devotion to God should indeed be for him and not to call attention of onlookers. Paul said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” 1Corinthians 10:31). And we can add, whether you do not eat nor drink, do it for the glory of God. Fasting should be for the purpose of giving ourselves to God.
Fasting can also be a way to acknowledge our dependence on God. Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Therefore, if time comes that the Lord stirs your heart to dedicate a day or part of it to him and his word and to forgo food, just follow his lead. Do it, as an expression of your love to God.
Let me go back to our main passage.
After the people spend time reading the Law of God, confessing their sins, and worshipping God, they did something rather astonishing. The leaders made a symbolic act before God of signing their names on a document, attesting their commitment to obey God.
In Nehemiah nine, verse 38, we read: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”
My loving sisters and brothers, I pray that the Lord would put in our hearts a renewed desire to read and study his word. I wish we have more people joining the Sunday school and Bible studies we have. If the time is the issue for which you cannot attend, tell us. It is only through reading and studying the Holy Scripture that we can experience spiritual renewal, both as individuals and as a community of faith. The apostle Paul says, that faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). He also says that it is by knowing the scripture that we are instructed for salvation in Christ Jesus. (2Timothy 3:15). Christians are called “People of the Book.” Thus, we owe to ourselves and to God who has given such privilege to know him through his Word. Let us take the advantage we have to gather together freely, to be able to read, to be part of a group of people God calls his own. If the Holy Scripture will have effect in society, it will not be through imposition of biblical principles upon our society. It will be through us, who crave for it, who live for it, but most importantly, who live by it.
I want to believe, that as the Israelite did, we too will sign our names to God’s list of those who vow to honor him. Amen!
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. (New York, HarperOne), 1978 p. 47
 David R. Smith, Fasting: A Neglected Discipline (Fort Washington, PA, Christian Literature Crusade, 1969), p. 6