By Kim Reindl
Lesson for the week of Aug. 11
Scripture: Nehemiah 9:2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 30-36
Opening questions: In your experience, are people comfortable or uncomfortable using the word “sin?” Explain. In what contexts have you heard people use the word “sin?”
Maxie Dunnam, in his book “Going on to Salvation,” tells of a small Christian college in Arkansas that advertises in its bulletin that it is 16 miles from any known sin. (An interesting thought given that people must be involved in the college!) Dunnam goes on to emphasize the point that sin is not something that you can get away from. The reason for this is that sin is not in a place, but rather in the person.
Some of us, as Christians, especially in our contemporary society, are reluctant to talk about sin. We don’t want our religion to get too heavy or scare people away. We may even tend to believe that the problems of the world can be solved through the right government, different leadership, economic security, or the proper mental attitude. Yet, the truth of the matter is that people are sinful. Regardless of our context or external appearance, when it comes down to it, there is something wrong with all of us. We are diseased people who live in a diseased world.
The returnees to Jerusalem that we read about in today’s scripture passage were faced with the necessity of confronting their sin. Following a time of celebration and remembrance where the people heard the law read “day by day” (Nehemiah 8:13-18), they had come to a point of acknowledging their “wickedness” before God. They assumed a posture of penitence through rituals of mourning. They abstained from food through fasting, wore sackcloth, which is the material of burial shrouds, and put dirt on their heads, indicative of burial (Nehemiah 9:1). “Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors” (Nehemiah 9:2).
In this corporate prayer, the people of Israelite descent acknowledged not only their personal sin, but also their corporate sin. Separation was a necessity given the nature of the prayer. Those assembled recognized the need to stand before God as a collective people and petition for forgiveness, not only for themselves, but also for their ancestors. They acknowledged before God the Israelite history, which was a story of God’s grace and mercy in the face of human disobedience and self-centeredness. The people recollected God’s steadfast love and deliverance as such was present in the creation, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the giving of the law, and the voice of the prophets (Nehemiah 9:6-29). Yet, they confessed, that the people “would not listen” (Nehemiah 9:30). They recognized that they had “acted wickedly,” had not kept God’s law or heeded God’s warnings, had not served God, and had not turned from their “wicked works” (Nehemiah 9:33-35).
This story is also our story. We too are sinful, not only as individuals, but also collectively. We are born into systems of sin that we cannot escape. The sin of humanity is perpetuated through our organizations, our structures, and our societies, from one generation to the next. Often we are so deeply immersed in systemic sin that we fail to recognize it. We justify our actions, and even pride ourselves in our own righteousness, all the while failing to see that the world we have created is nothing like the world that God intends. Although this understanding of sin may sound deeply pessimistic, the good news is that God is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17).
We as Wesleyan Christians believe that although humans may be extremely messed up, we will NEVER be totally lost. The reason for this is God’s grace. Although the image of God imprinted upon us in creation may be distorted or hidden by sin, it has not been totally obliterated. It is for this reason that we view sin as a disease, and grace as the cure. The starting point of human existence is not the depravity of the fall, but rather the goodness of creation.
God’s love and grace are more powerful than sin. God’s grace comes before we even know it to empower us with the ability to turn toward God. God’s grace washes over us and gives us the relief of knowing that God’s love is greater than any sin, no matter how large. God’s grace sustains us and constantly calls us to turn again and again and again into the loving arms of the One who created us to share in goodness, and beauty, and love.
Confession is about recognizing how we have gone wrong so that we can turn back to God and live into what God has always intended for us. Confession, like the sacrificial system, is not for God, but rather for us. It is a way of readying our heart, of turning ourselves toward God instead of ourselves, so that we can receive God’s good gifts and live into the goodness that has been ours from the beginning. Sin will never have the final word because God will not allow it! This is what redemption is all about. We recognize that what God intended in the beginning, will be in the end! As Paul says, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Questions for further reflection:
Why is it important for the people of God to acknowledge their own sinfulness? In your own words, explain the difference confession makes in the heart of the one confessing.
In your understanding, what is societal or corporate sin? How is it different from personal sin?
What difference does it make to look at sin as a disease with a cure, instead of a state of human existence for which there is no cure (i.e., belief that the image of God is still within the human person, no matter how deep down or distorted, vs. the belief no image of God remains within the human person) ?
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.