The Great Confession
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The Great Confession

Nehemiah 9:1–5  (ID: 1736)

When the people gathered to hear Ezra read the Law after years of sinful neglect, what they heard impacted them in practical ways. Their response to the Law revealed the people’s hearts, declared their allegiance, and demonstrated their needs. Alistair Begg reminds us that God’s Word pinpoints and defines sin. As long as we view sin as trivial or embarrassing, we will not make progress in the Christian life.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 2

God’s Word for Our Good Nehemiah 8:1–9:37 Series ID: 11602

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn again to Nehemiah chapter 9.

O Lord our God, we cry to you, that we might hear your voice through your Word in these moments, so that we might be your people for your glory. For your name’s sake we ask it. Amen.

The events of Nehemiah 8 and 9 take place in the space of one month. That is clear from a careful reading of the text. At the beginning of chapter 8, we have the description of the gathering of this large congregation. We’re told at the beginning of chapter 8 who was present in the congregation. It “was made up,” verse 2 tells us, “of men and women and all who were able to understand.” Obviously, it was important that there would be the ability to comprehend what was taking place, and so we can deduce that the age range of the children was directly related to their ability at comprehension. We discovered that if God’s people are going to benefit from such gatherings to hear the Word of God proclaimed, then they need to gather expectantly. And we mentioned in passing just how important it is to have a congregation that gathers with a sense of expectation that God would speak through his Word.

I remember on one occasion preaching in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, in a church that we were using for some young people’s outreach meetings during the week, and something of a courtesy was extended to us, providing us the opportunity to speak in the church on the Sunday. The people in the church had no interest in what was going on during the week; they simply provided the building. And I remember standing up and announcing my text and being met by the most frozen, stony silence, as it became apparent to me that no one had a Bible—or, if they had a Bible, they had no interest whatsoever in opening it up, because presumably, they were used never to hearing anything from it. Tragic to gather out of a sense of routine but with no spirit of expectancy.

My expectancy is different now that I’ve been put in this position. I’m expectant that God will speak, but it’s a little different when you have to be part of the voice. And I love my vacations, and I love the opportunity to worship with God’s people, and I trust that I go with an expectant heart wherever I go and to whomever I am given the privilege of listening. Gather expectantly.

If God’s people are going to benefit from gathering to hear the Word of God proclaimed, then they need to gather expectantly.

Secondly, that we would listen attentively. And this attentive listening is such that, given that things are to be done decently and in order, anything which hinders attentive listening should be addressed graciously, imaginatively, properly, and so on.

And then, that the people would respond properly to the Word of God and, in responding properly, that they would leave joyfully.

In 8:13, we found, along with them, that there been a feast that they were missing. They had been neglecting the feast. This was “the second day of the month.” The feast was due to begin on the fifteenth, so they had about a fortnight to get organized for it. They used their time well, and they engaged in the feast.

And central to all that is taking place in chapter 8 and then in chapter 9 is the reading of the Law of God, the proclaiming of the Word of God. Those of us who are the consummate clock-watchers, who have determined that a service can only last a certain amount of time and that any attendant blessing of God stops when a certain bell rings, must be finding tremendous difficulty with what we have confronting us here in these chapters. Because in 8:3 we’re told that the reading of the Law took place “from daybreak [until] noon.” Let’s assume that daybreak was seven o’clock; it could easily have been earlier than that. And if it was at seven, then they had a five-hour service. In 8:13 there’s more of the same: “On the second day of the month,” they were back for another one, and in the eighteenth verse of the chapter, we discover that this was going on “day after day”; there was this reading from the Law of God.

By the time we get to 9:3, we discover that “they stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the … God for a quarter of the day.” Now, Jewish days were twelve hours long. Therefore, a quarter of twelve is three. So they had a three-hour thing where they were reading the book. Presumably, it was similar to what we had described in 8: they read a little bit; they answered questions on it; they read some more. But the reading of the Law was a three-hour presentation, and then that was immediately followed by three hours of singing and worshipping and praying—the six-hour service.

Now, that is why I tell you all the time: it is very important to determine what is prescriptive and what is descriptive. If we were to determine that this was prescriptive rather than descriptive, then, of course, we would be beginning six-hour services as of next Sunday. And I know how much you would enjoy that.

The fact of the matter is that time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? If you go to something that you’re really enjoying, time is not of the essence to you. You know that you’re not enjoying it because you’re constantly looking at your watch. You’re in that dreadful situation where you’re meeting with somebody, and they’re explaining something to you, and they’re going on and on and on and on and on, and you’re trying to look for an opportunity when they look down just ever so quietly to glance at your watch—just a little look. Because it’s tedious. You wish they would dry up and move along. And you ought not to feel badly, because you have the same experience when you’re in one of your little diatribes and the people are giving it one of these. So I just want you to know, I know how you feel.

Now, the fact of the matter is that time passes quickly also when God meets with his people. When God meets with his people. When you have a prepared speaker and an expectant congregation and you have a divine encounter between God and people, then the concerns of time lose much of their significance.

We shouldn’t really be surprised by that, because on a far more superficial level, we’re prepared to rearrange our lives. We’re going through the routine of our days, and somebody phones us up out of the blue and says, “I have tickets for such and such an event,” and you say, “When do you have to leave?” and the person says, “Now.” And in that moment, you determine what priorities are: “Oh, I think I could change this, move this, phone here, get that moved and everything. I can do anything to be there.” Or an emergency: your child falls, smacks her chin on the bath, splits it wide open, and all of a sudden, all the plans that you’ve had for the day go right out of the window instantaneously because this inrush of a new event has transformed everything.

We have every right, loved ones, to pray that in the preaching of the Word of God and in the experience of worship, we would ask God for such things. I believe when that happens, we’re on at least the fringes of revival—for revival is nothing more than the breathing of life into a body that’s threatening to become a corpse. And many of our church services are every corpselike. I don’t mean this church in particular. I mean just church services in general. They’re marked by routine. They’re marked by prayers and readings and talks and listenings and so on, various songs. But by and large, they’re deathly. By and large, they make very little impact upon the faithful, and they certainly have no attraction for the faithless. How quickly can that become apparent? Very quickly. How may it be erased? By a divine encounter, as a result of the people of God taking a delight in the law of God—being like the psalmist’s individual in Psalm 1: that their delight was in the law of the Lord, and on their law they meditated day and night.[1]

Now, I want you to know that this morning I was thinking that I would go through the thirty-seven verses of this chapter. I thought that I would do a kind of Goodyear Blimp approach to chapter 9—that is, the high camera angle taking in big sections at a time rather than the close-up where you can see the hands on the grip. That is an allusion to the Masters Tournament, for all golf enthusiasts at the moment. So, we were going to look from the camera over the whole thirty-seven verses rather than close up, so you could see “Titleist” on the verse, as it were.

The more I studied, the more I realized that even the blimp was going to take a long time to get through these thirty-seven verses. Indeed, I became particularly perplexed sometime on Thursday morning that we were actually heading not for the six-hour service but for the six-hour sermon. And so I want you to know I’ve backed off all of that completely, and the history lesson that begins in verse 5½ will continue as of two weeks today. But for now, I just want to bring to you what God impressed upon my heart as I studied these verses.

Israel’s Six-Hour Service

Now, let me pinpoint three interesting features of this six-hour service which are described in the first five verses.

The first feature is that how they dressed declared their hearts. Verse 1: “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together,” and their clothes were interesting. They were “wearing sackcloth” that was perhaps made out of a coarse camel or goat hair. Not exactly what you would call cashmere. Itchiness to the max. And furthermore, they wore “dust on their heads.” Why? Well, it was an expression of self-humiliation. What they were saying in their dress was “This is how we feel in relationship to what we’ve found. We want our outside to be representative of our inside. We want to let the world know our response to the reading of God’s law is to recognize that we are far from what we might be or should be.”

Now, it becomes immediately apparent to us that it is relatively easy to dress up, and that the expressions which are outward remain significant only insofar as they are directly expressive of what is going on inside. That is why we can wear clothes that make us appear very respectable, and yet inside we’re very disrespectful. We can wear clothes that are representative of a particular lifestyle, but in point of fact, we haven’t really embraced it.

Those of you who shuddered at the tragic death of the lead singer of Nirvana this week, Kurt Cobain, will know that those kids who followed in his wake understood that their clothes said something. Indeed, I noticed that the news broadcasts covered it. They said these young people wore these clothes—wore the high boots, the flannel shirts, the torn-up trousers, the shorts with the boots and the high laces—as an expression of their angst and their rebellion. In the same way, the people in Nehemiah 9:1 wore sackcloth and dust on their heads as an expression of their self-humiliation.

Secondly, we notice that not only was it true that how they dressed declared their hearts, but where they stood declared their allegiance. “Those of Israelite decent,” verse 2 tells us, “had separated themselves from all foreigners,” and “they stood in their places.”

Now, you need to turn back to the third book of the Bible, Leviticus, to understand just why it was they did this. Leviticus 20:26. God is giving all this instruction to those who are his people to mark them out as different from the people around them. For example, back in verse 23, he says to them, “You must not live according to the customs of the nations I[’m] going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.” Verse 26: “You are to be holy to me”—that means “You are to be set apart to me, you are to be peculiar in your belonging to me, you are to be distinctly mine”—“because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

So their acknowledgement of this here in chapter 9, as they separated themselves in this occasion from their neighbors, should not be construed as an expression of arrogance but rather should be understood as an expression of their submission and of their dedication. They understood that they were different.

Today, an Orthodox Jewish family still understands that. A third of my school class at high school in Glasgow was Jewish. Many of my friends were Jewish—played with them tennis, golf, swam with them, did everything with them. And yet on Friday afternoons at three thirty, they left me. They split, always! Friday afternoons, three thirty, they were gone. Why? Because they were different. Because the Sabbath was about to begin. And since the Sabbath was about to begin and because they were different, they must separate themselves from those who are aliens and strangers to their faith and religious convictions. And so they did.

Now, that picture in the Old Testament, then, finds its expression in the New Testament when God redeems a people for himself—those whom Paul says are the true children of Abraham.[2] “Abraham believed God, and it was [counted] to him as righteousness.”[3] This, says Paul, is the expression of faith. This is the understanding of what it means to be the people of God.

Turn to the New Testament, chapter 2 of 1 Peter, and I’ll make it clear to you. First Peter chapter 2. Who are you if you’re a Christian? What’s your identity? Are you different? And in what way are you different? And does where you stand at school and in the office and in the club mark this out? “Oh, yes, you’re very different,” Peter writes to them. And he says in 2:9—and these are to Christians scattered throughout the regions of Cappadocia, Bithynia, and surrounding environs—he says,

You[’re] a chosen people, [you’re] a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

“And since that has now happened to you,” he says, “therefore, because you have been changed and made this new creation, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul, and to live differently.”[4]

Now, to whom does this refer? To anybody who wanders into a church? To somebody who’s born in a Christian country? No. It refers to those whom he describes in the first few verses of his first chapter. So turn back a page and you’ll see. Here are three facts which are true of every Christian: every Christian knows themself to have been, number one, “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”; secondly, to be being sanctified, set apart for God’s purpose, through the work of the Holy Spirit; and to have been called to obedience through the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.[5]

The Bible makes it perfectly clear that the first encounter that the believer has with the law of God will point out what’s wrong.

So the application of Nehemiah chapter 9, when we come to it and it says that the people of God “separated themselves from all foreigners,” is simply this: if you are in Christ today, you are different. Radically different!

So, how they dressed revealed their hearts. Where they stood made clear their allegiance. And thirdly, what they said revealed their need: “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.”

I want you to notice this carefully this morning (it’s so very important): the direct correlation between the reading of the law of God and the confession of sin. Paul says of it in Romans chapter 3, he says, “Through the law we become conscious of sin.”[6]

Now, you see, this is an immediate problem to people who have been so imbibing the idea that what Christianity is about is the ultimate feel-good trip—that whatever Christians are, they’re about being positive and about being successful and about being fulfilled, and if you hang around with them, you ought to feel better about yourself and generally about everything. Therefore, if you go to listen to the proclaiming of the Word of God, then it ought to be an experience where you feel really great. And as a result of feeling really great, then you go on your journey, and everything falls into place.

Well, you know, while the Christian life is not a call to drudgery, not a call to emptiness, not a call to some kind of horrible, funereal existence, the fact of the matter is that the Bible makes it perfectly clear that the first encounter that the believer has with the law of God will point out what’s wrong. And since we don’t want to know what’s wrong, we run away from those kind of encounters. We want to go to the doctor, as it were, and always get a clean bill of health. Fine. But what use is a clean bill of health if we’re not actually physically clean? If he puts his hands on an area of our bodies, and it says, “Uh-oh, problem!” or if he takes the X-ray, puts it on that screen, and says, “Uh-oh, shouldn’t be there,” in that moment, what he needs to do is give us the bad news of our condition so that he may then provide us with the good news of a possible solution.

We are so consumed with the idea that all we’re supposed to get is good news that if anybody apparently brings us bad news, we regard them as being a close cousin to Attila the Hun or having their license plate in Salem, Massachusetts. But when the Law of God was read, sin was pinpointed and defined; sin came out of its hiding place; sin showed up and revealed the immensity of the problem.

And loved ones, I need to say to you this morning—and God is bringing this forcibly home to my own heart and my own life—as long as sin, in our minds, remains simply a nuisance or an inconvenience or an embarrassment, then we will never, ever deal with it, and we will never make any progress. This kind of encounter with God is directly related to understanding that sin is an offense against God. And the only way that we will come to that conclusion is if we have the privilege of sitting under the kind of proclamation that took place here in Nehemiah chapter 9, not in terms of its length but in terms of its content. The law of God needs to be proclaimed. Without the proclaiming of the law of God, there will never be any forward movement.

An Encounter with God

Now, let me try and think this through with you for a moment or two. Turn to 2 Chronicles and to chapter 6. Here we’re going to come to one of the most familiarly quoted verses as it relates to this process of discovering sin and dealing with it. But we’ll back up, and we’ll look at it first of all from the context of 2 Chronicles 6. It’s the story of Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the completion of the construction of the temple. It’s a long prayer—not as long as the one that we’ll come to in Nehemiah 9, but nevertheless, it is long.

Solomon, as the shepherd-king of his people, is crying out to God in front of the whole assembly of Israel. He stands, verse 12 tells us, and he “spread[s] out his hands.” The prayer is worthy of our consideration. When we get to the fortieth verse of the prayer, we find him crying out to God, “Now, my God, may your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” Here it is:

Now arise, O Lord God, and come to your resting place,
 you and the ark of your might.
[Make] your priests, O Lord …, … clothed with salvation,
 may your saints rejoice in your goodness.
O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one.
 Remember the great love promised to David your servant.

Tremendous cry from his heart. Basically, what he’s saying is “Lord, meet with us. We’ve built this temple. We’re trying to do your will. We want to know you. We want to experience you. We don’t simply want to have services. We want to meet with God. God, meet us!”

Now, look at 7:1: “When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” We can’t fully comprehend just what that means, except to say that when we have this sort of thing in the Old Testament, it is a theophany; it is a manifestation of God’s divine glory; it is an inbreaking of eternity upon time; it is, if you like, that which is not a common encounter and yet which is a necessary one. And as a result of this, the priests were unable to “enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.” They couldn’t go about their business because the sense of God’s presence was so awesome, they could not continue.

I long for this. Know my heart: I long for this; for an encounter with God that breaks through the molds of all of our conventionality; for an encounter with God that cannot be explained simply in terms of doing church à la Americana; for an encounter with God that breaks the hearts of his people—my heart first, all of our hearts together—so that we cannot even have church the way we normally have church. That’s what it’s saying. They couldn’t do the routine because God shattered it in an instant. When revival comes to a church or to a nation, this will take place. The effect of it will be the things we are trying to create at the moment without the revival. We want the effect without the inrush of the Spirit of God.

In Charlotte Chapel, where I was assistant in ’75, at the turn of the century, the church was reduced to seven or eight people—a church that was capable of seating a thousand or more. They called a man who had never, ever studied the Word of God in a formalized situation—a man who came from a tiny church in the borders of Scotland, but a man who knew God and walked with God. The man himself, at the turn of the century, went to Wales, where the Welsh Revival was taking place. Encountering something of all of that, he came back with a glow upon him that could not be explained. And it is recorded in the history of the place—and I’ve told you this before, but I love to tell you it again—that there were significant periods of time where there was no preaching took place, because it couldn’t take place. Because as soon as the people of God gathered, the Spirit of God fell so heavily on them that against all conventionality, against all the run of play, somebody would stand up seven or eight minutes before the service would be due to begin and would begin to pray out loud. And then another would begin to pray, and another, and another. And someone would sing, and then the whole congregation would begin to sing. And the pastor and the worship leaders would come in and sit down, and the whole thing was orchestrated by the Spirit of God. And eventually, as it were, when the Spirit of God moved off them, the people said, “Hey, that was good! That was it. Now we’ll go home.” That’s what happened here.

See… You see, I can tell by some of your eyes, you’re saying, “Well, that’s jolly well not going to happen here. I’m not coming to one of those services.” Well, that’s why we started by saying that we need to gather expectantly. We don’t gather for business as usual. We gather for God to be God and do what God wants to do when he wants to do it, any day he wants, any time he wants, any thing he wants. He’s God. We’re men and women. You get a congregation that begins to gather in that way, you’ll see things happen that you never saw happen in your life—and some of them you’re afraid to see even happen.

And so it was that the Israelites, when they “saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple,” they all ran out and tried to get on Christian TV and tell everybody what had happened. No! “They knelt [down] on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped” the Lord, and they “gave thanks to the Lord,”[7] and they said, “The Lord’s good, and his love endures forever.”[8]

Where did we get this idea that if we really meet with God and really know God, it makes us strut? Where did we get the idea that when we really meet with God, it makes us prominent? When Moses met with God, what did God tell him to do? “Take your shoes off, buddy, ’cause you’re standing on holy ground.”[9] Imagine you go into an office tomorrow morning, the guy says to you, says, “Hey, welcome. Glad you came. A little early for the appointment. Would you take your shoes off, please?” “What?” “Yeah, just take your shoes off.” No, you won’t. You don’t want to take your shoes off. Why? ’Cause there’s a menial dimension to taking off your shoes.

When Isaiah met with God, he put his hands over his mouth, and he said, “I[’m] a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”[10] God said, “That’s right.” When the disciples met with God as Jesus oversaw their fishing expedition and gave them a catch such as they were unable to contain and, as they began to pull the nets, they realized they were going to capsize the boat, what was the response of Peter in that encounter? He fell down on his face, and he shouted out to Jesus, “Depart from me, because I’m a sinful man, O God.”[11]

We got the altar; we can’t make the fire. We got the Book; we can’t make it live. We got the songs; we can’t stir our hearts. If the church in America makes it to the end of the twentieth century as a force to be reckoned with, it must cry to God for this kind of inrush of the Spirit of God.

Now, it’s within that context that he then speaks to the people in this famous verse, 14. God speaks to Solomon, and he says, “Now, listen, Solomon; I want to tell you this. It’s very important.” And you know the verse well; it’s on all these doilies and paper plates and everywhere: “If my people, who are called by my name…”[12] Just stop there for a moment and understand this: there is no modern nation, however much it may need to repent, which God will address as “my people, who are called by my name.” This is not a verse for America. I hope you understand that. This is a verse for the people of God. “If my people, who are called by my name…” That doesn’t equal the British Isles, the British Empire. That doesn’t equal Japan. That doesn’t equal Nepal. That doesn’t equal Canada. It only equals the people of God.

So that’s where we go wrong, first of all, straight out of the box, with this verse. ’Cause we seek to apply it wrongly. We seek to expend our energies Christianizing the pagans, when the verse calls us to get to grips with ourselves. We think this verse is a mandate for asking those who have not known the grace of God to somehow live as if they did, when in point of fact, it is a call for the people of God to live as the people of God. “If my people—the people who have been redeemed by my blood, who are sustained by my Spirit, who are committed to my law—if these people will do certain things, if they will stop making the priority the confrontation of the enemy without and deal with the enemy within—namely, their own sinful lives—then we’ll start to make progress.”

Humility, Prayer, Seeking, and Repentance

Well, what do we have to do? Number one, we have to humble ourselves. Humble ourselves. Why? Because it is pride that is at the heart of all of our obstinacy and all of our disobedience. Back in Nehemiah chapter 9, God says of his people, in the sixteenth verse, he says, “The problem with you guys is that you are arrogant, you’re stiff-necked, and you’re disobedient.”[13]

Now, we don’t like this. I don’t like this. I don’t like to see myself like this. But I need to.

See, we think it’s beneath us to bow our heads to God’s yoke. But until we do, we’ll never really be God’s servants. Remember, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn [of] me, for I am gentle and [lowly] in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”—Matthew 11:29–30. Only when I come before God will I be humbled—only when I see myself as I really am before God and his glory. My great need is to know him and then to know myself, not, as we’re told every day we live our lives, that we should know ourselves and then go look for God. We’ll never know ourselves until we know him. And when we know him, we’ll know that we’ve all got far too much to say for ourselves.

I carry this thing in my Bible. Many of you have it as well. I found it in The Chapel of the Air years ago. Actually, I carry it in my little notebook for my preaching notes. It says, “Lord, I renounce my desire for human praise, for the approval of my peers, the need for public recognition. I deliberately put these aside today, content to hear you whisper, ‘Well done, my faithful servant.’”

Here’s the deal: these are easy to have; these are light to carry; this is tough to live. ’Cause everything in me cries out for affirmation, cries out for recognition, cries out for approval, cries out for accolades. And God said that he will not share his glory with anybody else.[14] So you’re done before you start. And so is a church that is stuck on itself.

We’ll never know ourselves until we know God.

Humble yourselves; pray. You see, the two things go together. You never pray while you’re proud, ’cause proud people never pray. They’re self-sufficient. They see no need to. Tozer says of prayer, in verse 47, “More spiritual progress…” I beg your pardon; not verse 47. It’s page 47:

More spiritual progress can be made in one short moment of speechless silence in the awesome presence of God than in years of mere study. … It is only when our vaunted wisdom has been met and defeated in a breathless encounter with Omniscience that we are permitted really to know, when prostrate and wordless the soul receives divine knowledge like a flash of light on a sensitized plate. The exposure may be brief, but the results [will be] permanent.[15]

And so we say with the disciples, “Lord, teach me how to pray.”[16]

Humble ourselves; pray; seek God’s face. To seek God’s face. To sing the chorus,

Lord, I want to know you,
Live my life to show you
All the love I owe you;
I’m a seeker of your heart.[17]

To sing it and really mean it. There’s no great mystery in this. It is majestic; it’s not mysterious. It means simply reading our Bibles and discovering what it means to encounter God and to do his will.

We don’t need to go and take a special course to find this out; it’s written in the Bible.

First Thessalonians 5: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord.” Okay, now I know how I am supposed to treat the elders of the church. “Hold them in the highest regard in love,” because you really like their personalities. No! Because of the work they do. Okay, I’ve got that. Now, how ’bout my relationships with my brothers and sisters? “Live in peace with each other.” Okay. “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle.”[18] “The people who are slackers, warn them.”

Encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with [people]. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, … always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.[19]

“Oh, I want to discover the will of God.” Hey, start that, and when you finish this lifetime, then move to 2 Thessalonians. How ’bout that? First Thessalonians 5:12: do that. Then when you’ve done that, come back, talk to me again; I’ll give you another section. ’Cause I’m still working on this section. How about “Be patient with everyone”? Exhausted the juice in that, have I? Not even close! Ask my wife. Ask my kids. Ask the people with babies. It’s impossible! “Respect those … who are over you in the Lord.” When you’re a disrespectful person, you can’t exhaust that.

God has given us his Word and he’s given us his Table to meet him. I want to live beneath his smile. I want to know him. Young guy wrote to me this week a wonderful letter. I hope I have it here. And in it he said to me that he wanted to know God. And it was such a cry from his heart that I just was so stirred with it in my own spirit. This is what he said:

Pastor Begg, please pray that I would know something of the genuine experience of Christ in my life, an awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I do want to know Christ and not just know of him or about his Word. I know that my faith does not rest on feeling, yet I want a passion for the mind of Christ. I want conviction of the truth of his Word. I want a deep sense of his abiding with me. If you’ve got some counsel about this, I would really appreciate it.

Yeah, I’ve got counsel: I want the same thing. I want to know you, Lord. I want to see your face.

And then to turn from our wicked ways. See, the process is very demanding and very clear. Oh, we have God’s power to enable us. We have God’s Word to direct us. But it demands from us that we turn from all that we know to be wrong. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves … pray … seek my face … turn from their wicked ways…”[20] This simply means repentance. It means to go against the grain. It means to go against what most of the time I want to do in and of myself.

When they launch those big rockets from Cape Kennedy or Cape Canaveral, wherever it is, they go down, and you always hear it on the TV, that guy’s voice: “From mission control, Houston.” It’s a great voice. I wish I had a voice like that. And then he goes, “Ten seconds and counting.” I like that. I just like that: “Ten seconds and counting.” It gives me a buzz every time. I mean, just saying that, I’m getting excited. “Ten seconds and counting.” Because that’s close! You got this awesome, big, monstrous thing, and they’ve been preparing for all of their lives to make this trip, and it’s ten seconds and counting! And then it seems like an eternity. What it must be like in there is unbelievable: “Ten, nine…” And then, with monotonous frequency, it would seem, they are forced to abort the takeoff. And then the thing comes on the screen: “Launch aborted, four seconds to go.” (Although it doesn’t say “four seconds to go.”)

I want to tell you something, and I want you to listen really carefully. Some of you are nowhere as useful in your Christian life as you may be. You do not know the blessing of God on your life as you might. You do not know the joy of his abiding presence as you can. And I’ll tell you why it is: you got the “Humble yourself,” you got the “Seek your face,” you got the “Pray,” but you will not do the last piece. You will not turn from your wicked ways.

Now you say, “How can you say that about us?” Well, just ’cause I’ve preached this sermon already to myself a lot this week, and I found myself at the same pivotal point: ten seconds to go and aborting the takeoff.

Some of you are laboring in prayer with me for one of my dearest friends in all the world as he continues to make shipwreck of his marriage three and a half thousand miles away from here. During the week, we spoke with him, counseled him, tried to help him. He was ten seconds to blastoff. By Friday night, he aborted the launch all over again. Why? ’Cause he’s living with the mistaken notion that comes to me with phenomenal frequency from people. This is what they tell me: “Pastor, if God didn’t want me to have this feeling, he would take it away from me.” That is bogus! That is nonsense! God has written a whole book explaining where power is found and explaining where action is to be taken. His Spirit enables us, quickens us, stirs us, helps us, but does not do it for us.

Nowhere does it come across more clearly than in the 106th Psalm. And this is my closing statement to you, in case we do start to move towards the six-hour service. Psalm 106—a tragic statement. It’s a very similar piece of work to what we have in Nehemiah chapter 9, as we shall see. Psalm 106:43. This is what is said of God in relationship to those who were his followers: “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin.” They knew that you should humble yourself, and they knew they were sinners. They knew that you should pray, they knew that you should seek God’s face, and they knew that you should turn from your wicked ways. But the wicked ways seemed so much fun and so much more attractive than the narrow road that, bent upon rebellion, their spiritual muscles atrophied, and they wasted away in their sin. There can be no more tragic description in all of Scripture than of the person who knows what is right to do and chooses not to do it. May God save us from such an end.

Let us pray together.

Let me use as a prayer a little song that I used to sing when I was eleven and twelve years old in a Bible class. I sing it every week, frequently:

Cleanse me from my sin, Lord,
Put your power within, Lord,
Take me as I am, Lord,
And make me all your own.

Keep me day by day, Lord,
Underneath your sway, Lord;
Make my heart your palace
And your royal throne.[21]

May it be true of our church, Lord Jesus, for your glory.

And may grace, mercy, and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] See Psalm 1:2.

[2] See Galatians 3:7.

[3] Romans 4:3 (NIV 1984).

[4] 1 Peter 2:10–12 (paraphrased).

[5] 1 Peter 1:2 (NIV 1984).

[6] Romans 3:20 (NIV 1984).

[7] 2 Chronicles 7:3 (NIV 1984).

[8] 2 Chronicles 7:3 (paraphrased).

[9] Exodus 3:5 (paraphrased).

[10] Isaiah 6:5 (KJV).

[11] Luke 5:8 (paraphrased).

[12] 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV 1984).

[13] Nehemiah 9:16 (paraphrased).

[14] See Isaiah 42:8.

[15] A. W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1955), 146.

[16] See Luke 11:1.

[17] Beverly Darnall, Dick Tunney, and Melodie Tunney, “Seekers of Your Heart” (1985). Lyrics lightly altered.

[18] 1 Thessalonians 5:12–14 (NIV 1984).

[19] 1 Thessalonians 5:14–18 (NIV 1984).

[20] 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV 1984).

[21] R. Hudson Pope, “Cleanse Me.” Language modernized.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.