by Pastor Ron Thomas
RODGERS BAPTIST CHURCH
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Focus verse: Nehemiah 9:17b. "...but Thou art a God (Elohay el-o'-ah) ready to pardon (Selichort sel-ee-khaw'), gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not."
Introduction: Over the last several months, we have heard the words, "Yes we can." That is a heady phrase to say to yourself and to others. Just to say those words, "Yes we can," seems to empower us. History was made Thursday evening in Denver, Colorado, as the Democratic Party selected the first African American, Barack Obama as their nominee for President of the United States.
The phrase "Yes we can," really captures the American spirit. This nation is known to rise to the task and meet challenges. I personally remember a third grade teacher telling me, "You are an Amer-i-can, not an Amer-i-can't."
America is truly a great nation. But have you ever asked yourself, "Why? Why is America a great nation?" I believe it is because this nation has always acknowledged and honored the God of the Bible. You see, the phrase "Yes we can," is really a mutation of a biblical truth that should be on the heart of every born again believer in America. Every believer should say, "Yes God can!" Do you hear the difference? There is a subtle shift from humanism to theism. God can do anything. The angel who spoke to Mary concerning her cousin Elizabeth who had been barren, and was soon to give birth was, "For with God nothing shall be impossible." Jesus Himself said, "With God all things are possible." The apostle Paul said, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." Is there anything God can't do?
The text before us presents a powerful scene. The setting for the book of Nehemiah is post-exile. Under the Persians, the children of Israel were allowed to return to their homeland and beloved Jerusalem. Nehemiah specifically came to rebuild the walls and replace the gates of Jerusalem. After they had restored and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, they celebrated in Israel, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles for the first time in many years. Following the joyful celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, the people came together for a time of repentance. It was national repentance day in Israel, and 50,000 gathered to hear the Word, confess their sin, and worship the Lord. You see, it was their willful sin and rebellion against God, that provoked Him to send the Assyrians and Babylonians in the first place. It was time to turn from their sins of the past, back toward a great and gracious God.
On this great occasion, they humbled themselves before God by fasting, wearing sackcloth, a coarse material made of goat's hair, and throwing dust on themselves. This was their way of demonstrating the attitude of their hearts before the Lord. David had said that the sacrifices God is looking for, are a "broken spirit," and a "contrite heart." They confessed their sins and the sins of those who came before them. Then, they stood for three hours, while the Word of God was opened and read out loud. These three hours were followed by three more hours of public confession and worship. It is without doubt that these people made the connection between their sin, their past attitudes and behavior towards God, and their captivity!
This leads us to a famous prayer. Nehemiah 9 contains what is one of the longest recorded prayers in the Bible. Some credit this prayer to Ezra; others to Nehemiah; and still others to a group of Levites gathered that day before Israel. It is not so much the credit for the prayer that occupies my mind today, but the content. This prayer begins in verse 4, and continues to verse 31. It begins with praise and adoration to God as the great Creator and preserver of all things. Then beginning in verse 7, the prayer gives a brief overview of the history of God's covenant relationship with Israel. Verses 7-8, covers the call of Abraham; verses 9-11 the deliverance from Egypt; verses 12-21 cover God's provision in the wilderness; verses 22-25 the conquest of Canaan; and verses 26-31 the period of the judges and prophets.
As you read this prayer, you quickly discover that it oscillates between the record of God's goodness and faithfulness, and the record of Israel's disobedience and rebellion! In all of Israel's history, God proved Himself faithful to His covenant, and they proved themselves unfaithful. This prayer was one big confession that they and their ancestors, who knew the way of the Lord, who had experienced His blessings, had turned their backs on Him again and again. Now, Nehemiah, Ezra, the Levites, and those who returned to Jerusalem, once again stand before God broken, repentant, confessing their sinful condition, and asking forgiveness.
As I read this entire prayer, there were three words that came strong to my heart and mind. It is also a familiar phrase to everyone. The phrase is, "Are you ready?" Usually, when we hear this phrase we think of excitement, celebration and fun. "Are you ready to rumble?" "Are you ready to party?" Without doubt, Israel was ready. Ready for what? They were ready to hear God's Holy Word. They were ready to worship. They were ready to pray. They were ready to humble themselves before God in confession and repentance. Israel was ready, but was God ready? Would God forgive once again?
Thinking about this, I am reminded of Peter who asked the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18, just how many times he was obligated to forgive someone who had repeatedly hurt and offended him. Seven seemed to be a good "cut off" number from Peter's point of view. Jesus told Peter in verse 22, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." It is extremely unlikely that we could keep track of whether we have forgiven a particular individual 490 times, so you see Jesus' point. When Peter heard that, I'm sure he groaned in His spirit! Did God groan when it came to Israel? If the magic number for forgiving someone is seven, then Israel was toast! We are toast!
God was ready to forgive. How do we know? The answer is revealed in one of God's many names. We find this name in verse 17, "...but Thou art a God (Elohay el-o'-ah) ready to pardon (Selichort sel-ee-khaw'), gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not." Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') literally means, God is ready to pardon or forgive. Of all the things we can know about God, this is the most wonderful! Of all the things God can do, this is the most powerful and amazing! Back in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve first sinned, plunging themselves, all humanity, and all creation into a cycle of death, God could have simply annihilated humanity, destroyed everything, and started over! "Yes, God could!" This would have been the easy thing to do, but God did a harder thing. God chose a course for Himself that would allow Him to provide a way to forgive sinful men, on a case by case basis. Why was this a harder thing for God to do? Why was it more difficult for God to redeem fallen humanity, instead of destroying them? It involved a great cost, great pain and suffering on the part of God Himself. Because God is sinless and holy beyond our imagination, God could not simply dismiss our sin. God's justice must be satisfied. Obviously all humanity and creation was contaminated by sin and could not even begin to satisfy God's justice. In Job 25:4 the question is asked, "How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?" Good question! The answer is, "No he can't!", unless a man is born of a virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. It would take God Himself dying, to satisfy His divine justice and judgment! Romans 8:32a says, "He (God) that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all."
This passage in Nehemiah, speaks of a God who is ready to pardon. Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') is not a God who could possibly forgive; a God who forgives only if bribed or persuaded; He is a God who is willing and ready to forgive. What can we learn from this powerful name for God? The God Who Forgives
First: When God forgives, it is something we do not deserve. In this prayer, and throughout the Old Testament, Israel is a picture of all God's people. They are a people who were favored by God in every way, yet they were ungrateful. They were dependant upon God for everything, yet they were full of pride. They were a people in a covenant relationship with God, who vowed to be faithful to Him and keep His commandments, yet they rebelled, committed apostasy, and participated in idolatry! All of this, yet God forgave them in His great love, and for the sake of His covenant. All along, God never stopped guiding them; never stopped providing for them, never stopped teaching them!
God's name Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') speaks of grace, His unmerited, undeserved love and favor! Grace delivers what we don't deserve! It has been said, "When a person works an eight-hour day and receives a fair day's pay for his time, that is a wage. When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his performance, that is a prize. When a person receives appropriate recognition for his long service or high achievements, that is an award. But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award, yet receives such a gift anyway, that is a good picture of God's unmerited favor. This is what we mean, when we talk about the grace of God."
Second: When God forgives, He does so readily, with joy and gladness. Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') is ready and willing to forgive! Psalms 86:5a says, "For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive." This is illustrated in the three parables recorded in Luke 15. The shepherd who left the ninety and nine to find that one lost sheep, rejoiced when he found it. The woman who turned her house upside down to find that lost coin, when she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate. The father of the prodigal, threw a party, when his rebellious son returned home! All of this is a picture of our great and gracious God! In sharing these three parables, Jesus was picturing God as that shepherd, that woman, and that father! In Luke 15:7 Jesus said, "I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."
God is love. God loved us first and He loves us most. God took the initiative, He made the first move in the garden of Eden that culminated in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter tells us that God, Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') is "...not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Paul tells us that God, Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') is not content to leave us in our sin. His desire is to exchange our sin for His righteousness, by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ!
Third: When God forgives, He does so completely. Nome, Alaska, on the edge of the Bering Sea, is like many villages of the Arctic. The community sits on frozen, sponge-like tundra. Things like burying the dead and disposing of garbage, are a real challenge. The landscape is littered with broken washing machines, junked cars, old toilets, scrap wood, and piles of non degradable refuse. The tourists who visit Nome in the summer shake their heads and wonder how anyone could live with such things. What those visitors do not realize, is that for nine months of the year, Nome sits under a blanket of snow that covers all the garbage. During those months, the "little Iditarod" town, is transformed into a quaint winter wonderland of pure white landscapes. What a picture of God's forgiveness! Isaiah 1:18a says, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Unlike the situation in Nome, our sin is covered forever! Psalms 103:12 tells us that God separates us from our confessed and forgiven sin, "as far as the east is from the west." Isaiah 38:17 pictures God casting our sins behind His back! Micah 7:19 describes God in His forgiveness, as subduing our iniquities, and casting them into the depths of the sea!
Have you ever done something really bad? Has someone told you that they could not and would not forgive you? Have you ever thought that God wouldn't or couldn't forgive you? The truth is, God can and will forgive every sin, and when He does, He does it completely, forever!
Fourth: When God forgives, He does it according to His own conditions. A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her lesson, and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, "Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?" There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy yelled, "Sin!"
God as Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') is willing and ready to pardon, but before He can do so, there are conditions. The condition is repentance and confession. Psalms 86:5 says, "For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee."
This passage and prayer begins with 50,000 people, including leaders, fasting in sackcloth and ashes, confessing their sin, and asking God to forgive them! God is ready to forgive, but we must come to the place where we confess our need of it, and ask for it! In the great penitent psalm, Psalm 51, David cries out in verses 3-4, "For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest." John in I John 1:8-9 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Our focus verse tells us that Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw'), is loving, compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, good, kind and forgiving. All you have to do is ask Him in truth and sincerity, from the depths of your heart, to forgive you, and He will! If you have turned away from the Lord through your sin, turn back to God. No matter what you have done, confess it to God. No matter how far you have traveled in the wrong direction, repent, turn back to God. Tell God you are sorry! Ask Him to forgive!
Fifth: When God forgives, He is setting an example for us to imitate! God expects us to forgive others, just as He has forgiven us. Ephesians 4:32 says, "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." The forgiveness we receive from God, should motivate us to be willing to forgive others. God is always ready to forgive. The question is, "Are we ready to forgive?"
When we who have experienced the forgiveness of God refuse to forgive others, we open the door of our hearts to hatred, resentment and bitterness. All of this is like acid, eating away at our attitudes and destroying relationships. When we refuse to forgive another person for an offense, we are dishonoring the God who has forgiven us.
Also, when we are unforgiving, it is a form of pride. When we've been wronged by someone, we have a natural desire for justice. We have this desire to hurt the people who have wounded us. It's like the little boy who was sitting on a park bench in obvious agony. A man walking by asked him what was wrong. The boy answered, "I'm sitting on a bumble bee." The man asked, "Then why don't you get up?" The boy replied, "Because I figure that I am hurting him more than he is hurting me!" Withholding forgiveness, is basically passing judgment on the person, instead of deferring to God! God commands us to leave justice and judgment to Him! Forgiving someone is not condoning what they have done, it is laying the case before God's throne.
When we refuse to forgive, we actually obstruct God's forgiveness in our own lives! Mark 11:25-26 Jesus said this, "And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses."' Forgiveness means that we love mercy, more than justice.
The name Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') tells us that God's very nature is based upon Him forgiving us of our sins. God is waiting for us to ask His forgiveness. His desire is not for us to continue in our sin, but to know and understand that He already has paid the price for them. God Elohay (el-o'-ah)-Selichort (sel-ee-khaw') does not want us to live in denial, fear and guilt. His desire is for you to experience His forgiveness that is available in Jesus Christ. How? Its as easy as A B C.
A Acknowledge your need for forgiveness. Acknowledging your sin is a big step. God is ready to forgive, but are you ready to acknowledge your sin and ask forgiveness.
B Believe that God gave His only begotten Son, so that you could be forgiven.
C Confess Jesus as your Savior!
Come ask God for forgiveness of your sins. Come and ask to help you forgive someone.