Our family was down by the Crystal River the other day, and the kids were goofing around. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the ripples of the water upstream glistened with light. And the kids were laughing. How far into the river could they go on dry rocks? And without falling in? It wasn’t dangerous. The water wasn’t deep. It was just good fun.
And Sam brought me a stone. It was smooth and flat and the edges were rounded. And he asked, “Dad, is this a good rock for skipping?” And the answer was yes, although it was a little larger than you’d want it to be. It would take a strong throw to make it skip across the water very far. Stronger than Sam could muster. But I didn’t tell him this. I just told him it was a good rock for skipping.
And in the blink of an eye, he threw it. The stone skipped once and then sank. “Ah,” he said, “I wasted it!” And then he walked away, looking for other good “skipping stones.”
I just watched the place where that stone went into the water. It left no trace. The constant flow of the river instantaneously smoothed over the spot. It was like the stone never was there – long forgotten if anyone even tried to remember.
In Nehemiah 9, we discover what it’s like to be an enemy of God and his people. It’s just like that stone. When the Egyptians were chasing the liberated Israelite slaves, the whole ensemble bumped up against the Red Sea. God parted the waters to let the Israelites pass, and the water then swallowed up the Egyptian army. “And you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters.”
The Egyptian army was gone. It simply was swallowed up and didn’t even leave a mark.
The people of God are precious to him. He loves them. And he is patient with them – “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In short, the people of Israel are NOT like that stone that splashes into those mighty waters, erased forever. They are different.
And when the people of Israel, on the 24th day of the seventh month, stood up to bless the name of God and to repent of their national sin, they remembered that. They recounted their whole history, from God’s covenant with Abraham – which made them a unique kind of stone, different from the world – to the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land to the exile and return. And that history was littered with sin and rebelliousness. And the people admitted that they got what they deserved. “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.”
God was faithful to his covenant. He disciplined his people appropriately. The destruction brought on the people by the Assyrians and the Babylonians was justified. And the people knew that.
But they also knew who they were. They were God’s chosen ones. And they remembered that.
It is interesting that at the beginning of the chapter, the first thing the people did in their moment of national confession was this – “And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins …” They distanced themselves from non-Israelites. They stood apart.
There was something about this moment that had nothing to do with “all foreigners.” This moment was strictly between God and the people with whom God had made a covenant. And the people recognized that and stepped aside from the world and conversed with God about their troubles.
Of course, the primary sin of the nation – the big temptation – was to act and worship in the same way as all the other peoples around them. The big temptation was to find something else to worship other than the One True God. It was to find something smaller, something they could more easily control, something that didn’t demand holiness, something that didn’t really make many demands at all. It was to find something that didn’t require them to change.
And so when the people separated themselves, they said “no” to the world, and they turned their attention to God. They sought him. They blessed his name, and they confessed their sins, and they told him about the lay of the land. They confessed the reality of that moment. “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.”
I thought it was interesting that the people here didn’t necessarily demand anything from God. But they made their feelings clear to him: Things still were not good. Something was missing, even amid all the good things that had happened. The people had come back to the land. They’d rebuilt the temple. They’d reconstructed the city walls. They’d returned to God’s Word. And they’d reinstated their festivals. But something was missing. They still were slaves – slaves to other “kings.”
And during this entire confession, the people were separated from the world, conversing with their God, admitting their mistakes, and looking forward. They were looking for the King. And they were coming back to God in humility and repentance in hopes that God would fully restore the nation. And the last piece of the puzzle was the King.
It is the King who make us a different kind of “stone.” And we separate ourselves from the world to look for the King.
Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
We have the King. His name is Jesus. We separate from the world – it’s called repentance, to turn around – and we bless his name. We come to him. He is the King the people of Israel were waiting for, and he is the King we worship.
Have you separated yourself from the world, from the “nations” that have nothing to do with the King? Is there anything in your life that points to false worship, that points to pride? Is there anything that belongs to the world to which you are clinging more tightly than you are clinging to Jesus?
Repentance is something the world tells us we never need to do. Sin is something the world does not believe exists. But the call of Christ is to turn around and look for him. And that means separating ourselves. We’re not called to work harder. We’re just called to turn around.
In my reading today, I wandered around and landed in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There, we find a pregnant Mary, living more than 400 years after Ezra and Nehemiah. She was a faithful Israelite, also waiting for the King. If you have time today, read what Mary said in Luke 1:46-55.
Her warm words soothed my soul. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”