Every time I read the book of Nehemiah, I am deeply moved by chapter 8. After long years in exile, the Israelites have been allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild. When the hard work has been completed:
Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. In the square in front of the Water Gate, Ezra read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.
They were so hungry to hear the Word of God again! It moved them to tears … it moves me to tears to imagine what it felt like for them!
This morning, I also noticed something familiar in their gatherings. In chapter 8, they are told:
“Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not lament, do not weep!”—for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He continued: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD is your strength!” And the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Silence! Today is holy, do not be saddened.” Then all the people began to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been explained to them.”
Immediately following this event, chapter 9 tells us:
On the twenty-fourth day of this month, the Israelites gathered together while fasting and wearing sackcloth, their heads covered with dust. Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all who were of foreign extraction, then stood forward and confessed their sins and the guilty deeds of their ancestors. When they had taken their places, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God, for a fourth of the day, and during another fourth they made their confession and bowed down before the LORD their God.
A time for great joy, a time for confessing our sins and for repentance.
Sometimes it seems people focus on one at the expense of the other. Some refuse to acknowledge a need for repentance; others only focus on sin.
I have needed both … during my dark time, I learned what a freeing gift the sacrament of reconciliation can be; how healing it is to take time to honestly reflect on my thoughts and actions and to confess my sins.
At the same time, I learned the truth of 8:10 – “rejoicing in the LORD is your strength!” When I am struggling, I find that praising God and thanking Him turns my heart and mind and mood around faster than anything else … it truly is my strength!
Joy and repentance … each has its place, each has its time, each is a wonderful gift from God to help us to balance in our walk with Him.