Worship that Transforms a Nation

Happy 4th of July to all my friends and readers!! One of my earliest Christian memories is of being in a prayer group with a number of older ladies praying for revival. Our church did experience a revival, though at the time I am not sure we recognized what was happening. I suspect many of those ladies felt that the Great Revival of faith in America they had prayed so diligently for never came. Once again, as you will see below, that may not be true. In any case, we need millions of Americans praying and working for a revival in our land.imgres

Today, we are thinking about the way in which worship, and especially confession of sin, can transform not only Christians (us) but also the society in which we live.When there is  a renewal of faith in a culture, we call it a “Great Awakening.” In American history there have been at least two and perhaps four “Great Awakenings.”

During the “First Great Awakening” two great preachers, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, led a religious revival in the American Colonies. John Wesley and the emergence of Methodism were also important in this “First Great Awakening.” [1]

After the Revolutionary War, a “Second Great Awakening: occurred. Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists were leaders in the Second Great Awakening. The Evangelist, Charles Finney, who founded Oberlin College, was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening.

Many scholars believe America experienced a “Third Great Awakening” in the late 19th and early 20th Century with the emergence of the charismatic movement and modern revivalism. This Great Awakening culminated in the emergence of the Pentecostal movement and denominations such as the Nazarenes, the Assembly of God, and others.

Finally, some scholars believe there was a “Fourth Great Awakening” beginning in the late 1960’s and 1970’s as large “mega-churches” and groups, such as the Willow Creek Association emerged and new forms of worship and sharing the gospel developed. This is the period of Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and other leaders.

Whatever the details, religious fervor has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, and different religious groups have  benefited from times of revival. This means we cannot be too discouraged by our current spiritual condition in America. Who knows? We may be near the beginning of another Great Awakening!

 Worship that Changed Israel.

images-1Today’s reflection is based upon Nehemiah 9, the most complex text we are studying in this series of reflections. Last week, we reflected on the work of Ezra in re-familiarizing the Jewish people with the law of Moses—their Bible. This week, our text is from part of a worship service that either began or culminated the national renewal Ezra and Nehemiah worked to accomplish. [2]

Let’s read the Word of God as it comes to us from Nehemiah 9:

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.  And the Levites … said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.  Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Nehemiah 9”1-4, 5-6, edited and shortened for readability).

Prayer: God of History: As we celebrate our nation’s independence we do pray for a revival in our day, just as powerful as the revival in the days of Nehemiah and times in our own history. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Transforming Worship.

We need to remember the words of the Psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). One message of Nehemiah is that there can be no political renewal of a people or nation unless there is also a spiritual renewal. This is important for Christians in America. We need to remember that any improvement in our culture and politics will be preceded by an outpouring of the Spirit and a renewal of our faith and morals. Practically speaking, this means that we cannot expect a renewal of our nation unless there is a renewal of worship and deep discipleship in our churches.

In Nehemiah 8, we learned of a Great Awakening in the life of Israel. We learned that Ezra led a great worship service in which the law of Moses was read, explained, and celebrated (Nehemiah 8:1-12). This worship service went on for weeks. (For those of you have heard of the “Brownsville Revival,” where a worship service went on for months and years, this worship service was perhaps similar.) The people were so caught up in the spirit, that they continue to worship day after day for a long, long time. [3]

We can learn some things from this great, month long worship service:

  • First, the worship of Israel was communal. That is to say, this was not the worship of isolated individuals but of a community. It is important for us to have personal faith. However, personal faith is not enough. We human beings were made for community. Not only do we need to worship God privately, but we also need to worship God publicly.
  • Secondly, the worship was Biblical. At the very center of the worship of Israel were their Scriptures. If our worship is going to transform our lives, then the word of God needs to sit at the very center of our worship. This doesn’t mean that music, the arts, the prayers,  and other parts of worship are unimportant. They are very important. It means that we come to worship to center ourselves on the word of God as we sing them, pray them, and hear them read and preached.
  • Third, the worship was prayerful. Occasionally, people remarked to me that they rarely go to a church in which there is as much prayer as there is at Advent. I take that as a compliment. Prayer is the primary way in which we allow God to speak into our hearts and into our community.
  • Finally, the worship was action-oriented. This goes beyond our text, but this entire worship service ends with the people of Israel recommitting themselves to God and changing their lives (v. 38). Our worship should not end when the Sunday service of our local church ends. Instead, our worship should continue throughout the week until we meet for worship again. Our worship should lead us to recommitment, renewal, engagement with our culture. [4]

Transforming Confession.

At the end of their time of reading the law and hearing it explained,  the people prayed a great, long prayer of confession. This is a part of Nehemiah we have touched on before. In chapter 1, we learned that Nehemiah began planning his restoration of Jerusalem with a great prayer in which he confessed his sins and the sins of the people of Israel. In today’s text, over and over again, the people of Israel confess their sins and shortcomings to God. The prayer records their entire history of sin against God.

Why is confession connected to renewal? The word, “Renew” implies restoring a person, group, or community to a prior,  better state. To renew is to make new. In other words, renewal implies change. If we are to change and become new, we have to understand that part of us that needs to change. It’s true people and is true of societies. Until we know we need to change, we won’t change.

Most people don’t change until they have a deep sense that something is wrong. There is an old saying that “People do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.” Confession and repentance are those moments in which we clearly understand that we have to change. We change when we realize that we simply can’t stay the same. Confession is the first step in transformation. It is that moment when our mind and will are committed to change. [5] This is true of both individuals and nations.

Our Transforming God.

Nehemiah 9 contains a history of Israel that begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and ends with Israel renewing its covenant with God. Along the way, we learn that it was God who chose Abraham (9:7). It was God who delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt (v. 9). It was God who gave Israel the law of Moses (v. 13). Unfortunately, in spite of all these blessings, Israel became arrogant, disobedient, and refused to repent (v. 16). As a result, Israel suffered. Nevertheless, God did not abandon them (v. 19). Instead, got continued to be faithful to his promises and bless the people of Israel (vv. 22-16). Yet, over and over again, Israel was ungrateful.

All of this is summarized as follows:

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies (v. 26-27)

What is being described here is sometimes called the “Cycle of Sin, Punishment, and Restoration.” It can be graphically represented something like this:


God blesses us. Unfortunately, as God blesses us we begin to take God for granted. We become arrogant. We sin. We fail to obey the word of God. Therefore, God takes away our blessing. We suffer oppression. Once we confess our sins to God, however, God in his mercy delivers us. We receive blessings, and the cycle begins again.

Notice I  put confession in the center of the graphic. Confession is in the center because confession is at the center of any and all renewal. Once we have strayed from God’s word, God’s law, and what God desires of us, only confession, repentance, and renewal can restore us.

This is something we Americans need to think about. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion concerning where we are between blessings and oppression, but I think very few thinking people believe that we have much in the way of blessings left before us without a little confession, repentance, and renewal to restore us.

A Transforming People.

Our text in Nehemiah reminds us that our worship is not optional. Worship is at the center of what it means to believe in God, to trust God, and to respond to God’s love. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we should not give up meeting together as some people do (Hebrews 10:25). This does not mean, however, that our worship ends when we go home from church on Sunday. Worship is not the end, but the beginning.

imagesThe apostle Paul reminds us that our worship is supposed to be a part of our way of life (Romans 12:1-2). Our worship is supposed to change the way we think. It is supposed to change how we see the world. It’s supposed to change how we behave. When we see that the love of Jesus is at the center of the universe, we are transformed. And, as a transformed people, we are called to follow Christ into the world offering ourselves as living sacrifices.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The term Great Awakening refers to several periods of religious revival during the course of American history. Historians and theologians identify at least two (the First and Second Great Awakenings) and perhaps as many as  three or four waves of religious renewal and revival  between the early 18th century and the late 20th century.  Prior to the First Great Awakening, in both England and in America, faith and worship had become routine and divorced from the lives of ordinary people. George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, who were both brilliant, emphasized the emotional and spiritual content of faith. Even today, and especially in Presbyterian seminaries, Edwards is regarded as perhaps the most brilliant and capable American theologian. In particular, the First Great Awakening emphasized confession of sin and repentance. Edwards famous sermon, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” was designing to bring people to confession and repentance, as out of date and harsh as it seem to modern ears.

[2] As mentioned in a prior blog, the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is unclear, and it is possible that the diaries of Nehemiah were added at a later date or inserted into the text for other than purely historical purposes. No one knows. What we do know is that both Ezra and Nehemiah were reformers and rebuilders. Nehemiah was a physical and political rebuilder. Ezra was a spiritual and cultural rebuilder. The events of Nehemiah 7-9 may have occurred near the beginning of Ezra’s renewal or later as its culmination. We cannot say for sure. For more information, see, Balmer Kelly, “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther” in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962) and Mark A. Throntveit, “Ezra-Nehemiah in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1992). What is clear is that the text moves from rebuilding the Temple, to rebuilding the culture through the law of Moses, to rebuilding the physical defensibility of the city (Throntfiet, at 3).

[3] The Brownsville Revival (Pensacola Outpouring) was a Christian revival within the Pentecostal Movement that began on Father’s Day, June 18, 1995, at Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida.Characteristics of the Brownsville Revival movement included acts of repentance by parishioners and a call to holiness, said to be inspired by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. More than four million people are reported to have attended the revival meetings from its beginnings in 1995 to around 2000. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownsville_Revival (Downloaded June 30, 2016). Some people doubt this revival was authentic; however, its length is a decent analogy for what happened in ancient Israel.

[4] This is why it is not so important that we remember each Sunday’s worship. The purpose of worship is not more head knowledge, but heart commitment to live as Christians for the week to come. Those who denigrate worship because people cannot remember the sermon do not understand the spiritual and communal importance of worship.

[5]  The Greek word for repentance (“metanoia”) means to change or turn around. This is the idea behind true confession: we repent and change! In fact, if there is no change, we may not have really and truly confessed with a heart convicted of the seriousness of our sin.