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Mar 15, 2015

RSVP-ING To A Divine Invitation

RSVP-ING To A Divine Invitation

Passage: Nehemiah 9:1-38

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Rebuilding the City

Keywords: prayer, renewal, repentance, response, revival


This chapter in Nehemiah starts Israel's response to God's reviving call in their lives with what is the longest prayer in the Bible. It focuses upon God's greatness as well as the history of Israel through the years. It is a powerful passage of renewal through prayer.


RSVP-ing to a Divine Invitation

Nehemiah 9

March 15, 2015

Tis the season for certain kinds of invitation, or at least it will be in just a few months.  Besides invitations to take out another credit card, just what kinds of invitations will be winging their way through the U.S. Postal Service over the next few months? 

  • Graduation invitations, and…
  • Wedding invitations

Invitations come in all different kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, envelopes, handwriting or embossing. 

ILL:  One of the most memorable invitations Sandy and I ever received was from the White House.  I really don’t know why we actually got one unless it was because I drove one of the press vans in the Presidential motorcade when the President came to Spokane. 

For whatever reason, there in the mail one day was this very official, very fat, very fancy gold-embossed invitation to attend President Bush’s Second Inauguration and one of the many inaugural balls that followed.  Sandy started dreaming of what it would be like to go to Washington, D.C. and wear a fancy evening gown at an inaugural ball.  I, on the other hand, was convinced it was a cleaver gag orchestrated by one of my non-serious friends. 

How differently two people can respond to the same invitation! J

            I’ve entitled todays time in God’s word, “RSVP-ing to a Divine Invitation.”  I know, it’s both really bad English and really bad French all at the same time. J 

  • RSVP is what you often see on the bottom of some formal invitation.  It is French for Répondez s'il vous plaît, or literally “Reply if you please.” 
  • Adding –ing to the end of a French acronym is, I’m guessing, offensive to both English and French grammarians.  J

Regardless, today’s Scripture passage of Nehemiah 9 records a whole nation’s response to an invitation from God.  The invitation actually occurred in chapter 8.  It happened at the Jewish New Year’s celebration in Jerusalem 445 B.C. when the priest Ezra stood and read the Word of God written to the people of God, the Jews, years before. Now their offspring many generations later and with a whole lot of historical experience under their belts, stood in the public square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem.  For somewhere between 4-5 hours, thousands of people stood in that square listening to God’s gracious invitation to return to him and really be His people. 

As we saw last week, the effect was overwhelming. Taking God’s Word as we all should…as God’s love letter to us…these spiritually hungry people fell under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The whole national assembly starting weeping as they realized, many probably for the first time, just how far they had strayed from God’s desires for them. 

            So at the end of chapter 8 of Nehemiah, we have the spiritual leaders of the nation, the priests and Levites, trying to calm the people down and encouraging them to take the entire next week to celebrate one of the forgotten week-long holidays called the Feast of Booths.  This, as all biblical feasts, was a gift from God to His people designed to increase people’s enjoyment of life and build connection between God and between people.  

This particular feast, The Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) was to be essentially a week of camping out under the stars either on the top or your house (flat roofed, of course) or in the Temple courts or even in the town squares like the ones at the Water Gate and Gate of Ephraim.  For a whole week they were to rejoice with food and drink and relaxation—no work, just great time with family and friends and even strangers who may have had no food. 

APP:   Can you imagine what it would do to the life of every city and neighborhood in our country if all the businesses, schools and government agencies declared 7 days of vacation in which everyone was invited, not to hit the road, but to camp out in their yards or on the streets, share meals with neighbors and strangers, and just generally have a whole week of celebrating how good God has been to our nation? That sort of connecting in neighborhoods and streets of a city could totally and radically change some of the dynamics of racial tensions or economic divisions or even neighbor relations that exist in a community.  That is, assuming, of course, that the people celebrating aren’t doing it to get drunk or high or otherwise out of touch with reality but instead do it to love God and each other more. 

ILL:  Even our little cul-de-saq were we live now gets closer and breaks down walls when we just do a movie night against someone’s garage door on some warm evening of the summer.  

APP:  Where did we ever come up with this notion that God is a cosmic kill-joy?  Fact is, He loves a good party.  In fact, the Bible tells us that He’s even got some planned for heaven when we get there.  And as we’re looking forward to summer here in Spokane, I’m starting to dream again about what we could even do in this very disconnected neighborhood that God might use to lead people back to life with Him. 

But back to Nehemiah 8.  God had been inviting the people to reconnect with Him and each other through just doing what God knew was best for them all along.  I’m imagining that some pretty life-changing conversations took place that week between people and with God.  You see, this festival was to remind them of their past history as a nation, sort of an elongated 4th of July celebration.  Living in booths served as a physical reminder of God’s amazing protection and care during the forty years of wandering in the desert (Lev 23:42) as well as the hundreds of years they had enjoyed in the Promised Land.  The temporary booths and this post-harvest holiday season symbolized the need of every person to depend upon God for provision of food, water, and shelter.  Maybe that’s why Thanksgiving weekend is one of my favorite holidays of the year: it’s longer (4 days), it’s after the harvest and it was started by God-loving people who had suffered greatly to worship freely and remember annually that God was their Protector and Provider. 

When we come to chapter 9 of Nehemiah, it’s a little over 2 weeks later. Apparently the Spirit of God has been stirring in the people.  There is still a tremendous sense of needing to respond rightly to God.  People are feeling the weight of decades of stiff-arming God.  So they come together again, not in the spirit of feasting and rejoicing but with a heart of fasting and sorrow over their failure to respond for so long in a proper way to God.  This becomes their national RSVP to God whose invitation to do life with Him is once again being embraced. 

APP:  It makes me wonder how I’m responding to God’s continual invitation to do life with Him. 

  • Am I just ignoring that invitation most days…or even knowingly stiff-arming God and keeping him at a distance?  Or am I really embracing every encounter I have with the Word of God as the invitation it is from God to reconnect and recalibrate my life to real life?
  • Or maybe you’re here today and you’ve never responded to God’s invitation to make peace with Him through Jesus Christ?  (Explain the Gospel.)

So let’s pick it up in Nehemiah 9:1ff

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. 

Standing on the stairs of the Levites were Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Kenani. They cried out with loud voices to the Lord their God. And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.”  

All of this is sort of the background, introductory scene-setting for what is THE longest recorded prayer in the Bible. Nehemiah is telling us that it is two weeks after this amazing week-long national party.  Even though the nation had been called to party, three weeks later they are still feeling drawn to God in repentance and, as we will see next week in chapter 10, deeper commitment. 

Here is a sure sign that this thing isn’t getting ginned up by some religious huckster.  People don’t naturally gravitate to repentance.  Sin, yes, but repentance?  I don’t think so.  But pretty much the majority of God’s people were feeling that something really needed to change…and it needed to start with their hearts. 


  • America’s 1st Great Awakening under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.  It started with his message “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edwards was not an animated hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher.  He was a pretty monotone, read-the-sermon sort of preacher.  But when the Spirit of God convicts, the response of God’s people changes.  (Hearers that morning apparently started weeping, dug their fingernails into the wood of the pews and even fell to the floor overcome with conviction of sin.)
  • The Isle of Louis Revival in 1949.  It started in the town of Barvis,   A good friend of mine, Alec Rowlands, tells this story in a DVD study series called The Presence.  The church he will talk about began a prayer meeting with just a couple of spinsters and the pastor and some of his elders, out of concern for the spiritual condition of the younger generation. At one of those meetings, one of the elders got up to read a Psalm, as was their custom.  Suddenly he was struck by a deep sense of conviction.  Halfway through reading the Psalm, he dropped the Bible at his feet and cried out, “It’s not the young people in this island that need reviving; it’s ME.”  He fell to his knees with a deep sense of conviction upon him for his own sins and own lack of spiritual vitality and love for God.  That commenced a season of repentance in that little prayer group that people said was the “igniter” that somehow, in the heavenlies, ignited a spirit of revival.

I don’t know how God is going to do it in our day…in our lives.  But I do think that we, the people of God…self-proclaimed Christ-followers…are the ones in greatest need of humble repentance.  It wasn’t the pagan peoples around the Israelites who needed to repent first.  It was the Jews.  In the same way, I don’t think we can blame the culture for the weak and hypocritical state of Christianity and Christians in America today.  Our culture isn’t going to be interested in repentance until they see what it does to us first.

And we don’t need to manufacture it either.  But we do need to be willing to do some spiritual inventories of our past and present sins as well as the sins of the church.  As we do, our appreciation of God should grow big just as our attraction to sin should become smaller. 

Another sign that this was a Spirit of God-led event with God’s people was the WAY in which repentance got demonstrated.  Vss. 1-3:

  • Fasting (vs. 1)
  • Sackcloth (vs. 1)
  • Dust on their heads (vs. 1)
  • Pulled away from the pagan culture and entanglements (vs. 2)
  • 3 hours of reading God’s Word publicly (vs. 3)
  • 3 hours of public confession of sins and worship of God (vss. 2 & 3)

I don’t think we have to go buy burlap bags and make clothes out of them.  Nor do I think if God is calling you to repentance do we need to find the nearest dirt lot and roll around in it.  Symbols of repentance may vary from culture to culture.  But what I think I can say about any genuine Spirit-led repentance is that it will have some of the same trademarks this day did in Israel.

  • Desire and decisions to separate from people and/or practical behaviors that have entangled us with the godlessness of our culture.
  • Eagerness for God’s Word (wanting to read in more on your own or listen to it taught or get in a Bible study group).
  • Hunger for heartfelt worship that includes confession of sin and appreciation/praise for His saving grace.
  • Some sort of physical experience mirrors the spiritual experience going on in our hearts.

What did fasting, sackcloth and dust in your hair DO for the Israelites to help this experience of choosing humility before God?

  • Fasting—reminds you of your weakness apart from God’s supply of food, of your spiritual hunger that is even more important than our physical hunger, of the abundance of good God pours out on us every day in simply food, etc.
  • Sackcloth—how uncomfortable life is when there is sin that needs to be dealt with.  (Wearing rough wool???)
  • Dust & Ashes—discomfort, sense of dirtiness and filth, desire to get clean.

What strikes me about both the experience the people of God had there that day and the content of their time together in prayer and worship was how God-focused and God-exalting it was.   From the call of the Levites in vs. 5 to the content of their prayer from vs. 6-31, God’s mercy, his grace, his patience, his loving kindness, his power and majesty, his sustaining goodness—it all looks huge and engulfs in this prayer the pretty big failures of the people of God. 

So rather than talk about this prayer, let’s read it and experience it.  [Read Neh. 9:5-35.]


  • Time of praising God in prayer for his blessings despite our often continuing grumblings, faithlessness, idolatry, rebellion, disbelief, wanderings, stubbornness, etc.
  • Time of musical worship


Questions for Further Study & Reflection:

  1. How many different qualities of God can you find prayed back to God in the prayer of Nehemiah 9?  What would have to change about your prayers if they were to include talking to God about His nature and actions on your behalf regularly like this prayer does?  Why not try making many of your prayers this week about God and His goodness to you over the years?
  2. What does the mood of this prayer feel like to you? How many requests are in this prayer and what are they?  Does this kind of praying fit in with your thinking about fasting, sackcloth, dust on your head and separating from the world for a while (Nehemiah 9:1-2)?  If you were to have a time of humbling yourself before God and confessing sin, what outward signs or symbols might be appropriate for you to wear or engage in?
  3. Nehemiah 9:6 looks to nature and the cosmos to call people to blessing and praise of God.  Find an article or video on the internet about some amazing truths in the universe—about stars and galaxies, animals or plants, biology, chemistry or physics—something that makes you marvel at the wisdom and power of God to create and sustain our universe. Who will you share that with this week?
  4. While God may not have chosen you to begin a nation like He did Abraham (Neh. 9:7-8), He has chosen you to be His child and begin or carry on a godly spiritual family tree. Draw out what you know of your spiritual heritage/family tree.  What are some of the godless/pagan practices from which God has rescued you and your family line? Spiritual battles? What “territory”/issues still needs to be conquered?
  5. Read Nehemiah 9:9-26.  What is it about God’s blessings to us that can easily lead us to being stubborn or outright rebellious? How can we guard against that?
  6. How does what this prayer tells us about God make you want to know Him better?  What does it make you particularly grateful for about how he deals with you?  What about God in this passage would you like to remember and enjoy more?  How might you do that this week? 
  7. Take some time to be quiet before God, simply asking Him what He wants to say to you personally from this prayer.  Share what you think God is saying to you with someone else.