Go looking for God, and you may get an unexpected result. There’s a good chance you will find your real identity.
The conquered, beaten-down Jews of Nehemiah’s day certainly had lost all sense of who they were. Their once-great city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, abandoned with no wall to protect it. Nehemiah had been living in exile as cupbearer to the conquering king.
It was a role of trust, a role that eventually allowed him to gain permission from the king to rebuild Jerusalem and restore some sense of belonging for the scattered people of God. The best of the Jews had been carried away to distant capitals; the rest had been left defenseless among their enemies, people who despised and abused them.
To get the full story, I would suggest you read all of the book of Nehemiah. Suffice it to say his task was a difficult one. Over time, he managed to organize the Jews there, overcoming intimidation, murder plots, and the constant threat of attack by surrounding tribes who hated the Jews of old and did not want to see them re-establish a foothold in Jerusalem.
As Nehemiah and those who rallied around him rebuilt Jerusalem’s destroyed wall and its gates, they often had to work with swords strapped to sides or a weapon in one hand. And yet, they rebuilt the wall in 52 days, an accomplishment even their enemies considered miraculous. Nearly 50,000 Jews and their livestock poured into the city.
It was not too much later that the process of discovery began. The people gathered to hear the word of God, and they were distraught at what had been forgotten over the long captivity. That moment of discovery is recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10. Over a day, it is likely they heard the story of creation; they once again learned of the fall. They heard how God established them as a separate, chosen, holy people through Abraham.
They heard what God had done for their ancestors through Moses after the Israelites had fallen into captivity in Egypt. There were stories of miracles, all evidence of God’s great love. And there were detailed explanations of God’s covenant with them and God’s law for them, and they realized how far they had strayed, how godless they had become. Exploring God’s word that day proved to be a life-changing journey for them.
From God’s word, they remembered how to worship, and began to do so again, celebrating forgotten festivals and re-telling forgotten stories. They confessed their sins to God and sought mercy.
As different as we are today, it is a pattern we can follow. It can be a bit of a shock to discover how far we’ve strayed from God, but as we become Bible-exploring people, we find our true selves. Like Nehemiah’s Jews, one of the first lessons we learn in Genesis is that we are made in our creator’s image, meaning we were designed to reflect God’s nature and God’s will. Know God and we know what should come natural for us.
Knowing God and consequently knowing ourselves seems difficult for one reason alone. Sin remains in the world and in us. Upon hearing what God’s word had to say about God’s expectations of them, Nehemiah’s Jews realized they had suffered mightily because they had stopped acting as God would have them act. They had fallen into sin, and they wept. A sense of brokenness and loss always precedes redemption.
The interpreters of the word, knowing God’s word, had an interesting response, however. They told the people not to weep. The Jews of Jerusalem once again saw God for who God is, and they were in worship! The priest Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s grace would once again shine through their darkness, and joy would be restored.
We see them understanding and experiencing the same kind of forgiving, loving grace ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ, God among us in flesh. Christ came to bring us face-to-face with our need for God.
When we look to Christ, we sometimes don’t like what we see in ourselves. But I tell you today, do not weep, but rejoice—in turning to Christ, you find eternal life and take important steps toward holiness in this life. In Christ God offers us new hope and a new identity.
We become the people we would have been had sin never entered the world.