If you’ve ever volunteered for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign, you’ve likely noticed the varied responses from people when faced with the opportunity to give. Many smile and give a couple coins, others nervously avoid eye contact, and then there are those who don’t give but offer an apology, as if they owe it to you. It seems that while we may not believe in Santa’s naughty and nice list, there is an underlying assumption that someone is keeping track of whether our good behaviour will outweigh the bad.
Now, Nehemiah’s story takes place after the devastating ruin and the scattering of the people of God into exile. Nehemiah prays: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them…I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen’” (Nehemiah 1:8-9). Nehemiah has hope that if the Israelites return to keeping God’s laws, and earn their way back onto His “nice” list, then the kingdom will be restored.
So Nehemiah seeks to lead the people in obedience. It seems to go well for a while, and yet the last chapter reads like a shocking plot twist—when you thought it was going to be a happily ever after, but instead it’s a disappointing taste of reality. The final scenes are of an angry Nehemiah confronting the people because all of his reforms have fallen apart… it even describes him pulling out their hair! He tried, and yet failed, because the hearts of the people had not changed.
Around four hundred years after Nehemiah’s frustrated rampage came Jesus. He too came to lead the people back to God, and yet His methods were not the same as bold, brash Nehemiah. He came as one who is “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:28). Rather than beating them and pulling out their hair, He invited those who were weary and heavy laden to come learn from Him and find rest. Rather than burden the people to clean up their act, Jesus took the burden of their sin upon Himself.
Jesus offers us this same invitation today. Not because we have been more nice than naughty, but because He knows we could never do enough. Jesus, knowing our sin more fully than we admit and yet loving us more deeply than we could imagine, offers to take our stubborn hearts and make us new. So don’t act like you can out-give God; instead, accept His generous invitation to come and find rest.