I love Nehemiah 9 for its broad account of God’s grace intervening in the midst of repeated human brokenness. I love it, also, because in it the people of God confess not only their sins but the sins of their ancestors. They recognize that their current situation is, in part, a consequence of the sinful actions of those who came before them.
I believe we have something to learn from our ancestors in the faith. We are called to acknowledge and confess not only our own sins, but also the sins of those who came before us. Not only individual sins, but also the sins that we commit collectively and that have an adverse, broad, collective impact.
What I have below is likely unusable in a congregational setting – it is very long and poorly edited. But it is a first draft of sorts, a sketching-out of the text of Nehemiah 9 (with some Psalm 145 and 51 added in) and transforming it into a collective confession for us today.
Litany of Confession, based on Nehemiah chapter 9
Our ancestors in the faith, upon returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, gathered together to give God praise, to recall God’s mighty works, and to confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors. Let us follow in their footsteps, speaking praise, remembering God’s works, and making our confession.
P: Stand up and bless the Lord your God.
C: From everlasting to everlasting we bless God’s glorious name.
P: You alone are the Lord.
C: You alone made the heavens.
You alone made the earth.
You alone made the land and all that is on it.
You alone made the seas and all that is in them.
P: Lord God, you are the one who chose Abram and gave him the name Abraham.
You made a covenant with him, and with his descendants.
C: You, O God, have kept your promises.
You, O God, are righteous.
P: You saw the affliction of our ancestors in Egypt.
C: You heard their cries at the Red Sea.
P: You see the afflictions of your beloved people today.
C: You hear their cries. You hear our cries.
P: You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh,
against his servants, and against the people of his land.
C: Because you knew that they had acted arrogantly against our ancestors.
P: You divided the sea before our ancestors so that they went through on dry land.
C: You led them with a pillar of cloud by day,
and a pillar of fire by night.
P: You also perform signs before us, as you did before our ancestors.
C: You free us to be your people, to serve in this world you so love.
P: You came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke with our ancestors from heaven.
C: You gave them the Law, and a promise-filled way of life.
P: When they were hungry, you gave them bread from heaven;
C: when they were thirsty, you brought water from the rock.
P: Your giving knows no end, O God.
C: You open your hand and provide all that we need
P: But our ancestors acted arrogantly.
C: They were stubborn and wouldn’t obey your commandments.
P: And we are like them. There is no difference.
C: We also are stubborn and do not obey your commandments.
P: Our ancestors didn’t remember the wonders that you accomplished in their midst.
C: But you are a God ready to forgive,
merciful and compassionate,
patient, and truly faithful.
P: Even when they had molded a golden calf to replace you as their God,
C: in great mercy, you didn’t abandon them.
P: So too when we make money, or power, or comfort our God
C: in great mercy, you don’t abandon us.
P: The column of cloud continued to guide them on their journey during the day,
C: and the pillar of fire lit their path during the night.
P: You fed our ancestors in the wilderness,
C: and you gave them water to drink.
P: You kept them alive for forty years—
C: they lacked nothing in the wilderness!
P: You gave them kingdoms and peoples
C: You multiplied their descendants as the stars of heaven.
P: You brought them into the land that you promised to their ancestors.
C: They ate until they were satisfied.
They delighted in your goodness.
P: Everything they had belonged to you.
C: Everything we have belongs to you.
P: But our ancestors were disobedient, and they rebelled against you,
C: They turned their back on your Law.
P: They killed your prophets.
C: They held you in great contempt.
P: So too do we, and have our parents and grandparents in recent generations, silenced your prophets.
C: We hold your Word, your prophets, in great contempt.
P: Therefore, you handed our ancestors over to their enemies, and they suffered.
C: But when they cried out to you, O God, you heard them and saved them.
P: In time, they again worked evil against you.
C: So again you handed them over to their enemies who ruled over them.
P: When they turned and cried to you,
C: you rescued them again and again because of your great mercy.
P: You also warned them to return to your Law,
C: but they acted arrogantly.
P: They didn’t obey your commands.
C: They refused your promise-filled way of life.
P: O God, our own conflicts, sufferings, and injustices are a consequence of our sins, and the sins of our ancestors.
C: Have mercy upon us, O Lord.
P: You were patient with our ancestors for many years
C: Be patient, too, with us.
P: You warned them through the prophets.
C: Send again prophets among us.
P: But our ancestors wouldn’t listen,
C: so you handed them over to other peoples.
P: In your great mercy, O God, however, you didn’t make an end of them.
C: For you are a merciful and compassionate God.
P: Now, our great and mighty and awesome God,
C: you are the one who is faithful
You are the one who keeps the covenant.
P: Our kings, our officials, our clergy, and our ancestors didn’t keep your law.
C: They ignored your commandments and the warnings you gave them.
P: Even surrounded by the great goodness that you gave to them,
even in the wide and rich land, the abundance that you gave them,
C: they didn’t serve you or turn from their wicked ways.
P: So today we are burdened,
C: We are in great distress.
P: For we are no better than our ancestors.
C: We have neglected your instruction,
and lived according to our ways rather than your promised-filled ways.
P: Have mercy upon us, O God.
C: Have mercy upon us.
P: Forgive us our sins, those we name out loud and in the silence of our hearts.
P: Forgive the sins of our ancestors, those we name out loud and in the silence of our hearts.
P: Create in us clean hearts, O God.
C: And renew right spirits within us.
P: Cast us not away from your presence.
C: Take not your Holy Spirit from us.
P: Restore to us the joy of your salvation
C: and sustain us with your bountiful spirit.