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The Discipline of Communal Examination

In the life of the church, communal examination is just as important as self-examination.

From the editor

Next week we start to roll out all of our new Easter sermons, but seeing as many congregations have just begun observing the Lenten season, we thought we would offer a helpful resource to speak into this time of extended time of reflection and discipline. A few years ago, when Skye Jethani was asked to preach a sermon to prepare his congregation for Lent, he didn't just offer thoughts on the importance self-examination. He also stressed the importance of communal examination by exploring the life of Daniel. Here's a Lenten sermon from a different angle.


We often talk about the importance of self-examination—of doing the hard work of uncovering and dealing with our own sin. Today I want to look at communal examination—the act of identifying the sin in us.

When I was 13, my dad had the brilliant idea to take sailing lessons. I'm not sure where this idea came from. Our only previous sailing experience had been the log ride at Great America. Nonetheless, my dad, my brother, two cousins, and I headed out to Chicago's Belmont Harbor to spend a few days learning to sail with an instructor.

I felt bad for that instructor and what he put up with. Whatever we paid him, it wasn't enough. My brother and cousins goofed off most of the time, and I spent most of those three days bent over the side of the sailboat, puking into Lake Michigan.

At the end of the three days, after learning all the basics, we were given a final exam. We were to navigate the sailboat out of the harbor, into the lake, and back to the harbor. We were supposed to do all of this alone. No instructor. Just my dad and four teenagers. Even as a 13-year-old I knew this was not a good idea. There was no way I was getting into that boat with just my dad. The instructor may as well have told us to fly a 747. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

Though my dad was full of confidence, I refused to get in the boat. They ridiculed me for not coming, and then they shoved off. The instructor and I then watched in horror from the shore as the sailboat bounced around Belmont Harbor like a floating pinball. They seemed magnetically attracted to every stationary object in the harbor. They hit docks, buoys, other boats. My dad stood at the rudder maintaining a facade of control, calmly ordering the others to trim the sails as if the chaos in the harbor was perfectly normal. People on other boats were terrified they would be the next vessel torpedoed by my dad. Meanwhile, those watching them from shore were laughing. I stood by pretending I had no idea who those idiots in the sailboat were. I just laughed along with everyone else. In the end they didn't even make it out of the harbor. I don't think my dad will ever show his face around Belmont Harbor again.

We can be very fickle about community, can't we? When things are good, we're all too eager to jump into the boat and join the fun. But when things turn ugly, we find ourselves on the shore, pointing and laughing or pretending not to even know those crazy people in the boat. Sometimes, no matter how close or committed we feel to our community, we're tempted to abandon ship.

This morning we're going to look at a man who refused to do that—a man who refused to abandon ship, refused to distance himself from his community in the midst of their trouble. Daniel saw his connection to God's people as an inescapable reality. As such, he accepted the blessings of God's people, but he also accepted the responsibility for their sin.

Though righteous, Daniel chooses to be identified with sinful Israel.

Daniel is one of the most fascinating figures in the Old Testament—not just for what he did, but for what he did not do. Virtually every leader in the Old Testament—Abraham, Moses, Noah, or David—failed at some point. No matter how amazing their accomplishments and how strong their faith, they are all depicted as having sinned against God. But not Daniel. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we have any hint of Daniel sinning. That is not to say Daniel never sinned—we just have no record or evidence of it.

From his childhood to his elder years, the writers of the Old Testament depict Daniel as perhaps the most loyal, faithful, and righteous man in the entire bible apart from Christ himself. But despite his faithfulness, Daniel's life was still impacted by sin—not his sin, but the sin of his community.

When Daniel was a young boy, he lived in Jerusalem at a time of decadence and rebellion. God's people were enjoying great wealth and prosperity. But they rejected God to worship idols, and they did not seek justice for the poor. Because of their sin, calamity came upon Jerusalem. The Babylonian army swept in and destroyed the city, taking many of the people of Jerusalem as prisoners. Daniel was one of them. Though as a boy he had not participated in the sins of the people and had remained faithful to the Lord, he still shared in the consequences of their sin. Daniel was stripped from his family and taken to Babylon.

The Bible tells us that even in captivity, Daniel's faithfulness endured. Although he was completely surrounded by an idolatrous culture, Daniel never wavered in his faithfulness to God. He refused to eat a Babylonian diet, knowing it would violate the laws of God. He refused to worship idols, despite being threatened with death. He refused to stop praying to God, knowing he would be thrown into a pit with hungry lions. As a result, Daniel is said to be a man "highly esteemed" by God.

If anybody had the right to stand up and point their finger at God's people for their sin, it was Daniel. He had suffered for seventy years in Babylon as a result of their sin, not his own. He had been separated from his family because of their sin, not his own. He had endured persecution and threats of death in Babylon because of their sin, not his own. Yet in Daniel 9:1-19, we read something amazing.

As you read Daniel's prayer, you cannot help but notice the pronouns he uses in describing the people's sin. In this prayer of confession, Daniel includes himself. He identifies himself as part of Israel's sin. Daniel could have said, "They have sinned;" "They have done wrong;" "They have been wicked." But he doesn't. Throughout the prayer he offers pronouns like "we" and "our."

The question is obvious: Why? Why would Daniel, a righteous man highly esteemed in the eyes of God, identify himself among the guilty? Why would Daniel choose to put himself in the boat with God's sinful people, when he had every right to stay on the shore?

I want to propose three principles that led him to offer this kind of prayer. They are three values we must have if we are going to understand the communal nature of sin and do the hard work of communal examination.

Daniel saw his relationship with God as fundamentally corporate in nature.

Daniel had an intimate relationship with God. He prayed to the Lord three times a day. In this chapter we see Daniel speaking with God. God, in turn, spoke to him through visions and dreams. But despite this personal relationship with God, Daniel still saw his connection to God as fundamentally corporate.

Daniel was a descendant of Abraham, which meant he belonged to the nation of Israel. It was Israel with whom God had established a relationship. It was Israel that God chose from among all the nations to be his very own—a holy nation, a chosen people. Speaking to Israel in Exodus 19, the Lord says, "Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Daniel understood that God had called a people to himself, a community. At the end of his prayer in chapter 9, he calls God to hear and act, because God's people are called by his name. Daniel sees his connection to God as corporate. As such, to be united with God is to be united to God's people. The two are inseparable.

Daniel's faith was built on the assumption that God's concern was communal, not merely individual. He believed that God's relationship with us is not fundamentally personal and private, but corporate and collective—that God has called to himself a people, not separate individuals.

This theme is not limited to the Old Testament. The New Testament is full of corporate or more communal language. When Jesus' disciples ask him how to pray, he teaches them a corporate prayer: "Our Father who art in heaven." The apostle Paul speaks often about the church being a body that has many different parts with different functions, but a collective body nonetheless that reveals Christ to the world. He also speaks of the church as a spiritual house, with each believer serving as a brick on the foundation of Christ. Together, he says, we are collectively being built up to be a temple to God. Perhaps most incredibly, the apostle Peter takes the very same communal language applied to Israel in the Old Testament and uses it in reference to the church in 1 Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God."

At the root of Daniel's prayer of confession is this truth: we cannot separate our unity with God from our unity with God's people. I know this is not an easy concept for many of us to grasp. It does not come naturally for us to think communally. We are formed and shaped in a culture that promotes individualism—individual freedoms, individual rights, individual expression. We even use language like "my individual relationship with God." Daniel certainly had an individual relationship with God, but it was an individual relationship in the context of community. The two were inseparable in his eyes. So, when Daniel knelt privately in prayer to his God to confess his sins, he did not merely examine himself. He also examined his community. This explains Daniel's language: "our sin;" "our rebellion;" "we have done wrong." He includes himself in the boat with God's sinful people.

What about you? Do you view yourself alone with God on the shore or part of God's people in the boat? Do you think of yourself as an isolated, amputated appendage or as part of the diverse and unified body of Christ? Are you a lonely brick or one stone among many in a great temple of God? Are you just a person who has a relationship with God, or do you belong to a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God? How you answer these questions will determine your values, how you view the church in your life, how you relate to those seated next to you, how you pray, and how you understand sin.

Daniel saw that to claim the blessings of God's people he must also claim their sin.

In the opening verses of Chapter 9, Daniel says that he has been reading the words of prophecy given to Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah speaks of God's promise to restore his people after their captivity in Babylon. He promises to heal them, protect them, and draw near to them once again. Having spent virtually his whole life as an exile in Babylon, reading those words must have touched Daniel deeply. His heart must have longed to see these promises made real. He must have longed to once again be free, be safe, be home.

This longing to receive God's blessing led Daniel to a time of examination and confession. It led to this prayer. But the promises of God's blessings he read about in Jeremiah were not promises to Daniel. They were promises to Israel, of which Daniel was a part. The communal scope of God's promised blessing led Daniel to examination and reflection on a communal scale, which uncovered communal sin.

Daniel longed for the blessing and restoration God promised. He wanted to return to Jerusalem, to be restored to his home. But to include himself in the promised blessing of God's people meant also including himself in the communal failure of the people.

When my dad first told me about taking sailing lessons together, I was really excited. To be honest, I had a lot of fun those first few days with everyone. But at the first sign of trouble, I was out of there. I jumped ship and found myself standing on the shore, pointing and laughing at "those people." "Those terrible sailors!" I said. "What a disaster they've caused! Can you believe what they've done?" I was happy to include myself in the fun, but I quickly distanced myself from the mess.

The same tendency is found among God's people. When things are going well, we are eager to join in the blessings of the church. When things are going well, we are happy to own the good gifts of God. When things are going well, we want to claim God's promises and blessings as our own. But we quickly distance ourselves from what we'd rather not claim—like sin or conflict or pain. We abandon ship and stand on the shore in disgust. "Look at those terrible sinners! What a mess they've caused! I'm sure glad I'm not part of that fiasco!"

Daniel shows us a different way. Rather than valuing individual autonomy, Daniel values communal commitment. For him the household of God is not a boat you get in and out of based upon how things are going. Daniel reveals that if we desire to claim the blessings of God's people, we must also claim their failures. If we're going to own the good stuff, we have to own the bad stuff, too.

A few years before my wife and I got married, Amanda bought a car with the help of her dad. They went to a dealership, and they had found a car they really liked. She called me to get my opinion, and I felt really uncomfortable. I knew Amanda's dad really liked the car—and he was the one helping her pay for it, not me—but I thought the car was junk. But I was just the boyfriend. Who am I to dictate what they should do? I thought. I told Amanda to do whatever her dad thought was best. I figured it was not my car, not my problem.

Two years later, when we got married, the car became my problem. One thousand miles after the warranty expired, the transmission gave out. Although I was tempted to do so, I didn't turn to Amanda and say, "You bought this lousy car—this is your problem." We were married. Her problems, regardless of where they came from, were my problems.

Daniel approaches the sin of God's people in a similar fashion. Whether or not Daniel personally engaged in all the sins listed in chapter 9 was irrelevant. He lived out the truth of 1 Corinthians 12:26: if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it. Daniel embraced the pain and consequences of his community's sin as his own. He owned the good, so he knew he also had to own the bad.

Daniel saw his responsibility to lead the people in confession.

As I said earlier, Daniel was a remarkable man. He had lived many years in rich communion with God. He was faithful and righteous. His devotion and perseverance made him a man "highly esteemed" by the Lord (9:23). Daniel was a leader—a mature man of faith who could lead the rest of God's people by his own example. But in this prayer of confession, Daniel does not lead by putting himself above the people. Instead, he leads God's people from within by identifying himself with them, with their sin, with their burden.

Daniel's community carried the heavy guilt and consequences of sin. Revealing his godly character, Daniel came alongside and bore the burden with them. In doing so, he shows us an attitude that is richly biblical and godly.

The apostle Paul tells us that inside the household of God, we ought to bear one another's burdens. In doing so we fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Godly leadership does not lead from ahead, but from within—by coming alongside others to help carry the load.

This is the law of Christ, the way Jesus led. John 1:14 tells us that "the Word"—Jesus—"became flesh, and made his dwelling among us." When God wanted to free us from the captivity and burden of sin, he sent his son to be among us. Jesus, who was in very nature God—perfect, blameless, and righteous beyond any measure—did not claim his equality with God. He did not remain distant from his people. He did not lead from a high and distant place. Instead, he took on the form of a man. He set aside the riches of heaven to become a poor man, familiar with suffering and pain. Although he was without sin—perfect in every regard—he bore our burden of sin in the form of a Roman cross upon his back. Although he did not deserve the consequences of sin, he accepted them on our behalf. He did not resist torture, rejection, and death. Upon him was laid the iniquity of us all—the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust.

This is the way of Christ, the way of the Cross. Daniel, as one who knew the heart of God intimately, took this path. He bore the sins of his people. He led them from within by identifying with them, carrying the burden of sin with them.

If you find yourself in a position like Daniel—if you have walked with God faithfully, if you have sought purity in the midst of your fallen nature—then I ask you for this: Help us. Help us carry the burden of our sin. Although you do not deserve the burden, and although you have had no part in the sin of God's people and would prefer to stand on the shore, come play your part in the body of Christ by helping us. Come alongside your brothers and sisters and identify with the people of God in their sin and struggles.


We have just begun a Lenten season of reflection and examination, and we have important things to learn from Daniel. It is not enough for us just to examine ourselves. That's certainly important, but we exist in community. That also deserves examination. We need to do the hard work of looking at the sin present among us, not merely in us. We need to challenge our temptation to distance ourselves from the problems in our community. Remember the three principles we learn from Daniel.

Our relationship with God is fundamentally corporate in nature. He has not merely called individuals to himself but a community. We need to challenge our cultural instincts to think individually and see the biblical emphasis on community. It's not about me; it's about us.

Second, to claim the blessings of God's people, we must also claim their sin. We cannot jump in and out of the boat. That is not how God's household works. Like Daniel we need to be committed, taking the bad, along with the good.

Finally, even when we are innocent, we still carry the responsibility to lead God's people from within. We cannot distance ourselves, but rather come among God's sinful people to help carry their burden. This is how our Lord loved us, and it is how we are called to love one another.

No matter how you have viewed the church in the past—whether you've been in the boat or standing on the shore—now is an opportunity for all of us to express our connection and unity in Christ. It's a chance for all of us to get in the boat together—young and old, men and women, leaders, members, and attenders, innocent and guilty—to come before our God as one people who bear his name.

To see an outline of Jethani's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.

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Sermon Outline:


We often talk about the importance of self-examination—of doing the hard work of uncovering and dealing with our own sin. Today I want to look at communal examination—the act of identifying the sin in us.

I. Though righteous, Daniel chooses to be identified with sinful Israel.

II. Daniel saw his relationship with God as fundamentally corporate in nature.

III. Daniel saw that to claim the blessings of God's people he must also claim their sin.

IV. Daniel saw his responsibility to lead the people in confession.


It is not enough for us just to examine ourselves. We must take part in communal examination.