Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Celebrating the Basics Nehemiah 8:1-12

High School reunions and Family reunions are two traditions that bring people back to their roots. Though in some cases these milestone-celebrating events can cause a great deal of hesitation or anxiety (depending on who you will see at these functions), more often than not, these kinds of parties offer everyone in attendance a unique opportunity to check up on special friends and family members. However, on occasions like this, people are inevitably given to investigating how they stand up to their peers of yesteryear and some even weigh their success according to how they compare to their cousins or long-lost friends. Depending on what is uncovered, the reunion can either give people a reason to celebrate or go home disappointed.

In Nehemiah 8, a reunion of sorts takes place for the Jewish people. This milestone event comes as they commemorate the completed wall-building project. However, this reunion is not with a graduating class or extended family. Instead, they are reunited in this chapter with the Law of God. Imagine competing with or comparing oneself to that high of a standard! Let us see if this reunion ends in celebration or in disappointment as we look at two actions involved in the reunion of Nehemiah 8.  

The Law is Presented-8:1-8

Nehemiah 7 provides an account of all the men, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, and other servants who now resided within Jerusalem’s newly constructed walls. The whole combined assembly numbered 42, 360 (not including the male and female slaves). This small but resilient people finally had the protection that a sturdy perimeter provided and the opportunity to flourish for God’s glory. Now that the construction was complete, it was time to fill the space with a dynamic, God-glorifying nation.

While Nehemiah 1-7 describes how God rebuilds a wall and provides a practical blessing, Nehemiah 8ff describes how God rebuilds a distinct community of His people, thereby providing a spiritual blessing. What is the first order of business to this end? The answer involves re-acquaintance with the law. As chapter 8 begins, Nehemiah recalls how “…all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel…” (8:1). In this account we learn two things about the community in Jerusalem: they were united (“all the people gathered as one man…”) and they requested to hear from God (“they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law…”).

In response to this united request, “…Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month…” (8:2). Most scholars believe that the “law” mentioned here refers to the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament). Although, by this time, the law was a familiar document, something very unfamiliar took place when this code was read in Nehemiah 8. Ezra made the Scriptures available to everyone, “men, women and all who could listen.” Although women did not participate in ordinary meetings, here not only were they permitted to attend, but so were any children old enough to understand what was being said. No longer was the law reserved exclusively for professionals to preserve and teach. God’s message to His people was something from which all could learn. 

Perhaps with a new temple (see Ezra) and a newly designed wall (see Nehemiah 1-7), God saw fit to make renovations in how His revelation was distributed.

The details surrounding what took place at this initial reading indicate that this was a special occasion in the life of the Jewish people. According to what Nehemiah says next, Ezra, “read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate form early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law…” (8:3). The prominent place Ezra took advantage of (in front of the Water Gate), the time He decided to begin (from early morning) and the running time given to this exposition (until midday), paint this occasion in vibrant, eye-catching colors. Everyone showed up for this and, not only were they present, but they were so taken by the presentation of God’s Word that Nehemiah reveals, “they were attentive” for no less than five hours!  

To add to the ceremony of this moment, “Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And Beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hiliiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, MIshael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand…” (8:4).

The ancient pulpit that was erected and the associates standing nearby work together to indicate how significant everyone believed this presentation to be in their lives and history.
To put the final touches on his account, Nehemiah describes for us exactly what kind of mood was present when all of this took place, “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up….” (8:5). A quiet reverence, respect, and sense of awe enveloped these Jews as they stood and listened to the words of God (from daybreak till noon [8:3]).

The entire description of this inaugural/celebratory service suggests that the people of God (having just recently seen His mighty hand of provision in the rebuilding of their wall), respected and revered His revelation with a new kind of reverence. What God had revealed in His word was placed front and center on this day.

Following this well-attended and awe-inspiring homily on the law, “Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their heads; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground…” (8:6). In agreement with all that was presented (as indicated by the exclamation “Amen, Amen!”), the people responded to the reading of God’s word with fervent worship. Humbled by what was revealed about the awesome power of God (in Genesis), the provision of God (Exodus), the holiness of God (Leviticus), the plan of God (Numbers), and the law of God (Deuteronomy), the people prostrate themselves on the ground in humility. Though this kind of response is unfortunately not commonplace in western church services, when one understands how everyone in attendance in Nehemiah 8 actually paid close attention to what was said, bowing down and worshipping seems a natural and appropriate response to this kind of presentation of God and His matchless glory.

In addition to humble worship, Ezra’s presentation of the Word of God was followed by detailed explanations, “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (8:7-8). For those in attendance on this day, it was not enough to hear the word of God; these wanted to study it and understand it so that its “sense” could be applied appropriately in their context.

 This presentation of the Law reveals that not only did the people desire the word of God, they worshiped God in response to its preaching and wanted to study it for themselves. As far as building a distinct group of Godly people is concerned, this seems to be a wonderful first step in the right direction.

But why? What is the Law? The Law was God’s Old Testament prescription for entering into and maintaining a right relationship with God for the Jewish people. As no other nation possessed this Law and no other people was given a similar program for relationship, the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) was a sanctifying agent in the lives of Old Testament Jews. Attention to and application of the law of God set the Jews apart from every other nation. Inasmuch as the Jewish nation had recently been in exile and unable to enjoy a worship service like this, such presentations helped remind the Jews of their distinction and special place in God’s program of redemption. At the end of the day, these Jews would have been able to say with conviction, “We have been made special because of our special God!”

The Law is Celebrated-8:9-12

However, something else was happening, something that required swift action from Nehemiah, “Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law…” (8:9). After being brought face-to-face with God’s matchless standard as presented in the law, the people were humiliated to the point of despair. This is not unlike what Isaiah concludes in Isaiah 6 after seeing the glory of God, “Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”

What both Isaiah and the Jewish people of Nehemiah’s day should have understood was that their confrontation with the holiness of the Lord was evidence that God, in spite of their imperfections, desired to use them in some amazing way. This is why Nehemiah encourages the people not to mourn or weep. What God wanted to accomplished would be accomplished through His holiness—not in their lack of holiness.

Instead of mourning and weeping, Nehemiah provides some alternative activities, “…Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’…” (8:10). “Eat of the fat” calls to mind the delicious, festive foods that were prepared for special occasions. This along with “drink of the sweet” suggest that Nehemiah wanted to see less grieving and more celebrating in response to all that God had revealed to them. Also, everyone should be included in this celebration—even the less fortunate, “send portions to him who had nothing prepared.” Why? Nehemiah answers, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Truly, the Jews had a lot to celebrate. God had brought them out of exile, rebuilt their temple, warded off enemies during the construction of the wall, and had reinvigorated a love for His word. In all of these situations, “the joy of the Lord” was their “strength.” In each and every turn, the weakness of the people that made them vulnerable was overwhelmed by the strength of their God. This applied also to the Jews’ inability to keep the Law. In other words, “it is Yahweh’s joy over his people that is the basis for the hope that they will be saved or protected from His anger” (G. C. I. Wong).

The Levites spread this encouragement to the people following Nehemiah’s initial command, “So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved’…” (8:11). For so long the people had been busy about something: getting home from being away, rebuilding the temple, their homes, their wall, defending their families against famine and multiple enemies, etc. Now, even in what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, the people were busied themselves with their worries over their inability to keep the law. Instead, as the Levites encourage here, the Jews should “be still and know” that God was God (as revealed in His Word) and celebrate that simple truth (see also Psalm 46:10).

Oh that we could learn to be a people that is less concerned about what we can do and who God is, for the latter informs the former.

After this added insight was communicated, “All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them….” (8:12). Finally, after much toil and difficulty, the people are allowed to celebrate. What instigates and informs this celebration—a proper understanding of God reached after the presentation and study of His written word. Although at first the Jews were intimidated when reunited with the Law of God, ultimately, this reunion ends in celebration.

So What?

 This passage indicates that the revelation of God found in His written word carries with it an awesome power to educate, convict, and ultimately inspire. In the presentation of the Law, we see a people who approach God’s revelation with a united reverent awe—the kind of awe that keeps their attention fixed on the Scriptures. Can the way in which you approach the word of God be described in the same way? In the celebration of the Law, we learned that while its standard was too lofty for the Jews to reach (causing grief and unrest), ultimately what is taught in the Scriptures is that God is greater and His strength makes up for the gap between He and His people. This was a cause of celebration!
Does God’s revealed word carry the same capacity for us today? Absolutely! In fact, there is an even greater capacity for inspiration and change in what has been revealed since Nehemiah’s time for we have the entire story. In the spirit of this passage, I invite all of you to stand and listen carefully to what I mean.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-4). He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:10-13).  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17). Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ (Romans 10:17). What does the word about Christ say? For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) there is none righteous, not even one (3:10). But although the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11). Remember, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.(1 Corinthians 15:3-6). Therefore, If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10). For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10). Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

For when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.  He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:31-37).

Be still and know that He is God! Celebrate what is revealed in His Word! Let it make us a distinct people that is set apart from this world and may we proclaim His Word to this world that desperately needs to hear it! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When the Mud Starts Slinging

As campaign analysis begins on the 2016 presidential election I find myself asking, “Is it already that time again?” Even at this early juncture candidates are making announcements and arguing that they are the right person to take this country in the right direction. Inevitably as this case is made, these same candidates spell out in equal parts why his or her opponent is the wrong person for the job. Though this is an important aspect of any political competition, inevitably some will take to frivolous distractions and false character assassination in order to hurt the opponent’s poll numbers. Brace yourself, it will be here shortly (and in some cases already is).

Though confrontations of this very personal nature are exaggerated in the political arena, they are not exclusive to candidates for public office. Those who associate with the God of the Bible are targeted for attacks of this kind in an effort to undermine their influence and forestall their progress. Few understood this more than Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 6:1-9, the Jews and their leader face two confrontations that threaten to spoil the work of God. However, their response to these issues brilliantly informs how God’s people today should react to similar tactics.

CONFRONTATION #1: A Perilous Distraction- 6:1-4

Throughout 4:1-6:19, Nehemiah and his group have faced all kinds of adversity while working to rebuild the wall and reestablish the city of Jerusalem as a formidable influence for God on the world’s stage. First, the work was ridiculed (4:1-6), then opposition was overcome (4:7-23), and last week we saw internal strife mended (5:1-13). Things have been anything but smooth sailing for God’s people.
There was a time in which I believed, naively, that if I was prayerfully performing the will of God in my life then the Lord would grease the floor beneath me and I would just slide along, enjoying the ride as He pushed aside opposition and levelled every speed bump. I could not have been more wrong. Anything worth accomplishing for God’s glory will inevitably be met with struggle. God loves us too much to always give us smooth sailing, for, what would we learn about dependence? How much would we appreciate the victory? What would we learn of God’s power in the midst of difficulty?
God loved the Jewish people too much to just give them the wall they desperately needed. The invaluable lessons they learned throughout their experience (and that we’ve benefited from in retrospect) would have been impossible without the external and internal strife they were made to deal with. However, one final threat faces Nehemiah—a threat focused on him and his leadership. This threat presents itself in the form of two different but related confrontations. The first is a perilous distraction (6:1-4).

Nehemiah recounts that this new threat came when the work was near completion. In spite of the conspiracies, criticisms, and cancers that faced them, the people of Jerusalem were successful in their endeavor and this is reported to the Persian neighborhood as follows, “…Now when it was reported to Sanballat, Tobiah, to Geshem the Arab and to the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall, and that no breach remained in it, although at that time I had not set up the doors in the gates…” (6:1). The embarrassing perimeter that had brought reproach to the people of Judah and inhibited them from flourishing was now whole again! Though the work was tedious, it had finally paid off. All that was left to do was apply the finishing touches (doors, etc.).

Though the Jews were no doubt proud of this glorious new structure, the neighbors around them were less than impressed. The criticisms they had launched at the project and the conspiracies they had developed against the construction to keep it from moving forward were futile. What could they do now? What does any sore loser do when his opponent is successful? He tries to spoil the victory by any means necessary. This is revealed to be the case when Nehemiah says, “then Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, ‘Come, let us meet together at Cephirim in the plain of Ono.’ But they were planning to harm me…” (6:2). Things were becoming more and more personal. Now that the up-to-no good homeowners association of rural Persia had lost this battle, all they could do was attack Nehemiah! In order to do this, the wicked neighboring nations planned a meeting in a small town (in a region aptly named Ono) and invited Nehemiah to join them. Perhaps Nehemiah was supposed to believe that these nations were going to concede defeat, draw up a truce, or finally welcome the Jews into this region of Persia. However, Nehemiah sees right through these efforts and rightly interprets this meeting to be a perilous distraction.

This is why Nehemiah “sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’…” (6:3). In an effort to refuse this insidious offer, Nehemiah does not cite personal preservation nor does he come up with a lame excuse. Instead, Nehemiah refuses to attend the meeting because of his devotion to the work that God had called upon him to accomplish. For Nehemiah, it was easy to say “no” because not only was he busy with the work God gave him, but he valued the work he was accomplishing properly, “I am doing a great work.” This was not just a job nor was it something that he could easily divorce himself from for a few days. This was the very work of God! Therefore, Nehemiah sees no reason to give in to their perilous distraction and meet up with these losers. Nehemiah’s laser-focus on God’s calling successfully foiled the plans of his enemies. Because he was so concerned about accomplishing what God had intended for him to accomplish, he was not in the least bit interested in entertaining those who had opposed the work from the beginning. This kept him from taking an unnecessary trip and even saved his life!

This refusal does nothing to the efforts his enemies made to follow through with their plan. As Nehemiah recalls, “they sent messages to me four times in this manner” (6:4a). However, each time Nehemiah “answered them in the same way” (6:4). No amount of peer pressure was going to overwhelm his commitment to focus on the task at hand.

 I cannot help but think about how distractions are often used to bring political candidates off point and land them into all kinds of trouble. Whether it is an opposing candidate that decides to highlight a frivolous issue that is no way connected to a person’s ability to lead or an ambitious reporter who asks a slanted gotcha question that has no good answer, distractions, if not dealt with appropriately, can have a deleterious effect on any campaign.

Though we may not be building a wall or running for office, we are all involved in a campaign, calling, and mission—making disciples, i.e. helping people know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ to the world. As the people of God who have benefited from this mission ourselves, we are to be laser-focused on this “great work” so that the distractions of this world in no way tempt us away from our calling. Like Nehemiah, when we face perilous distractions that threaten the progress of the gospel, we must because of our unusual commitment to the Lord respond to the invitations of this world with, “I am doing a great work [nay the greatest work], and I cannot come down…” We have the greatest excuse of all not to bother ourselves with the world’s trivialities—the mission of God.

CONFRONTATION #2: A Personal Attack- 6:5-9

Seeing that their efforts to distract Nehemiah were futile, Sanballat takes one more shot at spoiling the progress the Jews made that involves a personal attack on their leader. This attack comes in the form of an unusual letter, “…then Sanballat sent his servant to me in the same manner a fifth time with an open letter in his hand” (6:5). Letters during this period were ordinarily written on a papyrus or leather sheet, rolled up, tied with a string, and sealed with an impression. Letters were delivered in this way to guarantee their authenticity. However, with this “open letter” Sanballat obviously intended that the contents should be made known to the public at large.

This might be compared to a desperate candidate leaking a fabricated story to the press in an effort to promulgate a false narrative and assassinate the character of his or her opponent.

In this letter that was leaked to public, “it was written, ‘it is reported among the nation, and Gashmu says, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel;…” (6:6a). First, the letter suggests that Nehemiah and the Jews are planning to totally rebel against the Persian empire. To do so would have put this small rural community at war with the world’s superpower, solidifying their total annihilation. Though it is an outrageous accusation, once voiced, this is a difficult thing of which to get out in front.

Unfortunately, our culture awards the outrageous with high TV ratings. That which eventually proves completely false, if it is outrageous enough, sometimes develops legs of its own and can prove exceedingly injurious to people and places. The recent UVA rape scandal that was first suggested by Rolling Stone and the Duke Lacrosse accusations a couple of years ago are two examples of outrageous falsities that damaged institutions for a short time!

However, the letter that Sanballat wrote did not stop there. In fact, as the letter is read, the accusations become more narrowly focused on Nehemiah himself, “therefore you are rebuilding the wall. And you are to be their king, according to these reports. You have also appointed prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, ‘A king is in Judah!’…” (6:6b-7a). If it wasn’t enough to call into question the whole population, now Nehemiah’s leadership is attacked. In this second comment leaked by this letter, Sanballat suggests that the word on the street is Nehemiah has aspirations of being king. Again, this could not have been further from the truth. Nehemiah understood that God alone was ultimately the king of his people. As far as his practical king in Persia, Nehemiah had worked for him and enjoyed a good relationship with him! In no way was Nehemiah trying to usurp anyone’s throne.

This did not matter to Nehemiah’s enemies. If they could get Nehemiah’s people to believe that he was politically ambitious and maybe even narcissistic, perhaps they would turn on him! This is not unlike how political opponents try to characterize each other in negative ways so that the public votes the way they want them to-- “he/she is out of touch with the common man” or “he/she is a general in the war on women,” etc. Call it crazy and petty if you want. However, if it was not effective, people would not stoop to such levels. Similarly, if Sanballat did not think this at least had a chance of causing Nehemiah grief, he would not have written it.

A rough paraphrase of the final statement the letter makes could read, “meet with us or we will tell on you,” “’…and now it will be reported to the king according to these reports. So come now, let us take counsel together’…” (6:7b). Though embarrassingly sophomoric, this final attempt at undermining Nehemiah’s leadership may have been designed to instill fear in the Jewish people. Perhaps Sanballat wanted to put pressure on the Jews to hand Nehemiah over before the wicked home-owners association forwarded these lies to Artaxerxes.

Regardless of what kinds of difficulties these personal attacks were designed to create, ultimately, these efforts proves fruitless. In response to these accusations, Nehemiah “sent a message to him saying, ‘Such things as you are saying have not been done, but you are inventing them in your own mind’…”(6:8). In other words Nehemiah calls his enemies creative liars and labels their accusations fanciful fabrications.

In addition to questioning the statements made and the one who made them, Nehemiah identifies the motivations behind these statements saying, “For all of them were trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘They will become discouraged with the work and it will not be done’…” (6:9). Literally, the text says, “their hands will fail with the work and it will not be done…”. This Hebrew idiom “to cause the hands to drop” means to demoralize. What Nehemiah’s enemies said was nothing more than a final desperate attempt to discourage and undermine the great work the Jews had accomplished in the name and power of God.

However, instead of growing discouraged by the personal attacks lodged in their direction, Nehemiah responds, as he always has, in prayer saying, “But now, O God, strengthen my hands…” (6:9). Nehemiah’s prayer is for God to keep His people grounded, encouraged, and strong in the midst of this latest confrontation. The idiom employed, “strengthen my hands” is an appropriate use of language for it directs the reader’s attention to the desired result of the encouragement God would bring—continued work and labor in light of God’s calling.

In an effort to deal with the personal attacks lodged in his direction, Nehemiah responds by speaking truth and seeking the Lord, knowing full well that God stands and fights for His people and that this latest issue is only another temporary hurdle. These ideas are echoed throughout the Scriptures.

Psalm 37:17-For the arms of the wicked will be broken,
But the Lord sustains the righteous.”

Galatians 6:9- Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”

1 Timothy 1:12-“ I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.”

James 1:2-4- Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

1 Peter 5:10-After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

So What?

This series of sermons spanning from Nehemiah 4-6 has taught us how to deal with adversity of all kinds (from outside influences, from within oneself, and those of a personal nature). In this latest set of confrontations the Jews faced, Nehemiah teaches that perilous distractions that threaten the work of God are easily avoided when the people of God are laser-focused on what God has called upon them to do. We have also seen that personal attacks are most easily settled by speaking truth and calling upon the Lord for perseverance.

How focused are we on the mission of God? A lack of focus leads the spiritually attention deficient to all kinds of calamity and uselessness. What is taking your time away from pursuing what God has instructed in His Word. Focus on the ultimate goal at hand, the making of disciples, and the world will find it very difficult to turn your gaze.  

How consistent are we in speaking truth and calling upon the Lord? Unfortunately, many believers don’t speak truth in the face of lies. Instead, many remain silent, providing no answer to the outrageous accusations made by this world. This negligence is unrighteous and disobedient for the Bible says, “ but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;” (1 Peter 3:15).

How is this to be accomplished? Prayerfully. Like Nehemiah in the face of any and all attacks, we must pray for God to strengthen our hands, sharpen our speech, and ready our feet so that we never cease to let the world distract or demoralize the advancement of the gospel. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

When Cancer Strikes the People of God

Last week in our series we examined threats to the work of God that exist in the form of personalities, social pressures, exterior pressures, etc. and how we as believers are to respond (prayer, action, and faithfulness). However, in chapter 5 of Nehemiah, God reveals that not all threats affect us from the outside in. In fact, some of the most paralyzing pathogens can actually present themselves from the inside out, not unlike a hidden health concern that is only finally revealed after it grows into a large problem. These insidious in-house issues are often so debilitating that they threaten to kill an individual’s or a church’s effectiveness in the kingdom-building work entirely. Therefore, let us be alert as we evaluate four elements involved in the treatment of a cancer gripping Jerusalem as they work to do the will of God in their lives in Nehemiah 5:1-13.

ELEMENT #1: The Symptoms -5:1-5

Up to this point in Nehemiah, the pathogens threatening the health of the people and their efforts to build the wall around Jerusalem have come from the outside—most  predominately through a wicked bunch of neighboring nation-states. However, at this point in the narrative, Nehemiah faces a new kind of threat—a cancer that is growing within his people’s camp. This particular illness manifests itself by means of five symptoms.

When a patient comes into the in-patient psychiatric unit at Carilion Hospital, the treatment team will fill out what is called a “Psycho-social History” document that itemizes information concerning the patient’s current health. When completed, this document provides information on presenting problems/complaints, patient history, family history, perceived stressors (like financial, psychological, environmental), and more. Similar forms are completed in all departments of the hospital so that an accurate understanding of the patient can be reached and a proper course of treatment can be determined. In so many ways, this litany of symptoms provided in Nehemiah 5 reads like one of these documents as it provides a picture of exactly what the patient is dealing with.

The first symptom of interest mentioned is hunger, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers for there were those who said, ‘We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live…” (5:1-2).

One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for those building the wall AND providing its defense (see 4:7-23) to tend to any crops. This led to a food shortage and pervasive hunger within the fledgling city.

As the sickness progressed, another symptom presented--financial disarray. Though some grain was 
available, to afford it, people were mortgaging their property, “there were others who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine…” (5:3). Desperate times and a lack of food motivated some to take this dramatic financial step.

Others who were unwilling to take this measure for their security had to borrow from others to pay the taxes they owed to king Artaxerxes. This financial mess turned into a perfect storm when those who had to take loans were charged enormous interest rates, as there was very little faith in people to pay back the loans they took.  

Hunger and financial disarray metastasized into a fourth problem, “Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already…” (5:5a). To repay creditors, residents of Jerusalem had to sell their children into slavery. This empty pantry, foreclosed home, and mountain of debt no doubt drove this desperate people to this most desperate point. By now, the cancer is spreading rapidly leading to its fourth and final symptom, helplessness.

 “and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others…” (5:5b). At this point, very few people owned anything. Many homes and plots of land were seized do to the people’s inability to pay back creditors. All of these symptoms together reveal a major health concern eating away at the people of God from the inside out. Not only were the enemies of Judah a constant threat to their security and state of well-being, but now many Jews were actually taking advantage of their brothers and sisters. Morale, which was already held in delicate suspension due to the threats from outside and the exhaustion brought on from the constant rebuilding, now collapsed under the added pressure of this illness. This city needs treatment and fast in order to get ahead of this disease before it kills these people along with their efforts.

ELEMENT #2: The Treatment-5:6-11

Nehemiah “was very angry” when he “heard their outcry and these words” (5:6). No doubt his rage stemmed from the realization that certain citizens from his city, the very city he was trying to rebuild, were so selfish and insensitive that they were willing to lead the weak and desperate into agreements that they knew would lead to financial ruin.   The results were obvious—many Jews now felt helpless. This was a huge setback to completing the work of God!

However, instead of acting rashly in response to this troubling news, Nehemiah takes time to study the tumor for himself and the seeks a consult with others around him in an effort to properly diagnose the illness he witnesses. He recounts his process and his findings in verse 7 saying, “I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, ‘You are exacting usury, each from his brother!’…” (5:7). In other words, “You are exploiting your own extended family!”

In an effort to treat this cancerous problem, Nehemiah first reveals to the patient, the Jewish people, exactly how grim the situation really is saying, “…’We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?....” (5:8). In an effort to motivate the Jews to fix the problems that paralyzed their efforts, Nehemiah holds up a mirror before them and reveals how bad things really are. Some in Jerusalem had once been the slaves of others and yet were redeemed out of it at the expense of Nehemiah and his brothers. Now, in their freedom, some were actively enslaving their own brothers to each other! In the face this startling realization “they were silent and could not find a word to say…” (5:8). The carcinogen that led to this particular cancer was self-induced, i.e. they had themselves to blame for their dire straits.

By way of prescribing the proper treatment toward remission, Nehemiah provides three instructions. First, he says, “The thing which you are doing is not good, should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?...” (5:9). Round one of the treatment involved regaining a proper fear of God. The immoral and unethical behavior was bringing reproach not just on the people of Jerusalem, but on the One who had delivered their country from both Egyptian bondage and Babylonian Captivity. Ultimately, the Jews’ behavior was unbecoming the people of God and was giving them and the Lord a bad name in the Persian neighborhood. A healthy dose of reverence and awe of the one true God would not only help cure them of their malady, but it would be serve as a bold witness to their wicked neighbors.

On a more practical level, the second round of treatment involves the removal of the obscene interest rates that crippled people financially, “…and likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury…” (5:10). It is clear that Nehemiah was willing to lead by example. Already he was lending money to help others (instead of trap them) and encouraged others to do the same.

Finally, Nehemiah instructs the Jews to “give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them….”(5:11). That which was lost to these scams was to be restored so that the Jewish body could regain its strength and function in a healthy and productive way (i.e. carrying out the mission of rebuilding the wall).

One of the most difficult stages of dealing with any disease is coming to terms with the illness and accepting treatment in the first place. Though challenging, this step was necessary for Jerusalem to undergo in order to be healed. With their problem in full view and the treatment adequately delineated, their ability to overcome their illness would be in direct proportion to how they responded to Nehemiah’s instructions.

ELEMENT #3: The Response-5:12

 “…Then they said, ‘We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say’…” (5:12a). No doubt Nehemiah was pleased when the people responded positively to his encouragement here. However, knowing that so often words by themselves mean very little, Nehemiah makes the guilty leaders take another step, “…So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise…” (5:12). Make no mistake, an oath in those days was far more binding than they are in today’s world. This should not be compared to a doctor making a patient promise to take his/her medication (as we know that such promises can so easily prove empty when a stubborn patient makes them). To swear an oath before the priests meant that these were accountable to God and to other men for the commitment they would make to restore things back to normal. However, even if this was not enough, Nehemiah schedules a follow-up for those who had brought this cancer on their city.

ELEMENT #4: The Follow Up-5:13

 “…I also shook out the front of my garment and said, ‘Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied’…”(5:13). In this addendum, Nehemiah spells out the grave consequences that would come if they lied to God and their fellow man. Shaking out the folds of his robe (which served as pockets), Nehemiah asks that God similarly “shake out of His house” every person who failed to keep his oath. In other words, for those who do not hold up their end of the promise, Nehemiah prays for God to reject them. What a compelling way to make sure they follow through!

So What?

Why take the time to witness Jerusalem’s case and treatment? When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, both his illness and the subsequent treatment involved came as a real shock to us seeing as how cancer does not appear to run in his family nor did he endorse any unhealthy habits. During his ordeal, we did not know why we were made to witness his struggle (much as you are probably wondering what we could possibly learn from this account). However, several months after he was declared in remission, another gentlemen in our church was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer and was making use of the very same oncologist. Given my dad’s unique experience, he was able to be an encouragement to this newly diagnosed patient.

In much the same way, Nehemiah’s ordeal is provided to us today in an effort to encourage us when we go through ordeals that threaten to kill us from the inside out. Though your symptoms may not present exactly as they did for those in Jerusalem, we must be mindful that we battle against threats from both the outside and the inside. Lust, greed, selfishness, pride, untethered ambition, depression, etc. all have the capacity to metastasize into a lethal cancer, crippling us from doing the will of God both in our own lives and in the life of this church body.

In the face of such illnesses, we must confess our sin before God and choose to once again fear Him over everything else. Subsequently, we must ask God to restore our spiritual selves and commit to take steps of repentance that keep us far from the cancer-causing agents that made us unhealthy in the first place. Finally, we must follow up with the great physician on a regular basis.

What unconfessed sin is slowly killing your spiritual life? In what area of your life are you fearing something more than God Himself? What concrete steps must you take to prevent the spread of this disease? How often do you follow up with the Great Physician?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Victory in the Ring of Life

When it comes to sports, I have made my peace with the fact that I am better suited as a spectator than as a player. This couldn’t apply more to the sport of boxing.  Boxing has never been something that I have ever really had much interest in, perhaps because it is so far outside my wheelhouse or because I’ve never taken the time to learn the rules/regulations involved. However, my ignorance in boxing is not so great that I don’t often fell as though I’m in a boxing match of sorts.  On many occasions I feel as though I’m paired up with a formidable adversary of this world and exchanging blows, dancing around a ring, and growing exhausted in the course of the fight. Whether it is an actual personality with a discouraging jab, a habit that dizzies me with a mean haymaker, or a social/economic/spiritual pressure that keeps me moving about with my gloves raised, more often than not there is an existential struggle at work in my life as I seek to perform God’s will. But maybe that’s just me J.

A Similar phenomenon was experienced by Nehemiah and his team as they sought to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, thereby reestablishing God’s people on the world’s stage. In the midst of their struggle, they square off against a formidable opponent that takes them through three rounds of an unforgettable match. Today, we are going to be spectators of this match in Nehemiah 4:7-23 and ultimately learn how we are to face opposition in our world today.

ROUND #1-Disturbance is Met with Prayer-4:7-8

As we reenter the saga surrounding Jerusalem at the time of Nehemiah, we notice one thing immediately—the unruly homeowners association of rural Persia has grown from two members at the beginning of this book to five, “Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it…” (4:7-8). Joining Sanballat and the Samaritans from the north, Tobiah and the Ammonites from the east (cf. 2:19) and the Arabs from the south, were men from Ashdod, a Philistine city, from the west.  To make matters worse, not only is the association of enemies growing, but they are conspiring “together to come to fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it….” most likely from all sides.

Ring the bell for round one. In one corner we have a conspiring quorum of influential neighbors standing united against the fledgling new comer on the other side of the ring-Nehemiah and the recently evicted Jews. If this was laid out like a boxing match, no one would put his or her money on the Jews. In fact, this fight would not be allowed under regulation standards for, these two by all appearances are not even in the same weight class.  Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites are a collective group of established cities, each with their own fortifications and advanced forces. The Jews do not even have a wall built yet to protect themselves. Nehemiah’s enemies are legion, while the Jews are one. How could they possible stand up to so great a fight?
The answer is provided in verse 9, “but we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night…” (4:9). The corporate strategy of Judah’s enemies was met by a far more powerful corporate response. Again the people (we) prayed for help, and then added action to their prayers by posting a guard round the clock to meet this threat.  For the Jews, this is certainly not a fair fight. However, the underdog in their minds is on the other side of the ring-the home-owner’s association of rural Persia. What makes the fight so one-sided? God is in their corner with them, giving them every reason to set up a constant guard and anticipate victory.

So far so good. The Jews have not yet been knocked out of the match and have stood up to an intimidating opponent. But this is just the first round of three.

ROUND #2-Discouragement is Met with Action-4:10-15

As round two begins, it is obvious that the resolve of the Jews is wearing thin. Though conspiracy was met with prayer in round one, this relatively manic group soon feels the weight of discouragement, “Thus in Judah it was said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, yet there is much rubbish; and we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall’…” (4:10). Getting started on a project is one thing. In the beginning, people are hopeful, eager, resilient, and optimistic. However, when pressure sets in from all sides and the time marches on, people are prone to get discouraged, strength begins to fail, problems that once seemed small become mountains, and the feeling of defeat rears its head.

One might better understand why the Jews under Nehemiah were brought to this point when they listen to the threats they heard from the other side of the ring, “Our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work’…” (4:11). Mirroring the work of Satan Himself who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the work of God, the up-to-no-good homeowners association of rural Persia made it their business to destroy Nehemiah’s business of doing God’s will. Unlike the relatively empty threats that neighbors might throw around in our neighborhoods, these power players in the region actually had the means and the collective go-ahead to follow through on these plans.

Though in times past, like in round 1, threats like this were more easily thwarted, the Jews do themselves no favors in round two by repeating the threat over and over again, each time allowing the blow of discouragement to strike the heart of the people rebuilding their wall, “When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, ‘They will come up against us from every place where you may turn’…” (4:12). Like repeated blows dealt to a struggling boxer, the Jews found themselves in the corner of the ring at this point with their gloves raised, doing their best to absorb these repeated jabs.

However, rather than remain in the corner, only to suffer the inevitable knock-out punch that would soon come, Nehemiah and his team respond with action, “Then I stationed men in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows” (4:13). This must have been a difficult decision for Nehemiah. To place whole families together—including women and children—put tremendous pressure on fathers particularly. In case of outright attack, they would have no choice but to stay and fight for and with their family members. But Nehemiah knew it was the only decision he could make if they were to survive and succeed in rebuilding the walls (BKC).  

The fight was becoming more and more personal. This was not a military exercise they would read about in the paper after-the-fact; this was a struggle each of them would face on an existential level. This was not going to be something that they would see playing out on the news every night; this would be playing out in their own backyard. This was not something that they could just pray about; they would also be required to do something.  

Coming face-to-face with what was required of them to defeat their enemy no doubt initially added fodder to the discouragement they already felt. However, Nehemiah circumvents this growing sentiment of despair with an inspiring pep-talk, “When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses’…” (4:14). Like a coach yelling at his fighter in the ring, Nehemiah reminds the people that this fight belongs to them for “the Lord…is great and awesome.” In light of their inevitable victory, he encourages his people to “fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses’…” This was personal!  

This course of action in the face of discouragement was successful. Round two does not end with the Jews pinned in a corner receiving repetitive right hooks. Instead, the Jews have successfully maneuvered back into the center of the ring by means of organized action with the encouraging words of their coach ringing in their ears. Nehemiah reveals in verse 15, “When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work” (4:15). However, the fight is not over. With the plans of the enemy frustrated and the people’s resolve reinvigorated, the drama of Nehemiah 4 takes the reader to a third round in which delay is met with faithfulness.

ROUND #3- Delay is Met with Faithfulness-4:16-23

 “…From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding the weapon. As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me…” (4:16-18). As the construction prolonged, so did the people’s faithfulness to both prepare and defend the new wall that God had commissioned.  From what is revealed in verses 16-18, it is clear that most everyone is required to pull double-duty. Now builders had to carry supplies in one hand and a weapon in the other! Out of necessity and for the sake of completing God’s will, these Jews were willing to do whatever was necessary to prepare for success in their endeavor.

In addition to their commitment to preparation, the Jews were also faithful in their conviction, “…I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us’…” (4:19-20). Throughout the remainder of the project, the workers under Nehemiah lived under the firm conviction that if and when an enemy made an advance, God would fight on their behalf. Though the up-to-no-good homeowners association of rural Persia had several members that could tap in and fight for each other in a tag-team situation, Nehemiah and the Jewish people required only one fighter in their corner to tap in when the fighting got tough, the one true God!

The faithfulness of the people both in their preparedness and conviction allowed them to carry “on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared” (4:21). Nehemiah reveals that “At that time I also said to the people, ‘Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.’ So neither I, my brother, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water…” (4:22-23).

With everyone pulling their weight, the work was allowed to continue well into round three of the struggle that was the rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. The leadership, family, servants, guards, everyone contributed meaningfully to the enterprise.

So What?

Though we will continue this saga in the coming weeks, this match for the time being is finished. Neither the disturbance of conspiracy, nor mounting discouragement, nor construction delays were capable of overwhelming the Jewish people as each of these blows was met with prayer, action, and faithfulness. Although we’ve taken to observing this fight from the outside looking in, make no mistake that God’s people are in a very real existential struggle today as we build the kingdom of God. Enemies of God in this world are bearing down on us from all sides, socially, economically, spiritually, relationally, etc. and the threats are legion as they advance from without, around, and even from within. There are those that conspire against the church and its influence in this world and in response we must, like Nehemiah and the Jews demonstrate in the midst of their fight, be people of prayer.  S.D. Gordon says, "The greatest thing anyone can do for God or man is pray" and that “prayer strikes the winning blow” against the enemy standing in the corner opposite to us. Your usefulness in the ring of life is in direct proportion to what you and I do on our knees.

When the pressures of this world land blows on you/me/this church leading to discouragement, we must not be caught in a corner, believing our situation to be helpless. Instead, like Nehemiah, we must take action, fight for what is precious to us, and ultimately acknowledge the omnipotence of God that wins on our behalf. What/who has you cornered right now in the ring of life?  Don’t just stand there and take it. Act and call upon the Lord to fight for you!

Perhaps you have been at this business of building the kingdom of God in an ever-darkening world for some time now and you have grown war-weary, exhausted by the rounds that you have already fought. Don’t lose heart. Instead, be faithful to prepare yourself for anything and everything that God may use you for. Stand firm in the conviction that God is still fighting for you/me/this church. Never quit doing the good work that God has called of you to accomplish. Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”

We have a match to win against the heavyweight champions of this world. The good news is our champion is far greater and the victory is ours!