Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Helping Those Who Hurt (Nehemiah 5)

Have you ever heard of the pillar saints?  No, I'm not talking about Abraham or Moses or Elijah or the Twelve Apostles.  I'm talking about guys like Simeon, one of a group of monks who actually lived on top of pillars during the fifth century in order to purify themselves from corruption in the church and in the world. Simeon began with a pillar about six feet high, then gradually increased the height to sixty feet.  It was his home for over thirty years!  No, I’m not kidding!

We can admire these men for their spiritual discipline and their rigorous devotion to Y'shua (Jesus) while acknowledging that we were not sent by him to sit on sixty-foot pillars. We were sent to the harassed and helpless, the hurting and broken people around us.  In Nehemiah 5, we learn that the restoration of Jerusalem was about more than rebuilding broken walls.  It meant confronting oppression and rebuilding broken lives too.  Sure, we can declare a season of spiritual renewal, but it is sadly lacking if it is not also a season of biblical justice and compassion.  That's why Nehemiah's example is, once again, so important as we seek to be about the Father's rebuilding work.  

Nehemiah heard the cry for help…  Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin….’we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others’ (Nehemiah 5: 1, 5).  Ironically, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem also presented the builders with a critical problem.  There is no evidence that Nehemiah paid the workers who were rebuilding the walls and their families were becoming impoverished.  The first group (v. 2) had no land or money, and therefore no food.  Their request was for basic food rations to feed their families.  A second group (v. 3) was forced to borrow money from some of the wealthy nobles in the land to live on.  As security they promised to hand over their land if they could not repay the debt.  A third group (v. 4-5) had resorted to selling their children into slavery, to buy more time to pay off their debt. 

Now here is the saddest part of the story: not only did these poor workers forfeit their land and resort to debt-slavery, but their daughters were being “ravished” (5).  It appears that certain noblemen were raping the daughters of these workers as compensation for delayed payment. The abuse that Nehemiah was hearing about was not the abuse of his people by foreign tyrants.  That would have been bad enough.  This exploitation was going on right under Nehemiah's nose...by members of his own community.

I wish I could say that I’ve never known anyone who was abused or taken advantage of in a church…but that would be a lie.  Just last week, someone shared with me terrible stories of abuse that went on in a very unhealthy church when she was a young woman.  One of the things I told our students during a recent Confirmation Class, is that the vow to honor and submit to spiritual leaders in the church, is never unconditional.  It is always qualified by our reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). If someone asks us to do something which we know our Lord would never approve (e.g., emotional, physical, or sexual abuse), it’s a sure sign that we must tell a parent or a trustworthy adult what has happened. Nehemiah was confronted with the evil of sexploitation and debt slavery, but 2500 yrs. later, so are we.  

It’s a sad fact that there are 27 million slaves in the world today, that more than a million children  are trafficked every year – and that most are women and girls.  Just last week, a man in Santa Ana was arrested for luring three teenagers to CA with the intention to prostitute them.  This is not a problem in a land far far away…but one that happens in our own backyards. And the only reason why this didn’t continue under Nehemiah’s governorship is that he took the time to listen. Let’s face it, it’s so much easier not to listen…but we need to…as Nehemiah did, and we need to let the cry of those who are being oppressed and abused begin to generate in us a righteous, God-fearing anger… 

Second, Nehemiah got angry at evil…  I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints (Neh. 5: 6; 1 John 3:17) Notice that he didn’t say, ‘I was mildly irritated,’ or ‘I was somewhat concerned’; but I was very angry!  Anger… it’s such a strong word.  Question:  Is it really “biblical” to be angry?  Answer: It depends on what’s angering you!  I may be angry at the cost of gasoline, or my rising utility bill.  I may be angry at the latest stock market meltdown. I may be angry at my neighbor’s noisy home remodel.  I may be angry that my teacher gave me so much homework; or that my friend hasn’t texted me yet today; or that I didn’t get tickets to that Taylor Swift concert.
Gary Haugen, the president of International Justice Mission, really nailed me when he said, “I marvel at the way forces conspire to bend the purpose of my life toward increasingly petty things and away from the grander purposes outside myself for which I sense I was truly fashioned by my Maker" (Gary Haugen, Terrify No More, 31).

Our anger is often very costly to us and to others… because it is misplaced; because we know that what angered us a few hours ago was not worth all that fire and smoke, or the damage it caused. Anger rightly focused, however, can be redemptive… anger at the things that angered Jesus.  Anger at satanic powers, anger at unchecked disease, anger at hypocrisy and unforgiveness, anger at the abuse of children, anger at so much skepticism and unbelief, while those who do believe are afraid to say so. I must admit that although I live in a world of real suffering, hunger, and need, I can be completely absorbed with the tiny world of “me and mine.”  Anger has its place; but let’s be like Nehemiah who focused his anger like a laser beam on a worthy object; allowing his heart to be angry at what angers the heart of God.

Third, Nehemiah confronted injustice… After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and officials (Neh. 5: 7).  It’s significant that Nehemiah’s first reaction was to get angry; but his second was to “think it over.”  Nehemiah lived at the great intersection of heart and head.  It’s not enough to get upset about people’s pain…true compassion takes thoughtful action.  Here is what Nehemiah did:
  • He used all the powers available to him to confront the problem (legal, moral etc.).  I said to them, ‘You are all taking interest from your own people.’  ‘and …you are selling your own kin!’ And I called a great assembly to deal with them… (7, 8). In the presence of a great assembly, Nehemiah brought charges like a prosecuting attorney against those who were abusing their own people.  Friday night, a neighbor across the street exercised all the power she had available when she called 911 to report some suspicious activity at our church.  When 8 police cars and a helicopter arrived they found a crowd of our students playing with nerf guns during a planned all-night youth event.  Eventually, even the police officers were laughing.  But you have to be impressed… really impressed with the power of a single phone call.  There are many problems worthy of our full attention today: The trafficking and exploitation of young women and children.  The scores of homeless people on our streets.  Nations and peoples ruled by cruel tyrants.  The trashing of God’s creation.  The devaluing of human life. Scores of people in our city who do not know the grace of our Lord Jesus. As just one example, scores of concerned men and women of God are phoning their representatives to advocate for the Trafficking Victim's Protection Reauthorization Act.  It's an important bill that protects victims of human trafficking.  As we seek to promote biblical justice and compassion, we're encouraged to use all the resources of heaven and earth -- beginning with a simple phone call -- that God has made available to us.  
  • He called them to walk in the fear of God So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? (9).  We talk a lot about the love of God and the God who is our friend.  But God is more than a friend, or a Genie in a bottle, or a cosmic Table Waiter.  God is the Holy One – that’s why “Fear not!” is one of the most repeated words that God speaks in Scripture.  Our God has the power of life and death in his hands, he opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble; before him we shall stand or fall, and his kingdom shall reign forever and ever.  When we fear God… we need fear nothing else, nor do we need to fear standing for what is just and good, beautiful and true.
  • He challenged them to make things right, without delay: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards….that you have been exacting from them” (11). In the past couple of years, God has raised my awareness of the reality of modern day slavery right here in our own city… and many churches have gathered to address that problem through the Slavery No More Conference on Sept. 17th at the Brentwood Theater in Westwood, Los Angeles.  I encourage you to attend!  But I also want to say that for many of us, it may be easier to care about an issue like this…than to ask an ailing neighbor if you can bring over a meal, or to care that a classmate or co-worker is living without the hope of the Risen Christ or the fellowship of his people.  The other night at a blockparty, my wife and I met three new neighbors.  I felt God calling me to enlarge my circle of compassion as I heard their stories.  Every block party and garage sale and first day of school is an opportunity to ask God to enlarge our circle of compassion, especially where it is most challenging for us.
  • Nehemiah modeled a new standard… The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver.  Even their servants lorded it over the people.  But I did not do so, because of the fear of God (Neh. 5: 15).  Nehemiah makes it clear that he was determined to live, from that moment on, by a new standard… to be an example to his people of God’s righteousness; and to confront injustice and hurtful behavior when he saw it. 

Friends, God is not calling us to be pillar saints (who live in isolation from the hurt and need all around us) but to be compassionate saints.  Sure, addressing the problems in our world can feel overwhelming. That’s why I submit to you that trying to bring justice to this world will only lead to despair if you do not know the One who justifies you by his grace.  Jesus commanded you to stand on the side of justice and righteousness…because at the end of the day, it is HIS gracious word that will keep you standing.  

King Jesus, when you saw the crowds you “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”  (Matt. 9:36). May we have that same compassion!  For your word calls us to “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke… let the oppressed go free” and share our bread with the hungry (Is. 58:6).  Mighty Savior, we want to love -- not with words or tongue alone -- “but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).  Help us now to turn from everything we know is wrong, and to love others in the power of your Spirit, that it may also be said of us: Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, and Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Is. 58:12)  Amen Lord.  Let it be!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Practicing Perseverance (Nehemiah 4)

When my family and I went on our 4,079 mile road trip this summer -- we immediately went from sea level to the south rim of Grand Canyon -- about 7000 feet, and continued to live at or near that elevation for the next three weeks as we crossed into Colorado, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton.  As a diabetic at these altitudes, my blood sugar becomes somewhat erratic.  Why?  Because adjusting to higher altitude, as my endocrinologist explained, induces a stress hormone response.  In time, our bodies acclimate to the decreased oxygen and, as one's cardiovascular system finds equilibrium again, stress is reduced. Now when this has happened to me in the past – last winter on a family trip to the mountains, for example – I didn't understand the mechanism's effect on my blood sugar, and could not for the life of me figure out why I was having so much trouble regulating it.  I hardly slept all week...because I was up at night trying to bring my glucose under control!  This summer, however, I was ready -- ready for the chaos, that is.  I knew there was nothing I could do about it…but simply understanding the nature of the challenge and being able to prepare for it mentally and spiritually helped me to relax.  I knew it would be tough for a few days, but then my body would adjust to the altitude.  Sure enough, within about four or five days, my blood sugars began to normalize once again.  I had to persevere through that difficulty, but it helped to simply know that it was coming and that I would get through it!   These words of Jesus have often brought me peace: "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16: 33).  

Let's face it, whenever God's people seek to restore what is out of balance or rebuild what has been destroyed, they must be ready as Jesus was – for trouble, for adversaries and for obstacles.  Nehemiah shared this perspective with our Lord as he sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BC, one hundred and fifty years after they were destroyed. Now Nehemiah has returned to his homeland to lead hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the rebuilding effort…but as he anticipated, there were serious obstacles – adversaries who wanted to stop him before he even began the work. What were the two main obstacles confronting Nehemiah and his people?

The first obstacle was threatening and mocking from all sides. This is what Nehemiah and his workers heard from their enemies as they labored on the wall: ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish? ….That stone wall they are building – any fox going up on it would break it down!’ (Neh. 4: 2-3). 

As we review the list of Israel's enemies in this passage we discover that Sanballat represents the Samaritans to the north. The “Arabs” refer to Judah’s immediately southern neighbor…including the Idumaeans (Edomites); the Ammonites to the east and the Ashodites to the west (1-3, 7).  By pointing this out, I mean simply to say that Nehemiah and his people felt surrounded by opposition. Some things never change!  It's stunning how ancient hostilities, and millenia long feuds can be perpetuated to the present day! 
[As a side note, I take great comfort in the words of Isaiah who prophesied that one day "Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth," that old enemies shall be at peace when the Lord God is finally glorified above the nations"  (Isaiah 19:24)].   Meanwhile, we struggle to find that peace and to purge from our memories the hurtful and mocking words of others.  The feeling of being surrounded or outnumbered is one we do not easily forget.   

For me there will always be that biology professor who tried to argue in class that "with each discovery of science, God has become more and more irrelevant". How so, he never bothered to explain. I simply remember that feeling of being mocked as I sat there in my chair with two hundred other classmates, and I've a feeling I was not the only one.  Now here's the interesting part of the story.  About 20 years later, I met this same professor again (get this) in a jacuzzi!  I'm serious.  He happened to be the uncle of a neighbor of mine whose wedding I officiated at, and on the eve of that wedding I found myself sitting face to face with him in a froth of jacuzzi bubbles.  When I told him that I had taken one of his classes, he nodded in approval; but when I went on to say that I attended Princeton Theological Seminary and become a Presbyterian minister, his face registered a sign of disbelief!  I didn't have time to tell him about all the other crazy "religious" undergraduates I knew who shared my convictions, men and women who had both a great respect for science, and an even greater respect for the God whose laws science describes! When you are trying to walk with the Master, you will inevitably encounter a few taunts or jeers, a raised eyebrow, a sigh, or a subtle sign of disapproval.  Jesus told us to be ready for it... and to know that one day our time to speak will come. 

The other obstacle that Nehemiah had to face was discouragement from the inside, within his own ranks.  We learn in this passage that the wall was “half its height for the people had a mind to work” (Neh. 4:6) but then only a few verses later, we read that the people themselves were becoming disheartened. Judah said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.’  And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.’” (Neh. 4: 10-11). The area around the wall was a disaster area…with piles of rocks and rubbish.  In order for the work to be completed, that rubbish had to be removed.  There were obviously no bulldozers, or even horses, to haul away the garbage.  The exhausting work was done on the backs of the workers themselves.  Added to this were the rumors being spread that their enemies would soon try to attack and kill them. 

Imagine how these men and women felt once they reached the half-way mark.  It was a major accomplishment but then, as Williamson rightly points out in his Word Biblical Commentary, it was also a time of major self-reflection. Can we do this?  Do we have the physical strength, the supplies, the necessary defenses to complete what we’ve begun? Half-way to any goal is the point at which we are tempted either to press on or to give up.  You’re on mile 13 of a 26 mile marathon.  You’re half way through high school or college.  You’ve had one brain surgery…but you’ve still got one more to go (Esther). You’re at the mid-point of your career.  You're trying to complete the renovation of your church's facilities for the sake of future generations....but you're only half way there.  You name the situation: when we reach a milestone, or the “half way mark” -- we understand more deeply what we’ve gotten ourselves into and how much is at stake!  It's the time when we ask: Shall we roll out, or roll over?  Shall we press on, or fall back?  How did Nehemiah respond to these obstacles…and how should we respond to our own?  Nehemiah’s response is a lesson in the practice of persevering faith.

(i) He placed his people’s darkest fears and feelings in God’s hands. Listen to Nehemiah's prayer: ‘Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their taunt back on their own heads, and give them over as plunder in a land of captivity….”’ (Neh. 4: 4-5).  When we feel attacked or threatened, it’s tempting to seek revenge.  This is the usual way human beings handle things.  On the other hand, we may feel like throwing up our hands and giving up.  The first thing Nehemiah does is to take his and his people’s darkest thoughts and feelings, and place them in God’s hands.  

One of the outstanding characteristics of the Psalter is that it reveals how David first dealt with his anger and fear.  He brought these things to God.  He didn’t take matters into his own hands (at least not at first).  He prayed that God would handle his enemies, that God would take care of his adversaries (Psalm 5: 9-10). Jesus took it a step further when he said that not only should we place judgment in God’s hands, but that we should bless and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:11).  When you’re facing obstacles big or small, God wants you to take it to him in prayer…but you may want to have a brother or sister in the Lord to pray with you.  “Confess your sins to one another and be healed” James 5:16 says; but if that’s true, “Confess your anger, your fear, your worries to one another…and be healed as well.

(ii) Secondly, Nehemiah was flexible and practical. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as protection against them day and night…. (Neh. 4: 9). When we encounter obstacles to our mission and ministry, like Nehemiah, we may have to stop and rethink our strategy.  Nehemiah was willing to do just that.  He was willing to slow down the pace of the rebuilding effort, and provide the guards and the protection that gave his workers a greater sense of security. Indeed, half of them carried a spear as they worked (9). 

To refer back to the work we are doing here at St. John’s in this season of rebuilding and restoration… time is always an issue.  Are we willing to slow down, to take the time to bring everyone on board as we go forward with our plans?  I have been tested in this area!  In order for us to have a plan for the renovation of our sanctuary, we had to take the time to modify those plans until everyone on our planning team was on board; and whether we are planning a mission trip or taking a fresh look at our church’s unique sense of mission in this community, it will take patience and flexibility and time. The key is that Nehemiah was willing to take this time.  We’re kind of an impatient culture, are we not? If something takes too long…we move on!  Nehemiah said, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes, to get this done.  I’m in this for the long haul!”  Friends, that’s how I feel…and I challenge each of us to have that same attitude.  I’m willing to do whatever it takes…to make St. John’s everything that God wants us to be.  I’m willing to do whatever it takes, to continue the process of rebuilding and restoration that God wants to do among us.

(iii) Thirdly, he reminded his people of their own history. ‘Remember the Lord who is great and awesome….Rally to us wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet.  Our God will fight for us’ (Neh. 4: 14, 20).  One of the most important strategies that Nehemiah employed when confronting adversaries was to help his people remember.  This is another outstanding point made by H.G.M. Williamson.  “Remember the Lord who is great and awesome,” he kept saying.  “Listen for the trumpet blast.  Our God will fight for us.”  These were all reminders of Israel’s past.

When Pharaoh pursued the people of Israel into the Wilderness, Moses said to them, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14).  When King Jehosephat confronted Moab and Ammon, he said to his people, “Stand still and watch the Lord’s victory” (2 Chron. 20:16).  Nehemiah was reminding them that the God who was with them in the past would be with them now. We have history too. We have stories of God’s faithfulness among us, stories of God’s healing power, stories of God’s redemption and restoration that we need to tell and keep telling, because they encourage us to be faithful when times are tough.  What are your stories?  When have you felt the baptism of God’s Spirit, his presence cleansing you, surrounding you and upholding you?

(iv) And finally, Nehemiah did what he asked of others. It was Nehemiah’s strategy to keep the workers inside the city walls during this anxious period: "Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day."  The plan was to do this until the work was finished.  It was a season of vigilance in which they focused with great intensity on the accomplishment of a single goal; and Nehemiah made this commitment with them.  He too slept within the city walls; and in fact “neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me ever took off our clothes; each kept his weapon in his right hand” (Neh. 4: 23). 

As I studied these verses this week...I heard the voice of God in a most unexpected way regarding my planned 2012 sabbatical. Many of you may not even be aware that I was planning a three month sabbatical for next year -- a very generous gift of time from our church.  But as I was sharing with some of my elders this week, I have felt extremely burdened by the process and uncomfortable about the timing.  As I read the account of Nehemiah and the people staying within the city walls until the work was finished… I felt a strong sense of God’s leading… “Stay within Jerusalem until the work is finished….”  This week, he liberated me from the need to plan a sabbatical for which I 've had little passion.  I’ve come to believe that "Jerusalem" is where I need to be as we embrace this season of God’s restoring work, and that has given me great peace.

Earlier I was talking about the challenges of adapting to different elevations as I traveled this summer.  Richard Dhalstrom, the guest speaker at our family camp conference this summer wrote a phrase in his blog this week that struck me.  He was returning on a plane to Washington after an incredibly blessed summer… spending time with his daughter on a mission trip in Europe, climbing the alps with his wife and son, speaking for two different conferences…but now it was time to come home; and as his plane descended in altitude,  he acknowledged that the days would soon be getting shorter, that summer was almost gone, that many would face stormy weather.  Then he said this, “We need to learn to walk with God at every elevation.  He rejoices with us when, like children, we enjoy the gifts.  He comforts us when the season of darkness and storms come, being our light and shelter.  What could be better?" How true and how "elevating!"

As Nehemiah faced the obstacles to God’s work head-on, (i) he placed his darkest thoughts and feelings in God’s hands.  (ii) He was flexible, willing to take the time to do whatever was necessary to get the job done.  (iii) He reminded his people of their own history and God’s faithfulness; and finally, (iv) he did what he asked of others!  He learned to walk with God at different elevations,  May God help us do the same.

Awesome God, help us as your people to “consider it all joy” as we encounter various trials, obstacles, and adversaries, knowing that these trials produce in us a mature, well-developed life of faith.  As we seek to rebuild what has been torn down, and heal what has been wounded in our church and in our community, transform our fear and doubt into a deeper faith that you are steadfast, our invincible shield and defender; the One who cannot be shaken! Help us to overcome evil with good, and fear with hope.  Remind us again that in you, we have the power to turn from darkness and sin, receive your sustaining grace, and live in the knowledge that “all things are possible” through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Working It Out Together (Nehemiah 2-3)

I used to have a motivational poster that said: Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.  Then I saw an anti-motivational poster that features a giant snowball rolling down a hill of ice:“Team work: A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.  It’s absolutely true: we know that even though we need a team to accomplish anything of value, they have their problems. In any group, team, or organization, there are two great needs: unity and diversity.  We need unity, unity of vision, unity of purpose…but we also need diversity; diversity of abilities and gifts and perspectives -- and these two needs can sometimes be in conflict.   

Nehemiah, one of Israel's greatest leaders, knew this to be true. Nehemiah was a devout man of prayer who was convinced that God had entrusted him with a sacred mission: to return to Jerusalem in 445BC and lead the rebuilding of the city walls as governor. The job of rebuilding would require hundreds of workers, and many days and nights of hard labor; and there would be adversaries.  How would the diverse group of people in Judea respond to this vision?  In truth, Nehemiah’s vision would have come to nothing if he had not inspired unity among a variety of workers who shared his passion.   Listen to Nehemiah's words to the remnant of faithful leaders that were in Jerusalem.
17 Then [Nehemiah] said to them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace." 18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, "Let us start building!" So they committed themselves to the common good. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, "What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?" 20 Then I replied to them, "The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem."

i. Nehemiah inspired unity (Neh. 2:17-20) in three critical ways. He inspired unity with his appeal: “Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we may no longer suffer disgrace” (2:17).  Notice what Nehemiah doesn’t say.  He doesn’t say, “After all these years, I’m going to finally rebuild this wall that you couldn’t seem to complete” or “I’m the new governor, and I’m here to inform you that you are going to rebuild this wall.  Report here tomorrow morning at 5am.” Nehemiah doesn’t shame them into building the wall.  He doesn’t announce his plans and expect them to simply fall in line.  He doesn’t try and force them to build the wall.  He invites them to help him…and then waits for their reply.

I think that one of the reasons that “asking” is so powerful and important is that we have to trust God and the other person for the outcome.  When we make demands, when we try to force someone to do our will, division is sown between us.  But when we ask, when we make a genuine request, we are treating others as we would like to be treated.  We are united with the other person in mutual respect and in trust that God will work out his good purpose one way or the other.

The other day a friend and I were seeing a movie with some mutual friends who don’t attend our church.  Tom surprised me when he introduced me as his pastor (the truth is, I don’t even tell people I’m a pastor sometimes); but then he invited everybody at our table to our church for a special event (and, no, I didn’t promise to use his warm invitation to these seekers as a future sermon illustration).  They seemed open and receptive because they knew Tom and respected him.  I don't know many followers of Jesus who want to manipulate, shame or threaten people into the kingdom.  But I do want to invite them like Tom did...and like our Lord did – because I still believe he is 'the way, the truth, and the life," -- and the one with the best information available when it comes to living life as God meant us to live it.

Secondly, Nehemiah inspired unity with his personal story: “I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me...” (2:18). Vision is not shared with the head…but with the heart.  Nehemiah knew that it wasn’t enough to tell a bunch of people that he wanted to do something…he needed to tell them why.  And so he shared his story, a story of God’s grace. Nehemiah told them about how grieved he was to hear about the state of his city; and how he had prayed; and how he was afraid to speak to the king (2:2) and how God gave him the words.  He told them how the hand of God upon him was טֹובָ֣ה (tob-vah) a strong Hebrew word that means "gracious, beautiful, kind and good."

Over the past few years, we have experienced turmoil in our music ministry, staff turnover and economic stresses the delayed plans to renovate our sanctuary. I believe God has been calling me to do more than survive these challenges…but to come in the opposite spirit… to bless our music ministry, to encourage and equip our staff, to pray for God’s material provision for our church, to pray for God’s healing and restoration.  I share this because I want you to know that in declaring a new season of rebuilding and renewal, I have felt his tobvah, his gracious hand upon us and our church… and I have felt it primarily in the number of willing servants that he has raised up to share the work…which leads me to my third point regarding unity.

Nehemiah inspired unity with his perspective: Listen to the words that Nehemiah speaks to those who opposed the rebuilding of the city walls, “God will give us success and we his servants are going to start building” (2:20).  Nehemiah’s perspective was this: God will give us success as we give him our service. Notice that Nehemiah does not say, “We, his volunteers are going to start building.”  He says “We his servants are going to start building.”  Nehemiah saw himself and his people as servants, not volunteers. 

Ben Patterson reminded me once that the word “volunteer” emphasizes our decision.  We volunteer on our timetable and quit whenever we find something more interesting to do.  The word “servant” implies that we belong to Another and humbly do his will; that serving him and doing his will is our first priority. Nehemiah doesn’t demand their service (he can’t)…but he does remind them that they are God’s servants.  Once we name Christ as our Lord we cease to be volunteers…we are servants of God.   The good news is that when Christ is our Lord we need never fear him…for he himself came as a humble servant (Phil. 2: 7) and showed us the joy and responsibility of serving God as our Master and King.  The result of Nehemiah’s appeal, his personal story, and his perspective was -- thanks to God’s tobvah -- the miracle of unity, despite an amazing amount of diversity.

ii. The word "diversity" has to be one of the most worn-out phrases of our multi-culturally-sensitive generation, and yet it is an important word.  Nehemiah harnessed diversity (3:1-32) in a number of ways that we as followers of Y'shua (Jesus) -- who firmly believe that every nation, tongue and tribe will be gathered around the throne of God (Rev. 4) -- need to understand.  

For one, Nehemiah harnessed diversity by gathering “next to him” a variety of workers: From priests and High Priests (3:1) to rulers, nobles, (3:9), sons and daughters (3:12) perfumers, goldsmiths  and merchants (8, 31).  There was an astounding variety of peoples, classes, guilds, and generations represented.    Religious leaders, political officials, skilled workers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. 

As this great variety of workers approached the wall, they each took a section.  Each section of the wall is described beginning in the temple area, and moving counter-clockwise from gate to gate until coming full circle to the temple again.  They worked together, which means they worked next to each other.  Listen to this selection of verses from Neh. 3. Then the high priest Eliashib set to work with his fellow priests and rebuilt the Sheep Gate… And the men of Jericho built next to him. And next to them Zacurr…next to them Meremoth…next to them Meshullam...Next to them the Tekoites... Next to him Shallum...he and his daughters....” and so forth.  This great variety of people worked side by side, encouraging one another in the task at hand.

Mark 3: 13-15 tells us that Jesus called his disciples so that they might be “with him” (or, “next to him”). His entire ministry was done in the physical presence of his disciples.  They understood and respected him because they walked beside him, they shared meals with him, they shared in his work.  They knew his heart, and he knew theirs.  “I know my sheep and my own know me,” he said.  Last night, my brother Scott and I went to a reunion of our old youth group. It’s a bit of a shock catching up with people after 30 years…but it also reminded me of the power of sharing life together, of being “next to people” even for a few years.  They remembered things about me that I had long forgotten, or should I say, "tried to forget"?!  But that’s not what really moved me last night… it was when I went looking for my brother who had left the table and the laughter thirty minutes before.  Where could he be?  Was he not enjoying the conversation?  When I went into the house to find him, I discovered that he was in the back room sitting and talking with a young man who had stage four leukemia.  I learned that our friend’s mother -- who opened her home for the reunion -- had brought this young man home fifteen years ago when he was a student in need of a home.  I found my brother listening and praying for this young man…getting next to him, just as others had drawn near to us over the years in Christ’s name. 

Christ calls us to nothing less: to be “next to him” and “next to each other.”  I want to be able to say at the end of my days that I not only sat next to people in church, but that I labored next to them in ministry, prayed next to them in their troubles, ate next to them, laughed and cried next to them.  So let’s say good bye to ministry “by remote control” and get our hands dirty as we work alongside one another with passion and compassion.                                                

As Nehemiah gathered others next to him, he harnessed diversity by honoring a variety of motives. Notice that each group of workers labored where they had the greatest vested interest.  The priests worked on the ‘sheep gate’ (3:1) which was probably where the sacrifices were brought into the temple area; others like Jedaiah (10), Benjamin and Azariah (23), Zadok (28) and Meshullam (30), worked on portions of the wall near their homes. Still others worked on portions of the wall near their place of work… the goldsmiths and perfumers, for example, worked on the walls nearest the temple courts which is where they also lived and worked (3: 8-9).  Nehemiah seemed to honor and capitalize on this variety of motives.

Many of us work in the church or community where we have the greatest interest, and even the greatest personal investment.  God wants to use those natural interests, and personal motivations for his glory. My friend Don is a career manager in the insurance business. He has access to every person in his office.  He told me the other day how challenging it is to be a Christian in business… and yet when his colleagues ask him why his team has the best numbers in the company… he says, “Well, I pray for my people, for starters.”  They roll their eyes… but he continues with all seriousness: “I know my people.  I don’t just come to them when I have a problem to discuss, I ask them about their families, I show concern for them personally. This season of renewal that I am declaring in our own church is about more than buildings or even church programs… it’s about the renewal of our own mission…where we live and work and spend the majority of our time.  What community, what office worker, what fellow student or friend has God placed in your sphere of influence?  What part of the wall does he want you to attend to?  Who are you uniquely equipped to reach and restore and bless in Christ’s name? 

Finally, Nehemiah harnessed diversity by modeling sacrifice despite a variety of responses.  One of the things that most surprised me about this account is the variety of commitment levels described.  I was curious to read that some nobles would not ‘put their shoulders to the work of the Lord’ (3:5); that most worked hard on the section assigned to them; while some like Hananiah and Hanun even completed a ‘second section’ (30)!  It’s a challenge to ask how our work might be described by others?  Would we be numbered among those who completed our section?  Would we be among those who refused to lend a hand to that work?  Would we be among those who went over and above what was asked of us?  I pray that the Master will have found me faithful with the measure of responsibility entrusted to me.

While you’re thinking about that…perhaps you’d like to know in what way Nehemiah contributed to this enterprise?  Did he recline in the governor’s office drinking tea and reading work reports? Nehemiah tells us in 5:14-17.
14 Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15 The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17 Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us.
He was out on the field, personally supervising, watching for adversaries, contributing workers, leading sacrificially and… feeding more than 150 people daily  -- "including those from the nations around us."  Yes, Nehemiah did have a kingdom perspective….which brings us back to Y'shua (Jesus) who gladly invites not just 150 or 150,000 but as many as will come -- regardless of their tribe, tongue or nation -- to eat at his table and receive the Bread of Life.  Nehemiah had many qualities which remind us of the Messiah but first and foremost – his servant’s heart; and when it comes to bringing unity out of the variety of peoples who surround us today…The Bible tells us that a humble servant’s heart is to be the unifying characteristic of all who join him at this diverse table (Phil. 2).  

Risen Savior, we boldly pray that we might be truly one even as you and the Father are one.  Forgive us where we have been divisive, and selfish, and heal our prideful hearts. We ask that in our unity there might be a spirit of service and self-giving love, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  King Jesus, through your life, death and resurrection, you saved us from the power of sin and death and vow to make us a holy and life-giving people.  As we give thanks for your sacrifice today, we pray that broken relationships might be restored; that the wounded and the downcast be refreshed and healed; that words of wisdom and encouragement be spoken among us; and that others be drawn to you through our testimony. For you are our heart’s one desire and our one unshakeable foundation.  Amen.   

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Praying our Plans (Nehemiah 1-2)

Construction of Freedom Tower, New York, Aug. 2011
Back in February, after some conflict in our music ministry, staff turnover, and the stress of our troubled economy… I felt called as a pastor to declare a season of restoration, a season of rebuilding (I know, no surprise there)!  Along those same lines, I want to peer into the Book of Nehemiah and consider something which God has laid on my heart this week: to tear something down takes a moment; but to build something that truly lasts, that’s a different matter.

This week I was reading about the original plans to build the16-acre World Trade Center.  It began in 1962 (the same year the sanctuary where I pastor was built) and the second tower opened ten years later.  Five streets were closed off and 164 buildings were demolished. Construction required the excavation of more than 1.2 million cubic yards of earth.  During peak construction periods, 3,500 people worked at the site.  Ten thousand people in all worked on the towers, and 60 died during its construction. Almost ten years ago, we all know that the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center were destroyed in one brief, horrific moment, but that material loss was inconsequential when compared to the loss of human lives.  After many tears were shed, and the dead were honored…construction on a new Freedom Tower began in 2008.  It will rise 1,776 feet in the air; and as of yesterday, the tower had reached the 78th floor.  The original plan was to finish by Sept. 2011 but it will not be completed until next year at a cost of 3.1 billion dollars.

All this is to say that to tear something down takes a moment… but to build something that truly lasts will take passion, planning and, above all, prayer.  Consider the books of Ezra-Nehemiah which tell the 100 year epic story of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile and the restoration of its national life.  The glory of Jerusalem under David and Solomon was never duplicated in Israel’s history.  It’s temple was a wonder of the ancient world, but during the year 587 BC both the temple and the city were burned and razed to the ground, its population taken captive or scattered to other parts of the Mediterranean world. 

Fifty years after the city’s destruction, Zerubbabel the governor of Judea and Jeshua the high priest were given permission by King Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon, to rebuild the temple.  But though they were able to rebuild the temple, adversaries prevented them from repairing the city walls.  More than 100 years after this rebuilding work began, Nehemiah the king’s cupbearer (a trusted servant who tested and tasted anything the King was given to drink before he did), wept when he heard about his homeland.   It was 445 BC.  He wept not because he was surprised that the city walls were in ruins...but because after 150 yrs…the city walls were still in ruins. Nehemiah was determined to finish what others had been unable to begin. He longed to repair what had been broken.  I have found inspiration in Nehemiah’s sense of mission and his methods even as we have claimed this to be a season of rebuilding and restoration in our own church.

i. Notice, first, how Nehemiah turned his passionate concern for Jerusalem into a conversation with God (Neh. 1: 5-11)
5I said, "O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. 7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.'10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!" At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah’s call was the call to rebuild what had been destroyed.  That’s our mission too… to rebuild what has been torn down.  God’s people are to be on the look out for what has been broken, destroyed, wounded or torn apart. Notice that Nehemiah’s calling was fired by deep feelings.  This was his city!  These were his people!  He sat down and wept and mourned for days.  This was not just a news story…this was his story.  I think we’re supposed to care about our spiritual family (our church) with the same kind of passion that we care about our own families, our own home, our own health.

Nehemiah did not simply grieve -- important as that was.  He let his concern move him toward God.  He stopped and prayed for four months before speaking to the King!  That’s significant, considering what a man of action he was. What can Nehemiah teach us about praying our problems and our plans?    
  • Nehemiah gained perspective in prayer - “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him….” (5).
  • Nehemiah took responsibility in prayer.  “We have sinned against you.  Both I and my family have sinned….” (6). Before we jump in and try to fix what is broken, we must remember that we ourselves are among the broken and take responsibility for the brokenness that we ourselves have caused.
  • Nehemiah responded to God’s word in prayer.  Listen to this bold statement: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses….If you are unfaithful I will scatter you, but if you return…I will gather you” (8).  Nehemiah knew God’s word, and he let it guide and courage-ify his prayer life.
  • Nehemiah found new confidence in prayer. “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (11).  This is a bold prayer, for what Nehemiah wanted was an opportunity to ask King Artaxerxes to revoke a former edict which prevented the Jews from rebuilding the city (Ezra 4).   
Look how he boldly asks God to restore the fortunes of his people and to grant him success in rebuilding the city walls. That confidence could have only come from a daily walk with God that gave him both clarity and conviction; and then there's the way he responds to the King’s question four months after he began praying: “Nehemiah, why is your face sad, since you are not sick?” (2: 2) asks the King. Nehemiah knew this was his God-given opportunity:  “I was very much afraid,” Nehemiah admits as he explains to Artaxerxes the reason for his sadness.“What do you request?” the King inquires.  Listen to Nehemiah's response: “So I prayed to the God of heaven” (2: 4) [that is, before speaking another word].  We can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah honored God moment by moment, recognizing his dependence on God for the very words he was about to speak.           

To recap here, Nehemiah teaches me to pray my passion.  If I have any doubt about my mission, Nehemiah (and Jesus) call me  to restore what is broken as one who is also broken and in need of repair…and to begin this mission in prayer.

ii. Look next at how Nehemiah followed up his passionate prayers with careful planning (Neh. 2: 1-16). Nehemiah’s prayers helped him to formulate a very specific plan for returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the walls.
  • He told the king exactly where he was going and how long he would need to be gone (2: 6). 
  • He anticipated opposition and obstacles.  He requested letters of commendation from the King so that he could travel to Judah without being troubled by neighboring governors.
  • He asked for material resources: timber from the king’s forest for the work. 
  • He counted the cost.  In v. 11, we learn that he secretly inspected the walls by night so that he could evaluate the problem for himself.  Aside from watching out for his enemies, I think Nehemiah wanted to personally experience the enormity of what he was about to do and prayerfullycount the cost” before starting (cf. Luke 14: 28). 

There is no goal in this life worth pursuing that comes without cost.  I find that I am challenged in a number of areas whenever I am trying to accomplish something for Christ.  Perhaps you can relate to some of these challenges as well.  The cost of my pride – being willing to keep learning what I need to learn in order to get something accomplished or grow personally. The sacrifice of my fears: The fear of being rejected by others for following Christ or challenging others to follow him. The cost of time – the willingness to be patient with the often slow process of rebuilding and renewing his church. The cost of my stuff – the willingness to put my possessions and material resources at God’s disposal.  

iii. In the end, Nehemiah’s prayerful dependence upon God and thoroughness of planning resulted in a bold confidence that inspired others (Neh. 2: 17-20).  John Ortberg asked a friend last fall, "What's the main thing I need to be doing for our church to be a place where lives are being transformed?" He said, “Your primary job is to experience deep contentment and joy and confidence in your everyday life with God" (from "Redeeming Authority," Leadership Journal, Summer 2011).  I really resonated with that!  Nehemiah had that same confidence, and after he shared his plans with the other leaders in Jerusalem they quickly caught on: "Let's start building!" (2:18) they shouted.  But where does that confidence come from, again?  Let’s recap what we’ve learned:
  • Confidence  comes from a life of prayer in which the reading of God’s word informs us how to pray for the things that concern us; and leads us to pray for the things that concern God on an everyday basis. 
  • Confidence  comes from consciously bringing God’s presence to mind in the midst of the most difficult moments of our day, and asking for his help.  The next time you are in a heated conversation, the next time you are standing next to that friend, or neighbor or co-worker this week, the next time you are searching for the right words, and before taking the next step, stop and ask God to give you the words and the wisdom.  Nehemiah did…and so can you. Some of our students are going to Creekside this week… which was the camp that I worked at when I was in my mid twenties.  It was also the camp where I learned to pray and read and memorize Scripture.  It’s where I learned to spend 7 minutes with God, 7 times a week!  They taught me that spending time with God was not just for my benefit, but that Jesus desired that time with me as well and had important things to teach me.  That perspective began changing my life, and it still is.
  • Confidence  comes from plans that are carefully made, thoroughly prayed over, and genuinely receptive to the input of others (more about that next week).  When it seems like nothing is moving…ask yourself if you have made a move, taken a risk, drawn up some plans, and asked for input from others in whom you recognize godly wisdom and sanctified common sense?
I said earlier that it’s easy to tear things down…but that building something takes passion, planning, and prayer.  Several of our church families were at Family Camp at Forest Home Christian Conference Center last week.  While we were there, I heard about some work that was going on around the Lakeview area which surprised and even saddened me a little. Some very old oak trees that provided a tremendous amount of shade around the lake were found to be diseased and dangerous.  They were filled with insects.  On the outside they looked healthy, but inside they were literally falling apart.  The old friends were hundreds of years old…and beautiful, but in a single day, they had to be removed and every trace of them was now gone. When I talked to Stan White about it (I've known Stan for more than 35 years...and deeply respect him as Forest Home's President), I offered him my sympathy…but then he reminded me that it was actually an opportunity to do some different things with the property up there.  He said they were already making plans to build some kind of shade structure and to use that part of the lakeshore in a new way.   

It may be that in this season of restoration and rebuilding, some structures or old habits will need refinement, or even removal in us, our in our church, but that will only allow for new seed to grow, new growth, renewal, and new possibilities… which we should not fear.  This is an exciting time that we are living in! This is the season of Nehemiah…a season of renewal; and I am confident about this process if only because I know that our foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord, and no tower or church can stand that is not built on his word and risen life.  

Risen Lord, you alone can rebuild Jerusalem. You alone can rebuild the walls that have been broken in this church and in our hearts.  We ask your forgiveness for every destructive word and deed that has undermined what you long to renew and restore.  We declare and bear witness to a new season -- a season of renewal and rebuilding -- as we submit ourselves to your authority and the truth of your word.  May every passion, proposal, and plan be refined by your Holy Spirit.  May relationships be restored that were considered at one time beyond repair.  May the wounded and the downcast be refreshed and healed.  May words of wisdom and encouragement be spoken among us.  May others be drawn to you and your saving grace through our testimony. For you are our heart’s one desire and our one unshakeable foundation.  Amen.