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!

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