Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Pledge Allegiance

The 'ground zero' cross
Ten years after the destructive events of Sept. 11, there have been many promises and pledges made.  There have been pledges never to forget the fallen. There have been solemn pledges to stand against terrorism. Still others are making a renewed pledge to service, or to work for peace.  These are all expressions of commitment and hope and even faith.  Nehemiah and his people had been through a season of destruction.  His people and his city had been decimated by foreign powers, and now 150 years later, he had returned to rebuild the city walls.  After the work was completed despite many obstacles, we read in Nehemiah 10 that the people made “a firm commitment in writing”; which they signed as they pledged their lives to God and each other.  So, I want to end this look at the Book of Nehemiah by examining that agreement and what it might mean for us to make a similar pledge in this season of rebuilding and renewal….

What did they agree on?  First, they pledged to ­­­­walk with God’s word.  “…to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord...” (29). Did you know that every great movement of God has included a rediscovery of the Scriptures.  Take the story of Josiah in 2 Kings 22.  Earlier in Israel’s history, King Josiah at the age of 26 ruled over a nation that had forgotten God’s commands and had not called on his name for 57 years.  When he decided to make repairs on the temple an amazing discovery was made: a scroll thick with dust…the Book of the Law.  Josiah read it… and a spiritual reformation began. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr who courageously opposed Adolph Hitler once said: “Every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God's Word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me. I can only move forward with certainty upon the firm ground of the Word of God.” Bishop Tutu who helped his nation overcome apartheid said, “There's nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and impression than the Bible."  When you commit to the daily re-discovery of this book, you join billions across the ages who have been revolutionized by its words.

Next, they pledged to turn from false godsOne of the reforms Nehemiah instituted raises some important questions.  I am speaking of the prohibition against bi-racial marriages: for they pledged that “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons...” (30). As a result of Nehemiah’s reforms, some men apparently separated from their foreign wives and children (Neh. 13: 23-25). Nehemiah did this to remove the temptation to worship false gods. But while it is true that certain passages in the Torah  like Deut. 7: 1-4 do prohibit bi-racial marriages, they do so on religious grounds alone.  In other words, Nehemiah misinterprets these laws along racial lines: there is no rule in the Torah against racially mixed marriages for other than religious reasons.  King David would never have been born had it not been for a racially mixed marriage between Ruth the Moabite and Boaz the Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures own rejection of this view is reinforced in the NT in Acts 10 and Gal. 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek…we are all one in the body of Christ.” 

That being said, let’s not miss the spirit of what Nehemiah was trying to accomplish… which was to turn his people away from anything or anyone that might try to replace God in their hearts. The point is that the Lord wants to be our first love.  He also wants to be at the center of our most important human relationships.  What about the situation where a believer finds him or herself married to an unbeliever?  The Bible encourages us to love one another, not throw in the towel, for Paul says the unbelieving spouse will be blessed and consecrated through the believing spouse (1 Cor. 7: 13ff.).  With God all things are possible!

Third, they pledged to honor the Lord’s Day“…we will not buy…on the Sabbath, or on a holy day…” (31).  The word shabbat derives from a Hebrew word meaning, “cease or stop.”  Human beings function best when we honor the law of rest and work, when we stop to worship and press meaning into our daily routine.  I’ve heard stories from some who have begun practicing the blessing of Sabbath rest.   
A new attender of our church came up to me and said, “I decided to start practicing Sabbath rest after hearing your message.  I don’t work now on Sundays anymore.  I spend that time with my family now, and I take time out now to worship and it has made a real difference in our lives.”  When we honor the Lord’s Day, he will bless us with increasing strength and a growing sense of purpose in all we do.      

Finally, they pledged to give their best to God’s work“We also lay on ourselves the obligation to charge ourselves yearly one-third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God….at appointed times, year by year…[and] to bring the first fruits of our soil and the first fruits of all fruit of every tree...” (32, 34, 35). As a reflection of their commitment to Sabbath rest they also pledged to support the work of the temple.  That offering was a sacrifice. The Torah set forth a temple tax or offering of half a shekel (the equivalent of two days work), but Nehemiah reduced it to one-third.  Why?  Because the people were so poor! In other words, one-third of a shekel was a sacrifice. “How much should you give? Here is a good rule of thumb. Give until it feels a little uncomfortable.  Give until it feels like a sacrifice. 
That offering was their best.  Notice that it was their “first fruits” i.e., the best of their crops, of their time and energy.  There’s an attitude that says, “It’s only the church…so I don’t have to do or give my best.”  We should want to do as good a job or better for our local church than we do for our boss at work; and take as much care of God’s house as we do our own house.   

Now having looked at what Nehemiah and his people firmly agreed on, I want to acknowledge that people make all kinds of agreements and then break them. Why bother making a commitment to God or to his people.  Isn’t it just words? 2 reasons:

First, we can pledge ourselves to God and each other because God has brought us together in the miracle of this community.  Nehemiah expressed awe for that miracle when he said that “ we make a firm agreement in writing, and on that sealed document are inscribed the names of our officials, our Levites, and our priests...” (9:38).  Notice that it was not just the priests and Levites (38), the pastors and church workers, it was also officials and the rest of the people (28), the lay leaders and members of the community who signed on the dotted line.  I am constantly encouraged by our oneness in Christ here at St. John’s - especially in times of adversity and tragedy.  Only Christ can explain it, a oneness that is stronger than any hardship that we may face; and it gives me hope.

Finally, we can pledge ourselves to God and each other because God has pledged himself to us.  Nehemiah recounts in 9:38 that “we made a firm agreement in writing.”   Now, the word “firm agreement” derives from the Hebrew word amen (meaning trustworthy, immovable, steadfast, faithful – like a tree rooted in the soil or a tent peg secured to the ground.  In Isaiah 65:16, God is referred to as the God of Truth lit. the Amen.   In Rev 3: 14 Jesus is called the “Amen, the faithful and true witness.”  When we say, “Amen!” what we’re really saying is that we have faith that God is faithful.

Toby Nelson, a Presbyterian pastor I know spent nearly 9 months as a chaplain at ground zero, counseling and praying with people through their grief following the World Trade Center attacks.  In the midst of that daily experience he listened and tried to help people with the pain and the enormity of the tragedy.  One night, as he returned to ground zero he started talking to Eric, a police officer. 
Toby Nelson  at 'ground zero' 
“Eric, every time I come here the place changes. I get disoriented. Do you ever get disoriented?”“Nope, not anymore.” “Why not?”  He pointed to something a hundred yards away on the other side of the park.
Do you see that Cross over there?” The Cross he pointed to was unique. I need to give you a brief explanation about that Cross.  Earlier that day, one crane operator looked down and could not believe his eyes.  The constant movement of his behemoth crane stopped. “In minutes, police officers, firefighters, and steel workers gathered around a large pit the crane worker had been working on, just staring at the bottom.  At the bottom of this hole, they saw a Cross under the rubble. It was not pristine.  It was very rugged.  It was a huge Cross made from I-beams…big I-beams…20,000 pound I-beams. When the building collapsed, it had sheared off the cross-beams equal distance from the center beam. The top was sheared off [too] and made a perfectly shaped Cross.  It was an unmistakable sight. 
A half-dozen steel workers had a bright idea. They clamored down to the bottom of the hole and stood at the base of the Cross. With torches they cut off the bottom, picked it up with the crane, and placed it on a pedestal at the entrance of the World Trade Center Park. “When you come down to the Pit, just locate that Cross,” Eric paused, “You always know where you are.” 
Long before the cross became a symbol, it was an event... the event of Jesus' suffering in history, for us.   The story of Nehemiah is the story of rebuilding despite a history of suffering and despair.  It’s the story of how Israel rediscovered God’s Amen, his faithfulness despite their unfaithfulness.  Today, if you have any doubt of God’s faithfulness, or his commitment to rebuild what has been broken or torn apart in you, in our community, in this world …look to the cross and the one who hung upon it: look to Y'shua the Risen One, who suffered with us and for us; and will forever be God’s great “Amen,” the pledge of His allegiance, his faithfulness, to us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Building on Bedrock

A few weeks ago, many of us saw the news story about a 5.8 earthquake that was felt from Georgia to Canada...and for many friends I know out that way, it was their very first experience.  In California and other parts of the world where earthquakes are more common, we've become quite sophisticated in the way we prepare for the ground to move in unexpected ways.  I have a friend whose company designs the giant ball bearings that many of our Los Angeles skyscrapers are built on.  These ball bearings allow a building to move with the quake, defusing its destructive energy. Because of this advanced building technology, the catastrophic quake in Japan did little damage to Tokyo's skyscrapers.

Nehemiah did not have to deal with earthquakes as he set out to rebuild the decimated walls of Jerusalem, but he did have to face some fierce opposition from the surrounding peoples, and a wildly diverse work force in which there were significant internal conflicts.  Even so, the wall was completed in only 52 days, which seemed to Nehemiah's enemies to be a miracle of God  (Neh. 6: 15). Shortly after the completion of the walls, Ezra the priest led thousands of Jews in a moving prayer in which he shares four bedrock convictions that sustained them throughout this rebuilding process, convictions which have the power to sustain us through the fiercest of life's earthquakes, fires, droughts and storms.

Conviction #1: We were made by God.  “You are the LORD, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.  To all of them you give life….” (Neh. 9: 6)  Many of us have been taught that with every advance of science, the need for God has retreated.  But this is because of a false understanding (by many secular academics) that our God is only a “god of the gaps.”  If God is only there to fill the gaps of our knowledge, than with every new piece of information about the world, God seems to retreat. 

But in fact the God of Scripture is not a “god of the gaps” (see Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World). The God of Scripture created the heavens and the earth, all of it (with nothing left out) just as we read in Ezra's prayer: “You alone, have made heaven…with all their host [and] the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them…to all of them you give life.”   The key word is “all.”  There are no gaps in God’s creation which he must fill.  God is not a member of creation, he is the Maker of it! Everything in creation fits together by his design…and science is in the process of understanding that design.  Our peace comes not from inserting God wherever we have a gap in our knowledge, but in knowing that God reveals himself in and through every dimension of his creative work (cf., Psalm 8, 19:1-4, 24: 1-2).  Stephen Hawking admits that, “Science may solve the problem of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist?” (Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes). Only revelation can answer that; and the revelation is this:  

You and I were made by God. The arrangement of everyone of your 25,000 or more genes, the history of your father and mother’s families and the generations before them have joined together in the creation of you (the good and bad), your personality, your abilities, your spiritual heritage, are all part of your God-given uniqueness. You were made by God (every part of you).  Even the pain and negative things you’ve experienced, God promises to work together for good.  And God invites you to open yourself to that goodness; to claim the bedrock truth that you are his blessed child…called to follow him. For we were not only made by God…

Conviction #2: We were chosen by God.  “You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give to his descendants….” (7-8). People of biblical faith believe in a God who always takes the first step, who always takes the initiative; a God who from the dawn of creation fully intended to reveal himself to us that we might know him and serve him. Some may object:  The promise Ezra describes was made to Abram.  What does that have to do with me? God chose the children of Abram and his descendants, but what right do I have to claim the promises of that God for my own?  The key is to understand the call of Abram in Gen. 12:2-3There are two parts:
The Top Line: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” The Bottom Line: “I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  In other words, in so far as we follow this one true God and number ourselves among God’s people, we share in his blessings.  

In Mark 3: 13-15 we learn that Jesus called those “whom he desired.”  He handpicked his followers; and he has handpicked us as well, in fulfillment of God’s promise to bring every nation and tribe to the throne of God in worship and service, A person who knows he or she has been chosen will never be the same again. This summer we had the opportunity to visit the National Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  We were given a tour by a petite young woman who was articulate and enthusiastic…but it wasn’t until the very end of the tour that we learned why she was so enthusiastic.  She was training to compete as a member of the US weightlifting team, and she had all the pride that comes with being chosen for that honor. The most enthusiastic spectator cannot imagine the honor that she feels, the honor of being chosen.  That’s the honor, the bedrock conviction that you and I should feel as we consider that the Lord of the Universe has hand-picked us to serve him, and to carry out his great purposes for this world.  We were chosen by God and…

Conviction #3: We can be led by God.  “You saw the distress of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea….Moreover you led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.  You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments….” (9, 12-13).  Our Lord calls all who will, to come; and he promises to faithfully lead all who will follow.  He does not force his leadership upon us…but what a burden is lifted when we submit to his leadership in our lives.

When I was about four years old, I became very aware that my parents were the ones who gave the orders.  "Steven, go put on your pajamas.  Steven, you need to try at least one bite of those lima beans.  Steven, please go brush your teeth."  One day, I'd had enough. I let them know at about age four that from now on, “I want to be the orderer!”  I imagine sometimes what life at home would have been like if I had been given my wish…if I had gone to bed whenever I wanted to, had cookies for every meal, and crossed the street without looking both ways.  I think life as "the orderer" would have been a short life, indeed!  When everyone is the orderer, when everyone does what’s right in their own eyes, there is no order… there is only disorder and chaos…which is why Ezra reminds us that God gave the gift of his Word and Spirit. “You spoke to them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments” (13); and you gave your good spirit to instruct them (20).  The Spirit of God speaks to us through prayer, circumstances, his people…and especially through his word.

A softball coach was once overheard speaking to one of his youngest players:
     “Do you understand what cooperation is and what teamwork is all about?”  The little boy nodded in the affirmative.
    “Do you understand that what really matters is not whether we win or lose, but that we play together as a team?”  The little boy nodded yes.
    “Good,” the coach continued.  “And, when a strike is called, or you’re thrown out at first, you don’t argue, curse, attack the umpire with a bat, or throw dirt in the opposing team member’s face.  Do you understand all that?” Again, the little boy nodded.  “Well, sure, coach.  That’s what you taught us.”
    “Good,” said the coach, “Now, please go over and explain all that to your father!” 

You can't enjoy the game when no one is following the rules of the game.  It's not just the four year olds, it's also the adults who are still trying to make their own rules.  Let me ask you this: Do you believe that the rules in the Bible are “right, true, and good,” as Ezra declares?   Let's just say you don’t… I would still challenge you to read and study it with others, and to actually try living by it!  Because it’s only by experience that we will come to learn that his “instruction manual” is more than a “rule book”, but a “play book” on which to build an unshakable life.  We were made by God.  We were chosen by God.  We can be led by God, if we will follow.  And finally….

Conviction #4: We are cherished by God.  When Ezra first reads from the Torah, the first response of his people was one of sorrow (see Neh. 8: 1-12).  Why?  Perhaps it is because they had come to understand the seriousness of their sin and its consequences for their nation.  But seeing their grief, they were encouraged to remember that, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”  What did Ezra mean by this?  Later, in his prayer, Ezra explains: In the past, O God, your people “refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…but (and I’m so glad there is a “but” here) you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them” (17)!

Here in this verse is the most important word in all of Hebrew Scripture.  The word is חָ֫סֶד hesed” and it is translated here, “steadfast love.”  It refers to God’s relentless commitment; his bottomless compassion, his undying faithfulness; his promise to never give up on us even when we have given up on himFor he knows that as long as we have breath…there is reason to hope that we may yet turn from our sin and return to him, receive his forgiveness, and begin to live the eternal kind of life for which he made us. Hesed means that God cherishes us – a word derived from the Greek word charis, meaning “grace.”  Grace, God’s undeserved love, is the New Testament word for hesed.  Would Nehemiah have had the courage to return to Jerusalem, assemble a fragmented population, face fierce opposition and deal with injustice if he did not in his innermost being believe in the cherishing hesed of God?  The joy of the Lord was his strength, the love of God was his hope, and this is why he and Ezra were able to so boldly lead their people. 

Let me ask you: Do you believe that such a love exists?  Some don’t.  They believe the world is about nothing more than the struggle for survival; and the implications of that idea are both sad…and terrifying.  It gives birth to ruthless dictators, self-absorbed materialists, communities without hope, children who grow up to be cynical and faithless, a generation unable to make or keep a promise. Despite this, there are still many who believe that such committed love does exist. In the words of Lewis Smedes,                      
“They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make….When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty….I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.” (Lewis Smedes, “The Power of Promises”, from A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas G. Long & Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994)
Like those who gathered around Nehemiah and Ezra, some of us are weeping today because we have tried to build on foundations other than the unshakeable love of God.  Some of us are saddened by the things we’ve done to others, or by things that have been done to us, broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.  Some of feel the shaking of an unstable world.  We are uneasy about the future, about 9/11 or 2012 or April 15th  or just going back to school. Some of us are unsure that the kind of love we’ve talked about really exists. May God give us a supernatural revelation of his love for us today…that we would experience it in the kindness of someone in this worshiping community…in the prayer of a friend, in the courage to read and obey God’s word…and supremely in the love of Y'shua, who neither death on a Roman cross nor the sorrow of a cold dark tomb could destroy.   

"For everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them" said Jesus,  "will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock" (Matt. 7: 24-25).  You were made by God.  You were chosen by God.  You can be led by God again.  And yes, you are cherished by God"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness O Lord!” (Lam. 3:22-23).