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.

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