Lord Teach Me To Pray: Heal Me

One of the most misunderstood, and in mainline churches often ignored, aspects of Christian faith has to do with the power of prayer as regards healing. Some churches placed too much emphasis on healing prayer and have an almost magical approach to the subject. Other churches disbelieve that healing occurs in response to prayer. Still other churches ignore the subject entirely. At Advent, we try to have a middle of the road approach to healing prayer:  We believe God heals, but we don’t expect a miracle every time we pray.

images-7The healing ministry of the church is important. Those churches which do not believe that God continues to heal are, in my mind, missing an important aspect of Christian faith. All Christians, including those who aren’t particularly interested in healing, pray for healing. Almost instinctively, when we are sick we pray for God to heal us. When someone we love is sick, we pray for God to heal them—even if we doubt that such a healing as possible.

This week one of our young people had to go into the hospital. Gretchen posted a prayer request on Facebook without naming the child. Many of our members “liked” that post and indicated they were praying. In addition, one of the prayer groups that meets regularly prayed for this young person. We don’t know yet whether God is going to heal that person as we are asking, but we’re asking.

This summer, I spent some time with friends I’ve known since we were younger. We had our first children at about the same time. This couple had a child born prematurely with serious health issues. Our friendship became closer one night when the husband and I went together to St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston Texas to see his child. My friend wasn’t used to being around sick people. He wasn’t used to being in an intensive care unit. Neither was I at that point in time! Nevertheless, we went and prayed together, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Our time together and our prayer together is a part of the bond of friendship and faith we share.

Jesus Heals the Blind and Afflicted.

Our text for this blog  involves two healings of Jesus taken from the Gospel according to Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you;” and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region. While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:27-35)

Prayer: God of Healing: We ask that you would come and show us how we can pray for one another, for friends, even for non-Christians, as we seek the healing of people, situations, and even of our culture and world. We ask this in Jesus Name, who was and is the Great Physician, Amen.

The Healing Ministry of Christ.

imgresThere is no question but that healing was an important part of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus performed over thirty healings in the New Testament. One reason I chose today’s text has to do with the fact that it is “ordinary.” Jesus was either in Capernaum or a nearby town. He had already healed a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-9). He had healed Matthew from greed, commenting that it is not the healthy that need a healer but the sick (vv. 9-13). He had healed the dead daughter of a “ruler” of the people; and along the way, he healed a woman with the flow of blood (vv. 16-26).

As Jesus returned home from healing the ruler’s daughter, he was met by two blind men. They cried out, “Son of David, have mercy upon us (v. 27). Apparently, they followed him into his house or wherever he was staying. They had already called him, the “Son of David,” indicating that they believed him to be the Messiah. Jesus asked them if they believed (had faith) that he could heal them. They respond, “Yes” and were healed (v. 29). Immediately thereafter, Jesus healed a demoniac.

If you take chapters 8-9 of Matthew together, Jesus convincingly shows his power over physical disease, genetic problems, death, and spiritual evil. In Chapter 10, Jesus called his disciples together and commissioned them to drive out evil spirits and heal diseases (10:1). Not only do his disciples heal people and cast out demons in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts in the letters of Paul we also see evidence that the healing power of God in response to prayer continued to characterize the ministries of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the other apostles. Early in Acts Peter and John heal a person who had been a cripple from birth (Acts 3). Later on, we learned that the apostles, all of them, performed many signs and wonders (5:12).

The apostles were not the only members of the early church gifted with the power to pray for and receive healings. In his letters, Paul mentions the gift of healing and intercessory prayer as spiritual gifts (See, I Corinthians 12:9-10). Apparently, some people when they prayed, experienced dramatic responses to those prayers. People were healed.

During the first few centuries of the church, followers of Jesus were known for the power of healing prayer. [1] Healing ministry was a normal part of early Christianity. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) writes of how the early Christians healed and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Irenaus who lived around the same time as Justin, attested to similar healings as those found in the Gospels and Acts. [2] One of the main ways the Rome Empire was converted to Christianity involves healings and exorcisms—signs and wonders.

The reality that God does sometimes answer prayer for healing continues to reveal itself today in the church. More than once, in my ministry and in the ministries of others, I and others have seen and see answers to prayers for healing. Therefore, the praying and healing ministry of the church continues to be important today.[3]

The Kinds of Healings God Provides.

Often, in discussing healing, we focus on physical healing. Physical healing is important; however, it is not the only kind of healing in which Christians are interested. Paul was never healed physically; however, Paul was healed from his spiritual anger and violent nature (Galatians 1:11-23). Peter, so far as we know, was not healed of a physical ailment (though his mother was). Instead, Peter was healed from a character defect.

In other words, there are many different kinds of healings. We may be healed physically. We may be feet healed emotionally. We may be healed spiritually. Our character may be healed. We may experience healing in our relationships with other people. Finally, we may experience social healings.

For example, this summer we have experienced increased racial tensions in Memphis and other cities. I think we have seen the results of pastors, congregational members, and others praying for peace in our city. We have been delivered from some of the worst things that have happened elsewhere. Our Christian response to any form of illness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, marital, family, or social should be to pray.

Healing Ministry of Advent.

cordova-church-315-x-475When I came to Advent, one of the first things we did was to begin putting a prayer list in the bulletin. Over the years, we have prayed for hundreds of our members. In the vast majority of cases, the person was healed to a greater or lesser degree. Now, in many cases, that person was also being treated by a doctor, nurse, or other professional. This is an important point to make: Christian healing, and our prayers for healing, are not intended to replace the work of doctors, nurses, counselors, and other healing professionals. We believe that God is working through a variety of means to achieve healings. Our prayers may only be a part (the spiritual part) of the healing process. [4]

Many years ago, a member of our church came to us asking that we have a healing service for their son, who was having a serious physical problem. We had our first Advent healing service in the Upper Room, which our members know as the “Barnabas Classroom.” Dave and I did not expect many people to come, but there were about twenty people in attendance. Since then, from time to time we’ve had healing services. During the time when we were joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), we had another request. It so happened that we honored that request at the same time we held a prayer vigil for the decision we were about to make to join the EPC. Since that time, we have had a healing service, and prayers for healing, at 6 o’clock in the evening on the first Friday of every month, almost without exception. On an average First Friday, we have perhaps six people in attendance. We’ve had as many as thirty in the past. Many of our prayers have been answered.

During our First Friday Prayer Vigils, we pray for every member of Advent who is on the prayer list, more than once. In addition, during some of the special times of prayer, we open the floor for other prayers. There are almost always prayers for healing that are not contained in the prayer list for that week with that prayer vigil.

Our church has a Stephen ministry program and the Care Team program. We also have more than one prayer group and prayer chain. All of these groups involve praying for the healing of our members. Finally, many of our members pray for the healing of our community, nation, and world. These prayers may be about a physical disease in the news, like the “Zika Virus,” or for healing of emotional, spiritual, or other problems of our society. Hardly a week goes by when one of the pastors is not asked to pray for the healing of some person or situation.

Experiencing the Healing Power of God.

images-6This afternoon at our church, we are sponsoring a special time of teaching about prayer. Many people do not understand how to pray, and especially how to pray for healing. One of our seminars this afternoon has to do with intercessory prayer, which includes prayers for healing. For just the next few moments, I would like to set out a few ideas that may help us as we pray for healing:

  • First, we can pray for healing alone or in a group. Sometimes, there is both power and comfort in praying as a part of a larger group. Sometimes, the matter is private, and it is best to pray in private.
  • Second, although all prayers should be from the heart, sometimes we may feel better if we pray the words of another person. During our healing services, we pray both prayers from the heart that are spontaneous and written prayers from a bulletin. In just a few moments, any of us can research healing prayer on the Internet and find examples of many great prayers from the history of the church.
  • Third, we can use Holy Scripture to pray for healing. One common feature of our monthly healing service is a time when we pray through a story from the Bible where Jesus heals another human being. Using the prayers and example of Jesus can be a great encouragement.
  • Finally, we should pray with faith. Confident that God will answer our prayers, we learn to pray without ceasing for the healings we desire. Some prayers are not immediately answered. This should not stop us from praying for those we love and whom God has placed upon our hearts.

Last January, I had to have an operation. We had been praying for a health issue for some time, and then finally God allowed our doctor to figure out what was wrong. It was not a serious operation. I went into the surgery center after noon and was home before dinner. Naturally, Kathy prayed for the operation before I went in and we both prayed just before they took me in to surgery. As I was coming out of the anesthesia, the nurse, who I think understood we were Christians, revealed a spiritual or emotional need she and her family were having. It so happens that her problem was similar to a problem we had experienced. We prayed for her right then and there. None of these prayers involved anything dramatic, but we do believe that God was working in and through the prayers, the doctors, the nurses, and others to not just heal me, but to witness to that healing power in the life of others. Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fr. George Morelli, “The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing” at http://www.antiochian.org/morelli/the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing (downloaded August 18, 2016). This is a fine article that deals mostly with the role of healing in the contemporary orthodox churches, but also with the historical roots of healing in the history of the church.

[2] See, “History of Christian healing” at www.centerforinnerpeace.com (Downloaded August 18, 2016). See also, Mark A. Pearson, Christian Healing: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995) and Bishop of Naupactus Hearths, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams, (Levandia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994).

[3] Our members know that Kathy and I have been developing a Bible Study, “Salt & Light. ” One of the lessons has to do with prayers for healing. Around the world, wherever the church is growing, there are signs and wonders, including healings. See for example, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, Monument CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). There is an urgent need for the Church in Europe and North America to recover the ministry of healing as a part of the outreach of the church in society. This is hard in a secular, and even pagan, culture. However, it is important.

[4] The church has always believed that God works both through prayers and through the skill of physicians and others. In fact, early Christians promoted hospitals, homes for the elderly and trained doctors and nurses. Technically, this aspect of the healing ministry of the church is called “synergy.” God works with, under, through, and above human healers in response to prayer.

Know Me

imgres-2This week, the blog involves selections from Psalm 139 and focuses on the importance of our resting in God’s prior understanding of us.

Almost anyone who has had children understands that parents and children have a special kind of relationship. Often children do not understand or appreciate the relationship, but it is there.  Our children carry within them our genetics, our family history, the way we were raised, and the way they were raised—and that means that we know our them in a special and unique way.

Often step parents have difficulty understanding step children, and step children have difficulty understanding step parents. One piece of pastoral advice I have often given is to assure the step parent that no step parent can have precisely the same understanding and native empathy for a child that does not share their genetics. One can be a good and even great step parent, but no step parent can actually become the biological parent of a child.

Kathy and I have an understanding of our children—and you have an understanding of your biological children–that is based upon more than time together. It is based on family history, genetics, etc. Sometimes, for better or for worse, I can actually feel what one of our children must be feeling as if I was standing before myself. I have never had that feeling for another person’s child.

Why have I spent so much time on this? Here is why: We are all children of God. Even those who do not know God and have not received Christ and become children of God in a special way are children of God in the sense: that God created the human race. God is eternally present in all of his creation, including our bodies and hearts and minds even before we know or are aware of his presence. We carry the image of God inside of our hearts. There is nothing we can be or do that God does not know and understand completely. God is the ultimate parent. God knows us as a parent, but better than any human parent.

A Plea from the Heart.

Our text is from Psalm 139. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us this morning from the voice of the Psalmist:

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
 You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.
 Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.
 You hem me in behind and before,  and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”even the darkness will not be dark to you;the night will shine like the day,For darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful: I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—  When I awake, I am still with you. (vv. 1-18)

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (vv. 23-24).

The Importance of Relationships.

images-2This blog begins where many sermons either begin or end: by noting that relationships are essential for human life. it bears repeating that people with healthy relationships live longer, deal with stress better, are healthier, less depressed, have stronger immune systems, and even lower blood pressure than people who do not experience healthy relationships. People who are deprived of relationships when they are young suffer a host of personal, psychological, and social problems later in life.

Often,  we stop at the point of talking about the importance of relationships. We fail to go on to note that all relationships are based upon communication, and all communication is an exercise in knowing and being known. If you think back upon the most important conversation in your life with the most important person in your life, you are likely to conclude that what made that particular conversation so important was the moment in which the other person realized that you could be trusted to know them, and you realized that they knew you in a deep and loving way.

Scholars and pastors often tell their congregations that the Old Testament word most frequently used for knowledge is also used for the physical relationship of men and women. In other words, knowledge, real knowledge, life changing knowledge, is more than information. Information communicated in words or numbers is only the surface of our knowledge. The meaning, importance, and power of that knowledge is the depth of what knowledge is all about.

Sometimes in the church and in social groups we joke about the differences between men and women. While there are real differences between most women and most men, there are areas in which we are identical. One of those areas has to do with our desire to be known. We human beings express this in many ways. For example, communication experts tell us that people who do nothing but listen are often considered to be better communicators than those who speak. Why would that be the case? It would be the case because we all have a desire to be known and understood. We think of people who understand and know us as being good communicators.

God is the Source of True Loving Knowledge.

imgres-4As Christians, the importance of relationships and communication should not surprise us. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Our Christian faith teaches us that God exists as a loving relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In John, the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is referred to as the “Word” or “Logos” in Greek. (John 1:1). This Logos, or Word, is the rational expression of God’s wisdom and love radiating into the world by the Grace of the Father.

God exists in the eternal relationship of self-giving love, and Jesus is the incarnation of the rational expression of that love. Part of being made in the image of God is being made for a loving, self-giving relationship with God and other people. The eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, exist in a perfect relationship of love. The members of the Trinity are the same in being and express a kind of unconditional love based upon perfect understanding (God’s Omniscience), Perfect Love (God’s being of Agape, Self-giving Love), and Power (the ability to express perfectly that love). Human beings, who are made in the image of God, were made for relationships that mirror the relationships of God, including the Divine communication of self-giving love within the Trinity.

Most people understand in some way that human relationships are important. In addition, most people understand that communication is important for healthy relationships. For example, there is no realistic kind of marital counseling that does not emphasize the point that most marital problems are actually communication problems. Financial problems, emotional problems, physical problems—almost any kind of problem you can imagine in marriage— normally involves an underlying communication problem.

It’s a harder for us to understand that almost all the problems we have in our spiritual life are also communication problems! If we feel isolated and alone, somehow we are communicating our need for a relationship to God in an appropriate way. If we feel lost and without guidance from God, often were not communicating with God appropriately.

This is not an essay on listening prayer; however, since at least 85 percent of successful communication is learning to listen, it’s not surprising that most of us have trouble communicating with God since all we ever do is talk! If you only time we pray is when were in trouble and need an answer, our level of communication with God and our relationship with God is going to suffer.

Prayer begins with Knowledge—God’s Knowledge of Us!

A second area in which we can misunderstand what it means to pray and communicate with God, to have a relationship with God, is when we think of God as a kind of abstract principle, a force, a power, or even a distant creator no longer personally involved in creation, a “First Principle” of sorts. You really can’t have a relationship with the force or power or principle. In order to have a vital prayer relationship with God we have to keep in mind understand that God is a person and he wants to have a personal relationship with us. God wants to communicate with us.

imgres-3As I was preparing for this blog, I read an article about human relationships. It was actually an article about relationships between men and women. It turns out that whether the man for the woman initiates a relationship, people normally only initiate a relationship if they already believe that the other person wants to have a relationship. In fact, the person who initiates a relationship has already been signaled by the other person in some way that they want to open a relationship. This is also true in friendships and social relationships. We naturally form relationships with people we sense are already open to a relationship with us.

A good portion of Psalm 139 has to do with expressing the psalmist’s understanding that God has already established a relationship with the writer and the human race and signaled that He desires a deeper relationship, before we establish any relationship with God. God made us, God is always present with us. God already recognizes that we are unique and valuable—he made us that way! God already understands us. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our sins, our shortcomings, our fears, our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. God, you see, is interested in us. God also loves us before we love God. The doctrine of grace is a simple recognition of the fact that God loves us and desires us to be a relationship with him even when we are alienated or distant from God.

The author C. S. Lewis wrote a book called, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a character called “Eustace” askes Edmund whether he knows Aslan, a giant lion who is the Christ of the series. Edmund answers, “Well, He knows me.” [1] In other places in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan is portrayed as knowing characters before they ever know Aslan. This is Lewis’ way of reminding us that God knows us long before we know God. God is listening to us long before we decide to communicate with God. God is offering us his grace long before we decide to accept that grace. The foundation of our relationship with God is God and God’s love for us.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about prayer. We are going to talk about praying to God for healing. We are going to talk about praying to God to refresh us and give us the strength to go on. We are going to talk about the importance of thanking God for answering our prayers. Finally, on September 11, going to talk about praying to God for protection. As Cindy mentioned in the moment for mission a few moments ago, next week after church you’re going to have a short seminar and an opportunity to learn more about prayer. We hope many people will sign up.

Those of us who have children know that long before the child speaks a word to us we are communicating to the child. Every time we hold the child, we are communicating love to the child. Every time we  put a child to bed, we are tell them we love them. Every time we sing a song, tell story, or just say good night, we are telling a child we love them. Every time we pick up the child and say good morning, we are communicating love to the child.

As to God, we are like a child. God has been knowing us, loving us, and communicating with us a long time before we ever know God , love God, and communicate our love to God. God is listening to us a long time before we listen to God. In other words, God is building a relationship for us long before we build a relationship with God. That is the meaning of grace.

imgres-1I think it helps begin to learn to pray to remember that God already knows us, already knows our hopes and dreams, already knows what we intend to pray about long before we ever pray. Prayer, you see, is not as much about information as it is about a relationship with the living God who loves us and cares for us.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1952, 1980), 117. I am indebted for this quote and for the insights and research of Brian S. Rosner, Known By God: C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoerffer E. Q..4 (2005), 343-352. Both for the quote and for the insight into the way Lewis speaks of God’s knowledge of us through the character of Aslan. Rosner has the insight that evangelicals talk a great deal about knowing God, but not enough about God knowing us.

What God Remembers: Seeing What God Sees

It is good to be back. Next week, we begin a series on prayer. This week is on Matthew 25:31-45 and asks us to learn to see what God sees and react accordingly.

Three weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah’s final prayer. Near the end of his life, three times, Nehemiah asks God to remember him. In that sermon, we focused on the fact that we all search for a kind of significance in life.images-2

We all joke about losing our memory as we grow old. There is a story told about a President who decided to visit a local Washington, DC nursing home. The President began his tour down the main hallway and passed by a little old man who doesn’t seem to notice him. Sensing this, the President backtracked to the resident and asked the resident, “Do you know who I am?” The old man looks up from his walker and says, “No, but if you go to the front desk, they will tell you your name.” Part of the tragedy of dementia is that we lose a part of who we are.

Memory is important. Psychologists tell us that our character is largely determined by our experiences and memories. Experiences and memories form and shape us. They shape what we find valuable and what we find not valuable. Our memories control who we are, what we desire, how we react to stress, what things make us angry, and what things give us joy. When a person loses their memory they lose all or a part of themselves.

John Polkinghorne, when he speaks of eternal life speaks of God’s memory. God has a perfect memory. God sees and remembers every single fact about every single particle of our existence. God remembers all that we are in all that we’ve done. When Polkinghorne speaks of eternal life, he says that God, in his mercy, will reconstruct us at the time and a place of his choosing.[1] In other words, because God loves us, he remembers us. Because he remembers us he will not let go of us. Instead, he will choose to re-create us, not just as we were, that he intended us to be.

When We Meet the Son.

imgresOur text this week is one of my least favorite passages from scripture. When I looked back to see how often I had preached on this text, I found that I preached on it exactly one time in 25 years. This text is about the final judgment, and it doesn’t necessarily make any of us feel very comfortable. It challenges us. It forces us to ask the question, “Am I doing the kinds of things for which God would want to remember me favorably?” In other words, “Am I being wise in my Christian walk?”

Here is a part of what Jesus says near the end of earthly ministry about what God sees and remembers:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

Prayer: Lord God, particularly today, we pray as we sometimes do that if anything is said contrary to your will you will snatch it from every ear, but if anything is said according to your will, you would please burn it into all of our hearts. In Jesus Name, Amen

 A Prophesy and Parable of the Coming of the Kingdom.

During the last week of his life, Jesus, among other things, taught his followers about the end of the age. He promised them that he would return. He warned them that they should be careful to be wise in how they behaved, watching for his return. He let them know that no one knows the day of the hour of the return (Matthew 25:13). He taught them that they must be good servants, continuing to be about the Masters business until he returns (vv. 14-30). He then spoke about the final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).

imgres-1Be Filled with the Spirit. First, Jesus told a story about ten young women, who are bridesmaids for a friend (25:1-13). We know this as the “Parable of the Ten Virgins.”  Under Jewish custom, on the wedding night the bridegroom would come and get the bride from her home taking her to his own home. Of the ten bridesmaids, five, who were wise, had lamps that were filled with oil. Five, who were foolish, had not filled their lamps. Unfortunately, the bridegroom came late at midnight, hours after he should have arrived. The five foolish bridesmaids were forced to go and get oil so that they could lead the bride to the groom’s home. When they arrived, they were locked out of the wedding banquet. Jesus by this story, reminds his followers that they must remain filled with the Holy Spirit (the oil in their lamps) and be watchful because no one knows the day of the hour of his return (25:13).

imgres-2Use your Talents. Second, he told the story of the wise and foolish servants, what we sometimes call the “Parable of the Talents” (25:14-30).  A man went on a long journey, Jesus says. When he left, he called his servants and gave them money to invest for him. When he returned, the man asked for an accounting. The first servant, with whom he left five talents, brought him five more. The master praised the servant. The second servant, to whom he gave two talents, brought two more. The master praised this servant. Then, the servant to whom he gave one talent came and brought him only one talent. This servant, fearful of the master, simply buried the talent and did nothing with it. This servant was criticized. This parable is a reminder that God has given each one of his talents that he expects us to use.

imagesDo the Right Things. Finally, Jesus talked about the last judgment in what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats.”. In this teaching, Jesus described himself as the Son of Man, the King of Kings, who returns from a long journey to heaven to reassert his control upon the earth. Having defeated all his enemies and taking control of all the earth, he brings the people of the earth together and separates them like sheep and goats. The hearers of Jesus would have visually been able to see the white sheep and the black goats of Israel lined up ready to be separated.

The King begins by blessing those on his right. In his blessing, he teaches us what God truly sees, remembers, and values. He invites these servants to inherit the kingdom prepared for them with these words: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 35-36). Then, he condemns those on his left because they’ve not done these things. They object that they never saw him in need. Jesus answers them that then they failed to do the proper things to the “least” they did not do them for him.

How are we to understand these verses? Are we to assume that, contrary to much of Scripture, we are not saved by faith but by works? Are we to assume that God, who has promised to forgive our sins, actually will not do so at the last judgment? The answer is “No.” What Jesus is doing is clearly explaining what a good servant will do as he or she invests her time, talents, and energy as we await the return of Christ. It turns out, that what God will remember us for our acts of love and service to others as we, like Jesus, serve others. [2] This is a parable about how to wisely and lovingly use the time God has given us.

This is another story, like the wise and foolish virgins and the wise and foolish servants, designed to help us live our the Christian life loving others and using our time, talents, and energies wisely. If we are wise, then we will use our time to do things that God truly desires and which God will truly remember us for doing. The story is a story of having wisdom in a foolish world.

The Problem of Inattention.

Why do you suppose we so often fail to love and serve others? As a person who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, I think I can give you an answer: Inattention. adhd_inattention2As the story unfolds, both the sheep and the goats fail to see Jesus; however, those who Jesus praises do see human suffering. They see those who are in prison. They see those who are hungry. They see those who are naked. These people saw the world the way Jesus sees the world and responded to human need. The people who Jesus criticizes would certainly have stopped and helped the poor, the suffering, the hungry, thirsty, if I had known it was the Messiah. However, they did not see Jesus. They saw only human beings (or nothing at all) and passed by.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and be able to habitually  do the kinds of things that please God.

In this week’s bulletin and on Facebook, I pointed out that seeing involves two aspects: First, we have to have the natural ability to see. Physically, we need eyes. Spiritually, we need eyes that see the world in the way God sees the world. The transformation of our seeing is a work of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, physically and spiritually we have to pay attention. This is our work.

It’s easy not to pay attention. When I’m proofreading, after a while I get tired. It’s hard to pay attention. I get sleepy. The same thing is true as we look at the world around us. It’s easy to get tired of the poor. It’s easy to get tired of looking at people different from us. It’s easy to stop paying attention to human suffering. It takes attention to see the world the way God sees the world. We cannot pay attention because of our own talents and abilities. As Jesus makes plain in the parable of the Ten Virgins, only the Holy Spirit and keep us awake to the tings of God.

Paying Attention to What God Sees.

Just before I left on vacation, there was a tense incident in Memphis. The following Monday, a group of local pastors met for a time of prayer about our city. We heard from the Police Chief, Shelby County Sheriff, and other public officials. All of them recognized that churches can play a role in healing our city. At one point, a community leader told us that he was not asking us to start in new programs or become actively involved in politics. He was just asking us to continue to make disciples and be the church. I can’t remember exactly the way he put it. But, basically he was saying we can share God’s love with others in ways that government and the police cannot. We can change the human heart, and it is from the human heart that piece or violence flows.

In recent years, we have used the phrase “Worship + 2” to describe a way of being a disciple at Advent Presbyterian Church. We desire people to be regular in worship. We desire people to belong to some kind of discipleship group (Sunday School, a Small Group, etc.) in order to grow in Christ. We also ask folks to serve Christ in some way. Changing human hearts involves preaching the gospel It involves learning how to communicate the gospel to other people. It involves teaching. It also involves living out the Gospel day-to-day in our community. It involves being Salt & Light in our world.

Advent has many ways for us to put our faith to work serving others. Just before I left, we had a mission trip to Honduras. While I was gone, we had the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here for a week. It was a wonderful success, and three young men came to Christ. Each month, we have people helping in the various ministries of First Presbyterian Church in the inner city. We have folks who help young people learn at Riverwood Elementary School. We have volunteers who help with Youth Leadership Memphis. This morning, we have heard from the Unnerstalls, who saw a need in the Middle East and responded. We have many ways inside and outside of our church by which people van serve those in need. The question is, “Will we see the need?”

The Things God Remembers.

images-1At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his to remember him, and they did. The sacrifice that Jesus made for them was so enormous and so unexpected that they could not forget it. The reason we come to the Lord’s Table is because disciples have always remembered and reenacted his sacrifice. When we take time to serve other people, and especially when we take time to serve the least and the lost, we again reenact what Jesus did on the cross, this time for the benefit of another human being.

Amen

[1] See, John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002).

[2] This is one of the many instances when we can sometimes both take too literally what Jesus is saying and also fail to pay attention to the context. This story of the last judgement might be called a teaching with parabolic elements. See, William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973), 885 and Charles Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 325).  As a follow up on the Parables of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Ten Talents, it is clear that Jesus is not so much giving a literal picture of the final judgement as he is teachings his disciples (and us) what kind of people we ought to be between now and his return. We need to be filled with the Spirit, use the talents and gifts God has given to us, and care for the least and lost just as Jesus did when he was among us. This hard teaching of Jesus needs to be taken in context just as all the teachings of Jesus need to be taken in context.

Rebuild: Praying for a Legacy

As I finished  the search for this blog, the events of Dallas were in the news. The events of the past few days remind us that our nation often descends into a violent and immoral (sometimes “amoral”) darkness. Next week, the blog will be on the need for peacemakers and truth-tellers who stand up and attempt to renew our culture. We should all be in prayer for our nation.

Today, we come to the end of our study of Nehemiah. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed learning more about Nehemiah and his book. Nehemiah is a book for laypeople. Nehemiah was a layperson who put his faith to work in his everyday life. He is a role model for all of us, pastors and laypeople alike. In fact, he is probably a more important role model for laypeople then for pastors.

As I drive down Germantown Road in Memphis, I often pass a billboard for a company called, “Legacy Wealth Management.” I don’t know anything about the company. However, I love the first word of their name, “Legacy.” It never fails to catch my eye. I think as we grow older, it’s natural to think about the legacy we’re leaving behind. We wonder how people will remember us. We wonder how our family will remember us. We wonder how our church will remember us. We hope that our life has made a difference. We hope for a legacy.

imgres-1Some years ago, a man named Bob Buford, wrote a book called “Halftime.” [1] In the book, Buford makes the observation that most people spend the first half of their life seeking success of one kind or another. It can be success in business, education, sports, marriage, child raising—in any of the many things we human beings value. We begin our adult lives trying to succeed by our own definition of success, whatever it may be.

Buford believes, however, that somewhere around 50, people begin to shift the focus of their lives from success to significance. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that Buford is correct. Human beings desire and need to feel significant. We desire for our lives to count for something.

In today’s blog,  we are talking about our Christian legacy, what we want to be remembered for. Nehemiah was a human being. He’d been successful by worldly standards. He had been a high official in government. He had been the governor of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nehemiah’s focus at the end of his life was on significance not success.

The Last Actions of a Reformer.

Nehemiah is a surprisingly complicated book. Most Christians know that Nehemiah was involved in building a wall around the city of Jerusalem. imagesThe story of Nehemiah and the wall is like the story of David and Goliath. Those of us who grew up going to church remember seeing pictures of David and Goliath in our Sunday school curriculum. We also remember seeing pictures of Nehemiah and his wall. Very few people, however, recognize that the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah were deeply related. Even fewer recognize that Nehemiah was a spiritual leader as well as a wall builder. Interestingly enough, when Nehemiah reached the end of his life, and prayed to God for his legacy, he never mentions the wall. He asks to be remembered for his part in the renewal he and Ezra were part of leading.

Our text is from Nehemiah 13:

I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites.

Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services (Nehemiah 13:6-14).

Prayer: God of History, as we conclude our study of Nehemiah please come by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might be empowered to be people like Nehemiah in our own age. Give us a heart for You and for others as we seek to rebuild our society. In Jesus Name, Amen.

How We Got Here.

During election years, I like to preach a sermon series that is helpful in preparing us to make  decisions on election day. Four years ago, I preached a series on Daniel, one of the great political figures of the Old Testament. I’ve never preached through Nehemiah, so this year I decided to preach a series on Nehemiah and his book.

Today’s text occurs some years after the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt (Nehemiah 12:27-47). It also occurs some years after the worship services we studied last the last two weeks. After the Jerusalem wall was rebuilt, and the people rededicated themselves to the God of Israel, to worshiping God in his temple in Jerusalem, and to living holy lives, Nehemiah was recalled to the court of King Artaxerxes. He stayed there for a number of years. After a time, however, Nehemiah asked permission to return (13:6). [2]

Before Nehemiah left to return to court, the people committed themselves to obey the law of Moses (9:38-10:39). Generally speaking, the people of Judah made three basic promises:

  1. First, they promised to maintain the faith of the Jews. Because in their day (and often in ours) mothers primarily transmitted faith to children, the Jews promised that they would marry within the Jewish faith and educate their children within the Jewish faith.
  2. Second, they promised to support the Temple by bringing the tithes and offerings required by the law of Moses so that the Temple could operate.
  3. Finally, they promised to keep the Sabbath. You might ask, “Why mention keeping the Sabbath and not the rest of the Ten Commandments?” Sabbath keeping was distinctly Jewish. The story of creation (Genesis 2:1-2), the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and the remainder of Moses’ teaching, all emphasize the importance of the day of rest. Sabbath keeping encapsulates all the law teaches about what is good for the human race. [3]

Every religion has its distinctives. No religion can maintain itself if it ignores those distinctives. The distinctives of the Christian faith are not exactly the same as the distinctives of ancient Judaism. If we were to make a list, it might look something like this:

  1. We will love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our souls and all of our minds and our neighbor as ourselves.
  2. We will disciple others, Especially we will disciple and raise our children as Christians and teach them what it means to be a Christian.
  3. We will be diligent to worship God and support the work of Christ in the world.

We each might come up with another list, but this is a list. It’s a list of things central to what it means to be a Christian. So if we want to recommit ourselves to be Christians, we might commit ourselves to discipling our children and others, to sharing God’s love, and to supporting the mission and work of the church.

The Danger of Backsliding.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he discovered that the Jewish people had been guilty of backsliding. They had failed to keep the promises they had made to God.

imgres-2Human nature, is pretty much the same throughout history. We have a tendency to drift backwards in our spiritual life unless we are accountable to moving forward.

We live in a nation that likes to believe that people are naturally good, or at least people like us are naturally good. Unfortunately, we all have the tendency to be selfish and a tendency to take the path of least resistance. One thing I believe is clearly true is this: The easy, attractive, path is seldom the right path. This is why Jesus warns us that the way that leads to destruction is broad (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is one reason we need spiritual leaders. Families need spiritual leaders. Churches need spiritual leaders. Countries need spiritual leaders. Without spiritual leaders who remind us of the promises we’ve made, we often forget those promises. When we forget our promises, we all tend to backslide a bit. Therefore, one of the most important job of good leaders is to hold people accountable. Nehemiah was a courageous leader—and not afraid to take action to see that the people of Israel did not forget the promises they had made to God.

Just this past week, a number of people pointed out to me an article in which a well-known judge advised Americans to forget the Constitution. [4] Even well-regarded people, it seems, have forgotten the source of our freedoms and the importance of our system of limited government. Like the ancient Jews, we need leaders who honor our past and remind us of the commitments we have made, not leaders who urge us to forget them. In a number of areas, we see America backsliding: morally, in the area of religious liberty, and in the protection of other of the rights upon which our nation was founded. [5] This kind of behavior can only end in our losing our freedoms and our way of life.

The Courage of Nehemiah.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he immediately began to set things straight. While Nehemiah was gone, one of the priests, who was in charge of the Temple storerooms, had allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to have a private residence within the temple courts (Nehemiah 13:1-9). Because of an incident in Jewish history, Ammonites were forbidden to participate in the life of the Temple.imgres-6 If you remember, this same Tobiah was an enemy of Israel who tried to stop Nehemiah’s project (see, 2:16; 4:7; 6:1-14). Nehemiah immediately had Tobiah removed and his room returned to its intended purpose

Nehemiah also learned that the people were not giving their tithes and offerings to the temple. As a result, the Levites and other workers in the temple courts had not been paid. He immediately encouraged the Jews to bring their ties of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms (vv. 10-13).

As Nehemiah traveled around Judah, he noticed that people were working on the Sabbath. He immediately reminded the people of their promise to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (vv. 15-22).

Finally, Nehemiah realized that the Jewish people were intermarrying, as a member of a priestly family had done into the family of Tobiah the Ammonite (vv. 4ff). He, therefore, took steps to see that the practices that had led to the decline of King Solomon and the decline and death of the Kingdom of David did not recur (vv. 22-28).

Sometimes this passage seems harsh to us today. It is important to remember that this was the way the ancients maintained their religion in the face of paganism. We might not do the same things today, but we have the same need to courageously resist the paganism of our society and help our children do the same. [6]

Nehemiah’s Prayers.

imgresDuring the last chapter of Nehemiah, Nehemiah prays for God to remember his faithfulness. He asks God not to allow the backsliding of Israel to blot out the work that is done (v. 14). He asks God to show mercy upon him and remember him (v. 22). He asks that God remember him with favor (v. 31). In each one of these prayers Nehemiah is asking God to remember him for his spiritual qualities and what he  has accomplished in the spiritual realm. In other words, Nehemiah desires a Godly legacy.

This is a feature of Nehemiah that I find amazing. You would think that the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem would want to be remembered for his building campaign! You would think that a great administrator like Nehemiah would want to be remembered for his faithful administration of Jerusalem. You would think that a courageous leader, who faced many enemies, would want to be remembered for his victories over fear. Nehemiah does not mention any of these accomplishments. He wants to be remembered for his faith and faithfulness to God.

As we complete our study of Nehemiah, each one of us might ask ourselves the question, “For what do I want to be remembered?” “What is it that give my life true significance?” “What is it that I could do that would create the best possible future for my family, children, spouses, parents and grandparents?” “What could I do to make my neighborhood, city, state or nation a better place?” “What could I do to make Advent or my local church a better place?” “What could I do to create a legacy that would really, truly be significant?”

These are questions that will drive us to our knees in prayer as they drove Nehemiah to his knees in prayer. As I mentioned in the beginning of the blog, our nation is not in a good place. We have drifted away from wisdom, for love, for caring for our neighbors, and from the ideals upon which we were founded. It will take a lot Nehemiah’s to rebuild America’s culture.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bob Buford, Halftime (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

[2] Nehemiah left Susa in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes (1:1) and was recalled in the thirty second year (13:6). “Some time later” when Artaxerxes was in Babylon (v. 6), he asked permission to return to Jerusalem, which is when this chapter’s events occurred. Perhaps Nehemiah was now retired. Perhaps, he just wanted to see Jerusalem again. Some scholars date his trip at about 430 B.C., more or less. See, James M. Hamilton, Christ Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Nashville, TN: 2014), 218.

[3] Id, at 215.

[4] In a recent op-ed for Slate, Judge Posner, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, argued that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments “do not speak to today.” Judge Posner has since apologized; however, his remarks illustrate the difficulties we are in as a culture. He is one of the most respected of Federal Judges. He is a scholar. He is also symptomatic of the unhistorical materialistic bias of so much modern legal thinking. (Judge Posner has long been an advocate of a reductionist, economic theory of law.) He is a fine judge, but his theory does not do justice to the historical nature of human life and history or to the complexity of the idea of justice.

[5] I could right an entire blog about the need for Americans to think historically and allow our government and culture to change organically. The universe and human history evolve historically event by event. Current choices are bounded by past decisions and past experience. Too much of modern politics is what I call “revolutionary,” i.e. based upon the naive assumption that anything we think best is possible.

[6] Giving Tobiah the Ammonite an apartment in the temple illustrates the problem with intermarriage: It was too easy to compromise issues of faith. The Ammonites were enemies of Israel and had betrayed the Jews in the past. There are two mistakes commonly made by conservatives and liberals in evaluating certain historical events like the exclusion of non-Jews from the temple. The first is to mindlessly believe we ought to imitate the legalism of the Old Testament. The second is to naively critique the entire Old Testament on the basis of social customs we no longer follow. The truth is that future generations are likely to look back upon many of our customs as barbaric and unwise. Once again, history evolves and we cannot expect ancient people to think or behave as we do.

Worship that Transforms a Nation

Happy 4th of July to all my friends and readers!! One of my earliest Christian memories is of being in a prayer group with a number of older ladies praying for revival. Our church did experience a revival, though at the time I am not sure we recognized what was happening. I suspect many of those ladies felt that the Great Revival of faith in America they had prayed so diligently for never came. Once again, as you will see below, that may not be true. In any case, we need millions of Americans praying and working for a revival in our land.imgres

Today, we are thinking about the way in which worship, and especially confession of sin, can transform not only Christians (us) but also the society in which we live.When there is  a renewal of faith in a culture, we call it a “Great Awakening.” In American history there have been at least two and perhaps four “Great Awakenings.”

During the “First Great Awakening” two great preachers, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, led a religious revival in the American Colonies. John Wesley and the emergence of Methodism were also important in this “First Great Awakening.” [1]

After the Revolutionary War, a “Second Great Awakening: occurred. Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists were leaders in the Second Great Awakening. The Evangelist, Charles Finney, who founded Oberlin College, was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening.

Many scholars believe America experienced a “Third Great Awakening” in the late 19th and early 20th Century with the emergence of the charismatic movement and modern revivalism. This Great Awakening culminated in the emergence of the Pentecostal movement and denominations such as the Nazarenes, the Assembly of God, and others.

Finally, some scholars believe there was a “Fourth Great Awakening” beginning in the late 1960’s and 1970’s as large “mega-churches” and groups, such as the Willow Creek Association emerged and new forms of worship and sharing the gospel developed. This is the period of Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and other leaders.

Whatever the details, religious fervor has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, and different religious groups have  benefited from times of revival. This means we cannot be too discouraged by our current spiritual condition in America. Who knows? We may be near the beginning of another Great Awakening!

 Worship that Changed Israel.

images-1Today’s reflection is based upon Nehemiah 9, the most complex text we are studying in this series of reflections. Last week, we reflected on the work of Ezra in re-familiarizing the Jewish people with the law of Moses—their Bible. This week, our text is from part of a worship service that either began or culminated the national renewal Ezra and Nehemiah worked to accomplish. [2]

Let’s read the Word of God as it comes to us from Nehemiah 9:

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.  And the Levites … said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.  Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Nehemiah 9”1-4, 5-6, edited and shortened for readability).

Prayer: God of History: As we celebrate our nation’s independence we do pray for a revival in our day, just as powerful as the revival in the days of Nehemiah and times in our own history. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Transforming Worship.

We need to remember the words of the Psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). One message of Nehemiah is that there can be no political renewal of a people or nation unless there is also a spiritual renewal. This is important for Christians in America. We need to remember that any improvement in our culture and politics will be preceded by an outpouring of the Spirit and a renewal of our faith and morals. Practically speaking, this means that we cannot expect a renewal of our nation unless there is a renewal of worship and deep discipleship in our churches.

In Nehemiah 8, we learned of a Great Awakening in the life of Israel. We learned that Ezra led a great worship service in which the law of Moses was read, explained, and celebrated (Nehemiah 8:1-12). This worship service went on for weeks. (For those of you have heard of the “Brownsville Revival,” where a worship service went on for months and years, this worship service was perhaps similar.) The people were so caught up in the spirit, that they continue to worship day after day for a long, long time. [3]

We can learn some things from this great, month long worship service:

  • First, the worship of Israel was communal. That is to say, this was not the worship of isolated individuals but of a community. It is important for us to have personal faith. However, personal faith is not enough. We human beings were made for community. Not only do we need to worship God privately, but we also need to worship God publicly.
  • Secondly, the worship was Biblical. At the very center of the worship of Israel were their Scriptures. If our worship is going to transform our lives, then the word of God needs to sit at the very center of our worship. This doesn’t mean that music, the arts, the prayers,  and other parts of worship are unimportant. They are very important. It means that we come to worship to center ourselves on the word of God as we sing them, pray them, and hear them read and preached.
  • Third, the worship was prayerful. Occasionally, people remarked to me that they rarely go to a church in which there is as much prayer as there is at Advent. I take that as a compliment. Prayer is the primary way in which we allow God to speak into our hearts and into our community.
  • Finally, the worship was action-oriented. This goes beyond our text, but this entire worship service ends with the people of Israel recommitting themselves to God and changing their lives (v. 38). Our worship should not end when the Sunday service of our local church ends. Instead, our worship should continue throughout the week until we meet for worship again. Our worship should lead us to recommitment, renewal, engagement with our culture. [4]

Transforming Confession.

At the end of their time of reading the law and hearing it explained,  the people prayed a great, long prayer of confession. This is a part of Nehemiah we have touched on before. In chapter 1, we learned that Nehemiah began planning his restoration of Jerusalem with a great prayer in which he confessed his sins and the sins of the people of Israel. In today’s text, over and over again, the people of Israel confess their sins and shortcomings to God. The prayer records their entire history of sin against God.

Why is confession connected to renewal? The word, “Renew” implies restoring a person, group, or community to a prior,  better state. To renew is to make new. In other words, renewal implies change. If we are to change and become new, we have to understand that part of us that needs to change. It’s true people and is true of societies. Until we know we need to change, we won’t change.

Most people don’t change until they have a deep sense that something is wrong. There is an old saying that “People do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.” Confession and repentance are those moments in which we clearly understand that we have to change. We change when we realize that we simply can’t stay the same. Confession is the first step in transformation. It is that moment when our mind and will are committed to change. [5] This is true of both individuals and nations.

Our Transforming God.

Nehemiah 9 contains a history of Israel that begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and ends with Israel renewing its covenant with God. Along the way, we learn that it was God who chose Abraham (9:7). It was God who delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt (v. 9). It was God who gave Israel the law of Moses (v. 13). Unfortunately, in spite of all these blessings, Israel became arrogant, disobedient, and refused to repent (v. 16). As a result, Israel suffered. Nevertheless, God did not abandon them (v. 19). Instead, got continued to be faithful to his promises and bless the people of Israel (vv. 22-16). Yet, over and over again, Israel was ungrateful.

All of this is summarized as follows:

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies (v. 26-27)

What is being described here is sometimes called the “Cycle of Sin, Punishment, and Restoration.” It can be graphically represented something like this:

Picture

God blesses us. Unfortunately, as God blesses us we begin to take God for granted. We become arrogant. We sin. We fail to obey the word of God. Therefore, God takes away our blessing. We suffer oppression. Once we confess our sins to God, however, God in his mercy delivers us. We receive blessings, and the cycle begins again.

Notice I  put confession in the center of the graphic. Confession is in the center because confession is at the center of any and all renewal. Once we have strayed from God’s word, God’s law, and what God desires of us, only confession, repentance, and renewal can restore us.

This is something we Americans need to think about. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion concerning where we are between blessings and oppression, but I think very few thinking people believe that we have much in the way of blessings left before us without a little confession, repentance, and renewal to restore us.

A Transforming People.

Our text in Nehemiah reminds us that our worship is not optional. Worship is at the center of what it means to believe in God, to trust God, and to respond to God’s love. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we should not give up meeting together as some people do (Hebrews 10:25). This does not mean, however, that our worship ends when we go home from church on Sunday. Worship is not the end, but the beginning.

imagesThe apostle Paul reminds us that our worship is supposed to be a part of our way of life (Romans 12:1-2). Our worship is supposed to change the way we think. It is supposed to change how we see the world. It’s supposed to change how we behave. When we see that the love of Jesus is at the center of the universe, we are transformed. And, as a transformed people, we are called to follow Christ into the world offering ourselves as living sacrifices.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The term Great Awakening refers to several periods of religious revival during the course of American history. Historians and theologians identify at least two (the First and Second Great Awakenings) and perhaps as many as  three or four waves of religious renewal and revival  between the early 18th century and the late 20th century.  Prior to the First Great Awakening, in both England and in America, faith and worship had become routine and divorced from the lives of ordinary people. George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, who were both brilliant, emphasized the emotional and spiritual content of faith. Even today, and especially in Presbyterian seminaries, Edwards is regarded as perhaps the most brilliant and capable American theologian. In particular, the First Great Awakening emphasized confession of sin and repentance. Edwards famous sermon, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” was designing to bring people to confession and repentance, as out of date and harsh as it seem to modern ears.

[2] As mentioned in a prior blog, the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is unclear, and it is possible that the diaries of Nehemiah were added at a later date or inserted into the text for other than purely historical purposes. No one knows. What we do know is that both Ezra and Nehemiah were reformers and rebuilders. Nehemiah was a physical and political rebuilder. Ezra was a spiritual and cultural rebuilder. The events of Nehemiah 7-9 may have occurred near the beginning of Ezra’s renewal or later as its culmination. We cannot say for sure. For more information, see, Balmer Kelly, “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther” in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962) and Mark A. Throntveit, “Ezra-Nehemiah in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1992). What is clear is that the text moves from rebuilding the Temple, to rebuilding the culture through the law of Moses, to rebuilding the physical defensibility of the city (Throntfiet, at 3).

[3] The Brownsville Revival (Pensacola Outpouring) was a Christian revival within the Pentecostal Movement that began on Father’s Day, June 18, 1995, at Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida.Characteristics of the Brownsville Revival movement included acts of repentance by parishioners and a call to holiness, said to be inspired by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. More than four million people are reported to have attended the revival meetings from its beginnings in 1995 to around 2000. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownsville_Revival (Downloaded June 30, 2016). Some people doubt this revival was authentic; however, its length is a decent analogy for what happened in ancient Israel.

[4] This is why it is not so important that we remember each Sunday’s worship. The purpose of worship is not more head knowledge, but heart commitment to live as Christians for the week to come. Those who denigrate worship because people cannot remember the sermon do not understand the spiritual and communal importance of worship.

[5]  The Greek word for repentance (“metanoia”) means to change or turn around. This is the idea behind true confession: we repent and change! In fact, if there is no change, we may not have really and truly confessed with a heart convicted of the seriousness of our sin.

Rebuilding: Leadership by the Word

The last Sunday in June is “Leadership Sunday” in our church. Each year, we ordain and install new elders and trustees on the last Sunday of June. This is because their term in office begins the first day of July. The congregation elected the officers we are ordaining today at our annual meeting last December. Since January, they have been coming to monthly training sessions and attending at least some Session and Trustee meetings. This week, their term in office begins.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read the story of a woman that I’ll call “Donna.” Donna grew up in a church located in a growing city in the Midwest. She has wonderful memories of church dinners, Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, and Youth Choirs. She went to a church camp in the summertime. When she grew up, she stayed in her parent’s church. For a long time, her close connections in the church and her memories blinded her to the reality that the church was shrinking.

imgres-1As her parent’s generation grew older, new young people were not joining her church. One morning during the worship service, she realized that her little church was dying. For a time, she went through denial. “Things will get better,” she said. They did not. As a leader in the church, she began to talk about the problem during church board meetings. The church tried a few things, but they didn’t work. When her children got to high school, they wanted to attend a local mega-church. Reluctantly, Donna agreed. When the children were grown, she never went back. Her home church closed a few years ago. [1] The church could never create the kind of leadership that would adapt to the changing environment of America.

It’s interesting: there have never been more books about leadership for public service, business, churches and other organizations. At the same time, in every area of American life, people remark that we do not have enough good leaders! Increasingly, in our culture, we need transformational leaders but we seem incapable of developing them.

Nehemiah: A Servant Leader.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Nehemiah was a special kind of a leader. He had a deep faith in God. He had a soft heart. He cared about people. He prayed. He thought. He planned. He had courage. He was willing to face opposition. He was a good administrator.

Last week, we saw the kind of servant leadership demonstrated by Nehemiah. When other people were taking advantage of their wealth, power, and position, Nehemiah refused to take advantage of his position as the governor of Jerusalem. He paid his own expenses. He took care of the common people and the poor. Instead of serving himself, Nehemiah served the people of Jerusalem.

In this blog, we’re going to talk about biblical leadership. Our text comes from Nehemiah 8:

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra, the teacher of the Law, to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, …. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra, the teacher of the Law, stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion….  Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law (Selections from Nehemiah 8:1-

Prayer: O God: Please come into our hearts and help us to see what true Biblical, servant leadership is all about. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Three Transformational Servant Leaders.

As we began our study of Nehemiah, I mentioned that three leaders provided special leadership for the Jewish people as they returned from captivity in Babylon: Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

The first of the great leaders was a man named “Zerubbabel.” He was a descendent of King David and led one of the first groups of people to return from Babylon (Ezra 2:1-2). He began rebuilding the Temple. He’s mentioned in the books of Haggai and Zechariah. We don’t know a lot about him, except that he seems to have been both a religious and political leader of great ability. He was loved by the people and respected by the prophets. Despite delays and orders to stop, eventually, the temple was rebuilt (Ezra 6).

imgres-2A few years after Zerubbabel, a man named “Ezra” brought another group of people from Babylon. We don’t very often study Ezra, but he was one of the most important people in the Old Testament. It is almost certain that Ezra is the author of both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In addition, a good many scholars believe that he is the author of First and Second Chronicles. He may also have been the final editor of the book of Esther. Finally, there are those who believe that Ezra edited a good bit of what we call the Old Testament, which was put in a form while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. [2]

Not only was Ezra a great scholar, he was a good leader. Like Nehemiah, Ezra returned during the reign of King Artaxerxes. Whereas Nehemiah’s duty was to rebuild Jerusalem so that he could be defended from its enemies, Ezra’s job was to renew the culture of Jerusalem and of the Jewish people. The people of Jerusalem had rebuilt the Temple, but they had not rebuilt the culture from which the Temple emerged. God sent Ezra to rebuild the culture.

What is a culture? A culture is composed of all the human creations that characterize a people. Jewish culture for example includes Jewish history, Jewish law, Jewish poetry, Jewish music Jewish wisdom, Jewish prophetic literature, Jewish food, Jewish lifestyles—everything that makes something Jewish and characterizes the way Jews live.

In the same way, American culture is not just American politics, or American business, or American history, or American law, or any individual creation of Americans, it is the sum total of the way of life we create by all of our decisions and creations. When we renew our culture, we are talking about each one of us renewing that part of the culture that depends upon us.

Six Qualities of Rebuilders.

If we look at Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, we see common traits that we must also have if we are to rebuild our culture. I decided to focus on six qualities in this blog:

  • First, transformational leaders are biblical. There is no rebuilding American culture from a Christian perspective without transformational leaders who are Biblical. To be Biblical is to be more than a person who respects the Bible. It involves more than memorizing a few Bible verses. It means becoming so familiar with the Bible that our view of the world, of God, and of other people is shaped and formed by the story the Bible tells. Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah were clearly such people.
  • Second, transformational leaders are prayerful. Transformational, Christian leaders must be prayerful. There is nothing that can substitute for a deep prayerful relationship with God. One thing we emphasize in our church is making major decisions in a prayerful way. No leader can lead in a spiritual manner without a deep, abiding prayer life.
  • Third, transformational leaders are wise. Wisdom is the practical ability to make good decisions in complex circumstances. Wisdom does involve knowing a few things. A wise person has to know how things work. Nevertheless, wisdom also involves experience. It’s almost impossible to be wise without experience. It is experience, good and bad, success and failure, popular and unpopular that makes a leader wise.
  • Fourth, transformational leaders are loving. In America, we normally think of love as a feeling. Love is not a feeling. Love is an activity. Love is doing what is best for another person or group of persons and accepting whatever suffering may come as a result. There is no servant leadership unless the leader is doing what is best for those he or she is serving.
  • Fifth, transformational leaders are moral. In the American church, we place so much emphasis on grace that we sometimes forget that we are saved by grace so that we can live the Christian life. In addition, our culture is so amoral that it is easy for Christians to forget that we are bound by the moral law of the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments are not “Ten Good Suggestions.” They are God’s instructions for life. The Ten Commandments are also not the only moral lessons contained in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is filled with instructions as to how to live a good life. Good leaders live according to the teachings of the Old Testament in every area of life.
  • Finally, transformational leaders are energetic. Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and every other transformational leader in history had a kind of energy to keep working even when results are hard to see. Energy is related to the quality of perseverance. Transformational leaders must persevere.

Jesus as a Transformational Leader.

Prior to the 1970s, there were relatively few Christian books on leadership. In particular, there were not very many books on church leadership. Pastors were not thought of as leaders. They were thought of as caregivers with special gifts in preaching. A few pastors of large churches were thought of as managers or administrators, and every denomination produced a few books about administering large congregations.

Then, in the 1970s, a few very large mega-churches developed. Their pastors became known as leaders. In addition, it became obvious that the mainline denominations were declining. The result has been an explosion of books on church leadership.

Unfortunately, the explosion of books on leadership has not created an explosion of leaders. America, and especially American churche, needs leaders. America needs all kinds of leaders, in business, government, private charities, local communities, etc.. America especially needs Godly leaders who try to emulate Christ in their leadership. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be creating such leaders.

imgres-3I am not a tremendous fan of leadership books with titles like, “Jesus: The Greatest Leader Who Ever Lived.” Many, if not most, of these books portray Jesus as a kind of extremely nice modern business executive. Jesus was, however, a transformational leader. His life, death and resurrection, and his continuing activity by the power of the Holy Spirit in the church, have resulted in the greatest possible transformation of human society.

Nevertheless, generally we cannot look to Jesus for techniques of leadership. Instead, we look at Jesus to understand the spirituality of a servant leader. The disciples remembered that Jesus told them that in his kingdom the last would be first at the greatest the servant of all (Mark 9:35). To be a Christian leader is to serve others after the example and in the spirit of Jesus. There is no other kind of Christian leadership.

If a Christian is a leader, in the church, in business, in government, in private charities–in every area of life– that Christian needs to bring their faith to bear upon the leadership they exert. This is a matter of being sure we act in a loving and wise manner to serve the best interests of all people as we lead. This is not easy or automatic. It is easier in the church and much harder in areas outside the church. Nevertheless, servant leadership is not just for pastors. It is for all leaders, even those in politics and business.

In First Peter, the apostle writes the following:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (I Peter 5:1-4).

Transformational Christian leaders watch over the sheep, serve the sheep, are good examples to the sheep, and cares for the sheep. In the church, the leaders we elect to serve our congregations must make important decisions. They must manage a significant budget and often an endowment. They must sense how to grow our congregations in the midst of a general decline of faith in our culture. This requires a special, servant attitude. Loving people is hard because it involves not always doing what people want. It means doing what is best.

Worship + 2 Leadership.

Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were not empowered to be leaders by magic or by their genes at birth. Of course, they had the genetic capacity for leadership.  Bet their is more than physical and mental strength to being a Godly leader. Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah worshiped God daily, weekly, and at the high holy days of their people. They read and studied the scriptures of their time. They were filled Holy Spirit as the prayed regularly and opened up their hearts to God Finally, they were not satisfied with “head knowledge.” They put their faith to work.

They might have stayed in Babylon or Persia all of their lives. Zerubbabel might have been satisfied to live in the court of Cyrus of Persia. Nehemiah might have been a cupbearer to Artaxerxes all his life. Ezra might have been happy translating Scripture, studying Scripture, and memorizing Scripture. Instead, they undertook to travel to Jerusalem, live in more primitive surroundings, face opposition, also that they could serve God and the people of God.

discipleshiptitle2We might say that Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, and Ezra, were worship and +2 believers. They were disciples of the Living God who led others to renew and restore their society. We need such leaders today.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  This is a composite story from several of which I am aware. In preparing the story, I looked at Mike Foss, A Servant’s Manual: Christian Leadership for Tomorrow (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002) in which he tells a story similar to many. My own home church, which is still open, has undergone a similar change.

[2] See, Mervin Brenaman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, & Esther” in “The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1993), 15-59.

Fairness for the Poor and Common People

A week ago, our church hosted its annual Vacation Bible School. This year on Monday, the middle schoolers made sandwiches for the First Presbyterian Church Soup Kitchen and prepared hygiene kits for Family Promise (formerly the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network or “MIHN”). Tuesday, they sorted food at the Food Bank. Thursday they led a VBS for an inner city Hispanic church. Friday, we sang for a local retirement home.

Every week, a certain number of people come to use our food pantry. We have people we help our regular occasion, and some of them were helped last week. Saturday morning, we discovered a young couple sleeping outside the Christian Life Center. Don and Cindy spent time helping that couple. Sunday afternoon, Kathy talk to me about a man she noticed sleeping in the bus stop near our church. Apparently, he’s been there on and off for several weeks.
On Sunday, Judge Potter continued the discussion with me about housing conditions we have in Memphis. On Monday, Cindy was still helping the young couple, and Daniel spent a couple of hours with me talking about the local mission initiative to help the poor.
Our church has always been involved in helping people. Next week, we will be hosting Family Promise, a program in which we help the transitionally homeless with shelter. Family Promise is unique in that it is the only program that allows husbands, wives, and children to stay together while they are transitionally homeless.

Christians have always cared about the less fortunate. Jesus indicates that we will be judged by how we treat those in need (Matthew 25). In Acts, the Apostles are already caring for the widows in the church (Acts 6). Paul and his fellow workers took up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (see, 2 Cor. 8). The early church was known for its care of the poor.

In this blog we are looking at Nehemiah’s care for the unfortunate and  thinking about our Christian responsibility for the less fortunate and about fairness for common people.

Text and Prayer.

Nehemiah is one of the most interesting and important characters in Biblical history. He was soft hearted, compassionate, prayerful, thoughtful, and a fine administrator. Today, we are looking at his compassion for ordinary people and the poor, as well as his fundamental fairness and simplicity of character. Here is how Nehemiah 5 begins:

imgres-1Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.” (Nehemiah 5:1-5, edited for length).

Prayer: God of Justice: Only you are completely fair and completely compassionate. Today, help us to learn from this passage what we can do to promote fairness and compassion for the poor in our own community.

Inequality in Israel.

A constant feature of human society is economic inequality. In today’s lesson, we learn that the burden of rebuilding the Jerusalem wall fell disproportionately on the poor and common people. Some people were hungry because they did not own any property and were poor (Neh. 5:2). Some people who owned property had been required to mortgage the property for food (v. 3). Some people became financially strapped and could not pay their taxes (v. 4). Some Jews even had to sell their children into slavery to get money (v. 5)! Some of these people were what we call poor; however, some were we might call common people having trouble making ends meet.

imgresOn the other hand, there were the wealthy landowners and nobles. These people owned sufficient land that they could be absentee landlords. They were not required to work daily in the fields to earn a living. These people had excess funds they could loan at interest. This is exactly what they did. In the process, they become even more wealthy at the expense of the common people and the poor. They even foreclosed on the property of the common people in need.

Years ago, I had a friend who had been an attorney during the Great Depression in a small town in Texas. I asked him how life had been. He looked kind of sad and said, “Well for me it wasn’t so bad—if you didn’t mind taking other people’s wedding rings and farms.” In hard times, in ancient Israel and today the economic burden of hard times falls hardest on those least able to bear that burden.

Nehemiah was not the kind of person to just shrug his shoulders and go on about his business. When he heard the complaints of the common people, he was deeply moved and thought about the problem, perhaps for a long time (Neh. 5:6). Do you remember chapter 1? In that chapter, when Nehemiah heard about the suffering of the Jews, he mourned and prayed (1:4). In this case, he mourned and thought about the problem.

Nehemiah had a good heart. He was the governor of Jerusalem. He lived in a fine house. He had plenty of food. He could easily have turned his back on the plight of the common people and been friends with the rich and powerful. Instead, Nehemiah cared about the common people and the poor. Nehemiah was a leader of compassion and fairness towards all people.

Economic Unfairness Today.

We will never take action to help the common people or the poor until we have compassion on their plight. images-3Nearly a decade ago, the United States and all the developed economies of the world experienced the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression. In the United States, economic growth had become overly-dependent on the construction and sale of new homes. Congress and the banking system made it increasingly possible for people to buy homes who lacked the economic ability to repay them. These loans were packaged and sold to banks and financial institutions all over the world. In addition, an enormous market was created trading financial instruments that amounted to bets concerning the repayment of those loans.

When the debt pyramid that had been created collapsed, several investment banking firms went bankrupt and the world’s banking system was threatened with collapse. In response, United States and other governments nationalized most of that debt, rescuing the banks, their shareholders, and other financial institutions. None of this was without cost: the world’s taxpayers picked up the tab. The result was a deep recession we call “Great Recession” and the slowest recovery in modern economic history.

The result of the slow recovery has been rising inequality, with the wealthiest one percent of Americans controlling more of the wealth that in the past, hollowing out of the Middle Class (meaning that that the middle class never recovered from the recession), an increase in poverty, and a loss of faith in our way of life, particularly among young people. The result of the inequality, economic stagnation, and loss of faith is political instability.

There is more to the story than you can say in a sermon. The reasons for our problems are more complex than can be explained in twenty minutes. The problem was not caused entirely by the Great Recession. The Great Recession has just made the problem worse. For example, the changing world economy also plays a role in our economic problems as does the fact that we are not educating many of our young people for the jobs our economy is creating. Nevertheless, the basic conclusion remains: As in the days of Nehemiah, we are faced with a good deal of economic unfairness in our society. (See, International Monetary Fund, Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective (June 2015)).

 A Response Today.

In past weeks, I have focused on rebuilding American culture. The problems of our society are primarily spiritual, moral, and cultural. Rebuild-TitleNevertheless, spiritual, moral, and cultural decline have economic consequences. In order to rebuild our culture, we have to rebuild the confidence of people in the basic economic fairness of our society.

Nehemiah responded to the economic unfairness of his day by confronting the problem directly. He confronted the wealthy who were abusing their economic power. He confronted those who were taking advantage of the poor. He appealed to their conscience and to the law of Moses (Ex. 22:12-27; Lev. 25:35-54; Deut. 23:19-20). He demanded that they stop doing what they were doing (Neh. 5:11-13) He pointed to himself as an example of someone who was behaving fairly under the circumstances (vv. 14-18). In other words, Nehemiah both addressed the problem and set a good example for the people.

If we are going to rebuild our culture, we must confront the fact that our economic system has become unbalanced. In particular, the poor and Middle Class have lost purchasing power and are having difficulty sustaining their way of life. The economic stagnation caused by the Great Recession hurt those without jobs and new members of the job force more than it hurts those of us who been employed for a long time.

A sense of justice and cultural solidarity among all Americans should motivate all of us to seek to find ways to restore a kind of economic balance that will give people, and especially young people, economic opportunities and hope for the future. We are all related to one another, and if the young, the middle class, and the poor do not have adequate economic opportunity, then the rest of us will eventually suffer.

Nehemiah doesn’t show us exactly what we should do. However, Nehemiah does show us the kind of leadership that we need. We need a leadership that is compassionate and cares for the common people. We need leadership that understands the problem and is willing to confront that problem. We need leadership that can motivate all of us, and especially the wealthy, to do the kinds of things that will make our society better for everyone.

Something We Can Do.

Memphis is a great city. It’s a great place to live. However, Memphis is not without its problems. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the Environmental Court of Shelby County. Last week, I was given more information about the housing problem in Shelby County. Did you know that about twenty-two percent, or almost a quarter, of the homes in Shelby County are blighted in some way? images-2

Many of the people who occupy these homes are what we might call the “working poor.” These are people that have jobs and a little income. They do not, however, make enough money to get a bank loan to repair their homes. Therefore, they just do minor repairs as they have funds. Over time, they often can’t keep up with the decay of the home. It is a big problem in our city! Dave always felt that housing is something in which our church should have an interest. We are involved in Family Promise (where we house the homeless), the Memphis Family Shelter, The Memphis Union Mission, and other housing-related ministries. Perhaps now is the time for us to take another look at what we can do to help with the housing problem in Memphis.

When our church built its last series of buildings, we put away about $200,000 for local missions. We have spent a part of that money, but we have a good bit left. One thing we’ve been trying figure out is a way to make a difference in Cordova and Arlington. Recently, Dan Eubanks, who leads up our Christian Life Center,  made a trip to Joplin, Missouri to look at one ministry that could help the Cordova area. This project would give us a way of sharing information about what can be done to help today certain kinds of people. It would enable all the congregations in our ministry area to do a better job of administering the help that we give out to the needy.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that he will judge us by whether we helped the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those in prison. He asks us not to pass by and ignore their problems. Nehemiah was the kind of person who did not ignore or pass by the suffering of others. Instead, he helped them as best he could and set a good example of what it means to be a compassionate leader. Perhaps we can do the same.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

Rebuilding our Culture: Dealing with Opposition

This morning, as I finalized this blog, I learned of the terror incident in Florida. The point made near the end of the sermon is important for Christians: We must not think that violence is compatible with the Gospel of Peace. The slaughter of other human beings is not the way to bring about a Kingdom of Peace. We need a national and international “politics of reason,” and Christians ought to oppose the politics of violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

One of Kathy’s favorite movies is called “Amazing Grace.” [1] Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was born in 1759, the son of a wealthy businessman. In 1780, he was elected to Parliament. Five years later, he became an evangelical Christian. Two years after he became a Christian, he became involved with the British anti-slavery movement.

imgres-5From that time until his death in 1833, Wilberforce was involved in the attempt to outlaw the slave trade and then to eliminate slavery from the British Empire. He died only three days after he learned that his life’s work had been successful.

Powerful interests in Great Britain opposed Wilberforce and those who wanted to eliminate the slave trade. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain was the most powerful trading nation in the world. Its most important trade route involved purchasing slaves in Africa (mostly trading European goods), selling them in the West Indies, purchasing sugar tobacco and cotton and other New World commodities in the West Indies, and then transporting those goods to Europe, where the entire process began again. This amounted to about 80 percent of Great Britain’s foreign income at the time.

In other words, there were a lot of people, companies and businesses that directly and indirectly benefited from the slave trade. Not surprisingly, overtly and covertly, they were able to delay the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain for almost half a century. Wilberforce was threatened and vilified. Many supporters grew weary of the campaign. Nevertheless, he and others kept up their opposition to slavery. Today, Wilberforce is remembered as a Christian who put his faith into practice in a way to change the world.

It would be nice if everyone agreed with our ideas concerning how to improve and rebuild our nation’s culture. However, we need to be realistic: Not everyone will agree. Therefore, Christians must learn to deal with opposition as we seek to renew and improve our nation.

Opposition to Nehemiah.

Our text for this blog is from the fourth chapter of Nehemiah, which is devoted to the opposition Nehemiah incurred as he sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

imgres-6When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”

Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart (Nehemiah 4:1-6).

Prayer: God of Every Good Work, please be with us as we seek to learn how to be forces for renewal of our culture. Today, we especially ask that we learn how to face opposition in a Christian way. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Various Kinds of Opposition.

For the past several weeks we’ve been looking at Nehemiah. If you’ve read the book, you are familiar with the names “Sanballat the Horonite” and “Tobiah the Ammonite.” [2] When Nehemiah began his renewal efforts, he realized that not everyone would agree with his project. In particular, he knew that the enemies of Israel might very well oppose what he was doing. Early in Nehemiah, two individuals emerge as particularly opposed to what God’s chosen leader was doing: Sabballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. [3]

It appears that Sanballat was an “Ephriamite.” This means, that he was a descendent of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. If you remember, when the Kingdom of David split apart after the reign of Solomon, ten tribes, led by the tribe of Ephriam, split off and formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Eventually, they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire (722 B.C.) and forcibly intermarried with the Assyrian conquerors. Their religion was not the same as Israel’s. For example, they did not worship God in Jerusalem but on their own mountain, Geranium (see, John 4:19-24). These are the people that by Jesus’s day were called the “Samaritans.” Today, Samaria is part of the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Tobiah the Ammonite was also not Jewish. The Ammonites generally controlled an area south and east of Jerusalem. Tobiah appears to be the ruler of what in Nehemiah’s day was called, “TransJordan,” meaning on the east side of the Jordan River. Today, this would be part of the nation we call “Jordan.”

These two individuals were not just powerful in their own areas, but also in Judea where Jerusalem is located. Jerusalem, if you will remember, was in Judea which consisted of the tribal areas belonging to the tribe of Judah and Benjamin. It had been conquered by the Babylonians (586 B.C.). By Nehemiah’s day, this little area was all that was left of David’s Kingdom. Today, that area would be roughly the area surrounding the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs. It was surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors.

Sanballat had a daughter who was married into the family of the High Priest. He seems to have been influential in Jewish affairs, and some of the nobles probably supported him rather than Nehemiah! In Nehemiah 13, we find that Tobiah actually had a room in the temple area from which Nehemiah ejected him (See, Nehemiah 13).

Basically, Sanballat and Tobiah were overt enemies of Israel. The nobles of the Jews tried to play both sides of the fence and sometimes covertly harmed the project (3:5). They had farms and wealth. They had learned to get along with the enemies of Israel, and while they were willing to support Nehemiah as an emissary of Artaxerxes, they were not wholly committed to the cause. They supported whoever was in power at the moment—and they knew Nehemiah might fail. In that case, they wanted to be on the winning side. Their motto was sometimes, “Get along and get ahead.”

The final kind of opposition that Nehemiah faced was that natural human opposition to any project that comes when people get tired and lethargic and begin to lose hope. We’re told in chapter 4 that people began to complain about the work as they became exhausted (v. 10). These people complained that the work was too hard and the progress to slow. They were losing hope because the job was hard and taking longer than they hoped.

As we seek to renew our society we cannot expect everyone to agree with us or to share our passion for renewal. For example, a lot of money is made in America selling pornography. If Christians oppose pornography, as we should, powerful economic interests will not agree. They will be our Sanballat’s and Tobiah’s.

If we seek to renew the media in order to  to eliminate some of its raunchier aspects, the people that make money off those raunchy aspects, will not agree. Those people that have business and social relationships with people who do not agree also may not agree. They are the “nobles” of our culture.

We can expect that a lot of people are going to get tired along the way, just as the Jews got tired of building the wall. Renewal is hard work. People by nature do like to work hard over long periods of time. Perhaps the greatest opposition Christians may face in the long work of renewing our culture will come from those who simply get tired of the good work and the pressures and sacrifices involved.

Our nation has decayed over a period of more than a half century, and the roots of our decay go back  much further. We cannot expect a quick, easy victory over embedded ways of thinking and behaving. The task of renewing our culture will take a lot longer than most of us think.

Responding to Opposition.

images-2Nehemiah’s response to opposition can give us clues concerning how we might react when our attempts to renew our culture meet with opposition. Here are five:

First,  Nehemiah prayed. Nehemiah frequently prayed when under pressure (Nehemiah 1:5-11;2:4; 6:9; 4:4-5). One of the most important things we can do is to remember to pray when we face opposition in attempting to rebuild our nation and culture.

Second, Nehemiah was vigilant. No sooner did Nehemiah learn that his enemies were plotting against the Jews than he began to form those who were building the wall into teams. Some built and some were  guards who kept a lookout for an attack (4:9, 13, 16, 21).

Third, the people of Israel were diligent in rebuilding the wall. On more than one occasion, the people were threatened or tired, or in danger. They did not allow this opposition to stop them from rebuilding the wall. Instead, under Nehemiah’s leadership they continued to rebuild the wall (vv. 6, 16, 21).

Fourth, the people of Israel and Nehemiah were courageous. Both Nehemiah and the Jewish people continued to work despite the danger of attack.imgres-9 I’m a worrier by nature, and I think a lot of people worry about what will happen if we begin to take stands in order to renew our culture. It’s important to be wise and to not provoke attack; however, we cannot allow opposition to silence us. There is an old saying that there is nothing more likely to allow evil to triumph than for good men to do nothing. [4] This is true. Renewal takes courage.

Finally, Nehemiah was wise and shrewd in how he responded to plots. On several occasions Nehemiah’s enemies attempted to trick him. First, they tried to get him to meet them in secret so that they might harm or kill him (6:1-5). Next, they spread false rumors that Nehemiah was planning a revolt against the Persian Empire (vv. 6-8). Then, they attempted to get him to seek sanctuary in the Temple, trying to make him seem to be a coward (vv. 10-13). In each of these situations, Nehemiah saw through the schemes and strategies of his enemies. As we try to renew our culture, there will be those who attempt to trick us into saying or doing things that are unwise. We must be prepared to respond with wisdom, insight, and restraint.

Remember Who You Are.

As Christians attempt to internalize Old Testament teachings, it is important that we view the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. The Apostle Paul faced many of the same problems Nehemiah faced. He faced opposition, physical danger, and trickery (See 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). By the end of his ministry, he had learned to see those who opposed him in the light of Christ. Here is what he wrote to the Ephesians:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:11-17, Emphasis Added).

By now, everyone is aware that I believe one of the worst aspects of our contemporary politics is the constant personalization of political disagreements. We have talked about negative politics before. Paul seems to be aware that Christians  were, and, and will be tempted to to personalize our opponents. He reminds us that we have been placed here to love people, all people. Our battle is not against other human beings. Instead, our battleis against bad ideas, programs that won’t work, morals that will destroy human lives, a lack of respect for other people, lust for power, violence, and all the other evils that infect our politics and culture.

Our real enemies, and the real threats to renewal of our culture, are not people. To fight the battle the way Jesus would have us fight the battle requires devotion to truth, willingness to live in a moral way, commitment to peace, faith, and assurance of our salvation. Most of all, we need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ so that what we say and what we do advances God’s kingdom of love.

Blessed Are You….

Rebuild-TitleJesus reminds us in the Beatitudes that we are blessed when people insult us and persecute us because of our devotion to what is right (Matthew 5:11-12). Several years ago, we were sitting next to James Quillin at a meeting. James was the pastor of Highland Heights Presbyterian Church, a statesman in two Presbyterian denominations, and a good friend. During the course of the meeting, several people attacked us  for things we were saying and doing related to the renewal of our then denomination. James, at one point, looked over at me and said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11). Then he just smiled.

The fact is if we want to renew our culture we must face opposition. The key is learning to face it with the wisdom and courage of Nehemiah and grace  Jesus showed when he faced those who opposed him.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stephen Knight, wr. Amazing Grace dr. Michael Apted (Four Boys Films, 2006). The writer Eric Metaxes has also written a book about Wilberforce. See, Eric Metaxes, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007).

[2] As always, I am dependant upon more than one source for the historical details. See, “Sanballat and “Tobiah” in Ronald F. Youngblood, ed, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986, 1995).

[3] Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite early appear as opponents of what Nehemiah was doing (See, Nehemiah 2:10-11, 19-20, 4:1-3, 6:1-9). There is one other figure mentioned, Geshem the Arab (Nehemiah 2:10, 19; 6:1-14). I have not mentioned Geshem in the sermon or in this blog, preferring to concentrate on the two most prominent opponents of Nehemiah’s efforts.

[4] This quote is attributed to the British statesman, Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing (www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ edmundburk377528.html).

Getting Started Rebuilding the Walls of our Culture

This week we are looking at Nehemiah 3:1-2. At this juncture, Nehemiah begins the work to which God has called him.

As some of you may know, for four long summers beginning in 1968 or 1969, I laid track for the Frisco Railroad. Our day began about 7:00 a.m. when we met in small shack about 200 yards east of the main building housing the management and civil engineers of the Frisco. (The year before Mom died, Tim and I went down to see if we could find that shack. It had been torn down. I was very disappointed to lose this memory of my youth.) I was never early for work, so that by the time I got to work there was coffee ready to drink. Eight or so of us would sit around until about 7:30. Eventually, the phone would ring and the boss at the main building would tell us where we were going for the day. Most of the time we were replacing a crossing, correcting some problem with a line of tract, or working around the yard on a switch. By eight o’clock, had packed our tools onto the truck and were on our way. The easy part of the day was over.

images-3When we arrived at the work site, we would yank out existing railroad ties, take out the existing tie plates and rails, dig a new foundation, put in gravel or other materials, replace the ties and rails, and perhaps cover what we had done with new blacktop. Every piece of rail we lifted weighed over 600 pounds. That means that four people would be lifting about 125 pounds each. Nearly every tie weighed between 200 and 300 pounds, often requiring two people to free from the soil. I weighed about 118 pounds at the time. It was really miserable work. Every day.

We would take a half an hour or so for lunch and work again until the job was done. I often felt fortunate because frequently we could not get the job done in eight hours, and so I often got an hour or so of overtime. That came in helpful when I returned to college. What I most remember about those days is how tired and sore I was, every single day. It was misery, three months of misery—and I now regard it as some of the best and happiest days of my life! I also remember with pride some of the work we did.

The Work Begins.

            Nehemiah began his work with an extended time of mourning, praying, fasting, thinking, and planning how to rebuild the Jerusalem wall. This was important. It’s good to remember, however, that at some point there’s work to be done, and work is hard. This morning we’re thinking about beginning of the building the walls of Jerusalem.

Our text is from Nehemiah 3.

Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel. The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zakkur son of Imri built next to them. The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs. The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors (Nehemiah 3:1-5).

 Eternal God who we are told created the world in seven days of hard work before resting, we come to you today asking that you would allow us to consecrate ourselves to the hard, long work of rebuilding our nation and our culture. In Jesus name, Amen.

How the Work was Done.

Nehemiah 3 describes the beginning of the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and how the work was accomplished. If we were to read the entire chapter, we would see that the pattern set by the first five verses is repeated over and over again. Basically, people in the same profession, families, people from surrounding communities, and residents near certain portions of the wall, took responsibility for rebuilding a particular portion of the wall.

imgresNehemiah was a shrewd organizer. He also was good judge character and of how people best work together. He knew that people who already knew, respected, and had worked together in the past would find it easier to undertake an unfamiliar task, like rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Therefore, he relied upon pre-existing relationships in building work teams. In other words, the priests already knew one another and had worked together in the past. The men of Jericho and Takoa knew one another and had already worked together. Basically, Nehemiah built on existing relationships in organizing the work.

It’s as if we wanted to do something that would involve the citizens of Tennessee and North Mississippi to rebuild a part of Memphis. Instead of recruiting people from all over and putting them into new work teams that would have to get used to one another over time, we might let all the citizens of Memphis who wanted to work together, work together. The citizens of Brownsville or Horn Lake who wanted to work together, would work together. The airline pilots for Federal Express who wanted to work together, would work together. The teachers from the Shelby County school system might work together. Work done by people who are  already familiar with one another and know how to work together goes faster and better. This was wise.

Second, I bet Nehemiah took advantage of the natural rivalries that might exist between various groups. I’m from Texas, and if you wanted to build a wall around Houston, one really good idea would be to give half the wall to the graduates of the University of Texas at Austin and half to graduates of Texas A&M. It would not be long before the A&M graduates would be trying to prove to everyone that were the best engineers and the best builders. In response, the University of Texas graduates would be trying to prove that they were the best engineers and builders.

I imagine that the citizens of Jericho, Takoa and other communities had a little friendly rivalry going, each one trying to prove they were the best. You can bet that the priests were trying to prove that they were not a bunch of softies. You get the idea—the way Nehemiah organized the task took advantage of human nature and made sure that the work went along as fast and as organized as possible.

Finally, many people were working on sections of the wall close to their homes. If you took me to Chickasaw Gardens (a Memphis subdivision) and asked me to build a wall around Chickasaw Gardens to help keep people safe, being a good person I would probably do the job. On the other hand, if you asked me to help build a wall around Riverwood Farms, where I live, I would certainly work even harder! By placing people near their homes, Nehemiah assured himself that the work would go faster, and the wall would be better built!

This has a practical value to each of us. Each of us should probably work to rebuild our culture in ways we are familiar with. For example, it would not make much sense for me to work in the area of renewing the musical culture of America. David Shotsberger (our music director) would be a far better choice. David chould better recruit the choir, the praise band, and local musicians to help because he knows them. Each of us has a talent or ability of some kind. The challenge is to use our talent and ability and our friends and colleagues to make our nation and world a better place.

The People Who Did It.

This brings me to the subject of people. I’m sure you that noticed there were a lot of unpronounceable names in the passage for today. If we were to read the entire chapter, we would find many, many unpronounceable names. We don’t like to read these names out loud because they’re hard to pronounce, but they are important. Sometimes, we make statements like, “the Jewish people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.” This masks the fact that it wasn’t an anonymous group of people who rebuild the wall; it was a group of very specific people who rebuilt the wall—and they need to honored and remembered.

Last Sunday night, Kathy and I watched the national Memorial Day concert that is held each year near the capital in Washington DC. images-4This year, on several occasions, the performers honored our Vietnam veterans. Naturally, the cameras would pan off to show the audience the Vietnam War Memorial whenever the Vietnam War was mentioned. For those who have not been there, the memorial consists of black slabs of granite upon which 58,195 names have been inscribed. The Vietnam War was not fought by nameless entities which we call the “United States Armed Forces.” It was fought by real human beings, 58,195 of whom gave their lives for our country. They need to be remembered and honored.

This reminds us that, if we want to renew our country, we can’t rely upon other people to do our work for us. Individual Americans, just like you and me, have to make a decision to make things better. I kind of like visiting war memorials. My father is buried in the Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri. It’s moving to walk down row after row reading names and ranks, the service they were in, and a little information about them. Of course, I never go without seeing Dad and his best friend, Robert Schmidt. I see other names I recognize from my youth. I don’t want to forget Dad, Bob, and the others in that cemetery. Their names and what they did are important.

I read a lot of military history. As fun as it is to read about admirals and generals, the work of war is done by many nameless men and women whose names are known primarily by those who loved them. The work of renewing our culture will produce some famous names; however, the work will be done by many people, most of them people like you and me. We may not be famous or remembered–but our families will know what we did and hopefully follow our example. The best place for each one of us to help to rebuild our society is by using the interests, abilities, talents, gifts, and relationships we already have and can further develop. Every little bit of work, every stone in the wall, matters.

The Building We Need to Build.

Last week, I spoke about capital campaigns. Churches need somewhere to meet. Therefore, there will always be a need for church buildings. However, some pastors spend too much time building buildings. Sometimes, I think it’s true of me. When I think I may not be doing the right things, I am reminded of the passage from the apostle Paul. We read a part of it earlier. In First Corinthians 3, Paul says this:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder wiimagesll suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (I Cor. 3:10-15).

Paul’s words remind us that we are all building a Christian life. Our work is not done when the foundation is laid. Becoming a Christian is not the end of the Christian life; it’s the beginning. All of us are building on the foundation of our faith every single day. It matters what we do with our time and talents.

Paul indicates that the quality of our workmanship and the quality of the materials we put to work matter. On the Judgment Day it will matter whether our life is made of gold or straw. It’s not a matter of salvation. Paul indicates that believers will be saved. However, when we come before the throne of Jesus, we may not be happy with what we’ve done with our lives. When we get to heaven, we may wish we had been a little less selfish.

Renewing our culture is really a matter of getting out of our selfishness and self-centered desires, and putting our talents to work for Christ. It means getting out of our imaginations, our foolish pride, our mistaken ideas, and taking a good look at who we really are and what we are doing with the talents God has given us. Then, we need to put those talents to work as best we can.

I don’t want to over complicate what it means to renew America. Every time a parent shares their faith and sings a bedtime song with a child, they are renewing a culture in which many parents never put their children to bed or read them a song. Every time we treat a coworker with wisdom and love, we are making America a better place. Every time we reach out to share our faith with others, we are making America a better place. Of course, there are big jobs to be done; but, first we just need to repair the wall next to our house.

We may  not think that these small efforts at personal renewal, family renewal, neighborhood renewal, and the like, matter much. But, they do. imagesConsider Jesus. No one has made a bigger difference in the renewal of the world than Jesus. What did he do? He did not lead an army, run for office, manage a big business, write a lot of books, or anything big at all. He loved people, healed those he could, trained twelve disciples, and died on the cross. In the end, however, he changed the world forever. We can do the same if we are willing to be like Jesus.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Nehemiah’s Midnight Ride

This week we are meditating on Nehemiah 2:11-18. In a way, I am sorry that this blog is about the condition of our cultural walls and is being shared on Memorial Day weekend. On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifice made by the soldiers of our nation for our freedoms. In a way, however, there is no better honor we can give our fallen soldiers than to confront the reality that our culture needs all of our sacrifices to maintain our freedom and way of life.images-3

Most pastors don’t miss building programs in retirement. Since I was elected a deacon almost forty years ago I have participated in six or so building programs. They are always stressful. On the other hand, building programs do teach you a few things. One thing I’ve learned is how important plans are. In every building program since I came to Advent we have used a company known as “Barnes and Brower.” Jeff Barnes is a member of our church. When we have a building program, we have meetings between the building committee, the architect, and the builder. Jeff always emphasizes that the detail of plans is important. If plans are too vague, construction workers don’t know exactly what to do. If the plans are detailed, it’s easier to build a project because the builder knows exactly what is needed and the foremen and construction workers understand what they’re supposed to do. The better the plan, the better the building.

This morning, we are talking about how important planning is in rebuilding our culture. As a young person, I wasn’t particularly interested in planning. In my thirties, I was often engaged in projects that went on for a number of months and had many steps. One of the most enjoyable and important tasks was developing a long list of of the various stages needed to complete the transaction and what exactly needed to be done. For example, if you’re going to buy a company, there are many stages beginning with a letter of intent, then due diligence, negotiating a contract, getting any regulatory approvals, arranging financing, and finally closing the transaction. Sometimes there are hundreds of steps. I found it was kind of fun thinking things through.

No plan is ever entirely accurate. Something always goes wrong. You always forget something and things change. Nevertheless, knowing where you’re headed is important. General Eisenhower once said that before the battle planning is everything, but once the battle is engaged no plan is worth anything. That doesn’t make planning unimportant—planning gives you a place to start thinking through what to do next no matter what happens.

The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah.

Our text is from Nehemiah 2:

I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.  images-2By night I went out through the Valley Gate, toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then, I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” (Nehemiah 2:11-20).

Prayer: God of Order and Reason: We confess that too often we forget to plan our lives carefully. Help us to learn that to renew our society and rebuild its institutions will take planning.

The Right Beginning.

Today, we are studying one of the most famous incidents in Nehemiah. Two weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah as he learned about the condition of the walls of Jerusalem, mourned for his people, fasted, and prayed to God for wisdom. Last week, we spoke about Nehemiah’s courageous faith as he stepped out and asked King Artaxerxes for permission to return to his ancestral home in Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. This week, we’re going to build on last week and talk more about planning. If we want to renew our society, it will take a lot of planning.

Last week, I introduced a five-step process needed to renew our culture consisting of prayer, thought, faith. courage, and action. Last week, we learned that, as Nehemiah prayed through the project he had in mind, he also thought about what was needed to complete it. He realized he would need letters of safe conduct, lumber, and other items to be successful. However, he wasn’t finished planning. This week, we are going to think again about the way Nehemiah planned the work.

Rest, Reflection and Review.

This has been a hectic week. Sometimes when I’m busy, I actually try to do too much. Psychologists call this “over-functioning.” I don’t fully understand the concept; but basically it means that, if you try to do too much too fast under too much pressure, you make mistakes. One frequently quoted piece of advice that almost all leaders ignore is the need for rest and reflection.

Nehemiah was a good leader. He had made a long trip (over 600 miles) through sometimes dangerous territory. By the time he got to Jerusalem he was tired. In addition, although we know that he had family in Jerusalem, he probably didn’t know a lot of people. Our text notes that he waited three days before he did anything. What do you suppose he did during those three days? I suspect he slept, visited with family, walked around Jerusalem, looked at the walls from inside the city, introduced himself to people, and rested. I would bet you money that as he walked around Jerusalem  and rested, he reflected upon the job he had committed to do. He thought about what was going to be required. He contemplated the people of Jerusalem and how he might appeal to them. He wasn’t ready to begin the job. He was getting ready. Rest and reflection are part of getting ready.

After three days, he went out one night and rode around the city. Nehemiah left the city at about the place where many tourist buses enter the city today. It is near the current Temple Mount. He then rode counterclockwise around the city, through the Kidron Valley, around the north side of Jerusalem, and then back to the gate through which he left. For part of the time, and especially in the Kidron Valley, he was riding over pretty rough ground.

Nehemiah specifically indicates that he did this at night. Why do you suppose that was? Obviously, he could have made a closer inspection during the day. On the other hand, while he would have been able to see better during the day, other people would have been able to see him. Perhaps he didn’t want to raise expectations until he was ready. Perhaps he didn’t want the enemies of Israel to see him. In any case, he was trying to be wise.

It is necessary to plan and think carefully before acting in order to renew an organization or nation. Americans are fond of action. The media and the Internet have made us even more fond of immediate reaction. Often we react emotionally as Nehemiah reacted when he heard the condition of his people, but we don’t take time to think and plan as in Nehemiah thought and planned. A good plan takes a lot of time and thought.

On our communion table during this series, I have placed a large stone. The stone came from one of our walls during a prior building program. It was too big to be placed back in the wall, so it was laid back by the forest. It took both David Shotsberger and me just to lift this stone! Guess what? The stones in the city walls of Jerusalem were much, much larger and much, much heavier than the stone on our Communion Table. It was going to take a lot of people in order to rebuild that wall. It was going to take a lot of hard labor to rebuild that wall. Nehemiah had some idea of how hard it would be before he arrived in Jerusalem. However, he needed to ride around that wall to be sure it was possible to rebuild it and to sense how many people and how long it would take!

Our Broken Walls.

Before renewing our society, we need to take a long look at the walls. If we took a ride around our society, we would find that there are a lot of “cultural foundation stones” lying on the ground. This week I thought about some of the problems our culture faces. You might come up with a different list. However, I’ll bet each one of us would come up with a pretty long list.

  1. First, Personal Brokenness. If you talk to older pastors, everyone believes far more people today have emotional problems and have difficulty navigating through what used to be pretty ordinary life situations than forty or seventy years ago. My mother died in 2014. She had been an Elder and Deacon in our home church for many years. She and I talked about the difference between ministry in her church in the years before she died and in the years around 1960.
  2. Second, Family Brokenness. In 1960, more than 70 percent of children grew up in two parent households. Today, the number is much lower. Today, most children in America will experience living in a single parent household at some point in their upbringing, Not only is divorce more frequent, but birth out of wedlock has become much more frequent. in 1930, less than 10 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Today, that number is over 40 percent. Our families are in trouble.
  3. Third, Community Brokenness. Many American cities have become infected with drugs, gangs, domestic violence, and other social ills. In Memphis, large areas of our city are blighted in a way that was not common seventy years ago. All over America cities and communities need to be rebuilt.
  4. Fourth, Economic Brokenness. Over the last few years, the income disparity between the richest one percent of Americans and everyone else has grown. In particular, the middle class and lower middle class have seen their standard of living fall. Our economy is not producing enough quality, full-time jobs to fully employ all Americans. In addition, the education we are giving our children is not necessarily aligned with the jobs being created around the world.
  5. Finally, Political Brokenness. Increasingly, our political system does not work for ordinary people. This week I read an article about the way in which members of Congress are lobbied by businesses and other organizations, how wives and children are often employed by such organizations or other organizations active in politics, and how the procurement system in many government agencies breeds corruption. The way in which advertising and media has become central to our politics means that vast amounts of money are needed to run for office and incumbents are rarely defeated. Money is a factor in politics like never before. This is not healthy.

These are only some of the cultural walls that are broken in our society.

The Hour of Decision.

When Nehemiah ended his ride, he concluded that the wall could be rebuilt. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, so he called together the leaders of the people and gave them a word of encouragement:

“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.”

 So much of our political leadership today involves talking a lot but actually avoiding problems. We need leaders who are knowledgeable and solve problems. Nehemiah did not mislead the people. He didn’t say these are the greatest days of Jerusalem. He acknowledged that there was a problem. He acknowledged that the city was in disgrace. Having acknowledged the problem,  he motivated the people and they responded by saying, “Let’s get started building” (v. 18). Good leaders do not avoid problems, minimize problems, ignore problems, or blame others for problems. Good leaders solve problems.

I put two posts on Facebook this week about the importance of planning. For whatever reason, Americans are not particularly good planners. For example, most Americans reach retirement age without a plan for being retired. Many people enter times in their life when one can expect medical bills without planning for their medical needs. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve counseled over the last twenty-five years who bought houses or cars without considering whether or not they can afford them.

Planning is important. A strategy to solve problem that  is based on prejudice or emotion won’t work. We face serious problems, and we need leaders with the willingness, skill, and capacity to think through problems and find a realistic solution. As Christians, we need learn from the  example of Nehemiah and think deeply and plan carefully concerning how we’re going to solve our personal and national problems. America needs our sorrow, our prayers, our faith, and our willingness to think and plan as never before.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Courage to Begin

More than twenty-five years ago, Kathy and I moved from our home in Houston, Texas to Richmond, Virginia. We did not just wake up one morning and decide to move. In fact, for a number of years I knew that I had a call to the gospel ministry, but I didn’t have the courage to leave the practice of law, our home, Kathy’s family, our friends, and our church. imgresKathy felt the same way. Then, in the late 1980s, through a series of circumstances, I felt called, really compelled, to go to seminary. Even then, it was unbelievably hard and scary.

In the months, and even years, before we left Houston, we prayed about this a lot. We didn’t always pray together. In fact, we rarely prayed together, but each of us, in his or her own way, prayed about our future. In the meantime, we thought about the future. How would we afford it? How long would it take? Could Kathy work with four small children?  Where would we live? There were a lot of questions to be answered. In the end, however, the hardest thing was to trust God and have the courage to step out in faith. There is an old Chinese proverb that the longest journey begins with a single step. [1] It is true. The hardest thing for us to do is to take the first step.

imagesDo any of you suffer from procrastination? It’s been my experience that every tough decision in life is hard to make, and scary at the moment you make it. This is where faith comes in. Hebrews tells us that faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Today, we’re going to talk about faith and the importance of faith as we seek to rebuild our culture.

The Courage to Act.

Last week, we began our study of Nehemiah. We learned that Nehemiah was a Jewish official in the court of the king of Persia around the year 450 B.C. Because of the visit of a relative, he became aware that the walls and the gates of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As a result, his people were suffering. He mourned and prayed for many days. He prayed a beautiful prayer that we studied last week, and that we hope all our members will pray as a prayer for our country. This morning, we pick up at the beginning of chapter 2:

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” (Nehemiah 2:1-4).

Prayer: Eternal God, God of History, please come into our hearts this morning so that the story of Nehemiah can become our story and so that we can become little Nehemiah’s to a culture. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray, Amen

From Mourning To Action.

Last week, we began our look at the life of Nehemiah by studying the prayerful way in which he began his attempt to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem.images When Nehemiah learned that his people were in desperate need, he did not get angry. He mourned. We too need to mourn for our country. As Nehemiah mourned, he fasted and prayed. We also need to fast and pray for our country. Nehemiah confessed his own sins as well as the sins of his people. We also need to confess our sins and the sins of our nation. Finally, Nehemiah asked for God to help. We also need to pray for God to help us.

Nehemiah was in a unique position. He was the Cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. I want to stop here and allow us to reflect on that fact for just a few seconds. All over America, including in Memphis, there are Christians. We all have a unique position. We all have spiritual gifts, relationships, talents, and abilities. Most of us do not have a position as important as Nehemiah’s. However, we do have some position. What God required of Nehemiah is not what God requires of us. Nevertheless, God asks that we have the same kind of faith that Nehemiah possessed, and step out and serve our nation as Nehemiah did.

King Artaxerxes was king of Persia from about 458 BC until about 425 B.C. Certain facts about his reign are important to understanding our story. Artaxerxes came to power under tragic circumstances. His father was King Xerxes. King Xerxes was murdered in around 465 B.C., by one of his advisers. The advisor, in order to gain power, blamed Artaxerxes. A power struggle ensued until finally Artaxerxes won.

This particular power struggle is important because in the early years of his reign, Artaxerxes had to consolidate his power. It was during this period of time that Ezra returned to Judah and was restoring Israel. Jealous advisors came to the King and asked that the building of Jerusalem be stopped. Artaxerxes, insecure in his power, granted their request (Ezra 4:23). This is probably why the walls of the city were in such disrepair and the gates fallen. [2]

By the time of Nehemiah, these events were twenty years in the past. Artaxerxes was no longer insecure. Instead, he had built a reputation as a very fine king! History records that he was a wise king who generally refrained from violence when possible. He seems he seems to have been kindly. In today’s text, we find Artaxerxes concerned about his servant Nehemiah. Nehemiah had never been sad before when entering to serve the king, but on this occasion his sorrow was evident. The king, concerned about Nehemiah, asked what was wrong.

A Reasonable Discussion.

As we try to renew our nation, it’s useful to think about the relationship between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king. Every day, the king’s life was in Nehemiah’s hands. Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah. Over the years, they had come to respect each other. When we set out to renew our nation, relationships and trust are important.

We live in a culture in which politics is often seen as a kind of war. In particular, politicians have learned that it is a lot easier to convince the voters to hate someone else than to like you. Instead of political decisions being built upon trust, mutual respect, and fair dealing, our political decisions are often made on the basis of a kind of “winner take all” negative politics. The result is, we make bad decisions. images-1Nehemiah acted the way he did because he saw himself as a servant of the king. As we try to renew our culture, we Christians need to begin by understanding that we are servants of our culture and our fellow citizens. We need to serve them in love, as much as possible respecting even those with whom we violently disagree.

Once Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah to explain what was wrong, the door was open for Nehemiah to say what was on his mind. He explained to the king that he was a Jew and that his home city, Jerusalem, was in ruins (Nehemiah 2:5). It had been many years since Artaxerxes had stopped the building of the walls of Jerusalem, and it appears he was immediately somewhat favorable to the idea. Instead of saying, “Why would you do a thing like that?” he asked, “How long will it take? (v. 6). In response Nehemiah gave him a time. You see, the king respected Nehemiah, needed his advice and counsel, relied upon him for his very life, and did want him to be gone too long. On the other hand, Artaxerxes wanted to help a trusted friend and advisor.

Nehemiah then asked the king for a few favors. The journey from Persia to Jerusalem was long and in some ways dangerous. He needed letters of safe conduct (v. 7). Nehemiah also needed a letter that would allow him to get from the king’s forest the timber he would need in rebuilding the walls and gate (v. 8). The king graciously agreed to everything Nehemiah asked.

There is a lot to learn in these verses. Here are a few things to think about:

  • First of all, not all improvements are possible at any given point in time. If Nehemiah had come to the King eighteen years earlier, the answer might have been, “No.” It so happens that Nehemiah was the right person at the right place at the right time. We need to know that rebuilding our culture requires timing and wisdom. There may be improvements we want to make today; however, it made God’s will that they be made over a long period of time.
  • Second, it’s important that we think through not just the improvement we want to make but the best way to approach our leadership and the best plan to present. Often, on the right and left of our society, people make unrealistic proposals to solve problems. We Americans are addicted to big, complicated, and hopefully quick solutions to problems. Most big problems can’t be solved that way. They must be solved over time.
  • Finally, our plan needs to take account of dangers, difficulties, and opposition along the way.

Expect Problems and Have Courage.

Do you remember that Nehemiah asked for letters of safe conduct? Letters of Safe Conduct were important. The journey to Jerusalem would often go through dangerous territories.  The other nations living near Jerusalem would not want the walls rebuilt. They wanted Israel to be weak and defenseless. At the end of our text today we learn that the officials in Transjordan, were in fact opposed to the rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah anticipated their opposition.  He thought about what to do and planned ahead.

It would be nice if everyone would agree with our solutions to the political and cultural problems of our nation. They will not. Therefore, we need to expect opposition. We need to anticipate what objections will be made and try to answer reasonable questions. In addition, more than anything else, we will need courage. When I was in seminary, I wrote an article for a Presbyterian magazine concerning a particular social issue. I received a lot of hate mail. One letter, was actually threatening! I went to see a professor, who I knew had also written on the same subject. She took a look at me and said, “Chris I have a file draw of threatening letters.” Just do what you think is right. Unfortunately, doing the right thing almost always results in opposition. Courage is grace in the face of that opposition. [3]

Conclusion.

This week in our church, we recognized our “Salt and Light” graduates. [4] Salt and light is a twenty-four week program that trains people how to share their faith in a non-offensive way. When we discuss why it is more Christians don’t share their faith, the first answer is almost always the same: “Fear.” The second most common reason is: “I don’t know what to say.” The first and foremost thing Christians do to renew our culture is to proclaim our faith and bring others into God’s community of truth, beauty, justice, and love. It takes prayer, planning, preparation and courage.

Rebuild-TitleNehemiah overcame his fears during his four months of fasting and prayer. By the time he approached King Artaxerxes, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. In addition, his months of fasting and praying gave him plenty of time to think about what  he wanted to say and do. He had time to think about his plans and the king’s possible reaction to his plans. He had time to adjust his plans to reality. For example, early on he probably realized that the king would not want him to be gone for too long. Therefore, he carefully estimated how long it would take. When the king answered the expected question, he had an answer. Nehemiah also had time to think about what he would need in order to be successful. Rebuilding the walls of the city takes a lot of time, energy, money, and materials. When the time came, Nehemiah was ready.

Going back to the beginning of our lesson today, faith is the assurance that God will bless our undertaking and the courage to trust God and get started. It’s true, the longest journey begins with a single step. Often, that first step is the most important step of all. This past week our Organizational Task force had a meeting. That task force is almost finished with its work. There only remains one question to be answered. However, it’s the hardest question of all! During part of the discussion someone said, “There are some decisions that once you have made them you have already decided whether you will succeed or fail.” As we step out in faith to renew our culture, we need to take time, a long time, to fast and pray—then we need to step out in faith.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64, See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Booksurge Publishing, 2011, 2014), 128.

[2] There are multiple sources for the historical portion of this sermon. See, See, Mark A. Throntvelt, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992). James Hamilton, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra & Nehemiah (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2014), and Mervin Breneman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esher” in The New American Commentary Series (Broadman & Holman Printers, 1993). It is important to note that, while Artaxerxes was a good king and not violent by the standards of his own day, he was bloodthirsty by our standards today.

[3] This is a reference to Earnest Hemmingway’s famous definition of courage as “grace under pressure.”

[4] Salt & Light is a twenty-four week evangelism and discipleship program written by Chris and Kathy Scruggs. We hope that it will be publically available to churches by the fall of 2016.

Rebuilding our Culture: The Importance of Prayer

 

images-5Monday evening, the wife of an old friend from high school gave us a call. When I answered the phone, I learned that their house had burned in February, and they had been rebuilding ever since. In the meantime, they’ve been living in the Red Roof Inn.  Naturally, there was smoke damage, which is difficult to remove from a house. In addition, they lost valuables that cannot be easily replaced. Finally,  my friend, who is an engineer and a perfectionist, wants everything restored exactly as it was before.

Of course, the whole experience has been unpleasant. Anyone who has ever rebuilt a house (or anything else for that matter) knows how difficult rebuilding is. Building things from scratch is hard; however, rebuilding something that has burned or decayed is much more difficult. For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about rebuilding our society. Rebuilding a society is, of course, much, much harder than rebuilding a house or a wall.

There’s no question about it, our society is in disrepair: politically, morally, spiritually, and in many other ways. The foundations of our society have been undermined by years of neglect. The question is: “How can Christians help?” Notice that I said, “How can Christian help?” It requires the work of all Americans to rebuild our culture. As Christians, we have a particular responsibility to see that the rebuilding is done wisely and lovingly, with his few people hurt in the process as possible. Rebuilding a physical house is really hard, but rebuilding a culture is even harder–and requires a lot more prayer, planning, courage,  and wise action than a rebuilding something physical requires.

Before beginning, I need to make one  disclaimer: this series was designed before the current political campaign began. It was designed before a particular candidate started talking about building a wall. During election years, I like to preach a series designed to help us make good decisions. However, as everyone knows, I don’t endorse candidates and try not to even point toward a particular candidate while preaching. The job of a pastor is to help people approach their decision how to vote spiritually. How you vote is your own business.

The wall we will be discussing  for the next several weeks is a metaphor for the structure of our culture that has fallen down and needs to be rebuilt. The rebuilding we need is a rebuilding of faith in our institutions, confidence in our way of life, care for our own communities, a willingness to work for justice, and a confidence in the rule of law.

Nehemiah’s Prayer.

Nehemiah is a book that preachers seldom tackle. I was surprised to learn this; however, I already knew that the book had some difficulties. Scholars know that there is a relationship between First and Second Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, but the exact relationship is not known. Fortunately, these scholarly issues do not impact the practical meaning of the book of Nehemiah for you and me.

It will help us to know that, when the Jews returned from Babylon, they did so in three waves: First, a man named “Zerubbabel” (538-515 B.C.), a descendent of King David, returned to Jerusalem with a group of people who attempted to rebuild the Temple. Then, a great scholar and leader named “Ezra” (458-457 B.C.) returned to Israel to rebuild the culture and community around the Torah, the “Law” or “Instruction” or “Way” of Moses. Finally, a man named “Nehemiah” (446-433 B.C.) returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city. [1]

Today, we are looking at the first chapter of Nehemiah:

Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital,  that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  images-1And I 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, 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 the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:1-10).

Preparation for Renewal.

sculpture-in-Susa-iranNehemiah begins with Nehemiah in Susa, the winter capital city of the Persian Empire (Nehemiah 1). Nehemiah was an important person: the cupbearer to the king (v. 11). In ancient times, kings were often poisoned. Kings, therefore, had cupbearer’s who tasted the wine and ate the food before the king. Cupbearers often took on other important responsibilities. Nehemiah was such a person. He was Jewish, and as a member of a minority, he was no threat to the king. Therefore, the king trusted Nehemiah and probably gave him other important duties.

Nehemiah had a relative named, “Hannani.” Hannani came to visit from Judah, many miles away. When Nehemiah inquired as to the situation in Israel, he was advised that times were not good. Those who had returned were in poverty and surrounded by enemies. The wall of Jerusalem was broken down and it gates  burned (v. 2-3). This may not seem like a terrible problem to us, but in the ancient world it was a tremendous problem. The walls around a city were necessary to keep marauding bands of thieves and outlaws, not to mention, armies, from entering it. A city without walls and gates was in constant danger of attack.

When Nehemiah heard the news, he mourned and fasted for many days (v. 4). [2] Although he lived in a palace in the capital of an empire, and was personally unaffected by the suffering of God’s people in Israel, Nehemiah had sympathy for those with less. He cared about his countrymen in need. He suffered because of their suffering. He did not just say, “That’s too bad” and turn away and think about something else. Instead, he mourned and fasted and prayed.

Wherever I go I meet people who are worried about our country. It doesn’t matter whether they are Republicans or a Democrats. It doesn’t matter what race they are. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor, people are concerned about our country. Poll after poll shows that people feel there’s something fundamentally wrong in our nation and its direction. People think we’ve taken the wrong path and are headed for trouble. A lot of people have lost confidence in our institutions and leadership.

Now, a lot of the time what I and others say amounts to griping. A good bit of the time people are just plain angry. Perhaps anger is an appropriate emotion; however, I think sorrow and mourning are more appropriate. We will not get anywhere in rebuilding our culture until we are filled with sorrow not just at what other people have done but at what we’ve done. Nehemiah, as we shall see, was a good man; however, he knew that he bore some responsibility for what had happened to his fellow countrymen (v. 6). We need to feel the same way. Therefore, the first thing I want to urge our congregation to do this year is the hardest of all: mourn—mourn, fast and pray for our nation.

Prayer for Renewal.

imagesAfter Nehemiah had mourned and fasted and prayed for many days, he prayed a beautiful prayer (v. 5-11). I want to point out a few things about Nehemiah’s prayer that can help us as we pray for our own country and our fellow citizens:

  • Pray to our Great and Awesome God. Nehemiah begins by recognizing who God is: the great and awesome God, the all wise Creator of the heavens and the earth, who made all things, and who is able to do all things. The first thing we need to remember is the awesome wisdom and power of the God we serve.
  • Pray to God, who Loves us Unconditionally. Second, Nehemiah recognizes that God is a God of Absolute Love. When Nehemiah indicates that God is a God who keeps his covenant of love, he uses the Hebrew word that means, “Steadfast Love” and which in the New Testament is translated, “Agape.” This is the word the New Testament uses for the love of God shown to us on the cross of Jesus. Nehemiah knows that God is a God of unimaginable love. We need to remember that God does love us and does want to answer our prayers.
  • Pray to God who Keeps his Promises. Third, Nehemiah praises God as a God who keeps his promises. The word that Nehemiah uses is the word we translate “Covenant,” which comes from a root Hebrew uses to describe treaties. When God is made is a promise, it is ratified in heaven, and God can be trusted to keep that promise. God did not desert Israel, and God will not desert us.
  • Pray to God who Sees our Condition and Hears our Prayers. Finally, God is not a distant God who lives and has his being far away from us. God is near to us and sees our condition and hears our prayers.

Nehemiah was (as we shall see) a man of action. He was not a religious dreamer. Nevertheless, before he took any action he prayed. Nehemiah prayed because he knew that the thing he felt called to do was beyond his human power. He needed God’s help. Otherwise, he would fail.

Frankly, the political, economic, social, moral, and spiritual problems of our society are so great that we all need to be in prayer. There is no single politician or political party that is wise enough or smart enough to solve them. As Christians, perhaps the most important thing we can do for our country is pray. As we pray, God may reveal to us acts of wisdom and love that he will bless to make things better. As we pray, we may be able to say or do things in ways that are helpful.

Often, we think Christians need to be in power in order to change our country for the better. We need to remember that Nehemiah was a slave, a servant of a pagan Persian king. He had no power except that which comes from prayer and the confidence the king had that Nehemiah would act in the king’s best interests. We do not need to be in power to bless our society with the wisdom and love of God. We don’t need to be in power to gain a reputation for practical wisdom and compassion for others.

Often, it appears to others that evangelical Christians want to be in power, to take over Washington, and to enact our own political or economic agenda.  We Christians in America do not need to be in power to pray for our country, to behave wisely, and to love other people. In many ways these are the most important things we can do for our nation. This week, I copied Nehemiah’s prayer into my journal twice, making it my prayer for our nation. I suggest everyone who feels inclined read and reread Nehemiah’s prayer this year until it becomes your own prayer for our nation,

Pentecost and Renewal.

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church. Acts opens with the disciples in the Upper Room praying that God will send the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). They prayed for ten days. Then, the coming of the Holy Spirit is described:

pentecostWhen the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4).

In response to the prayers of the early church, God sent them the power that they would need to renew Israel and to bring the Gentiles into the faith. In response to our prayers, God will send the Holy Spirit to empower us to help our nation.

This week, I learned that the name, Nehemiah” means “the consoler from the Lord.” In John, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Comforter” who was sent by God to console and advocate for God’s people  (John 14:15-18; 15:26-27). Nehemiah was sent to his people to advocate, to console, and to comfort them in a time of need. He was called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to have the wisdom and love for others he needed for his great task. The ancient commentators saw today’s text as a Pentecost text because Nehemiah was a rebuilder of Israel, and the disciples were empowered to rebuild God’s people as a Holy Nation, a New Israel,  on Pentecost! [3]

We should pray that God will send the Holy Spirit upon us so that we can be Spirit-filled “little Nehemiah’s” for our culture. More than anything else, we need to be consolers of our nation, comforters of those who need comfort, and advocates for wise and loving change.

Pentecost 2016.

If we are concerned about our country and want to know what we can do to help, Nehemiah gives us a wonderful example. We should be concerned about our nation and mourn for its condition. We should pray for our nation and ask God to help us. We should  confess our sins as well as the sins of our nation. In addition, however there are other prayers we can make:

  • We can pray for wisdom
  • We can pray for love
  • We can pray for power
  • We can pray for renewal
  • We can pray to be Christ-like during the election season
  • We can pray for our society to be rebuilt

images-4Our job isn’t over just because we’re praying.  As we will learn next week and in the weeks to come, there are other things to do, some of them requiring courage. But the beginning of renewing our culture requires something that can be harder for those of us who are active than showing courage. We need to be quiet, mourn, fast, and pray. All real renewal and all real rebuilding begins with prayer.

Not so long ago, I was with a person who was planning a renovation of sorts. Before this person began, he and his wife stopped and prayed for what would come next in their renovation. We don’t always do this, but we should. Rebuilding is hard work, and we can help ourselves a lot if stop and pray before we begin.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Mark A. Throntvelt, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 2.

[2] We know this because when Chapter 2 opens, it is later in the year (Nehemiah 2:1).

[3] See, Marco Conti, ed., “Hehemiah” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament Vol. V. (Downer’s Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 2008), 333-335.

Get Unplugged from Media and Plugged into the Word

imagesThis week, Acts 17:1-12 forms the basis of our Blog. It is appropriate that this sermon be preached on Mother’s Day. How many of us learned our first Bible scriptures listening to our mothers read Bible stories to us at bedtime! How many faithful grandmothers have read the Bible to children. Therefore, this blog is for everyone, but I dedicate it to our  mothers, living and with the Lord, and especially to my mother!

We are in a short series dealing with some aspects of our culture that make it difficult for us to live out the Christian life. Just to bring everyone up to date, we’ve talked about becoming unplugged from human pride and plugged into God. We’ve  talked about becoming unplugged from selfishness and plugged into Jesus. We’ve talked about getting unplugged from isolation and plugged into God’s Spirit-filled community. In this blog, we’re going to talk about getting unplugged from the media and plugged into the word of God.

One striking feature of our culture is the role media plays in our lives. In many ways, our culture is the most media-dependent culture in the world. imgres-1Let me give you a few examples. A most unfortunate aspect of our culture is the number of hours a day children and youth stand watching. reading, or listening to media. In prior years, fundamental values were transmitted by parents reading the Bible and other great literature to their children, by young people attending church regularly, and by the relationships children had within families and in local communities. Today, study after study shows that young people receive almost all of their information about what it means to be human and how to live from the media. The world view of the newer generations is formed primarily by the media.

When my parents were young, the word “media” largely meant people read newspapers, magazines, and listened to the radio. Every so often, when people could afford it, they saw a movie. At night they read books, most often the Bible. Even in my parent’s generation things were slowly changing. Things began to change dramatically in my generation. We were the first generation formed more by “Micky Mouse Club” than by the Bible.

Today, young people are saturated with images, many of which involve sex, money, and violence. Music is a more important factor in forming young people than ever before in history, and young people have access to music that would’ve been unimaginable in prior generations. In addition (and unfortunatelty), increasing the media deliberately distorts reality for political and social conditioning purposes.

Pornography, which is a problem for men and women today, used to involve a certain amount of risk of getting caught buying a girlie magazine. Today, any youngster can dial into a pornographic website almost without risk. If they smart enough this includes without risk of getting caught by their parents.

In Psalms, we learn that the Word of God is a light that shines into our daily walk and a lamp that illuminates our way in dark times and through all of life (Psalm 19:105). The wise men of Israel believed that one of the most important ways to become wise was to meditate daily upon and laws of God (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2, 119:15; 97). Today, little of the news we read or watch makes any attempt to avoid bias. Therefore, if we want to live wisely and lovingly, and if we want our children to live wisely and lovingly, we need to take time to unplug from the media and plug into the word of God.

A Noble Beginning.

In the first part of Acts 17, Paul began a church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Unfortunately, the Thessalonicans refused to listen to Paul when he taught from the Old and New Testaments that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. From Thessalonica, Paul went to Berea. There, Paul has a different experience.

images-2In  Acts 17:10-15, we read:

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue.  Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea (Acts 17:10-14).

Let us pray: O God who speaks, please enter our hearts and speak to us by the silent power of your word. Allow us to hear afresh your Word of Truth. Convict us. Convert us. Make us wholly yours. Amen.

Narrow Minded Prejudice: The Enemy of Faith.

There is a little phrase in this text that is one of my favorites in the New Testament. I love the phrase reads that “the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonicans” (Acts 17:11). Various translators translate this phrase differently. Sometimes it is translated “open-minded (NLT). Sometimes it is translated “more open minded” (NLV). Sometimes it is translated “more willing to listen” (NCV). However, traditional English translations render it “more noble” (KJV, RSV, ESV). In Greek, the word literally means “high born”. The idea Luke is communicating is that wise people are always willing to learn. “Nobility” is not a matter of social class, or money, or intelligence, or education; nobility is a way of life characterized, among other things, by wisdom and willingness to learn.

imgres-3When Paul was in Thessalonica, he conducted his ministry as he normally did: He went to the synagogue and began to teach. Our Scripture tells us that Paul taught in the synagogue explaining how the Old Testament Scriptures pointed toward the Messiahship of Jesus (v. 3). Like Jesus with the disciples after his resurrection, Paul looked at passages from Moses, Psalms, and the Prophets (and particularly Isaiah), showing that they did not point toward a military Messiah but toward a Messiah of suffering love. which is what Jesus was.

After a short period of time in Berea, a few Jews and a number of God-fearers received Paul’s message and accepted Christ (v. 4). On the other hand, the majority of the Thessalonians had rejected Paul’s message almost without listening and started a riot (vv.5-9). Our text indicates that the leaders of the Thessalonian synagogue were jealous of Paul’s learning and of their loss of power (v. 5).  It was only when trouble makers from Thessalonica came to Berea that there was trouble.

When we did our series in the fall, we spoke about “People of  Peace” (Luke 10:6). A person of peace is a person who is open to hear the word of God and accept the peace God offers us in Christ. If we are not open to hear the word of God, it will never transform us.  We don’t need to be people of peace just once before we accept Christ. We need to continue to people peace day after day searching the Scriptures and hearing the word of God.

Scripture: Our Guidebook for Faith.

imgres-2I keep in my briefcase (until I lose it or give it away) a little copy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In answer to Question 3, “What does the Bible teach?” the catechism responds, “What human beings need to believe about God and about how to behave” (GCS paraphrase). As Christians, we accept the fact that we are fallen creatures. We all have our prejudices and shortcomings. Scripture provides us a way to gain perspective on ourselves and hear the voice of God speaking into our hearts so that we may be changed.

In Second Timothy, Paul writes perhaps the most famous of all his words about Scripture. Writing to young Timothy, he says:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness,  my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom[a]you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:10-17).

In other words, Scripture contains everything we need to know about the Christian life. It gives us knowledge. It corrects us when we’ve gone wrong. It trains us in how to behave morally. It makes us wise and able to do the things God wants us to do.

When I’m traveling, I often have my quiet time on the airplane. I’ve done this for forty years. It’s always been comforting to see how many people read their Bibles on an airplane. It doesn’t happen all the time; however, I frequently see businessmen and women, mothers, and young people all studying Scripture as they travel. It means that whatever they’re going, they’re getting equipped to be God’s people when they get there. Of course, we should not just do this when we’re traveling. We should be equipping ourselves every day. To do that, we have to unplug ourselves from the world, and especially from the media, and get plugged into God.

Perhaps you think this is easier for pastors or other professionals than it is for you. You could not be more wrong. I have a computer. I have a cell phone. I have an iPad. I’m addicted to the news. During election years like this one, I have to constantly remind myself to check the news once in the morning and once at night or I watch it all the time. The media knows that big headlines and juicy stories catch our attention. What we need is the wisdom that comes from comparing what we hear in the media and hear on the news to what Scripture teaches.

How to Get Plugged the into Scripture.

Some people don’t know how to get started studying Scripture, so I thought that I would take a few moments to share a few ideas.  imgres-4There are some basic techniques that anyone can use to connect with the Bible and learn from the text. Some of these are:

  1. Personal Reading. The first level of any text is a rendering of what it literally says. Some questions that will help get the basic meaning out are as follows:
  • What did you hear the author (or character or Jesus) saying as the text was read?
  • What is the context where this is said?
  • What was frustrating, unclear, or difficult?
  1. Personal Involvement. The next stage is to get personally involved in the text. Some helpful questions here are:
  • With whom or what do you identify with in the story?
  • What past feelings does this text restore?
  • What personal experience does this text bring to mind?
  • What joy, pain or hurt does this text bring to mind?
  1. Personal Application. Remember that meditation and personal application is the most important thing in studying the Bible. We should always leave adequate time for application. Some personal application questions are:
  • What is God asking you to do?
  • What hope does this give you?
  • What relationship does this impact?
  • What will you do differently because of this study?

Sometimes, people feel that they need to be Bible scholars in order to study the Bible. This is not true. In fact, I urge people not to read commentaries until they’ve studied the text for themselves. Commentaries tell you what other people think and have thought in the past. They are very useful. However, they inevitably cause us to treat the text as an object we are studying. While this is important, it is more important for us to personally enter the text and allow the text to transform us. When I write sermons, I do look at commentaries. However, the first thing I do is read the text and allow the text to enter into my heart. Sometimes, as it did this week, it takes a long time and it isn’t easy.

Christ the Center.

If you remember our Easter series, you remember learning that when Jesus rose from the dead on three occasions he or the Angels explained to the disciples that the things written in the Old Testament explained why the Messiah had to suffer, die, and be resurrected from the dead (See, Luke 24:7; 25-27;44-47). Paul does the same thing in Berea.

As Christians, we read Scripture to understand the laws of God, to learn the history of Israel and how God acts in history, to learn to be wise, to allow the music of God into our hearts as in Psalms, and to hear the prophetic word of God judging us as in the Prophets. However, the most important thing we learned in Scripture is who Christ is and how Christ acts in our lives to change us into the image of God.

images-1Let me repeat this: the most important thing we learn in Scripture is who Christ is and how Christ acts in our lives to change us into the image of God. Christ is the center of Scripture. Scripture should lead us into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Scripture should allow us to find ourselves surrounded and permeated by the love of God. The function of Scripture is to lead us into a personal relationship with God. In fact, if we do not allow Scripture to do this, we will never be able to understand Scripture.

It is a long time since I began my journey through Scripture. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it was like at the beginning. I do remember it was hard. I do remember that I could not understand Job no matter how hard I tried! Even today, I remind myself how boring I find Leviticus and a few other books of the Bible. Nevertheless, over the years it has been the single most important thing in my learning about God, about other people, and about myself.

Copyright G. Christopher Scruggs, 2016, All Rights Reserved

Unplugged from Isolation and Plugged into Community

Today’s post is on the implications of Acts 2:42-47 for the church today.

If I were to take an aerial picture of our neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri in 1958 or so and another picture of our neighborhood in Cordova, Tennessee in the year 2016, one would immediately notice a striking difference: In 1958, my brother and I could run through backyards practically to Nebraska without once crossing a privacy fence. Almost no one had a privacy fence. However, today if you look at a picture of our neighborhood in Cordova, Tennessee everyone has a privacy fence. In fact, our neighborhood code requires that you have not just a privacy fence but a particular kind of privacy fence.

images-3Privacy fences reveal and are a metaphor for a big change in American society. Once again, I remember talking to a very successful oil executive in Houston Texas around the year 1980. In 1948, he said, even in his affluent neighborhood, people got together on Friday evenings and cooked out together. They watch the children play, the men barbecued, the women prepared the table and the side dishes, and everyone ate together. There was community. I remember the same thing in Springfield, Missouri growing up.

One question I have been asked repeatedly at evangelism seminars is this: “How many of you know your neighbors?” Interestingly, the answer is always, “Not very many.” Americans have increasingly become isolated. There’s even a technical term for this, “Cocooning.” We are so busy at work, and our children are so busy at school and with activities, that Americans increasingly just want to be left alone when they have time off.

Almost every denomination in the United States is experiencing declining church attendance. Often, people suggest that this is a result of a declining interest in faith. I’m not sure this is the only explanation. Almost all social organizations are experiencing a decline in participation. This includes neighborhood associations, fraternal associations, societies, and other social groups that provided meaning and friendship for prior generations. For example, my Dad’s Rose Society has experienced a decline in attendance and participation, as has the Masonic Lodge and the Daughters of the Eastern Star.

Given all this, it is obvious that Americans  need  to get unplugged from our isolation and plugged back into into community.

The Ultimate Community.

In two weeks, we will celebrate Pentecost. At Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the beginning of the Christian church as we know it. On Pentecost Sunday, we’re going to talk a little bit more about the role of prayer in the Christian life as we talk about the beginning of Nehemiah. Next week, we’re going to talk a little bit about the role of the Bible as we move towards Pentecost. Today, I’m going to be picking up after Peter preaches his first great sermon on the day of Pentecost.

whywouldntyouIf you will remember, in Acts Peter preaches the first sermon (Acts 2). He explicitly sees Jesus as the fulfillment of all of the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. He explains the cross and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. When Peter is finished, we are told that the people were cut to the quick (v. 37). They asked Peter what they should do (v. 37). He responded that they should repent and be baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 38). Apparently, 3000 people believed on that day (v. 41). Then, we read the following:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

Prayer: Triune God, who exists and lives in Loving Community: We confess that we find it hard, very hard, to create and sustain community. Please come among us this day that we might see and feel what you desire for each of us. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

The Community of God.

A most striking things about the Bible that often goes unnoticed is the importance of community. When God wanted to put into place his plan to overcome the effects of sin and the Fall, he chose a person (Genesis 12:1). Out of that person (Abraham) he created a family, then a tribe of families, and eventually a nation. In other words, God created a community. Through the history of the community we call, “Israel,” God prepared his people to receive his ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.

imgresWhen Jesus came, the first thing we see him doing is calling his disciples together and creating a community. It was within the intimate, loving, nurturing, and discipling context of that community, that Jesus prepared the disciples to carry his message into the world. We can too easily pass this by. So far as we know, Jesus never told the disciples to write the Bible. He himself never wrote a book. What we do see is Jesus calling disciples, teaching disciples, sharing his love with disciples, correcting disciples, and building close personal relationships with the disciples. Jesus created a community we call, “Church” by everything he did during his lifetime.

The last thing we see Jesus doing in Matthew, and the other Gospels, is commissioning the community he had created to go into all the world and share the gospel (See, Matthew 28:16-20). In Acts, Jesus commissions his disciples and then sends them as a community back to the Upper Room to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-8). When the Holy Spirit came upon the Church, it did not come just upon Peter, or upon the Twelve, but upon all those, men and women, who had been waiting and praying for the gift of the Spirit.

After Peter preached his sermon, the first thing God does is expand His community of believers. In other words, community is not optional. We human beings were made in the image of God. God exists as a community of love. We were created to exist in a community of love. One reason we have so much dysfunction in our society is that we have forgotten that community is not optional. Community is essential to the human life. Therefore, community is essential for the church. In fact, the church is supposed to model what a true Christian community is all about.

Elements of Community.

Our text today reveals for us six things that are clearly necessary for authentic Christian community.

  • Bible Teaching. The Christian community is structured around and depends on teaching the Bible. This is what is meant by the phrase, “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching” (v. 42). The Apostles were teaching new disciples the Old Testament and their memories of Jesus and how he fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament.
  • The Christian community involves a deep fellowship (vv. 42-46). Our text tells us that the new disciples devoted themselves to fellowship, to eating together, to praying together, and sharing their lives. This kind of deep community is hard to create in a society devoted to individual self-seeking.
  • Prayer. The community was devoted to prayer (v. 42). Jesus modeled a deep prayer life for his disciples. The disciples spent much time in the Upper Room praying for the Holy Spirit. Authentic spiritual growth does not occur just as a result of Bible study or church participation. Authentic spiritual growth occurs in response to prayer.
  • Acts of love. In several places, we are alerted to the fact that the community was filled with love (vv. 42-46). Fellowship requires acts of love. We’re told that they shared meals together. Were told that they were generous. All of these things mean that they were constantly sharing God’s love with one another. We also know from other passages of Scripture and the history of the church that they were generously sharing God’s love outside of their fellowship.
  • Spiritual Power. We are told that the apostles did many signs and wonders (v. 43). We are told that a kind of supernatural generosity characterized the fellowship (vv. 44-45). An unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred. Spiritual power comes in response to prayer and authentic community.
  • Outreach. Finally, we are told that the community group (v. 47). In other words, they were not just a holy huddle. They were reaching out and sharing the good news in word and deed. People heard about the message of Jesus and they saw the difference that the message of Jesus made in the lives of the believers. They were attracted to what they saw and heard, and lives were changed.

The Community of our Congregation.

It can be hard to see, but everything that we do here in our local church and have done  for many years is structured around this particular passage of Holy Scripture. In particular, we have deliberately structured what happens for the children and young adults around Acts 2:42-47. For example, our Wednesday night program we call, “EPIC” is structured around Bible study, fellowship, a common meal, prayer, and the other elements of the early church.

Last weekend, some of us were at a Men’s Great Banquet. This weekend, a number of our women are at a Women’s Great Banquet. The Great Banquet weekends are structured around Acts 2:42-47, our passage for today’s blog. We hear talks based on Scripture together. We celebrate Holy Communion together. We eat meals together. We worship together. The idea of the weekend is to model God’s community of love in a special way for laypeople so that they can go back to their local church and share the same kind of love with others. The mission of the Great Banquet is to help churches become more like the New Testament church.

There is a similar weekend for our youth. In addition, week after week we have a youth program in which the young people come together, hear the apostles teaching, share a common meal, have fellowship together, and experience God’s love in a special way. When “Huddle” was created, it was consciously created to model the early church as described in today’s passage.

In other words, everything that we do, and in all of our planning for the future, we plan to help people become unplugged from isolation and plug-in to the community of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we call the church. The church is not an organization. It’s a community modeled after the community of God.

God Sent His Son to Create Community.

images-2When pastors get together, we often complain about how hard it is to create community. There is no question but what it is hard to create authentic Christian community. There is no question that what it is especially hard to create authentic Christian community in contemporary American society. However, it’s never been easy. For example, when God wanted to create his special community, his family, his people, his city, his kingdom, he sent his Only Son to show us what his community was like. His Son, as we know, had to give his life on the cross in order to create that community.

This is the hard fact: the reason community is so hard to create is that human selfishness and self-canteredness works against the creation of real, authentic community. It requires a special, kind of self-giving love, the kind of love Christ showed on the cross to create the kind of transforming community that we human beings truly need.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Unplugged from Self and Plugged into in Christ

Last week, in this blog we talked about becoming unplugged from human pride and plugged into humility. This week, we’re talking about getting unplugged from self and plugged in to Christ. This weekend is a great weekend to talk about selfishness. There is nothing like April 15th to make me feel selfish!

imgresThe French speak of a disease they call “La Maladie du Moi,” or “Me-sickness.” Despite all the progress the human race has made over the centuries, we have never come close to overcoming human selfishness. The only remedy that has ever been effective was that offered by Christ. His love engenders selflessness because his presence in our hearts, causes “Me-sickness” to vanish.[1] Nothing else works.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of self-interest. It’s natural. We have no choice but to see the world from a center in our own being. We all see and experience the world from a center in ourselves. A bit of self-centeredness is human and natural. Unfortunately, it’s easy for our human selfishness to get out of control. It’s easy for us to begin to care only for ourselves and not for others. It is easy for us to become pathologically self-centered.

Not so many years ago, a member of a local church and his or her spouse went to a local counselor for marital counseling. The counselor advised the husband and wife that they should spend the next few years concentrating on themselves and not the marriage. I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t think a good marriage could survive several years of selfishness on the part of either spouse! [2]

Out of Self and Into Christ.

Our text for this meditation comes from and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is one of Paul’s “Prison Letters.” [3] Paul wrote Ephesians while imprisoned, probably in Rome. imgresEphesus was the leading city of Western Asia Minor. It was one of the most important trade centers in the ancient world, and home to one of the most important churches during Paul’s day.

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church because they had responded to the word of God and become a part of the body of Christ (See Ephesians 1:9-13). Paul loved this church, and he gave them really good advice. To some degree, Ephesians represents Paul’s most mature ideas about Christ, Christian faith, and the Church. For Paul, Christ is the center of God’s revelation to the world. He reflects the very image and being of God. He is the center of God’s saving action in history (see Colossians 1:15-20).

Here is part of what Paul said:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

Let us Pray: God of Love, send your Spirit upon us that we might understand your Word and be filled with your presence and your love, empowered to live differently because of what you have done for us.

 Life Among the Self-Centered.

Some readers may remember the name, “Ayn Rand.” imagesShe was the author of several books, including one that is been made into two movies, “Atlas Shrugged.” She also wrote a book called, “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In her books, Rand explained that Christianity and other world religions that speak of selfishness as wrong were wrong. In fact, selfishness is a virtue. To some degree, Ayn Rand was simply a popularizer of a materialist philosophy and a cheerleader for an outdated way of seeing the world. (She called her philosophy “objectivism,” a view based upon a popular, but much critiqued view of human knowing and of human morals). It mirrored the materialism and self-centeredness of American culture. Although she has been much criticized by experts, she attracted a big following during her lifetime, even among cultural elites. [4]

Although the books were successful, and an earlier movie starring Gary Cooper was successful, the most recent movie wasn’t terribly successful. In a way, this is surprising. It may not be popular to talk about being selfish in a positive way in our culture, but selfishness is one of the biggest problems we face. 74207-64717In fact, many people note that our culture has become so self-centered that it borders on narcissistic.

“Narcissism” takes its name from an ancient fable involving a man named “Narcissus” In the Greek myth, Narcissus was proud and disdained those who loved him. The God “Nemesis” (from whom we get our phrase, “He is my nemesis”) noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Narcissus could not tear himself away from his image in the pool, wasted away and died. To be a narcissist, then,  is to have an excessive, pathological, dangerous love of oneself.

Modern Americans are not the only people to suffer from narcissism. The tendency towards narcissism is, as the Greeks knew, a part of human nature. All humans, all the time, tend towards a kind of pathological self-centeredness. It is the legacy of our self-consciousness and the Fall. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3). In other words, it is just part of the human condition to live according to our own selfish desires. The problem is, in our culture as in the ancient world, no one can achieve happiness, peace, or stability if they’re self-centered. It is only by getting outside of ourselves and our own selfish desires that we can become whole. Selfishness always and everywhere leads to personal and social chaos.

Jesus and Unselfishness.

Jesus was different in both dramatic and unassuming ways. In Mark, there is a story of Jesus that illustrates his unselfishness. In the early part of Mark, Jesus becomes very famous and is followed by large crowds. In Mark 5, Jesus was teaching, and so many people surrounded him and the crowd was so needy that neither the crowd nor disciples had a chance to eat. Jesus, recognizing that everyone was getting exhausted, told the disciples to come with him to a quiet place and rest. They went away in a boat to be alone and recharge their batteries, so to speak.

imgres-1Unfortunately, many of the people who were listening to Jesus recognized that he was leaving and ran ahead of him. When Jesus landed at the place he and the disciples had chosen for their little retreat, there was a crowd of hungry people waiting for him.

His disciples, who were tired and hungry, asked Jesus to please send the crowd away. No one could have faulted the disciples or Jesus if they had done so: Jesus had stopped preaching and healing. He never promised the crowd anything to eat. The disciples and Jesus were tired and needed rest. Nevertheless, Jesus fed the 5,000 people who had followed him. [5] Most of the time when we hear the story, we think of the miracle itself. However, this is also a story about unselfishness. Jesus was unselfish, the only truly fully unselfish person in history. Jesus needed and deserved a rest, but he met the needs of the crowd instead.

One common title for Jesus is, “The Man for Others.” Everything about Jesus was other-centered. He cared about other people. He put the needs of other people first. As a leader, he tried to serve the interests of other people. Jesus demonstrated by his life a healthy psychology that is not self-centered.

Grace as the Way Out.

It is at this point, as you probably expect me to say something like, “So, be like Jesus!” Paul, however, understood that human beings can never be unselfish by our own power. All of us are naturally selfish. All of us naturally are self-centered. All of us by nature try to satisfy our own desires and cravings. Paul understood that, by nature, we find it impossible to escape our own self-centeredness. That is why he says:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).

It was not Paul that escaped Paul’s selfishness by his own effort. It was Christ who by God’s mercy rescued Paul from his selfishness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The problem of human selfishness is so serious that it is only the cross and the power of the resurrection that can save us. Fortunately, God loves the human race and desires for us to escape our selfishness and experience the joyful,  Spirit-filled life Christ experienced. This is why Paul goes on to say, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves—it is the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast” (vv. 8-9).

Our escape from selfishness is an act of pure grace. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift that we receive by trusting God and being faithful to God, allowing the power of the resurrection to enter our lives and transform us. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to escape our own self-centeredness and live an “other-centered” life like Christ. The idea behind these verses and many like them is that God does the work, not us.

One of my favorite Pauline phrases is the phrase, “in Christ.” For example, in Second Corinthians, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The phrase “in Christ” connotes a situation where we are “in Christ” and Christ is in us, as if we are surrounded and permeated by Christ. How do we get surrounded and permeated by Christ?

  • First we believe and trust. We invite Christ into our hearts, so that we begin to think, act, feel as Christ thinks, feels and acts.
  • Second, we constantly ask Christ to change us. We lift up our lives to God daily in prayer and ask for God’s grace.
  • Third, we begin to learn more about Christ and the Christian life, so that the way we think becomes the way Christ thinks.
  • Finally, we live with Christ in us for a long time. We slowly but surely change as Christ changes us over time. It does not happen over night, but as I mentioned in a moment ago, we are filled with hope because “Christ in me is the hope of Glory” (Col. 1:25).

imgres-2Many years ago, just after Chuck Colson became a Christian, I had an opportunity to see him. I had read his book and seen many pictures of him during the Watergate period. Then, some years later, I saw Colson in person when he came to Houston to give a talk. Interestingly, I could tell the difference years of being a Christian had made in his life. He looked kinder, more loving. The lines in his face no longer had the harsh look that they had that first time I saw him. They had become smile wrinkles. When we allow Christ to dwell in us, we do in fact change, not all at once but over time. This is the power of the resurrection at work in our lives.

The Blessing of Unselfishness.

A foundational commitment of our church is to share God’s love with others. The Great Commandment teaches us to “Love others as we love ourselves” (Matthew 22:36-40). Part of being a Christian is gradually coming to the point where we love others just like ourselves, and when we do, we are being truly “other centered” like Jesus was other centered.

There is an old story told of a spouse who came to a pastor about a divorce. The person admitted that he or she hated his or her spouse. They wanted to hurt the person as badly as possible. Of course, the person wanted a divorce. The pastor recommended that the spouse go home and practice loving their spouse like Jesus loved the church. After a few months, the pastor saw the person and asked if he or she was in the process of getting the divorce. The person answered, “No. We love each other too much.”

This story may be apocryphal, but its message is true: Selfishness destroys love; unselfishness creates love. Therefore, the second thing we have to do if we want to find the blessed life is get unplugged from our own selfish desires and plug into love God.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I found this in a version at More Sermon Illustrations.com/ selfishness (downloaded April 14, 2016).

[2] This is an actual event. One member of the marriage later came to me for counseling. I thought the advice was about as silly as any I’d ever heard of from a counselor.

[3] I am indebted to William Barclay, “The Letters to Galatians &Ephesians” in The Daily Bible Study Series 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958).

[4] See, Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (New York, NY, Random House, 1957) and The Virtue of Selfishness (New York, NY: New American Library, 1964). Among her more or less disciples were and are Alan Greenspan, Rand Paul, Steve Jobs, and Mark Cuban. In my view her views are behind the monetary errors of the Greenspan era.

[5] See, Mark 5:30-44.