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.


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]


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.


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.


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 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 googletest. 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.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved