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.


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.


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.


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 ( 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