Rebuild: Praying for a Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Actions of a Reformer.

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

Our text is from Nehemiah 13:

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

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

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

How We Got Here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Danger of Backsliding.

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

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

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

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

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

The Courage of Nehemiah.

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

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

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

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

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

Nehemiah’s Prayers.

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

[3] Id, at 215.

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

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

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

Worship that Transforms a Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Worship that Changed Israel.

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

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

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

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

Transforming Worship.

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

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

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

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

Transforming Confession.

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

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

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

Our Transforming God.

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

All of this is summarized as follows:

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

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


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

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

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

A Transforming People.

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

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

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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