Remembering (Nehemiah 13:1-31)

There is the oft-quoted, famous saying that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Why do people repeat mistakes?  It is often because they simply do not remember or choose to remember what went terribly wrong in the past.

The nation of Israel had their own sort of special stupid when it came to repeating mistakes and paying a price for them.

A few years ago I was discipling a young man who had come to Christ out of a totally non-religious background, and he insisted on reading the Bible from beginning to end. I wanted to have him do it in a more strategic way for discipleship purposes, but he was insistent. So every week he would come with a list of questions about Old Testament narratives and practices, and every week he would go into a new laughing fit at how dumb the Israelites were AGAIN, and how God had to spank them for disobedience. He was incredulous at their failures … over and over.boy-with-bible

Some of this final chapter of Nehemiah may strike us as very odd, but understand that it comes from an ancient culture. But what is timeless is the truth that disobeying God simply never works out.

It never worked out (as God said it would not) for the Israelites to intermarry with goodness people groups around them. This had to stop. And having an enemy living inside the very center of worship itself was total foolishness.

Not honoring the Sabbath was an ongoing problem that cheapened faith and drew the people into dependence upon self rather than trust in God. It was saying that six days out of seven were not enough to supply their physical needs and desires.

Not being generous and sacrificial toward God’s worship and work always resulted in a weakening of the foundations for centralized success and prioritization. The Temple work suffered, and the people were not sufficiently resourced with God’s truth.

Nehemiah took on all of these challenges, repeating multiple times in this chapter and throughout the book a prayer that God would remember him for this faithful work he undertook, often at great personal peril.

Why did Nehemiah live as he did? Why did he care? Why did he over and over take strong stands, rebuke people for going their own way, calling them back to God and truth?

Why did he repeatedly invoke God’s blessing on his work and leadership?  To make a great name for himself? So that others would come along 2500 years later and preach a sermon series about his life and work? To just be famous for a wall?

It was because he knew the only way his generation and those to follow would be blessed would be because they safely centralized and prioritized God in their lives and nation.

To put it into New Testament terms, describing a way we should live, we follow the model of the ultimate Nehemiah – Jesus Christ – of whom the Scriptures say (2 Cor. 5:15) “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” 

That is living a legacy #ForOurCity, while leaving a legacy for generations to follow.


13:1 – On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2 because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) 3 When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

4 Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.

6 But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission 7 and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8 I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.

10 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. 11 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.

12 All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. 13 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.

14 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.

15 – In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”

19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.

23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”

28 One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me.

29 Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.

30 So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits.

Remember me with favor, my God.

The Choir Director’s Big Day (Nehemiah 12:40-47)

I have to have some fun with this passage today, as it really tickles a bone down deep inside me to read hear about choirs and musicians being honored and prioritized. When I set out into the world of education after high school, I thought that it was to such a position and career I was headed. Church choirs and orchestras were a big deal then. Contemporary worship was yet to be born. And even though my primary focus drifted from music to pastoral ministry even before I had graduated from college, serving as a minister of music with choral and orchestral conducting was still a primary part of what I would do in local churches for a handful of years. And it was exuberating I must say. And though I made my change away from traditional to contemporary worship with my eyes open many years ago, believing it would be the best way of reaching our culture and world, a part of me still loves the grand sounds of a large choir, orchestra and pipe organ.

The two choirs marched around the wall in opposite directions, meeting ultimately at the Temple. It may well be that they performed some sort of antiphonal singing – meaning a type of back and forth expression, or something with one group echoing the other.

The passage goes on to not only describe this day, but to also give detail as to how an ongoing system of support was arranged for the functioning of worship. Detailed arrangements were made that offerings would be provided to support the priests, Levites, and musicians. This was re-establishing what the Law had prescribed for the worship experience of the nation, something largely forgotten and alien to the experience of people who had been dispersed, along with their physical center of faith being destroyed.

What are the timeless truths that arise from an Old Testament passage such as this? Should we re-establish choirs and pay musicians to live in the church building? No, that’s not the ticket. We do need to take from this that God is to be worshipped and prioritized in all of life. Honoring him centrally in all we do needs to be the highest priority. Doing that together with others on the first day of the week is an important feature of this, and we should “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (as it says in Hebrews 10:25).

But as Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4, a day was coming when true worshippers would not be about doing it at a single place like Jerusalem, but that it would be in “spirit and truth.”  We don’t go to church to meet God at the specific place where his glory especially dwells, because we have in this church age the Spirit of God living in us. We don’t go to church merely to do church, we ARE the church and we gather to do more together than we can do alone – both in worship and service.

When the Israelites gathered and worshipped on this occasion, it says that the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

As we live our faith and live a legacy, oh that it would be true of us that the “sound” and knowledge of the joy and reality of life in Christ would be very evident to the outside world. And may that be true of our church and our churches in this community! May it be that our relationships with God and with each other are the stuff that makes those yet to know Christ say to themselves, “Where can I sign up to be a part of something like that?”

12:40 – The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, 41 as well as the priests—Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets— 42 and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

44 At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites. 45 They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did also the musicians and gatekeepers, according to the commands of David and his son Solomon. 46 For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. 47 So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the musicians and the gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.

Eyes on the Horizon (Nehemiah 12:27-39)

When we think of the book of Nehemiah, it is the incredible construction of a wall that we think about first and foremost. But why did Nehemiah care so much about a wall? Yes, security was a big issue. Ancient cities were very exposed without walls of protection from barbaric attacks.

But it was much more than just a wall for protection. It represented a larger vision for a greater legacy. They rebuilt the security, protection, and strength of their city, AND, they brought the nation back into a place of spiritual focus with a proper worship of God.

The structure of the ancient city was designed around its religious character. Thus the dedication ceremony that we read about today had a decidedly religious flavor. The dedication of the wall cannot be separated, then, from the work of Ezra who rebuilt Israel’s temple. We may rightly see this ceremony as the climax to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Of this section of text this past week, we made this point: We live a legacy when we make eternal values a present priority.

We might ask, “What will I leave behind that will matter in 100 years?

Our greatest impact, to live a legacy, is for us to pass on to the next generation the experience of the personal presence of God. We will be most remembered, not for what we did, but for how we passed on what we did so that the next generation can do it better.

We must make it our life mission to hand to others not merely a list of how-to’s, but rather a compelling reason to live so as to experience of the presence of God.

What will outlast us in our city that we can live today?  Focusing on what matters for eternity! That means we can’t just focus on what is temporary – making a living, our jobs, hobbies and interests, maintaining the status quo – we must LIVE A LEGACY by living a life that matters for eternity.

Invest in “rebuilding the walls” of protection and security for our city and those we know and care about – by praying, by loving, by serving, by living a life of compassion.eyes-on-horizon

We must call our city and churches, our own family and friends back to true worship of the one true God rather than being consumed with living for the moment, caught up in what is comfortable, safe, and easy … but passing away. Yes, we need to lift our eyes up from the sidewalk experience of this world, to see rather the horizon of the eternal kingdom of God.

12:27 – At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the musicians had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.

31 I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. 32 Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them, 33 along with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, 35 as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zakkur, the son of Asaph, 36 and his associates—Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani—with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the teacher of the Law led the procession. 37 At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the site of David’s palace to the Water Gate on the east.

38 The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people—past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, 39 over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped.

A Little Piece of a Big Thing (Nehemiah 12:1-26)

Like many others some years ago, I confess that when I heard of the plans for the construction of the Vietnam Memorial, I thought to myself, “That’s it?  That’s all they’re going to do?  A mere wall with names on it?  Nothing fancier or dramatically artistic than that?”vietnam-wall

Probably most of you have been there at one time or another and been moved by the simple, yet profound nature of it. The shape, the structure, the color and texture – it all works together in a most moving fashion. It has been written that the shiny black wall was designed so that when a visitor looks upon the wall, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names, which is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together.

There are 58,307 names of those who gave their lives in that conflict in Southeast Asia. But what is the value of one life? Would it have made a difference if there were 58,306 … or 58,305 who fought and perished in the effort? Try telling the family of any one person on that wall that their loved one’s efforts were merely a drop in the bucket and not worth much in light of the big picture!

Every life counts. We might even say it this way: #AllLivesMatter. Any great undertaking is comprised of masses of people who, like the varied roles of bees in a hive, all contribute their part toward making a success of any endeavor.

Today’s passage in Nehemiah 12:1-26 (following the same sort of material in chapter 11) is another of those long laundry lists of names in Scripture that seem to go on ad infinitum! Why does this happen in the Bible?  I’d suggest it is because all lives matter … all servants doing their part count. There are no small or insignificant roles in the Lord’s work.

What we have here is a sort of Old Testament account of the New Testament principle forming the main idea in another 12th chapter – that of 1 Corinthians. There the people of God – the Church – are seen as possessing varied gifts and talents for the service and wellbeing of the whole body. The illustration of course is to the varied members of the human body, great and small. When what is often considered a lesser part of the body has a problem, suddenly the whole body realizes the value of that small member.

Nehemiah lists in these verses the names of people who together played varied roles in the grand project of not only rebuilding the wall, but who were now occupying the city and Temple and making it a functioning and living place for God’s glory. These were people who were leaving a legacy by living a legacy – fulfilling the oft-described role of “blooming where they were planted.”

For our city to thrive, we are going to need the thousands of people who will serve God by serving others, most often in small ways. If you consider your role alone, it may not seem to be tremendously significant. But when added together with a host of others, it is a beautiful picture. beads-wall

It is my family that owns the Potomac Bead Company store in Hagerstown (and multiple other locations). At times when I have been in the store, someone will come through the doors for the first time. And they often audibly gasp at the tidal wave of colors that hits their eyes, as literally millions of beads create a rainbow cacophony of hues and shades. A single bead can sometimes be as small as a sesame seed – not very impressive. But put them all together, and the effect is dramatic.

So as you read these names, knowing that even though recorded in the Holy Bible most will be forgotten, know also that they are not forgotten by God. And know also that your work, though maybe (or even likely) forgotten by man, will never be disremembered by the Lord.

And as you read these names – names unknown, like the thousands on the Vietnam Wall Memorial – see your reflection and see the past and present come together. As they built and served for God in their generation and lived a legacy, you too can know that you are building and serving God in His Kingdom – one that will never pass away.

12:1 – These were the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and with Joshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, 2 Amariah, Malluk, Hattush, 3 Shekaniah, Rehum, Meremoth,

4 Iddo, Ginnethon, Abijah, 5 Mijamin, Moadiah, Bilgah, 6 Shemaiah, Joiarib, Jedaiah, 7 Sallu, Amok, Hilkiah and Jedaiah.

These were the leaders of the priests and their associates in the days of Joshua.

8 The Levites were Jeshua, Binnui, Kadmiel, Sherebiah, Judah, and also Mattaniah, who, together with his associates, was in charge of the songs of thanksgiving. 9 Bakbukiah and Unni, their associates, stood opposite them in the services.

10 Joshua was the father of Joiakim, Joiakim the father of Eliashib, Eliashib the father of Joiada, 11 Joiada the father of Jonathan, and Jonathan the father of Jaddua.

12 In the days of Joiakim, these were the heads of the priestly families: of Seraiah’s family, Meraiah; of Jeremiah’s, Hananiah; 13 of Ezra’s, Meshullam; of Amariah’s, Jehohanan; 14 of Malluk’s, Jonathan; of Shekaniah’s, Joseph; 15 of Harim’s, Adna; of Meremoth’s, Helkai; 16 of Iddo’s, Zechariah; of Ginnethon’s, Meshullam; 17 of Abijah’s, Zikri; of Miniamin’s and of Moadiah’s, Piltai; 18 of Bilgah’s, Shammua; of Shemaiah’s, Jehonathan; 19 of Joiarib’s, Mattenai; of Jedaiah’s, Uzzi; 20 of Sallu’s, Kallai; of Amok’s, Eber; 21 of Hilkiah’s, Hashabiah; of Jedaiah’s, Nethanel.

22 The family heads of the Levites in the days of Eliashib, Joiada, Johanan and Jaddua, as well as those of the priests, were recorded in the reign of Darius the Persian. 23 The family heads among the descendants of Levi up to the time of Johanan son of Eliashib were recorded in the book of the annals. 24 And the leaders of the Levites were Hashabiah, Sherebiah, Jeshua son of Kadmiel, and their associates, who stood opposite them to give praise and thanksgiving, one section responding to the other, as prescribed by David the man of God.

25 Mattaniah, Bakbukiah, Obadiah, Meshullam, Talmon and Akkub were gatekeepers who guarded the storerooms at the gates. 26 They served in the days of Joiakim son of Joshua, the son of Jozadak, and in the days of Nehemiah the governor and of Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law.

The Legacy Road (Nehemiah 10:28-39)

For this final week of devotionals that follows the last of our six sermons in the For Our City series, we will be focusing on the idea of a legacy. And a major idea flowing out of this emphasis is that in order to leave a legacy, we must live a legacy worthy of passing along to those who follow us.

A legacy is not just something you can will yourself into possessing. It is all about a long walk in the same direction. In an instant-gratification world, living a legacy will also mean sustaining a long walk against the flow.country-road

There is no such thing as a legacy participation trophy. You don’t get this (or, more truthfully, “give” this away) simply for showing up and making it to the end of life’s season. Cal Ripken was a model of daily routine faithfulness and dedication, but he didn’t set the all-time record for consecutive games just because he came to work every day. He had to commit to playing well, producing according to the rules. Unlike many players who never changed the way they do things, Ripken was famous for making adjustments in his batting stance and swing, always having as a goal to be his best for the success of the team.

The masses of people today seem to do what they want to do, regardless of how it affects future generations, rarely asking if what they’re doing and living is actually according to God’s design or desire.

Most people make little difference and leave little behind. Their lives have minimal impact. The plan and decision is to play it safe, take no risks, minimize failure and maximize comfort, and like mindless lemmings, casually and comfortably go with the flow toward an impending cliff called “death.”

In Christ we can do better than that. We can live a legacy – one that can be left to others to follow.

As we turn to chapter 10 in Nehemiah, we see that the people made a commitment to follow the Lord and his law. And here are three overarching, God-revealed, timeless, objective truths for a life that is bigger than existing for mere convenience and comfort…

  1. We need to maximize relationships with common values and worldviews that are eternal.

10:28 – “The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— 29 all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.

30 “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.

At first glance this would seem to fly in the face of our view of a God who has a heart for the lost peoples of the world. It was God’s desire that the nation of Israel be a witness to the rest of the world of the one true God. But they were to do that from a position of strength and connection with one another. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we see the Israelites being more often drawn into the ways of surrounding nations than we see them being a light-giving, life-giving witness.

Our intimate relationships need to be primarily with those of a common faith and worldview. It creates a strength and interdependence that can be a dynamic and compelling vision to a watching world.

  1. Our priorities need to be about honoring God over accumulating material gains.

12:31 – “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.

The constant flow of commerce on the Sabbath was a persistent problem faced by Nehemiah at several points in the narrative of the whole book. As governor, he had to make a stand against this. The issue was that this commerce took away from a focus upon God and dependence upon him. It was an attitude that the people had that if there was nothing better or more profitable to do on a Sabbath, then they would honor it. Though we don’t have the constraints of Sabbatical laws and requirements in this church age of grace, there remains a similar pattern in the lives of people relative to attendance and church commitment. Having many other (mostly nice and good) things to draw them away to other activities, before long it becomes a pattern to be absent, with a concurrent drift away from relationship with God as a priority.

There was a part of the Law that said the people were to honor a Sabbath year every seventh time around the sun. The people were to trust God that he would provide enough for them in advance that they should leave the ground untilled for a seventh year.

How would you feel about quitting your job every seventh year and believing that God would give you enough in advance to cover your financial needs?  That would take some serious faith and dependence. But God can be trusted; he is ever faithful.

  1. We must prioritize giving to God and supporting his ongoing work.

12:32 – “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: 33 for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, at the New Moon feasts and at the appointed festivals; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.

34 “We—the priests, the Levites and the people—have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the Law.

35 “We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree.

36 “As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there.

37 “Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. 38 A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. 39 The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and olive oil to the storerooms, where the articles for the sanctuary and for the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the musicians are also kept.

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”

In Old Testament times after the giving of the Law to Moses, the people were to express their dependence upon God and the support of his worship and work by giving of the first and best of everything they had. It was not a matter of giving to God what might have been left over after every other life contingency was met.

Consider what it was like for the Jewish worshipper to give up his best animals and crops. It was giving away his future – the genetics that could be passed on, and the seeds for a future harvest. But doing this placed the Old Testament saint fully into an honored position of caring about bigger and eternal things, rather than being merely consumed with substance.

And the principle applies to this day that God can be trusted. Trusting him daily, day after day after week after month after year after year … it all adds up to a long walk that we might even call “living a legacy.”

What you worship, you become (Nehemiah 9:22-38)

We are all addicts.  Even if we are not experiencing the symptoms of addiction at present, our hearts are inclined—literally Hell-bent—toward slavery toward sin and self.

Such words might seem harsh in today’s sanitized world of self-esteem and participation trophies.  And such words blur the comfortable divisions we create (or imagine) between ourselves and the really hard cases.  But when speaking of addiction, it’s important to recognize how sin powerfully affects us all, to the very core of our beings.  After that it’s only a matter of degree.

In Nehemiah’s day, the people were gathered for a ceremony in which they confessed their sins publicly, a confession that also included something of a history lesson, a snapshot of the relationship between God and his people:

22 “And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. 23 You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. 24 So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. 25 And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness. (Nehemiah 9:22-25)

God had been faithful to Israel in her past.  But their present had become contaminated by sin.

WHAT YOU WORSHIP, YOU BECOME

Listen to the words that are used to describe Israel’s sinful spiritual condition:

26 “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. 27 Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. 28 But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. 29 And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. 30 Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.31 Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:26-31)

The words that follow only further underscore a basic truth: that Israel’s hardships weren’t behind her; their iniquity had led them deeper into self-imposed slavery:

32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. 33 Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. 35 Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:27-37)

“We are slaves,” he says.  Slaves.  By that he meant that though the people had their Promised Land in their possession, they remained ruled by the Persian government.  Ironically, in seeking to be their own masters the nation had become enslaved.

The same is true for us as well.  You see, what’s really at issue here is worship.  Nehemiah highlights a basic Biblical principle: that what you worship, you become.  What you worship, you become.

Everybody worships, you see.  In his 2005 address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace told his audience that “everybody worships:”

“The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you worship money or things…then you will never have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid…Worship your intellect…you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.” [1]

Though Wallace was not a believer, his understanding of the human heart resonates profoundly with historic Christianity.  You’ve probably heard me talk about this before, but let’s apply our understanding of worship to the subject of addiction.

In the fourth century, a man named St. Augustine had this idea that our hearts indeed have “default settings.”  He called this the ordo amoris, or the “order of love.”  The simplest way to understand this is to picture your heart as a pyramid.  You will never flourish, Augustine would say, unless God resides at the top of your pyramid.  Your other loves—for family, for career, etc.—occupy the lower spaces beneath.

Sin, therefore, is a form of “dis-ordered” love.  When God no longer is my greatest source of satisfaction, something else will always take his place.

WE ARE ALL DIS-ORDERED

So while it may be true that addiction has a unique origin and a unique course of treatment, we can’t afford to treat addiction as a unique form of sin.  We are all “dis-ordered,” for all our sins are forms of dis-ordered love.  Sin isn’t just a set of bad things we do; it’s a condition into which we’re born.  David lamented that he was “sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Jeremiah would describe the human heart as “deceitful…and desperately sick.”  We’re all addicted to something.  We all look to something besides God as our source of joy and satisfaction.  Once we understand that, then, like Nehemiah, we can begin sharing the burden.

RENEWED LIVES FLOW FROM RE-ORDERED HEARTS

In Nehemiah’s day the choice before them was simple: to “renew their vows” so-to-speak, and to re-affirm their commitment to God alone:

38 “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests. (Nehemiah 9:38)

If you know your Bible history, this would be the last time they renew their commitment to God’s covenant until the days of Jesus.  But in the intervening years, things still don’t go well for them.

We cannot, on our own, ever expect to follow God perfectly by sheer force of will.  Willpower alone is insufficient.  Why?  Because if sin is a form of dis-ordered love, then our lives will never change until we change our loves.  This is why addiction treatments fail: because we have addressed the symptoms, not the cause.  In his book Clean, David Scheff laments:

“Our prevention and treatment efforts have failed mostly because they’ve focused on dealing with drugs themselves, but drug abuse is almost always the result of kids starting to use early, genetics, and other problems—stress, trauma, mental illness, or some combination of these factors. The new paradigm is rooted in recognizing that drugs are a symptom, not a cause, and whatever problems underlie them must be (and can be) addressed. Until they are, our prevention and treatment systems will continue to fail most people.”[2]

We have to change the heart.  Renewed lives can only flow from re-ordered hearts. In John’s biography of Jesus he meets a woman by a well in the town of Sychar.  The woman had spent many nights in the beds of her many lovers.  Her most recent partner is a man to whom she’s not married.

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

Jesus confronts her sin, yes, but that’s neither the starting point nor ending point of the conversation.  It’s as if Jesus is saying: “I want more for you.”

In the face of addiction, we mustn’t forget the gospel.  The gospel doesn’t simply promise that if we try hard enough, if we are good enough, God will provide us what we need to navigate our warring desires.  No; the gospel says that because God is good, he gives us himself, and he alone is what we need to satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

That’s why, honestly, if you are currently facing addiction, if you have ever faced addiction, please hear me.  Whether it’s heroin, whether it’s pornography, whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s greed—the greatest thing God wants to change in you is not your addiction; it’s your lack of dependence on him.  The cross offers not only forgiveness for your lack of dependence; it also beckons each of us to come to him—come to Jesus—to pledge our whole-hearted dependence on him and him alone.

 

[1] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Kenyon College, 2005.  Available online at http://bulletin.kenyon.edu/x4280.html

[2] Sheff, Clean, xix.

Remembering Redemption (Nehemiah 9:9-21)

Much of life slips by us with neither incident nor significance.  Other events cling to us with all the scent and texture memory can preserve.  Events that, given the chance, we wish to pass on to our children, and to their children as well.

We hand down stories of our past because we believe memory to be a faithful guide to our futures.  And surely, for God’s people especially, there is value in looking back to see God’s consistent pattern of faithfulness in our lives over the years.

The same was true of Israel.  We remain in Nehemiah 9, where the people gather in a “revival service” in which they recited the nature of their relationship with God as well as their admission of their unfaithfulness in that relationship.

A STORY OF REDEMPTION

We might best understand Israel’s historical narrative with a single word: redemption.  The word literally means to “buy back,” the way the Lord “redeemed” his people from “a house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 7:8)—referring of course, to Egypt.  This story, the story of the exodus, became the defining event for God’s people for centuries.

It’s little wonder, then, that the redemption of God’s people took center stage in the prayer of Nehemiah 9:

9 “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, 10 and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. 11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. 12 By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. 13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. 15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them. (Nehemiah 9:9-15)

FATAL FORGETFULNESS

The problem, of course, is that this defining work of God did not produce lasting change.  The prayer now turns to the act of confessing the people’s disobedience to God:

16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. 18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. 20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. 21 Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. (Nehemiah 9:9-21)

God’s sustaining power is emblematic of his surpassing goodness and grace.

REMEMBERING REDEMPTION

How are we to understand this today?  First, we understand that we live in a different covenant than Nehemiah’s people.  What is a “covenant?”  Most simply, it is a promise, an agreement.  For us, we might see a covenant as asking and answering a basic spiritual question: How can I experience God in my life?

For Israel, they lived in the promise of the covenant made to Abraham, wherein God pledged that his people would have the blessing of the Promised Land and the descendants with which to fill it.  This promise was given as an extension of God’s grace and steadfast love.  But, if God’s people were to enjoy God’s blessings to the full, they would conform to his righteous character as stipulated in the Law given through Moses.  Here in Nehemiah, we’re seeing the people corporately admitting that they had been unfaithful in this regard.

For us, we live in the promise given through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We experience God’s presence directly now that the cross has given access to the Father’s throne, and we live in the wild hope of God’s promise that we, too, will share in Jesus’ resurrection when Christ returns to renew heaven and earth.

What does that mean?  It means that we, too, have been redeemed; we have been bought with a price, and set free from the slavery of sin and self.

For us, then, we recite this gospel story every day of our lives.  We tell this story to our children, that they might understand God’s goodness.  We tell this story to our neighbors, that they might be brought near by the blood of Christ.  We tell this story to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that we might be reminded of what holds us together in common purpose.  And finally, we tell this story to ourselves, that we might remember our identity in Christ, and not fall into a fatal forgetfulness that looms and threatens to wear away the fabric of our faith.

“Stand up and bless the Lord:” Cultivating Gratitude in an Age of Entitlement (Nehemiah 9:1-8)

One of the surest indicators of spiritual health is our capacity for gratitude.

Many cultures devote a time or season in which to express their thankfulness—a response to the goodness they see in their lives and in their families.

As the years wear on, gratitude seems increasingly hard to cultivate given our more natural tendency toward self-interest and greed.  It’s almost cliché to point out that on Thanksgiving Day, we bow our heads to give thanks for what we have; on Black Friday we trample others for what we don’t.  Given the state of American culture this year, gratitude seems very far away.

One Catholic writer has historically put it this way:

“Our basic attitude of life is one of claiming rights and shunning responsibilities. We have ceased to appreciate the blessings of life, such as health, the beauty of nature, human friendships and love, and then to respond to them with gratitude. Gratitude is the key to happiness. We feel that life owes us the fulfillment of every desire, and if we do not receive this we feel bitter and we feel entitled to take advantage of others. Any question of moral good and evil is eliminated.”

Gratitude withers under the weight of entitlement.  Gratitude ennobles us to receive life’s blessings as gifts from God; entitlement insists that blessings come to those who deserve them, and all man’s happiness reflecting the supreme triumph of the will.

How do we cultivate a sense of gratitude in an age of entitlement?  I think a clue comes from today’s reading in Nehemiah 9.  As we’ve already observed in our series, the people had gathered for a ceremony in which they re-dedicated themselves to their relationship with God.  Chapter 9 begins with the people gathering to confess their sin, their dire need for God:

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. 4 On the stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God.5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. (Nehemiah 9:1-5)

“Stand up and bless the Lord.”  These words form more than just the words of an old hymn; they are vital to the cultivation of gratitude and joy.  Entitlement looks inward, toward self; gratitude lifts the eyes to delight in things that lie beyond ourselves—the food on the table, the laughter of a child, the God in his heaven.

What follows in Nehemiah is one of the most beautiful yet overlooked prayers in all of Scripture:

6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. 7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. (Nehemiah 9:1-8)

We need a greater vision of God and a smaller vision of self.

So again: how do we cultivate gratitude in an age of entitlement?  Let me spring off of this text in Nehemiah to offer three suggestions:

(1) Reject the vision of “supposed to be”

I studied chemistry as an undergraduate student.  This meant spending considerable time in the lab, where we’d quickly realize that the principles in the textbook didn’t always look the same in nature.  The tendency for young, unproven students was to approach the professor with a test tube full of…well, gunk is probably the most scientific word for it.  “What’s this supposed to be doing?” we’d hesitantly ask.  And our professor would amiably scold us, saying: “Don’t ask what’s supposed to be happening.  Ask: what is happening?” Something is always at work, even if it’s not what you’d expected.

As humans we become far too attached to life as it’s “supposed to be.”  When you’re young, you might start by thinking “I’m supposed to be finished college by now” or “I’m supposed to be married” or “I’m supposed to be having another baby.”

But this vision of life as it’s “supposed to be” obstructs our view of life “as it is.”  When we anchor our joy in social (or personal) expectations, we will invariably find that we fail to fully measure up to what we think is “supposed to be” happening.  But God is always at work, even if it’s not what you’d expected. We find joy in a God who numbers the hairs on our head, a God who is active in our lives as they are—not merely as we think they’re “supposed to be.”

(2) Reject the temptation to “comparison shop”

Related to this is our tendency to “comparison shop” through the windows of others’ lives.  There’s a vital reason God prohibited his people from “coveting” their neighbors’ lifestyles.  It’s extremely tempting to look at friends or family and think: “Man, I wish I had his success” or “I wish I had her figure.”  Because the ugly flip side to this is to be thankful you’re not as bad as someone else, thinking: “I’m glad my diet’s working better than hers” or “I’d sure hate to raise my kids on his salary.”

Comparing ourselves to others effectively anchors our joy in human circumstance.  It relegates joy to a system of metrics, fluctuating according to our relative success amidst our social circles.  One of the Bible’s greatest song-writers once said to God that “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6).  In the original context, that meant that the lines that marked his property marked an amount of land he could be happy with.  What he had was enough.

What if we could celebrate the success of others rather than window-shop in their lives?  What if for us as well, the lines could fall in pleasant places, and we could likewise find delight in what God has done for us?

(3) Rejoice in what God does “instead”

Finally, we must learn to find joy in our circumstances not in our imaginations.  Entitlement insists that happiness is found in my plans.  Gratitude finds joy in what God does instead.  Instead of that job we thought we wanted, God gave us a different path.  That relationship?  God steered us on a different course.  At the time, these things seem like wounds—sometimes mortal ones.  And this is to say nothing of the immeasurable difficulties that come in the form of medical reports and test results.  Remember, dear Christian, that all these things are in the hands of a God who numbers every teardrop and promises to one day wipe them from our faces.

Entitlement may never be satisfied, but in Christ our joy may be complete.  May each of us experience the true joy of the Lord today, whether around tables that overflow with food and family, or tables where chairs sit empty from loved ones that have passed on.  We may be thankful for each year and for each table, because both are gifts of a God whose blessings transcend circumstance.

 

Addiction, disease, and life among the swine (Mark 5)

Heroin has a new face, and it’s a profoundly ordinary one.  While heroin abuse has been on the rise, nationally, the crisis becomes all the more public when given a recognizable face.  In 2013, Cory Monteith—one of the stars of TV’s “Glee”—“died of mixed drug toxicity, involving intravenous heroin,” according to CNN. [1]

Indeed, as is reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association, heroin abuse has migrated out of the inner city and into suburban America. [2]  After dealing with the heroin addiction of his own son, David Scheff wrote a pair of books to help others understand addiction.  “Addicts come from broken and intact homes,” he writes.  “They are longtime losers and great successes. We often heard in lectures or Al-Anon meetings or AA meetings of the bright and charming men and women who bewilder those around them when they wind up in the gutter.”[3]

Why take drugs?  For many, drugs become a means of coping with deep, psychological pain.  “Alcohol and drugs are not the problems;” writes Chris Prentiss. “[T]hey are what people are using to help themselves cope with the problems.  Those problems always have both physical and psychological components.”[4]

For still others, heroin abuse begins with prescription painkillers.  Once hooked, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to get “clean.”  And while obtaining more prescription meds proves challenging, heroin is cheaply available—imported to our area from Baltimore.

THE DISEASE TAKES HOLD

The writers of the Bible had no real category for “addiction” as we know it today.  But they were no stranger to deep pain.  In Mark’s biography of Jesus, we see the Savior encountering pain in the context of supernatural conflict.  In Mark 5, Jesus encounters a man deeply afflicted by demon possession:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (Mark 5:1-13)

I realize that such supernatural stories strain credulity.  But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider that Jesus’ biographers endeavored to record actual history.  These weren’t the primitive ramblings of a pre-scientific age; these were men seeking to relate Jesus’ story as accurately as possible.  To say that the supernatural didn’t happen because it can’t happen is not reason; it’s prejudice.

The addicts we see today may look fine on the outside, but underneath they are experiencing turmoil not dissimilar from what this man endured.  Addiction, as we now understand it, has many markings of an actual disease.  I realize some may object to this.  After all, no one chooses cancer the way people choose drugs.  And there’s surely truth to this, it’s just that once an addict becomes hooked, his or her choices take on a life of their own.  It’s like Gollum from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, speaking of his enslaving devotion to the ring of power: “Once it takes hold of us,” he hisses, “it never lets go.”

THE REAL POWER TO CHANGE

Jesus, as we’ve seen, brings about an incredible change in this man’s life.  But others aren’t so thrilled about this man’s turnaround:

14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mark 5:14-20)

The community had grown disturbingly accustomed to this man’s condition.  They were less concerned about his wellbeing than they were the local economy.  In fact, they were so fearful of what had just happened that we learn that “they began to beg Jesus to depart” (v. 17).  Sometimes the status quo seems safer, or more natural, than trusting in the miraculous work of Jesus.

We need a miracle, really, if we’re going to see addiction truly addressed in the lives of those we care about.  Addiction is so enslaving—at both the biological as well as psychological level—that only the fresh power of God’s Spirit seems to offer any real hope for escape.

In his book Clean, David Scheff begins by pointing out the wrong-headed idea that addicts are to blame for their ongoing condition:

“The view that drug use is a moral choice is pervasive, pernicious, and wrong.  So are the corresponding beliefs about the addicted—that they’re weak, selfish, and dissolute; if they weren’t when their drug taking and drinking began to harm them, they’d stop.  The reality is far different.  Using drugs or not isn’t about willpower or character.  Most problematic drug use is related to stress, trauma, genetic predisposition, mild or series mental illness, use at an early age, or some combination of those.  Even in their relentless destruction and self-destruction, the addicted aren’t bad people.  They’re gravely ill, afflicted with a chronic, progressive, and often terminal disease.”[5]

Again, we mustn’t ignore the moral choices involved in addiction.  But we also mustn’t ignore the confining entanglements that addictions bring on.  The roots of addiction run very deep indeed; God’s love runs deeper still.

 

If there is an addict in your life—or even in your mirror—take heart.  God’s grace is sufficient to penetrate every infirmity, whether it’s the supernatural pain Jesus assuaged in Mark, or the natural enslavements of drug dependence.  The cross offers forgiveness, but it also offers a beckoning call to come to him—come to Jesus—who is the satisfaction to our every desire.

[1] Wynn Westmoreland, “‘Glee’ star Cory Monteith’s death due to heroin, alcohol ruled accidental.”  CNN.com, October 3, 2013.  Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/02/showbiz/cory-monteith-death-accidental/

[2] Theodore J. Cicero, Matthew S. Ellis, Hilary L. Surratt, and Steven P. Kurtz.  “The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years,” JAMA Psychiatry, May 2014.

[3] David Sheff, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction.  (United States: Mariner, 2009), 14

[4] Chris Prentiss, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery.  (United States: Power Press, 2005)

[5] David Sheff, Clean: Overcoming Adduction and Ending American’s Greatest Tragedy. (New York: Houghton Mfflin Harcourt, 2013), xi.

Don’t waste your Sunday (Nehemiah 7:73-8:10)

Humans are celebrating creatures by nature.  Weddings, birthdays, graduations—the larger the event in our lives, the greater the milestone, the more we crave the presence of family, friends, music, and all the other elements that turn a gathering into a blowout.

We’ve emphasized this facet of human nature throughout our series, really.  We are, after all, “better together.”  Emile Durkheim, the French social analyst, made his life’s work out of trying to explain the nature of humans in groups.  “The very act of congregating,” he writes, “is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.  Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” [1]

Now that the both the Temple and the city walls had been completed, what did Ezra and Nehemiah do?  They had a revival service:

73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.

And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns. And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 7:73-8:1)

Indeed, this was a revival service, an experience magnified by the electricity between the people gathered “as one man.”  What we’re about to witness, you and I, is something known as a “covenant renewal service.”  In the coming chapters, the people of Israel would revisit the relationship between God and his people, they would confess their sins, and they would reaffirm their devotion to God.

THE READING OF THE LAW

Here’s how Nehemiah describes this ancient church service:

2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)

In verse 8 we read that “they read from the book…and they gave the sense.”  Gave the sense?  That means that didn’t just read the Bible; they took time to explain what it meant.

Why would the Bible occupy such a prominent place in this whole ceremony?  Allen Ross writes that “they wanted to make sure their worship was right:”

“It appears that the believing community was trying to recapture the spirit and form of worship as it was legislated by Moses, developed by David, and reformed by Hezekiah and Josiah.  In fact, we know that 1 and 2 Chronicles were written about this time for this very purpose—to inform the Jewish people of what was supposed to be by reminding them of the history of the faith and especially temple worship, and to show them what it would take to restore it.”[2]

HOLINESS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH GLOOM

But what we should also notice is that this was meant to be a revival service in the truest sense.  Nehemiah even emphasized that their devotion to God didn’t have to lead to sorrow.  There’s joy to be found in the presence of God:

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10)

The word “Holy” means to be set apart for God’s purposes.  To behold God’s purposes—to reflect on them at specific times or occasions—this promotes in us a sense of joy, a joy that springs from the confidence we have in God’s enduring character.

DON’T WASTE YOUR SUNDAY

Our Sunday mornings don’t necessarily resemble the exhilarating revival preaching from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

As a matter of fact, more often than not, our Sunday mornings are positively…ordinary.

So much so that if you walk into a church service expecting something extraordinary to happen to you, you may walk out of the building disappointed.  If that’s the case, it’s tempting to find something better to do on a Sunday than occupy a seat.

But we may have missed something crucial.  The word “Church” doesn’t refer to a Sunday service; it refers to a community of Christ’s followers.  We gather at a weekly service because it is there that—like Nehemiah—we remind one another of the relationship we have with God, this time mediated through the work of Christ.  For centuries, communion—the taking of the bread and cup—has served as the climax of the service, for it is in these elements that we recite and rehearse the gospel with one another.

So essential are these gatherings that in the ancient world, the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers this way:

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Church community really does transform you—so long as that community is infused with the supernatural power of God’s presence in the Spirit.  Church services have a place in that transformative process.  But while we might expect this to take place on any given Sunday, the truth is it might well take a lifetime of Sundays.

 

Don’t waste your Sunday.  Make time for one another.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

[1] Emile Durkheim, quoted in Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 262.

[2] Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 353.