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

Posted on November 21, 2016 by Chris Wiles

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.

Think Like God for a Minute (Matthew 18:15-35)

Posted on November 19, 2016 by Randy Buchman

I am that grandfather who is very willing to spoil his grandkids and sugar them up with abundant treats. So one day when I was in sole charge of watching them, I loaded them into the car and took them all for ice cream. Well, along with slopping it all over themselves and each other, they began to fight and argue about who had the larger or better cone given to them. I seriously considered grabbing the cones and smashing them one by one on top of their heads, except that someone might see that and call the cops for abuse; and I’d have to clean them up in any event. But it did annoy me that I was so nice to them and that they could not in turn get along with one another.

God must often feel this way about us. And if we are going to be truly better together in service (our theme this past week), we need to be able to work well together in spite of our failures, idiosyncrasies, or whatever else may tend to divide us. And this includes being restored to one another where sin damages a relationship, and being willing to confess, forgive and restore each other.

Jesus spoke to this by saying …

18:15 – “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The debt of sin that we have been forgiven is huge. God had no obligation whatsoever to redeem the lost race of mankind who rebelled against him and his word. But in grace he made the payment of greatest cost — that of his own son. Through this mechanism he has made forgiveness possible and extends it to us by his gracious revelation of the gospel. And for us to have received this gift but then not forgive one another and thus inhibit the work of the Kingdom together … well … that’s rather outrageous. Don’t be that way. Don’t make God want to dump an ice cream cone on your head!  Settle scores and broken relationships; work together for the Lord and #ForOurCity.

You’re Kind of a Big Deal! (2 Corinthians 5:11-21)

Posted on November 18, 2016 by Randy Buchman

Every so often at my Rotary club, we have an ambassador from another country come as a guest speaker. There are only a few categories of guest speakers that are afforded a standing applause welcome. Ambassadors are one of them. An ambassador is an important person. He stands in representation of the sovereign in his country, and represents all that his native kingdom values and promotes.

The Scriptures say that we are ambassadors for the King of Kings. I have always been so impressed with this concept and honored that God should so regard us in such a light as to give us this incredible title and responsibility.

The Apostle Paul understood that he was an ambassador, and not just when he was preaching in a synagogue or proclaiming Christ in the marketplace. Paul remembered his role even when he was in jail chained to a huge Roman guard. He knew his position of service was a 24/7 kind of thing…

EPH 6:19 – Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Being vitally related to God changes our viewpoint of both ourselves and those around us. In today’s passage, Paul is saying that the Christian has a new way of looking at people around him. It is not the same way people of the world look at each other. We see others with Kingdom glasses. We see them either as brothers and sisters in Christ, or we see them as enslaved by an alien kingdom – in need of our services as an ambassador of the Kingdom of Light.

So there is no reason for the Christian to be insecure. You are not just an engineer, a nurse, a teacher, a mom or dad… you are an ambassador for the Creator, the One who holds it all together, the great Storyteller. That sure beats anything your unsaved neighbor is able to say he or she has membership within. You represent the sovereign of the universe as an agent of reconciliation and peace. So you’re kind of a big deal (to pull a silly quote from The Anchorman), although you’re only a big deal because of God’s grace and calling – it’s good to remember that!  (insert smiley face)

How well do you serve in this assignment?  Ask God to make you aware and effective as His chosen representative – it is part of your role in The Story that God is writing, along with the adventure and journey of walking in relationship with Him. And it is your way of serving as well #ForOurCity.

5:11 – Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 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.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Open Table, Opens Doors

Posted on November 17, 2016 by Randy Buchman

As we work through this “For Our City” series, we are talking about having new and different attitudes toward those around us who struggle or who have fallen into misfortune or poverty, even homelessness. We know that many in our city are generationally impoverished, often never having had the background to learn or experience life-skills that yield success. It can become a cycle.

How do we as God’s people do something specific and positive to break these cycles and move people beyond a current life status? We can meet their immediate needs for a few meals or a few nights of housing. We might even subsidize some bills for food, housing or medical care. But how can we help to move them toward categorical change and sustained, self-supporting success?

REACH Director Jodie Ostoich considered these sorts of questions and found a ministry called “Open Table” that seeks to do this very thing. It is not merely about getting a person through a short window of time of immediate crises, but is rather also resourcing an individual to a new and sustainable way of live … truly moving them out of poverty.

The common need for people who are impoverished and even homeless is that they lack a network of relationships and connections to make positive change. Many social service organizations provide a piece of the pie for meeting needs, but what is needed is something to bring it all together. In the business world, this would be called a business plan or strategic initiatives.

A Christian businessman put together such a model in a real-life experience, and this has been modified into a repeatable ministry model for others to use particularly to help a person move from homelessness to self-sustainable operation. The idea is to bring a “table” of 8-10 individuals together to do what is needed to help a person with connections, assisting them to get beyond the speed bumps that will invariably inhibit progress toward what is a very large goal and mountain to climb.

For those of us who have never been in an impoverished condition of this sort, it is difficult to imagine the complications. Most of us would have family, friends, business and other connections (including lifelong skills) to bail us out of a disastrous downfall in life. But that is not the situation for many in homelessness or deep poverty.

At a recent “Open Table” meeting we had at Tri-State Fellowship, those who have done “a table” to help a client met in a circle with others interested in perhaps joining such a venture. The client helped over the past year was also in attendance. Impacting me in this discussion was a description of the complications that arise in this grand scenario for an individual. For every two steps forward, there might be three steps backward. As an individual becomes more self-sustaining, they may lose other resources such as government assistance. And now, after being highly responsible with a couple of part-time jobs, they no longer qualify for assistance programs and are suddenly actually further behind. And then there is the challenge of finding affordable housing, riding public transportation, getting to a couple of jobs, yet also meeting for a variety of appointments in varied locations to wrestle through remaining issues.

In all of these matters the folks who have come to be the “table” participants can provide assistance to get things accomplished. The “table” meets once a week with the client, providing a variety of items of practical assistance (connections, transportation, etc.) and advice.

Many who entered this process a year ago said that they really did not know how to do this or by what means they might assist, but all said that God used them in wonderful ways as the process moved along. They also commented that once you get to know someone individually who is in poverty, it changes and challenges the prejudices you may have had about the poor collectively.

Between REACH and a couple of churches (including TSF this past year), a total of six “tables” have been successfully completed. This is a ministry that can grow, and in fact it could serve other than homeless individuals – for example, those aging out of foster care or those re-entering society after prison, etc.

For those from TSF reading this, we are going to enter this again in the new year with one or more individuals. For those from other churches seeing this in our devotional series, for more information you may contact Kelli Tencer at REACH by calling 301-733-2371 x107.  There is a training program of three sessions of two hours each, along with all sorts of resources to make this a success.

As churches and Christians, we can’t just relegate these situations to the government to fix them. True and lasting changes can be actually better delivered by a group of God’s people who will set their love upon a hurting individual, thereby changing their lives (including the gospel) and thus being #ForOurCity in a most practical way.

Better Together (Acts 2:42-47)

Posted on November 16, 2016 by Randy Buchman

We are made to be in community with others and to be people who are interdependent upon one another. Practically from DAY ONE, it was so … as God said it was not good for man to be alone, and thus Eve was created for Adam, toward the end also that they might multiply others who would be together, work together, and serve one another. So it is programmed inside us to be together and do together, finding joy and success in cooperative venture.

“Better Together” – This has become an attractive political slogan used by many over the years, not just recently. And this idea has merit. Great movements and great accomplishments involve masses of people working together, compelled by the vision of a leader to go in one direction.

At the same time, there needs to be a common bond of truth and purpose that unites people together to accomplish great things. So there is merit in finding the common bonds that unite people, beyond the things that make folks different from one another, and to coalesce around that truth to get past small-mindedness toward accomplishment together.

This idea of being better together and moving beyond small-mindedness is the major theme of week four of the #ForOurCity series. The entire concept of the body of Christ – with all of its varied parts and diversity – is that we need one another. None of alone have everything that we need; none of us is an island unto ourselves. We were made to be interdependent, and that is the way the early church functioned from the very beginning …

Acts 2:42 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

All of us who love the church of Jesus Christ and have given our lives to serving and leading it especially love this passage of Scripture. We long for our local congregations to have this sort of mutual affection and relationships. The word “together” is even included three times in these verses – being together, meeting together and fellowshipping together.

Often in sports we hear about the “locker room / clubhouse atmosphere.”  Some teams have it, other don’t. Just this past weekend a football team that lost a game they probably should have won had players calling out one another in the press. Not good. On the other hand, the team that pulled together to beat them is universally praised this year for the great atmosphere of older and younger players all pulling together and contributing to their success.

There is every reason for the church of Christ to have a great “locker room.”  It is the ultimate winning team with the greatest coach ever. There will be tough times, as Jesus said it would be so in this world. Like the legendary coach Vince Lombardi would say, “Sometimes the clock runs out, but we never lose in the end.”

In this Acts 2 passage, we often talk about the constituent elements we see listed here that comprise the well-rounded church: teaching, worship, fellowship, mutual service, public proclamation, etc.  But for today’s theme, notice the emphasis that all of these elements were being done together. And this is what was so attractive about it in the eyes of a watching world. The healthy church (and larger church community) that serves each other well in a genuine community of love by living out their faith is that family that outsiders often respect and may even want to know how you become a part of such a place.  #BetterTogether

“It is finished” (Nehemiah 6:10-19)

Posted on November 15, 2016 by Curt Snyder

Have you ever found yourself completing a project you were involved in, feeling pretty good about yourself, only to have someone else criticize or condemn your work? If so, you probably can identify with Nehemiah. He had been given a burden by God to rebuild the destroyed walls of Jerusalem. He had assessed the situation, rallied a divided people and in just fifty-two days accomplished a feat that should have taken several years to complete. I’m fairly sure he was feeling pretty good about what had just happened.

10 One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you—by night they are coming to kill you.” 11 But I said, “Should a man like me run away? Or should someone like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” 12 I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.

14 Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophet Noadiah and how she and the rest of the prophets have been trying to intimidate me. 15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.

There will be times in your life when God will be asking you to take a bold step of faith, to do something that is far outside your normal routine. With every one of those bold steps there will be those who hold a differing opinion or viewpoint. There may be those who will tell you that you cannot accomplish it or even stand in stark opposition to what you are doing.  Sometimes they are even those who should be most for you, just like the people of Judah who would have benefited most from the completion of the wall.

17 Also, in those days the nobles of Judah were sending many letters to Tobiah, and replies from Tobiah kept coming to them.18 For many in Judah were under oath to him, since he was son-in-law to Shekaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah. 19 Moreover, they kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.

The reality is there is an enemy out there, an enemy of God and of all those who follow Him, who does not want you to succeed or even attempt to take that step of faith. And he will do everything and use every trick to keep you from doing so.

Nehemiah could have thrown up his hands and said, “What’s the use? Even the people who live here don’t want this to happen.” But he knew what God had spoken to him and he was convinced and determined that he would see it through.

So let’s back up and see in verse 16 how the enemies of Nehemiah responded to the completion of the wall.

16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

God is for you! There is nothing that he speaks into your heart that He cannot and will not see through to completion if you will simply obey. He may not be asking you to physically rebuild a city, but maybe He is asking you to repair a broken relationship, or to reconnect with a neighbor. Maybe He is asking you to serve at your local school or to become a foster family. Maybe He is even asking you to become a missionary, to plant a church or to become a pastor. Regardless of what God is asking of you He can give you the strength to accomplish it; and when those who would oppose you attempt to do so, He will help you so that just like Nehemiah’s enemies: “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God”

Dealing with False Accusations (Nehemiah 6:1-9)

Posted on November 14, 2016 by Randy Buchman

Have you ever done some genuinely good deed only to be accused of having a self-serving motivation? That is, at a minimum, annoying in the extreme!  It is enough to make you ponder if it is worth the effort of attempting to serve someone else or accomplish an honorable task.

Nehemiah was faced with such a problem as he neared the completion of the wall around Jerusalem. In chapter six the old enemies appear again, first of all with a false premise …

6:1 – When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”

But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.

Nehemiah was able to see through the pretext of this request as meaning to do harm, not to just have a nice peace-pipe conversation and reconciliation. The place they wanted him to come was about 25 miles to the northwest of Jerusalem. And there was no reason to meet with these men, as the wall was nearing completion with just the gates remaining to be completed. Clearly this was an 11th-hour attempt to stop the project by stopping the leader of the entire effort.

The deplorable trio next took on a different and more insidious approach and attack …

5 Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6 in which was written:

“It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”

Have we not just lived through such a season of similar political maneuvering? The bag of dirty tricks is old and … well, dirty … because it is old! It is the way of the world that if you can’t beat your political rival by the truth, make up a host of lies that are at least marginally believable. Throw enough mud against the wall and some of it has to stick.

The accusation was that “rumor had it” that Nehemiah was building this wall for the purpose of announcing himself as king. This would have had repercussions miles away in Persia in the palace of Artaxerxes. The unholy trio of enemies reasoned that this innuendo might frighten Nehemiah into abandoning the work to save his own neck. He answered …

8 I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Nehemiah called out the ruse, simply denying it while turning to God to be strengthened for the work. He sought out the Lord on seven distinct occasions in this book of the written record of his work and life. And there is a lesson in that for all of us.

False accusation is simply a part of life when attempting to do great things for God. We need to remember that the ultimate enemy we have is not flesh and blood, but rather it involves principalities and powers in high places in the spiritual realm. Satan and his horde of demonic helpers are against our seeking to serve God by serving others, and we can expect that lies and false accusations will come against us. It is par for the course.

We would do well also to remember the words of Paul to the Galatians …

6:8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

As we work to be #ForOurCity, we can confidently remain steadfast and pray like Nehemiah, “Lord, strengthen our hands and remember our work.”

The Silliness of Worry (Matthew 6:25-34)

Posted on November 12, 2016 by Randy Buchman

On my recent trip to the West Coast to visit relatives, including attending at their church, the pastor preached on this sixth chapter of Matthew. And he told the story that he had earlier preached in a previous ministry on this topic of not over-valuing material possessions, and after church he went out to the parking lot to discover that his car had been stolen!

If you enjoy worrying, you are living at the right time. There is plenty to worry about right now in a world that is terribly damaged. If corporate worry could be measured, the nation right now would weigh in at a rather high number. New president, global terror, fragile world economics, ecological debates about natural resources … just to name a few.

But as a nation we have gone through even more difficult times. I think of my parents’ generation that lived through The Great Depression and the Second World War.  My father told me about the scant income that he had during those years, having a new and young family along with his in-laws to provide for. But he told me that even with nothing to spare, he determined he was going to be faithful to give to God and therefore chose to tithe faithfully. His summary statement about his life was that, “From the day I chose to be faithful to give to God, I have never failed to thrive and have always had even more than enough.”  He put the Kingdom of God as his top priority with his material assets and life skills, and he was totally taken care of as a result.

This should not be a surprise, for this is what Christ said would happen and would be the experience of those who rest in the Lord by prioritizing the eternal reality of God’s kingdom …

6:25 – “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Worrying is easy to do. Remember the insurance company commercial a few years ago that featured the Ray LaMontagne song “Trouble” … that had a dog who had nightmare worries about his bone and all that could happen for him to lose it?  It was a great commercial. The original LaMontagne words say…

Trouble...

Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble

Trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born

Worry...

Worry, worry, worry, worry

Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone

The song would have had a better theological ring if it did not go on to say, “We’ll I’ve been… saved by a woman …”  I think being saved by God would be better, but you get the idea.

Worry accomplishes little, and it is an action that is merely what people of the world do. Those who have no connection with God and eternal perspectives actually have nothing beyond this world. So worrying makes sense in many ways when there is no overarching authority of a God of provision. But to claim an alleged faith in God without actually trusting in it and in Him is to act as if there really is no faith at all.

So we can be generous and trust God, even if we don’t have guaranteed resources for more than the immediate future. We can do more than worry about self, we can think about how to be God’s agents to serve others #ForOurCity.

Counterintuitive Investing (Matthew 6:1-4, 19-24)

Posted on November 11, 2016 by Randy Buchman

Does anyone really know what to do these days with investments? There is trouble in any direction you look. Just a decade or two ago it was rather easy to manage resources. Interest rates on certificates of deposit were decent and you could even make some money on mere savings interest, now paying only a fraction of a percent. The stock market had not yet crashed and real estate was a guaranteed winner. What can you do now that rather surely promises a yield and reward?

Well, we can help you out. Here today is a plan with payouts that are, literally, out of this world! The challenge is that doing this is very counterintuitive.

When we make investments in an account, we expect to get a monthly statement to follow its progress. When investing in stocks and bonds, the brokerage agency sends a quarterly report of the performance of your positions. As well now in this modern era, you can check online 24/7 to see the status of your funds.

All of this is in the world of the visible – the intuitive. Your investments are fully in sight. That seems eminently wise. We might even call it astute management. And we are not going to slam prudent investment and management of God-given and God-blessed assets that are invested toward the end of meeting our basic needs. But there is a stewardship principle of using the abundance of resources in a way that is generous toward God and his kingdom work, along with blessing others who have insufficient assets for sustaining life.

Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 6, saying …

6:1 – “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So there is a way to give that represents a genuine heart and motive. Jesus often encountered the religious element in Judaism who lived their “righteousness” in a very public way. It was all about making themselves feel good by showing others that they were clearly and obviously better and more advanced. They even did this with the way they gave their money.

God is a very good accountant. Credit is not necessary on earth, and giving merely to receive it now rather invalidates the reward. God can be counted upon to honor generosity in a place and time where it really matters most.

Christ picked up a similar theme just a few verses later …

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

So much of the Christian life is counterintuitive – just the opposite of the way it seems things should be. Like prayer – trusting an unseen hand, power and authority to help us rather than merely working harder to solve problem ourselves … that seems wrong. And likewise with material assets. Conventional wisdom is to accumulate and hang onto things for security, rather than to risk security by generously giving away what we might someday need for ourselves.

But the real world and true life is the eternal kingdom. What is given toward and invested in this endeavor can never be lost. Unlike the material world it will never fade and rust away or be stolen by someone else. Investments of this sort can never be lost, and these commitments demonstrate the nature of our hearts and what master has authority over our lives. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t horde riches on earth to the neglect of God’s Kingdom and the needs around us, while expecting also to see those riches be eternally a reward for the life beyond.

Accumulated material assets are a burden. One has to spend a great deal of time, energy and care to ensure that they are maintained and secure from theft. The safest thing to do is use them wisely and well to meet our genuine needs and beyond that to share them in a way that also secures them for eternal reward and productive investment.

Being a pastor and biblical instructor is sort of like being a certified financial planner or having a wealth management consulting business. Maybe a good name for this would be “Counterintuitive Wealth Management Consultants.”  Just helping you out.

A Generous God Remembers Generous People (Nehemiah 5:14-19)

Posted on November 9, 2016 by Randy Buchman

These are some very scary times in which we live. And I’m not talking about the results of the Presidential Election yesterday. The reason this is true is because I am writing this before Election Day and loading it online to post on Wednesday morning. That said, I suppose the opening statement may well be true either in spite of, or because of, however the results turn out.

Apart from political figures, there is plenty to worry about financially these days, given the record deficits and national debt, along with the overbought stock market and international economic instability. Does anyone TRULY know what to do in terms of investment for the future … for retirement, etc.?  The uncertainty is sufficient to make one believe he should hoard every penny possible.

But then along comes those preacher dudes who tell you that you should be rich toward God, talking about stuff like tithing, stewardship, and generously giving from the abundance given you by the Lord. And those same theological talking heads are now preaching (#ForOurCity) about generosity and supporting the poor and disadvantaged in multiple ways! All of that is very nice, but what about responsibility and wisdom. Hey, what would Dave Ramsey say about this?  (He’d probably say to “eat beans and rice, rice and beans.”)

But seriously, how does one be generous toward church, missions and the poor, while not becoming poor yourself by giving away all your resources?  The details of the answer to this question is more than we can write in this forum, but we can begin by making one overarching and timeless truth about God.

Let’s pick up our Nehemiah story of chapter 5, where it says …

5:14 – Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.

17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.

19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.

These verses today are a sort of summary about Nehemiah’s 12-year administration as governor in Judah, all under the auspices of the Persian king. His central focus was upon the construction of the wall, not upon the at-hand opportunity to be personally enriched and remunerated in the process. Previous governors placed a heavy tax upon the people, doing so with the authority of the government. Nehemiah recognized that his greater employer was God, and his reverence for God and love for his impoverished people caused him to act differently.

Being already a man of some material substance, Nehemiah shared of his abundance in the sustenance of many people. We might say that it is easy to be generous when one is already rich, and surely those with the most have the greatest obligation to share with others. But a complete reading of this passage would seem to indicate that Nehemiah risked pretty much all that he had to get that wall built and to promote the one true God and His people. He ends by praying, “Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.”

So can we, even today at this crazy time of our nation’s history, trust God to supply our needs after we have generously risked our resources for the Lord’s work and for the poor?  The answer is a very strong “yes.”  And no, I don’t have a prayer cloth or any such scheme to share that makes such a statement a truth to live by. Let me do better than that and quote some Scripture …

Hebrews 6:10 – God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

2 Corinthians 9:10 – Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.

Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

And here is another exercise for you. Take a moment to make a mental list of all the people you have known who were so generous in giving to the church and supporting missions and causes for the poor that they ended up impoverished themselves.  I’ll pause a moment while you assemble that in your mind…

(pause)

(pause)

What’s the matter? You can’t name anyone? Didn’t think so!  The person is yet to be found who was generous toward God and ended up insufficiently resourced personally. And you won’t be the first. You can risk generosity as a steward of God’s resources. God will remember you.

A Crisis From Within (Nehemiah 5:9-13)

Posted on November 8, 2016 by Curt Snyder

The Israelites and Nehemiah had overcome the opposition of Sanballat and Tobiah and resolved to get the work of rebuilding the wall completed. Even in the face of physical harm and war they took the steps necessary to ensure the work would continue. But another threat to the work arose. However, this time it wasn’t an external threat but one from the inside.

Some of the families that had come back to Jerusalem found themselves in a tough financial position, so tough that they were mortgaging their property to pay taxes, and even selling their children into slavery just to get enough money to live. All of a sudden the threat was no longer one from strangers but one from their own families and friends.

So often when we step out to do things for God we will face the initial ridicule of people who don’t agree with us, or who hold different values. The enemy will use these people to try to discourage us. They will criticize and threaten but often when they see our resolve they either give up or it just becomes old news and they move on. And quite frankly it is easy to come together and stand against an outside threat.

However, when the enemy can’t get to us this way he often shifts his focus into trying to raise up a conflict from within, because he knows at this point the most effective warfare strategy is divide and conquer. If he can get those who are working together to disagree he can effectively stop the work.

Fortunately for Jerusalem, Nehemiah saw the problem and addressed it quickly and because of his solid leadership he was able to get the rest of the people to do what was right so the work could continue. However, there was a process. First of all he had to recognize that it was a real problem.

“What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” Nehemiah 5:9

Then Nehemiah took responsibility for the problem himself. He realized that it was as much his problem as everyone else and took action to resolve it.

“ I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil” Nehemiah 5:10 & 11

When the people saw that Nehemiah was willing to take responsibility too, they responded appropriately, corrected their errors and took action to do what was right so the work could go on.

“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.”  Nehemiah 5:12 & 13

As we, the Church, step out to be “For Our City” opposition will arise. It may come from other groups, other individuals and possibly even other churches that don’t agree with us. We may be criticized and even threatened but we must stand strong in our resolution to make a difference in the city we serve.  We must also not be naïve regarding the enemy’s strategies. If he can’t stop us with outside threats he will most definitely try to stop it through infighting, disagreement and even a competitive mindset.

As we go forward may we be like Nehemiah who was listening and looking for the problems that could arise and then was quick to resolve it. May we not point fingers and make accusations but truly come together, taking responsibility for the work. May we do everything we can to preserve the unity and harmony it will take for us to really make a lasting impact on Hagerstown for the Kingdom and Glory of God. May we be a true demonstration of the love of God to and for our community. May we truly be The Church that is For Our City.

Seeing is Step One (Nehemiah 5:1-8)

Posted on November 7, 2016by Randy Buchman

Probably many of you on your Facebook feed have occasionally seen click-bait pop up for a website that is called “People of Walmart” or something of that nature. It features pictures of oddly-dressed and unusual people who are most often unsuspectingly photographed. Whereas a number of those pictured may be people sadly evidencing some sort of mental illness, the photos just as frequently are displays of gravely impoverished individuals.

lonely-people-in-poverty

For those who succeed sufficiently well in life, it is so simple as to be an almost natural reaction to look down upon people who are poor and struggling. The immediate suspicion is to assume that the condition is derivative from some measure of irresponsibility or laziness. “Just get a job” is an immediate thought, or, “The money you spent on that ugly tattoo on your neck might have bought a few more groceries for your family.”  Beyond this, some people of faith who have been blessed with abundance may even have, at the minimum, some measure of belief that their own success represents God’s blessing, whereas the deprecations of the poor represent His displeasure with them. 

But is poverty this simple to define? Is it always the natural outcome of bad life choices? And what is the background source of the lack of skills that led to whatever bad choices were made?

Is it not also a reality that many impoverished people are actually in that condition through a complicated series of misfortunes from which extrication is not immediately obvious? This was true in the situation described by Nehemiah in the passage that was primary to our Week 3 sermon within the #ForOurCity series.

Nehemiah 5:1 – Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”

3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”

4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”

The arduous process of building the wall had taken people away from their regular lives and abilities to make ends meet. The situation was grave. They were borrowing money to pay taxes. Beyond that, some were having to subject their children to slavery. Their debts were becoming inexorable. And those who were being enriched were from their own Jewish flesh and blood – actually disobeying the Old Testament Law in charging interest …

6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.

They had nothing to say. Why?  What was the nobles’ (the wealthy land owners class) disposition on this? Perhaps they had some of the same viewpoints we might have today toward impoverished people – that God has blessed our greater faithfulness … that they aren’t making wise choices … that their responsibility quotient in not as refined as our own, etc.

I would add to this that the nobles likely did not “see” the poor. Oh yes – they saw them with their eyes, but not with their hearts. Perhaps we too need to look beyond mere “seeing” that can be easily sloughed off and forgotten, to rather “deeply seeing” with hearts of compassion built upon a profound sense of God’s blessing.

one-eye

Remember the story in Luke chapter 7 of Jesus dining in the home of Simon the Pharisee? A woman with a troubled history had come into the home and was making quite a scene of weeping, anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair. EVERYONE in the room could see it (and smell it and hear it), though none chose to speak to it. And finally Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?”  Of course he could see her; you couldn’t NOT see her. But he was asking if he could SEE her.

Do you SEE the poor? Does your heart SEE the poor and needy in our community? There is quite a lot to see … I mean, to SEE. And before we can act upon it we have to do more than just see it, but to SEE it.  SEEING is step one.

Poverty Statistics

For those of you who heard the sermon yesterday either at Tri-State Fellowship or in one of the other 23 partnering churches, here in print are some of the statistics shared about the level of poverty in Hagerstown and Washington County …

  • Nearly 13% of Washington County’s residents live in poverty, according to a recent report from the Maryland Alliance for the Poor.
  • Washington County’s poverty rate was the eighth highest in Maryland for 2014, the report said. The poverty line was defined as annual income of $23,850 for a family of four.
  • [According to Lisa Klingenmaier, co-chairwoman of The Maryland Alliance for the Poor], “The cost of living is going up, but wages are not.”… She noted that this year’s report shows a worker in Washington County needs to earn $16.48 per hour to afford the fair market rent and utilities for a two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of his income. Two years before, the wage required was $15.98.
  • Median income — Washington County ranked 17th in Maryland with a median annual income of $56,477. The median income is not an average; it means the same number of households bring in more than or less than that amount. Washington County also ranked 17th in the last report, but the median income has risen by $2,238 since then.
  • Child poverty rate — the county ranked eighth in the number of children living in poverty, 19.7 percent, the group found. This number was slightly better than the last report in which the county ranked seventh with 19.9 percent of its children living in poverty.
  • Senior poverty rate — Washington County ranked seventh with 7.8 percent of seniors living below the poverty line, defined as having an annual income of $11,670 or lower for an individual. This number has not changed in the past two years.
  • Unemployment — Washington County had the ninth highest unemployment rate in the state with an average rate of 6.5 percent in 2014. That’s an improvement from the last report, when the county ranked fifth highest with an average unemployment rate of 7.9 percent.
  • Food Supplement Program — Washington County had the seventh highest number of people participating in the Food Supplement Program with 17 percent of the population involved. The average benefit was $126.83 per person, per month. This number was nearly unchanged.
  • Free and reduced-price meals — 50.1 percent of the children in Washington County Public Schools were eligible for the program during the 2014-15 school year, the eighth-highest percentage in Maryland. This number rose from the last report, when Washington County ranked 10th with 47.77 percent eligible.
  • African American poverty — the county ranked fifth in number of African Americans living below the poverty line, 30.7 percent.
  • Latino poverty — at 22.2 percent, Washington County ranked 10th in the number of Hispanic or Latino Marylanders living below the poverty line.
  • Female-headed households — 36.7 percent of female-headed households were below the poverty line, ranking Washington County seventh in the state.
  • Deep poverty — nearly half (45.4 percent) of Washington County residents living in poverty had yearly incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line — or $5,835 for individuals — in 2014, ranking the county 17th in the state for deep poverty.
  • Income spent for childcare — Families with children paid an average of 19.9 percent of their income on childcare, the 12th highest in the state.
  • “Klingenmaier said poverty trends in Washington County actually mirror the state. Maryland’s deep poverty rate, which is 48.3 percent of those living below the poverty line, is the highest in the country.”

What do we do with the “boring” parts of the Bible? (Nehemiah 3:13-32)

Posted on November 5, 2016 by Chris Wiles

“All Scripture is breathed out by God,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

If you grew up in church, you may have been asked at some point to commit this verse to memory.  You might even have a coffee mug or a t-shirt or a wristband with the verse printed on it.

But let’s be real for a second.  God inspired every word in the Bible, yet he communicated his truth through a collection of human authors, whose diverse writings spanned diverse cultures over a period of over 1500 years.  Naturally, we might find some parts of the Bible far more beautiful or far more useful than others.  But Paul says that all Scripture is profitable.  It’s easy to find “profit” in the beauty of the psalms or the clarity of Paul’s letters, but what do we do with the “boring” parts?

Today’s reading comes from Nehemiah 3.  And yes, it’s one of those “boring” parts.  You have my permission to skim it—but afterwards let’s talk about why we should rejoice that such passages are every bit as useful and significant as any other passage in the Bible:

13 Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate. They rebuilt it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and repaired a thousand cubits of the wall, as far as the Dung Gate.

14 Malchijah the son of Rechab, ruler of the district of Beth-haccherem, repaired the Dung Gate. He rebuilt it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars.

15 And Shallum the son of Col-hozeh, ruler of the district of Mizpah, repaired the Fountain Gate. He rebuilt it and covered it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. And he built the wall of the Pool of Shelah of the king’s garden, as far as the stairs that go down from the city of David.16 After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, repaired to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool, and as far as the house of the mighty men. 17 After him the Levites repaired: Rehum the son of Bani. Next to him Hashabiah, ruler of half the district of Keilah, repaired for his district. 18 After him their brothers repaired: Bavvai the son of Henadad, ruler of half the district of Keilah. 19 Next to him Ezer the son of Jeshua, ruler of Mizpah, repaired another section opposite the ascent to the armory at the buttress. 20 After him Baruch the son of Zabbai repaired another section from the buttress to the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest. 21 After him Meremoth the son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz repaired another section from the door of the house of Eliashib to the end of the house of Eliashib. 22 After him the priests, the men of the surrounding area, repaired. 23 After them Benjamin and Hasshub repaired opposite their house. After them Azariah the son of Maaseiah, son of Ananiah repaired beside his own house. 24 After him Binnui the son of Henadad repaired another section, from the house of Azariah to the buttress and to the corner. 25 Palal the son of Uzai repaired opposite the buttress and the tower projecting from the upper house of the king at the court of the guard. After him Pedaiah the son of Parosh 26 and the temple servants living on Ophel repaired to a point opposite the Water Gate on the east and the projecting tower. 27 After him the Tekoites repaired another section opposite the great projecting tower as far as the wall of Ophel.

28 Above the Horse Gate the priests repaired, each one opposite his own house. 29 After them Zadok the son of Immer repaired opposite his own house. After him Shemaiah the son of Shecaniah, the keeper of the East Gate, repaired. 30 After him Hananiah the son of Shelemiah and Hanun the sixth son of Zalaph repaired another section. After him Meshullam the son of Berechiah repaired opposite his chamber. 31 After him Malchijah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired as far as the house of the temple servants and of the merchants, opposite the Muster Gate, and to the upper chamber of the corner. 32 And between the upper chamber of the corner and the Sheep Gate the goldsmiths and the merchants repaired. (Nehemiah 3:13-32)

Why are passages like these “useful?”  Let’s examine four reasons:

  • They anchor us to history. These are real people, with real names.  The Bible is more than a history book, but it is not   We can take comfort in knowing that for the ancient people, this was a part of recording actual history.  And if God has been active in his people’s past, surely he can be active in his people’s present—and future.
  • They anchor us to community. Because these are real people, we can rejoice with the “great cloud of witnesses” that experienced God’s blessings and saw him at work in their midst.  We can find confidence knowing that our faith is not merely ours, but we are brought into a family far larger than we might have otherwise realized.
  • They anchor us to Jesus. Every passage in the Bible points us to Jesus; the only question is “how.”  Where do we see Jesus in today’s text?  Simple, really.  God used Nehemiah to strengthen God’s community, Israel.  In the New Testament, God used Jesus to bring God’s people into Christian community—the body of Christ.
  • They anchor us to God’s bigger story. Finally, there is a larger story into which every piece of Scripture fits into.  God is ferociously committed to establishing his kingdom on earth.  Here, we catch a glimpse—maybe even a foretaste—of that kingdom.  Here the people were dedicated toward the building of God’s community.  We, too, might find life in joyful anticipation of the day that God’s eternal city descends from heaven “like a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).

So, yes, the Bible is useful, it is profitable, it is beautiful.  Even the “boring” parts.

Are you a person of the Word?  Does God’s Word shape your heart?  Your life?  Your story?  If you’ve been reading our devotionals page, we’re thankful to be a part of your spiritual journey.  But if this is your first encounter with us, or if you’ve simply been lax in your commitment to the Word in general, then we’d love for you to prayerfully consider how you might invest yourself in God’s Word, and make his truth a greater part of your walk.

“You didn’t build that” (Nehemiah 3:1-12)

Posted on November 4, 2016 by Chris Wiles

No one gets anywhere alone.  There’s simply no such thing as the “self-made man.”

Literally everything we create is dependent on those who came before us.  Think about the technology in front of you right now.  You’re reading this on a device you didn’t create, relying on a data transmitted to you wirelessly across a world-wide information network.  Even the English language itself is an invention that has been shaped by culture and time.

In short, nothing you see before you is something you can take credit for—yet everything you see before you is something you can take joy in.

MICHAELANGELO, CEO

As human beings, we are created in the image of a Creator.  Creativity is in us deep down, all the way to our souls.  But because God exists as an eternal network of persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we are equally made for community.

Creativity and community must go together.  You can’t have one without the other.

Five hundred-odd years ago Michelangelo completed his work on the Sistine Chapel.  It’s a masterpiece.  One can hardly imagine the creation of Adam without also picturing the famous scene splashed across the ceiling.

But according to  William Wallace, professor of art at Washington University, we should think of Michelangelo less as a lonely artist and more of a CEO:

“The romantic myth that Michelangelo worked by himself fits our notion of the lonely, self-sacrificing genius — conditions that presumably are necessary for creating art. Actually, he was never alone. He lived with two male assistants and always had a female housekeeper. Thirteen people helped him paint the Sistine ceiling; about 20 helped carve the marble tombs in the Medici Chapel in Florence, with its allegories of Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk. And to build the Laurentian Library in Florence, he supervised a crew of at least 200.”[1]

Wallace envisions Michelangelo as something of a thought-leader, helping the vision come to life through the efforts of the community:

“For these projects, he personally selected a work force of friends, associates and trained professionals. He imposed a flexible organization that permitted talented individuals to find a place on one or more teams. He encouraged creative competition and initiative in design and execution. He reprogrammed the hacker elite (marble carvers) so they could realize his vision. A trouble-shooter, he made alterations and solved problems as they arose. He darted in and out of the assembly line daily, and worked almost every Saturday and most holidays. His employees benefited from flexible leave, good pay and job security — except when the deaths of his papal patrons interrupted the cash flow.”[2]

No one gets anywhere alone.  We’re just not built that way.

NEHEMIAH, CEO

Nehemiah was very much the same way.  His God-given task was to build the wall, but it wasn’t a project he could complete on his own.

In Nehemiah 3, we see that he calls a whole team of people together to help achieve this task:

Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors. They consecrated it as far as the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Tower of Hananel. 2 And next to him the men of Jericho built. And next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built.

3 The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. 4 And next to them Meremoth the son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz repaired. And next to them Meshullam the son of Berechiah, son of Meshezabel repaired. And next to them Zadok the son of Baana repaired. 5 And next to them the Tekoites repaired, but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord. (Nehemiah 3:1-5)

We might stop and wonder how it was that Nehemiah could expect to build these walls in the first place.  Surely the task must have seemed unbearably daunting.

We know from history—and even archeology—a few things about the wall that might be helpful:

  • Jerusalem was smaller than generally accepted—perhaps between 1.6—2.5 miles in circumference.
  • Only the eastern wall was built from the foundation; Nehemiah used the existing ruins to build the walls at the north, south, and west. This makes the project more of a re-modeling effort than a full-scale construction project.
  • The people were motivated—by God’s purpose as well as the threat of attackers. We have little difficulty imagining that these workers could find it in themselves to work on the wall.

Surely with these things in mind the task must have seemed more feasible, though still a task to place in God’s sovereign hands.

6 Joiada the son of Paseah and Meshullam the son of Besodeiah repaired the Gate of Yeshanah. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. 7 And next to them repaired Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite, the men of Gibeon and of Mizpah, the seat of the governor of the province Beyond the River. 8 Next to them Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, goldsmiths, repaired. Next to him Hananiah, one of the perfumers, repaired, and they restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. 9 Next to them Rephaiah the son of Hur, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired. 10 Next to them Jedaiah the son of Harumaph repaired opposite his house. And next to him Hattush the son of Hashabneiah repaired. 11 Malchijah the son of Harim and Hasshub the son of Pahath-moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. 12 Next to him Shallum the son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired, he and his daughters. (Nehemiah 3:6-12)

YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT

Not long ago President Obama ruffled feathers by telling entrepreneurs and businessmen that “you didn’t build that.”  Many took this as a slight against the sweat equity they had sunk into their life’s work, or a possible endorsement of the necessity of dependence on big government.

These concerns aren’t without warrant.  I agree that we should never dismiss the work that we put into our accomplishments, nor should we allow our dependence on one another to excuse unrestrained governmental regulation.  But let us never assume that we built it all ourselves.  I appreciate David Brooks’ more balanced assessment of the situation.  When a businessman wrote into the New York Times wrestling with how he should view himself in light of his accomplishments, Brooks responded by saying that “as an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.”[3]

If we are to be for our city, we may honor what God has done through us by taking joy in what we build and what we accomplish.  But we must never, ever assume that we have done it all ourselves.  This is the difference between gratitude and entitlement, and it is likewise the way in which God’s image-bearers reflect both creativity and community.

[1] William B. Wallace, “Michaelangelo, CEO,” The New York Times, April 16, 1994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Brooks, “The Credit Illusion,” The New York Times, August 2, 2012.

And who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Curt Snyder

Growing up in a very small town where my grandparents and parents owned and operated a small general merchandise store, I had the pleasure of basically knowing most everyone in our community. They shopped there, socialized there and often times just hung out there. For the most part everyone knew everyone and with that looked out and cared for each other in the process. Genuine relationships and community were the norm.

However, as the world expanded and localized community began to shift to more globalized community, this idea of true neighbors and care began to erode and disappear. Now with technology and communication as it is, what once was nearly impossible has become the new normal and it has blurred the lines of “who is my neighbor”. But that question isn’t a new phenomenon. Jesus himself was asked this question by a religious leader of his day.

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”   – Luke 10:25-29

But apparently that answer wasn’t enough so the leader, in an effort to justify his self-centered thinking, asked “and who is my neighbor.”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”   – LUKE 10:25-37

As Jesus unfolded his answer to the man’s question he spoke right to the issue; and in his parable he took those who should have been the first to respond to the need and have the greatest understanding of who our neighbor is and showed them as the most indifferent. Then he took the most unlikely character and demonstrated what true care and compassion looked like.

Here’s the catch! We would love to think that we more reflect the attitude and actions of the Samaritan, but the harsh reality is that, more times than not, we are closer to the two religious leaders and their actions toward the man who was in crisis.  We actually get as far away from the problem as we possibly can rather than getting involved in the need at hand.

You see, because of this thing called sin in each of our lives the tendency is to separate ourselves, to become insulated from the events around us and to look out for me first; but that is counter to what Jesus said we should be about. He said first we love God with everything in us and then we are to love people; and to be honest, you can’t truly love God with everything if you don’t love people.

Everyday you and I will encounter people who are in need. It may not be as critical as the man in Jesus’ story but in their life it is a crisis. Will we truly become the hands and feet of God by stepping into people’s lives and demonstrating the love of God to those who are far away from him? What steps can you take today to become that demonstration of God’s love?

Can you make this your prayer today?  “God help me to see the needs of people around me. Would you let me see with your eyes, hear with your ears and feel with your heart so that I can see the need in peoples’ lives?  And would you give me the courage to step into the situations I encounter and be a real demonstration of your love to others.  Amen.”

The Cross and the Call Away from “Fairness” (Matthew 5:38-43)

Posted on November 2, 2016 by Chris Wiles

“Individualism lies at the very core of American culture,” writes Robert Bellah in his influential work, Habits of the Heart. 

“Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and world, are closely linked to our individualism.  Yet…some of our deepest problems both as individuals and as a society are also closely linked to our individualism.”[1]

In a nation of individuals, differences abound.  That’s actually a good thing: God created humans to each express their God-given design in unique and diverse ways.  The gospel isn’t opposed to individuality; it’s opposed to individualism.The difference?  Individuality celebrates our uniqueness; individualism denies man’s common purpose.

Thus, differences abound, and for lack of common purpose difference only breeds distance, and distance breeds distrust.

The problem of individualism is nothing new.  In fact, in Eden’s paradise man and woman chose to reject God’s designs to seek their own fulfillment—and we’ve been wiping the juice from our chin ever since.

How do we reverse this?

The temptation is to reclaim justice through a relentless devotion to fairness.Fairness is the currency of individualism, for through fairness do we hope to see ourselves validated and transgressors punished.

In fact, fairness is so central to our understanding of the world that we become incensed at the presence of a lack of fairness.  Even our conversations about racial reconciliation are replete with statements about fairness and equality.

The Christian ethic isn’t built upon fairness, but upon virtue.  The cross shatters any expectation I have about fairness, for through the cross the righteous becomes sin so that sinners become righteous.  God’s justice is met, yet we stand aghast at how this confronts any notion—or any demand—we might have of “fairness.”

So when Jesus asks that we “take up the cross” and follow him, we have to realize that Jesus’ ethics have little to do with self-validation, and everything to do with self-sacrifice.

THE GOSPEL AND FAIRNESS

Now understand, the ancient people lived by a principle we know as lex talonis—the famous “eye for an eye” system of punishment (Exodus 21:24) designed to maintain social stability.  But Jesus challenges his readers that now, in the shadow of the cross, this former way of thinking proves itself inadequate:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

In the first-century world, Jews were merely tolerated by the Romans.  Therefore Roman soldiers were known to make unfriendly demands of the Jews.  We might imagine that many of the ancient people expected their Savior to call for a political revolution.  Jesus’ revolution would start with the human heart.

If we only had this passage to work with, we might assume that Jesus is calling his followers to serve as mere doormats.  Not so.  We must read this passage in light of the gospel.  The gospel says that despite my in-born brokenness, God revealed his eternal significance by rescuing me through the blood of the cross.  That means my worth can never be measured by what I do—positively or negatively—because nothing I do can be so good as to render the cross unnecessary, and nothing I do can be so bad as to render the cross insufficient.  This also means that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace.  Therefore to follow Jesus is to follow the way of the cross, to extend love to the world around us…even when it’s not fair.  Fairness appeals to human performance; God’s love appeals to Jesus’ performance.

COMMON GRACE

Jesus goes on to talk about the way we engage those who seem different from us:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

It’s tempting to divide the world into “liberal” and “conservative,” “democrat” and “republican,” “black” and “white”—all variations of the divide between “us” and “them.”

Jesus says that such divisions are impossible in light of God’s grace—and God’s grace is shown to all people.  Historically this has been called “common grace.”  Common grace isn’t about salvation, but about God’s kindness and compassion on his creation.  The ancient teachers used to see even the rain (a necessity when your whole economy was based on the growth of your crops) as a sign of God’s goodness.

Jesus therefore calls each of us to mirror that same goodness in love for our neighbors.

Are you willing to show love to your neighbors?  Even those who look, think, or act differently than you?  Your life, your love, your example may be the only gospel your neighbors ever hear.  Does your life story rhyme with that of Jesus?  Or are you too busy worrying about what’s fair?

[1] Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 142.

Counting the Cost (Nehemiah 2:11-20)

Posted on November 1, 2016 by Curt Snyder

We would like to introduce you to Curt Snyder.  Curt is pastor of discipleship and outreach at Lifehouse Church, and will be sharing some thoughts on the book of Nehemiah throughout our series:

“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.” – General Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses Grant, the 18th President of the United States, is probably best known as the commanding General that accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army at the end of the Civil War. Some have praised him for pushing until the union army caused the confederate army to surrender, but others have vilified him for his willingness to send so many men into battle and causing their death by his relentless pursuit of victory on the battlefield. Regardless of how you may feel about this, the reality is Grant understood the cost of victory and was willing to take the steps necessary to see that become a reality even if it meant continuing when others would have quit and sending men into harms way.

Nehemiah had a desire to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He had King Artaxerxes’ approval and he had arrived in the city to begin the process, but he didn’t have the backing of the city officials who were already there.  As a matter of fact he hadn’t even shared with them the plan he had. So, he made a private assessment of the disrepair, evaluated what it would take and then went to the officials to get their support. He counted the cost, gave the officials the information they needed and then gained their support to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

“I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. 13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.

Nehemiah knew the destruction. He had assessed the situation and drawn a conclusion as to what it would take to rebuild the wall but he couldn’t do it by himself. He needed the city officials on his side. He got their support, but it wasn’t that simple. He also ran into opposition.

But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

Everything in life that is worthwhile comes with a cost. It may not be a financial cost but it will be something that you hold dear and most times it will require something of others around you. Many of our cities and communities lay in ruin and there are those who oppose any change to the current situation. It is not necessarily a physical ruin where structures and buildings are falling down but rather a spiritual and moral ruin.  Division, disunity and despair fill our streets, our homes and our families. But that is not the end.

We have this great promise from the Old Testament and what is required is pretty clear.  2 Chronicles 7:14 states, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  

So, have you counted the cost of “rebuilding” your city? What are you being asked to do and are you willing to do your part? What steps can you take right now that will help “rebuild” the city?

The True and Better Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1-10)

Posted on October 31, 2016 by Chris Wiles

Hopelessness is always a reaction to what’s on the surface, but our desire for restoration goes all the way to the bone.

If you’re an avid TV watcher, you’ve probably encountered one of a dozen reality shows like American Restoration, where a team of professionals take something old and restore it to its original beauty—or as close as they can get it. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Fritz Kling describes an encounter he had with a young woman who had just moved to the city of Richmond.  The young woman loved the slow process of restoring her old home, but caught herself slightly embarrassed by her city’s reputation that lingered from the segregation and oppression during the Civil War.  Kling confronted her with a piercing question:

“Is it possible that, just like you expect your house’s defects and quirks will eventually make it a more interesting and beautiful home, couldn’t we…expect that our city’s complications and baggage make it a more beautiful future city?  Just as old houses are sometimes advertised as a ‘carpenter’s dream,’ couldn’t we view [our city] as a ‘Christian dream?’”[1]

What if Hagerstown was a Christian’s dream come true?  What would happen if we started seeing ourselves as being here with a purpose?

NEHEMIAH BEFORE THE KING (NEHEMIAH 2:1-8)

As we return to Nehemiah’s story, we see that roughly four months pass.  During that time we can imagine Nehemiah as routinely praying before the God of heaven that he would use Nehemiah to fix the walls of the city.

The scene now changes from a conversation between Nehemiah and God to a conversation between Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes.  In chapter 2 we read:

In the month of Nisan [around March], in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. (Nehemiah 2:1-2)

Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid.  In the ancient world, discontent in the king’s presence was often considered an offense against the king.  The punishment could well be swift and severe.  Nevertheless, Nehemiah, his life changed and shaped by prayer has a new confidence, and so he speaks to the king of the fate of his city.  Look at verse 3:

3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.  (Nehemiah 2:3-4)

Don’t overlook that.  Nehemiah prayed—he prayed, right there before the king.  He had trained his mind so well through months of diligent prayer that in an instant, he was able to direct his thoughts to God and find strength to make a specific request.

5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” 6 And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. 7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.  (Nehemiah 2:5-8)

Nehemiah was the ultimate politician: he built a wall and got the Persians to pay for it.  It could be that Artaxerxes sees this as an opportunity to further his political reach, but God would ironically use this as an opportunity to demonstrate a power all his own.  As for Nehemiah, his life reveals a greater, spiritual truth: The gospel helps us find our voice when others lose all hope. 

Nehemiah became a part of God’s eternal plan to restore his community.  And with God’s help, so too can we attend to the needs of our city today.

THE TRUE AND BETTER NEHEMIAH

Now, Hagerstown is not Jerusalem.  God’s promises to Israel cannot be applied elsewhere.  But the person of Jesus reveals a greater vision for God’s unfolding Kingdom.  Jesus is the true and better Nehemiah.  Like Nehemiah, Jesus leaves a throneroom and a place of privilege to enter the broken city of man.  In Luke’s biography of Jesus he tells us that like Nehemiah, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem as he rides in on the back of a donkey.  On the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness for our past.  Through his resurrection, he offers a vision for our future.  Christians await the day when Jesus returns to put all of creation back to perfection and beauty.  In Revelation 21 we read John’s vision of God’s glorious future: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  Following Jesus is more than “waiting to go to heaven when I die;” it’s about longing for the marriage of heaven and earth.  It’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”  In a word, the Christian life vision is one of hope.  Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus undoes the curse of Adam.  In the beginning—the very beginning—one man’s disobedience turned God’s garden into a graveyard.  In the resurrection, the graveyard becomes a garden.  In Jeremiah’s day God called his people in the midst of exile to “seek the good of the city.”  Our prayer this morning is that we might do the same for our city—that we might stand amidst the ruin and declare the radiance of possibility.

TROUBLE BREWING (NEHEMIAH 2:9-10)

Though he had the king’s support (support that extended to other regional governors as well), Nehemiah was not without his opponents:

9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel. (Nehemiah 2:9-10)

We addressed the division they stirred in Sunday’s sermon.  If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed a historic reality, then so is our future hope in him.  There can be no opposition to God’s unfolding plan.

The gospel therefore transforms us into men and women who are relentlessly committed to his eternal purposes and conformed to his eternal promises.

[1] Fritz Kling, “This Old City: A Christian’s Dream of Renovating Richmond,”ChristianityToday.com.  March 29, 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/thisisourcity/richmond/thisoldcity.html

Will God forgive repeated sins? (1 John 1:1-10)

Posted on October 29, 2016 by Chris Wiles

We’ve talked a lot this week about repentance and the love of God.

But what about our bad habits?  What about repeated sins?  If repentance is to change my attitude toward sin, then how can my repentance be genuine if I continue living in sin?

More to the point, will God forgive me for things I repeatedly do?

The beautiful simplicity of the gospel is that I am acceptable to God not because of the magnitude of my faith, but because of the object of my faith.  If I cling to self-righteousness for my sense of self-worth, then of course I will feel miserable when my failings persist.  But if I cling to Christ’s righteousness, then I will feel grateful for God’s unending forgiveness.

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL

John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples.  In addition to writing one of Jesus’ biographies, John also wrote a series of letters to Christians living in the Mediterranean world.  He begins his first letter by emphasizing the historical reality of the gospel:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

John was living in a day when people were beginning to forget just who Jesus was, and others were popping up to make claims about Jesus that weren’t true. John’s letter is largely devoted to correcting these false teachers, but it’s helpful for our question as well.

The gospel isn’t based on wishful thinking—it’s not even primarily about religious teachings.  It’s about a person: a God who walked among us as a human being, a God who stretched his arms out and gave his life as payment for sin, and a God who rose from the grave to proclaim his victory over even this greatest of enemies.

If he is the object of our faith, then, we have only to look to him for forgiveness and healing.

THE IMPACT OF THE GOSPEL

Secondly, John takes some time to unpack the wondrous reality of the gospel:

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)

A relationship with God demands moral purity.  The absence of moral purity demands payment, but rather than demand our blood God offers his own.

We can respond to sin by living in denial, but John will allow none of this.  Instead John encourages us to confront the brutal reality of our sin while maintaining confidence in the cleansing forgiveness offered by God.

In one of his sermons from the last century, Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way:

“So as I am aware of my sinfulness and my unworthiness and my unrighteousness, I look to the blood of Jesus Christ, and I see there the forgiveness of God.  I see the justice of God; I know that there God has forgiven and still forgives and will forgive….I can have this confidence that the death of Christ upon the cross is the propitiation for my sins—indeed, for the sins of the whole world—and that all my sins have been dealt with and are covered, are removed and banished there in Him.

Knowing thus the faithfulness and justice of God and the power of the blood of Christ to deliver me and to cleanse me from the guilt and stain of my sins, I can with confidence go forward, knowing that all is clear, my conscience has been cleansed, and I can continue to walk with God.”[1]

And that’s what separates gospel repentance from “cheap” forms of grace that ignores the gravity of sin.  It’s tempting, after all, to dismiss Christianity because God’s forgiveness gives us license to do as we please.  On the contrary; God’s grace sets us free to walk with him, and as we walk with him our character changes, our hearts are molded continually into the image of his Son.

So if you struggle with the need to repeatedly repent for the same thing, take heart; you are not alone.  The gospel promises that you are made clean by the endless grace of God, and the gospel likewise promises that as you move forward in the presence of God and the presence of like-minded Christians, your repentance will gradually become a real and lasting part of your character, until that day when all shall be made perfect and complete.

Take heart, dear Christian; God’s not done with you yet.

[1] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.  (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 134.

“At home” in God (John 15:9-17)

Posted on October 28, 2016 by Chris Wiles

“Love” has virtually become a bankrupt word—a scarecrow of a word without life other than the dried meanings we stuff inside it.

After all, we can “love” anything, can’t we?  I love my fiancée.  But I also love tacos.  I certainly don’t love tacos the way I love my fiancée, but when I’m hungry the magnitude feels close.

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last few years has been one by Yale professor Simon May as he chronicles the history of love in western cultures.  Though not a spiritual man, May begins with the Hebrew Bible and then moves through the years, from writers ranging from ancient philosophy to Sigmund Freud.

In surveying this wide spectrum, he concludes that “love” is a sense of “ontological rootedness,” or—more simply—love is a feeling of being “at home” with someone.  It’s a way of saying: I belong here. 

JOY AND RELAXATION

If you’re a follower of Jesus you probably have no problem using “love” and “God” in the same sentence.  Chances are you do so every time you participate in a worship service.

But I bet there are many of you who struggle to comprehend what it truly means to experience the love of God, and so you may find yourself wondering if your love for him is real—or perhaps just a bit one-sided.

Yesterday we started looking at portions of Jesus’ farewell address to his followers on the night he was arrested.  He encourages them to “abide” in him—to be saturated in his presence and to allow his character to become their own.

Now he describes the joy that the love of God can produce:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11)

Love comes from God, Jesus tells us.  Jesus’ relationship to his Father serves as a model for our obedience to Christ.

Then Jesus clarifies the reason for these instructions.  In a word: joy.  What is joy?  Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness, of course, is utterly dependent on circumstances.  With a single phone call, a single bad day at work, a single negative remark, and our fragile happiness now lies on the ground in a thousand glittering slivers.

Joy is independent of circumstances.  Joy is finding contentment in God alone, knowing that he is enough regardless of what happens around us.

This is why understanding God’s love is so important.  I once heard faith defined as a willingness to relax.  Are there people in your life that you can relax around?  Not your boss; he or she probably makes you nervous.  Maybe not even members of your family.  There’s some people who you feel like you have to impress, or keep calm, or “manage” rather than relax around.

But there’s others—a small handful—around whom we can be completely comfortable, completely vulnerable.  Maybe it’s that close friend that you can pick up the phone at any hour, and resume a conversation as if you’d never hung up.  Maybe it’s your spouse, the one who knows your most intimate flaws and sees only the edges of God’s design in you.  Around these people, you are free to relax, to experience joy.

God knows you through and through.  To abide in Christ, to have faith, means to relax.  I don’t mean we’re free to be lazy; I mean that because we rely on Christ’s righteousness, we have the confidence that we are perfectly and eternally loved and accepted.

Breathe easy, dear Christian.  There’s joy here.

WHAT MORE COULD HE HAVE DONE?

Still, it’s hard to fully wrap our heads around the magnitude of what God has done on our behalf.  Again, turning to Jesus, this is what he says:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:12-17)

Jesus speaks of the fact that we did not choose him—he chose us.  And we are joined as one by his blood, a blood poured out on our behalf.

Brennan Manning offers an illustration of this in his book The Importance of Being Foolish.  He tells the story of Casey and Jack—two best friends who served together during the heaviest combat of the Korean War. One dreary night, in the midst of a light snow, a hand grenade landed in the bunker where Casey and Jack were positioned.  Without hesitation, Casey threw himself on the grenade.

When the war ended Jack entered the religious life.  In sympathy for the loss of her son, Jack befriended Casey’s mother.  So strong was their bond that he would often divide his holidays between his family and that of his departed friend.

One summer he visited during a state of profound depression.  Unexpectedly, Jack asked if Casey—the same Casey that had thrown himself on a live grenade—really loved him.  Brennan writes:

She laughed. “Oh, Jack, ya sure got a way with ya.” It was a faint Irish brogue.

“Ya can’t be serious.”

“I am serious,” Robison replied.

There was fear in her eyes. “Now stop funnin’ me, Jack.”

“I’m not funnin, Ma”

She looked at him in disbelief. Then fear turned to fury…this night she stood up and screamed, “…what more could he ha’ done fer ya?”

Then she sank back in the chair, buried her head in her bosom, and began to sob. Over and over again the same phrase was endlessly, unbearably repeated: “What more could he ha’ done fer ya’?” [1]

We all experience seasons in which we may doubt the love of God.  We all have seasons in which we find it hard to “relax” in the love of God, to feel “at home” in his presence.

Then we look at the cross.

We look at the place where Jesus bled and died, we look at the place where love ran red as our sin washed white, where God’s justice was met and our debts were wiped clean.

And as we look, we are lifted out of the shallow narratives of discontent that we insist on playing in our minds, and instead lean into the great story of God’s redemption.

What more could he have done?

[1] Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish, p. 62.