Christianity 201

July 31, 2018

When the Answer to “How are you?” is “Not so fine.”

Today’s article has been shortened from its original form at the blog Jesus Unboxed, which we’re featuring here for the first time. Rev. David Eck is the pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, Fairview, North Carolina, and Chaplain PRN at Mission Hospital, Asheville, North Carolina. In the introduction, David points out that Nehemiah only surfaces once in the three year cycle of the Lectionary. Some of his thoughts below are derived from hearing author Brian McLaren. For the entire passage in Nehemiah, click here. To read the article in its full context click the title below.

Nehemiah: From Despair to Hope (Neh 8:1-18)

…“So, how are you?”…

…if you’re feeling “not so fine” today, that’s perfectly okay…

…Nehemiah gives us some tools for how to cope when it feels like life is an avalanche of “not so fine” days.

First, let me give you a little background on this relatively unknown prophet. The book of Nehemiah takes place after the Babylonian exile. This is a people who had experienced so many “not so fine” days in a row that they had lost count. They were people of despair. They were people who had abandoned all hope that things would get better.

Then, miraculously, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian army. He allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, and even gave them some of the resources they needed to rebuild their lives. Nehemiah is all about the rebuilding. Chapter 8, in particular, gives us a lot of wisdom regarding how we can rebuild our lives when we feel like we are a people without hope.

As chapter 8 begins all the people in Jerusalem were asked to gather in the public square in front of the Water Gate. The Water Gate was located near the Southwest corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, near the Gihon Spring. It was a place that was open and accessible to everyone.

In this very public space Ezra began reading the Torah, the “law of Moses” to everyone who would listen. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Torah is the first five books we have in our Bibles. It was revised and edited by Ezra and other priests while they were in exile.

And so this brand-spanking-new version of the Torah was read to the people. When Ezra opened the scroll for the first time, the people shouted “Amen, amen!” and they began to worship together. While Ezra was reading the Torah, the Levites, who were the traditional teachers of the Law, moved among the people and helped them to understand how it applied to their lives.

This is something that lasted an entire day. During this gathering the leaders reminded the people “This day is holy to the LORD your God; so not mourn or weep.”

When the day came to an end they told the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

What I see going on in this passage is a blueprint for how we successfully navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives; times when we have lost hope and despair is our constant companion.

First of all, we need to immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship. The “law of Moses” that Ezra read was defined by Brian McLaren as “the standards of basic human decency.” They contained the Ten Commandments and reminded the people how they were supposed to live in covenant with God and with each other.

In times of despair, it’s important that we immerse ourselves in scripture. This is something we do not do alone. We interpret it together. This circle of interpretation involves the whole family of God: pastors, lay people, poets, musicians and scholars.

It’s important that we have this holy conversation because in 2018 it’s vital that we understand clearly who Jesus is and what he stands for. There are many counterfeit Jesuses out there. If we are students of the Word, we are less likely to fall for them.

My challenge to you… is that if you haven’t read the gospel lately, it’s time to do so. We all need to be able to defend the Jesus we know and love in a world that often makes him into their image instead of the other way around.

Worship is also important during the “not so fine” times of our lives. When we are despairing, when we have lost hope, we need to surround ourselves with those who will remind us of God’s promises to us. They are there to sing the hymns of faith we cannot bring ourselves to sing. They are there to love us and care for us when we cannot love and care for ourselves. We see this happening in Nehemiah 8. It was Ezra’s way of helping God’s people to heal and have their hope restored.

The second thing that emerges in Nehemiah, is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, we need to practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy. Ezra tells the people “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

When things are going wrong, we need to focus on what’s going right. When things get us all hot and bothered, we need a cool oasis where we can refresh our weary souls.

This is exactly what the people did. They set aside their troubles for at least one day. They feasted with one another. and shared a portion of what they had with those who could not afford to feast.

Then they were reminded by Ezra that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” This is not some rose-colored glasses kind of joy. It’s not even the-glass-is-half-full kind of joy. It’s the kind of joy that believes “If God is for us, who can be against us?” It’s the kind of joy that lives deep inside our souls. It cannot be taken away from us no matter what is happening in our lives and in our world.

We may not think we do not have this kind of joy within us. But, trust me, its there. Our job is to awaken that kind of joy in those around us when they cannot awaken it themselves…

But there’s one more piece of the blueprint we need to examine for how to navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives. This occurs in our second lesson which contains a ritual celebration known as the Festival of Booths. It is a festival that Jews celebrate to this very day. Some of you may remember the Jewish Secular Society of Asheville, who does their monthly Shabbat here, set up a booth or tent in our yard this past fall.

The reason why it’s important in Nehemiah, is that the Israelites had not celebrated this festival since the time before the exile in Babylon. Now that they were rebuilding their community, this particular festival was important. They feasted under these booths to remember how their ancestors wandered in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt, as well as how God led them to the promised land.

The important lesson we learn from this festival is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, it’s important that we remember how God delivered us from difficult times in the past. When we do this, it gives us hope for the future. It helps to replenish the deep well of joy that is our strength.

And so, as we make our way, through these unstable and unpredictable times we are experiencing as a nation, it’s absolutely vital that we remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past. This gives us the strength we need to trust that God will help us to navigate the “not so fine” days were are experiencing currently.

Friends in Christ, there is a lot of wisdom we can gain from Nehemiah. I encourage you to read this chapter during the week, and see what else you can learn from it. Make no mistake about it, God is with us in these “not so fine” times. The joy of the Lord WILL be our strength. If we immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship; if we practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy; if we remember the times in our lives when God was faithful to us; we will get though this! Our hope will be renewed as we place our trust in the One, who helped Israel persevere during both an exodus and an exile. Amen!

Copyright ©2018 by David Eck; used with permission.

 

May 8, 2017

Preaching for Change

CEB Acts 2:36 “Therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

37 When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Earlier today I wrote these words at my other blog, or perhaps I should say these words wrote themselves:

I have been noticing a recurring theme lately in sermons I have listened to online and books I have been reading. Perhaps it’s personal conviction about this subject.

The idea is very simple: Many of us read the Bible and Christian books, and many of us listen to sermons in order to gain information when God is wanting to see our transformation. Perhaps you even are in a position where you give leadership or mentoring to others, or simply have occasion to speak into the lives of friends, and what you’re imparting is more informative than transformative.

I know I’m a guilty of this. Do you ever track your spiritual progress by the month, or by the year? Each day I have more knowledge and a better understanding of the ways of God and the history of his dealings with his people. But am I a different person than I was last month or last year? To ask the question bluntly, what good is all this information doing for me? What good is all that Bible knowledge and understanding of systematic theology doing for you?

Spiritual formation is not simply about building up the mind’s knowledge base. It’s about forming the character of the heart. It leads to different speech, different choices, a different mindset, and different actions.

The Word of God should bring change. As I write this now, later in the day, I realize that there are people for whom God’s truth needs to be rediscovered. They don’t even have the basic Bible knowledge that was once common among people in North America and Western Europe, regardless of their personal beliefs. It reminds me of Nehemiah (see chapter 8) bringing the scrolls to be read to a people who had not heard this word in a long, long time.

At the blog Clergy Stuff I read this:

In this information age, where any piece of information can be accessed at our fingertips at any time, it might be hard to believe that God’s people had lost touch with their God. But they had been exiled – ripped from their homes, families, and faith practices. After so many years of living apart from the community of faith, it is possible to see how easily the faith practices of a broken people could unravel.

But after they returned, a scroll was found. The scroll contained God’s word lost long ago. When Ezra read it to the people, it brought up many emotions for them. It was a word of hope and promise to a people that had nearly lost all hope of ever being a united people again. But the promise of restoration had been fulfilled, and on this day, the word of God spoke loudly throughout their gathering.

At the Our Daily Bread archives, I found this in reference to our key text today:

In 1738, an Englishman named John Wesley entered a church service where someone was preaching from the book of Romans. As he listened to the message of the gospel that night, Wesley wrote that he felt his heart “strangely warmed,” and he knew deep within that Jesus had died to save him from his sins. John Wesley would go on to found Methodism, an approach to living out Christian faith that continues today.

In today’s world, the message of the gospel can sound strange to some who don’t yet know God. The idea of receiving salvation can seem like a foreign concept.

We can be encouraged, however, for a person’s heart being transformed by the gospel takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit—a work we trace back to that first day of the early church.

So today we have both situations: People who have great quantities of Bible knowledge at their fingertips but have not allowed themselves to be changed by it; and people for whom the Bible narrative has gotten lost and they need to hear it as if it were the first time.

Because we’ve posted this song before, here’s a different version of it.

God, help us all in this information age when we have so many Biblical resources so easily accessible; help us that we don’t track our progress simply in terms of knowledge gained but in terms of hearts and lives changed. For those who lead, help them to lead with change in view. Amen.

 

October 26, 2016

Overview of Ezra

John D. West has retired and is re-reading the Bible and posting overviews of each book at his blog West Word. We caught up with him a few days ago when he was in the book of Ezra. Click the title below to read at source, and then jump back to the beginning of the series.

Gleanings from the Bible: Ezra

You would think that Ezra and Nehemiah should really be towards the end of our Old Testament as they cover the return of the Jews from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. The scene is being set for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, albeit about five hundred years before the Nativity.

THE MIRACLE OF THE RETURN

The thing that stands out most is that the Return was a remarkable event. That the Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the Jews to go and rebuild the walls of their city is unusual. That he and his successors would actually help to finance the venture, acknowledging the “God of heaven”, is quite miraculous. It’s no wonder that Ezra records, Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.” (8:27-28). It’s another reminder that God is King over all nations, that he controls their fate and that his mercy continues to extend to his people, despite their past failures. While we think of history being shaped by kings, politicians and wars (and perhaps currently by multi-national corporations), the witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the mover and shaker who will encompass the good and bad decisions of all people into his overall plans for humanity.

THE DIFFICULTY OF DIVORCE

I found it hard to come to terms with Ezra sending away foreign wives and their children (See chapters 9 and following). It seems harsh against today’s social background and particularly when you try to imagine what it must have been like in their place. Was this a pre-pharisaical sort of response, which the coming of Jesus would change? An exclusiveness which he would challenge, as he often commended the foreigners of faith and finally commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations?

I had to remind myself that once again the Jews were at a precarious stage of regrouping and re-establishing all they had lost seventy years earlier. It would still be all too easy to fall back into idolatry, and there were still hundreds of years to go before the Christ would arrive on the scene. A lot can happen in that time – and it did!

Another point is that Ezra is claiming that the Jewish men should not have entered into these marriages in the first place. Today the application of this principle has less to do with race but as much to do with faith. I have had occasion in the past, based on New Testament Scripture, to warn Christian young people to be wary of who they became romantically involved with. Marrying an unbeliever has too often marked the ending of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the very least it has made commitment to God’s work more difficult as one person is pulling in a different direction or not pulling at all. I’ve seen it happen too many times and heart-breaking though it may sometimes be I believe that God honours and blesses those who put him first as they seek a partner.

OT RESPONSE vs NT RESPONSE

I note here that to the New Testament Church Paul advises those who converted to Christianity, and were already married to an unbelieving partner, should not seek a separation. There was a chance that the partner could be converted through the witness of the Christian (1 Corinthians 7).

So what had changed between the people of God prior to Christ and those after? Why didn’t Paul insist that Christians divorce unbelievers as Ezra had done with the returning Jews?

There are probably other reasons but the one that stands out for me is that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a generally stronger people spiritually. No longer held together by ritual observance, nor motivated by legal observance, Christians were in a New Covenant relationship, motivated by the Spirit from the heart. Those born of the Spirit had a new, natural bias towards God. The Kingdom of God was always a reality, but with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom had come with power into the lives of all who truly responded with faith.

BACK TO EZRA

On re-reading Ezra I also realized that the business of sending away wives and children was not a hasty decision enacted over a weekend. There were actually one hundred and ten cases and they were dealt with by an investigative committee over seventy-five days with the names recorded. I can only trust that provision was made for all concerned under such difficult circumstances!