Rebuilding the City- The Work of the Church in the 21st Century

September 8, 2008

Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.’” -Nehemiah 2.17

‘Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel- he is the God who is in Jerusalem.’” -Ezra 1.3

Over the past week I have begun reading over what is probably my second favorite book of the Bible, and definitely my favorite in the Old Testament, that being the book of Nehemiah. In reading it my attention has been turned once again to Nehemiah’s call to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and his efforts to cleanse the city of all of its’ impurities, be it from within the Israelites or from without. This, of course, is great biblical history, but I can’t help but seeing something more when I read it.

The something more I see in Nehemiah is this: Nehemiah has been called to return to God’s holy city, to rebuild its walls and to reestablish his people there. For over a hundred years the Israelites were beat down and derided in this place, but in the years of his ministry Nehemiah (along with Ezra and others) saw to it that Jerusalem would once again stand out as the city on top of the hill, shining down the glory of God to all the nations. In the same way, as we stand, the church in America has been ravaged, attacked from all angles, inside and out, and subjected to ridicule and hatred in the public square. It has fallen from the shining city on a hill which led the foundation of this country and has become a place of scorn or of “useful idiots” for advancing secular agendas. Just as Nehemiah came and rebuilt Jerusalem, so must we rebuild the church in our nation (This of course, is not specifically a flaw in America, but in all Western societies in general. Refer back to my posts on The Laodicean Project for more).

So, what I propose to do with my posts over the next couple weeks is to extract a few principles that we see revealed in God’s Word in the books of Nehemiah and his contemporaries (Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) and to discuss what I think it says to us as Christians about how we should act in moving towards rebuilding the church in our nation.

Insufficient Responses- A Thought on Nehemiah 1.4

September 4, 2008

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” -Nehemiah 1.4

The other night I was made keenly aware of a failing I have. By now, most all of us who watch the news have heard the reports of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s pregnant 17-year old daughter. Over the past couple days this story has proliferated all the way out to the covers of celebrity gossip mags such as Us Weekly, and has attracted some attention as to the Governor’s readiness to be President or Vice-President (see David Letterman). Whatever your leanings, it appears that everyone interested has an opinion in this matter.

However, one thing seems to be falling through the cracks. Even in my outrage at the coverage I too missed it until Wednesday evening when I was watching an otherwise innocuous segment on John McCain arriving in Minneapolis for the convention. It was during the footage of his arrival that I saw it. McCain walked down the stairs of his aircraft and casually made his way down the line of family members awaiting him. His wife Cindy and their 7 children were all standing by to give him handshakes and hugs, greeting him for what was sure to be the biggest two nights of his life. Then, following his family, he was greeted by Gov. Palin, her husband, and their 5 children. McCain continued to move through the line the same way he did with his own family, until he got to Gov. Palin’s 17-year old daughter Bristol.

Arriving at Bristol, accompanied by her 18-year old boyfriend Levi, Sen. McCain stopped, held her hands, and spent a few moments talking with and embracing the young girl on that runway. On camera you could not hear what he said, but it was evident from the gentle fathering mannerisms he exhibited that Sen. McCain was doing his best to console and care for a young girl who has just had her most embarrassing secrets shown to the world in a way that most of us can never imagine.

Myself being all too familiar with the frustrations and bitter joys of teenage parenthood was able to relate in some small way with what this young couple is going through, and the moment of attention which Sen. McCain paid to them here touched me deeply. In fact, I didn’t realize how deeply I was touched until I tried telling my wife, who was in the other room, what was being shown and started uncontrollably crying instead. The mixture of knowing how difficult this young girl was having things combined with the genuine compassion being displayed by Sen. McCain struck me in such a way that I could not help but be crushed by the emotion I felt.

Looking back, this raw, emotional response has been serving to convict me of what is normally a more staid, even cold demeanor which I carry towards everything. I was convicted about how I see fellow humans struggling in assorted areas of life and yet am quicker to utter criticism than I am to shed a tear. I was convicted about how I see people who don’t know Christ moving closer to death everyday and yet somehow my heart is unmoved. It is not supposed to be this way. This is not how I should react.

We see in Nehemiah that when he received news of the destruction of God’s city and of the scattering of His people, there rose up a deep and broken response, a response of tears and prayer and fasting, which lasted for days. Nehemiah was troubled over the pain of the Jews. He was troubled over the suffering incurred and the damage which had been done to God’s people.

This type of response is so foreign to me, and yet I am convicted that it is a response that I need to cultivate. In the way that I was moved uncontrollably by the images of this young couple, I need to be moved by the same images of lost people, of suffering people, of people God has commanded me to help and to minister to. This is the heart of Christ and I realize that my current responses are insufficient to capture the love which Jesus called me to exhibit, and that is simply unacceptable.

The Laodicean Project- Feeding a Land in Famine

May 31, 2008

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.” -Amos 8:11-12

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” -2 Timothy 4:1-5

The next aspect of what we can do congregationally to try and reach “Christian” societies is to heed Paul’s advice to Timothy and “Preach the Word!” (2 Timothy 4:2). To many of us today this seems like such an old-fashioned thing, but as the Bible teaches, it is the foundational part of all Christian evangelism.

In many churches today there is a debate over just how to use Scripture. Some places the argument is over whether there is contradiction between the teachings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus, and if so, whose side should we take? In others it is a debate over whether the Bible is still accurate for us today or if its’ teachings should be rethought in light of how our culture has evolved (this is the idea of a trajectory hermeneutic)? And still in others, the debate is over what is the true Gospel and if we should change our perspective on the Gospel to make it more applicable to modern or postmodern culture? To all of this I would just say one thing: preach the Word!

As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2 something which I think we should take to heart again today:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Paul did not want to attempt, in this Greek town of Corinth, to use philosophy or intelligent words or complex thoughts to win the people. Instead he wanted to rest upon the “power of God” to work through his simple message of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” to effect change in the lives of the Corinthians. If he were to recast this today it could not be said any better. It appears to me that too often in our postmodern church we try and win people over by doing everything but proclaiming “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” We offer up love and peace and radical new interpretations. We can see it most plainly in the book titles on our shelves: The Secret Message of Jesus, New Perspectives on Paul, The New Christians. For some reason today we feel the need to find a new angle on the Scriptures that has not been tried in the past 2000 years, and that without that we will be ineffective at growing the church.

However, to see a Biblical picture of what’s supposed to happen, all we have to do is look at the testimony of Nehemiah in Nehemiah 8. It is in this chapter that we see the first public church service in the newly rebuilt Jerusalem. And what is the message for that day? Well, we see that “they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses (v.1)”, which he did, and he proceeded to “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. . . . They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (vv.3,8).” So, Ezra and his fellow scribes read straight through from Genesis to Deuteronomy, clearly, and while doing so they exposited on the text. They didn’t skip pieces or bring in extra-biblical texts, just the Law as revealed to Moses. And this took 4 to 6 hours, yet the people stayed and listened attentively. Then what happened next? “All the people wept as they heard the words of the Law (v.9).” The people had an emotional reaction to it. They were broken and they fell on their faces and cried for the sins and the disobedience that they had committed. And then what? “Then he [Nehemiah] 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.’ . . . And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing (v.10,12a).” The people rejoiced for they knew that God had forgiven them and that he was their strength for salvation. And how did they know this? “Because they had understood the words that were declared to them (v.12b).” The preaching of God’s Word had done this change. Wow!

So, as we see here, the clear exposition of God’s Word, by his faithful and learned scribes (Ezra 7:6-10) unto the people led them to brokenness, repentance, and then joy for their salvation! Contrast this with what the Lord says in Amos, that the absence of his Word leads people to “wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD (Amos 8:12).” With his Word, people are found, and without his Word, they are lost! Keeping this in mind I believe that we need to honestly evaluate if the Word of God is truly being preached from our mouths and our pulpits or if we are vainly trying to win the souls of men through our “lofty speech and wisdom”, and only once this is set right can we begin to see revival in our wandering “Christian” societies!