Monday, February 6, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: Fools in Good Hands

Preached on Sunday, February 5, 2012

Scripture readings: Nehemiah 13:1-22; 2 Timothy 1:3-18

There were some guys talking and they realized that they all had a new thing in common. Each one’s wife wanted him to lose some weight. One of the guys said, “Yeah, I know; inside me there’s this skinny guy trying to get out, but I can usually sedate him with a cheese burger and fries.”

Sometimes our best intentions, in our lives as God’s people, do not take into account our human ability to stand in our own way, or in God’s way. We need to commit our lives and our service to God into his hands, which are the best hands.

The story of Nehemiah tells us about how he saw a way to help God’s people rise together to meet a changing world. Israel’s pattern for being God’s people had depended on their independence from the outside world; their freedom from its influences.

In fact the Bible tells us how miserably they failed to do that. They never truly did a good job at being God’s people in the days of their independence. But their being independent, and having boundaries to keep the outside world out, had allowed them to hold onto the illusion of being what God called them to be.

In the judgment of God, they lost the independence that they had played with and abused. Now the outside world pressed in on them and they responded to this pressure in different ways.

Nehemiah and others wanted to help God’s people respond by recapturing the essence of what God had given to them, so that they could continue their mission. Most of God’s people responded to the pressure of a changing world by conforming to that world. They responded by their readiness to scrap what made them unique through God’s design.

They were called, like the first members of their family Abraham and Sarah, to be a people of faith, following a faithful God wherever that God led them. That was part of the design that shaped them as a people. Now they caved in to the world around them so they wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the discipline of faith.

They caved in to the world around them so they wouldn’t have to take the risks that faith required of them if they were going to represent the counter-culture of God. God had called them to be mediators (go-betweens) who represented a different way of life. It was a way of faith and grace. Faith and grace were to be the distinguishing marks of a life that was designed to show what we were created for. They were called to be the mediators of God’s way that was so different from the world’s way.

The pattern was spelled out in their books of history, and law, and worship, and wisdom, and prophecy. We have those same books. They belong to our Old Testament.

And we have Jesus who is the living demonstration of everything that went before him. God came in Jesus to live out perfectly all of God’s intentions for his people in their faith and their life. God became human, in Jesus, to show us, in one single life, the faithful God and a faithful humanity.

In Jesus, God offered himself, through his sacrifice on the cross and through his rising from the dead, to be the one who was able to destroy the power of sin and death at work in human lives and human relationships. Adopting our humanity in Jesus, God could mend our humanity by coming to live inside us. When we receive him and believe in him, we find Jesus coming into our hearts, carrying the gift of what he has done for us.

This is the good news of the grace of God. This is how we receive a new life based on the mercy, and the power, and the faithfulness of God.

In Jesus, God calls people to gather around him. Jesus called his people to be “disciples.” Disciple means “learner.

Those who were nearest to Jesus had to learn the discipline of being disciples together, to trust him and follow him together, and that is the foundation of what we call the church. We are not just people who trust and follow the Lord Jesus, but we are “a people” who trust and follow him together. It is how we trust and follow the Lord Jesus together that truly enables us to meet a changing world.

In Nehemiah’s time, God’s people had to meet a world that would no longer allow them to be separate and independent. They met their changing world by blending in and losing themselves.

They blended into a world that mixed them with other people whose identities were based on other faiths. They did this by marrying spouses who would not share their faith or share an interest in raising their children in the faith.

They blended into a world of bondage to work by giving up the Sabbath. They blended into a world where most people lived on a subsistence or survival level, and who slaved their lives away. They blended into a world where the lucky few lived on the continual work of others: the work of those people who were servants or slaves.

God’s people blended into that world of work by ceasing to rest. The Sabbath meant stopping the activity of survival; stopping the way of life that depended on the work of others, at least for one day out of the week.

The Sabbath meant stopping work to enjoy the gift of simply being. The Sabbath meant having faith in God and enjoying the grace of God in all of its forms: a day of grace and faith. In some ways it was a day of heaven, a day of eternity, outside of the world of work and need.

In Paul’s time God’s people, who followed Jesus, had to meet a world that was changing from a position of simply not noticing them or understanding them to a position of danger and hostility. God’s people were tempted to blend into that new world of danger by surrendering to fear and going into hiding. They blended into their surroundings by backing away from their connections with those of their own (like Paul) who got caught in the jaws of that hostile world. Their desertion of Paul was the same thing as deserting a way of life; as a people of God who belonged to each other and shared their lives together.

Paul was under arrest. He was in prison in a culture where the prison system did not support the prisoners. The prisoners had to come up with their own means of support, often through family and friends.

Paul needed the churches to supply him with money for food, and drink, and clothing. He needed money to make payments to his guards; to keep them happy and make sure they treated him well. Prison was not cheap.

The churches of the Roman province of Asia, which was what we now call western Turkey, had all deserted him. They represented the biggest and richest part of the church of that day. They had the means and the stability to spare something for Paul.

We don’t know why they deserted Paul. There may have been political fallout. Enemies of the Christians may have been using Paul’s trial in Rome against the Christians in their province, threatening them with arrest, or penalties and fines.

It wasn’t just the Christians in the province of Asia who deserted Paul. The Christians and co-workers of Paul in Rome did not show up at his preliminary trial where they may have had the opportunity to speak for him against the charges that had been made against him.

Jesus told his disciples, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

The Roman Christian lawyer, Tertullian, around the year 200 AD, wrote that this was one of the most important gifts that the Christians had to give to the world of their day, because it was such a cruel and cutthroat world. Tertullian described the Romans who were not Christian as saying this about the Christians: "Look," they say, "how they love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other). (Apology, Chapter 39)

At a time when the world seemed to be rising against them, the Church was in danger of blending in, in such a way, as to not meet the needs of a loveless world. They blended in, in such a way, so as to hide the very gifts that cruel and cutthroat world needed most from God.

Sometimes I think our world is changing into a place where future generations will live their lives as individuals facing screens for work, and for play, and for human relationships, and even for faith. The danger is that we may try to meet them by blending in without showing them another way.

We, as the people of God, may have to live with one foot in their world. But we will have to point beyond our screens to that other way.

The other way, as old as God’s creation, is where faith, and grace, and truth find their true fulfillment by sharing life together as a tribe, or as a family, following and trusting the Lord together. The Lord came down and became human so that our life with him could be truly human. In the body of Christ, our life with God that takes the physical form of being physically present in each others’ lives, and growth, and worship.

Paul had spent three years in Ephesus; the capital of the province of Asia. (Acts 20:31) That was the longest single period he spent working anywhere during his travels. So he was deserted by God’s people living in a place where he had done the most work; where people should have known him best. If anyone deserted Paul, it would never be the Christians of the province of Asia. But they did it.

Nehemiah was outraged by the failure of God’s people in the very areas of life where he had worked with them the hardest. Nehemiah had worked with God’s people, as governor of the Persian province of Judah, for twelve years.

He had worked with them to restore their identity as God’s people. He had helped them live out that identity in a world that had changed around them. He worked to help them not lose themselves in that changing world.

Nehemiah worked to focus them on passing on their faith by choosing spouses of faith and building families of faith. He worked with them to learn the discipline of stopping to enjoy the gifts of faith and grace through the Sabbath; the Lord’s Day.

After serving twelve years as governor of the province, Nehemiah went back to the Persian capital to serve the king there. A few years later, he asked for a new appointment as governor of his people, and what did he find? He found his people right back in the business of blending in. It was just as if he had never worked with them in the first place.

Over and over, in his book, Nehemiah records his frustration and his prayers for God to have mercy on him and remember what he had tried to do. In order to keep the good work going, it would require the mercy of God and the remembering of God to see it through.

Remembering, in the Bible, does not mean thinking about something that is over and done with. Our remembering (and especially God’s remembering) means taking something that has been started, and doing something with it, and seeing it through. In ordinary life, reviewing even our most idle and unimportant memories serves to establish who we are, and our attitudes, and how we live our lives.

No human being really has the capacity to see God’s work through. “Remember me for this, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” (Nehemiah 13:22)

The great love in Nehemiah’s prayer translates a special Hebrew word for love: the word “hesed”. It means “covenant love”. It is a love based on the promises of an almighty, and faithful, and gracious God. It means God’s ability to see the promises of his love through to their fulfillment. It is God’s ability to finish the work he has begun through us.

Paul has something to say about the power of this love, which is also called the gospel, or the “good news”. Paul says: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:8-9)

As Paul says, the work of God, giving a new life to people, bringing a new world into existence, was the work of the grace and perseverance of God. So Paul gives us a famous short prayer. It is a prayer that appeals to God’s ability to remember, and have mercy, and bring his own work through to completion. “I know whom I have believed and know that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

When we, as God’s people, seek to meet a world that is not the world of our grandparents, or parents (a world that has changed almost beyond recognition in our own lifetimes, if we are middle aged) we have to learn from God’s people in the time of Nehemiah and of Paul. We have to learn to remember the human element.

We have to ask God to have mercy on us, and for God to remember what we hope to accomplish. We have to do this because we will always be at risk of falling into the very things we want most to guard against.

In our very ambition to meet a changing world, we are always at risk of blending into that world and losing what we have to give. That is the danger. May God guard us against it! May God have mercy upon us!

Being the people of God does not make us immune to lulling ourselves into a false reality. Knowing our danger, we will pray, and commit it to God’s faithful care, and we will keep alert.

Sometimes, faith is like the Sabbath of knowing when to rest and trust. But faith is also the push of offering something from God to the world that does not know him. Faith means knowing that God has designed a different pattern for human life than the world knows anything about. And we are to live God’s way.

In Christ, God gives us a life that is an alternative to everything that goes on around us. Our changing world is like a river, and only living things go against that flow. Faith is what gives us enough fullness of life to swim upstream toward the source of our life that comes from God.

This faith is not the straining of our willpower toward God and the work he gives us to do. Faith is a love that comes from seeing how much greater is the love and faithfulness of God. Faith means entrusting our lives and our service as God’s people to him.

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