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Nehemiah 2: You are not a Pizza.

I read on facebook a great line that said: “You will not be loved by everyone all of the time, you are not a pizza!”

The problem is we want to be friends with God and to fit into the world perfectly too, but as  St. Paul says to his protégé Timothy that “anyone who wants to lead a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim.3.12). James reminds us that: “Friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

The story of Nehemiah is more than a testimony of recognising God’s call and vocation (which is what we looked at yesterday) it is a tribute to obedience and faithful endurance under pressure, immense pressure and persecution.

It is easy to be courageous when our choices are popular, easy to give bold speeches to cheering crowds,  talking with fighting talk when someone else is taking the flack but it is so much harder to be brave when your choices will be unpopular, the crowd is hostile and its our neck on the block.

Yet a brave choice often is rarely a one off moment but rather to have to hold a line and keep on building amid attack, indeed often as the work grows sadly often the attack increases.

Here we see in the story of Nehemiah his attempts to re-build the wall were initially met with scorn and mockery.

But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us”…”What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”  Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Neh.4.1-4)

In response to their ridicule they prayed that God’s work would not be thwarted and prayed that God would deal with his enemies. It reminded me of the book of Acts where the disciples were hauled before the authorities and told not to preach about Jesus again, the disciples went off and prayed for continued boldness (Acts 4:31) and  they kept on preaching (even when it cost many of them their lives).

In the story of Nehemiah the mockery moved to threats of physical violence and attempts to kill them and destroy their work.

9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.  13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”… Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.

Notice that they prayed, armed themselves and continued to keep working, too often we neglect prayer and work as we focus on the fight, we pray and fight but stop actually being faithful to what we are called to do, or we fight and work and neglect to pray, but faithful Kingdom living involves a commitment to all three.

 “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days” (Neh.6.15).

So, what of us seeking to build the Kingdom of God, keep praying, remember you are in a spiritual battle and keep doing what you are called too.

Nehemiah is my favourite book of the Bible because he is such a great example of perseverance under pressure and persecution, someone who did not quit when the going got tough, kept going when life was not rosy and comfortable and was faithful and obedient to God’s call seeing it to completion.

It is my prayer that the Church of Jesus Christ has the some commitment as Nehemiah to building -and continuing to build- the Kingdom of God not matter what is thrown at us

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Crowning King Eliab.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

Here we see God sending his prophet Samuel to choose a new King for Israel, Saul -although had started off as a good King he disobeyed God and his heart was wrong, and now God was choosing a successor. Samuel goes to Jesse and asks to see his sons.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab (the eldest son) and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

I worry that far too many Churches and Christians groups would almost certainly have crowned Eliab as the leader assuming that this must be God’s will.

Often when things seem ‘obvious’ and ‘sensible’ a ‘no-brainer’ then I think these are the exact times we ought to be ‘checking in with God’ because God says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Is.55.8) Just because from our human perspective a decision seems obvious we know what God is the all knowing and faithful God.

It takes a brave step of faith to say “no” to that which with human eyes seems obvious and seek to be obedient to the Spirit whose prompting often feels risky and unsafe -but ultimately is whose voice we need to hear and heed.

One verse I have been struck with a lot recently is The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Yet I fear we try an capture the Spirit into a management box and a tick-list of criteria of specifications and the safety of the futility of worldly thinking, the corporate-mindset and sin of pride in the soundness of our own judgement.

God’s choice seemed a crazy choice, yet when we think of that great crowd of witnesses of the Saints that have gone before us in Hebews 11 & 12 most of these were flawed and unlikely candidates. Indeed, most of us would probably concede that we ourselves are unlikely candidates to be ambassadors of Christ in our situation, and yet he has called us all for such a time as this.

So, let’s look at the rest of the story:

Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”             Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”                                 12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.                                                                           Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”                                                  13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David”.

David the mighty King of Israel.

David who was described by God as “A man after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

 

 

 

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Nehemiah 1: A template for mission.

Nehemiah is a great book we often over-look.

Yet Nehemiah shows us clearly a template of what missiologist Dave Mail’s four tenants of Church planting -Love, Pray, Relate and Create, which he shared with us at the recent Arrow Course Conference.

Love.

It all starts with LOVE.

Actually, everything starts with LOVE!

The Bible tells us that “we love, because God first loved us, and gave his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” ()

St. Paul reminds us that without love our deeds are worth nothing, and we are simply a ‘clanging gong or cymbal’.

(Nehemiah 1.1) In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah is a cupbearer to the King, living (quite nicely thank you) in exile, yet he clearly loves God and the things of God, and hears that his home city is in ruins, Jerusalem, the promised land, the city which was meant to show the world what God was like now in ruins.

This broke Nehemiah’s heart. Why? Because Nehemiah is a person who loves God and the things of God.

I guess Nehemiah had prayed that dangerous prayer “Lord break our heart for what breaks yours”.

Yet for us although our hearts are moved our first response is not sadly always to pray.

Yet, I believe that when our  hearts are moved, that is often God trying to get our attention.

When we LOVE that should spur us onto PRAY, this is what Nehemiah did.

  4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

I wish my heart ached for the things of God like Nehemiah so clearly does, he prays passionately, heart laid open before the Lord, reminding him of his promises afresh with fire and fervency. Nehemiah knows who he is praying too, the awesome God of heaven, prayer like this is costly and giving of himself and his heart.

Yet for Nehemiah prayer is not an excuse or abdication of responsibilities. Nehemiah, offering himself to God to be used by him. Yet  “I was cupbearer to the king” -Nehemiah had comfort, security and prestige in his role at court and yet there is something amazingly Christ-like in the way he relates and aligns himself to the people of Israel and the fallen walls of Jerusalem.

2 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

Here we see Nehemiah RELATING, first with the King (note the first recorded ‘arrow prayer’!) and then with the area and the people; a sense of Nehemiah going in wisely, being led by God, being in step with the spirit, walking in obedience… it was have been easy here to have rushed ahead of God, but there is a sense of Nehemiah going at God’s pace.   Interestingly, the King’s reaction is probably based to the strength of relationship that Nehemiah had with him, I think the King loves his servant as a friend, and that is why he is  keen to help him, and releases Nehemiah to build the wall.

11 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… 17 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, Nehemiah starts re-building the walls, alongside the people of Israel.

So as we see in this opening two chapters of Nehemiah LOVE, PRAY, RELATE and CREATE, a mission strategy revealed in the actions of Nehemiah, but what of us?

Do we love? Are we praying? Are we building positive relationships?  Are we seeking to Create together something birthed through love, prayer and relationships?

 

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Hosea the Heartbroken Husband.

Hosea: Is a lesser known book of the Bible, but one that is worth reading, although much of it is a fire-y book of judgement, there is running through it a great message of hope and redemption too.

Hosea is very similar story to the three lost parables Jesus tells in Luke 15.

At its heart it depicts a love story of the Prophet Hosea, who loves his wife Gomer, and yet his wife goes off with other men leaving Hosea heart-broken, Gomer ends up trapped in prostitution, and Hosea, he rightful husband buys her back.

“The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods… So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. “(Hosea 3:1-3)

Pictures here, of a love that gives and allows free will, of broken relationship, of enslavement to sin, and redemptive rescue and restoration, Gomer was his wife again, he forgave her, he gave her a fresh start.

As Christ later called the Church the bride of Christ, one that he rescued and redeemed and washed and cleansed, we see echoes of the Hosea story, actually being our story, the story of God and humanity. Yet it shows us something else, too often we think of sin as breaking God’s rules, victimless crimes -if you like- yet the truth is our sin breaks God’s heart.

We are bought back not with ‘shekels of silver’ or a ‘homer and lethek of Barley’ but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross.

This reminds me of a story:

There is a story of a little boy who makes a toy boat, takes the boat to some water to sail it, but the boat gets lost in the current, he then finds the lost boat in a shop window… and saves up all his money to buy back his boat. When he bought it, he said, you are doubly mine now, I created you, and I bought you for myself.

I’ll close with some verses from the end of Hosea’s prophesy:

14 Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
    Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
    and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
    “Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
    that we may offer the fruit of our lips.[b]
Assyria cannot save us;
    we will not mount warhorses.
We will never again say ‘Our gods’
    to what our own hands have made,
    for in you the fatherless find compassion.”

“I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.

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Building Babel.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

I don’t believe I have ever heard a sermon about the Tower of Babel, but it is such an amazing story in the Bible.

It starts of with the deepest human desire we have -human’s to meet with God- humans to be connected with God in relationship, the desire for the reversal of the fall.

Yet the Tower of Babel also tells us of the human story trying to do things our way and wanting God on our terms rather than on his terms.

Babel shows us people who want to be like God, where-as the incarnation and the cross shows us a God who chooses to become like us.

Babel speaks of pride and achievement, where-as the cross and incarnation speak of humility and sacrifice.

Babel talks about peoples attempts to reach up to God, trying to be good enough for God, all other world religions are ‘Babel-like’ in the sense that they are about ‘achieving/earning righteousness’ and yet the Christian faith isn’t about ‘reaching up and being good enough for God’ -we will never achieve that perfection of holiness and righteousness, but rather it is about a God who reaches down to us.

Christianity unlike all other world religions is based on grace, a God who knew we were unable to save ourselves, unable to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unable to reach God by bricks and mortar, stoops down to meet us in our powerlessness and our inability to save ourselves by becoming one of us and dying on the cross.

The question is in our Christian life are building the Kingdom -with gold, silver and costly stones that will last for ever- or are we building our own Babel our own empires.

At meeting yesterday with local youth workers someone talked about “Empire and Kingdom, human fallen-ness and God’s graciousness breaking out together” and I guess that will always happen to some degree, but I don’t want to be building Babel, I want to build the Kingdom of God that will last for eternity.  The Bible tells us that “unless the Lord builds the workers labour in vain” Jesus himself said “I only do what I see my Father in Heaven doing” -in other words, I am only building the Kingdom and not Babel.

There is an adage that “pride comes before a fall” -Genesis says that pride came as a result of the fall- but here pride is the barrier between people coming to know God.

God can be known -indeed wants to be known- but God is known not on his terms, he reaches down to us, only one man was good enough to reach up to God and bridge that gap between humanity and divinity and that was Christ himself, whose death on the cross and resurrection, restored the relationship between God and his people, reversed Eden and washed us clean of sin, pride and futile thinking. The resurrected Jesus calls us to join him in building his Church, for Christ himself said “I will build my Church and even the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”

 

 

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Bezalel: God’s Artist.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.

You’ve probably never heard of Bezalel -I hadn’t either! Yet he is the first person in the Bible to be recorded as being filled with God’s Spirit. Interestingly, you would think he would have been a great King, a Warrior, a statesman and preacher or a priest, but he’s none of these things he is an artist.

In the evangelical and protestant sections of Christ’s Church we have often been guilty of ignoring, over-looking or even attacking/desecrating art yet when we look at the character of Bezalel filled with God’s Spirit to enable him to use his artistic gifting to help facilitate worship within the tent of meeting.

As I thought about art and creativity I began to think that creating -or recreating- is one of the most ‘God-like’ things we can do, made in the creative image of our creator, his breath filling our souls.

The steward ship of creation was a call to make order out of chaos, which is what God did in creation. Indeed the revelation of God is all around us, Paul says: “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20, NLT).

Yet despite ‘all of creation echoing the silent music of his praise’ (common worship) sometimes we need people to help us see, to point out, and focus our minds. The Artists, who help us see what is already there.

I love the quote from Jacob Nordby ““Blessed are the weird people:  poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.” -In a fallen world, we long to see the world properly but sin has distorted our vision, the human heart is wrestles to find the narrative (in Christ) that makes sense of it all, answering question is a different way, showing a world we see as the right way up is actually upside down, and the ‘upside down’ Kingdom of God is the right way up!

Art is something that is unique to humans (although occasionally a zoologist makes a documentary about the odd chimp who can ‘paint’!!) and art is a universal language that operates deeply -more deeply even that the limitations that we hand with language and linguistics.

As Bezalel worked in the power of the Holy Spirit beautifying the temple I wonder whether he theologically as he was wrestling with thoughts about God conveyed in art?

Art is often a doorway to the spiritual, and as he made his best efforts he was probably aware of God’s awesomeness, beauty and glory that could not be captured by words or image.

Indeed God himself forbids attempting to make a ‘graven image’ of him -why because any image of God would be so limited and partial it would be a distortion of the one who is beyond comprehension.

God is putting his finger on the pause button forbidding representation of himself until  his ultimate revelation is coming in his son “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” and yet “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col.2.9).

At a lecture I was in on Tuesday artists were described as someone who ‘meets us where we are at, but points us to beyond ourselves’, I wonder if Bazalel wondered to how the story of God would end up?

Clearly he understood beauty -something of transcendence, wonder and glory pointing to God the supremely perfect one of complete completion, and yet as his (although gifted) fingers at work with wood, clay, metal and costly stones he must of been aware of his own inabilities to create perfection. Indeed as an artist he probably saw and understood ‘ugliness’ the absence of beauty, its distortion, aware of incompleteness and imperfection and its temporary  nature, the tension between glory and brokenness -which eventually would be resolved on a piece of wood, the cross of Christ, I wonder if by the Holy Spirit’s prophetic revelation Bezalel glimpsed something of this?

Bezalel was tasked and filled with the Spirit to help shape the tent of meeting to help facilitate people meeting with God. In many ways the artist such as Bezalel is a call to for us to show/live out/create that which points to a different narrative of beauty and brokenness, of glory and fall, resolved in God’s supreme revelation of himself in Christ Jesus and his completed work on the cross.

 

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Do You Want To Be Healed?

Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Sometimes Jesus asks some pretty strange questions?

Jesus meets a man who has been crippled for 38 years and Jesus asks him “Do you want to be healed?”

It seems like a strange question doesn’t it?

He’s been waiting by a ‘healing pool’ for 38 years, he certainly at first glance looks like someone whose desperate to get healed.

Yet as I thought a bit more about this story I began to wonder if Jesus’ question is actually much deeper. If you are healed not just your circumstances will change but actually you will be changed. It will mean a whole new identity.

I wonder at times whether become caught in a cycle of victimhood? He sounds a bit victim-y “every time I go to get in the Pool when it is stirred up someone else gets in their first because I have no one to help me in!” -a well rehearsed grumble, a narrative that hangs over his life.

What of us have we got well rehearsed narratives we speak over ourselves?

Sometimes we manage to create these self fulfilling prophesies over ourselves.
Jesus is saying “if you are healed you will be set free from the stronghold of victimhood and liberated from the pervious defining narrative”.

We as children of God should not be defined by our pain, broken-ness and fallen-ness as our identity should be in who we are in Christ, and yet the false identity forged from pain can be how we see ourselves and become self defining.

Jesus is not just interested in healing the mans physical body his healing goes much deeper than that to a restoration of his identity.

The truth is change -even good change- can be stressful and painful, we become familiar and accustomed to how life is and have learned to live that way.

Embracing the new identity not as a victim is a call to live differently from how we have lived before, for us we have the gift and the challenge of a new normal.

When I worked in rehab for a year people talked about “dry drunks” who had got themselves sobre but used to still spend all day everyday just sat in a pub unable to make the transition of a new life.

To move forward with God’s new thing, we need to lay down the old thing, emptying our hands from the past to pick up the present of a new future.

I wonder if God said to many local Churches “do you want to grow?” they might say “of course but…” and trot out whatever excuse they’ve been using for the past 38 years.

If God asked us in the midst of our worship or our prayer times “do you want to be more like Jesus” again we might say yes and then roll out the excuse of how stressful and difficult it is to be a Christian with your particular set of circumstances.

Are we prepared to allow God to change us, .

God sees not just our need but our heart too.

When we encounter Christ, and respond to him, we cannot stay the same.

What is Christ saying to us? Do we want to be healed and be transformed?

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