Thursday, 28 May 2009

Nehemiah 8: Word Alive

Here is the text of the last message I gave at Lancaster CU. The table on law and gospel is taken from World Harvest Mission's Sonship course:

As we’ve seen, the book of Nehemiah is all about the work and worship of God’s people, serving in his strength. In the chapters prior to Nehemiah 8 we’ve seen Nehemiah lead his people – the ancient Israelites – in rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem.

Why was Nehemiah so bothered about repairing these walls? Well, it’s because Jerusalem was no ordinary city. Promise after promise in the Old Testament speaks of how Jerusalem is to be the climax and centre-point of all that God does to the nations through Israel. Jerusalem was to be the focal-point of Israel’s worship, where they could model to the world what a relationship with the LORD looked like. And so for the walls to be in a state of disrepair was dishonouring to God and meant that God’s model of blessing the nations – which in turn pointed forward to Jesus and his ingathering of the nations – was broken.

Now, by the time we get to Nehemiah 8 we see that wall has been finished. Miraculously, in just 52 days, this mile of wall around Jerusalem was erected. The Jews had made their witness to the nations. God’s model of heaven on earth had been restored. God has finished repairing the walls; in Nehemiah 8 – which is perhaps the climax of the book – God starts the process of reviving and repairing his broken people. And the way in which God repairs his broken people is through feeding them from his word.

Verse 1 tells us that all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate on the first day of the seventh month – the Jewish festival month. In today’s calendar, the date would have been 8th October 444BC. We read in verse 2 that the people comprised of the men, the women and all those who could understand (so presumably that means the children who were old enough). In total, there were probably around thirty thousand people, gathered together.

And if you’d been in backstreet Jerusalem that day, I guess you might well have asked, ‘What’s going on? Thirty thousand people! Is it a football match? A rock concert? What would draw thirty thousand people to gather as one man?’

Well, a guy called Ezra comes out onto a stage specially built for the occasion. And he has an entourage next to him – verse 4 – not backing vocalists, but other priests. It’s as if Ezra is showing that he is not going to do anything on his own authority, he doesn’t want the glory here. The whole thing is set up for a spectacular occasion. But the crowd are not there for a gig or a football match, they are there to hear the Book of Moses read – the first five books of the Bible: Genesis and Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They’re there to hear them read and explained.

Well in verse 1 the crowd began chanting for Ezra to get cracking (Imagine: ‘Ezra! Ezra! Ezra!’). Ezra 7:10 describes the man in this way: ‘Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.’ Ezra is the Bible teacher, Ezra is the one that the people know they need to expound God’s Word. And it’s just worth noting that, at this point, Nehemiah is happy not to be centre stage. As I was preparing this message, I was wondering if I would have been as humble as Nehemiah. After all, Nehemiah has been the main man up until this point. But, gifted as he is, Nehemiah knows that his gifting is in leadership and in administration. Ezra’s gifting is in teaching Scripture. Nehemiah knows that God has distributed different gifts to different individuals in his people: up to this point, primarily Nehemiah has been serving Ezra through leading the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Now Nehemiah turns to Ezra, knowing his gift, and says, “Serve me and the rest of God’s people through feeding me with God’s Word.”

What makes this hunger for God’s Word particularly noteworthy is the context. Remember, the people of Judah have been in exile for many years. Not only that, but the society was an oral one – most people would neither have been able to read or have ever heard the Law of Moses read in any venue. And now, in the safety of the completed walls of the city of Jerusalem, the people gather expectantly to hear from God.

And look at the depth of hunger for God’s Word that the Lord has instilled in his people. Look at verse 5: ‘Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.’

Look at the passion that emanates from the hearts of the people. The LORD has placed into their hearts a thirst to hear from him. The apostle Peter wrote in the New Testament to churches saying that they should crave pure spiritual milk like newborn babies’. And that’s what the people are doing here. The people stand up as Ezra opens the book – it’s like a sign of respect; they’re waiting to hear what Scripture says. Then as Ezra prays, the people lift their hands. Lifting hands in the Old Testament is a physical way of saying to God, ‘I am completely submitted to you. I am humbly dependent on you. Let nothing get in the way of you speaking to me and my right response to you.’ It’s one of the reasons that some Christians raise their hands now. And then as the prayer ends, the people shout, ‘Amen! Amen!’ They are shouting, ‘Yes, Lord! I agree!’ to Ezra’s prayer that God would speak to them. As Scripture is opened, the people are not passionless or looking to intellectually assent to what they are hearing. They are arriving expecting to hear from the living God, expecting to meet with him through his Word. These guys have arrived to hear the Word of God, with energetic and conscientious listening. They are not texting each other as Ezra speaks, they are not preoccupied with other things. And verse tells us that for six hours they absorbed everything that Ezra has to say.

Can you imagine a six hour sermon? You have to love the Bible to stand reverently and attentively for six hours, no toilet breaks, no coffee breaks. Just standing and listening to God speak. But these Israelites were pleased to do it. The lure of the football on TV couldn’t keep them away.

Their attitude to the Bible is very much like that which is described in the Law of Moses which Ezra was reading to them. In Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses declares: “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” It’s a very good description of the scene in Nehemiah. It’s the picture of hungry beggars waiting for crumbs that are dropping from the King’s table. And every single word that falls from the mouth of God is food for these people. They are feasting on God’s word. Nehemiah 8 is about thirty thousand people who crave to hear God speak to them more than any earthly thing. They longed to know God.

Too often we take the Bible for granted. Just think of it. In the Bible, the God of the Universe is offering himself to you. The God of the Universe has commissioned a self-portrait called the Bible. The Father has asked the Holy Spirit to write, through the Bible writers, a rendered biography of his Son Jesus Christ, the exact image of his Father. So the Father has given this Spirit-inspired account of His Son, and he’s done it because he wants to be known. He wants to speak into your life – to introduce you to his wonderful Son and so to realize the wonder of his love.

How will God speak into your life? God speaks as the Bible is read and proclaimed. Do you see that in verse 8? Whereas in verse 1, it was called the Book of the Law of Moses – in verse 8, Nehemiah is absolutely clear that it is also ‘the book of the Law of God.’ Moses might have been the human writer – but God, by his Spirit, is the ultimate author. And just as he used Moses to write the Bible – so he uses people to communicate the meaning of the Bible. We see in verse 7 there were many who were employed in the task of making God’s voice heard and understood – preachers or small group leaders if you like. In verse 8, ‘they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.’

The Bible should not simply be read; it should be proclaimed and understood. And this is a wonderful thing. The Father does not simply send down the Bible like a textbook and expect us to study it on our own. So often people complain that they can’t get a handle on the Bible and they need help. And I want to say – yes you do need help – we all need help, and God gives us help. He gives us help through the Holy Spirit, the co-author or the Bible, and he gives us help through giving us the church: preachers and small group leaders and others around us to help us understand God’s word for ourselves.

Well what is the effect of hearing God speak in this way? Look at verse 9 with me: “All the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”

The Bible had exposed them in their rebellion against the Living God. The Law thundered and convicted the people of their sin – of how they had turned to other things and placed them at the centre of their lives. It convicted them of how they couldn’t saunter into a relationship with God, because they had neglected him that had given them such goodness. They understood this not just individually but corporately: that for so many years the people of Judah had been under a curse because they had refused to hear the LORD’s voice. The Bible brought all this home – and it made them weep.

But Nehemiah says that this reaction to what Ezra had just taught is inappropriate. Look again at verses 9-11:

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Nehemiah twice says that crying is inappropriate because ‘this day is holy to our Lord’, and the
Levites agree. “It’s inappropriate to be weeping on a day like today,” says Nehemiah. And what was the day? Remember – it’s the Feast of Trumpets, which marked the beginning of seventh month in the Jewish calendar. And you can read in Numbers 29 of the seventh month was the festival month – it was the highlight of the Jewish calendar, jam-packed with festivals and celebrations that spoke of how the LORD rescues and forgives his people.

And so when Nehemiah says that in the light of the people’s conviction of sin that they should rejoice and not grieve, he’s not saying that the people’s sin doesn’t matter. Nor is he saying that times of grief and mourning about sin are wrong. Rebellion against God does matter: it breaks relationship with him. And sorrowful confession of sin is part of how we ensure that our hearts remain truly penitent and God centred. No, what Nehemiah is saying is that to see sin against God – to see the Law – as the end of the story to have a wrong view of the big picture. In the New Testament, it’s quite obvious that the Law isn’t the end of the story. But it’s also there in the Old Testament too. And part of this was the institution of various holidays where, in spite of their sin, God encourages the people to rejoice at their relationship with him. It’s a pointer that, one day, he will deal with sin once and for all. The law leads people to Jesus.

And so back outside the Water Gate in Jerusalem, Nehemiah says to the assembled throng: ‘Guys – it’s the Feast of Trumpets. It’s the celebration of the beginning of the seventh month – the month which speaks of how sin isn’t the last word. So stop grieving and start celebrating!’
It would be a bit like meeting someone on Easter Sunday that is gloomy and miserable. You ask them why, and they say, “Because of my sin, Jesus ended up on the cross.” And whilst that’s right and true, you’d want to say, “But it’s Easter Sunday! Today we’re remembering our wonderful Saviour and Redeemer who took our judgement and beat death. Mourning sin today isn’t appropriate.” Law isn’t the end of the story; sin isn’t the end of the story. And where sin abounds, God’s grace shown to us in Christ abounds all the more.

But so often today we can slip into thinking the Law is the end of the story, constantly making its demands. And when do so is miserable. We give the Law a place it should never have had. Have a look at this table:

Law is good because it...

Law is powerless because it can never...

Shows us how our faith should express itself

Maintain our relationship with God and others

Shows us what Jesus is like

Give us righteousness

Reveals the character of God

Justify those who break it

Brings sanity, wisdom and direction

Free us from bondage, guilt and corruption

Drives us to Christ and his Spirit

Give us power

Restrains wickedness

Give us life

Convicts of sin

Provide us with a substitute

Is written on our hearts

Give us the gift of the Spirit

Is part of love

Can cleanse our conscience

And what Nehemiah is doing, in a manner of speaking, is showing the people around him this table, or flipping open his copy of God’s Big Picture. He’s encouraging the people to see the broader picture of the Bible. And so Nehemiah pronounces an order to rejoice. “Do not grieve” he says “for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” In spite of your rebellion – there is forgiveness in the LORD, therefore rejoice. Go! Enjoy a barbecue, and make sure there’s plenty of food for the poor around – the God of the universe knows what you’re like and he loves you anyway. If that’s not cause for a generous celebration, I don’t know what is. And these Israelites went out rejoicing in the LORD. The Bible had taken them to weeping and mourning and then to rejoicing and celebrating. God is repairing his broken people.

It is the pattern of every great adventure story. All adventure stories follow the same sort of pattern. You know: there are some ordinary people living ordinary lives and they are plucked out of their ordinary circumstances and transported to another land, another kingdom, another world, another planet, where they are caught up in a cosmic battle of good and evil. And there are dangerous baddies and there are wonderful heroes and at the end there is a decisive battle fought and the good guys snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And at the end of the book the heroes are placed back in their ordinary lives, but now they are changed. They are stronger, braver, more caring, more centred, more joyful. Why? Because they had been caught up in something more grand and important than they had ever experienced before. Now their everyday lives take on a new perspective.

It’s the same as we come to the pages of Scripture. As we read the Holy Spirit’s history of the world, it is a cosmic tale of good and evil and victory in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the believer in Jesus is caught up in the events of the Bible. We were in the enemy camp – waging war against Jesus and deserving eternal death – but Jesus in His mercy has come and died in our place and scooped us up in the resurrection and brought us into the family of God to worship him as King and sing his praises forever. What a story!

This is something that God’s people at the time of Nehemiah tasted as his word was taught, because they now had caught sight of God’s purposes. Or as verse 12 puts it, ‘they understood the words that had been made known to them.’ And how does this show itself? It shows itself through a hunger for God’s word that sees them returning day after day so that Ezra can continue to feed them. And – beautifully and ironically – the chapter ends with the people making temporary shelters, as required in the Law for the Feast of Tabernacles. This was a festival to remind the Israelites that they are strangers and aliens in the world. The people are home, at last, in Jerusalem – but, as God’s word feeds them, they are reminded that they are not truly home. As Hebrews 11 puts it, they were being reminded that they could look forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. They were in the earthly Jerusalem, but God was reminding them of his rescue that meant they could look forward to the heavenly Jerusalem forever. That is where history is heading. That is the big story.

But I have to ask you: are you immersing yourself in this story? Are you daily reminding yourself of reality? Are you daily making room for God to feed you and speak into your life? Are you placing yourself regularly under God’s word? Will you, over the summer and upon graduation? If you’re not, then the gaps you’re leaving in your life won’t be left empty – they’ll be filled by other things. And you’ll find that although you nibble on snacks to satisfy the hunger in your life, your appetite for the truly satisfying meat that only God offers will diminish. It is a dangerous thing to neglect the word of God. But it’s also a stupid thing. Look at verse 10. Don’t you want verse 10 to be a reality in your life? “The joy of the LORD is your strength”? The highway to a joyless existence is one cut off from God’s gracious word to us. If we refuse to listen to God’s word, we’re like the sullen child who pokes his fingers in his ears while his parents try to tell him of a wonderful holiday.

The Word of God brings life and salvation. Through it, the Holy Spirit declares that all our sins can be forgiven in Jesus, if only we will cast ourselves on him and believe in him. If we would unblock our ears and listen there would be tremendous joy. The minute we think life is about striking out on our own we enter a very joyless and peaceless existence, which is profoundly dishonouring to God and miserable for us. And the minute we think life is about our approach to God (rather than his approach to us) we lead the unhappy life of the one under the Law. But when we understand that the Bible declares to us Jesus Christ’s approach to us, to bring light and life, then the joy of the LORD will be our strength. And we will find strength to live for him, whatever the cost.

Putting the Bible at the centre of our lives is crucial to understanding the wonderful grace of God. The Bible is where the Holy Spirit gives to us Jesus Christ and in him all the goodness and grace which the Father longs to grant his creation. If we want to be people of enduring and God-glorifying joy – a quality of joy that demonstrates that only God offers what humans like us need – then we must constantly hear the Spirit speak God’s good news to us through his Word. We must constantly allow ourselves to be repaired and transformed as the Spirit’s sword frees us and makes wounded people like us whole, as it made the wounded and broken people at the time of Nehemiah both free and whole.

This is my final message at Lancaster University CU. We’re in a time in this country where it seems to me fewer and fewer Christians are taking the Bible seriously and letting the Spirit use it to rip roar in our lives and bring us radically to Jesus. Too often we settle for impoverished sermons, Christian books that are more like self-help manuals than Scriptural truth, and suffer from a lack of hunger to actually grapple with and be transformed by the word. But I love you all very much and so my prayer for all of you for the rest of your lives is that you will continue to be people of the book, that Lancaster CU will be characterised by holding firm to the word of life, and that each of you as individuals will make time to hear God speak. I pray that the written word will continue, through the power of the Spirit, to reveal Jesus, the Living Word. And that as you see him more clearly, the joy of the LORD will be your strength, and that this will cause you to live radically. That as the joy of the LORD is your strength, and as you see knowing Jesus to be the supreme blessing, you will willingly suffer, you will willingly love people radically and sacrificially, and that you will make brave decisions for Jesus and his gospel, knowing that living wholeheartedly for Christ is never in vain.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Star Trek 2009

Linda and I went to watch Star Trek tonight. I hope at some point in the next couple of days to scribble some thoughts I had.

For the time being, here's my brother's review of the film.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Trinity: unbiblical, illogical, irrelevant?

I had the privilege and opportunity to speak on a lunchbar with the above title at Lancaster University last week.

As part of the lunchbar, I stated that I believed that any religion based upon a singular god shows itself (at least in part) in works. After all, this god might demand obedience and religious service and sacrifice and prayer and elaborate worship. If it's going to come from anyone, it has to come from humans. Religion is about humans paying all of this to a god. (This contrasts to Biblical Christianity, in which the Son makes forgiveness possible, and whose righteousness is credited to those who trust in him).

I had an interesting conversation afterwards with a Christadelphian. I have to admit that I didn't know very much about Christadelphian doctrine, beyond the fact that they denied the Trinity. But the girl I met was adamant that works have no part in salvation in the Christadelphian view.

However, as the conversation continued, I think my original statement was endorsed. Christadelphians believe that humans are separated from God because of their sins, and can be reconciled to him by becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. This comes through faith, confession and it seems baptism (although the girl wasn't completely sure on this point). But, above all, she explained that salvation comes as a result of making a commitment to follow the commands of God. The work, it seems, is a commitment to obedience.

I left the conversation sad, because we seemed to get nowhere. But then I got to reflect again on the amazing Trinitarian God - a plurality that offers all those who trust in Christ forgiveness in full as a gift of grace, the reputation and righteousness of Christ, the very status of Christ, adoption as heirs and the gift of the Holy Spirit. What a God!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Some thoughts on the prosperity gospel

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a message at Bolton CU concerning the prosperity gospel.

Whilst there are a fair number of prosperity gospel lunatics, I realised that most prosperity teaching is actually only a subtle (but dangerous) twist of the genuine gospel message. Jesus is portrayed as a kind of key that brings us entry into a store of blessings that flow from God the Father.

But here are three problems that I have with the prosperity gospel:

1. True blessing for a Christian is not primarily concerned with 'stuff' (as prosperity teachers imply) but a closer walk with Jesus, whereby a believer leans more fully on Christ in everything - Philippians 1:21

2. Communion with Christ transforms all areas of life (as the prosperity gospel teaches) - but this happens not magically but as a believer surrenders life to him with the Holy Spirit's help - Colossians 2:6-7

3. The clearest witness to Christ comes not through accumulating stuff, but as we willingly surrender it to him - Matthew 13:44-46

Thursday, 21 May 2009

'Communal reinforcement'

I've been away for a week in Cyprus - an excellent time to get some R&R, and do some reading. One book I read was Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. Goldacre is the editor of the Bad Science website, and his book is well-written, heartfelt and engaging.

At one point of the book (in a chapter entitled 'Why clever people believe stupid things', in a section on why we often prefer chat show endorsements to empirical evidence), he writes the following:

'Communal reinforcement' is the process by which a claim becomes a strong belief, through repeated assertion by members of a community. The process is independent of whether the claim has been properly researched, or supported by empirical data significant enough to warrant belief by reasonable people. Communal reinforcement goes a long way towards explaining how religious beliefs can be passed on in communities from generation to generation...' (page 253).
I've spoken several times on whether belief in God is merely a psychological crutch, and this is a commonly occuring theme in popular culture (see my review of the Brit flick Franklyn, for example). I'd come across 'communal reinforcement' in thinking about voting patterns before, and it got me thinking further about communal reinforcement in Christian circles. (In passing, I think it's harder to make this claim of Christian belief than, perhaps, theocratic beliefs like Islam, where confession influences much wider aspects of a society's culture).

It's certainly true that communal reinforcement inevitably does occur within Christian circles. This is shown by the fact that when someone professing as a Christian loses the community around them (typically leaving to go to university), many cease professing further. Additionally, it is not difficult to envisage that Christian conferences (for example) might leave delegates with an emotional high that is of merely psychological benefit. Conferences are wonderful but it's important we don't let them become emotionally manipulative. To do this might actually drive some away from authentic belief in Christ.

But like the normal 'psychological crutch' argument, just because some belief can be proven to be communal reinforcement, this does not necessarily go 'a long way' in explaining Christian belief. For one thing, it does not account for Christian belief where Christian community is minimal or non-existent (or where a person's community is primarily with those that are not Christians). Certainly Scripture represents belief in Christ as something based on historical fact (see John 20:30-31, 1 John 1:1-4 and so on), and not hunch or family faith.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Neither legalism nor laziness: working out responsibility in Christian leadership

It's very difficult to manage responsibility effectively in Christian leadership. Often it seems that Christian leaders are burdened, tired and even joyless. CU leadership is no different. Here are three case studies:

Chloe is frustrating her small group co-leader, Harry. She was apparently at first very enthusiastic about leading the group. However, as time has gone on, Chloe’s productivity has declined. She appears less committed to leading studies, constantly asking Harry to stand in for her, and she’s reluctant to take on any extra responsibilities.

Joshua is very passionate about evangelism and Bible study and was delighted when he was asked to be a CU leader. He’s not very bothered about his course and regularly skips lectures to be involved in CU activities. Nor does he work very hard at his essays – after all, he reasons, God is more bothered by eternal fruit than by activities that don’t have eternal importance. Joshua is a talented sportsman but chooses to sacrifice his place in the university team for the sake of being able to encourage his Christian brothers and sisters.

Ollie has a reputation amongst most of the CU for being something of a hero who has a real desire to serve others. He seems to always be the first to volunteer for anything. As evangelism secretary, Ollie has pioneered a number of new initiatives which have gone well. However, underneath the surface, things are not well. Ollie feels exhausted and finds himself constantly telling others how busy and tired he is. He’s not prayed on his own in weeks, and has slipped behind with university work. Nor is Ollie eating or sleeping well. If he was honest with himself (which he normally isn’t) Ollie measures his worth through his accomplishments in CU.
Ultimately, all of these students need to believe and trust the promises of the gospel and in the character of God in their situations:
  • CU leaders can look lazy for a number of reasons - Chloe may actually be lazy (in which case she needs to discern those things that really are God-given responsibilities), although often seemingly lazy people feel over-burdened by concerns that are not truly responsibilities (therefore leading to perfectionism and procrastination). If the latter were true, Chloe needs to know that God's strength is made perfect in weakness, and let the Spirit do what only he can.
  • Joshua tends towards super-spirituality, with a low view of what it means for Jesus to be his Creator - and therefore has a compartmentalised view of worship. He may look spiritual, but in fact he is with-holding certain parts of his life as areas dedicated to the Lord.
  • Ollie is a legalist. He is probably using his CU accomplishments as a way of making and keeping himself acceptable to God (and other Christians). He needs to rediscover the truths of God's grace: that Jesus is our perfect righteousness and that we need no other. He needs to stop trying to be what he is not, admit what he is - and then realise that he does not need to prove himself to either God or others.