Friday, May 29, 2015

Nehemiah 4: Let's Get Busy!

We were all created for work. That’s why God gave us brains, hearts, hands and legs. 

He didn’t create us to lay around, to play all the time, and to merely survive. We were not created to be one with nature, but to rule over nature, shaping into something better than it is. Adam did not frolic with animals and eat fruit off the trees in Eden. Adam planted trees and vegetables. He was the gardener. The notion that life is about leisure is a lie. We rest one day, but we work six more. Without work, we soon become miserable and unhappy.

There are many forms of work. Thinking is work. So is learning, teaching, praying, and loving.  Anyone who says there’s nothing they can do is deceiving themselves, or has been deceived. There is always more for us to do, and we are not happy unless we are doing it.

The purpose of our work matters, too. God wants us to work for Him. Everything we do ought to connect back to the Kingdom of God in some way. We may work at any job, but ultimately we serve God, and if we forget that, then our work is just vanity. 

God’s people in Nehemiah’s day were given a task to do, which was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, so that they could rebuild the city, the temple, and ultimately the nation. But it had to start with the wall. Without that wall, nothing else could be done. The city had to be defended.

We have been given a task to rebuild a church, which includes our sense of mission, our worship, our fellowship, our reputation, restoring our church building, but first we must rebuild the prayer walls around the church. Without defensive prayer our church is helpless, just as Jerusalem was helpless without its walls. 

No one else can do it for us. It falls upon you, the members and attenders of the church, to bear the burden of rebuilding. You are responsible and only you.

If we are to rebuild we must realistically count the cost. What is our opposition? What is the cost in time, money, and energy? If we aren’t up to it, then we should not try. If we are, then we should give it all we’ve got.  

In Nehemiah 4, he gives us a realistic picture of the opposition to building the wall. He looks at the enemies within and without that fought against the rebuilding.

 There were three main enemies—Sanballat, Tobias, and Gershom. We read their mocking words as they gathered together to disrupt the work.

Our enemies mock us today. We are called homophobes, haters, legalists, superstitious yokels, and every name we can imagine. We are mocked at in our homes, in our places of work, and especially on television, and in the movies. 

Sometimes we want to hit back. But Jesus taught us when we are attacked to turn the other cheek and accept it. He taught us to rejoice in opposition. If we’re not making the Devil mad, then we are not doing right. 

There are worse things than being mocked. There are places where Christians are crucified and beheaded. Yet in America, Christians wonder if they can stand up to ridicule. Jesus told us this would happen. Our strength is in looking to God for approval, not people. We should not allow ourselves to be bothered by the ridicule of others. It is our weakness that causes us to want to defend ourselves, not our strength. 

But these three kings were not the most dangerous enemies the people faced when they rebuilt the wall. There was a much more dangerous enemy right in among them. They were their own fellow Jews, who lived around them--the “old-timers” in the land. 

These Jews had lived under the threat and opposition of their neighbors so long that they had given up hope. They were convinced that the situation was hopeless, so they tell these newcomers to give up building, and to go home for their own good. They had developed a slavish mentality. Their spirits were broken, so they tried to break the spirits of those who would cause trouble.

Some of the people we meet in the church are more dangerous to Christianity than the people we meet on the street. If the outside enemies oppose us, it may get us fired up enough to do something. But the old-timers and the despondent in our midst gets us never to begin at all. Because they are our brothers and sisters, or our fathers and mothers, they have a greater influence over us. We want to please them, we are empathetic to them, so their fear becomes our fear. Their fear and hopelessness is like a virus, which makes us sick with caution. If we listen to them, we lose all strength.

We read about them in verses 10 and 12. 

In Judah it was said, "The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall." . . .

At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, "You must return to us."

These old-timers have allowed themselves to be bullied and beaten until they sank into despair.  Despair is a more effective tool of Satan than the propaganda of an enemy. 

They didn’t just say it once to the people.  They said it ten times. Their “can’t do” attitude would have been devastating to the people of Jerusalem, if they had listened.

Nehemiah had an answer, which was to get busy.  See verse 6:

“So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.”

 Concentrate on what needs to be done, and not on what the problems are. Don’t let your enemies or even your friends dissuade you. Work is what we were put on this earth to do. Keep going, and we will succeed. Stop working and we are certain to fail.

When we look at how far we have to go, we can easily be discouraged.   We consider getting a college degree and say, “I could never finish school.” We look a mountain of debt and say, “We can never overcome it.”

We look at the wrong things. Focus on what we have to do today, and not tomorrow. A college degree begins with filling out an application. Paying off debt begins with a payment plan.  If we concentrate on the work today, then we will be ready for the work tomorrow.

Suppose you want to run a marathon. You don’t start by running twenty-six miles, all you do is walk to the end of the street. Then tomorrow you do it again, and tomorrow you do it again. In time, it gets easier. We concentrate on the work, and not on the things people say about the work. Most tasks are ended before they are started.  Most of the rest are ended when we get our eyes off the work, and onto the opposition, and the seeming impossibility of the work.  Nehemiah concentrated on the job, not on the opposition.

God gives the strength. While they worked they prayed. They knew that they could not have the strength on their own. They were right when they said in verse 10:

 "The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall."  True, but we are not by ourselves. We have God with us. His grace covers our past failures and our future ones, too. His love is with us. He wants us to succeed. His power is behind us, giving us the power to succeed. God is with us for the building of the wall.

We can’t avoid our enemies, but we can guard against them. “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” We don’t have to take on the Devil, we just have to keep him out of our homes. 

Nehemiah devised three strategies against his enemies. First he had all the men learn to defend themselves. As they worked, they had their swords at the read. Christians need to be prepared individually for spiritual self-defense. We must be prayed up and studied up to answer the opposition of the Devil, and our own brethren. There is no substitute for improving our spiritual health. Furthermore, we must be continually training for spiritual battle.

The Devil doesn’t attack where we expect him. He comes where we don’t expect him. Keep the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and the arrows of the Spirit, your prayers, and petitions sharp constantly. 

Second, he formed squads of men to fill the gaps in the wall until they were secure.

Don’t let the enemy infiltrate our homes to attack new believers and undefended children. We must practice family discipline and church discipline until the walls are strong.

Third, we need to gather together at a moment’s notice to defend each other against attacks.  Nehemiah did this by placing men with horns around the wall. If there was an attack he sounded the horn and everyone came running.

If Nehemiah were building this wall today, would he still put men with horns along the wall?  Of course not. He would use modern technology.  Modern technology has given us tools that are much greater than horns to rally support like text messaging, cell phones,  email,  Facebook, Twitter,  Skype, and a hundred others ways of networking socially.

Make no mistake, the Devil uses social networking against us. But we can use the same social networking to make us stronger against the Devil.  Today none of us have to be alone. We can find help out there in cyberspace for prayer and encouragement. 

Let’s summarize.

We were created to work for God. But a person who runs from work is already defeated. We must work in God’s strength, and we must use all available means.

This church can rebuild, but only if we focus on the work. We need to focus on what we are doing, not where we have been. Satan wants us to look backwards. God wants us to look forward.

Don’t give up in your life. Get busy and move forward.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pentecost--Christians' Forgotten Holy Day

Pentecost is the forgotten holy day.  We celebrate Christmas for a month, Easter for a week, but have you ever seen a store have a Pentecost sale? 
Even so, Pentecost is as important as Christmas or Easter. Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus and Easter the completion of His mission.  But Pentecost celebrates both the coming and the fulfillment of the work of the Holy Spirit--who is just as important as Jesus. 
So why don’t we celebrate His coming?
I think it is because when Jesus came, He came in the form of a human baby.  We relate to babies. When He died, it was physical—a cross.  When He resurrected, there was an empty tomb. But the Holy Spirit comes in a form we never physically see. We only see the result of His coming.  We tend to dismiss as unimportant things which are beyond seeing and hearing. When microbes were discovered, people could not believe that unseen bugs could cause disease. When electricity was discovered, people could not believe it could make light. Yet we all know the power of germs and electricity today. 
We have the same trouble believing that God’s unseen Spirit can cause spiritual success or failure. We are more likely to believe that our own effort or lack of it makes Christianity work. We think if we only try harder we can succeed. Yet without the Spirit, our efforts to do God’s will are doomed to fail.
The church has been analyzed and scrutinized by worldly thinkers to understand why it succeeds or fails. It has been examined as a sociological movement, a business organization, a psychological phenomenon and a movement. Yet all such efforts neglect the power of the Holy Spirit, which God says is the key to our success. 
The same is true for us personally. If we do not have the Holy Spirit, then the church is nothing but a set of empty rules and dogmas.  It is a sham, a fake and a fraud. The only difference between the strength of the church and the strength of false religions is Pentecost. Without it, the church would and should cease to exist. 
But what about the Cross? Surely, the cross of Christ is the central doctrine of the church.  But without the Spirit, the Gospel is of no effect. The Spirit moves us to repentance, gives us power to preach, applies the truth of the Gospel to our lives and changes our hearts accordingly.  Without the Spirit, the Gospel is like a light bulb sitting on a shelf in a store—all potential, no power. It is like a bomb without a detonator, an unfertilized egg, or a seed in a plastic bag. Without the Spirit, the Gospel cannot change a thing. It is dead, without chance of fulfillment. 
For years the church has been trying to function without the power of the Spirit and has gotten nowhere.  Suppose I buy a shiny new sports car. The salesman tells me the car will go from zero to sixty in thirty seconds. “That’s pretty fast,” I say.  But six hours later I return it to the dealer. “You’ve sold me a lemon,” I say. “You said it had all that power, but I’ve been pushing it all day, and I’ve only managed to move it a couple of hundred feet.”
The salesman asks me.  “Have you put gas in it?”
“Gas--what’s that?” 
Without gas, the car will not go. Without the Spirit, the Gospel is useless. 
The Christian life was not designed to be lived on our own power. Without Pentecost, the Christian life sputters. We win no one to Christ, do no great works, and make no difference in the world. Until Pentecost, the church cowered in the upper room. After Pentecost it made three thousand converts in a single day. We need the same power to make a difference.
What difference does Pentecost make?  Pentecost brings us five things.
Pentecost brings influence.  The Spirit Himself to the rest of the world only through those who have been touched by Him. A rushing wind was the first sign of Pentecost. We cannot see or feel wind-we only feel the effect of it or hear the sound of it. We cannot see the wind itself.
The world does not see the Spirit within us, only its effect. Just as we judge the wind by the trees, the world judges the power of our faith by its influence upon us.  If we are truly changed by the Spirit of God, People will come looking for Him through us. 
Pentecost brings fire. The second sign of Pentecost was fire. Fire cleanses and purifies. That is why we cook food.  It purifies metals.  The Spirit refines us into children of God.
It is impressive to see someone who has lived a pure life, but it is even more impressive is someone who has overcome an evil life.  When a person successfully changes, we are awestruck by it.  The Holy Spirit is the only power that can clean our lives, and make us fit for Him. No matter how bad our lives are, the Holy Spirit can change us into someone better.
Pentecost brings unity.  The third sign of Pentecost ws the ability to speak in tongues.  This is a reversal of the Old Testament miracle at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  At Babel God split the world by confusing their languages. At Pentecost, people were united by the understanding of tongues. The diversity of languages, customs and race no longer stood as an impediment to the Spirit. They literally became one people. When the Spirit comes, diversity gives way to unity.
There is an example of this in Charles Colson’s book Born Again.  Charles Colson was one of Nixon’s men who went to jail for his part in the Watergate cover-up in the Seventies.  He became a Christian in prison.  While in jail he joined a prayer group with three other men—a liberal democrat congressman sent to prison for corruption, a member of the Black Panther Party, and a former Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.  How could such men worship together? It is impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost brings boldness.  At Pentecost Peter preached boldly on the street less than a quarter mile from the high priest’s house where he had denied Jesus fifty days earlier.  He had been afraid of the high priest’s servant. Now he was afraid of nothing. 
This boldness does not come from men. It comes from the Holy Spirit.  Only He can give us the power to be so bold.
Pentecost brings wisdom.  Not only did they speak, but they spoke wisely.  When they were finished, the people were moved greatly.  They turned to Peter, who had never been asked this question before, and said “What should we do?”  Peter knew just how to answer them. 
“Repent and be baptized, and you will receive the Spirit.”
Doubtless we should ask the same question. What should we do? If we are to do what God commands, we desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit. 
All Christians have the Holy Spirit, but He is not active in all believers. Most Christians have only a fraction what the Holy Spirit wants to give us. Our sins, doubts, and misbeliefs keep us from experiencing most of what God has promised, and keep us wallowing in our own fears and worries.   We are like elephants cowering at the sight of a mouse, millionaires afraid to spend money on a cup of coffee, or kids at Christmas who can’t believe there presents under the tree are for them. We are unaware of the power at our disposal. We have the potential power, but without the boldness to use it, we do not possess it practically. We have the Spirit, we are just not filled with the Spirit.
So how do we get filled? Jesus gave us directions in Acts 1:4-5
 “He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
They prayed for the Spirit. But what does that mean. Real prayer means three things—waiting, committing, and asking.
Jesus told them to wait for the Spirit. Don’t go out to convert the world on your own power.
It is easy to say we must get busy. But get busy doing what? If we want to make a difference, we must get busy waiting.  We must seek the Spirit or our actions are useless. The disciples were men of action, and it must have frustrated them to be told to wait. But they waited and prayed. In time, God brought the power to transform the world. 
While they waited they were learning commitment.  They were not following their own ideas or desires, but bending their wills into subjection. They were praying--probably also fasting. They were not working, sleeping, fishing, selling, collecting taxes, or any other kind of thing. They were learning to submit. The Holy Spirit will do us no good if we don’t obey Him. We must learn obedience before we can be used by the Spirit. To the extent that we submit ourselves to the Spirit, the Spirit cannot use us.
While they were waiting and committing, they were also asking. We must ask for the Spirit to receive it.  Do you want the Spirit—really want Him, in spite of what He may cost you? If you receive Him people may think you are strange, even a fanatic. People may turn against you. People may think as they thought of Peter, that you are “drunk with new wine.”
In order to be filled with the Spirit, we must not let what people think worry us. We must lay aside our fears, our inhibitions, our worries for the future, our despair, our laziness, our worldly concerns, and follow Him. If we are worried about what the person next to us will think of us, then we cannot be filled with the Spirit. If we are worried that God will be embarrassed by our failure, then the Spirit cannot use us. If we worry that we will not have the power to continue, the Spirit cannot use us. But if we obey in spite of our worries, then the Spirit can overcome our worries and they can be dead.
Worry is the greatest enemy to the Spirit in most of our lives—not sin, not misbelief, but an unwillingness to confront our worries. 
If you want the Spirit, all you have to do is ask, wait, then step forward and claim it. If we do this, then Pentecost can become the greatest day of our lives—the time when the Holy Spirit transformed our lives forever.

The Forgotten
Holy Day

Acts 2: 1-14

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nehemiah 3 : How the People Worked

Nehemiah 3 is a collection of forty-seven brief stories of those people who rebuilt the wall.  Some of them are no more than a mention. Others describe in detail what part of the wall they built.
There are three principles we learn their stories.
First they began with their own private responsibility.
Each person concentrated on what they alone were able to do. 
There were plenty of reasons for not working. They could have said, for example, “This is not my kind of work.”
Eliashab the high priest is the first one mentioned. A priest works with his brain, not with his body. All day he looked after the temple and the spiritual needs of the people.  But in between his temple work he rolled up his sleeves and hauled brick with the rest of them.
Hananiah was a perfume maker. What does Max Factor or Givanchy know about masonry?  But that did not stop this man from building not one section, but two.  After he repaired one, he found out he liked it, and did another.
 The goldsmiths and merchants repaired another. They were specialists, but they did what they could. They put down their money counters and their little hammers and took up the trowel and laid brick.
They might have said, “We don’t have any orders. No one has told me what to do.”
The sons of Tekoa might have used that excuse. The only negative comment in the chapter was towards the noblemen of Tekoa.  They were too proud to work under the contractors.  But the men of Tekoa worked anyway, even without their leaders. When their leader failed, they kept on going. Like the perfumers, they built two sections!
The women could have said, “It’s men’s work!”
Some of them didn’t let their gender get in the way. Notice the daughters of Shallum. Shallum had no sons, so his daughters pitched in and did the work.  In a society where women were kept under veils, these girls tramped through the dust and lifted rocks like men.
They could have said, “It’s someone else’s property.  Let them do it.”
In verse 30, a man named Meshullam built in front of his living quarters. He lived in an apartment.  He was a temporary resident in Jerusalem, yet he worked as hard as anyone else. 
They could have said, “I’m too young.”
Again in verse 30, Hanun, the sixth son of Zalaph took his own section of the wall. Where were his five older brothers? Little brother was building the wall.
When it comes to the rebuilding of the kingdom, setting up the spiritual walls and standards, we have all kinds of excuses. There are a hundred reasons for not praying. We can come up with all kinds of reasons for leaving our Bibles unopened, for not giving, not witnessing, or building bridges of forgiveness. But when we read of these people, and what they undertook it puts us to shame. Spiritual walls are more important than their physical walls.   We all have our place in its rebuilding.
  Spiritual walls run right through the center of our souls. They protect our homes, businesses, and our private lives. Our private walls affect the health of our church. To be responsible for our part of the wall means that we take responsibility personally for our own spiritual walk. 
The second principle is this, they linked arms.
Next to prayer, the most important thing we can do to rebuild our spiritual walls is to join with other believers. 
 Most people did the work of rebuilding the wall near their homes, but there were some exceptions.  First exception, was the high priest Eliashab.  He and his priests worked on the part of the wall near the temple. While they were building there, a man named Meremoth worked in front of the high priest’s home. Since the priests worked on another part of the wall, someone did his house for him. 
Another example is the men of Tekoa. They finished their part quickly.  So they went over and helped on another part of the wall.
People outside Jerusalem worked on the walls. The surrounding villages came to make sure Jerusalem was safe. They got nothing out of it, but they built anyway. 
 They couldn’t all do the same quality of work. Some of them finished their section, “laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place,” which is what contractors call today a “lock and key job.”  Others just did what they could, and other people had to come by with greater skills to put on the finishing touches.
As they built there was a wonderful mix-up of people of all status, gender and occupation. Perfume makers and goldsmiths worked along with priests and day laborers. Women worked with men. People helped each other out. Because of this, they had a wonderful time. God’s work needs to be done, even if we are the only ones doing it. But God’s work goes easier when God’s people link arms and work together.
After high school, I spent a summer working at a children’s camp. One lazy afternoon, the kids were bored; someone suggested we play Red Rover.  The children made lines by holding hands, and then called over one of the others to try to break the line.
The game went well for a while, until someone suggested that we counselors also play.
 I still have scars from it. Red Rover is not to be played by adults. It becomes about as genteel as football or rugby. When a two hundred pound man comes running at your line at full run, rest assured that you are going down. There is no way to stop him. 
We tried linking hands, but that didn’t work. Then, we linked elbows. If we linked our elbows and dug in our heels, a whole line of us could just stop one of those chargers. We got bruised and battered, but we didn’t go down. 
The devil tries to break our unity. He charges us at the places we’re weakest, which is where one’s work meets the other. But when we link arms and hold each other up, then we lock him out.  He can’t penetrate the wall when we cooperate. 
Third, we follow the Leader.
Little is said of the supervisors and architects, though they had to have them. A plan didn’t just happen. A plan must come from the top down, not the bottom up.
The vision to build the wall did not come from a committee. It came from God touching Nehemiah’s heart.  He conveyed that vision to others who drew plans, made work lists, and organized for success. Then the rest of Jerusalem carried it out. The supervisors were not more worthy than the workers, but they had a necessary specialty. In the lists the supervisors are barely mentioned, but they were essential. 
Doing God’s work, requires two essential elements. The first is leadership. We must have leaders who look to God for direction. Leaders must first look to God for their inspiration and be men of prayer and study. Without a clear vision of what God wants, leaders can easily led us to destruction. Revival always begins with leaders who have a passion for God.
More important than leadership, though is followership. People have to trust their leaders.  When God’s people wandered in the wilderness for forty years, it was not because Moses had sinned, but because the people did not follow. They wandered aimlessly, because they would not submit to their God appointed leader. It does not take forty years to walk across the Sinai desert. It takes about three weeks, if you know where you are going. But if you panic, and refuse to trust your guide, then you can wander for a long time.
If God’s people are wandering in the desert, it is not because God wants them there, but because either their people are not listening to their leaders, or their leaders are not listening to God. We must trust God to lead, and trust the leadership God gives us.  We must put aside our pride, our selfishness, and our vision of what the church ought to be, and follow the direction that God gives us. 
In order to be followed, though the leaders need to lead God’s way. How do God’s leaders lead?  If we look here, we can see some of its principles. 
They led by encouragement. Everyone is praised by name in this passage. The only criticism is against those who would not work at all.  Even if the effort was half-hearted or half-done, they received personal praise.  Good leadership encourages far more than it discourages.
They led by example. Everyone had a place on the wall. The leaders worked alongside everyone else. The leaders do not lead from the front, and nor do they lead from the back.
They led with grace. They trusted God’s grace in people’s lives. They did not stand over their shoulders telling them what to do but allowed each worker to do his job and thrive in it. They believed that God was leading each worker the same way that He was leading the leaders. As long as those workers stuck to the God-given plan, then there was freedom to do the work.   
What lessons have we learned? 
1.       Begin with ourselves.
2.       Link arms.
3.       Follow the Leader.

Spiritual walls are built in the same way physical walls are built.  Buildings of bricks and mortar are important, but not as important as building a kingdom of the spirit and of grace.  Let’s follow the Leader.  Always ask ourselves, what does God most want for us. Keep focused on that task, and God will bring us victory.