Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 27th - Instructions for a Perfect Church

Prayer Requests

Pastor Aaron Healing / Resignation

Christians in Ethiopia

Jennifer - Brother's Wedding

Ryan French - Broken Arm

James Band Festival

Text - Nehemiah 5

Last week we talked about the building of the wall in a hostile situation. Nehemiah commissioned several tactics to make sure everyone was ready, what were some of them? Everyone built the wall while holding a weapon, others stood back and held extra weapons in case of attack, a trumpeter would sound the call at the place of attack and everyone would rally to him, and workers were working directly on the wall closest to their homes and families.

What sort of material were they using? New or old? A little of both, one of the great lessons is that the wall was built out of the old wall, just as Christ's church is built out of redeemed people. Something sort of related that I think is cool is a quote by Patrick of Ireland, in Ireland there were and are stone walls everywhere, definitely different than the defensive wall in Jerusalem, but stone walls none-the-less. Patrick looked at one of these walls and saw a spiritual parallel in his life, he said,

"Before I was humiliated I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and he who is mighty came and in his compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on the top of the wall."

It's a good picture of us, totally useless and then redeemed and made useful. So, moving on in Nehemiah, in chapter 4 the great danger is external enemies who want to kill and/or oppress the people of God, a lesser danger is those in Jerusalem who start to doubt that the wall can be rebuilt, and are grumbling. Now we're going to see that this internal problem goes deeper than just grumbling.

Nehemiah 5:1-5 Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive." There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine." And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards."

Due to the enemies outside of Jerusalem, and past problems, the people in Jerusalem are running out of their personal food stores and are needing to buy it from the storehouses in Jerusalem. In order to be able to afford this food, they are making deals with those that own the grain, by mortgaging their property. A mortgage is putting up a piece of property for money, as collateral on a loan, it comes from two words in Olde English, Mort and Gaige, which mean, Death and Pledge, so a Mortgage is a death hold on you by the one you've mortgaged something to. Not a great thing to be in.

The "what" they are doing is bad, but what is worse is the "who" is doing it. The nobles in Jerusalem are the ones who are exacting these charges, as we'll see in a moment, the people are upset because though they're all Jews, it is the poor Jews who are facing the severest consequences. We often look at kings like Artaxerxes who do somewhat nice things for one or two of the Jews as good kings, but Artaxerxes was overall a pretty wicked king, and he had some pretty hefty taxes out over the lands he controlled. The Jews were having to mortgage their land to be able to pay these taxes as well, and if they can't pay the king's taxes, the payment then reverted to sons and daughters, and Persia would take them off to be slaves in some far off land.

This is extremely sad and when Nehemiah hears it he responds well.

Nehemiah 5:6-7 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself,

Let's pause here, Nehemiah is ANGRY at the sins against his brothers and sisters. Is being angry a sin? It can be, but everything can be a sin, very few things are always sins.

Ephesians 4:26-27 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Nehemiah is angry, but he doesn't sin, but he is also very careful to check why he is angry, it says, "I took counsel with myself." I believe he paused for a moment to consider why he was angry and to think about some scripture, and especially how to best approach the problem. He could have just freaked out and said, "That's it, I'm leaving you and going back to my cushy job in Susa, deal with your own fool problems!" But he remembers some Bible verses and he decides that if these people really want to honor God, then by sharing the law with them, they will repent.

Nehemiah 5:7-8 and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother." And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!"

Nehemiah calls Jerusalem together to stand in court against those who are breaking the law and causing so much pain in Jerusalem. He immediately goes to the Law of Moses,

Exodus 22:25 If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.

It doesn't get any clearer than that, yet the nobles in Jerusalem are exacting interest, which means they loan money expecting more money in return. It's a good way to make money, but it's also a good way to tear a community apart, and God absolutely forbids it within the people of Israel and in the church.

Nehemiah points to the opposite end of the spectrum, that many Jews were sold into slavery, or sold themselves into slavery, during the exile, and many of the people, including Nehemiah, had been making every effort to buy their freedom and bring them home. This is one reason Nehemiah is so angry as well, because what the nobles are doing is in effect making people slaves in Jerusalem, people who had just been freed from the Babylonians.

Proverbs 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

Americans are not my brothers and sisters, but I am still furious when I see commercials like the "J.G. Wentworth" ones where the lawyers are offering to buy annuities. They don't say so, but I'm sure they're offering less than 75% of the value, it is a great way to prey on the poor. The "Title-Pawn" and "Payday Loan" places are the same, exacting huge amounts of interest on the poor so that they are poorer at the end of the week than if they had just had no money. As you grow up, whichever industry you get into, please please please don't let it be one where you exploit the poor and drive them farther into debt. God absolutely hates it, many passages attest to this fact, this one in Nehemiah is especially clear.

Avoid getting into massive debt as well, because this makes you a slave, it shackles you to possessions and makes money more important in your life than it should be.

1 Corinthians 7:23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

There is good news though, Nehemiah's rebuke of these sinning nobles has an effect,

Nehemiah 5:8 They were silent and could not find a word to say.

This is exactly what is supposed to happen when we preach the law to lawbreakers, showing that they have sinned against Heaven.

Romans 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

Now that they know they are sinning, Nehemiah drives for the correction,

Nehemiah 5:9-12 So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them." Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say."

Nehemiah calls for a complete correction, a complete adherence to the law, not some compromise or a slow change, but he says, "This very day!" Hey says, stop charging them interest, he says, give their land back, and give their past interest back. Interest back then would have been just as today, a percentage of the loan added to the loan, except back then it wasn't just on money. If I loaned you a hundred pounds of grain, I'd expect a hundred-ten pounds back, if I were to charge you interest.

These nobles can't argue with the law of God, so they promise to repent, Nehemiah then wants to make sure they hold to it,

Nehemiah 5:12-13 And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.

The priests administered an oath and Nehemiah gave the example, saying basically, if you don't do what you've promised, may God do bad things to you. This is reminiscent of the Law of Moses promising curses for law breakers. Let's pause here just momentarily, because we've all broken the law of God, and not just a little, but quite spectacularly. This law that the Jews are under here is a good law, and it is meant to cause them to live long and happy lives together, but it is so perfect that often times we fall from keeping it,

Romans 7:10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

So let's see how we are redeemed from under the curse of breaking the law:

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree".

So that leads to probably our most important application, that we are NOT saved by the law, we are saved by Jesus Christ. But then, should we abandon the law all together?

Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

This law leads for happy congregations, even if it can't save our souls. All of the people in attendance are happy with this new law and say, "Amen", which means "Truth" and is affirming that the law of God is good, then they praised the Lord for giving such a good law.

Nehemiah now is going to step out of the chronology of the book real quick to preach at us. I love this little addendum because it shows that Nehemiah really understood his role as proto-savior of Israel, or the one who was delivering the Jews from both external and internal dangers. Christ fulfilled this so much more perfectly, but Nehemiah does it about as well as a man can.

Nehemiah 5:14-15 Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.

Nehemiah looks back over twelve years of service, well after the events of the Book of Nehemiah are over, and is able to affirm his words with his actions. We're not 100% sure when Nehemiah was made governor of Judah, my guess is right after the walls were finished, but the exact details are not given. But for twelve years he was the governor of Judea and he had certain rights as governor. One of those rights was to live like the king of Judah, but he didn't, and one of the reasons was because the past governors, from right after Zerubbabel died to when Nehemiah showed up, required the full food allowance, asking for all manner of food and wine daily, which greatly taxed the people. Nehemiah knows that one of the reasons a leader should fear God and follow his commandments is because those under him will follow his example, just as the evil governor's servants were mean to people as well.

We've read this verse a lot of times, but it is such a wonderful verse, lets read who we should imitate so we can point people at our lives and likewise tell them to imitate who we're imitating:

1 Corinthians 11:1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

During all of this time, Nehemiah IS getting paid, by Artaxerxes, and Artaxerxes is able to pay him because Artaxerxes is taxing the people. If Nehemiah had taxed them, they would have been doubly taxed. Our government is a terrible example, but just so you know, the fewer taxes the better, even if that one is big, because then it's easier to know where your money is going and to keep track of it. Let's see what Nehemiah did with his pay,

Nehemiah 5:16-18 I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people.

Nehemiah had a lot of people to feed, but he did it out of his own paycheck, even though he could have made the taxpayers foot the bill. One of my favorite verses in the whole Bible is in Psalm 50, it tells us that God likewise is not demanding from us money or possessions, but something so much more valuable,

Psalm 50:12-15 If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."

So if you are put in a position like Nehemiah, where you make a ridiculous amount of money, don't think it's because God loves you more, for we saw on Friday night that God loves all of his saints equally as he loves his beloved Son Jesus, but that you ought to be using whatever money you have to invest in his kingdom and alleviate the suffering of the poor and to glorify his name. Know that if God has given you an abundance, it is so you may give out of that abundance.

2 Corinthians 8:14-15 Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, "Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack."

Nehemiah is a great writer, if he had just left it at that, we may be able to say all sorts of strange things about his motives, but he tells us exactly why he does what he does:

Nehemiah 5:15,19 ...because of the fear of God... Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.

Let me give you the New Testament Parallel real quick as we're running out of time, Luke 19:

Luke 19:1-2 He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.

Tax collectors were the chief of sinners in most peoples' eyes, they were sell-outs to Rome and also greedy, as we see that Zacchaeus is rich, it confirms the stereotype, which is almost always true.

Luke 19:3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature.

Not only does this refer to Zacchaeus' literal height, and also to how most people saw his character.

Luke 19:4-7 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."

It looks as though Jesus is mingling with the worst sinner in Jericho, which he definitely did on occasion, but here is not what he is doing,

Luke 19:8-10 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."

Zacchaeus was wealthy, but he was also using that wealth for great good, and very careful not to defraud anyone, but if by some chance he did, he made sure to pay it back twice what the law required. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about how some people are rich and others are poor, and that richness or poorness are not indications of sin or blessing, but are entrusted to people by God to use for good.

So to our application, you may be like Nehemiah and Zacchaeus, hugely wealthy, and that's great, but know that much is required of you. Or you may be poor, and in that case you must know that much is required of you. Jesus is our great example, I think we've read this verse recently, but it is such a great verse that I'd read it everyday if I could,

2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Your second application is that Jerusalem was being rebuilt, it was going to be beautiful, but who cares how beautiful the city is if the people are all slaves and miserable inside. We must seek to build the church, but we must hold to the laws and joy of Jesus Christ so that we are not defrauding or mistreating our brothers and sisters. Who cares how massive the church is if we're no better off inside than outside? If the Son sets us free, we shall be free indeed.

We could go on to read passages like 1 Corinthians 3, 5, and 6 where sin inside of the church at Corinth is tearing it apart, cliques are formed, sexual abuse is tolerated, and Christians are suing and defrauding one another. It is a miserable church and one we must strive not to be. As Christ has forgiven you, let us also forgive one another, as Christ has set us free, let us not enslave one another, but let us love one another as Christ has loved us.

If we do so, we will have the perfect church.