Damariscotta Baptist Church
Monday, September 24, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

11/22/15 Sermon - Reforming Our Human-ness

“Reforming our Human-ness”

Nehemiah 13

 

I have heard only excellent comments on Daryl Lavway’s return visit last week. And I can happily report that those of us who ventured to the Women of Faith Conference in Hartford, CT last weekend also have excellent comments. I encourage you to talk with either: Bertha, Carol Miller, MaryAnn, Charlotte or myself regarding our trip. We were each reminded of how personable our God really is and how He cares for his children, no matter what.

That same message, “How God cares for his children, no matter what”, is a wonderful theme statement for our wrap-up of Nehemiah, and a perfect segue to the Advent season, when God demonstrates the ultimate gift of love, by putting aside His Godly attributes and taking on human-ness.

Statistically I can state, imperatively, without an exception, that each of us in this sanctuary today, has a problem with our human-ness. It is a classic example of: A = B, B = C, therefore, A = C.

A – We are human.

B – Humans sin.

C – Therefore, we sin, which causes us problems

Today we have come to the final chapter of Nehemiah, and after listening to MaryAnn read it, I wonder if your initial response was anything like mine. My first thought was “Good Grief!” We are almost right back to where Nehemiah started! It didn’t take long for the Israelites to begin to mess up, again! Then a small, still voice spoke in my head and said, “Look who’s talking.”

I’d like to think I find myself in difficult circumstances, learn the lesson, and then not repeat the same behavior that causes me to find myself in similar circumstances and having to re-learn the same exact lesson.

But, alas, that isn’t so. We are creatures of habit and often find ourselves habitually re-learning things and giving in to compromise over, and over again. Maybe that’s why when we read the Bible we can easily relate to the human-ness that is exemplified in its pages.

The end of Nehemiah’s journal should bring us not only conviction, but also lead us to reformation and eventually to hope.

The beginning of Chapter 13 is the continuation of the final action of the Israelites after reading the Book of Moses. Their final commitment they understood was that there were to be no Ammonite or Moabite ever in the “assembly of God”. Being part of the “assembly of God” meant to fully participate in the spiritual life of Israel. Which meant to be regarded as the people of God and in covenant with God. Israelites were part of God’s covenant from birth, but any Ammonite or Moabite could only become a part of the covenant with God by choice. Should they decide to join God’s covenant, they would need to make a clean break and no longer, ever, associate with their own people.

Yes, I said, “no longer, ever”. This was a powerful message. It may sound harsh, however, I think we have a saying that explains the reason for the harshness….

“One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” In this case, this saying is spot on. If you are truly a part of the spiritual life of God’s people, you cannot live the thinking and doing of an anti-God culture. The two cannot co-exist. It is important to remember, that the Israelites were an anomaly, they were the only religion that had “One” god. Every other nation, worshipped many gods. So to add one more, wasn’t a big deal. But to the Israelites, it was a sin.

At the time of this reading, Nehemiah records that the people heard what God commanded and obeyed. They immediately separated the mixed multitude from Israel.

I find it interesting that Nehemiah did not record any sort of dissention or grumbling. I can think of a couple of rebuttals that could have been offered:

Like, “That command was written long, long ago, things are different now. We live in a different era.”

“Throwing out people who have become our friends, our family, isn’t that going just a bit overboard?”

“Don’t you think we should research this a bit more before we make such a drastic decision?”

Instead, we read,  “When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.”

However, There always seems to be one bad egg, and in this story we have Eliashib, a priest, who had been put in charge of the storerooms, in the temple. It was not a secret that he was associated with Tobiah, and since he was the person in charge of the storerooms, he took it upon himself to provide Tobiah with a large room which was supposed to store the sacred items of the temple, such as grain offerings, incense and temple articles, along with the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.

You may recall that Tobiah, first appeared in chapter 2 as one of two men that were named as adversaries to the Nehemiah and his plan to build the walls and restore the Israelites.

This is the stuff good novels are made of!

Evil lurks behind every turn.

Just when you think you have everything tidied up and things are going great.

The people of Jerusalem are choosing to follow God’s will, and in the midst of the good we have a little seed of evil, “innocently” residing, in a room of the temple, probably legitimately “renting” the space and offering some sort of compensation so that everything looks kosher on the outside, but just the name, Tobiah, should cause the hairs on the back of your neck to bristle.

As we continue to read in the chapter, Nehemiah wrote that all this had been going on while he was no longer residing in Jerusalem.

The wall had been dedicated, the people of Israel had heard God’s Word and had chosen to follow it, so Nehemiah returned to his cupbearer’s position to the King of Persia. He had been gone from Jerusalem for anywhere from 10 to 12 years. He heard what had been happening, and again he asked King Xerxes for permission to return to Jerusalem and back he came to see how things were again in need of reform.

Nehemiah focused on four areas where the Jewish people had allowed their human-ness to creep in and take over.

Nehemiah returned and confronted

-       Their worship

-       Their finances

-       Their priorities, and

-       Their relationships

First, Nehemiah returns to discover one of his arch enemies, Tobiah, was renting space in the temple.

Not only was Tobiah an Ammonite, and should have been put out of the temple, ten years ago, he was someone who had actively opposed the work Nehemiah had done when building the wall.

Nehemiah wrote that it grieved him bitterly. He had many reasons to be grieved.

The leader in charge of the rooms in the temple, was completely blind to the type of person Tobiah was.

In addition, there was not one other leader in the temple who was strong enough to stand up to Eliashib, even if they did not agree.

More importantly, the spiritual revival that had seemed to be so real was now in question.

Nehemiah’s reaction was not to sit down and have a meeting of the council, and debate the issues at hand. No, Nehemiah took control of the situation and we read that he threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. He had the room ceremonially cleansed and then had the rooms put back to their proper use, for the storage of sacred items of the temple. Jesus did a similar action when he came to the temple and saw how it had been turned into a “robber’s den”.

The second area of reform for Nehemiah, had to do with the finances. The needs for the temple had been neglected. Things had gotten so bad, the Levites, those people who were called to serve the temple, and the singers could no longer do their job in the temple, because their portion of the money, which, by the way had been given to the temple, had been withheld from them. They weren’t getting paid. So, they had to go elsewhere to find work, to make money so they could take care of themselves and their families.

The lack of giving and the poor management of what was given, was a way the leaders and people were forsaking God’s house and worship.

Again, Nehemiah doesn’t form a committee to “look into the problem” or set up a task force to set in place all the infractions that were occurring. Instead, he gathers everyone together and sets them in their place. He then places men who have proven to be faithful in charge of making sure the money was well managed.

Nehemiah continued his reform by committing the city of Jerusalem to the priorities it had agreed to during its spiritual revival. God was supposed to be their number one priority, not the making and spending of money. The root of God’s command to keep the Sabbath wasn’t supposed to focus on what the Israelites couldn’t do, it was supposed to focus on what they should do. God desires to be placed first, above all things.

The people of Israel were clearly putting the making of money and spending money before glorifying God. For Nehemiah, he realized the Jewish people were not keeping the Sabbath holy, was not only a personal issue, it was also an issue God had acted on before by punishing the nation of Israel. This meant, that unless Nehemiah dealt with it, the correcting hand of God could quickly come down on all of Israel.

Nehemiah’s quick response was to not only make sure all of the doors to the gates were closed at the beginning of Sabbath, to the end of the Sabbath, he even placed some of his own men to keep watch. And when he discovered there were people lurking on the other sides of the gates, enticing the Israelites to participate he warned them that if he saw them again he “would lay hands on them”. And he wasn’t talking about a Pentecostal anointing.

Nehemiah’s last reform became rather brutal. He noticed there were some Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. The Israelites had resumed their practice of intermarrying with the pagan nations. Nehemiah’s strong reaction of striking some of them and pulling out the hair of others and making them swear not to take foreign women as wives seems a bit overboard. It is important to remember, women in Nehemiah’s day were but objects of ownership, property. Purchased, used and put aside when the buyer was done. The men in the lives of the Ashdod, Ammon and Moabite women were often using the women in their lives to infiltrate and manipulate relationships. The term, “blood is thicker than water” was alive and well in these cultures. Nehemiah’s example of Solomon demonstrated just how seductive romance and lust could be. If Solomon, one of the wisest and most blessed men ever, had difficulty and sinned by having ungodly romances, then anyone was vulnerable.

When all is said and done, Nehemiah’s journal demonstrates that being human can be one of our most difficult barriers to following the will of God.

Nehemiah obeyed God’s call to go to Jerusalem and help the Israelites who were living there to rebuild their walls and revive their spiritual life.

In Nehemiah 10:39 the people promised,

We will not neglect the house of our God.

Later we read in chapter 13:11, Nehemiah asked,

Why is the house of God forsaken?

The honest answer is:

Because Israel did not keep its promises with God

Let’s face it, the law, or rules, or vows, or promises, or covenants aren’t what keep us from sinning.

It is only by the grace of God, the Spirit that lives within us, that can give us the power to overcome our sin. The same power that arose Jesus from the grave, is the power that can overcome sin. If it is left up to us… our human-ness will win every time.

The only thing that can reform our human-ness is the act of sacrifice made by God’s own Son. Eugene Peterson translates what Paul wrote like this, in

 

Romans 8:3-4The Message (MSG)

3-4 God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

 

The Old Testament shares the history of Israel, from the beginning, when they leave Egypt with Moses, were sustained by miracle after miracle, the people sinned. At the end of the Old Testament, the history of Israel finds Nehemiah pulling put his hair and the hair of sinners, because they still can’t keep their promises and keep from sinning.

The New Testament offers us a new covenant.

Hebrews 8:13 New International Version (NIV)

13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

Being human, like the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, still gets in the way. However, unlike the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, when it comes to reforming our human-ness, such as how we conduct our worship, how we manage our finances and how we set our priorities and maintain our relationships, we know it doesn’t work to rely on some vow we make, or on how sincerely we desire to change. For us today, the only way to permanently reform our human-ness is to continually keep giving our sins over to Jesus and to trust in his plan. You know the plan, the one where God became human, and in his perfect human-ness saved us from the sin that entangles us.

Surrendering our human-ness isn’t easy, but in order for it to be reformed, it is necessary.

 

Let’s pray.