SOMETHING TO STAND ON

10.8.17 Week 2

STILL

Nehemiah 8:2-12

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
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. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
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.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

A man takes a stand.  He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests.  Little by little the protest grows.  Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved.  More than a year passes and it still spreads.  One man taking a stand changes the world.

This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world.  We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting.  Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.

It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand.  He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church.  The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence.  The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it.  Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors.  Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew.  Political and religious leaders began to take note.  More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.

One took a stand with the church.  That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side.  He had tradition on his side.  He had the majority on his side.  The other took a stand with  something different.  He had a different, a better authority on his side.  And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side.  He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him.  Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that is all you need.

And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.”  Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement.  Why was Luther willing to make such a claim?  Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.

A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading.  His name was Nehemiah.  He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.

Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity.  At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah.  There were different phases of this restoration project.  First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.

More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn.  Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king.  That’s where Nehemiah stood up.  It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.

Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed.  And the Lord blessed his work.  The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life.   The walls of Jerusalem were solid again.  The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last.  It wasn’t a large group.  Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000.  And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.

It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion.  Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance.  They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore.  They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon.  6 hours!  (Imagine if I would try that today?)   And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.

And do you know what happens? The people start weeping.  Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority.  God’s Word stands alone.

You see, the people were now face to face with what God says.  Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word.  And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word?  You start coming up with what matters all by yourself.  You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe.  I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.”   That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today.  The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”

I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs.  We cannot stand.  We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work.  Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly.  Israel tried their own way.  And where did it get them?  Their home was taken away.  The capital was destroyed.  Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled.  They were exiled foreigners.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians.  They had to wait for permission to go back.  They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes.  The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.

Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard.  God’s law has a way of doing that to people.  By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead.  It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason.  Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction.  It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it?  By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life.  But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”

I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day.  Do not grieve”  Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened?  The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it?  They were just supposed to forget about it all?  Yes!

But how?  Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas.  They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace.  The Creator.  The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it.  The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who promise deliverance to his people.  The God who loves his people like no one else can.

You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day.  Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas.  We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God.  And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally.  This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is  the Word of God.  It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with.  This book is completely unnatural.  It’s something that no one has ever come up with.  And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word.  Scripture alone stands up and rises above.  It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us.  It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church.  And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts.  That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone.  Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.

When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own.  He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks.  And so he didn’t budge.  Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down.  He kept standing on God’s Word.

500 years later, we still stand on that platform.  We stand on the law and gospel.  We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil.  We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still.  Amen.

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ENDURANCE COMES FROM THE RIGHT MEMORY

taking-care-of-our-church

2 Timothy 2:8-13

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.
11 Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.

August 23, 1992 – it’s name was Andrew.  August 29, 2005 – it was Katrina. October 22, 2012 – Sandy. And now October 7, 2016 – it’s Matthew.  Hurricanes are hard to handle.  Can you even imagine the devestation?  It’s challenging to picture it.  It’s hard to think about what it would be like to evacuate your home not knowing if it will be there when you get back.  It’s hard to watch those interviews with people who are sifting through huge piles of debris and rubble, that used to be their home.  It’s hard to see the stunned faces of people who litterally don’t know what to do.  These kinds of images burn themselves into our memories.  When another one comes along –and it will – the images and thoughts all come flooding back into our memories. That’s what it’s like this week.  We remember the Andrews, Katrinas and Sandys.  We pray for the people in Haiti, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  We pray for those who have lost their homes and for the families of those who lost their lives. We pray and we’ll always remember.

It’s not just the hurricanes; we remember days where it wasn’t the groaning of nature that brought disaster but it was the depraved mind of man.  December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor.  November 22, 1963 – Assassination of JFK. April 19, 1995 – Oklahoma City bombing. April 20, 1999 – Columbine. September 11, 2001 – 9/11 Terrorist attacks.

And there’s more memories, aren’t there?  The personal ones like the only D you’ve ever had on a report card.  That time when the wind was knocked out of you or you ran full speed into a tree.  That time you pulled a three inch screw out of your leg after you were tackled on the pavement in what should have been two-hand touch.  Ok, maybe some of those are just me.  How about the time your friend or family member had a severe diagnosis from the doctor.  Was there a time when you had to go through the couch cushions and all the nooks and cranies to try and make the payments? Do remember your first heartbreak?  How about the a death of a close loved one?

Your memories are full of this kind of thing.  These memories can come from anywhere at any time.  And they take up so much room in our heads and hearts. How can anyone cope with it all?  How can anyone have hope when literal and figurative hurricanes are ripping apart lives, when this groaning world brings destruction, when people cause unmentionable crimes?

You know, Paul encourages us today to endure, but with a head full of all those bad memories how is that possible?  Bad memories don’t really help with enduring through the struggles and hardships.  In fact, they make it harder.  Bad memories cause anxiousness and fear.  Don’t bad memories make you want to avoid those kinds of things?  And that doesn’t help with enduring.  The opposite happens.

But good memories are no better.  Can a birthday, an anniversary, or family reunion really help you endure? The birth of your children? A great trip? A pay raise? A championship for your favorite team?  Can these kinds of good memories really give you the courage and strength to put up with the problems and pain that come up? I don’t know if that’s how it works.  NDSU wins a 6th championship in a row and that’s somehow going to take care of the destroyed homes and lives from hurricanes, tornados, or terrorism?  A great relaxing and luxurious vacation to Hawaii is supposed to take the sting out of all these mass shootings?  Those twenty pounds you lost a year ago can make family feuding go away?  Sure, good memories fill us up with joy and thankfulness now, but one dangerous thing can happen from all these good memories you have.  You want more!  And when life becomes a pursuit of more great moments, that kind of temporal life can never satisfy.  You can’t endure.

The problem when the focus is on us, our good or our bad memories, is that a sinner is taking center stage.  My memories, even the good ones, are not of a perfect life and neither are yours.  We are tainted by a past filled with accidents, mistakes, and poor choices.  We have disowned the Lord too many times to count. We cannot remember even one perfect day.  And if you can’t remember one, does it make any sense at all that there will be perfect days ahead of us?  Imperfect people cannot create a perfect future. That kind of realization isn’t helping anyone.  It makes real endurance through all of the difficulties a phantom we will never find.

We need a different kind of memory.  We need the kind of memory that drives away doubts and despair and gives joy and hope.  We need the kind of memory that puts vim and vigor into our hearts and steps.  We need the kind of memory that will help us face the challenges of each day head on with determination.  We need the kind of memory that causes contentment no matter what the circumstances.  You’re probably interested in that kind of memory.

So was Paul.  He’s writing these words to Timothy while “suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.”  And yet Paul is peaceful.  He’s content.  He’s enduring everything.  One might ask, “How, Paul, how do you do it?  How do you act as if everything is fine when you are locked up for simply preaching and teaching?  Paul, give me the secret so that I can face my haunting memories.  Paul, give me the hope for a bright and lasting future.”

And do you know what he says?  “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel…”  Of all the things that you could remember, of all the things that you might remember, of all the memories that fill you brain, of all the things that try to crowd your memory so that you forget what really matters, none of them can compare to Jesus Christ.  You have got to remember Jesus Christ. The bad memories you have won’t help you get rid of your sin.  The good memories you have won’t pay the debt we owe to God.  Remember Jesus.

He’s the one who has a perfect past and a perfect future. His past encapsulates God’s promise to save you and me.  Every single word that God gave in the Old Testament is funneled into one man, the King of kings, the Promised One who would save his people from the oppression of sin, the Messiah who would rescue us from all our enemies and give us a kingdom with him.  And his future is endless because he is the one who rose from the dead.  He conquered death and hell for us.  He assures us that there is life forever in heaven.  He has a place ready for you because he is the living enduring Savior from this world of sinful memories.  He has replaced our pursuits of good memories and our tireless efforts to make up for the bad with his perfect life now given to us through faith. You and I don’t need to hang on to anything we have done, because we have the memory of Jesus Christ.

This is the good news that lives and dwells in our hearts by the power of the Spirit.  It is my gospel.  It’s not just the message that Jesus has.  It’s not just the good news that apostles and evangelists have.  It’s not just the testimony of those who have gone before us.  It’s not only for the preachers and teachers who serve in our churches and schools. This gospel is mine.  And it is yours.  God has personally delivered it to you and unwrapped it in all of it’s goodness.  It is your message to hold now and til the day God calls you to be with him.  Nothing can change this gospel for you.  It is your sole source of salvation, because your gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ.  It is the memory that he has taken away your sins and raised you to a new life of faith in him.

If you want to endure in this life, if you want to make it through any and every situation, you have what you need in the memory of Jesus Christ.  You can look back on a life of a sheep who loved to wander, and you don’t have to worry about what God will do.  You don’t have worry about what happens to wayward sheep, because Jesus has forgiven your sins.  He has found you when you were lost and brought you into his fold.  You can look at the future with bold confidence, not fixated on temporal pleasures and goals because you know those mean nothing in comparison to the home Christ has won for you.  You can look at your life right now, and it doesn’t have to be a mess of trying to avoid more bad memories with synical fingers that are always pointing to other people as the problem in the world.  Rather, you can enjoy the gifts and talents God gives you.  You can live in joyful thanksgiving for all that the Lord has done.  You can remember Jesus.  Endurance can only come from remembering him.

Paul knew a thing or two about enduring hardship. Having been harassed like he was on the top 10 most wanted for much of his ministry, he kept going with endurance that can only come from Christ.  So he passes that on to Timothy and to you and me these words that must have been old lyrics to a hymn.  (There’s a reason why we sing so many songs about Jesus in church and have our kids memorize them.)  Paul tells us it’s a trustworthy saying, it’s a faithful word for our lives as we remember Jesus. If we died with him,  we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.  Keep singing that song.  Keep that in your heart and mind. Never let it go.  And see, that’s how to take care of a church.  Remember Jesus.  That’s our gospel.  That’s our endurance.   Amen.