And Joy Everlasting- Nehemiah 8. RBT Notes, 8th December

The wall’s up, and people’s heads are soon down in the stuff of life. Houses need to be built, wells dug, orchards planted, fields ploughed up and sown, children looked after and taught. And on and on. Life is never still, never without its demands, and there are never enough hours in the day. Busyness is as old as time, and our lack of time.

In life’s busyness we fight for time. We must fight for the time to listen to God’s Word. If we don’t, the thistles and thorns of work and worry will choke our souls. Our souls need time, time for the Word. The jobs will have to wait, and some jobs need a careful and principled neglect.

So God’s people come together (8.1). Ezra is called to bring out the Law of Moses, and to read it before the community, and what a reading, from dawn to lunch! Also, what a rapt attention (v.3). People know that these are not just words – they are, as Moses said, “your life” (Deut. 32.47).

God’s Word brings joy and sorrow. Joy, in that we see the grace of God once more; but sorrow, in that we see how we disobey that Word, consciously and unconsciously. The people praise God with their preacher (v.6), but there are tears, too (v.9). Maybe this community was feeling as they needed to the weight of God’s anger which had swept their parents’ generation off to exile as the punishment for their sins.

Nehemiah, like any good leader, is alive to the feelings of his people. He speaks up, with tender words, and wonderful counsel. He knows that God is a God of grace. He knows that the joy of the Lord – joy shared and tasted by grace – is our only lasting and real strength (v.10). He calls his people to rest and rejoice.

This is the true joy of God’s Word. Are you experiencing it? When our hearts enthrone the Lord as He truly is, and bow before Him, relying on His mercy alone in Christ, there is always joy. Faith comes through hearing God’s Word, and through understanding it. Ezra had devoted himself to being an expert student and teacher of Holy Scripture (Ez. 7.10), and he and Nehemiah were totally committed to the people grasping the grace of God in His Word. What servants. In fact, apostolic ministry has exactly the same mandate, to be workers with God’s people for their joy (2 Cor. 1.24).

Enjoy the scenes of festivity in vv.12-18. The community celebrates the feast of tabernacles – the first time for many years (centuries, in fact, v.17). They are rediscovering the joy of being God’s people, and obeying His Word. God has no other will for our lives. We should have no other ambition, either.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord God, what a world of joy awaits me as I bow before You. What a world of misery I stumble through when I focus on myself. Lift my eyes, my heart, my mind, Father, to Your care and loving authority in my life. Teach me to tremble at Your Word. Amen.

Rights – and Wrongs – Nehemiah 5. RBT Notes, 5th December

Where there’s work there are workers. Where there are workers, there are always people who are trying to exploit them, to make their own profit. Nehemiah has to see the harsh realities of this.

Right in the midst of the communal efforts of sweat and toil, Nehemiah becomes aware that things are desperately unfair. There is a shortage of food, and some are having to scavenge for food, others need to mortgage their property to stay alive, and others are taking out loans and even selling their children into slave labour, in order to have enough to eat (vv.2-5). What should have been an exercise in shared work and mutual support has quickly turned into a familiar story of self-interest from the rich, and a survival struggle for the poor.

Nehemiah is angry (v.6). Calling together the wealthy officials, Nehemiah calls them out over this heartless exploitation. There is an uncomfortable silence – “They could find nothing to say” (vv.7-9). The leader’s courageous stand of blunt honesty and clear command works, and they agree to return what they’ve taken, as well as the interest on payments (v.12), and he secures a promise on future dealings (v.13).

The Jerusalem community knows that Nehemiah is the right man to serve as governor (v.14). Eager though he is to lead them, Nehemiah knows that leaders are servants. he gets on with the work in hand, forgoes his allowance of good, and ensures that all are looked after (vv.15-18). His insistence that he must forgo his rights remind us of the Apostle Paul, serving the Gospel at his own expense and inconvenience. Moreover, we remember the Lord Jesus Christ, who became a servant of all, at the cost of His own life. This is service.

Who do you want to lead you? The Bible says that leadership is never a title, it is always a transparently commendable lifestyle. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13.7). Leaders serve, and those who follow them are to dedicate themselves to serving others, too. This is life in the kingdom.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, in a world of self-interest, teach me by Your Spirit to become last, and the servant of all. I confess that I enjoy people’s approval, and having things go my way. Give me integrity, Lord, that I may wish to serve my Saviour and those He died for, fired by His love, and eager to do good for the household of faith. Amen.

Leaders like this – 2 Corinthians 10. RBT Notes, 14th November

You can serve people, but you don’t need to be smiling. You can speak truth to people, and you don’t need to tiptoe around their feelings. You can love them deeply, and you can be totally justified in showing that you feel exasperated, even irritated and at your wits’ end. In this explosive chapter, Paul shows the Corinthians just how frustrated he is with this worldly church. And this is just the beginning.

But Paul refuses to resort to the world’s weapons in his ministry. No rhetorical razzmatazz or mind-games in his ministry. He has the Gospel, the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, and they are more than enough for achieving God’s work (vv.4-5). And for a worldly church, fixated with the impressive, and dismissing the authentic, Paul warns that he means to come to punish disobedience (v.6).

Paul gets little pleasure from talking about himself, but he needs to underline that he has been given authority by Christ (v.8). Then, with more than a tone of gentle mockery, he doesn’t “dare” to rank himself with the so-called leaders the Corinthians make so much of (v.12).

Although Paul is speaking into the tensions of his relationship with the Corinthians, the parallels are obvious wherever there are churches and leaders. Leaders are tempted to appear impressive. They long to seem omni-competent, omniscient, and omni- everything else. And church people are tempted to demand an excellence from leaders which is totally unrealistic, and unhelpful. The Corinthian mistake was to believe that their so-called “super apostles” really were dazzling stars which they pretended to be. No wonder, then, that when the real leader Paul did show up, complete with his failures and shortcomings, and excelling only in mere love, they failed to recognise his credentials. God give us grace to accept those who minister the Word of God to us, and serve us in Christ’s love. We might just need them.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, our world demands show and spectacle, but teach me to be a sceptic. Teach me to look beyond appearances, and to know when I’m putting on masks to impress, or maybe to mislead. Form me to be a man of humble love, striving to serve others, but not faking it when I get it wrong. Give me grace to point to the Perfect man, Jesus, and to be content to be a servant in His Name. Amen.

 

The Rule of Lawlessness – 2 Samuel 20. RBT Notes, 26th October

Another chapter of indecisive rule, an insubordinate subject who leads a rebellion, and an act-now-think-later military commander who fixes things in his own style. Not edifying reading, perhaps.

This time the rebel is Sheba, one of Saul’s clansmen. Foolish as he is, he at least has the wisdom to know that, if he’s leading a rebellion, he’ll need northern support for it (vv.1-2). To add to David’s alarm, the man he sends to deal with it, Amasa, is slow in his work. Joab has no doubt that this delay is a sign that he is up to no good, so that when he does show, Joab has neither doubt nor hesitation, but takes his life (vv.9-10). After that, the rebellion is swiftly crushed, as Sheba is put to death (vv.21-22). Disaster is averted, but the decline of David’s rule cannot be stopped.

Who can rule? Joab is all that David is not – fearless, decisive, ambitious, and also, ruthless, rash and a man of extremes. All his faults are here. And yet, they are the faults which are accentuated by David’s weaknesses. David fails to lead, so no wonder Joab overcompensates, rushing into decisions, and so falls into his own sins. It was ever thus. A sharp-tongued wife often has a lazy husband, and a wayward son is often actually rebelling against his disinterested parents. My sin encourages yours, and vice versa. Heaven help us.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord Jesus, Gentle Shepherd and yet Mighty King, thankyou that You are the perfect Ruler, and the sufficient Saviour. Teach me how to live with the sins of others. Keep me from pride when I don’t share them, but also from sin she opposite to those I see. Teach me to walk in the steps You have left for me. Amen.

David Bowie – the Challenger

David Bowie sort of passed me by, as a confused, flighty teenager. Growing up into the world of pop music in the mid-eighties (what bliss it was in that dawn to be alive), I listened to what it’s been agreed were Bowie’s ‘difficult years’, as he followed his commercial rather than artistic instincts in various endeavours. When my taste in darker music and even darker clothes took over, I became aware that favourites such as Joy Division and Bauhaus owed a huge debt to Bowie. And so I got into Space Oddity and a few other albums, but nothing more.  It wasn’t that I never ‘got’ Bowie. I knew that he was a genius of his own making, a brilliant crafter of his art and a maker of culture around himself.  It was just that there was, and is, so much other music, and music was only a part of my life, not a consuming passion.

davidbowie-aladdinsaneclubWith Christian conversion at nineteen I discovered a whole new world, a real reality, as I saw it then, and still do. I became pretty ambivalent (Bowie would have liked that one) about Bowie. The androgyny, the drugs, the endless attention-grabbing through endless personae and wardrobe changes – it all stood in opposition to the worldview that I was developing. I was learning that Jesus is the Saviour all people need, not the pretences of rock and pop stars. My values were changing, and I was learning to value loyalty and sacrifice instead of self-fulfilment and attention-seeking. Not very rock n roll, I admit.

Like millions of people across the world this morning, I’ve had Bowie on in the background as I’ve worked, and I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy. He’s changed music forever, and his touches are seen everywhere when music is recorded, and perhaps even more, where it is performed. Bowie has changed culture, doing more than perhaps any other musician to give a slow-burn to the taper of gender politics, to give us the cultural landscape we are part of today. He also gives the church, and its leaders in particular, huge challenges, and all of them for our good. Here are some questions:

Question: how do we show our churches (never mind our communities) that the Gospel is the greatest song, with the best hope, the deepest joy, and the most life-affirming message? When we quickly soak up pop lyrics, which are often fleeting glimpses of happiness, how do we get Christians thrilled with and excited about the song we’ve been given to sing and to live out? You know the lyrics to a Bowie song; do you know the lyrics to the Sermon on the Mount? And which moves and changes you more?

Question: how do we bring the radical, uncompromising message of Jesus to the fore in our communities, ones which are full of other values, noise and false messages? Bowie was the re-inventor without any rivals. He was, though, only reinventing himself. Churches aren’t called to reinvent Jesus, or change any of His teaching. That way disaster lies, for the church and for the world. We must continually be open, though, to thinking about how we reinvent the ways our culture can hear that message, and to do all that we can to get it listening.

Question: how do leaders act with the courage and decisiveness and eye for opportunity which Bowie showed in his career? He knew that his androgyny would be reviled by many back in the early Seventies, but he pressed on with it. He knew when to stop what wasn’t working, and often saw that a project had run its shelf-life long before the fans or even those he worked with most closely did. He took on projects others would never have had the guts to try, and faced their sneers, until he faced their envy at his success. He left a legacy of creative brilliance. Churches and leaders have been given the most important, beautiful and transforming music in the world, the Gospel. We must embrace it with conviction, and live it with courage and commitment. And how about a little creativity?

 

This morning I was listening to ‘Heroes’. It’s a beautiful song, about love and courage, and the hope of victory in the face of struggle and opposition.  It resonates with us, because we all want to succeed. We all want to be heroes, to achieve something and to be thanked, or admired, and maybe even remembered, for it. There is only one real Hero, of course, and that is Jesus. And yet, our calling as His followers is to be like Him, in His courage, and His integrity. Because of who He is, and what He’s offering, we really could be heroes. And the reverberations of living out His grace could last into eternity.