Rebuild: Praying for a Legacy

As I finished  the search for this blog, the events of Dallas were in the news. The events of the past few days remind us that our nation often descends into a violent and immoral (sometimes “amoral”) darkness. Next week, the blog will be on the need for peacemakers and truth-tellers who stand up and attempt to renew our culture. We should all be in prayer for our nation.

Today, we come to the end of our study of Nehemiah. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed learning more about Nehemiah and his book. Nehemiah is a book for laypeople. Nehemiah was a layperson who put his faith to work in his everyday life. He is a role model for all of us, pastors and laypeople alike. In fact, he is probably a more important role model for laypeople then for pastors.

As I drive down Germantown Road in Memphis, I often pass a billboard for a company called, “Legacy Wealth Management.” I don’t know anything about the company. However, I love the first word of their name, “Legacy.” It never fails to catch my eye. I think as we grow older, it’s natural to think about the legacy we’re leaving behind. We wonder how people will remember us. We wonder how our family will remember us. We wonder how our church will remember us. We hope that our life has made a difference. We hope for a legacy.

imgres-1Some years ago, a man named Bob Buford, wrote a book called “Halftime.” [1] In the book, Buford makes the observation that most people spend the first half of their life seeking success of one kind or another. It can be success in business, education, sports, marriage, child raising—in any of the many things we human beings value. We begin our adult lives trying to succeed by our own definition of success, whatever it may be.

Buford believes, however, that somewhere around 50, people begin to shift the focus of their lives from success to significance. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that Buford is correct. Human beings desire and need to feel significant. We desire for our lives to count for something.

In today’s blog,  we are talking about our Christian legacy, what we want to be remembered for. Nehemiah was a human being. He’d been successful by worldly standards. He had been a high official in government. He had been the governor of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nehemiah’s focus at the end of his life was on significance not success.

The Last Actions of a Reformer.

Nehemiah is a surprisingly complicated book. Most Christians know that Nehemiah was involved in building a wall around the city of Jerusalem. imagesThe story of Nehemiah and the wall is like the story of David and Goliath. Those of us who grew up going to church remember seeing pictures of David and Goliath in our Sunday school curriculum. We also remember seeing pictures of Nehemiah and his wall. Very few people, however, recognize that the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah were deeply related. Even fewer recognize that Nehemiah was a spiritual leader as well as a wall builder. Interestingly enough, when Nehemiah reached the end of his life, and prayed to God for his legacy, he never mentions the wall. He asks to be remembered for his part in the renewal he and Ezra were part of leading.

Our text is from Nehemiah 13:

I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites.

Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services (Nehemiah 13:6-14).

Prayer: God of History, as we conclude our study of Nehemiah please come by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might be empowered to be people like Nehemiah in our own age. Give us a heart for You and for others as we seek to rebuild our society. In Jesus Name, Amen.

How We Got Here.

During election years, I like to preach a sermon series that is helpful in preparing us to make  decisions on election day. Four years ago, I preached a series on Daniel, one of the great political figures of the Old Testament. I’ve never preached through Nehemiah, so this year I decided to preach a series on Nehemiah and his book.

Today’s text occurs some years after the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt (Nehemiah 12:27-47). It also occurs some years after the worship services we studied last the last two weeks. After the Jerusalem wall was rebuilt, and the people rededicated themselves to the God of Israel, to worshiping God in his temple in Jerusalem, and to living holy lives, Nehemiah was recalled to the court of King Artaxerxes. He stayed there for a number of years. After a time, however, Nehemiah asked permission to return (13:6). [2]

Before Nehemiah left to return to court, the people committed themselves to obey the law of Moses (9:38-10:39). Generally speaking, the people of Judah made three basic promises:

  1. First, they promised to maintain the faith of the Jews. Because in their day (and often in ours) mothers primarily transmitted faith to children, the Jews promised that they would marry within the Jewish faith and educate their children within the Jewish faith.
  2. Second, they promised to support the Temple by bringing the tithes and offerings required by the law of Moses so that the Temple could operate.
  3. Finally, they promised to keep the Sabbath. You might ask, “Why mention keeping the Sabbath and not the rest of the Ten Commandments?” Sabbath keeping was distinctly Jewish. The story of creation (Genesis 2:1-2), the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and the remainder of Moses’ teaching, all emphasize the importance of the day of rest. Sabbath keeping encapsulates all the law teaches about what is good for the human race. [3]

Every religion has its distinctives. No religion can maintain itself if it ignores those distinctives. The distinctives of the Christian faith are not exactly the same as the distinctives of ancient Judaism. If we were to make a list, it might look something like this:

  1. We will love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our souls and all of our minds and our neighbor as ourselves.
  2. We will disciple others, Especially we will disciple and raise our children as Christians and teach them what it means to be a Christian.
  3. We will be diligent to worship God and support the work of Christ in the world.

We each might come up with another list, but this is a list. It’s a list of things central to what it means to be a Christian. So if we want to recommit ourselves to be Christians, we might commit ourselves to discipling our children and others, to sharing God’s love, and to supporting the mission and work of the church.

The Danger of Backsliding.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he discovered that the Jewish people had been guilty of backsliding. They had failed to keep the promises they had made to God.

imgres-2Human nature, is pretty much the same throughout history. We have a tendency to drift backwards in our spiritual life unless we are accountable to moving forward.

We live in a nation that likes to believe that people are naturally good, or at least people like us are naturally good. Unfortunately, we all have the tendency to be selfish and a tendency to take the path of least resistance. One thing I believe is clearly true is this: The easy, attractive, path is seldom the right path. This is why Jesus warns us that the way that leads to destruction is broad (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is one reason we need spiritual leaders. Families need spiritual leaders. Churches need spiritual leaders. Countries need spiritual leaders. Without spiritual leaders who remind us of the promises we’ve made, we often forget those promises. When we forget our promises, we all tend to backslide a bit. Therefore, one of the most important job of good leaders is to hold people accountable. Nehemiah was a courageous leader—and not afraid to take action to see that the people of Israel did not forget the promises they had made to God.

Just this past week, a number of people pointed out to me an article in which a well-known judge advised Americans to forget the Constitution. [4] Even well-regarded people, it seems, have forgotten the source of our freedoms and the importance of our system of limited government. Like the ancient Jews, we need leaders who honor our past and remind us of the commitments we have made, not leaders who urge us to forget them. In a number of areas, we see America backsliding: morally, in the area of religious liberty, and in the protection of other of the rights upon which our nation was founded. [5] This kind of behavior can only end in our losing our freedoms and our way of life.

The Courage of Nehemiah.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he immediately began to set things straight. While Nehemiah was gone, one of the priests, who was in charge of the Temple storerooms, had allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to have a private residence within the temple courts (Nehemiah 13:1-9). Because of an incident in Jewish history, Ammonites were forbidden to participate in the life of the Temple.imgres-6 If you remember, this same Tobiah was an enemy of Israel who tried to stop Nehemiah’s project (see, 2:16; 4:7; 6:1-14). Nehemiah immediately had Tobiah removed and his room returned to its intended purpose

Nehemiah also learned that the people were not giving their tithes and offerings to the temple. As a result, the Levites and other workers in the temple courts had not been paid. He immediately encouraged the Jews to bring their ties of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms (vv. 10-13).

As Nehemiah traveled around Judah, he noticed that people were working on the Sabbath. He immediately reminded the people of their promise to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (vv. 15-22).

Finally, Nehemiah realized that the Jewish people were intermarrying, as a member of a priestly family had done into the family of Tobiah the Ammonite (vv. 4ff). He, therefore, took steps to see that the practices that had led to the decline of King Solomon and the decline and death of the Kingdom of David did not recur (vv. 22-28).

Sometimes this passage seems harsh to us today. It is important to remember that this was the way the ancients maintained their religion in the face of paganism. We might not do the same things today, but we have the same need to courageously resist the paganism of our society and help our children do the same. [6]

Nehemiah’s Prayers.

imgresDuring the last chapter of Nehemiah, Nehemiah prays for God to remember his faithfulness. He asks God not to allow the backsliding of Israel to blot out the work that is done (v. 14). He asks God to show mercy upon him and remember him (v. 22). He asks that God remember him with favor (v. 31). In each one of these prayers Nehemiah is asking God to remember him for his spiritual qualities and what he  has accomplished in the spiritual realm. In other words, Nehemiah desires a Godly legacy.

This is a feature of Nehemiah that I find amazing. You would think that the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem would want to be remembered for his building campaign! You would think that a great administrator like Nehemiah would want to be remembered for his faithful administration of Jerusalem. You would think that a courageous leader, who faced many enemies, would want to be remembered for his victories over fear. Nehemiah does not mention any of these accomplishments. He wants to be remembered for his faith and faithfulness to God.

As we complete our study of Nehemiah, each one of us might ask ourselves the question, “For what do I want to be remembered?” “What is it that give my life true significance?” “What is it that I could do that would create the best possible future for my family, children, spouses, parents and grandparents?” “What could I do to make my neighborhood, city, state or nation a better place?” “What could I do to make Advent or my local church a better place?” “What could I do to create a legacy that would really, truly be significant?”

These are questions that will drive us to our knees in prayer as they drove Nehemiah to his knees in prayer. As I mentioned in the beginning of the blog, our nation is not in a good place. We have drifted away from wisdom, for love, for caring for our neighbors, and from the ideals upon which we were founded. It will take a lot Nehemiah’s to rebuild America’s culture.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bob Buford, Halftime (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

[2] Nehemiah left Susa in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes (1:1) and was recalled in the thirty second year (13:6). “Some time later” when Artaxerxes was in Babylon (v. 6), he asked permission to return to Jerusalem, which is when this chapter’s events occurred. Perhaps Nehemiah was now retired. Perhaps, he just wanted to see Jerusalem again. Some scholars date his trip at about 430 B.C., more or less. See, James M. Hamilton, Christ Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Nashville, TN: 2014), 218.

[3] Id, at 215.

[4] In a recent op-ed for Slate, Judge Posner, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, argued that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments “do not speak to today.” Judge Posner has since apologized; however, his remarks illustrate the difficulties we are in as a culture. He is one of the most respected of Federal Judges. He is a scholar. He is also symptomatic of the unhistorical materialistic bias of so much modern legal thinking. (Judge Posner has long been an advocate of a reductionist, economic theory of law.) He is a fine judge, but his theory does not do justice to the historical nature of human life and history or to the complexity of the idea of justice.

[5] I could right an entire blog about the need for Americans to think historically and allow our government and culture to change organically. The universe and human history evolve historically event by event. Current choices are bounded by past decisions and past experience. Too much of modern politics is what I call “revolutionary,” i.e. based upon the naive assumption that anything we think best is possible.

[6] Giving Tobiah the Ammonite an apartment in the temple illustrates the problem with intermarriage: It was too easy to compromise issues of faith. The Ammonites were enemies of Israel and had betrayed the Jews in the past. There are two mistakes commonly made by conservatives and liberals in evaluating certain historical events like the exclusion of non-Jews from the temple. The first is to mindlessly believe we ought to imitate the legalism of the Old Testament. The second is to naively critique the entire Old Testament on the basis of social customs we no longer follow. The truth is that future generations are likely to look back upon many of our customs as barbaric and unwise. Once again, history evolves and we cannot expect ancient people to think or behave as we do.