Holiness and obedience

Preached on: Sunday 12th June 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no Powerpoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Nehemiah 13:1-14, 23-31
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Spiritual permissiveness leads to social permissiveness leads to disobedience
– We need holiness in order that we remain obedient to God

Let us pause for a moment’s prayer.

Loving Father, Gracious Lord, we praise You that, by Your Spirit, You are here.
Open us, each one indeed, by Your Spirit to Your Spirit and help us to behold wonderful things in the Word of our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I think we’d all agree that we’re living in an ever-changing world. Some changes, of course, are for the better like the recent emphasis on ensuring that all are treated as equal value whether they’re male or female, or black or white, whatever, and that’s a good change, but I often think that for every good change that comes along society takes several steps back. But also, I think we’d all agree, living in a permissive society things that only a comparatively short time ago would have been regarded as unthinkable are taken for granted today, leading to rising numbers of broken and dysfunctional families and individuals. And I don’t think it’s any comfort, really, to know that that’s how it’s always been.

Take out the scriptures we read this morning. You have been following the life and work of Nehemiah for some weeks now and you’ve learned how this man, who never wore a crown, never led an army, a man who himself had been born in exile, although he rose eventually to hold a key post in the court of the Persian king, but he’d return to Israel and from out of the rubble and dereliction, both physical and spiritual, had re-established, not only their pride in themselves as a nation, as God’s chosen people, but had led them forward to a fresh and vital relationship with God.

In chapter 10 we read that the people signed a spiritual covenant agreeing to obey God’s law as applied to them personally and in their worship. What a transformation. And in chapter 12:43 we read of the dedication celebration. We’re told that the sounds of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. What a pity that wasn’t the end of the story, that they all lived happily and joyously serving God faithfully after that. Sadly, real life isn’t like that. After a while Nehemiah had to return to his post with the king in Persia and during his absence the blight of spiritual permissiveness set in once more and where there is spiritual permissiveness, very soon, social permissiveness eats into the fabric of life both individually and in the community.

We start off well in this chapter verses 1, 2, 3 tell us that the Book of Moses was read aloud and the people obeyed God’s Word. That no Ammonite or Moabite should be admitted into the assembly of God because of how they treated Israel when the nation was journeying on the road to Canaan. Indeed, far from helping them, these peoples had tried, through Balaam, to have the nation cursed. But God had intervened and turned the curse into a blessing and in verse 3 we’re told that Israel obeyed God’s Word and excluded all who were a foreign descent.

Let’s be clear, God didn’t hate these nations, indeed, when we read the account of Jesus human ancestry, we find someone there who come hailed from Moab, Ruth. But Ruth had forsaken her old gods. She had wholeheartedly given herself to the worship of the God of Israel. But God knew that those whose hearts were given over to other gods would pollute Israel spiritually, hence the command, the nation heard God’s Word and obeyed it.

And that underlines to us the importance of reading and hearing God’s Word. But more than that, of obeying it. Jesus himself said in Matthew 6 and 24 ‘You cannot serve two masters. You either serve God or your love and service are given to another.’ We can’t have it both ways.

So, firstly we learn that God calls us to obedience to Him and His commands, not just in Nehemiah’s day, but in our day too.

That, perhaps, all makes verse 4 more horrifying because we learn that the rot in Israel’s spiritual health started at the very top of the religious establishment. ‘Elaishib the high priest was in charge of the storerooms of God’s house’ but the very man who should have been a leader in spiritual propriety had become close friends with one of Israel’s enemies, a man who from the very beginning of the work of building the walls had been a scourge to them, a thorn in their flesh, Tobiah.

It transpires he wasn’t only very good friends with Tobiah but was actually related to him through marriage and it was for this man, an enemy of the nation, that Elaishib cleared out the grain offerings and artifacts of worship for use in the temple to make room for him to set up residence in God’s house. What an insult to God.

Why would he do such a thing? we may ask ourselves. You know the old saying – blood is thicker than water – and that was probably part of the reason. Tobiah was an Ammonite a prescribed foreigner but Tobiah is actually a Jewish name meaning ‘God is good’ so he wasn’t totally ammonite.

Tt’s tough to side with a strict commandment of God such as excluding all Ammonites from the assembly of God when your relative is an Ammonite well, just a bit Ammonite, after all he’s a bit Jewish too.

So, we allow ourselves to compromise and immediately we do that we’ve stepped outside the will of God.

It’s sad but true that unwise friendships can seriously damage us spiritually. Spiritual permissiveness. But there was also financial permissiveness.

Verses 10 to 14. A problem that was the direct result of the first problem because Tobiah was using the rooms set aside for the tithes. The priests had required the people to bring their tithes and, as a result, the Levites who should have been in residence at the temple to carry out their duties had to go to work in the fields in order to support their families thus neglecting their temple duties.

Spiritual permissiveness invariably has a negative effect on our giving. The prophet Malachi confronted the people for robbing God by failing to bring their tithes into the storehouse. Spiritual permissiveness impacts on every part of our lives and just as it impacted every part of the lives of the people of Nehemiah’s day, the same is true today and our giving to God is often one of the first areas of our spiritual lives to suffer.

In chapter 10 and 31 we read that the people had agreed in their covenant with God to keep the Sabbath day holy. They wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t buy and sell. That day of the week would be set apart for God and His worship. What did Nehemiah find? He found that the merchants from Tyre, who had no scruples about the Sabbath, were doing a roaring trade selling merchandise to the Jews on the Sabbath and the people themselves were busily engaged in treading grapes and doing all sorts of work and having commercial dealings on the Sabbath.

No doubt the Israelites could have found at least a dozen reasons as they would see it, excuses might be better, for working and trading on the Sabbath, just as we do today. I remember someone rather ruthlessly saying ‘In my grandfather’s day it was the Holy Sabbath. In my father’s day it was Sunday. And today it’s just the weekend!’

Nehemiah took strong measures to bring an end to the desecration of the Sabbath by ensuring the city gates were locked and posted trustworthy guards to ensure they remained locked and chased the merchants who set up camp outside the gates. In verses 23 to 29 we’re told that there was also permissiveness in their homes, a problem that Nehemiah had previously corrected but, once again, some of the Jews had married foreign women and their children couldn’t even speak the Jewish language so it was impossible for them to understand God’s Word when it was read.

I think we are all aware that marriage is probably one of the most important and one of the most vulnerable areas in our lives especially for those of us who claim to love and follow Christ. It’s so easy to fall in love with someone who has no interest in the things of God

They may say they’re happy for us to be ‘religious’, as they might call it, but it’s not for them. No, but one won’t have any effect on our love for each other or in family life.

Sadly, while that sounds great in theory, in practice it invariably on the one hand puts a strain on the relationship and on the other puts an even greater strain on the Christian relationship with our Savior. For instance, it’s Sunday, one person wants to decorate a room or to go away for the day and the other wants to go to church. The result? Just as in Nehemiah’s day there’s compromise. We’ll do what I want today and next week you can go to church. We’ll do it week about. That’s fair.

Does it work? To begin with, perhaps, but, in the long term, it doesn’t and, invariably, the Christian partner, and it’s always the Christian partner, gets more and more caught up with worldly things, and worship and the place Jesus has in our lives becomes less and less, until we find ourselves no longer having time for Him and, indeed, no appetite for the things of God. Compromise, compromising the things of God just doesn’t work because He calls us to obedience. Obedience in every part of our lives. No exceptions and that includes our loving, our living, and our giving.

From the very beginning, Israel was called to be a people apart. God’s people. Leviticus 26:26-11 tells us ‘God said ‘I will put my dwelling place among you. I will walk among you and be your God and you will be my people.’’ He gave them His law, a tool enabling them to live in obedience to Him and, thus, be a holy people. He called them to be His witnesses to the nations around them but, just like us, how often they compromised, so often with disastrous results. And God would send one of His servants like Nehemiah to bring them back to that place of obedience to Him. Nehemiah had had a very successful ministry among them but sadly how quickly the desires of the flesh took over once more.

Verse 30 tells us that Nehemiah purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign. Purification, holiness. Holiness and the conduct of the affairs of God’s house but also personal holiness. 1 Peter 1:16 the apostle reminds us ‘It is written, you shall be holy as I am holy’ and we cannot be holy if we are living in disobedience to the commands of a Holy God. The two are incompatible.

We might think Nehemiah’s reaction to the people’s sin will was a bit OTT. He’s often criticized for not being more polite or tactful. Nehemiah wasn’t in the least concerned about what people thought of him, his concerns centered purely on God, on God’s command, God’s holiness and the nation’s utter Godlessness.

Nehemiah was accountable to God alone and he was aware of God’s presence in every situation. He wasn’t taking action against permissiveness for his sake, he was doing it for God’s sake and his prayers for God to remember him spring not from any sense of self-importance, not a parading of his goodness and holiness, but from love, from love for God and for the people of Israel. They are also a plea for God’s help in what he is doing.

Nehemiah was well aware of his frailty. One man pitted against a nation. If anyone needed God’s help, he did, and he got it.

As we considered Nehemiah’s call to obedience to God and holiness of life before God and before our fellow men and women, we’ve got the responsibility to ask ourselves where do we stand? Are we, as individuals, living in that place of surrender and holiness before our Savior or not? And, if not, what is our response going to be?

Only we can answer that question.



Preached on: Sunday 5th June 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-06-05 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 6:15-16 & 7:73b-8:18
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Restoration is a people living under the Word of God
– Living under the Word of God requires us to respond wholeheartedly
– Living under the Word of God requires us to be reshaped

I don’t think we need to pray anymore after such a beautiful prayer led for us by the Choir. So, let me let me begin.

Recently, I was at the General Assembly and for five days, long days, we heard 30 reports which totaled something like 260 pages plus of writing, not that they read it verbatim, thankfully, but they spoke, in addition to those 250 pages, there were about 400 people in The Assembly Hall which you see pictured here, 200 online and probably the cost, I guess, is somewhere in the region of maybe 120 to 150 thousand pounds.

And so, you might begin to wonder – what did it achieve? Because, you know, your offerings contributed to funding that, a bit of your offering goes into the central funds and some of it is used for that to. So, what did it achieve? What came of it? Or is the church any more on a path towards a good future? Or, as we’re thinking about in Nehemiah, are we on a path to restoration?

I guess that depends on your point of view. For example, there were positives. There was the agreement and ratification of the Declaration of Friendship, the Saint Margaret Declaration between the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Scotland taking a stand against bigotry and saying it has no place and should not be condoned by anyone of faith. There were encouraging reports of the work done by the Scottish Bible Society, by Crossreach, by The Guild and all that they are doing in the name of Jesus and for people locally and internationally. Great reports to hear, great work to affirm and encourage. There were negatives. The church made headlines about some of its decisions in the press and which I would argue is a departure from Scripture. So, as our church on the path to restoration, for me personally, for a number of people who attended, even across the theological spectrum, it didn’t feel like it, I didn’t feel like we were necessarily better off for having spent so much money and gathered for five days and expelled so much hot air.

But, I guess, ultimately, it begs the question – What would restoration look like? What would restoration look like for the church, in the everyday?

Well, we’re nearly at the end of our series in Nehemiah and, halfway through we read these verses, just a moment ago, ‘So the wall was completed in 52 days and when our enemies heard about this all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their confidence because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.’ The wall is complete. The wall is complete and not only that, people are taking notice, they’re taking notice of God’s people and they are realizing that God is alive and active, that He’s not just some old guy in a book, He’s alive and active and the wall is complete. In our day, if people started thinking that about the church and about the Christian faith, we’d maybe think ‘Well, job done. Pat in the back.’ That would be a great accomplishment. If the wider nations, if even our own nation, were taking note of this. But the job is not complete for Nehemiah because they’re only, we are only halfway through the book. There’s still another seven chapters, and don’t worry we’re not going to read them all, because many of the chapters that are coming follow on from what is contained in this chapter, although they deal with different issues. Their themes, their principles apply, follow the lead of this chapter. Chapter eight, there’s still seven more to go and it all goes to show, as we said a few weeks ago, that the rebuilding is not about the building. The wall might be complete, but God’s restoration is not over, it’s not done, the job’s not finished, because the restoration that God is seeking the restoration that is upon Nehemiah’s heart, because of God’s prompting and the restoration that God is enabling is a spiritual restoration, the restoration of their spiritual life and it’s all tied in with God’s word.

And so, we read ‘All the people came together they told Israel, the Teacher of the Law, to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So, on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra, the priest, brought the law before the assembly. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon and all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. The goal of restoration is not the rebuilding of a building, it’s to have a people who live under the Word of God. The goal of restoration is to have a people who live under the Word of God and the people seek this out. They invite Ezra to do it. To speak to them from daybreak till noon. Be glad you’ve only got a 30 minute sermon, if it ends up being there, and they raise Ezra up on a platform so that everyone can hear, the multitude can hear, because it’s so important for them. Why is it so important for them? Are they just being religious?

Well, let’s remember that back in chapter 2 they felt a measure of disgrace, disgrace that the walls had been, were in ruin but that spoke of other spiritual dynamics and that disgrace was being then projected onto God because the nations would hold God in disdain, with lack of honor and they’d had enough, they’d had enough, they wanted to be a people who brought honor and glory to God’s name, rather than disgrace, and to know how to do that, to know the wider life that they had to live to bring honor and glory to God. How to please God they turned to His Word. They turned to His Word. So, as we seek and pray for restoration of our own congregation, to see these pews filled, to see such a number here that we have to cram us unto the balcony, to see our denomination flourish again that we plant churches rather than having to close churches. Is it this kind of restoration that we seek? To be a people, to be a church who live under the Word of God?

I guess it depends on what you think the purpose of the church is, what our focus should be. If it’s just about doing good in the community, maybe not if it’s just about caring for one another. You don’t necessarily need to be a community that lives under the Word of God to do that. Yet, our elders agreed that as a congregation this would be our purpose – To seek to invite encourage and enable people of all ages to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus. And that means a lot more than just knowing the stories about Jesus and thinking He’s a great guy. To follow Jesus is to grow in the character of Jesus. To follow Jesus is to know the ways of Jesus across both the Old and the New Testaments and put that into practice. To follow Jesus is to say that Jesus is worth following, that he’s worth glory, he’s worth our lives.

So, what is it that we are seeking the restoration of? Is it this, to be a people who live under the word of God?

Now, even if we think it’s important to be a people who live under the Word of God it begs the question again – What does that look like? What does it mean? Because we have our own traditions, where we seek to honor the Word of God, don’t we? We bring in the Bible every week during a moment of stillness and we place it on the pulpit and in other churches, as you saw last week with Slamannan, they may be sing a song, other churches are silent, some churches stand. Some churches have a monstrosity of a Bible that’s just big and it’s old and there’s a degree of reverence with that.

But it’s possible that the tradition, the ritual can be become the end in itself, that we have this public display of reverence for God’s Word but it doesn’t mean anything now, because we don’t live it out. So, what does it mean to live under the Word of God, more than just having some public display of reverence on a Sunday morning? What does that look like?

Well, the people of Nehemiah’s day give us some ideas. ‘Ezra opened the book and, as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God and all the people lifted their hands and responded Amen! Amen! Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. All the people had been weeping as they listened to the Words of the Law. 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.’ We see here that to live under the Word of God is to respond to the Word of God, to respond with the whole of our hearts. And so, we see that they raise their hands in worship and praise. If you think I’m crazy doing that then, well, I’ve got Ezra on my side. So, they lift their hands in praise but they also bow down in worship as an act of humility and they say Amen! Amen! And if you don’t know what that word means, it means ‘may it be so’, ‘let it be’ so, ‘I agree’, ‘I want that to be true of my life’, ‘True in this world’, ‘True of us’ depending on what you’re saying ‘Amen’ too. But they also weep and they mourn, a sign of repentance, but then they also go home to celebrate and rejoice together with a feast. The people in Nehemiah’s time, in this passage at least, they respond wholeheartedly to the Word of God. And so, we can have as many rituals as we like, we can have bookcases full of Bibles at home, we can even be reading the Bible every day but, if we are not responding to the Word of God, then we are not living under the Word of God, because James reminds us ‘Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.’

It’s possible to deceive ourselves, to think that because we give due reverence to the Scriptures, to think that because I was there for the sermon and I even listened, I didn’t fall asleep, we can think that we are ticking the box, that we’re listening but, to listen to the Word, is to do the work and I think that’s, in part why, for some in the church, the decision at the General Assembly on that particular Monday was so disheartening because it didn’t feel like we were responding to the Word of God. It felt like we were responding to other things, other pressures, other voices but not to God’s Word. But it’s easy to point fingers at others, to look at the others and point those things out. What about our own lives? What about your life? Where are we deceiving ourselves? Or, to put it more positively, where are we responding to the Word of God? Where are we responding in praise and celebration? Where are we responding with confession and humility? Where are we responding with our own ‘Amen’? So, let me give you a few examples from recent sermons.

At the beginning of Nehemiah there was a call to pray, to pray for our congregation, to pray for our Sunday gathering, to pray for our wider denomination, and it’s been heartening to see a fair number of folk gather at 10:15. Now, I said at the time, there’s no pressure to be there, but if you don’t come please pray in your own time. So, did you pray? Because I haven’t seen all of you here. Did you pray? Did you take that on board? Did you care enough to pray? Or did we just listen but not listen? Because this is not going to change without listening to the Word of God and without prayer. So, we’re going to carry on our 10:15 prayers, we’re going to move it into one of the other rooms and you’re always welcome to join us and you can continue to pray at home, but sometimes we need the structure, we need the accountability to make us stop and pray and I need that as much as anyone. If we didn’t have that 10:15 time just ask Jean Meek the number of times when I have been busy and about and then Jean’s commented ‘We praying?’ I was like ‘Yeah, we’re praying! Great, you’ve reminded me, it’s that time already.’ I need it as much as the next person. So maybe you need it and maybe you should come at 10:15. Or if not, put it in the diary and keep to do something to respond to that. Or let me jump back into our Lent series. Our Lent series where we saw the invitation of Jesus to trust Him, to trust Him because He knows our sorrows and He has come, He has overcome death. Have we taken that to heart? Is it the foundation of our faith in some way? Because hard times come, sadness has come, dark times come, and you might be there just now, and if we don’t take that Word to heart, if we don’t take it deep down, then when those hard times come, we forget those truths and we think that God doesn’t care and He’s not there and He’s just leaving us to our fate or our darkness. But He’s not, He’s not. He’s come to die on a cross, to overcome death that we might have a better future, that we might have the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation where there’ll be no more suffering and no more pain and the old order of things will have gone away.

Did we take that to heart? Did we allow that to go deep down in us and engender a deeper trust in Jesus? Friends, the purpose of restoration is to be a people who respond to the Word of God because that’s in part what it looks like to live under the Word of God. But our passage gives us one more, one more area where what it looks like to live under the Word of God.

We read earlier ‘They found written in the law that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month so the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters.’ To live under the Word of God is to be reshaped or transformed by the Word of God. Imagine, they’ve got these new homes that they’ve just rebuilt and they’re getting all comfy and then they discover they have to make temporary shelters out of branches and live outdoors for seven days. Can you imagine doing that? It’d be a measure of discomfort, frustration. ‘Really? I’ve really got to do this?’ But they do it because to live under the Word of God is to be shaped, reshaped by the Word of God. And so, what they’re celebrating here is the Festival of Tabernacles. It’s written about in the Book of Leviticus and they would make these temporary shelters and by sharing in this festival they would remember a number of things. They would remember that God had guided His people through the desert for 40 years and that He had provided and protected them, that He had been faithful and generous but they’d also remember then that they were indebted to that past action of God and to the present generosity and faithfulness of God that had helped them rebuild Jerusalem now, and they would be saying that they’re still a pilgrim people, they’re still a people on a journey, they’re still not fully at home yet, that there’s more to come and so they trust the Lord, they put their trust in Jesus.

And friends, today as we gather around this table and we take our little cups and we share in the Sacrament of Communion, many of these things are being remembered and celebrated too. We’re remembering the provision and protection of God. That He ‘so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son’. That’s what we remember, that we’re saved, we don’t have to pay the penalty of our sin, because our God is faithful and generous and so we remember that, we remember that we’re indebted to Him, we remember that this isn’t our home, that there’s a better future, a new creation, a new home where we’ll see Jesus’ face to face and we’ll be reunited with all our loved ones who followed Him.

And so, we declare our confidence, our ongoing trust in Jesus too, as we share in this meal. Now, for the Israelites, in their minds eye, that was a timely reminder they’d forgotten about it, they hadn’t celebrated it in that way, there was new things to learn about this festival, it was a timely thing of God and I want to tell you that God has been doing a timely thing I think in giving us this sermon at this time, in light of what the Kirk Session has been discussing about communion too. So, back in March the elders began a conversation around communion, about how communion is served, about who gets to share in communion and if you don’t know our past practice before the pandemic, was that the elders would walk in and sit over here and then, the elders, after the top table was, top table the table was served, we would then serve the elders and then the elders would serve everybody else, and there were probably very practical reasons for that in some ways. It makes it quicker and simpler less messy. But as the elders shared about this, we began to share that we felt maybe at times it could inadvertently communicate things that we don’t want to communicate. It could communicate a measure of superiority, that those in leadership, those who oversee this community of faith, they’re served first. Well, why?

And it’s not to criticize, it’s just to say that that could be portrayed, that could be seen in that symbolism and so we paused the conversation and went away to kind of ruminate a bit more and think about it over. And we came back in May and in that meeting we talked about it more and collectively we decided that we should change our practice, we should change it so that Communion can be served by anybody within the congregation and that the order of it might change as well of who is served first and last and it feels like a rediscovery, feels like a restoration, kind of akin to Nehemiah’s time, that we’re discovering that there’s much more to how we share and that when we share it in different ways we can recover different meanings and symbolism.

So, that’s coming once we’re able to start sharing the elements again and pass them around. Maybe for September but at the same meetings we also talked about the place of children and whether children could share in communion. Now this is not the first time that the Kirk Session of Brightons has had this discussion. Apparently, we had a discussion about it back in the 90s. I wasn’t here for that one so I don’t know all the ins and outs but I’m told the decision was made that children could share in Communion That’s nearly 30 years on – nothing has changed really. I think our elders couldn’t really name any changes that had really resulted from that decision, in that discussion.

So, we are now going to more proactively involve children in sharing Communion but the elders would like me to do some teaching on that, to us as a congregation and then do some follow-up work with the Sunday School leaders, with the Sunday Schools, maybe with families, and to allow that time, we’re working towards December as being the first time that we might more proactively involve our children in Communion, and it will mean that children are in here for Communion not every time, there are different ways of doing this, but at least in December, our kids will be back in the Sanctuary after the sermon to share in Communion. More change is coming, and before you think that this is about being more inclusive or something like this, I am not going to ground any of my arguments in favor of that, on being more inclusive, I am going to ground all my arguments upon the Scriptures and can I tell you I have been loving the reading I’ve been doing recently just to reacquaint myself with some of this. It’s getting me excited about God’s purposes about His heart for children, for families and what we’ve been missing out on as a church and how we disciple our children and how we talk about faith with our children. I’m excited. I’m really looking forward to that teaching series which will come at the end of August beginning, beginning of September. So, it’s all going to be shaped by Scripture and then proactively responding to that.

But, for today, in a few moments, we’re going to be sharing in Communion. We do it responding to the Word of God, the command of Jesus in Scripture, the written Word of God and to the life of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, who came in flesh and died on a cross for you and for me. We remember in that meal. His generosity and faithfulness. We affirm that we are people who seek to follow Jesus by living under the Word of God, responding wholeheartedly and being shaped, reshaped as His people. I pray it may be so. Amen.


Preached on: Sunday 22nd May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-22 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 5:1-14
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• Presence – God’s presence and our presence
• Problem – not all are treated equal
• Politicians – not recognising/admitting responsibility
• Plan – preoccupation

Well, my goodness, wherever I look in this church musicians pop up from left and right. You are truly blessed. Thank-you.

Now, time is getting on, we’ve had a wee bit extra this morning so, I’m going to put this to the vote. If you want the shorter version of the sermon or the longer version of the sermon. For the shorter version raise your hands. The longer version.

Sorry, you’ve lost out.

Once upon a time there was a young teacher. His mum had just died. The family home was broken up. He had to find a new house near his work and began his first teaching job. All within the space of four weeks. He had never felt more alone. So, not knowing anybody, his neighbors or colleagues at work, just to hear the sound of another human voice in the house he bought a small portable, black and white TV. It was a long time ago. Because he’d not had his first installment of the salary, he bought it on higher purchase. It was a very long time ago! But, having paid it off nine months later, he realized that it cost nearly 20 percent more than its original cost price and so, he never again bought anything until he saved for it.

When someone is lonely, has little or no prospect of work, debts pile up, considered choices often go out of the window and, since the pandemic and now, with a frightening rise in living costs as Rachel referred to in the prayer, many more are having to choose between feeding their families or heating their homes. Because we live in a fallen world there are always unscrupulous people who are ready to take advantage of those who are struggling.

But the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to their crumbling city of Jerusalem, found themselves in not a dissimilar situation. If you picture the scenes for example of the devastation in Ukraine, from the places where Russian troops have now withdrawn, you will have a picture of something like the ruins of Jerusalem to which many of those who’d been in exile in Babylon had returned to their homeland in their city.

That was the experience of the people of God in Nehemiah’s day, and their leaders were so preoccupied with the rebuilding of the city walls that they hadn’t really noticed the growing crisis around them. So, what relevance does this have for us in the 21st century church today?

Well, the answer is plenty, and it’s all to do with presence, which is the title of my sermon this morning. God’s presence and our presence.

But let’s first go to Nehemiah who emerged of, who emerged as the leaders of those trying to rebuild their lives and first of all consider the huge problem that he faced.

Now Ann read to us in the first verse of Nehemiah chapter five ‘Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. Some were saying ‘we and our sons and daughters are numerous in order for us to eat and stay alive we must get grain.’’

Please note the mention of wives and daughters, a sure sign that whole families were actually starving. And you can guarantee that the women came off worst.

We’ve just heard from the gender-based violence team some of the things that they’re planning. Now, whilst there were many loving men amongst the Jewish people and the Jewish law did try to protect the position of women and children nevertheless, in biblical times, women were very much second-class citizens. In fact, even in Jewish law both women and children were seen more as possessions than people. Now, that seems shocking to us today, but that is a historical fact.

But, by contrast, if you move forward a few thousand years to the time of Jesus and His disciples, you will find that amongst His closest followers there were a group of women as well as the 12 recognized disciples. And so, following Jesus’ example, it is our responsibility as His 21st century followers to ensure that all are equal before God, regardless of gender, regardless of age.

Now, I could of course go on to say you need to read ‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ to say that there are differences between men and women and, if you doubt me, just ask a man who is a husband if his wife looks nice in something from the fat wardrobe or something from the thin wardrobe, and you’ll know a man who doesn’t know what to say whereas a woman would always know.

But, to be more serious, back to Nehemiah, why were some starving? Why was the position of women so difficult?

Well, Ann read to us in verses four and five ‘Others were saying ‘we are mortgaging our fields our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine’ and still others were saying ‘we have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax’ that’s to the emperor in the the Babylonian empire which had been taken over by the Persians ‘and pay the kings tax on our fields and vineyards.’

Now, the passage goes on to explain that these struggling families were being forced to sell their children into slavery. Jewish law did permit that after a debt had been owed for more than six years the debtor or members of his family could be sold as slaves for a time in order for the debt to be paid, but then they could be bought back in the year of jubilee. But it’s clear from this passage that a great deal of mistreatment and rule bending and law bending had been going on.

Of course, nothing like that would ever happen in the Church of Scotland today, would it? Wouldn’t it?

Years ago, when I was training, I did a placement with a minister whom, well let us say, I found it hard to like, there was something about him. I and the student deaconess who was also on placement, were invited to the mans for Sunday lunch after the service and both of us noticed that his wife, her hands were trembling as she was serving us at the table and then, instructed by her husband, to pour some orange juice as she trembled, she spilt it all over the table. ‘Clean that up!’ he hissed. If looks could kill, she would have dropped dead at that very moment.

I was horrified, absolutely horrified, and so was my fellow student and we talked about it afterwards and well, in our naivety, I think we probably concluded he was just a bit of a bully, but looking back, I’m pretty certain that something more sinister was going on.

If anyone here is experiencing that kind of treatment at home, anyone watching online or if you know anyone or even if you’re scared, as Angela was saying about walking along the streets, please speak to Scott or another member of the gender-based violence team. Please do not suffer in silence.

But back to Nehemiah.

What did he and the other leaders do about the injustice that was experienced by ordinary people? What about, secondly, the politicians?

When Nehemiah heard about all of this he was angry but then as Ann read ‘calling a large meeting to challenge his fellow leaders. He confronted them about their use of charging interest at unfair rates’ The older versions of the NIV used the word ‘usury’ – I had to go and look that up in the dictionary actually, but it’s charging interest at an unfair rate. What was the reaction of the politicians and read in verse 8 ‘they kept quiet because they could find nothing to say’ because they knew they were guilty. Would that be some of today’s politicians? Would say nothing rather than try and justify wrong actions only to dig a bigger hole for themselves?

But by contrast Nehemiah didn’t shirk the truth but he realized that being by so concerned with the rebuilding of the city wall in some ways he was complicit in the injustice because he had not noticed what was happening, and that is the difference that having the presence of God can have in the life of a politician or a leader. Now, we all know that our Queen will be celebrates or is celebrating her platinum jubilee. She is a constitutional monarch not a politician, but her integrity, which stems from her faith in Jesus, has shone through her entire life.

Now, I don’t know if you’re a republican or not, I’m not going into that. I’m not, by the way, nail my colors to the mast. But what a contrast our queen presents to some of our leading politicians, because of the presence of God in her life.

In today’s western culture, we have a what we call a ‘culture of blame’. We blame the politicians, we blame the media, we blame the people out there, everybody but ourselves. Conveniently forgetting that well, as well as rights, all of us have responsibilities. We all need to play our part, we all need to be the presence of God, not just the politicians.

But, as a leader, Nehemiah played his part, He came up with thirdly, a plan. He ensured that not just the other leaders but all those in positions of financial power gave back straight away, ordinary people’s property along with the unfair interest they’d been charging. The leaders agreed and as a sign of their agreement and God’s judgment, if they did not keep their word as Ann read Nehemiah ‘shook out his robe’ and, of course, it goes on to describe how he and those who worked for him made sure that they too treated others fairly and to all of this ‘the whole assembly said ‘Amen’’ just like you and I do in church.

Do you know that the word ‘amen’ literally means ‘let it be so’. But none of it will be so unless we show Jesus love, as well as talk about it, and it’s not just the responsibility of the minister or the kirk session, it’s our collective responsibility.

Now, just now the Church of Scotland and its General Assembly is very preoccupied with plans. Plans for restructuring presbyteries and parish reappraisal. I know you’ve been doing this embraced and you’ve tackled it in the best way possible. I’m ashamed to say that some of the churches in the Larbert area were not as open. Mine was, others weren’t. And any of them are listening, pay attention.

If we become so preoccupied with plans and forget to be the presence of Jesus, not just in our churches but out there in the community, then we are falling short of our calling, our calling. Not just Scott, not just the kirk session, but all of us.

I asked Scott about some of your plans in Brightons about reaching out to the community. Rachel mentioned in the prayer the SU group in Wallacestone Primary. Scott’s the chaplain there, is one of the chaplains at Braes High School. These are all wonderful things. There’s plans to afoot, I gather, for a youth worker, but if any, especially of you older members, and I can address you as an older member, now, if anyone is thinking ‘Why do we need a youth worker when we’ve got a young minister?’ Scott cannot do everything. There is a huge shortage of ministers in the Church of Scotland so a youth worker is an excellent idea. The Larbert church has worked in conjunction with Scripture Union Scotland to form a trust, Larbert Churches Youth Trust that now employs one full-time and one part-time schools’ workers. In my own congregation, my former congregation now, employs a part-time parish outreach worker and I cannot tell you the difference it has made, not just to the schools, but to the parish, people outside the church buildings actually understand that the people inside really care, there’s something different. These are the things that you, as a congregation, have in your plans, to be the presence of God. The days of flinging wide the church doors and saying ‘Come on in, we’re a wonderful church’ and you are wonderful, you really are, they’re gone, people walk on by. The days of the 99 sheep in the fold and going out to find the one, are gone too, because, actually, there’s about four or five left in the fold and the other 90 odd are outside. They need to be met. You need to be the presence of God. You need to show Jesus’ love and then invite them in.

So, Nehemiah’s problem of social injustice ruining people’s lives and the complicity of the politicians led him to plan to right the wrongs and what was needed then is needed now in 21st century, western culture. But the Church of Scotland especially needs to concentrate, especially on finding, rediscovering the presence of God and we, as the church, are called to be His presence to others. Where do we start?

Right here, of course! Because God uses our experiences to shape and form us into the people that He wants us to be.

And so, finally, you’ll be pleased to know, what happened to that young teacher with whom we began. Well, God used his experiences too. Because, well over 42 years later he’s standing right in front of you and if He can use me believe me, He can use all of you even more. Please be the presence of God. Amen.

Living in rubble, rebuilding in faith

Preached on: Sunday 15th May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Nehemiah 4:1-23
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
A great biblical theme is that God’s people on earth will face spiritual opposition – so we need to be alert (Ephesians 6).
• In this chapter opposition comes by way of ridicule, intimidation and discouragement – leading to fear.
• Such opposition needs to be met by active, prayerful resistance – ‘prayer and action’
• Nehemiah encouraged the people to face fear with faith in the Lord who is ‘great and awesome’ (v15)
• Nehemiah modelled good leadership, so can we. ‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ’ ( 1 Cor 11.1)

Lord, as we prayed, may any words that come from this pulpit that are not of You be cast aside like dust and may the words of Your Holy Spirit, that are from You, go deep into our hearts this day, we pray. Amen.

When speakers start sermons, they often play a clever opening line or they might come up with a joke or something that kind of draws people in to what they’re going to say. Now, I think Scott is an expert at that but he’s learnt from the master because Jesus taught in parables, Jesus taught in stories. Well, I’m sorry, nothing clever from me today, all my creative efforts are on the floor.

I want to start heavy okay, because chapter 4 of Nehemiah is an incredible chapter and I think it deals with evil. So, I want to ask you three questions that you do not need to answer to your neighbor but I want to just put those questions to you now as we think about this chapter:
• Do you believe in this thing called evil?
• Do you believe in the devil? Do you believe in the satan?
• Do you believe that there are unseen forces in the world, unseen evil forces even around Brightons and Falkirk?
Heavy questions and questions with no context. We’ll hold those as we get and start to look at this chapter.

But, you know, we’re four weeks into Nehemiah and I can’t help thinking that we need a bit of a recap.

Nehemiah, we remember that the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, the book before it, are set at the end of exile. Exile is one of the big themes of the Old Testament. Way back in Exodus, Moses is telling the children of Israel what God is saying and it’s kind of simple in some respects – follow God’s ways, things will work out; don’t follow God’s ways, there will be consequences. And so, what we then see through Exodus, Leviticus on, we go into the Kings and the Chronicles, what happens? The children of Israel just cannot obey, they just cannot obey, and repeatedly they’re warned and then eventually the consequences follow, and the twelve tribes of the north are scattered and the two tribes of the south, eventually, Jerusalem is attacked the walls fall down the temple is destroyed and they’re carted off to Babylon.

And so, we pick up the story again upon the return. But upon the return things are still a little bit disappointing, because the temple is rebuilt and well it’s not quite as good as the previous temple and, get this, they spend the good part of 60, 80 years with Jerusalem in a shambles, a complete shambles, The walls are broken down, people come in and out, trade doesn’t work because there’s no security, there’s no sense of community, it’s a mess. So one of the questions I ask myself which we won’t talk on today is ‘Why did the people in Jerusalem not get on with this themselves? Why did it need a Nehemiah to be called and to come and help them?

I put that to one side.

But let’s think about this extraordinary construction project. It’s extraordinary because, what we were learning last week was, it was all being put together by people who were completely unskilled, completely unskilled at building walls. But what happens? Well, we’ve got three weeks of thinking that the story is quite good, we’ve got three weeks of thinking ‘Nehemiah, that’s a good book for us to study as we come out of the pandemic because it’s about rebuilding.’ and Scott our minister has been talking about the rebuilding that we need to be doing locally and this is a good book because it’s all going well.

I’ve got news for you today. As George read, the news wasn’t all good because there was so much opposition, and we face opposition. But, from this chapter, I want to draw out four types of opposition that Nehemiah and his crew in Jerusalem were facing: ridicule, intimidation, discouragement and fear. So, we’ll jog our way through each of those and see whether there’s application for us when it comes to that today.

First of all, ridicule. If you’ve, if you’re near a Bible I’d encourage you to open it, we’re on page 487, because I’m going to be taking bits out and reading through. And the first bit I want to read is this bit that George started with, that big deep breath and chat at the start of chapter four ‘When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria he said ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish it in the day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble?’ Bits of leg! ‘Tobiah the Ammonite who was at his side said ‘What they’re building, if even a fox climbed up on it then he would break down their wall of stones.’ Ridicule! Now, we touched on this a little bit last week so I’m not going to go too far into it but I think Christians get what ridicule is, particularly today, in the world of social media, it’s out there everywhere, it’s so easy to ridicule and still in this day Christians cop it more than most others because they’re an easy target. You bunch of wet, bleeding-hearted Christians, nicely settled in your religious bubble, wet and wimpy. It’s got to the point where Christianity is labeled as a bigots religion and it’s got to the point, bizarrely, where Christianity is regarded by the world as immoral. Oh, I think that’s an extraordinary flip by the enemy and I think we’ve only seen it in the last few years. But what, it’s easy to then become defensive about all this stuff isn’t it?

What’s Nehemiah’s response to the ridicule? Have a look at verse four. Now this is a really tough prayer. It’s known in the Bible that by the fancy word of an imprecatory prayer. It’s a prayer which is calling God’s judgment on an enemy and we get very nervous about talking about those sorts of prayers in the Bible but if you take any time to read the book of Psalms you’ll see it there all the time. But let me read Nehemiah’s prayer verse 4 ‘Hear us, oh our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in the land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.’

I don’t know what your prayer life is like but I’m a bit reluctant to pray that bravely, that God might keep His judgment down on my enemies, but it’s there and you know what, we all prayed that this morning already. What do you think in the Lord’s Prayer those words ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ actually means? It means that we want God’s justice, the justice of the heavens, to also be played out on earth and if you take that forward, that has consequences.

Now, we have to be very careful about how we pray those sorts of prayers but it’s there and there’s a lot of learning to take from it. It could be a whole sermon series, don’t worry, the clock’s back, I won’t be that long,

God is a God of justice, and evil will have its day of reckoning.

Now, we have to move on verse six.

‘So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height for the people worked with all their heart.’ The people worked with all their heart. I love that simple phrase. Isn’t it good when people work with all their heart? Nice and simple. But the problems are still going on throughout the chapter.

The second one, intimidation. If we look and see what happens down in verses seven and eight when Samballat, Tobiah and the Arabs, and the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs of Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry and they plotted together to come and to fight against Jerusalem and to stir up trouble against it.’ Now, I don’t think we need too much imagination to see what that looks like because our screens have been full of it in recent months in the Ukraine but I think we’ve become dulled to all of those atrocities, and we need to think more deeply on what intimidation looks like. This is the magazine Barnabas Aid, you often see copies at the front of the church and many of us read it. Its strapline says ‘Bringing hope and aid to suffering Christians’ and it’s a magazine that shares good stories, good news stories about people in the suffering church around the world, but it also has horrendous stories in it. Stories of Christians who are stopped from worshipping, who are intimidated, Christians who are killed.

If you’re a Christian in China or a Christian in Pakistan you read this Bible very differently and with a very different lens to we might read it here. If you’re a Christian in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, if you’ve got one of these you hide it. We don’t know what intimidation is to some extent but there is intimidation in Scotland.

The Free Church in Stirling was kicked out of its accommodation, its rented accommodation, because its landlord had the view that they didn’t fancy that church’s teaching on marriage, Now, that case was challenged and thankfully the law of the land found in their favor. Or the street pastor in Glasgow, bundled into a police van in Buchanan Street because he’s simply reading the Bible in public and being processed, not for a crime, not for a crime, but for a hate incident and so he’s registered, and he has a not a criminal record but a police record, for preaching the gospel on Buchanan Street. Now that’s been challenged as well. Or even closer to home, the good folk at Grace Church, Larbert wanting to embark on a building program were horrendously intimidated and told that they were bigots because they had a homophobic attitude. Not true. But the intimidation that that church, just in our area, has had is absolutely incredible. Now I’m tempering, okay I’m tempering what’s happened overseas with Christians intimidated and killed, with the type of intimidation we get here but it’s real and we can too easily cower and stay away from it.

Verse 8 ‘they plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ Well how do you face intimidation? What did they do? You’re probably not going to be surprised by the answer – verse 9 ‘But we prayed to our God and we posted a guard day and night to meet the threat.’ Prayer and action. These are just such consistent themes throughout Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a leader and he is consistent in prayer. Prayer before action. And that’s what we’re talking about today because it builds on the last three sermons we’ve heard this that this man started with prayer ‘they prayed and posted a guard.’ Prayer and action.

But the enemy’s still not beat, is it?

And in verse 10 and verse 11, verse 12 we read that ‘Meantime, the people in Judah said ‘The strength of the labourers is giving out and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’ Also our enemies said ‘Before they know it or see it or see us we will be right there amongst them and we will kill them and put an end to the work. Then the Jews who lived near where they came and they told us 10 times over ‘Whatever you turn, wherever you turn,.’ they will attack us

So here it comes, old discouragement. Now, I don’t know about you, if you want to discourage me you don’t need to tell me something 10 times over. The Jewish trends, the Hebrew translation there is that they were being told time and time and time and time again that this just couldn’t be done. For me, just tell me once or twice that I can’t do it, that’ll encourage me, that’ll discourage m, I mean.

But what’s all this about?

There’s a change, if you can see, between mockery and intimidation which are all external, to discouragement which is inside the camp, which is a real cancerous way of getting it people. Now, to be fair, to be fair, these detractors, they probably had a point because as construction projects go well, it wasn’t exactly the easiest. 150 years of rubble, trying to rebuild the wall. I was worried that the kids were going to start pulling the Lego about up to bits and take it and I reckon we’d have been here till 5 o’clock building it there. Building, rebuilding in rubble is not fun, and the picture that we have of the project is that it’s basically being opposed by everybody inside and out and you can kind of hear that you can kind of hear that conversation with Nehemiah ‘Listen laddie, that’s not how we do around here. You needn’t think that this building project is going to be successful. Not only that, look at our labourers, they’re all tired, they can’t do it anymore.

So, discouragement then leads to that fourth tactic of the enemy, fear.

Ridicule, intimidation, discouragement – fear, I think sometimes is like the ultimate enemy. It’s contagious and it can paralyze us. Indeed, Annabella was praying that just before I started to speak. So the passage is not teaching us to ignore fear but it is teaching us how it affects us and how we can tackle it. It teaches us to face fear. If you look at Nehemiah verse 13 onwards ‘Therefore in face of what was going on he said I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points on the wall at the exposed places posting them by families with their swords, spears and bows and after I looked things over I stood up and I said to the nobles and the officials and to the rest of the people ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome.’ Remember the Lord who is great and awesome.

Now, this is no Churchill rallying cry, this is no President Zelenski, land of hope and glory, rally round the flag, we can do it. It’s not like that at all. The focus is on God who is great and awesome. Then down in verse 20 he says ‘For our God will fight for us.’ Same theme – prayer and action – prayer and action. And I want you to see that Nehemiah is not naïve. This is a hard job. It’s a struggle, but he leads with faith, not faith in flesh and blood, but faith in God.

Now, all of us face situations which create fear in our heart and, like I say, it’s paralyzing. As I use the word ‘fear’ I can almost paralyze myself. It doesn’t need to be great matters of state, it doesn’t mean that that we are facing a church that’s under real attack, it’s an everyday stuff. The stuff that we muddle away through. Fear about things in family, in our place of work, money worries, health worries, just the general disappointments of life. We know that. We know we face fears constantly.

Someone here today who often quotes to me that verse in James ‘perfect love drives out fear’ perfect love drives out fear. That love is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, it seems to me that when we look at the time of Ezra and Nehemia,h we are just like those people in Jerusalem and we are trying to rebuild, in a time just beyond the exile, the temple is rebuilt but it’s just not what it used to be and the wall,s the walls of our natio,n the walls of our church.

I cut a lot out of my sermon last night because I was gonna say things about the nation and I was gonna say things about our church but I’m a guest in this pulpit and that is not my role. You can have that conversation with me later but is it not fair to say we are living in rubble. Broken bits of Lego everywhere.

But Nehemiah’s words and his character, they lead me to say something else to us today. At this moment, amid the rubble in God’s goodness, we have a hard-working and motivated Nehemiah with us in our presence. You don’t need to look around, he’s not in the building today. And actually, he couldn’t speak these words from the pulpit, so let me speak very, very plainly. Repeatedly, you have heard our minister referring to his calling in this congregation. Repeatedly and from the very beginning of his time with us he has challenged us to have a vision. Keith’s out with the kids but during vacancy, Keith repeatedly said to us where there is no vision, that people perish, words from the Old Testament. Scott, he’s worked with us to consider our purpose and our values that underpin our vision. Rrepeatedly he’s called us to pray, to be a praying people. Repeatedly, like Nehemiah, he’s surveyed the job at hand and he’s challenged us on the state of our walls. Just last week, he was calling for volunteers because there’s work to be done, the walls need built.

I see him ridiculed. I see him intimidated. I see him undermined by naysayers. Lord, forgive me, I’ve probably been one of those people who’s been a naysayer. And don’t get me wrong, our minister is not perfect, nobody’s perfect, Jesus was perfect, but can I urge you, can I urge you to pray for our minister, reflect on how we’re treating our spiritual leader. Hebrews says this, Hebrews chapter 13 towards the end ‘Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.’

Now it’s not just about Scott. All of us are leaders. All of us are to imitate. Paul says ‘Be imitators of me as I am imitators of Christ.’ Nehemiah didn’t get the job done on his own. Let us think about having the trowel and the sword, that picture from Nehemia,h so that we’re working and we’re praying. Let us recognize that there is an enemy. Sure, things come along but there is a spiritual enemy because one of the great themes of the Bible is that God’s people face opposition. Right at the beginning of the Bible whatever you make of the story of the Garden of Eden and the serpent, that is the satan. All the way through the Bible. And the only way that God’s people conquer evil is through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Paul knew this we. We touched on this at the prayer meeting on Thursday night. Paul in Ephesians says ‘This our struggle, it’s not against flesh and blood’ and that is hard to see isn’t it. Sometimes we just think our struggles are about the things that are actually in front of us but Paul says ‘our struggles are not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’

These things are real. Real evil forces. And if you try to confront ridicule and intimidation and discouragement and fear without that understanding, the reality that there are unseen forces and that we need to be on our knees, whether literally or metaphorically, in prayer, you’re gonna fail, you’re gonna fail.

Paul ends that passage in Ephesians with this ‘and pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert.’ I love that word, Christians should be alert. I think alert is a modern word. I think it’s a word that says, be on your guard, be ready. We need to be alert people – prayer and action.

My time’s up. There’s so much more in this chapter. I’d encourage you to get into it. I’d encourage you to keep reading Nehemiah as we’re in the series, because it’s so rich. Think about those people in Jerusalem. Why were they so lame? Why were they so ineffective? Why did they do nothing for nye-on 100 years after the exile, and had this city that was just a shambles? That needed Nehemiah? They could have done this job without Nehemiah and God’s grace he sent him but why?

Let me close there, but as we go into singing our final song ‘An army of ordinary people’ let’s sing that to the Lord with a sense of inspiration. We are an army of ordinary people, a kingdom where love is the key.

Everyone investing in the eternal

Preached on: Sunday 8th May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-08 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 2:10-3:5
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Rebuilding is not about the building
– Rebuilding is a whole-community effort
– Rebuilding is costly

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and renew our minds.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Last week I was getting Hope ready for school about half seven or so in the morning, she asked me the question ‘Dad, can I wear nail polish to school today? and I just feel the nerves rise up within me. The worry about what to do in this moment and not because applying nail polish phases me any longer. Two years of a pandemic and especially at the start when you’re trying to figure out how to pass time with a three-year-old, nail polish is a key winner because ‘Well Hope, you need to sit for five or ten minutes to let it dry’ so you know ‘just wait a wee bit longer.’ So, I’m quite adept at applying the old nail polish to Hope’s nails now. No, no the worry was not about applying the nail polish but whether we should because there’s part of me that begins to worry, here’s a five-year-old and is she worried about what people think about her and that her friends are wearing nail polish so she wants to nail polish, and if I say no then what’s that going to do for her self-esteem. And I got in a bit of a tiz and in the end she wasn’t allowed to wear nail polish and apparently, according to her mum, I made the right choice. So, score!

But I hope it’s not the only one of us who finds moments where we’re under the influence of people around us and our culture around us, we all are, whether it’s the culture or the media, whether it’s friends or family, whether it’s maybe practices in the workplace. There are things that influence us. Influence what we should pursue or invest ourselves in, or chase after. But, more often than not, the things that we’re told to pursue just raise anxiety and worry, they create competition and pride or even envy and bitterness, they’re not life-giving. So, what are we investing ourselves in? What do we esteem or chase after?

We’re now into week three of Nehemiah and we chose this book because of its focus on rebuilding. And we’re aware that we’re moving into a different phase with the pandemic and we’re also aware hopefully, sadly, that our denomination is in exponential decline and actually that affects a lot of the denominations. So this week’s focus on rebuilding helps us to think about how we might rebuild our own faith, but how might we might rebuild the community of faith as well. And we’ve seen in Nehemiah’s story the importance of prayer and repentance and it was great to gather with folks this morning at quarter past ten, if you didn’t make it along you missed out, because I just left me so encouraged from that time and I’d encourage you to think about maybe joining over the next four Sundays. We’re going to pray each Sunday from 10:15 to 10:30 up to Pentecost Sunday on the 5th of June. You don’t need to come and pray out loud, you can just listen in, but if that’s not possible for you then there are many other ways to be praying whether it’s at home or in a fellowship group or in a team that you’re maybe part of. Get involved and be praying for our congregation and wider denomination. But this week we move on once more and see the next bit of Nehemiah’s story, of what it says to our situation.

In our passage we saw how Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem. He traveled for four months from Souza to Jerusalem and, understandably, when he arrives, he needs a bit of a rest so, for three days, he rests. He prepares and then he goes and scouts out the city to see what needs doing. But he keeps all of his plans close to his chest probably because of the opposition he knows is out there against God’s people, and that’ll become more of a focus maybe in the next few weeks, but the time comes, eventually, for Nehemiah to make a move, to gather the people and share with them what is upon his heart. And so, he says to them ‘You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ We will no longer be in disgrace – it’s a theme that was there in chapter one but we didn’t dwell on it much due to time constraints, but this theme of disgrace is important for Nehemiah and for God’s people and it should be important for us too because it’s not so much that the people are in disgrace, it’s more about the worry about what that then causes for God’s glory and name, because a diminished Jerusalem with its walls and gates and a mess portrays a diminished God to the people around them. And so, the neighboring peoples would think ‘Well, your God can’t be very powerful, look how we beat you up and tore down your walls. Your God can’t care for you very much because you’re not able to rebuild.’ And so, they’re in disgrace and because they’re in disgrace the name of God is in disgrace. And so, as I’ve got on screen here the rebuilding is not about the builder, the rebuilding is not about the building, it’s about the reputation of God, it’s about God being seen to be worthy of worship, that he is the true God, their focus, a spiritual focus enabled, fulfilled through material means but with a spiritual focus, and it carries on into chapter three.

Chapter three we read at the very start that ‘The high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the sheep gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place.’ Now the order of things in scripture is very important at times and so the fact that Nehemiah begins with the sheep gate is important. At first, it seems like well, that’s just another gate but actually, the Sheep Gate is where the sacrifices were brought in and so they’re saying that’s that was the gate they began with, that was the important gate because God is important, we’re putting God first. And they dedicated it, they gave it over to God, they made it holy and all this because the rebuilding was not about the building, it was about God’s name and glory, about the true worship of God.

So, what about us and every day, as we think about rebuilding things after the pandemic, as we think about rebuilding our denomination in light of its decline? What is the focus for us? Is it about just keeping the building open and keeping the lights on? Is it about getting back to the glory days? If you lived in the height of the church and just wanting that memory to become reality again? Is it about the reputation of the denomination? Is it about feeling successful here that ‘Well hey, we’ve got kids?’ What is it about for you? What is it about? I feel church wouldn’t be a wrong thing to aspire for or a wrong thing to pray for, there might be very good reasons for that and based on Nehemiah chapter 2 one good reason would be that a full church might show that there’s a greater proportion of our community to recognize that God is worthy of praise. That would be a good reason. To see a full church, that would be a good reason to pray, for more people, and for worship not to make us feel good, not to massage our ego, but that God might be glorified and given His due worship. But for that to happen it needs to start in each of our lives. This needs to start in your life and in my life. We need to know that God is worthy of praise in all the seasons of life. We need to know that God is worthy of praise. So, let me ask, has your passion for God diminished of late? Is God less worthy, in your eyes now, of your praise? And I don’t mean happy clappy, be like Scott, hands in the air kind of praise, okay, and passion, you can express your passion however you want to, but is it diminished from what it was? Is God less worthy now in your eyes?

When I was in my mid to late 20s I was in a youth worker job and it came to a very sudden end and it was a very painful experience and left a lot of wounds for me and a job did open up straight away. That was a very a fitting job and actually would bring a lot of benefit in the end but for that first year of my job, that new job, I did not like it. I was in a fellowship group and every two weeks I’d go along and I would just moan about my job. I did not want this job and in that first year what ended up changing was my perspective and part of what changed was recognizing that God was worthy whatever the season of my life, that God was worthy of my praise whatever the season of my life. Now that might not be exuberant happy praise but He is so worthy of my worship and praise whatever the season. Have you come to that point yet? Have you matured in your faith that you’ve learned that lesson? Often it can only be learned the hard way I’m afraid, but if we don’t learn it then in our estimation and our perspective of God, God’s worth ends up going like this and our faith ends up going like this. We need to learn the lesson if we want to mature in our faith, that God is worthy of praise whatever the season.

And so, rebuilding is not about the building, it’s about God’s worth, about His glory, about His reputation. And that’s the first thing to learn from our passage today. Now let Nehemiah lays this concern before the people and he calls the people then to get involved and they respond with ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ and they begin the good work. And then, into chapter three, if you go and read it in detail, you can read list after list after the list of wall and gate and who gets involved, in what bit of work, and I saved you the pain of reading through all of chapter three but you probably – well done to Ian, by the way, for all the names, you did well this morning brother – but if you go into chapter three and you read it in detail you’ll find that not once is Nehemiah mentioned. I’m sure he was involved in some way but he’s not mentioned, and if you look in detail, the people that get involved come from eight different places. They don’t all come from Jerusalem. Some of them come from places as far away as 15 or 20 miles. So, again, they weren’t getting involved because it benefited them, they got involved because the rebuilding was not about the building. And they come from all different walks of life. They are male and female. They are high and low in society. They are different professions, so it’s not just builders and masons and carpenters that get involved, there’s perfumers and everything in there. Basically, all walks of life. It didn’t matter because there was this passion for the glory of God and so they got involved. And it all goes to show that rebuilding is a whole community effort, everyone needs to be involved to make it happen and everyone’s got a part to play. And, of course, that echoes the New Testament where Paul talks about the church as a body and he says ’Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all of its many parts forms one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.’

Now, the image of the body, the church as a body, conveys many things of our need for one another, of our care for one another ,of our value of one another, however, in the context of the passage, it comes straight after a passage about our spiritual gifts, about the things God has given us to use for the common good, and so, we need to remember that part of the lesson from the image of a body is that we have a part to play and that, when we don’t play our part, the body is weakened.

So, let me ask you, where are you serving? Where are you serving within this community of faith? Where are you using your time and your talents to build up the church, to care and to further our purposes within the community, that God might be glorified? A stronger church and a witnessing church that sees people come to faith that glorifies God?

This past week I have the huge privilege of being at a great many meetings, admittedly, but it’s actually a real privilege at times because, for example, on Monday night I was at the Safeguarding Panel meeting which on the surface sounds really boring and tedious and who would want to be on the Safeguarding Panel, although they’re lovely people, so don’t tell that personally. Now the reason it was so encouraging is because well, I know many other Kirk Sessions don’t have Safeguarding Panel meetings because they don’t have children that they’re working with and so they have no need to meet, but we do because we’ve got children amongst us that we’re reaching out to and so it was great to see some names coming forward. But we also have a Pastoral Care system that many other churches would be envious of and, of course, it’s not perfect and we can always improve things, but we have pastoral visitors that keep in touch with people who are housebound and maybe more vulnerable and needing a bit of support and it was great to hear of names on Monday night coming forward to be involved in that as well. That is a great thing. I’ve had emails coming in this week talking about starting the teas and coffees next Sunday so please come along for that because it’s not just a nice thing, it’s a great thing that we have an opportunity to be family because when you’re in your pew how many people do you talk to, just a few that are around you and we get up and we go home and who knows if we see each other the rest of the week but we have that moment after the service to have a talk, have a catch up and to know what we can be praying for one another. So, come along to tea and coffee, give it a shot, especially if maybe you didn’t do it before the pandemic either. And then I know I didn’t manage to make it yesterday because I needed to save some time for the family, but yesterday morning the Up-and-Coming team met for a strategy breakfast – I’m always up for a breakfast – but I’m also up for an Up-and-Coming strategy session and it was great that they’re thinking about how can we invest in our children and young people and particularly they were thinking about intergenerational things and they were thinking about the zero to tens. And there’s people who have had a busy week of work, they’re here in church by the way, or serving through in those halls, and still they gave up a Saturday morning. Incredible people, a privilege to serve with them.

So, what about you? Where are you serving? You know, I need someone to come forward and lead the Communications Team, I need someone to come forward and lead the Discipleship Team, I need someone to oversee the publication of Bright Lights because this is all on me right now, I’m already busy enough. So, there are three jobs but there’s many more. Now, you might be at an aging stage of life where mobility, strength, energy etc is a dynamic, and that comes, but I bet you can pray, I bet you know how to move, work your telephone. I’ll give you a list of people I pray for or a list of people you can call. Every one of us has a job we can do. Every one of us. And if you can’t name a job that you are doing, it’s time to step up, and on your pews today there are these old cards that we have not had out since the start of the pandemic and on the back there’s a list of areas and you could fill this out today and leave it with the door duty team at the front or back and say ‘Well, I don’t know exactly what to do but I’m willing so here’s my details. Here’s what I’m willing to help with.’ Please, please get involved because there are some people who are carrying too much. Because, if we want to rebuild, well every one of us has to be involved, it’s a whole community effort.

But we know from Nehemiah’s time that there were people who didn’t get involved both within the community and outwith the community and that brought challenges, it brought setbacks and disappointments I’m sure, but it was also costly and it goes to show that rebuilding is costly.

The first instance I want to flag up for us is with the nobles of Tekoa who ‘would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.’ Now, when we read that, we think ‘Oh, here’s a bunch of snobs who just can’t be bothered. They just want to put up their feet and kick back.’ and that’s how it reads at first but, what we need to understand, is that the Hebrew for shoulders here refers to the back of the neck and it carries with it the imagery where an oxen would refuse to yield to the yoke that was placed across it to enable it to do its job and so, what’s actually happening here is not that the nobles are lazy but the nobles are prideful and they will not yield to the leadership of Nehemiah and the group of people around him, they are refusing to yield to leadership and so the rebuilding comes with a cost. Sometimes we need to give up our pride and sometimes we need to re-engage. And I wonder if that’s an issue for you. I don’t think it’ll be an issue for a lot of us but it might be an issue for some of us, because maybe you’ve chosen to disengage from church because of leadership, it could be my leadership, it could be the leadership of the elders or a leadership of someone within one of the teams, and because of something, you’ve decided to kind of reject them and step back and disengage. And maybe you’ve done it because you’ve genuinely felt hurt, I can understand that, but can I help you follow the logic of your choice through. First Corinthians says you are gifted to benefit the community and bring glory to God then, by you choosing to disengage, you are robbing God of glory and robbing this community of benefit and that’s challenging, and so I’d encourage you to think about getting re-involved, not to massage my ego or make me feel better, not to say that what has been done is okay but so as to say that God is worth it, God is worth it, that you’ll get involved again and you’ll serve and you’ll use your gifts and it will be costly I’m sure. I’ve had to do it in my life. Maybe it’s time for you to do it in your life. But there was also another cost for some people and more broadly for the people. Earlier on, in Nehemiah 2, we read that Samballat, Tobiah and Geshem heard about the rebuilding work and they began to mock and ridicule the people saying, what is it you’re doing, because it just seemed crazy to them. Here’s a bunch of people, there is a mess, there is no way that this is going to happen. It just seemed foolish and so they mocked and ridiculed the people. Imagine what the people would have been feeling. I’m sure they must have felt a degree of embarrassment, we all do, and if they’d allowed that embarrassment to take hold the work would have stopped. There was a cost to their rebuilding. They had to sacrifice their embarrassment. And I wonder if that’s an issue for any of us? Maybe we’re not willing to own up to being a Christian or that we go to church. Maybe we feel too embarrassed to share our faith or even to say to someone ‘I’ll pray about that for you.’ It’s a bit of a bold step and it can feel embarrassing but if you never say it, that person is never going to know that there’s a God they could turn to. Or maybe it’s embarrassment of getting involved in church, you might think ‘Well, I can never do that, I’m not able to do that.’ But there can be a false modesty, brothers and sisters, that holds us back because God is able to work through you, you just have to be willing to step out in faith. So, where might you need to sacrifice your embarrassment for God’s glory?

Now, what helped Nehemiah and the people overcome and pay these costs? Well, it might not seem obvious at first, but hopefully you can follow my logic, because in response to the critics, Nehemiah said ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We, as servants, will start rebuilding but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.’ And that’s a true statement. These opponents did not share in the kingdom of God because they didn’t have faith in God. That’s true, but the converse is also true, Nehemiah and the Israelites did share in the kingdom of God because they had faith in God and because they shared in that kingdom they were willing to sacrifice for that kingdom. They were seeing that that is where they were called to invest despite the cost, despite the embarrassment, they were willing to invest in that. And it makes me think of what Jesus said he said ‘Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moths and vermin do not destroy. And why do you worry about clothes’ (or Hope, why do you worry about nail polish, I can understand why she does, we’ll get on to those other lessons) ‘see how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness through faith in Jesus.’ We share in the kingdom of God and we’re called to invest in that kingdom to give it our focus to give our attention and time and talents and money and through all to then invest in what is eternal, what carries eternal worth, rather than what is fleeting. And so, I wonder can we be that people? Can we be a people where everyone, everyone is investing in the eternal,, the eternal kingdom of God? And when we do that, we show that God is worthy of our praise and when we do that, we show that everyone has to be involved and that we’re willing to pay the cost. That’s my prayer for us this morning as we think about these chapters of Nehemiah. So let us take a moment to pray. Let us pray.

Father, You will have been speaking to us in some way, maybe through the sermon, maybe through a prayer or a hymn or part of the reading that’s been unexplored. Lord, whatever it may be, take it deep and bring forth a fruit a harvest from that seed that would be to Your glory. Lord, if there’s been something that’s challenging, give us grace to receive it and to respond. Lord, if we’ve needed a word of comfort may we know Your presence with us to uphold us and strengthen us in this season. May we know that you are a worthy, God, of our praise and love, and may we keep following You in the highs and in the lows. Oh Lord, lead us forward as a congregation and blow away the chaff from our time together and from the sermon, and just take deep what is of You, the furtherance of Your purposes in Your kingdom, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Prayer before action

Preached on: Sunday 1st May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-01 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 1:4&11; 2:1-9
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• Prayer changes things
• Prayer prepares things
• Prayer is the first thing

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit, come among us and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Spirit and equip and envision us for the purposes of God.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I recently had some leave at the beginning of April and so the family went down to our home, our house in East Ayrshire where I think I told you last year there was some building work on going. I didn’t really get much of a rest because I had 30 hours or so in the garden to do and it wasn’t light work. I probably dug up a couple of ton of stone and rubble and other junk as part of my time there. In fact, there were some boulders that were so large I had to cantilever them out of the ground. I couldn’t physically lift them and all this because we’re hoping that this month we will get our lawn finally sewn. But there’s always preparatory work to be done isn’t there, and the preparatory work is the hardest work and it’s essential work because without that getting done there’s no way that people could come along and rake over the ground and then sow the seed. There’s no way it could be done so the preparatory work had to be done but it is often the hardest and the heaviest work.

Last week we began our new series in Nehemiah and there we began with thinking about the situation of the church both locally and nationally and that, if we want a better church, a better future, then we need to engage with that preparatory work, the deeper preparatory work of the heart, which is often the hardest work. And so, last week in our first week, we thought about repentance preceding restoration and we all know probably that repentance takes time, it’s not just a one-off moment where you say sorry and move on, that true repentance takes time to work through as we change the direction of our lives. And so, although we move on today, please don’t forget about last week. If there were things that struck you there, if there’s things that you were driven to talk with God about, keep talking with Him, keep in that place of prayer.

But today we move on and yet we move on to another preparatory step we might see. Before things will change there’s something else required and it seems almost too obvious to mention but it is the place of prayer that we see in the example and story of Nehemiah. He prays. He prays for God’s help and intervention but he not only prays for confession, he prays to receive God’s help. And so, we read a little bit of the prayer from chapter one ‘Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revealing your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’ So Nehemiah asked for God’s intervention and God’s help and it goes to show, as we were saying to the children with the little ornament, prayer changes things and we see that in chapter two that by verse six and then verse eight the king is responding positively to this request from Nehemiah and I think there’s a danger for us that we almost just skip over that. We think ‘Of course that’s going to happen you know, Nehemiah is a cup bearer, of course he’s going to trust the cup bearer, so he’ll automatically just say ‘Yes’ to that.’ But we think that because we don’t know the backstory maybe there is a backstory that 12 years prior to Nehemiah had been Ezra and that’s just the book before, so if you ever want to read it just a couple pages back, and Ezra had been sent. He was a priest and he’d been used of God to bring a people, part of the people, back from exile but some opposition arose against Ezra and the people, and they wrote to the king about the situation and to try and change the king’s mind and the king replied this way ‘The letter you sent has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and the search was made. It was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition.’ This is not good. ‘Now issue an order to these men to stop work so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow to the detriment of the royal interests.’ And so, what comes of Nehemiah, of Artaxerxes’ letter. As soon as a copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them, by force, to stop it. Stopped because of King Artaxerxes being persuaded. And so, Nehemiah’s not praying a little prayer here, he’s not just asking for a wee favor, this is a change of royal policy that he’s asking for. This is a big deal. Can you imagine trying to walk into Downing Street and persuade Boris Johnson to change his mind? Probably not. King Artaxerxes was Boris Johnson on steroids! That’s hard to imagine admittedly, but you know what I mean. Imagine doing that. That’s what he’s asking. This is an audacious request but prayer changes things, because Nehemiah prayed the future of thousands of Jews, the future of Israel, maybe even our future was changed because if Nehemiah hadn’t prayed there wouldn’t be his story to inspire us, to challenge us, to encourage us.

And likewise, I came across a recent story and a book I’ve begun to read. It’s a new book by Pete Greig called How to hear God, and in his very first chapter he recounts a story of a young lady called Azrin and it’s an incredible story that sparked because she prays and I’d like to read it to you. I’d like to read it in its entirety because it’s just such a good story so please sit back and just soak this up because it inspired me and I hope it inspires you.

Pete Greig writes:
I’ll never forget the testimony of a young woman called Azrin who first shared her story with me one evening over dinner. Azrin grew up in northern Iran where six of her cousins were killed by the ruling Ayatollah’s forces with whom the Kurdish Iranians are at war. Her earliest memories therefore, are of playing in the cemetery where her mother would go to mourn then, at the age of just 16, Azrin was arrested, accused of crimes she had not committed and forced to sign a declaration of guilt. She said ‘I had done nothing wrong and still they held me guilty’ and I detected a flicker of fire in her eyes. ‘These people had killed my cousins and now they were accusing me of crimes I had not committed so I decided I might as well go and do the things they had forced me to confess. I would travel to the mountains of Iran and join the Kurdish militia. Up to this point Pete Greig writes, Azrin had always dutifully attended the mosque to pray but she said Allah had never responded. As communists, the Kurdish militia denied God’s existence and Azrin began to wonder if they were right. ‘Either God was going to speak to me’ she said with a flash of that same fire ‘or I was doing or I would have nothing to do with him. I gave God an ultimatum.’ she grinned ‘I told him he had seven nights to speak to me or I would be permanently upset with him. On the seventh night, just before bed, Azrin reminded God of his looming deadline. ‘Either you appear to me tonight’ she said ‘or that’s it. I will live the rest of my life as if you don’t exist.’ And that night she had a dream. She dreamed that she was in a vast reception room full of many people feeling very alone until she recognized a man in front of her leaning against the wall. It was Hazrat Isa, Jesus, the holy highly honored one, highly honored in the Koran, as a prophet but not as the son of God. ‘He was standing so close I could feel his breath.’ she said.All around him there was a brilliant light. Nervously, Azrin addressed Jesus. She told him she was here to talk to God. He looked straight back at me and said the strangest thing ‘Talk.’ ‘No’ I protested ‘you don’t understand. I need to talk to God.’ Again Jesus looked at me and said ‘Talk.’ Then very slowly he repeated the most astounding phrase ‘I am God.’ he said ‘I am God. I am God’. Azrin’s face seemed to be shining with the memory. She whispered ‘As I heard this, all doubt drained away from my tired heart. We talked and talked and talked. I just poured my heart out to him, to God in Jesus, and for the first time in my life I experienced God speaking back into my life. When Azrin awoke from her dream she hurried to share the news with the local Mullah but he told her angrily that Jesus could not be God. Next, she told her family but they just laughed at her. And then, one day, as she was sitting in a park far from home, a total stranger gave Azrin a New Testament in the Persian language. It was the first Bible she had ever seen. The stranger also invited her to church where she was amazed to hear the preacher say ‘God is love.’ Reading her new Bible in the park afterwards Azrin finally found the words that made sense of her dream. Jesus said in John chapter 14 ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.’ No wonder he’d invited her to talk. Right there and then, sitting in that park, Azrin acknowledged Jesus Christ as the Son of God and, as she did so, she experienced an unfamiliar sense of hope flooding into her body, displacing the many years of despair. Azrin shared this story with me quietly and calmly but I just kept shaking my head in amazement and forgetting to eat. A couple of times I wanted to scream ‘Hallelujah!’

‘So, what did you do’ I asked ‘after you became a follower of Jesus?’ ‘Oh’ she laughed ‘I never joined the Kurdish militia. I didn’t want to kill people anymore, I wanted to bring life so I trained to plant churches instead.’ ‘Of course’ I said encouragingly ‘and how’s that going?’ ‘Well, I’ve planted five churches so far.’ she replied casually. ‘Isn’t that a bit dangerous?’ I asked instead, I’m already feeling a complete coward. Azrin fixed me with a steady gaze ‘Pastor Pete’ she said ‘I was willing to die fighting to kill for the Kurdish militia, don’t you think it’s much better to die fighting for Jesus?’


Prayer changes things and sometimes when you pray you have no idea what you’re opening up yourself up to.

Prayer changes things, and it changed her life yet, we need to remember that prayer is not like treating God as a genie in a bottle. He’s not a slot machine or a spell that we’re trying to say the right words to get them working. That’s not how prayer works and we do need to acknowledge also that prayer goes unanswered. Indeed, Nehemiah knows a little of that experience too. It’s not obvious because we use the original words of the months, but chapter one begins in the month of Kislev which is late November/early December. Chapter two begins in the month of Nissan which is March/April time. So, he prayed for four months. I wonder if he ever thought his prayer was going to go unanswered? Change wasn’t instantaneous for him either and so not all changes we pray for occur and if that resonates with you and if you feel God is silent then maybe you should pick up Pete Greig’s other book which is titled God on mute, God on mute. Nevertheless, it was William Temple who said ‘When I pray coincidences happen and when I don’t they don’t.’ And the apostle James writes saying ‘You don’t do not have because you do not ask God.’ But he also cautions that ‘When you ask you do not receive because you asked with wrong motives.’ Sometimes we don’t have because we don’t ask and sometimes, we don’t receive when we do ask because we’re asking with the wrong motives. Nehemiah did ask and he asked with the right motives. His focus was on God’s kingdom, God’s glory, God’s purposes, and he prayed in line with God’s promises as well, His promise to restore His people.

And so, when thinking about our situation and our prayers for the church, if change is going to come it can’t be just by restructuring, there needs to be that deeper work. We need to repent, but we need to pray, we need to pray with right motives and we need to pray in line with God’s promises. Like Matthew 16 would be a great promise to cling to where Jesus says ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.’ If we want the future of our church to be better than its present, then we must pray, because prayer changes things.

Now we might wonder ‘Well, how does prayer change things?’ And there’s many possible answers to that, but the story of Nehemiah shows one way that prayer changes things and, in particular, prayer changes Nehemiah, prayer prepares Nehemiah and so he writes of his own account ‘I took the wine and gave it to the king I not been sad in his presence before so the king asked me why does your face look so sad when you’re not ill this can be nothing but sadness of heart. I was very much afraid’.

So, Nehemiah’s experiencing this fear as he embarks on trying to change the king’s mind and there’s some debate about why he might be fearful. He might be fearful of punishment because there’s some literature that would suggest that being sad in the king’s presence could get you killed. But also, maybe he’s fearful because he realizes that this is the moment, this is his moment to share with the king, to persuade the king to go with a different plan, to change his policy. He realizes this is the moment when the lives of thousands hang in the balance. I’m pretty sure I’d be a little bit fearful too. And yet, Nehemiah is able to overcome his fear because he spent four months in prayer and even draws on prayer amid communication with the king, in verse four. It keeps him going, it strengthens him, it gives him boldness. And how can I say that it gives a boldness? What gives me that clue, that idea well? Back in chapter one he prayed this ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’ This man, this man, who with the click of his fingers, could have him killed, this man who everyone else was in fear of, this man who had ultimate power.

But, to Nehemiah, he’s nothing compared to God, God who is the God of heaven, the Lord Almighty who parted the Red Sea, who defeated Pharaoh, the great and awesome God. That’s his God and, in light of that God, Artaxerxes is just ‘this man’. In the place of prayer, he was equipped to have boldness to ask for his request, to overcome his fear. I wonder, is part of our purpose, as part of living out our faith, is fear holding us back? Fear of saying ‘I’m a Christian’, fear of saying ‘I go to church’, fear of sharing our faith, fear of playing our part ‘I couldn’t do that. I’m not like that person.’ Whatever it might be, is fear holding us back? Maybe it’s in the place of prayer that we are prepared to overcome our fear as we come face to face with God.

But Nehemiah is prepared in other ways as well. In the middle of our chapter 2 there’s a cluster of verses that show he’s prepared in a number of ways and i’ll I’ll just run through them very quickly:
he said ‘I answered the king. If it pleases the king, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it. I may have a letters to the governors and a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park.’

Now, again, we just skip over this, but we need to realize something’s going on here, we need to realize that first of all he says ‘send me’ and we think ‘Sure, of course he’s going to pray that or say that but, maybe at the start of the four months he was praying for Ezra ‘Lord, Ezra is already there, would you just open the door for Ezra’ because, you know, if you and I are praying for situations, don’t we just pray for the people who are local, never think to pray that we’d have a part in answering that prayer, and so he probably did the same, but over that time he comes to realize ‘Actually, maybe I should play a part here, maybe I’ve got something to give. Maybe I’ve got influence and skills that can be utilized, so send me’ becomes part of the plan.

But then, he also formulates a plan about how to speak to the king. Notice what he says. He begins by saying about his ancestors, where they are buried and that’s a clever move because the Persians had a great respect for the dead, a great respect for the dead and the living we might say and so he begins there rather than digging up old stuff about the history and about Gods and religions and anything like that, he begins with what the king can understand. That’s a wise move. But also notice that he figures out he needs letters to the governors to keep himself safe. He knows the person who oversees the wood so I need to go and speak to that person. So he’s formulating a plan here as if as he prays over those four months, he’s led to formulate a plan, he’s given wisdom and all this culminates in him in verse 8 saying ‘because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.’ God’s grace was upon him.

Now, let’s remember from our teaching series last year, that grace equips us, grace changes us, grace sustains us. All that he received, as he recognized that he had a part to play and there was a plan to formulate and he needed God’s grace to keep him persevering and being able to say to the king ‘This is my plan and please honor it.’ So again, thinking about our future, if our future is going to be more fruitful, if we’re going to see that the empty, vast empty spaces in this church filled once again, we need to be praying so that we are prepared, so that we overcome our fear, so that we receive wisdom about how to go forward, so that we receive grace that we might play our part and be equipped and sustained to keep playing our part. Because, why else Jesus does say in Matthew 16 that he will build his church? In Matthew 18 he also says ‘Go’ and Matthew 28 he says ‘Go and make disciples of all the nations’ He says to you and me and there’s a tension there. He says ‘I will build my church’ but ‘you go make disciples’. So Jesus has no plan B. It’s you and me. He’s not just gonna click His fingers. it’s through you and me that He will fulfill His purposes and He will extend His kingdom and He will build His church. So, we need to be praying.

And that leads us to our final point, the most crucial point of all, about everything we learn about prayer in chapters one and two, and it’s this: prayer is the first thing, prayer is the first thing. Notice that in chapter one he quickly gets into sharing his prayer which is really a summary prayer because, as we said, he’s been praying for four months so this is not the only prayer he prayed but this sums up the flavor of what he was praying but his prayer comes before his reputation, his title, prayer was the first thing to Nehemiah, is it the first thing in our lives. Is it the first thing in the church? Because, I think, we prioritize action. For a number of reasons, it is easier maybe or we may be like to be seen as busy, we like to be seen as doing something. And let me just give you an example of this. How many plaques around church do you see that are because someone was a prayerful person? How many statues, how many buildings are named after someone who was faithful in prayer? Whereas, more often than not, they’re named after someone who was busy.

So, prayer is the first thing for Nehemiah, before reputation or title, prayer came before action. It’s very obvious. Chapter one, he prays, chapter two is when he finally gets down to some action. Are we similar or not? And in some ways we’re not similar I think because we hear sermons about prayer but no one’s come alongside us to teach us how to pray. We’ve not been discipled in that and all I can say is the best way to learn to pray, is to pray, and to be around people who pray, which is why I love going to the Thursday evening time of prayer because I listen to other people’s prayers and I learn from them and that’s how I learned to pray. You know, I never learned to pray just by someone giving me a chance in church or listening to Sunday prayers. The most influential time of that influenced me and how to pray and have confidence to pray myself was when I was at the Christian Union and they said ‘Oh, we’ve got a prayer meeting at halfway Wednesday morning, do you want to come along?’ In my naivety I said ‘Yes’ and I went and as I kept going, I grew in boldness to pray.

Does prayer come before action for us? and in prayer before restoration. Chapter one prayer and the rest of the story unfolds from there, the story of restoration. So, if we want to see a different future, then prayer needs to be the first thing for us as well.

So, how are we going to do that, church? How are we going to do that? You can do it individually, of course. You can maybe set some time aside for that and to be praying for us as a congregation, for us as a denomination. You could do it in your Fellowship Groups. Many of you are in a Fellowship Group and you probably pray for needs locally and in your own life but, could you create some space to pray for the church locally, nationally. If you’re in a team, I know that many of our teams when they gather, they begin with prayer and they end with prayer and that’s good but, could we create a wee bit space in the agenda to pray for the church – and, just to give the elders a heads-up, you can guess what we’ll be doing at the start of our time together of Kirk Session very soon, we’ll be praying.

But I don’t know if you’re aware every Sunday morning, prior to the service, a few people gather for prayer. It was something that was started well before my time, I have no idea who started off, I’m sure someone can tell me. Numbers have dropped a little over time but there’s still some faithful people gathering for prayer each Sunday and so I want to call you to join that time of prayer, to join us at quarter past nine to quarter to quarter past 10 to half past 10 for prayer, to pray for the service, to pray for us as a church, to pray for our wider life as a denomination, and I’d ask please that any and everyone in the building drops all tools, prayer before action, so band, choir, tech, door duty, Sunday School, teas and coffees, whoever it would be, with down tools and if that cuts into your prep time could you come a wee bit earlier. I know that’s cheeky to ask, but it’s just for four weeks. I should have said that for four weeks and you can keep coming of course but for four weeks can we try and make that space between now and Pentecost Sunday on the 5th of June which is when we next share Communion, could we make that space, can we make that commitment and gather for prayer. Because, if you look at the testimony of the church over 2000 years, when these people gather for prayer, change happens and, who knows what that might lead to this great and awesome God, this living Jesus, who breaks into people’s lives and astounds them with His love. Who knows what He’ll do next if we will be a people who pray. So let’s take a moment to pray just now, let us pray:

Lord, very simply, what is of me, just blow it away and help us forget it, but what is of You, take it deep so that our lives change. Help us to be doers of your word rather than just listeners, which is so easy to do. Shape us and change us for Your purposes, for Your glory. And so, we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen

Introduction to the Nehemiah teaching series

Preached on: Sunday 24th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this introduction.
Bible references: Nehemiah
Location: Brightons Parish Church

In a moment we’re going to hear our Bible reading and it’s a new teaching series that we enter into. When I met with a few others to think about what we might teach upon across this year we were mindful that, as a nation, we are moving into, hopefully, a new season and a new dynamic with the pandemic where, maybe, in some ways, church life would begin to rebuild again and restart in different ways. We’re also conscious that as a denomination, we are having to rebuild too, that we are having to enter a time of pruning back because of how things are within the denomination, and so, again, we’re building and rebuilding and as such, it made sense to turn to that quintessential book about rebuilding, the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament.

In the book of Nehemiah, we find Nehemiah in exile because he is part of the Jewish people was taken into exile and many years later, he’s now in a position of influence and authority, and the people were taken there because they had disobeyed the Lord and He had disciplined them and there’s been two stages of return already so far. Under two other leaders, one of whom was Ezra and we have the book of Ezra just before Nehemiah, but now we meet Nehemiah who’s on the cusp of another return and another stage of the rebuilding work and we might get into bits and pieces of other dynamics of the history but that’s just to help situate you as we come to the reading today.

I encourage you not only to watch and read it on screen with us, but we have the Bibles out on the pews now as well and so I encourage you to get open up one if you don’t have an app or something with you. You’ll find on your newssheet that at the top of the newssheet every week is the Bible reading that we’re going to have and the page number so you can even be prepared for it. So follow along, keep it open during the sermon, make sure I’m not preaching heresy or something really rebellious and you can make sure that what I’m saying is from the Word of God.

Discipline Repentance Restoration

Preached on: Sunday 24th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-04-24 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 1:1-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– God disciplines His people to mature us
– God is ready to restore us
– Repentance precedes restoration

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Holy Spirit, we pray that You would come among us and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and lead us as a body of people into fuller and truer life.
Come dear Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I was getting to share at the Deacon’s Court on Tuesday evening that a good proportion of my working week just now is given over to the future of the church, in particular, to something called Mission Planning and you’re going to probably hear more of that in the months to come because, as a denomination, we are undertaking a work of mission planning across the whole of the nation. Every presbytery is to come up with a plan of how the church would be shaped in the months and years to come. It will affect every congregation and every Kirk Session, and our presbytery has already been engaged upon this matter more recently, although the work has been going on for some time before as well, and we’re having to do this and we’re having to shape a plan because we need to face up to some facts that there is anticipated a 40% reduction of ministers and so we need to shape ourselves around that reality, and the reality that we have too many buildings. And so, we need to cut close to one-third of buildings across our nation and that’s just an average, so some places it will be more than that. In light of the theme around Nehemiah of rebuilding we might say that mission planning is addressing some of our structural issues, to help hopefully restore the church so that we might be more focused on mission rather than buildings and maintenance. But yet, within the resources available to us however, if we think that simply restructuring ourselves will lead to a better future then we’re deluding ourselves, because there needs to be a deeper, more personal work of God in our hearts, in our lives, if the church is to have a better future. And that goes contrary to our natural tendencies as people. We would much rather have a quick fix and we’d much rather have an external fix that was quickly done and didn’t require that deeper work of the heart. But, as we’ve been singing and thinking about today, our God is the Good Shepherd and so, thankfully, He doesn’t work as we would like Him to work. He knows our truest and deepest needs. And so our passage in Nehemiah today begins very personally with deep issues of the heart before anything else is addressed and so, yes, there might be some more challenging words today and there’s part of me that hesitates to do that because I feel like that is often how I’m seen or portrayed as ‘here’s another challenge, time to switch off the button and tune Scott out’ but I encourage you, please, to open yourself to what God might say this morning because He does desire to bring us into fuller and truer life both individually and corporately.
We read earlier the writing of Nehemiah ‘While I was in the citadel of Souza, Han and I one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile and also about Jerusalem.’

Nehemiah is an exile. Still, he is part of the Jewish people still in Babylon. He hasn’t been able to return as yet and we read earlier as well in verse 8 that part of the reason that they are scattered among the nations was because of unfaithfulness. They’re not in exile for any other reason and so, we have to admit and become aware of that. The Lord disciplines His people when they are disobedient and that was part of the Old Testament covenant that there was both blessing and curse. And so, when they obeyed, there was God’s favor and provision, and when they dissipate God would discipline. And so, we find them now in exile and often I think our view of any talk about discipline is shaped by misconceptions. We think of discipline as simply being hauled before the head teacher, and I can remember that experience myself from younger days, or we might think of it as appearing before a judge and we get really nervous about such an idea. But the scriptures don’t speak of God’s discipline in those terms. God’s discipline is as a father to a son, as a loving parent doing something out of no other motive than love itself, to refine, to mature, to change the heart. So, let us bear that in mind as we delve in here.

I suspect when Nehemiah is asking for this report I wonder if he’s hoping, anticipating for good news. To hear that the restoration that God began under the previous two leaders has maybe led to the people and that the city being rebuilt, that it’s on track, maybe it’s even near completion. I wonder if he’s hoping for that kind of news. But then, in verse 3 we read that the people are in great trouble and disgrace and the gates of Jerusalem are still torn down and burned. He realizes that there’s still more restoration to come and that speaks to him of God’s ongoing discipline. There has been, in His mercy and grace, phases of restoration but there’s still more to g. We might need to delve into some of that maybe next week as well, that the people have, for one reason or another, put off the work and so there’s still an ongoing discipline, there’s still that discipline of the heart and of His people.

All this talk of discipline might make you wonder ‘Well, does God still discipline today? Do we live under a system of blessing and curse as Christians?’ Well, as we were thinking about last weekend, we have our hope and trust in Jesus and because of His perfect life, because of His death on the cross, which was sinless and perfect, undeserved, then we live under a different means of relationship with God. We have a different covenant called the New Covenant and so, because of that the righteousness, the right relationship that Jesus had with Father God, we are brought into that. We share in that and so we don’t relate to God as Christians based on how good or bad we are, it’s not how good or bad that ends your status with God, it’s Jesus and His righteousness. As we sung about in our first two hymns, as the choir reminded us in Blessed Assurance, that is our assurance of who we are in Jesus. So, we don’t live under that old system of blessing and curse. That is done away with. Nevertheless, the New Testament still speaks about discipline and so in Hebrews chapter 12 we read that ‘God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.’ No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful later on, however it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

God still disciplines for our good. We’re told that we might grow in the likeness of Jesus, that we might grow in holiness, that we might share in His righteousness, as right living before God and with one another, and then walk in peace, walk in greater wholeness, has shalom.

Now, our next question might then be – Well, how does God discipline if he does discipline us? The passage tells us how does He discipline and the scriptures speak of a number of ways. But I want to draw on one for this morning because I’m particularly concerned and mindful of how God would discipline a group of people, a denomination even, and so I’ve been reflecting on Romans chapter one which I’m not going to detail but, in Romans chapter one, God speaks of disciplining the nations and in that discipline He basically just leaves the nations to their own devices, He allows their choices to lead to consequences and so, when a body of people potentially need brought in line with His ways and with His commands, I do wonder if He adopts a similar approach to discipline. He allows our choices to lead to consequences. He keeps speaking to us through His word, through faithful preaching but, if we will not listen, then maybe the Lord leaves us to our own devices. And so, as we think about our denomination, so, we think about the church in our day, could it be that our lack of impact, our lack of fruitfulness, and it’s lovely that as a church we are a bit fuller than the average church, where I am interim moderator there’s 20 to 25 people most Sundays. I’m part of the Mission Planning Team and there’s churches that have 10 or less gathering week by week and most have no children, not just one or two, no children among them, could it be that our decline, could it be that the lack of people called into ministry, could it be that the closing of buildings, is because we’ve not listened, that we are experiencing a measure of discipline, allowing our choices to lead to consequences? Choices like having wrong priorities or focusing on the building spending, so much on it, rather than on mission. Wrong priorities, like be more seeking our comfort above being uncomfortable enough for mission, such that we share our faith or we sacrifice time for mission. Could it be the dilution of the gospel or God’s word? Could it be a lukewarm passion for mission and discipleship? We make choices every day, as David was reminding us in our prayer, every day and do our choices align with God’s priorities?

And so, where does that then lead us, when we don’t? And does He allow that to ripple down and lead to consequences? Because, maybe that’s the only way to get our attention as a body of people locally and nationally. But let’s remember, He does it for our good. He does. It’s interesting, I have yet to find a scripture I think that says that God says ‘I’m disappointed with you.’ I don’t think He ever uses that language. He might say ‘You’ve gone wayward.’ He might say ‘You’ve sinned.’ I’ve sinned but He never says ‘I’m disappointed.’ He never ridicules. He never tears us down. He does discipline for good, to mature. And any talk about discipline is always hard, it’s probably hard to hear it, believe me it’s hard to share it.

I was not looking forward to this at nine o’clock. I’d come back in from doing some early preparation I said to Gill ‘I’m really nervous for this morning’. But discipline is not the whole story, because Nehemiah goes on he says ‘Then I said, Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses saying but if you return to me and obey my commands then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my name.’

God does discipline but He yearns, He longs, He promises to restore us and we have hope in that again, as was echoed in many places already in our service, God stands ready, waiting to restore us and just in case you think this is an Old Testament idea and oh, we should just ignore it, it’s also echoed in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation where Jesus sends seven letters to seven New Testament churches, in particular to the church of Laodicea, Jesus says this ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline, so be earnest and repent. Here I am, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, says the lord, and opens the door. I will come in and eat with that person and they with me.’ Jesus is ready to restore us, He’s ready to come in and have fellowship with us and change things around. The language here is an echo of Psalm 23 which we just sung about in The King of love my Shepherd is’ that banquet feast before us. He’s ready to bring us in, to bring new life, to restore, to bring us into bounty and a harvest, and just a great feast, as that’s on the other side of discipline. And so, we should not fear discipline, we should not turn away from it or shy away, we should not just put on the blinkers and let it go in one ear and out the other, because God’s discipline is not about, listen to me please, God’s discipline is not about inducing guilt. I know that’s hard to get your head around because that’s often how we feel but God’s discipline is not about inducing guilt. There may be conviction but it’s so that it leads to life.

When we feel guilt, that’s the enemy speaking, because the enemy wants you to feel guilty so that you turn from God, so that you feel gloomy, so that there’s self-pity. The Lord brings conviction to bring you to life and there’s many examples we could turn to both inside the Bible and outside the Bible, but I’m going to stick with an inside the Bible example.

And so, we have the apostle Paul and he’s used of God to challenge the churches left right and center when they stray and particularly the church in Corinth, who just seem to get it wrong in so many different ways. And so, he writes multiple letters to them and his first letter is really hard-hitting and he addresses a number of issues but he follows it up, he hasn’t managed to visit them, but he follows them up because he hears how they’ve responded to that first letter and so he says this, but he’s been exercising God’s discipline, and he says this ‘I know I distressed you greatly with my letter although I felt awful at the time I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you but only for a while, now I’m glad not that you were upset but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss. The stress that drives us to God does that, it turns us around, it gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain but those who let the stress drive them away from God are full of regrets, they end up on a deathbed of regrets and now isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God. You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart and that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter.’ I wonder, can we try and see discipline, God’s challenge in that way? To welcome it, to engage with it? That on the other side of it is His life? Because He stands ready to restore us. He stands ready if we will but respond to Him.

And so, we can change our structure as much as we want, we could even plant churches, but, if the heart is not there, if the priorities are not right, it doesn’t make a jot of difference, we need to be changed from the inside out, we need to be purified and matured and, if we will but, heed the Lord as he says here, He’s ready to restore us, to come in, as He said in Revelation and bring that life, to bring that life. So, if we’re ready to respond, how do we respond? what does that response look like?

Well, Nehemiah’s passage teaches us that there’s probably multiple stages of responding but it begins this way. ‘Then I said, Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself, have committed against you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.’ As Nehemiah realizes that God’s discipline continues, he responds in prayer. As Corinthians said, he’s driven closer to God, he’s driven into that place with God, to seek the Lord. But how does he begin his prayer? He begins with confession, with turning up to God and in that place of humility, recognizing that he is but a man, a human being. He comes before this incredible God, He begins with confession because repentance precedes restoration and repentance is not just about saying ‘Sorry’. True repentance is when our hearts are so deeply changed and we are grieved by the waywardness, that we change our lives, that we’re ready to change our lives however that might need to be done. And, although Nehemiah doesn’t pray specifics here, as we’ll see next week, this prayer is really a summary prayer of prayers he prays over a great vast number of days. So, it’s unlikely he’s going to include specifics here but I think he would get specific in his prayers and so I want to get specific with us this morning.

If our future is to be different, if we are to see the gaps around us filled, for to see that balcony as full as the downstairs, how might our future be restored? What might we need to repent of? What might we need to admit up to God and ask for His help on? And again, as I say, I want to get personal. I don’t want to just talk about the wider denomination. Let’s talk about us here.

And so, very briefly I want to touch on our purpose and two of our four values because our purpose says ‘We seek to invite, encourage and enable people of all ages to follow Jesus Christ.’ To do that requires all of us to be involved within the church and within the community because, inherent in this is that, everybody’s got a part to play, everybody’s got a part to play. Are you playing your part within here? There’s too many people who are carrying too much of the load. How could you play your part? Now there can be times of life, whatever age range, you’re at younger or older and in the middle, there can be times of life when things are particularly busy or particularly limited but, even in that, there is still space to pray. Are you praying? So, are you playing your part within the church and outside? How can we possibly invite others to follow Jesus if we’re not some way building bridges in the community and maybe sharing our faith gently? I’m not saying you have to stand on a soapbox and preach to people but do you ever invite someone to something at church, ever? We had a quiz last night, that’s an easy building, bridge building thing with someone in the community – ‘Oh, we’re doing this fundraising quiz, do you want to come along?’ Did you take that opportunity?

So, is there something there we need to change in us and repent of? Maybe it’s fear that holds us back. Maybe we need to repent of our fear. That we have a greater fear of our neighbors than we have of a holy fear of God.

We also have a value that says ‘We aspire to be a family of all sorts of people journeying in community’ and Jesus says that the outside world will know that we are His disciples by the love we have for one another. Is that supernatural kind of love seen among us?

For example, do we always think the best of one another or do we assume that we know the motivations behind someone’s actions? Do we ever and always give the benefit of the doubt to one another? And, you know, if you put together the New Testament teaching about how Christians should behave both individually and corporately, you could summarize it as ‘we should be unoffendable’. We should be unoffendable. Do you ever get offended by something in church, by someone’s actions, by me?

You should be unoffendable, if you’re putting into practice New Testament teaching. Is that seen?

Or, what is the wider community hearing?’ Oh, they’re having another argument about x, y or z or someone was moaning about a, b or c again.’ Is there something that we need to repent of there?

And then our meet value ‘Meeting with God in a personal and life-changing way.’ It’s not about meeting together, that’s our family value, it’s not about having meetings for the for church. Not really sure where that value fits in. So, maybe it needs fewer meeting. But this is meeting with God because, let’s be honest folks, the community out there doesn’t give a jot about church, doesn’t need more community, it’s got its networks, it’s got its friendships, it’s got stuff to do, it doesn’t need more community, and it’s busy enough with work, with the cost-of-living crisis, with Netflix, with gems, with sports clubs, with clubs that kids are in. It doesn’t need more stuff to do and fill its week. So, why would they ever come in?

There might be multiple reasons that we could give them and answers to that question but one answer could be, if you can see what God is doing in your life, if you can say what God is speaking to you about, how he’s refining you, how he’s given you hope, what your faith means to you, how following Him is an adventure, and this is what it’s done in your life, then, then, maybe, you might help someone see that, actually, there is a God, there’s too much coincidence around these stories that individuals can share and, maybe, there’s something to pursue there, and, okay, I might not go to church but I’ll maybe go to this group or that thing first. But maybe they will come to church. Can you, have you limited your expectations of God, have you put God in a box, have you put up boundaries to keep God at a distance, have you maybe just become a bit lackadaisical in your relationship with God? ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered reading the Bible. I can’t be bothered praying.’

Whatever it might be, what is it that’s holding you back from meeting with God in a personal and life-changing way, such that you have testimony to share with people out there?

I can’t answer it for you but I can ask the challenging questions.

And all this, if you want another Bible story to hang all this on, think about the prodigal father. I know we are probably quite familiar with that story. The younger son he says ‘Father I wish you were dead to me because I want the inheritance that I’m due, now. I just, I want to be cut off from you and I just want to go my own way.’ Sounds a bit like our denomination at times, sounds a bit like how we can be in our own lives. And, you know, the father allows him to go. It’s a form of discipline because his choices lead to consequences and he gets himself into poverty. At the end of the story the son does return and as he expressed the horizon the father runs to him and he envelops him and he wraps his arms around him. And doesn’t that show us that God is ready to restore His people? He’s ready. His waiting is long but the bit in the middle of the story is just as important in fact, the restoration might not necessarily come without the middle where the son realizes it’s time to change and he doesn’t just say sorry, he comes back, he turns around, he lives differently. He gets to say sorry but he doesn’t get on to say the other things that are maybe more rooted in self-pity or a false humility, because the father loves him and restores him and brings him into new life. We often use that parable just to talk about coming to faith but maybe there’s a deeper meaning there also for us all, faith that the Father stands ready to restore if we were to but repent. So, let us take a moment to pray before we close our service. Let us pray:

So in the stillness,

where do you feel a measure of conviction, a measure of calling, a measure of fresh realization about Father God?

And, in the stillness, why don’t you speak to God about that and admit that to Him?

Our God and Heavenly Father, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with us, with me. Let your ear be attentive to our prayer this morning, to the confession we bring, that there are things that need to change in our individual lives and in us corporately.

We recognize, that just by admitting it, it doesn’t change instantly, that there’s a journey here, a process that we need to begin upon, but it begins with repentance, Father, begins with admitting the truth and asking for Your help.

Whatever it might be that you’ve put your finger upon this morning, don’t let us be overcome with guilt. That’s not of You. But let the conviction go deep that might change our hearts, that we might realize You do only out of love and to lead us into life and maturity, that we might further Your purposes and be Your people upon the earth and from us Your light might go forth into our wider community.

Hear our prayer for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.