For Such a Time as This

Today around the world many will celebrate Purim. This is a celebration that thousands of years ago God delivered the Jewish people from near certain death. When the writer of the book of Esther chose to tell the story, their method of telling the story was very strange. For centuries Esther has baffled commentators and Bible scholars. It is the only book in the Bible where the word God is not mentioned – not  even once.

How we use our words can be very revealing. The lack of words can also be very revealing. If you have ever been involved in a polite work discussion in the British isles you may have heard the phrase. “That is very brave.” What an American hears a Brit saying is, “They think I am courageous,” when in fact the Brit is trying convey a completely different thought: “You are barking mad.” So it was many years ago, the writer of Esther wanted to convey the feeling that God was hidden and removed from the day to day life of His people. It felt like God was absent.

To top it all off. This book which tells the story of a hidden or surreal God, tells the story of a very real and clear existential threat to the Jewish people. The Jewish citizens living in Persia were faced with a life and death situation and God seemed painfully hidden. In the hiddenness God is actively working. Esther, in vicarious representation of her people, walked into the courtroom of the king and pleaded in proxy for her people.

“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.” (Esth. 7:3)

Esther risks power, privilege and position to petition the potentate for her people. We know of a true and better prince, who not only risks everything, but actually gave up everything to rescue his people.

Let those Purim words sink in this Lent. Hear Jesus plead on the cross, “Let my life be granted to me … and my people for my request.”

Conditions Are Perfect

Setting the scene is a vital part of a splendidly crafted play. This universe is the masterpiece play of God. The scene is set, conditions are perfect. Now enters our hero. Conditions are such that there is no other way than a majestic rescue.

Paul uses an amazing term when explaining the Gospel. He says, “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Often we think of the term necessary as something denoting inherent lack or dependance. This is not the way Paul is using the term. He is using a small three letter word in Greek, dei.  It is absolutely necessary, there is no other way.

A close approximation to this concept is the term necessary as used in philosophy. When something is necessary it inevitably results from or is produced by the nature of things, so that the contrary is impossible.

This Lent reflect on that necessary prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Father if there is any other way, let if happen. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

Reflect on the awesome nature of Lent, Jesus not only needed to die for us, he wanted to. Let this melt and change us.


Old Friends

Psalm 44:24 Why do you hide your face?
     Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

Recently I travelled to London to catch up with an old friend. We had not seen each other in quite while. The busyness of our lives, the pace of work makes it hard for us to meet up. There are some friendships which are so wonderful that no matter how long it has been you can just catch up and start the conversation right where you left it all those months ago.

So it is with God, his omnipresence is such that there is no place where we can go that he is not already there. And yet sometimes He feels distant. When Scripture uses the term “face” to refer to God’s presence, it is not implying that God has somehow left the conversation. There is that beautiful verse reminding of God’s favored presence, “May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause his face to shine upon you.” There is something about seeing a friends face and smile that makes the effort of meeting up worth it.

Seeing someone’s face is asking for a unique and special way of interacting. During Lent some Christians give things up. But what is the absence all about? The absence is designed to remind of the presence. Sometimes it feels like God may be far away.

Speak to the absent God about his absence. That is what this Psalmist is doing. Tell him how much you miss Him. Speak to him about His silence. There is nothing that turns a friends face towards you as when you speak of their heart-felt absence.

On the tree so many years ago, Jesus spoke of this absence. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” His prayer to the absent God about His absence had the most wondrous effect: God’s face is now forever turned towards us.

Hear the Sustain

2Sam. 22:37 You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip;

Hiking on the Appalachian trail over a decade ago my foot slipped. I knew something had gone terribly wrong in my body. I felt intense pain. My ankle had broken. The Appalachian Trail is a 2160-mile footpath that extends from New England on the Canadian border all the way to Georgia in the deep South. All that was needed on this trail was a little slip of concentration and a little lack of attention to detail and your foot would slip. We forget the wonder of Providence – that beautiful doctrine that God is constantly sustaining His universe. He is not a blind watchmaker who has stepped away from his worktable.

How would you define a miracle?  Some would define it as “a direct intervention of God in the world.” This definition is unhelpful as it implies that God only intervenes every now and then.

A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.

This Lent hear the sustain in this mighty chorus of God’s providence. Recover the Wonder. Creation vibrates with awe of the Creator.

On Good Friday Jesus slipped from consciousness. That same moment we slipped from darkness into light. Jesus’ self-sacrifice assures our wonder and awe.

Days of Awe

Gen. 2:7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Shmuel Agnon, the nobel literature prize winner, was once asked if Judaism ever had anything like Lent. Did Judaism ever practice 40 days of fasting?No that didn’t happen. But something amazing and awe inspiring happens from New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Ten days of awe. After a pause and think he replied, “Yes, the Days of Awe.”

In many churches the Lenten season will begin with the minister speaking those ancient words, “Remember we are dust and to dust we shall return.” Lent reminds us of our mortality. More importantly Lent restores in us a sense of awe and wonder.

When God made humanity, he took lifeless, cosmic dust and breathed life into us. We became living souls. When we turned our back on Him, we chose entropy and dust. God would not leave us to death, but rather became one of us, even death and at that death on a cross. It is in Lent that we remember that God who gives life gave up his life that we would never ever have to return to the dust from where we came.

May these Lenten days be Days of Awe…

The Enemy is Within

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” This perfectly sums up the attitude of Nehemiah and his friends. He is now weeks into his building project. He is no longer mustering builders, inspiring ideas or repelling external threats. He has discovered that he is his own worst enemy.

Neh. 5:1 Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.

Read Nehemiah 5:1-13

The Threat from Within

In this chapter the enemies and the city walls recede from view, to  reveal a more subtle problem. Here the menace is hunger and exploitation, and the structure at risk is the community itself. We see another aspect of Nehemiah’s burdens and his leadership. Certainly the final paragraph takes us twelve years further on.

Judah’s history had not begun with Nehemiah’s arrival, nor even with the ‘great trouble and shame’ which were reported to him in Susa. His diverting of manpower from raising crops to raising walls may have been the final burden; it did not have to be the first. Now the people were facing food shortages.

Nehemiah discovers and resolves this internal struggle in chapter 5 through solidarity. He is now the leader of his people. He does not solve the problem by booming commands. He solves the problem through the strength of identification. Their problems become his. His resources become theirs.

Just as Nehemiah solves his peoples dilemma with identification, so it is with us. Jesus’ identification with humanity, becoming one of us, leads to the greatest healing ever. It is in the incarnation that God heals the enemy within. Gregory of Nazianzus when speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, becoming human put it wonderfully, “That which is unassumed is unhealed.” It is only by Jesus becoming fully human that God can fully heal us.

Forget You

The bags were packed, there I was sitting in front of the ticket counter of Iberia Airlines. But smile as I may, charm as I may there was no way I would make my flight. Why? Forgetfulness. Did ever forget something on a trip that made your trip difficult? Nearly 20 years ago I left my passport in my dorm room at university. The drive from JFK airport to back to my dorm room would have made me late for my flight. No amount of money, talent or gifts were going to get me on that plane. The only thing that would get me on the airplane would be remembering.  To enjoy the privilege and access of all that God has done for you all you have to do is remember. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.

Nehemiah 4:14 And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…”

More often than not, I discover that a lot of the stress in my life is due to forgetfulness. I forget who God is. I forget what he has done in my life. I forget what he has done collectively for his Church. The Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Forget none of his benefits.”(Psalm 103:2)

So many times in our life our stress and anxiety are linked to one small thing: spiritual amnesia. But God is the ever loving Father who loves us through our faulty memory into a glorious remembrance.

Nehemiah understood how powerful our amnesia is, that is why he encourages us to remember. On the night that Jesus was betrayed he took bread, he broke it and said, “Do this in remembrance.” We repeat this beautiful supper regularly because we are so prone to forget. The whole point of God giving us bread, wine and the Word is that they might be signs, symbols, and gift that bring to heart his extravagant love. Only when we remember will we be filled with the peace that passes understanding. This peace will guard our hearts and minds greater than any wall ever would.

Powerful Weaklings

If you have ever done a life guarding course you will be familiar with the warning that when attempting a water rescue the life guard must be wary of the panic stricken swimmer. If the swimmer is drowning, their nervousness could be fatal not only to the swimmer but also the rescuer. It is only when the swimmer reaches a point of surrender that the life saver can intervene in a safe and effective way. The only way for the swimmer to be saved is to become a powerful weakling.

Neh. 4:10   In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”

The builders of Jerusalem are tired. You can feel the atmosphere of growing misgivings and unnerving rumours surrounding the pressures of rebuilding. The rebuilders can be heard saying, “I’m exahusted. There is just too much rubble. There is no way that we will be able to finish this task by ourselves.”

This language is not the language of quitters, it is the language of a tired company of builders wanting to see the reward of their labour. They want to see the project completed, but they are aware of their own limitations. Their strength is not enough. They require assistance. They need reinforcements. The only way they will be powerful is if they admit their weakness.

Years later, you can hear Mary sing a song similar to this plea for help.

Luke 1:51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

God did not turn a deaf ear to the people of Judah. He sent help in the form of the countryside labourers. He sent a prince from a far off land to win a fight that no one thought was winnable. Nehemiah would be the rescuer that the people of Israel would need. He would be their reinforcements. Years later God would send another prince and rescuer in the powerful weakness of a Carpenter. He would rebuild the ancient ruins that no one else could.

Self Deception: Truth Matters

This past week the top American Newscaster for NBC news, Brian Williams, stepped down temporarily pending an investigation into his journalistic practices. In 2003 he was flying in a Chinook Helicopter. Another Chinook helicopter flying a completely different mission, in a completely different direction took fire. It took his production team, public relations team, camera crew and him at least an hour to get the the helicopter named “Big Windy.” When he landed what started out as a small half truth, began his downward spiral into self deception.

Nehemiah 4:3 “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”

What initially started out as a news report quickly became a story of stolen valor. The newscaster began to fabricate his personal tale of heroism and attribute the actions of the other valiant chinook crew to himself. Nearly 11 years later, dozens of talks shows, and countless primetime newslots later his story grew into an embellished tale of his heroism of RPG fire. What was all the furore about? We expect our journalists to speak truth. They are supposed to be a source of information not disinformation.

Tobiah, as we know is a Jewish name, but his identity is now “the Ammonite servant.” What caused this? Nothing more than self deception. Sir Walter Scott put it this way:

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive

What starts out as a fib to avoid persecution, “I am Ammonite, not Jewish.” Years later will lead him to a complete loss of honour and dignity. He even becomes mean spirited and mocks his fellow Jews, “Why are you building these rubbled walls? If a fox jumps on them they will fall down.” If you have ever seen a fox, it is a very light creature. The walls of Jerusalem we know from archaelogical digs are nearly 9 feet thick. There is now way a small and nimble creature like a fox could topple the wall with their little paws. His self deception was complete.

Jesus said, “I am the Truth.”(John 14:6). Truth is important because it grants us a sense of identity. Borrowed glories, conflated half truths are transitory and will be found out. We will be left not knowing who we really are. Jesus promise to us is that truth will undo the damage of self deception. Live in the reality of the truth of his love and care. Lay aside your falsely borrowed glories and receive the truth of his gifted glory.

“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

Investing In People

A few years ago a friend of mine was involved in the engineering team which refurbished and rebuilt London Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Joel was an engineer in training. For his company, building Terminal 2 was very important. It was also very important to the them to develop Joel as an engineer. In the long run, it was not just about developing real estate. Developing engieneers was. Getting the tilt walls, beams, or rebar in the right place was not enough; Getting skills, character, and gifts to grow was a major aim of the construction project. Many companies have realised that it is not just about getting a job accomplished or task done. To this reason they have invested in a human resources department. To be truly successful they make investing in people a core value. For Nehemiah, building great walls and yet not having the people of Judah rebuilt would have been pointless.

Neh. 2:17   Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.

Building people

The goal of building the walls of Jerusalem was never about having a building project to boast about. The engineering feat was never principally about their reputation, (“That we way no longer suffer derision”v 17), it was about quality craftsmanship (“good work” v18). Long before they strengthened the walls of Jerusalem, God strengthened their character.

A church is not building. A very helpful definition of church is the: All believers in all times, in all places (Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem). This means the church was about people, is about people, and will always be about people. It means the worshipping community has already been founded, is built and will be built by someone who is timeless. His works will survive the test of time. God’s building project will survive the test of time. God is in the business of people building and soul-formation.

Building Character

The builder Nehemiah, was a builder of character. He recognised gifts that God’s people had, and encouraged them. He wanted them to fulfill the gifts and callings that God had set for his people. He was the model of a spiritual leader. Spiritual leadership is aimed not so much at directing people as it is at changing people. If we would be the kind of leaders we ought to be, we must make it our aim to develop persons rather than dictate plans.  “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” (Heb. 10:24).

The only way to get the people of Judah to be successful was for Nehemiah to begin what they were unable to do. He did not dicatate plans, Nehemiah rolled up his sleaves and said, “Let us rebuild.” So it is with us, Christ Jesus is the author and perfector of our characters. He did not just dictate and thunder commands to build character from Mount Sinai, but dictated and thundered  his very love from Mount Calvary. He has set and appointed great tasks for us to do for his glory.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:10

Today Let us rebuild. Partner with God’s character forming grace and be the glorious, rebuilt ruin that he has purposed you to be.