Thursday, November 01, 2007

Farewells and Nehemiah for November

The month passed quickly, a spreading stain of farewells.

Autumn in Singapore?
So autumn doesn't quite get a tourist visa to these parts. Nevertheless, farewells:

Farewell to MWK-hood, Take IFarewell to MWK-hood, Take II
farewells to the end of MWK-hood,

Farewell to OktoberFarewell to October
farewells to October.

Farewells in the language of Singaporeans:
Farewell at Peaberry & PretzelFarewell at Peaberry & Pretzel
sharing shared memories over shared desserts,

Farewell with Corn Cobs
over corn cobs on the end of sharp skewers,

Farewell with Steamboat
over steamboat.

*********************************

Supper after Nehemiah
Don Carson spoke on Nehemiah on over 2 evenings in October. He had on a Winnie The Pooh tie and was dishing out the honey. Post-Carson Evening Exposition discussions over supper however, for the most part, rapidly descended into inane conversations about Facebook and scintillating narrative snippets of Top Gear.

Dish of MacaroonsAnother Dish of MacaroonsCupcakes and Tea
Then one day, though it was only November, they came bearing gifts. And we were 4, a plate of experimental cupcakes, a little dish of macarons (the new bubbletea perhaps?) each and a communal pot of chai tea. And there was Nehemiah, in an alternate universe, weeping when they told him that the wall of Jerusalem had been broken and its gates destroyed by fire. And then he turned off the water taps and set about rebuilding the city.

Nehemiah didn't quite set out to write a management manual for the busy executive crybabies in the 21st century. The last few chapters of the book don't quite boast a favourable success rate for old Nehy himself either. Old OT fogeys as management heroes is so very passé, not to mention, a symptom of very bad biblical exposition. (Daniel Chew over at Daniel's Place reflects on D.A. Carson's take on biblical exposition at the Expository Preaching Conference on Nehemiah. It's interesting how, despite a similar take on exposition as the Moore chaps down in Sydney, his preaching style differs vastly from theirs.)

Recordings of Don's talks can be ordered from the Project Timothy website here. But here are a few daubs from the honeypot (they're a bit dusty 'cos I probably dropped them on the floor along the way, sorry. The taste of reformation and revival hobbyhorse however, are all Don's.):
  • from Nehemiah 3:1 - 6:14: never, never give up. You will never get 100% cooperation but nevertheless, never give up. The Christian is the overcomer. We are called to persevere, we are called to hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first (Hebrews 3:14). This presupposes that we will be facing challenges and difficulties in remaining faithful to him;
  • from the early bit of Nehemiah 4, you can count on ridicule when doing God's work. The faithful who are rebuilding the wall are laughed at. Tobiah the Ammonite, in particular, alleges shoddy workmanship: "if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!" Ouch. The danger of mockery is that people may become discouraged. And we are not to react to mockery with vengefulness or on a personal vendetta like so many Hollywood "heroes". However, there is a freedom from anger that is the result of mere indifference to the situation. We see from Matthew 23 that there is a place for moral outrage where, for example, we see evangelism being discouraged;
  • from the later bit of Nehemiah 4, there may be direct, dangerous and diverse opposition in doing God's work. During the construction of the wall, the threat of sticks and stones breaking bones was so great that workplace safety was the least of their problems and they laboured with one hand and held their weapons with the other;
  • from Nehemiah 5, we see how obstacles can also come from within our own camp. In Nehemiah's case, internal economic oppression is driving the people mad with frustration. While the people are working on the wall, they have to neglect their farms. They were most likely subsistence farmers and the neglect of their farms not only meant they would have nothing to eat, it also meant that they would not be able to pay taxes and wouldn't even be able to defer payment by a year because, not having any crop this year, they would not have seed to sow for next year. Nehemiah's reaction is rightly one of outrage, but we notice that he also considers the situation before acting and demonstrates a fear of the Lord;
  • from Nehemiah 6, we see that there is a measure of deviousness to be expected from those who hate God. Nehy's enemies attempt to lure him out to be killed. When this fails, they try a bit of scaremongering to get him to abandon his people and save his own life. The New Testament also warns us to be wary of wolves in sheep's clothing, of false apostles. These types aren't obvious and it is by their fruit that you will know them. It takes time for their true colours to show. We know from revelation that Satan attacks in 2 ways: the first beast attacks by direct persecution, the second beast attacks by snookering the church. Therefore, do not be surprised to find a fifth column, a group of conspirators trying to snooker the sheep. Your only protection is to know your Bible well.
Most of the Book of Nehemiah, however, isn't about building the wall. The wall was built by Chapter 7. The emphasis instead is instead on the restoration and reformation of the people of God. It is about their covenantal renewal; about revival.

When the wall had been built and the people had settled within, they gathered together at one of the gates. A week of celebration was kicked off by Ezra reading the Law (Nehemiah 8). There were teachers at hand to translate the reading, which was probably in Hebrew, to the Aramaic vernacular. And not only was there translation, there was also explanation, so that the people made sense of, and understood what was being read (Nehemiah 8:8).

And understand they did because upon hearing the Law and realising how far they had fallen short of God's commandments and how they have failed to keep their covenantal promises to him, they were crushed and started to cry (Nehemiah 8:9).

Not now, said Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites. Rejoice now because this day is holy to the LORD. They sought obedience from the people to rejoice during God's instituted festivals of rejoicing. (Note that the whole frame of reality is about long-term pleasure that is founded in the Lord. It is not about getting a temporary hit.) The people rejoiced because they understood the words that were declared to them. No mere intellectual titillation, this.

Then, the time did come for corporate confession (Nehemiah 9). This wasn't some self-indulgent display of mass self-flagellation but public confession of sin that was focussed on God. And what a marvellous summary it was of what God had done for them and how solid and trustworthy he had shown himself to be (and so, conversely, what a terrible indictment of their sin and the sin of all of us who trust neither God's character nor his words):
You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.

And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.

But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, 'This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,' and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.

And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness.

Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviours who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.

Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.
The finger-lickin' goodness of biblical history is that the people who were part of this story so obviously share a common humanity with us all. Just look at some of the chaps in the Book of Nehemiah:
  • Nehemiah seems one of those persnickety administrative types. You can just tell from all his carefully recorded lists. He probably combed his hair precisely 107 times at 7.03am each morning;
  • the people who helped build the wall were just ordinary folk, who were torn between having to tend to their crops (their livelihood and their sustenance) and helping to rebuild the wall. Their wives might have nagged them every night and their mother-in-laws might have wondered why their daughters had to marry such men. The chaps who laid the beams and set the doors did at no point in time think to reply,"Look hon, I know Bunni's not a cool name and you're not terribly keen on construction workers. But if we just keep at it for a bit, our family name will be preserved for all posterity! (No doubt to be laughed at by ungrateful kids in the Far East in the 21st century.)"
We aren't the least of the heroes in a Beowulf epic. We aren't even going to be in a list of people that everyone skips over when they read the Bible. A century after our deaths, it is unlikely any one will know our names, much less make fun of them. But it's encouraging to know that our labour in this pitiful life, with its high failure rate, is not in vain. There is a trustworthy and faithful God who sees all, who remembers all and who, on the Last Day, will give wages according to the labour that is deserved. He will test each man's work to see if it will survive the fire. If it does, that man will receive a reward (1 Corinthians 3). (Reward, Carson explained, not as carrot but as the grace-grounded consequence of a marvellous relationship.)

Brotzeit German Bier Bar & Restaurant
VivoCity, #01-149-151
Tel: 6272 8815

Peaberry & Pretzel
106 Clementi Street 12
#01-52
Tel: 6777 3477

CentrePS
78 Guan Chuan Street
#01-43
Tel: 6220 1285

Obolo
452 Joo Chiat Road
Tel: 6348 9791

Gryphon Tea Company

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