Restore and Celebrate Good (and Hard) Times

This sermon can be watched or listened to at!

Now that we have blessed the Lord who is ready to go camping? Why not? The things that we hate most about camping such as mosquitoes and rain or it being too hot are not a problem at this time of year. Today as kick off the year, it is time to go camping and get back to the bare essentials. This is what we find in Nehemiah 8:13-18. After the people read God’s Word and worshipped Him, He wanted them to go camping to remember and celebrate the hard times during the good times. Have you ever thought about celebrating the good and hard times? We love celebrating the good times. We even made a song about it many years ago, “Celebrate, good times, come on!” But celebrate the hard times? That doesn’t sound like fun. However, in almost every city I have been to in North America there is an enduring memorial to the hard times. There is usually a memorial to the soldiers who fought for our freedom in battles and wars. Those hard times have allowed for the good times. In fact, one of the best spiritually advancing exercises that I have been doing these past 20 years is to take the time to make a yearly evaluation. I read over my journal and calendar and put into categories the best books I’ve read, the answered prayers, meaningful quotes, highlights and lessons learned. It is so encouraging to see how faithful God has been in getting through the hard times. 2019 was the hardest year of my life – we lost many people to either moving away or moving to heaven. It was so hard that Lori even had a root canal on her birthday, though technically that was in 2020. And yet, God has shown Himself in new and profound ways.

This was certainly true back in Nehemiah’s day. To give you the context, he was high up in the Persian government when he heard about the human disaster of his people back in the land of Palestine and particularly Jerusalem. He goes to the king and asks for temporary leave as well as funding for a restoration project that the king originally had stopped. Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem, rallies his discouraged fellow Jews and they rebuild the wall of Jerusalem in record time despite opposition. Now they have refocused and thought it would be good to go back to reading God’s Word. We pick up the story in Nehemiah 8:13-18. Please turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah 8:13-18. Read Nehemiah 8:13-18!

Sometimes we don’t pay attention to the calendar, but when we find God highlighting a date in His Word, we need to take notice. Nehemiah 8:13 declares this event happening on the second day of the month. A few weeks ago we studied in Nehemiah that the Jews had done what would be equivalent today of an ancestry search and found out their genealogy. They then gave to the Lord generously and then in Nehemiah 7:73 we find this almost throw away line, “And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns.” Except God never gives throwaway lines and every single word in His Word matters! So the people were settled in their homes, but their hearts weren’t settled. They knew that they were thirsty and empty for the filling of God’s Word. This is why they came back that first day of the seventh month called Kislev in the Jewish calendar to hear God’s Word read. Kislev is actually part of our November and December. It was timely because God was going to ask them to do something just in the nick of time. Maybe God has you here today to do something with His perfect timing?  You see, the feast of Booths was a “feast that should begin on the 15th of the 7thmonth.”[1]

The people were getting ready to celebrate the hard times in the good times and they didn’t know it yet. All they did was come to hear God’s Word. I am wondering today if God will reward you for just coming to hear God’s Word. The Jews actually were so eager to hear God’s Word that they came back for a second day in a row of Bible reading and study. We were challenged last week to study God’s Word daily together by resolving to pay attention, elevate, and explain God’s Word so that we will worship Him. This Bible conference revealed the hunger and thirst the people had for God’s Word and understanding it. Look what is happening in verse 13, “On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law.” Four quick applicationswe can make from this one verse: 1) Keeping coming back to God’s Word daily; 2) Fathers need to lead their families in Bible Study (and even if you aren’t the one to explain everything, bring your family to sit under God’s Word) (A helpful statement came from Dee Duke, “Before acting, ask if this is how I want my family and church to think and act.”); 3) Study God’s Word together (which again I will challenge you to join a small group this year); and 4) Consult those who have studied God’s Word the most. It was the priests that the people studied God’s Word under. In summary, 1) Read God’s Word daily; 2) Fathers lead your family to God’s Word; 3) Study God’s Word together and 4) Study under those who have studied God’s Word the most.

I will give you a warning though. When you give attention to God’s Word, He may show you where you haven’t been paying attention!  Look at verse 14, “They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month.” As stated earlier, it was perfect timing. God was giving them a chance to obey right away. I believe today that God is going to give you a chance to obey Him right away. But the more important question is: What command(s) of God have we (you) been neglecting? Is it the call to be baptized as that is one of the first commands to follow after surrendering your life to Christ? Today you can be baptized at the end of the service. For others of you, maybe the command you have been neglecting is to forgive others as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13)? For still others, maybe you have been neglecting to give to the Lord’s work (2 Corinthians 9:7) or serving Him (Galatians 5:13)? As a church, maybe we have been neglecting some commands like encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25)?

In the case of the Jews in Nehemiah 8, they had neglected to celebrate the hard times in good times. They had forgotten to celebrate the Festival of Booths or Shelters as it was sometimes called. The prescription for this Festival of Booths was ordered by God back in Leviticus 23:33-44. It was a command to go camping. Why camping? They were to go camping because that is how they lived for nearly 40 years in the wilderness. The Israelites were miraculously freed from slavery of the Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea on dry land. Then because they doubted God’s power to overcome the giants in the land of Canaan, they had to wander in the desert for 40 years living in tents or booths or shelters. It was a time to remember how when they had nothing, God led and provided for them. He gave them manna and quail to eat and even their sandals didn’t wear out (Deuteronomy 8:3-4). Can you remember a time when you had nothing and God led and provided for you?

Those were hard and yet good times! This is why I’m here camping today on stage! It even explains to me something I have never understood before. I have wondered why people go up north and live in their trailers when they have beautifully comfortable and air-conditioned homes down in southern Ontario. However, camping helps remind us how dependent we are on God and it also allows us to get close to the beauty of His creation.

But here was the problem. The people had not forgotten about the Festival of Booths altogether, they just forgot about the reason. Sort of how many forget that Christmas was a party for Jesus and not for themselves. As Derek Kidner explains about the Jewish mindset in Nehemiah’s day, “Not the Festival had fallen out of use, but rather its camping out at least had meanwhile lapsed or had been reduced to a mere token.”[2]Maybe the Jews had transitioned to “glamping”? That is what has happened in my family. When Lori and I were first married, we had little so we would go tent camping. We would sleep with Therma-rests to keep the chill off our backs. Then we bought one of those blow-up air mattresses, but halfway through the night, we would either sink because it lost air or one of us would be thrown off the bed because the other moved. I think 6 weeks of camping on a trip to California did Lori in and so now we stay in cabins when we “camp.” Others of you stay in trailers or have cottages! We usually move towards being comfortable and that is when we might move away from God’s commands. The pursuit of comfort can lead to compromise!

But reading God’s Word can be like smelling salts and wake us from our comfortable stupor. “The Festival of Booths was to commemorate a second Exodus.”[3]  The Jews had been enslaved in Egypt and rescued by God. Then they fell into rebellion against God and were enslaved in Babylon, but once again rescued by God. For those of us here in a state of rebellion, God wants to rescue you once again, never to return to slavery. The people in Nehemiah’s day took swift action. It was “like a cleaned painting, now revealed some long-forgotten colours.”[4]Verse 15 describes their swift action, “and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem; ‘Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters’ as it is written.” I love that last phrase! As it is written! Would this be the year that we all live “as it is written” in God’s Word?

The people did whatever they could to fulfill God’s Word and they got creative. Check out verse 16, “So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim.” The people repurposed their roofs, backyards, and what would be equivalent to their churches to follow God’s Word. In fact, they wanted to stick close to the Water Gate in part so that they could be close when Ezra read the Law. Also, “The Water Gate was close to the Gihon Spring.”[5]Why did the people set up shelters by the Water Gate and the Gate of Ephraim? nehemiah-jerusalem-map.jpegThe Water Gate was on the Eastern side of Jerusalem (close to the Gihon Spring) and Ephraim Gate was on the western side of Jerusalem. The reason that both locations were chosen was for practical reasons – access to water and close to the inner city for protection. Both areas could also hold the people. The point is that God wants us to obey Him with practical considerations. He isn’t trying to make it hard for us. His commands are not too difficult to follow, especially since He helps us through the Holy Spirit (1 John 5:3).

What was surprising and maybe not so surprising was when God asked them to simplify their lives and remember His faithfulness, it produced great joy. Verse 17 records, “The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.” We need to celebrate the hard times because they remind us how good God has been to us! As Tim Keller points out, “The biblical plotline reveals a story of God’s repeated choice of the dominated and the wretched, the powerless and the marginal… God constantly chooses and works through sons lower in the birth order such as Abel not Cain, Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau, Judah and Joseph not Reuben, the ones without social power and … daughters without cultural power of beauty and sexuality such as old, infertile Sarah, not young Hagar, unloved and unattractive Leah, not lovely Rachel … Or think about the times of the Judges how often the man God raises up – Jephthah, Gideon, and Samson came from a smaller tribe, a low-status family… Then fast-forward to Jesus and it is always the immoral, racial, sexual outsider and socially marginalized person who connects to Jesus most readily.”[6]God works at all times, but it seems that at our hardest times and lowest points He shows up more visibly.

Like two Sunday nights ago, when we held A Time to Remember event whereby people could come in tangibly and express their grief over the loss of a loved one. Some had not done anything like this and had been holding onto their grief for 30 or 40 years. That night a young man came grieved over his loved ones. However, in that hard time, the Word of God was explained to him, especially the gospel and he received Christ. In two weeks, he plans to be baptized. Maybe you can’t wait two weeks and today you would like to be baptized? We will even give you a t-shirt to wear and keep along with some shorts.

My friends, today is a day to respond to God’s Word. May the Word of God shake us up so that we will be unshakable in our faith and in following Christ. As verse 18 describes the Jews did in Nehemiah’s day, “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.” As Derek Kidner remarks, “The move to make Scripture the guiding principle of Jewish life was powerfully initiated.”[7]

My friends it is time to get back to the simple exercise of reading God’s Word and obeying whatever command of God you and I have been neglecting. Jesus is calling you to come to His altar. To assemble there! It is the altar whereby He laid down His life for you and rose from the dead for you. Did you realize that Jesus Himself came and literally “tabernacle” amongst us according to John 1:14? He camped with us! In fact, according to John 7-8, Jesus even attended the Festival of Booths. And yet this was the time when His brothers rejected Him and His fellow Jews plotted to arrest and kill Him. Yet Jesus offered them living water not far from the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He declared He was who the Scriptures witnessed to as the Light of the World and that the truth would set them free. Those good times were hard times for Jesus that led to the Cross.  Let’s remember that the hardest time in human history was when the innocent Jesus was murdered for our sins and yet that is what we celebrate with great joy!

[1]F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 220.

[2]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 108.

[3]Kidner, 109.

[4]Kidner, 108.

[5]Fensham, 178.

[6]Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God (New York: Viking, 2016), 206-207.

[7]Kidner, 109.

The Best New Year’s Resolution: Reading and Understanding God’s Word

This sermon can be watched or listened to at!


Memorial Stone for Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts 

What is your New Year’s resolution? Some of you are still recovering from Christmas and so you want a couple of more days before the New Year begins. For me, I feel the weight of my namesake Jonathan Edwards. He was a pastor, theologian, missionary, philosopher, first president of Princeton University and of whom God used to help start the First Great Awakening. My father took a graduate school course on Jonathan Edwards and was so impressed with Edwards’ life that my father promised that if he ever had a son that he would name him after Edwards, so this is how I got my name. This past March our family actually stopped in Northampton, Massachusetts to see the grave of David Brainerd, the missionary that Edwards’ daughter, Jerusha, fell in love with but never married because he died of tuberculosis. There was a memorial stone of Jonathan Edwards next to the Brainerd’s grave as you can see in this picture.  At 18 going on 19 years old, the present age of my daughter, Jonathan Edwards wrote 70 resolutions for himself. About 20 years later he wrote them in a book to Deborah Hatheway who lived in a neighbouring town, Advice to Young Converts. I am not going to list all 70 resolutions, but highlight a few of them:

  1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriad’s of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
  2. Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the aforementioned things.
  3. Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.
  4. Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.
  5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
  7. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.
  8. Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances don’t hinder.
  9. Resolved, if I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.
  10. Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.
  11. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.
  12. Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
  13. Resolved, never to do anything, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.
  14. Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power; might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.
  15. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
  16. Resolved, never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession, which I cannot hope God will accept.
  17. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.
  18. Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better
  19. Whenever I hear anything spoken in conversation of any person, if I think it would be praiseworthy in me, Resolved to endeavor to imitate it.
  20. Resolved, never to do anything but duty; and then according toEph. 6:6-8, do it willingly and cheerfully as unto the Lord, and not to man; “knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord.”[1]

Jonathan Edwards actually lived most of these out consistently and his descendants bore the fruit of it. But doesn’t it feel heavy? Many of us wouldn’t make it past the singing of Auld Lang Syne before breaking those new year’s resolutions, so could I give you just one? Let’s try to do it altogether! That one resolution would be to read the Bible together. This is exactly what we read that the Jews did in Nehemiah 8:1-11. Please turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah 8:1-11! Reading the Bible was Jonathan Edwards’ 28thresolution: 28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same. Could we study the Scriptures so “steadily, constantly and frequently”? My father majored in the Bible and the characteristic that I know he would have loved most for each of us is to also major in the Bible. To know the Bible so we can know God! Therefore, we are asking that you download the Youversion app and we are promoting The Bible Project’s “The Whole Bible.” My family loves the Bible Project and its videos. This is a chronological study of the Bible. Nothing will grow you more spiritually than reading God’s Word everyday. If you want to see more clearly, to have 20/20 vision this year and beyond, you need to read God’s Word. Let’s read Nehemiah 8:1-11! Read Nehemiah 8:1-11!

As we read this passage it becomes clear that Bible reading and study was not a solo sport. I love verse 1, “And all the people gathered as one man.” I am certainly not against reading the Bible individually as I have profited greatly from the practice for years. It is the first thing I do in the mornings because I am a morning person. If you are a night person, then read the Bible at that time. Whenever your best time is, give it to God. However, this is not only true for us individually but corporately. Studying and reading the Bible is meant to be a community project. When we study and read the Word of God, just like when we pray together, we gain a better understanding of the Bible. It safeguards us from coming up with novel ideas and interpretations. I have studied the Bible through formal theological education for 18 years earning a doctorate and I still need to learn so much just being in a group with you, an open heart and an open Bible. The best New Year’s resolution is to study and understand God’s Word together!This is why we believe that every one of you should be in a small group whereby we endeavour to apply God’s Word. I apologize for tip-toeing around this issue in the past because I was afraid that some of you introverts like myself would be upset or feel forced into something, but I am convinced that the only way to truly make disciples is through small groups. Why? Because that is exactly how Jesus made disciples – in a small group of 12 people. Are we any better than Jesus?

Back to Nehemiah 8, verse 1 declares, “the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel.” So all the people gathered on the east side of the city at the Water Gate. These people thirsted for the Word of God.

Today, are you thirsty for the Word of God?Here is how you can have that thirst met. I said last Sunday that there were three responses to God’s gift of His Word: confusion, conviction and celebration. This week I want to give you five keys to unlocking the Bible: 1) Read the Bible together; 2) Be attentive to the Bible; 3) Elevate the Bible; 4) Explain the Bible; 5) Worship the God of the Bible.  Together we need to read, be attentive, elevate, explain God’s Word so we worship Him! I have already talked about the importance of reading the Bible together. Not to belabour this, but I realize that we live in a society that doesn’t read as much. To be candid two of my children have reading disabilities. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like being read to and the gains they have made in reading have been great when we read together. The Bible is meant to be read together. Verses 2-3 make this clear, “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand.” Just like my children who get caught up in a story, when the Bible, God’s Big Story, was read to the people, the time flew by. In fact, this leads us to the second key, which is found in the last sentence of verse 3, “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” Reading the Bible is only the first step. Being attentive must always accompany it. Attentive listening is when a group of people tune their ears away from all the other noise and the Word of God drowns out all other distractions. Being attentive to the Bible is when a group of people get so quiet that the Word of God becomes deafening in their ears. They want more. We know that this led to conviction because in verse 9 they actually wept recognizing that they had failed to obey God’s Word. May this be the year that this happens at Temple! Maybe today? Why not? You could be doing other things on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, but I believe God has each one of us here for a very important appointment with Himself. I am even here when usually I am off on this Sunday as it is National Lead Pastors Rest Sunday. Just as God had Ezra surrounded by Bible teachers and prophets like Zechariah mentioned in verse 4, God wants to meet with us!

So read the Bible together attentively and recognize its authority. This is the third key to unlocking the Bible. We need to elevate it above every other source of authority in our lives. Look at verse 5, “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.”The Bible was literally above the people! I love how some church traditions will have their ministers hold a big Bible just like I am doing now. And sometimes the minister will say, “Wisdom! Wisdom! Wisdom!” We don’t say that here, but we hold up the Bible as the sole authority for life and practice. This is why we stand when God’s Word is read just like we read in verse 5. Elevating the Bible means that it is our first stop whenever we have an issue in life. So when we have a situation in life do we Google or go to God’s Word for the solution?I’m not talking about DIY projects but advice on marriage, relationships, discouragement, loss, sex, and time management. Is the Bible your go to manual? Even parenting! The old joke is that parenting doesn’t come with a manual. Actually our Heavenly Father wrote one! It is better than anything Focus on the Family, as good as they are, can put out.

When we elevate God’s Word, it leads us to the next key and desire, which is to the have the Bible explained to us. Verses 7-8 describe how the priests explained God’s Word, “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbathai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” These verses make a great case for having modern-day translations that can be understood by all. That word “’understood’ means to be distinct and separate.”[2]We must help one another understand the Word of God and make it clear. This is part of living a holy life – a different life than the one around us. My first goal is to make the Bible understood and clear to you. If you don’t understand the Bible, stop and ask questions. This is why our first question every week in our small groups is “What encouraged, challenged or confused you about this week’s passage or sermon?” We put in our bulletin that you can always ask me or one of our Elders to explain further what the Scriptures being taught means! Please ask me if you have a question because words and interpretations can so easily be twisted and misunderstood.

So read the Bible together attentively, recognizing its authority, elevating and explaining it with the singular goal of worshipping the God of the Bible. You might have thought I would say to obey it. Obedience to God’s Word is wrapped up in worshiping God. Verse 6 shows the people’s response to reading the Bible, “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Amen and Amen is the idea of True! True! The people were thirsty and their hands lifted up meant they were empty.

Are you empty? Jesus as the Word of God made the resolution to be attentive to and elevate the Father’s message. He spoke as One who had authority (Matthew 7:29), but yet He explained God’s Word simply and clearly and because of this we now can worship God. Jesus can fill you with His Word. Resolve to know Him and His Word this year!

[1]Source: Accessed December 23, 2019.

[2]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary(Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 106.

More Than We Asked For

This sermon was preached at Temple Baptist Church at our 2019 Christmas Eve service.

What did you ask for this Christmas? (Tell the person next to you what you asked for this Christmas! Kids, remind your parents one more time!) One of the things that I love about Christmas is that I always get more than I ask for. Maybe this is a first world blessing, but I actually think everybody around the world gets more than they asked for at Christmas. I may ask for new socks or for a shirt or for a new book and I get so many extras – toothbrushes, mints (now that I think about it my family is very concerned about my oral hygiene and it reminds me to brush my teeth before opening presents and giving my family a hug and kiss as gratitude). And not just more presents to open that appear under the tree. First of all, I get to actually be with my family and that they are in relatively good health. I have food to eat. I have a roof over my head. The house is heated. We have a dog that shows his great affection for us. I have a church family that I dearly love. I still have my mom with us. My sister and her family will have made the 6 hour trip down from up north. Needless to say, I get more than I asked for.

Did you realize that this was what actually happened at the first Christmas? Let’s read Luke 1:5-25 to see how God gives us more than what we ask for Christmas. Read Luke 1:5-25. What were Zechariah and Elizabeth asking for? A baby! Well, they had stopped asking because the lack of receiving was so painful. Luke 1:7 makes it clear that “Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.” The topic of infertility is often a taboo subject. Maybe Elizabeth had some miscarriages along the way? Both were topics that everybody knew about but probably were kept hush-hush. We are learning that for some couples, talking about it, and us listening to their story is really helpful. As an aside, a young couple in our church Dan and Jody Burkholder would love to come alongside you if infertility or miscarriage is one of your struggles.

I am pretty sure that Zechariah and Elizabeth had asked God numerous times to have a child. They might have felt the sting of all their friends and family having children, but they couldn’t have their own. What we do know is that they weren’t to blame for the barrenness and they didn’t try to blame God or numb their pain by seeking satisfaction in things other than Him. How do we know this? Verse 6 declares, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” In fact, they just kept serving the Lord as verse 8 tells us. Then God shows up. He sends His angel. Verse 13 records the angel’s message to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his nameJohn.” Imagine how overwhelming this answer would be to Elizabeth and Zechariah, capped off by an awesome name – John!

Zechariah should have thought that it didn’t get any better than that. However, I think that angel touched on a sore spot. He couldn’t open himself to that long-formed wound. Verse 18 reveals Zechariah’s heart of doubt, “How shall I know this?” Pastor David Stephens teaches us that this is not the proper response when you see an angel, “If you ever see an angel, don’t ask him how.”[1] All your devices including your mouth might be put on silent mode.

Zechariah failed to focus on the gift, but rather on the process of the gift. Friends, sometimes when we open a present, we may want to know where the giver found it or how they got it. But is that really what is important? Zechariah and Elizabeth should have been focusing on getting Christmas, the Messiah, even though Christmas had never happened before. I love what Pastor David Stephens taught our Staff when we were in Chicago in November, “Zechariah and Elizabeth just wanted a baby and God gave them the forerunner to the Messiah, which led to their salvation, and revival of the nation and the world.”[2]Isn’t that what verses 14-17 promised? “And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at this birth, for he will be great before the Lord … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” So Elizabeth wanted a baby and they got joy for the community. But they got more! They got a baby who would be great before the Lord, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit, who would turn many of the nation back to God in revival as he preached in itchy camel hair clothes and to top all this off, this baby would introduce Christmas to the world. He would be the forerunner of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus wasn’t a drunk. He was pure. He was and is the Son of God. God loves to give us more at Christmas than we ask for.

You may have come tonight looking for some centering in your life or participating in the magical tradition of lighting a candle or for an inspiration in the midst of a busy season. But God wants to give you His Son. And along with His Son, He wants to give you eternal life, where all your sins are forgiven and you get a new life. As Paul Tripp says, “The coming of the infant king means the gracious destruction of the kingdom of self and a loving welcome to the Kingdom of God.”[3] In fact, it gets even better! You can have an eternal life with Jesus this Christmas. I would even dare to say that God wants to give not just your request but also something greater. Last Christmas maybe you gave Jesus your heart. The next day He didn’t give it away. He just wants all of you so that you can be part of His global salvation plan. As Pastor Stephens says, “Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a personal miracle and not a national one.”[4] But God’s plans were far bigger. God wanted to save the world. As those who went to a U.S. Wal-mart a couple of weeks ago were to discover when they picked up their layaway goods, the layaway angel had written on their gifts, “God loves you! Jesus paid the price!” What did you ask for this Christmas? It’s not too late to ask for Jesus. He is the one who brings peace on earth and good will towards men!

[1]David Stephens, Devotional at Chicago Tabernacle, November 5, 2019.




How Should We Respond to God’s Gift?

This sermon can be watched or listened to at!

What is your first response when you get a gift? You might say, well, Jon that depends what is the gift. Some of you with holey socks have been holding out  for weeks now with your bare toes scraping against your boot interiors waiting for a replacement pair of socks at Christmas. If that is you today, you are probably grateful but not overly joyous. Others of you when you receive your gift in just 3 more sleeps will be joyous because you can’t believe you got what you have been waiting for so long to get. Still others of you may be pretty disappointed. Maybe your family has not picked up on those hints you gave them. And you will open a gift that you’re less than excited to receive. And in the words of one of my sons after a disappointing Secret Santa exchange at his school said, “I didn’t like it. But I tried to look happy on the outside!” Maybe that will be you?

Today, we actually have a gift for all of those who are guests and we hope none of you will be disappointed but actually will find not only what you need and what will make you most joyous. Would one of you be willing to identify yourselves as one of our guests? Please open the gift! What is it? A Bible! This is the best gift we could give you this Christmas because it is the written Word of God that will lead you to know the Incarnate Word of God. In fact, all the other gifts under our Christmas tree are more like the loot bags that are given at the end of a party. A loot bag contains gifts that don’t last long and are just an overflow of the party and a way of saying thanks for coming. You see, our Christmas gifts are really just party favours! Why? Because Christmas must be about the guest of honour and the main attraction! The party is for Jesus! He will last forever. It is His birthday we are celebrating, not our own!

This reminds me of a story Paul Tripp tells, “In 1978 I did one of the most courageous things in my life. I became a kindergarten teacher! Along with a few other brave souls, I had a Christian school and begun functioning as its principal. Since our budget and staff were limited, I agreed to temporarily function as the kindergarten teacher. One Monday afternoon, the mother of one of my novice academics asked if she could have a birthday party for her daughter in the classroom on the following Friday. The day came and after the mother’s frenetic preparation, we all entered the room. She had turned our little classroom into a birthday kingdom! The walls and table were lavishly decorated; multi-coloured streamers hung from the ceiling, and balloon within a balloon was tied to the back of each chair. At each seat was a ribbon-tied cellophane bag of party favours. The only exception was the birthday girl, who was surrounded by a huge pile of beautifully wrapped gifts. At the far end of the table sat Johnny. Johnny kept doing the same thing over and over. He would look at his little bag of party favours then at the birthday girl’s mountain of gifts, fold his arms, stick out his lower lip and let out an audible humph! Each time, the look on his face got more ugly and his humphing more audible. Before long he had become the center of attention and was well on his way to spoiling the party. Then one of the mothers walked over and knelt beside him. She turned his chair so that Johnny was looking directly into his face, and she spoke these profound words: ‘Johnny, it’s not your party!’”[1]

So what is our response to God’s gift?It is Jesus’ party or your party? Determining who the party is for will determine your response of confusion, sadness or gladness this Christmas. I thought we get some great insights from Nehemiah 8:9-12 and how people responded to the gift of God’s Word! Let’s read Nehemiah 8:9-12 – a passage you probably have never heard as a Christmas sermon but it totally leads us to Christmas! Read Nehemiah 8:9-12!

Let me give you the context and Lord willing, we will take a deeper dive into verses 1-8 as part of our New Year’s sermon next Sunday. For now, you just need to know that Ezra, the scribe, read the Word of God to the people. Obviously, that hadn’t been happening in that day. Maybe they were too busy with the construction project? Maybe they were too busy fighting their opponents? Maybe you can relate and haven’t heard the Word of God spoken to and over you for some time?  It will invoke one of three responses: 1) Confusion; 2) Mourning or 3) Joy. I’ll briefly talk about the response of confusion and then focus more on the other responses of mourning and joy. In regards to confusion, we see this in verse 8, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood.”It goes without saying that the Bible needed to be explained because the people didn’t understand it. Now if these people who had a history with the Word of God and religious memory, despite being in exile for sometime, struggled to understand the Word of God, it goes without saying that people now-a-days who don’t have history with the Word of God and religious memory will struggle. Fewer and fewer of us know the Bible, which is why it is critical for you come to church and have Biblically sound teachers explain it to you. I am not trying to reverse the Protestant Reformation where the priest was the only one who knew God’s Word and the Bible has to be taught by ordained priests. You can know God’s Word through your own study, especially since we have the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth (John 16:13) but God has given us teachers who can explain His Word more clearly and more in-depth. This is what Nehemiah 8:8 is teaching.

My friends, are you confused when reading the Bible? Pray and God will show you the answers often through solid Bible teachers.However, if you are still confused, you need to aska more pressing question, am I a believer in Jesus Christ?1 Corinthians 2:10-15 gives insight, 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? (WHAT A GREAT REMINDER NOT TO JUDGE PEOPLE! LET GOD SPEAK TO THEM!) So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.  14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”Therefore, if you think the Bible is foolish and there are parts that can’t be believed like Jonah being swallowed by a big fish or more importantly, Jesus rising from the grave, then you must come to the conclusion that you are not a believer. You do not have the Spirit of God in you. I am not trying to make you feel guilty, but instead I don’t want you to have a guilty verdict read to you when you stand before God.  From the very beginning, the gospel has been first convicting. As Frederick Buechnerhas declared, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news!”[2] We don’t want you to stay in your state of confusion about the Bible and more importantly, Jesus Christ. We want you to move from confusion to conviction.

Conviction! Think of it this way! The Word of God is like a hammer for our stony hearts (Jeremiah 23:29). This can leave us with regret when we are confronted with the truth. One Bible scholar says,  “The reading of the law in Nehemiah 8 had the wrong effect. Instead of a joyous gathering, they were mourning.”[3] I actually think Ezra reading God’s Book of the Law had the right short-term effect. God’s Word is like a mirror that shows us what needs to be fixed and when we see sin’s effect in our lives for some of us it should produce tears. Have you ever mourned when reading God’s Word? That is the second common response to God’s gift – mourning! This mourning should lead to godly sorrow and repentance whereby we want to get right with God rather than worldly sorrow meaning we are just regretting getting caught (2 Corinthians 7:10). We need to move from how much is this going to cost me to how much did this cost God? When we make this shift, we can actually find joy comes in the morning! Christ starts to become the center of our lives. Why? Because the cost to God for our sin was Christmas! It was God giving us His Son to die on a Cross.

And this brings me to our third response to the gift of God. God’s Word can be like a doctor’s report telling you have a cancer – a cancer of the soul. Tears of grief, regret and self-pity start to flow until you know hear that there is a cure and those tears become tears of joy. It is the best response. God’s gift of His Word should fill us with joy that gives strength and must be shared. In fact, if you remember only one thing this sermon, please remember verse 10, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Derek Kidner says it poetically, “Holiness and gloom go ill together.”[4]Why? Why can’t we grieve for too long? Why is the joy of the Lord our strength? The joy of the Lord is our strength for … 1) fellowship. Joy comes from God speaking to us! We were rebels and yet He doesn’t ignore us. He doesn’t defriend us on social media since we mistreated Him. He confronts us with the hurt we have caused Him and says I am willing to reconcile with you by sending my Son Jesus. In fact, this Jesus will pay the price of what it cost us for our sin!

This is why we find the joy from the Lord is our strength for … 2) salvation. God is not against you! He is for His glory, which means that as we glorify Him, we can enjoy Him forever. We are saved from our rebellion and saved to a relationship with Christ. This means we don’t have to spend energy on our regrets but on moving forward with God. In fact, this leads us to another way that the joy of the Lord is our strength … 3) Persevering service.You know that the road ahead is hard, but you find strength seeing the prize rather than the pathway. This is the difference maker! For some the gospel is good news and for others it seems like bad news. This was so evident at Christmas. I’ll give you numerous examples. Let’s start with persevering and elderly Simeon as described in Luke 2:25-35. Simeon was “a righteous and devout man, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25). When Simeon saw 8 day old baby Jesus being brought by Mary and Joseph into the Temple for His circumcision, Simeon blessed and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed, for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Another example of the opposite responses to the gift of God was the response the star in the east that was a sign of Christ’s birth. The Wise Men worshipped Jesus, yet King Herod wanted to wipe Jesus out.

“It’s the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1–23) in action. At Christmas, the Word is broadcast far and wide. Much “falls along the path” and appears to have no effect (v. 19); some is received with seasonal joy, but fades under the troubles of the new year (vv. 20–21); and only a fraction grows into mature, enduring fruitfulness (v. 23). We shouldn’t be surprised when a variety of people show up in our churches and express a variety of responses to the Word. Like the sower, we cast the seed widely and trust God to give a harvest (1 Cor. 3:7).”[5]

So is your response to God’s gift of His Word– both the Written and Incarnate Word – joy?It would be good to remember what James Hasting preached over a 100 years ago, “Nehemiah does not say every joy will make a man strong; his words are, ‘The joy of the Lordis your strength.”[6]This is why Christmas itself isn’t the celebration; Christ is the celebration. As the Jews in Nehemiah’s day were commanded to eat the fat and drink the sweetest wine (something Baptists find hard to swallow), it wasn’t the food, drink and partying that was the point. It was the good news that sought fellowship with them, bought salvation for them, and taught persevering service with them.

This is why we Christians are the most joyous people on earth despite being persecuted the most. Atheistic psychologists in the U.S. even tell their clients to attend church because they will find celebration and a sense of community. No wonder why Nehemiah says, ““Literally ‘eat of the fat’ means the choicest and thus the best.”[7] In fact, for you Bible keeners out there, “To ’eat the fat’ is not a contravention of the forbidden animal-fat law in Leviticus 3:17, ‘It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood.’ This is why our Jewish friends don’t eat fatty medium rare prime rib. However, that is not what Nehemiah is commanding. ‘Eat the fat’ means rich food.”[8] I was in Jerusalem on a Sabbath day and I loved to watch the Jews dance and drink with eager expectation that the Messiah would come soon.

The great news that we Christians believe is that Jesus has already come. And as you know joy has to be shared. Maybe this is why even the Jews in Nehemiah’s day “sent portions to anyone who had nothing ready” (Nehemiah 8:10) To “’send a portion’ meant that for those who were unable to prepare anything for the festival, a portion must be sent out of generosity. They were to provide and share with their poor neighbours.”[9]

So what is your response to God’s gift of His Word, Jesus Christ? Remember, I said that it was Jesus’ birthday. It can be for you too. You can have spiritual birth and experience joyful fellowship, salvation and service. Do not be grieved any longer, but find the joy of the Lord is your strength and trust in Him for salvation today and share this gift with others.

[1]Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2002), 34-35.

[2]Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009),

[3]F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 218.

[4]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 107.

[5]Glen Scrivener, “2 Keys for Christmas Outreach,” Outreach Magazine, December 16, 2019.,%202019&maropost_id=714615233. Accessed December 17, 2019.

[6]James Hastings, Deuteronomy-Esther (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911),

[7]Fensham, 219.

[8]Kidner, 107.

[9]Fensham, 219.

Restore Using Your Genealogy & Gifts

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Though a distant cousin to Elvis, this is the closest my wife Lori has ever got to him!

Who here cuts their own Christmas tree? Our family does! We go to a Christmas tree farm in late November and try to find the perfect tree. You might not cut your own Christmas tree, but many of us are interested in another type of tree, especially this time of year. What tree is that? Our family tree! One of the most popular Christmas gifts these past number of years are subscriptions to finding out about your family tree and where you come from. I recall a couple of years ago I got Lori a trial subscription because she wanted to know her relatives and where she came from. She discovered that most of her relatives are from England. No wonder why she loves British Drama TV Show and Period Pieces. It’s addictive to climb down your family tree and you see pictures of your ancestors. We also learned that Lori’s distant cousin is Elvis Presley, but we are a long way from inheriting Graceland.

I thought I might do a free trial myself this week and it was amazing to see pictures of my great-grandfather Theodore Stairs. He had a moustache before it was cool to have one in Movember. And you can take this a step further and get DNA evidence of where you came from. Lori’s sister’s husband got a DNA test as a gift for her and found out that she has a small Jewish link. I knew that I married one of the daughters of Israel and this is why learning Biblical Hebrew is coming easier for Lori than it did learning Biblical Greek.

Genealogies may be something that we tend to skip over in our reading of the Bible, but they are important. Today we are going to see briefly how important genealogies are from Nehemiah 7:5-73 and then show us how this points us to Christ’s own genealogy. Genealogies are so important at Christmas that both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke record them. In this study of Christmas family lists, we will hopefully be astounded with God’s faithfulness and this should stimulate us to give as both the returned Jews did for God’s restoration project and later on how the Magi gave to baby Jesus. In other words, our study in ancestry should lead to amazement about God and adoration to God. Let’s read Nehemiah 7:5-73 with me making a few comments along the way. Read Nehemiah 7:5-73Notice the famous names in verse 7 of Zerubbabel, Jeshua (the high priest), Nehemiah (the governor who rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem) and even Mordecai (Queen Esther’s uncle). They are not in chronological order, but seem to have an order of prominence.

One of the great benefits of these scriptural genealogies is that they ground the Bible in history. In a culture where history is being revised, it is hard to argue against the ancestral and DNA evidence of a historical person’s existence. Maybe this is why God put this recording of a genealogy in Nehemiah’s heart or “literally God gave it to my heart.”[1]In fact, as Bible Scholar Derek Kidner remarks, “Of all the Biblical characters, Nehemiah is perhaps the most explicit on the ‘practice of the presence of God.’”[2] This was hundreds of years before Brother Lawrence promoted the idea of being aware of God’s presence in the mundane tasks such as washing the dishes. God put producing a genealogy into Nehemiah’s heart for this purpose. What has God put in your heart? Few of us feel called by God to put together a family tree chart, but a lack of rootedness is significant today. In verses 7-59, we see how persons, positions and places tied people to the mooring of God’s family. You have the sons of Hezekiah in verse 21. You have the men of Bethlehem in verse 26. O, how this little town of Bethlehem gets big prominence in the Bible. Bethlehem (lit. “the house of bread) was a link back to King David and a future look to Christmas and Christ being born there. If people would have just been paying attention to their Bibles, God was dropping Christmas gift hints throughout the Old Testament such as in Isaiah 9 and Micah 5.

Back to Nehemiah 7! You then have the men of Kiriath-jearim who came from a place of former Baal worship according to Joshua 15:60. It serves as a reminder that God loves to redeem former wicked places, like He has done here in Hespeler by turning former biker gang holes and brothels into a flourishing downtown. Then you have the men of Bethel mentioned in verse 32, where Jacob had a vision from God of angels ascending and descending a ladder as recorded in Genesis 28:10-22.  There is also the men of Ai in verse 32, which links back to a black spot in Israel’s history where they were soundly defeated because Achan had broken God’s command and had taken some of the banned plunder and hiding without anybody knowing. So children of God went into battle without Him according to Joshua 7. That evidences the communal nature of sin. Then you have the number of sons of Jericho listed in Nehemiah 7:36, a link back to the God’s miraculous defeat of the famous walled city. Also, you have the priests, Levites and temple servants listed in verses 39-56. As well as Solomon’s servants in Nehemiah 7:57-59! All these were unpacked earlier in our study of Ezra 2. Genealogies are repeated in the Bible, because I believe a lot of people are looking for such anchors to our ancestors. This is especially true in our society where many come from broken homes and don’t know their family story. We don’t even keep baby books with locks of hair from our baby’s first haircut anymore I’m told. I want you to do whatever God puts in your heart and you can be confident it is from God as long as it aligns with His Word and character.  Maybe one of those things that God will put in your heart this Christmas is to take a pause from your devices and tell some good and heart-warming stories from your family’s past. And if some of those showcase God’s faithfulness and your ancestor’s godliness go for them first.

There is a sad section though in this passage. It starts in verse 61 and ends in verse 65, “The following were those who came up from Tel-melah(Tel meaning a location that had a city that was built upon a ruined city), Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addon, Immer, but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel  these sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food until a priest with Urim and Thummim should arise.”This reminds me of those signs on the front of restaurants – “NO shoes, NO shirts, No service!” Well, in Nehemiah’s day if you didn’t have what was equivalent to an Israelite passport, then no service and no holy feasting! How sad!

Did you catch one name that stood out as being part of those who missed out? I’ll give you a hint. He has been getting a lot of press throughout Nehemiah 4 & 6. His name is TOBIAH! He wasn’t included! He wasn’t able to be a priest or to eat the holy food. No wonder why Tobiah is so ticked off and causing trouble for Nehemiah. He has daddy issues and he was “holy hangry”! Maybe he was even acting out because of his FOMO issues – Fear of Missing Out?

Also notice Barzillai the Gileadite.  “In Barzillai’s case, he took his name from his father-in-law and thus started a matriarchal lineage.”[3]This did not mean he was soft because Barzillai’s name actually means, “iron-man.”[4]He was “iron-man” before Robert Downey, Jr. ever played the character in the Marvel series! But just like in the last Avengers movie, this ancient “iron man” Barzillai didn’t get to carry on. He couldn’t serve in the Temple or eat its food.

Our heritage matters and more importantly, the legacy we leave our descendants. I thought it was interesting to learn this week in my study that, “With at least 40 children born out of wedlock within the English royal family between the 11thand 15thcenturies, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazinehas suggested that there are over 4 million descendants of King Edward III alive today, with that article going to state that some experts believe ‘practically everyone’ with British ancestry could be descended from royalty.”[5]No wonder why Dawn Nickless has a picture of Queen Elizabeth on the side window of her car, which always throws me when I walk by that car in our church parking lot thinking that the Queen has arrived and I’m tempted to bow. Dawn is probably related to the Queen!

All of this to say that this sense of belonging led to a sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility was specifically felt in their pocket books. Verses 70-72 record, “Now some of the heads of fathers gave to the work. The governor gave to the treasury 1000 darics of gold, 50 basins, 30 priests’ garments and 500 minas of silver. And some of the father’s house gave into the treasury of the work 20,000 darics of gold and 2,200 minas of silver. And what the rest of the people gave was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver and 67 priests’ garments.” Translating this into today’s measurements[6]– one daric was ¼ ounce or 8.5 grams and one mina was 1 ¼ pounds or 0.6 kilograms. Therefore, if gold is close to $2000/ounce and silver is over $22/ounce, then this means that this group of 42,000 people listed in Nehemiah 7, which is slightly smaller than the combined population of 46,000 people of Hespeler and Preston according to the 2016 Census, gave $20.5 million in gold and $2,068,000 in silver as well as priestly garments. Not bad for a bunch of returning enslaved exiles. What could we do, Temple?

Let me talk specifically to fathers out there. We must lead in generosity! It was the fathers of these households who gave. Men, I dare you to tithe, giving 10% of your income, to the Lord’s work here at Temple the next month and see what God will do. Maybe you used to give and stopped trusting God to make up the difference? We know from Malachi, written just a few years later from this report in Nehemiah 7, that the Jews had stopped giving. God considered this stealing from Him. Malachi 3:6-10records God’s promise, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”God promises to protect us from consumption and to throw open the doors of heaven with blessing if we will trust Him with a tithe! If we all tithed here today, we would not need to have a year-end target and Christmas miracle. We could have miracles throughout the year. We need to remember that God is working miraculously all year long and through the years.

This is so evident as we transition to take a brief look into Christ’s genealogy. We could pick either Luke 4 or Matthew 1, but let’s focus on Matthew 1 and specifically verses 12-13 since the first name mentioned in Nehemiah 7:7 is Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel means “seed of Babylon.” We read in Matthew 1:12-13, “And after the deportation to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel and Zerubbabel the father of Abuid…” I love how God used this man Zerubbabel, whose name would be infamous with being a conceived and born in Babylon, to continue along the line of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This is really important because in Nehemiah’s day, there were some included and excluded based on ethnicity and good record-keeping. However, God decided to break down this wall to Himself by sending His Son to become priest for us and to offer holy food to us as we celebrated last week with the Lord’s Supper. God even did it by using “seeds from Babylon” to lead to the seed of heaven through Jesus Christ. Do you see why I said at the beginning of this message that our study in ancestry should lead to an amazement about God and adoration to God?  Isn’t God so great? He can fulfill all of his promises related to geography and genealogy as Luke 2:4 reveals, In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”And He has been so generous to us, no wonder our response should be to be generous towards Him this Christmas!Is Jesus at the top of your list to give to?He is the one who has made you and I family – God’s forever family!

[1]F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – NICOT(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 211.

[2]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary(Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 103.

[3]Fensham, 56.

[4]Fensham, 56.

[5]Source: December 9, 2019.

[6]Canadian gold and silver prices were accessed on December 9, 2019 at 2 pm.

Restore by Finishing Your Assignment

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My son Noah running his own race!

When you hear the words “Do Not Walk” you might think of one of the pedestrian street crossings, but that is not what echoes in my brain. In my brain is Mr. Kralow’s voice, my high school cross country coach, who taught me all sorts of sayings that replay over and over in my head to this very day when I run, “Don’t go out too fast but keep the leaders close! Never walk! Don’t look back! Don’t get side-tracked! Attack the hills! Run through the tape!” Even “run your own race.”

That last one was especially helpful when I ran a ¼ Marathon a few years ago. The race started out well for me as I was able to keep the leaders within sight except for the guy from Kenya who considered a ¼ Marathon a warm up for a walk in the park. I was running what I thought was pretty good until … this is actually embarrassing. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this? A man who was rather overweight passed me. Then a few minutes later a new mom pushing a stroller overtook me. It shook me a little because my competitive juices immediately kicked in and I wanted to beat him and mom & baby but Mr. Kralow’s voice came through loud and clear, “Run your own race, Jon!” So I tried to keep my consistent pace because I knew that if I went too fast, I wouldn’t finish. Let me say those words again to many of us during this hectic, Christmas season. I have put them on the screen for us all to say “If I go too fast, I won’t finish.” In fact, since I last preached to you, God has been teaching me some new things and Lori and I have been making some course corrections in our marriage. For one thing, I had been asking Lori to run my race and not her own. My fast pace productivity wars against her creativity and thoroughness. And so I had a friend challenge me why I was encouraging Lori to finish her Master’s degree at a clip I thought doable by my own standards. That clip being two classes/semester or 4 classes/year. But running somebody else’s race may cause you not to finish your own race. The Bible actually teaches that God has given each of us our own race to run. Hebrews 12:1-2 declares, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”So in order to obey this verse and lay aside some unneeded weight, we have cut Lori’s course load by 50% so she can have more time for our family and church family. We now can be part of a small group in the New Year, which we recognize we need more community in our lives. So I ask you, are you running your own race? Are you being distracted? Are you attacking the obstacles in front of you? Are you finishing your assignment? And after running through the tape are you still aware of the dangers around you? That last question comes from what I learned that at the end of a race one is vulnerable to harming your circulation and slowing down your recovery. Instead, you need do a cool down with light activity and stretching.

Now you probably didn’t come here to get running tips in the middle of winter and if you wanted running tips you wouldn’t be coming to me, but checking out Runner’s World. So why I am telling you all of this? Because running a race is like the journey that Nehemiah and his fellow Jews were on in God’s restoration project. Even more importantly, we are in a race towards not only Christmas, but towards Jesus Himself. Let’s read Nehemiah 6:1-7:4 to discover how we can finish our assignments and race towards Jesus. There will be distractions! There will be temptations to disobey God disguised as good opportunities. There will be intimidations along the way. But my brothers and sisters, we must keep running toward Jesus. Just like you students heading into exams, don’t quit now! Read Nehemiah 6:1-7:4!

Here is how I would summarize this extensive passage: Finish the assignment God has for you by not being distracted, by not disobeying God and by not being intimidated. Nehemiah could have easily been distracted and not finished his assignment from God. He could have been tripped up with the finish line in sight. Verse 2 describes this distraction well, “Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, ‘Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” And then we find Nehemiah’s narration, “But they intended to do me harm.” We don’t know if this harm was physical or leadership-wise in undermining Nehemiah’s credibility with either his fellow Jews as being perceived as in bed with the Samaritans or by the Persians as Nehemiah colluding with the Samaritans – a quid pro quo – horse trading between leaders for favours. Bible Scholar Charles Fenshem thinks possibly the latter, “Maybe not physical harm but Sanballat’s request for a meeting could be perceived by the Persian authorities as collaboration.”[1]

I love Nehemiah’s response in verse 3, “And I sent messengers to them, saying, I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” It may have been partially the Oriental way of saving face or it could have just been smart leadership to not get caught up in the skirmish, but Nehemiah sent messengers. This was to be a one-way conversation, “I am doing a great work.” Friends, archaeologists tell us that this wall seems to be done hastily and didn’t have some of the finer points of architecture, which totally follows the Biblical text in verse 15 when it took incredibly only 52 days to complete. It was fast because “in special circumstances people who are aware of dangers around them are able to work more rapidly than in normal circumstances.”[2]However, you might think that the workmanship suffered. Not so! The wall has stood the test of time and can still be seen in part today in Jerusalem.  What a reminder that our work may not be spectacular to others, but it can still be great to God. It will last if God is in it! DON’T GET DISTRACTED! I love this confession by Joanna Gains from the TV Show Fixer Upper fame, “I was wrong to blame time for so many years, to call it a thief for moving too fast. I’ve found that the real thieves are distractions and our willingness to give into them, to allow our thoughts and energy to fuel their journey toward some lesser thing. In the end, they are what will steal our moments and rob our days. But time – the here and now – is our most precious gift. And I’m determined to hold it carefully with outstretched and grateful hands.”[3]So let me ask you some questions aimed at your heart:  Is there something distracting you from following Christ and completing your assignment with Him? What is that distraction? Is it a relationship? Is it money? Is it prestige? Is it trying to please everybody? What is distracting you from finishing God’s assignment? As Daniel Henderson says, “The devil has weapons of mass distraction” aimed at you.

Your distractors and detractors won’t give up. Verses 4-5 record Sanballat and his slimy friends tried to have these clandestine meetings 4 times, then they tried a different tactic. They made a false accusation against Nehemiah in verses 5-7, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah,’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” Sanballat so wanted a meeting with Nehemiah that he tried to make Nehemiah mad and come at least to defend himself. Maybe like Nehemiah you have had false accusations against you?  Maybe, like Sanballat did, they have gone public with their accusations?  Maybe even on social media?

What did Nehemiah do? We can learn from him. Nehemiah did not ignore them and this would be definitely true in our society because silence seems to imply guilt. This is especially true since the accusation was public. “The sending of an open letter ensured that the malicious rumours it contained would sooner or later be public property.”[4]So Nehemiah has to address the accusation but he didn’t lower himself to slimy Sanballat’s level. Instead, Nehemiah saw through the lies and understood that this was an effort to discourage him. So Nehemiah denied any wrongdoing. Verse 8 records that Nehemiah saw them as fabrications. It was untrue that Nehemiah had a treasonous heart. He was actually doing what the king permitted and provided for him to do. But Nehemiah still prayed. He didn’t get caught up on the twitter chatter. He moved on to seeking God to strengthen his hands as verse 9 records. Do you need to ask God to strengthen your hands right now? We overcome distractions by seeking God to strengthen us!

However, it isn’t just distractions that may cause you not to finish the assignment God has given you. There is probably a more deadly trap and that is disobeying God that is disguised as obedience and getting closer to God. This was the tactic of Shemaiah. Shemaiah acted like a confidant of Nehemiah’s. Nehemiah made a pastoral visit to this shut-in. But Shemaiah was well enough to ask for a meeting in the Temple. This reminds me that in one church we served we had a time during the weekly offertory prayer to pray for the shut-in of the week. It probably wasn’t an award you wanted to get because it meant that you weren’t able to get to a worship service. Finally, though we shut down the shut-in of the week prayer because too many shut-ins we would meet out in the community at the mall or wherever. They seemed to be able to make it out to shop but not to worship. Or maybe God healed them through our prayers? Shemaiah was “healed” well enough to be able to call a meeting at the temple. Sounds good, eh? Especially since Shemaiah seems to be wanting to protect Nehemiah. This would be equivalent when somebody claims sanctuary in a church so that they cannot be arrested. This was true at some altars in the ancient world as described in 1 Kings 1:50-53 when wicked Adonijah sought asylum at the altar from his newly crowned brother King Solomon. Sanctuary was also practiced with legal effect in England from the 4thto the 17thCentury.[5]  However, churches have no longer any legal barrier from authorities coming in and arresting somebody but it is still practiced today. I will say that criminals can find sanctuary here in an eternal way. You can repent of your sins and God will cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He will free your soul even though you may still have to be in chains for a few years on earth. We don’t hide criminals here; but God heals criminals here.

Back to Nehemiah 6! The problem with Shemaiah’s offer is that Nehemiah was not allowed in the Temple. He wasn’t a priest and the temple was restricted to priests only. So how did Nehemiah overcome the temptation to disobey even though it seemed he would be drawing close to God and finding protection. Nehemiah did what Jesus did when tempted. He fought temptation with the Word of God. Check out verse 11, “But I said, ‘Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live.” Nehemiah knew 2 Chronicles 23:6, “Let no one enter the house of the LORD except the priests and ministering Levites. They may enter, for they are holy, but all the people shall keep the charge of the Lord.” Nehemiah kept the charge of the Lord. He understood to fear God before man. It is more dangerous to disobey God than be destroyed by men. Didn’t Jesus teach us in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? Nehemiah hadn’t heard Jesus speak that truth because Jesus said it hundreds of years later, but Nehemiah lived that truth. Nehemiah 6:12-14 records Nehemiah’s godly perspective and even better, his prayer, “And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.” Nehemiah trusted God by handing off his enemies to God to deal with. Not only are we to let God be our defender and avenger, but it keeps us on task in our race and assignment.

My friends, the way you always overcome temptations to disobey even if they sound good is by knowing and sticking to God’s Word. Remember, the temptation to disobey by doing seemingly good things is the most ancient tactic of the Tempter. The serpent in Genesis 3 tempted Eve with what looked good, “Just eat the fruit eve and your will be like God.” Nehemiah overcame both distractions and disobedience by keeping His eyes on God. And look at the results in verses 15-16, “So the wall was finished on the 25thday of the month Elul, in 52 days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” This is what I long for in my life and in our church. I call it “Only God” productivity. I prayed before coming here that I would get to be part of a church where it could be proclaimed “Only God” could save them and make them fruitful. Don’t you think that is true here, Temple? How many assaults of the evil one that have been formed against us and yet they did not prosper and we are still standing? Only God can take our enemies and make them acknowledge Him. It reminds me of a story of a student at the precursor school to our beloved Heritage College just down the street from Temple. The student’s name was Earl Clemens and he was a student at London Bible Institute in the 1950’s. One day he received “an unfortunate haircut by his roommate that necessitated immediate correction. He was able to hitch a ride to a rural barber who was open Saturday night. The barber did his best and Earl hitch-hiked back to London. A car stopped on the dark country road; the front passenger door was pushed open in welcome and Earl gratefully climbed in, only then to see, on the seat between the driver and himself, a revolver. Conversation between the occupants made their intent clear, they were planning to rob a London jewellery store and Earl was invited to participate. In desperation, Earl could think of only one thing to do – talk to them about their need of Christ. One of the potential robbers acknowledged that he had trusted Christ as a child and the other received Christ right there in the car. The robbery was aborted and Earl’s chance to become an accomplice to a crime was averted.”[6]Only God could do that! Only God can help you overcome temptation and finish the assignment He has given you.

Yet, this does not mean that others will not try to intimidate you along the way. Tobiah was relentless. Despite setbacks, he kept coming after Nehemiah and the Jews. Tobiah was well connected and “had family ties with the priestly or high priestly house of Eliashib, probably by marriage.”[7] With this backing, Tobiah sent more letters to make Nehemiah afraid as verse 19 declares. And yet, God had given Nehemiah a faithful brother who could counteract Tobiah. Nehemiah 7:2 states, “I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.” Wouldn’t you love to be described that way – faithful and God-fearing? God will always bring somebody, even if it is just one or two people, who will stand with you.

How do I know? Because God sent another brother to us. His son Jesus who was born as a brother in times of adversity. This brother never got distracted, He never disobeyed even when tempted with seemingly good things, and Jesus was never intimated by anyone. He prayed and He trusted God with His enemies and accomplished with the help of His Father and the Holy Spirit the salvation of the world and that includes you and me. Jesus ran the race and finished when we couldn’t.  He was the only one who ran our race and finished for us. He is our sub because He didn’t look back but saw ahead and for the joy set before Him endured the Cross. Are you trusting in Him?

I am going to ask Debbie Duclos to come up and share how Jesus has helped her in her race against cancer but more importantly, her race in life.

[1]F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – NICOT(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 202.

[2]Fensham 206.

[3]Joanna Gains, “It’s About Time,” Magnolia Table, Issue # 13, November 2019, 27.

[4]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary(Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 99.

[5]Source: Accessed December 5, 2019.

[6]Grace Reeves, William Philips, & Fred Vaughan, Fellowship Baptist Trailblazers – Book 3 (Belleville: Guardian Books, 2004), 68.

[7]Kidner, 101.

Restore by Stopping Oppression of Poor

This sermon can be watched or listened to at!

What are the poor saying about you? Now some of you may be able to join the chorus of poor, but most of us are wealthy enough to not be considered financially poor. You may be in debt and not have a lot of money in your bank account, living paycheck to paycheck, but if you had a choice to wear something different than you slept in last night, you’re rich in comparison to much of the world. Many of us however are relationally poor and so we understand poverty at certain levels. This is why I went to visit my friends and family up north this weekend. I wanted to be around a family with grandparents, parents and grandchildren. I loved watching how the older generation told stories. How they cooked meals together That multigenerational environment is what we are trying to intentionally experience here at Temple. This is why one generation doesn’t get to all of their songs or style of music, but we fight selfishness when we submit to one another (Ephesians 5:18-21). We have a “common meal” where we all eat the same thing. This helps fight relational poverty and shows we care about people their whole lives. We may not be the coolest church in town, but we hope to be one of the warmest because Jesus said that we will be known as His disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). Our Staff experienced such a church this past week when we visited Chicago Tabernacle. This inner city daughter church plant of Brooklyn Tabernacle is reaching the poor by their prayers, preaching and love for one another. Sowhat do you think the poor are saying about us? They ignore me? They despise me? They judge me? They wish I would just get a job and contribute? Or they love and care for me?How the poor answer this question is significant and may be a determinative factor and whether we can be called a follower of Christ or not. I’ll explain that at the end of my message.

To expand your heart for the poor, I would challenge you this week to do a topical study on the word “poor” in the Bible. You will be amazed what God says about the poor and I believe letting the scalpel of God’s Word cut deep through the callousness of our hearts will do more good than a picture of a malnourished and naked child that stimulates you to give a one-time $20 emotional donation. There are more than 300 verses about the poor in the Bible so the poor matter greatly to God. Today we want to focus on one of the passages that highlight what our response should be towards the poor.Let’s read Nehemiah 5:1-13 and we will discover the great outcry by the poor! Notice the wives are included highlighting the oppression of women. On this Remembrance Day, we must remember that much of the wars fought in our world have been about oppressing and impoverishing other people. Read Nehemiah 5:1-13!

Can we all agree that oppressing your own people and impoverishing them is the worst? The key verse is Nehemiah 5:9 and is understated, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to talk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations of our enemies?” Today I am asking God to grab hold of my heart and yours so that we would learn some of the reasonspeople are poor, what our responseshould be to the poor, why our reputationshould be about the poor matters and lastly, the reward of caring for the poor. In other words, what are legitimate reasons for and responses to poverty that lead to the right reputation and rewards for alleviating poverty?And these last two “r’s” – reputation and rewards – I say with great caution because they get to the heart of our motivation for caring for the poor. We want to stay far away from poverty tourism or caring for the poor just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We also don’t want to “prostitute” the poor so that we use our ministry to poor as gospel marketing. This term “prostitute” the poor is a term I learned when working with the poor in Chicago. And yet, altruism or helping the poor without expecting anything in return is not Biblical. The Bible does teach a ROI (Return On Investment) in helping the poor. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:3in the KJV and NIV, If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”(emphasis added) There is a gain more than hinted in the Bible for helping the poor.

Let’s unpack the reasons for poverty with the understanding that I am focused on Nehemiah 5 and not giving an exhaustive list nor a consideration for all modern causes or contributors to poverty such as gambling and the lottery. The text and experience puts much of the causes of poverty into two categories – sin and systems and these could be further specified as family and unfair disadvantages.  Bible Scholar summarizes the “three reasons for the poverty: 1) Big families  (v. 2); 2) Lack of grain led to going into debt and mortgaging their properties (v. 3); and 3) Farmers had to borrow to pay the royal property tax (v. 4).”[1]So if having a big family is a reason for poverty, then we should all stop having children? No, in fact having lots of children may indicate that you take God more seriously obeying His command to be fruitful and multiply. As Pastor TimKeller predicts, “The world will become more religious because the religious have significantly more children.”[2] The reality though is that family can sometimes be the cause of poverty and I am focusing less on the number of children but on the dysfunction within the family. According to the six year study of Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics put out by Stats Can in 2013, those at high-risk of poverty are “…people with activity limitations (physical or mental disability), singles (unattached individuals), persons in lone-parent families, people with less than high school education and visible minorities who are immigrants.

Many of these causes are family generated but certainly not all of them. When I worked in Chicago among the poor, we could see fatherlessness being a big reason for poverty and reckless behaviour such as substance abuse and gang violence. But sometimes poverty is just a result of where you were born. If you were born in a neighbourhood or place where there were no decent paying jobs, you ended up selling and most likely using drugs. There is a systemic and insidious nature to poverty. However, some overcome and make it out of poverty, but most don’t. Look at verse 3, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” This is an example of a systemic problem that carries on to this very day where some who are producing food are so in debt that they can’t eat the food they are producing. The Bible teaches that debt is slavery.  Proverbs 22:7 declares, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

Personal debt is one problem, but it can be compounded by being in debt to the government. Personal debt can cause relational discord, but government debt can mean prison time. Verses 4-5 evidences this truth, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” By the way, the phrase that our daughters have already been enslaved can mean “be taken as second wives.”[3] This was devastating because your children were your social security in those days and your family land was something you didn’t leverage because it had been so hard fought and won as a legacy for the next generation.

So far we have covered some of the reasons for poverty, but now let’s focus on our response to poverty. Notice Nehemiah’s response in verse 6, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” Nehemiah was disturbed and angry over poverty. “Nehemiah’s anger was the measure of his concern of love as was our Lord’s.”[4]I recall the first time I saw people drinking out of a green water pond in Haiti. It made me so mad and sad at the same time. Such an emotional response usually requires a more measured response. So notice what Nehemiah does in verse 7, “I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’” In other words, Nehemiah mastered himself and got control of his emotions. I think such self-control is truly only found by the Holy Spirit since it is one of His fruit. This is why it is good to ask the Holy Spirit to help remind you of His Word and give you wisdom. Nehemiah’s phrase was straight out of Scripture in Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him and you shall not exact interest from him.” (emphasis added) And so since the Jews were not obeying the Law and charging usury, Nehemiah uses the Law and brings charges against them. “Nehemiah brought a lawsuit against the nobles.”[5] The charge is found in verses 7-8, And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!”I love the response of the Jews.They were silent and could not find a word to say.”It is such a holy moment where the Holy Spirit convicts somebody and they are silent and do not defend themselves. So our response to the poor is not just to provide for them, but to protect and defend them.

And that may be costly personally. It was for Nehemiah. Look at verse 10, “Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.” Did you catch that? The ripple effect of charging the poor interest meant that the Jews were exacting interest from Nehemiah and his family and his employees. Somebody had to pay. This was super problematic.  “Nehemiah’s diverting of manpower from raising crops to raising walls may have been the final burden.”[6]Therefore, the oppression of the poor affected the productivity of the project. Furthermore, “Such trouble jeopardized both the relational and economic stability in the region,”[7]because as we studied the last couple of weeks, Nehemiah’s opponents were just waiting for a crack in the wall of the restoration project. So oppression of the poor leads to an inability to obey God’s Word and open us up to the attacks of our opponents.I cannot overemphasize how important it is to get out of debt. Use the snowball effect. Here is why: many of us are in disobedience to God’s command of tithing (giving 10%) of our income to Him because we have been oppressed and are in debt and then this leads to our vulnerability by our opponents. I am so concerned about how much our country is in debt and how we are borrowing from our grandchildren right now. This is jeopardizing the reputation of Jesus’ Church! Remember verse 9, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations of our enemies.” Frankly, our reputation is on the line with how we treat the poor. Proverbs 14:31 makes this so abundantly clear, “Whoever oppresses the poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours Him.”

What shall we now do? To follow Nehemiah’s example in verse 11, “Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine and oil that you have been exacting from them.” And to give context, it means that those in debt didn’t have to wait until year seven when everybody was released from debt as Exodus 21:2required, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.”How does this apply to us? If somebody owes you, maybe God is asking you to rip up the note and to stop making them pay, especially such a high-interest rate.Some officials are talking about trying to cancel the debt of student loans. These things are too great for me. All I know is that my family, church family and everybody I can preach to, we must get out of debt and we must release others from their debts. This is what the people did in verse 12, “Then they said, ‘We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” The Jews were rescued from slavery so this should have been motivation not to return to slavery and enslave their brothers. As Christians we have a further reason to get out of debt and release others from debts. Recall the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” That is a gospel prayer because Jesus paid for and forgave us all our debts, so we should not indebt, but free others.

In Nehemiah’s case, he saw this as so important that he wanted a covenant of the people certified by the priest. This is why in verses 12-13, “And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.”“In those days people kept some of their personal belongings in the folds of their gowns and garments.”[8]It was essentially like saying that you don’t keep this covenant, the things that are closest and most treasured by you, you will lose.

What I love is that the lenders didn’t feel like losers! Instead, the creditors become celebrators of God! Notice the end of verse 13, “And all the assembly said, ‘Amen’ and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.” Providing for the poor should lead to praising God.  This is so much better than giving ourselves a hand for a handout to the poor. Instead, we raise our hands to gratefulness of our God.

Oh my friends, this is a pressing issue for our spiritual lives. It is a matter of life and death and not just for the poor, but for us. You see, Jesus, the one who was rich became poor so that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). It is this same Jesus who told the story in Matthew 25:31-46. Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 25:31-46:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And He will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”The poor cry out to God and testify whether we are Christians or not. Helping the poor doesn’t save us, but shows that we are like our Saviour. What are the poor saying about you?

What an important question on this Remembrance Day when we don’t just remember those who fought for our physical freedom but the One who fought for our spiritual freedom Jesus Christ. It is this simple table where no matter your net worth, you come as a beggar and find the Bread of Life in Jesus Christ. It is this Jesus, the King of Kings, who invites us poor to His kingly table for simple meal to remember His death. If you come like a beggar, acknowledging your need of grace, you are welcome here. Behind me on the screen is some guidance on Communion.

[1]F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 191.

[2]Timothy Keller,  Making Sense of God,(New York: Dutton, 2016), 24.

[3]Fensham, 192.

[4]Derek Kidner, Ezra & NehemiahAn Introduction and Commentary (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 95.

[5]Fensham, 193.

[6]Kidner, 93.

[7]Fensham, 193.

[8]Fensam, 196.