I am in the middle of a three Sunday visit to Ballycrochan Baptist Church while their pastor takes his well-earned vacation. Over the three mornings I am preaching from three chapters (1,4,8) of Nehemiah and on the two evenings I am there I am preaching from a couple of the parables in Luke.
Yesterday morning we looked at the nature of the opposition Nehemiah faced in his task of restoring the ruined city of Jerusalem and the ways he dealt with it. Some things don’t change much and there is still plenty to be learned from what went two and a half millennia ago.
- There are times when our work seems futile. The first phase of opposition consisted of ridicule as two of the local governors who did not wish to see a resurgent Jerusalem outside their control spoke disparagingly and with sarcastic humour about what was happening. There are still plenty of voices that would like to suggest that people who follow God are deluded.
- There are times when the opposition seems powerful. When scorn and ridicule don’t work, Jerusalem’s enemies turned to threats of violence. It’s tempting for Western Christians to try to spiritualise the story at this point – Ephesians 6 identifies the nature of our struggle as spiritual – but I think we’d not be so quick to do so if we lived in parts of the world where simply attending a church worship service was an act of courage because of the threats of physical violence.
- There are times when the load seems impossible. Added to the threats was the fact that there was so much rubble to clear. There were also discouraging messages from other Jews: much to tempt the builders to lose heart. John Stott said that depression and discouragement are the occupational hazards of being a Christian. There are times when the work seems overwhelming and the obstacles are great.
In the face of it all, Nehemiah prayed and took appropriate military precautions. At the end of the day, it was God’s work and he would get it done. As Paul put it, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, because of the victory that has been guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection, we can be steadfast and immovable, knowing that our work in the Lord is not in vain.
The evening message was on self-righteousness, from Jesus’ story, in Luke 18, about the two men praying at the Temple.
Self-righteousness means believing that I am better than everyone else. It’s a subtle sin that is easier to spot in others than in ourselves. I love the story of the Sunday School teacher who taught her class about the Luke 18 parable and then closed in prayer by saying, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee.”
Jesus taught that –
- Self-righteous people are proud of themselves (“complacently pleased” is how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message).
- Self-righteous people look down on others.
- Self-righteous people end up alienated from God.
John Stott wrote an excellent paragraph on how the cross of Jesus is the antidote for self-righteousness:
Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.