Monday, 22 September 2014

Nehemiah's Prayer (Nehemiah 1:1-11)


Over the next few months we are going to be studying the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.  It is one of my favourite books in the Bible, which has much to say to us today.  Nehemiah may not be as well-known as other Old Testament characters, but he was a man of deep faith and action, and I hope that as we explore this book together we will be challenged and encouraged.

Historical Background

To understand the book of Nehemiah, you first need to put the book in its proper context and understand something of the history of Israel.

Following the exodus from Egypt, the twelve tribes of Israel settled in the land of Canaan, the land that had been promised to Abraham long ago.  Because the Hebrew tribes were frequently at war with their neighbours, they formed themselves into a loose confederation, initially led by Judges.  

It was only when Saul was chosen by God to be king (1020-1000BC) that the twelve tribes came together under to form the United Monarchy, which continued during the reigns of David and Solomon.  

Under King David’s rule Israel flourished and grew, and David established Jerusalem as the national capital.  David was succeeded by his son King Solomon.  But following Solomon’s death, tensions between the northern part of Israel containing the ten northern tribes, and the southern tribes reached boiling point, and the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah split to create two kingdoms, the northern Kingdom of Israel, which had its capital in Samaria, and the Kingdom of Judah which retained Jerusalem as its capital.

The Kingdom of Israel existed as an independent state until 722 BC when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire.   The Kingdom of Judah continued for another 136 years until 586BC when it was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire.

Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jerusalem to be razed to the ground, the walls torn down, and the temple destroyed, and its treasurers carried off – including the Arc of the Covenant which contained the ten commandments, which has been lost ever since.  The sons of Judah’s King Zedekiah were killed before him, and then Zedekiah had his eyes gouged out, and was taken into captivity to Babylon, 1000 miles away, along with many of the other inhabitants of Jerusalem, a period of history known as the Babylonian Exile or Captivity.  Only a tiny remanent of people were permitted to remain in Judah.  Even to this day these events continue to shape Jewish identity and understanding.

48 years later, in 538BC Cyrus II of Persia, who had conquered Babylon the previous year, decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem, as recorded in our first reading from the book of Ezra (1:1-4).

Despite the decree, only a handful chose to accept Cyrus’ offer and return to Judah; most of the exiles preferred to remain in Messoptamia, where they had settled, married, had families and established businesses.  The few that did return to Jerusalem found a wasteland.
Slowly work began to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, but it was beset by problems, and wasn’t completed until 516BC.

It was not until 458BC, 80 years after the first exiles returned to Jerusalem, that another group of exiles, priests and Levites arrived under the leadership of Ezra the scribe.  He was joined twelve years later by Nehemiah.  The book of Nehemiah tells the story of Nehemiah’s role in helping to restore Jerusalem, and renewing the people’s faith, in the face of considerable opposition.

Nothing is known about Nehemiah’s youth or background, we first encounter him as an adult serving in the Persian royal court as the personal cupbearer to King Artaxerxes.  This was an important position, Nehemiah ensured the safety and quality of the king’s food and drink, and therefore had direct access to the King, and would have been a trusted advisor, a man of importance and influence.

Although Nehemiah had remained in Persia after the exiles had been allowed to go home, he heart was for his homeland Judah.  So when Hanani, a fellow Jew returned from visiting Judah, Nehemiah questioned him about how things were in Judah and Jerusalem.
What Hanani told Nehemiah, broke his heart.  “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh 1:3)  The city was defenceless, the people leaderless. Before the exile, Israel had its own language, king, army and identity.  Now it had none of these things.

Challenges Facing St Martin’s

So what is the relevance of this for us today?  Just as Judah and Jerusalem faced huge challenges, so the church today is also facing big challenges.

Church attendance – has fallen.  In 2013, there were 5.4 million church members in the UK, 10% of the adult population, a fall of 300,000 people since 2008.  If current trends continue by 2025 only between 5 to 4% of the adult population will attend church.

But when it comes to children and young people the statistics are even more alarming.  According to Christian Research, the Church in the UK will lose an estimated 1.1 million children between 1990 and 2020 if nothing is done to try and stop the exodus of children from church. They predict that in the year 2020, 183,700 children aged under-15 will attend church compared to 375,300 in 2010.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is however that there are signs that the rate of this decline is reducing and some churches seeing growth.

Here at St Martin’s the next 5 to 10 years will be a critical time.  Over one third of our church membership are aged over 70.  Ultimately if we do not grow as a church, by attracting new members, in fifteen to 20 years time the church will be unsustainable. And if we look at St Martin’s, the age range that is most underrepresented are teenagers through to people in their 40s.

There are other challenges facing the church.  Society has changed.  Sunday for many people is a working day, and a day on which they do sporting activities.  So even if people want to come to church, it is much harder than it used to be. Family life has also changed, which all has an impact.

There are other challenges, for example there are going to be fewer clergy, the days of one vicar one church are now almost at an end.

All these challenges mean that we need to re-imagine what it means to be the church, and how as a church we can grow God’s kingdom.

It is for this reason that the home groups have been asked to look at the Leading Your Church Into Growth course.

The challenge we face is how do we grow God’s church?

To help us think about this, let’s turn back to Nehemiah.

When Nehemiah heard about Jerusalem’s plight his first response was to weep and mourn, and then he PRAYED. And when he prayed, he really prayed.  ‘For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.’ (Neh 1:4)

Before Nehemiah did anything else, he prays.  For Nehemiah prayer was natural, immediate and spontaneous.  He was also persistent in prayer, day and night he prays.  Notice how he begins his prayer, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying.”  Nehemiah is realistic about the challenges facing Jerusalem, but his starting point is PRAISE.  It’s the same response as Job, when he loses everything, he says Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)

Whenever we face a challenge whether personally or as a church, our first response before we do anything else should be to pray.  And when we pray, no matter what the situation may be, we need to praise God.

Nehemiah was also confident in prayer.  Although Jerusalem’s needs were great, the city’s problem is soon dwarfed by an awesome sense of God’s majestic glory.  When we pray, we need to remember who it is we’re praying to, and that whatever challenges we may be facing, God is so much greater and bigger.

Nehemiah is also honest with God. “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.” Nehemiah realises that it was because of people’s disobedience against God, that Jerusalem and Judah was in the state it was.  There is real intensity, honesty, realism and urgency in Nehemiah’s confession.  He makes no attempt to excuse the Israelite people, or himself for past misdeeds.  He recognised that he was as much responsible as anyone else, for what had befallen Israel.  When we pray, we need to be honest with God, and ourselves.  To recognise when we have failed God, and not just because of the things we have done, but also the things we have not done.  As the prayer of confession puts it, We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those things that we ought not to have done.

When he prays he also looks back with gratitude for what God has said (1:8-9) and what God has done (1:10)  And because of God’s words and deeds in the past, it gives him confidence looking ahead to the future.  “Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” (1:11)


We need to be realistic about the challenges facing us as a church, they are considerable.  But, we worship an even greater, bigger God, and if like Nehemiah, we put God first, and earnestly seek him in prayer and praise, I believe we will see great things here at St Martin’s.  I believe that we will see a church that is growing in numbers, a church where people are growing in faith, and a church that is growing in service to our local community. I am excited about the future, and I hope you are as well.

And starting today, I want us every Sunday to use this prayer.

God of Mission,
Who alone brings growth to your Church,
Send your Holy Spirit to give
Vision to our planning,
Wisdom to our actions,
And power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
In spiritual commitment to you,
And in service to our local community.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Matthew 8:18-22 The Cost Of Following Jesus

One of my favourite verses of scripture is John 10:10 I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’  Jesus came, not just to give eternal life to those who believe in him, but to give us a life here on earth that is fuller and more abundant.  Our life on earth as Christians should be full of hope, joy, peace, love and fulfilment.  But this does not mean that the Christian life is easy. 

Jesus in our Gospel reading today makes it clear that following him is not an easy path to follow.  It was not easy 2,000 years ago and it is not easy today.  To be a follower of Christ can mean great cost and sacrifice.  Jesus said to his disciples If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) That means dying to self and living for Christ, putting God first in our lives, and allowing God to take charge of our lives.  And that’s hard, really hard. 
I am by nature a very self-centred person, I tend to inhabit the Kingdom of Simon, where I am king, rather than the Kingdom of God, where Jesus is king.  I suspect that I’m not alone in this.  We live in a self-obsessed, self-centred world, where the focus seems to be on promoting ourselves, and putting ourselves first.  Therefore to be a Christian and to put God first goes against the values of our modern age, it is counter cultural.  To do this is not easy, I need to recommit myself to God afresh every single day, because I know that I fail in putting him first, but I also know that because he loves me he gives me a fresh start each day.  And whatever the sacrifices we are called to make in following Christ, the rewards far outweigh them.    
In our Gospel reading a scribe came to Jesus and said “Teacher I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20).  Although Jesus had a home base in Capernaum, his travelling ministry left him and his disciples at the mercy of others’ hospitality, he was effectively homeless.  Matthew records Jesus’ words not only as a historical record, but also as a challenge for us today, what are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of following Jesus? 

Jesus makes it clear that commitment to him should take precedence over all other things.  Another person comes to him and says “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” (Mt 8:21), but Jesus replies “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Mt 8:22) 

These words are probably not quite as harsh as they first seem.  It’s unlikely that this particular disciple was asking to attend his father's funeral later that day, the likelihood was that his father was not yet dead, and therefore he was requesting to wait until his father had died before following Jesus, which may have been years away. 

Another possibility is that there was a custom in Jesus’ day that the eldest son would return to the tomb a year after the father's death to "rebury" his father by neatly arranging his now bare bones in a container and sliding it into a slot in the wall. If the father of the man in Matthew's account had died, this young man might have been referring to his father's reburial, and asking for as much as a year's delay before following Jesus.
How different am I to the scribe?  There have been times when I have said to God ‘Lord I will go wherever you lead me, and do whatever you want me to do, BUT….’ and then come my list of terms and conditions. 
But what Jesus’ response shows is that he has to take the supreme position in our lives.  
Jackie Pullinger has devoted her life to working amongst the drug addicts and gangs in Hong Kong, which she started doing at the age of 21.  In a talk she said ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’ God wants us to have soft hearts – hearts of love and compassion. But if we are to make any difference to the world, this will lead to hard feet as we travel along tough paths and face challenges. Jackie is a glowing example of this in her willingness to go without sleep, food and comfort in order to serve others. This comes from a soft heart: a heart filled with compassion. The toughness is in her feet, not her heart. 
Len and Vera Russell speaking at St Martin’s said that after they had retired they felt God was calling them to be missionaries overseas, and they prayed “God we are prepared to serve you anywhere in the world, BUT not Africa.” So where did they end up?  Kenya.  Where they worked with the Africa Inland Mission for 14 years.  Despite their reservations they were willing to go where God sent them, they had soft hearts and tough feet. 
If we are serious about following Jesus, we will be called to make sacrifices; there will be a cost involved.  Jesus wants disciples, not church goers.  A disciple is one who wants to follow his master, become like him, and do the things he did, and if necessary to suffer for him. 
The costs and sacrifices we face in following Christ here in the UK, are small in comparison to what other Christians around the world are having to face. 
In our reading from Revelation Jesus warns the church in Smyrna that they are going to face persecution and he says to them ‘Be faithful, even to the point of death.’ (Revelation 2:10), and in John’s gospel Jesus warned his disciples A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).
Today around the world many Christians are paying the highest cost for following Jesus.    Imagine if over a ten year period you lost 1276 people from your church.  Not because they stopped coming to church, or decided to worship somewhere else, but because they were killed.  1276 people, men, women and children murdered.  
For Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St George’s Church in Baghdad, the only Anglican church in Iraq, he doesn’t need to imagine this, this is what has happened to his congregation over the last ten years – and that was before the current crisis in Iraq.
In January the Catholic Online had the following headline Persecution ofChristians in the Middle East the worst ever in history The article went on to say The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is accelerating and nobody is paying attention. The rise in Islamic militancy is a by product of the Arab Spring and Christian minorities throughout the Islamic world are facing threats that until now, were considered unimaginable.Since this article was published, things have got a lot worse for Christians, with huge swathes of Iraq and Syria falling to the terrorist organisation the Islamic State. 
In June Mosul, the ancient biblical city of Nineveh fell to the Islamic State.  Mosul and the area surrounding it was the heartland of the Christian community in Iraq, and one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, but now that Christian presence has been eradicated.  Christians had a choice convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face death.  Most people have fled to the comparative safety of Kurdistan, and are living in desperate conditions in giant refugee camps.  Patriarch Louis Sako one of Iraq’s senior Chaldean Catholic clerics said in an interview in July For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
In 2003 before the Iraq War there were 1,500,000 Christians in Iraq, representing 5% of the population, that number is now estimated to have fallen to as low as 200,000 Christians.  What is happening in Iraq has been described as genocide – a deliberate attempt to wipe away all Christian presence from the Middle East. 
But it’s not just in Iraq, or Syria where Christian’s are being targeted, in Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya thousands of Christians have been kidnapped and killed by Boko Haram, and in Pakistan churches have been targeted by extremists.  And yet we hear so little about it in our news, and from our politicians.  In the New York Times this week Ronald S Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress wrote ‘Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?’
Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26 writes that we are the body of Christ and If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’  Today the body of Christ is suffering.  These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being driven from their homes, and killed, we cannot stand by and do nothing.   
1 Stay informed
To pray effectively it is important to stay informed of what is taking place on the ground – follow the news, read CanonAndrew White’s blog, read and use the resources provided by Open Doors and the Barnabas Fund

2 Pray
Pray for the Iraqi Christians forced from their homes and under threat of death.
Pray for God’s protecting hand to be with them and his provision for them is plentiful in this time of urgent need.
Pray for those that are persecuting them

3 Write to your MP
Churches and individuals are being encouraged to write to their local MPs urging them to press the Government to increase Britain's humanitarian efforts for all those affected by the crisis and to ask for asylum to be granted to a fair number of those who will be unable to return to their homes.

4 Highlight the plight of Christians
Tools such as social media, can be used to highlight what is happening in the Middle East, and raise public awareness on what is happening.

On Twitter and Facebook many people have changed their profile pictures to the Arabic letter ‘N’, which has been daubed on the homes of Christians (often called 'Nasrani' in Arabic) in Mosul to identify them as targets for persecution or execution. Download a poster HERE.

This symbol has now been used to show solidarity with the Christians and other ethnic communities who have been targeted by the IS, and to champion freedom of religion and belief for all people. 

5 Give
To organisations and charities seeking to bring relief and aid to those displaced by the fighting.  Especially the Foundation For Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

In a speech in May Canon Andrew White said “People say ‘How do you keep going?’ And I think that I have said to my people so many times, ‘I’m not going to leave you, don’t you leave me’ and I can’t say that any more. Because I know that if my people stay they may be killed. I’ve seen so many of my people killed, and I’ve cried and cried and cried, because my loved ones are no more.  And one of our young girls turned around and said, ‘When you’ve lost everything Jesus is all you’ve got left, and we’ve lost everything. But we haven’t lost Jesus, he’s still there with us.’” 
If we are serious about following Jesus, whether that be in Walsall, Africa, China or the Middle East, there will be a cost involved.  But it is in taking up our cross and following Jesus, that we discover true life.  Jesus said “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Mt 16:25)  And though we may face hardships on the way, we have the reassurance that Jesus is still there with us. 

A video about St George's Church in Baghdad, filmed in 2012

An Important Question

There is one item that is dominating our news at the moment - the Scottish Referendum, which will take place a week today.

It is a hugely significant event, and whatever way the vote will go, it will have a profound effect on the United Kingdom, with Westminster already promising much greater powers to Scotland if they vote No next week. 

There isn’t a united Christian view on the question of independence.  Like the Scottish nation as a whole, there are Christians who support independence, and those who do not. It is for this reason that the Church in Scotland committed itself back in 2012 to remaining impartial on the question of Scottish independence, seeking instead to encourage public participation in the referendum, by creating space for people to think about what values they want to underpin Scottish society and what shared vision they can aspire to. 

It is the question about what sort of society people want to create that has been one of the central questions of the referendum debate. 

My own personal view is that I hope the people of Scotland vote to remain part of the UK, as I believe the interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK, are best served by being one united nation. As one friend wrote when the problems of the world seem greater, and the need for unity and co-operation seems stronger than ever before, it seems ludicrous that our small island would fracture and split. There are so many divisions and fractures in this world that we can ill-afford the unavoidable bickering that would follow from this political divorce. We all need to work closer and more interdependently than ever before and reject the lie at the heart of ALL nationalism that says "We are better on our own, we don't need you."

Whatever the outcome of next week’s referendum may be, I hope it starts a broader debate across the country about what sort of society and country we want to build.  And as Christians, we need to be at the heart of this debate. 

In our Bible reading today, it makes clear that when Jesus died on the cross it was not just to reconcile people to God, but all things both on earth and in heaven (Colossians 1:20). 
At the heart of Jesus’ earthly mission was the kingdom of God. Jesus came not only to draw alongside men and women, but to usher in the kingdom of God – God's rule that will eventually transform the world.
Through Jesus’ miracles he transformed individuals' lives and challenged society to change radically too. He challenged us to be more welcoming to social outcasts, to abandon violence, and fight for justice, to care for the weak and the poor, to have a concern for the world in which we live.  The teaching about the kingdom of God is as revolutionary today as it was in Jesus’ time. The goal of mission is not only about bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ, but the transformation of the whole world. 
Whatever the outcome of next Thursday’s referendum, the debate about what sort of society we want to build will continue, and as Christians we should be shaping this debate.  The next twelve months will be a very important time in the life of our nation, as the country comes to terms with the results of the referendum vote, and as it prepares to vote in a General Election next May, and as the country continues to debate its place in Europe.     

As Christians what can we do to ensure that the society we build is one that is just, caring and compassionate?

The Scottish Referendum – A Challenge For Us All

Walsall Advertiser Living Faith Article, Published Thursday September 2014

On the 1st May 1707 the Act of Union was passed, bringing England and Scotland together to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  Next week on September 18th the people of Scotland will decide whether to remain part of the UK, or become independent. 

Although we get no say in this historic referendum it will impact us, especially if Scotland votes for independence. 

There are those on both sides of the border, who believe that independence will be good not only for Scotland, but also for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I however believe we are better together, and hope that the people of Scotland choose to remain part of the UK.

Whatever the outcome of next week’s referendum, I am glad that I live in a free and democratic country, where ultimately the people get to decide their future.  This is in stark contrast to what we see happening in Ukraine, and many parts of the Middle East at the moment, where it is the people with guns who are dictating what sort of government and society people are subject to. 

The Burmese pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi said “democracy is not perfect, but it gives you the chance to create your destiny.” 

My Christian faith has always led me to believe that voting in elections is not only a right, but a responsibility, because by participating in the democratic process I get to have a say in the sort of society I want to live in.

This has been one of the key questions in the Scottish referendum debate, what sort of society do people want to create?  It is an important question for all of us to consider. 

The Bible teaches that when Jesus died on the cross it was not just to reconcile people to God, but all things both on earth and in heaven (Colossians 1:20).  Christianity teaches us that we should not only to be concerned about life after death, but life here on earth.  The Christian vision of society that we strive to build is one that is just, caring and compassionate.

We should see the Scottish referendum vote as an opportunity to think afresh about what sort of society we would like to create, and the part we ourselves can play in building that society.