Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message: Nehemiah 1; Date: 23 January 2011

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Toowoomba Tsunami (Part 1)

 

On Friday 14 January – (ten days ago) – we hosted a citywide prayer meeting with about eight pastors in attendance and church members from many congregations. After some time of worship I opened the microphone to the other pastors and invited them to share with us what they thought was the Word of God after the flash floods in Toowoomba – the “inland tsunami” – which occurred on Monday 10 January and brought devastation in our own city and then the regions east and west of the Great Dividing Range. What is God saying to us now?

Before any of the pastors could respond – one of our church members – Jeff Garnett – raised his hands and asked whether he could share. He was confident that he had the Word of God. He came up and told the story of how God led him to the book of Nehemiah (which he did not know) and – in particular – to Nehemiah 1:4. He sensed that God was speaking this Bible verse into our situation. I read: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven

At the prayer meeting we received this Word. As the images of the raging torrent in the centre of our own town and then down the range kept traumatizing us – and keep traumatizing us (and I am sure that if we didn’t have the footage, we would not believe what happened – how can cars float down the main street) – as human people what we need first is to sit down and weep. No one give us clever explanations at this time.

This week – down the range – I saw two bare concrete slabs where houses used to stand and families used to live. Looking at the debris in the branches of trees – I could see how high the water had risen and how destructive and frightening it must have been. The Briese family had a “creek” rising to the left and right of their home and in the dark they just heard the crushing of tree branches and trunks. They were not sure whether they would be safe. No sleep that night!

Currently (19 Jan 11), there are still 20,000 premises listed as without power across SE Qld and unable to be re-connected for several weeks. Then, 15,000 premises remain uninhabitable across SE Qld. Other states (New South Wales, Victoria) also experience flooding and – to complete the picture of devastation – at the same time – Western Australia is suffering from drought and bushfires. Qld treasurer Andrew Fraser called the flood crisis “a disaster of biblical proportions”.

Therefore – before we do anything else – we do “sit down and weep”. This is just too much to take in. How much we have lost and how much we have been shaken! Let the tears come. Don’t hold them back.

Coming back to Nehemiah – he had heard that his own people were in great trouble. The walls of Jerusalem had broken down and its gates had been burned with fire (Nehemiah 1:3). There was no protection and therefore – so it seemed – no future. He wept and wept but then he also did something else. I read again the one verse from the first chapter: “When I (Nehemiah) heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heavenNehemiah did not just weep. In his weeping he was – purposely – drawing closer to God. He “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven”.

Are you drawing closer to God in this time? Are you mourning before him and fasting? What are you hearing from him? Over the last few days have you – by any chance – been praying like Nehemiah ended up praying. I read – Nehemiah 1:5-10:

 

“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 before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.”

 

This was an incredible prayer – from a man that was sitting down and weeping – because it assumed that God was responsible for the latest disaster – (the emotional trauma which caused Nehemiah grief) – this was judgement on wickedness and, therefore, Nehemiah humbled himself, saying: “[God – yes,] we have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed … ” – Nehemiah assumed that God was responsible for the judgement – but – at the same time – according to Nehemiah’s faith – God remained good. From the beginning of his prayer – this is how he addressed him: “ … great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love … ”

God was good all the time! Today we may no longer understand this prayer because any suggestion that God requires obedience and can be provoked to judgement seems unreasonable – offensive even – in our climate of political correctness where any faith and any human behaviour must be accepted. Yet, Nehemiah held to a different view. God was not a monster but holy and true to his Word. He was a God of love. Nehemiah – in his grief – submitted his pain to God and repented. I repeat how Nehemiah prayed: “ … I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses … ”

Today – are you willing to do the same? Are you in a mood to repent in the face of the flooding in our city and nation? Before we do, I want to clear up another misunderstanding of Nehemiah’s prayer. He repented but he did not cast special blame on the primary victims of the disaster – (e.g.: those people who were actually living [and dying] in Jerusalem at the time when its walls had broken down and its gates burned with fire). He understood the latest disaster as an outworking of some broader national guilt which – for us – would mean that we likewise do not cast special blame on those that have lost their lives or home or business. If the flood waters that have come through Toowoomba are judgement, then we are all to blame – (especially God’s people who should know better and are meant to bless their community, cf. Genesis 18:20-33; Ezekiel 22:30; Ephesians 1:22-23; 3:10-11; 1 Peter 4:17) – because we are connected to each other in this nation of Australia. Nehemiah prayed as a member of a nation: “ … I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed … ”

Are you in agreement with this? In the Western world – we are not used to place much importance on community. Even in the church we often do not understand the value of unity and risk much by gossiping about each other and holding grudges. Yet, when Jesus addressed seven churches in the Bible, each time he spoke to the community – not the individuals. For instance, he said to the Christians in Pergamum – Revelations 2:13-16: “ … you [together as the church in Pergamum] remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith … Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who … entice … sin … by committing sexual immorality … Repent therefore! … ”

I don’t know whether this church repented but if they did not repent, then – according to the Bible – judgement would come on them because Jesus forewarned them – I finish reading this Bible segment: “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them … ” And in case they did not repent and judgement came on them, then even the faithful Christians among them would have been suffering the turmoil of the judgement – (not eternal judgement but corporate discipline her on earth) – because they belonged to this church. For instance, if God took away the worship building, they would also be without a worship home.

We are not on our own in this world but God placed us into communities: first family, then church, our city, the state and nation, the human race. Blessings and judgements on these communities also affect us even though – as individuals – we are not all the same in faithfulness or guilt. God does have a look at our corporate identity and – therefore – the nature of our communities is important to us. Where does the Toowoomba Regional Council stand on matters of righteousness before God? What are we willing to tolerate as a nation and where do we make a stand?

Now – do you think that the flooding of our city and state was an act of judgement from God? Does the church – does our state and nation – deserve judgement? [I am not even saying that God worked the flood himself but did he withdraw his protection and allowed evil to touch us? Did he allow us to suffer the consequences of our actions?] This needs discernment. [Here in this church we know about the “Healing The Land” process (cf. Pastor Walo Ani, Pastor Vuni Nakauyaca) and the people who take 2 Chronicles 7:14 literally and, therefore, see the healing of the land all across Melanesia. There is a connection between righteousness and favourable weather conditions.] How bad are the consequences of sin, if a church and a nation do not repent? [Nehemiah was in no doubt that the cruel conquest of his nation and the years of exile in a foreign land were the judgement of God for breaking the commandments and not listening to his teachings. Cf. Luke 19 and Jesus’ prophecy of judgement on Jerusalem.] [The suffering in persecution for the Gospel is different. Cf. Matthew 5:1ff..]

We are getting into serious matters now but – maybe – judging by the floods – this is okay. This is the time to ask difficult questions. However, I want to get to another Bible episode which will touch even more on the foundations of our faith. I read from Luke 13:1-5:

 

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

 

We may have taken offense before when Nehemiah held God responsible for the broken-down walls of Jerusalem and its burned gates and repented before him. How could he keep believing in a loving God? Now – in this new Bible episode – Jesus also seems to offend with his faith understanding and blunt words. He was preaching before an oppressed people when some told him that the commander of the invading armies – his name was Pontius Pilate – had killed some of their own and “mixed their blood with their sacrifices” which means that it must have happened in the capital of Jerusalem in the temple during worship. Yet, Jesus found no words of sympathy. (Perhaps he knew that the people in front of him were not so much grieving but loving an argument because as long as you keep arguing, you do not have to respond in any other way). Instead, he called his listeners to repentance: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish

Next, Jesus brought up the matter of the tower in Siloam which crumbled and crushed eighteen other people. Yet – again – Jesus found no words of sympathy. When disaster struck in the time of Nehemiah, he cast no special blame on individuals but knew about the national guilt of his people. Likewise – Jesus here – both times – did not cast special blame on the individuals who died under Pontius Pilate or the falling tower. He said clearly: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no

In fact – in this instance – the whole question of sin and then discipline and judgement here on earth was of no interest to Jesus. He was aiming for something that was more foundational. Twice he said to the congregation: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” “But unless you repent, you too will all perish

The people around him saw the poor souls whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices and they saw the crushed bodies underneath the rubble of a tower. However, Jesus was stirred by a bigger catastrophe. The blood and the crushed bodies in the here and now – (we may add the inland tsunami of Toowoomba) – reminded Jesus of the eternal devastation that is going to be brought on people who die without God. To them he says: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish

I have to admit that watching the images of the flood on television I had a similar experience. I felt so bad but then I was beginning to grieve on a deeper level because there is going to be a “flood” in eternity which will be even worse for most people in our city and state. The traumatic images on television began to remind me of eternal devastation. How come that I can feel so much sympathy in this time of crisis but when the sun is shining again, I so easily forget that another crisis is coming: eternal judgement for those that do not repent before our God?

How do you take this in? Some of us here – you may still not concede that God has the right to judge people. You may accuse God of being narrow-minded and feeling a little too precious about his commandments. You may even get angry but – please listen carefully now – Nehemiah knew about a covenant of love and Jesus was not unfeeling when he confronted his listeners: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish

Jesus acted out of love and he demonstrated his love for you because – in his own body – nails pinning his hands and feet on a cross – he suffered the worst judgement for you. All of us have sinned and deserve punishment in time and eternity but Jesus – the Son of God – came to take our punishment upon himself.

Take the time to examine your life. Read the Bible and study the commandments. [Selfishness, holding grudges, greed, lust, dishonesty, lack of love and no fear of God … ] You are also guilty before God. You have no rights before him. He does not owe you anything. God had created the world perfect but then our first human ancestors – Adam and Eve – disobeyed God and ever since we humans have been lost in disobedience and darkness.

None of us was going to escape the punishment for this and here the Bible does talk about hell and eternal torment – something far worse than the current flooding. Yet, God himself was grieving over so much destruction of human life because he had made us in his image and he kept loving us despite our sin. God loves you.

Therefore, God sent his only Son – Jesus Christ – from heaven to earth and as a human – as a man who was without sin – he suffered the just punishment which should have been ours. Jesus died for you. Jesus came to save you. When Jesus called upon everyone to repent, he did so out of love. He invites you to live on account of the punishment which he suffered for you.

Some in the crowd told Jesus about those that died under Pontinus Pilate who had mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. Little did they know that Jesus who called them to repentance would suffer the very same fate for them. In the end it would again be Pontius Pilate who would mix Jesus’ blood with the blood of his own sacrifice on the cross in Jerusalem – at the most holy hour in world history – in a supreme act of worship and love.

Jesus loves you. You may not want to accept that any sin – any prolonged rebellion against God – may have resulted in the flood – you may think that by any standards Australia is okay as a nation – all right – but let the images of the flood remind you and challenge you that there is another devastation coming. Jesus is speaking the words to you with love: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish

 

I quote two more Bible passage – John 3:15-18: “everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Ephesians 2:1-10: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

 

When you think about it, repentance is the perfect gift. God could have said: “Fix what you have done wrong. Try harder in being good. Once you reach an acceptable standard of holiness, then I will forgive youNo – God requires far less from you. As broken as you are – as sinful and flawed as you are – you can simply repent, that is: turn toward him and trust that Jesus fulfilled all the requirements for you … he took your punishment and blessed you with his own life that is free of sin. You turn away from sin – ask for forgiveness – and then trust in the mercy of God which is promised to you because Jesus – with the utmost of compassion and love for you – died for you.

Is it not the time for you to humble yourself and repent? I come back to Nehemiah. He did not hesistate for a moment in his resolve to fast and pray – he was keen on repentance – because he knew that God responds to repentance and is just waiting to love on us with forgiveness and fresh favour. Hear again his prayer and pick up on the hope after repentance. This is how Nehemiah prayed:

 

“ … I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O 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. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man.”

 

Nehemiah humbled himself, confessed his own sins and the sins of the nation, then he reminded God of his promise to respond to repentance with renewed blessings and finally asked for success and favour today. Those that know how to repent before God, they know how to get help in the flood. They know what to do. Deal with the sin – say sorry and mean it – and God will place your punishment on his son and forgive you – and more: possibly releasing practical flood relief and other favour even today.

I come to a close. Firstly: sit down and weep – (take your time) – but then: repent. (“God, I confess the sins we Australians, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.”) Finally: be confident of forgiveness and new favour. Pray for what you need.

Are you ready? Maybe – instead of replaying the images of the flood in your mind, look at Jesus on the cross. Let the images of his suffering and death impact you. This is how much he loves you. He took your punishment. Come to him now. Amen.