Tag Archives: Purity

God’s People, part 110: Nehemiah

Read Nehemiah 2:1-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“I was not in Jerusalem at that time, for I had returned to King Artaxerxes of Babylon in the thirty-second year of his reign, though I later asked his permission to return.” (Nehemiah 13:6 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

img_1170Part 110: Nehemiah. Sitting beside me I have a book by Joseph W. Daniels Jr. entitled, Walking with Nehemiah. In it, the author focuses on the different stages in Nehemiah’s work as governor. The author walks us through Nehemiah’s leadership style and the success that was a result of his ability to hold onto the vision. For those who are not familiar with the story of Nehemiah, he was a cup-bearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes. Upon hearing how the walls of Jerusalem were crumbling and the city was disarray, he petitioned the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls.

Indeed, the king not only gave him permission, but sent him back to Jerusalem as governor with the charge to see this project through. Thus, Nehemah arrived back in Jerusalem with the full blessing of the Persian King to rebuild the walls and refortify Jerusalem. Still, such a blessing did not go unopposed by those who did not want to see such a project happen. The same bad actors who opposed Zechariah and Zerubbabel in the rebuilding of the Temple. As has been discussed in past deovtions, the Samaritans (aka “the people of the land”) were among those who had wanted envovlement in the rebuilding of the temple and, when they weren’t given what they wanted, had undermined and stalled the rebuilding efforts.

These same opponents also tried to undermine Nehemiah in his quest to fortify and rebuild Jerusalem. Anticipating this, Nehemiah ignored them. Instead of wasting his efforts on those whe would never outmaneuver, Nehemiah focused his efforts on building up grassroots support for the rebuilding campaign. Once he did that, there was no stopping him from accomplishing it and the city was refortified.

Years following the success of the campaign, Nehemiah stepped down from his governorship and returned back to Persia. During that time away from Jerusalem, God’s people fell back into sin, and were turning away from the reforms that had led them back to being a people of God. Thus, Nehemiah returned once again to straighten things up and set God’s people back on the path to righteousness.

Nehemiah’s push for Jewish purity, which included the exclusion of intermingling with non-Jewish people (in marriage, in business, and certainly religiously), may seem odd to those of us in the 21st century who embrace diversity and multiculturalism; however, the reality is that the Jews were fighting to remain God’s people, distinct from the rest of the world. It was not about the “race” or “ethnicity” of non-Jewish people; rather, it was about the gods they worshiped and would, ultimately, invite the Jews to worship as well.

For us, there are two things we can pull from Nehemiah and the people he led. First, in terms of Nehemiah, the work of God’s people is NEVER, EVER, finished. Nehemiah went back to Susa thinking his job was done, only to have to return and continue the work on. Second, the push toward purity in order to avoid sin can lead us back into sin. Nehemiah’s push to keep the Jews within Jerusalem separate from non-Jews, eventually went on to counter God’s ultimate plan for the Jews to be a witness to the nations of the one true God. In Nehemiah’s circumstances, separation was needed as people were purchasing all sorts of items (idols included, no doubt) and they were doing so on the Sabbath, the day that Jews were supposed to rest and worship God.

Thus, the push for a return to purity was needed; however, out of this push for purity, a couple of centuries later, rose a group of Jews known as the Pharisees. This group’s very name means “separate” and they called on Jews to adhere strictly to the Torah in order to not further provoke God’s wrath. It is this group that would later go on to be challenged by Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, whose teachings reminded people of their call to be witnesses fo God to the nations. The confrontation between Jesus, the Pharisees, and other religious leaders would lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate catalyst in God’s redemption plan.

Let us be challenged by this. With the world becoming more divided, with our leaders and culture pushing toward more isolation and separation, we are called to be witnesses of God’s redemption plan. With countries flexing their political muscles to show superiority, we are called to witness to the radical equality we share with all humanity. Let us be challegned to never see our job as witnesses as being over. The job will never be over until that day when all humans join hand-in-hand as brothers and sisters in the divine family of our Lord Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die.” —Ted Kennedy

PRAYER

Lord, let me never lose sight of my role as a witness to your love and your kingdom. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 7: Pure in Heart

Read Matthew 5:8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalms 86:11 NRSV)

pure-heart-5-1Jesus, before the entire multitude, continues on in his beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This beatitude would not have shocked the average Jewish person. After all, Jesus was referencing Psalm 24:3-4, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” (Psalms 24:3-4 NLT)

But before we get into who the “pure in heart” are, let us first discuss what Jesus IS NOT referring to. While on the beach at the ocean with my family yesterday, my daughter asked me a rather direct question, “Dad, what’s debauchery.” That may sound like a strange question coming from one’s daughter; however, in context, she was reading George Orwell’s “1984”, which she was assigned as summer reading for school. It is in that book that she came across the word, which isn’t exactly a word people regularly use anymore.

After I explained what debauchery was, we left the beach and went out to eat. We were seated by our hostess in the bar section of the restaurant that we were eating at on the boardwalk. We’ve eaten there plenty of times uneventfully and we always go during “family-friendly” times to avoid any sort of wild party scene. Well, that plan was foiled by a group of rather self-absorbed adults who were clearly getting a head start on their raucus drinking and were, ironically, giving my daughters an object lesson of what “debauchery” is all about. Now, my daughters are old enough to know what’s going on and to know it’s “NOT COOL”, but there were other infants, toddlers, and children there with their families, who were equally shocked by the behavior of these debaucherous “adults.”

I am sure I need not go into detail with you as to what they were doing, but they were anything but the “cool” they thought they were being…if they were thinking at all. Let me say this, REAL ADULTS are mindful of children and innocent ones around them; these people were clearly not acting like real adults. With all of this said, when Jesus referred to the “pure in heart” he was NOT referring to purity as in the opposite of “debauchery.” He was not referring to the those who avoid impure thoughts (aka sexual fantasies), the sexually chaste and/or those who abstain from indulging the pleasures of the senses.

No doubt, it is true, that such people WOULD NOT be considered to be pure in heart, but not necessarily for the reasons our puritanically informed minds might think. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he is thinking of it in terms of monotheistic Judiam. Like in Psalm 86 (see above), Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who have an undivided heart and who devote themselves solely and entirely to God. Blessed are those who are devoted to God with all of their hearts, for they will see God.”

It is such single minded, pure-hearted, devotion that is required for the worship of the one, true God, and this is what Jesus had in mind. Conversely, those who do not devote themselves solely to God will not see God because they will be distracted by all of the things that pull them away. When one’s heart is divided between God and other things (whatever those things are), it is impossible for one to truly be devoted to God because those other things will continue to get in the way. Whether those things are our time, our possessions, our sensual desires, our greed, our hatred, our bitterness, our nationalism, our racism, our sexism, our heterosexism, our ageism, our ablism, or whatever “isms” we may harbor, those things will always take precedence over God and, as a result, we will be blinded to God.

Thus, Jesus is telling us all that the antithesis of being “pure in heart” is a divided heart. Christ is calling us to have a single-minded, whole-hearted, devotion to God. Let nothing, and Christ means nothing, stand in the way of your relationship with God. If you become “pure in heart”, you will be blessed with the sight and the knowledge of God. May your prayer, as well as mine, be that we draw ever closer to God and to Christ our redeemer.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8 NRSV)

PRAYER Lord, draw me close to you and never let me go. Help me find the way and bring me back to you. Amen.

WORKS OF THE FLESH: Impurity

Read Galatians 5:13-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.” (Romans 6:19 NLT)

In his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul is writing to a community that is divided over the issue of male circumcision: should new Gentile followers of Jesus be counted as a part of the Jewish covenant without being circumcised, or should they have to be circumcised just as all of the Jews are circumcised. Being that Christianity at the time wasn’t a religion, but a sect of Judaism, this was a VITALLY IMPORTANT question. While Paul is opposed to making Gentiles be circumcised, he also is against divisive behavior regardless of which side it is coming from. In response to this division, Paul describes to the Galatian church what he calls, “the works of the flesh.”

fieryITHE WORKS OF THE FLESH: Impurity. My family loves to drink water; however, some in my family refuse to drink tap water. For them, tap water skeeves them out because it comes from the ground and into our cup through a “dirty” faucet. We cannot know what is in that water, and it tastes kind of “funny”; therefore, the perception is that the water is not pure. On the other hand, bottled water is perceived to be pure water. It is assumed by most people to be filtered of all impurities and, therefore, it is a “safe” and “clean” water to drink.

At one time, decades ago, people would have laughed at the idea of bottling and selling water. Who, in their right mind, will ever buy bottled water? I can get that for free right out of my tap, why would I pay for something that I can get for free? Yet, the bottled water industry (owned by-and-large by big “junk-food”/”soft-drink” corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Pepsi) has done a phenomenal job in marketing their product. Brands such as Nestle’s “Pure Life”, Poland Springs, Dasani, Fiji, Nirvana, and others all suggest that the water that is being sold is pure, natural, wild, exotic, heavenly, life-giving, etc. Yet, is this water any more pure than the water that ACTUALLY comes from one’s well in their backyard (provided you don’t drink city/town water)?

Whether or not bottled water is cleaner or more pure than ACTUAL water from an aquifer under the ground is debatable; however, what isn’t debatable is that water can be, and often is, contaminated by things that make it impure. While in it’s natural state water is pure and is the bare necessity to all living things, things from the outside can seep into it and make it impure. Like water, we too can be contaminated by outside sources. God created us pure and wholesome as beings capable of love, of compassion, of creativity, of growth, of respect, of stewardship, and of service. God created us with the ability to be vessels of life-giving water, a people who nurture and care for all living things, as well as for all of creation.

However, outside sources in the world have seeped into our lives and we know what they are. We have become glamoured by materialistic things, we have been charmed by greed, hatred, bitterness, vengeance, arrogance, narcissism, and selfishness. As a result, we have become contaminated and impure. We have become consumed by stuff that doesn’t belong with us and, as such, have become depraved. What’s more, have begun to define ourselves by our depravity in ignorance of what our pure and wholesome state is. This is NOT something we were born into, but something we’ve allowed to take over our lives and our world. Paul is calling us to allow God to purge us of our impurities. That can be a painful process; however, once it is done we will begin to experience what true and pure life IN GOD actually is! Are you ready to become filled, once again, with living water?

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“One by one, little by little, moment by moment, a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes his dross from silver.” – The Buddha, The Dhammapada 18:239

PRAYER
Lord, help to purge me of my impurities so that I may once again experience and share pure and true life. Amen.

SON OF GOD: Holy Wednesday

Read Luke 20:41-21:4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Every day Jesus went to the Temple to teach, and each evening He returned to spend the night on the Mount of Olives. The crowds gathered at the Temple early each morning to hear Him. (Luke 21:37-38 NLT)

TempleWhen looking at Holy Week and trying to match what Jesus did according to the Gospels and trying to match it with each day of that week is a not as easy as one would think. We know that on Palm Sunday, a week before his resurrection, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by an energized crowd. We know that on that same day he went into the Temple. We know that the next day he went into the Temple as well. Depending on which Gospel you read, he either “cleansed the Temple” on Palm Sunday or on Holy Monday. We can guess that either Monday night or Tuesday night Jesus’ feet were anointed with expensive perfume.

We know that on Thursday night Jesus sat down with his disciples for the Passover Meal. We know that on that same very night he was betrayed and brought to the high priest’s house. We know that by Friday morning he had been found guilty of blasphemy and brought to Pontius Pilate to be tried for treason. It was on Friday that Jesus was eventually nailed to the cross and crucified. It was on Friday that Jesus died. From Friday afternoon to Saturday, Jesus was laid to rest in the tomb, and we all know what happens on Easter Sunday.

But what about Holy Wednesday? What happened on that day? The Scripture isn’t real clear. According to Luke, Jesus went to the Temple every day during Holy Week, to worship, to pray, and to teach. Every day, Jesus came to the Temple in order that he could speak truth to power and stand up for the people that the power was crushing. Every day, Jesus brought truth to those who did not want to hear it, for it meant that they would have to change their ways and start living according to the plan of God rather than their own plan. They would not have it. Every day Jesus came to them temple, he met opposition, derision, and people trying to trap him at every turn.

While we cannot know exactly what the Son of God did on Holy Wednesday, we have every reason to believe that Jesus was in that Temple speaking truth to power. We Christians believe, in light of Christian Scripture, that our very bodies are Temples that are meant to be kept holy and pure. We are meant to act as living sanctuaries, bringing hope, healing, and wholeness to those in desperate need of it. The Son of God is within that Temple, this very Holy Wednesday, speaking truth to power. Will you listen to his cry for justice, mercy and humility? Will you align your plan with God’s plan? Or will you oppose, deride and ignore Jesus’ cry? Sit in silence and reflect on the Son of God’s call for change upon your life and allow Holy Wednesday be the day you begin to rebuild your Temple in God’s image.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.“ – The Apostle Paul of Tarsus (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT)

PRAYER
Lord, I realize that I am to be a pure and holy Temple, and that I am called to bear witness to the hope, healing and wholeness of God. Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me. Amen.