New friends are sometimes surprised to learn that punk is my favorite kind of music. I mean, if I were banished to the furthest of the nether-regions with my ten-dollar portable cassette player and allowed only one genre – punk, no question. Those new friends are surprised because I don’t look punk, that is, I haven’t adopted the fashion. I played punk music for the better part of a decade and didn’t look the part then, either. In the mid to late nineties, some of the punk kids at my shows openly expressed their displeasure about my appearance and called me hilarious words like “poser” and “dick”. Ha ha ha. My spent tissues were more punk than those kids.
As a culture, punk has confused and disappointed me. People wanted to draw battle lines and shout slogans of unity. As Jello Biafra (vocalist for the Dead Kennedys) said, when you have this supposedly egalitarian movement using words like “us” and “them” without defining either us or them, you leave the defining up to the individual. Suddenly, “them” describes anyone who doesn’t agree with you or your set of friends. Then that golden movement centered around the unity of the individual (again, ha ha ha) splinters into an innumerable amount of impotent subcultures.
When I read that explanation of infighting and splits in the punk movement, my first thoughts were to compare this with the church. I mean, the Reformation was obviously necessary. The church had become uncompassionately wealthy, corrupt, and more focused on politics than holiness. The common man needed to read the scriptures for himself. That sort of thing needed to happen. But then you had centuries of people fighting wars over how to take communion or baptize folks. And so on and so on until today, where literally hundreds of denominations stand as a testimony of disagreement and misdirected anger within the body of Christ. Is it any wonder that the Western Church reminds me of snotty punk kids? If you don’t wear a tie and jacket, you’re not punk… so to speak.
Instead of parroting slogans of unity like I did back in 1997, I wanted to spend time today talking about co-operation within the church by looking at the book of Nehemiah.
In some ways, the Western church is in shambles. Rubble. Burned stones piled in heaps. In the first chapter of his book, Nehemiah is working as a servant for the king of Persia. One day, he asks his brother and some other men how the escaped exiles are faring in Jerusalem. Nehemiah 1:3-6 says, “They said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.’ When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.’”
When I read that passage, I remarked how Nehemiah’s first response to the condition of Jerusalem is to confess his own sins. This was correct, I believe. I mean, it’s easy to look at the condition of the church and assume that it’s someone else’s fault, or everybody else’s fault, but you and me are spotless lambs. Were he still alive at the time of Christ, Nehemiah would have understood what Jesus said in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
As we read on in Nehemiah, we’ll find that corporate repentance is also needed before the restoration. For several weeks, the people had been rebuilding the walls at a miraculous pace while resisting opposition from surrounding nations. In chapter 8, after the reconstruction, a priest named Ezra reads from the scriptures in the presence of the whole people all day. As the people listened, God convicted them of their sins as a nation and they fell in repentance together. Then, the people purposed in their hearts to obey God’s commands again. At the end of chapter 8, this is demonstrated with their observance of the Feast of Booths, which had not been celebrated for centuries since the time of Joshua.
I’ve begun to see a pattern in the Bible where God moves powerfully when His people do something together. Whether it’s in repentance (like in Nehemiah 8), or sacrifice (Numbers 7), or praise and dedication (1 Kings 8), God shows up in power.
Also, notice how Ezra didn’t scold the people or heap guilt upon them. He read the word of God and allowed their hearts to bear its conviction. Now we live in an age where the Holy Spirit moves among us. Jesus said in John 16:8 of the Holy Spirit, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Although it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people, we can continue to proclaim the word as Ezra did and allow God to work through it.
I’ve heard teaching on Nehemiah a few times. Not a lot aside from a focus on building walls and standing in the gap and stuff. But never have I heard anyone talk about the last chapter of the book. Have you read it? It’s weird. Okay, so get this, Nehemiah goes back to work for the King of Persia and later hears about all sorts of idiocy happening back in Jerusalem. So he returns to set things straight. A priest had taken a room in the temple and made it into a residence for his relative. Nehemiah throws the guy’s stuff out of the temple and has the room cleansed and restored to its proper function. He had to rebuke the people for not tithing to the priests and temple caretakers, who had dispersed in their poverty and left the house of God.
Then he saw that some men were taking their goods into Jerusalem on the Sabbath to sell in the market. He has the gates closed on Sabbath to discourage them from breaking God’s commands, but one night sees them camped outside the gates waiting to be let inside. He said to them in Nehemiah 13:21, “Then I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath.”
But even crazier is what Nehemiah does at the end of the last chapter. He saw that the people were intermarrying with foreigners and in Nehemiah 13:25-27 says, “So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?’”
After doing these things, Nehemiah keeps asking God to remember the good that he has done and asks for favor. “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.” “For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.” “Remember me, O my God, for good.” I think Nehemiah kept asking God to remember his deeds and show favor because he was pissing off a lot of people. But if Nehemiah understood that the sins of one affect the whole people, as he demonstrated by his personal confession in the first chapter, then he knew that these individual sins put the whole people in danger of God revisiting His wrath. They were in it together and needed to hold each other accountable.
I don’t have the answers for how we can fix division in the Western church. But if the book of Nehemiah is any indication of how we can start, I say we start by recognizing our own individual shortcomings and coming to God in repentance. It can’t and won’t stop there, so don’t think that you alone have to bear the burden for millions of people messing up God’s church. Jesus thankfully gave us the Holy Spirit to carry out that part of His plan for us. We can, however, continue to pray for the restoration and teach the Word knowing that Jesus came to heal all things, even the church.