Friday, December 31, 2010

Nehemiah Part Three - Making the thank you list

Some musicians love to thank a huge list of people in their album liner notes. I don’t. What if I forget to mention sensitive people who would take offense at the neglect? Or maybe so many people had helped me that listing them would take several pages of a CD jacket. Typically, I leave my thanks to “God and everybody else”.

One complaint many people have with reading the Bible has something to do with the list of names. “So and so begetting so and so,” and so on. It can feel like God is the drummer of your band who wants to thank everyone individually, even if that person only helped load the van one time.

The majority of Nehemiah three covers the names of people who worked on rebuilding the wall and gates. A casual reader may easily let his eyes glide over this passage as if the words had a non-stick coating. When I took a closer look, though, I saw fun asides Nehemiah threw into the thank you list.

In verse five, he takes a shot at people who think that power negates responsibility. “Moreover, next to him the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not support the work of their masters.” A few verses later, he mentions a guy named Hananiah, “one of the perfumers,” making repairs. Can you imagine a chemist building a house? That’s the image I got. One of Jerusalem’s officials worked on the walls with the help of his daughters. Hey, if those nobles won’t do the work, why not some young women?

Terry Virgo, the leader of New Frontiers International, talked about this tendency of God’s to mention all those names. “Everyone counts. They all matter. God doesn’t want a faceless army because God loves every face.”

I think God has a good reason for thanking the guy who loaded the van. He wants to reward those who obey Him. Those people rebuilding the wall took on an enormous task for the sake of God’s glory. Who wants to walk away from a job like that and get an anonymous pat on the back?

We can easily get trapped in a sense of false humility when we do God’s work and say we want no reward for the work that we do. When I led the worship team in high school, I dreaded people telling me that they enjoyed it. Enjoy my worship? It felt like being spied on in the shower. That’s between me and God, thanks. At the same time, I couldn’t get angry with the people saying these things because they wanted to express how the worship blessed them. How could I deny their joy? So I’d tell the people, “I’m just worshipping God like the rest of you. The only difference is who has a microphone.”

What a load. I especially knew it with people who were either more musically capable or totally tone-deaf. God gave me a gift and asked me to use it. He hadn’t asked them to do what I did on those nights. Not as far as I know. Why did I feel so awkward about something that should have encouraged me?

I find it interesting how God made it clear in scripture that He intends to reward us when we do His will. 1 Corinthians 3:9-13 even uses a metaphor of building.

For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (emphasis mine)

I don’t want to get into a discussion about what reward God gives for our good service. The point is that He wants to bless us. It’s one thing to do a good job and receive a reward, and another to do your work with a sense of entitlement. For example, look at the man who hired people throughout the day to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20. He paid everyone equally, even if they worked half as long as the others. The people who worked all day were bummed out that the latecomers were paid just as much as them, so they figured the owner should pay to scale. For some reason, they assumed that their labor had appreciated in value. Instead, the owner gave them what pay they accepted before the work began. His blessings weren’t based on a scale of equality, but generosity.

Jesus ends the parable by saying, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Can you imagine a well-meaning worker telling the owner, “Oh no, I don’t deserve this. Not if these other people did more than me. Here, give them half of my wages.” Sadly, I can imagine this because I have that attitude sometimes. “Hey, if I came here last, I should be last. Fair’s fair.”

Pretty stupid, huh? Aside from losing out on a great reward, I’d also subtly question God’s goodness. Not His goodness to me, but others. It’s passive aggression, the most awful kind of aggression. If we were to look at this attitude for what it really is, the supposed egalitarian stance really tries to put us as God’s equal or superior. We know best. We have the right to tell Him when He’s wrong.

Ten chapters before this parable, Jesus promises something to His disciples that would totally outrage the egalitarian mind. Matthew 10:41 says, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.” Look at the mechanics of that statement. The people taking care of the prophet or righteous man receive the same reward as their guests! They’re getting paid for a job they didn’t necessarily do!

But from where does this false humility come?

I suspect that it comes from one of several places. It can come from a place of hurt in our lives. The reason I began to play music had to do with love for music. The reason I started playing in a band had more to do with getting people to like me. The girls who wouldn’t date me. The dudes who wouldn’t let me play ball with them. The kids who threw rocks at me. Those people. I wanted to show them how they had rejected the coolest guy on the planet. When I heard the song “Stop” by Against Me, I felt so exposed. It summed up my secret agenda so well. “All of our lives in waiting. All of our lives traded for their roses and applause. All of our lives dedicated to shoving it right back in their f*ing face.”

But I knew that worship differed from playing in a punk band. I took on this Reverend Dimsdale kind of posture where I served God but secretly beat myself up for all the horrible things I’d hidden from the church. Would they have made me the worship if they knew I was still experimenting with drugs only a year before, or masturbated daily, or had language that could draw blood? In punk music, I could talk about all this stuff. But in church, I let it corner me into thinking I didn’t deserve God’s grace. I didn’t deserve His attention, let alone His pleasure. So I acted like a guy who loaded the van and shook hands instead of the beloved son for whom Jesus died.

Two Pictures of Humility

Humility first begins with understanding our proper place in creation. God is the ultimate, perfect, and self-sufficient being. We are His creation, given dignity because we are made in His image. Even though He gave man authority in nature (Gen. 1:28-30), man’s authority still came from and was accountable to God. We can see this in how He set boundaries of right and wrong for man. In every covenant that God made with man, God set the terms without negotiation. I’ve told people that the true sin of Adam and Eve came from the lie that they might be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). They wanted to define good and evil for themselves, to have a say in what God determined. The world has suffered the consequences ever since.

Going back to the sermon by Terry Virgo, he gave an excellent explanation of Moses’s journey from prince of Egypt to Hebrew deliverer.

Think about Moses as the prince of Egypt. He has one of the strongest nations in the known world at his fingertips. Not bad for the adopted son of a Hebrew slave. Keep that in mind as you read this passage from Exodus 2:11-14

“Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day, and behold, two Hebrews were fighting with each other; and he said to the offender, ‘Why are you striking your companion?’ But he said, ‘Who made you a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and said, ‘Surely the matter has become known.’”

I believe that Moses went under cover during these four verses in order to help his people. He killed an abusive Egyptian and hid him in the sand. That’s some serious vigilantism. Moses, the savior of Israel. But instead of getting a hero’s reception, as I’m sure he expected, the other slaves showed him contempt. “Who made you ruler or judge over us?” asks the equally abusive Hebrew slave. If Moses were still dressed in the royal robes of Egypt, there’s no way a slave would have talked to him that way. To do so would mean certain death.

The slave asks another question, which I read with a sneer. “Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses wanted to be a hero but worked according to his own power and wisdom. Because of this, his people saw him as a bully and a killer.

Later, we read how Moses flees punishment and becomes a shepherd in the land of Midian. This job was only slightly better than that of a slave. Culturally, children worked as shepherds. The forty-year-old prince just opened a lemonade stand.

Then on day, Moses sees something interesting. Any change from the day-to-day may have caught his attention. He saw a bush burning on a mountain, but the fire didn’t consume it. As he approaches the bush, God speaks to him in Exodus 3:10. “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Hey Moses! You wanted to be a hero to your people. Now’s your chance. But Moses says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” This response echoes what the slave told Moses before he fled Egypt. “Who do you think you are?” It seems that Moses has answered with, “Nobody.” Moses spends so much time telling God that he’s the wrong man for the job he forgets that God is offering the fulfillment of the dream. He also misses the part in Exodus 3:8 where God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians”. God’s doing the work, Moses only has to go and send the message. Instead, Moses protests and God gets pissed.

At first glance, it may seem that Moses displayed humility in his question, “Who am I?” But Virgo points out that this humility was a cover for disobedience. In many ways, it sounds like the lie Adam and Eve bought in Eden. What Moses really meant was, “I know better, God. I can determine between right and wrong just like you and I say you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t want to do this.” Moses didn’t properly recognize God’s supremacy and his own place in creation. False humility is really a passive aggressive pride. It’s sin.

Now let’s look at Jesus. You may see some parallels with the story of Moses. God the son came down to earth and became human to act as our deliverer. Like the quarrelsome slave, most people didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah and treated him with contempt. But when God told Jesus to go to the cross and offer salvation to those enslaved in sin, He went in obedience. Of course it was agonizing. Of course it was humiliating. But then Jesus got up. As one writer put it, “He arose victorious”. God won and got the glory.

This leads me to believe that true humility comes out of obedience, where we recognize God’s authority and submit to it. That doesn’t mean we reject God’s pleasure in us, or like Moses try to diminish our calling. We can be proud when it comes to doing what God wants.

The band Roadside Monument wrote a song with the line, “May we not be forgotten!” I had no idea what the song was really about beyond the desire we have to make our mark on the world. That lyric ran through my head all through high school. Some of it came form the wounds of rejection, like I mentioned earlier, of having something to prove. Some of it came from fear that my life would have no meaning, no impact. But when I thought about God, my attitude would change. At church, I would think, “Maybe nobody should remember me. John the Baptist said that he must decrease so Jesus could increase…” So I took on this tortured servant attitude. It seemed noble at the time. But like Moses, my attitude got in the way of obedience when God gave me opportunities for success. I wouldn’t let people find joy in my music, worship or otherwise. I didn’t want that attention anymore. That kind of thinking drove me into hiding for a while and I stopped blessing people with the gifts God had given me to use.

It surprises me how often I forget that God wants to bless us. There are countless examples and promises where God blesses obedience. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.”

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 gives us a picture of God’s pleasure with those who do His will. To the two servants who used what the master had given, the master rejoices, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” But to the one who used humility as a cover for fear and pride, hiding his talent and returning to the master “what was his”, the master goes into a rage. He takes the talent from the servant, giving it to one of the faithful servants, and banishes him. That servant believed the same lie as Adam and Eve.

Let me put this in another light. If we are right in only taking what we deserved or earned, then we’re doomed. Paul writes in Romans 3, referring to Psalm 14, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’”

We’ve all at one time or another believed the lie that we might know better than God. All sin is based in this lie, it drives us to do what we think is right. And this is what separates us from God. This is what God, in His justice, could not tolerate. We all deserve punishment for this rebellion.

Salvation comes only through Jesus and what He did by dying on the cross. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it. And yet He offers salvation to us. Speaking of Jesus, Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

And a loving father names his children. He doesn’t adopt them and expect them to stay out of the way, or to be a “faceless army”.

It’s true that we must give God all glory, honor, and praise. But that doesn’t mean we act as if He’s wrong for showing people favor. He made the album, let Him thank who He wants to thank.

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