I wonder whether you are responsible for crashing the Labour Party website on Wednesday? Somebody did… In fact an awful lot of people did. The crash occurred as the Party struggled to cope with a surge of young people wanting to join and vote in the forthcoming election of a new leader. You would think a political party would be enthusiastic to welcome new members. Mark Steel, writing in Friday’s Independent explains why not.
“It’s easy to see why those in charge of the Labour Party are so depressed. They must sit in their office crying: “Hundreds of thousands of people want to join us. It’s a disaster. And loads of them are young, and full of energy, and they’re really enthusiastic. Oh my God, why has it all gone so miserably wrong?” Every organisation would be the same. If a local brass band is down to its last five members, unsure whether it can ever put on another performance, the last thing it needs is young excited people arriving with trombones to boost numbers and raise money and attract large audiences. The sensible response is to tell them they’re idiots, and announce to the press that they are infiltrators from the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.”
How does the Church compare? Should we make it harder or easier for people to join?
We will answer that question in our Autumn sermon series based on Mark Galli’s, Jesus, Mean and Wild. What did Jesus say to the crowds flocking to join his party?
“…he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Did Jesus make it easier or harder than the Pharisees for people to follow him? We tend to portray the Pharisees as harsh taskmasters and Jesus as the one who rescued people from the yoke of slavery. He did, but he replaced the yoke with what? A cross! Studies of Church attendance in England in the 20th Century showed a peak in the 1930’s. After the devastation of the Second World War, how did church leaders respond to declining attendance figures? They issued “A Short Guide to the Duties of Church Members” – you have a copy in your sermon notes. What has happened in the last fifty years is significant. Those churches who have lowered the bar and made it easier to believe in less, have declined.
Those who have raised the bar, who affirmed the biblical demands Jesus placed upon his followers, have grown. This is why we encourage those who regard themselves as members of Christ Church to reaffirm their commitment to these eight principles each year on Easter Sunday. But what is the link to our sermon series in Nehemiah? What the ancient story of Nehemiah got to do with church membership today? Surprisingly, a great deal. Indeed of the eight duties identified by the Archbishops in the Anglican Guide to Membership, four are explicitly mentioned here and the other four are implicit. Nehemiah 10 is all about the solemn agreement God’s people made.
Here are three questions for us to consider. 1. Why did they make this covenant? 2. Who made the covenant? 3. What did they covenant?
- Why did they make this covenant?
Because the Lord covenanted with their fathers. (9:7-8)
Because the Lord had protected them. (9:9-15)
Because the Lord had chastised them. (9:16-37)
Because they were now determined to change (9:38)
“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” (Nehemiah 9:38)
They meant business. As we saw last time in Nehemiah 8, the people listened to the Scriptures being read for six hours a day, every day for a week. The listened, they worshipped, they wept and they celebrated. They wanted to repent for their past neglect. They wanted to begin again. They renewed their commitment, individually, corporately and publically to serve the Living God by obeying his word. I hope you want to today as well. That is why they made this covenant.
- Who made the Covenant?
Answer: People with unusual and difficult to pronounce names listed in Nehemiah 10:1-27, then… “The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord. (Nehemiah 10:28-29)
Nehemiah took the initiative and signed first. He led by example. Then the 22 Priests signed, followed by the 17 Levite preachers. Then the 44 Heads of Families put their signatures to the Covenant. Finally the rest of the people, every last one of them affirmed the covenant. That day was a milestone in the history of Israel. As an entire nation they entered a solemn agreement to remain faithful to the Lord by keeping His law. Apparently the phrase, to “follow God’s law” was something very obvious and very precise. In the Hebrew it means “to walk accurately and exactly by line and by rule.” They meant business. They would hold each other accountable. We have considered why they made this covenant, and who made it. Now we get to the heart of the passage and answer the question:
- What did they Covenant?
As we saw in Nehemiah 8, they declared they would obey God’s word, be regular in prayer, celebrate the festivals, and share their resources with those in need. In Nehemiah 10, they promised to be faithful in three specific areas.
- Purity in Marriage (10:30)
- Consistency on the Sabbath (10:31)
- Generosity in Giving (10:32-39)
- Purity in Marriage: Marry in the Faith
“We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.” (Nehemiah 10:30).
Inter-tribal marriages are an ancient and successful way of cementing relations between different peoples. Giving and receiving daughters in marriage to neighbouring tribes helped diffuse tensions, encouraged trade and military alliances. With the walls built, Israel had settled down. They had got into “inter-faith dialogue” and were arranging marriages for their sons and daughters with the neighbouring tribes. We have to remember that secularism is a phenomena associated with the 20th and 21st centuries, and of Western Europe in particular.
In most parts of the world today, people are religious. Marrying into the neighbouring tribes meant accepting their religion too. With every new wife you got a portable idol as a dowry. The problem was that their new “in laws” didn’t exactly worship the one true God. They worshipped evil spirits that must be placated, vengeful gods that must be appeased, fertility gods that must be bribed, and mediums who led them astray.
This was why inter-faith marriages had to stop. God is not opposed to people of different races marrying.
This ban had nothing to do with race or culture but with spiritual purity. In 1 Corinthians 7, and 2 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul addresses the question of singleness and marriage to unbelievers. Paul teaches that if you’re not yet married and want to, make sure you marry a believer. And if you’ve become a Christian and your partner hasn’t yet, stay with them, pray for them, but don’t leave them. The issue was not primarily one of marriage but of purity. Purity in marriage: Marry in the faith.
- Consistency on the Sabbath: Have a day off
“When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts. (Nehemiah 10:31)
They promised to stop doing two things.
- They would not encourage others to break the Sabbath.
- They would keep the Year of Jubilee and cancel debts.
There was a growing loophole in the Sabbath regulations. While Jewish traders kept the Sabbath, foreign traders didn’t. They rationalised that it was OK to buy on the Sabbath as long as the shops were foreign owned. And so they were encouraging unbelievers to break God’s laws too. Ultimately it really does not matter what the British government or the European Parliament legislates regarding Sunday trading. Christians are called to respect the Sabbath principle. So how do we keep the Sabbath? What’s allowed and what’s not?
The ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign interprets the Sabbath principle under four letters that spell “REST”. Others may go further but I have found these four principles sensible and workable.
R is for Recreation
Sunday is a day for recreation, for outings, visits, and fun. Certain goods and services should be available which enhance that. Things like swimming pools, parks, and ice cream parlours, for example, help us relax.
E is for Essentials
Emergencies can happen at any time to anyone. We must make allowances for situations where pain or hardship is threatened. So, services such as ambulances, nurses, doctors, hospital staff and chemists, police and fire services are necessary 24/7.
S is for Social
Sunday is a day for people to relax, to meet with friends and family, to spend time together over a drink or meal. Restaurants and coffee shops, make life easier and facilitate Sunday being a rest day for others.
T is for Travel
Inevitably we all have to travel sometime on Sundays. It seems sensible that certain goods that will aid a journey should be available. Petrol and the services of travel organisations. We could include petrol stations, railway personnel and airport staff. Although these four categories provide a basis for interpreting the Sabbath principle, they do require further qualification and two simple tests may be helpful. First – can the item be bought easily before or after Sunday?
This test helps limit Sunday trading and prevents shop workers having to pay for our unreasonable disorganisation. It allows for goods that really need to be bought on Sundays. Second – does this harm the special character of Sunday? Does it enhance our Sunday or does it detract from it? There is no good reason for working on the Sabbath, unless we are engaged in useful, essential or emergency work. And, as long as it is not required and another day can be taken off instead.
Yes, Jesus did say, “If your ox falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, of course get him out”, but Billy Graham added, “If your ox falls into a ditch every Sabbath, either sell the ox or fill in the ditch….”
To work seven days a week shows there is something wrong with our priorities. God never designed us to do so. Failure to service your car invalidates the manufacturer’s warranty. The same applies to our bodies. Don’t blame God for your ulcers, your headaches and stress induced illnesses if you do not take his Makers Instructions about the Sabbath seriously.
Dr Hodge of Clark University in Massachusetts has shown that the nerve cells are not fully recovered from a day’s wear by a night’s rest. They must be recharged every few days, as often as once a week, or nervous exhaustion will follow. Furthermore they cannot apparently be restored by less than thirty to thirty six hours continuous rest. You can only achieve that consistently by a rest day preceded and followed by a night’s sleep. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. The Sabbath rest is a precious love gift from a caring Creator God.
It is a safety net, a protection against causing serious damage to our souls and bodies. Purity in marriage: Marry in the faith. Consistency on the Sabbath: Have a day off.
3.3 Generosity in Giving: Be a Good Steward
If we are honest we would admit with R.T. Kendall that we are all congenitally allergic to tithing. Charles Spurgeon with his usual bluntness once told his congregation, “As you have done to others so the Lord will do unto you, so open your pockets….”
You may have noticed that we don’t take collections in our services at Christ Church. Does that mean we don’t need money. No, just the opposite. Our budget in 2015 is £640,000 and it comes almost entirely from you. We rely on our church family to fund the ministry at Christ Church, and that is why we don’t take collections. The bowl is at the entrance if you wish to give cash on a Sunday.
If you find that a helpful discipline we commend you. But we don’t expect visitors or seekers to fund the ministry. When you decide to become a member of Christ Church, and consider it your spiritual home, whether for a year, during your course at University or for the rest of your life, we encourage you to endorse our Membership Covenant at Easter.
We covenant before God to serve and to give financially, in proportion to our availability, our ability, obligations and liabilities. How we can best give is outlined in our Stewardship Leaflet found in the entrance rack or on our website.
Right now, because some members have moved away, we need to raise about £5,000 more per month to cover our planned expenditure by the end of the year. To achieve that here are some principles we can learn from the covenant God’s people made in Nehemiah’s day.
Their Giving was Responsible
“We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God.” (Nehemiah 10:32)
It was not just the few, not just the wealthy who promised to give. Each family took their turn to be responsible for the upkeep of the Church on a rota basis. That little phrase, “We assume responsibility” occurs twice, in verse 32 and 35. “We will not neglect the house of our God” they added in 10:39. Notice it is one or the other. Either we assume responsibility or we are neglecting the ministry. Stephen Olford put it more bluntly. He said “Either we are tithers or robbers”. Their giving was responsible.
Their Giving was Regular
We—the priests, the Levites and the people—have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution…” (Nehemiah 10:34)
They gave not just when they felt like being generous. They gave at set times. They each took it in turn to give month by month. Their giving was responsible and regular, and thirdly,
Their Giving was Realistic
“Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work.” (Nehemiah 10:37)
They gave in kind but they gave what was necessary to maintain the ministry. Not only that, they gave of their first and of their best, not their last and left-overs. So their giving was responsible, regular and realistic. I think there are two reasons why they responded so enthusiastically. Giving was not seen as a burden but a privilege. Their giving reflected the God they worshipped. It connected with two very deep human needs.
We need to have a Greater Cause
Somewhere I must find a cause greater than myself, that is worthy of my life, if I am going to count for something. One way to express commitment to that cause is to give something of yourself. How we invest our money shows what we think is important. Part of the thrill comes when we find a cause worth sacrificing for. What greater cause can there be than the work of Jesus Christ? We need to have something of value to sacrifice for.
We need a way to Express Thankfulness
When someone helps us, we want to say thank you, to show our appreciation. Giving is a tangible way to thank the God of grace and generosity. Paul Rees once said “Stewardship is not the leaving of a tip on God’s table cloth, it’s the confession of an un-payable debt at God’s Calvary. Unless you give because you want to say thank you, please don’t give out of guilt or obligation, because the Lord loves a cheerful giver. That day Israel entered into a covenant with God because they wanted to say “thank you” for what the Lord had done for them. We have seen they promised to be faithful in three specific areas.
- Purity in Marriage (10:30)
- Consistency on the Sabbath (10:31)
- Generosity in Giving (10:32-39)
What a covenant! It was vocal and it was visible, so that people could hear and see that each other meant it. It was personal but communal, so that they could hold one another mutually accountable. Now you don’t have to wait till next Easter to renew your membership of Christ Church, you can do it today. Use today as an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus Christ…..