Sunday, January 31, 2010

Road to Recovery 3

Ezra 7:10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Nehemiah 8:1-10 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Road to Recovery (3): Spirituality
01/31/2010 Bethany
Nehemiah 8:1-10 (message)
Ezra 7:10 (message)
Psalm 19

Principal/coach driving the bus – using feet to handle the wheel
Seeing my surprise, said: "Don’t do as I do; do as I say"

Are there any areas of our lives where what we do and what we say are not aligned? One definition of "integrity" could be "the alignment of what we say with what we do".
But more important than the alignment of what we say with what we do is the alignment of who we are with what God says. Our spirituality at Bethany Church – giving, faithful, real – the "real" part is about "really" becoming who God is calling us to be ... honest and humble about where we’ve been, where we are now, and what God is doing in our lives on the way.

Some context and a recap of our Road to Recovery series. Israel had been destroyed and taken violently into exile. Whenever you hear about the 10 lost tribes, that happened in exile’s first stage as the northern kingdom of Israel was utterly destroyed by Assyria in 722-721. 136 years later, a new superpower is on the scene and Babylon destroys the southern kingdom, Judah, and takes them into exile, for the final time in year 586. The Babylonians were not quite as vicious as the Assyrians, not systematic about destroying every vestige of national identity. So, the nation survives in exile and, after 50 years and the rise of the Persian Empire, Jews are allowed to return to a land without temple, without city walls, without the monarchy.

They struggle with nostalgia – and have to hear the promise of glory and the practicality of work. They struggle with redefining identity – and hear the call to purity as the people of God. Today’s theme is spirituality – another response to identity issues in a time of recovery.

In our main reading, from Nehemiah 8, we have the beginnings of revival. Its seeds were sown in a community work project – rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, 80 years after the return of the first Jews. After getting their hands dirty together, and there is no substitute for working with your hands, they gathered around the Word of God.

Ezra reads it and it is "interpreted, giving the sense" (8.8). That is, it was read in the original language, Hebrew, and interpreted and translated into the new common tongue of Aramaic, to be sure it could be clearly understood. After the disruption of exile, Jews had to relearn Hebrew – something that happened again in our own time after Jews returned to the modern state of Israel. But here they are, before the language is understood by all, being sure that all could understand.

In the very next scene, the leaders of the people meet with Ezra to spend additional time in the Torah, the Scriptures, the Word of God. That’s what leaders do in a spiritual community. We are constituted not by constitutions and councils or bylaws and business but by the Word of God.
Then, in chapter 9, the people of God, freshly energized by a Work project and freshly focused by the Word, take a day to freshly commit themselves to God, to renew their covenant. And what do they do that day? The first three hours is spent in public reading of the Scripture, the second three hours in confession and worship, and then in covenant reaffirmation.

The Scriptures are central to reclaiming our identity as God’s people. The Scriptures are central to true revival – the soul re-awakened to the presence and promise of God. The Scriptures are central to the spiritual life.

But this story of Israel’s revival begins much earlier. In this particular case, the revival began in the soul of Israel’s leaders. It began with Nehemiah spending "days" in fasting, prayer, and mourning over the state of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4). It began with Ezra’s habitual Scriptural life: "Ezra devoted himself to the study and observance of the law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel" (Ezra 7:10).

Ezra didn’t say "do as I say, not as I do". Before teaching was a regular part of his life, he devoted himself to study and to obedience. Today, one of the expressions for personal spiritual practices of Bible reading and prayer is your "devotions". Ezra’s "devotions" formed him as a child of God, sowed the seed for broader revival, and kept him open to the grace and favor of God in his daily life and his leadership role – whether the favor of a king or protection on a journey.

How are your "devotions"?
Some of you have a rich daily time in prayer and the Scriptures. Keep it up!

Some of you have a much more active, rather than contemplative, spiritual life and don’t feel you have the luxury of sitting down. Try putting a Bible in the bathroom or on the breakfast counter. I had a roommate who used to laminate large print Bible pages and hang them in the shower. Write a short section out on a card and carry it with you to refer to it throughout the day; memorize it and mull it over. Perhaps, from this week’s message, you could use Ezra 7:10.

Some of you feel guilty and inadequate in a conversation like this. That’s always been my default response. I’m a perfectionist and I can never be "good enough" at getting into the Scripture. And, I’ve been around a lot of folks who were pretty legalistic about the devotional life. This isn’t about guilt. This is about connecting with the God who loves us, who is devoted to us. Psalm 19: "sweeter than honey". Nehemiah: "the joy of the LORD is your strength". This is not about guilt but about joy and pleasure in the presence of God.

Some of you have difficulty with a daily schedule. Every day is different anyway and you would have to start really early to set that time apart. If you can’t start that early, then make it a priority to seize the time at every opportunity. Keep a Bible or the psalms with you to read during those many times each week that we simply have to wait. Perhaps, instead of shorter daily times you find it easier to set aside bigger chunks of time every few days. Sit down with your Bible, light a candle, pray, read, meditate over an extended period.

However you do it, your "devotions" are one of the most important thing you can do to nurture your soul, to know revival, to live out your identity as a child of God.

One of the great ways to structure personal devotions is to be part of a group. We’ve got some great Sunday School classes and a few groups that meet during the week in homes and restaurants. We’ve also started a Circle of Friends. It is a really neat grouping opportunity that includes a shared devotional practice – reading at home – that is then discussed when the group gets together. We have one group meeting here on Wednesday nights and are looking at some new opportunities – whether here or in homes – as well. See Gary for details.

Years ago, I read an article reporting on a study of behaviors that set apart long term relationships from those that just don’t last. This particular study isolated the greeting and departure kiss as a habit that nurtured long term relationships. That greeting or departure kiss may or may not sweep you off your feet, but a lifetime of kissing, the devotion of kissing the one you love makes a difference. It is the small things, the little details, that build up into incredible value in a relationship, just like the small savings each week that can build wealth in retirement.
Zechariah, a prophet of Israel’s return, wrote, "Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel" (Zechariah 4:10). It wasn’t just that governor Zerubbabel (the first governor of the returning Jews) was participating in the work on the temple, but that the small thing was a symbol of something much larger – justice and truth. Small things accumulate into things of greater and greater value! Jesus said it this way, "Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much (Luke 16:10).

Today, build value in your devotional life. Like Israel, make a fresh covenant with God. Like Ezra, let your life be formed by the Scriptures.

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