Summary: This sermon is part of a series I preached on Nehemiah’s one holy passion, the glory of God.
One Holy Passion
May 27, 2001
“All too easily, an ugly thing becomes tolerated, even viewed as the possibly useful thing, then the permissible thing, and finally the attractive thing. It does not happen in a moment. Standards are lowered gradually and imperceptibly. Sin becomes known by another name. We accommodate at one stage of life things which earlier would have been totally unacceptable.”
When we left the people of Jerusalem in chapters 9 & 10, they had separated themselves from the pagans in their midst, and humbly come before God in a solemn assembly to confess their sins and claim God’s forgiveness. More than this, they had pledged themselves to some very resolute and concrete promises, committing themselves to the observance of the Sabbath, the support of God’s work, purity in their marriages, etc. The temptation might have been for Nehemiah to end his book on this high note, with everything rolling merrily along as the people praise God and serve Him. But, as Raymond Brown says, “there is an obvious realism about Scripture.” We find little romanticism in it. Abraham attempts to deceive; Jacob cheats; Moses loses his temper; David commits adultery and murders; Peter lies. And the truth of the matter is that when we get to chapter 13, we find that the most spiritual of communities can find its standards subtly eroded as it accommodates to the pressures of contemporary worldliness. The people of Jerusalem did not exactly live happily ever after, but their experience is hardly uncommon.
I’m reminded of a story Tony Campolo tells of his experience in a church of the more Pentecostal bent. He tells of a man who, in the throes of spiritual involvement, began to call out in a loud voice, “Fill me, Lord! Fill me, Lord! Fill me, Lord!” To which finally an older woman in the congregation who could control herself no longer replied, in loud voice, “Don’t do it, Lord; he leaks!” But that is true for all of us: we leak. The analogies are many: like a top wound tight, we might spiritually run well for awhile, but due to the gravity force of our sin natures, we like tops naturally wind down. Sometimes we are ablaze with spiritual commitment, but fires burn down to embers over time. The people of Jerusalem had experienced real spiritual “highs”. Chapters 8-9 present such promise; Chapter 10 tells of bold promises made to God. Chapter 11 involves the determination on the part of the people that Jerusalem will truly be a holy city. In Chapter 12, the people dedicate the newly rebuilt walls, and pledge support for their spiritual leaders. Even in the first verses of Chapter 13, we see them taking a bold step on the basis of their fresh understanding of the Word. But later in Chapter 13 we see that they became guilty of “inching away” into a comfortable compromise with a pagan world. This past Wednesday in Business Conference I was happy to report the excitement I sense at FCC right now, but the message for us today is that we must be on our guards lest we give in to the natural tendency to do the same: to “inch away” into lives of compromise and complacency.
Would you stand with me as we read Nehemiah 13:4-31?
God has created for us a world of order, in which we bank on the certainty of certain physical properties and principles. One of these upon which we rely with dead certainty is the law of gravity. What goes up must come down, whether spinning wheels go round and round or not. Gravity, a difficult force to contend with. Let me suggest that worldliness acts as a spiritual gravity, always tugging downward on us even as we seek to “press on the upward way”. The forms that that spiritual gravity takes may vary from generation to generation in the specifics, but we feel it today as keenly as did the people in fifth century B.C. Jerusalem. Today, we deal with bugaboos of a different sort (if I keep using that word, I’ll win you over). They go by names like multi-culturalism and tolerance and relativism and pluralism. Packer said, “Relativism and pluralism are marks of cultural decadence”, and he is surely correct, the idea that there is no absolute truth, that we can be certain of nothing except that we can be certain of nothing, the preposterous notion that all roads lead to God. Elton John might say that “sorry seems to be the hardest word”, but in our culture, the hardest word to hear is the word “wrong”; it is politically incorrect and culturally gauche to suggest that others might just be this. How we feel this spiritual gravity, this pressure to assimilate ourselves into the pagan society by gobbling up its godless norms. The particulars might be different, but the generalities are the same today as in Nehemiah’s day. Let’s look at