One Holy Passion
May 6, 2001
“Christians: Party Animals?”
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished for every good work.” From II Timothy 3:16, this is a cardinal treatise on the nature and the profitable character of the Word of God. As we saw last week, the people of Jerusalem, having participated in the miracle of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in a scant 52 days, now had called for the Word of God to be read to them. They stood to hear it proclaimed, and they listened attentively, because the Bible is meant to be understood. It holds no value as a good luck charm or as one ceremonial part of some religious ritual. When we come to the Word of God, we must come willing to be taught its truths by the Holy Spirit, for it is in our understanding of the Word of God that God can use it in our lives and mold us into the people He wants us to become. Don’t kid yourself: any growth you think you experience in your walk with God must of necessity have some linkage to His truth. As I’ll talk about in a few moments, this introspective, New Age, navel-gazing, experience-oriented brand of pseudo-spirituality is a bogus counterfeit of the real thing. Over and over again the witness of the Bible is that it is the truth that sets us free; that faith comes by hearing the Word of God; that it is the renewing of our minds that transforms us. We are reminded that we can walk clean before God by taking heed to His Word; that hiding His Word in our hearts is what enables us to live with less sin in our lives. We are told that it is the Word of God which is the Sword of the Spirit, the only offensive weaponry in the portfolio of our armor. We are told that it is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, that it cuts through all of the nonsense and pretense that we throw up as a façade to hide the real “us”. We established last week that when real revival breaks out among a people, the Word of God is central. The Word of God must judge our experiences, and not the other way around, and excuse me for saying this, but there have been reports of some “revivals” recently around North America that are at the very least highly suspect to my understanding because some of the leading proponents of these seem to be more enthralled with the experience of the thing than with the solid, contextual teaching of the Word of God!
Now we said last week that worship involves a response to God—we cannot imagine that we have pleased God simply by dutifully putting in our time on Sunday morning. You’ve not worshipped today unless/until you have contemplated the glory of Who God is and then fashioned a Biblically obedient response to His glory and His awesome greatness. You might have sung; you might have given a whopping amount in the offering plate; you might even be listening. But until you have responded in some way to a right understanding of Who God is, you have not worshipped God—because remember, Jesus said we must worship in spirit and in truth! These people in Jerusalem were responding to what the Law showed them was true. Today, I want to talk further about the proper response to the holiness of God—and answer the question of whether or not God calls Christians to be…party animals!
Stand with me as we read God’s Word today!
The circle of life...in the Lord!
Harry Chapin was a folk singer best known for his epic “Cat’s in the Cradle”, which told the story of the maturing of a little boy whose daddy had little time for him into a man who had little time for his father when the father got older. It’s the kind of song that just puts a lump in your throat—and the other night, when I put this message together, I thought of my own children: one will be old enough to drive by this time next year. My second is not the little boy I remember being born so wide-eyed into this world over 11 years ago. My beautiful little girl is now in kindergarten.
When I was in college, a roommate of mine had an old 45 of Harry Chapin, with Cat’s in the Cradle, another song named 30,000 Pounds of Bananas, and a few others. Thinking of it a few weeks ago and reminiscing back to college days, I decided to try to pick it up, and sure enough, I found it online for just a few bucks and picked it up; it’s speeding its way to me even as we speak. One song I remember, a quiet song, said, “All my life’s a circle”. A few years ago, this theme was repeated, albeit with a little different emphasis, in the Disney feature, The Lion King. “The Circle of Life”, the song was called. I want you today to notice the circle of life—in the Lord. We see it in these verses from Nehemiah 8.
i. Attentiveness to the Word (v.8)
I am not going to talk about this point, because as I said, this was the focus of last week’s message, except to stress that this is the starting point. We must certainly stand for the truthfulness of the Word of God, but it is far easier to stand for it than to take it seriously enough to study it as though our lives depended upon it, but they do, and we must. The items that follow in the lives of the people of Jerusalem flow from a decision to take the Word seriously, and to be attentive to it. Your Christian experience will be dry and lifeless apart from being refreshed regularly by the water of the Word. All that follows is predicated upon cultivating an attentiveness to God’s Word.
ii. Sorrow over sin (v.9)
Nehemiah tells us that the first, dominant emotional response to the reading of the Word of God was weeping. Why weeping? First, there is a precedent for this. We read in Ezra 10 of how a few years earlier the people, led by the example of Ezra, the priest, had wept when they had realized their sin. And that is clearly the reason why sorrow was for them—as it is for us—the first appropriate emotional response to the comprehension of God’s truth about us. The Bible says, “Godly sorrow works repentance”, and Jesus tells us that, except we repent, we will all perish.
You see, the Word of God acts as a mirror to reveal the wickedness of our hearts. The Bible tells us that the natural bent of all men is to proclaim their own goodness, but the Bible cuts through all of that and declares that all of us fall far short of God’s glory. We are natural-born sinners; we are filled with sin; we are enslaved to sin. Apart from the quickening work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we can never come into a right relationship with God, because we are blinded by our sin. When the Law was read, the people came to an immediate understanding that there was something terribly amiss; they had failed a holy God by their sorry living. Weeping was a highly appropriate emotion. Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, begins by saying that it is the poor in spirit who will be blessed. In other words, we cannot hope to have the blessing of God on us until and unless we recognize our own spiritual poverty.
And notice that the weeping comes on the heels of the understanding of the truth of God’s Word. This is no emotion for emotion’s sake; this is emotion which flows from an apprehension of the truth. It is probably a dangerous thing to try to deconstruct emotions, but generally speaking our emotions flow from an apprehension of reality. We understand something to be true and that stirs us to respond emotionally, whether the emotion is sorrow, or anger, or glee, or what have you. That is the way it is supposed to work. I know this seems an obvious point, but it bears repeating from last week: the thing I fear about some of our modern Christianity is that we have a group of people who are “experience-seekers” rather than God-seekers! They go in search of a church or an event where they can get the biggest spiritual buzz, where the “show” is the best, where the music is upbeat and the preacher is entertaining and they can walk out with a good warm feeling inside. Now, there’s nothing wrong with warm feelings, good music, or a preacher that doesn’t put you to sleep, but folks, it has to be about a whole lot more than being a consumer of the experience! We’re not here to entertain you or put on a religion show; we want you to understand the truth of God’s Word that you might experience the working of God in your life, and when that happened to the people in Jerusalem, they wept!
When this reading of God’s Word took place, the holy Day of Atonement was just a few days away. This was a day to afflict oneself, to remember one’s sins and mourn over them. Look for a moment at Leviticus 16:15-16, 20-22. Two goats would be selected; one offered as a sacrifice, presaging the once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, on Calvary, and the other, called the scapegoat, released in the wilderness, symbolically carrying their sins on himself and going far away to be seen no more. Yes, this was a day when sins would be remembered, and mourning was appropriate, but only as a precursor, clearing the air, as it were, for the happier occasion of the recognition of forgiveness!
iii. Rejoicing in forgiveness (v.9-11)
And that is our second point; Nehemiah instructed the people to rejoice instead of mourn! And folks, he didn’t just say, “get happy.” “Cheer up.” “Put on a happy face.” He said, “Party!!!” It is time to feast, not to fast! “Don’t be grieved—because the day is holy!” That ought not to strike us as an incredible statement, but I’m afraid that it does strike many Christians as odd. “Throw a party, because this is a holy day! Oh, and splurge a little! Live it up in the goodness and joy of the Lord, because this is a holy day!”
What do many people think of when they think of holiness, and of holy days? Somber, cloistered people who look as though they’ve been baptized in vinegar. Grim, serious people from whom you couldn’t buy a smile for a million bucks. Their understanding of Christianity is that it is a “religion”. Frankly, I don’t give a plugged nickel for religion! They seem to think that they have to earn God’s favor by making a dutiful attempt to appease an offended deity, and so they afflict themselves and joylessly trudge through life with their faces to the ground. Hey, by the way, if you think you can earn your way to Heaven by becoming more religious, would you please give up that futile way of thinking? There are plenty of religious people in hell today!
There is a reason that the “Church Lady”, if you know who I’m talking about, registered with a lot of people. Dana Carvey’s caricature of prim, proper, no-nonsense church people hit home with a lot of folks because, quite frankly, I think a lot of Christians have acted almost like they think it is a sin to act like you’re having fun in the presence of God! I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to anyway. I went Friday to a pastors’ gathering sponsored by Focus on the Family. I wore a golf shirt and a pair of Dockers, comfortable clothing, as did a lot of the pastors there. But there was a significant percentage of those guys who came in coat and tie—to this gathering which was supposed to be a time of refreshing, of being ministered to by someone else. And all I could think of was “would you please give it a rest?" I’ve been told by people on occasion, “you don’t look like a ‘reverend’!” To which I say, “thank you!”
The Bible had revealed to the people their sin—as it does to us—but it also demonstrated the cure, the forgiveness of God. In the Christian experience, grief and gladness are never far apart, that is if we are to live in the right balance. My fear is that many Christians today miss that balance. I believe that God desires us to live in joy, to live life abundantly, to get a genuine kick out of our experience with God. For you Presbys out there, doesn’t the Westminster Confession talk about the chief end of man involving “enjoying God forever?” But here is where I’m afraid the balance is missed: while some, as I mentioned previously, seem to miss the element of rejoicing, and equate holiness with somberness, I fear that in this age there are many more who miss the balance on the other side! They want to shortcut the process; they seem to want to live, as I said before, with a spiritual buzz, a blissful life of religious feel-good-ism, without ever going through the mourning and sorrow over sin. Listen to this statement and if you take nothing else away this morning, take this:
We are not created to live in mourning over sin; God wants us to live rejoicing in His salvation. But the path to real rejoicing goes through the valley of sorrow over sin!
You cannot experience the joy of the Lord which will be your strength and which flows from the assurance of God’s forgiveness unless you tread the path that leads through genuine repentance over the reality of your sin. In fact, if you think you’ve achieved some spiritual high with God, but you have never come face-to-face with your status as a sinner, then your spiritual experience is fake, it is bogus, it is a counterfeit!
There are two things that are equally wrong, then; it is wrong to rejoice without facing our sin, and it is equally wrong to mourn as a way of life when we have been forgiven and the strength that we need to live life is the joy of the Lord!
iv. Sharing with others (v.10)
Nehemiah said, “Oh, and by the way, as you are experiencing this joy of the Lord; as you are being party animals for God, splurging on choice food and good drink, don’t forget that there are going to be some who have nothing prepared. Share the joy with them—bring them along in your rejoicing by sharing with them from the overflow!” Let that joy bubble over to others!
Raymond Brown has become one of my favorite commentators during this Nehemiah study. Listen to his words on this point. He says, “The people were not to indulge in groveling introspection when there was a world out there needing the assurance of forgiveness and love.” This is one of the many problems of so much so-called spirituality today, the New Age nonsense movement and others. They seem to be so much inner peace hogwash disconnected from any real concern for meeting the needs of others. But the people were to invite the needy to this celebration, and you can be sure that Nehemiah wasn’t saying, “just feed ‘em, and let ‘em go!” No, there was to be a sharing of the wealth, but also the testimony of God’s goodness and forgiveness would go forth. One billion people in this world went to bed hungry last night (lest any of us dare consider ourselves poor, with our refrigerators stocked as they are!). Hey, in a world of need, let’s never get the idea that there is a dichotomy between loving God and loving neighbor, between sharing the gospel of grace and caring for people in their material needs. Jesus said, “there are two commandments upon which all of the Law and Prophets hang; love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as much as you naturally love yourself!” Raymond Brown again: “Personal salvation is not a cul-de-sac of individualistic experience; it is an open road of loving service in a world where God wants us to be, in Luther’s words, a ‘Christ’ to our neighbor.”
v. Closing the loop (v.12)
And it gets back to the Word, in verse 12. Notice why the people partied; it was not because they finished the walls! It was not because they now had a measure of protection from their enemies. It was because they understood the Word of God! They partied, like crazy, filled with the joy of the Lord—because they had heard the Word and they understood what it meant to be holy—to be forgiven of awful sin by the amazing grace of an awesome God. That’s the kind of life that God offers today—to each of us, as we understand his Word. It is not always a life of happiness, but it is a life of peace and joy which comes from God and which will be our strength when we think we can’t go on.
I imagine I’ll be peppering my sermons these days with references to Paul and Vicki Myers. The other night they came into my office to talk a little, and I enjoyed our time together. In the course of the conversation, I told them that in the past few days, I had spoken with two different members of our church who had told me essentially the same thing: what was happening with Paul had affected them in profound ways, and was causing them to think very soberly about their lives before God. And Vicki, with a smile on her face, looked back at me and told me of how others were being impacted for Jesus, and how she could see God using this terrible time in their lives to accomplish eternal good. And in that, she said, she rejoiced. Hey, Heaven is going to be an eternal party rejoicing in the goodness and eternal forgiveness God has provided through Christ. Some people have just decided that the most normal way to live a holy life now is to get a jump on that party—right here, and right now!