One of the abiding values of God’s Word is that we are privileged to see the true people of God being the people of God in a wide variety of situations. We see them dancing on the shores of the Red Sea with tambourines in their hands… “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!” God delivers His people! We see them standing after three days of consecration in holy fear and breathtaking awe in the presence of God as smoke, thunder and lightning goes up from Mt. Sinai. The earth itself trembled as God spoke the covenant. God speaks to His people! But, not just earthquakes on Mt. Sinai, or corporate celebrations, the Word of God also invites us into those intimate moments between Yahweh and his people. Yahweh calls a young boy in the middle of the night, Samuel, Samuel, and he says, “here I am.” God calls His people! Who can forget that high and holy moment when the great prophet Isaiah sees the Lord, high and lifted up, his train filling the temple, the angels crying “holy, holy holy” Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? He says, “Here am I send me!” God calls His people!
We are also allowed to see the people of God in difficult times. The people of God have to be the people of God not only in the mighty days of Moses, but also during the lean days of Eli when as I Sam. 3:1 says, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Every man or woman of God longs to minister in those times when the glory of the Lord fills the temple…. And visions of six winged seraphs fill our lives….and the certainty of God’s word reverberates around our very being… but some are chosen to live in a time when the ark of God had been captured by the Philistines, and a woman names her child Ichabod, because the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel. Some lived in the days of Solomon when the Temple was the splendor of the world, a wise King sat on the throne. Some, like Jeremiah, were called to be faithful to God even as they sat and wept on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem being burned to the ground and crying out “O daughter of Jerusalem, your wound is as deep as the sea.” We love to live in the exclamation marks of life, but sometimes we’re called to be faithful in the question marks of life. The exclamation mark is sure and straight and the message is clear… a question mark is crooked and twisted and sometimes it’s hard to see around it. Sometimes we don’t know how to interpret the times we are in. We all know what it is like to look out on what we think are the promises of God, even as we hear some declare, “wow, milk and honey” and others, “oh, no look at those giants!”
My brothers and sisters, we must learn to recognize the times we live in. We are living on one of the great seams of history – the seam between modernity and post-modernity; The seam between Christendom and post-Christendom; The seam between a predominately western Christianity and the emergence of a post-western Christianity. As I said last night, we live in a post-communist, post-Christendom, post-denominational, post-western, post-Enlightenment and post-modern world. We don’t even know what to call this new epoch we are entering, we just now we are “post” everything we have known. We live in a time of uncertainty.
For many, many years seminaries across N. America prepared men and women for ministry in a society which was conceptualized as the modern day equivalent of the promised land, a land full of spiritual milk and honey. A land where steepled towns rang their church bells and the faithful gathered to hear God’s word. A society where Judeo-Christian ethics were normatively embraced by the society at large. At some point, those of us who teach students, and preach in churches slowly began to realize that we were no longer in the promised land, but we were in Babylonian exile. We had been preparing students to sing the songs of Zion and, instead, they were hanging their harps up and singing laments. I’m actually not lamenting that we are in a time of lament. Lament is good – it’s like an extended season of Lent – it can be painful, but it is very beneficial. Lament is good because lament is the mother of hope. What we don’t want to do is to pretend that the landscape has not changed and we fail to recognize the signs of our times.
Don’t forget the last line of the Old Testament… “lest I come and smite the land with a curse!” Wow – what an ending. It is not the kind of message which we put on our billboard signs outside our churches or in promises boxes on our breakfast tables. Malachi leaves us with an unresolved note – one that went unresolved for 400 years before we turn the page to Matthew chapter one and Gabriel showing up with some really good news. What was it like to live in that “in-between” period?
Our text this morning reminds us that Nehemiah lived at a seam time, too, didn’t he? Nehemiah was post-exile, pre-Messiah. The long night of exile was over, Jews were returning, but there was no still no messiah. The walls of Jerusalem were torn down and its gates were burned w/ fire, recalling a day when things were better. Hope seemed dim. Most Jews believed that their best days were behind them. We can only imagine the conversations that took place around the dinner table. It was a time of rebuilding and seeking to rekindle hope. We don’t know what kind of books might have been published in Nehemiah’s day.
If on the eighth day God had said, “Let there be Zondervan” just think of the books that could have been published. Moses could have been a best-selling author, “How to Pass Through Your Red Sea” by Moses. Moses’ follow up book, “The Purpose-Driven Nation.” Naturally, it would come with a study guide. Moses has actually left us with five books. Nehemiah has given us a book, too. We just call it Nehemiah, but if it was sold as a separate book, it might appear under the title, “Living as a Jew in a post-Judaism world” or, “Life Admist the Rubble.” Because in this book, Nehemiah helps us to understand what it means to be faithful to the call of God in a post-Jewish, post-covenant, post-Temple world… as well as our own post-Christendom, post-modern, post-everything world.
Nehemiah as much as any of our dear brothers and sisters of the earlier covenant would understand the world we inhabit. We have our Sanballat and Tobiah’s they are just known by different names, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Nehemiah also lived in a world when even the people of God did not know their own Scriptures. They had forgotten the mighty acts of God. It is the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman who once said that the chief function of a prophet is to call people to remember; to remember the mighty acts of God. Nehemiah understood that.
We mainly remember Nehemiah as the one who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but chapter eight of our texts tells us about something else he rebuilt. He rebuilt the pulpit. The pulpit had also become part of the rubble, not just the Temple and the walls. Nehemiah had a great pulpit built. In Nehemiah 8 verse 4 we are told that “a high wooden platform was built for the occasion.” The great priest of God, Ezra was called upon to deliver the word of God in uncertain times. He opens the word of God and begins to read. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest appointed thirteen Levites to instruct the people in the Law while it was being read. We don’t find a list of mega-stars, or any 5th C. BC. version of Christian celebrities. These are not household names, then or now. We find a list of Levites whose names you have never heard of: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub , Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah. These are Levites you’ve never heard of, but God put their names in the Bible. Listen to verse 8 “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”
This is what we need today. Asbury Theological Seminary quietly producing Banis and Sherebiahs and Jamins and Hodiahs and Kelitas and Azariahs!! This is the need of the hour. Men and women called to faithfully teach people the Word of God in the midst of the rubble. If there ever was a time when the pulpit has crumbled into rubble it is today. But, from Nehemiah we learn how they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. They understood the times they lived in. If you had gone around the broken walls of Jerusalem, every one of them would have preferred to live their lives with a tambourine in their hand, but instead they were called to live with a trowel and a sword. A time of rebuilding, a time of remembering, a time of hope. As John Hus was perishing in the flames of his martyrdom, he reportedly declares that in a hundred years God will raise up a man whose calls for reform could not be suppressed. 102 years later, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. Most of us would long to have lived in the days of the Reformation, but what of those dear Christians who lived in the 100 years between Hus and Luther?
On of the most remarkable gifts of our own is that we live at a time of simultaneous advance and recession of the gospel based on where you are in the world.
Latin America is experiencing the Reformation – 500 years late, but it has finally come. If you really would like to have lived in 16th century Europe, make your way to 21st century Brazil.
Africa is experiencing the sunrise of a new movement of God with healing and deliverances and rejoicing in the streets. It is not unusual to see Nigerians or Kenyans dancing in the streets with a tambourine in their hands not far removed from the days of Miriam. In Africa, the Red Sea is parting, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor. It’s harvest time in Africa.
India is coming to the backside of a long night in the wilderness. It is still long, hot tough days. But there are days when you can capture a glimmer of hope on the faces of God’s people. The the walls of Jericho are still surrounding the world of Hinduism. They walls still look impregnable, but the people of God in India are already marching around them. The great trumpet blast is not too many generations away, vindicating the tireless labors of the Seamond family, E. Stanely Jones, Wascom Pickett, Sam Kameleson and so many more.
Do you understand the signs of our times? Never before have seminaries had to prepare young people for such radically different contexts than today. In the next generation, we will send students out who need to know what to do when you have thousands and thousands of new believers pouring into the churches. We also will send out others who need to know how to be a prophet and face a culture when thousands are leaving the church every day. 24,000 new believers in Africa just since yesterday morning… 9,000 fewer believers than yesterday in the western world…. 1,600 new churches planted this week in Latin America… 5 new books on atheism published in the western world this week. The immigrant churches of America exploding with growth – more people have come to Christ in Boston in that last thirty years than during the entire Great Awakening, but it is not widely known, because it is a movement among immigrants. More people will worship Jesus Christ this Sunday in Cambridge Massachusetts in a language other than English than in English. These are amazing times – living in the seam. Asbury is going to rise to the occasion and do the one thing which must be done in all of these varied situations: rebuild the pulpit, remember the fundamentals, carefully instruct the people in the word of God. Asbury must prepare men and women to adapt to new situations, to be faithful in difficult challenges, and to live into the anointing of God when the Spirit is moving.
It was 97 years ago that the Titanic Sunk – April 15, 1912. There has been considerable speculation over the years among Titanic enthusiasts over what caused the mighty ship to sink on its maiden voyage. Some have argued that the tragic accident was caused by a faulty rudder. Other insisted that it was ultimately caused by poor communications, or the angle at which Captain Edward Smith hit the iceberg. However, a recent study of scientists has concluded that the best explanation for the disaster was something far more mundane – second-rate rivets.
In a recent book, What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries, Jennifer McCarty and Timothy Foecke argue that the vessel’s manufacturer, Harland and Wolff, were under so much pressure to secure sufficient quantities of iron to make the rivets for the vessel that they made some crucial compromises. The White Star Liner company which built the Titanic was under competition from another company named Cunard in an age when the construction of luxury ocean travel by Belfast shipyard workers translated into child labor, exhausting work schedules to meet deadlines and enormous pressure to cut corners. McCarty and Foecke argue that in the rush to get the Titanic afloat first, they ended up with an impressive looking vessel, but one that was made with substandard materials. At the time of the Titanic’s construction there was a shortage of quality iron. According to records, managers turned a deaf ear to numerous objections about the potential hazard of using substandard rivets. But everything was sacrificed to keep the Titanic on schedule.
Forty-nine rivets have now been recovered from the wreckage and a forensic analysis revealed that they, indeed, contained high levels of slag, making the iron brittle. These tests reveal that the rivets used in constructing the Titanic were, in fact, substandard and did not meet the design specifications. The Titanic could have struck an iceberg and stayed afloat even if as many as four of its sealed compartments were flooded. Instead, so many rivets popped along the starboard side of the ship that five compartments ended up flooding, sending more than 1,500 people to their deaths.
This story is a powerful reminder of the importance of not forgetting the basic fundamentals when building a big project. In the scale and grandeur of a project like the Titanic with hardwood dance floors, hanging chandeliers, and solid brass faucets, it was all too easy to not think about the importance of a lowly rivet. In the midst of our building grand church structures with family life centers, entertainment areas, great technology, it is all too easy to neglect those fundamentals which gives strength and integrity to the lifeblood of the church.
Seminary is about rivets: The word of God, the power of prayer, the supremacy of Christ, and the compelling truth of the gospel. It is not about techniques. We intend to prepare students who are not afraid of preaching the gospel, calling people to repentance, preaching holiness and sanctification and knowing that gospel is still the good news even if you are standing in the rubble of what once was Solomon’s Temple. The cross was still the cross, though jeering mockers stood at the foot of it. There are many wonderful ways that the gospel can be effectively presented to this generation. But, in the long run, the church is always built through rebuilding the pulpit, remembering the fundamentals, and keeping Christ at the center. When a student walks across the stage and graduates from Asbury Theological Seminary, I want to make sure that they have plenty of good rivets!
*You can listen to this and other sermons on iTunes by clicking here.
 Jennifer McCarty and Timothy Foecke, What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries (Citadel, 2008).