The Dung Gate
Nehemiah 3: The Dung Gate itself was rebuilt by Malkijah son of Recab.
As the work begins on the big wall rebuilding project, Nehemiah, as general contractor, takes us on a tour of the job site. This is a huge undertaking so he’s organized the leading families of Jerusalem to take on different sections of the wall, including some who are rebuilding the gates to the city. We meet Hanun and his team who are rebuilding the Valley Gate and then we come to Malkijah and his crew. Malkijah is an important person among the returned exiles; in fact, he’s the mayor of the nearby district of Beth Hakkerem.
Just a second, it looks as though Malkijah is taking a short break, maybe we can have a word with him, “Excuse me, your honor, do you have a second?”
“Sure, but not long mind you; there’s work to be done.”
“Being such an important person in Jerusalem, I imagine you have an important gate to rebuild. So tell me about this gate…is it one of the historic royal gates, used only for the king?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“Maybe it’s used for religious purposes, like the Sheep Gate…or for commerce?”
Malkijah grins at us, “This, my friends, is none other than the Dung Gate.”
We’re somewhat taken back by this. “Do you mean this gate is primarily used for human waste disposal?” We’re surprised that this important man is rebuilding such a lowly gate.
Then Malkijah son of Recab, mayor of Beth Hakkerem says, “But it is an important gate – it’s important because it’s being rebuilt in the Name of the Lord. Anything you do in his Name is a worthy effort.”
As we rejoin the tour we find ourselves thinking about our attitude toward some of the more lowly things we do in the Name of the Lord.
Take Away: If the Lord gives us a task, for us, that task is the most important one in the world.
Pride goes before a fall
2 Chronicles 26: Arrogant and proud, he fell.
Uzziah is just a teen when he becomes king of Judah. By and large, he does a good job as king and his long reign is a good one for his nation. From the beginning he seeks God. The Lord is pleased with him and blesses his life with successful building projects and a strong army. Then, when it seems Uzziah will be one of the rare kings who have nothing but positive things on their record something ugly happens. His successes go to Uzziah’s head. We don’t know the full story but Uzziah decides, like Saul did many generations earlier, to take over the worship activities. He takes the one role in the nation that’s denied him – going into the Temple and acting as priest of God. The legitimate priests, descendants of Aaron, try to stop Uzziah, but he ignores them. With the holy censor in hand, he refuses to hear the objections of the priests. Then, God objects, and when he objects, he can’t be ignored. The dreaded disease of leprosy breaks out on Uzziah’s hand as he holds the censor. This is God’s judgment. It’s too bad isn’t it. Uzziah comes so far and does so many things right. His downfall comes, not as a result of some big temptation or some great threat. Instead, it’s brought about by his success. When things are going right and it’s clear that God is blessing us we need to remember Uzziah. Here we see a lesson in how success can lead to failure.
Take Away: The distance from impressive success to dismal failure is shorter than we might think.
I was w-w-w-wrong
2 Chronicles 25: But what about all this money – these tons of silver I have already paid out to hire these men?
The “chronicler” starts off telling us that Amaziah “lives well” and “does the right thing” and then begins an accounting of all the foolish blunders he makes. It’s likely that Amaziah handled things just fine until things begin to unravel near the end of his reign. At one point he’s preparing for war. After numbering his army he concludes that he needs more soldiers so he turns to Israel for help, paying a great deal of money to mercenary soldiers to fight on his side. However, the Lord sends word to him that this is a huge mistake. These soldiers won’t be helped by the Lord because they don’t trust in him. Amaziah’s response is reasonable. He wants to know about all the money he’s already spent on these fighters. The man of God reminds him that it’s better to have God’s help than it is to have a bigger army. The king yields, writing off the wages already spent as a bad investment. This account doesn’t earn Amaziah stellar marks, but it does earn him a passing grade. Failure, in this case, would have been throwing good money after bad. The lesson here is one well learned. Those of us who are of a strong will tend to lock our jaws and press on even when it’s more and more apparent that we shouldn’t have started down a certain path in the first place. Our argument is the same one the king used: “I’ve come too far and invested too much to turn back now.” No one believes in perseverance more than I do, but sometimes perseverance is just a flimsy cover up for pride. At some point a heaping helping of humble pie is in order. “I thought I was right and that this would work, but I was wrong.” Write it off and get on with life.
Take Away: Better to write off a loss than to compound the situation by doubling down on a bad decision.
1 Samuel 10: He’s right over there — hidden in that pile of baggage.
Things are moving too fast for young Saul. Not long ago the old man of God, Samuel, floored him with the announcement that he has been picked by God to be the first king of Israel. Then there’s the surprising episode with the prophets; he still hasn’t figured that one out. Now, he finds himself at the big gathering to announce the new king. He already knows the outcome; Samuel let him in on God’s plan and the prospect of being king both terrifies and thrills him. This big man dislikes being noticed — something that can hardly be avoided. After all, just his standing up gets him plenty of attention. Almost by instinct he slips out of the main gathering to find a comfortable, out of sight place among the baggage. Here he sits, wondering what he will do when his name is announced. The answer to the question is known soon enough: he does nothing. Frozen in fear and indecision he sits there until someone finds him. Like it or not, he is the man picked by God to be king and the Lord won’t take “no” for an answer. I feel kind of sorry for Saul in this incident. In fact, I identify with both his hesitation and thrill at what the Lord’s doing in his life. Often I find myself feeling unworthy and incapable of doing what the Lord places before me. The greatest source of hope in such times is the knowledge that when God calls to some task he also provides the strength necessary to accomplish that task. Still, it would sometimes be easier to hide among the baggage.
Take Away: If the Lord calls you to it, he’ll enable you to do it.
All in the family
Numbers 12: God overheard their talk.
On the surface it’s a family squabble. Moses’ brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, don’t like his wife. This isn’t especially earthshaking. There are many in-laws who don’t get along. In this case, though, Moses’ brother and sister go public with their family dispute, apparently undermining his leadership by pointing out that Moses is married to a non-Israelite. It’s here that we find this chilling sentence: “God overheard their talk.” Actually, this passage usually brings a smile to my face. The statement that Moses is the most humble man on the face of the earth is quite funny when we think of the tradition that Moses is the author of Numbers. Supposedly we have him describing himself here as the most humble man on earth! In spite of the smile, however, this is quite a serious passage. God doesn’t like it when people undermine the leadership he’s put in place. The issue here isn’t about disagreeing with leaders, questioning some decision they’ve made. Instead, it’s about undermining God-given authority. In this case, God doesn’t like what he hears and acts to shore up his chosen leader’s status by diminishing theirs. Surely there are times when church leaders need correction but if they need to be taken down a peg or two, we’d better be careful about our place in it.
Take Away: A God called leader remains human and prone to error but he or she also deserves respect as one set apart by the Lord.
The disposition of the believer
1Peter 3: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.
The original readers of this letter are under pressure, suffering for their faith. Not only that but they’re in the first generation of Christianity. In this passage Peter describes the general disposition of a believer. Christians are to be agreeable, sympathetic people. We’re to be known for our compassion on others and our humility concerning ourselves. We’re not to advance the cause of Christianity by force and people aren’t to have to worry about watching their “P’s & Q’s” when they’re around us. Even non-Christians are to feel comfortable and it should go without saying that we’re to treat one another in kind, agreeable ways. Sad to say, some believers haven’t gotten this memo. They think that they’re doing God a favor by forcing their moral code down people’s throats. They think they’re being good soldiers in his army by creating lots of collateral damage on fellow believers with whom they have a few differences of opinion. The question I need to ask myself is how do I score on this “agreeable, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, humble” test? Peter, it seems, can almost hear people’s self-justification at this point, so he adds: “That goes for all of you, no exceptions.” He continues, “That’s your job, to bless.” Of course, my non-Christian friends are to know that I believe there’s a superior way for them to live. At the same time, they’re to conclude an encounter with me feeling that they’ve been blessed and not cursed.
Take Away: Do people think of time with us as a blessing or a curse?
Being the leader God calls one to be
Titus 2: You’re in charge. Don’t let anyone put you down.
Here in Crete Titus is operating in new territory. He’s been part of Paul’s team, traveling from place to place. Sometimes he’s gone out on special assignment, delivering a message or the like, but still operating under Paul’s wing. Now, though, things are different. Yes, he’s been appointed by Paul to this task, but, by and large he’s on his own. The Apostle reminds him of what he’s supposed to do, but this time, it’s Titus, by himself, meeting with congregations and organizing their leadership. It may be that Paul knows Titus well enough to know that he’s going to struggle a bit with this assignment. Even as he spells out Titus’ responsibilities Paul makes it a point to tell him that he’s in charge and as he meets with these budding congregations he needs to be ready to stand his ground concerning the kind of leaders they need and the kind of people they’re supposed to be. Here, again, I find myself considering a leadership principle. Humbleness is critical if one is to be the servant-leader Christian leaders are called to be. At the same time though, if one has been called to and granted authority for leadership by the Lord, that individual needs to have a firm grasp on that leadership. Most everyone recognizes God-called leadership. The thing is that while most recognize and appreciate it, a few are threatened by it and will challenge or manipulate it if they think they can get away with it. A Christian leader must recognize this and be ready to stand firm in his or her calling in a Christ-like manner.
Take Away: Christian leaders are servant-leaders, but they do carry with them a sense of authority.
In over my head
Ephesians 3: So here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head.
It was hidden in plain view. Throughout the ages the Lord God has intended to save all people. Some considered to be insiders are no more “inside” than those assumed to be outside the saving work of God. It was always there, easy enough to see, but missed by most. Now, the secret is out and throughout the Gentile world people are responding to the way made clear by the work of Jesus, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul is amazed to find himself in the middle of things. He, more than most anyone, had been blind to God’s intention, at one point actively fighting against it. In fact, Paul has been twice surprised: first, by the fact that all along God intended to save all who will come and second, by the fact that he, Paul, has a role to play in the revelation of this plan. The Apostle considers himself to be, of all people, an especially unlikely candidate. Still he finds himself uniquely equipped for the work, with words and ministry flowing out of his life. He knows that the Source of all this isn’t in him at all, but, rather, is the result of God’s doing through him what he could never do otherwise. Paul’s experience is, of course, extraordinary and a person who wants to lay claim on any similarities had better tread carefully. Still, it’s important for preachers and teachers and professors to get their heads around this. On one hand, believing God has chosen us and uses us in surprising ways lends us a sense of spiritual authority and self-assurance in our service of the Lord. On the other hand, knowing that none of it actually comes from us grounds us in real humility. Otherwise, we end up thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and the possibility of our ministry being used of God is greatly diluted.
Take Away: When God calls and uses a person that person must never lose sight of the fact that their usefulness is the Lord’s doing and not theirs.
Peter, stop arguing!
John 13: Why can’t I follow now?
It’s Thursday night before Jesus is arrested. He and his disciples are in the Upper Room and Jesus is in the role of servant, washing their feet. He comes to Peter, but Peter resists, declaring “You’re not going to wash my feet – ever!” Jesus, though, persists telling Peter that if he won’t allow this that he’ll have no part in what Jesus has come to do. Peter decides to give in, but if that’s how it is, he has a better idea. He wants Jesus to wash his hands and head as well. Once again, our Lord holds steady, explaining that it’s foot washing that Peter needs and it’s foot washing that he’s going to get. Then, the meal ended, Jesus tenderly commands his disciples to love one another. This, he says, will be their primary, distinguishing characteristic. As Jesus is stating these words, Peter’s focus is on what Jesus said earlier. He ignores the teaching concerning mutual love and wants to know where Jesus is going. The Lord patiently responds, telling Peter that someday he’ll follow but not right now. Peter is having none of that. “Why later? Why not now?” he demands. Then he adds, “I’ll lay down my life for you.” At this point, Jesus has had enough of Peter’s approach. Even as he declares his allegiance to the Lord his responses are always that he knows better than Jesus. At this point Jesus tells him that big time failure is coming to him, and soon. I don’t know whether to smile at Peter’s “Lord, I love you but I know better than you” approach or if I should wince and remember the times I’ve blundered ahead of the Lord thinking I knew what to do without asking him. How often do my actions betray the truth that I think I know better than God?
Take Away: A part of following Jesus is admitting that he’s smarter than we are.
Not thinking too highly of ourselves
Nahum 1: A report on the problem of Nineveh.
Nahum gets the job Jonah wanted. Around 100 years earlier God sent Jonah to preach condemnation to Nineveh, but in hopes that they would repent and be spared. Jonah would have been happy to preach the message of God’s judgment if that was all there was to it. Now, two generations later Nahum is given that message. “The problem of Nineveh” is that the Assyrian empire is the superpower of the region. The tiny nation of Judah is in fearful awe of that empire and behind every move they make is the question, “Will this be okay with the powers that be in the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh?” Nahum’s call from God is to reorient the priorities of Judah. He’s to tell his people that God is still God and that Nineveh will be held to the same standards as the other nations of the world. The prophet goes to work proclaiming his message. In the first part of his sermon he reminds them that, as mighty as Assyria might be, the Lord is the “All-mighty.” God’s a patient God, but, in the end, he’s also Judge of the world. To him, Assyria is just another nation and they’re about to be called to account for their abuse of power. My nation is on the Assyrian side of things. We’re the superpower and, to borrow an old saying, “when America sneezes the whole world gets a bad cold.” As I read from the little Book of Nahum I’m reminded that in God’s eyes we’re not as big a deal as we think we are.
Take Away: It’s important for us as individuals and as a nation to remember that the Lord is the “All-Mighty.”