Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Covenant – what the western world has lost
IN EXPLORING how Nehemiah pulled off an assembly of all the people, whether living in the city or outside, it seems a remarkable feat. All those people… families as well… dropping their entire routine to come into town for an extended Bible reading, in a language that was not all that familiar to many of them – especially the ones that has intermarried. We are left thinking, “How did they fit that into their schedule, especially after two months on the building site?’
But they didn’t have a schedule. This is a different world and these are people of the covenant. The covenant binds them together, and the Lord, the Great God of the covenant, draws them in ways which are half-forgotten, but still part of who they are.
God is still God of the covenant. The world has changed, 2500 years ago to now, dusty middle east to drizzly Britain, Jewish worldview to a so-called enlightened and rational one.
We know things they could never know. There are procedures to prevent and cure diseases. People are arguing over whether there’s a need for a 200mph train when we have 500mph aircraft and everyone travels in 70mph convoys on the roads.When there isn’t enough money to pay all the dues, we make some more, and the people who give it out get richer while the ones on the periphery get less. I am not only what I think, but what I wear, what my job title is and what my car plate says about me.
They knew that body, soul and spirit were part of the same human creation, that heaven was not entirely separate from the part of the realm that we inhabit, and that life together, with God, was what He blessed and therefore what worked.
Nehemiah begins with a solemn confession which makes no sense to us except to the extent that we can get into their scratchy clothes and uncomfortable world– and sense of identity and generational history as the people of God, a nation set apart by Him and for Him, which He still promises to love through all their many mistakes.
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
There is a description of the priests assisting Ezra on the platform and the Levites who help the people understand, and also led the prayer which was as rich in covenant language as a fruit cake is in currants with an early mention of “Abram and You gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land… And You have kept the promise, for You are righteous.” (Neh. 9:7-8)
The prayer continues to relate the story of salvation, the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the victories and possessions of territory and the blasphemies and failures, and warnings by prophets, some of whom they put to death – and yet acclaims (Neh. 9:32) “…Our God, the great and mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love… You have been righteous in all that has come upon us…”
There is something here that the Levites particularly, and to a lesser extent the people, instinctively knew. Whereas we strive to be kings of our little castles, they liked instead to be chosen to serve in the great castle of the king of kings, the utterly faithful One.
Something lost, which we can recapture. Some imperfect people and actions, which God can still bless. A way of relating, which God can use. These are lessons that come from the covenant prayers of Nehemiah and the Levites.