Some of you may know that this past Tuesday was Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A. Unlike the other 364 days of the year, Cow Appreciation Day is the one day when you actually want to look like a cow, sort of. Dressing up as a cow from head to hoof garners a free combo meal. Until last year, I had never really participated in this national holiday, but in 2014 I went all out. I donned my cow getup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and the dinner itself was a youth event. Oddly enough, I was most looking forward to my breakfast time. I had offered for any interested kids to join me, but they all declined, preferring sleep to chicken biscuits. This is great! I thought – A nice breakfast time with JUST ME. Parents, you know what I’m talking about. I was so excited for a morning of free breakfast and the quietness of just me at the table. But I had made a major miscalculation that I didn’t realize until I was putting on my printout cow “spots” in the parking lot: Just me meant that it was just me walking into Chick-fil-A wearing a ridiculous cow getup. Having just one kid with me would have made it okay, but going it alone made me want to leave Chick-fil-A and head out to pasture.
You might want to jump in here and say, “But Kevin, you were heading into a Chick-fil-A on Cow Appreciation Day, a day when many people come in dressed as cows.” That’s where you need to know that I discovered that most people who wear cow costumes apparently aren’t early risers. I was the only one who had taped spots all over his body, droopy paper cow ears, a printed tail on his back, and a decidedly annoying paper cow nose on his face. The other customers had no idea that day was sacredly devoted to the appreciation of cows. To top it all off, the manager came over to my cashier mid-order and declared that I did not look enough like a cow to get a free meal – just a free entrée item. Once I got my food, it took no time at all for me to remove my cow paraphernalia and eat my meal in silence, contemplating how the twists and turns of life had led me to this point. Lunch as a cow with my kids, however, was great. We took pictures in our cow costumes and left them on for the entire meal. It was just as great with the youth, too. Our solidarity in numbers added some normalcy to a pretty big fashion change.
For most of us, dressing up like a cow requires a substantial fashion commitment. It is the same for any sort of big change in life. It requires substantial commitment, and it goes well beyond our wardrobe. Going on a diet and losing weight requires lifestyle change in how you shop, what kind of purchases you make, when you set aside time for exercise, and more. Even family members are pulled in to that kind of change. The more well thought out our commitments, the longer lasting they are. Some commitments don’t last very long, much like my breakfast spots. When we plan our major commitments out, however, and think through the change, we have a better opportunity to make it lasting. The people of Israel were themselves making a big change in their faith commitment to God. Most of us have made faith commitments, but sometimes they just don’t last. Lasting faith commitments transform every aspect of our lives.
In the book of Nehemiah, we get to see how the commitments of the Israelites transformed their lives. Turn if you will to Nehemiah 10. We will read 10:28 through the rest of the chapter. If you remember from last week, Pastor Mark shared about the prayer of dedication – the longest recorded prayer in the Bible – where the people acknowledged God and His goodness and His faithfulness, even when they repeatedly failed to follow Him. In short, they recognized their need to once again commit themselves to their faithful God. Before diving into our passage, we also need to remind ourselves of what led them to this point. The people had gathered to listen to the reading of the Law of Moses and hear it explained, and they were immediately convicted of their need to follow God. In fact, they observed the Feast of Booths, which became a sort of week-long retreat for them to hear God’s Word and get connected to Him. The Word of God still changes lives now as it did then. When we encounter God’s truth revealed in Scripture and allow it to speak into our own lives, we are changed. A few weeks later, the people met to make formal commitments based on their study of the Bible.
Okay, let’s read now, Nehemiah 10:28-39:
The rest of the people–priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand– all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord. We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons. When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts. We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, at the New Moon feasts and at the appointed festivals; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God. We–the priests, the Levites and the people–have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the Law. We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the LORD each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree. As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there. Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and olive oil to the storerooms, where the articles for the sanctuary and for the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the musicians are also kept. We will not neglect the house of our God.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
These verses we just read set up what happens in chapters 10-12. The people first commit to stay pure to God, reinstituting the tithe and temple worship. Then they actually agree to drop everything and move into the city. The gathering of these tribes of Benjamin and Judah were from the surrounding area. Very few lived in the city, which without a security wall had been unsafe, and they instead lived elsewhere. They volunteered to move to the city to support the work, and 10 percent of them were chosen by lot to pack up and move. Their commitment is staggering. I know it was a big deal for Nehemiah to rally the people to build an entire wall around Jerusalem in 52 days, but people often make sacrifices for one-time projects. To get people to live out the project and reorient their lives around it is a much bigger deal. We actually have an example of that across our parking lot. To have the amazing facility of the ROC at our disposal to reach our community through recreation ministry is phenomenal. The greater task is for us to consistently sacrifice to staff those ministries and be present as to support them. But the people of Israel were so unified to their faith commitment that they willingly moved to the city to help it run smoothly, including temple worship. Once they had these plans squared away, the priests purified themselves, the people, the temple, and even the wall, and there was a great dedication celebration. The priests and leaders even had a mobile worship service, where they set out in two groups moving around on the wall singing praise songs. They pulled out all the stops to celebrate what God had done for them, and 12:43 tells us that joy was heard a long way off. In sense it is still heard today, because joy leaps off the pages of the text as we read it.
I mention all this, first to let you know what happened in these chapters, but also to put into perspective how important the commitment of the people was to what followed. People don’t uproot their lives based on nominal commitments. But they are willing to go through infinite inconveniences for a cause they believe in, one that’s worth giving their all. With the time that we have left, I would like to investigate the characteristics of lasting faith commitments that we find in 10:28-39.
Lasting Faith Commitments Have a Purpose
First, we see that lasting faith commitments have a purpose. Verse 28 spells out plainly that the people were ready to make a commitment for the sake of the Law of God. In other words, they recognized that they had encountered an authority worth living for, and their commitment was for the expressed purpose of effectively living out this law. The people knew that their commitment to God and His revealed law had to come first. They concluded that heaven’s truth takes priority over man’s ways. Three weeks prior these people had encountered the living word of God. The deceptive dust that had clung to those rarely opened scrolls might have led people to initially think the words inside to have been just as dull and lifeless, but they found the opposite to be true. Life was inside! They would undoubtedly have agreed with the author of Hebrews who wrote that God’s Word “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). God’s Word had acted in this way, piercing even to the division between these people and the surrounding culture. God’s Word still cuts deep into our souls, much like the skilled scalpel of the surgeon cuts and removes damaged or cancerous organs. No other text acts in this way because no other text comes directly from God. No other text compels us to action like the Bible, because no other text is so active.
You might have noticed something about the previous 27 verses in this chapter. They comprise one long list of names, 84 names to be exact. These include Nehemiah, the priests, other Levites, and city leaders. These people are the ones who signed a covenant before God to obey His laws. The remainder whom we read about beginning in verse 28 is the audience, those who came to this ceremony of prayer and commitment. But they are much more than spectators. They were not simply content to observe and approve of a ceremony. They wanted to make a commitment, too. So they took an oath before God. Actually, our text reads that they bound themselves to both a curse and an oath – why would they place themselves under a curse? You might think of this as a commitment with consequences. They knew that any commitment they made had to be heartfelt, to the extent of embracing the good outcomes of obedience and the bad outcomes of disobedience. Any big commitment requires this, anyway. If you have ever signed for a sizable loan, you have bound yourself, in essence to both an oath and a curse, including the consequences if you fail to make your regular repayments.
On July 4, 2008, the rotunda of the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, Iraq was packed with over 1,215 armed services members of the United States, including soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen. What was formerly a palace of Saddam Hussein became the site of the largest re-enlistment ceremony the United States has ever held. According to then General David Petraeus, who administered the oath, the combined re-enlistment terms amounted to 5,500 years of service. These brave men and women had come together for a larger purpose, too, the freedom and democracy of the Iraqi people.[i] When we are reminded of the God we serve, of what He has done for us, of the blessings He sends our way, of the immeasurable sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, of the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the commands on our lives that are for our good, and of the world around us who needs to experience the freedom found only in Christ, then we find a cause in which we are more than willing to enlist – or re-enlist. We won’t be content to sit back and simply affirm the decisions of others but instead actively join in with our own commitments.
Lasting Faith Commitments Affect Our Lives Completely
When we do this, we find another characteristic of faith commitments. Lasting faith commitments affect our lives completely. The people first expressed a general commitment to walk in God’s law. In other words they said, “If you want to know what direction we are heading in, it’s the direction where God’s Word leads. It’s the direction our ancestors walked, and sometimes, unfortunately, should have walked. We walk this direction so that God’s Word will be ‘a lamp to our feet, and a light to our path.’” (Ps 119:105). The people then expressed the more specific commitment to carefully obey all of God’s commands. They would be careful to know what the commands were and equally diligent to make sure they kept those commands. But the people went even further, because this was not specific enough for them. They knew that their commitment to keep these commands required immediate changes, and they listed them.
Their commitment changed their interactions. They would no longer allow intermarriage among the various people groups. Commitments like these have been confused and misconstrued by Christians over the years, so I want to stress that this had nothing to do with race and everything to do with faith, namely the purity of their faith. Their commitment to obey God would be severely compromised as they intermarried with people of different faith commitments. God had warned the people over and over not to intermarry. It was a sure recipe to dilute one’s faith and turn attention away to God. This would, in turn, keep them from the blessings promised by God and place them in violation of His covenant, opening them up to judgment.
We can find direct correlation to this commitment to Paul’s command in 2 Corinthians 6:14 that we not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. Christians should not marry non-Christians, because it pulls their affections away from God. We can and should take this further, too, because our interactions go beyond marriage. Psalm 1:1-3 declares, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither– whatever they do prospers.” We need to be salt and light in the world, but the chief people we share life with – including intimacy and advice – should be fellow Christ-followers.
A husband and wife once decided to go out on a date to an area disco. While they were there they saw a man who was dancing for all he was worth. He was break dancing, moon walking, doing backflips, and living large. The wife recognized the man and told her husband, “I know him. 25 years ago he proposed to me, but I turned him down.” The husband turned to his wife and glibly replied, “Looks like he’s still celebrating!” I am pretty sure there’s room to use that for some marital discussion, along with the need to tame the tongue, but for our purposes here, we should celebrate not being entangled with people who don’t follow God. We should rejoice at our ability to focus on our Creator, our Savior, and our Enabler so that we can freely live for God as we are called without divided affections.
Their commitment also changed their interests. The Jewish population had oriented themselves around their commercial interests. Because they had forgotten God’s law, they were most interested in making money. For some, life was all about the almighty shekel. Thus, the Sabbath was just like any other market day, a day for buying and selling and not for worship and rest. Instead of setting a day aside to honor God, personal ambitions won the day. Sound familiar? Our culture has undergone a substantial shift that has progressively chipped away at the Lord’s Day and our understanding of it. For many Christians the issue is less about revenue and more about recreation and other sports. A Christian worldview puts us in favor of all of these activities and more, rightly seeing their own benefits. Making money is a good thing, a tool to provide for our families, support our church, and be salt and light in the world. Recreation and sports give us opportunities to relax, enjoy competition, and learn life lessons. Christians are in favor of these things. But we are also in favor of corporate worship as the body of Christ on a weekly basis at minimum, and that cannot be found in business relationships or team camaraderie. I know that there are some differences between Sabbath day regulations and our own Lord’s Day these days, but much is still the same. Worship is still about God and not us. When we worship God, we are expressing that He is the priority in our lives. In other words, our interest is more about pursuing Him than about pursuing our own goals, even if it costs us something. Maybe we feel like prioritizing Sunday worship would result in missed opportunities, but I would suggest that the real missed opportunity occurs when we fail to put God first. This is what the people were convicted of, and they readily committed to honoring God on the Sabbath.
They went a step further in their commitment to the point of their own investments. Temple worship was being restored, but there was as yet no system in place to support ongoing worship. This would cost money. From their hearing of the law, the people understood that they each needed to give a set amount to pay for the ministry at the temple. So they set a third of a shekel per person annually. They also pledged to tithe, giving ten percent of their income back to God. The needs went beyond finances, however, because big commitments also change our itineraries. The priests and Levites put together a schedule to ensure that all of the temple’s needs – even down to firewood for the burnt offerings. Worthwhile causes require people committed to them. We have a great reputation of people involved in ministry here at Redland, but even for us our ranks are often spread thin and we need help. The Jewish people were reminded of God’s goodness and their responsibility to commit their daily schedules to Him, so they bound themselves by oath to do so. Again, some even moved into the city to support the work God was doing.
And their giving continued, because their commitment spread even to their inventories. The people once again committed themselves to the required firstfruits offering. In their heavily agricultural society, the first gleanings of each harvest were supposed to go to the temple. This gave food to the Levites and allowed offerings to be given. It also acknowledged that God was in control of the harvest, and the first thing the people wanted to do with the produce of the land was give some back to Him in acknowledgment that all of it was His.
Last weekend as you know we had a church-wide yard sale. You, our Redland family, gathered your own belongings that you were willing to sell, and sell them you did. You rallied behind a cause and were willing to commit to it, allowing it to affect your investment, itinerary, and inventory. The funds from your sales you donated in order to start a fund that we pray will one day result in a church thrift store – a way to meet needs in our community while also pointing them to Christ. I got to thinking that those who sold items last weekend and had the privilege of giving during the offering time the following day were able to give God both their firstfruits and their “last fruits,” the sale of their items, in the same weekend. What a neat way to acknowledge that God is the Provider of all we have and that His cause is the one worth living for! Your actions last week mirrored much of the commitments the people made. But you did buy and sell on the Sabbath J.
As we head to our time of invitation, I would like to ask you to consider your own commitment to follow Christ. If you have made that commitment, how are you doing living it out? Does it affect all the areas of your life, or do you need to make an adjustment? Do you need to be reminded of the purpose behind your commitment, the purpose of what God has done in your life? It might be time to examine your interactions, interests, investments, itinerary, or inventory to see if they align with your commitment to follow Christ. Perhaps that is a commitment you have not yet made, and today is the day that you want to make it. I would encourage you not to delay. You might have another commitment to make, such as joining our church or getting baptized. Consider making those public commitments today, just as the people gathered to publicly commit themselves to God, or pray quietly at your seat or kneel up front as God leads.