Father God, we pray for you to work in us by your Spirit as we listen to your Word. Please envision us to care for needs and convict us where we don't. In Jesus' name, Amen.
In July 2008, David Cameron spoke in Glasgow on the topic of 'Broken Britain', which has since become a Conservative Party catchphrase. He said these words: "…our mission is to repair our broken society - to heal the wounds of poverty, crime, social disorder and deprivation that are steadily making this country a grim and joyless place to live in for far too many people." International students I speak to are impressed by the UK's economy and services, but they are shocked at the social disorder they witness.
Our response to Broken Britain
You see, you can't deny there are serious social problems in the UK. In many ways, David Cameron is right: Britain is Broken. The question is: what are we as Christians going to do about it? How are we going to respond? Often we as Christians respond in these ways:
- Depression. "There are too many problems and so few Christians! We just feel overwhelmed!"
- Apathy. "Sure, there are lots of problems out there, but I'm not too bothered, as long as my life is good and we still have freedom to practise our Christian faith!"
- Resignation. "There are lots of problems, but you just can't change the status quo. What do you expect if society turns its back on the Christian faith?"
- Cynicism. "There are lots of problems and as Christians we all know you're never going to create paradise on earth!"
Friends, there's a common thread in all of those responses. There's no vision! There's no vision for God's honour! There's no vision for loving our neighbour! There's no vision for caring for needs!
My title for this evening is: 'Caring for Needs'.
My aim is to envision us to care for needs. To do that we're going to look at Nehemiah 5, so please have that passage open in front of you.
1. The Problem: God's People Are Indifferent to Needs – And Even Exploit the Needy (v.1-6)
My first point is this. The problem: God's people are indifferent to needs – and even exploit the needy. To understand what's going on in verses 1-6, we need the background from Leviticus 25.35-45. We won't turn there now, but you can look it up later if you want. Three quick questions from Leviticus 25:
- How were God's people commanded to treat poor brothers?
Support them. Live with them. Give them work.
- How were they commanded not to treat them?
Not charge interest. Not enslave them. Not rule ruthlessly.
- Why were they to do this?
Because they should fear God, the one who rescued them.
With that in mind, let's look at the problem in Nehemiah 5.1.
"Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers."
So some people are in desperate need. In his memoirs, Nehemiah then records 3 different representative voices crying out for help. Verses 2-5:
"For there were those who said, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive." There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine." And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards."
What is the heart of the problem here? Well, there's famine on the land which naturally leads to people being in need. But according to Leviticus 25, this should lead to God's people caring for the needs of the poor. The problem in Nehemiah 5 is that's not happening! God's people are indifferent to needs. And worse than that, some of them are exploiting the poor. Well, how did Nehemiah respond to this issue? Did he say there were too many problems? Or that their problem wasn't his problem? Or that change was impossible? No! Verse 6:
"I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words."
Nehemiah was furious at what was happening, because he hated injustice. He hated the fact the some people exploited others at a time when they needed help. How do we respond when we hear about needs? Well it's so easy to watch news headlines about the state of education in the North of England, or euthanasia, or family breakdown, or care for the elderly – and feel an emotional distance from these social problems – as if they happen only in films or to other people. But Nehemiah 5 is saying: 'Look at the needs around you!' You see, even if we're not actively exploiting the needy, in God's eyes, surely each of us is far more indifferent to peoples' needs than we like to think. It's so easy for us to live our lives with emotional ear plugs which deaden the cries for help in the society around us. But Nehemiah 5 is saying: 'Listen to the needs around you!' That's my first point. The problem: God's people are indifferent to needs – and even exploit the needy.
2. The Solution: A Godly Leader Leads God's People to Repent in This Area (v.7-13)
My second point is this. The solution: a godly leader leads God's people to repent in this area. So Nehemiah was very angry. What did he do next? Verse 7:
"I took counsel with myself [very wise – he paused to think], and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother." And I held a great assembly against them"
Nehemiah pointed the finger at the nobles and officials, because they had flouted God's commands in Leviticus 25. They were indifferent to needs. They were exploiting the needy. So Nehemiah says (verse 8):
"We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!"
Silence! They know they are guilty. Verses 9-10:
"So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.""
Just a quick word on verse 10. Is Nehemiah guilty of wrongdoing? Under Old Testament Law, loans were permitted (that's in Deuteronomy 24.10-13), so Nehemiah was not wrong to lend money and grain to the poor. What was forbidden was to charge interest (which we saw in Leviticus 25). So verse 10 is not a guilty plea from Nehemiah – he's just being transparent. And this sets him up to lead God's people to publicly repent of their exploitation. Verses 11-12a:
""Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them." Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.""
But Nehemiah understandably is a little nervous that they won't keep their word, so he makes double sure! Verses 12a-13:
"And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised."
Nehemiah: a godly leader leading God's people to repent of their indifference to needs and exploitation of the needy.
Let me introduce you to a modern day Nehemiah. His name is Basuki Purnama. He's not the Governor of Jerusalem, but since November 2014, he's the Governor of Jakkarta, the capital city of Indonesia. And he's also a committed Christian in a country which is 80% Muslim. I'm just going to read part of a short biography about him written by The Jakarta Globe newspaper (as we read, you'll see how similar to Nehemiah he is!):
"In early 2000, Basuki… was forced to shut down his factory after a serious argument with a local official about the provincial minimum wage. He said the official was manipulated by a competitor to sabotage his business."[Baskuki said:]"The official said my fate was in his hands and I told him I'd rather have my factory shut down than have my dignity trampled"
Basuki's unpleasant encounter prompted him to join politics:
"My father told me that no matter how rich a person is, they would go bankrupt if they challenged an official. So the only way to beat a public official is by becoming one," … "My father said, 'Poor people need access to health services, to education. How are you going to help them all?' So I decided to become a public official in order be able to provide health coverage for all."
He cites Jesus Christ as his model of sacrificial leadership. You see, in real life, caring for needs doesn't just happen. It very often requires a godly leader to lead a response where failure to care for needs is identified. I think we're sometimes slow to take leadership in caring for needs, because we're inherently suspicious of those in authority. We often hear the mantra:
"Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."
And, while there's some wisdom in that, if you take that line of thinking too far, it discourages Christians from taking positions of authority for the good of others. We become so paranoid about being corrupted by the positions of power that we refuse to step into those positions of power to serve others. Think about it. Nehemiah could only confront the evil he saw because of his position as governor. Basuki Purnama became a politician to put him in a position to better confront evil and care for needs. (And actually his ambition is to become President of Indonesia so he can combat corruption more effectively.)
What about you? Could you take on more responsibility in society to care for needs? Not all of us will become politicians, but could we take on responsibilities in schools, companies, local government, or university societies to confront evil and care for needs? If God's calling you to that, don't shy away. The cost of leadership is high: stress, criticism, confrontation, hassle. But we need more Christians like Nehemiah with courage to confront the evil in our nation and to care for needs.
For many of us, God has not wired us up to be leaders. And that's great, because we all have different gifts and opportunities. But I would still challenge you to think and pray more about the social evils in our nation. And to help you in that, I would recommend a book by David Platt, which you can buy at the resources area or online. 'Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Abortion, Persecution, Orphans and Pornography'. Think about each issue. Pray. Work out what steps you can take to confront evil and care for needs. That's my second point. The solution: a godly leader leads God's people to repent in this area.
3. The Example: A Godly Leader Uses Power and Wealth to Serve Others (v.14-19)
My final point is this. The example: a godly leader uses power and wealth to serve others. For the final section of chapter 5, Nehemiah switches camera shot from this one particular incident of exploitation to an overview of his 12 years as governor of Jerusalem. Verses 14-15:
"Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God."
Power corrupts? Yes with the former governors! Not with Nehemiah! Why was he different? Because he feared God! And Nehemiah was also very generous. Verses 17-18a:
"Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance."
Imagine a delicious Parish Lunch (except with wine!) – multiplied by at least 3 – every day – free of charge – and a public official foots the bill out of his own salary. Impressive! Verses 18b-19:
"Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people."
What an example of a godly leader using his power and wealth to serve others in a counter-cultural way! He could have so easily used his position to isolate himself from the needs of other people and enjoy a life of respectable self-indulgence – as those before him did. But not Nehemiah! This is exactly the kind of leadership Jesus shows us. He says in Mark 10.42-45:
… "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus came not to be served by people, but to serve other people. He didn't isolate himself from our needs. He came to suffer and die on the Cross to meet our deepest need of reconciliation with God. And he calls us to follow his example of caring for needs.
Let me ask you a question: if you could dream a dream, how would you care for needs? How could you use your power and wealth to serve others? What kind of charity would you set up? What kind of community group or university society would you form? What kind of network would you build up? What kind of business would you start up?
A few months ago I read an article about the Eden team. They are a team of Christians working in the roughest areas of Manchester (one of the worst in the UK). What have they done to care for needs? Well one thing they did was to set up a centre called the Enterprise Centre, which provides ex-offenders with a job and training, alongside a home and supportive local church. And it makes a real difference! While the government probation service sees 80% reoffending rate within 2 years, they see a 5% reoffending rate. That's a massive difference. They are caring for needs.
That's Manchester. What about us in Newcastle? If God has given us money, or he's given us power, influence or position, let's not waste these resources on making our lives even more comfortable, but go out and care for needs.
Now of course we need to have realistic expectations as we do that. It's naïve to have a Bob the Builder attitude to 'Broken Britain': Broken Britain, can we fix it? Well… Broken Britain, no we can't! We can't 'fix Broken Britain' once and for all. This world is not heaven on earth. Because we live here and we have sinful hearts, we cannot 'fix' broken Britain. And that's why caring for felt needs is not enough, on its own. People need Jesus. As the director of the Eden Team in Manchester, Andy Hawthorne says:
"We can forget as a church that nobody else is going to share the Gospel. We're not going to see society really changed by lots of food banks or debt relief or loads of people living in tough communities – as much as those things are Gospel imperative. We're going to see society changed by the Gospel changing people's hearts…"
That's right. That said, can we care for needs in Broken Britain and make a difference? Yes, we can. And God calls us to do that. And it's as we obey Jesus' command to love our neighbour and care for needs that people will want to know why we care for needs – that will open doors for us to share Jesus with them. So friends our motto should be: 'Broken Britain, can we change it? With our God's help, yes we can!' Let's pray. I'm going to pray a prayer based on the prayer Paul prayed for the Thessalonian Christians:
Father, we pray that you would fulfil every resolve we have to do good in the society around us and bring to fruition the dreams we have to change our nations, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him. In Jesus' name, Amen.