Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship – BLCF Church Message for Sunday:
‘The Awesome God, Who Keeps Covenant and Steadfast Love’
© June 15, 2014 by Steve Mickelson
Originally Published June 16, 2013
Announcements & Call to Worship: Responsive Reading #593 (God and the Family – Genesis 1, Deuteronomy6, Ephesians 5 and 6); Prayer
Hymn #22: Stand Up and Bless the Lord; Choruses
Tithing & Prayer Requests: Hymn #572: Praise God from Whom All Blessings
Today’s Scriptures: Nehemiah 9:6-21; 32-36 and Hebrews 12:7
Let us pray…
For our lesson on this Father’s Day Sunday, I would like to share with you the story of Sam Rayburn Jr. High, a middle school located in a small subdivision located just west of San Antonio, deep in the heart of Texas. As BLCF is a church that is located in the heart of Toronto, I found that the lesson found in today’s Scripture verses from Nehemiah, Chapter 9 have relevance on giving insight and understanding to the stories of the two buildings.
Some fifty years ago, in response to the needs of a growing, vibrant community, the local school district contracted to build a new middle school. The builders wanted to construct not just an ordinary run of the mill school building, but a structure that was ahead of its time, having a form that was practical in purpose, though innovative and appealing in its design.
Now the Wiki bits of this story (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Rayburn). The community built Sam Rayburn, a middle school whose namesake Samuel Taliaferro “Sam” Rayburn (January 6, 1882 – November 16, 1961) was a Democratic lawmaker from Bonham, Texas, who served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years, the longest tenure in U.S. history. Rayburn was born in Roane County, Tennessee, on January 6, 1882, 24 days before Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fact noted by the news media while Roosevelt was President and Rayburn was Speaker.
Rayburn was baptized by Elder H.G. Ball in the Primitive Baptist Church, also known as Old Line Baptist or Hard Shell Baptist Church. Rayburn graduated from Mayo College (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) in Commerce, which was located in northeast Texas. He attended the University Of Texas School Of Law while teaching school, and was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1908.
Although many Texas legislators were on the payroll of public service corporations, Rayburn refused to do so. Later, while serving in Congress, a wealthy oil man had a very expensive horse delivered to Rayburn’s farm in Bonham. No one apparently knew the oil man delivered the horse except him, Rayburn, and a Rayburn staffer. Rayburn returned the horse. This practice of refusing to accept fees from clients who had interests before the Legislature was “virtually unheard-of” at the time, but sadly no so much today.
In shaping legislation, Rayburn preferred working quietly in the background to being in the public spotlight. As Speaker, he won a reputation for fairness and integrity. In his years in Congress, Rayburn always insisted on paying his own expenses, even going so far as to pay for his own travel expenses when inspecting the Panama Canal when his committee was considering legislation concerning it, rather than exercising his right to have the government pay for it. When he died, his personal savings totaled only $15,000, and most of his holdings were in his family ranch.
I guess you would classify Sam Rayburn as a person who put into practice his Christian values, rather than a Christian who practiced politics. He was an exemplary model for all those involved in politics today. Now class, let us get back to school!
Sam Rayburn Jr. High, like its namesake, was quite different from its predecessors. The school was clad by louvered panels, set some six feet from the windows and afforded shade from hot Texas sun from May to October, while allowing cool breezes caught from the hillside location. The louvers were angled so that in the winter the sun helped warm the classrooms. Built on the top of the west side of a large valley that afforded a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The two story school was comprised of two wings. One wing consisted of a gymnasium and cafeteria, under them ran a long hallway designed to shelter students and staff from the ravaging winds of a passing tornado.
Perhaps the most innovative design were the two air conditioned multimedia lecture halls, located in the centre of the classroom wing. Sound-proofed and windowless, the lecture halls had staggered seating on a gradient like the slope found in the sanctuary of BLCF. The halls were equipped with a stage and a retractable projector screen for presentations, variable lighting control and built in PA sound system. These halls provided a good environment for students to view films, slide or filmstrip presentations, music concerts, lectures, for tests and exams. They also provided an additional safe place to ride out a tornado if students or staff could not get to the safe hallway under the cafeteria wing of the school.
I attended grades 6 and 7 of my education at Sam Rayburn. In grade 7 English class, we observed the explosion of a Quonset hut at Medina Air Force Base on the opposite side of the valley, generating a mushroom cloud above the valley and a rain of ash the next day. I was at my locker in the school a week or so later, a passing student told me that John Kennedy had been shot in the head. Less than an hour later, the Principal solemnly announced on the PA system that the president had passed.
Medical expenses for my sister Rhona, a victim of a traumatic spinal injury, had caused us to lose our home and furnishings and move into a rental property in the city, closer to my father’s work place.
Fast forward some 3 years to 1967, and my family had immigrated to my mother’s birth place of Toronto. Canada had offered better medical care for Rhona, and gave the family refuge from the riots and social unrest; America’s version of Arab spring. In the next 13 years, I graduated from Secondary School, attended University, returning home after my mother suffered a massive heart attack. I entered the workforce and stayed home until Mom passed away some fourteen months later. A couple of years later, I met Sophie, the love of my life who first led me to the Lord and then later to the altar. Then in 1980, having resigned after seven years at Pitney Bowes, I had a month’s hiatus before starting my new job at Kodak Canada. Thanks to Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor’s providing a safe haven for the Americans in Iran, our family was able to take a vacation to Texas, courtesy of Greyhound Coach Lines’ “Thank you Canada” discount rates. After seeing the sites, we travelled to the old neighborhood. The house showed changes from time. Trees were bigger and Sam Rayburn Jr. High looked older and in need of a coat of paint. I did not return to Texas again for some 17 years, when our family drove to San Marcos to visit my brother-in-law at a rehab facility for people with severe head injuries. I wanted to show my kids my old neighborhood. Time and tide had not been kind to our old house, which looked quite run down, sporting iron bars on the exterior windows and doors. No longer manicured, the back yard now featured an old rusty pickup truck sitting on blocks.
Sadly, Sam Rayburn School was more shocking to see, being the victim of more neglect than the old homestead. The shutters were dilapidated, some cracked and broken; others dangling awkwardly from their supports. The name of the school, once boldly displayed in steel letters mounted on the brick facade of the school had eroded to the wind, rain and possibly vandalism, so that letters were missing or illegible. It seemed that the hope and vision that gave birth to a unique place of learning and a beacon of education had met its demise.
The Book of Nehemiah is a book of the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians refer to today as the Old Testament. When we read the story in the 9th Chapter of Nehemiah, we can easily see how neglect and loss of a community’s faith and vision can lead to the path of destruction as had happened to my old school.
Told largely in the form of a first-person memoir, Nehemiah concerns the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah, a Jew who was a high official at the Persian court, and the dedication of the city and its people to God’s laws (Torah). The events take place in the second half of the 5th century BC, and together with the Book of Ezra, it represents the final chapter in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible.
In the 20th year of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, (445/444 BC), Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king. Learning that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down he asked the king for permission to return and rebuild them, and Artaxerxes sent him to Judah as governor of the province with a mission to rebuild the walls. Once there he defied the opposition of Judah’s enemies on all sides—Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines—and rebuilt the walls within 52 days, from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananel Tower at the North West corner, the Fish Gate in the West, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount’s South West corner, the Dung Gate in the South, the East Gate and the gate beneath the Golden Gate in the East.
He then took measures to repopulate the city and purify the Jewish community, enforcing the cancellation of debt, assisting Ezra to promulgate the Law of Moses, and enforcing the divorce of Jewish men from their non-Jewish wives.
After 12 years as governor, during which he ruled with justice and righteousness, he returned to the king in Susa. After some time in Susa he returned to Jerusalem, only to find that the people had fallen back into their evil ways. Non-Jews were permitted to conduct business inside Jerusalem on the Sabbath and to keep rooms in the Temple. Greatly angered, he purified the Temple and the priests and Levites and enforced the observance of the Law of Moses.
While Nehemiah did seek to rebuild the gates and walls of Jerusalem and restore the Temple as a holy place of worship, his narrative accurately points to his real concern about the faith or should I say lack of faith of and ingratitude to God as was demonstrated by the people of Jerusalem, as we read in Nehemiah 9:6-21 (ESV):
6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. 7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.
9 “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, 10 and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. 11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. 12 By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. 13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. 15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.
16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. 18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. 20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. 21 Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.
The story of how the walls of Jerusalem had deteriorated can be viewed as a metaphor for the church, which we know is not brick and mortar, but a body of believers. Many of God’s Chosen have repeatedly drifted away from their true God, and had chosen other gods. In this case the faith of body of believes had decayed almost to ruin and needed to be rebuilt in order that the members of the body could revive their faith and trust in the Lord. It is not surprising that many businesses and groups currently use the name Nehemiah or a derivative of the name as their corporate badge. The Nehemiah narrative indicates that the people have lapses of faith more than on one occasion. Still God is an awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love for His people, Nehemiah 9:32-36 (ESV):
32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day.33 Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. 35 Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves.
As Christians reading the Nehemiah account, we should not only concern ourselves with the rebuilding the fallen body of the church, we need to understand and avoid the circumstances that caused the church to fall in the first place. We do know that since the fall of Adam and Eve, humanity carries the stolen gift of knowledge of good and evil, as well as burden of sin. People are given the choice between following God in faith and listening to Satan at our peril.
When we walk in faith in the Lord, we contribute to a strong church body that can resist the attacks of an opponent whose sole desire is to tear down and destroy God’s Eternal Kingdom and replace it with his own worldly domain. A domain like the walls of the city of Jerusalem that were not maintained, can crumble and deteriorate over time, falling into dust and debris.
But do not despair. All is not lost. While Scriptures do record the accounts of many fathers, many of whom are exemplary models for the Christian fathers of today. If you turn to the back page of today’s bulletin, you will see several fathers who were keepers of the faith. This summary comes by way of About.com:
Famous Fathers in the Bible Who Set Worthy Examples – About.com
God the Father God the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, is the father and creator of all. Jesus, his only Son, showed us a new, intimate way of relating to him. When we see God as our heavenly Father, provider and protector, it puts our life in a whole new perspective. Every human father is also a son of this Most High God, the constant source of strength, wisdom, and hope.
Adam – The First Man As the first man and first human father, Adam had no example to follow except God. He faltered on that, plunging the world into sin. He also had to deal with the tragedy of his son Cain murdering his other son, Abel. Adam has much to teach today’s fathers about the consequences of our actions and the absolute necessity of obeying God.
Noah – A Righteous Man Noah stands out among fathers in the Bible as a man who clung to God in spite of the wickedness all around him. What could be more relevant to today? Noah was far from perfect, but he was humble and protective of his family. He bravely carried out the task God assigned to him. Modern fathers may often feel they are in a thankless role, but God is always pleased by their devotion.
Abraham – Father of the Jewish Nation What could be more frightening than being the father of an entire nation? That was the mission God gave Abraham. He was a leader with tremendous faith, passing one of the most difficult tests God ever gave a man. Abraham made mistakes when he relied on himself instead of God. Still, he embodied qualities that any father would be wise to develop.
Jacob – Father of the 12 Tribes of Israel Jacob was a schemer who tried to work his own way instead of trusting God. With the help of his mother Rebekah, he stole his twin brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob fathered 12 sons who founded the 12 tribes of Israel. As a father, however, he favored his son Joseph, causing jealousy among the other brothers. The lesson from Jacob’s life is that God works with our obedience and in spite of our disobedience to make his plan come to pass.
Moses – Giver of the Law Moses was the father of two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, yet he also served as a father figure to the entire Hebrew people as they escaped from slavery in Egypt. He loved them and helped discipline and provide for them on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. At times Moses seemed to be a larger-than-life character, but he was only a man. He shows today’s fathers that overwhelming tasks can be achieved when we stay close to God.
King David – A Man After God’s Own Heart One of the great strugglers in the Bible, David was also a special favorite of God. He trusted God to help him defeat the giant Goliath and put his faith in God as he was on the run from King Saul. David sinned greatly, but he repented and found forgiveness. His son Solomon went on to become one of Israel’s greatest kings.
Joseph – Earthly Father of Jesus Surely one of the most underrated fathers in the Bible was Joseph, the foster father of Jesus Christ. He went to great pains to protect his wife Mary and their baby, and then saw to Jesus’ education and needs as he was growing up. Joseph taught Jesus the carpentry trade. The Bible calls Joseph a righteous man, and Jesus must have loved his guardian for his quiet strength, honesty, and kindness.
As believers in the Resurrected Christ and as vessels of the Spirit of the Living God, it is our responsibility to edify or build the body of believers in our church, not in numbers, but in faith. Each member of Christ’s Church must help build the church, by edifying and restoring the faith of its fellow members to counter the tendency towards decay and destruction over time.
Throughout the ages, the key to building and maintaining a strong church body, that is able to resist the onslaught brought by Satan, having strength in faith and not through numbers. In other words, quality of faith of a church body is more important than the quantity or number of members within the church.
And our hope and promise comes from Jesus Christ, who by having been crucified for our sins, has removed God’s judgement and restored us to God’s favour. Through Jesus, we are forgiven, sanctified, and given the promise of a comforter in the Holy Spirit. Additionally, we are given the covenant of our own resurrection upon Christ’s return.
In a similar manner, a church with limited resources, yet strong in faith, is buoyed by the Spirit so that may achieve much more than a larger corporate body of members with tepid faith. Even though the latter may have vast financial resources, the Spirit is absent.
The Spirit greatly rewards a church’s faith by multiplying modest means to achieve the Lord’s objectives. Just come to BLCF on a Wednesday evening to see not only the proof of how the Holy Spirit multiplies and rewards steadfast faith; you will see but how the Spirit restores the faith of those who keep or renew their trust for a loving caring God.
So when life brings forth challenges, fraught with pain and sorrow, do not despair, but trust in Him and endure, as we read in Hebrews 12:7 (ESV):
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
And on this Father’s Day Sunday, let us not only honour our earthly fathers, but also glorify our Father in heaven and remember that He is an awesome God who keeps His covenant and shows a steadfast love for all his children.
Proverbs 23:24 (ESV)
24 The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice;
he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him.
Let us pray…
Hymn #84: Come and Praise the Lord Our King
(to the tune of ‘Michael Row the Boat’)
Benediction (Revelation 1:5b-6):
5b And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen
Just an update, I recently looked at the Google photos of my old Valley Hi neighborhood and was pleased to see that Sam Rayburn Jr. High, now called Sam Rayburn Middle School, has undergone a Nehemiah-like change, having been totally rebuilt. Kudos to those who restored the vision of their ancestors, giving this lesson a Scriptural-like positive ending, or should I say beginning.