The Price of Unity
Text: Nehemiah 5
Proposition: The willingness to confront sin, to create change, to invite others to a higher perspective, to give of yourself in great efforts is what unity requires.
Introduction: A few weeks ago I went to my favorite chiropractor, Dr. Owen. My foot was feeling like it was seized up and as a result I was favoring it which meant I leaned to one side too much and that put my hip and back out. It’s like the song says, the hip bone is connected to the back bone. So I went to see the Doc and he said that we’d have to adjust each toe back into where it should be. The explanation was painless, the actual process of taking an already sore foot and manipulating it to where it should be was considerably more intense. Did you know the body has 170 joints, 14 of those are in the foot and if one of those gets out of place or is hurt we are no longer thankful for the other 169. There is this passage in Scripture that speaks about this same kind of phenomena. In NASB Ephesians 4:15,16 says, “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” That’s not always easy but then again neither is keeping 170 joints working together. When the unity of a body is hurt or even broken the whole body stops what it is doing and cries out. Have a look at Nehemiah 5 with me.
I. Somethings You Can’t Change But Where Sin Is the Cause, Confront It. The last time we were looking at this book Nehemiah had led the people into this great rally of working on the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In the last part of chapter 4 they even armed themselves against possible attack and were vigilant with strategy and weapons and such an enduring attitude that it says in 4:23, “So neither I, my brethren, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me took off our clothes, except that everyone took them off for washing.” They were unified in this common goal which really was all about their mutual survival. Then comes chapter 5. Things had changed so there’s probably an interval of weeks between these points. Four different pressures began to pushing against all the people and the combined effect made them turn against each other. Verse 1 says, “And there was a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren.” The unity had been broken and the cause was both a spiritual assault and human sin. Look at how it’s described:
1. Large families especially need help when there’s no food. “We, our sons, and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain, that we may eat and live.” That just is, there’s nothing wrong with that and you can’t change it.
2. Others have had to mortgage or go into deep debt in order to buy food. Verse 3, “We have mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.” Not only is debt now an issue but the cause is a famine brought on by drought and a shortfall in the production of grain. Again there is little that can be done to change that.
3. The king’s tax still had to be paid and people going into debt to cover that. That can’t be changed either.
4. The extent of the debt forced people into slavery. The NIV in verse 5 says, “Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.” There were wealthy Jews in Jerusalem who were taking children as partial payment for debt. They were taking advantage of the poor and making a profit on them, even to the point of stealing their future by taking their children and selling them to reclaim debt. This was a sinful greed and a callousness towards life itself that needed to be confronted. Nehemiah saw the way poverty not only made them vulnerable but turned their families into a commodity that could be used for profit and it made Nehemiah angry. Then he needed to think through what needed to be done, to confront the profiteers. He needed to judge both the rich and poor in their actions and accusations. Not all poverty is someone else’s cause, not all wealth is ill gotten gain. So he first gave serious thought to the situation. Having weighed things carefully he rebukes the wealthy for the practice of usury, the charging of interest on the loans. He rebukes them for their selling of their own people to make a profit. Things needed to change if they were all to survive this loss of unity. He challenges them acknowledge God’s awareness of their actions and reminds them it has been God’s hand of protection over them that kept the more powerful nations from attack. He said that the fear of the Lord and common civility ought to direct them.
II. Invite Others to a Higher Perspective, Forgiveness… Freedom… Unity.
Hear the higher perspective that he invites the nobles to embrace. 1. Stop charging them interest.. 2. Restore their property they need to make a living, grant forgiveness. 3. Give back the interest you have received whether it had been in the form of oil, wine, wheat or cash. Set them free. Look what he does next, verse 12, “Then I called the priests, and required an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.” I think the ‘them’ is the nobles and rulers and the intent of this is bind themselves in a covenant before God to follow through on this promise. The conclusion is what Nehemiah does next, it’s a covenantal agreement before God with all the people to treat each other with these same principles of forgiveness and freedom… “Then I shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied. And all the assembly said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD.” Then the people did according to this promise.” Unity. There is a great price to be paid for unity. It can cost you in many different kinds of ways but what you purchase with that cost is more pleasing to God than any amount of cash or commitment.
So this passage is about money, how we use it and how it can use us. But it’s also about the price of unity or perhaps we should say the value of unity. The high value of unity is especially seen in the way Satan values it as a target. Destroy the unity of the people and you destroy the work of the wall. Destroy the work of the wall and you destroy Israel. The unity of the body of Christ also is a target. If it can be either picked apart or just ignored and left to neglect the effectiveness will be impaired. The unity of the church is engineered around that which each part contributes, each needing the other for the wellbeing of the whole. It’s patterned in a sense after the very unity that characterizes the Trinity, Three Persons in One Godhead. And now in Christ we have been tucked into that unity, included now as the bride of Christ. In John 17:20,21 Jesus prays for His disciples, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” And then Jesus makes this extraordinary statement about our unity with each other and with Him, “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Jesus invites us to a higher perspective on unity!
The great price of this unity was the cross that demanded the incarnation in order to provide forgiveness and bring the freedom of redemption guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb. This great unity in Christ is what we celebrate when we take communion. It is a proclamation of our unity as people of God and then our unity in Christ with the Father by the love of the Holy Spirit.