Mr Nice Guy

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I have just finished a series of 38 messages on Ezra/Nehemiah at First Pres, Jackson. Several things struck me as I brought the series to a close. The first was something most consecutive-expository preachers feel at the end of a series: I now think I should start again since I think I understand these books better than I did when I first began this series! The other, and the point I wanted to share, was the way Nehemiah finishes.  I mean chapter 13 -- what a downer! Couldn't it have ended on the mountain top which is chapters 9-12? Phil Ryken's keen editorial eye (and trust me, it's painfully keen) would have scribbled all over chapter 13, "Do you really want to leave people in this gloomy state at the end of the book?" But the reason it ends this way is a dose of realism.  This is the church I know, not the one in the previous chapters.

The chapter, among other things, recalls Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem after an absence of about a dozen years. What did he find? Treachery, compromise, sabbath-breaking, and mixed-marriages to name just a few. It's a difficult chapter in which Nehemiah seems to behave rather badly -- throwing furniture around in the temple precincts, threatening to lay hands on merchants camping at the city gates on the Sabbath, and a hair-pulling incident that well, just had me rolling with laughter at the thought of it.

Commentators bent over backwards to contextualize and give Nehemiah the benifit of the doubt.  A few were openly criticial of him. One listener (to my sermon) suggested that he did not speak the truth in love. And then I wondered -- aloud in the sermon, mainly due to something I read in J. I. Packer's book A Passion for Faithfulness, is this because we have bowed at the shrine of Mr. Nice Guy?  Our model of what a mature believer looks like is that above all else, he must be nice. This is what Packer writes:

"What we must bear in mind here, however, is that the conventions and expectations of our smooth post-Christian, relativistic, secular, amoral Western culture are not necessarily in line with the truth and wisdom of God. Any embarassament we might feel at Nehemiah's forthrightness could be a sign of our own spiritual and moral limitations rather than his. Was it weakness that in Nehemiah's code of conduct the modern shibboleth, "thou shalt be nice" seems to have had no place, while "thou shat be faithful to God and zealous for God" was evidently basic to it? Would Moses, David, Jesus, or Paul ever have qualified as "Mr. Nice Guy"? The assumption, so common today, that niceness is of the essence of goodness needs to be exploded. Nehemiah should not be criticized for thinking that there are more imprtant things in life than being nice." (p.182).

Today, then, I think I'm not going to be nice.


Posted March 4, 2009 @ 9:25 AM by Derek Thomas

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