Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cyrus the Great

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In October, 539 BC, in one of the most intriguing overthrows ever recorded, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. It is a story of siege, military genius, attack by night and even treason. We are fortunate that two separate historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, recorded remnants of the story. We are also indebted to cuneiform records that both Cyrus and Babylonian scholars engraved in stone and to the biblical records in the books of 2 Chronicles, Daniel and Ezra. Bit by bit, a grand conquest is pieced together to reveal a most fascinating tale. A tale of a conqueror selected by the gods. A tale of a Babylonian king who dared to mock Yahweh, the one true God. A tale of a city of indescribable strength falling without a battle. A tale of God’s people set free. Join me as we witness the fall of Babylon.

the selection of a conqueror
Cyrus was a new kind of conqueror. Never had the world witnessed a victor who did not glory in violation. He didn’t rape, pillage or destroy. Instead, he released the commoners from the tyranny of their overlords, allowed them to worship their own gods and return to their chosen way of life. Because of this unique kindness Cyrus was known as the “friendly conqueror.”
More than a century before Cyrus was born the prophet Isaiah received a prophecy that named Cyrus as conqueror: “Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut” (Isaiah 44:28–45:1).
Cyrus was chosen by God, to set the Israelites free from bondage in Babylon, years before they were even taken captive. Yet, oddly enough, Yahweh is not the only god that is given credit for Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon. The priests of Marduk, the god of gods in the Babylonian pantheon, also wrote statements pertaining to Cyrus.
An inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder states that Nabonidus’ conduct offended Marduk and that the god searched through all the lands for a righteous ruler and, having found him,“Pronounced the name of Cyrus and declared him ruler of the world” (Larue, 72).
The selection process was complete. Cyrus was the one chosen to overthrow Babylon. But, how would the mighty walled city be taken?

strategy of attack
After conquering numerous other enemies, Cyrus faced his greatest challenge—the huge walled city, 24 square kilometres of Babylon. Xenophon records the following surmising of Cyrus, “But I am sure I cannot see how any one could take by storm, walls so massive and so high.”
Both Herodotus and Xenophon record that Cyrus resolved to lay siege on Babylon and wait until the people within the walls ran out of food. He was informed (perhaps by Gadatas and Gobryas—two defectors from Babylon) that the great city had more than 20 years of food supplies. Cyrus became frustrated, but then a plan came to him, perhaps from one of his advisers or perhaps from his own design. The walls were too thick to break. The gates were too strong. There was only one fathomable way to get in—the Euphrates River, which went through the middle of the city.
Years earlier, Babylon had been ruled by a queen named Nitocris. Because the city was bisected by the Euphrates River she wished to build a bridge from one side to the other in the middle of the city. In order to accomplish this goal, she first had to reduce the water level of the Euphrates enough to allow workmen to build the bridge. She devised a massive plan that would do the trick—an artificial lake far upriver into which the Euphrates could be diverted. It was done and the workmen were able to set the bridge’s foundation stones in the bed of the river.
The plan that came to Cyrus included a similar feat. The lake, now a marsh, having been closed off, would be reopened and the Persian army would wade into the city under the massive walls of Babylon. So Cyrus deployed half of his regiment to where the Euphrates entered the city and half to where it exited. He then took a small number of men to where the trench to the lake had, over the previous few weeks, been excavated and had them open the mouth of the trench into the Euphrates.
There was one fatal flaw in Cyrus’ plan. The walls of Babylon extended far upstream along the banks of the river. If the Babylonians witnessed the water level diminishing and saw the Persian army entering the river, they would gather along the walls and annihilate the Persians with a barrage of ammunition. Cyrus’ way of alleviating this problem was to wait for two important factors—darkness and drunkenness.

the night of attack
In the biblical book of Daniel an amazing story is recorded. Belshazzar threw a huge banquet for 1000 of his leading lords. Huge amounts of food and wine were consumed and the entire city was caught up in the celebration.
To demonstrate his power and security, despite the siege outside the city walls, Belshazzar called for the confiscated goblets from Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem, had them filled with wine and joined with his lords, wives and concubines in drinking wine from these sacred vessels. Moments later a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. The message, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin,” was unintelligible to the leading scholars and astrologers in Babylon. The queen remembered Daniel and the way he had helped previous kings. Daniel was called in and, after berating Belshazzar for his blatant misuse of holy relics, he translated the handwriting on the wall:
“This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:26-28).
Moments later, perhaps even while Daniel was explaining the divine message to the king, the Persian army waded under the walls and climbed the riverbank into the heart of Babylon. Thus, Cyrus’ men had no challenge to overcome in entering the great city.
Cyrus had given direct orders that none of the city folk were to be unduly harmed. The Babylonian traitors—Gadatas and Gobryas—led the army to the palace because they knew the city well. When they arrived, Belshazzar was killed while trying to defend himself.
A few days later, having completed the journey back from the lake, Cyrus entered Babylon and was greeted with open arms and much rejoicing by the Babylonian people. Liberation had arrived!
Every record referring to Cyrus’ interaction with subjected nations reveals a benevolent leader who held high the concerns of his new people.
And, as prophesied by Isaiah, Cyrus sent many Israelites back to Jerusalem with funds to rebuild the temple that had been decimated by Nebuchadnezzar. He also sent back the holy relics that had been stolen.

the fulfilment
“However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. He even removed from the temple of Babylon the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to the temple in Babylon. Then King Cyrus gave them to a man named Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor, and he told him, ‘Take these articles and go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God on its site.’ So this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem. From that day to the present it has been under construction but is not yet finished” (Ezra 5:13-16).
Babylon fell at the hand of Cyrus and his military cunning. Surely there is more to the story than we have access to today. Numerous records hold bits of the great conquest. While not all of the little details match up perfectly when comparing accounts, the major thrust is accurate: There was a Persian king named Cyrus and he overthrew Babylon without a fight.
From these various sources a great story is told. It is a story that reveals a man led by gods that he did not even claim to believe in—particularly the true God, Yahweh. It is a story that shows a king who thought differently from any leader before his time and saw the possibility of a kingdom of peace and freedom. It is a story that shows the fall of evil and the victory of good.
Babylon fell to an Old Testament parallel of the coming Conqueror—Jesus Christ. Much like Cyrus, Jesus has vanquished spiritual Babylon. Through His death we are set free.
Jesus allows His subjects to choose their own life path. He allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He sets the captives free and rebuilds His holy temple in their hearts. He prepares for them a kingdom of peace and freedom. And one day, when Jesus enters today’s Babylon, those who are expecting Him will rejoice that their Liberator has come!

Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin Books, 1963.
Gerald A Larue, Babylon and the Bible, Baker Book House Company, 1969.
Xenophon, Cyropaedia, Vol 7, Harvard University Press, 1984. Translator: E C Marchant.

Riding on the Spirit

While we were all taught not to talk to strangers, it seems new acquaintances develop and conversations abound when we are stuck with those strangers for a long time. Lengthy travel in planes, trains, buses or boats serve as prime moments for these brief encounters.
I have found these types of relationships to be quick forming and deeply transparent. Something about the temporary nature and inevitable separation from each other—usually forever—allows people to lower their defences and reveal their heart and soul. Two such occasions in my life occurred on the Spirit of Tasmania, the ferry that connects Tasmania with mainland Australia. I have taken the Sydney-to-Devonport ferry- twice—a 22-hour trip-. Both trips resulted in lengthy conversations that overwhelmed me with their depth and sincerity.

stepping stones of faith
My cabinmate on one trip, John, invited me to breakfast—a conversation that stretched for nearly four hours! We talked of his life as an antique dealer and mine as a church pastor. We were both sincerely interested in the other’s life story and asked many questions. He told of some antique finds. Once, he bought a dusty vase in a disused pub for two dollars. He cleaned, polished and then sold it for $9500 a week later!
While that was his “highest percentage” success, he said his most profitable was an accident. A church had closed and was to be auctioned. He wanted them to get a good price, so he attended and took the first bid to get the auction rolling. To his dismay, no-one else bid. He had accidentally purchased a church for $35,000.
He used the church to store antiques he couldn’t fit in his shop. When he decided to move to Tasmania, his adult children demanded he clean the valuable loot out of the church and sell the building. They were concerned that someone would break in and steal the collectables. Out of respect for his kids, he sold the contents and put the church up for auction—10 years after he had purchased it—and sold it for $345,000!
After we’d talked for awhile, John carefully worded a question, “Dave, can I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer, if it offends you. OK?”
I agreed. He then asked, “Does it make you mad that I am not a Christian? I mean, it’s your job to make me into one. And I’m not going to become one. So, does that anger you?”
I was stunned. Was this what people outside of Christianity thought of Christians and particularly pastors? Were we seen as so single-minded that our only reason for being friendly was to make others be like us?
Humbled, I responded, “Not at all, John. Life is a journey. We meet people, have experiences, make decisions and live as best we can. Yes, I would love for you to know Jesus. But, I think it highly arrogant to expect that I would be the one person to turn you into a Christian! Each person we meet in life is a stepping stone in our path. I only hope that our time together has taken you one step closer to Jesus.”
He liked that answer. “So, you aren’t expecting me to say, ‘Aha! Now I get it. I want to be a Christian too,’ and go to church with you next week?”
“No!” I laughed. “But, I must tell you something. I believe in God. I believe He answers prayer. And now I know your name, I’ll be praying for you!”
He surprised me by saying, “Thanks, Dave. That really means a lot. I will be thinking about this conversation for a long time.”
As have I, John. Thanks for being a stepping stone in my journey. I pray I was one in yours and not a stumbling block.

proving faith
Another time on board the Spirit, I was reading my Bible outside the cafeteria. I felt someone staring at me and looked up. In front of me stood a father and his eight-year-old son. Robert and Isaiah were their names, I would later discover. Robert was almost glowing as he said, “Is that the Word, brother?”
I almost laughed, but held it back. “Yes. Yes it is!” I wondered what could come next, after such an introduction.
Robert quickly ascertained that I was a Christian and pumped me for my profile: Seventh-day Adventist pastor, doing my morning reading. He was impressed. I was amused by his interest in my spiritual biography. “Come, Isaiah,” he concluded. “Let’s allow the pastor to return to God’s Book.” And with that, they walked into the cafeteria.
Moments later Isaiah bolted back into my presence, “Would you please sit with us for breakfast? I’ll save you a seat!” I said that would be nice, closed my Bible and followed him into the dining area.
As breakfast ended, Robert said, “Pastor, would I be able to talk to you in private? I have a question.” I told him I would go to the lounge on the next deck and wait for him there.
I had barely sat down and Robert was across the table from me. “Can you prove to me, without using the Bible, that the Sabbath is still valid?”
I was intrigued that someone so enamoured with seeing me reading the Bible would now make such a request. But why no Bible? I wondered.
He continued, “I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been to a number of programs at your Adventist churches-- and some of your seminars. So, I’ve heard all the Bible proofs you use for the Sabbath. I want to know if it’s still valid. So, can you prove the Sabbath is still important to keep, on Saturday, in our time?”
This was a unique request: Prove the Sabbath, without using any of the Sabbath passages in the Bible. An answer came, “Robert, are you familiar with the call to tithing in Malachi?”
“You mean where it says, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into God’s storehouse?’” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s it. It demonstrates that tithing is more about God’s promise than our obedience. The text states that if God’s people give 10 per cent of their income—a tithe—He’ll bless them. It actually says He’ll pour so many blessings on their lives that they wont have storehouses big enough to store all the bounty! The Sabbath is like tithing. God promises, over and over in scripture, that if we honour His Sabbath, He will bless us. Robert, I would like to offer you a challenge.”
His eyes widened, “OK. What is it?”
“Keep the Sabbath for six months. Set it aside as a special day for God and see if He blesses you. I bet He will richly bless your life.”
Robert smiled. “My wife and I have been keeping the Sabbath for the past year, and God has been blessing us like never before!” Their own lives had provided the answer Robert sought.
Both conversations reveal how God works in people’s hearts. God is patient. He tinkers with the heart, day by day, revealing more of Himself, His love and His plan. While at times He may seem far off, God is no stranger to your heart or mine.

Standing in the Gap

Two of the basic rules for getting things done contradict each other. The first is the often quoted maxim of busy people: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” The other is the key to a life of effective leadership: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Empowerment of others is one of the most overlooked and undervalued life skills. No child becomes a healthy adult without a fair dose of encouragement and challenge from a significant adult. Without being empowered young people are left to flounder in meaningless activities and irresponsible living while they wait for their 15 minutes of fame.
It is only through the gift of empowerment that people are truly allowed to shine. And empowerment doesn’t occur on accident. You either choose to lift others up, step on them to lift yourself up, or ignore upward mobility altogether opting to stagnate in a pool of sappy platitudes and unhappy attitudes. The choice is yours. Make one, or it is made for you.
lifting others
Barnabas chose to lift people up. His name was actually Joseph, but he was such a uplifting person that the leaders of the early Christian church changed his name to Barnabas-—which means “son of encouragement.”
Barnabas was willing to risk his reputation to give others a new start in life. One young religious leader changed his views—converting from Judaism to Christianity—and wanted to lead people to Jesus. Unfortunately, this young man had been employed by the Jewish leaders to hunt, imprisons and even kill Christians. His name was Saul.
On one occasion, while still working for the Jews, Saul stood over the body of a Christian preacher named Stephen- and called for others to stone the man. He was holding the coats of the men throwing the stones. Stephen died and the Christians feared Saul—the Christian killer.
While on a trip to the city of Damascus where he was planning on rounding up some Christians, Saul had an encounter that changed his life. He heard the voice of God and saw a bright light. The voice said, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4*). Not recognising the voice, Saul asked who the voice belonged to and was told “I am Jesus” (verse 5). The brightness of Jesus’ light blinded Saul for three days. The voice of Jesus, whom Saul had been certain was dead, removed his spiritual blindness and allowed him see that Jesus was the Messiah—just as the Christians had been saying.
Saul was so cut to the heart that he chose a new name—Paul. He wanted nothing to do with his old life. But, he wanted everything to do with Jesus. He began to share his new found faith with people and was very effective in leading non-Christians to Christ.
But he was less than effective in convincing the Christian leaders that he was authentic in his love for Jesus. They thought it was a trick to get into their inner circle, find the ring leaders, and gut the Christian church from the inside out.
Then Barnabas stepped into the gap between Paul and the Christians. The Christian leaders wouldn’t let Paul get close enough to hear his story. “Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus” (Verse 27).
Paul was the lowest of the low in the eyes of the Christian leaders. Barnabas reached down and lifted Paul up in the eyes of others. From that time on Paul was allowed to preach in the name of Jesus and he became one of the greatest Christian teachers in the early church. But none of it would have been possible without Barnabas—the son of encouragement.

investing your influence
Barnabas obviously had influence in the leadership of the early Christian church. They listened respectfully as he told the story Paul was not allowed to tell.
Influence is interest bearing. The higher your investment in someone, the higher the potential returns. But to have any effect you must take a risk. Influence grows fastest when you spend it on others.
As you praise the achievements of others your influence grows with them. As you create a safe place for them to exercise their new skills they become gifted and your investment in them bears returns over time.
The expenditure of influence that brings the greatest returns is when you take the risk of believing in someone that others have abandoned and standing in the gap so they can cross to a position previously unattainable.
As you face the criticism and doubts of others on the new person’s behalf you are spending your hard earned influence on an unknown. Such standing in the gap causes the doubters to suspend judgement for a moment. Their pause is for one purpose—to find an answer to the question your action has caused, “Why would you stake your reputation on this person?”
empowering with trust
There are few things more stressful for leaders or parents than handing over the keys. Once you have convinced others to give the new person a go, you need to be willing to let them go!
Barnabas modelled this very well with Paul. He travelled and preached with Paul for a couple years then moved on—to empower the next young leader. He was able to lift, invest in and empower Paul and then move on—allowing both Paul and himself to mature.
Only trust makes this kind of empowerment possible. Paul trusted Baranbas (and why not, the man did so much for him). And Barnabas trusted Paul to continue in the way he had been trained. Both of them move into new sphere’s of influence as they allow physical distance to come between them.

The ultimate gap stander
Barnabas came by his gap standings skills honestly. His leader, Jesus, was by far the most effective empowerment expert of all time. He stood in a gap for each of us that seems impossibly wide. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). That’s the gap Jesus stood in—He spanned the chasm of death, for you and I.
He lifted us up in the full view of others and said, “this is my child, whom I love very much!” And while others wouldn’t have given us a chance, Jesus always does.
Now Jesus stands before the Father in Heaven investing His influence on our behalf. “I am your Son. I died for them,” He says. And the Father smiles in triumph. Jesus has made you free.
Many of us are unaware or uninterested in Jesus’ amazing gift, and yet He offers it undeterred. He is standing in the gap, offering us his influence before the Father. The wages of sin is death. But Jesus offers a way out. Take His hand, walk across the cross beam and stand in the Kingdom fully pardoned. No wonder it’s called amazing grace!
But He’s not finished with us when we cross into the Kingdom. Jesus empowers us with trust, “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). And with that commission, He bids us blessings on our quest.
Now it’s our turn to empower others by believing in them, standing in the gap for them and handing them the keys to the Kingdom.

The Prophet Seeking Life

The northern riders, darkly robed, came at dusk—when they came. Without warning or pattern to the attacks, they would gallop gracefully through town grabbing any child within reach.
They always came when they needed more. But when that need arose was known only by them. The townspeople waited each day in fear that today the riders would return. As quickly as the torrent of riders rushed in one end of town, they would flow out the other, followed only by tears of mothers and shaking fists of fathers.
She had been one of those children—taken while playing in the street. Now she served as the personal slave of the commander’s wife, the commander who led the raiding parties. The commander who planned attacks on her parents and their people.
Yet, she did her best to serve. She wanted to please her mistress, to follow instructions and to love her new family. Yes, love. It was the way of her people. The people of the one true God. Only one word was required to define their indescribable God—love.
While she had no choice about leaving her mother and father, she did have the choice of whether she would leave her God. And she chose to love. She chose to hold onto her people by holding doggedly to their God—and living the way He required. She would serve willingly and love generously. Never could she have imagined the reward it would bring her.

a child shall lead them
The glimpse we are given in Scripture of this little girl is fleeting. She is unnamed. But her master is well known, for he was the leader of all the armies of Aram. He too may have been left unnamed, had he not encountered the love of this young slave girl. Because of her, he became part of the narrative of the Israelites—her people—as a blazing testimony to the power and love of her God.
His name was Naaman. His story can be found in 2 Kings 5. It is a story of many amazing things—not just the miracle healing often told as a children’s story. There is much more in this brief chapter of Scripture. The character of God is revealed. And the character of his true followers is demonstrated through the slave girl, through God’s prophet Elisha and ultimately through the healed commander of Aram’s armies—Naaman.
All because of the love of one small girl who, hearing that her captor had leprosy and believing she had a God who was able to heal, said to her mistress, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3*).
Having lived in the house of Naaman for some time, the slave girl would have known of his military genius. His king had high admiration for Naaman. As did, unbeknownst to him, his slave girl’s God. This foreign God—the Israelite God—demonstrated His inclusive nature, in the life of Naaman, when “through him the Lord had given Aram great victories” (verse 1). Only later, would Naaman realise how involved the true God was in his life.
Thousands of years later, Jesus would say, “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44). Could it have been the presence of this little slave girl—her prayers and her love—that brought the hand of God and His military blessings to Naaman?

a king’s ransom
Evidently this little maid held the respect of Naaman. He decided not only to visit Israel’s prophet, but to do it through proper channels. His actions show he believed his slave girl’s God was worth the risk.
First, Naaman went to his king. He revealed his leprosy, which normally would result in banishment, but quickly followed it up with the promise of a miracle cure from the prophet in Israel. The king, relieved that the banishment of his right-hand-man could wait until another day, jumped at the opportunity for some foreign diplomacy. He wrote a letter to the king of Israel, had servants load wagons full of treasure in payment for the healing, and farewelled Naaman.
One can imagine the emotional turmoil Naaman’s wife suffered while her husband confessed his ailment to the king. Would her Naaman be banished to the caves like every other leper? Her joy upon seeing him ride into the yard with an entourage in tow—treasure and a military escort—would have been beyond words. Naaman was alive and off to see the prophet.
Naaman had achieved a lot already. He had humbled himself before his wife—revealing his leprosy to her. He had acted upon the advice of a child, an Israelite slave-girl—about as low as one could be in their society. And he had bared his soul to his king, risking death. All of this was but a training ground for the humility of heart that would be demanded on the road ahead.
As Naaman and his military parade rushed through the outer towns of Israel, mothers hurried their little ones indoors. Men hid in the shadows of thatched roofs and watched the shimmering chariots, bedecked soldiers and a fluttering white flag held high by the lead horseman. The Aramians made a bee-line for Israel’s capital. What would come of this most unusual, broad daylight display? What kind of trick was this?
Arriving at the lodging place of the king of Israel, Naaman’s men were met by the royal guard. They waved the truce flag high and presented the letter from their king. It was addressed to the king of Israel and was hastily delivered.
When God’s king opened the letter, it read, “With this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy” (verse 6). Israel’s king tore his clothes—an unthinkable act for God’s leader—and declared, “This man sends me a leper to heal! Am I God, that I can give life and take it away? I can see that he’s just trying to pick a fight with me” (verse 7).
Not for a second did Israel’s king consider this an opportunity to represent his God and demonstrate His power. The king, in his moment of distress, had no such thought. A message came from the prophet Elisha rebuking the king, “Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel” (verse 8). Elisha saw the situation for what it was—an opportunity to represent the Almighty God to an honest man seeking healing.

a humble heart
When Naaman arrived at the prophet’s door—a moment he had been imagining and anticipating with every step of the journey—he was distraught by the brazen reception he received. The prophet refused to come to the door. Instead, a servant came out with a message from Elisha: “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy” (verse 10).
Naaman’s ultimate moment of testing had arrived. He was a man of protocol and procedure. He was respectable and expected to be treated as such. Naaman was irate. He began to lash out, “I thought he would certainly come out to meet me! I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the Lord his God and heal me!” (verse 11).
Naaman took the prophet’s message as a direct insult. Of all the things he had imagined about meeting a miracle-working prophet, he had not even considered that he would be refused an audience and told to “go take a bath.”
He got on his horse and whipped it into a frenzy as he escaped the most embarrassing moment of his life. Do I look like I need a bath? Am I dirty? Naaman furiously thought to himself. How many rivers do we have at home that put this muddy Jordan to shame?!? If I want to wash, I’ll wash in a clean river!
Finally, as his horse began to tire, Naaman slowed. His men caught up with him and challenged him to consider the possibility of what the prophet had said—what if it worked? Why not wash and see? “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So you should certainly obey him when he says simply, ‘Go and wash and be cured!’” (verse 13).
It sounded so simple—too simple, in fact. The words of his men exposed to him the truth of his feelings. He was offended by the prophet, not so much by the treatment at the door, but by the treatment of his pride. He was a man of substance, not a dirty vagabond. He may have leprosy, but he wasn’t about to act dirty. He came to pay for a proper healing, not be told to go have a bath. It was unthinkable. Or was it?
Naaman, broken by the realisation of his pride, rode off the path to the river’s edge. He’d been riding along the river during his angry tirade, hardly noticing it, and only now in his humbled state saw it for what it was—a baptismal font that could purify him from his leprosy and perhaps even more.
Naaman walked into the water, lowered himself the required seven times and emerged spotless. He was healed!

the gift of a thankful heart
Ecstatic, the new Naaman headed back to the prophet’s house at full gallop. This time Elisha greeted him. Naaman bubbled his thanks. He gestured to the wagons and the “750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and 10 sets of clothing” (verse 5) provided as payment for the healing. Elisha’s answer was beyond understanding, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept any gifts” (verse 16).
Naaman tried everything to change the prophet’s mind, But Elisha refused. Slowly it dawned on Naaman that Elisha wanted no reward as he hadn’t done anything—other than deliver a message from the God “whom he served.”
God had healed Naaman. This God—the God of his slave girl—truly was the one true God and had an honest-to-goodness prophet! Naaman understood. It was God who was worthy of thanks. But how? His chariots loaded with treasure looked insignificant now. How do you thank a God who has everything?
Naaman’s next request of Elisha seems very odd indeed. “Please allow me to load two of my mules with earth from this place, and I will take it back home with me. From now on I will never again offer burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the Lord” (verse 17). How do you thank a true God for His providence? Naaman had discovered the answer—worship.

sharing God’s love
Imagine the scene: Naaman comes home with a huge pile of dirt. “Dirt from the prophet’s front yard!” he excitedly explains to his wife and slave girl. Then he piles the prophet’s dirt in his own front yard and builds an altar—like he’s seen in Israel—to the one true God. He has found a God worth taking home.
Every day he brings his offerings to the altar. He sacrifices to the God of Israel. Neighbours walk by and stare. Naaman explains again, “It’s dirt from the prophet of the one true God—Israel’s God—who healed me from leprosy!”
And everyday, as he makes his sacrifices—as he kneels in worship-—he is not alone. He is joined by someone very special to him, someone who saved his life, someone who taught him humility. She kneels too—on home soil—and worships the God she has always loved.

The Great Commission

Matthew 28:16-20
Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him—but some of them still doubted!
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Great Commission
Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven He gave His followers a mission statement. “The Great Commission” encapsulates the ministry and training of Jesus in a nutshell.
In His final words He revealed his heart and passion. We can learn vast amounts from these five short verses of Matthew.

going where Jesus told them to go
The eleven disciples went to the mountain top—all of them. Why? Because disciples know that Jesus is always in charge. He told them to go, and they went. Likewise, our lives ring true when we obey Jesus faithfully.

they worshipped Him
Jesus met them right where He said He would. When they saw Him they worshipped the risen Saviour. When we go where Jesus invites us, we too will see Him in all His glory. And we will worship.

some of them still doubted
It is amazing that after seeing all they had—Jesus had fed thousands with a boy’s lunch, healed the sick, raised the dead and even came back from the dead Himself—some of them still doubted.
This tells us that having doubts doesn’t disqualify you from service. In fact, doubt signifies you are struggling with your thoughts and beliefs. Dealing with doubt is part of healthy faith. Followers of Jesus may have their doubts, but their doubts don’t have them!

I have been given complete authority
Followers of Jesus do not need influence, reputation or authority to merit the role of disciple. Jesus, in conquering sin, on the cross, and death, on resurrection Sunday, achieved our victory over both. And the Father returned to Him complete authority over all creation when He returned to His rightful place in Heaven. Jesus offers His authority to His followers. Because we have confidence in Jesus’ full authority, we can obey the directive that follows.
go and make disciples
“As you are going” is a more fitting translation of the word “go.” Jesus’ point isn’t: get ready, learn your stuff, pack your bags and go. “Go” is in the present tense.
Likewise, immediately after the ten commandments it is written: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7). As you are going, make disciples. It’s a call to mums, dads, grand parents, siblings, teachers, preachers and soccer coaches. Make disciples as you go about life.

of all the nations
Followers of Jesus have a global vision. None of the eleven disciples would have thought they were personally to go to every nation on earth. They understood that Christianity is a team sport. It requires each of us to go to the world around us. And like a sporting team there is no position on the team for spectators. We are touching our part of the world for Jesus with our candle lit by His torch. Together we will set the world alight.
baptising them in the name
Two things are clear about Jesus’ connection with baptism: He was baptised and He didn’t baptise others. He supervised as his followers baptised. He continues to attend every baptism and rejoice as another loved one is added to the family.
We, the baptised, identify with Jesus because He too was baptised. We, the baptisers, identify with Him as we continue the work. There is a powerful allegiance that emerges from the waters of baptism.
Because of the three names in which Jesus commanded us to baptise, we believe in the Trinity. And we, in joining His family through the waters of baptism, comprehend the intertwined nature of His divinity. We, the church, are one—His bride.

teach them to obey my commands
As followers of Jesus we recognise that knowing the precepts of the Bible is not enough. Obedience is the key to worshipping our precious Saviour. And thus we obey and teach others to do so.

be sure of this
Disciples have assurance of two things:
First they are promised Jesus’ continual presence. It’s a co-mission because we are never alone while living it out—Jesus is always with us. Knowing that He has complete authority in Heaven and on Earth empowers us to act. We need not fear earthly punishment because we know our eternal God is returning to claim us and take us to His eternal kingdom.
And that reveals the second surety, and Jesus’ conclusion. Followers of Jesus live in hope—hope of an end to sin, hope of a new age in a new place with old friends. We know that Jesus is returning to claim His followers. He has the authority, the power and the glory to bring an end to sin and suffering for eternity. We, His followers, fully expect that day to be soon.

Strength in Ministry

Due to the Spirit-filled leadership of Nehemiah, the people of Jerusalem achieved a great amount—the city wall was rebuilt in just 52 days, Jerusalem’s corrupt leaders were ousted and the people had come together for registration. Jerusalem’s glory was renewed!
In response, the people gathered, built a platform in the city square and called for Ezra, their priest, to read them God’s law. The people longed to worship.
“Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.
“Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, ‘Amen! Amen!’ as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:5, 6*).
Then Ezra began to read. He recited the scriptures “from early morning until noon. . . . All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law” (verse 3). When the reading finished, the Levites mingled with the people reading the law and they “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (verse 8).
Then, the inevitable happened. People began to see the disparity between their lives and the holy lives called for by the law. In sorrow and repentance, the worshippers began “weeping as they listened to the words of the Law” (verse 9).
At this point in their day of worship, Nehemiah is first mentioned. I imagine him quietly walking on stage and whispering something in Ezra’s ear. The Levites regroup at the podium and confer with God’s leader and His priest. Then, they presented the people with a life-changing message.
The Levites merged back into the crowd and “quieted the people, telling them, ‘Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day’” (verse 11). The worshippers timidly approached the stage. Don’t weep? they thought. Aren’t we supposed to heap ashes on our heads and repent with tears? Isn’t this the purpose of the law?
Nehemiah took centre stage. Their fearless—seemingly faultless—leader smiled, and in a jubilant voice proclaimed: “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God. . . . Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (verses 9, 10).
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Have you ever pondered Paul’s meaning when he wrote, ”Always be joyful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)? Is it really possible to be joyful always? Even when facing your true nature in comparison to Christ’s perfect law?
Or what about Jesus, hanging on the cross? He couldn’t have been joyful as he endured such pain, could he?
Where did Jesus get His strength as He “endured the cross”? Paul presents the answer: “Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
Joy? Yes! Jesus looked beyond the cross to the joy of the eternal kingdom and received the strength to endure His temporary suffering. His own future joy, and the joy of His Father, gave Him strength.
But, that’s only the last half of the text. Paul had a reason for painting a picture of joyful Jesus on the cross. The first half of the text offers us the same opportunity for transformation in worship experienced in Nehemiah’s new-Jerusalem.
We know our sinfulness, and we have witnessed our sinless Saviour suffer on our cross. The chasm seems too great. And we weep. How are we to go on? We must mourn, we think. We must bear the burden of His death. How can we endure?
Paul—our Nehemiah—steps forward and proclaims, “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus, the joy of the Lord, is our strength! Eyes fixed on Him belong to a people of joy. And to a world searching for strength, such joy is irresistible.
Imagine you received a flyer in your letterbox from the best downhill snow skiing park in your area. The flyer invites you to come to a short presentation and receive a free gift valued at over $100. You look at the date of the presentation and realise that you are free on that day.
When the day finally arrives you excitedly bundle into the car and head to the mountain. You drive up to the lodge where there is special parking close to the lodge for people responding to the flyer. You park and make your way inside.
You walk up to a group of people standing in front of a sign saying, “Please wait here for special presentation.” After waiting for a while, the manager arrives and separates the group in two. The groups are sent into separate rooms.
Inside one room the manager faces the expectant group, “Thank you for coming out this morning. We have a 30 minute presentation we would like you to watch on the big screen, then we will give your gift!” He steps to the door, switches off the lights and the screen comes to life.
As the picture comes into focus you can see a couple on a chairlift. The woman says, “I’m not sure I can do this honey.”
He puts his arm around her and says, “You’ll be fine. I’ll help you.” When they get to the top of the lift he skies off. She tries to stand, one ski goes skewing off to the left, she puts her weight on it, picks up speed and smashes into a pole.
The movie is all downhill from there: Fast skiers knocking learners over. Jumpers landing very wrong. Close ups of sunburned faces and chapped lips. Skier after skier injuring themselves. Finally after thirty minutes of mayhem and agony the manager returns, flips the light switch and says, “Thank you for watching our presentation today. Your gift is a free day on the snow! We have free lift tickets for each of you as well as skies, boots and poles. There are also warm clothes available if you need. We just want you to enjoy your day!”
In the other room much the same thing takes place. The manager faces the seated crowd and says, “Thank you for coming out this morning. We have a 30 minute presentation we would like you to watch on the big screen, then we will give your gift!” He steps to the door, switches off the lights and the screen comes to life.
The first scene is of a class of learners. They are all facing a coach and he says, “By lunchtime you will be skiing confidently. I promise.” He then shows them how to do some basic manoeuvres and they slowly skid down the learners slope.
A time lapse shows they have now been skiing for two hours. The same group is swishing down steep runs, laughing and shouting to each other.
The film then switches to shots of extreme skiing. People jump from ridges landing in a flurry of bouncing knees and fast skiing. Skiers jump, do flips, the splits, wave to the crowd—and land perfectly, every time.
At the end of the thirty minutes the movie finishes, the lights come on and the manager says, “Thank you for watching our presentation today. Your gift is a free day on the snow! We have free lift tickets for each of you as well as skies, boots and poles. There are also warm clothes available if you need. We just want you to enjoy your day!”
Which group do you think will go skiing for the day?
Nehemiah was on to something. He understood that joy motivates people. Neighbouring tribes and towns would hear of the joy in Jerusalem. They would travel there for business or pleasure and see the joy for themselves, and they would want such joy in their lives.
When Nehemiah said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” he meant it. There is no greater way to influence others than by being joyful. They will want what you have.
Which 30 minute presentation is your church? Do visitors leave feeling they have just experienced something divine, or do they flee hoping they wont catch whatever sickness has befallen your flock?
The joy that is set before us is Jesus, our Saviour, returning in billowing clouds of glory to take us to Heaven. That’s worth looking forward too—and should cause inexpressible joy to be on our face constantly.
Yet, many Christians are less than joyful. Charles Swindoll says some Christians have such long faces they could eat corn out of a coke bottle.
It is as if many of us are walking to Heaven backward. We know the joy that awaits us, but we spend our time shuffling slowly in reverse watching all the mayhem and destruction behind us—and being morose. Paul gives us the perfect solution, “Look to Jesus!” Keep your eyes fixes forward. Your hands and heart can still go out to the world, but you have reason to be joyful—let it show!
Like Nehemiah, we pastors need to model the joy of the Lord. We can do this only by looking at Jesus moment by moment. And then, when the people around us mourn we need to have the strength to stand tall and demand, “Stop crying! Rejoice! The Joy of the Lord is your strength!”

Dave Edgren ~ Story: Teller, Author, Trainer ~

BOOK DAVE NOW! Dave Edgren is passionate about creating a values-based storytelling culture. In his engaging and often hilarious way,...