First Things First

Heritage Presbyterian Church

February 21, 2021
1st Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Nehemiah 9: 1-8 and Genesis 9: 8-17

How many of you had a tough week last week? 
How many of you lost power at least once?
Anyone still without power?
Anyone lose water? 
Anyone have at least one pipe burst or a new leak develop somewhere?
How many of you had to throw out food that was perfectly good when the week started?

In short, it’s been a tough week, right?

It’s also been tough to watch our various political leaders – from the left and from the right – try to put their various spins on the situation instead of focusing clearly and concisely on solutions to ensure this never happens again…and perhaps to also care for the people who have been through a week of winter weather that surprised everyone.

I feel like we all need a really good “do-over.” 
You know what a do-over is, don’t you?

If you are playing a game, and something goes wrong, like someone accidentally gets too many cards, or someone doesn’t move the little figure on the game board the right number of spaces and now everything is wrong, or (my personal favorite) you have a novice trying to learn the game and doesn’t have a clue what to do…in those cases, you all just start over with a new game, no harm, no foul.

In my family, and perhaps in yours too, that is called a do-over.

But you can’t just start over again; you have to make sure something accurate will happen this time.  Otherwise, the do-over won’t work, and chaos will reign once again.

So…imagine that all our various leaders don’t learn a single thing from the past week, and we get another brutal week of sub-freezing weather here in Houston; imagine that all of you that have made “never-again” declarations to yourself and your family let those firm declarations go right out of your head as soon as the sun began shining, and the temperature rose above 60 degrees; imagine that instead of learning from our mistakes, we begin making brand new ones that will certainly make things worse.

Imagine us being that ridiculous…just imagine.

If we are, can we actually turn our eyes to Heaven and beg God’s help – with a straight face?  With a truly sincere heart?  

In other words, could assume we are “right with God now” and it’s okay to ask for God’s help again?  Could we really?

It seems to me that we need to put first things first if we want to avoid trouble in the future.  When I say that, I am NOT saying that if we just pray hard enough and believe hard enough, bad things won’t happen to us again.  What I am saying is that if we want our faith to continue to strengthen so that we can stand firm against whatever comes our way – no matter what – we need to put first things first.

In our two readings for today, the people of God have done just that: put the first things first.

We began with an obscure reading from a tiny book of the Old Testament called Nehemiah.  Chances are you might not be familiar with this particular book, but it is a perfect example of the ancient people of God returning to Him and putting the very important things first.

What has happened in that reading is that the people of Judah have been in captivity in Babylon for many years.  King Cyrus finally allowed many of them to return to Jerusalem, where they found their old temple destroyed, their beautiful city burned and broken, and the land unable to support the people’s needs.  The people had a really hard time when they returned; they were not ready for what they encountered.

Sound familiar?

From there, some of them began trying to rebuild the walls to keep themselves safe, but enemies all around began knocking them down and preventing them from rebuilding Jerusalem.  Word reached Babylon and the ears of Nehemiah, the personal cup holder of King Artaxerexes.  When the King saw the sad look on Nehemiah’s face, he asked why.  When he heard what was going on in Jerusalem, the King sent Nehemiah there to find out what was going on and to help them rebuild the city properly.  Nehemiah was actually a high priest; his words and actions still carried weight, so he got right to work.  The walls were built as half the workers stood guard, and half built the walls.  Once it was finished, Nehemiah took a census of all the nobles from the various tribes who had also returned; they were charged with building and rebuilding homes inside the walls.  Crops were planted and orchards were prepared.  Livestock were set in fields and carefully watched and guarded.  Everything seemed to be ready…for the first things to become first.

Nehemiah and Ezra, the other high priest, called for a national day of confession.  On that amazing day, here is what happened:

  • All the people gathered together; every single one of them;
  • All the people were fasting to show their lowly and humble state;
  • All the people wore sackcloth to show their poverty of spirit;
  • All the people had ashes from their fires on their heads to show their lowly state before God. (You come humbly before God…or you shouldn’t come at all.)

As you picture this, go ahead and imagine that perhaps some of them didn’t really mean it.  They were just going through the motions.  Still, the entire nation of Judah was standing together all day, and praying, worshiping, hearing the Book of the Law read aloud to them, and offering shouts of praise all day long.

They also included praises to God for two truly amazing do-overs from their own histories, namely Abraham and Moses.

Once this amazing day was complete, the people of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, those people of God were truly ready to begin the rest of their lives.  They had put the Lord first in their lives once again, and their do-over could truly begin.

Next, we have the sealing of the deal between God and Noah from the book of Genesis.

We all know this story: God regretted creating human kind and vowed to destroy it.  But God had a problem: there was one righteous man, Noah, and his family.  God couldn’t destroy creation and also destroy a righteous man and his family.

So the Ark was built, the animals came aboard two by two, and the rains began.  

After a very long time, the waters receded, and the Ark came to rest on a mountain.  Noah opened the Ark and released all the animals to inhabit the earth once again.

All the evil people were gone. 
Humankind was destroyed.
Noah and his family were spared, and humankind was given a do-over.
Perfect time to put first things first!

After releasing the animals, Noah build an altar and made burnt offerings that were pleasing to God.  Noah could have left that spot, found a home, and begun to build a new life, humanity’s do-over.

But God himself put first things first in this particular case.

It is entirely possible that at some point, Noah or one of his family members might have asked that most terrible question: “What if God destroys all life again?”

Now, of course, we know God didn’t do this, but Noah and his family didn’t know it at the time, did they?

God put his bow in the sky and promised Noah and his family that he would never again destroy all life on the earth.  Whenever Good looked and saw his bow in the sky, he would remember his promise and would keep his covenant with Noah.

Before Noah and his family could truly begin living, they needed a guarantee that they would get the chance.  God put his covenant first, so that this could happen.

It is true for any of us too.  We can all get do-overs in our lives, especially if we stop whatever nutty thing we are doing and just put the first things first, namely the worship and praise of our God.  Sometimes that is almost impossible to do because of the pain in our bodies, in our minds, in our hearts, or in our souls.  We can only do so much.  But even in our laments to God, we are still turning to that same God first…just as we should.

And in those times when our faith wavers or falls or fails, we still have hope for better times…or perhaps just for a do-over or two.

I have always known of people in extremely tough circumstances who continue to love and laugh and praise God with all they have, in spite of whatever is going on with them.

They have figured out what’s important.
They know the future has possibilities, either in this life or the next.
They may not like what’s going on, but that old sun keeps rising and setting each and every day.

Each day can be a do-over of sorts, if we choose to make it so.

But make sure to put the first things first.