Sermon given at Isham & Pytchley (Benefice) 17.7.16
Readings: OT/Epistle Nehemiah 2: 17-20, 4: 7-9, 21-23
Gospel Luke 10: 38-42
The exiles were in despair as they tramped the desert highway to Babylon leaving Jerusalem burning behind them – Jeremiah had warned them so they felt awfully guilty and that God was punishing them.
In captivity Ezekiel confronted them with higher standards and God’s unfailing love, mercy and justice – and the stories of Daniel and his companions reminded them of their enduring values.
In every generation God equips trusted servants for effective leadership. Nehemiah’s story begins around 445BC. He is neither a priest nor a prophet – he’s a lay person of great faith who is called by God to lead the people in practical ways (rebuilding the temple, and organising the community) and in spiritual ways (interceding for them, promoting the ideals of a holy priesthood, and taking a leading part in national witness and worship).
Nehemiah constantly reminds them of the greatness of God – God is unique, sovereign of the universe, totally reliable, utterly holy, compassionately merciful, uniquely powerful, infinitely gracious, completely just – and intimately near.
And he has a real passion for scripture. He’s inspired by the stories of Abraham, Moses and other key OT figures but he’s also taken to heart the warning stories too. Jesus encouraged Mary to stay sitting at his feet listening to his words – ‘Mary has chosen what is best’.
Nehemiah also emphasises the importance of prayer – his story is peppered with his need to pray – to share his present griefs, to confess past failures, and to discover his future work. Prayer widens his horizons and dwarfs his anxieties – he knows it’s more important to wait patiently to discern God’s will than to rush to the help of God’s people.
Above all, Nehemiah was a leader prepared to make personal sacrifices – he gave up his luxurious surroundings and personal safety when he left Persia and embarked on the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. First he had to persuade the Israelites to help with the building work – which meant stopping earning their living, and neither he nor they knew how long that would be for, or how well their families would cope!
So he had to reassure them that it wasn’t just his own idea, that God was behind it and God would provide for them and help them – “Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king.”
The success of his building enterprise was seriously endangered by Sanballat and his friends, the heartless Judean nobles and officials who were making money by exploiting the poor. Once the walls provided security the people could start their own businesses instead of being the slave labour of rich men!
Sanballat and cronies taunted the builders and tried to make them afraid by insinuating that they were rebelling against the king – that tactic might have worked because a previous king had come down hard on an attempt to rebuild Jerusalem but this time the Persian king and given his permission so the builders ignored their taunts.
Nehemiah gives the glory to God – this is God’s plan and God working through his people. He probably denies Sanballat and cronies any rights or share in Jerusalem because Sanballat is a Babylonian name and it’s likely they were foreigners who’d moved into Jerusalem after its most able people had been deported – they’d taken control and they worshipped foreign idols. For Nehemiah, restoring holy worship and following the one true God was of greatest importance for Jerusalem.
When Sanballat & co heard that their taunts hadn’t worked and that Jerusalem’s wall really were being rebuilt they were furious and planned to bring an army to fight Nehemiah. Naturally his men were scared but God is central in Nehemiah’s life so he encouraged them all to pray to God while they organised themselves to guard the city properly.
There’s a lesson here for us too – if we’re upset by someone or something it’s better to pray honestly and urgently to God – to tell him exactly how we’re feeling – than to end up being bitter. Remember Jesus was angry sometimes – like the time when he confronted the loveless legalism of his synagogue opponents (you can’t heal on a Sunday, etc) or when he was upset by the materialistic trading in the temple at the beginning of holy week.
Although Nehemiah made careful plans to meet every eventuality, his organising abilities would have got them nowhere without the people themselves making sacrifices too – they worked every hour they could, normal siesta times were given up to enable them to build the strong walls and sturdy gates to provide their future security. And if the men couldn’t earn their living in the normal way perhaps the women and children had to do extra work too. Everyone did their bit!
Sometimes we too have to give up our time and our pleasures to enable God’s kingdom to be built in our community – people help with worship, children’s work, church maintenance etc. Unity is important too – Nehemiah encouraged them to work together, sometimes we have to give up our favourite service, eg HC, and come to a different service (family service, café church etc.) to encourage new people to learn about God and draw close to Jesus. It’s really important that people come when there’s a baptism otherwise the family either feel not very welcome (people must have stayed away) or the frequent press statements that our churches are dying are confirmed for them – which is a great pity as it’s just not true of our churches.
God used Nehemiah as salt and light in his community – his strong faith in God had a really positive effect on the people and drew them back into God’s company so that they all followed God’s ways. They threw out all the alien and corrupting ideas that had been undermining their faith and sabotaging their values and they all benefitted – no more exploitation, for instance, and holy worship and dependence of God, the one true God.
“Remember the Lord who is great and awesome,” was Nehemiah’s cry!