Sermon, Sunday September 4th, Pentecost 16C, Story Week 21
Nehemiah: Rebuilding the Walls.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:11-21, John 2:13-25
After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, 2 the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, 3 the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, 4 the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, 5 the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest— 6 this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him. 7 Some of the Israelites, including priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers and temple servants, also came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.
8 Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. 9 He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel
After 80 long years away from home, God’s people get a green light to come home. Home does not look too good when they arrive. The place is a mess. It’s almost deserted. It would feel like you might feel if you went back to your old primary school only to find it is closed, windows boarded up, weeds covering where you once played. Empty, finished…..
King Cyrus gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to leave the safety of Persia to go back to a pile of rubble. In 537 B.C fifty thousand former slaves came with him. But many chose to remain in the safety of an unchanged life, even if it was away from the gathering of God’s people.
Ezra was authorised by Persia’s King Artaxerxes to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was given permission not only to teach God’s Word but also a mandate to appoint judges. He was given a bottomless expense account to finance his journey too.
Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa in Persia. But eventually he sprang into action when he heard the news that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 more exiles back to Jerusalem.
As soon as he arrived, Nehemiah assesses the condition of the walls. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild the walls and eventually the temple. The temple was never again to be as magnificent as the one Solomon had built.
Local tribal leaders, Sanballat and Tobiah were not happy. They were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation. Nehemiah was a man on a mission – a mission to rebuild a place and a people and a story. He was undeterred by opposition and doubt. The wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!
While God’s man on the sport, Nehemiah rebuilt walls and foundations, Ezra the priest, set out to do what was most important – to rebuild God’s people.
And something critical to their future happened in all of this rebuilding. They bound together. The whole people of God took on the responsibility of rebuilding the worship life of the community. In days gone by it was the King and the priesthood who did this. Now it was not the Pastor doing everything but God’s people doing their calling together. What changed it? What always changes people – the Word of God being heard.
Ezra taught the people the Word for 13 years. As they listened to God, they remembered who they were and whose they were. They remembered what they were here for. The people gathered to listen. Other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it!
They had a story. They belonged in this place. They were all responsible for living out their story in fellowship, worship, nurture, service and in so doing bearing witness to their God among others. They were people of promise who had a future preferred and promises by the Lord in the world.
Friends, can we see hear his Word for us? What will help us bind together in the mission of God to rebuild a community in the gospel of Jesus – the new temple, the new place of worship, place of peace, of hope of God’s promises and preferred future for each person around here?
We long for the church to be vibrant, on the move, making a positive difference for real people in real life where we live. We long for the grace of God in Jesus, the new temple, the new place of God’s dwelling to change lives for the better. Where shall we being and how shall we proceed?
Like the Lord moved to make this time of rebuilding walls and more importantly, rebuilding his people, so he is moving to rebuild us as his people and it may include changing a few walls too.
These exiles and their two leaders show us what’s critical.
To rebuild a people one does not rely on programs, political means, deals of compromise. We have no need to give in to doubt or fear or opposition, or mere human-centred theories. We don’t need to settle for easy things that don’t cost and don’t unsettle us a bit. We don’t even need to rely on mere human thinking or human emotion.
God rebuilds people in their identity and their calling by his holy Word spoken and heard. His words alone have the dynamite of God’s calling and healing Spirit attached with it to transform not just our feelings or out thinking but our very bodies – our very being.
Heard it all before? Yes. But have we realty HEARD it now? Not so sure. Lots of research among us says that we Lutherans are struggling to hear God’s word or teach it and do it. We have been for a generation or so.
We struggle to share God’s word together. We struggle to teach the word to our children. We seem to outsource these things to others or simply believe that God is at work by his Word and Spirit in other places, but not here and not in my life.
Some might say that practically speaking, even though we say we believe in God, we actually live like atheists, never really expecting or trusting that God’s word and Spirit can work in me, and in another.
Well, Nehemiah and Ezra show us how to get real about life and real about our relationship with the Lord.
The rebuilding of a beaten and battered nation begins with the hearing and doing of God’s Word. They re-introduce the Word of God – for them the Pentateuch – the first 5 Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The people hear again of the promises of God. Largely now Persian shaped people now mould to God’s shape, God’s intent, God’s actions, God’s promises for them.
Will we get it? Will we listen to the Lord and practice in real time and real issues his promises and his preference for our future in this place.
Word in Worship – spoken, prayed, sung, shared, and heard. The Spirit creates repentance and forgiveness and doing of his promises in real life.
Life as worship – intentionally nurturing, sharing fellowship, humbly and joyfully serving, faithfully worshipping and in all bearing true witness to the Way the Truth and the Life that is Jesus of Nazareth the new temple of God and we the Body of Christ in his world he loves.
Friends, in this changed mission era, we need to do what Ezra, Nehemiah and God’s thriving people did
We might say;
Dwell in the Word trusting the Spirit’s nudging.
Dwell in the World with his listening ear.
Speak his Word to another in our words and his.
Chapter 21, Rebuilding of the Walls
Timeless Truth: God always preserves a faithful remnant.
Chapter Summary (Have someone in your group read the summary section.)
It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to go. Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C. But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.
Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon. The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.
Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem. His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.
Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred. He encouraged his leaders and armed his people. Some worked while others stood guard. Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued. Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken. He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!
As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people. He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read and other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before. The people and the priests hungered to worship God and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.
Yet old habits die hard and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning. The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best. They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings and the whole community began to again turn away from God.
Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come. God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant. He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with His promise to David. He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.
Icebreaker Question: What’s the most extensive remodeling or construction project you have been involved in?
- List the three things to which Ezra devoted himself (p. 292). What is significant about this order that also applies to the successful Christian life of every believer?
- Why is it important for teachers like to be like Ezra – “well versed” and “learned” (p. 291) in God’s word? Share with your group who has been your most influential Bible teacher and why.
- Compare the “first exodus,” Exodus 11:1-3 and 12:35-36, with this second exodus. How can you tell that this was clearly God’s response to Ezra’s prayer (p. 294)?
- Why do you suppose Nehemiah did not reveal to anyone the plan that God had put in his heart (p. 295-296)?
- Nehemiah prayed for protection, but he also posted guards. Does this show a lack of faith on Nehemiah’s part? How should we “follow-up” after we pray for something?
- Nehemiah’s enemies tried to use the false prophet Shemaiah to distract him from the rebuilding project. How do you determine if a message from God or another source?
- What can you learn from Nehemiah about leadership?
- What does Nehemiah teach us about prayer? Do you notice any patterns in his prayer life?
- Years after the walls had been rebuilt, the prophet Malachi was sent to correct the priests and the people (p. 302). What were they doing that dishonored God?
- According to the prophet Malachi, what is the correlation between one’s relationship with God and one’s treatment of their spouse?
In the time remaining ask your group members to share any of their personal reflection insights from their journal entries.
Chapter 22, the birth of the king
Journal your answers to these questions as you read through the chapter this week. You may wish to read one day and journal the next, or spread the questions over the whole week.
- Many people dispute Jesus and His true nature. Some say He was only a good man. Others say He was a god. What does p. 309 or John 1:1-14, 18 teach you about The Word, Jesus?
- “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (p. 309 or John 1:12-13). Look up 1 John 3:1-3, 4:7-11, and 5:1-5. How does someone become a child of God? What does it imply for you to be a child of God?
- What do you suppose Mary might have thought and felt after Gabriel’s visit?
- Describe Joseph’s character and faith. What makes him an especially good role model for men today?
- Mary “pondered these things in her heart” (p 313, 316). Surely her understanding of who Jesus was grew and matured over the years. How has your understanding of Jesus grown through this study of The Story?
- How has this chapter changed your perception of angels?
- We know very little about Jesus’ childhood except for the episode at Passover when He was 12 years old. What do you think Jesus understood about Himself by this time? What lessons from this episode could you share with children and youth?