At St Mary’s we are journeying together through Lent and studying the book of Nehemiah.
This is our first talk in the series.
Nehemiah 1. Lent 1.
I used to love playing with Lego as a kid. I had boxes of its – all kept in 1 Gallon Ice-cream tubs. The thing with Lego is that you can make anything you please out of it. You can build models of real things, you can build landscapes houses and cars that belong to your imagination alone. You can build by following the instructions or you can build free-style.
One time I sat down and built a complete M*A*S*H unit. Just like the TV show. There was an OR (Operating Room), The Swamp – the tent were the main characters lived. A helicopter pad and several olive green matchbox Jeeps that I drafted into service – I even had a tiny little Hawkeye Pierce complete with the hat he wore on the show.
I built hundreds of of Lego models over the years – some I worked hard on, others I threw together. But I probably worked harder on that than the others. I had a vision in my mind of what it should look like, I had an excitement about completing my goal and I had the time and the energy to give it.
Sometimes we just need the spark to get us moving on a project.
We’ve talked a lot over the last 18 months or so about calling and our missional role as the people of God in our community and to the wider world. But sometimes I think that idea of call is perhaps a bit to abstract for us to get a proper handle on.
One of the things you learn when you speak to a group of people on a regular basis is the ever widening chasm between what you think you are communicating and what people perceive you are communicating!
When people like me stand up here and talk about call, many of us just have no frame of reference for what that means – it sounds either vague or something that only people who have directly heard the voice of God booming a command have experienced. The concept is something that can seem too unreal or mystic when we are people who perhaps hear or receive from God in different ways.
And so we come to Nehemiah’s call. And herein is a challenge to that view that God’s call must be some sort of especially supernatural experience. Of course the way God moves in the world is by definition supernatural but it is not always through the obviously mystical that he speaks.
As far as we know Nehemiah didn’t have a burning passion to return to Jerusalem until his experience of meeting with other Jews in Chapter One. It is obvious that he was a faithful Jew in exile, it is obvious that like all devout Jewish believers of the time he had an inherent interest in the Holy Land. But there is nothing that marked him out as particularly zealous in a desire to return there anymore than any of his brethren in exile.
Then comes the spark of his call. He meets some Jews who have been back to their homeland and he hears the shocking news of the state of God’s Holy Citidel.
The problems had existed for a long time:
Around 587BC the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, along with Solomon’s temple. This was the third of three campaigns into that region. About 70 years after the first Babylonian invasion, Cyrus, King of Persia, gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Under the leadership of a man named Zerubbabel, these exiled Jews returned to Israel and set about the rebuilding of the temple itself.
Things were looking up for while. It seemed as if Israel was on the verge of becoming a blessed nation once again. But the people refused to turn away from the very sins that God had judged their ancestors for. The temple was not being maintained. Sacrifices had ceased. The Jews continued to adopt the religious practices and culture of the surrounding nations. By the time our story begins, the political, social, and spiritual conditions in Jerusalem were deplorable.
By Nehemiah’s time over 70 years had gone by with the walls in ruins. A remnant of the Jews has returned but they lacked the vision, the leadership and the resources to rebuild God’s city. They were simply surviving day to day in poverty. A defeated people with the ruins of their city – a place they believed to be God’s Holy City – all around them. A reminder not only of their defeat but also that to all appearances their God had deserted them.
They were stuck in a life of mere existence not one of dreaming about a better life for themselves and their children. They were just barely making it through the weeks.
The news of this situations sparks Nehemiah into action. The reality of the report he hears in Chapter 1 is the catalyst that spurns him into seeking God for a solution. It’s not a booming voice, or an alter call from his Rabbi but a desire to address a situation that he knows in his heart of hearts, that he knows in his knowa, is not right and must be addressed.
His response is to pray.
Nehemiah prays first and foremost. Verse 4 tells us that he fasts and mourns for days – he prepares himself to bring his cry to God by a period of self-denial – not for the sake of piety but as an outward sign to God that he is putting himself last and God first. The he brings this recorded prayer before God.
In prayer he brings his own sins before God but more than that he confesses – quite literally intercedes – on Israel’s behalf. This man of God humbles himself and says sorry for the sins of his people. He could have chosen not too – after all most of these sins had been committed by previous generations – he could have legitimately stood before God and chosen not to confess things he personally hadn’t done. So in humility he comes to God with a penitent heart bringing the sins of the people before the Almighty.
Then he reminds God of His promises to his people. This can seem almost presumptuous to us. Who are we to remind God of anything? But there is an important thing happening here. In re-declaring the promises God has spoken over the Jews, Nehemiah is claiming those self-same prophecies. He is his in a sense thanking God for the hope he has given them and making them his own for the people.
He draws his petition to God with a mecry from his heart for God to hear and act on his prayer.
This prayer is a defining moment for Nehemiah. It is through his relationship with God and through this prayer of repentance and hope that he grasps God’s vision for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
There is no obvious booming voice as it is for some of the prophets but there is this steady synchronisation of Nehemiah’s heart with that of the heart of God for the situation.
As we embark on Lent as a Church we too are called to repentance and declaration of God’s promises, we too are called to that prayer of Nehemiah’s.
We enter Lent as a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. But we have the incredible privilege of walking in the light of the fulfilment of God’s promises through Jesus. Yet we still have things to repent of both as individuals and corporately as a Church.
Like some forms of the confession say ‘The things we have done and those things we have left undone’ We know what that means in our personal lives. But do we also have to repent of these things as a Church?
The times we failed as a community to be the light of Christ in our village. The times when we turned people away – didn’t offer the the love of Christ to them. The times we put ‘being Church’ before ‘being the people of God’
Let us take this opportunity as we journey through Lent as a Church to follow the example of Nehemiah. To fast, to mourn, and repent. Let us too remind God of the promises he has given us as a Church. Let us in repentance claim those promises and seek a synchronisation of our hearts with God’s. So that we too can embark on the calling he gives us both as individuals and together as the Church in this place.
Let’s pray together:
“LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant are praying before you day and night. We confess the sins we , including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
“We are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man.”