Sermon for Epiphany III
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 24, 2010
It isn’t very often that we hear passages from the book of Nehemiah; in fact, this is one of only two times that it is the set Old Testament lesson for the day. With that in mind, I think it’s always helpful to anchor a passage in the full context of the story when we hear a few verses like we just did this morning. Our systematic reading of Holy Scripture in the lectionary does just that every week (a snapshot of Scripture at a time, and the job of the preacher, and the job of the congregation is to so inundate ourselves with God’s Word that we might be able to place ourselves once again within the full context of the story itself, and hear what our Lord wishes for us to hear.
That being said, I think some background information on Nehemiah is most important to ground this portion of the eighth chapter within the whole of the story.
The book opens with Nehemiah receiving news that the walls and gates of Jerusalem have been destroyed and the city is pretty much in ruins. When this news comes to his ears the Scripture says that he wept and mourned for days and continued fasting and praying for days.
The Book of Ezra which precedes Nehemiah is almost a parallel book told from two different perspectives concerning the People of Israel in their time of exile and return from Babylon. Ezra was the priest and Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes and was an engineer. In the book of Ezra, when the sins of the nation come before him; he is praying before God it says that Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God…and the people wept bitterly.
For two different reasons these two men come before God with an humble, lowly and obedient heart for the grievances that have been brought before them.
So Nehemiah comes before King Artaxerxes and he looks gloomy and sad, and the king asks him why he looks so dejected if he is not sick. He responds and tells the king that he can no longer hide his grief and sorrow that it is wrong for him to sit in lavish luxury in the palace of the king while the place where his forefathers was buried was lying in waste and ruin and his people were great trouble. The king then asks what he would have him do, and Nehemiah first prays to God, and said, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I might rebuild it.” The king follows up this request with a simple reply, how long will you be gone, and when will you return? Nehemiah gives him a time frame, at which time the conversation gets quite interesting. Nehemiah then makes a request, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” The Scripture then says, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”
Do we really recognize the incredible turn of events here?
Nehemiah first asks for permission to go and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Even though King Cyrus of Persia had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile under Nebuchadnezzar, they were a captured people, and certainly this could be perceived as a step toward autonomy and potential separation. In the time of Ezra, there were those who had been opposed to the rebuilding of the Temple and Altar of the Lord, and work on that project was ceased for a time. Nehemiah no doubt knew that he was asking allot with this request and yet, the Good Hand of God was upon him, giving him the courage to speak and the words to declare.
Not only does the king grant him the request to go, Nehemiah goes one step further and really pushes the envelope. He has the fortitude to not only ask for letters assuring him safe travel, he asks the king to pick up the tab for the building project. You talk about your perfect example of OPM, Other People’s Money, Nehemiah hits the jackpot here!
Throughout all of this, the Scripture says that the good hand of God was upon him. Why was the good hand of God upon him? Nehemiah was not doing this for his glory; he was doing it for God’s.
Not only was the hand of God upon him in his request from King Artaxerxes to go and rebuild, and do so on his nickel, the hand of God was upon him in safely accomplishing this task in record time. In the sixth chapter of Nehemiah, we hear the following words, “so the wall was finished…in 52 days.” The wall around the city of Jerusalem was built in 52 days. With the exception of shows like Extreme Makeover, you can barely remodel a bathroom in 52 days! Yet, against sentiment from detractors who wished for this project to halt, the people of Israel completed the unthinkable in less than 2 months. And for their hard work, this is how they were perceived by their detractors, “And when our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
Do you remember what the people said to themselves when they began to build the Tower of Babel as recorded in Genesis?
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
They wanted to make a name for themselves and wished for the honor and glory to be heaped upon themselves. They wanted to cluster in one place, rather than be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth as God commanded in the beginning of Creation. They wanted to do the very thing that we see today more than anything – raging secularism that has no need for God, and that all the ingenuity they need is contained within. When God saw what they were doing, he said, “Let us…confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
In the passage we heard this morning, that very concept of understanding appears three times in these ten short verses. For, after the people had completed the task they set out to accomplish, they didn’t stand around gazing at what they had done, and heap praises upon themselves. No, they called upon the priest Ezra, and they said to him, please read to us the story of the Covenant – read to us Our Story! So Ezra brought out the Law to everyone who could understand what they heard. Notice that phrase is repeated twice two verses in a row.
The people of Israel knew that it was meet and right that they would glorify God for the great benefits he had now just bestowed upon them, and that their prosperity would stem from their adherence to God’s Law. They were embodying repentance and transformation as they recognized that their exile into Babylon was a direct result of attempting to do things their own way, attempting to make a name for themselves apart from God, turning away from the Law, and trusting in their own goodness and abilities. It had failed them once, they did not want to fail again.
It says again that, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Jesus takes the scroll that is given to him, and unrolls it to a portion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and begins to read in the Synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Jesus sits down, all eyes are fixed upon him, and he makes the most remarkable claim, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Even though our text says in the verse following that everyone spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words coming from his mouth, the audience didn’t understand anything coming out of Jesus’ mouth.
The people of Israel in the time of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the wall understood the Law of God, as was reiterated in our passage this morning. Those in the synagogue at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry didn’t have a clue as to what he meant when he declared to them in some of his more direct words that they were witnessing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and they were called to play an integral part of that work.
Unfortunately, they were like those poor folks who tried to build the Tower of Babel, and attempted to make the Kingdom of God fit their agenda rather than modifying their agenda to fit God’s. They read into the story what they wanted to hear, and they cast Jesus out of the Synagogue when he began saying things they didn’t want to hear. They didn’t want to hear that God’s New Covenant was for the whole world. They wanted the rest of the world to get what they deserved as being outside the Old Covenant. They failed to hear and understand that their role was the be the vehicle through which God was acting, and that they were to be the Light of the World, they were to be the Salt of the Earth, they were to be that City set upon a Hill.
That kingdom the Jesus proclaimed at the outset of his ministry has broken through, and we bear witness to that fact. Jesus comes to us in all of our spiritual poverty, and lavishes us with His grace and mercy that we neither merit nor deserve. He comes to us in the prison of sin that surrounds us every day of our lives, and loosens those chains, and swings open the iron gates of the cell. He takes our blindness, when we are unable to see what he has called us to behold, and restores us to gaze upon his glorious majesty. He promises that when we are persecuted and oppressed for righteousness sake that he will proclaim liberty to us, and will continue to do so. We have this promise, made by God, and sealed with His blood. It is proclaimed to us each and every time we gather in His name to hear his Most Holy Word, and gather around His table to receive the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
We bid you to speak again to us Lord, so that he might truly have ears to hear, and that we might truly understand.