Nehemiah

A Lost Generation

Go looking for God, and you may get an unexpected result. There’s a good chance you will find your real identity.

The conquered, beaten-down Jews of Nehemiah’s day certainly had lost all sense of who they were. Their once-great city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, abandoned with no wall to protect it. Nehemiah had been living in exile as cupbearer to the conquering king.

It was a role of trust, a role that eventually allowed him to gain permission from the king to rebuild Jerusalem and restore some sense of belonging for the scattered people of God. The best of the Jews had been carried away to distant capitals; the rest had been left defenseless among their enemies, people who despised and abused them.

To get the full story, I would suggest you read all of the book of Nehemiah. Suffice it to say his task was a difficult one. Over time, he managed to organize the Jews there, overcoming intimidation, murder plots, and the constant threat of attack by surrounding tribes who hated the Jews of old and did not want to see them re-establish a foothold in Jerusalem.

As Nehemiah and those who rallied around him rebuilt Jerusalem’s destroyed wall and its gates, they often had to work with swords strapped to sides or a weapon in one hand. And yet, they rebuilt the wall in 52 days, an accomplishment even their enemies considered miraculous. Nearly 50,000 Jews and their livestock poured into the city.

It was not too much later that the process of discovery began. The people gathered to hear the word of God, and they were distraught at what had been forgotten over the long captivity. That moment of discovery is recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10. Over a day, it is likely they heard the story of creation; they once again learned of the fall. They heard how God established them as a separate, chosen, holy people through Abraham.

They heard what God had done for their ancestors through Moses after the Israelites had fallen into captivity in Egypt. There were stories of miracles, all evidence of God’s great love. And there were detailed explanations of God’s covenant with them and God’s law for them, and they realized how far they had strayed, how godless they had become. Exploring God’s word that day proved to be a life-changing journey for them.

From God’s word, they remembered how to worship, and began to do so again, celebrating forgotten festivals and re-telling forgotten stories. They confessed their sins to God and sought mercy.

As different as we are today, it is a pattern we can follow. It can be a bit of a shock to discover how far we’ve strayed from God, but as we become Bible-exploring people, we find our true selves. Like Nehemiah’s Jews, one of the first lessons we learn in Genesis is that we are made in our creator’s image, meaning we were designed to reflect God’s nature and God’s will. Know God and we know what should come natural for us.

Knowing God and consequently knowing ourselves seems difficult for one reason alone. Sin remains in the world and in us. Upon hearing what God’s word had to say about God’s expectations of them, Nehemiah’s Jews realized they had suffered mightily because they had stopped acting as God would have them act. They had fallen into sin, and they wept. A sense of brokenness and loss always precedes redemption.

The interpreters of the word, knowing God’s word, had an interesting response, however. They told the people not to weep. The Jews of Jerusalem once again saw God for who God is, and they were in worship! The priest Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s grace would once again shine through their darkness, and joy would be restored.

We see them understanding and experiencing the same kind of forgiving, loving grace ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ, God among us in flesh. Christ came to bring us face-to-face with our need for God.

When we look to Christ, we sometimes don’t like what we see in ourselves. But I tell you today, do not weep, but rejoice—in turning to Christ, you find eternal life and take important steps toward holiness in this life. In Christ God offers us new hope and a new identity.

We become the people we would have been had sin never entered the world.

A Survival Plan

Second in a Sermon Series

Second in a Sermon Series

Nehemiah 4:15-23

Last week, we began our January sermon series, “What’s in It for Me?” We’re looking at some of the practical benefits of being in a church community.

You may remember that we talked about how one of our key practices, forgiveness, actually makes our bodies and minds healthier. Today, I want us to consider how involvement in a healthy church community also can serve as a key part of a family’s survival plan.

I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m talking about survival in the face of very real dangers—staying alive after a major storm or earthquake has knocked out water and electricity service across a region, for example.

Now, I know some of you may think this sounds a little kooky. We don’t like to think about events that may never happen in our lives, particularly when we live in a relatively secure environment with easy access to water, food and heat.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, however. You’ve volunteered or even been employed to work in disaster zones after a major catastrophe, and you’ve seen how quickly modern urban areas like New Orleans, Gulfport, San Francisco, Atlantic City, and Manhattan can spend days, weeks or even months without basic necessities following a natural disaster.

Human-caused disasters can wreak even more long-term havoc. For example, in 1984, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, was modern and peaceful enough to host the Winter Olympic Games. By 1992, however, the Bosnian War was underway, and the city came under siege for four years. Its residents went from being model citizens of eastern Europe to constant targets of sniper fire as they ran about trying to buy a little bread.

I’m not trying to be scary. It’s just a reality that the brokenness of the world can intrude anywhere, and people can be left struggling in the wake of such events. We’re talking about a truth that has been constant throughout human history.

Our Nehemiah text takes us back to such a time, about four-and-a-half centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Jewish people had come under the control of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah and other Jewish leaders had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by war, to begin rebuilding it. The people were surrounded by enemies, however, and when they began the work, they didn’t even have an intact wall around the city to protect themselves.

They responded by forging a community. We get a picture of how they worked with weapons in hand, restoring the wall while ready to run to each other’s aid should an attack occur. They stayed inside the wall at night, working in unity to keep each other safe.

There also had to be an extensive support system to make all this happen. Clean water had to be found and transported. Food had to be prepared. First aid and other medical support must have been constantly needed. A system of trumpeters provided communications so the people would know when there was a threat. I have no doubt that everyone large and small, young and old had a role in rebuilding the wall so they could proceed with the restoration of their city.

Most importantly, these people shared a common belief. They worshiped the same God, and despite all they had gone through, they believed God’s promise that they would one day be able to live safely in their city again. You can tell by Nehemiah’s words that these people drew strength from their common knowledge that God was with them.

“Rally to us wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet,” Nehemiah told the people. “Our God will fight for us.”

It’s a model for how a religious community survives in times of crisis. Work together, sharing the skills you find in the group. Put your faith in God into practice—trust that he will preserve a community faithful to him.

I occasionally like to read books and magazines on survival skills; it’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a boy. I suppose there’s something comforting in at least thinking you might know how to start a fire and make water clean enough to drink under difficult circumstances.

I ran across an interesting magazine, “Living Ready,” a few weeks ago. The winter issue has an article that’s closely aligned to this sermon.

Dr. Kyle Ver Steeg contrasts the stereotype of the lone survivalist in the “Army Guy” costume vs. the reality of how people survive difficult situations. He draws heavily on his experience working in Haiti shortly after the massive earthquake that struck there in 2010.

To prepare for a long-term survival situation, “I am of the opinion that the single most important thing you can do is to build a network of trustworthy, capable and likeable people,” Ver Steeg writes. “I would add that you should also work on becoming a part of your community and to develop skills that will be useful to your particular group.”

Later, he makes this particularly pertinent point: “If you are a churchgoing person you already have such a network in place. Think about if for a second. Churches already have leaders and a community of likeminded people with varied skills. They are used to working together to accomplish goals. Many churches already do mission work in desolate areas of the world. These people have knowledge and experience that some of the most survival-minded people do not.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? In a crisis, relying on the relationships and shared skills we’ve been developing for years in church should be a natural response.

A survival plan is something we all hope we never have to use, but it’s certainly a great church benefit to have.