We’re going to build the wall

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

The remnant who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.  (Nehemiah 1.3, esv)

This Sundays and in the five Sundays of Lent, I’m going to do something different
Instead of following the Bible readings in the Lectionary, I’m going to work my way through one book of the Old Testament – the book of Nehemiah
I may still use some readings from the Lectionary. But the focus will be on Nehemiah

These sermons on Nehemiah will also be introductions to our study sessions on Tuesday evenings
The study sessions will be based on a Lent course devised a few years ago by the Centre for Theology and Community

The Centre’s mission statement says, they believe Christianity requires social justice as well as individual transformation
We are committed to working with people – not just for them
AND We seek to root our action in listening – to God and neighbour

We believe as Christians it’s important to read the Bible
But how we read the Bible is very important
The theology of the course is liberation theology

What does that mean?
We’re probably used to preaching and teaching where you have an expert talking down
Our churches are organised and run in ways that make sure this is what happens
Almost unavoidably, the voice of that preaching is an educated voice, the voice of someone from a privileged class

Liberation theology is theology from the ground up
It tries to hear what the Bible means to the poorest and most disadvantaged in society

It has its roots in the 1960s, in Latin America, in societies ruled by military dictators
Countries where there was not even a pretence of democracy
Very unequal societies, societies governed by elites who governed in their own interests
Where people who made trouble simply disappeared

When liberation theology tells the story of the cross, it points out that Jesus spoke about freedom to people who were poor and oppressed
When Jesus spoke to the people who wielded power, he spoke about judgement

Liberation theologians point out that Jesus was executed for political reasons
He was killed at the instigation of powerful people, including officials of the temple itself
But some interpretations of the gospels don’t give enough weight to those facts

I wonder how well we know the book of Nehemiah
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Nehemiah was the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem
He also restored the worship of the Jerusalem temple

In the course of telling that story, Nehemiah also gives us great lists of names, of the heads of families who helped rebuild the walls, and the people who came back to Jerusalem from Babylon
And the priests and the Levites and the gatekeepers who served in the temple

All this is very interesting to historians – but what does it mean to us?
Theologically, we might say God approves of Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the walls
We might start to think that maybe we should build some walls of our own, to put the fear of God into our neighbours and protect ourselves from impurity
Is that the message of Nehemiah? Some people have thought so

We know the famous walls of history, and some of the rulers who built them
We know what threats they were trying to protect themselves from, and the kind of statement they wanted their walls to make
Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Pres Trump’s wall on the Mexican border

Donald Trump says he wants to make America Great Again – MAGA
You could say, Nehemiah wants God to make Israel great again – MIGA

But when you read the book of Nehemiah, you realise power and status are not what he is after
Nehemiah’s work on Jerusalem’s wall is just a small part of a much bigger picture

That bigger picture is the renewal of the covenant
The restoration of the relationship between the people and their God
And the details of that picture, the way people treat their neighbours, are at least as important as the wall

If there’s no justice for the people in the city, there’s no point in having a city
No point in having walls – because there is nothing behind them that deserves protection

The course on Nehemiah we are going to follow draws parallels between Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and our attempts to rebuild our communities.
It tries to help us to look at the ways in which you and your church can listen to the needs of the local community and respond in a way which combines charity and justice.

How does the course find this message in the book of Nehemiah?
Let’s see how the book opens – but before we do that, let’s remind ourselves of the situation Nehemiah faces

The Jewish elite had been taken captive to Babylon and lived there in exile for around 70 years
The poor people stayed behind and were forced to work for their new masters, the Babylonians

Eventually the Babylonian empire was toppled by the Persians, who had a different way of dealing with the countries they ruled over
They allowed them much more control of their own affairs, and in particular they encouraged them to carry on the worship of their own gods

The emperor Cyrus, the one we read about in the Old Testament, issued a decree in 538 b.c.e., setting out these principles and allowing the Jewish exiles to go home and rebuild their temple

The temple was rebuilt on the exact site of Solomon’s temple
That took 22 years, and the temple was rededicated in 516

Not everyone went home immediately – there were still many Jews living elsewhere
Nehemiah is a powerful man, a Jew who still lives in Babylon, serving the Persian King Artaxerxes
He regularly gets news of the things going on in his homeland, and this news upsets him

He knows about the Jews who are in Jerusalem, trying to rebuild
But their efforts are running into trouble
There has been damage to the walls, and the gates, and the worry is that the temple itself might be destroyed again

Nehemiah has the emperor’s ear – he knows he can ask for a favour
If Nehemiah was just a politician, what would he have done?

He would have wanted to take action immediately
He could have asked for an army
He could have led them to Jerusalem, driven out the troublemakers and then commanded the soldiers to help the people build up the walls

But Nehemiah is a man of God
So the first thing he does is to turn to God in prayer
And in his prayer, he tries to see the problem as God sees it

He doesn’t just spend a couple of minutes in prayer, or even an hour
He spends several days; he weeps and mourns, and he fasts

The prayer he offers isn’t a prayer for the destruction of his people’s enemies
It’s a prayer of repentance

He sees the sufferings of the people as the consequence of sin
He admits that he and his family share this guilt

He remembers the story told in the book of Deuteronomy, of how the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land
He remembers that Moses gave them a warning from God
If they sinned, God would remove his blessing and drive them out of the land
That, basically, is what happened in the exile

But the God who exiled the Jewish people is still the God who chose them in the first place
They are still the covenant people, and God’s love for them is faithful and everlasting

He still holds out the promise to his people, that if they turn to him again in their hearts and keep his commandments, he will restore his blessing

That is what Nehemiah prays for, and he prays that God’s favour will take one particular form –
That the Persian King will listen to his request, and grant him some time away from court
To see for himself what is going on in Jerusalem and to help if he can

In the next few weeks we’ll see how the story unfolds
And how Nehemiah’s story still speaks to our church today
Particularly how we see the relationship between the faith we proclaim in our worship, and the life of the community outside

11 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton


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