Nehemiah lays down the law

Posted: March 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly. … He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday.  Nehemiah 8.2-3

It’s a struggle combining Mother’s Day with the themes we’ve been looking at during Lent
You probably know, Mothering Sunday was a day when people returned to their mother church – the church where they were baptised
Which meant it was also a holiday people could spend with their parents – and perhaps bring their mother a gift
So it eventually became a day devoted to celebrating mothers and thanking them

Mothering Sunday from medieval times was also a day when fasting rules were relaxed
Before the final weeks of fasting leading up to Easter

The theme of the whole season of Lent is repentance
And it’s certainly true that family relationships hinge on repentance – the willingness to admit it when we have been in the wrong

On Tuesday evenings in our Lent course, we’ve been making our way through the book of Nehemiah
How does the book of Nehemiah relate to Mother’s Day?
You could say, the overarching theme of Nehemiah is God’s love for his people

God’s people often act in ways that seem to show they don’t deserve his love
God responds in ways that demonstrate his disapproval
Sometimes quite drastic ways – like allowing the armies of Babylon to burn down Jerusalem
But he never disowns them – he is always there for them, the moment they turn back to him
A bit like a mother

We’ve had some debate about how to pronounce Nehemiah
The correct Hebrew pronunciation is nee – chem – yah
The yah at the end means ‘God’
The whole thing means, ‘God is compassionate’
His story is designed to show God’s compassion in action, working through Nehemiah

Nehemiah about rebuilding – rebuilding the city, but also rebuilding social relationships and the people’s relationship with God
This rebuilding is a work of repentance

I’m only here once a fortnight, so you’ve only heard half the story – so let’s recap
Nehemiah is one of the Jews living in exile in Babylon
But the Babylonians have now been conquered by the Persians

Nehemiah is a high official, serving the Persian emperor Artaxerxes
When the story begins, he’s with the emperor in the city of Susa, the main capital of the empire and the emperor’s winter residence

Jewish visitors tell Nehemiah how bad things are for the exiles who have gone home to Jerusalem
The walls are broken down, the gates have been burned
The people are in trouble and ashamed – humiliated in the eyes of their neighbours

Nehemiah prays (he prays before every action he takes), then he asks the emperor if he can go to Jerusalem and give them his help
The emperor agrees – he sends Nehemiah there as governor, but we don’t find that out till later

Nehemiah sets the people to work to rebuild the walls
They succeed, even though their enemies try to stop them

But that’s not the end of the work
The real heart of the book is the passage we looked at last week, from Chapter 5
The poor come to Nehemiah, and complain that they are being exploited by the rich
They can’t afford to feed themselves or pay their taxes, so they are being forced to borrow at high rates if interest; to sell their lands, and even sell themselves and their families into slavery

Nehemiah gets the rich and powerful together, and tells them off
He says, this isn’t good enough – the way you’ve behaved is a disgrace
You’re dragging down our reputation in the eyes of the whole world

He says, I and my friends are having to give food and money to the people you’re exploiting
We even have to pay out of our own pockets, to buy back Jews you’ve sold as slaves to foreigners

He says, no one should exploit a fellow Jew who is poor or in need
If anyone needs help, give it to them – expect nothing in return
Don’t charge interest on the money you lend them, don’t take their land, don’t enslave them

In chapter 8 Nehemiah goes further: he realises, this people needs some religious re-education
The reason they’ve wandered so far from God’s law is, they don’t actually know it

I admit, it’s hard to believe this part of the story in the form it’s told to us in this chapter
It’s hard to picture the whole people standing outside, from dawn till noon
While Ezra the priest reads the whole of Deuteronomy, chapters 1 to 34, and other priests give a running commentary
It’s hard to believe they listened to the whole thing, never mind that they broke down and cried tears of repentance
But apparently, that’s what happened

What were they listening to?
The book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons preached by Moses to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land – instructions about how they were to live there

God brought this people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan
But along with the land, he gave them the law
The law sets out the relationships God wants the people to have with the land, with one another, and with himself

Nehemiah reminds the people, God punished your fathers by driving them out of this land
If you want to remain here and do well here, obey God’s law
Not just the bits that suit you – all of it
Not just the bits that seem to condemn other people’s sins – but the bits that seem most immediately to condemn your own
The bits that speak most forcefully to every individual are the bits that speak about how they are to treat one another

How does all this relate to Mothering Sunday?
Mothers are home-makers – and Nehemiah dedicates himself to rebuilding a home for the people

Meaning not just the physical laying of one stone on another
But restoring the spirit of love and justice within the community

The end of the passage shows the people have learned this lesson
They weep tears of repentance, then they rejoice and hold a feast
But the poor are not forgotten, and they are not left out
The well-off send portions of food to those who have nothing, so that they can join in

The rebuilt city is not just a physical symbol of the nation’s greatness
Not just a dwelling place for God’s people
But a home, a dwelling place, for God himself – a place that proclaims, God is with his people

Which brings us back to the difficult questions, the challenging questions
We, too, are rebuilding; every church is a temple of living stones, that is constantly being rebuilt
Because people die, or move on, and new people come

What kind of home are we building here?
And who is it for? Ourselves, our God, our neighbour?
Which of these comes first? And which should come last?

11 March 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton


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