Sunday, January 27, 2013

the spiritual journey of Nehemiah


May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Old Testament reading today was from the book Nehemiah, one we don't hear from too often in our cycle of lectionary readings. I wonder, if I were to ask for a show of hands, how many would claim to be very familiar with the story of Nehemiah? I imagine, though I could be wrong, that not many hands would go up … which is a pity, because Nehemiah's story is a fascinating one …

I'm sure you are all aware of what is referred to as the Babylonian Exile, the long period of time when, after Israel was conquered, a great many of the Jewish people were taken into captivity and removed to a foreign land … during this captivity, over the generations, the Jews for the most part became integrated into the society of their captors … or at least as integrated as one could be while remaining a faithful Jew … and many attained positions of power and influence … one such person was Nehemiah, who was a member of the court of king Artaxerxes … we are not entirely sure what his role there was … it is most often translated as 'cup-bearer' but as the story enfolds it becomes clear that Nehemiah was more than just some kind of table servant … he is more like a courtier who is a favourite of the king …

So we can imagine this young man having a very pleasant time in the court of the king, at the centre of the wealth and power of a great empire. And then something happens. He learns that the walls of Jerusalem have been burned – again! One might have expected a care-free young courtier to simply shrug his shoulders and get on with his life of ease and luxury. Or if he felt obliged to do anything, perhaps give a donation towards the repair. But instead, the event provokes what must be termed a spiritual crisis in Nehemiah. Like many living in exile, he had been brought up in his Jewish faith … and he finds that it cuts him to his very heart to discover that the Holy City has been damaged once more.

He is so much affected that he weeps and fasts and prays to the Lord to discern what he might do … not just that day or night, but for many days … and he waits for an opportune time and then one night, while at table with the king, his master notes that his face is sad and asks what he might do to cheer Nehemiah up … and having provoked the question, Nehemiah has the answer ready of course! He wants to go to Jerusalem to repair the wall. And the king grants his request … and so off he goes, having been granted by the king all that he will need to get the job done … and more; he is made governor of the region!

Once on site, Nehemiah lets no one know why he has come, but goes out alone at night to inspect the wall and see what needs to be done. Then he assigns sections of wall to various groups and sets them to work. He faces opposition. Local warlords plot to attack, not wishing to see the wall rebuilt and Jerusalem return to being a power in the area. But Nehemiah learns of the plot and famously has all those working on the wall labour with a spear or sword in one hand and the tools needed to rebuild in the other. The opponents fear to attack what is now an army and the work is done in record time – 52 days.

Somewhere along the way this return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of its walls what began as a spiritual crisis becomes a spiritual journey for Nehemiah. The canny courtier gradually becomes more and more concerned with being a pious Jew and leading his life according to the laws that God has laid down in sacred scripture … and what is more, in restoring the religious purity of God's chosen people. It is about there that our reading for today comes in … where Nehemiah has the priest Ezra reading to the people from scripture all day … and they begin to weep to realise how unfaithful they have been … but Nehemiah tells them to rejoice and celebrate. Why? Because they are God's people and they have returned to him, they are committing themselves once more to live according to his holy Laws.

Would it not be truly wonderful if something similar could happen for us? If we also could gather together as God's people, and hearing his words begin to weep, knowing that we have failed him in so many ways, but then determine to do better … so firmly committed that bitter tears were turned to joy and laughter … as we realised the truth once more of today's Gospel reading that the scripture's had been fulfilled in Christ, and that through him our salvation is assured? … as the truth of St Paul's words in our epistle sank deep into our hearts, and we realised that as Christ's Church we are truly his body … and were completely resolved that we would play our part in that body … and do our best to convince everyone else to play their part also, so that his body would not be wounded by being without even a single, solitary part … And that filled with that joy and resolve, we began our own journey of faith, just as Nehemiah had begun his … on our knees, in prayer, asking God for grace and guidance?

So let us pray that God will strengthen us as he did Nehemiah, so that we may also achieve the seemingly impossible, and just as he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, we may rebuild the walls of Christ's Church in the world. Amen.

Sermon 3rd Sunday of Epiphany  2013 

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