Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts 10 February 2019
This is the first of three sermons on building, which lead up to Lent and further into the future to our AGM and on beyond that. We want to think about what kind of church we want to build and are building and how we go about building.
We’ve done some building already, literally, in our toilets and a big hand for the building group, if anyone wants to join it hurray!!!!! And we have a leaking roof.
But today I want to focus on a really exciting Old Testament story where they had a similar problem, of communities which needed encouraging broken buildings which needed fixing . We don’t often focus on the OT but Jesus was steeped in it and built on it, no pun intended….
The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah are really one book, a slightly confused book in terms of timeline but telling a real story about two men who were prophets and builders.
Both these men were exiles. They had been swept up into the great empire of the Assyrians who held sway about 4-500 years before Jesus was born. It was a tough time for the Jews – remember ‘by the rivers of Babylon’? That was the Jews in exile. They were ruled by some ruthless and very clever kings, who actually respected local people and customs and who seem to have been impressed with some of the people who came from Jerusalem because Nehemiah we know was the king’s cupbearer, a very trusted position as he could easily poison the king if he wanted to – not that he’d have lived long afterwards!
Really importantly, both Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have kept their faith in God alive in exile, and for it to be known about and accepted as long as they were still loyal to the king. The problem of what to with minority groups was a live issue then as well.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah were concerned in their exile about the state of Jerusalem, about the worship which was happening there and the state of the buildings. We know more about Nehemiah, who one day had a message that the walls of Jerusalem were falling down and no one was doing anything about it. The temple was OK, but the great walls which were important as part of the city of God were in pieces, crumbling and making it very vulnerable. The walls were as much part of the city as the temple, illustrating the protection Of God for his people. Without walls, the people of God are disgraced and look defeated, as though without a protector.
So Nehemiah has a tense moment about what to do.
Reading – Nehemiah 2: 1-10
This is our first point about building our church. Nehemiah trusted God. His building had solid foundations. Let’s go on and see a bit more about how this works.
Nehemiah was sent back to Jerusalem as a Governor in Judea, with a promise to return, and was given all the resources he needed to build the walls. He was clearly a man who absolutely kept his word.
When he got there he was really clever because he’d learned from a master ruler. He was very quiet about what he was up to and took a small group of men out to inspect the gates by night, walking round the walls from the northeast corner to see how they were and he was horrified. In the same way Ezra had been horrified a few years earlier when he went back and found the temple worship in disarray and spent time teaching the people the history of their nations covenant with God and beginning to set in place the great story of the Jewish nation and their covenant with God. They both knew that the basis for their faith was the faithfulness of God and no building would ever last without this knowledge.
Jesus made this clear to his disciples too when he called them in Luke
READING – Luke 2 1-8
Jesus says to the disciples ‘look you think you know stuff but actually unless you trust me you can’t do it’. if we are to build anything, be it ourselves, our community our building we start by remembering the faithfulness and love of God in Jesus, as E and N remembered the covenant of God with his people.
Last week Graham asked what we were expecting when we came to church and that was a beautiful thing to ask. Today I want to continue that theme by asking are you here because you trust God to be here with you in some way, that however bad or good you might be feeling God has given us her love totally and we believe that? Are we here because we know through the work of God’s spirit, however dimly that God loves us and is the foundation of our faith? ‘Except the Lord build the house they labour in vain who build it’. ‘Build your house on rock not sand’ says Jesus. What happens to our sandcastles….
The foundations are the key to any building. Nehemiah called together those who still trusted God and they set to work.
So here comes the second bit of building principle. Nehemiah made the people work together, in Rainbow groups, the known as tribes, to do stuff. He gave them each other to help get the work done. We can’t build alone. We need each other to build up our own knowledge and experience of God and to do practical stuff. Ezra made the people read the law together – principle one, we are grounded in what God has done – and Nehemiah made them work together, principle two.
Did we come to church today as an individual? Or did we come as part of the body of Christ to support and be supported by each other? How willing are we to give to the work of God, building the people and building the place? This is a real practical plea in the year ahead when we are losing about a third of Heston and we need to keep building our church literally and spiritually.
It wasn’t easy going for those people of Jerusalem. They were harassed by enemies and Nehemiah made them work with a spear in one hand and trowel in the other, scared but determined ad encouraging each other. If you want to build a wall and only have one hand free you have to work together.
They fell out with each other, people were lazy, sometimes they grumbled like mad or even fought or didn’t feel like doing it, but this was their community and they worked hard because they were loved by God.
While they were working there were horrible political shenanigans going on. Their enemies wrote to the King that the Jews were plotting rebellion, and Nehemiah and Ezra had to fight this with shrewd political responses, getting the king to read back into old decrees and find out the truth. Nehemiah eventually went back to make sure the king knew he was loyal. They had to be brave and to look out for each other. Which led to more trouble as some Jews had been exploiting the labour and property of others and they had to be publicly called to account and remind them that God, their God didn’t allow this and that had to be sorted out with repentance and practice. Nehemiah had to face trickery from his enemies who tried to get him to enter the temple as eunuch which was forbidden. It was a really tough time which they got through by being supportive of each other and willing to admit where they had failed to live up to their own standards.
But eventually the gates of Jerusalem were put back into solid walls. Then principle number three comes into play for us. We have our foundation in the love and inclusivity of God. We build ourselves up, the walls. AND THEN we put the roof on. The roof which welcomes everyone who comes under it, which allows us to build for a wider community than our worshipping one and which helps us literally and metaphorically to be a ‘tent’ which covers and shelters and welcomes all. This is why we build community and church, to be the place and the people who share the love of God in Jesus.
We can’t and shouldn’t try to build alone. And that means every one of us matters, as Toby reminded us, we are the body of Christ. We work together with God, with each other and with our community.