Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Mind to Work: Sermon on Ezra-Nehemiah

About three thousand years ago, David and Solomon ruled over Israel's golden age. After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam continued Solomon's worst policies, promised to raise taxes higher still. General Jeroboam led a rebellion, and most of the tribes seceded to form the northern kingdom, called Israel. Rehoboam was left with a couple tribes in the south, now the country of Judah. 

Nearly three centuries passed. Israel never had a decent king, so around 722 BC, the Assyrians came and wiped them off the face of the map, replacing many of them with pagan settlers who intermarried with the remaining locals. Judah had a few good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, so God put up with them a while longer. Around 596 BC, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar came and deported the best and brightest – people like Ezekiel. Ten more years passed, and Nebuchadnezzar came back, ended the kingdom of Judah, demolished Solomon's Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and took many more of the people into exile.

Decades went by, and we read plenty about it in the book of Daniel. Jeremiah warned the exiles to put down roots and get used to living in Babylon, because they'd be there for a while. In time, though, the Persians conquered Babylon – that was 539 BC. Cyrus the Great was on the throne – Cyrus, a king Isaiah foresaw and liked enough to call him “Messiah.” 

Within a year or so, Cyrus gives an Edict of Restoration: whoever you are, if the Babylonians kidnapped you or your parents, you're welcome to go back home; we'll help send you along, even pay costs for rebuilding. During this time, many Jews leave Babylon to go back home. They restore worship, and around 535 BC they lay the foundation for the temple. But opposition stops them.

Cyrus dies five years later. His son Cambyses rules for eight years. After a confusing fraudster takes power for a few months, Cambyses' third cousin Darius overthrows that guy and takes the throne, late in 522 BC. Darius divides the kingdom into not just satrapies but provinces. And the area around Jerusalem becomes Yehud Medin'ta, the “province of Judah,” within the satrapy of Eber-Nari, “Beyond the River.” 

Yehud needs a governor, and who better than Zerubbabel – a Jewish prince, grandson of the last king, who had already helped lead the Jews back home? And yet all this time, the foundation of the temple was just sitting there. God raises up prophets, like Haggai and Zechariah, to challenge the people: all this time they've been focused on their own personal homes, and they've neglected God's temple! 

So Haggai delivers his prophecy in person to Zerubbabel and the high priest Jeshua, and they get to work. Five years later, the Second Temple is finished and dedicated, seventy years after the first one was destroyed. The Persians supported and funded it, just like they did with temples elsewhere in their empire.

The story goes silent on what happened next. After Zerubbabel, archaeological finds tell us the names of at least three later governors of Yehud – there was Zerubbabel's son-in-law Elnathan, and then men named Yehoezer and Ahzai. 

Meanwhile, Darius dies after a 36-year rule, and his son Xerxes takes Persia's throne. Xerxes leads a massive war against the Greeks, but in the Bible he's better known for marrying a woman named Esther – a Jewish queen at the side of Persian power, thwarting Haman's deadly plot to exterminate the Jews. After twenty-one years, Xerxes is assassinated in the year 465 BC, and his son Artaxerxes takes the throne.

About seven years later, as part of a policy to shore up the western provinces to guard against the Greeks, he wants to send someone to reinforce Jewish law in Yehud, just like Darius had equipped an Egyptian priest named Udjahorresnet to do that in Egypt. And who better than a brilliant scribe and priest named Ezra? 

So Ezra goes to reinforce the Law of Moses, and he brings a couple thousand more Jews as well as extra treasure to upgrade the temple and its services. But in the meantime, there's still opposition, and the Persians have a heavy hand when it comes to taxes.

Around thirteen years later, the king's cupbearer – a Jewish eunuch named Nehemiah – dares to look sad in Artaxerxes' presence, which could be a capital offense. He asks to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and gates, and Artaxerxes says okay. So around 444 BC, Nehemiah makes his trip. As the newly installed governor of Yehud, he and some friends undertake a secret inspection of the rubble, then address the people, propose a rebuilding project – and everyone agrees and does it.

Not that they had an easy time. Some villains show up in the story, most prominently “Sanballat the Horonite” and his cronies “Tobiah the Ammonite” and “Geshem the Arab” – all three of whom are mentioned outside the Bible. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria. And while his own name was pagan – it meant, “the moon god has given life” – his sons Delaiah and Shelemiah had good Israelite names that honored the LORD. Sanballat was well-steeped in his people's historic rivalry with the southern kingdom, and he didn't want to see Jerusalem thrive. Sanballat is probably the one who built the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim; and to get priests for it, married off his daughter to the grandson of the Jewish high priest Eliashib, so that his own grandsons would be full-fledged priests under the Law. No wonder he was so full of schemes! He opposed everything Nehemiah did. 

So did Tobiah, the governor of the Ammonites. One wonders where he came from: he's got a Jewish name, he married a daughter of a Jewish leader named Shecaniah, and he married off his son Jehohanan to the daughter of another Jewish leader named Meshullam. He gained plenty of influence in Yehud and leveraged it to his profit. And Geshem, or Jasuma, was an Arab chieftain who also felt threatened by what Nehemiah and the Jews were up to. 

But the people of Jerusalem refused to let Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem win. With faith in God, with vigilance, and with action, they rebuilt Jerusalem's wall and ensured the city's survival down through history – past the Persian era, through the days of Alexander the Great, down past the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, to the days of Hasmoneans and Herodians and the Holy Son of God.

That's a fine history lesson – but what good is it today? It's been over 2400 years since Nehemiah left the earthly scene! We're talking ancient history. But remember: “All scripture is inspired by God” – literally, God-breathed – “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These books of the Bible were relevant for the believers in Paul's day, and for Augustine's day, and for the days of bright Constantinople, and the days of Martin Luther, and the days of John Wesley, the days of Jacob Albright, and the days of you and me.

What was true for God's people then is true for God's people now. The stories of Old Testament history, the challenges of Old Testament prophets, haven't lost their impact. In the New Testament, two ways the church is depicted are as a living temple and as a new Jerusalem. What Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah built up – well, that foreshadows our own time. 

Up 'til today, the new temple is under construction. The Apostle Peter tells us that its stones, its “living stones,” are people like you and me, made alive in Christ. And they grow – the temple grows – as living stones are added and mature, as they more and more resemble the Chief Cornerstone who conquered the cross (1 Peter 2:4-6). Evangelism, outreach, invitation – that's all going out to the quarry to mine more living stones. Salvation – that's installing living stones into the temple, a work of God. Discipleship – that's chiseling, smoothing, expanding, beautifying living stones as they form part of the living temple.

First and foremost, the temple is the church universal. But these words aren't for a church far away. They belong to Pequea just as much. They tell our story. The words of Haggai, Ezra, Nehemiah – they have relevance here! Our church – yes, this church – needs to be built up. I'm not talking about the physical building – though, come to think of it, it ain't for nothing we take up offerings for the building fund! But our church needs to be built up as the ministry of a living temple, a present Zion, firm and steadfast, reaching out, calling out.

The story of Nehemiah is for here and now. Nehemiah, when serving in Artaxerxes' court, wept at the thought of a Jerusalem whose best days seemed behind her. Her current state was one of decline – not as bad as it had been in the hour of Nebuchadnezzar's power, but decline even so. The walls were broken down; the people were poor and few; there was rubble all over. Ask any resident of Jerusalem in the fifth century BC when the city's glory days are – and they'll correct you: “Were.” The glory days “were” long gone. Jerusalem's current state isn't defensible. She's subject to the fluctuating whims of her mightier rivals. She looks like she'll never amount to much, never be used for great things in the service of her God ever again. Those days are done. That's why Nehemiah's tears drip and gush. 

In hindsight, we know that's not true. We know the greatest was yet to come, when “great David's greater Son” appeared in the temple Zerubbabel refounded. But to Nehemiah in the court, and to plenty of his contemporaries, it was hard not to look back for the lost best.

Doesn't that speak to us? The American church in general is addicted to nostalgia, all the more now as we live increasingly in the shadows of institutions and ideologies with greater political and cultural clout. We see ourselves as freshly embattled; we make myths of a golden age six decades dead. 

And what of Pequea? We have to admit: we're smaller than we once were. There was a time when this sanctuary was nearly packed. The present decade is not that time. We're less busy, maybe less active, than we once were. Do we even have gates to invite our neighbors through – gates, ministries meant to bridge the life that's in here and the need that's out there? Or is Pequea in our day maybe a bit more like Nehemiah's time than we'd care to admit? Yet admitting it is the first step, a step that opens the opportunity to follow Nehemiah's example.

But the story of Sanballat is also for here and now. Sanballat sees what Nehemiah sees – counts the same bricks, measures the same paces, uses the same maps, reads the same journals, attends all the same conferences. But Sanballat doesn't see what Nehemiah sees. Sanballat doesn't see hope – for he doesn't have faith in a living God who loves Jerusalem. Sanballat doesn't see hope – because he doesn't want to see hope. He wants to see failure. Sanballat is scheming – he wants to demoralize the Jews, he wants to keep Jerusalem out of the running, he wants to take advantage and profit from any point of weakness. So he hatches plots, he sows doubt and discord. He tries to challenge their loyalty: “If you commit yourself to this project, then you're a bad Persian citizen.” He tries to undermine their hope: “This will never work. You're too weak. You're too few. You've got nothing to work with. It would take more time than you've got. It will never last.” Sanballat is the master discourager.

Can I be honest with you? We EC pastors love to get together. We love to talk about our churches, about what we see God doing. So I've had many an occasion to share our statistics, to describe our church culture, to plenty of colleagues. But a few of them – some very esteemed and experienced church leaders – have asked me tough questions. More than one has asked me if there's a point to me being here – if any ministry can happen at Pequea. More than one has feared that we're a church that's obsolete, that has no role to play in our community, that maybe could even be called a “dying church.” More than one has seen in us something like what Sanballat saw in Jerusalem.

I'm not sharing this because I want to discourage you. I'm not sharing this because I plan to throw in the towel. I'm not sharing this because I agree with their assessment. Just the opposite! I'm sharing it because maybe, at some level, some in this congregation have taken the same view of their own church – and if we have, we need to name that, confront that, heal that. 

Maybe when you form a mental picture of a lively, busy Pequea, you feel like that thought is just an idle daydream – fun to indulge, but not practical, not realistic. Maybe, if you were pressed to put on paper what you really think our plan for the next year should be, it's all about maintenance – keeping what we've got, gathering together with your friends for social fellowship so we can all call ourselves Christian and feel good about it and then go back home until next week, or some other week if it's hunting season or football season or if we're just hungry. Not that you'd ever say that, but it may be the unspoken assumption in the way you view church. Anyone can fall into that mindset. Plenty of believers do. Choir leaders do. Sunday School teachers do. Board members do. And yes, pastors do, too.

But I'd like to suggest that, if we buy into those assumptions, that outlook, then we're at risk of falling under Sanballat's spell. Sanballat says, “Once a shrinking church, always a shrinking church.” He says, “Some churches are just unnecessary.” Sanballat says, “There's no such thing as turnaround. Not from this. You're too far gone.” Sanballat asks, “Why bother? Why not be content to farm in the rubble? Isn't that a good enough life? Don't you have better things to do?” Don't listen to Sanballat.

I say all this to point out a sobering truth about the story we read this morning: If the Jews had not put Nehemiah's plan into action, if they hadn't confessed faith in a God who cherished Jerusalem and hadn't backed up their faith with the sweat of their brow – then Sanballat would have been right. They would not have restored things, would not have sacrifices, would not have revived the stones (cf. Nehemiah 4:2). Jerusalem's walls and gates would have lain in ruins. Very possibly, invading armies, or the mere ravages of time, would have dwindled the population to zero. And today, it would be a dry and barren hill, loved by none but the occasional archaeologist.

But the Jews of Nehemiah's day weren't content to farm in the rubble! They didn't forever neglect their temple, their walls, their gates. They didn't resign their city to a historical footnote. They refused to let Sanballat win, refused to let him poison their minds or distract them or get in their way. How on earth did they ever turn the tables on Sanballat's sour soothsaying? 

It's simple. First, there was praying. The story makes that clear. From the beginning, before he even left the king's court, Nehemiah fasted and prayed for days, asking God to be attentive to “the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name” (Nehemiah 1:11). In the middle of speaking to Artaxerxes, again Nehemiah “prayed to the God of Heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4). And so his vision was shaped by God – it was what God had put into his heart to do (Nehemiah 2:12). In the face of Sanballat's mockery, Nehemiah prays again (Nehemiah 4:4-5). As Sanballat schemed further, we prayed to our God” (Nehemiah 4:9) – not just Nehemiah, but the whole people.

Second, there was strategizing. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, and he made a survey. He didn't do it alone – he had “a few men” with him (Nehemiah 2:12). He made a careful inspection. He assessed the damage. And he conceived of a response. In the end, when he enlisted support, he probably assigned tasks to each person, drawing on what they told him of their strengths. So the whole third chapter of his book is taken up in detailing who did what. When Sanballat's interference complicated things, he equipped them to resist.

And third, there was working! Nehemiah is very clear: The project succeeded precisely because “the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6). Do we? Nehemiah's talking about more than a general “work ethic.” The words of Haggai are for here and now, too. Remember, the first resettled Jews, nearly a century before Nehemiah's time – they worked. Sure, they worked. They worked at building nice paneled houses for themselves, for their own comfort. Each family enjoyed the fruit of their own soil, the shade of their own roof. But God wasn't happy. The people built their own private dwellings, but they neglected God's house, a house meant for everyone (Haggai 1:4). “My house lies in ruins, while you hurry off to your own houses,” God judged them (Haggai 1:9). Each person poured him- or herself into shaping a new family life, grasping anxiously after the Judean Dream. Imagine how they'd defend themselves: they've got their own fields to till, their own time-cards to punch, their own bills to pay, their own kids to raise. Aren't they busy enough already? Who has time for more? Who has time to work on the temple? Their own house comes first.

The words of Haggai are for us here, for us now. We in America are a lot like that generation. We have our private lives, our households to run. Our work is all used up by our personal pet projects. Our labor is invested in our interests; our activity is engaged by our agendas. Our own “houses” so often come first – and so often come last. 

Now, nowhere does God condemn these Judeans merely for having houses of their own. But when our houses get built up before God's house, that's trouble brewing. Our problem, like the Judeans', is that our “houses” have come unhinged from their rightful place a few slots further down on the to-do list. They've catapulted up the priority chain. They've become idols. Our pet projects belong further down – secondary to the Divine Project, the one mission we all share here as a team, as the family and people of God. 

Our houses may be nice, there may be many good things we do – but woe if we persistently put them ahead of God's house for all nations, the house where mission happens, the roving dwelling where Jesus touches lives. Woe if, for the sake of our paneled houses, we neglect the temple of the LORD. Woe if we don't have “a mind to work.”

Nehemiah's generation remembered Haggai's words. They learned his lesson. They were neither slothful nor self-serving. When Nehemiah said they had “a mind to work,” he spelled out for us what he meant. He didn't mean that each of them was enthusiastically working on his or her own house. He meant that the whole people “committed themselves to the common good” (Nehemiah 2:18). 

Those are his own words! They “committed themselves to the common good.” Their hands weren't busied with their own individual personal projects, things that benefited only themselves and their own families. They didn't leave the temple, or later the synagogue, telling everybody else, “See you next Sabbath!” Their lives in between sabbath days weren't an untold, unshared mystery to those who worshipped to their right or left. They didn't neglect their own houses, but they knew how important it was that they worked together on something that would benefit everyone, not just their own family.

Before this morning ends, we're going to be holding our annual congregational meeting. Think of it like Nehemiah's survey. We're going to assess our church. We're going to reflect on where we've been this past year. But most important of all, I hope we look ahead. I hope we jump-start a collective brainstorm. What do we need to be effective, as a church, in bringing the kingdom of God, the active presence of Jesus, to our slice of Lancaster and Chester Counties? Where do they need the gifts God has already sown among us? Where, when, and how will we let the Spirit of Jesus carry us into an encounter with those who need him? 

Those are the questions we need to take up. But the final question that rests before us: Do we have “a mind to work,” a commitment to the common good? Do we have “a mind to work” on God's mission, to serve him as Pequea EC from Monday to Saturday as well as on Sunday? God invites us to choose, and to make our choice known by how we live, and not just what we say. 

I believe with all my heart that there is a future God wants to give to Pequea EC, and it is not about shriveling, it is not about the status quo. I believe that we can do effective ministry here where we are. But it will require “a mind to work.” May we choose as Nehemiah's Jerusalem chose. Amen.

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