Sunday, September 10th's great message “Rebuilding the Walls” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 21 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
Rebuilding the Walls
First United Methodist Church, September 10, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
I don't know if you realize it or not, but we have achieved a milestone. We're in the last chapter of the Old Testament. You might want to turn to your neighbor and offer a high-five: You've done it, congratulations! This is pretty cool, I think. We've been reading and studying together for 21 weeks, and it seems to me that everything we've read to this point has led us to see how much our world needs a Savior. Everything to this point has pointed us to Jesus—and next week we're going to talk about the birth of the king. That's the good news that we've all been waiting for!! But this week we're still laying the groundwork for that life-giving event.
Every now and then, I slip in these little details that you might not know about me. I'm not the only one who enjoys watching children's movies, am I? Scott and I will every now and then try to go to children's movie with our granddaughter Olivia, but she generally has already seen what we're thinking we'd like to see. She always willing to go see it with us again, but that seems a little silly. I will freely admit that Scott and I were just about the only adults unattended by children who went to the theater to see all the Harry Potter movies, and more recently, the Secret Life of Pets. But usually, we'll just wait awhile and rent it from Redbox. No judgment in your own living room.
I heard that "Sing" was a good children's movie to watch, so we sat down in front of it the other night. The main characters of the movie got themselves into a big mess, and as they tried to clean it up, they ended up making an even bigger mess. You expect with a children's movie that it'll all be good in the end, but things just kept seeming to get worse instead of better. What's a children's movie if it doesn't have a happy ending?
But you and I are familiar with messes. We've all found ourselves in one at some point along the way. Maybe, like the characters in the movie, we've even tried to fix it but things got even messier. Because life is messy sometimes. People can be messy. We can make a mess of our finances, of our relationships…sometimes things at work can get messy, things at school can get that way…maybe it's the way we deal with stress, or with our anger or frustration.
Or maybe it's not a mess that we've made ourselves, but it's the result of living in a messy world. Messy politics that have you wondering how it's all going to turn out. Messy relationships that have left you bitter and angry. You wonder how things will end…is there a chance that the ending will be happy? Will there be a chance to start over? And if so, how?
I think some of the answers to those questions can be found in this week's reading that centers around the nation of Israel who have some starting over to do. Our reading is from Chapter 21 of the Story, Rebuilding the Walls, which includes excerpts from the OT books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi.
Okay, so here we are at the end of the OT. Along the way, we've seen the unfolding of two stories, really. One is what Randy Frazee describes as the "upper story" of God's continuous pursuit of God's people, seeking to be in relationship with them. Then there's the "lower story" lived out on earth among the people, that so often has ended up to be a mess.
As we think back over the various stories in the past 21 weeks, we can remember a lot of times when it would have been easy for God to just start all over. Populate a different planet in another galaxy, far, far away, leaving we earthlings to wrestle out our issues on our own. It started out with Adam and Eve who didn’t listen, and then Abraham and Sarah who were impatient. Jacob lied. Moses, whose temper led him to kill a man. King David, who thought he could have any woman he wanted, including Bathsheba who was married to one of his best soldiers; so the way he cleaned up that mess was to have an innocent man killed. The prophets dealt with depression, wayward children, unfaithful spouses, broken families.
The nation would turn away from God and divide. They paid a price for their disobedience. In 586 BC their homeland would be ravaged by the Babylonians, Solomon's temple destroyed, their people taken away to a foreign land.
It's a mess. Discouraging. Hard to keep going sometimes, as we've worked through the Old Testament, hard sometimes to keep reading.
But the story isn't over. God isn't finished. God made a covenant with the people, that they would come back home: back to Jerusalem and back to God. And what we've seen, through all the messes that people have made along the way, is that God keeps God's promises. The covenant has held fast.
After 70 years, just as God promised, the Jews began to return to Jerusalem. The temple was rebuilt, but the walls of the city were still laying in ruin. They were a constant reminder of Israel's brokenness and disgrace.
This is when we're introduced to Nehemiah. Some 70 years later we find him living in style, 800 miles away in Persia. He is a cupbearer for the king. His job is to taste the king's food to be sure it isn't poisoned. In some ways it is a very good job—in other ways, not so much.
Nehemiah receives this word about Jerusalem and he can't get it out of his head.
Here's how he describes it:
They said to me, "Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire."
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: "Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's family, have committed against you (pg 295, The Story; Nehemiah 1:3-6).
Out of great empathy for people he has never met, he weeps. He mourns, he fasts, he prays. He knows what is at stake. This isn't only about physical renewal of a city, but spiritual renewal for God's people.
Notice where it all starts for Nehemiah: 1. Rebuilding starts with prayer.
So often our first response when we find ourselves in a mess—whether we've caused it or not—is to wonder—okay, what am I going to do about this? How can I fix this? But Nehemiah begins praying. He starts out reminding himself who God is…He reminds himself that God is great and awesome, that God keeps God's commandments. Then he asks God to hear him as he confesses his sin. If you're looking for renewal, a place to start over, then prayer is the place to start.
Nehemiah prays for success with the king and God grants it. In the same way that Esther went before the king last week, risking her life, Nehemiah goes before this king…and his wish is granted. And the king does even more than he asks: he sends Nehemiah with everything that he needs for safe travel and materials to rebuild the city walls.
Sometimes God works through unexpected people and in unexpected ways to do what needs to be done.
Because of the safe passage set by the king, Nehemiah makes good time getting to Jerusalem. But here's another lesson for rebuilding. Once again we see the pattern of prayer—he doesn't jump into action right away. He prays and observes the situation for himself, and then he goes to the people. "Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace." Then Nehemiah tells them about what has happened so far, what the king has said and done. And their response? "Let us start building." So they begin this good work.
The people begin their rebuilding, but not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Some like Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, stands to lose political ground and accuses Nehemiah of rebelling against the king. That obviously isn't true—the rebuilding is done with the king's blessing and financial backing—so when that doesn't work, they try to discourage him.
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, "What are they building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!" (pg. 297, Nehemiah 4:3).
How does Nehemiah respond? He returns to prayer, as his enemies return to the drawing board.
Their enemy's next strategy? They plot to battle against the people as they build. The people pray and then they prepare: Nehemiah posts entire communities, families, at the lowest points of the wall at the "exposed places" so the work of rebuilding can continue and protect the workers at the same time. Some have a brick in one hand and a weapon in the other.
I think this is an important concept for us to consider. We all have "exposed" places in our lives: places of vulnerability and weakness. The question we might ask, is "who is standing guard for us?" Are we trying to do life alone, or do we have others who can strengthen our defense in those places where we're most vulnerable? That's an important question when any of us want to start over.
In Nehemiah's case, this strategy frustrates the enemy so much they don't attack. But they aren't done yet. One last ditch effort. They can't discourage them, they can't kill them…so, they'll distract them.
1. Rebuilding requires prayer. And #2. Rebuilding requires focus.
To this point, the walls had been rebuilt, but not the doors in the gates. So Sanballat and Geshem send this message:
"Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono." But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: "I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?" (pg. 298; Nehemiah 6:2-3).
That's honest and to the point, isn't it? Doesn't require a big story or excuse. "Why should I go down to you? Don't you know I'm carrying on a great project?"
Maybe you wish you had a great project. You know what? You do. It doesn't matter if you're single, married, raising children, an empty nester, rich or poor or somewhere in between. You've been given a great project.
It might be raising children, mentoring someone, or being mentored by someone. It might be praying with or for someone, it might be working on the courage to invite someone to church or Sunday school or to your Bible Study who you've been thinking you ought invite to those things but haven't yet… It's probably not rebuilding a wall, but it might be helping to rebuild a life. It might be starting with your own. And because your mess isn't too big for God, whatever it might be, and because God wants you to be healthy and whole and fully engaged with life and in faith—even as God defends, upholds and cares for Nehemiah and the people of Israel as they rebuild those walls, so will God defend, uphold and care for you and for me.
The wall is finished, the doors are set in place in 52 days. That's almost hard to believe…after everything else has happened, after all the years it seemed for the people to be able to accomplish so many other things. What did they do in response? When everything is done? They worship.
3. Rebuilding leads to worship.
Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, Amen! Amen! Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground (pg. 300, The Story, Nehemiah 8:6).
It's a great ending, isn't it? And when great things happen, it seems that worship, praise and thanks to God is the most appropriate response.
Our mess is no match to God's mercy. And we've come to know that mercy has a name. It's Jesus.
We start with prayer, we stay focused, we worship. And God will see us through. Amen.