Sunday, January 24, 2010

C, Epiphany 3 - Nehemiah 8:8-10 "Nehemiah NOW"

Sent home, they were commanded by a pagan to rebuild the city and practise their Judaism. So they returned from exile, heads hung low, humiliated after loosing their land and becoming the servants of a foreign ruler.

Cyrus, the Persian king sent the Jews home to rebuild Jerusalem. Years before, its walls had been broken down in defeat after the Jews continually rejected God and his leadership.

The Israelites and the Jews snubbed the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The two kingdoms led by rebellious kings, habitually, time and time again, turned away from God to serve foreign gods in detestable ways.

God's house had been turned into a whorehouse. Temple prostitutes plying their trade under the altars of God, bearing their sinful naked flesh right in the face of God's earthly presence! And on the hills and under spreading trees Asherah poles stood erect, as phallic representations of fertility, which Asherah and Baal were supposedly going to bring to Israel and Judah.

God sent prophet after prophet to call these people back to him, to repent, to change their ways and destroy the gods and their idols. But they blocked God's word from their ears, and let it wash over them! They taunted and tortured the prophets sent by God, and in doing so brought about the loss of all the benefits God had given them.

The northern kingdom—Israel, Samaria—fell first to the Assyrians. These were barbaric people who also used poles on hilltops. But on their pencil pointed poles, impaled Israelites slowly died, heightening the fear of their living captives, and spreading terror amongst the nations that surrounded them. So much for Baal fertility worship! Now Israel's plight was one of futility.

Then the southern kingdom, Judah, fell captive to the Babylonians, becoming a province under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem was sacked and its walls tumbled. Some of the people were executed while others were deported to Babylon.

But it was only after the Persian invasion of Babylon, that the Babylonian empire tumbled and the Israelites and Jews were allowed to return to Palestine.

The exiles returned to Jerusalem, once there they built the second temple, which was modest in comparison to the gold-laid temple built by Solomon. After the temple was built then they turned to repairing the wall around Jerusalem.

How they must have wept as they pieced the rubble back into a wall! Jerusalem's former glory and their betrayal of God evident with each rock replaced and every busted blister! For fifty two days they toiled under hard labour rebuilding the wall, their now nonexistent nation was part of the Persian Empire.

Graciously though, the administrator of Judea for King Artaxerxes (pron: Arta-zerk-sees), was Nehemiah. Nehemiah had been the faithful cup bearer of Artaxerxes. He was also a Jew. And once sent back to Jerusalem, he was found to be even more faithful to God. Together with the priest Ezra, they set God's will before the people reading the Law, revealing the nation's sin and causing their great sadness.

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:8-10)

Earlier, when Nehemiah was still the King's cupbearer, he was grieved in hearing of Jerusalem's devastation which caused him also to weep as he prayed…

"O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:5-7)

So now their eyes and ears were wide open to God's Word. The promises and prohibitions given to Moses had come to fruition in Israel's disobedience. The Jews stood helpless in the face of God, embarrassed for their nation's sin and stupidity. They had made their choices and now they bore the consequences of their choices. Choice is always free, but consequences never are!

Yet, God had preserved this remnant despite their disobedience. Now in the presence of God and his Word, with Israel's national glory gone, they must have wondered why God had spared them. Their history now bore the marks of catastrophic failure, they were weak, they were without a king, and they had lost possession of Canaan — the "land of milk and honey".

Many today weep, worry, and let their faith weaken over what their congregations once were. The post World War Two boom now in decline and with it numbers in the church. But despite this God still preserves his church and continues to grow it.

There are similarities between Nehemiah's time and what we can expect in God's church now and in the generations to come. Many today are imposing, on themselves, exile from the church — refusing to hear what God has to say. Our society is making its choice, what are the consequences to come?

Nehemiah is a "Christ figure". Just like Nehemiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, is building Jerusalem. However, he's not rebuilding the Jerusalem of the Middle East! It will never be what it once was! Instead Christ is building his heavenly kingdom, the city of Zion.

When Christ returns, all will be revealed and laid bare. Just like Jerusalem after the exile, we will have no defence for our sinfulness against God. The consequences of our choices will testify to our weakness and failures. Your lives, your choices, your priorities, your idols, your sexuality will be open for all to see. All people will stand defenceless before Christ nakedly bearing how they've prostituted themselves with other gods.

Yet there will be a heavenly remnant, made holy, despite their sin. Perhaps the mourning of the Jews when Ezra read the Law in the time of Nehemiah will be the same as our tears, as we realise our weakness in the presence of Christ at his second coming. Then we will see all things as they are, just as Nehemiah and the Jews had seen in the face of the Law and in what had happened to Israel. Just like them we will be part of what the Apostle John saw and recorded in Revelation chapter twenty-one…

I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:2-5)

At this time, God will wipe away all the tears of those who trust in him, despite their sinful nature. These are they who look to Christ for forgiveness with repentant hearts!

God will wipe away the tears of those who trust him, despite what declining church numbers might suggest, despite what songs are sung, and the gimmicks used to get backsides on seats. He will wipe away the tears of those who faithfully hear and uphold his word, and live by Holy Spirited faith rather than human spirited sight.

Jesus Christ will wipe away the tear of those who trust in him, who hear his word with faith and hope, and believe the kingdom, the power, and the glory, belong to him together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Nehemiah and Ezra told the people to weep no more, God will wipe our tears away. Even now God gathers us in his arms and dries our eyes when we submit to his love and forgiveness. Our strength, our forgiveness, and our eternal hope, is the joy of the Lord perfected in Jesus' victory on the cross. Amen.