Ezra-Nehemiah, week 1
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service as Main Street Community Church over the Internet.
There are two recordings: the readings and part 1 before a video clip linked below, and a second part to the talk. The recordings total long.
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Between Part One and Part Two, we watched the Ezra-Nehemiah video by The Bible Project.
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In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
‘“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.“‘
Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites — everyone whose heart God had moved — prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
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. We have acted very wickedly towards you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
‘Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.”
‘They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.
As we’ve heard this week, our government will tell us whether or not the final restrictions covering our social and spiritual gatherings will remain in place or be lifted. Whilst being very much aware that Cheshire East is now in the top 20 regions in England that has growing numbers of Coronavirus, we live in hope that in time, there will be some return to something we can regard as normal, even if we have to patiently wait a little bit longer. All that said, I’m mindful of the things that we cannot return to. Over months, we’ve been looking at various ways that the new normal might be implemented as we brave up and take next steps together as a community.
We’ve looked at Jesus’s parables of the kingdom. We’ve looked at spiritual disciplines. We’ve looked at the theme of seeking. More recently looking at the idea of community as we await the time when we can gather together in full and without restriction. Last week, thank you, Neil, spoke from Revelation 21 and 22, as God revealed again the final and full instalment of the kingdom of God. God being with His people. What a vision that would be? I hope that as a community of believers, we have been preparing for what comes next in the life of our church and our community as much as we are able to prepare.
If I was honest, I still don’t know what we will look like in the coming weeks and months. I am ever hopeful that as restrictions lift, whenever that is, that we can once again sing our praises to God together. As we start to become more competent in gathering in larger numbers, that we will happily see God’s footsteps and in the words of the hymn, plant our own. I know that church is more than these sorts of things, but they’ve been common to us for so long, that this sort of worship is something that many of us long for. Last month’s Christianity magazine had an excellent article by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
It was really just a short commentary on a book that he’d written back in 2018 called Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope. The article begins by quoting Psalm 137, “By the Waters of Babylon. There we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Welby continues, “In exile, in a strange, unrecognisable land, the Israelites longed to return. They longed to return to the familiar home, which they knew and they loved. They looked forward to the day where they could go back to the land God had promised them. The Israelites also knew that when they had returned, things couldn’t go back to normal. They couldn’t go on as they had been.”
Welby goes on to say that previous structures and ways of living and working for both the Israelites as they’ve been separated from God for their greed and their unfaithfulness, as much for us as we head into the unknown in an endemic COVID environment, that there’s a need for change. Life is going to somehow be different whether or not we want it to be. I’ve wondered what we can learn from the Bible about going forward and growing together. I wanted to seek a way forward based in the Bible as to where people knew God and yet wanted to be drawn forward, challenged if you like, in faith.
I thought about the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Folk who believed God and made the changes they believed God was encouraging them to do as they began to leave exile from Babylon and come back to Israel. I must say that at the outset, I don’t yet really know where this is going to take us on Sundays. I think that we’ll be looking at maybe different portions of these two books in the Bible, rather than chapter-by-chapter, or maybe even the main characters as they help us become the community that we need to become. Ezra and Nehemiah are confusing books actually, especially as they’re not written in chronological order.
There are periods of time between things happening, there are stories and letters. Things aren’t really straightforward as we try to understand what’s going on there and then try to translate it into our own life and story in the here and now. Today, because it’s a warm day, we don’t want to be stuck in front of our computers forever. We’re going to have an overview of these books where they fit into Biblical history, who the main characters are, and what is the main thrust of the accounts: that of restoring the temple.
That what became known as the second temple, together with the restoration of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the response of the people as work got underway, as it stopped and was undertaken again. It’s my prayer that over the next few weeks leading up to the summer, God will use the faith of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire us as we begin to build forward together. For the next few minutes, I think it’s next seven or eight minutes, we’re going to be looking at an extremely excellent summary of these books by Tim Mackie and The Bible Project. I’m eternally grateful to Neil, actually for introducing me to this fantastic resource.
We’ve used some of The Bible Project series sparingly before. I trust that this will helpfully set the scene for us being aware that we are all at different stages of life and levels, perhaps of fear or faith in these strange times. Neil, do you have that video clip now for those seven or eight minutes? Thank you.
Between Part One and Part Two, we watched the Ezra-Nehemiah video by The Bible Project.
Wow. There’s a lot going on there. We’re not going to unpack the whole lot, and certainly not going to unpack the whole lot today. There’s a lot going on there. Some have been in Jerusalem all along. Others have been in exile. Some have been settled in exile whilst others have hankered to go back home. Some were leaders. Some were followers. Some were helpful, others not so.
Ezra, Nehemiah is a story about rebuilding, restoring, and repentance. All of these themes are key to our lives as well. You’ll know that a key verse to me personally, can be found in Isaiah 58. I wonder whether this is our time for us to be the church that we are called to be. You’ll notice from that video clip that there’s a lot about rebuilding and restoring. There’s a lot about repentance, three ‘re-’s there. In Isaiah 58, just as a reminder, I’m sure that you’ve heard me preach on it enough. I think that Neil did an excellent preach on it sometime last year as well. Isaiah 58, I think it’s verse 11-12, something like that.
It says, “If you get rid of unfair practices and stop blaming victims, stop gossiping about other people’s sins. If you are generous with hungry and start giving yourselves to the down and out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness. Your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.” God says, “I will show you where to go. I’ll give you a fulfilled life in the emptiest of places, firm muscles, and strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden. A gurgling stream that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community liveable again.”
I really do believe that our church building is right where we can start to make that community liveable again after the difficulty of COVID. Perhaps, as we’ve talked about, maybe life before shouldn’t have been the way that it was because it only generally helps the richest. We have folk in church who are trained in basic money management skills, in basic mental health supports. We have people who know how to link up others to the right networks. This is a very tangible and practical building forward and building the kingdom of God that people will know that we live for Jesus as we love and serve our neighbours.
Archbishop Welby remarks that we can’t build back; we must build forward together. It’s a choice. Choose something new or just let the old re-establish. He ends and says not to choose is still a choice. As we close today, may God help us to be faithful to him as we act, and as we make our choices, and as we move forward, as we build forward. Tomorrow, just a small thing, I’m going to be around at the front of the church in the porch or on the benches outside. On Monday and Tuesday mornings for the next while, I’ll be available to listen to people in our community to offer to pray, to be in and around our community.
Church buildings have traditionally and for too long, been places that are used for only perhaps an hour or two a week in which to worship God. We forget that places of worship have always been community spaces. As we build forward, whatever these next weeks from Ezra and Nehemiah will teach us, let’s take the best of these teachings and their actions and their stories and their personalities. May God continue to be good enough to walk with us and guide us as we take these steps together.
As I say, I’m not too sure exactly where God is leading us. Perhaps that’s also a sign of both faith and trust in God. I do covet your prayers as we move on because reading through some commentaries and bits and pieces on Nehemiah and Ezra aren’t as straightforward as perhaps I thought they might be. Having never really studied them in partnership together, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. May God bless us as we take his way forward in faith.
References and sources
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