Ezra-Nehemiah, week 4: Nehemiah
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
Before the talk, we read Nehemiah chapter 1, verses 1 to 4, and chapter 2, verses 1 to 12, 17 and 18.
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Thank you so much, Bernie, for that mammoth scripture reading and those rather interesting names as well, so thank you.
For months, people have wondered about this new normal and how this might look in reality. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s writing in a recent Christianity magazine hits it on the head when he says, “We must build forward better rather than building back better, a kinder, more loving community that is fairer where everyone is included.&” Gosh, that sounds rather political, doesn’t it? It’s what I really love, community in all its facets, especially when it comes to showing and being part of the answer to the loving-kindness in the world: the church of Jesus Christ.
When we looked at the character of Ezra last week, we reminded ourselves of the importance of making the community livable again. This week, as I was sitting out on the bench outside the church, I had wonderful opportunities to talk to a number of folk. One in particular who asked about our church and how it came to be, how it came to be ours, and I use that word in the loosest of senses.
I talked about how it was part of the Church of England, and then it became ours 40 or 50 years ago, and then how we moved the building. I talked about how I was sure that part of the attraction of Main Street Community Church is because of its central situation and how everyone in the fellowship, as far as I know, co-exists with one another, even if we have different views of theology or placing the importance of one issue above another. All of this makes the community livable again because we all have a place where we can give and we can receive, and be part of that kingdom-work together.
In the final instalments of this whizz-bang look through the works and words of the books of Nehemiah-Ezra, we look at the character of Nehemiah. These words contain much to guide us about the themes of restoration following the return of many Israelites from their captivity and their 70-year spell in Babylon after their own nation had been taken by various kings. Now, after the returning home of many of the faithful, having arrived back in that holy city of Jerusalem, they find the temple, the place wherein those times, God resided – The temple had been destroyed alongside the city, the city walls, and everything within it.
In that first wave of returners, Zerubbabel encourages the people to rebuild the temple. In the next wave, about 60 years later, Ezra arrives with a smaller number of folk and encourages them to begin to live God’s way again. Finally, for our purposes today, Nehemiah returns, to find that the safety of the city remains critically unsecure and so asks his king, ask Artaxerxes for permission to leave his services for a while – It turns out to be about 12 years – in order to rebuild that city.
What does that have to say to us today as we build forward as a fellowship, as we perhaps return, if you like, to our homeland here, to our church building, to the community that needs us to make it livable again? Let’s have a look at some of the qualities that made Nehemiah such a person who made stuff happen and why his input was so important at the time.
A chap called Paul Phillips calls these four things, the four Cs of Nehemiah’s leadership, four components. Phillips, Paul, The 4Cs of Nehemiah’s leadership lesson.
The first one is concern: concern for the people or passion. We can see that in Chapter 1 in those first couple of verses. Effective leadership begins with an internal concern, some passion to move things forward. Nehemiah was so emotionally moved by the report about the condition of his city and his people that he mourned and he prayed and he fasted for four months.
Passion is always the catalyst which catapults us out of our passive concern into action. Vision begins with dissatisfaction about what could and should be. For passion to have staying power and not just a desire or a dream requires two specific actions that came from Nehemiah. The first is prayer. He prayed and he fasted for months. He wrestled with God about that passion.
Secondly was planning. When the King asks Nehemiah, “Well, what you’re requesting?&” Nehemiah immediately rolls off this list of what he needs. If God asks you, “What are you requesting?&” How would you respond? What’s your passion? Have you prayed about it? Have you planned for it? As we build forward, we need your passion to help us and our community to become livable again.
Next week, Ruth, as you’ve heard, will be sharing some of her own passion and I’m sure, give some examples about how, in quite literal ways, how the community can be livable again. If you read his response, Nehemiah doesn’t actually ask for a miracle. He doesn’t say, “God, you need to do something for us.&” He asks for an opportunity to go to build the wall himself. He sees what needs doing and he doesn’t ask to be commissioned or to be qualified or to be ordained. He just prays. He just fasts, and he gets on with it. The waiting is over. The time for action for Nehemiah is now.
A chap called Andy Stanley remarks that dreamers dream about things being different. Leaders envision themselves making a difference. Dreamers think about how nice it would be for something to be done. Leaders look for an opportunity to do something.
As we build forward, what’s your passion? As we begin to gather again, why not share it with somebody? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking with Alison about some of her passions. Alison, if you want to unmute yourself, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. We have prepared this. It isn’t just on the spur of the moment. Alison has a real passion to be part of her community and share God with that community as well. Alison, just two questions. The first one is what was it that helped you return to your Christian roots at Main Street?
Alison: Well, to be honest, it was a person and amazing, beautiful Cilla, but it was in the groups that Cilla helped me. I was able to speak to her about why I couldn’t walk back into the church, and for her to reassure me, it would be okay. The main reason being that I’d lost my faith and I was too scared to walk into the church building because others might think I’m a Christian and a fraud, but I wasn’t.
Paul: Fabulous. Thank you. The second question. Now that you’ve re-found your faith and you’re walking with God again, what do you want to do now to help others find out more about our fellowship and God’s love?
Alison: Well, I think, I want to reach out to the community through perhaps a craft group – my passion – so that we get, physically, people coming into the church. At the moment, we either have to get people who are Christians to come in or convert them. I think giving people time, time in a group, where I hope to be able to show what love God has for me and can have for them as well.
It’s the time when you get people in. We’re in church, maybe show them things in the church which may interest them, things we do in groups. That’s what I want to do. I want to physically help people into the church building to get to know us as a community more.
Paul: Alison, thank you for sharing those lovely, lovely words. Do you want to re-mute and I’m sure that other people perhaps will speak to you about your thoughts and your faith and your passion in the breakout rooms afterwards. Alison, thank you.
Prayer and planning, out of concern for people is the first thing. Secondly, in Nehemiah 2:17, we’ve got this simple problem. The problem is we’re in trouble and in disgrace, the city is in ruins. The solution, “Come, let’s build the wall of Jerusalem.&” So simple. All good visions should be simple enough to communicate in a sentence or two. I’m really quite certain that by loving God and loving people, which perhaps is one of our slogans – making communities livable again perhaps is another one. These things come quite naturally to us as a congregation.
That same person who asked me about the fellowship at the bench earlier in the week, then asked me what kept us all together? What was the unifying stuff that keeps us collected? After a moment of reflection, I said that I think for me, it was a mixture of taking God seriously and holding our positions within the fellowship lightly.
What I mean by this is that if we have different passions, it’s always God that’s going to be uniting us. Even If you’re not as passionate as I am about community development, your care for people through loving your family or wanting others to get to know Jesus or through praying or teaching or storytelling or kindness or something else, somehow all of this is community stuff and it’s God working in the world, His kingdom stuff.
Keeping clear our understanding of what God invites us to do is key. Holding positions lightly means that we don’t lord our roles over people for we are one in Christ. The ability to see the problem and the solution helps us keep our ideas, our mission, our thoughts, our actions, clear.
Many churches spend time and money on mission statements and developing strategies. I don’t think that we, as a fellowship, want to invest in our time like that. We are local enough and friendly enough and hospitable enough and generous enough, I think, to see a solution to local problems. For example, if we see someone who’s lonely, we go and talk to them. If there’s someone in need of food, we can give them a foodbank voucher, or take them to a cafe and have a chat and a meal with them. We want to open an old people’s home, but the church building is in the way, and so we move the church.
I really do believe that at the core of our community, we are solution-focused. That sounds business-like doesn’t it? We know that God is for us. God is with us. Prayerfully, we walk forward and solutions somehow present themselves. Perhaps I’m being over-simplistic. We do have problems of course, but through the wisdom and through discussion, through prayer, through fasting, we find God. We find that clarity, that second C.
The third of those C letters is community. Chapter 3 of Nehemiah is full of names. There were more than 40 individual names in more than 10 groups. If you read the whole of Chapter 3 – and most people, I think, just go over, pass over it. [chuckles] You’ll notice that one name is missing. Nehemiah’s name. That’s where we find that Nehemiah is actually a leader. Somebody once said, “The leader is great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.&” [John C Maxwell]
Nehemiah’s name isn’t there because he’s just getting on with stuff. He empowers hundreds of people to rebuild the wall and the currency to every great group of people that get things done is trust. Each member has to trust the other, that they’re going to do their job. They must build their own part of the wall. A team without trust is dysfunctional.
What I’ve been preaching on during the pandemic and has as we’ll be meeting on Zoom is how important keeping together is. What it is about that community that keeps us unified with Jesus, the Author, and Perfector of our faith at the centre. With us trusting ourselves to Him, He builds us together. It was that passion that Nehemiah brought people together that recognize the walls needed to be rebuilt. They needed to be rebuilt because the city and its inhabitants were unsafe without them.
The leaders of the surrounding territories – we read their names in Nehemiah – they’re the ones who try to obstruct the things time and again, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. With the walls rebuilt and secure, the people can feel confident again in worshipping God at the temple. When people worship God at the temple, in that time, they had a certainty that God was on their side. They know that their community has been built with God at the very centre. Nehemiah’s job isn’t to build walls – just do that.
The symbolism of having structures around the city isn’t to keep people out, rather is to have gates that can show people the way to God’s presence, to show people the way to the holy city, to where God is. The city on the hill shows light and direction. I’ve been reminded locally and recently how blessed we are to have this building, where it is right in the centre of town. Reading back to a news article, I think, it was in 1995 when this worship area was built and the chapel moved on rollers to its present position onto that new foundation.
Dennis Rees, one of the elders at the time was quoted as saying that he wanted the building to be used as a commodity centre. We’re now known as Main Street Community Church. Whose community are we serving? Our own, in our own buildings or, are these facilities for others, to be used by the wider community?
I think, where our passion and concern is, and that’s to make the community, the whole community livable again. That’s why I think without advertising, a community choir wants to meet in this very place. That’s why, because of the trusted relationship that we’ve built up over the last year or so, the council over recent months wants to now have their council meetings here. That’s why every Thursday, we’re asked by our market traders and locals alike, when it is we’re going to reopen the Churches Together, coffee morning? We make the community livable once more, not just by our building, but by the people that we are. Those three things, so far, concern, and clarity, and community.
Fourthly and finally, conflict. In Chapter 4:1-4 and in verse 8, we’ve got a bit of conflict that happens. As soon as they begin building the wall, people encounter problems. Every worthwhile endeavour will experience conflict, and I’m sure that each of us have got our own examples. How we manage our relationships through those tough times, through those rocky times is key to ensuring our community remains united. There are many good reasons why conflicts might break out. Particularly in the rebuilding of those walls in Jerusalem, people are tired, they’re poor. They might have little sleep because they’re either building the walls with shovels or they’re protecting them with their swords.
They should be building or working on their land so that they can have food to eat and give their children something to eat as well, but they’re committed to the building and rebuilding of the walls and ultimately to the reinstated worship of God. There’s no doubt that we are getting fed up with restrictions made upon us. I’m sure that as things begin to settle, we will have our own thoughts and perhaps disagreements as to what’s safe to do again and what’s not
As I write, numbers of people who’ve been tested positive for COVID-19 have jumped again. Numbers in hospital are slowly growing in their hundreds when we compare week on week. The news reminds us that much fewer people are dying from the condition because there are more people benefiting from the vaccine. There are arguments and disagreements over what if any, restrictions might remain in place after the 19th.
As we navigate these issues, let’s be courteous and understanding. Let’s not become paralysed by bad news either. There’s that line between letting go and letting God, where we blithely say that we trust God and remaining cautious and using our own discretion when deciding when and whether we want to become involved in wider church or community life again.
Those four things: concern, clarity, community, and conflict are all that make up the story and leadership of Nehemiah. They probably make up our lives, too. As we build forward into being known as a community that rebuilds and restores and makes communities livable, again, for these are the keynotes of Zerubbabel and Ezra and Nehemiah. What can we take from them?
These three, they trusted God. Even when they didn’t know where things might end up. They came out of exile, coming from a land where they were forced to go. But they had a real passion to return to their homeland and when they returned, things have changed in those decades that they’ve been away. They sorely wanted their city and their place of worship to be recognized as where God dwells because that was God’s promise, even in spite of their misdemeanours and their sin. God still wanted the people for His own.
In using the community links people had, made even in the higher echelons of power in Babylon, God was still able to make a way so that kings made safe passage for the returners and even paid for the future blessings of the buildings. As we come to the end of our character study of these three godly people, where are we headed?
Wherever we are, whether we’re at home or in a church building on a Sunday, whether we’re caring for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, at the computer working out in the world, we remain the body of Christ gathered and scattered. The gracious hand of God is upon you. God remains on your side.
Our role as the community church is to love God and to love others and by doing so, we make that community livable again. That’s us, in a nutshell, that’s who we are designed to be. We all have different parts to play, according to our God-given passion and God-given concerns.
As you decide, when the time is right to worship in a more familiar pattern, you will most likely see that things will have to change. Let it be. Things will be rocky for a while I’m sure, but hang on to the rock. That’s what I know people at Main Street are good at doing, hanging in on to Jesus, the Author, Perfector of our faith. Keep holding on to those deep-rooted relationships that have sustained you over the years and make space for new friendships and new activities that Alison was talking about.
As we show our rootedness to our neighbours, we show the loving leadership that Nehemiah offered, magnified by Jesus, as He shows the way of the kingdom of God. Let us, therefore, encourage one another as we navigate these ever-changing times, but let’s also hang on to those eternal truths that God is with us. God is on our side. God will remain with us to the very end of the age.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.