We began a new sermon series this week – Nehemiah: Building God’s Community. I think the book has a great message for those of us hoping to live lives of holiness and dedication to God in the midst of a society that is becoming more and more ‘post-Christian’ every day.
You can listen to the sermon here.
If you’d rather, you can read it here…
OK – I’ll admit. I’m the one who wrote that a few months ago. As I have been looking at the book of Nehemiah in preparation for this new sermon series, I have an even more firm conviction that the book is much more relevant to today’s church than many people give it credit. It’s easy to look at the book and say, ‘Here’s an example of how God’s people built a building. Let’s use it as a justification for our expansion program.’ Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad way to approach the book. Nehemiah does have some lessons as to how to handle a building project. But I think we sell the book short when we pull the book out only when we’re going to talk about a facility expansion program. And this happens far too often. In fact, when I visit a church and learn that they’re going through a series on Nehemiah, I automatically assume that they’re preparing the groundwork for a building program and they’re eventually going to ask me for money. I know. That’s a pretty cynical way of looking at things. It’s just that I’ve seen it happen too many times. You want a template for handling a building program, you go to Nehemiah. I don’t know if I’d really call it a bad thing – I’m just sad that it has become such a predictable thing.
Others look at the book of Nehemiah as a way to find leadership principles. They approach it as one of the many handbooks on godly leadership you can find on the shelves of any Christian bookstore. And I guess that’s an OK thing, too. Nehemiah does display some remarkable leadership characteristics. He does an amazing thing in getting the people to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem in record time. There’s a danger in focusing just on Nehemiah, however. Analyzing Nehemiah’s skills displayed as a leader can distract us from the most important story in the book – the story of how God used an ordinary man to accomplish His will and keep His promises. It’s an amazing thing when God uses ordinary people to accomplish His extraordinary mission of building a community of God-followers. And that’s just what He did here with Nehemiah. And that’s what He wants to do here at Cowan Christian Church.
If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Nehemiah 1. It’s kind of in the middle of your Bibles. It’s to the left of Psalms, after the Chronicles and the book of Ezra. If you don’t have your Bible, you’re welcome to use the one in front of you. Nehemiah 1 is found on page 414 of that Bible.
In the Jewish Bible, the books of Nehemiah and Ezra are combined into one book called Ezra-Nehemiah. Both are books about important figures in the reconstruction of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest during the rebuilding of the Temple. And later, he led the nation in rededicating themselves to the Lord. Ezra chronicles his efforts. The book of Nehemiah serves as a memoir of the man who oversaw the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem.
But what’s going on? Why do the Temple and city wall need to be rebuilt? After the reign of King Solomon, the nation of Israel experienced civil war and was split into two kingdoms – the Northern Kingdom was known as Israel and was made up of 10 of the 12 original tribes of Israel. The Southern Kingdom, known as Judah, remained loyal to David’s descendants and was composed of two of the original tribes – Judah and Benjamin. Jerusalem was the capital city of the nation of Judah. Judah experienced some times of wholehearted dedication to following God and obeying His word. There were other times when the monarchy led the kingdom away from following God. After times of disobedience, there would be short times of revival, followed by more disobedience. And in spite of the efforts of prophets raised by God, the nation as a whole increasingly showed apathy towards obeying Him. And at the same time, they became arrogant in their understanding of what it means to be a blessed nation. After all, they had the presence of the Living God residing in their Temple in Jerusalem. Since God was invincible, He would protect His house against any invaders who followed a false god. God’s prophets were warning them that this was not always going to be the case. One day, God was going to lift his protection from the nation of Judah if they continued to turn away from God.
In 722 BC, Judah’s brothers to the North, the nation of Israel, fell to the Assyrians. They were carted off into exile and the nation was destroyed. This was a warning sign for Judah. But in the long run, it really didn’t faze them all that much. They continued to do what they wanted to do because, after all, they had the presence of the Lord residing in their Temple. Surely He would protect His house.
In approximately 587 BC, the unthinkable happened. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, who had already conquered the mighty Assyrians, attacked Jerusalem. They destroyed the city, including the city wall. Following the standard practice of Babylon when they captured a nation, the leadership, the educated, and the elite were carted off into Babylon as slaves. And, most importantly, the Temple of the Lord was destroyed. How could this have happened? How could God have lost the war? And where was God now that He was no longer in the Temple? These were questions that haunted the exiles for years to come.
During this time of captivity, God spoke through prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, proclaiming to the exiles that they would one day return to their homeland. And so they waited. And they longed for the day when they would be able to return home and restore Jerusalem to its earlier glory.
And they waited. And waited. Eventually, Babylon was conquered by the Persians and Cyrus the Great issued a decree in 538 BC – approximately 50 years after Jerusalem had fallen. In 538, King Cyrus announced that all exiles could return to their homeland. The time of captivity was over. While some chose to remain in the Persian capital, many chose to return home. And eight years after the decree, the Jewish people began to rebuild the Temple of the Lord. Now was the time. Jerusalem was going to be restored to her glory days. Followers of the Lord could hold their heads up high because their homeland was going to be rebuilt. There was an excitement among the exiles as they thought about their beloved Jerusalem and her Temple.
It took the people 15 years to reconstruct the fallen Temple to the Lord. Once the Temple was built, it was time to resurrect the city. Finally, Jerusalem would be restored to her rightful place as a shining city on a hill, serving as an example of the glory of God.
Things, unfortunately, did not happen as smoothly as they had hoped. Approximately 65 years after the reconstruction of the Temple, Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the king of Persia, has a startling revelation. His brother has just returned from visiting Jerusalem. Hoping to hear stories of how Jerusalem was a gleaming city on a hill, his heart is broken by the news he receives.
Read Nehemiah 1
Things were not the way they were supposed to be. They definitely weren’t what they used to be. Instead of finding a vibrant community that is standing in testimony to the power of the Almighty God, the city was still basically in ruins. The city remaining in ruins was only the visible reminder of a much larger problem. With the Temple having been destroyed for nearly 60 years and the religious leaders forced into exile, the culture of the city of Jerusalem had changed. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who delivered His people from the bonds of Egypt was no longer the center of life in Jerusalem. Even though the Temple had been restored, Jerusalem had not become the holy city she once was. There is archaeological evidence suggesting that during the time when the Temple was in ruins, the people continued to worship the Lord in smaller, more localized and personalized shrines and in their own manner. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. People continued to worship the Lord in spite of their broken state. The archaeological discoveries, however, suggest that the Lord is not the only god they chose to worship. Many altars have been found that were dedicated to the Lord and Asherah – a goddess who had been worshiped in that region in the days before Israel had conquered the land. The cultural landscape had changed over those 50 years. The exiles who returned had discovered that things weren’t what they used to be. Not only was rebuilding the city going to be an enormous task, but the rededication of the hearts that had become apathetic to worshiping the Lord alone was going to be something even more important – and something much more difficult to accomplish. The people didn’t know the Scriptures anymore. Obeying the commandments of the Lord was an afterthought at best. There was an interest in spirituality, but the Lord Himself had become irrelevant. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem, expecting to find a community that had continued in worshiping the Lord only and following His commandments and seeking His face, I’m sure they would have related with Dorothy Gale as she was introduced to the colorful, unusual, and frightening Munchkin Land in the classic flim, The Wizard of Oz, when she said, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” No she certainly wasn’t. Neither were the exiles who returned to the Jerusalem they had once known. And neither are we in 21st century western culture.
After serving decades as a missionary in India, Leslie Newbigin moved back to his homeland of England in 1974. Upon his return, he was shocked that he, too, was no longer in Kansas anymore. Things had changed in his home country while he was away. And it wasn’t for the better. One biographer says “He cried ceaselessly for a missionary encounter with our brilliant but pagan western culture. Indians could hear the gospel and had hope; England seemed deaf to the gospel and short on hope. Europeans were fruitful missionaries everywhere else but Europe. Post-Enlightenment culture was so hostile to the Gospel that unless it was redeemed, the Church was in hazard.” (H. Dan Beeby). Churches that were once full of people would only be visited by a handful of people on a given Sunday. The towering cathedrals that were once so full of life and hope had become museums of a bygone era. Somehow, God had become irrelevant to a culture that once claimed to be built upon His principles and commandments.
When you look at the culture on this side of the Pond, we’ll find that we are following the same trend as experienced in Britain. We have become effective at sending missionaries around the world to learn indigenous cultures and proclaim the Gospel in culturally-effective methods. At the same time, the percentage of ‘unchurched’ people – people who did not grow up in the church and have had no meaningful contact with the church continues to grow. In fact according to authors Tom Clegg and Warren Bird in the book Lost in America, “The unchurched population of the United States is so extensive that, if it were a nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet after China, the former Soviet Union, India, and Brazil. Thus, our unchurched population is the largest mission field in the English-speaking world and the fifth largest globally.” Maybe you’ve come to realize, as I have, that we’re not in Kansas anymore. I’ve come to discover that my experience growing up has become less common throughout the years. I was raised by Christian parents who brought me to church every week. Some of my earliest memories are from sitting in the pew in the small church we attended at the time. There was never an ‘ah-ha’ moment where I had to discover that there really was a God and He wanted a relationship with me. It’s just something I’ve always known because that’s what I was shown by my family. It’s how I was raised. And maybe that’s what your story is like, too. It can be easy for us to assume that everyone has had a similar experience. I’ve come to realize, however, that this story that we share is becoming rarer as time marches on. And while we have been great at sending missionaries overseas, we have neglected being missionaries right here at home. Because of that, we are living in a society that is not much different from the one the exiles discovered when they returned to Jerusalem. There is an interest in spirituality, but holiness and following the Lord Himself has somehow become irrelevant to the prevailing culture. They say there is no absolute truth and that truth is only what you choose it to be. Popular spirituality has become a buffet where you take this part of this faith over here and that faith over there and pieces from this one and that one, put them on your plate, and create your own meal that satisfies your own tastes and desires. And we find ourselves making well-reasoned, logical arguments about the faith when the majority of the world places a higher value on experience than on reason. We find ourselves making Christian assumptions, talking in Christian language in a world that is increasingly post-Christian. We argue about answers to questions that the world just isn’t asking anymore. And the world thinks we’re just a clanging cymbal. And we look around us and say, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
And that’s where the message of the book of Nehemiah is so fitting for us today. God uses Nehemiah – a regular person – to accomplish His task of building a community centered on Him. And God used Nehemiah to build this community in the midst of a multicultural, polytheistic, post-Judaism world. A world that is very similar to the one in which we live today. And here’s the great thing about Nehemiah – it’s not the religious professionals that get the job done. It’s an ordinary person who seeks to do what God asks of him. And that’s how the majority of ministry gets accomplished. That’s how lives will be changed and our culture will be impacted. If you are a follower of Christ, you are a minister. God has a plan He wants to accomplish and He wants to use you to do it. You don’t have to go to Bible college and get years of seminary training before God will use you as a minister. All he wants is a heart that seeks God’s face and God’s will. I have a pastor friend who likes to tell people that his church has 500 ministers on staff. He gets reactions like, “Wow! You must be leading a megachurch. Where are you? Chicago? That one in California? The big Christian church in Louisville? How many members to you have?” Of course, he replies that he has 500 members. And each one of them is a minister. There are only a few pastors on staff, but they’re not doing the majority of the ministry anyway. It’s the regular people following Christ every day. Today, we have people here in attendance. That means we have ministers available to do God’s work. We might not be in Kansas anymore, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw up our hands and just give up. We can curse the darkness and complain about how bad things have gotten – or we can jump in and do something about it. I don’t know about you, but I want to do something about bringing light to this darkened culture. As we’ll discover as we look through the book of Nehemiah, God can use a regular person to revitalize a city and spark revival in the land. And He wants to continue to build a community of God-followers. And He will do that through people like Nehemiah – regular people who choose to follow God on a regular basis.
Do you hear Him? God is calling you to follow Him in the increasingly post-Christian world in which we live. He has promised He will never leave you and He will give you power to be a witness to a world that increasingly does not want to see our witness. He will give you the boldness to live in community with others in a world that focuses entirely on the individual and self-gratification. He’s calling you to come home. It might not be Kansas anymore, but God has an amazing plan – and He wants to do it through you and through me. And it’s not because any of the skills or talents that we have, but because the power that He has. And He wants to use that power through you and me. All you’ve got to do is come home. Just come home.
After the service, one lady came up to me and said she had never heard a sermon on Nehemiah that had to do with a building program. I told her she was definitely missing out!