Kindling Hope: Building with Courage – Sermon on Nehemiah 8:1-12

February 28, 2016

How is your Lenten journey going? Or, as Wesley would put it, “How is it with your soul?” However you ask it, the question holds us each accountable for the hard work of being a disciple.

Following Jesus isn’t always easy, but these days in the middle of Lent always seem to require more of me. The novelty of my commitment at the beginning of Lent has worn off, and the anticipation of Resurrection glory is still too far in the future. Here in the middle, I need someone walking the journey with me, to ask after my soul and keep me walking the discipline I promised to follow at the beginning of Lent. That’s why I hold myself accountable to you!

You might remember that Bruce inspired me to give up sugar this year. So far, I’ve managed to stay away from sweets and desserts, but Bruce even gave up peanut butter, because he noticed that sugar is the second ingredient listed on the label.

I decided not to be that picky, and there was about enough peanut butter left in the jar for one sandwich, so I had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch on Friday. No jelly, just peanut butter. And I was surprised to realize I could taste the sugar. Commercial peanut butter is really sweet. Peanut butter is part of my standard diet. I love peanut butter. But I didn’t notice the sugar in it until I’d gone without sugar for three weeks.

Remembering just how much hidden sugar there is in processed food also reminds me of just how much hidden sin there is in my life. Isn’t it just like the devil to make us think we aren’t sinning when we really are? We get accustomed to our patterns of sin, and soon they don’t seem quite so sinful. We don’t recognize the sugar in our peanut butter. We get used to it.

That’s what had happened to the Jews who returned from exile. They had lived away from God’s law for so long, they’d gotten used to it. They had forgotten what it meant to be faithful to God, to worship God in the temple, and submit themselves to God.

We’ve come to the end of the Old Testament this week. The Jews have returned to the Promised Land. But this time, they do not come to conquer. They have been conquered. This time, they do not come in droves, but in trickles. This time, they do not follow a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They are not so proud, not so sure of themselves. The people of God have had a change of heart. They recognize their sin. They realize that they have strayed far from the laws God gave them through Moses. They’ve been away from home so long, they have a new desire to live as God calls them to live. They finally can taste the sugar in the peanut butter.

When the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns— all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites,helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. 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 when 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 of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. – Nehemiah 7:73b – 8:12

I learned something from our District Superintendent Fred Vanderwerf when he preached at the District Gathering yesterday afternoon. He started off his sermon by telling us what the point was going to be, just in case he went off script and missed it. So I’m going to tell you right up front what the point is today. It matters just as much how we build as what we build. How does God call us to build our lives of faith and our church? With courage.

Remember that, when the first exiles returned from Babylon, they immediately set up the altar where the Temple had been, and began offering sacrifices to God. After that, they got to work rebuilding the Temple itself. It didn’t look as glorious as the one Solomon had built, but God reminded them that God’s presence among them was what mattered. “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,” he told them (Haggai 2:9). Finally, the third wave of returning exiles completed the wall that had once surrounded Jerusalem.

I find it interesting that this rebuilding happened in the reverse order of the original construction. King David built up the walls of Jerusalem first (2 Samuel 5:9), then built a palace for himself (2 Samuel 5:11). Solomon continued the building projects with more palaces and finally, the Temple (1 Kings 7). But the returning exiles started with setting up an altar, rebuilding the Temple, then their own homes, and finally, the wall around the city.

Why was a wall so important?

The most obvious reason: Walls protect.

fortress herodion better shot copyCheck out the fortress Herod built for himself just outside Jerusalem at Herodion.


2015-01-13 16.24.12JaffaGate copy



The Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem gives us a great example of the way walls were built to offer maximum protection to those defending from within. Notice the archer’s slits in the wall, just above the gate?



marc's lions gate copyThe Lion’s Gate, also in Jerusalem, has similar archery slits, and the crenelations at the top of the wall offered more protection to defenders.




But walls are not only built for protection.  Walls also set apart what is sacred.


temple wall copyTemple Wall, Jerusalem





men at western wall2 copyThe Western Wall in Jerusalem marks the nearest place a devout Jew can come to the now-inaccessible Temple wall.




the wall women and men partition

However, walls can shut us off from each other. Walls can prevent us from connecting in ways that we should. For example, the partition between the women’ s and men’s courts at the Western Wall prevent mothers and sisters from fully participating in a young man’s bar mitzvah, but the women have found a way to overcome this obstacle. They just climb on chairs that are next to the partition, so they can see over the wall. And notice how the men locate themselves as close to that partition as possible, so they can include female family members in the celebration!

Sometimes, however, the walls we build to keep people in or keep people out become a testament to our failure to live as neighbors. An example is the wall that is being constructed around the West Bank community of Bethlehem.

west bank wall and watchtower copy

Walls can be built out of feelings and attitudes, as much as bricks and concrete. Sometimes, we get overly defensive, and we build walls around ourselves to protect us from letting others get too close to us. Our walls keep us from investing in their lives and allowing them to invest in ours. Fences can destroy relationships, just as easily as they set healthy boundaries.

Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? Each built a house to provide protection from the Big Bad Wolf. The first was made of straw, and the second one of sticks. Pretty flimsy stuff. But the third pig built a house of brick, and the other two found safety in their brother’s house after the Wolf destroyed their own. The choice of bricks is a good one, not only because the bricks are strong, but because the mortar holding them together is strong. Mortar joins bricks together, but it also keeps them spaced apart from each other, so they don’t get crushed under the bricks stacked above them.

How you build is just as important as what you build. And what you build rests on the foundation you lay.

In 1 Corinthians 3,  Paul uses the image of a building to make an important point. Like any good builder, Paul starts by laying a firm foundation, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less will do. The only viable foundation for the church is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on to explain that whatever material the church uses to build on that strong foundation must be able to withstand the test of fire. Like the first two pigs in the fairy tale, the Corinthian Christians have settled for flimsy stuff to build their faith. Paul is urging them to build with materials that will last. How we build is just as important as what we build, and what we build needs a strong foundation.

Paul goes on to explain why the materials they choose to build are so important. “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you are God’s temple?” The building under construction here is more than a simple hut. It is the place where God’s spirit resides. In fact, it isn’t a building at all – that’s just the metaphor Paul has been using. This temple is the people of God, Christ’s church.

There is an important point of grammar in this passage that may not be clear in standard English: the “you” is plural, not singular. It does not refer to an individual, but to the whole community of believers. If we lived in the South, there would be a distinction between “y’all” and “all y’all.” So Paul is saying: “Do all y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in all y’all?”

This is a radical notion in its original context, where even in the pagan culture of Corinth, a temple was expected to be a building. Yes, Paul says, God dwells in the temple but it is not a building. It is a community of faith. And it is up to you – all y’all – to build that community. How? With courage, on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

This idea is radical today for a different reason: our society focuses on individual experience, on self-fulfillment that centers attention on personal satisfaction rather than personal holiness. Our culture values individualized spirituality, but our God is not a private God. “Come, let us worship and bow down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker,” the Psalmist writes (Ps 95:6).

While personal piety is important to our spiritual growth, worshipping as part of the Body of Christ, in community, is essential to the development of our faith, and to the building up of the Body to which we belong. It may be possible to be a believer in isolation, but it is impossible to be a true disciple alone. We need other disciples around us, living out our faith together in unity as the Body of Christ. The Greek word ekklesia, which is translated throughout the New Testament as “church” refers to a gathering of people, not a location. The church is people who gather in Jesus’ Name.

Paul writes, “Since you are God’s Temple, the holy place where God’s spirit lives, does it make any sense to destroy yourselves with petty feuding? If you try to destroy God’s temple – which is all y’all – you will be destroyed in the process. Don’t kid yourselves. Not only is God’s foolishness wiser than your wisdom, your wisdom is foolishness to God. So stop arguing about which leader you should follow. You don’t belong to any of us; we belong to you. And you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.”

This is a new way of thinking for the people of Corinth. The hierarchy has been turned upside down. Or more accurately, right side up. Isn’t it true for us, too? How often do we “try to fit God” into our overly busy lives, instead of ordering our lives around Christ? How many of us are more likely to follow a celebrity on Twitter than to follow the one who saves us from our sins? Isn’t it easy to buy into the “me first” culture that surrounds us? To get so used to the sugar in our peanut butter that we don’t taste it anymore? But if we get our priorities straight, Jesus is at the center of everything we think and do. Christ is not only our faith’s foundation, he also becomes Lord and King over all aspects of our lives.

Paul reminds us to keep Jesus at the center of everything we do together as a church, too. With Christ as the foundation of the church, “each one should be careful how he builds” (1 Cor 3:10). Paul writes. How we build is important, if we are to live out faithfully our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. Here are the ways Paul says we should build:

First, Paul writes “According to the grace God has given me, like a master builder” (1 Cor 3:10).We need to depend completely on God’s grace, recognizing that it is God who does a mighty work in us. Depending on God’s grace gives us courage to build, even when we face opposition, just as the Jews did when they rebuilt Jerusalem.

Second, We make Christ our foundation (1 Cor 3:11).  With the focus of our attention on Jesus, we no longer worry about getting our own way. When being like Christ becomes the foundation of everything we do and think and say, “our way” simply doesn’t matter any more.

Third, We work together, in unity (1 Cor 3:16). There are so many ways we can allow ourselves to be irritated by one another, aren’t there? But none of these differences should matter to us as much as being bound together in Christ Jesus, where we can support and encourage one another.

Fourth, We remain Spirit-filled (1 Cor 3:16)- If we are God’s temple, then God’s spirit lives within us. The Holy Spirit is “at home” among us.

And fifth, we must be wise by God, but fools by human standards (1 Cor 3:18). – When we turn our attention toward the values of the world around us, we get distracted by things that don’t matter to God, and we ignore what burdens God’s heart.

This was the hard lesson the returning exiles had to learn. As they stood to hear the Word of the Lord being read and explained to them, their hearts were focused on the one thing that was needful. No longer were they distracted by the practices of the people around them. Their hearts were tuned to God.

If you have been reading along in The Story with us, you can skip the next chapter in the book. We took Chapter 22 out of order back in December, when we celebrated the birth of Jesus. We will pick up The Story in chapter 23 next week, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s a big jump from rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem at the end of the exile to finding John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. More than four hundred years will have passed, with no prophet to speak God’s Word into the lives of his people. You might think the hope that was beginning to kindle would find it difficult to stay alight. But next week, we will see that hope begin to burn with greater intensity, as we move toward the cross and the empty tomb. We will follow along with the disciples, whose faith was built on the growing realization that they were following the Son of God.

How you build is just as important as what you build.

Jesus calls us to build with courage, depending on God’s grace and wisdom, working together, filled with the Holy Spirit.

Most importantly, we build on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ our Lord, who died to save us from our sins, who rose to conquer death, and who reigns with God the Father, now and forever. Amen.

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