Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, I Corinthians 12:12-31
January 23, 2007
We go back to some Old Testament stuff today. We don’t do that as often as we probably should. We “Christians” tend to talk mostly about Christ, which is one reason for the development of the Common Lectionary – that suggested seriest of readings for the year. It’s to help us to see as wide a “slice” of the Bible as possible. Or at least a little wider than we might otherwise see.
So, today we look at the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. (And I’ll spare you the joke about him being the second shortest man in the Bible!) Instead, let me fill in a little of the background, so this makes more sense. Because this is a very important story in the Old Testament.
Near the end of the book of Chronicles, the Babylonians had conquered the people of Israel and carried many of them off into exile. I think you’ll remember that as being a prominent point in the history of God’s people. Maybe you remember some of the stories of the Babylonian Exile. If you were at our Youth Service last year, you heard again the story of king Nebuchadnezzar, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and the fiery furnace. Sometimes it’s hard to put all that together, because there are various books that tell what happened to God’s people. But they’re not always in chronological order in the Old Testament.
So as I said, the people of God were in exile. They had drifted away from God, had gotten lazy in their faith, and had forgotten all God had done for them in the “old days.” They had even gone off worshipping other gods. Finally, the Babylonians had come in and conquered them, and taken them off into exile.
Well, here in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we find the accounts of the people returning from that exile. Again the order of these events has been shuffled around just a bit, but there seems to have been a couple of different waves of exiles returning to the land. And the first of those waves of exiles had returned at the ed of Second Chronicles. They had begun by rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.
In that account, the people had discovered, buried inside the ruined wall of the Old Temple, the scroll of the Torah. As you know, that was their most important book. We have their Torah as the first five books of our Bible. Of course, to them the Torah or “The Law” was more than a book. It was their link to God. It was their “contract” if you will, a sign of their covenant with God.
Now, was it lost? Did they have it during their exile? It’s hard to say. But I will tell you that it doesn’t matter all that much, because they relied to a great extent on their “oral tradition.” That means they remembered these stories – in great detail. They didn’t rely as much on the written words. That’s hard for us to imagine. But remember, this was centuries before printing, and there weren’t that many copies of the Torah, because they were all done by hand. And that didn’t matter because only the educated knew how to read, anyway.
So, they were in exile. They returned. And they found the scroll of the Torah. Then as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah continue, there are more accounts of more exiles returning, and the rebuilding of not only the Temple, but also the walls and the rest of the city of Jerusalem. And then, in Nehemiah chapter 8, we come to the place where the prophet Ezra called all the people together and read to them from the scroll of the Torah. And the people understood, and the people wept. And the people rededicated themselves to God. That’s our scripture for today.
You see, this was not just a matter of the people returning to their country. This is the story of the people returning to their God. Their exile didn’t just have to do with their physical distance from God, but also their spiritual distance. They had forgotten their faith in their God, and their exile was not so much God removing them from his presence, as it was they removing themselves from God’s presence.
That sometimes happens with us in our relationship with God, doesn’t it? Sometimes we feel like God is distant from us and we aren’t sure why. But like a pastor I knew in college used to say, “If you feel like there’s a distance between you and God, guess who moved?” When people would come to him and say they had lost their connection with God, and that he seemed far away, he would try to help them see that it was probably they who had moved away from God. The thing to do then was to help them find ways to move closer. I think that’s true. A lot of times when we feel like God is at a distance, it’s because we’ve moved away. At those times we need to think of how we move closer.
I got to thinking that this is a great story to think about as we begin a new year. Because this is the story of people rededicating themselves to God. I think that’s a good thing for us to think about, too. That’s even a good thing to think about as we start each new day!! So, I’ve called this “Rebuilding God’s House.” That’s what these exiles were doing – literally. That’s the imagery I’d like us to keep in mind.
Now, you might not feel that “rebuilding” is quite the right word for you. You might not be feeling your faith is in ruins. For you it might be a matter of “refurbishing” or “rehabbing” God’s house. Perhaps for you this might simply be a matter of “rededicating” God’s house – rededicating yourself to God’s kingdom. However, or where ever we may be personally, still I’d like us to think in terms of recommitting ourselves to God at this the start of a new year. I think it’s always a good thing, to take such a milestone, and to look at our commitment to God.
There are a couple of things I’d like you to think about as you consider that. The first is that the idea of being part of God’s house is more literal than you might think. Paul told the Corinthians, “Did you know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16) Remember he was still talking to a largely Jewish congregation. And the Jewish people literally believed God’s Spirit lived in the Temple. Now he was telling them that they were the Temple.
Like them we should know that God’s Spirit dwells in us, too. So when we think of “rebuilding God’s house” we should understand that we are part of that house – just as the brick and mortar were part of the walls of Temple itself. Whenever we think of our own bodies, how we treat them, what we do, and even what we say, we should remember that we are “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” That should make a difference in our demeanor, in our behavior, and even in our words? No wonder Paul told the Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice… that (the dedication of your bodies) is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1-2) What we do with the body, the physical part of us, is part of our spiritual worship.
Another thing about “rebuilding God’s house” which I’d like you to consider is the last part of verse 9 from Nehemiah. “All the people wept when they heard the words of the Law.” Dedicating or rededicating ourselves to God is first an act of the mind. It is a choice. That’s obvious. If we are going to rededicate ourselves to God, we must first decide to do so. But it’s more than that. These people didn’t just hear the Law and then shout, “We’ll do that.” No, when they heard the words of the Torah, they wept!
Think about it. The word “Commitment” means more than just making a choice. If we say “That person is really committed to something” it implies a lot more, doesn’t it? It means more than just making logical, reasonable, contractual agreement to do something. It involves all of the person. Commitment or recommitment to God is as much a matter of the heart as it is the mind. It involves all of our being. Jesus quoted the Old Testament saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with (what? with) all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Do you do that? Do you love God – are you committed to God – with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength? You see, that’s my job here. I hope not to just convince you in your minds to be committed to God. I hope to speak to your hearts. I hope to inspire you to commit or recommit yourself to God’s kingdom with all of yourself! It is my hope that you will feel your commitment to God in the depths of your hearts. Because you know what? That’s where it will have the greatest affect on your life.
It is a great congregation that has all of its members committed to God’s kingdom with the full dedication of their minds and their wills. But that’s nothing in comparison to the congregation that has all of its members dedicated to God’s kingdom in the depths of their hearts! My friends, let us be that congregation!
Then, the last thing I want to tell you about “rebuilding God’s house” is that it involves all of us. Being such a congregation dedicated to God involves every one of us. No one brick or block of the Temple can be unimportant or unnecessary. As Paul told the Corinthians in our reading from I Corinthians 12, no part of the body can think itself as less important than another. Every one of us is important in God’s kingdom. Every one of us is important in “Building God’s house.”
With all that in mind, I’m going to close this service asking you to rededicate yourself to God. I’m not going to ask you to come forward, but I am asking you, right where you are, to consider carefully in your own mind and your own heart your dedication to God’s kingdom. I’ll give a little time for prayer, and then I’ll close…
Lord, we dedicate and rededicate ourselves to you. We ask for your Spirit to grow among us, for your power and your love and your joy to fill us. We ask for your presence today and forever, as we give ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to you. Bless us and our efforts, we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.