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August 15, 2021

Great Prayers of the Old Testament: Nehemiah

Rev. Sue Taylor

Nehemiah 1

In his introduction to the book of Nehemiah, Eugene Peterson makes the statement that “Separating life in to distinct categories of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ damages, sometimes irreparably, any attempt to live a whole and satisfying life; a coherent life with meaning and purpose, a life lived to the glory of God. Nevertheless, the practice is widespread.  But where did all these people come up with the habit of separating themselves and the world around them into these two camps?  It surely wasn’t in the Bible.  The Holy Scriptures, from beginning to end, strenuously resist such a separation.”

He goes on to say, “The damage to life is most obvious when the separation is applied to daily work.  It is common for us to refer to the work of pastors, priests and missionaries as ‘sacred’ and that of lawyers, farmers and engineers as ‘secular’.  It is also wrong.  Work, by its very nature, is holy.  The biblical story is dominated by people who have jobs in gardening, shepherding, the military, politics, carpentry, tent making, homemaking, fishing and so much more.”

It is with this in mind that we meet Nehemiah, after whom this section of Old Testament scripture is named.  Nehemiah was a Jew living in Persia. As we have noted in previous weeks, both nations of Israel had been decimated by the Babylonians; Jerusalem had been destroyed and the once-glorious temple left in ruins.  Additionally, most of the citizens had been deported, at least those of any significance; leaving only the poor and inconsequential inhabitants in the ruined city.  For some 70 years, Jerusalem was something of a ghost town, with the potential to end up like many ancient cities – completely forgotten, except to history.

As empires inevitably rise and fall, Babylonian dominance gave way to the Persian Empire, and after seventy years in captivity, the Jewish people were given the opportunity to return to their homeland, the Promised Land.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, only a small group opted to make the return; those whom we might consider the remnant.  The majority of Jews, born after the exile, had made lives for themselves in Babylon, and were able to maintain their devout worship of YHWH.  Life was good, and they were content where they were. 

But those who did return, under the leadership of Ezra, worked to rebuild the temple and lay the spiritual foundation for Israel once again. However, the walls of the city of Jerusalem remained a pile of rubble, leaving them liable to invasion and attack. Thus, the Book of Nehemiah continues the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. 

Nehemiah was one of the exiles who had initially chosen to continue life in Persia, while maintaining his Jerusalem-based Jewish identity.  He was the cupbearer to Artaxerxes king of Persia. His job was to make sure no one was poisoning the king’s wine; this would often include swallowing some of the wine before serving it. Nehemiah regularly put his life on the line for the king and was, therefore, a very trusted part of the king’s court. Yet, his heart was still with the homeland that he had never seen.

One day, he happened to overhear some men talking in Hebrew, among them his own brother, Hanani.  They had come bringing news of Jerusalem, of the remaining survivors and of the ruin of the city and its protective walls.  Upon hearing this, Nehemiah’s heart broke, and he wept and mourned for the destroyed city of his ancestors. After an extended period of mourning, Nehemiah prayed for the mercy of the Lord to fall on him and the remnant, that they might rebuild the walls of the city and that the king would have mercy on him when he would ask to do this very thing.

As he approached God in prayer, he presented the Lord with a posture of penitence, which was deeply based in the theological belief that the devastation of Jerusalem was the divine punishment for the sin of Israel.  As with other prayers we have studied, he begins by addressing God as the “God of Heaven”, alluding to God’s power and majesty, the God who governs the entire created order.  In predictable Jewish fashion, he acknowledges this awesome creator God is the one who “keeps steadfast, covenantal love”, an ongoing theme in our Old Testament prayers.  Nehemiah focuses on the divine power of a cosmic kind, and the divine fidelity of the Israelite kind. His prayer reflects the essence of Israel’s faith: God the creator with unlimited power and God of the covenant, is committed to the people of Israel.

Once God is approached, he makes a confession of sin for the people.  As mentioned before, he interprets the fate of Jerusalem in the Deuteronomic assumptions that while obedience leads to prosperity, disobedience leads to adversity and thus, he understood the city’s circumstances as the consequence of disobedience.  He shows no fault toward God; but confesses on behalf of his family and his people the lack of responsibility on Israel’s part and acknowledges the consequences as justified.  

Finally, Nehemiah makes his petition: that while God would level judgement, God would also allow restoration of the holy city.  His request is situated in the longstanding tradition of hope that affirms that exile, dislocation and displacement is NOT the end of the story of God with Israel.

Moreover, Nehemiah reminds God that these people; scattered, exposed, and vulnerable, are his servants and his people; that God is responsible for them because of the covenant fidelity. From a memory of divine commitment, Nehemiah summons God to act once again in order to redeem the people and their community. Thus, Nehemiah links God’s faithfulness and power with God’s steadfast love and mercy. Thus, he asks for God to make a way for him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  He asks God to allow him to take on the role of “urban planner”, to direct the reconstruction of the city.  Implicit in that is the need for authorization and resources, which can only come from one place: the king.  

Finally, some four months later, he approached the king. He had not shown his grief in the king’s presence, since part of his job was to be uplifting and encouraging, but now he could not hide the condition of his heart. And he was afraid. Asking to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls could be seen as disloyalty to the king—the punishment for which was death. Hence, Nehemiah prayed to God, then made his request. Mercifully, God softened Artaxerxes’ (ar-taks-urk’-sez), heart, and Nehemiah was permitted to return to the city of his fathers to rebuild the walls.

Thus, Nehemiah left Persia and the service of the king, to become a construction foreman.  His co-worker was Ezra, a scholar and teacher, whose story we visited last week.  While Ezra worked with the Torah and Nehemiah with stone, the stories of both are interwoven in a seamless fabric of vocational holiness.  Eugene Peterson reminds us that neither job was more important nor less holy than the other.  They needed each other and God’s people needed both of them to accomplish God’s work.  And we still do.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 3: 

Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ.  

Colossians 3

Rick Warren has said, “When you use your life for God’s glory, everything you do can become an act of worship.” 

Three years after moving to Reno and finding a position at a Presbyterian congregation in northwest Reno doing children’s ministry, it was made clear to me that while my work had been stellar, my pastor-husband’s theology was considered problematic. Thus, while not asking me to leave, the head of staff made it clear that they did not want me working in the congregation.   I chose to resign rather than fight the battle, and began seeking another position.  At the time, there were no compensated opportunities available for a middle-aged female pastor in the area.  I began to substitute teach while volunteering my services at St. John’s church in Reno. One day during the coffee hour, I was talking to a woman who was a long-time public-school teacher.  I mentioned my interest in pursuing my teaching credential, but my hesitation to leave the ministry.  Her response to me was, and I quote, “O my gosh, Sue, teaching is ministry!”  Needless to say, I went on to get my credential and spent fourteen years in elementary school. It became a ministry in that I was able to love my students (well, some were harder than others) with the love of Jesus, even if I couldn’t say his name.  Everything we do can be done in the name of Christ, to the glory of God.  Just think, you may be the hands and feet and face of Christ to someone who needs, not just to hear, but to see the good news of what Jesus Christ has done and will do in our lives and theirs, too.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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