Nehemiah 1:1-6, 2:2-8, 17-18
February 10, 2013
Craig said his father looked at him and said, he said, Son, the truth of the matter is that every good pastor only has three sermons in them. And that’s the way it should be. So don’t worry. You’ll be fine.
I remember Craig telling us how comforting it was to hear his father say that. I also remember how comforting it was for me to hear it, too! See, at the time I had been in ministry for almost ten years, and had been here preaching every Sunday for just over three. And I was beginning to feel that same snapping back of the homiletical rubber band; being drawn to those same three sermons in me. It was good to hear that was okay. And, you know, if I had to give one of those sermons an over-arching title, it would be “Breaking Down Walls.” The idea that we in the church often erect barriers that segregate rather than bring together; that draw lines between who is in and who is out; and how the love of Christ calls us, at our deepest level, to open the doors wide for anyone and everyone who seeks to be part of the family of faith. To break down walls. You’ve heard that one before from this pulpit, haven’t you? Of course you have!
Which is why it’s so surreal today that I am preaching a sermon on the exact opposite thing. Because the sermon you’re about to hear is not about breaking walls down. It’s about building them up. High walls, huge walls. Walls made of the heaviest and strongest stone. And the real kicker is that I’m applauding these walls; I’m celebrating these walls. These walls are a good thing for God’s people. So as I preach this sermon today on building walls up, I’ll understand if the whiplash causes your neck to hurt.
And not only is this the first time in nearly seventeen years of ministry that I’ve preached on the value of walls, but it’s also the first time I’ve preached on the man who helped put them there: Nehemiah. You know, there’s a reason this is the first time I’ve preached on Nehemiah. For one, he’s kind of lost in this obscure wilderness of the Bible; that part you have to use the index to find. Somewhere after Psalms. That’s where Nehemiah is. And it doesn’t help that Nehemiah gets overshadowed by some of the headliners of the Old Testament, like Moses and David and Elijah and Isaiah. If this is a rock concert, Nehemiah is the opening act for the opening band. And it’s not like Nehemiah did anything miraculous, like parting the Red Sea or slaying a giant or walking around naked for three years. Which the prophet Isaiah actually did, by the way. Maybe it’s a good thing Nehemiah didn’t do that. All Nehemiah did was help God’s people build a few walls.
See, for nearly seventy years, God’s people had been living in Babylonian captivity, far from their beloved homeland and their city Jerusalem. Things, though were about to change. The Persians had recently come to power, and they had a whole different view of how conquered nations should be treated. They weren’t too keen on that whole captivity thing. So the people of Israel, those who wanted to, were allowed to go home! But there was this one problem: “home” had been unattended to for seventy years, and the last memory of Jerusalem that the few who had seen it with their own eyes had was of a heap of smoldering ruins. It would not be the glorious city their ancestors spoke so highly of.
And that’s where Nehemiah comes into play. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the Persian king, which may not sound like a big deal, but it was. It put him in a position to ask for a special favor – one that would take him to the homeland he’d never been. Still, though, it’s kind of a shame – there’s so much we don’t know about the guy. So much we don’t know about his motivation. Why? Why did he want to go to Jerusalem so badly? Why was he so willing to leave his cush cupbearer job to travel to the ruins of an ancient city he’d never set foot in before? I guess there are some things we’re never meant to know, and that’s a shame.
But anyway, back to this wall. Who knows how tall it must’ve been? We don’t get any specs on the wall, like Noah gave measurements for the Ark. We don’t know how many “cubits” the wall was. We don’t even really know what a cubit is., for that matter. Makes you kind of wonder what……..um, makes you wonder what……
(Nehemiah walks in during middle of sermon, with tape measure, notepad and pen., looking at walls, etc)
Steve: Excuse me, sir, can I help you with something?
Nehemiah: No, no, I’m fine. Thanks.
Steve: Um, okay….. We’re kind in the middle of something here…
Nehemiah: Oh. Well, don’t let me bother you as I’m walking around …
Steve: Can I ask what you’re doing, as you’re just “walking around?”
Nehemiah: Just taking a few measurements and making a few notes. We’ve got a lot of work to do here.
Steve: Wait - we've got a lot of work to do??
Nehemiah: Of course. There’s always a lot to do when you’re taking care of God’s house.
Steve: I’m sorry. This is just very odd. I mean, I'm not used to people interrupting me in the middle of the sermon. We're Presbyterian, for crying out loud! Who are you exactly?
Nehemiah: Me? My name is Nehemiah.
Steve: Nehemiah – like “in the Bible” Nehemiah?
Nehemiah: The very one!
Steve: Oooookay. What the heck, I’ll play along. It’s quite a coincidence that you’re here, “Nehemiah.” We were actually just talking about you!
Nehemiah: Oh, really? Well, what have you told them?
Steve: Well, I was telling them how you were living in Babylonian captivity when the Persians came, and how you became the cupbearer for the new king, and that was a pretty big honor….
Nehemiah: Yes, it was.
Steve: Yeah, that’s about where I was when I was ….. interrupted. I mean, I had actually just remarked that we really didn’t know why you went back to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah: Why did I go? Because I had heard what a mess it was! I’m telling you, it made me sick to my stomach. I cried like a baby! I had never set foot in Jerusalem before myself; I wasn’t even born when our people were taken from there. But I had heard the stories – about how glorious that city was, and about how God had blessed it and God’s people for all those years. And when I heard what had become of it……..well, I knew. I had to do something.
Steve: Seriously, Nehemiah, how bad could it have been, really?
Nehemiah: Imagine leaving your home for a month, doors wide open, letting anyone in, with no one to clean up. It’d be pretty bad when you got back, don’t you think?
Steve: Well, yeah, sure!
Nehemiah: Now imagine being away for 70 years!
Steve: Okay. I see your point. So you got permission to go to Jerusalem. When you got there, what did you do?
Nehemiah: Well, the first thing we did was repair the city walls. That was the most important thing, to keep enemy nations out. And believe me, they were in terrible shape. Terrible! That took some time, but with God’s help we did it. After that, we turned our focus to the holy temple.
Steve: You know, I gotta say, Nehemiah, I think it’s kind of interesting that, after the walls, the very first thing you guys focused on was the temple. I mean, I can only imagine the dozens of buildings that needed your attention. Why the temple first?
Nehemiah: Aw, that’s a no-brainer! Because that’s what brings the people together! Although it’s not really about the building or facility per se – that’s not what’s important. What’s important are the people who are brought together in that place as God’s people. That’s why we have to take care of God’s house, so they always have a place to come together and worship. In fact, that’s why I’m here today.
Steve: It is? What do you mean?
Nehemiah: Well….I don’t know how to put this lightly. But you all have some “facility issues” here…
Steve: Oh yeah, that. You see some problems, huh?
Nehemiah: Oh yes. I’m making a list right now. (reading off the list) Leaky roofs, cracks in the wall, courtyard sinking in the ground, potholes in the parking lot……
Steve: Kind of a long list you have there….
Nehemiah: (turning other pages) You have no idea! But no worries, my friend. This is
why I’m here today. I’m here to help you “Raise The Roof!”
Steve: Raise the roof? It’s not going to come falling down on us, is it??
Nehemiah: (rolling eyes). It’s an expression.
Steve: Okay, just checking! It’s just that we know we’ve got an old building here, and we’ve got some work to do on it. The problem is we’re not quite sure how.
Nehemiah: Well, believe me, it takes a lot of faith, a lot of love for God’s church. Which, according to my notes, you all have plenty of both. And that’s what makes all the difference. See, it’s not just a building you’re being asked to take care of. You’re being asked to take care of God’s house. And that’s a big deal – bigger than any one of us. You know why I got so emotional when I heard how bad things were back in Jerusalem?
Steve: Well, if I had to guess, I’d say it was because of what that city and that temple had meant to your ancestors, right?
Nehemiah: Yes, but not just them. Not just the past. I knew how much that city and that temple would mean to God’s future people – once they came home, like they eventually would. And see, that’s the thing about God’s house – it’s timeless, because it belongs to God! Past, present and future! And every once in a while, God calls the people to rise up and repair the walls or rebuild the temple. Or, in your case, “raise the roof!”
Steve: And you really think we’re up to that, Nehemiah?
Nehemiah: Absolutely! I saw it happen in Jerusalem way back when, and I’ve seen it happen countless times since. The God that we believe in and follow with our lives is a God of big and wonderful things. And God wants us to be part of those big and wonderful things – right here at First Presbyterian Church.
Steve: Well, Nehemiah, I got to say, I’m really glad you dropped by – even if it was right in the middle of a sermon. I guess taking care of our church – “raising the roof”, as you’ve put it, is about more than bricks and mortar. It’s about the people who gather in this place, week after week, year after year.
Nehemiah: (turning to walk out) You got that right! And there’s certainly plenty for us to do here. (stop) But you know what the neat thing is?
Steve: What’s that?
Nehemiah: The thing is, it’s not about us. Never has been, really. It’s about God, and what God can do through us, if we let him! (walk out)
Steve: Amen, brother! We’ll see you at lunch!
I really do hope Nehemiah sticks around for the lunch. I hope you do, too. If for no other reason than to learn more about this place whose doors we walk through every Sunday. Because there’s a lot we need to know, folks; and the good news is that it’s not all bad. The truth of the matter – and I think Nehemiah would agree – is that you can tell a lot about a church family by the place they choose to gather in.
Did you know, for instance, that the very first sanctuary of this church was not a sanctuary at all? It was a living room – a living room in the Gilmer house that stood right where we are sitting today. Four of the original seven members of our church were members of the Gilmer family, and you’ll see two of their names in the stained glass windows here. For nearly twenty years, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy met in the Gilmer’s living room, because they were a family. A church family. And over 150 years later, that same family continues to meet in this “living room.” You can tell a lot about a church family by the place they choose to gather in.
Did you know that this sanctuary is not the original sanctuary? The first one, constructed in the 1870's, burned to the ground when it was struck by lightning around the turn of the century. It would’ve been easy for our church family back then to have taken this as some sort of sign: God doesn’t want a church here! Or to not have bothered with doing anything and just go to some other church. And yet our predecessors were certain in their calling as a congregation to be a light to the world. They weren’t going to let a burned-down building get in the way. So they literally “raised the roof” and rebuilt God’s house all over again. You can tell a lot about a church family by the place they choose to gather in.
So here's the question: what do you think they’ll say about us, thirty or fifty or a hundred years from now, when they look back at the year 2013? How will they look upon this church family as they see the place we have chosen to gather in? My hope and prayer is that the story they tell won’t be about a leaky roof or cracked plaster, or a courtyard sinking into the ground or potholes in the parking lot. It will be about a family, a church family, who rose to the occasion like Nehemiah did, and prepared God’s timeless house for the past and the present and the future. May you and I begin writing that story, and raising the roof, in the next few weeks, together! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.
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