I've never preached on a stranger piece of scripture than Nehemiah 3. At first glance, it's one of those sections of the Bible that you end up skimming. A bunch of complicated names of people, born to other people, hailing from locales you either need to be a scholar, or a really dedicated Bible student, to track down. And quite frankly, most of these people - whoever they really were - have been lost to the succession of years since their passing.
I mean at one point there would have been people who read this who would have recognized these people outside of this particular context.
Oh yeah, Zakkur. I didn't know him but I went to high school with his dad, Imri.
Joiada. Had that falafel place over on the east side he ended up selling to his brother.
Shallum.... should have seen those daughters of his back in their prime. Hubba, hubba!
But at this juncture in time all that info has been lost. Just as someday nobody will no longer remember me because of that one season I played on Lima Senior's Sophomore Basketball team, or for the year in elementary school I was in the all-city recorder choir, or even as the father of that Xavier kid who was a good actor at Encore Theater, this fate has befallen all of the people on the list of who helped rebuild the wall. Really, it could be easily argued that the ONLY thing we remember these people for is their work on (or refusal to work on) the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem. So - as you might normally expect from the guy who almost ended up teaching high school history for a living - I don't have any clever little facts or stories about any of those folks or that time period. They are all unrecognizable, and largely forgotten by history.
But, there is something else about them that did capture my imagination.... how many professional "wall builders" do you see on that list? Far as I can tell, zero. Where is the list of the three bids for a contractor to do the work, the process in which those bids were measured, the qualifications of the various contractors, and then the process the contractor used to rebuild the walls? Doesn't exist.
And so while I am sure that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, and there had to be some people there who knew what they were doing, it was largely rebuilt with amateurs. Priests. Levites. Goldsmiths. Politicians. Servants. Merchants. Some guy in conjunction with his daughters. A few "nobles" felt like they were too good to their hands dirty, but the upshot is that a hodgepodge of people, most of whom weren't builders, were lead by a cupbearer to a king - also not a professional builder - to put the walls of Jerusalem back together.
But the masses were being prepared by God for this work. Maybe not the actual work of building the wall, but their hearts were being prepared to take on the task. To commit to the labor, sacrifice, and expense necessary to make this vision a reality. They had heard the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Joseph and Moses. They knew of King David and the wisdom of Solomon. They had practiced Passover. They knew that God, when they were slaves, had heard their cry and he delivered them. Set them free. And while they also had heard God's disappointment with them through the message of the prophets, they also heard the promise that a new thing was coming. They just had to commit, together.
We talk about the importance of "TEAM" right? When we coach our kid's team or whatever, we make sure everyone knows there's no "I" in "TEAM". Of course I was the smart-alleck who pointed out that was true, but "TEAM" does have an "M" and an "E". But this idea that we have to band together, put aside our differences, and unite under something bigger than what we can do ourselves, is something we drill down into every generation.
And I'll bet if you really think about it, most - or maybe all - of the most meaningful memories you carry forward with you are moments when you triumphed, or didn't quite overcome yet while still striving valiantly, in lockstep with others. Maybe you had a work project. Or were a member of a sports team. Or maybe you had a study group in school or were part of a service organization or club. Or maybe you accomplished something with your family, or significant other.
I saw, for example, on my Facebook newsfeed a post from someone commemorating their one year graduation from boot camp. He talked about how the experience was the most fun you could have that you'd never want to do again, and then thanked everyone with whom he went through it. I've heard - which is all I can say because I never served - that boot camp doesn't just test your physical limits, but ultimately is designed to bind you next to the people serving next to you. It's designed to orient you to taking care of one another by stressing the importance of doing your job properly while watching your neighbor's back. Because in the end that's what will keep you alive.
Shared experiences are generally at the heart of what gives our lives meaning. We aren't created to be alone. We're created as social creatures who need to be relationship with others. Even the most introverted of us still need at least one contact. One shared experience. Someone who cares. That's how God made us.
This is especially true when it comes to faith. Nehemiah rallied the city of Jerusalem, those who loved the city of Jerusalem, those who desired to heart of the city/community/nation/people - the Temple - be rebuilt. What started with brokenness, admitting that brokenness in prayer to Lord, compelled Nehemiah to humble himself to God's will for his life, and be obedient to this work. Work that will always be ultimately - as we see sometimes obliquely through the biblical text, and clearly in the person of Jesus - the creation and re-creation of relationships through the power of sacrificial restoration and reconciliation. Hence the plan for our lives, and the plan for Nehemiah's life, was a subset, a small piece, of this greater work God is doing. Creating and re-creating relationships through sacrificial restoration and reconciliation.
But the plan is never carried out singularly. When we talk about sacrificial restoration and reconciliation, we aren't just talking about Jesus on the cross. We're talking about us, carrying our cross. Jesus has shown us the way, dying unto self on behalf of the Kingdom. We each then make the sacrifice for others for the sake of God's plan. Reconciliation and restoration. The creation and re-creation of everything.
If you really think about it, what an adventure!
You know when Jesus called his first disciples - a few fisherman according to Matthew - to come and follow him so they learn a new "thing".... fishing for people, I'm sure they had no idea of what they were getting into. And maybe that's the problem with many of us as we practice our faith. It is the expected we want (even demand), but not the unexpected. I think Vince Antonucci - founder of The Verve Church in Las Vegas - puts it best in this video:
You know I've been responsible for facilitating hundreds of people over the years going on mission work experiences. I've heard the same reactions of people who participate over and over. A sense of shared purpose. A realization that whatever was given paled in what was received. That they were meant to go. Ordained to go. Prepared to go. Not prepared maybe for what they encountered, but prepared to take a major step of faith that ended up looking like this very encounter. And God showed up. Over and over, God shows up. And often it's in the most onerous and difficult circumstances that God seems to show up in most real way.
Why is this so often limited to the retreat experience? I mean I see churches trying to practice the presence of God through the power of the charismatic experience, and I don't doubt that the Lord shows up in the context of prayer and collective praise, but so much of the Gospels is Jesus impacting others and the world around him for the cause of fulfilling his mandate of "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven". We're taught that all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed to bring to fruition what is necessary to provide others with rest and shelter. We're told that if we ask, it will be given, knock and it will be opened, but I'm not sure that we really understand what this kind of faith entails.
All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to Jesus. Why should it be a surprise when in the midst of the most unexpected circumstances, where people step out in faith, that the Lord shows up in a big way? Maybe, if you're in a spiritual desert, the answer is making the journey out of safe place you are, toward the unknown in the wilderness.
Amateurs, scattered up and down that wall, had to trust one another. They had to agree on what they would accomplish, and hold others accountable to what they would accomplish. They had to get out of their comfort zone. Goldsmiths moving stones and levites affixing gates. Not everyone was willing to bear the work. Nobles, we're told, wouldn't deign to humble themselves to put a rock upon another rock in a broken wall, but the price of this, we're told, is that they had no part of rebuilding the wall. No part of the work accomplished.
The daughters of Shallum, on the other hand, could look upon the rebuilt walls, remember the hard work and toil, recall the challenges and opposition of those who didn't want to see Jerusalem back on her feet (even to the point, we'll find out of facing random planned attacks), and experience the sore muscles in places you didn't know you had muscles, and see what the Lord had accomplished through their faithfulness. They were surely pushed out of their comfort zone, and probably at one time or another wondered what in the world they were thinking, believing they could help rebuild the part of the wall between the Broad Wall and Valley Gate.
But they did it, together, with the Lord's leading.
I'll be honest, there was a time I measured a church's effectiveness with the normal numbers.... nickels and noses. I still am guilty of sinking back into the nickels and noses mindset. Income and attendance as the end all be-all of our existence. And while those things on some level are necessary, the moments I've been proudest of the congregation I've served had virtually nothing to do with attendance or the offering.
I think about that first Big Drop, at the bottom of the recession, so many hurting people, and 1000 families served with food in what was about 30 minutes. The Lord called us, we responded to the call, and it was obvious that's what was needed in that moment of time. And I think the moments people needed prayer or visitation. The folks who needed others to help them get through a tough stretch in their lives. The moments people not only gathered around to lay on hands for prayer, but then made the follow up to do their part to help that prayer be answered. I remember in Bible studies and theology discussions moments of break thru. People turned off by what they thought the church was all about - nickels and noses - and suddenly impacted by the reality of Jesus' message. I remember all the attempts to address poverty, the need for education, racial reconciliation, cultural differences, and other huge challenges in this community... even the movements toward faithfulness that didn't end the way those seeking God's will would have wanted them to.
I think of all the moments where the risk to do what we believed what God wanted seemed great. Dangerous. Opened unwritten, unexpected chapters in the course of God's continued ministry which revolved around the church who (mostly) own a building at 2600 Zurmehly Road. We were being prepared. God was getting us ready. We'd heard the stories of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus, if only for an instant. Of Paul blinded on the road to Damascus, his life forever changed as an agent of healing and new life. God was getting us ready.
Is the time at hand for you now, to do a new thing? A new thing in your life? A new thing in this world? Has God been been speaking? Is God whispering, "seek justice but do so humbly", and you think maybe you know what that means?
If God is revealing some sort of new adventure of reconciliation and restoration, of creation and re-creation in your own life, or out there somewhere in the world, the questions I want to challenge you to ask are these:
1) Who do believe God has prepared, or is preparing, to make the journey with you?
2) What is being demanded of each of you to do the work of reconciliation and restoration, creation and creation?
3) What are willing to commit to in order to make this vision a reality?
The journey is not made alone. It just isn't. And the chapters yet to be written aren't what you've come to expect. It's time to let God shake things up for the cause of creation and re-creation. Restoration and reconciliation, through our blood. Our sweat. Our tears. And most importantly, His grace.