July 5, 2011

Wednesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 57, Joshua 4:1-8, Lk, 5:27
Evening - Ps. 61, 62, Nehemiah. 1, Acts 12:1-24

Commentary

The book of Nehemiah is often misunderstood; therefore, it is usually ignored by Christians and clergy. When it is studied it usually becomes the foundation for lessons and sermons about proper planning, wise use of resources, and effective leadership. But Nehemiah is about much more than building projects or good management. Nehemiah is about being the people of God. In Nehemiah we finally see the Jews return to Jerusalem, determined to be the people of God.

Like Ezra, Nehemiah was not among those who returned to Jerusalem after the Jews were released from Captivity. Born outside of Judea, he lived in the capitol of the Persian Empire, Shushan, where he was the king's cup bearer. His job was to ensure that the king's wine was not poisoned, meaning he had take a large drink of it before handing it to the king. If he lived, the king would drink the wine. If he died, the king hired another taster.

It in was the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 B.C., that Nehemiah heard from recent visitors to Jerusalem that the city was still in moral, spiritual, and economic decay (1:3). More than 90 years after Cyrus released the Jews, freed them to return to Jerusalem, and even gave them money and protection to rebuild their city and Temple, the city was still in shambles and apostasy. The brief revival that occurred when Haggai and Zechariah encouraged them to rebuild the Temple and return to the Covenant of God had burned out, and the people had returned to ungodliness and unbelief. Ezra moved to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., and a brief revival of the old faith ensued. But 13 years later (445 B.C.), when Nehemiah enquired about conditions in Jerusalem he received only bad news.

How could Nehemiah expect otherwise? The poverty stricken Jews in Jerusalem were surrounded by enemies, and had given up attempting to follow God. But what about the Jews who remained in Babylon and Persia? Had they not abandoned the call and Covenant of God? Had they not traded God for the "good life" in lands of ease and plenty? Had God called them to dwell in Shushan and Babylon and Egypt? Was their dwelling place optional? Or had God called them to dwell in the land He gave them, and be His people there (1:9)? It seems the people who had not returned to Jerusalem were equally as guilty of breaking the Covenant as the people in Judea. They were shirking their calling. They were concerned with their personal comforts rather than the will of God. Nehemiah finally realised this in verses 4-11. He had been concerned about Jerusalem, from the safety of Shushan. But he suddenly realised his concern was phony, a pious cover-up to ease his conscience for forsaking his calling and duty to God. His prayer was a prayer of confession and repentance as he accepted his guilt, and determined to go to Jerusalem.

It is not difficult to find applications for this passage to the Church and Christians of today. Many in the Church are simply names on the roll, not serious about being the Church of Jesus Christ. Others sit in comfortable pews of churches, where the demands of the Bible are ignored, and just enough of the Bible is kept to give the appearance of Christianity. To leave their comfortable pews and face the sacrifices and challenges of a real Church is unthinkable to them. Still others forsake the Church entirely. They call themselves Christians, and may be on a church roll, but their affection for God and His people is done from a safe distance. They have no intention of actually exchanging their phony, cover-up faith for the real thing. The only cure for such behaviour is repentance. Like Nehemiah, we all need to remember what God has commanded us to do and be, and where He has chosen to set His name (1:6-10).