As I read our lessons for today in preparation for writing this sermon, I found myself drawn to and intrigued by our reading from Nehemiah. I think there were two reasons for this. First, it has been a long time since I studied this book of the Bible, and I realized I had forgotten most of what I had learned about it and therefore my curiosity was peaked, and I wanted to relearn what I had forgotten. Second, I did remember a little bit about the context of this book, and what I did remember made me realize that there were some very instructive connections between the context of Nehemiah and the things we are living through today as a community of faith. And so began my journey, some of which I want to share with you this morning.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were once one combined book. Together they tell the story of the Judean Exiles returning from their captivity in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem. For more than 50 years, large portions of the former Kingdom of Judah had been captives in Babylon, the capital city of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, following their defeat in the Jewish-Babylonian War and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Now Babylon is under new leadership, Persian leadership. This new leadership had different rules and encouraged and financed the return of these exiled people to their homeland.
But I need to back up a little bit before I move forward in this sermon, for I think it is important to look at the bigger story of the Israelite people. We really need to back up all the way to Abraham and Sarah (remember them?). Many generations prior to Nehemiah, God had chosen a man and a woman, Abraham and Sarah, to leave their homeland and travel to a new place. God wanted to create a new people. A people who would live in covenant with God and show God’s dream for creation to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah obeyed and after many trials and tribulations a new generation was born from them.
As is the way of life on earth, the path to creating this new people was not straight and easy, but instead was twisty, turning, and difficult. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah found themselves enslaved in Egypt. They were suffering. They were groaning under the weight of their oppression. They were far from being a people who could represent God’s dream to the world. And God knew this. God heard their cries. God rescued them from their enslavement. God freed them from the chains of their oppressors. But they were not ready yet to be a people. Enslavement had damaged them individually and communally. They no longer knew what it meant to be God’s people. They had forgotten God’s dream for the world. They needed to be healed and reformed. And so, they wandered about the desert for 40 years, re-learning what they had forgotten.
And after 40 years of wandering and healing and re-learning and re-forming, they entered the land promised to their ancestors Abraham and Sarah. And they began the difficult and challenging task of actually living as God’s people, living the dream of God for the world. They sought to follow the commandments given to them in the desert. Commandments that asked them to care for one another and their relationship with God. They were ruled not by autocratic kings, but by Judges who are raised up from their midst. Life was not perfect, but they were faithful, and God was with them.
But eventually the allure of worldly power became too much for them. They saw the large nations growing up around them. Nations who were ruled by all-powerful kings. And they wanted what those nations had. So, they prayed to God to give them a king. God told them that this would be a mistake. God told them to be careful what they wished for. A king would bring them great power and wealth, but they wouldn’t share in that wealth and power. They asked for a king anyway. God said, “OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And God gave them their wish.
It took only 2 generations of kings for the nation to split into 2 (the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah). These two kingdoms coexisted for about 200 years when the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the northern kingdom, Israel. The Kingdom of Judah survived another 200 years before being conquered by the Babylonians. Throughout the centuries of rule by kings, corruption seems to have been the norm rather than the exception. Prophets were sent by God again and again to remind the rulers and the people of their role as God’s people. Again, and again the prophets were ignored. They got what they asked for, but it was certainly not what they needed nor was it what God intended.
During the centuries of kingly rule, the faith of the Jewish people was focused on Temple worship. In the Northern Kingdom of Israel there were two temples in Bethel and Dan. In the Southern Kingdom of Judah there was one temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the place God resided with the nation. They sacrificed animals in the Temple in order to grow closer to God. God had given them gifts, so they would return some of their gifts to God. This was the center of their religious life.
So, what to do then when the center of your religious life is suddenly and traumatically gone? This is the challeng faced once the Kingdom of Judah is conquered, the Temple destroyed, and thousands of Judeans are taken into exile. This was the end of the ancient kingdom of Judah. It could also have been an end to the Jewish religion. It could have been the end of God’s people chosen to show God’s dream to the world. But it wasn’t.
Instead, something amazing happened. During the more than 50 years the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, rather than slipping into despair and assimilating into the world around them, the Jewish people get back to basics and transform their community, their religion, they ways in which they communally follow God, into something new.
In their trauma, sadness and grief, these exiles turn to the stories of their faith, stories that had not yet been written down and codified into the Hebrew Scriptures that we read today. At this point, these were stories that had been passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. No longer having a Temple on which to focus, they had to find a new focus and a new way to recognize God in their midst, and these stories became their focus. These stories helped them re-learn who they were called to be.
They began writing the stories down and studying them together. They gathered locally in the communities in which they found themselves, forming synagogues. These synagogues were not led by priests tasked with performing ritual sacrifices, but by rabbis focused on teaching and spiritual development. They gathered to pray and to learn. Like their ancestors in the desert, they gathered to heal, re-learn, and re-form. They had to learn again what it meant to be God’s people, what it meant to show God’s dream to the world.
When they return from exile, they do rebuild the Temple, but they also bring with them their new way of being in relationship with God, their stories, and their synagogues. God was no longer confined to the Temple. Their ancient stories became central to understanding who they were in the present. They preserved these stories that they might always be reminded that their primary purpose is to show God’s dream to the world.
And I think we are in a similar moment ourselves. In the year 312 the Emperor Constantine eliminated all the edicts against Christians. Within a decade, Christianity was synonymous with Empire. For almost two millennia, Christianity has been used in the name of power to conquer, subjugate, kill, and oppress millions of people around the world. Throughout these centuries there have also been millions of faithful Christians who have sought to bring Christianity back to where it began, back to the teachings of Jesus, back to the dream of God. We remember many of these faithful Christians as saints, though there are many others that died unknown. But the usurpation of Christianity by worldly power, was not by and large good news for God’s dream. It is the reason why Christians were all right with colonization, enslavement, holocausts, and environmental degradation, none of which have anything to do with Jesus and the dream of God.
And thank God, that just as God did not give up on the Jewish people, God has not given up on us. Because of the forces of secularization in the western world, worldly power and Christianity are by and large becoming separated. There are some last-gasp efforts at Christian nationalism and the like in this country, but by and large Christianity has little worldly power left in our nation. In 1937, the first year such a survey was conducted, 73% of Americans claimed membership in a religious community. In 2021 that number was 47%.
My children report conversations with friends who don’t even understand the concept of God, never mind the concept of a church. And we know this to be true. We know that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren often see no reason for organized religion. The religion of Empire is dead. And I say thank God.
But this doesn’t mean Christianity is dead. As a matter of fact, I believe we are being given an opportunity to return to our roots. I believe we are being given an opportunity to reclaim what was lost when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. I believe we are being given the opportunity to re-learn what we have forgotten and to be re-formed in Jesus’ image. I believe we are being given a new opportunity to become again a faith community that shows God’s dream to the world.Will we be like the exiled-Jewish people and accept the opportunity? Will we let go of what needs to die? Will we re-learn what we have forgotten and allow God to re-form us? Or will we sink into despair and oblivion? The choice is ours. May we have ears to hear. May we choose well. Amen.