Nehemiah, with the people of Jerusalem, built a wall around the city to keep the people safe, and they rejoiced. They had somewhere they could live in relative security, and they were able to meet together to worship without having to post guards. They could meet and listen to the word of God.
And that’s what they did. Nehemiah and Ezra called the people together and they read, and interpreted, and no doubt argued, because that’s how Jewish thought evolves, through long and impassioned arguments. Our tradition is a philosophical tradition, full of thought and interpretation and reason.
If you’re not sure who the characters in this episode are, Nehemiah is the governor of the city of Jerusalem. Originally a servant of the King, he asks to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls which have fallen into disrepair. The original memoir has been turned into an account of the restoration not just of Jerusalem, but of the Jewish people themselves. It is a story with a historical underpinning rather than a direct account, a story with a purpose. The purpose is to show how the people regain their city, their identity and their self-respect.
There is so much joy in this passage. The people were lost and scattered and vulnerable, and now they have their city back and their priest can read to them and teach them. They are so happy they listen for four or five hours. Ezra must have been a good preacher.
So what does this passage say to us today? I think it says something about what it means to be the people of God. The Jewish people were coming together in a hostile world, where tribalism vied with imperial domination. They had been enslaved and returned to their land and they needed to feel safe. Paradoxically, the building of the walls had restored their freedom.
So, too, we have walls around us today. Our church was built so that we could worship without interruption. We can come together as the people of God and listen to the Word and sing his praises. Christian communities who do not have a church building frequently long for one, while those who do have a building seldom quite appreciate what a privilege it is. It is not the building itself, so much as the space it affords us to listen to the word and to meet together. We need our space, dedicated to prayer and to God.
We need our identity too. We are the church of God, and like the Jewish people, we need to hold that identity. It means something to come into church each week. I do not for a moment subscribe to the view that only Christians come to church and only those who come to church are Christians. Nevertheless, coming to church is a public commitment. It changes you, it brings you into a different community. Our whole worshipping community has a relationship with God which is deeper than you can find as an individual. Together we can see more. Our different perspectives enrich us in a way solitary study can never do.
We so take church for granted. Here we are, with what – forty people in our church. We worry about how to bring people in. Listen to this experience:
Every week, several hundred local people make the journey to St George’s Church. Its vibrant services are full to overflowing. Its Sunday school is bursting at the seams.
Surrounded by blast walls and guarded by 35 soldiers, all worshippers are frisked on the way in, to detect and deter suicide bombers. A bus collects most members and brings them to the church, hoping to avoid kidnap. These are, however, preventative measures; the reality of violence remains. The congregation takes enormous risks, simply by coming here to worship.
One Sunday, a would-be suicide bomber managed to get into the church building. Mercifully, they were removed by security before they could detonate their explosives.
What does St George’s Baghdad have that we don’t? Perhaps it’s just that they know they need their church. It is part of their identity, part of their soul. Here, you can miss church one week knowing it will still be there the next. There, the church is threatened. Every person matters.
Except that we are threatened too. We are threatened on all sides by a society which increasingly ignores the holy for the material and the moral for the financial. It is time, now for the church to take a lead and stand up for our Christian values of love and sharing and compassion. The church is needed more than ever, but just as in the time of Nehemiah, just as in Baghdad, we need to realise the threats before we appreciate our church.
The church is needed, and we must respond to that need.
Nehemiah built the wall. Ezra taught the people. But it wasn’t as simple as that. Nehemiah, though not a priest, also taught the people and led the people and made it possible for Ezra to teach. It was a great example of lay and ordained co-operation, the two of them working together, along with a great supporting team, to create the space and develop the teaching within it. It is an example we should follow. They teach everyone, male and female, together in the new square. Such is the hunger for God’s word that all other divisions are forgotten. It is the precursor to our new testament reading, where St Paul talks about the importance of working together and the importance of every member of Christ’s body. At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian unity, we would do well to remember this. Every member of God’s church has a part to play, whatever church or chapel they attend and whatever they do within the church. Each one of you, each one of us, has a unique, special and valuable role to play within the life of the church. We have many roles which need to be fulfilled, and not enough people to fill them. Now is the time to step forward, if you would like to do more in the life of the church. We need leaders, people who will sit on the PCC and make decisions. We need representatives on Deanery Synod. We need people to help with the gardening and the building. We need singers and musicians and artists and people who can make things and, above all, we need compassionate people who can listen and help with our pastoral work.
Ezra could only stand up in front of the people and teach because the whole city had worked together to make it happen. In fifty-two days they built their wall and restored Jerusalem, not just because of the inspiring, organised management of Nehemiah and the deep spiritual leadership of Ezra, but because they all worked together.
So church is important, a safe space for us all. And we need to work together to make it happen. Church is about a community which works and shares. But there is a third aspect to this story which is vital for us to rediscover in the church today. Ezra, Nehemiah and all the people were joyful. They were rejoicing with the Lord. At the end of the service, Ezra sent the people out to have a party. In St George’s Baghdad, they celebrate every week they can, knowing how blessed they are to have a church and a mission. We need to tap into that holy joy too. It’s not called ‘celebrating Holy Communion’ for nothing.
In our other readings we also see this joy. St Paul says that if we honour each other, we will rejoice with each other. Not just get along, not just keep the peace, but rejoice. And Jesus’ words are perhaps the most joyful of all.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
That’s what we need to take from today’s readings. We are at the end of the Christmastide celebrations. We have seen the Christ child and honoured the future King. As we walk through the church’s year, we need to take that joy with us, to keep our eyes fixed on that mission. I was asked last week what my missional priorities for the church are. I think this should be the answer for all of us. We have been anointed, with water and with oil, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.