Nehemiah 1-2: Starting over

Reading: Nehemiah 1-2

Before I say anything else, I will tell you that until relatively recently Ezra and Nehemiah were considered the same book. If you read all of Ezra, you might call Ezra the book of false starts. Ezra starts with Zurubbable and Joshua being sent to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem; and they build their own executive mansions, leaving the temple in ruins until God’s prophets condemn them for their behavior. Ezra then is sent to rebuild Jerusalem, and he engages in an ethnic purity purge, increasing and strengthening Judah’s enemies. The Persians show so much confidence in Ezra’s leadership that they appoint Nehemiah as his replacement.

Now, Nehemiah is sent with the task to rebuild Jerusalem, and I’m going to give some spoilers to what comes up: Nehemiah is the one that accomplishes his tasks. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall, he hears that the people are not being ruled justly and that the temple treasury is being misappropriated; and Nehemiah works to reform the system. Right now, we are looking at the leader who accomplishes the task that he was sent for, and attempts to create a just government that prevents the wealthy from exploiting the poor. Nehemiah succeeded where the two governors before him failed, and under his rule, decades after Zurubbable was sent to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah not only rebuilds the walls, but he re-populates the city so that it can take its place as a provincial capital.

The Biblical account of Nehemiah is one of a reformer, who works hard to correct decades of corrupt and unjust leadership. He works hard to overcome the various problem that he inherited; many of which would not be there if it were not for the mistakes of those who came before him.

The story of how Nehemiah got his start as a reformer comes in three simple steps; of course he had to do a lot of work after this; these three steps were steps that he had to take before he even began. The three steps were: first, he listened. Second, he repented. Third, he spoke up.

The book of Nehemiah starts with Nehemiah’s brother Hanani visiting the capital Susa, and his brother Nehemiah. Nehemiah asks how things are going back in Judah, and his brother tells him about it, specifically about the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah learns that the gates are burned, the walls and buildings are in ruins, and the place is virtually empty. The people who live in the province of Judah are “in great trouble and shame.” While it is unclear what is meant by this, our last two weeks give a few hints: Already there have been two waves of colonists who went with a commission and supplies to rebuild and yet the former capital city is still in ruins. Those who Persia appointed to rebuild have failed.

Now, Nehemiah is in a rather comfortable position; he is a trusted servant of the Persian emperor — the person who gives the king his drink. The cup-bearer was a person that a king would trust with his life, because it was his job to make sure that the king’s drink was safe. The person chosen for this position is somebody willing to give his life for the king, and can be trusted to never be a poisoner. The cup bearer would however be the first to drink the poison as his job was not only to bring drinks to the king, but to make sure that these drinks are safe. As cup bearers were completely trusted, they often heard the secrets of kings. Nehemiah could not benefit from listening.

I don’t know how much detail his brother went into, but Nehemiah heard him. If we look ahead and see the kinds of reforms that happened, we find that the wealthy were squeezing the poor until they lost everything. We find that there was corruption in the temple, and corruption in the governor’s administration. Nehemiah had to reform the entire system to bring justice — and, it started with hearing that it was bad, the people were suffering, and that what should be the capital was a pile of ruins.

The second thing that Nehemiah did is that he took responsibility for the situation. In his prayer, he confessed the sins of Israel. In his confession, he confessed the sins of his family, and even his own sinfulness. Nehemiah, in his prayer spoke of the sinfulness that caused Israel to be scattered. I don’t know if you remember our reading of Isaiah and Jeremiah — but, among the sins were the wealthy squeezing the poor for everything they had, and seizing up all of the land so that there would be no hope for the poor to get out of their poverty. I mention this, because one of the reforms that Nehemiah instituted was debt relief to give the poor a second chance.

When Nehemiah confessed the corporate sin of his people and his family, and even his own complacency of sitting in comfort while his people were suffering under corrupt leadership, oppression, and general hopelessness he did something that always has to happen before things can change.

Repenting is literally rethinking. When we repent, we are second-guessing our actions; we are looking into how things could be different. When we confess and repent we are stating what should be done differently; we are taking responsibility for what was done wrong, and we are stating what is right — if this takes, we do that right thing next time. Nehemiah repents of the sin of his people. Without repentance reformation is impossible.

The third thing that Nehemiah does is in next week’s chapter (chapter 2): he speaks up. As cup bearer, Nehemiah has the ear of the king. After he spends time praying, repenting, and agonizing over the position of Israel, he and the king have a conversation about it. Nehemiah asks to be sent to Judah, and the king writes him a letter of introduction, and he goes along with materials to rebuild Jerusalem, and to expand the temple.

Nehemiah was a person with privilege. He had a voice that few people have. If he had heard, prayed, and cried — but then went back to his comfortable life, nothing would have changed back home. Because he risked his high position, and spoke to the king, he was able to start this great reformation and finally rebuild Jerusalem and finish the temple.

Examples of positive leadership are, unfortunately, hard to find in scripture. Good leaders are most often given a couple sentences to say they ruled well for 20 years. Long narratives tend to tell where the leader went wrong. Nehemiah is quite possibly an exception; it tells how one person worked to reform decades of disastrously bad leadership, and bring justice to the people — even those who were not wealthy.

I know that our lives often have things that need reformation. Karl Barth wrote that “the Church is always to be reformed;”  Many people are in full agreement with Barth on this point. I know that there are many times when my own life is in need of reformation. I believe if we look carefully at ourselves and our own community, we can find places where a little reformation would do us good.

To tell the truth, even though I know reform is necessary, I don’t know what needs to happen. Like Nehemiah, there are some steps I need to take before I can get started. Like him, I need to listen, repent, and speak up. To be fair; sometimes I see that I live in a culture that does what it can to silence voices that it does not wish to hear. We live in a culture that hides people we don’t want to see. We find ways of saying that the experiences of others is not valid. Sometimes, it seems that it is so bad that we must repent of not listening before we even listen.

There are a lot of voices to listen to, and sometimes the reform that is necessary seems beyond us; but there is one voice that keeps reminding of a way that we should continue to reform: it is traditional to pray a prayer of confession before Eucharist, and one of the prayers that is common in the English speaking world goes like this:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. — Common book of Prayer

I might not know what I can do to change the world, or my community. When I listen to voices calling for political reform, I might not know which vision of reform is the best for us. When two groups of people claim grievances against one another, I might not know which side is in the right, or even if there is a right side — but, I at least have learned a way that I can pray.

I can confess that sometimes my words and actions are not loving — I can repent of this, and seek ways to reform myself to better live out love. Once I reform myself to love my neighbor, I will finally take that first step and listen.

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