This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on January 24, 2016.
Most of us live in the world of ordinary miracles. Seasons come and go, children are born and grow up, and planets keep moving along their predestined paths. Rarely does the ground tremble when we pray or lightning flash when we worship. Most days are just normal… and normal is miraculous enough if we are wise enough to see it.
Nehemiah lived in a time of ordinary miracles. In the story of Nehemiah, there are no sea-splitting acts of God like there are in Exodus. The walls of Jericho don’t crumble and fall. Just because fire doesn’t fall from heaven doesn’t mean miracles didn’t happen in Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is just one person who is living in a time when the world has fallen apart. After years of Babylonian occupation and exile, Jerusalem was in ruins. Reports from the city reach Nehemiah, and he is broken by what he hears. He prays God will help him do something.
When the King of Babylon allows Nehemiah to return to the city to repair, Nehemiah throws himself into the work. With uncommon leadership, Nehemiah united those who had remained in Jerusalem with those who were returning for the work of rebuilding the walls of the city. By the end of chapter 6, the walls had been rebuilt to half their height around the city.
With the walls repaired, the people found themselves secure from the marauding tribes that had harassed the defeated city. While the people celebrated the success of their work, something was missing. Actually a lot was missing—the Temple hadn’t been repaired. There was no king. Everything that God had provided the Israelites was gone. Nehemiah recognized the people, even though they were in Jerusalem, no longer knew who they were.
While the rebuilding of the city was miraculous in and of itself, just as miraculous was the ability of the Jewish people to hold onto their identity through their focus on God’s Word. Some scholars believe the synagogues were founded during the Babylonian Exile. The Exile forced the Jewish people to focus on securing and collecting the texts of their Scriptures. Assemblies were formed to hear the Scriptures read out loud, a practice that continues to this day, and the law was discussed and debated. The Jewish people knew who they were because they heard the stories that told them who they were.
Knowing this, Nehemiah invites a respected scribe, Ezra, to come to Jerusalem and read the words of Scripture to the people. Ezra was a man who had dedicated himself to the study and teaching of God’s Word (Ezra 7:14). A platform was built for Ezra, and he stood in the midst of the people and read from the Scriptures all day long.
And the people’s first response? The people fell under deep conviction. They were grieved. As Ezra read the words of Scripture, the people heard how far they had fallen away from what God expected. They were reminded of all they had lost, not only the city of Jerusalem, and the kingdom David had built. They had lost their unique relationship with God—a relationship that was at the heart of Israel’s identity.
What’s more, the people recognized their plight was their own fault. Time and time again, the people heard the words of the prophets warning the people to turn away from their idols, seek justice, and live mercifully toward their neighbors. Each time, these warnings had been ignored and true to His word, God had allowed Jerusalem to fall to Nebuchadnezzar. Realizing this, the people grieved almost to the point of despair.
Nehemiah caught them and prevented the people from falling too deeply into their shame. Yes, the people had sinned. Yes, the nation had been disobedient, but God is still faithful to His promises. God is still at work and the rebuilding of Jerusalem was evidence of God’s unfailing love.
Grief is a significant part of repentance. The sinner must understand the depth of the damage done by the sin. True repentance begins when the price of the failure is truly felt by the sinner, but grief can’t give way to shame and hopelessness. Hope brings repentance. The sinner has to understand things can be different. As sinners, we are not victims to our failures.
God is at work and for this reason, Nehemiah encouraged the people to celebrate the goodness of God with feasting. Hearing we are sinners is only half of the story. God’s story—His dealings with His people—doesn’t end in judgement and condemnation, but with redemption and recreation. The same Word that made the universe in the beginning was now making all things new. The people, once scattered in Exile, were now being reminded of who they are. “Beloved,” “chosen,” “bride,” these words described a relationship that wasn’t earned, but given through God’s great love to His people. The nation of Israel was defined by God’s love for them, not by their failures. The repentant had now become the redeemed.
Too many people have heard only the first part of the gospel—that we are all sinners in desperate need of salvation. All of have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but that’s only the first part of the story. True, the gospel is bad news before it is good news. The bad news is that we’re all lost and we can’t find our way home. We’re broken and we can’t fix what’s wrong.
The good news for us, as it was to Nehemiah’s people, is that God is faithful to His promises even when we are unfaithful to Him. The redemption of the world has come in Jesus Christ, the One sent to seek and save the lost.
And like the time of Nehemiah, there may not be any flashes of lightning or rumbling thunder when we preach this good news, but through us the Word will be heard. Like Ezra, we’ll stand in the middle of our people and read the ancient words and the Word will do what the Word does—bring conviction and redemption.
People’s lives will be changed. Ordinary miracles may be, once more, more than enough.
Dr. Mike Glenn
Brentwood Baptist Church, Brentwood, TN
Tags: miracles, redemption, chosen, repentance, grief