Nehemiah was a Jew who was born in exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken most of its people away as slaves about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. More than a century later, Nehemiah served as cupbearer for Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. The book of the Bible which carries Nehemiah’s name tells us that a relative who had come from Jerusalem told him about the walls of the city which were in ruins and had no gates to protect its people from attack. This made him sad, which was noticed by Artaxerxes. When he asked Nehemiah what was wrong, he told the king about Jerusalem. Artaxerxes then gave Nehemiah permission and the support he needed to return to Jerusalem so he could rebuild its walls.
When Nehemiah reached Jerusalem, he directed its people to rebuild sections of the walls which were closest to them. The work started well, but there were a number of attempts to stop the building by people who didn’t want the walls to be restored. This lead Nehemiah to put half the city’s workers on guard duty while the rest built the wall. He even instructed the workers to carry a weapon in one hand while they continued working with the other.
The wall was finished in just 52 days. This is where the story from this week’s reading begins in chapter 8:1-10. To celebrate the completion of the work, all the people of Jerusalem assembled in a public square and listened to Ezra, the leading priest and scribe in Jerusalem, as he read the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, to them. The people responded to hearing God’s word by crying and weeping.
I don’t think the congregation was upset because they were standing in the hot sun or because the service was taking too long. Instead, as we read Nehemiah’s response to them in verse 10, it seems as though hearing God’s Law made them realise how far short they had fallen of doing what God wanted them to do and being who God wanted them to be. Their reaction was to cry, weep and mourn their sin and their failings.
What Nehemiah said next is vitally important. He told the assembled people not to ‘be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!’ (v10)
Nehemiah was telling God’s people then and now that the strength we need to live as God’s people and to bring his goodness to the world is not through mourning or crying or weeping or sadness. Instead, God wants us to find joy in his saving work because this joy will give us the strength we need to keep us safe and to live in ways that are pleasing to him.
When we read the books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are a lot of rules and regulations in them. However, there are also amazing stories of God saving people who were extremely flawed and working through people who were very messed up. The Torah is not just a set of commands, but also stories of grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption. Nehemiah was urging the people of Jerusalem to hear the stories of the Torah as good news because if God was able to rescue, redeem and restore them, as messed-up as they were, then he was more than able to do the same for the people of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah encourages us to read the stories of the Bible in the same way – as good news! I understand that there are times in the Christian life for reverence, contrition and repentance, but Nehemiah’s words help us understand that what will give us strength as God’s people is the joy of God’s saving work. When we read about or hear the ways in which God has worked in the past, the way he has been with those who suffer, healed the sick, released the captives and given life to the dead, God is also promising us that he can and will do the same for us. When we encounter God’s grace, peace and redemption in the words of the Bible, they carry with them the promise that God is also at work in our lives to bring us grace, peace, redemption and all of his goodness.
We see that in this week’s gospel reading from Luke 4:14-21 as Jesus read the words of Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.’
(vv 18,19 NLT)
Jesus then went on to say, ‘The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!’ (v21 NLT)
In Jesus, God fulfils his saving work for us. When we read the stories of Jesus, as with all the stories of the Bible, and hear them as good news for us, we can find a deep and lasting sense of joy that will be our strength. Especially when life is hard, when we suffer in any way or we experience tragedy, the stories and words of the Bible can give us a joy that the world can’t give. As we encounter the goodness of God in the gospel of Jesus, we can find joy which gives us strength to keep on living, to keep on loving, to keep on trusting God and hoping for a better tomorrow. Nehemiah tells us that we don’t find this strength in weeping or crying or feeling bad about ourselves or what we’ve done. We find God’s strength in his word, in the stories of his saving work for the people of the Old and New Testaments, and the joy this good news creates in our hearts.
As we begin a new year of ministry at St John’s it is my hope, my prayer and my goal to bring you the good news of Jesus so we can all grow in the joy that will give us strength in every circumstance of life. When we gather together to hear God’s word like the people in the Nehemiah story, I don’t want it to be a burden or a chore. I hope we can do it in eager expectation that through his good news, God will give us joy because of his saving work for us in Jesus, and that joy will give us strength, no matter what life might throw at us.