Toorak Uniting Church

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Making a new start, Finding guidance, The usefulness of road marks

Nehemia 7: 73 – 8: 12     Exodus 17: 1 – 17
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
25 January 2004

Today things will be a little bit different than usual. We will do things a little bit back to front. We’ll start with a reading, then there will be a short reflection on that reading, then we will share in some activity and finally there will be some more reflection and the paraphrases of another reading.

First we will read a passage from the book of Nehemia. Now Nehemia was a man that lived around 400 BC. He was governor of Judea from 445-433 appointed to that office by the King of Persia who at that time ruled over a vast empire situated in what is now the Near- and Middle East.

Round 560 the people of Israel had been led into captivity by the Babylonians who believed that resettling of people would help them consolidate their empire and create more unity. When the Babylonian empire was overthrown by the Persians around 520 the Persians soon decided that resettling was not the solution and they decided to allow ethnic groups to return to their homelands. As a result, from 538 onwards Jewish people started to move back to the area around Jerusalem. In their absence however other people had settled in the area and taken over their land and houses. As you can imagine they were not very positive about the previous inhabitants turning up on their doorsteps. So the resettling Jews had a rather difficult time and nothing much came of rebuilding their community. Nehemia heard of these problems and was moved by them. He worked at the court and asked if he could return to govern his people as a favour from the King. A favour that he was granted.
Back in Judea he meets with a lot of resistance from the Samaritans, the people who had come to consider Judea as their home as much as the Jewish people that returned from exile thought it was theirs. There was even an attempt on Nehemia’s life!

The passage we read is actually about Ezra. A person we don’t know that much about, apart from that he was involved with the governing of Judea together with or just after Nehemia.

Nehemia actually manages to get a lot of work done. He rebuilds the walls and starts rebuilding the temple as well. Our reading starts when he, to celebrate the finishing of the building of the walls, has the law of Moses read out in public. What exactly they read we don’t know. It is possible law here refers to all the five books of the Torah, but it is also possible that only a selection from those books was read, or even only the ten commandments in some shape or form. We don’t know, but it is not important, important is what happens next.

Reading Nehemia 7:73 – 8:13

Now this is strange. One would expect a dedication of the walls to take place, not a kind of service with the reading of the law as its central focus point. One could see it though as a symbolic action. After the physical walls have been finished the life of the people needs spiritual and moral walls as well. Walls provided by the law.

When the law is read the people we read that the people weep. A reaction probably prompted by people realising when the law was read what had gone wrong before, how their life fell short, and perhaps also because the hearing of the law and the finding of old directives may have deeply moved them.

The Levites help. With the interpretation and application of the text. They help the people with deciding what to do and how to do it on the basis of what has been read to them.

This interpretation and application is not I think, in hindsight, after Christ as it were, flawless. They encourage people to share and something that grows into a wonderful and community building exercise. Don’t weep they say, do something for each other, this discovery of the law and what it entails is reason to celebrate and should be something to rejoice about for everybody who is part of the community. Rich and poor. This is something that we, in the light of the gospel, would agree with as being according to what God wants, an example for us as a community worth following.
However, at the same time, racial purity becomes one of their focus points, at the cost of those who are no full blood Jews in their community. This would be difficult to consider a valid and worthwhile advice to be taken up by us today. Christ has since thought us the inclusiveness of Gods love and shown us that the gospel goes out to all people.

I think this shows us that interpretation and application are necessary at any time. As the people in Nehemia’s time did not understand the meaning and implications of the law as it was laid down in the books of Moses immediately and without trouble, we have to assess and re-assess what the words that have been written down in scripture mean to us. We do need the framework however. The framework of laws and stories written down and read out to help us discern where to go and what to do.

I’d like to illustrate that with an activity………

We need guidance to find direction, to know where we are going. To find the treasure you need clues, pointers, road marks. To be able to live life fully we also need guidance, clues, pointers and road marks that show us the perimeters between which we should live our life for it to be good and meaningful, in the eyes of Go, to ourselves and to others. We need signposts that guide us.

That is what the people in the time of Nehemia needed, and what moved them deeply when they found it. That is what we need. Direction in a world that is confusing and full of contradictory voices. That is what God gives us in his word, in the ten commandments, in the great commandment that Jesus has given us. Words that may need interpreting and applying sometimes because their meaning is not self evident in every time. Words that need people like the Levites were in the time of Nehemia who will make it their business to think the implications of the Word of God for that particular time through. People who may not always get it right, but who seek, in honesty and in all sincerity to apply what they find in God’s law to every day life. People like you and me who will read the law and ponder what it may mean for their day to day lives. Who are willing to be moved in such a way that it actually changes the way they lead their lives, like the people in the time of Nehemia who learned to share.

Some of the most beautiful and clear words we have as guidance for our living are the ten commandments and the summary Jesus gives of them in the gospels. I thought it might be a good idea to finish this sermon with my own paraphrase, interpretation if you will of those and leave you to ponder how they would apply to your life, right now, at this point in time, in your lives.

I am the Lord your God.
I liberated you when you were oppressed.
Make sure you keep your freedom
Stay with me.

Don’t think that the way you picture me
is all there is to know about me.

Don’t mention my Name in matters
I would not want to be associated with.

On my special day I want everybody to be free to celebrate,
make sure you leave others the opportunity to do so too.

Your mother and father are part of your life.
Don’t abandon them, then you’ll live life fully.
Do not neglect to care for those who devoted themselves to you
when you were too young to care for yourself.

Do not murder anyone, life is sacred.

Be faithful to whom you’ve committed yourself.

Don’t take for yourself what belongs to other people.
Don’t keep to yourself what there is to share.

Be trustworthy in the way you talk about others.

Don’t let your life be ruled by the longing to have other people‘s treasures.

And the summary Jesus gives: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbour as well as yourself.

Let us keep to those words and ponder with sincerity what they may mean to us at this moment in our lives. And let us rejoice because of the framework God provided for our lives, let us give thanks for the guidance and the boundaries he had put down for us in scripture.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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