Old High St Stephen’s Church of Scotland

Sermon for 5 August 2012

Preacher: Steve Aisthorpe, Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland

Texts: Nehemiah 1:1-4; 3:1-5; 6:15-16

John 20:19-22

Note: Steve Aisthorpe will be leading Old High St Stephen’s Congregation in a process called ‘Future Focus’ over the coming months. We will be asking as many people as possible from the congregation to help us seek out the path we should be taking as a congregation in the coming years. Look out for information about the dates of the Future Focus meetings on this website in the next few weeks.

Did anybody watch the Olympics yesterday?
What a fantastic day for team GB.  I notice that in the papers today is has been called “Super Saturday”.  I was riveted to the TV with my two sons last nights as we watched Mo Farah in the 10,000m.  It was an amazing scene: 70-80,000 people cheering … not just cheering, but urging, willing the athletes on … and the athletes themselves – totally focused, committed, persevering, pushing forward …
And then, as I was driving up this morning I remembered that that scene is exactly the image that the New Testament uses as a metaphor for the Christian life.  In Hebrews 12 we read:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”

I guess that the reason I am here this morning is that I will be leading the congregation here through a series of what we have called “Future Focus” workshops over the coming months.  And part of the purpose of those meetings is to discern together what “the race marked out for us” is for Old High St Stephens”.  While all Christians everywhere and in every generation are called to many of the same things, there are also particular things that God wants us to be and to do in our particular context.  So, as we meet together we will be seeking to discern what it is that God wants us to be and to do as his people in Inverness in the 21st Century.
Let’s now turn our attention to the scriptures that were read to us (John 20:19-22 and Nehemiah 1:1-4; 3:1-5; 6:15-16) – and especially to Nehemiah.  I’ve found myself reading and thinking about Nehemiah recently and when I knew I was going to be with you this morning I just thought that there was so much we could benefit from in Nehemiah.
A bit of background: Nehemiah lived in Susa – capital of Persia – 1000 miles from Jerusalem.  Persia was THE great superpower of the time.  Nehemiah was cupbearer to the Emperor, the most powerful man in the world – a position of supreme trust.
So, he’s personal assistant to the most powerful man on earth, but he also has another identity.  When some Jews arrive he calls them “brothers”.  Nehemiah, like you and I, was a follower of the living God.
The report from the brothers who arrived from Jerusalem was brief, but, as far as Nehemiah was concerned, was devastating.  Jerusalem is a shambles – and the people are living in the rubble.
That is the situation when we meet Nehemiah.
I think that Nehemiah is an excellent role model for us at this time.  Like Nehemiah we are called to build in challenging times.  God wants us to be involved in building his Kingdom at a time when many people (just like those living in the broken ruins of Jerusalem) are comfortable in their hopelessness.
Nehemiah seemingly had everything against him – would the King let him go, he would have to travel over 1000 miles (real miles, not motorway or air miles) – genuine danger.  Could he lead the people to rebuild – he was a stranger – would they listen to him?  There would be a constant threat of attack while the project was being completed.
There was plenty that could have discouraged Nehemiah, but God had planted a vision in his heart.  We know of course from the verses ….. read to us that the King did give permission and the rebuilding of the wall, against all the odds, was successful.  But I’d like us to think this morning especially about the verses we read from chapter 3.
Here we read about what goes on between Nehemiah sensing God’s call to act … and that actually coming to pass.  I think this is therefore a very appropriate passage for Old High St Stephen’s at this point – the elders of this church have sensed God challenging them to review God’s vision is for this congregation of his people … but we don’t know the outcome yet.  We are living in similar inbetween times.
Now chapter 3 of Nehemiah is, at first sight, not one of the most inspiring chapters of the Bible.  It is a list of names – 38 in total – most of them very difficult to pronounce.  But as we look closer – at how the people named here worked together to accomplish the project that God had given them – I think that there is much to encourage us and to challenge us.
There are 3 thoughts in particular I’d like to share:
1. This is a list of names … but these are not just names … these are people.  Names are people and people are important … and this chapter tells us just how important people are to God.  This reminds us of the simple, basic truth that people are precious to God … you are precious to God.
People are important in God’s purposes (whether it is building a wall around Jerusalem or building his Kingdom in Inverness.
The Bible teaches us that God knows us by name … his knowledge of us and his care for us is personal … it’s intimate.
Could have just been a list of accomplishments … but it’s not – it’s a list of people.
So who were these 38 people who worked together to rebuild the wall?  Eliashib, Zaccur, Meremoth, Meshullam, Zadok … the list goes on …. Absolutely unknown to us, but known to God – precious to God.
One thing we can be sure of – they were all different.  Like you and I they were each unique.  No doubt among these 38 there was chalk and cheese – optimists and pessimists, leaders and followers
We know that there was a rich diversity of gifts, skills and talents – they came from different careers, jobs, professions – 8 of them are mentioned in Chapter 3: Goldsmiths, priests, a perfume maker (!) guards, merchants, servants, rulers and Levites.
Some were married and their family members worked with them.  Some worked with their sons, some with their daughters – and some were unmarried.
They came from different places: Jericho, Tekoa, Gibeon, Mizpah, Zelah
So different people, different backgrounds, different interests, gifts and jobs, from different places …. Does this ring any bells for you … because to me it sounds like just about any situation I’ve lived and worked in – and it sounds like Old High St Stephen’s church.
So my first point is simply that people are precious.
The second point that I take from this list of names in chapter 3 is that partnership is powerful.  There are only 32 verses in this chapter, but 26 times the phrase ‘next to him’ or ‘next to them’ occurs.  Despite all their differences these people worked together on a shared project.  There are 42 sections of the wall referred to – the people mentioned gave themselves to part of the wall – but working together they built the whole wall.
That reminds me of a favourite story of mine:
While St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built in London, the architect Sir Christopher Wren was visiting the work site. He came upon a stone mason and asked him what he was doing. The man replied that he was cutting this stone to a certain size and shape. Moving on, the architect asked another workman the same question. His answer was that he was earning so much money, shillings and pence, per day. That was all. The third labourer when asked the very same question, looked up, squared his shoulders, and proudly stated, ‘I am building a great Cathedral for my God’.
As followers of Jesus Christ – we are called to be partners in the most amazing project of all time – God’s plan to redeem his creation, God’s plan to establish his kingdom … and within that massive project, we are called to contribute in some specific way …
We are called to participate , called to contribute … each in a different way, each in a unique way … To be partners … In that sense the church is less like a club, and more like a team.  With a club you can be a faithful spectator and belong.  You can become an honourary life member by making a one off donation.  My father in law is a life member of Fortrose Sailing Club … but he’s not been in a boat for years.
But you become part of a team by taking part.  We live at a time when the church is rediscovering this truth.  I sometimes sense that young people in the church can feel  ‘my time hasn’t come yet’ and that older people can feel ‘ well my time has passed’ – the truth is that together we all have a part to play … we are not all called to do the same things … but we are each called to be faithful to our part – whatever that is.
My third point is that attitudes are everything.  As well as recording names and actions, this chapter of the Bible records attitudes.  No doubt the greatest test in any project is not skills – nor resources – it is attitudes.  Let’s look at some of the attitudes the Nehemiah records and which contributed to – or hindered the rebuilding:
1. There are leaders who led by example … ‘Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the sheep gate’  The leaders led by getting stuck in …
2. The were people who were willing to do more than was expected – when they’d done their bit we are told that they did another bit.  So we are told that ‘Baruch son of Zabbai eagerly repaired another section’ …
So there are some positive attitudes here, but there is also one embarrassing one.  Verse 5 must be the most embarrassing reference in the whole book of Nehemiah. It says

‘The next section was to be repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their leaders refused to do the work they were assigned.’

There might be all kinds of reasons why they refused, but how sad to have those words recorded  …
So, to summarise – firstly, people – all different, each unique, each precious to God, each one called to faithfulness …
Secondly, partnership is powerful – our contribution may sometimes seem small and insignificant, but as we join together the seemingly impossible becomes reality.
Thirdly – attitudes are everything – let’s be like Eliashib who got stuck in …– let’s be like ‘Baruch son of Zabbai who  eagerly did a bit extra … let’s never be known as being like the men of Tekoa, reluctant to do our part – whether that be big or small.
Over the coming months – through the Future Focus workshops you have an opportunity to join together and – bringing your unique perspective, your particular experiences – contribute to discerning what it is that God wants his people here to be and to do.  The Almighty God has an incredible plan for his world, we are part of that plan and you and I have a part to play in that.  And so I encourage you to pray (that these Future Focus meetings with be effective in discerning his plan and purposes) and to participate – to come along to the sessions and bring your unique and necessary contribution.
May God be glorified through these thoughts on his word – and as we work together these coming months.