A sermon delivered Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 27, 2013.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21; I Corinthians 12:12-31a
At the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Senator Edward Everett stood and spoke for over two hours just before President Lincoln, who was likely coming down with smallpox at the time, spoke for two minutes to deliver a speech that has gone down in history as one the greatest public speeches ever given. Later, Everett wrote Lincoln to pay homage to the brevity and power of the speech he gave adding this note of comparison: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, three chapters long in Matthew’s gospel, that I’ve heard read aloud in lieu of a Sunday morning sermon that took half an hour to read.
So how do you like your sermons? Assuming preaching has a point no matter how long or short it is, how long should a sermon be? Do you like them short and to the point (aka, a sermonette) or do you prefer longer sermons that include more details, more Scripture, more information and cool stories to illustrate every point being made?
When Ezra stood before the people to read Torah (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible) to the people, he began at dawn and didn’t finish until midday.
We listen to a professor for an hour and think nothing of it. We go to a movie and expect to be in the theater for two hours. A football game is a little over three hours and a round of golf takes four hours. See the point? They stood on their feet for 8 hours of the public reading of Torah. Wow!
In the preacher’s reasoning, we understand a half hour TV show is only 22 minutes long when all the commercials are dropped out. Most preachers generally agree there is an outer limit to how long a sermon should be and it’s controlled more by the half hour of television than by the faith and commitment of the church.
So what would be so riveting, so important to your own sense of identity that you would stand at attention listening to someone read for most of a day? Considering the children of Israel have just returned from their captivity to the Persians and that they’ve returned to their home country and rebuilt the walls to the city, thus ensuring their well-being, one might assume the people listened intently because the reading of Torah had something vital to say about their identity and their existence in the world. One might be able to better understand the psalmist’s word about the law of God when he says, “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold” (Psalm 19:10). Perhaps we can assume the hearing of the Torah must have been gold to the ears of the people.
Today I want to talk about a man with a mission. We read just a small portion of his story. Actually, we have come in at the end of the story, but the story behind the story is that of a great mission being accomplished that demanded great commitment and focus. It’s a story of leadership and single-mindedness. It’s a story of inspiration where one man picked up the work of the prophet before him and brought together all the resources and labors of the people to get this one thing done for the good of the people.
Nehemiah, along with many kinsmen from Israel, had been taken into slavery by the Persians. While there, he was chosen to serve as the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. That meant that everything that went into the king’s mouth was tasted first by Nehemiah to be sure it was not poisoned. The king could have no doubts about his intentions or his loyalty. Yet Nehemiah was more than the king’s cupbearer. He was a man who served God, a man who remembered Jerusalem, the city of the great King David, a man who established Jerusalem as the city of the people of Israel.
So when he heard that the walls of the city had been broken down and the gates had been burned to the ground he was crushed. The walls of a city in those days stood for the city itself. If the walls were broken down, if the gates that kept enemies out were burned to the ground, the city was lost.
Nehemiah likely knew that Ezra, the priest, had already made two trips to rebuild the temple. But the new temple was left without protection. The exiles that had returned were defenseless.
Not only did he feel bad, he prayed. And not only did he pray, he fasted and confessed the sins of his people. Then he determined in his heart to go and do something about the situation. So he became a man with a mission. And nothing was going to keep him from accomplishing it. His concern showed on his face.
As Nehemiah told his story to the king and requested from the king a leave of absence to go rebuild the city, someone else was listening. The Bible says the queen was sitting beside him. So what, you say? That queen was Queen Esther. Remember Esther the beautiful young Jewess who was chosen as a candidate for queen when the king got angry with his old one? Remember Esther? Remember what she said, “Who knows but that I am come into the kingdom for such a time as this?” That queen … a queen who surely talked on many occasions to the king on behalf of her people.
Here is the first remarkable part of this story: God had the right people in the right place at the right time to accomplish his purpose. God’s timing is a strange thing. I’m sure none of you have ever wondered about the way things were happening in your life but I sure have. Strangely, things have a way of eventually coming together.
Nehemiah not only got a leave of absence from his job, he got a letter so he could requisition supplies from the king’s lumberyard, and he had a military escort to be sure he reached his destination safely. Nehemiah reached the broken down walls of the city.
Although the goal of the mission was to rebuild the city and the city walls and gates, each man began with his own house. Each family put its own house in order first. Then they moved to the section of the wall that was nearby.
So we come to the passage read this morning, Chapter 8 of Nehemiah. The physical labor on the wall was complete. The contributions of each family were recorded in the genealogy book. The people gathered to be fed spiritually. I guess that follows the hierarchy of needs. When we have our physical and safety needs met, we are free to concentrate on our spiritual and emotional needs.
We have no record of Nehemiah calling the people together. It seems they gathered on their own: Men, women and children. Perhaps they sensed something big was about to happen. Perhaps the word just started circulating: “Come to the Water Gate. Everyone’s meeting at the Water Gate. Come on!” The Scripture says they gathered as one. And they asked Ezra the Priest to read to them the book of the Law of Moses. So he did. He read Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy from early morning until mid-afternoon. Ezra read and the other priests explained and interpreted the reading to the people.
And what was their response? After all this work and sacrifice in order to reestablish themselves and their faith? When they heard and understood the Law of Moses, they wept. Why did they weep? Perhaps they were touched with the memory of the great words of their faith. Perhaps they realized what they had lost through their hardness of heart and disobedience. Perhaps the familiar words brought back sweet memories of bygone days. Or perhaps because they knew that they had to make significant changes in their lives.
One of the roles of the Bible for us Christians is to hold the mirror up for us so we can compare ourselves to what we see there. Another role is to hold God up for us that we may behold the One who loves us and gave himself for us. Either of these can bring tears to our eyes … tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of gratitude, and tears of repentance. Tears cleanse our hearts and prepare us to walk in the way of Christ.
That reminds me of what happened one Sunday at one of our sister churches. The preacher was more than ordinarily eloquent and everyone was moved to tears … not a dry eye in the house. Well, I take that back. One man sitting right down front sat poker-faced, apparently unaffected by the sermon. At the end of the service, one of the deacons said to him, “You heard the sermon, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did,” said the stony gentleman. “I’m not deaf.”
“And what did you think of it?”
“I thought it was so moving I could have cried.”
“Well, why didn’t you?”
“Oh,” the man replied, “I don’t belong to this church.”
The Israelites knew the message was for them. So they cried. But tears are not the last word. Nehemiah told the people not to weep; not to be sad, but to rejoice; he told them to rejoice in the forgiveness and grace of God for God had allowed them to return to their holy city, to rebuild the walls and then to worship there as their ancestors had for generations. It was a time for rejoicing, for feasting. Nehemiah knew it was their joy that would keep them going. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
The joy of the Lord, knowing you are where God wants you to be, doing what God wants you to do even if that place is difficult. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was set before him.
Joy is the theme of the Christian gospel. Joy is present in the midst of persecution and trials. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Joy is that satisfaction, that feeling of belonging, of meaning within us that comes from resting our past, present and future in the arms of the heavenly parent who loves us. Who may discipline us because he loves us? Joy, the joy of the Lord is our strength. Sorrow lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning. What’s not known by many is that joy comes when we are engaged in the world carrying out the mission God has put before us.
Do you know what your mission is? Are you willing to work with God to accomplish it? Are you pursuing your mission? Are you willing to keep at it no matter what kind of distractions come along?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).