Sunday preaching: Living in Persia while your heart is in Jerusalem

I took Nehemiah to the seaside yesterday – Bangor, County Down. I’ve actually been in Bangor 6 Sundays this year and Ballycrochan Baptist Church is the third church I have preached in in the town. It’s been in existence for almost 30 years, a (second) church plant from Hamilton Road Baptist Church in the middle of the town.

We looked at Nehemiah 1 where Nehemiah is undone by the news of the plight of the Jews who have returned to Jerusalem after the years of exile.

The events of the chapter do not fit with the pattern of call that you get in the life of someone like Moses or Isaiah. Nehemiah was in no doubt that it was God who put a plan in his heart or that God had his hand on the enterprise that Nehemiah was about to undertake. But it didn’t start with a vision in the temple or a voice booming from heaven: it started with a question to his brother Hanani, who was on a visit from the stricken city of Jerusalem.

While the main richness of Nehemiah 1 is found in content of Nehemiah’s prayer (more on this later this week), we need to pay attention to the fact that Nehemiah, a Jew who had never lived in Jerusalem (as far as we know) and who in fact had made a decent career for himself in Persia, was not only concerned to know how things were in Jerusalem but was utterly devastated at the news he received. He was living and working in Persia, but his heart was in Jerusalem.

The Babylonian exile had managed to take the Jews out of Jerusalem, but it didn’t take Jerusalem out of the Jews. Think Psalm 137 and the song about the Rivers of Babylon. How could they forget?

And how could Nehemiah forget the city of his ancestors. It was the city of great kings – David and Solomon; it was the city of God whose temple was there. But the city was a far cry from what it was meant to be. Instead of glory there was shame; instead of splendour there was ruin. And it broke Nehemiah’s heart.

I think this challenges us in at least a couple of ways.

1. What does it mean to live here, wherever it is that we breathe and work and play, while realising that our ultimate allegiance is another Kingdom? The themes of pilgrimage and sojourn are important, if sometimes neglected themes of Christian living. The best of the Old Testament exiles worked hard for the place to which they had been exiled (Jeremiah told them to seek its welfare), but they never forgot Jerusalem.

2. What does it mean to be undone by “broken-down walls”, things which are not how they should be, where God has been sidelined and forgotten, where his name is not honoured? Where do you hear God say “Whom shall we send and who will go for us?”

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