“…but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’
Nehemiah 1:9 NRSV
“This year’s felt like four seasons of winter and you’d give anything to feel the sun.” These serve as the opening words to a song entitled “Reason” which was recorded by Christian artists Unspoken a couple of years ago. The premise behind their recording is that of making sense of life’s challenges and God’s whereabouts and/or purpose in suffering. While I do not necessarily agree with everything theologically within the song’s lyrics, this line stands out because of where we have been as a society and as a church for almost two years now. Yes, the cooler temperatures outside tell us that we are literally in the season known as “winter,” but life itself has honestly felt like a winter of a different sort with all of the uncertainty, separation, and fear which has dictated much of our thinking since the first mention of COVID-19 in America. Everyone has been wondering exactly when we might return to some semblance of normalcy, but we must be honest…it is probably not going to happen. If anything, as has been stated through various outlets, we will discover the formation of a “new normal” moving forward. It may not fit our fancy to begin with and it may not be “like the good ole days,” but we will adjust.
In the past year, I recall a series of sermons by the Reverend Dr. David Hailey, pastor of Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, related to the overwhelming changes of our world and the church’s attitude/response toward current happenings. Within this series, Dr. Hailey drew a comparison between the sudden and unsettling challenges of COVID and other issues and the experiences of God’s people who endured the Exile at the hands of the Babylonians about six centuries before Christ. No, we as Christians have not been deported to a far away land, but we can relate to the closure of church services, the death of family or friends, and the economic toll taken upon local places of business. It is quite depressing when you and I think about it and even more so if we choose dwell upon it. While we have to be honest about the present reality of our world physically, socially, politically, economically, and the like, it is the world in which you and I are called to serve. There is no alternate planet or universe to which we can be teleported in order to begin anew. No, it may not be what we choose and it may not have all of the characteristics of the Kingdom of God, but it is…well…what we have.
When the exiles returned from their period of captivity, the community which their forefathers and mothers had established looked radically different. The walls of the holy city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. Their beloved center of sacrifice, the Temple, was unrecognizable. Even the people seemed strange and suspect to the returnees’ arrival. This was an opportunity for the Jews to begin again, but where would they even start? The Persians supplied them with resources to take their initial steps, but everything was all wrong. The work proved slow, the conditions difficult, and the morale was somewhere between poor and non-existent. God had preserved a remnant people in spite of the tragedy of the Exile, but the “glory days” of God’s promises and provision seemed to be a distant memory. What would the future have in store and how might God’s people get to such a place if indeed it was a possibility? This was the situation into which stepped a man by the name of Nehemiah.
A Jew born in Persia during the time of the Exile, Nehemiah served as cupbearer to the Persian king and, therefore, maintained strong ties with those of power and influence. In spite of his royal position, Nehemiah’s heart was with his people, their heritage, and the possibilities which existed in their homeland. Upon hearing a report from those who had returned to Judah, Nehemiah’s countenance fell and in a tearful prayer he poured his heart before God. Each word of Nehemiah’s prayer recalls God’s promises from the past and seeks some expression of hope for what is to come. Broken in spirit, Nehemiah expressed his concerns with the king and was granted permission to return to Judah to assist in the recovery and reconstruction efforts. Royal permission was just the beginning of the process. In fact, that was the easiest part of Nehemiah’s dilemma. With time, Nehemiah discovered he had his work cut out if there was to be a rebuilt city and renewed people of God. It was not easy by any means and tested Nehemiah’s resolve considerably, but, by the end of the story, God worked through Nehemiah to help the people rediscover God’s purposes, recommit to following those purposes, and ultimately reconstruct the city of Jerusalem.
As we face the future, we, like Nehemiah, have been invited into a challenging task. No, we are not Exiles returning from Persia to rebuild the town of Lucama, but we do perhaps feel like we have been in exile. We have been separated from family and friends physically, we have experienced death within our church family, family situations have shifted about for some, and, quite honestly, many of us have gotten “out of the routine.” We can shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, or make excuses, but this will not change our circumstances or carry us back to yesteryear. We cannot recreate what has been, but we can rediscover our purpose, recommit to that purpose, and then participate in what God is creating for God’s tomorrow. As we begin 2022, I will be leading Wednesday Bible studies through the book of Nehemiah. I also plan to incorporate Nehemiah into some of our early worship services for the new year. My challenge for you is to answer this question individually, seriously, and prayerfully, “Do I want to be a part of God’s process for the future of Little Rock and the overall Body of Christ?” Will this work be easy? Will it happen overnight? Of course not! But if we commit to God’s future together anything is possible.
To God Be the Glory,
The Reverend Kelley Smart