Sunday, January 27, 2019
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
Have you ever had something capture your imagination? Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” What is imagination? I would define it as a mental picture of something, which could become a reality if we did our part. Sometimes it comes to us as a dream or a vision. Often this dream or vision is the first step toward accomplishing something great.
Today I want to tell the story of a man in the Bible who was driven by a great dream, a great vision. Even more important, he was driven by God’s dream, and because he was driven by God’s dream and vision, he accomplished amazing things.
Many years ago, as we all know, Israel was destroyed by the Babylonians. Its citizens were either taken into slavery, or dispersed, or in other words spread out across the known world. And of course, Jerusalem lay in ruins. It was a dark and desolate time for God’s people. It was at such a time that God planted a dream in the heart of a righteous Jewish man named Nehemiah.
Nehemiah lived in the capital city of Susa in Persia which is modern day Iran. Nehemiah was the royal cup-bearer to the King of Persia. I realize the title of cup-bearer doesn’t sound impressive, but a cup-bearer was an officer of high rank in royal courts. His duty was to serve the drinks at the royal table. You see, there was a constant fear in royal courts that someone would poison the king. A person who served as cup-bearer to the king was chosen because he was regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold that position. He must guard against poison in the king’s cup and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it. The fact that the king trusted him so thoroughly often gave him a position of great influence.
In chapter 7 it says that Nehemiah’s brother, a man named Hanani, was put in charge of Jerusalem after the wall was rebuilt. And in our lesson today all is secure, and Ezra the priest is reading from God’s Law. God put it into Nehemiah’s heart that he was the one who must set about making a wrong situation right. A dream was born in Nehemiah’s heart, to go to Jerusalem to help his people. That’s how every great work begins. God puts a dream in someone’s heart.
Nehemiah became committed to the dream God had given him. Nehemiah applied for and received permission from the king to travel to Jerusalem as its new governor. There he made a secret inspection of the city’s walls that now lay in ruins, and he resolved that the walls would be rebuilt.
In chapter six, lots of critics showed up and said it could never be done. You could tell that Israel’s enemies were threatened by a change in the status quo. They taunted Nehemiah and tried to trap him and destroy his work. But Nehemiah wouldn’t be sidetracked. He said, I am doing a great work, and cannot come down (6:3). Those are very special words: “I am doing a great work and can’t come down.” Doing a great work is always the best answer we can give to our critics.
Nehemiah challenged the Jews to give, to labor, to build, to sacrifice, that the walls of the city might be rebuilt. And they responded as people often respond when they’re challenged with a dream greater than themselves. They responded in a wonderful way. They responded because of their faith in God and because they put their trust in Nehemiah’s dream. They knew that Nehemiah was a man of character. They knew that he was making even greater sacrifices than he was asking them to make.
It was customary in those times and even in today’s world, for governors to live well off of the labors of their subjects. But not Nehemiah. He ate the same bread that they ate. And he worked alongside them until the dream was realized.
However, there was a controversy among the people. These were difficult times. Some of the poorer residents of Jerusalem were having to sell themselves or their sons and daughters into slavery in order to borrow money to buy food. The greedy lenders of this money were themselves Jews. Nehemiah was infuriated at this practice. Here they were undertaking this enormous dream of rebuilding the city’s walls, and the wealthy were busy behind the scenes exploiting and enslaving their poorer brothers. Nehemiah couldn’t tolerate such an evil practice, and with his power as governor he put a stop to it. He was a man of conscience, compassion and character, and the people responded to his leadership, and the walls were rebuilt, the city was re-established, the great dream was realized.
This brings us to our Scripture lesson for the day. It’s one of the most beautiful passages in all of the Bible. When the seventh month had come, the children of Israel, many of whom were still scattered in towns around Jerusalem, gathered together in one great mass in the square before what they called the Water Gate. They told Ezra, the scribe, to bring the book of the Law of Moses to read it to the people. Remember, because of their recent history, most of the people had never heard the Law being read. So, Ezra brought the book of the Law before the assembly, and he read from it aloud from morning until midday, and the ears of all were attentive to the reading of the book of the law.
Did you notice that when he opened the book all the people stood? That was the custom then, in Jesus’ time and even ours today for the reading of the Gospel. You stand for the reading of the Word. Ezra read the sacred writings and blessed the Lord and all the people said, “Amen, Amen.” They lifted up their hands and they bowed their heads, and they worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Ezra not only read to the people from the Law, but he also interpreted the word so that the people could understand the words which he was reading, sort of like a sermon, as I'm doing right now. And the Bible tells us that the people began to weep as the Law was being read.
Can you see in your mind’s eye this beautiful event taking place? It’s a most moving scene. After all the hard work, all the sacrifice, all of the earnest prayers, now they had their own city and they had their sacred book, and tears flowed down their faces. Now Nehemiah stands to speak to them, and he tells them not to mourn but to rejoice, for this is the Lord’s day and rebuilding the city was the Lord’s doing, and Nehemiah reminded them that the joy of the Lord is their strength. What a great day that was in the life of the people of Israel!
Can you imagine, that when the festivities ended and the crowds dispersed, Nehemiah went off by himself and wept tears of joy and thanksgiving. The dream was now realized, the walls were rebuilt. “Thanks be to God,” Nehemiah probably prayed. It’s not too much to imagine that God, in turn, was saying, “Thank you as well, Nehemiah,” because God works through committed people.
What is the dream God has placed in your heart? I remember quite well the “I have a dream” speech by Dr. King when I was in high school. I remember it because I was attending high school during the riots in Cleveland and the images of what I saw and tried not to be a part of, and of course, that sometimes was to no avail.
God has given a dream all of us. And that dream is that we can be a part of bringing the Gospel to the city of Willowick, Eastlake and beyond. There’s still much to do in this world. May God always supply us with Nehemiah’s strength and will to see the world’s needs and respond to God’s call. I pray that there might be such a man or woman or young person of vision in this congregation today. Has God planted a dream in your heart?