Yearly Archives: 2019

Sunday 17 February 2019

While our Church Building is Repaired we are meeting each Sunday at The Mineral & Lapidary Club 110 Waltham Rd (next to Waltham School) at 10am.

We would love to have the opportunity to welcome you.











NOTICES:

A very warm welcome to all who worship with us today. Please stay for a cuppa after the service.

Please Note: The Office telephone is still not working, but the e-mail is up and running. If you need to contact the Office urgently and do not have online access, Anna’s cellphone is : 0274332687

Minister’s holidays…. Dugald will is on leave for three weeks. If you have need of a minister, please contact Lyndsey McKay 388 1264.

Next Sunday’s worship will be led by Rev Hugh Perry.

Sound Operators: We are hoping Shipley’s will give a run down on the new sound system tomorrow (Monday) possibly at 9am.

Articles are now required for the next ‘Messenger’. The deadline is Friday 22nd February. Email: anneke.howie@gmail.com

Wednesday Walkers: 20th February. Meet 9.30am in Hawford Rd at Opawa Mall side entrance for a walk around the Opawa area followed by coffee at Opawa Café. All welcome.  Joan Scott 021 144 2406.

Board of Managers meeting this Wednesday 20th February 7.30pm in the church foyer.

Cleaner: Shortly we will need to appoint a cleaner to clean the church. If you know of a goodlocal person please talk with one of the Managers.

Preparing for Entry: We now have keypad entry points to the church. Old keys will not work, and anyone needing access to the church will need to get the keypad number from the office.  Because this number needs to be kept confidential you are asked to sign a confidentiality statement.  This means we can keep an accurate list of those who know the number.

Please return all old keys to the Office.

Crafty Crafters: Thursdays 10am-12 noon at 43 St Martins Rd. New faces are always welcome. Bring along an unfinished craft item, or learn a new skill. Cost $3 per session. Contact Lyndsey McKay 388 1264 for more information.

Crafty Crafters Bus Trip to Geraldine Thursday 21st March. Members of the congregation are invited to join us for a day out. Expressions of interest to Lyndsey McKay please. The cost will depend on the number of people who come.

Jams, Chutneys & Relishes for Sale (most $4):

Tomato relish, redcurrant & onion relish, plum & apple chutney; peach jelly, redcurrant jelly; Jams: hawea plum, greengage, raspberry, apricot, rhubarb & pineapple; Marmalades: lemon, orange & whisky, grapefruit, lemon & orange; $5: grapefruit, grapefruit & ginger.

If you have a favourite, place an order with Sue Saunders next Sunday 24th Feb – available to purchase 3rd & 10th March.  Cash sales only!

‘It’s Hot! Welcome to the Anthropocene’. Friday March 8th, 7.00-9.30pm, St Ninian’s, 5 Puriri St, Riccarton.

The Rev Dr Clive Pearson will present two lectures exploring the age of humans, i.e. the Anthropocene—an age which signifies the extent to which the human species has affected the planetary Earth systems. First session 7-8pm then half hour break for questions and break. Second session, ‘Believing the Anthropocene’ 8.30-9.20pm.



Town Hall Open Days

Saturday 23 February and Sunday 24 February, 12 noon – 6 pm, 86 – 95 Kilmore Street. The mayor will officially re-open the Town Hall at noon on 23 February, and people will be able to tour the Douglas Lilburn auditorium, the Avon Room that was Boaters Restaurant, and the Victoria and Limes Rooms. The James Hay Theatre will re-open in April, and August is the completion date for all restoration work.

From Barry Ayres, Executive Officer, Alpine Presbytery on Tasman District Fires

For the past week we have been monitoring the crisis in the Tasman area with the ongoing fires. We are keeping in touch with the churches in that area in case there are needs that we can help with.

 
Could I please remind you to: (and you will most likely already be doing this!) 
* keep the people in the Tasman area in your churches’ prayers – this is a very anxious situation for all concerned and a demanding time for all the emergency workers who are obviously doing a fantastic job in very demanding conditions;

 
* with the imminent plan to place restrictions on the use of water in the district there will no doubt be added pressure to local business and rural sectors;

 
* consider how your church could provide appropriate help  – I have had an inquiry or two and some have asked about sending food, etc. Our experience shows that in the main the best practical support is finance. Local people can then turn that into food or whatever may best help them. A good principle before sending any help is to ask what is most needed. The people at the scene will know best.

 
Donations can be made to the Tasman District Mayoral Relief Fund or to Alpine Presbytery and we will pass those donations on for you. The Alpine bank account is 06 0197 0399931 00 (please indicate whom the donation is from so that we can receipt you)

 

We continue to pray for the people of the Tasman region and indeed people in many parts of NZ as the fire-risk increases this summer.

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It All Begins Now

ILuke 4:14-30

We Protestants are an interesting bunch.  We have been shaped by one Martin Luther who had a deep crisis of faith and one day discovered that he didn’t need to prove himself good enough to be accepted by God but he accepted just as he was.  It was a profound moment of liberation for Luther and he set about liberating his church from the idea that you had to earn a place in heaven, by being good enough or by paying large sums of money to the church to purchase your ticket.  Justification by grace through faith became the catch cry of the new church that emerged.  God accepts and treasures you as a free gift, grace….accept this by faith and you are born anew.  And I trust you know this good news to be true.  I have to confess I need to go on hearing this because my faith is not always strong.  I thank God that there is an insistent whisper in the universe that keeps underlining this.  Amazing Grace.

There is an issue however with this message as the good news of Jesus.  Justification by grace through faith as I hear it is a very individualistic message.  If this is the good news of Jesus it seems to be about saving certain individuals.  Now clearly each and every one of us is precious to God – that is well seen in Jesus’ ministry.  He even goes out of his way to notice the untouchables, and the nobodies of the world.  It is good news to know we are loved, we are accepted, we are valued.  Jesus does set us free from the need to prove ourselves, to be good enough, and he sets us free from the crippling fear of a hell.  But it’s just not enough. There is something much more to Jesus’ message of salvation and healing than saving individual souls.  It’s not just for me and my salvation, but Jesus wanted to save and heal the whole of creation.

Jesus doesn’t talk of an individual’s justification by grace through faith.  He says I have come that the whole earth might find life in all its fullness.  He has come to bring heaven into earth. He says the kingdom of God is at hand, not just for a select few but for the whole earth.  His ministry was about transforming life, and transforming communities.  He talked of a new commonwealth.  Individuals mattered but individuals don’t stand alone.  We are all part of communities and we are all part of a larger web of life.

After spending time in the desert preparing for his ministry Luke gives us the bones of an encounter that serves as a key introduction to his mission. He arrives back in his hometown and on the Sabbath went with everyone else to the local synagogue.  He is handed the scroll of Isaiah to read and opens the scriptures at Isaiah 61, a passage originally from the time of Exile when the Babylonian captives were given good news that God was going to deliver them.  A new beginning was at hand.  God was going to act to set captives free, to deliver the poor, give new vision to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  Great news.

It sounds like music to our ears.  We all want captives set free, deliverance for the poor, the blind given vision.  Nice words.  Nice sentiment. The reference to the year of the Lord’s Favour is a little less obvious.  It is a reference to what was known as the Year of Jubilee which was supposed to happen every fifty years in Israelite society.  (you can read about this in Lev  25:8-12) In that year all debts were cancelled and all property that had been sold was returned to the original owner.  This sounds odd to our ears but in Israelite society God owned the land and it was allotted to each family.  You didn’t own land but were simply trustees.  If you got into strife financially as plenty of people did in a hand to mouth economy you could sell your land but because it didn’t actually belong to you all you could do was sell it till the next year of Jubilee when it would return to your family again.  In effect you were selling years of use.  Investing ownership in God  was a radical way of ensuring the rich didn’t go on getting richer and the poor go down the plughole.  There was a constant rebalancing of wealth.  Likewise In the Jubilee Year all monetary debts were cancelled, and if you had sold family members into slavery they were released.  Everyone got a fresh start.  But it wasn’t just about people.  It was also a year of freedom for all creation, for the plants which were to be un-pruned and left free and wild for the year.  There was to be no intensive cultivation – creation was given a year to rest.  There were other laws about letting the land lie fallow every seven years, leaving some of the harvest around the edges for wild creatures and so on. The underlying message was the same, all of creation needed to be cared for, life was a gift, and should celebrate and emulate the grace of God.  All life should be given a fresh chance.   All creatures and plants included. 

It was a great passage to read.  But Jesus then sits down to teach on the passage that’s just been read as was custom.  Sermon time, and he says just a few words.  It’s happening now, this is what God wants and God want’s it now, here.  This is my ministry.

If he just said I have come to tell you God loves you, all would be well.  If he had just said believe and you are saved, there would have been lots of handshakes and pats on the back.  If he had just said have some concern for the poor and give them some left over change there would have been no issue.

But there was an immediate reaction….rage!  He says it’s time to take radical action to start living in a new way…the Kingdom of God way.  Forgive our debts and grudges, redistribute the wealth we have earned, sort out the conflicts, open the doors of the boxes we have put others in, set everyone free of the labels we have put on them.  Take better care of the environment.  You’ve got to be kidding.   It suits me to hold a grudge against old ‘so and so’.  It suits me to keep ‘x’ who I find a pain at arm’s length in a well-constructed figurative box.  The wealth and property I have is mine – I’ve earned it and I’m not about to put it at God’s disposal.  Don’t tell me to buy an electric donkey that doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses.    

To make matters worse Jesus starts naming outsiders as deserving God’s favour, and saying his hearers have domesticated their religion.  Outsiders don’t even put in the hard yards of going to church every Sunday.  This new earth is for them too?  What sort of God are we talking about here.

Seems like the answer to that question is pretty clear.  God is a God of grace.  God has a concern for everyone.   God wants to transform the world as we know it because it’s not providing life in all its fullness for everyone, and God wants us to take risks for this new earth NOW

Clearly it was all too much for the local synagogue.  Rage…. Isn’t this Joe’s son, and maybe the heat has got to him.  Who is he telling us good people what to do.  We are God’s people and we work damned hard to get what we have.    Jesus is just upsetting the apple cart.  He’s got a lot to learn about how the world really operates.

But Jesus is adamant.  The good news wasn’t about some distant heaven somewhere in the future, but about finding heaven in our midst now.  It was about Gods faithful solidarity with all humanity and all creation NOW.  It was about Gods compassion and call to be reconciled with one another NOW.  It was a summons to dare to be different NOW.    

Everyone agrees that the poor and down trodden should be helped sometime, that oppression and exploitation of the earth should cease one day, the planet should be respected one day, that wars should cease someday.  But for Jesus the message is clear…that someday is NOW.

The day has come today to cancel debts, to sort out issues with your enemies, to share bread with the hungry, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to care for creation….to start walking a new road.

The church as I know it still struggles to cotton on.  We are still often in the someday mode.  I look around us and see all sorts of petty conflicts.  We are real human beings after all and we still have much to learn about how to sort out our life together.  I look around and we are all somewhat lukewarm about the idea that we are trustees of the wealth we ‘own’.  We ask how will I benefit from ‘my’ wealth  instead of using it to transform life for all.  We hear about issues about our environment and say someone else can take the steps to sort it.  I find it mind blowing to think that if Jesus used a plastic bottle of shampoo we could dig it up intact today some 2000 years later.  How many plastic bottles and bags have I consigned to the trash to lie around in the earth and other places or break down and fill the oceans with plastic pieces?   Am I really with Jesus and the kingdom of heaven on this?  As his disciples we should be leading the charge to care for our environment, to be the radical ones who try to practice sustainability, but sadly too often you and I are in with the crowd.

I know it’s not easy stepping out of the patterns of life we are all embedded in, but the call of Jesus is a call to take radical risks to give witness to a new way of living……  NOW.   We are to be the Good News….NOW.  it was all too much for the hometown crowd that day, and if I’m honest I have some sympathy for them.  If we are going to be different we will need to encourage one another, bounce ideas off one another, question and learn together, pray together, act together.  NOW!

Dugald Wilson 3 Feb 2019 t

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We are Apprentices

  Luke 5:1-11

People called Jesus “Rabbi”, which means teacher.  He gathered around him a group of people called disciples.  Disciples are people who believe their teacher has something to teach them.  They are questioners and learners.  The word disciple come a Latin word which means to learn.   Learners ask questions, learners experiment, learners commit time and energy to following.  Maybe a good term in our time is “apprentices”, because learning for discipleship involves hands on practice.  Discipleship is a way of life.

Discipleship is an honoured and treasured term.  I remember as a young man reading Jesus’ teachings and being drawn into a way of looking at the world and other people that resonated deep within.  I was looking for a guide to show me how to live well and Jesus helped me see what was good and true.  His teachings helped me find values to live by.  As a young child I discovered speaking the truth was one of those values.  I discovered it was much better to tell my parents that I’d broken a precious ornament rather than concoct a story about how the cat had mysteriously jumped up and knocked the prize vase off the mantelpiece…  I was amazed at the way Jesus reached out to strangers and people who were rejected by others and tried to do the same.  I saw kids being treated badly by others at school so would try and befriend them.  Kids from other countries or with a different skin colour would often be picked on or ignored, so I tried to put myself in their shoes and befriend them…  I didn’t realise it at the time but the space to reflect as I walked home from school was an invaluable time of solitude where I could reflect and chew things over and Jesus was often part of that time. 

In my early 20’s I took to heart Jesus’ advice to live simply and tried to avoid being duped into the consumer dream that happiness is found in having the latest whatever.  I found others interested in that dream and we set up our flat to live simply, because we believed that’s what Jesus taught.  Part of that dream was to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle so as to consume less of the world’s resources which we did for some years, but alas the meat lover has won through again.  We talked about issues together and were part of the anti-nuclear movement staging street dramas and doing whatever we could to alert others to the evil of nuclear weapons.  When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, we took his words seriously.  To spend billions on making and peddling weapons of destruction in a world wracked by poverty and basic health and education issues, seems so wrong.  Jesus clearly stood for another way.  His rage at the merchants ripping off the poor in the temples was clear evidence of that.  His overturning of the money tables was not an anti-business protest, but was a protest about ripping people off and inappropriate and evil ways of making money.  Our banking industry needs to take note.  In our flat we talked often of how we could be a witness for Jesus and we tried to invite someone to share a meal with us each week.  Getting to know how others ticked and why they held views that were different was important. 

When it came to the inevitable O.E. (overseas experience) I felt called by Jesus to do something different.  Most seemed to head to the UK for a couple of years but I wanted to look at world poverty and decided to spend a year in a wealthy country and a year in a poor country to see what I could learn.  In America I volunteered to help in a rehab community for people suffering from mental illness.  It gave me a fascinating insight into the importance of community as a healing power.  I also learned as I walked the streets of wealthy American cities that there was terrible poverty there and many it seemed were consigned to the scrapheap of life.  Wealth invariably brought injustices as those with plenty tried to protect their position. In India I helped with the Presbyterian mission project in Jagadhri as well as spending time in a multi-faith project in Bihar state (maybe the poorest state in India) teaching children from surrounding villages about agricultural practices that might enable them to grow more food.  I learned that people with very little are often happier than those with much.  I learned many aid projects end poorly because they are too quick fix and not there for the long haul. People and communities are always very resistant to change even when the change will bring benefit.  I also learned that other religious traditions can help us rediscover spiritual practices of Jesus like the setting aside of quiet time to meditate and reflect with God who lives within on what was really motivating and driving my life.  Learning from other Christian traditions and other religions was an important part of listening to Jesus, and seeking to be a apprentice….someone who was constantly learning from Jesus.

Youth is, of course, a time to experiment and learn.  Unburdened by responsibility you can take risks and can be idealistic.  Sometimes I had no idea where I would lay my head at night, but things usually work out and around the world people are wonderfully gracious and kind.  Time progresses and sadly taking risks, experimenting, and exploring get trampled in our lives.  We start worrying about the future and get entangled in relationships that mean we are responsible for the welfare of others.  We adopt routines that minimize risk, or avoid pushing boundaries.  It’s easy for Jesus to become domesticated.  No longer is Jesus a teacher and we apprentices, but we are much happier to talk of Jesus as possibly a friend, or as a nice guy, and church can become a club rather than a community where we experiment and learn.  We reflect this in our makeup.  You go to Sunday School and Youth Group to learn and then you settle and get through life with the knowledge you’ve learned in those early years.  The truth is faith has to continue to grow and change as we learn more and more about life and face new experiences like what to do with wealth, how do we face aging and death, what do we do about climate change.  Too often faith becomes a private matter, a Sunday only matter.  We might go to a study group, but they tend to be about talking, head knowledge, and not ongoing transformation.  After three or four sessions we are as deep as we want to get with each other.

I believe that most of us want to live a life that honours God, our creator, a life that is meaningful, a life of significance, a life that honours our calling.  We want to live a life of integrity, a life that is true to our essence, and which will make a difference in our world.  To do this I believe we need a spiritual guide and we need to commit to ongoing learning.  As Christians we believe we see God most clearly in Jesus.  Jesus, is our light, our teacher, our Way, and we need to be learners of this Way throughout our lives.  Life long apprentices. 

I was speaking a while ago to a person who was learning a new way of living.  He had joined a  Weight Watchers group.  He said he’d been trying to lose weight for years and knew all the head stuff about what was required.  Eat less, exercise more….it’s pretty simple really.  But however hard he tried he never managed to put it into practice.  His weight remained the same or in reality slowly crept up over the years.  What made the difference he said was meeting with others who supported him and encouraged him to head down another road.  He needed to learn some strategies to do things differently, and he need to know others were with him as he instituted some changes in his life.  In just a couple of months he’s lost nearly 10kg.  It’s being part of a group that regularly meets together and encourages each other to with helpful advice that’s made the difference, he said.

I don’t quite understand why our religion and spirituality is so private.  I don’t understand why we give up learning.  I don’t know why we stop questioning and growing like little children do.   Life certainly becomes more complex as move down the track and face dilemmas and issues.  Disciples of Jesus don’t stop wrestling with that complexity and experimenting with answers. 

The truth is, Jesus didn’t just communicate some nice ideas, but declared “I am the way” and invited his disciples to form a community that would learn together and practice together a new way of living.  We live in a very different world some 2000 years after Jesus lived, but fueled and inspired by his example, teachings, and sacrifice, and listening for his Spirit alive in our time our eyes and hearts can be Jesus opened to see the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst.  We make the Way by walking not standing still or by always looking back to past traditions. 

Maybe we have been hoodwinked by our academic tradition that defined learning as acquiring information and knowledge.  We would be better off thinking of ourselves as apprentices  – people who learn by hands on learning and experimenting. The real answers lie in our lives here and now.  Past answers can help. But actually we have to face the reality of now.  If you ever had children that learned karate you’ll know the meaning of the word dojo.  A dojo comes out of the Japanese tradition  and it’s a place or school where you learn to practice martial arts or mediation.  Theoretically you could have a dojo to learn knitting or cooking.  The important thing is that it’s a place or a group where you learn how to do it through practice.  You learn karate by fronting up and focusing your energy to smash bits of wood.  It’s hands on practice.  It involves failure, commitment of time, some pain, connecting with people at the same stage and with the same vision.  Together the skills and the mental focus is learned that enables you to do amazing things.

It starts with someone recognizing and voicing a desire to learn and to grow.  Someone saying I don’t get it, I need help.  Asking a question.  Recognizing an itch or a hunger and being honest enough to own it.   I believe the gospel of Jesus, spreads not by force, or fear, but by fascination.  People itching together, people asking questions, people connecting.  Now there’s an interesting image for a church community!  People connecting with God by looking to Jesus as the rabbi, the teacher, the way of life.  People connecting with each other but also engaging with his Spirit today. People who know we make the road by walking and connecting. (net/cross)

So apprentices…. Learners…..as I’ve said before the church of the future is about circles…people engaging, connecting authentically, searching for true life.  Where 2 or 3 gather in my name, I will be there said Jesus ….maybe you have a question or an itch you need to share?.

Dugald Wilson 10 Feb 2019

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Sunday 3 February 2019

While our Church Building is Repaired we are meeting each Sunday at The Mineral & Lapidary Club 110 Waltham Rd (next to Waltham School) at 10am.

We would love to have the opportunity to welcome you.

Sunday 3rd February 2019

A very warm welcome to all who worship with us today. Please stay for a cuppa after the service.

Building Update: The carpark is finally sealed but the City Council is demanding we increase the size of the stormwater outlet to the street. This should not delay compliance but will take a couple of weeks to sort. Exterior painting is now complete, and inside there are a number of small jobs being completed. The building team will be back this week to install the kitchen roller door, out up organ speakers, and do the final tidy up. The practical completion inspection is scheduled for the end of this week (this is the architect’s final inspection).

Shifting organ and other items back into the church – we need a good team of blokes to shift the organ back into the church. Could we try for this Wednesday at 4pm? See Dugald if you can help.

The Parish Office will be closed on Wednesday 6th February (Waitangi Day).

We are now on Facebook – what we need is for everyone to visit the St Martins Presbyterian Community Church page and “like” it. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your grandchildren!

Foot Clinic will now resume on Monday 11th February 1-4pm at Beckenham Methodist Church lounge. Contact Lyndsey McKay 388 1264 for further details.

Articles are now required for the next ‘Messenger’. The deadline is Friday 22nd February.  Email: anneke.howie@gmail.com

Wednesday Walkers: 6th February Due to Waitangi Day we will meet at Hodder’s 408B Barrington Street at 9.30am along most shaded parts of the cycleways in Spreydon/Addington.  Coffee at Hodder’s where there is no surcharge but donations to Church funds welcome!!

Crafty Crafters: Thursdays 10am-12 noon at 43 St Martins Rd. New faces are always welcome. Bring along an unfinished craft item, or learn a new skill. Cost $3 per session. Contact Lyndsey McKay 388 1264 for more information.

‘It’s Hot! Welcome to the Anthropocene’. Friday March 8th, 7.00-9.30pm, St Ninian’s, 5 Puriri St, Riccarton.

The Rev Dr Clive Pearson will present two lectures exploring the age of humans, i.e. the Anthropocene—an age which signifies the extent to which the human species has affected the planetary Earth systems. First session 7-8pm then half hour break for questions and break. Second session, ‘Believing the Anthropocene’ 8.30-9.20pm.

Good News…. the Presbytery has allocated $32,000 from capital in the St David’s Trust and $18,000 to wind up the Agnes Dick Estate to help meet cost over-runs on our building project.  This is a very generous and helpful gesture for which we are very thankful.

You’re invited to a Presbytery Picnic: Bring along the family and a picnic and join us at the Groynes (entry off Johns Rd) TODAY from 11.30am. All welcome.




Session Notes….from meeting on January 23rd

Financial Matters…. Some members of Session met with representatives of the Presbytery concerning our immediate shortfall of $50,000 to complete the building.  We presented a report of what has happened with cost over runs and the Presbytery representatives have indicated strong support.  We are progressing some avenues which may meet the shortfall in full. We have indicated to the Presbytery that with loss of income from capital savings our ongoing financial situation is finely balanced.

We have asked the Presbytery to approve reducing the housing allowance paid to our minister from a full allowance to 2/3rds to help balance our books.

Ministry Review….A review of Dugald’s ministry has been conducted by the presbytery and has affirmed his work.  Some goals have been set to guide the next 15 months as Dugald transitions into retirement.  These include: completing the transition back into the church, increasing interaction with the community and the community usage of the church complex,  initiating a meditation group, developing the governance and visioning role of the Session, encouraging hospitality and conversation.

Parish Breakfasts…we will continue to hold these every two months with groups responsible as follows: Mar 17th Session, May 12th Men’s Group, July 7th Fireside, Sept 15th Walking Group, Nov 3rd Worship.

Gathering Events… we are looking at possible gathering events once we are back into the church complex….winter movie evenings (tea and movie), weekly morning tea with a focus on the sermon from the previous week,  flag 500 evening, board game evening…. It may be that you have a bright idea or an event you would help organise.  Talk to a Session member!

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Nehemiah for today

Introduction to Nehemiah 1:1- 2:8

There is a whole book in our Old Testament called Nehemiah and it tells the story of his mission to rebuild the wall around the city of Jerusalem.  It’s a bit of a strange story to have in the Bible so let me fill in some background.

The book of Nehemiah is closely linked with the book of Ezra and probably originally they were one book.  We’ll hear about Ezra in a minute.  For those of you who like dates we are talking about 450BCE.  The land of Israel has been occupied for over 100 years.  First it was the Babylonians who ransacked Jerusalem in 586BCE, destroyed the great Temple, and carted off many of the leaders and others as slaves in Babylon in what is known as the Exile.  It was a crushing defeat of a proud people and it caused much soul searching.  How could their God let this happen? 

The hard answer proclaimed by the prophets in the Old Testament was that the people had abandoned God.  They no longer kept the laws, and the worship of God had become a meaningless ritual.  Great disparities of wealth and a lack of respect for neighbour and life ensued.  Dishonesty, greed, and self seeking prevailed, and Israel lost its distinctiveness as a nation.  The defeat by the Babylonians was God’s judgment said the prophets.  The people had been unfaithful and this was the consequence.  But the Babylonians didn’t last either.  The great Persian King Cyrus had conquered his own grandfathers Median Empire (modern day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan) and had moved north and west and conquered what we call Turkey.   Finally he moved south and conquered the Babylonian Empire. 

What was astonishing is that everywhere he conquered he brought a firm humane rule that respected those conquered.  He created new rules and a term which lasts into our own time – the laws of the Medes and Persians – laws which stand the test of time.  The defeat of the city of Babylon was a staggering event.  Cyrus diverted the river Euphrates which ran though the city and marched in on the dry riverbed with the city walls intact.  There was little killing, no marching off of captives, no demolition of the religious symbols as the Babylonians themselves would have.  Cyrus was an emperor who thought in terms of commonwealth with everyone benefiting from peaceful trade and shared knowledge.  The vanquished were treated humanely rather than as slaves.  Cyrus looked at all the various people in Babylon, captives from many lands that the Babylonians had brought there and said, “if you want you can go back home. I’ll even provide assistance to help you.” 

The Jewish population were not sure.  They had been there 50 years and some had prospered as Jews often do.  What had changed though was that they had drawn closer to their God. The hard times had caused them to turn back to God and their soul searching had led to a re-valuing of their faith.  God hadn’t abandoned them as they thought, but they had abandoned God. 

A new dream began to emerge and that was God’s Holy Temple must be rebuilt in David’s city, in Jerusalem.  So a contingent of exiles was formed with a mission to rebuild the Temple.  Cyrus was generous.  He gave the Jews all the vast treasure of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple when the Babylonians had destroyed it.  You can read about their mission under the leader Zerubbabel in the opening six chapters of Ezra.  You’ll also read there that there was a rift between the returning exiles and those who had remained in Jerusalem.  The locals had intermarried with others and the exiles saw them as being second rate Jews who had acquiesced to the values and customs of the foreigners and others who lived around Jerusalem.  They were seen to be like chameleon lizards who adapt in appearance to whatever environment they are in. When these locals offered to help rebuild the Temple they were rejected.  It all caused strife and delayed things somewhat and the rebuild appears to have run out of steam.  The prophets Haggai and Zechariah weighed in with support to get the job completed.    Cyrus dies but his successor was also a man of tolerance…Darius.  You may remember he learnt something about the Jewish God when he consigned Daniel to the lions.  It was under Darius that the Temple was finally finished and it seemed a new age had dawned.  There were wonderful celebrations, but in reality the completion of the Temple wasn’t a magic bullet for the struggling Jewish community.  There is a lesson for us….our mission to repair a fine building is not the missions.

The next chapter of the story belongs to Ezra the priest.  Ezra was a rather pious man who would be labelled a religious fanatic in our time.  He lived in Babylon about 50 years after the Temple was complete.  There was by then a new king Artaxerxes.  Ezra could see that the distinctive Jewish way of life was in danger of being lost back in Jerusalem and while there had been a turning back to God with the building project it hadn’t lasted.  The people of God there had no cutting edge, no distinctiveness.  They were Jews in name only, they had a chameleon religion. 

He nagged Artaxerxes with a message…”there are a number of good Jews living in Babylon who would like to return to the land of their ancestors.”  Eventually the King said go and Ezra went with about 1700 others and sort things out in the homeland.  Ezra wasn’t pleased with all the backsliding he found back in Jerusalem and set about teaching the locals about the laws of Moses.  Ezra was particularly keen to re-establish the Sabbath, to impose a tax to pay for the proper running of the Temple, and to stop intermarriage with Canaanites and other races.  At the core of his mission was a desire to establish Jewish identity that had been watered down with all the mixing of religion that had been going on.  He even went as far as annulling all the mixed marriages from the past and wanted to send the women and children involved off out of Israel.  In the book of Ezra you can even read a long list of  the marriages that were dissolved!  As you can imagine there was opposition and poor old Ezra ended up minus quite a bit of hair which he pulled out in frustration.  Restoring the soul of the people wasn’t as easy as just passing laws to protect purity, and ranting and raving about how bad they all were.    

Reading…Nehemiah 1:1 – 2:8

Enter Nehemiah.  Nehemiah was a cup bearer of King Artaxerxes Cup bearers sound a strange profession but they were very trusted individuals in charge of what the King drank.  Not only did they have to be a good chooser of wines, but they had to ensure no-one poisoned the wine because that was a common way of getting rid of kings.  Nehemiah was a confidant of the King.  Nehemiah was also concerned about Jewish identity and the need to re-establish a new sense of Jewish distinctiveness.   The Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem the spiritual home of the people but Jerusalem was a city in ruins without a city wall.  Nehemiah heard God’s saying that he needed to go back and rebuild the wall.  King Artaxerxes liked his cup bearer very much and could see he was not sick in the physical sense but that he was suffering from a sadness of the heart. “As long as you come back you can go”, he said, and even provided an armed escort and a promise to provide all the timber necessary for the job.

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he could see there was much to be done but also he was going to find opposition in the form the local governor who didn’t appreciate Nehemiah arriving on the scene with his connections with Artaxerxes. The surrounding inhabitants of the land also didn’t want a strong Jerusalem, so Nehemiah took control of the city.  He seems to have been a great organiser of people and got the locals with money organised to each take a section of wall to repair.  No more just looking after your own interests, but Nehemiah talked about the common good.  “We can work together to do something we could never manage by ourselves.”  I guess today we might say Nehemiah was a great team builder.  There was opposition but Nehemiah was determined.  It started with jeering, but developed into armed clashes, so Nehemiah organised armed guards and a system to signal to everyone when trouble was brewing.  The work will continue said Nehemiah but every builder and labourer will be protected.  In one hand a tool and in the other a weapon. If you go to Israel today you’ll see nothing has changed. 

The people, reassured, protected, and with a will that believed God wanted the work done had the task completed in 52 days.  There was a great ceremony and Ezra the priest read the Torah to all the thousands of Israelites gathered in the Temple precincts. Many gathered had never read or heard the law being read before so Nehemiah and the Levites moved amongst the people to explain what was read.  There was great consternation among the people as they heard the teaching and saw they had failed to keep these laws.  But Ezra and the other leaders also affirmed the people with the message, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  In a great revival the people re-covenanted with God to keep the laws, to keep the Sabbath, and to tithe their income to support the upkeep of the Temple.   

But the story ends on a downer.  Nehemiah eventually heads back to Babylon and sometime later comes back to Jerusalem to see how things are going. He tours the city and finds the Temple staff and leaders are not keeping the tenets of the Torah.  The priests are not being paid because people have stopped tithing.  Out on the streets the Sabbath is not being kept, and the corruption the reformers had fought to erase is back.  The transformation Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah all longed for had only partially taken root.  Nehemiah’s story ends with an angry man going on a rampage telling the people to keep the Torah and saying to himself and to God, “at least I tried!”

What do we make of it all.  Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, all diagnosed an issue with their religious community.  That issue was that their religion has lost its saltiness.  The laws which brought life were forgotten.  It had lost its cutting edge.  The people of Jerusalem had become chameleon Jews who fitted uncritically into the patterns of the world around them.  Seeking wealth, possessions, and comfort.  God was no longer a living presence but a distant and dead reality.  Later religious leaders would recognise that building temples or walls doesn’t change hearts.  Stories like Ruth and Jonah were needed to remind people that God is much bigger than one select group.  I’m surprised that our dear friend Donald hasn’t championed Nehemiah the wall builder, but I want to champion the idea that God can be found in all people, and in all places and fine buildings and fences and walls aren’t particularly fancied by God. 

If Nehemiah were around today I would suggest that instead of rebuilding walls he would rebuild spiritual practices.  Instead of putting stones on top of one another to build a wall we need to build spiritual practices into our lives that nurture the Way of Jesus within our lives.  We need to build lives that are not built on the foundation of consumerism and acquiring more, but on building a relationship with God and participating in the mission of Jesus to discover life in all its fullness.  Keeping the Sabbath as a day to re-orientate in God, building and participating in a community of faith, finding prayer practices that work for you, asking more often what is God saying to me, making space to reflect and listen to the inner places, nurturing spiritual companions for the journey, meeting to study scripture together, reading good spiritual literature, practicing hospitality…. These are some of the building blocks that will build lives that are changed from the inside out.   

Listen to what Nehemiah is saying to you!

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