I love to go to different stadiums, to see teams play. There’s something about being there in person that brings a different degree of enthusiasm out, as the crowd chants, and you can hear the sounds of the sport. But I have to admit that while I can go to an event without an allegiance to either team, it doesn’t take long until I have sided with one over the other. I’m just not wired to sit on the fence: there’s ultimately a team that impacts my emotions, whether it’s a spectacular play on one side or a dirty play on the other. I just can’t stay impartial to the way that the game plays out.
In our story today, Nehemiah finds that the people of Jerusalem are either on one side or another of the rebuilding process: no one simply sits back and says that they don’t care. He finds it out the hard way, without training or warning, as he’s thrown into a red hot mess of tribal arguments and socioeconomics.
At first, Nehemiah was “just” a cupbearer, a slave whose sole purpose was to drink what the king was served to see if there was poison in the cup. How would the king know there was poison there? The cupbearer, Nehemiah, would drop dead, of course. But Nehemiah heard about the suffering of his nation in Jerusalem, and he prayed that God would give him the opportunity to speak to the king, to make change happen.
Our story today picks up when Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem. He hasn’t told anyone why he’s there or what God had put on his heart to do. He spent the first few days meeting people, and assessing the “mood” of the people around him. But on the third night, he set out by himself and rode around the city.
Nehemiah had heard all about the ways that the once great city of King David had been broken down and left in pieces. He saw the way that the stones of the walls had been knocked down, and the wooden gates burnt to ash. He went at night to see what he could see without being jaded or impacted by the opinions of other people. He went at night so that he could avoid anyone else’s recognition of his exploration, and ask questions about his purpose there.
Nehemiah already had the permission of the king to be there; he already had a plan, the supplies, and the time. But what he didn’t have was a group of people who could perform the labor. He literally had a task that he believed in, and that he knew was worthwhile, but that he could not physically accomplish on his own. So, he went to the people of Israel, the ones who were left behind when the rich and the powerful were carried off. He went to the people who were hiding amongst the ruins, who had never mattered to anyone.
The cupbearer, the disposable one, went to the people that everyone else had forgotten about, who were of no consequence.
Nehemiah pitched them their way back to respectability, their way to discovering hope and a future in God’s plan. He told them that if they could rebuild the wall that they would win the respect they had longed to secure. He told them that not only was the God of the universe was behind the plan, but that the king himself had given them the go ahead.
And the people embraced the opportunity, and dug in. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. Given the opportunity to continue hiding or to build something for themselves, and for God, they dove in.
But not everyone is thrilled about the opportunity to create something new. Not everyone can see the opportunities available to the people of God who have been reduced to fugitives and outcasts in the ruins of their own city. Not everyone wants the redemption of the city to happen, because some of the people living in Jerusalem have found ways to get by, have found ways to make the status quo to work in their favor.
And Nehemiah’s arrival, and the plan he brings from God, are not welcome. The voices of despair, frustration, and fear arrive next, in the person of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. They mock the plan and they ridicule it, they challenge Nehemiah and ask him why he’s wasting his time? They ask him who he thinks he is to rebuild Jerusalem, because it’s obvious that the king wouldn’t support this plan??
Nehemiah is clear about who he is and what he represents. And it doesn’t matter what he has to do to work around the dead weight in front of him. He doesn’t care that they don’t think he can succeed; he doesn’t care that they don’t understand the word that God has given him. He’s going to keep moving forward, and trust God for the rest.
Nehemiah says, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
You’re either for the kingdom God is building here or you’re not. You can either participate and appreciate what happens, or you can mock us, and fight us, and try to bully us, and you can miss out on the awesomeness that God is doing.
Nehemiah foreshadows the sentiment that Jesus will share with his disciples in Matthew 12: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” We can try and re-articulate it anyway we’d like, but ultimately, Jesus says we have to choose a side.
God speaks these words, using the image of water, in Revelations 3: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Lukewarm water is useless! It doesn’t make for good tea, either iced or hot; no one wants to bath in it because the water doesn’t soothe the skin. Lukewarm water is nothing worth keeping.
Ultimately, whether it’s Nehemiah or Jesus or the angel of God speaking, there’s a less-than-subtle challenge: Are you with God or against him? Are you following love and truth and hope, or are you operating out of fear and falsehoods and selfishness?
Nehemiah can see the fear and frustration in the faces of his three challengers. He knows that they’re afraid that they will lose space, and comfort, probably income, and status, if the people of Jerusalem are able to stand on their own and defend their city. He knows that they know that they have benefited from the pain of others, and that they have a lot to lose.
His challenge to them is their last chance: either get on board or get out of the way.
It’s a challenge that lingers in my mind, and makes me ask: am I bought in? Am I pursuing God with my whole heart? Am I representing God in everything I do, or am I only half-baked in my theology, my actions, my thoughts? Am I keeping Jesus as the center of my decision-making and the hopes and dreams I have?
What does my prayer life look like? Am I praying by myself, with a friend, with my spouse and my kids? Am I giving God lip service on Sunday and checking back in with him a week later? Our own Bishop Cho says it’s not enough to just “check in” with God at meals and bedtime, but that we should be in a relationship with God that is meaningful, deep, and fully integrated into our lives.
I’ve heard people use the example that when we were in hot-blooded pursuit of our spouse or someone we were romantically interested in that we didn’t just show them attention at certain points, but that we were “all in,” that we pursued them so that they would absolutely know that we were interested. The longer I work in church and listen to the stories of people in committed relationships, the more I understand why that analogy can break down: we sometimes forget to be truly “all in,” tuned in, absolutely attentive to our significant other once we’ve grown comfortable with what it means to be in that relationship.
Do we need to be as annoying as golden retrievers in relationships? Of course not. But aren’t human relationships better, deeper, fuller when they are cultivated? What if we practiced on God and on our loved ones a fully participatory attentiveness? What if rather than working on what was next or down the road, we were “all in” at home, at church, and in prayer? That would be expectation defying, wouldn’t it?
But you better watch out, because it might change your life!
I hope you’ll reflect with me on the way we live, and the truths we believe. There is hope and grace in the person of the resurrected Christ. But you have to be all the way in, burning white hot. Otherwise, it’s merely going through the motions, simply lukewarm.
And we know lukewarm only gets spit out.
This sermon is for the 11 a.m. worship service at Blandford United Methodist Church in Prince George, Va.