By Ed Little
A Reading from Nehemiah 2:1-20
1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” 6 The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. 7 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.
9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent officers of the army and cavalry with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.
11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. 12 Then I got up during the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the animal I rode. 13 I went out by night by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool; but there was no place for the animal I was riding to continue. 15 So I went up by way of the valley by night and inspected the wall. Then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.
17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” 18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.”
“How bad is it?” That’s the question we ask our doctor, our car’s mechanic, our plumber. And it’s a question that Nehemiah had to ask before he could begin the task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s broken wall. “Can this thing actually be fixed?”
Nehemiah, with much trepidation, approached the Persian King Artaxerxes, prayed, and made a request. Wondrously, Artaxerxes agreed to Nehemiah’s request and sent him to Jerusalem with authority to assemble resources and rebuild the wall. But now Nehemiah needed the facts, however painful they might be. And so, three days after arriving in Jerusalem, he made a stealthy inspection of the rubble. First on horseback, then on foot, Nehemiah and his companions inspected the ruined wall. It was as bad as he’d feared.
Nehemiah summoned the Jewish leaders, laid out the painful facts, and said, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.” Then, as a word of encouragement, “I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me.” The leaders replied, “Let us start building!” The order here is important: first the facts, and only afterward the decision to act. In other words, when God calls us, he wants us to know exactly what we’re facing; no dumbing down, no downplaying of reality.
Jesus himself takes this principle even farther: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Once more, no dumbing down; no downplaying of reality! Five times in the Baptismal Covenant, the celebrant asks, “Will you. . . ?” I’ve often thought (though never had the courage to ask), “Do you really understand what you’re being asked to do? Even more, do I?” Jesus wants us to follow him with eyes open!
The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).
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Today we pray for:
St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, Tenn.
The Diocese of Gusau (Church of Nigeria)