Inspired by reading TractorGirl discussing Nehemiah, this is my sermon for Sunday, on learning to party with God:
Partying with the Community of God
Nehemiah 8 : 9 – 12, Mark 3 : 31 – 35
A few years ago, I lived in the beautiful city of Bath. Legend has it that it was founded by a Celtic king, Bladud, who was cured from leprosy by its waters. Centuries later, the Romans built a spa town there, named after both a local deity and one of their own gods. Sadly, Aquae Sulis was abandoned when the Empire collapsed. Yet in time, the city regained prominence, and Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned there in 973 AD. However, Bath as it is today was built mostly during the Georgian period, with Bath Stone quarried by Ralph Allan. The Abbey, the site of Edgar’s coronation, is the third such building to have stood on that spot, and was heavily refurbished in the 1880s. Moreover, the façade of the famous Roman Baths is actually Victorian.
Bath’s story illustrates how easily things can be forgotten if we’re not careful; most of its Celtic and Roman past was only rediscovered by archaeological work carried out during the nineteenth century. History had to be re-learnt, and stories of old brought to life once again.
Something similar happened to the people of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon. They were held captive for roughly seventy years, and all apart from possibly the oldest in the community had forgotten much of their pre-exilic past, including it seems the teachings of the Law, which had defined them as a people, and shaped their relationship with God. That heritage needed to be unearthed, just as much as the bricks and mortar of Jerusalem needed restoring.
When Nehemiah saw the ruins of the city, he set about having the wall rebuilt, in the face of a good deal of opposition. Once security had been established and the people had resettled, his attention turned to restoring Israel’s worship and spiritual life. On the first day of the seventh month, Nehemiah gathered the people by one of the city gates and, with the help of several of the priests, began to read from and interpret the Law of Moses to them. This unnerved the populace, because it highlighted the shortcomings that led to their exile in the first place, and they began to weep. However, Nehemiah told them to stop, and instead to go away and celebrate. This wasn’t a time for tears; Israel had to re-learn how to have a party! Why, you might ask?
Well, festivals were a hugely important part of Israel’s national life; they reminded them of what God had done in the past, particularly his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, and of his goodness to them in the present. Pentecost, which we celebrated a fortnight ago, has its origins in the Jewish festival of Weeks – their harvest festival. These events helped to lay bare what it meant to be the people of God. It was vital, therefore, that Israel learnt to reconnect, after the years of austerity in Babylon, with that rich heritage. The God who’d brought them out of exile wasn’t interested in laying on the guilt, as Nehemiah realised, but instead in encouraging them to live his way, so that they could have life to the full, and through them, all the nations would be blessed.
That call to be part of God’s community and to live his way is there in our Gospel reading, too. Jesus’ family had been unnerved by the numbers of people coming to him for healing, and no doubt influenced by the scribes who were ready to brand him demon-possessed, thought he was going mad. When they tried to pull him away from the crowds sitting at his feet, Jesus declared that anyone who does the will of his Father – that is, lives life God’s way – is part of the family. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are no longer servants, but his friends. In both cases, and whichever language we prefer, we’re being invited to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, made possible because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That grace sets us free to live life to the full, and to be God’s community in the world, so that others might know his love too.
However, it can be all too easy to lose sight of this, because the Church often acts like it’s forgotten how to celebrate, how to bring God’s story alive, so that we can be swept up by it, and be ready to help write another chapter. It strikes me that learning how to let ourselves go, and really enjoy God, is something vital and urgent that we need to focus upon. The Diamond Jubilee provided an opportunity for people to come together, share stories and build relationships. That’s exactly what we need to do; after all, we have an amazing story to tell.
Now it’s your turn to do some work. I’d like you to turn to the people next to you, and spend a few minutes talking about a time when you’ve experienced God at work in your life. It doesn’t matter if it was a happy or sad occasion, or whether it happened yesterday or many years ago. If nothing immediately springs to mind, then feel free to talk about something that happened to someone you know. Either way, let’s spend a few minutes sharing stories of God’s goodness.
I hope you found that encouraging. Being comfortable talking to each other about our faith and our experiences is important, because often we don’t do that and so miss out on such a lot, and because we’re likely to feel more confident talking to people outside church about our faith, and why it matters to us, if we can do so in a ‘safe space’, if you will. It’s a first step to learning how to really let ourselves go and celebrate with God.
However, it also matters that we don’t fall into the trap of glossing over the difficult bits of our stories. God doesn’t need us to make him look good, nor is he somehow disinterested in the complications and the muddle of everyday life.
Bath makes a great deal of how Jane Austen lived there for a time; there’s even a heritage centre dedicated to her. The reality, however, was that she hated Bath, which she felt was basically a cattle market. She was sick of being made to intend endless balls, in the hope of attracting a suitably wealthy husband! When Queen Victoria visited the city at age sixteen, she was apparently told by a charming young child that she had dumpy legs! She resolved never to visit Bath again, which she didn’t, and she hated it so much she used to pull the blind down whenever she was on a train passing through it. More seriously, Bath has a serious homeless problem, and the South-West edition of the Big Issue was started there to try to address the situation. These stories are just as much part of Bath’s history as the ‘good stuff’ I told you about at the beginning of this sermon. Leaving them out would give a false picture.
The bottom line is that we have a God who knows full well what it’s like to be human, because he’s lived among us. He’s not a distant and disinterested God, but instead one who wants all people to be part of his community, to be his brothers, sisters, close friends, and to party with him. The Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring is a foretaste of that we’ll experience in the great heavenly party, when God restores the heavens and the earth. Will you be going?