Building Walls

I’ve been reading in the book of Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem may strike a discordant note in today’s Western culture. Back in ancient times, most cities were enclosed with high walls. This kept invaders out, and gave protection and a sense of identity to those who lived within. Today, we have cities spilling into other cities in sprawling metroplexes. We have trains, buses, and airplanes constantly shuttling between cities. Walled cities are not practical. Even the borders between nations have become porous and flexible (except during times of war or distress!) It can be difficult for modern readers to share Nehemiah’s distress at the state of Jerusalem’s wall, or his passion to see the walls rebuilt. After all, Jerusalem was a conquered city, being ruled by foreigners–the invaders had already gotten in! The project seems to us like a waste of time, materials, and energy. Even in his own day, the project seemed problematic, and Nehemiah faced resistance on many fronts.

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Yet God put it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do this; He answered Nehemiah’s plea to soften the King’s heart, and provided Nehemiah with an abundance of materials and even protection for the journey. It seems as though it was important to God that these walls were rebuilt. Why? How does God feel about walls, anyway? Did He not give Joshua great victory by making the walls of Jericho collapse? Does He not command the Israelites to welcome and be kind to foreigners? Did the Apostle Paul not say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Galatians 3:28 ESV)? How do walls fit in with God’s plan for our lives?

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Part of our confusion may lie in our understanding of walls in ancient cities. We know they provided protection from invading armies, but they did much more–and they represent much more in the Bible. Walls not only provided protection to ancient cities– they provided structure and definition. Walls kept strangers out, but they also had a series of gates to let people come and go in an orderly fashion. There were gates used for commerce, gates that served ceremonial functions, gates that smoothed travel through the city, and even gates that were mostly used to transport garbage and dung outside of the city.

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Walls and gates also gave a sense of identity to people in and around the cities– some people lived close to (even in or on) the city walls. All those who lived within the city “belonged” to that city– and those who lived and farmed close by could claim the protection of the city walls in times of danger– whether from siege or natural disasters. They could also expect the city dwellers to be a ready market for their products or services. Travelers and traders could expect to be safe inside the walls of a friendly city– such protection could not be found on the open road, nor in many smaller towns. Cities tended to have more public services, better systems of laws and more stable economies. Walls could help control the flow of commerce, ideas, and loyalties.

Just before the book of Nehemiah is the book of Ezra. Ezra was a priest and historian who also traveled to the fallen city of Jerusalem. His mission was to help rebuild the Temple, and to make sure the priests were purified and re-establishing the Jewish religious practices after years of exile. At the end of the book of Ezra, it is discovered that many of the returning exiles have broken the Jewish laws by intermarrying with foreign women, and “adding” idol worship and pagan practices to their worship of the One True God. The city –and all of its structure and identity–had been destroyed; the Temple and the Walls were gone, and the area was open to all the peoples and practices of the surrounding cultures. Over time, even the priests had become defiled, no longer obeying, or even knowing, their own laws and customs! It is in this context that Nehemiah’s book begins to make more sense.

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God is concerned about the “walls” in our lives– boundaries in our behavior and worship. Some walls may need to crumble and fall like those of Jericho– walls that keep us locked away, smug and proud, defiant and unapproachable. Walls that create barriers without providing protection or shelter. Walls that stand in the way of God’s authority in our lives. Other walls may need to be strengthened and rebuilt– walls pocked with compromises that have eroded our commitments; unguarded gates where lies and confusion have stolen in and weakened our faith; areas where the pressures and stresses of life have chipped away at the building blocks of our Christian walk.

In the very first chapter of Nehemiah’s book, there is a prayer– it is not about rebuilding a wall for power or protection–it doesn’t even mention the wall– rather it is about repentance, restoration, and recommitment:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.  We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.  Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Nehemiah 1: 1b-11 NIV
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May we be willing to pray for the walls in our lives– those that need to come down, and those that need to be rebuilt!

Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

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