When I started thinking about today’s readings with a view to writing I looked at the passage in Nehemiah and skipped straight to the Psalm. It’s another list of names. That’s Nehemiah a series of adventures in rebuilding a city inters[ersed with long lists of names; like a lot of books in the Bible there are parts where we think “why?” and hopefully look for the Holy Spirit to give us an answer.
The Jews were returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the city God had called His own. It had been a couple of generations since they had lived there, they had forgotten the Law and just exactly how God wanted them to live. Nehemiah had two tasks: to rebuild the city and to rebuild the people. Rebuilding the city was exciting with plots, threats and armed guards for the builders. Rebuilding God’s chosen people was less visually exciting but also involved plots, threats and the need for unity.
That brings us to chapters 11 and 12 which list the people who come to live in Jerusalem including the priests and Levites, the groups who would inspire and guide the people and lead them in the worship of the One True God. The question remains – why? I think that Nehemiah knew the people needed to be able to look back and see the ones who had gone before. They needed to remember the heroes of faith like Moses and Abraham, Jacob and David but also their own connection with those ancestors.
I receive a prayer letter each day for unreached people groups. Time after time it says one of the difficulties of reaching these groups is their sense of connection with their community. That following Jesus will result in disconnection from family, history, tradition ending in isolation and being cast out from their society. It’s a heavy price to pay. People need to be rooted, we need to know where we came from because it helps us know where we are and where we are going.
The writer to the Hebrews says this perfectly:
So since we stand surrounded by all those who have gone before, an enormous cloud of witnesses, let us drop every extra weight, every sin that clings to us and slackens our pace, and let us run with endurance the long race set before us.
Just as the Jews needed to identify their place in God’s plans and purposes through their heritage so we too need to be able to identify our place in those plans. They could look at their ancestors over hundreds of years and recognise that they were part of something bigger.
I said last week that we need to be in a community and to be accountable to that community so we can live holy and righteous lives. That is true but we also need to be part of a community because it tells us where we came from. We can look back into Acts and see what the earliest believers did, we can read what Paul said in his letters, what Peter taught. We can read the history of the church and what great men and women of God have done through the centuries. We can talk to those older in the faith than us and hear their testimonies of what God has done recently. We can share with each other week by week, day by day what God is doing now.
All of these things help to give us a firm ground on which to stand and live our lives as the family and people of God, as the Body of Christ at work in our day and generation, as part of the ongoing work of God in the World. Nehemiah made sure his people knew their place, knew their heritage. It steadied them in an uncertain world. We can know our place by keeping close to each other, learning from those who went ahead of us and sharing with those who come after us. That’s community, that’s family. That is what God calls us to be.