Rebuilding Who We Are: Pleasant Surprise
Topic: Change Scripture: Hebrews 10:23–10:25, Nehemiah 8:1–8:3, Nehemiah 8:5–8:12, Nehemiah 8:17–8:18
Have you ever been in the right place at the right time? We know those moments when they happen, don’t we? It could be something as simple as pulling into the parking lot of a store just as someone else is pulling out of a great parking space or even just bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes it’s a little thing, and sometimes it turns out to have a pretty big impact on your life. Either way, it’s usually a Pleasant Surprise.
Last weekend I had the chance to spend a few days with a few of my closest friends. We all went to seminary together and have remained close ever since. We use a text chain almost daily to ask for prayer, crack jokes, share our lives, and send way too many gifs. Once a year, we also gather for a few days together. We pick a location, select a book to study, track down a few churches or ministries in that area to visit, and spend a lot of time talking, laughing, and sometimes crying. This group of friends is precious to me. They are people I went through seminary with and let me tell you, the people you go through biblical Hebrew with are your crew for life. But they are also people who understand the blessings and the demands of pastoral ministry. Over the last ten years or so, we’ve grown together. Those of us without kids when we met are now parents. Those that had kids now have young adults in high school and college. Jobs have changed, moves have taken place, tragedies have happened. Yet, through it all, we’ve been there for one another. And if you had told me I would gain relationships like these when I first went to Dubuque, Iowa, for my seminary orientation, I would have smiled politely and rolled my eyes. But I can even remember the moment I knew God had led me to something special with these people.
We were all at a small camp doing team-building and ice-breaker activities. I can’t say we all wanted to be there doing that at the time, but we were all good sports about it. We were doing an activity where we had to try and lift one person through a spiderweb made of rope. One of my friends, Cori, was the person we had to lift. As we were trying to get her through one of the holes, she started to dip, and one of the others, my now close friend Rod, said the words, “Just a little higher.” You have to remember that your pastor is a helpless, shameless Star Wars fanatic for this next part to make sense. Those words, “Just a little higher,” make up a line that Billy Dee Williams says in The Return of the Jedi. When Rod said it, I impulsively repeated the line in the same cadence and voice as the character in the Star Wars flick. Rod’s eyes and mine locked, and a friendship was born that day. I have similar moments with the others: Beau, Nic, and Cori. Some might say it was right place, right time. Some might call it coincidence, maybe providence. But what I know is - I was where I believed God had called me to be, a place of formation and growth in seminary. And because of that, I had the Pleasant Surprise of meeting a few people who would become some of my most treasured and trusted friends.
This morning we are wrapping up our Rebuilding Who We Are message series and, sadly, concluding our time in the book of Nehemiah for now. I really do hope you’ve gotten something out of our journey through this fantastic portion of God’s Word, especially if it was your first time really engaging the book of Nehemiah. But even though we’re finishing this series this morning, we’re going to leave with something that, I hope, is lasting. When we go through the moments and events recorded in this book, we find that in doing this necessary, intimidating, exciting work of rebuilding, that something else happened as well. Something in the background, something almost intangible, but something that left a significant imprint on God’s people. While they worked together, struggled together, worshipped together, and did life together, a transformation slowly took place. It wasn’t planned or sought after, but more of a Pleasant Surprise. We get a wonderful glimpse of this reality in Nehemiah 8. Like we’ve kind of done throughout this series, I’m going to bounce around a little but listen to what happened in Nehemiah 8.
What we witness here is a really powerful, even personal monument moment for the people of God at this time. They had endured the pain and brokenness of being torn from their homes. They’ve made the journey back to Jerusalem only to find it in ruins. They’ve heard the imploring voice of Nehemiah to come together as a community and begin the work of rebuilding. They’ve gotten their hands dirty. They’ve worked to rebuild walls and homes. And now, we read in verse 1 that “all the people came together as one” to hear the words of Scripture spoken by the priest, Ezra.
We read that this was a gathering of all people, all ages. We might gloss over that but it’s really quite remarkable when you think about it. So many people with different stories and personalities, different hopes and disappointments, all came together. Donna and Thomas Petter are a married couple, both Ph.D.’s and professors at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. They wrote an excellent commentary on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and they go out of their way to remark just how stunning this moment is in the book of Nehemiah. They say: “’All the people came together as one’ captures the same unity of purpose as at crucial moments in Nehemiah’s mission. Nehemiah is riding the wave, as it were. This is a sharp contrast to the sense of intimidation in chapter 6. The sense of unity is signaled by the syntax of the passage: the fact that ‘all the people’ – men, women, young, and old – are participating is repeated several times. The reader is taken back to the solemn assemblies in the nation’s glorious past when ‘all Israel came together.’” In a world where unity is often as rare as a unicorn and where division is more common than ever, we should really find this inspiring.
We’re told the people came together. They heard the Word of the Lord read. What’s more, they gathered there together and listened to God’s Word for what was likely 6 or so hours. And you think my sermons are long?! The people heard the truth and the promises of Scripture and they not only understood those truths but allowed them to settle onto and into their hearts, like the refreshing waters of a morning dew that fall upon and nourish the grass and flowers of a field. They worshipped together, they praised the name and goodness of God together. They ate together and celebrated together. And we have to remember, that is not why they came together in the first place. No, the people gathered in Jerusalem for the hard, somewhat discouraging, necessary work of rebuilding. But, by the grace of God, by doing just that…by coming together to do what God desired…something else happened. A Pleasant Surprise they weren’t expecting. They came together as a community. Their bonds of lineage and neighbor were fortified and transformed into the bonds of sibling identity as the children of God. Still unique individuals, but now something more. The work of rebuilding the city had quietly, tenderly, meaningfully fostered something of a rebuilding of themselves. And I believe this isn’t only a story our God wrote centuries ago. I believe I pray, it is a story God is writing right now.
This is my favorite portion of the book of Nehemiah, which has quickly become one of my favorite books within Scripture. I cherish this account because, if I’m honest, it’s my hope for this church. God’s people had come together and made that complicated effort of working together, serving those in need, and establishing themselves as neighbors and members of that community. And in doing that work, their hearts were opened in a new way to the love that God freely and immeasurably pours out. It didn’t happen right away. No, it wasn’t a door being kicked open or a dam bursting forth. It was more like the steady, delicate blooming of a flower. But somehow that shared proximity, that shared work, that shared identity as God’s people brought these people not only closer to each other but closer to God.
This series is called Rebuilding Who We Are but that work is not finished simply because we reach the end of these sermons. As I said at the start of this series with our very first message and introduction to Nehemiah, we have work to do. My hope, my prayer, the thing I want most as your pastor is to see the story found in Nehemiah played out here in First Pres. To see us accept that God is doing something new here. To see all of us embrace the beautiful and alarming truth that we all have a part to play and work to do. To see our congregation be a faithful neighbor here in Bloomington-Normal. To see the poor cared for and the struggling shown hope. To see each member of this family of faith become enraptured by God’s truth, compelled to open God’s word, and to see each and every one of us lift our hands to God and respond, “Amen! Amen!” To see all of us do the beautiful, frustrating, inspiring, difficult, wonderful, revealing work of being a church and see not only what the Lord has done through us but to also see what our God has done in us. Wouldn’t that be a Pleasant Surprise?