Peace Amidst Mockery — Peace of Advent

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 4.1-3
4  When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” 

3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” 

John 18.36-37
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Reflection: Peace Amidst Mockery — Peace of Advent
By John Tillman

Nehemiah and the builders were surrounded by mockery. Some of it surely stung. If Bible nerds were to list “sick burns” in the Bible, Tobiah’s comical comment about foxes knocking down the wall would probably rate a mention. Nehemiah, however, doesn’t respond.

Nehemiah had the force of government behind him. Soldiers, the king, and the law were all on his side. But he turned instead to prayer. Yes, he took practical steps to protect the lives of the workers, but his primary strategy was to turn over the mockers and their threats to God.

Building God’s kingdom will always seem impractical because, as Christians, we are building the kingdom Jesus described as being “from another place.” (John 18.36) Waiting on this kingdom and the peace it brings is one of the lessons of the season of Advent.

Building a literal, physical, or political kingdom is something people understand. Building this kind of kingdom may lead to power, praise, or wealth. Building the kind of kingdom Jesus describes leads to mockery. Pilate mocked this kingdom when Jesus mentioned it. His opponents mocked this kingdom at his trial and as he died. The soldiers mocked this kingdom as they beat him and as they hung him on the cross.

When we devote ourselves, primarily, to building Jesus’ intangible, immortal, and immanent kingdom we may be mocked. Called impractical. Called foolish. Sometimes this will come from enemies of the gospel and sometimes from those we would expect to join us. In either case, we do not need to reply in kind.

Like Hezekiah, who laid out the insults of Sennacherib before the Lord, (2 Kings 19.16) Nehemiah lays out Sanballat and Tobiah’s insults and threats. So let us turn Sanballat and Tobiah’s mockery into a prayer.

We praise you, God.
We wait and pray for the peace of your kingdom.
You, through Jesus, will make the feeble strong.
What looks so frail a fox’s feet could topple it will prevail against the forces of Hell.
You will restore what is broken beyond repair.
By offering the sacrifice on the cross, in one day, Jesus has finished the work of salvation.
In rolling away the stone from the tomb, God brings dead stone hearts back to beating life.
Like you, your kingdom is from another place.
Jesus, your kingdom is, was, and will be. (Revelation 1.8)
Bring that kingdom through us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
My eyes are upon the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me… — Psalm 101.6

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 4 (Listen 3:38)  
Revelation 13 (Listen 3:20)

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Chains shall He break
for the slave is our brother
And in His name
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The Lowly and the Lofty — Peace of Advent

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 3.5
5 The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.

Luke 2.8-15
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Reflection: The Lowly and the Lofty — Peace of Advent
By John Tillman

Nehemiah’s list of the community’s work is not just a list of laborers. It lists those who put their faith into action. Their faith shaped stone and lifted beams. Their faith smoothed mortar and set gates on their hinges.

Hidden in the list are stories. In one place, Hassenaah works with his sons to set the beams and bolts of the Fish Gate. (Nehemiah 3.3) In another place, Shallum (a ruler of Jerusalem) works with his daughters to repair a section of the wall. (Nehemiah 3.12) The project is a family affair and no one is excluded except those who exclude themselves. Such were the nobles of Tekoa.

Workers and supervisors came from Tekoa, but the nobles abstain. They “would not put their shoulders to the work.” This wasn’t laziness or a disdain for labor. It was their hearts, not their shoulders, that weren’t up to the task. It was a failure of faith not a failure of physicality.

Tekoa, near Jerusalem, was a notable place. It was known for strength. One of David’s mighty men was from Tekoa. (2 Samuel 23.8, 26) It was known for wisdom. The “wise woman” of Tekoa spoke before King David. (2 Samuel 14.1-3) However, the most famous resident of Tekoa was the prophet Amos, who called himself one of the “shepherds of Tekoa.” (Amos 1.1) And from the hillsides of Tekoa, the town of Bethlehem can be seen only six miles away. The shepherds who came to the manger of Jesus, may have traveled from the fields between Tekoa and Bethlehem. (Luke 2.15)

The lowly and the lofty were called by Nehemiah to work on the wall. The nobles of Tekoa abstained. The lowly and the lofty were called to kneel before the child in the manger and to put their shoulders to the work of his cross-shaped kingdom.

To the shepherds, God came by a miraculous vision of angels. To King Herod and the Magi, God’s message came through scholarship, prophecy, or privilege. The shepherds and the Magi responded in humility. (Luke 2.16-20; Matthew 2.11) Herod responded with pride and violence. (Matthew 2.16)

Whether lofty or lowly, we each must respond to the call to peace and peacemaking this Advent. How has God’s message come to you? Will you put your shoulder to the work or abstain? Will you put your faith into action to shape stone, lift beams, and set gates on their hinges so that through Jesus, the gate, (John 10.6-9) people may enter God’s city of peace?

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling; 
That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness; and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my god. — Psalm 43.3-4

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 3 (Listen 5:43)  
Revelation 12 (Listen 2:58)

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Peace Amidst Chaos — Peace of Advent

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 2.11-13; 16-18
​​11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. 

13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 

16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. 

17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. 

They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. 

Matthew 5.14-16
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Reflection: Peace Amidst Chaos — Peace of Advent
By John Tillman

In the dark, Nehemiah dreams of peace.

Peace not only means the absence of conflict but the absence of chaos. In Nehemiah’s day, Jerusalem was not at war but was a chaotic shambles. Proverbs tells us that a city without walls is like a person with no self-control. (Proverbs 25.28) Walls provided defense from attack but also the dignity of control—control of identity, control of commerce, and control of destiny. The gate of the city represented all these things.

Instead of being surrounded by dignity, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemies. Sanballat was from the north in Samaria. Tobiah was from the east in Ammon. Geshem was from the southeast. These leaders held generational hatred of the Jews. Seeing them reestablish their Temple and worship was bad enough. Seeing Jerusalem reinforced with a wall was even worse. A rebuilt Jerusalem would disrupt their political and economic interests. In the midst of these enemies, God prepared a place of peace.

In modern life, a physical wall means little to our peace. Chaos flows into the devices in our pockets. Not many of us are at war, but many of us are surrounded by chaos instead of peace. 

We can build a spiritual wall of refuge around our minds and hearts that is reinforced with the stones of scripture and the mortar of prayer. Within those walls, we find in the darkness a table of light set before us. Surrounded by enemies, a chair of fellowship is pulled out for us to rest. 

In the 23rd Psalm, the psalmist described his shepherd, the God of Israel, as preparing a table of fellowship and provision in the midst of enemies. This is the kind of God we serve. This is also the nature of Jesus’ birth. He is born helpless amidst those who will try to kill him to stay in power. This is the kind of life Jesus lived. He wandered, homeless among those who twisted the law to steal widows’ homes.

The way Christ revealed himself to the world, a light shining in the darkness, is also the way we are to reveal him to the world. If we are to be, like Jerusalem, a city on a hill, then we must remember that Jesus is the ever-open gate through whom anyone can enter his peace.

To chaos and darkness, Jesus brings light and a place of peace. So may we all.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. — Psalm 67.12

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 2 (Listen 3:42)  
Revelation 11 (Listen 3:24)

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When you are constantly on edge from conflict, it is easy to expect the answer to your crisis will come in the form of a fight.

Peace in the Waiting — Peace of Advent

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 1.3-43
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.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

Revelation 10.6b-7
6b “There will be no more delay! 7 But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”

Reflection: Peace in the Waiting — Peace of Advent
By John Tillman

There are so many waiting moments in scripture. We see waiting on God as a consistent theme. In nearly every story about any key figure of faith, there are times of waiting. 

Nehemiah’s generation waited for rescue. As the exile began to come to an end, however, the reports from those returning were not good. Trouble, disgrace, and danger were the norm. After all the waiting in exile, and returning home, all was still not well. Peace was elusive.

John wrote Revelation waiting in exile on the isle of Patmos. The “son of thunder” (Mark 3.17; Luke 9.51-56) had become the disciple of love, the “elder” who cared for God’s children (2 John 1.1-2; 3 John 1.1, 4), and sought peace for God’s church. (Revelation 1.4-6)

There are so many waiting moments in our lives. Usually, what we are waiting for is something we need or want right now. When waiting, we feel stuck. We feel sidelined. We feel behind everyone else. We feel abandoned. In these waiting moments, peace seems impossible.

Advent is an exercise in waiting. It is laid out in the calendar of the church like a lesson to be taught. We mark the weeks and the days. Perhaps we light candles or eat treats from a calendar to mark the march toward Christmas day. As we practice waiting expectantly for a day on the calendar, we learn how to wait for things that are not tied to a date.

Like the returning Jews, we live in quasi-exile. Free but under oppression. Saved but still suffering. Like John, we stand between physical and spiritual realities. We simultaneously languish on an isle of exile and walk with Jesus the living One. We see the Kingdom of God yet suffer the kingdoms of human rulers. Trouble, disgrace, and danger may be the norm. 

Nehemiah shows us the efficacy of prayer and fasting as we wait and how to act when God’s hand moves. John says to the church that he is our “companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (Revelation 1.9) and he testifies that there is coming a day when there will be no more delay.

A day is coming when waiting will be no more. Faith will be sight. Peace will be present. The mystery of God will be accomplished. That day, though not yet, is certain. That peace, though beyond understanding, can be ours, even in the waiting.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. — Psalm 31.24

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 1 (Listen 2:06)  
Revelation 10 (Listen 1:59)

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Tobiahs and Little Foxes

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 13.26-27
Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”* 

*When reading condemnations of relationships with “foreigners,” such as Nehemiah’s, it is easy to be confused or shocked. Verses like these have been misused to defend White supremacist principles against mixed marriages and to support anti-miscegenation laws. 

However, Nehemiah is concerned, not with racial purity, but with purity of worship and being fully committed to God, forsaking all others, clinging only to him. Other passages in the scriptures help us to understand this truth by showing us God’s compassion for all people, including the “foreign women” in the genealogy of Christ. The point here is that the people were being unfaithful to God, not being unfaithful to their race or country.

Reflection: Tobiahs and Little Foxes
By John Tillman

Nehemiah, after a whirlwind campaign to successfully rebuild the wall in only 52 days, returns to his post with the king, but the story isn’t over. When Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem later, he has to clean house. In a pre-visualization of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple, Nehemiah has to literally throw out the old baggage of the past (Tobiah and his belongings, Nehemiah 13.4-9) that had somehow crept back into the city and the very walls of the Temple itself.

Many times we stop reading Nehemiah’s story once we see the joyous celebrations of the newly dedicated Temple and the dedication of the wall. It is a great place to stop the story and be happy about the near miraculous pace of reconstruction. We like happy endings. Nehemiah doesn’t quite have one.

Nehemiah leaves us with a note of doubt that the people can ever be faithful. It shows us that after the echoes of the emotional celebrations and worship services faded, many of the people went right back to living the same compromised, religiously ambiguous lives they had been living.

Tobiah had teased Nehemiah and the Israelites that their wall would be toppled by a fox running on top of it. (Nehemiah 4.3) He may have been wrong about the literal wall, but he was right about the emotional commitments the people made. Those crumbled under the “little foxes” of life. (Song of Songs 2.15

That should feel very familiar to us. How many times have we been swept up emotionally in a religious experience on Sunday, or at a camp or a retreat, but then when Monday rolls around we can’t find the will to live up to the change we longed for. Normality crushes out of us the new-life that Christ wants to build in us. Our wall crumbles when the foxes jump up on it.

The ending of Nehemiah shows us the limits of human moralism and the law. We need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to truly rebuild on a firm foundation of Christ.

When we celebrate emotionally, may we then respond practically and tangibly with action.

May we not allow Tobiahs, who opposed our repentance, to move into our lives to places of influence and comfort.

May we throw out the old baggage, and maintain our walls so that the little foxes do not wreck the spiritual life we cultivate before God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 13 (Listen -5:57)
Acts 23 (Listen -5:15)

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May God’s church—men, women, youth, children, leaders, laborers, the wealthy, and the poor—join in the work of God that he is calling you to in your community.

Read more about Moving Into the City
Jerusalem wasn’t a glittering capital, even with its restored Temple and rebuilt wall. Being chosen to move there was more like being drafted into military service.