Nehemiah 2:1-9; John 8:31-38

Dedication Sunday Choral Evensong

St Barbara’s 29.09.2019

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Today is a day when we have been celebrating the dedication of this church building 88 years ago. Since then, worship and prayer has been continuously offered in this place. Christians from across this community have been gathering in this place for several generations. And it began because someone had the vision to decide that Earlsdon needed a permanent church. Architect plans were drawn up, permissions were sought, money was raised.

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Nehemiah recounts the beginnings of another building project, two and a half thousand years ago. The Jewish people are living in exile in Babylon. They are there and not in Israel because the Babylonian empire has systematically destroyed their country and uprooted entire populations and re-settled them hundreds of miles away from their homes. An equivalent in modern times would be the uprooting and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews and their “re-settlement” in Siberia during the second world war.

Well, Nehemiah, one of those Jews, has a longing to return to his homeland, and to re-build the Temple, the place where his people can gather to worship God. But before he can do that he needs to seek permission. He is required to take his life in his hands and appeal to the King.

This is no minor task. It is not even like appearing before a particularly pernickety and bureaucratic planning committee. This is coming before the king whose policy it has been up to now to prevent people returning to their homes – to sever old loyalties, not to renew them; a king who at the slightest whim could order one’s death, and coming into the king’s presence looking sad was deemed more than ample justification for an immediate death sentence. No wonder Nehemiah is afraid!

So Nehemiah takes enormous courage in making his request. He also shows real prayerfulness. With his life on the line, and the king demanding an answer from him, he prays before responding – a quick silent arrow prayer no doubt, but an awareness nonetheless that he needs God’s help. But this is not all. Nehemiah has planned ahead – he has thought through what is needed – letters of safe conduct for his journey, letters to permit the use of the king’s timber for the re-building of the temple. This is not some idle pipe-dream thought up on the spur of the moment. Nehemiah has been working towards this for some time. And yet he also has the insight and humility that when the king grants his request, it is God who has made it happen, not his courage and preparations.

As we look ahead to the next 88 years of life as a worshipping community here at St Barbara’s, we could do well to learn from those qualities of Nehemiah: his courage, prayerfulness, planning and humility. Thankfully our church building does not stand in ruins; we are not faced with a major re-building project; or with a tyrannical king; but nonetheless there are challenges ahead.

Like many other institutions – such as schools, health services, police, the BBC – the church is less trusted and less of an influence than it was even a generation ago. It is viewed as less relevant, less significant in people’s lives, and a sign of that is that fewer people choose to get married in church or have Christian funerals or choose to have their children baptised.

It is possible for the church to be a little complacent, to look back on and rely on the past. That was what Jesus was having to challenge his Jewish listeners about in the gospel reading we heard. There, his Jewish listeners were saying: “we don’t need the freedom Christ is offering – we, after all, are the children of Abraham, God’s special people. Nothing will change that.” But of course they did need to change; they needed to turn and place their trust in Christ.

It can be tempting to feel the same about church. “We’ve been fine for the last 88 years. I’m sure the next 88 years will be fine too, and after all, we won’t be around if things do go wrong!”

We do not need to respond with anxiety or panic to the changing world around us, but like Nehemiah, there is a place for having a vision for the future that does not see decline as inevitable or irreversible. We only need to look at the church in other parts of the world to see that growth and renewed vibrancy is more than possible.

But to look to the future, to respond to God’s Spirit, to grow and to change, we would do well to nurture those qualities that Nehemiah showed:

Courage – being willing to ask questions about what we need to do as a Christian community to connect with a whole generation of people who are growing up without any knowledge of God – and to be honest, that is possibly, nowadays, the vast majority of people who are 40 years old and younger, and many who are in the second half of life who haven’t been inside a church since childhood. What will it look like for St Barbara’s to be reaching out to them, to be a thriving, vibrant, growing church in the years to come?

It means Prayerfulness – seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, allowing him to shape our vision. Spending time, seeking his direction, his blessing.

It means Planning – thinking things through, learning from others, testing things out.

And it means Humility – acknowledging that ultimately we are in God’s hands, that it is not by our efforts but through his grace that the church grows. 

Imagine what it would take for the church community here in 88 years time to be celebrating its 176th anniversary and be saying: “we are the vibrant, growing, Christ-filled people we are today because of those Nehemiahs in 2019, who prayed, planned and had the courage to act.”