“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.” (Nehemiah 2:17)
Several years ago, I preached a series on Nehemiah found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The story takes place in the 5th century B.C. in the period following the end of the Jews 70-year exile in Babylonia. Many Jews had returned to their homeland in Palestine, including those who settled in Jerusalem. Some, like Nehemiah, remained in different places of the diaspora (dispersion of a people group away from their historical places). Nehemiah lived in the Persian capital of Susa as a high-ranking servant of Artaxerxes I, king of Persia and its empire which included the Holy Land.
One of the notable actions of Artaxerxes was his sanctioning the practice of Judaism which removed barriers to the practice of Jewish worship and adherence to the Mosaic law, things precious to the Hebrew nation.
Nehemiah was deeply burdened by the still dilapidated condition of Jerusalem as a result of destruction by the Babylonians 70 years earlier. GOD had placed this burden on Nehemiah’s heart and he felt an intense need to do something about it. Nehemiah sought and received permission from the king to become the temporary governor of Jerusalem in order to restore its walls and gates, structures essential for the security of cities in that day. Without them, Jerusalem was particularly vulnerable to attack, a condition Nehemiah was intent on changing. As you can imagine, one of the conditions Nehemiah discovered when he arrived in Jerusalem was the presence of the rubble of the broken walls and gates that nearly encircled the entire city.
The primary theme of the series I referenced was that you cannot successfully build new things on top of old rubble. The rubble must be cleaned out and disposed of first. This is true in building construction and it is true in spiritual construction. This principle is seen in the metaphors Jesus used, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16-17). It is also seen in Paul’s declaration regarding the conversion experience, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17).
One of the challenges of pastoral ministry is helping people who outwardly want their lives to be to be in Christ but who are either unaware of their inward rubble or who are unwilling to allow it to be acknowledged and dealt with. They try to build a new spiritual life on top of their old life’s rubble, and bump into problem after problem in the same way you would expect a building contractor to experience if he/she tried to build a new structure on top of old broken stone and brick. Too often, people don’t do (or allow to be done) any of the necessary under-the-surface work that would allow their new foundations to have the stability to build upon. This hinders healthy spiritual life and growth.
There was a secondary theme in this teaching series: we have to check for rubble continually. In the spiritual life, like in other areas of life, there is no such thing as ‘once and done.’ Our spiritual commitments, if not continually renewed and reinforced, will experience degradation. Clean your house and then don’t do any cleaning for a few months. You’ll be able to write your name in the dust on your table-tops and shelves. Spiritual rubble is like household dust; it just shows up and has to be cleaned away before it completely mars the appearance of your home.
The History Channel® brilliantly makes this point in its series called Life After People.1 The scenes of how nature (wild grasses, forests, animal life) would retake and overwhelm human-made structures, bridges, waterways, and open fields five, ten, 20 and more years following the absence of people is striking. But even if you’ve never seen an episode of this series, just imagine (or remember) what a backyard garden looks like if the dead leaves are not cleaned out, if the weeds are not pulled out, if the ground is not cultivated and treated so that it can support the plants and vegetables planted in it. Rubble!
It’s been a while since I’ve spoken or written about this particular topic, but I think reminding myself and possibly others is worthwhile. Checking for and dealing with our rubble is always worthwhile.
- Life After People. The History Channel, April 2009 – March 2010.
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