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Sermon Preached at CLTS Nehemiah 5:1-13

Sermon Preached at CLTS Nehemiah 5:1-13

Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (CLTS) in St. Catharines (Ontario)/ Rev. Ted A. Giese / January 29th 2013: Season of Epiphany, Nehemiah 5:1-13

Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”

I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.

Let us Pray:

"May the words of my mounth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O, Lord. Amen."
Grace, peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Good Christian Friends; the Irish have a proverb,  "A penny in a poor man's pocket is better than two pennies in a rich man's pocket.” The Jews of our Old Testament Text this morning would have enjoyed that proverb. They felt around in their pockets and found nothing, what’s more all they found was a mortgage note showing that they owed money to their already rich brothers for the meager food on their plate. There is an Anglo-Saxon proverb that says, “The devil dances in an empty pocket.” And while Nehemiah lived long before this proverb was coined he would have understood its sentiments; Standing before the poor people oppressed by the rich, Nehemiah may well have considered that their empty pockets were and enticing dance hall to the devil and the longer those poor pockets stayed empty all the more quickly would the devil be rosining his bow and striking up his band in preparation to dance. And once the devil began to dance the walls of Jerusalem, in the process of being re-built, would be torn down under the devil’s dancing feet. The devil was not alone in wishing Nehemiah’s wall building efforts to fail, the none-Jews, and the outsider all wished ill on the project.         

There is a common European Proverb that says, “A burial shroud has no pockets.”
And we say the same today about our wealth and our death, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ An extravagant coffin on a dead man is like perfume on a pig. When you’re dead will it matter if your pockets are empty or full? In the midst of this passage from Nehemiah there is great concern about the contents of everyone’s pockets. In their case it is Greed that waits in the wings to stir up trouble. St. Paul warns us about fiscal malcontent and the dangers of pocket gazing, when he writes to young Pastor Timothy, reminding him that “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”[1] Ask yourself, what makes you rich? What makes you poor?     

The text this morning may seem very straight forward almost unspiritual in its simple indictment against greed and usury, but there’s another angle employed by the power of the Holy Spirit that would not have been lost on the assembly of God’s people.          

As Nehemiah stands before the people he ends his assembly with them by calling the priests to officiate the swearing of obedience to do as they had promised; And in the midst of this Nehemiah also shook out the fold of his garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. What is the significance of Nehemiah shaking out the fold of his garment? Is there a deeper meaning to this action?

Now you, I imagine,  are familiar with the use of sackcloth to show repentance and to mourn death; you may be less familiar with how a Jewish father in the Old Testament would spread out a cloak in front of the elders in the gate of the city as evidence of the virginity of his daughter;[2] I remember showing a short video clip of Hulk Hogan ripping His Shirt off in mock furry in order to introduce to some of our youth in a Bible Study the way men of the Bible would rent their garments asunder, tearing them to pieces to show their anger. Here in Nehemiah, Nehemiah’s action had a twofold meaning; such an action was often used as a general threat,[3] but in this case it would have a more ominous import of meaning as the language used in Nehemiah alluded to Exodus and the Priestly Garments of Aaron and the Levites, part of their garments included a special pocket or pouch, [4] called the breastpiece of judgment,[5] which was made like so, “It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. ... There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes,”[6] “so Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.”[7]         

The Children of Israel were taught that they were like ones safe and secure in the fold of the High Priest’s garment, securely held there on that pocket against the High Priest’s heart. Making folds in ones garment was a way of making pockets in the ancient world and as Nehemiah shook out the pocket of his garment, the thought of damnation and redemption would be more than just temporal, more than a threat of earthly exile, the thoughts before the people would also be eschatological in nature. To be shaken out of that fold, to be shaken out of the pocket of judgement, to be shaken out of the company of your brothers and sisters, to be shaken out of the children of Israel was a fate to be greatly feared, a judgment with terrible consequence. In the action of shaking out the fold of his garment Nehemiah was indicating by the power of the Holy Spirit the severity of God’s Law and the beauty of God’s Gospel, damnation for those shaken out, redemption for those who remained safe and secure in the pocket of righteousness held against the heart of God.         

Nehemiah was not the High Priest; he was a political leader, a Jew who God had raised to prominence in the court of Artaxerxes the King of Persia. Because of His time in the court of Xerxes and because of His faith Nehemiah had become both financially and spiritually rich. “A reserved and resolute man.” “A man in no hast or hurry.” “A man with the counsel of God alone in his mind and in his heart”[8] Yet for all his unblemished rectitude, for all his dauntless loyalty to God Nehemiah was still a sinner, just as you and I are, in fact this is an important part of this text from the book that bears his name.         

The complaint of the Jewish people, who were voluntarily slaving away at rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, at great personal cost, was no small thing. On the surface it may seem like a labour dispute, a sort of interlude of collective bargaining necessary to get the workers back to work on the walls, but there is more to it. As they worked, they couldn’t ply their vocational trades; the vineyards were not being properly worked, the farm lands were not being successfully cultivated, the shop keepers were not minding their stores or hawking their wares as they would normally do.[9] The complaint was that some of their fellow Jews were taking advantage of their patriotic volunteerism and were lending these men money in a way that broke the Levitical prohibition against gaining a profit in money lending.[10] On top of this they had a tax to send to King Xerxes and famine had struck them. In the midst of political success they were experiencing an economic disaster and some were taking advantage of this. The text strongly suggests that Nehemiah was personally convicted of this sin himself, that he too was guilty of breaking the second table of the law against his dear fellow Jews, when he says, “Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.”[11] He includes himself in the indictment, he along with other rich Jews were sinning against God as they sinned against their neighbours for in their sin they no longer were “walking in the fear of … God”[12] As Nehemiah shook out the fold of his garment, God spoke loudly in this action to Nehemiah too.         

As preachers, as ones placed in positions of leadership in the church, do not forget your own sins, we must all remember that our actions speak loudly to the people we are set to serve, and to the people who stand nearby as we build up the church, our actions speak loudly to those who sneer at our efforts and say,
“What are these feeble [Christians] doing? Will they restore [the church] for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish …?” [Your enemy despises you and says], “Yes, what are they building [?]—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”[13] They look at our work as feeble, they see the church as weak; they imagine that a single feather could knock it over. The world, the devil, the unbeliever revels in disaster, in scandal, in failure, in sin. They likewise, in his day, wanted Nehemiah to fail. 

God had other plans: God put the words and the actions of a prophet in Nehemiah’s mouth and into Nehemiah’s hands. Nehemiah like Ezra and others were saviours of the people as they returned from exile in Babylon but the work they accomplished is as a shadow in comparison to the actions of God in the coming of Christ Jesus.         

At His crucifixion Jesus looked weak: Stripped naked and nailed to the cross He appeared to have no pocket to put even a penny in; He was seen as feeble and poor, left with nothing as death licked it’s corpulent lips and sat down to eat Him whole, the Christ upon the cross was in no way an object of Greed. No one envied Him or coveted Him in His condition: As an object of scorn He was ridiculed, those who passed by said, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” The chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked Him, saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him.”[14]While they said these things, as He shed His blood and breathed His last, all the while Jesus was rebuilding a wall that would never be torn down again: A fortress of salvation that no one would throw down. While the world saw Him as poor, He was rich, for they couldn’t see the contents of the everlasting folds of His eternal garment. 

While it doesn’t matter what we monetarily have in the pockets of our burial shroud, it makes a world of difference what Christ Jesus had in His! Where none could see it He had you tucked away in the fold, for Jesus was and is the perfect High Priest, better than Aaron, better than the Levites, better than us; He is the perfect High Priest who has you in the fold of His garment of judgment safely redeemed: In baptism you become like a topaz, an emerald, a sapphire; a diamond, an onyx, a jasper. With your sins left nailed to the cross you have become precious to Jesus in the blood of His crucifixion and He will not shake you out of the fold of His garment. He has engraved His name on you. He forgives your sins.

In their complaint they said to Nehemiah, “it is not in our power to help [our pitiful situation]”[15] Proverbs 3:27 gives this advise; “Do not withhold [anything] good from those who deserve it when it is within your power to [help].” They had no power to change their situation all they could do was plead for mercy; Nehemiah both had the power to change it, and was for his part guilty for aggravating it in the first place. Jesus knew our pitiful situation, He was in no part responsible for our sad state, He had and has the power to change it, His work is centred on this, and while we didn’t deserve this redemption He gives it to us, redeeming us, “[saving us] completely.”[16] And now He stands resurrected, ascended and alive in the presence of God, where He hears our complaint, where He hears our requests, where He hears our confessions and makes “intercession,” mediating our redemption with the Father: If the world, if the devil, if the enemies of Christ had seen the true contents hid away in the folds of His eternal priestly garments what would they have done? There’s no room for the devil to dance in Jesus’ pocket, because it’s not empty, it is not shaken out, by the grace of God it is filled with His redeemed people, a treasure held to His heart.[17] In Christ, by His cross, you are rich no matter how poor the world counts you to be. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us, "Take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen."
(For a sermon preached by Pastor Ted Giese in the chapel at Lutheran Church Canada's other Seminary, Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton (Alberta), click here)

[1] 1 Timothy 6:6-10

[2] Luther’s Works AE Volume 9 Lectures on Deuteronomy, Martin Luther, pg 222-223. (referencing Deuteronomy Chapter 22:13-17)

[3] Ibid, 223.

[4] Leviticus, Concordia Commentary, John W. Kleining, pg. 198.

[5] This pocket held the Urim and Thummim, lots used by the high priest to discern the will of God.

[6] Exodus 28:16-21

[7] Exodus 28:29-30

[8] All The Men of The Bible, Herbert Lockyer quoting Alexander Whyte pg 256.

[9] Ezra And Nehemiah, Concordia Commentary, Andrew E. Steinmann, 455, 456.

[10] Leviticus 25:35-37

[11] Nehemiah 5:10

[12] Nehemiah 5:9

[13] Nehemiah 4:2-3

[14] Matthew 27:40-42

[15] Nehemiah 5:5

[16] Hebrews 7:25

[17] Matthew 6:21