I was in the church sanctuary today, staring out the window. I was supposed to be praying, but I found myself looking out across the river at those old coke ovens. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see any of those nicely reconstructed coke ovens – the ones with the smooth brick and stone. No, these were some of the old and broken down ones. They were caved in and open to the sky. It was not the way they were designed to be. But time and the elements do their work on things.
They’re a great picture of the effects of neglect and disuse. This is what it looks like when something no longer is needed and when no one cares anymore. Weeds grow up among the bricks.
It’s like the fire pit out behind our house. The weeds want to take over. A baby spruce tree even is trying to emerge alongside the benches.
Many things in life take care. They take commitment. They take someone who is willing to say, “This is important.” And for most things, it’s not enough to say in one moment, “This is important.” It takes a diligent life of continually reaffirming that intention – “This is important.”
To build isn’t enough. We also must maintain. The building of something is just the start. What we also must do is count the cost of maintaining what we’ve built.
I appreciated Nehemiah’s three actions in chapter 7. He appointed leaders for Jerusalem. He also instituted a guard over the gates and homes of the vulnerable city. And he brought out the genealogy with a record of the people by their families.
It was not enough to build. What was built needed to be maintained.
This is true of our spiritual lives, of course. You know what it means to “backslide.” You know what it means to grow slack. You know what it means to drift off course – in our spiritual disciplines – in our scripture reading, our prayer, our obedience to Christ.
There comes a time when we must begin again. That’s what Nehemiah 7 records. It marks Nehemiah’s leadership in helping the people of Israel to begin again. Just as they did when they first returned to the Promised Land, they pulled out their genealogies and read them. They recorded names and the numbers.
They were beginning again – building a people of God. The were recommitting themselves to the work. When they first came back to the Promised Land, they built the temple. And then they built the walls of Jerusalem. And then, yet again, they began again. After the walls were up and the gates were in place, they got out the genealogies again, and they started. They took note of the names and the numbers. Surely they remembered. And they began again to move forward with God.
And it was the seventh month again, the time for the festivals – the time for the Day of Atonement – the time as a nation when each year they began again in their walk with God.
As you read about Israel’s walk with God in the Old Testament, you’ll see multiple times when the people began again. They would rededicate themselves to their relationship with God. And each of the festivals marked a moment of remembrance, when the people recalled God’s good deeds of old – and the people marked those moments and began again, continuing on in their walk with God.
When we begin again, we aren’t the same as we were when we first started out. Some things about us have changed. We don’t start from scratch, spiritually. There are some things that we’ve learned. There are some things that have been added to our lives – good and bad. And there are some things that have fallen out of our lives – good and bad. But we take what we have, and we begin again.
And as you’ll see in Israel’s history, God isn’t so interested in how far you’ve fallen as how committed you are to beginning again.
You might have noticed that the genealogy of the people of Israel was slightly different in Nehemiah 7 than it was when it first was recorded in Ezra 2. There are changes in it, here and there. I never found a really convincing explanation for the differences. But you can find some things that have changed if you pay attention. Maybe it’s God’s reminder to us that things tend to change. We as a people tend to change. And when we begin again, we’re starting from a slightly different spot. But we must, always, begin again. We can’t let the walls collapse. We can’t let the nation fall back. We can’t let the church crumble and the weeds grow up between the bricks.
We ought to stop frequently and consider where we are and where we’ve been and where we want to go with God. And then, like Nehemiah and the Israelites, we begin again.