Nehemiah 2:1-5: 11-17; Luke 21:5-19
Inspired by Andy Cook
It is Mid-November and in Chicago last week we gazed at lampposts decorated with brilliantly-lit snowflakes despite the abnormally mild weather in the Windy City. Friends, it has begun. Beautiful holiday ads are flooding the air waves: Who here has seen: decked out trees? Smiling families wearing matching pajamas exchanging gifts? Happy coworkers guzzling holiday Starbucks or adding holiday brand coffee mate to their brew? Air fresheners that promise those precious smells that bring us back to grandma’s kitchen. Black Friday ads already priming the pump for November 25. In the midst of the vamping up to the High Holy Days of Commerce, millions of Americans find themselves facing great struggles in the face of record high inflation that has reached a 40year high. A majority of Americans report being squeezed financially and having to curtail spending. Fears of a national recession around the corner are dampening our moods. Dramatic stock market losses have taken huge bites out of once-healthy retirement accounts. It all adds up to a disturbing twist of life: These are “Lean Times.”
The economic choices are complex; but the faith challenge is simple. If we face “lean times,” we’d better have a good foundation, a strategy, a plan, on which we can “lean.” By leaning on our relationship with Jesus, we won’t just survive lean times. We can spiritually thrive in tough times. Take for example, Nehemiah, the Jewish lay leader who is the author of our first reading, was determined to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple after it had been destroyed by and under the control of foreign conquerors for 70 years. Nehemiah, a Jew but also a trusted government official in the Persian court, who in turn trusted in God to lead the people of Israel to rebuild from the ruins of war and exile. Ironically, in our gospel lesson, Jesus initially warns his disciples of destruction and despair to come to Jerusalem by Rome. Jesus foretells how that rebuilt Temple and Jerusalem from Nehemiah’s day would be destroyed yet again. Hard times, lean times, were coming, not just in the disciples’ lifetime, but in our lifetime as well. It’s time to lean on God. Jesus promised in the midst of the oppression and pain, by endurance and faith, our souls will be secured, saved, survive.
If we want a way forward in tough times, we need a vision, a plan, a purpose. A Vision that sustains us. A vision that encourages us. A vision that gives us hope. A vision we can lean on. Nehemiah was propelled forth by a vision of restored walls. Jesus gives a vision as he outlines the signs of the times: spiritual endurance through tough times. Staying faithful to the gospel. Confess our trust in the Lord.
So, acquiring a vision in hard times is critically important. We are called to lean on God, on Jesus, on the scriptures, to receive a new vision, a new pathway forward. If we want to be a vital congregation, we must lean on the Lord in difficult times, from which will come a vision that sustains us and moves us forward.
With a vision, anything is possible. Remember Walt Disney? He was a great visionary, making ground-breaking movies, taking animation to never-imagined levels of use, and … of course … creating Disneyland in California, and the massive Disney World, just outside Orlando.
When Disney World first opened, Mrs. Walt Disney was asked to speak at the Grand Opening, since Walt had died. She was introduced by a man who said, "Mrs. Disney, I just wish Walt could have seen this."
Mrs. Disney stood up and said, "He did.” Walt Disney had already enjoyed Disney World, though he wasn’t even alive when the gates opened for the first time. He had the vision.
In our first reading today, the people of Israel faced the leanest of the lean times, living amidst the rubble of a destroyed city, leveled for seven decades. In the midst of this devastation, Nehemiah was given a vision by God of a rebuilt Jerusalem, a new Tempe to worship in. One by one, each gate was up and finished. Block by block, each stone was back in place on the wall. Nehemiah stayed the course. And that got the job done.
Lean times. Tough times. That’s the time to stay the course. Jesus tells his disciples that there would be wars, persecution, arrests, they would be hated and betrayed because of Jesus. Jesus told them about these lean times not to instill fear or despair. Jesus gave them these warnings to strengthen faith, for the disciples to lean on Jesus when times got tough. For them to cling to the gospel vision that Jesus imparted to them. To be faithful while being persecuted, while in midst of the pain. What’s that saying by Robert Schuller? Tough times never last, but tough people do?
When Nehemiah challenged the people to rebuild the walls, the people replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” And the Bible says, so they began this good work.” (2:18). Out of their lean times they leaned on God and received the vision of a rebuilt community. And they rebuilt it -stone by stone.
God finds us in our lean times and equips us with vision of a new heavens and new earth. In evil times, God called Noah to build an ark. In the midst of the evil of slavery, God called Moses to lead the people of Israel to the promised land. David was hardened by battle and struggle by the time he got to the throne room of Jerusalem. Perhaps Jesus was trained for years in Joseph’s carpentry shop to patiently and carefully create masterpieces out of slabs of wood, just as he would create spiritual masterpieces from people, people like us, with struggles, conflicts, people in the midst of lean times, tough times, oppressive times, people seeking a new path forward, a new vision for life, a renewal of spirit.
We face Thanksgiving and the food pantries and soup kitchens are busier than ever. Our wallets are being squeezed tighter, but we are still called to give and be generous in lean times as in times of plenty. Soon we will enter the season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, this November 27. We begin, knowing we are in lean times, tough times. Leaning times. Time to lean on Jesus and each other. That’s how a vision develops. That’s how we forge a purpose together. We come together to worship. We come together to serve our community. We come together to pray for each other. In each food basket created, each prayer uttered, each hand extended, like Nehemiah’s stone upon stone, God leads us forward into a new vision, that emerges out of our times of chaos, our times of difficulty these lean times.
Let’s take advantage of these lean times and lean on Jesus. Lean on each other. From now until December 19, we going to talk about lean times, and leaning hard and fast on God’s word, and discover, as we serve, as we pray, God is building masterpiece in us and through us. A community of faith that can withstand all the hard times we experience and that we know are coming. Leaning on Jesus, leaning on each other, in these lean times, we will make a way, we will find a vision, we shall endure, we shall possess our souls in the fulness of life. Amen.