MP3 via frontiers church blog.
Hugo lives in the walls of a station in Paris in Brian Selznick's magical novel (now a Martin Scorsese film). He keeps the station clocks running as he explores the question he shares with many of the other characters in the film. Who am I? What's my place in the world? Looking out through the glass clock face he muses:
“You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need… if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”Who can't empathise with Hugo? At our different stages of life we might ask ourselves what it means for us to make a meaningful contribution. And we could talk about church which is good enough but much more about our city. And by city I don't just mean the metropolitan area but the city and its area - some live in the city and work outside it, some live outside and are connected to it...
Hugo's story is set in Paris - picture the Arc de Triomphe from above and see the machine that is Paris. The image works well but is somewhat dehumanising, unrelational.
Consider another city. Beautiful from the ground level its hard to fully appreciate the order and design of the Barcelona street plan. Cities are place and populated by people. They're about the location and the inhabitants. And cities are both beautiful and broken, injustice lurks under the surface of even the most glorious cities.
Nehemiah sees his city in ruins. His city, Jerusalem, is both a city and more than a city. As William Blake shows in his hymn, Jerusalem has a spiritual meaning - it embodies the great heavenly city to which the garden to city storyline of the Bible runs.
“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills”
We might say no. And likewise Jesus didn't walk on Englands hills... and yet in a sense the answer is yes! Jerusalem wasn't build among the factories of Bradford, but the city of God - the pursuit of peace between people and with God was... and is wherever people find peace with God in his good news.
Much as the Catalan coast was beautiful before Barcelona was built, the Bible story is one of cultivation. We can learn about human cities and God's bigger story. Nehemiah 3 doesn't say rebuild the walls of Exeter - knocking down Topshop and Next and Waterstones to reinstate the wall and north gate of the city. We see the people work together for the safety and good of their fortress city. Exeter had walls as the Roman outpost to keep out the celts in Cornwall, today the walls are fallen but the city has different needs to flourish.
In Nehemiah 2:18 our leader says - "rise up and build". In 3:1, Eliashib does that, with his brothers. Its a call to get out of bed and get to work... and a call to move from death to life. We see rulers and priests, servants, men and women, goldsmiths and perfumers, families and individuals rise together.
The chapter is a list of names. A feast of awesomeness if we'll listen. These are real people remembered for their contributions. Just as the electoral roll reflects my vote, so their work is remembered.
Two questions and an observation.
I. WHAT CAN I CONTRIBUTE?
- v13 - Hanun (whose name means Gracious) builds from the Tower of Ovens to the Dung Gate. 1000 cubits, 450 metres.
- v29 - Zadok (whose name means righteous) builds opposite his house.
Both are positively listed. But one can do much more.
1. At this time, in this season, can I do more in the church... and more importantly in our city?
Can you stretch further? Can you train up more? As you read this what ideas might spark?
Some say the church is middle class, not necessarily, but it might sometimes drift up the social scale as its members find fresh motivation. Now of course you don't have to follow Jesus to contribute to the good of the city, but just as Hugo sought identity in The Big Machine, so too those who follow Jesus find dignity and value in their work.
2. At this time, in this season, are there limits you need to accept?
At times we can do less. We may feel sadness but we need not feel guilt. I remember singing "I'm gonna be a history maker in this land" and with youthful ambition thinking we'd have to be famous. Most people don't have biographies written of them. But its not just Churchill who makes history. At this time you might "only" be able to do the washing day to day... but if that's what God has put in front of you to do, that's great! Nehemiah doesn't impose a strategy - the people are free to turn their hand to what is in front of them.
It takes a city to run a city.
A glass of water comes to you in a primative world from a stream, but as the world develops you'll need civil, mechanical and electronic engineers to build sewage plants, builders to lay pipes designed by mathematicians, entrepreneurs to set up water companies, sales people and lawyers to agree a contract, bankers to set up your payment... and cleaners to ensure that the tap you get water from isn't infested with bacteria. Even the simplest things take many people to build.
It'd be naive to think we can build heaven on earth. But we can cultivate. We can add order. We can restrain evil and injustice. We can work in politics and dentistry, in the council chambers and with our neighbours. We can create in science and art and business. We can seek the peace of the city in limited but real ways.
The brokennes is beyond our repairing. Amid the action scenes Christopher Nolan explores this in his Batman trilogy. In the first film the city is viewed as unredeemable by the villans - the only hope is to burn it down. In the second hope has come until chaos is unleashed by The Joker. In the last the question is about how to overcome evil.
What can we contribute?
II. WHAT WILL I CONTRIBUTE?
- The Tekoite Nobles - the people of the Trumpets - decide to blow their own trumpets instead of joining the building project.
- Malchijah - whose name means My Lord is King - rebuild the dirty dung gate, ensuring that the city is not full of poo.
III. SEE JESUS’ CONTRIBUTION
Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of his city. Not the final city. But his was the one to which Jesus would walk 500 years later. Consider Jesus.
See that he can do what we can't do. We can't get over the barrier of the depths of deathliness. But he became one of us to build the true and greater Jerusalem. He put all that is broken to death in his death, rising to new life to make the new city possible.
Moreover, he will do what needs to be done. If anyone could blow their own trumpet it was him... but he stooped to serve us. Jesus is the true and greater Tekoite Noble who stooped. And he came to deal with the sewage of our lives, he is the true and greater Malchijah.
And, finally, rather than consoling ourselves with The Big Machine, we find that he rises up with his brothers and sisters to build. Jesus is the true and greater Eliashib who builds with his family and who will finally build Jerusalem as a place of peace for people with people, and people with God. In him we can join in the renewal of all things, as we seek the peace of our city.