1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

There is a wall dividing our country. The argument over this wall brought about a 35-day government shut down, and the agreement to end the shutdown is for only three weeks, then what? When it comes to the issue of the wall and the shutdown, some people are angry, others are scared, some frustrated and others apathetic. This issue is dividing our country, but whether the wall is built, half built or torn down there will still be divisions. Many walls have been built and torn down throughout history, and we are able to keep fighting against one another either way. The real protection we need is not from what is outside of us, but within us. Inside all of us lives something that is truly terrifying and we are powerless to stop it. In this world of walls, we face troubles no matter what side we are on, and when you worry that nothing can protect you from what is outside or inside, our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah 8 is an encouragement to Rejoice, God Protects You!

Their wall had been broken down for around 150 years, plus they had a 70-year government shutdown. Before it fell, the wall around Jerusalem had stood for hundreds of years keeping God’s people safe from foreign powers. God protected his people, but when they stopped listening to him and honoring him as God, he abandoned them. In Jeremiah 19:15, we hear the prophet Jeremiah give this message,

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’”

Soon after Jeremiah gave the condemning ‘State of the Union’ address on behalf of God to Jerusalem, it fell. In the year 586 BC, give or take a year, Jeremiah recorded that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon built great siege works to overcome the wall around Jerusalem and the city was destroyed. Then, Nebuchadnezzar took most of the Israelites back to Babylon where they lived in exile for 70 years. All was not lost though as we read in Jeremiah 25:12,

“But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever.”

Though God’s people abandoned him and he gave them over to Babylon to be punished, he would not let them be lost forever. He punished Babylon for destroying his people and allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem.

In 445 BC, Nehemiah came to complete the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a descendant of those exiles, but had not been part of the remnant who returned to Jerusalem. He was still back living in Persia, formerly Babylon (destroyed as God foretold), serving as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. He had to rely on others to keep up to date on what was happening in Jerusalem and when word came to Nehemiah saying, Nehemiah 1:3

“Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

Nehemiah mourned, fasted and prayed. Then, while bringing the king some wine, he asked to leave, to return and rebuild Jerusalem. When his request was granted, Nehemiah returned and helped rebuild the wall to protect Israel.

After completing the physical protections for Jerusalem, Nehemiah made sure Israel would also be protected spiritually. In our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah 8, we hear that Ezra read from God’s Word. As Ezra read, the people were reminded of their sins and

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

As the people stood beside the wall that had been rebuild, their sins and the sins of their people were so obvious. Israel had learned a hard lesson from God, that turning away from him, meant turning away from his protection.

Without God, we don’t have protection from what threatens us as God’s people. In our second reading from 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminded the believers of their unity in Christ. Paul said, 1 Corinthians 12:13

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

All of us who believe in Jesus make up one body. We are protected as members of Christ’s body by God and we defend ourselves with his Word, but that body constantly faces the threat of turning on itself. Paul went on to say,

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

How foolish it would be for a body to turn on itself. And the same is true among the body of believers.

We face so many things that threaten to turn us against one another breaking apart the body of believers. We may be for the wall or against it, we may be blue collar or white collar, we may believe in spanking our kids or not spanking them, we may be vegetarians or meat eaters and don’t even get me started on all the rivalries between colleges in Texas or Texas and Oklahoma. All of these differing opinions threaten to divide us as believers and can then threaten our relationship with Christ. Our passion to hold on to something more than our shared faith in Christ or hold on to something more than Christ threatens to completely divide us from God forever.

Instead of being divided, Paul encourages us to remain as one body under Christ. Instead of different parts of the body rejecting other parts, we are to remain together so that

26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

God does not want us to be lost in pursuit of our sinful desires. He wants us to remain together, so that we can protect one another when we suffer and to be here for one another to rejoice in moments of blessing. Trials will always threaten us as believers, but God doesn’t want anyone to be lost. In 2 Peter 3:9, we hear,

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

God is patient with us when we lose sight of him behind walls of pride by living selfishly or walls of fear and doubt as if God were not what we need to rely on for protection. He is patient and eager that we return to his word to hear him say, “Rejoice, God Protects You!”

God heard Nehemiah’s prayer allowing him to return to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, but his greater blessing was to return the people to hearing the Word of God. As Ezra read the Word of God to the people, he explained it, so that the people could understand. They heard both the law that showed them their sins, and they also heard the gospel that showed them God’s love and forgiveness. God had given his people rest and protection with the wall, and now Nehemiah had the pleasure of telling them to Nehemiah 8:10

10 … “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

God gives us the same joy as he did to the Israelites. God’s people will always share the same joy because they share the same protection from God. Our joy is not a joy like the world knows. We can experience the joy of choice foods at a birthday party or sweet drinks at a wedding reception, but those events are always short lived and fade away. The kind of joy we have as God’s people lasts. In our gospel reading from Luke 4, Jesus gives us the promise that we can have joy despite long hardships. When Jesus returned to Nazareth, the place where he grew up, he was given the scroll of Isaiah the prophet to preach from.

17…Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus was reading a clear prophecy about the Savior that Israel had been hoping for over thousands of years, since Abraham, Moses and David. All the people were focused on what Jesus would say about these words, and

21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This was life changing for the people. It was better news than any wall being built, whether in Jerusalem or the United States. Jesus told them that whether they were poor, prisoners, blind or oppressed, now was the time of protection and joy through him.

God’s strength for us cannot fail. Jesus came to give us eternal protection. In Ephesians 6:12, we hear that

our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Our true struggle in this world is against what can separate us from God. The wall we need broken down is the wall of sin and death that divides us from God. It is a wall the devil continually works to build, but Jesus smashed that wall down on the cross. He paid for our sins, he made peace between us and God, and he gave us the hope of eternal life through his resurrection.

We trust in him as our Savior because he revealed his power to do all of this throughout his time in this world. During this Epiphany season, the season of revealing, Jesus reveals his power. We saw it in the Magi who traveled from the east to praise a toddler with gold, frankincense and myrrh because they recognized him as the Savior King. We saw it in the Father calling from heaven and the Holy Spirit coming like a dove on Jesus when he was baptized. We saw it in Jesus’ power to turn water into wine. And, at the end of this Epiphany season, we will see it as Jesus shines with all his glory like the sun on the mount of transfiguration.

There is a wall dividing our country, but many walls have been built and torn down throughout history, and we keep fighting against one another either way. We remain divided because the real protection we need is not from what is outside of us, but within. Inside all of us sin lives working to divide us from one another and from God. It is terrifying because we cannot stop it or its consequences. We need protection from it beyond anything this physical world can give us. We need God’s protection. Thank God he has revealed his true protection for us in his powerful Son. Jesus came to save us and give us life. When we die, we will be eternally separated from all that threatens us. We will be gathered together in the walls of the new Jerusalem in heaven that stands as God’s kingdom forever. In this world of walls and divisions, do not be afraid, but Rejoice, God Protects You! Amen.