I recently preached on Nehemiah 4:13-23 at my church, St Nics Durham (CoE), as part of a sermon series on the book of Nehemiah. The series covers the major parts of the book rather than a verse-by-verse approach which can make handling the text easier in some ways (i.e. not having to focus on every detail) and difficult in others (trying to cover an entire chapter). My sermon followed after one preached by Richard Briggs on Neh. 2:19-20 & Neh. 4:1-12.
On top of the difficulties that accompany pre-recording a sermon from your home office, my task felt some extra weight. First, the text selection was narrowly focused on Nehemiah’s actions in establishing a guard and arming the builders in response to the opposition and threats of violence he faced—all things I would normally choose not to focus on! Increasing the scope of the passage would have allowed me to talk freely about the larger story without getting bogged down in the details.
Secondly, as an American living in England, I felt particularly aware of how this text has been used by a number of American Christians. Christian Nationalism and toxic (patriarchal) masculinity have drawn on this passage. Even if my congregation was unaware of such (mis)readings, I felt it necessary to address them in brief. One of the blessings and new challenges churches have to navigate is how to balance their immediate audience with their online and future audience. We are no longer just preaching to the people in the room on Sunday morning. No, we are also addressing the person in another city, another county, another country, even. They aren’t ‘tuning in for church’, but somehow, have started watching on their lunchbreak at work the week after. This doesn’t mean we have to preach to the hypotheticals. I knew that if I shared my sermon on Facebook, some people elsewhere would have encountered the problematic interpretations.
A final difficulty was figuring out how a text about arming wall builders with swords could be meaningful as Christian Scripture for us today. After looking at the Rabbis, the Fathers, and modern commentators, I felt that a hard pivoting might be allowed here. Every sermon has a pivot. It may be your application points, the ending emotional example that ties it all together, or the simple, but effective question of “now what does this mean for us?” Every sermon has a pivot, but not all equal in effect or efficiency. There are the ‘Jesus Jukes’ or the cheesy one-liners that are sure to illicit groans all around. Indeed, ‘pivoting’ might just be another word for avoiding the difficult parts of Scripture—in the case it might be a case of travelling (if I can continue with the basketball analogy). But ‘pivoting’ is an ancient practice. Many readers of Scripture looked not only at the ‘plain sense’ of the story for wisdom, but also saw in it a deeper spiritual reality. Following the example of the Venerable Bede (who is buried just up the road from my church), I decided to pivot to the work of prayer and discipleship. This approach will not work for every passage or in every sermon, but it felt appropriate here in Nehemiah 4. Take a listen and let me know if you think this approach worked. You can watch the sermon here or listen to the podcast here .
Brandon Hurlbert is one of the research associates of the CSBV. He is currently working on his PhD in Theology and Religion at Durham University.