From a sermon preached at College Communion at Christ Church
All Saints Sunday 2021
All Saint’s Day is an opportunity to think about the Church in all eternity. Where all time is one and all time is God’s time, so we are part of one Church which is here and everywhere, a Church that stretches back to include all people, a body of Christ that stretches back into the past and on into the future. It’s a mind-bending concept.
So let’s focus right back to into Old Testament, to two stories of two different groups of sisters, one from the book of Numbers and the other from one brief mention in the book of Nehemiah. Stories over 1000 years apart and over 1000 years from where we are now.
There are several reasons to focus on their stories:
Firstly, I’ve been emersed in stories of Old Testament women for the last few years as I’ve been working on a book on women from the OT and have been so inspired that if I get a chance to share their stories I want to take it; and secondly, because I think they have something to teach us and their stories can inspire us.
The first group of sisters (Numbers 27) are Mahlan, Noah, Hoglah, Milcan and Tirzan: the five daughters of Zelophehad, an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh. The period was when the Israelites tribes were being led by Moses in the desert and had been in the wilderness for many years and they were about to enter the ‘promised land’ and claim their land.
Zelphehad had died. He only had sons, no daughters. The custom was that in that case the land of the deceased would pass over to another clan and Zelphehad’s name would die with him.
His daughters thought differently. They ‘came forward’ and bravely went to the tent of Moses and the gathered elders to argue their case. Their reasoning was forthright, concise, personal, and persuasive and ended with the plea:
‘why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he has no son?’.
Moses didn’t know how to answer them so he prayed about it and heard from God.
‘the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying’.Numbers 27.7
The daughters were right! The law was changed and from then on daughters could inherit at the death of their father. They were also allowed to choose their own husbands as long as they were from the same clan. This move transformed their lives (they eventually inherited the land as detailed in Joshua), but also transformed the lives of women down the centuries.
The other story of a group of sisters is just mentioned in one line in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 3.11 We don’t know their names, they are simply ‘Shallum’s daughters’.
The time period is many centuries later. Judah had been invaded by the Babylonians and the city of Jerusalem, including its palaces, the Holy Temple, and the grand City walls had all been destroyed. The Jewish people had been exiled for nearly a hundred years and had been given permission to return by King Cyrus of Persia.
Everything had been destroyed and so there was a huge amount of building work to do to restore the house of God, restore the holiness of their people and restore the city walls. Nehemiah 3 is a long list of all the people who helped in this restoration. The whole community gathered together to build sections. It was hard labour.
And in amongst the long list of fathers and sons are Shallum’s daughters working alongside them all to rebuild the wall.
What strikes me about these two stories is they both speak of the power of working together to bring about transformation and change. The Daughters of Zelophehad wouldn’t have been listened to on their own. They needed to go as a group to Moses’ tent. The wall builders each had their section to complete; they had to work together and focus on their little section of the whole.
The reading from Revelation 21 also speaks of a rebuilt city – the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, a city where:
‘Death will be no more;Revelation 21.4a
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
The old city of Jerusalem was destroyed with its temple. Jesus, likened himself to the temple that would be destroyed but rebuilt in three days. And we, with all the saints past and present, are called to be his temple, his resurrected body, in the world and to be part of the building project of this new kingdom.
There is much rebuilding to be done, the problem is often where to start. There are so many issues today in our church and society – it can become overwhelming to know what to focus on.
Gender equality is still an issue today – land rights for women are a UN sustainability goal; there is environmental work to be done, we think of Cop 26 this week; there is homelessness, food poverty.. the list goes on.
We each have a section of wall to rebuild. This is different for each of us. Each of us will have the thing that stirs us to go the tent to speak out. What might that be?
So often church people waste time critiquing other saints’ wall building methods, or comparing their own section with either pride or dissatisfaction. We don’t need to do that.
On this All Saint’s Day we join with the body of all believers, past and present. May we be like the daughters of Zelophehad as we link arms and speak up against injustice where we see it. May we be like the daughters of Shallum as we pick up our tools and focus on rebuilding our little area of wall.
So often it can feel as if our hard labour isn’t achieving anything much at all. But it is. It is part of something bigger. Sometimes we are just building foundations that other saints build on; at other times it’s making small repairs to peoples’ lives which are hardly noticeable. But it all matters.
We don’t do any of this on our own of course. We do this in community, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the company of all the Saints.