Ordinary people who serve an extraordinary God
Last week, the key word of our lesson was “revival”. The Israelites had spontaneously gathered together at the Water Gate and had requested that Ezra read God’s Word. They listened carefully for hours on end, standing the entire time, absorbing each and every word. So much so that they began to weep and mourn for the transgressions that they and other Israelites had committed against God. But Nehemiah stopped them. “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10
Chapter 9 covers the actual mourning and confession of sins. Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with [a]dust on their heads. 2 Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God. Nehemiah 9: 1
How many hours in a day? 24, right? Okay now divide that by 4. Yep. They stood for 6 hours and listened to the Word of God! And then, spent another 6 hours confessing and worshipping. And….they were fasting! Anyone else feeling like a spiritual wimp right now or is it just me?
In chapter 10, a covenant is made to God by the people. This covenant was to obey God’s law as well as to support the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The first 27 verses lists the names of those who signed the covenant on behalf of all of the others. The rest of the chapter details what the people will give as their offering. They are so dedicated to this that in verses 28 & 29 is this: So all these people now make this special promise to God. And they all ask for bad things to happen if they don’t keep their promise. All these people promise to follow the law of God. Nehemiah 10:28 & 29
When was the last time you made a promise to God and asked Him to make bad things happen to you if you didn’t keep it? That’s a deep rooted commitment. That’s not just an emotional prayer. That’s a prayer of true repentance. This is what true revival will do. It develops into a hunger for God’s Word and cause the blindness to our sins to be opened. True revival results in dedicating and committing our lives, ourselves to God. And that leads to ministry.
So we’re going to delve into chapters 11 & 12.
Nehemiah 11: 1 Now the leaders of the Israelites moved into the city of Jerusalem. The rest of the people used lots to decide who else should move there with the leaders. They chose a tenth of the people to live in Jerusalem, the holy city. The rest of the people stayed in their own towns. 2 The people who stayed asked God to bless those who were willing to move to Jerusalem.
Think back to 9/11. Can you believe it’s been almost 20 years ago? We know that three of the four planes hit their intended targets; the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth plane was suspected to be heading to the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. All of these had a symbolic value to the United States and that’s why they were the intended targets.
The city of Jerusalem had a symbolic value as well and would have been an obvious target to enemies. It had been attacked before and destroyed. But at this point in time, the altar, the temple had been rebuilt and now, thanks to Nehemiah’s obedience, the city had declared protection with the rebuilding of the wall. But in order to reinforce that protection, the city had to be occupied with people. The leaders had all moved in but more people were needed. So they cast lots. Basically whoever got the short straw had to move to the city. But verse 2 indicates that there were some who volunteered to move there. Living in the city greatly increased the risk of being attacked by enemies. The other Israelites who were living in surrounding areas amongst the Gentiles would not have faced this type of risk. So there were those who drew the short straw and had to move and then there were those who volunteered to move.
God had defied all human odds and brought His people back home for a reason, a purpose. Remember back in the Book of Ezra, it was King Cyrus whose heart was stirred to send the Israelites back to Jerusalem? From then on, the series of events could only be explained by saying, “It was God. Simply God.” But in order for God to accomplish what He set out to do, people needed to be willing to participate. And to leave the city under-occupied would have been to stand in the way of what God was wanting to do. He needed actual people to just live there.
We forget the importance of just being there. Wherever God wants us. We may not do a single thing but just to simply be there. Whether that be in Sunday School/ Life Group, the worship service, a hospital waiting room when a friend’s parent is taking their last breath, holding a child when they’ve had a nightmare, or just smiling and being polite to your server at the Cracker Barrel. Sometimes just being there makes us an instrument of God’s.
Chapter 11 contains a long list of names of those who moved to Jerusalem. This wouldn’t have been for the HOA or roll call reasons. No, these names were purposefully engraved into the Word of God. We all tend to skip over long lists of names in the Bible because 1.) It’s just a bunch of names so what could it possibly mean to us and 2.) A lot of them are nearly impossible to pronounce. But what if your ancestor’s name was listed? Or even your very own name? My dad was really into genealogy for a number of years. And he would try to tell me and my siblings all about our ancestors. And I’m afraid to say but we just didn’t find it all that interesting. He’d show us books that contained the names of our great-great-great grandfathers and we’d politely shake our heads and go, “uh huh”. But one day, he had a recently published book and lo and behold if our names weren’t listed! There they were in black and white. And all of a sudden, that non-interest flipped around to pure curiosity. But my name is simply in a book written and authorized by a human being. These people in Chapter 11 were written in a book that was authorized by God Himself and all because they changed their location.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have been consistent with listing names of people. Think of the speech of someone who wins an Oscar or an Emmy. They always have a list of those that they thank for participating in what resulted in this award. In a sense, that’s what’s being done here. It was an acknowledgement of those who involved themselves and it was a way of showing appreciation. The simple fact that God willfully placed those names in His Word is a great reminder that God sees and keeps track of what we do as we serve Him.
When you think of ministers, who comes to mind? If I tell you that the definition of minister is “to attend to the needs of others”, does that bring to mind anyone else? By that definition, shouldn’t we all be ministers?
I’m assuming all of us have taken communion. I don’t know why but when I was probably about 10 years old, I was fascinated by communion – not the actual ritual but rather the preparation of it. As the trays of those little cups were passed I wondered who filled them. As the plate of the communion bread was making its way down the altar, I’d wonder why some pieces were bigger than the others. To satisfy my curiosity, my mom took me over to the lady’s house who made the communion bread. Carolyn House. She was a special lady. She shared the recipe with me and let me help her make it each month. We used a pizza cutter to make the pieces. That’s why some were bigger than others. And filling up those tiny cups of grape juice on Sunday mornings was harder than I thought it would be. But communion has never been the same for me since those days. Of course, after I was saved the meaning of communion became real and much more meaningful to me. But knowing the service of others that it took behind the scene for communion to take place keeps me reminded that here on earth, we will not always be recognized for what we do for God’s work.
Matthew 6: 1 :“Be careful! When you do good things, don’t do them in front of people to be seen by them. If you do that, then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “When you give to the poor, don’t be like the hypocrites. They blow trumpets before they give so that people will see them. They do that in the synagogues and on the streets. They want other people to honor them. I tell you the truth. Those hypocrites already have their full reward. 3 So when you give to the poor, give very secretly. Don’t let anyone know what you are doing. 4 Your giving should be done in secret. Your Father can see what is done in secret, and he will reward you.”
The Israelites that took the risk and moved to Jerusalem didn’t know that their names would be written in God’s Word. They simply chose to be obedient and move. Nehemiah had done the same thing. He had left the luxuriousness and comfort of the king’s palace and all of its surroundings and moved to a city that was literally in ruins. Remember the first night he went about to look around? It was so treacherous that his horse couldn’t even maneuver through the rubble. And yet, here they are; two months later. The wall’s been rebuilt. The people have been revived. Now it was time to dedicate the wall.
Nehemiah 12: 27-29: “When it came time for the dedication of the wall, they tracked down and brought in the Levites from all their homes in Jerusalem to carry out the dedication with exuberance: thanksgiving hymns, songs, cymbals, harps, and lutes. The singers assembled from all around Jerusalem, from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth Gilgal, from the farms at Geba and Azmaveth—the singers had built villages for themselves all around Jerusalem.30 The priests and Levites ceremonially purified themselves; then they did the same for the people, the gates, and the wall.”
So they gather the Levites for this celebration. There’s musical instruments, there’s singing. And the Levites not only purified themselves, but they also purified the others, all of the gates and the wall itself. This was done in order that it would all be pleasing and acceptable to God.
Nehemiah 12: 31: “I had the leaders of Judah come up on the wall, and I appointed two large choirs. One proceeded on the wall to the right toward the Dung Gate. 37 At the Fountain Gate they climbed the steps of the city of David on the ascent of the wall and went above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east.”
Then there’s a second group of people. Nehemiah 12: 38: “The second group of singers started out in the other direction, to the left. I followed them as they went up to the top of the wall. Half of the people also followed them. They went past the Tower of Ovens to the Broad Wall. 39 Then they went over these gates: the Gate of Ephraim, the Old Gate, and the Fish Gate. And they went over the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred. They went as far as the Sheep Gate and stopped at the Guard Gate. 40 Then the two singing groups went to their places in God’s Temple. And I stood in my place. And half the officials stood in their places in the Temple. 42 Then two singing groups began singing with Jezrahiah leading them. 43 So on that special day, the priests offered many sacrifices. Everyone was very happy because God had made them happy. Even the women and children were excited and happy. People far away could hear the happy sounds coming from Jerusalem.”
Two groups of people. All there for the same reason. We’re told that even the women and children were excited and happy as if to say that that was unusual. But there were happy sounds coming from Jerusalem. Happy sounds coming from both groups of people.
I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but one group was directed to go straight to the dung gate. Yeah…you heard correctly. Dung as in manure, muck, waste.
It’s inevitable for most of us that we’re going to choose the wrong line to get in at the grocery store. The line we choose may look shorter, but by golly, there’s going to be some kind of a holdup. But we choose which line to get in, don’t we? So as we watch the other lines moving swiftly we just think to ourselves, “Well that’s just my luck.” But if we are told which line to get in, if we’re assigned a line and it moves a lot slower than the others, well there’s just enough there to kind of tick us off, right?
I think about that first group of worshippers that day as Nehemiah says, “This is what we’re going to do”. I could see me getting all excited that my name is called and I’ve been one of the first ones chosen and then he says, “Go straight towards the Dung gate.” I could see my hand going up. “Nehemiah, sorry to trouble you, but could I possibly be in the other group? You know, I’ve got a keen sense of smell and all. I just think would rather head away from the dung if that’s okay with you.”
But there’s none of that in the scripture. We’re not told that anyone protested or complained. Instead they went the way that was given and they worshipped. They sang. They rejoiced. All along the way. As the smell of the waste, refuse and garbage began to pierce their nostrils, they praised God.
There are times in our lives that it seems like we’ve been put in that first group – headed straight for the Dung Gate. Meanwhile, we look over our shoulders and see other family members, close friends headed in the opposite direction. Headed away from the stink and the stench of trials and difficult times. Headed towards the peaceful fish gate and sheep gate. And bitterness, jealously can creep in before we realize it. There are some people in life who just can’t seem to catch a break; always seem to have their camp set up at the Dung Gate. Not by choice, but because of circumstances. And those people are divided into two groups. They are either resentful or they are rejoiceful.
These directions, these groups of people on the wall that day – truthfully, we can all pretty much identify with both groups. There are moments in our life where we find ourselves at peace, in a good place. There are moments where we find ourselves surrounded by decay and rottenness.
Let these people be a model no matter which direction you’re heading. Why? Because they all worshipped. They all sang. They were all filled with joy and made happy sounds. Know why? Because even though their journeys were taking them in different directions, they were all headed towards God. They didn’t seem to be concerned with where they were because they were right where God wanted them to be. They were more focused on praising God and worshipping Him whether they were at the Sheep Gate or the Dung Gate.
I don’t know if you noticed this or not either, but the people weren’t walking along the wall. They were walking atop the wall. Remember back in chapter 4 when Tobiah was making fun of the wall. “Tobiah said, ‘What do these Jews think they are building? If even a small fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’ ” Nehemiah 4:3
Can’t you just imagine the thankfulness they had for what God had done? To have orchestrated the rebuilding of something so fragile that would crumble under the weight of just one more thing to that same structure being so strong and fortified that it withstood the weight of hundreds of people most likely stomping and dancing and jumping with joy. What God did with that wall, He does for us.
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and I am helped. Therefore my heart rejoices, and I praise Him with my song.” Psalm 28:7
Chapter 12 ends with the people sacrifices to God and contributions made for the temple and its leaders. And they did it joyfully! “They offered great sacrifices on that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy. The women and children also rejoiced, and the sound of the joy in Jerusalem could be heard from far away.” Nehemiah 12:43 (Once again, the point is made that the women and children also rejoiced. Funny, huh?)
The Israelites came together and celebrated what God had done. They came and purified themselves. They praised God. They spread joy. And they sacrified. All small and simple acts, but acts of worship. Worship is giving back to God what He is worth to you.
Hebrews 13:15 says, “So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name.” And might I add, “…even if your journey is taking you right towards the Dung Gate. Because that’s not where God will leave you.”