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"Beginning the Work" (Morning Service)

Building the Heart  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  1:08:03
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Shawnee Bible Church Pastor Jon Gohdes Sunday May 24, 2020 “BEGINNING THE WORK” (Nehemiah 3:1–32) Nehemiah chapter 3 is another one of those passages that convinces us the Bible is not a book of fairy tales. We’ve pointed this out before, but it behooves us to say it again. This chapter is all raw historical detail. The work begins—the moment has come! And the whole chapter is names and places. The plain facts are laid out in successive detail, but these details probably don’t mean too much to the average American Christian. That’s not to say there’s a problem with the Bible—the problem lies somewhere else. The problem stems from our unfamiliarity with such details, like Sheep Gates and Refuse Gates (doesn’t that interest you??). Have you ever just poured your soul into an email—you carefully worded that thing to maximize clarity and minimize confusion (even changing the wording of a couple sentences about 4 times)—you highlighted the really important part you wanted the reader to see—your fingers were bleeding by the end when you clicked send—and based upon the response, it’s evident that they only glanced over it, not feeling compelled to expend much energy at all on the details. We’re tempted to do something similar with Nehemiah 3—because most of us don’t have a visual conception of the very visual project the writer describes, namely all of the portions of the wall and the gates which the people rise up to rebuild. But allow me to make one more opening observation about a passage like this. You often hear me emphasize (sometimes manically so) that the Bible is for our transformation not merely our information. While that’s true, we must not shy away from passages like these which “don’t seem to offer too much for us today.” The danger of laziness is creeping in upon us if we find ourselves thinking, “Woopdy-do, a bunch of awkwardly-named people are rebuilding their towers, walls, and gates!” But just wait a minute: we don’t have the right to treat the Bible that way. While the entirety of the Bible is for us as believers, it was not all written about us or directly to us. In fact, the universe is not all about us. Do we realize that? Do we realize that when we come to the Bible, we forget about self and we seek God? And that’s when the Bible comes alive—when we are seeking to see more clearly who our God is! THAT’S the point of the Bible, and in a chapter like this we see his remarkable and good hand upon these OT people as they arise to rebuild their ruined city. Still, I’ll confess, a coupe times when I was reading this chapter this week, it was a struggle to stay focused. I’ll give you that (and I’ll warn you that we have a couple more chapters like this ahead). But what I want to do, which I think might help you (as it did me), is to give you a better mental picture of what’s going on in Nehemiah 3. He is recounting all the various teams that were formed to rebuild sections of wall, or gates, or towers near the part of the city where they lived. But it gives us a helpful mental picture to realize that he relays the rebuilding project starting at the north end of the city working his way counterclockwise all the way around back up to the north end. You’ll notice both verse 1 and verse 32 mention the Sheep Gate, which was Nehemiah’s starting point and ending point for his construction notes. But what I would like to do while I read this chapter is encourage you to look at the map on the screen (if you’re watching the sermon slides). You can either study it as I read the chapter, or, go ahead pause the recording and familiarize yourself with it before I read. As I mentioned, Nehemiah starts describing the work at the top/northern part of the wall at the Sheep Gate and progresses counterclockwise around the city. The map shows Nehemiah’s walls in orange, which of course you’ll notice is only a fraction of the whole layout of Jerusalem. Much like Ezra’s temple—which was only a shell of what Solomon’s was—so Nehemiah’s walls reveal a similar humble restoration. But please read the chapter along with me: Nehemiah 3:1–32. To your relief, the text before us is one which we will not necessarily move through consecutively, considering every single name and detail; rather, we’re going to draw basic observations from the passage as a whole. While this chapter is a tedious one for us to read, it is a chapter of action! The work begins! 1) THE WORK BEGINS WITH MOTIVATION. The opening phrase of verse one almost gives the reader goose bumps: “Then Eliashib the high priest arose with his brothers the priests and built…” The time has finally come to break the huddle and run the play, as it were. Under Nehemiah’s leadership, the people have been motivated and inspired to rise up and build. We assume, with a great measure of confidence, that their reason and motive would have been similar to Nehemiah’s in chapter 1—where we have a window directly into what is driving his him forward. Revealed in his prayer of lament and confession to God, he clearly expresses his heart’s motivation, which is to see God’s name honored: Nehemiah 1:8–10. The work begins with motivation, which has more to do with God than with the city itself or the people themselves. I think this is crucial to understand: I don’t think the people, by and large, were rebuilding for sentimental reasons! (Surely, they were not being led to rebuild for sentimental reasons). Take for example, Meshullam in verse 4—the son of Berechia, the son of Meshezabel. We might ask ourselves, “Why was he building?” Was it because he remembered Grandpa Mesh telling tales of the good ol’ days when he was growing up, playing in the streets of Old Jerusalem, with Solomon’s temple gleaming in the sunset sky off in the distance? Was that his reason for rebuilding the rubble sitting outside his house? Not if he was listening and following Nehemiah, who was consumed not with restoring some sort of former Israelite glory but with seeing God’s name, God’s place, and God’s reputation displayed in honor in the current circumstances! We remember that God humbled these people and took away their former glory! We must realize the same thing today: what is our true motive for religious zeal? What is our reason for coming to church? What is our reason for claiming the name of Christ? What is our reason for giving our money? What is our reason for serving? What is our reason for voting? If our religious zeal is sentimental towards what we used to have, that means it’s more about us than it is about God. Godly zeal and obedience are supremely motivated by the desire for God to be glorified in the present circumstances at my expense if necessary. I think you’ll agree that the first two chapters of the book reveal that Nehemiah was driven by this way of thinking, which he then modeled, inspired, led the people to adopt. However, not everyone shared this motivation. He notes in verse 5 that there were some unwilling to support the work. Read verse 5. One commentator notes, “‘Tekoa,’ located southeast of Bethlehem, was the home of the prophet Amos. Since it was close to the area controlled by Geshem the Arab, perhaps the nobles who “would not put their shoulders to the work” were influenced by or afraid of him. Whatever their reason, it indicates that some of the Jews did not support Nehemiah’s plan. (Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 187) The specific motive of their heart is not known, but it is a pitiful thing when men are more concerned about themselves than God (the vast majority of humanity). The work begins with motivation. Secondly, it begins with remarkable… 2) THE WORK BEGINS WITH COOPERATION. Someone has said that the bus doesn’t get to St. Joe without someone driving it! Obviously, Nehemiah is driving this project forward, but to drive an empty bus to St. Joe is a sorry sight. The point being that someone can think he’s a leader; but if no one follows and cooperates with him, that reveals the true nature of things. With incredible cooperation, excluding the dud nobles from Tekoa, the people follow Nehemiah and rise up and build! Quite fittingly, Eliashib the high priest is mentioned first as joining the work (verse 1). He leads his fellow priests to rebuild the Sheep Gate, located near the temple—most likely named that because it seems that’s where sheep were brought in for sacrifices. Nehemiah goes on to list all the various groups that cooperated with him and together. Not only is the cooperation extraordinary, but the coordination is as well. 3) THE WORK BEGINS WITH COORDINATION. People from numerous professions. People from numerous families. People from numerous parts of the city. People from numerous regions. The Bible Knowledge Commentary helps summarize for us: “He assigned everyone a specific place to work. This coordination stands out in the phrases “next to him,” “next to them,” “next to that,” “the next section,” “beside him,” and “beyond them,” which occur 28 times in this chapter. Assignments were made near people’s houses (vv. 21, 23–24, 26, 28–30). Reasons for this plan are obvious. First, people who were assigned to sections of the wall near their homes would be more personally involved and consequently more highly motivated. Second, they would not have to travel to another part of the city to do the job, wasting valuable time. Third, in case of attack they would not be tempted to leave their posts, but would stay and protect their families. Fourth, the whole task would be a family effort, utilizing all available talent. Commuters also had a part. Men whose homes were outside of Jerusalem—in Jericho (v. 2), Tekoa (vv. 5, 27), Gibeon (v. 7), and Mizpah (v. 7)—were assigned to sections of the wall where there were few homes. Those workers were asked to complete tasks that would not be as conveniently handled by the permanent residents in Jerusalem. Assignments were also made by vocation. For example, the high priest and his fellow priests were assigned to rebuild the Sheep Gate (v. 1). This was of particular interest to them, because animals were brought through that gate to the temple for sacrifice. Other priests are mentioned in verses 22, 28. Other workers whose vocations are listed include goldsmiths (vv. 8, 31–32), perfume-makers (v. 8), district and half-district rulers (vv. 9–12, 14–19), Levites (v. 17), and merchants (vv. 31–32). Even one man’s daughters were involved (v. 12).” (Gene Getz, Nehemiah, Bible Knowledge Commentary, 678). Evidently, Nehemiah knows how to get people working together! (Which is remarkable, considering he was a palace cupbearer and many working under him are not necessarily described as construction workers (I’m not sure how well priests and perfumers build walls!) Nevertheless, we are often surprised at the hidden ability of some people. We can assume that not all the priests or all the perfumers or all the goldsmiths were building per se, but presumably those who had the ability to do so. It’s not ridiculous to conceive of at all. We need only remember Pastor Darrell. When you’d find many a minister spending his sabbatical in extra sitting and reading and writing or praying for his parishioners, you’d find Pastor Darrell spending his sabbatical on the roof of a parishioner—replacing shingles with a fury. It’s projects like Nehemiah’s wall that bring out this side in people. I’ll confess I have the most difficulty imagining perfumers laying brick and mortar, but nonetheless they jumped right in! All these different groups labored together under the guidance and instruction Nehemiah brought. But finally, we note that… 4) THE WORK BEGINS WITH HUMILIATION. Now, I admit this isn’t the best word—I don’t mean to say the work began in shame or disgrace; but I think we do well to remember that the city they’re rebuilding is a shell of its former self. The better word to use here would be “humble”—this is a humble beginning. The work begins with humble goals and results due to the fraction of population in Jerusalem, the fraction of talent, the fraction of resources compared to what they use to have. You might say, “Well, why didn’t you use the word ‘humble’? Why do you say it begins with humiliation?” My answer comes from the deeply spiritual reason that I wanted to keep my outline paralleled with itself. This work is just like when the temple was rebuilt by Ezra several decades before, the people knew it paled in comparison to the Solomon’s Temple, prompting the Prophet Zechariah to ask, “Who has despised the day of small things?” (Zech 4:10). His point in the context being that we ought not to do so—we ought to never despise the day of small things! By the good and sovereign hand of God, this is a humble beginning. These people are right where God wants them to be because God prefers humble to big every time! Not that big is inherently bad, but sometimes what is required to restore humility is to cut things down to size. During this time in Israel’s history, James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 are playing out in their restoration. This may be a time of small physical things, but it is a spiritually momentous time for the exile community. CLOSING APPLICATIONS Be faithful with what you have today (not what you used to have, and not what you wish you had). Be faithful with the small section that is your’s (none of us are in control of the whole thing). Be faithful even though you will be forgotten (most of these people did a small part in this work and are forgotten—the point is never that we would be recognized, but that God’s name would be honored)
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