This Sunday morning we continue with our series in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. We have reached chapter 3 and the title I’ve been given by our Executive Minister Jonathan Pryke for this morning is “Work”. When I went on sabbatical, we had agreed it would be good to study Nehemiah in this summer period. And I asked Jonathan to apportion the passages and give titles to the various preachers. But when, for this Sunday (and a first sermon fully back after a sabbatical) I looked at this chapter and then saw the title I was given, I thought there was some “tongue in cheek”. One commentator says of Nehemiah 3 that it is, I quote: “ordinarily considered one of the least interesting in the Bible”. It is basically a register of the names of those who build the wall. So thank you, Jonathan, for giving me this chapter!
And then there is the title “Work”. I couldn’t make out whether that was meant to be a noun or a verb in the imperative form. Was it “Work” as an activity, or was it “Work” as a command - to do some work? To provoke, while I have been away these past months, some people have said, when I've actually been quite tired through various projects, “Are you enjoying your holiday?” I wondered, therefore, if this title had a hidden message. Then I studied more carefully this chapter that describes the work of rebuilding the wall at Jerusalem. And all was forgiven. I discovered that it has a great deal to teach us not only about Nehemiah’s time but also for today.
Viggo Olsen helped rebuild in the seventies ten thousand houses in war – ravaged Bangladesh – it was in 1972. He says he was greatly inspired by this chapter. I quote:
“I was struck... that no expert builders were listed in the ‘Holy Land brigade’. There were priests, priest’s helpers, goldsmiths, perfume makers and women, but no expert builders or carpenters were named.”
His teams of ordinary people were able to build 10,000 houses.
This chapter certainly tells us what ordinary people of very differing sorts can do for God’s kingdom. You see, this book of Nehemiah is a very practical book. It goes with the previous book in the Bible, the book of Ezra. Ezra tells how there was a return to Jerusalem of the people of God from their exile in Babylon. That is where they were experiencing the consequences of their ignoring God and disobeying his word. But the book of Ezra tells how the building work of those returned exiles was stopped by a Royal Decree. Then after it had started again, it tells how Ezra himself returned with 1,750 men (and their dependants) to help.
Twelve years later it was Nehemiah who made the journey back. He reports that things were still bad in Jerusalem. He then gives us his own account of how he was able to help these depressed people rebuild the wall and start a new period of restoration. The book of Nehemiah is, therefore, for today. The people of God, particularly in the churches of the Western world today, are like those returned exiles. Jerusalem, as it was then, is like much of the church in Britain now where there is disillusionment, decline and depression. Yes, growth is seen in other parts of the world - in Asia and Africa and South America - but not in Europe or in Britain. Look back to chapter 2 verse 17, where Nehemiah says:
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’”
We can learn a great deal from Nehemiah’s rebuilding work and his work for change. We can learn from these Old Testament times as the church today is nothing more (nor less) than the Old Testament covenant community in a new and fulfilled form. The church is Israel internationalized. It now extends throughout the world under the unifying Lordship of Jesus Christ, its divine head and king. But the principles at work are still the same. And individuals can learn from Nehemiah. Jim Packer, the distinguished theologian, has written an excellent book on Nehemiah, A Passion for Faithfulness. In it he tells us that he wants to meet Nehemiah in heaven, because…
“… when at nineteen I began to wonder if God wanted me in the professional ministry, it was Nehemiah’s experience that showed me how vocational guidance is given and set me on the road to being sure. When I was put in charge of a study centre committed to outflanking and defusing liberal theology, it was Nehemiah who gave me the clues I needed about leading enterprises for God and dealing with entrenched opposition. When after that I became principal of a theological college that was in low water, it was once again Nehemiah whose example of leadership showed me how to do my job.”
There is a huge market for “leadership” books today. I have read several over this sabbatical period. The one essential read is Nehemiah. So much by way of introduction.
For the rest of our time, you’ll see from the outline, I simply want us to consider three things: first, THE WORK OF NEHEMIAH; secondly, THE WORK OF REBUILDING; and thirdly, THE WORK TODAY.
First, THE WORK OF NEHEMIAH
And there are three things you can say about Nehemiah and his work. One, he was a worker. He believed in work unlike the “nobles” we heard about in our Old Testament reading. He clearly was a man of action. He was told of the problem, as we read in chapter 1 verse 3:
“They said to me, ‘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.’”
In chapter 2 we read how he was getting the Persian King Artaxerxes to give him written authority for rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and to requisition materials for building. He also managed to get a detachment of the equivalent of the SAS to give him safe-conduct as he travelled back to Jerusalem. In chapter 3 we see the work beginning. Nehemiah was a worker. And we all should be workers.
Nor is work just paid work. It is any effort that aims for a new state of affairs. The Bible makes it clear that work is a God-given human good. Through work we are co-creators with God. Genesis teaches that in the Garden of Eden work was entirely creative. After the fall, however, it has involved bringing good where there is bad. That means strain and sometimes pain. In heaven, however, work as we “serve” God and “reign for ever and ever” will again be entirely creative and stress free (Revelation 22.3 and 5).
So don’t confuse work with paid work. At the moment there are people working in the crèche and Sunday Schools and out on car patrols. There is much work in the home – unpaid but vital. And don’t think that if you are working in obedience to God’s call it will be stress free – either church work, home work or secular work. It wasn’t stress free for Nehemiah in the Palace at Susa, or working in Jerusalem as we will see next week. Yes, there are needs to be rest (one day a week and at nights) and relaxation. But in spite of the stress, work is a human good. Nehemiah was a worker.
Then, two, and importantly, he was also a man of prayer. The first thing he did when he heard of the condition of the people of Jerusalem was that he wept and then prayed. Are you concerned for the state of the church in this country and around the world? I have had the privilege of being able to visit churches in South America and East Africa and South Africa recently during my sabbatical. Good things are happening in those churches. But not all is good. The devil will always be attacking the church even, and maybe especially, where there is growth. So when you read of bad things in the churches, what do you do? What do I do? We know what Nehemiah would do today because he tells us what he did then in Jerusalem in 445 BC. In chapter 1 verse 4, he says:
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
He got emotionally involved and then he prayed. Do you want to see the growth of the church here in Newcastle and soon in Gateshead? Pray and then work. Are you horrified at the spiritual state of this country? Pray and then work. Prayer is not an alternative to work. Nehemiah teaches us that you must do both. You must pray and work. Nehemiah was a praying worker. You and I too should be praying workers.
Three, he was a man of faith. That is why he prayed. He had a big vision of God. He began his prayer in chapter 1 verse 5 with these words:
“… O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands,”
Nehemiah’s God, the true God, was “the God of heaven” and a God of love. He was the sovereign and merciful Lord. He could overrule the kings of Persia (and the leaders of Greece and Rome and anywhere else) as he can overrule Gordon Brown and George Bush and your own situation. So keep that vision of God as the one in ultimate control of this world. Then pray and work for him. Nehemiah was a worker; he was a man of prayer; and he had a big vision of God. That brings us to chapter 3 and...
... secondly, THE WORK OF REBUILDING
Note five things about this rebuilding.
First, as now in the 21st century, God back then in the 5th century BC needed people to achieve his purposes and work for him. God sometimes works directly but since the creation of the world he regularly works indirectly and uses means, especially people. Some Christians get this wrong.
With our bodies and their healing, God works directly sometimes in miraculous ways but regularly he works indirectly through doctors, nurses and medical therapy. With our “souls” (if I may put it this way) he also works both directly and indirectly. The Holy Spirit brings conviction and new life to an unbeliever.
But God still uses men and women as means through whom the Holy Spirit works as they witness to their relatives and friends. The truth of the Bible must be taught. You must pray for the Holy Spirit to work. But some people think that is all you have to do. Nehemiah would not agree. He could have just gone to Jerusalem and said, “God wants the walls rebuilt” and gone home. That would have been God’s infallible truth. But the walls would not have been rebuilt. Nehemiah could even have stayed in Susa at the Royal Palace and prayed for God’s Spirit to work in miraculous ways to repair the wall. But we have no reason to suppose that God would have answered that prayer.
Chapter 3 teaches that God needs ordinary people to achieve his purposes in this world as they work for him. So Nehemiah went to Jerusalem. There he encouraged and lead the people he found to do God’s work. He planned, he motivated and he organized this depressed bunch of returned exiles. But his leadership was no one-man-band. No! Nehemiah shared the work and delegated it to a wide range of other people while he co-ordinated their work. And as we shall see next week, he worked to protect the people from negative forces and attacks from outside. Rebuilding the walls required many others under Nehemiah’s leadership. It was a leadership that was a partnership with other people. So God uses people to achieve his purposes and he uses a variety of people.
Secondly, then, note the details of this variety. How good it is when God’s people are not all clones of one another. And because of this variety Nehemiah’s leadership had to be sensitive, non-bureaucratic and flexible. Let me explain: There were 41 groups of builders working, seemingly, at the same time. But Nehemiah didn’t have a “one size fits all approach”. He recognized different situations and people’s different strengths and weaknesses. So he let them play to their strengths. Just look at the variety.
Verse 1 refers to the high priest and his fellow priests. Verses 2 and 7 refer to people from outside the area, men of Jericho and men from Gibeon and Mizpah. Then in verses 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 we read of “rulers” – high-up officials getting their hands dirty in the work. Verse 6 tells of people who worked in pairs. Verse 8 tells of a “goldsmith” and a “perfume maker” working on two adjacent sections of the wall, while verse 32 says “goldsmiths and merchants” were working together. And verse 12 speaks of women builders. There were so many different sorts of people. This is how one commentator describes how it all worked out:
“Not only did Nehemiah co-ordinate the work so that no gaps were left and all worked closely to one another, but he also seems to have arranged the work in part for the convenience and motivation of the workers. Many were assigned to (or chose) portions of the wall in front of or directly adjacent to their houses - the priests rebuilding the area near the temple (vv 1 and 28), the temple servants the area near their dwelling on the temple mount (v 26), Jedaiah the portion of the wall ‘opposite his house’ (v 10), Benjamin and Hassub the portion of the wall ‘in front of their house’ (v 23), and so on. This would be convenient for all.”
The work of God regularly requires many different people and, therefore, wise leadership. It did then and it does today.
Thirdly, note the different levels of commitment. There were some who, when they finished their specific task early, said, “I will go home now.” No! It seems they said, “Where can I help further?” Look at verses 4 and 21:
“Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section… [and… ]
… Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired another section, from the entrance of Eliashib's house to the end of it.”
And then verses 5 and 27:
“The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors. [and… ]
Next to them, the men of Tekoa repaired another section, from the great projecting tower to the wall of Ophel.”
In the Christian fellowship there will be those who really want to see God’s work move forward. And that takes time and energy. But time and energy are finite. So who here this morning is letting the world absorb too much of their time and energy so that God just gets the left-overs? Be challenged by these men of Tekoa. And then be warned by “their nobles [who] would not put their shoulders to the work”.
Who are you like when it comes to the work of God – the men of Tekoa or their nobles?
Fourthly, note verse 30, where “Hanan, the sixth son of Zalaph” was working with Hananiah; and where, you may ask, were the five other brothers? If you are in a family that shows no commitment to Christ, don’t let other family members discourage you in your work for the Lord. And don’t pull back. God will honour you for being different.
And, fifthly, note in verse 31, Malkijah. He was one of the guilty men in Ezra 10.31. It appears he is now restored and working in the fellowship. God uses people with all sorts of chequered backgrounds, if they admit their sin and seek God’s forgiveness.
So for the work of rebuilding: one, God uses people; two, he uses a variety of people; three, there are different levels of commitment; four, some have to withstand family pressures; and five, God can use repentant people with a chequered background.
Thirdly and finally, what about THE WORK TODAY?
Please turn to John 4.34-38. Jesus was work orientated. Verse 34 says:
“‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
His earthly work is now finished with the Cross and Resurrection. So we should not think in terms of the proverb “Four months more and then the harvest”. That is a proverb that says there must be a delay before harvesting. You can’t rush the harvest. Jesus is saying, No! That period of delay – that Old Testament period when God was teaching his people so many lessons in so many ways – that period of delay is over. With Jesus’ life, death and resurrection the fields are, verse 37, “ripe for harvest”. Christ has sown. We are now, if we will only open our eyes, able to reap. That is the work God is calling us to.
Perhaps you have never heard that call because you have never accepted Christ as your Saviour and Lord. If so, why not do that this morning? Seek his forgiveness for ignoring and rejecting God and his word, and receive the life and power of his Holy Spirit. But if you have accepted Christ, at the start of this new session, are you committed to this reaping work? Christianity Explored is a local opportunity. At our church we aim to be committed to that Great Commandment to love God and our neighbour and that Great Commission to make disciples. That works out as our vision of Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain.
In practical terms as I mention in the Newsletter, that means “trust in Christ”, “obey the word”, “tell the world”, “serve the church”, “care for needs” and “contend for truth”. That, surely, should always be our work at our church as individuals and as a church in this 21st century.