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Nehemiah 3 sermon – what brings unity to God's people?

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Nehemiah 3

What unites the Lord’s people?  What makes for real, lasting, binding unity among the Family of God?  Where do we find the kind of oneness that Jesus speaks of in John chapter 17.

 “May they [the church] be brought to complete unity.” (John 17:23)

How can the church ever be the answer to Christ’s prayer?

Some will suggest unity through institutions.  Be united under bishops, and archbishops.  Perhaps under the Pope – surely that’s one way of achieving unity.

Some suggest unity through dialogue and declarations.  Sit down with Christians and come to doctrinal agreements on as many things as we can.  Certainly there’s a time and a place for that.

Perhaps we should pursue unity through ecumenical services where we put “give and take” into action in our worship.  Maybe that can be an expression of unity.

In Nehemiah 3 we see the people united in an incredible way.  Men and women.  Adults and children.  Nobles and servants.  Different tribes. Different cultures.  Different occupations working as one towards a common goal.  There were hardships, there were set-backs, there was serious opposition, but through it all, the gracious hand of God was upon them and in 52 days they did what seemed impossible.  They rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem.

And that’s what unites the people of God.  And you say “What, a building project?”  “Brick-laying is the key to church unity?  Urban planning is the great ecumenical hope?”  No, but let’s think what building up Jerusalem means.

We all know this hymn don’t we.  I don’t know what it conjures up for you, but for me it’s the hymn of consecutive Ashes defeats.  Bad memories come with this hymn.  And perhaps they should because it’s quite bizarre.  It basically asks a series of questions to which the answers are all, “No!”

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

 What does William Blake mean by building Jerusalem?  Actually he means something not dissimilar to what the Bible means by it.

Jerusalem is Zion.  In the Old Testament it’s the earthly counterpart to the heavenly city.  And building up Jerusalem is establishing a gospel witness to heavenly realities even here on earth.  Blake was onto something.  Because that is the kind of way Jerusalem and its structures are spoken of in Scripture.

Let’s think about Zechariah for instance:

Zechariah 6:11-15  11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says:`Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD.

So someone called the Branch will branch out from the temple, from Jerusalem.  And He will build the temple of the LORD.

And actually the prophets have told us quite a bit about this Figure called “The Branch”.  Isaiah, for instance, has said this:

Isaiah 11:1-3 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him--the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD-- 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD….

Isaiah goes on to describe Him as the Judge of all the world and the One who will put all creation to rights.  The Branch will be a Spirit-filled Cosmic King.

Jeremiah has this to say about the Branch:

Jeremiah 23:5-6: 5 "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.

So the Branch is a King who will save.  And He won’t just judge righteously – He will be OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.  And that’s the way He will save us.  He will BE the righteousness which we all need before God.

This King – this Branch – will be the One we must trust in.

So back to Zechariah 6

Zechariah 6:11-15  11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says:`Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD.

And verse 12 tells us even more about the Branch.  The Branch will not only be a King, He’ll be a High Priest, who has the name Joshua.  Anyone know what the name Joshua means when Anglicized?  Jesus.  So the Branch will be a Priest-King called Jesus.  And He will build the temple of the LORD.  Zechariah 6 continues emphatically…

13 It is he who will build the temple of the LORD, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.'

Jesus brings harmony between the priesthood and the royal line because He is the Priest-King who brings us to God.  Therefore Jesus is the true Temple.  Do you see that?  Jesus is the true meeting place between man and God.  He is the Priest who gets you to God.  If you come to Him you’re IN God’s presence.  Jesus is the true Temple.  And the Old Testament saints were taught that, even as they had a brick and mortar reminder in front of them.

Whatever building work they did on the earthly temple – it was all meant to witness to JESUS the true House of God.

And when Jesus came in the flesh He said the same thing.  Do you remember in John 2:

John 2 18 Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" 19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." 20 The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.

Jesus is the true Temple – He is the true meeting place of God and Man.  And on the cross He was torn down and through the resurrection, He was rebuilt as a Spiritual House.  Now WE can come INTO Christ, INTO the house of God.

So from that time onwards Jerusalem and its temple ceased to have spiritual significance.  Jerusalem and its temple were always pointing to the reality of Christ the True House of God.

And now that the earthly stones of the temple are long since demolished, Peter tells us how we are to think of these things::

1 Peter 2:4-9: 4 As you come to him, the living Stone--rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-- 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Do you see – the buildings don’t declare God’s praises any more.  We do.  Be we are living stones who witness to Christ – we are the true House of God.  Our work of building up Jerusalem is not about geography, or politics or architecture, or brick-laying.  We don’t declare God’s praises by having an impressive walled city.  We declare God’s praises by speaking of Him who called us out of darkness and into His wonderful light.  That is the true work of building Jerusalem.

And even in the Old Testament they understood this.

Do you remember Psalm 51?  David confesses his sin, prays for forgiveness and restoration, then he says

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you….

15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise…

18 In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem.

When David prays this, there is nothing wrong with the walls of Jerusalem.  The walls are strong and tall and imposing.  He’s speaking figuratively.  Because through the sin of the king, there was shame on the city.  Now with a restored king and a restored witness, the walls “will be built up” again.

Building up the walls was never simply about urban planning.  It was about gospel witness to the nations.  Israel’s Messiah is the one True Temple – the One True Meeting Place with God – and the walls were a picture of that.

And actually in Nehemiah we see that the witness of the walls actually works.  Flick on to Nehemiah 5 and verse 17.  Here is the evangelistic result of their wall-building:

17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations.

The surrounding nations come to eat with Nehemiah and no doubt they heard all about the gracious hand of the God of Israel.  No doubt they heard about the Messiah who the people were awaiting, the Branch who would branch out from this this very city, the Priest-King who would come to this very temple.  The wall-building of the Israelites witnessed to the world about the TRUE Temple of God.  And in Nehemiah 6 from verse 15 we see another result:

15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.

Their wall building attracted the humble who were drawn to eat with God’s people.  It also hardened the proud and the arrogant.  This is what evangelism always does – the light that attracts the moths repulses the bats.  But very definitely this wall-building was a work of witness.

And THIS is what unites the people of God.  In every age what brings unity is mission.  Before He ascended to heaven Jesus said “You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).  As we take part in that great mission we will need each other and depend on each other in deep and lasting ways.  There will be a unity in mission that’s quite remarkable.

And in fact that’s how Jesus’ prayer for unity continues in John 17:

 “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.” (John 17:23)

We are one as we let the world know about Christ.  That’s how we’ll be united – in mission.

Let’s look at Nehemiah 3 and the ways these people are united in the one work.

In verse 2 you’ve got a whole town coming to help, and next to the men of Jericho, an individual called Zaccur.  Towns on one hand, individuals on the other.  In verse 6 you’ve got an example of a duo, building in pairs.  In verse 7 you’ve got an alliance of two regions working together on a section.  In verse 3 there’s a family.  In verse 12 there’s a family which explicitly mentions the daughters who work on it.  In verse 13 you’ve got a whole tribe working on a section – the Levites.

So from tribes and regions and towns, down to families and pairs and individuals – they’re all committed to this one work.

And every class of person is involved.  Verse 26 we see temple servants, verse 29 we see a guard.  But then we also read about artisans: in v8 goldsmiths and perfume makers.  They wouldn’t be used to such hard physical labour but it’s ‘all hands to the pump’.  And these skilled workers turn to masonry.  But also the Priests and Levites (verse 1 and verse 17) turn their hand to wall-building.  And throughout we read about rulers getting their hands dirty, though with one prominent exception: verse 5 the nobles of Tekoa refuse to take part.  This kind of service was beneath them they thought.  And for 25 centuries their snobbery has been noted by millions.  Millions of people have shaken their heads at these noble’s who despised the chance to make history because service was beneath them.  What a pity!

And that goes to show, there was differing degrees of enthusiasm for the work.  There were some like the Tekoan nobles who refused to work.  There were some, like the ruler in v16 who worked “up to a point.”!  There were some who “just worked” and then in verse 20 we read about Baruch who “zealously” repaired his section.  We can imagine him really getting stuck in.

And perhaps what I love most of all about these diverse contributions is how organic it all is.  Nehemiah did not give everyone 20 metres of wall to fix.  He didn’t assign anything to anyone, as far as we know.  Everyone took on what they could, how they could, out of their own free choice.  And somehow God over-ruled and made it all work together.

I was hearing about the Night Shelter the other day which David Barnatt has been championing through town to house the homeless in churches from December to February. They needed 7 churches – one to host each night of the week for the 13 weeks.  He didn’t get 6, he didn’t get 8, he got seven.  He let them choose the night of the week they could offer shelter, and there wasn’t any clash.  The people of God get on with what God has for them to do and it comes together in an extraordinary way.  No need for heavy shepherding.  It’s the Lord’s work, He’ll put it all together.

With these walls, some, like those in v13, did a stretch 500 yards long.  And others, like in v23, just did a yard or two outside their house.  Some, like in v8, have glorious things said of their work.  Some are said to restore Jerusalem as far as the Broad Gate.  Wonderful.  Others, like Malkijah in v14 took on less glamourous tasks.  Ten years ago I worked as a lay assistant in a church to get some ministry experience.  I cleaned a thousand toilets in a year and I drew strength from the historic example of Malkijah, repairing the Dung Gate.

But they all get a mention.  You “restore Jerusalem”, or you repair the Dung Gate.  You do 500 yards or 2 yards, you get a mention, because it’s not about the glory of the builder, it’s about taking part in God’s mission of witness to the world.

And it’s absolutely incredible that it works.  I mean do you ever wonder how on earth we have continued to “build Jerusalem” over the centuries?  How have we continued to witness Christ to the world, century after century.  There’s been no centralized government.  There have been no five year plans enforcing the labour.  It’s not like with Jehovah’s Witnesses who are told to do 5 hours evangelism a week.  Christianity doesn’t work like that.  And yet it’s the largest movement the world has ever seen and like living stones we’re growing organically all over the globe.  How is it possible?

And how is it possible for you and I to do our bit?  How can we show up in a modern day Nehemiah 3?

Well first of all we need to look to the true Temple of God.  We need to look to Jesus the eternal Christ, the Priest and King, the Righteous Branch who sets the world to rights.  The Just Judge who IS our righteousness.  Think of that for a second.  Jesus is my righteousness.  My wall-building is not my righteousness.  I’m no more righteous if I build 500 yards than if I build no yards.  I’m no more righteous for witnessing to Christ than when I fail evangelistically.  My righteousness is not in my witnessing.  My righteousness IS Christ, therefore I’m secure.  I’m at peace.  I’m free.  I’m free to stop thinking about my status with God.  I’m free to stop fretting over my holiness status, worrying whether I’ll get knocked off my righteousness perch.

I’m free.  Christ is my righteousness and Christ is my Priest.  He has brought me to the Most High God.  He has shed His blood to cleanse me from sin.  He has risen again to give me life.  He has ascended to the Father’s right hand and He’s taken me with Him.

Do you know that for yourself?  Even this week, even today – after all your sin this week, after all your pettiness, after all your spiritual dryness, after all your suffering – this week your Priest has been praying for you and presenting you to the Almighty Father, without blemish and free from accusation.  Today, sinner that you are, you can call the Most High God, “Daddy” and He beams at you in delight.  Because Jesus is your Priest, He is your Righteousness, He is the Temple in whom you have God’s presence.  If you know that, and to the degree that you know that, you know what you can do?

You can build up the walls.  If you want.  You can start bringing others to Jesus.  You can witness to Christ.  Maybe in massive, town-wide ways, maybe just with the person outside your house, your next door neighbour.  Maybe in big mission week events like we’re planning next Easter.  Or maybe over a quiet coffee with a friend.

I don’t know how it will happen.  I don’t have to know.  It’s God’s mission.  He’s the great evangelist.  But He will build us up as living stones.  We will be witnesses to the world.  And maybe in two and a half thousand years we’ll get to read a heavenly equivalent of Nehemiah chapter 3.  I wonder what our Nehemiah 3 might say.

Bill gave up his Friday nights for years to lead the youth group.  Cathy and Graham fostered kids from difficult backgrounds and taught them the love of Jesus.  Seven churches co-operated to shelter the homeless and share Jesus as they had opportunity.  Three workers in the same office started a prayer group for their unsaved work-colleagues.  Four Christians began a bible study for international students.  Football lovers clubbed together to put on regular events where Christ is spoken of.  Jill prayed tirelessly for her friends and family to receive Jesus.

Two and a half thousand years from now, what might they say about us?  There’s nothing you have to do.  But maybe there’s something you can do, something you want to do?

0 thoughts on “Nehemiah 3 sermon – what brings unity to God's people?

  1. Pedro

    Inspiring in exactly the right way! "There's nothing you have to do..."
    Right then, where to start the building? Oh yes, right here!

  2. Dave Burke

    I found this page in a few moments mooching around looking for inspiration - bingo! This is excellent - thanks for the work you put in and your faithfulness to the word.

    Ready to get back to work now!

  3. Pingback: Live Jazz Music In Chichester | Georges Regis Jazz Band

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