This is the week that we actually get to work. You’ll see that this chapter is not as exciting as the others. It’s a list of 38 hard, unpronounceable names and some others split into 42 different working teams in the seven neighborhoods of the city of Jerusalem. Some commentators skip this chapter completely, saying, “they built the wall.” Other commentators focus on the actual wall, so it reads like a lonely planet tour guide from someplace you’ll never go to: “and next is the tower of the cauldrons, probably better referred to as the tower of the bakers because you could get a nice bagel there.” As I read the chapter however, I am more interested in the people. These are the people God uses. They are regular people working jobs, raising families, volunteering in their community. We are introduced to goldsmiths, perfumers, community leaders, and merchants who dedicated themselves to the service of God as well. Think about this for a second, they spent their whole lives dedicating themselves to their vocation, but were recorded for history not for their successful career, but for what they did as volunteers.
In America one of the stories we tell our school kids is of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. If you don’t know the story, Paul Revere was one of two riders who rode through the colonies warning of the advancement of the British armies. Upon seeing two lamps lit in the steeple of North Church tower, Revere set out on his midnight ride yelling, “The British are coming!” This story was so ingrained in my mind as an American, that I was surprised last summer when I went to Boston with Jean and found in many churches there bells made by Paul Revere. Paul Revere had a job? I guess in my mind his whole life was just waiting on the hill for the signal and riding on his horse.
Author and consultant Susan J. Ellis writes, "Paul Revere earned his living as a silversmith. But what do we remember him for? His volunteer work. All activism is volunteering in that it's done above and beyond earning a living and deals with what people really care passionately about. Remember, no one gets paid to rebel. All revolutions start with volunteers”. American president Woodrow Wilson expressed the volunteer spirit, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."
These are the people from 2:18 who rose up and responded to Nehemiah’s call with a “we will arise and build!” I spoke last week of this crucial moment when the vision of one person or a small group is picked up and assumed by the group as a whole. Yet as important as that moment is, that moment actually accomplishes nothing. We could conceive of being part of organizations that talks about its vision and defines its purpose and mission statement, yet does nothing except reward itself for its vision casting. And nothing is more discouraging to a leader when everyone is saying yes, lets do it, we will rise up and build! And then you organize the first workday – and no one comes. We don’t need cheerleaders - we need laborers. If we are going to accomplish the things God sets in front of us as a church, its going to take everyone working. If we are going to be a church that shines for Ottawa, we have some building to do.
The Work is Spiritual (3:1-2)
The account begins with the work of Eliashib, the high priest, and his brothers the priests working on the Sheep gate, and then the chapter continues along following the wall in a counter clockwise direction. So the work begins and ends with the Sheep Gate, near where the temple of the Lord had stood. Notice here and through the book the priests are getting their hands dirty, doing the labor alongside of the others. This is a powerful principle in itself, but it is magnified in the New Testament church that affirms the priesthood of all believers and sees no distinction between clergy and laity. Jesus is our high priest, we need no and have no other mediator besides him. Yes, Jesus does give to his church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers, and sometimes churches hire these as full-time ministers of the gospel, but these ministers are to work hard to set an example in their service and their labors for the Lord. Acts 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Notice as well that here at the beginning Nehemiah notes that the work is dedicated to God, once again underscoring that this is ultimately not our work, but his. So these priests were not doing there regular duties of serving in the Temple, but they were building the wall, and still they recognized that the work they were doing was spiritual work. See we make this distinction too fast – the distinction between sacred and secular, between God stuff and our stuff. We compartmentalize our lives. Church, my devotions, fellowship, thise are sacred things that God speaks to and works in. My job, my family, my ambition those are secular things that God doesn’t have to much to speak to. Sunday: God’s, Monday: my Boss’, Saturday: my own. Some things are God’s and some things are not. Some of us then go to the other extreme because we’ve seen that compartmentalization as a bad thing, so we say every things is spiritual, but go to far and we become like zen-New Agey, Ohhm meditating be one-with-every thing because God is everything. I’m God your God, the chair is God, The third way, the Biblical way, is to recognize that there is God and there is us, but that everything that is made and everything that we do, is for God’s glory. My work is not God, but it can be used for God’s glory. This is what the priests do in this chapter. They consecrate the wall, setting the entire work in the context of faith. Yeah I’m carrying bricks, but its for God’s glory.
The Workers Labor By Grace (3:3-5)
We have to dig a bit deeper in this next section. It starts off simply enough with the sons of Hassenaah rebuilding the Fish Gate, but there are a few interesting names here which remind me that the Lord is not looking for perfect people with perfect backgrounds to do his work, but that He provides the grace for our labor.
• In verse 4 we meet Meremoth, whose family had been rejected from the priesthood as unclean in Ezra 2:61-62 because their family name could not be found in the official genealogies. Now imagine, Meremoth had seen his father and his uncles and himself excluded from the priesthood, having been told they weren’t fit to serve the Lord, yet here he is, showing up on the first day to work. He could have been bitter – cut off from the community, he could have cut himself off. Rejected, he could have retaliated or retreated. Yet the Lord gave him grace and we find later that his family is indeed restored to the priesthood. He reminds me of a guy in the New Testament named Mark who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. For some reason, he left the team along the way and returned to Jerusalem, and when the missionaries were getting ready to go on their second trip Paul wouldn’t let him back on the team. Again, does he get bitter? Does he blame others? What we do know is that God restored him, to the point that in Paul’s old age he calls for Mark to come to him because he has been a great benefit to him, not to mention that he also became the author of the Gospel of Mark! God uses rejected people. Joseph rejected by his brothers, Moses rejected by both the Egyptians as their Pharoah and the Hebrews as their brother. And of course Jesus, of whom the prophet Isaiah says, he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”, John says that Jesus “came into his own and his own received him not.” Yet God did not reject him and remained well-pleased with his own Son. Have you been rejected, strengthen yourself in the Lord, who was rejected for you.
• We also meet a guy named Meshullum. Now Nehemiah doesn’t tell us here now, but later in the book we find out who Meshullum is. Meshullum daughter is married to Tobiah’s son. Who’s Tobiah? We’ll we met him last week and shows up again and again throughout the book as Nehemiah’s chief opposition to the building of the wall. In fact in 4:3, Tobiah is literally standing at the base of the wall where the Jews are working and teasing and mocking them: Look at that thing! If a fox hops on it it’ll fall down!” Meanwhile, his son’s father-in-law is up on the wall sweating away. Fun family dinners in that family, I’m sure. Some of you can relate. God has done a work in your life and your family does not understand or even teases or mocks you. Or you feel a call of God on your life and you family offers no support or even puts up obstacles in your way. They may even be Christians! Even in the same church! Again, Jesus’ family – who had witnessed his virgin birth – thought he was crazy and was taking this whole Messiah thing too far. They tried to take him home to his hometown. Only after his resurrection do we see his brothers come to believe in Him. Bryan Phipps story.
• Finally, we are introduced in verse 5 to the Tekoites. They are not named, and we are only told that they are not the nobles of Tekoa, because the nobles held back because they couldn’t bring themselves down to serve in the vision that God gave Nehemiah. Now this is interesting, because who else do you know from Tekoa? Of course! The prophet Amos. And what was Amos’ job – of course! A stinky shepherd. And what was Amos’ message? Of course! That the rich and powerful people should stop taking advantage of the poor people and stomping on them! Amos is the original social justice prophet. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s. ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he refers to Amos as “an extremist for justice” citing Amos 5:24: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Apparently, even after going into exile for their sins, the nobles of Tekoa still did not get the message. They would not stoop to serve their Lord – most commentators point out that the Hebrew more likely refers to Nehemiah than to Yahweh, which might speak to their reason for not participating. Some people refuse to participate unless they are in charge. God’s work becomes a power struggle. Nehemiah, we hear you’re going to rebuild the walls. You need us right? We have all this management experience, we could be co-advisors, sit on your board – what are you doing with that shovel. You want me to what? See ya. You know who comes to help? The guys that the Tekoa guys have been stepping on all these years. They come out to help – it’s like a vacation!
So these are the people that work on the wall. The rejects, the conflicted, the humble. The imperfect volunteers who maybe never built a wall before, but they trust Nehemiah and believe in the Lord’s work.
I want to pause here and press in a little more, because some of you are hurting. Some of you have been rejected, some of you have been conflicted and some of you have been hurt, either by others or by the accuser of the brethren himself. Perfectionism is a lie from the pits of hell that binds the church and its laborers. We need to learn to live and work by grace. I’ve been rejected – but I am perfectly accepted in Christ Jesus as a child of God. I face conflict in my family or have little support, but Jesus supplies the strength and support I need. I have been oppressed or abused, you can have wholeness in Jesus. Look, I am not going to guilt you in to working for the Lord – that doesn’t work and it burns people out. We’re not going to shame you into it either, if your burnt out and need a break, tell someone and take one. And if you’ve got deep-seated issues you’ve never dealt with in the Lord, let’s work through them, help you to understand the Gospel so you can learn to live out of grace. But none of us is perfect, but Jesus calls us his workmanship, his poem. These are not perfect people – but they made the Bible. You’re not a perfect person, but maybe if you live out of grace, your children and their children will tell stories of you.
The Work Begins at Home and Extends Outward
Six times in this chapter Nehemiah records of individuals who “repaired opposite his house”. As Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary: “When a general good work is to be done, each should apply himself to that part which is within his reach. If every one will sweep before his own door, the street will be clean; if every one will mend one, we shall all be mended.” Don’t know where to start? Start where you’re at. Yet also in the chapter, we read of those who come to work in Jerusalem from elsewhere. The men of Tekoa were from 11 miles out from Jerusalem. Gibeon (7) was six miles away, Zanoah (13) twelve miles away.
I think this is an appropriate illustration for us as we seek the welfare of this city. You all live in neighborhoods and have access to arenas of ministry that are set in from of you. As we get into the seek the welfare study we’ll be talking about using your home as a center for mission. Yet as a church, God has placed us in a community – namely Westboro, so that even though most of us don’t live in this neighborhood, we can adopt this community as ours and seek to shine God’s light for the people here.
OCBC: What walls?
• Fellowship groups: join one!
• University Fellowship: new leaders
• Sunday School/Junior Fellowship coordinators.
• Sunday School Teachers.
• Youth Sunday school teachers.
• Nursery workers
• Outreach teams: Alpha Courses? Door-to-door?