Building the Walls TogetherAdrian Holloway on October 16, 2005 with 0 Comments
Nehemiah 3 – Preaching from ChristChurch London’s Sunday Service
How many of you have joined us since we started our series on Nehemiah, so I’m going to spend a while re-capping the story so far. This message is entitled: Building the walls together.
Let’s try and put Nehemiah in his context in Old Testament history.
If you wind the tape all the way back to Genesis, Once God had made the world and made people, there were presumably all kinds of ways in which he could have chosen to reveal himself.
If I’d been there, I’m sure that in my wisdom I would have offered God some advice. “Lord,” I might have said, “why don’t you write a message in the sky, which says, ‘Hello, everyone, this is your God speaking, here’s what I’m like, and here’s why you’re alive, and the plan is as follows . .”
But God doesn’t do that. He chooses to reveal himself to just one person, a man called Abram, who lives in Iraq.
And God says to Abram, “Guess what, I’m going to change your name to Abraham, and even though you and your wife are old age pensioners and you have no children, I’m going to give you a son, and through him and his descendents, I’m going to make your family into a whole people group, in fact a whole nation, which I’m going to call Israel. And it’s through Israel that I’m going to show the whole world who I am and what I’m like. Through Israel, I’m going to demonstrate my greatness and my love.”
And, as you know, via many miraculous twists and turns in the story line, that’s exactly what happens. Abraham’s descendents come out of slavery in Egypt, take up residence in Israel, and God does a deal with them. God says to Israel, “If you put me first, and follow me and my ways, I’ll bless you, make you great, and put you on display before the whole world, so that when the world looks at Israel, they’ll realise what I’m really like, and that way, we can reach the whole world. And the whole world can live under my rule and my blessing and celebrate my goodness and glory.”
And by about 1000 BC, it really looks like Israel is finally fulfilling her destiny. King David has defeated most of Israel’s enemies, And the high point is when David hands over the kingdom to his son Solomon, and shortly afterwards, a woman called the Queen of Sheba comes up from the Yemen to see Israel, and when she sees the capital Jerusalem, she’s just blown away, she thinks it’s awesome, she says “you didn’t even tell me the half of it. Wow!”
The Queen of Sheba is a pagan ruler who visits Jerusalem and the Queen tastes and sees that the Lord is good. Her visit to Jerusalem is a picture of what Israel was supposed to be. God’s vehicle to bless the world. Hallelujah!
But then it all starts to go wrong. Because Solomon breaks his side of the deal. He slips into idolatry. And the rot sets in. The nation splits in two – north versus south. And from Solomon onwards, with a few notable exceptions, it’s downhill all the way. The people of God turn away from God. Disaster follows in 722BC when the Northern Kingdom is invaded by Assyria, and the Jews get carted off into exile, and never recover. Those ten northern tribes are totally lost to history even to this day.
(Unless of course you’re a Mormon in which case you believe one tribe rowed off in boats to America, where Jesus later turned up to visit them. But let’s not go there.)
But if losing ten of the twelve tribes wasn’t bad enough, worse follows. Next, the remaining two tribes that made up the southern kingdom, also turn away from God, and in 586BC, the Southern Kingdom also gets invaded, this time by Babylon. And Jerusalem is literally flattened. The temple and the city walls are destroyed. The place looks like a bomb site.
And then, when the fortunes of the people of God are at their very lowest ebb, after the Jews have been in exile for 70 years, the Babylonian Empire is toppled by the Persians. To which we might reply, so what?
We might say: “So what the Persians topple the Babylonians that’s just secular history. There have always been wars, one power rises, as another falls. That’s just secular history.” But, no my friends, there is no such thing as secular history. In the same way, God is in our secular street, our secular hall of residence, our secular office, our secular school.
If you are at your lowest ebb today, and you’re sitting here thinking, “everyone else here seems to be having a great time, but it’s all gone wrong in my world,” then be encouraged by this.
Just when it seems that God has completely deserted his people, when it looks like God has left his people stranded in exile, God reveals that he’s actually been at work all along.
You see 173 years before the Babylonians were toppled by the Persians, God had said to the prophet Isaiah, “Hey Isaiah, I want you to write down one of your prophecies. It’s all about a man called Cyrus. Isaiah, this man Cyrus has not even been born yet, and even when he is born he’s not even going to believe in me. But in 173 years time, Isaiah, I’m going to raise up a man called Cyrus, and I’ve decided to use him to get my will done, and to get my people out of exile and back into the promised land.
And so in 712 BC, Isaiah writes all this down at the end of Isaiah chapter 44, and Praise God! 173 years later, lo and behold, wouldn’t you just know it, there’s a man called Cyrus who is King of Persia, and in 539 BC Cyrus captures Babylon. “So what, Cyrus captures Babylon?” Well, immediately he lets some of the Jews to go back to Jerusalem. In fact he pays for it. He lets them rebuild the temple of God which has been lying in ruins.
God is at work in this secular world! He’s at work in our godless office, even through your godless boss! You may be thinking, “my job’s not going anywhere and I don’t even want to do it.” But God’s not as far away as you think. Here’s the point, God never does desert his people. He never does leave them. You might be here today thinking. “OK, you tell me, where is God in my circumstances? Everything I want to happen, isn’t happening, and everything I don’t want to happen is happening. Maybe you’re here today and it feels like you’re in exile. All your dreams might as well be in a promised land hundreds of miles away. And you cry out: “God where have you gone?”
I remember a time in my life when I’ve actually said out loud to God in prayer, “Lord, where have you gone?” It was in 1991 when I was kneeling on the floor of my room at university, and I’d just received a rejection letter that meant that all of my plans were now in tatters. I thought I was on the right track. I thought I was doing all the right stuff, and then this letter came and I felt like God had just walked away and left me. Well do you know, through that letter a door closed, which forced me to open another one, which I’d never even considered before, and through that door, came every good thing that I have today. Everything I’d wanted in terms of career, came through that door, through that door came Julia, my wife, our children, the chance to get involved in church planting, in preaching the gospel, the chance to talk to speak to hundreds and even thousands of people about Christ, through that door I’ve written a book that’s been translated and distributed all over the world, and hundreds of people have been converted to Christ.
God has said he’ll never leave you or forsake you. My friend, God has got a Cyrus for you. He’s got a plan. And Cyrus allows some of the exiles from the Southern Kingdom to go back to Jerusalem.
And under the leadership of a man called Zerubbabel, this group of returning Jewish exiles manage to rebuild the temple.
But they never get any further than that. In fact compromise sets in, and they never succeed in rebuilding the city walls.
So for the next sixty years or so, Jerusalem is a bit of a pathetic sight, you’ve got worship going on in the temple, which is a lot better than nothing, but the city is completely defenceless. The walls are down.
Then a man called Ezra leads a second group of returning exiles back to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, in Persia, Nehemiah has obviously been hoping to hear that Ezra & Co have succeeded in rebuilding the walls, but sadly, any efforts they made to do so ended in total failure.
Nehemiah cries his eyes out because it’s now 93 years since the first exiles returned and still the city’s got no walls and its gates are burnt. Every attempt, to rebuild the walls has failed, (and if you’re interested, you can read about one failed attempt in Ezra chapter 4.)
And the latest failure to rebuild the walls leaves Nehemiah totally devastated. He sat down and wept, when he heard the news.
Cities don’t have perimeter walls these days, so we don’t immediately understand the significance of a city not having walls. But without walls, a city was powerless, useless, defenceless and embarrassing. Jerusalem was supposed to be the joy of the whole earth, beautiful in it’s situation, but with the walls down, well Nehemaiah found it embarrassing, it was a disgrace. A modern Queen of Sheba was hardly likely to come and say “Wow, this is amazing. Your God must be the true God.”
The people of God were not able to influence the people around them for good until the walls were rebuilt. Jerusalem has to be rebuilt. And so the main thing that we, as Christians, get from reading the book of Nehemiah is a passion for restoration. For re-building not (in our case) the physical city of Jerusalem, no, we get a passion for seeing the church restored. And that’s what we’re all about. That’s what Christ Church is all about. That’s what Newfrontiers, the family of churches we’re part of, is all about, helping to rebuild the church in this nation, so that people can see what God’s really like.
God wants the church restored. He wants the walls rebuilt. God had got a plan.
How so? Well he put Nehemiah in a position of influence. You see with the walls down, with most of the people of God in exile, when it’s a restoration job that’s called for, it’s not priests God needs.
Oh yes, Nehemiah has a heart after God, Oh yes, when he hears the walls are down he has a very spiritual reaction, in that he cries. He is motivated by God, his heart is for the church, but the key thing about Nehemiah is that he was cup-bearer to the king. That’s the starting point for restoration.
Now can I ask, ‘where has God placed you?’ “Oh God hasn’t placed me anywhere, I’m just a very junior lawyer, I’m not even a proper lawyer yet.” Someone else says: “Oh I’m only doing teacher training.” “Me? Oh I’m just a student, I just hang out in London, drink coffee and run up debts.” Someone else says: “Oh, what I do isn’t very spiritual. I work for a company that makes stuff. In fact we only make widgets.”
What do you mean you “only make widgets?” Walt Disney used to tell his employees, “remember this whole thing started with a mouse!” “We only make widgets!” Nehemiah was only a cup-bearer. He was a domestic servant, a civil servant if you like, but God had put him there. You see God doesn’t always work through miracles, he usually works through putting his people in the right places. In the book of Nehemiah, God gets his will done through having the right people in the right secular job.
I have a problem when people talk about church paid staff being in “full-time Christian work” because everyone here is in full-time Christian work.” Besides which, who did Christ hang out with? With ‘sinners!’ His attitude was “look it’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. I haven’t come to call the righteous but sinners.”
In fact, Jesus spent so much of his time socialising, eating and drinking with sinners that the religious people called him “a glutton and a wine-bibber and a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
Christ Church, it was only because Nehemiah was cup bearer to the king that the whole rebuilding of the walls was made possible. Nehemiah was in a position of influence to pull the strings. He could access and leverage the resources to get the job done. We saw last time out in chapter 2 and verse 8 how, for example, Nehemiah is able to get letters from the king to get the wood needed for the task of rebuilding the wall. I mean how cool is that? Nehemiah has got himself into such a position of power in his secular job, that he’s able to get a pagan king to release the wood to rebuild the city of God so that Jerusalem can fulfil its God given destiny.
Now I’m asking you, straight down the line tonight, where has God placed you? Because if we all go round thinking “if only I could work for the church”, then we’d end up with whole sectors of society with no salt and no light in it. Take the media for example . . .
In all the years I worked as a sports journalist here in London, I never met or heard of another Christian who was in sports media, which is a massive industry.
I worked in newspapers, radio and TV and I never even heard of another Christian who was doing the same job as me.
I started off at News International in Wapping which is where Rupert Murdoch produces The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, The News of the World, and also, when I was there, another newspaper called, Today.
One day, I was in the lift going up to the canteen in the main building, and the doors opened, and there before me, I could hardly believe my eyes, on the noticeboard was a battered old piece of paper which said: “News International Christian Union.”
“No way,” I thought to myself.
At this point I’m literally the floor above the place at The Sun, where they scan in the page 3 photos, and here outside the canteen we have an advert for “News International Christian Union.”
“This”, I think to myself, “I have got to see.”
There’s a contact name and number. I’ll never forget the surname was “Gibbs” and so I rang this number, “oh, no he doesn’t work here any more, try this number, and it took me weeks to find this guy, and then eventually I got through to him, and he said, “come up and see me,”
And he directed me right up to the top of the control tower, and it turns out that he was the guy who ran the whole computer system for the whole plant. You get up there and it was like the flight deck of the USS Enterprise up there. And there he was Steve Gibbs, IT support manager.
And he said, “I put that notice up years ago, but no-one’s ever contacted me, and then he said this. I’ve been here since Wapping opened in the early 1980s, I’ve met hundreds of journalists, cos I have to fix their computers, but until you walked in that door, I have never met or even heard of a Christian journalist working here.”
And this, folks, is the place which produces the biggest selling newspaper in the English Language, which is the The News of the World. And the most influential newspaper in Britain, The Sun.
God wants Christians to work for News International. To rebuild Jerusalem God used a cup-bearer close to the King of Persia. To rebuild the church here in London, I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s going to put Christians in the media. Every day as a journalist, I said to myself “Today, I’m going to influence the influencers.” Now come on, where’s God placed you?
This great offering we’re going to announce in a few minutes. Where’s the money come from? Has it come from other churches? No, it’s come from law companies, from computer software manufacturers, from the NHS, from the London Borough of this or that, it’s come from your employers, whoever they are.
You see, what you’re doing, as you make widgets, is you are rebuilding the walls. We are restoring the church of God to take its rightful place in the nation.
And in Chapter 3 we see everyone working on the wall. Nehemiah’s back in Jerusalem and he’s got everyone on board with the idea of restoration. Chapter 3 is basically a list of people and what they did. If you’re reading through the Bible in a year, this is one of the bits you’d feel tempted to skip. It’s just a list of who rebuilt which bit of the wall. And you know when we read this it’s a bit like, here at Christ Church, someone writing down just for the record that Simon Ash served on the production team, Joy Friel served on the welcome team, Heather Staff served in the band, Kate Thomas served in the children’s work.
Let’s look at it. This is how the walls were rebuilt.
Verse 8: Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. Rephaiah son of Hur, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section. Adjoining this, Jedaiah son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his house, and Hattush son of Hashabneiah made repairs next to him. Malkijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-Moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.
Verse 13: The Valley Gate was repaired by Hanun and the residents of Zanoah. They rebuilt it and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. They also repaired five hundred yards of the wall as far as the Dung Gate. (Nehemiah 3:8-13)
The Dung Gate! And you might say, yeah that’s me, I’ve really drawn the short straw, I get to rebuild the dung gate. I don’t even do anything important in church, I’m only a trainee, assistant not even a leader yet, Or I’m only setting out the literature on the information table. I don’t get to wear a T shirt, I don’t even get a free drink at Amano’s, I get to rebuild the dung gate.”
But God thinks the Dung Gate is just as important, in fact more important.
Verse 14: The Dung Gate was repaired by Malkijah son of Recab, ruler of the district of Beth Hakkerem. He rebuilt it and put its doors and bolts and bars in place.
You see even the Dung Gate is smart and nice. Malkijah would do well at Christ Church, cos he’s committed to doing things excellently. He doesn’t think, ‘it’s only the dung gate, it’s a bit smelly, we can skimp and save a bit here.’ No Malkijah knows the wall is only as strong as it’s weakest link. So Malkijah makes it all special with doors and bolts and bars in place.
Why this list in the Bible of who did what? “Oi Nehemiah, can’t you give us something a bit more spiritual? Why not just have a sentence that says everyone chipped in and did their bit.” Why? Because the heroes of restoration are every single individual who plays their part.
The people who make Christ Church, aren’t those you hear preaching. It’s no big deal for me to stand up here and talk to you about Nehemiah. It’s the people who serve on all the different teams that make Christ Church succeed.
And as it happens, we need more people to serve on the production team. We need more people who will physically build this set, and in particular we need more people who will do the tea and coffee, and even more particularly, wash up the urns. Could you wash up an urn? Or maybe you just want to volunteer for whatever needs doing. We have opportunities to serve all over the church. We’d love everyone who comes on board with us in Christ Church to have the chance to serve in the church, and as everyone does that, we’ll soon find it won’t be every week, but it only need be once every four or five weeks. So if you’re not serving somewhere in the church, come and talk to me afterwards or talk to anyone with a Christ Church Host T shirt on and they’ll take your details and we can get back to you.
Why this incredibly detailed list in Nehemiah chapter 3? Because the wall, which they actually built in 52 days, could only be built that quick by lots of people doing a little. By contrast, one man or one woman can’t do very much on their own.
And in the same way, in a few minutes time, Dave’s going to come up here and announce the offering figure, and we’ll all cheer and shout. I want you to know that the figure you’re going to see isn’t the work of one man, one mega-rich Sugar Daddy, with his feet up, puffing a Cuban cigar, who bankrolls Christ Church from a mansion in the countryside. The figure you’re going to be told isn’t one massive gift, with all the rest of us chipping in 50 pence here and there, no it’s lots and lots of gifts, of a similar size that were big and very sacrificial for those that gave them.
You see you can’t really understand Christ Church, you can’t really understand this offering figure unless you factor the gracious hand of God into the equation.
That’s the phrase Nehemiah uses. He says: “The gracious hand of my God was upon me.” He says it in 2:8 and 2:18. This is the X factor, if you like. You can’t earn this. Nehemiah knew the only way they could rebuild the walls so quickly was because God was especially on them. I say “Christ Church, the gracious hand of your God is upon you.” If you’re a Christian, God’s got his hand on you. Why are you in church listening to a sermon right now? Why aren’t you doing something else? Why aren’t you at Starbucks like any other reasonable person? Why aren’t you soaking in a nice hot bath, easing away the stresses of the week? You work hard Monday to Friday, why do you come in here and work hard most of Sunday, setting up this meeting? Are you crazy? No, you do it because the gracious hand of your God is upon you!
You’ve tried living without God, and you said, ‘No thanks, I’ll live for Jesus,’ and you got born again. It’s not you living your life anymore. It’s Christ in you, the hope of glory. And together we’ll build the walls. We’ll restore the church, and by the grace of God, before I die, I want to see the church rise up in this nation, and I want ordinary British people to finally see who the real Jesus really is, through the church.
Now as I’m closing, if you know your Bible well, you might be tempted to say, “hang on a minute, the Jerusalem Nehemiah rebuilt was still pretty pathetic compared to Solomon’s. It was a restoration, but it wasn’t a patch on what had gone before.”
And that’s absolutely right. Nehemiah is pointing us towards a New Jerusalem. Nehemiah was after the glory, he wanted something bigger and better. In a sense he was looking for the Jerusalem which is from above, a heavenly Jerusalem.
And my friend, I’m here to tell you tonight, you’re going to live there. You’re going to live in the New Jerusalem, forever.
This is what Nehemiah was really yearning for as he cemented bricks together. He was after what John saw at the end of all time . . .
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
God’s got something far better than a city in the Middle East! He’s got a new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven. And it won’t be like, here at Vinopolis, where we worship an invisible God, no there in the New Jerusalem, do you see? The dwelling of God is with men. God’s there.
You won’t find Ezra’s temple there, or Nehmiah’s walls, no there’s something far better.
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it . . . (Revelation 21:22-27)
Nothing impure will ever enter it, but you will. Oh yes, Christian, you will, you’ll go in and glory in it, forever. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived of what God has prepared for you. You’re destined for joy unspeakable and full of glory. We’re living for a day when the New Jerusalem will come down, and you and I will go in.
In the meantime, til that day comes, we build the walls.