Covenant Renewal – 2
This is the Word of the Lord. Let’s turn to Nehemiah 9, if you’re not there. We’ll actually be picking up, so you could turn Nehemiah 10 for this morning. It’s good to see you all and all those who are following along on livestream.
I’ve said for years, you’ve heard me say it many times, that when I was overwhelmed as a parent, I had to come back to what are the couple things God is calling me to do, to teach my kids. And I always boiled it down to two — to love and to work. We are called to teach our kids to love, that is to live under the love of God through Christ and then to pass that love on to our neighbors — to learn to love. But also, to work — to be diligent, to use the gifts God has given us. But I said to the SSA Forum about a couple months ago, I’m thinking of adding a third, and that is, to be different. We need to teach our kids to be different. There is enormous social pressure on all of us, but especially on young people, and I believe social media has simply taken that to another level. And the pressure is to fit in, to not be viewed as weird or unacceptable or left out.
And yet in this section in Nehemiah we saw last week, chapters 9-12 are the covenant renewal sections of Nehemiah. And we saw the words separation, purification, set apart, dedication, pretty constant throughout this section. And they are all words that have to do with the fact that you are different. You’re different from the other nations. You’re not going to fit in. You are set apart to me. “You are mine,” God is saying. You’re not an avatar of this age. You’re not a mindless, faceless, heartless cultural clone. You’re not putting your finger to the wind. You’re not checking online to figure out who you are to be or how to fit in with everyone else. You’re mine! And that’s the whole idea of holiness. You’re set apart to me. And it’s not a statement of superiority, it’s a statement of relationship, a statement of steadfast love. God longed for you so much he didn’t just simply send a holiness code. He sent his Son — his sinless, selfless, lifeless (He died for you), deathless (he rose from the dead for you) — to call you to himself by his steadfast, everlasting love. And so, as we saw last week, he sealed this new covenant with a bunch of covenant breakers. He sealed this new covenant with his own blood. You are mine. And this is the end, the climax, the destination of Nehemiah.
So, today we pick up from there. We ended with the end of the prayer in chapter 9, pointing us toward Christ. And we’re going to do some mountain climbing in chapters 10-12. Now, if you’ve ever climbed a mountain, your posture is pretty fixed. Your face is toward the dirt or the rock. You’re not looking around when you’re really climbing. Your head is down. You’re focused on what you are climbing. But every once in a while, you get to a ledge or a peak and you turn around and you take in the view. So, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to climb this mountain of 10-12, which is loaded with names you can’t pronounce, lists that seem irrelevant, customs that are foreign. And you’re like, “Why is this in the Bible?” But we’re going to put our heads down and climb this, summarize this, for about 8-1/2 minutes. And then we’re going to turn around, and we’re going take in the view, because I believe just like the rest of Scripture, all of Scripture is inspired and is relevant to us. It is the message we need to hear. That’s why we preach through the Bible, because there are parts of the Bible we would prefer to skip but are really important to take in. And hopefully you all have read this. Ryan challenged this right at the beginning of the series to make sure we get through the book. Hopefully you’ve read it a couple of times. But let me just summarize so that we can see the lay of the land and then we’ll take in the message God has for us.
So, after hearing God’s Word for many days, the people responded in three ways. First of all, they were crying out in chapter 9. And this is where we focused last week. This was the prayer of chapter 9. We noticed throughout the prayer these cycles of God giving, Israel presuming, God judging (letting them have what they want), Israel crying out and repenting, and then God giving more and more mercy, more and more opportunities, Israel presuming, God judging … This cycle that went on for hundreds of years. You see it build throughout chapter 9 to the climax of Jesus Christ.
Second thing they did during this covenant renewal is they were signing on. So, they’re crying out in prayer, and then they turned, and they were signing on. What do we mean signing on? Look at 9:38, “Because of all of this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.” So, the people are separated unto the Lord in this covenant renewal. And you’ll see this signing on expressed a number of different ways.
First of all, the names on the seals (10:1-27). These are some of the shortest chapters in the Bible. The names come at us really quickly. This is the sealing of the covenant. Secondly, the obligations of the covenant (10:28-39). You’ll see (verse 30) marital obligations, don’t intermarry with non-believers. You’ll see Sabbath obligations (verse 31), keep the weekly and yearly Sabbath. Temple obligations (verse 32-39) with some very mundane, seems mundane, expectations like make sure you bring the wood and the flock and the first fruits to the temple. But all of them are summarized at the end of verse 39, “We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Third, the repopulation of Jerusalem. In 11:1,
“Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem. And the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city, while nine out of ten remained in the other towns. And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.”
The walls are rebuilt, but the city is still dilapidated, homes still destroyed from the invasion long ago. And so, one out of ten are chosen to move back into Jerusalem to (now that the walls are rebuilt) let’s rebuild the city and repopulate the city. And this is a challenge because in a society where you get your food from your farm, to move into the city of Jerusalem meant you no longer could tend your garden. It brought out huge agricultural challenges. That is why some who chose willingly to move in were blessed, others were chosen by lot, and one in ten moved in. And the people are listed in verses 3 and following, the leaders; 10 and following, the priests; 15, the Levites; 19, the gatekeepers; 22, the singers. But then there are still a lot of people living in the villages. And so, in verses 25-36 the towns are described here. And if you saw a map of this, it doesn’t perfectly fit the area that Judah and Benjamin used to possess. But you can see the people are trying to move back as close as possible to where they used to possess.
Then the leaders of the people in 12:1-26 are listed. The priests and the Levites in verses 1-9. These are the priests and the Levites who came back with Zerubbabel, who was the leader of the exiles, who first returned way back in 538 B.C. when Cyrus decreed that they could return. So, this is about a hundred years before Nehemiah. Then the high priestly line (10-11), the priests under Joiakim (12-21). So, now we’re in Nehemiah’s day. The Levites until Darius (most likely this is Darius II, who was the king of Persia after Artaxerxes I). Artaxerxes I is the one who sent Nehemiah. Then the Levites under Joiakim. And these lists are describing the people and the leaders leading up to and the ones who were signing on this covenant renewal.
Are you still with me? Still climbing? Some of you are lagging behind. I know it’s tedious. Stay with me and then we’ll step back and take in the view.
Third. So, they’re signing on. They’re crying out, signing on, and now offering up. And this is a splendid passage, verses 27-47. There are two ways in which they offer up. They offer up thanksgiving (27-43). If you’ll look at 12:27.
“And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.”
What is happening here? Well, verse 31 describes “two great choirs that gave thanks.” And in the Hebrew, it’s interesting because it literally reads “two great thanksgivings.” The choirs were the embodiment of what they sang. These were mobile thanksgivings. And what they did is they climbed up on the wall, most likely on the eastern, started on the eastern side of the wall. And when you think wall that they built in 52 days, don’t think fence. Think wall, nine feet wide. These choirs rise up on these walls, and then they split, and they go around the city. So, this is the first real surround sound system that is literally surrounding the city with song of celebration and thanksgiving. And then the choirs marched around the city and end up coming down and entering into the temple on the other end. And there they are offering sacrifices and singing songs of great joy. And it was so loud. If you think this was a solemn occasion, like when the Spirit moves, he only moves in solemn ways, read 12:43, “and the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” This was quite the thanksgiving celebration. So, you have the south choir going one direction, the north choir going the other direction, and then both choirs meeting in the temple.
The second way that they offered up was daily provision. So, they’re offering up this thanksgiving through these two choirs, and then they’re offering up at the very end of chapter 12, daily provision, in verses 44-47 the people tithe to the Levites, the Levites tithe to the priests, and then a daily portion was set apart for the singers and the gatekeepers.
We’re at the top. Now let’s look back and take in the view. So, what is the Spirit saying to us through what appears to be very mundane lists of names, mundane activities, foreign customs? And I believe he is saying to us that when God moves in a big way, certain things happen. Now, what do I mean when God moves in a big way? Think about Nehemiah chapter 5 when God convicted the rich people of taking advantage of the poor and they actually gave the money back. When does that happen? Chapter 8, imagine people sitting under the Word of God for hours and hours and hours and then confessing their sins. When does that happen? There are real signs of revival as God’s people say, “God, what you say is more important than what the news is currently saying, than what the books I’m reading or even my own thoughts. We want to hear from you.” And God speaks, and they respond. That’s revival. And as that revival is happening, there are big things happening — the Festival of Booths being reinstated, all of that; chapter 8, the prayer; chapter 9, confession.
But what we see in 10 – 12 is something different that we must not miss, because I think all of us would see some of these big things and say, that’s revival. But we often miss what happens next. So, what I want to show you is, when God moves in a big way, there are three “mundane” signs of revival. I have mundane in quotes. Three “mundane” signs of revival.
When God moves in big ways, some serve in familiar ways. Familiar ways. Let me show you one example from this passage I think you will find compelling. Throughout this section, there are a group of people who are easy to overlook, but they’re mentioned repeatedly. Chapter 11, I’ll put them on the screen. Normally, I don’t put the text we’re looking at on the screen, but I don’t want you to miss this. I want this to pop,
11:17, “and Mattaniah, the son of Mica, son of his Zabdi, son of Asaph, who was the leader of the praise, who gave thanks.”
11:22, “The overseer of the Levites in Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, son of a Hashabiah, son of Mattaniah, son of Mica, of the sons of Asaph, the singers, over the work of the house of God.”
Who are these sons of Asaph? 12:46, “For long ago in the days of David and Asaph there were directors of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.” Who was Asaph? Well, if you go all the way back to 1 Chronicles 15:16-17, you will notice. Let me just list a few things about Asaph and his sons.
First of all, Asaph played instruments when the ark of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem. They were prophesying — well, this is later — but they were prophesying “with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” (1 Chronicles 25:1). How do you prophesy with a cymbal? The Spirit of God was so filling them that their music was communicating the message of God to the people of God. They were raising sounds of joy as the ark of the covenant was being brought into Jerusalem.
Asaph wrote 12 psalms — Psalm 50 and Psalms 73-83. The sons of Asaph played instruments and sang at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:12). They were trumpeting, playing cymbals, singing. The priest could not stand “for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” A son of Asaph spoke a prophetic word to King Jehoshaphat when the people of Judah were surrounded by the Ammonites and the Moabites — a horde, a mighty army that threatened them — and they called forth the singers. Remember last week when we were singing, “Raise a Hallelujah?” it says, “My weapon is a melody.” That’s where that comes from. It was the son of Asaph who said we’ve got to sing our way to victory this time. God is giving us the victory. So, this is 100 years after the dedication of Solomon’s temple.
And now fast forward 80 more years and you have the sons of Asaph singing when King Josiah brought about his great reforms in 2 Chronicles 35:15. “The singers … of Asaph,” it says there, “were in their place.” Isn’t that beautiful? They were in their place. And then the sons of Asaph were singing in the new temple in Jerusalem here in Nehemiah 11. And the sons of Asaph are all over Ezra and Nehemiah. So, this is 200 years after the reforms Josiah brought about. Just imagine this for a minute. Asaph, who was a person, a musician that David commissioned (King David), he had real descendants. So, the sons of Asaph can refer to his descendants. But most often it refers to his musical descendants. He started a school of worship. He trained worship leaders who, 500 years later, are still leading worship. Now, imagine that. Imagine starting a school of worship under King Henry VIII, and they’re still leading worship today. You talk about longevity. You talk about faithfulness. You talk about when the Spirit of God brings about revival. Yes, there are times where he does completely new things, but sometimes he calls some of us to do what we’re familiar with, to do what has been done for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Asaph and his singers and instrument players were in their place. I find that hugely encouraging.
Where does that come from? Well, we know Asaph had his own struggles. He talks about them candidly in Psalm 73. He said his feet almost slipped. He looked at the wicked, the arrogant, and he saw them prosper, and he felt like he was on the wrong side of history. He didn’t fit in. They were getting blessed. He wasn’t. He was following God, and it wasn’t working out for him. And his feet almost “slipped” are his words. But then he went where? Into the house of God, the sanctuary. And he saw the end. He got the big picture, and then he wrote some of the most beautiful words ever written. Psalm 73:25,
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Asaph found when everything is screaming the opposite, God is enough. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. This is Asaph’s version of that. And then he didn’t stop there. He was committed to take this deep heart work God did in him and then pass it on to the next generation. Let me give you an example. Psalm 78:4 he wrote,
“We will not hide them [that is, what God has done, the teaching from our fathers] from their children but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”
We will not hide them. We’re going to say it. We’re going to sing it. We’re going to play it. We’re going to use whatever means we can to get this message out. Can you imagine? Not only 500 years later at the covenant renewal, the sons of Asaph were doing that. But now, thousands of years later, we are still singing and speaking Asaph’s words inspired by the Spirit.
When God moves in a big way, some of us serve in familiar ways. Number 2, most of us serve in small ways. Some of us serve in familiar ways. The sons of Asaph are good examples of that. But most of us are going to be called … When God does a big thing, most of us are going to be called to serve in a small way. And the lists in in Nehemiah 10-12 communicate this. They can seem tedious. God, why did you waste so much ink with all that you could say with a bunch of names we can’t even pronounce? The least they could have done if they wanted to be in the Bible was pick a name that is pronounceable.
So, who cares about these people? Apparently, God does. He records a bunch of (in many cases) no-names from our perspective, people he values in a big way. Think about the guy bringing the wood into the temple. Or the person who volunteered to leave his farm — you know, the farm with the beautiful view — to move into Jerusalem, which is a war zone still, looks like a war zone. Or how about the wife and kids who are left at home tending the farm while their dad serves his two weeks per year as priest in the temple? Or my favorite, 12:25, “the gatekeepers standing guard at the storehouses of the gates.” What do you do when revival breaks out? I’m a gatekeeper. What does that entail? I keep the gate. That’s my job. Can you imagine anything more mundane? And yet God lists this calling as significant enough to be included in this massive movement of the Spirit. When God moves in a big way, he calls most of us to serve in small ways. Paul hit on this in 1 Corinthians 12:21,
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable … But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there be no division in the body, [In other words, that no one in here can say, “It doesn’t really matter if I’m here or not here, if I’m engaged or not engaged, or involved or not.” No! “] but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, [lift it up] all rejoice together.”
We rise together, we fall together. Each part has a vital role. And I believe there is no time we need to hear this more than right now. The centrifugal force is strong right now. You know what I mean by centrifugal? Sending apart, scattering, sending out. Not sending out in a good way, sending out in a bad way. And I’m not just talking about lockdowns and quarantines. Those are obvious ways we get scattered. But I believe even more devastating are the responses to those things that tend to alienate us, isolate us from other people who differ with us. And then throw an election in the middle of that, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for fragmentation, isolation, a feeling of insignificance — why does it matter?
And let me just talk for a second about livestream. And for all those who are livestream, this is for you, too. The reason we still have livestream is not to give people the option of staying home. That’s not an option. It’s to give people who don’t have options the opportunity to stay home, the people who need to be home. There are people for medical reasons who need to be home. There are people for geographical reasons. There are people who follow along in livestream that there’s no way for them physically to be here. But if you can be, I would plead with you to be here. Why is that a big deal? Because every person counts, every person is valuable. The little things we do matter. Let me give you … I could give you 100 examples. Let me just give you a couple.
Number 1, when Paul talked about a powerful working of the Spirit of God in Ephesians 5, when you are filled with the Spirit of God, how do you know? What are you going to be doing? Notice the first example he gives in Ephesians 5:19. You’re “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Isn’t that wild? He’s not talking just about the worship team; he’s talking about all of us. When we sing together, we are not just singing alone to God. You can do that in the shower. You can do that in your home. When we gather, we are singing unto the Lord, but we are singing to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, hoping, by God’s grace, to be an encouragement to our neighbors. We are literally ministering to one another as we sing unto the Lord for our brothers and sisters. That is a vital role. When we come, and we open our mouths in praise, we are not just worshiping God, who is worthy of all praise. We are ministering to our brothers and sisters, which is huge.
Let me give you one other example. Every Sunday I pray for divine appointments. And I know I’m here all day, so far greater chance for that. But I would encourage you to do that. When we gather, it may be a simple word of, “Hey, how are you doing?” A prayer, a word of encouragement. It may be a practical ministry, like a gatekeeper kind of ministry, like greeting, pointing someone toward the nursery. It may be serving in the nursery. Can you imagine a kinder deed than to say to a mother who is on the edge of exhaustion, “Hey, let me watch your kid so that you can worship in peace and quiet for an hour”? That is one of the nicest things you can do for your brother or sister through Christ.
When God moves in a big way, sometimes the clearest evidences come in really small packages. When everything around us is so toxic and so divisive and so discouraging, and you see a believer who has joy and who is willing to serve in a small way and is not caught up with “Let’s argue about masks today.” No, how about, “God is at work today?” And he is doing a big work, regardless of what you feel about the incidentals.
We are in this together. And everything we do here, I’m blown away. Every Sunday, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people volunteer to make what we enjoy happen — some very much behind the scenes keeping the gate, some very visible. All beautiful examples of the work of the Spirit. Because in and of ourselves, none of us would do this. I’m so all about me. It is only the Spirit of God when I want to be about him and about you. That’s what God does. He changes us. So, when God moves in a big way, some are going to serve in familiar ways, most are going to serve in small ways, all are going to serve in enduring ways. Enduring ways.
Let me show you this at the end of this section. Chapter 12 ends with the people setting apart financial support for the priests, the Levites, and the singers. Look at 12:47. These “daily portions” literally in the Hebrew, it says a “day’s portion for its day.” It’s very mundane, very daily, but it’s all about sustainability. What the end of chapter 12 is going to get at, and we’re going to see it next week with chapter 13, is when God’s people are not faithful in the little things, the big things fade away. If you look over at 13:10 that we’ll look at next week, the daily portions were not continuing. And there is this cascading effect where the Levites suddenly have to go back and take care of their own fields to feed their families, and the temple is being neglected. And all these great reforms start declining because the little things were not maintained.
So, when God moves in a big way, if that’s going to endure, then all God’s people need to participate in an ongoing way. So, let me talk for a bit about money. If you’re visiting, ignore this. But because we never talk about it, I think it’s important periodically to say something. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve really not said much at all about giving. We haven’t passed the plates. We really don’t mention it. We’ve tried to put the emphasis on how can we help families in need. And we’ve been able to do that in a big way. And God has provided. I’m just blown away at the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve been able to give away to other ministries to keep them afloat during this difficult time. Praise God. He has allowed us to be debt free and have money set aside so that during crises we can be in a place where we actually help others. And we haven’t had to beg and plead and cry and scream.
But I think for those of you who are members, you’d want to know, we are currently $150,000 below budget in general fund. That’s not a crisis because when giving goes down, our spending goes down. So, we’re spending well below the giving so that we’re not spending money we don’t have. But we thought you would want to know that because our people, you’re so faithful in supporting God’s work here and around the world. And even though we’re not saying anything about it, we think it’s important for you to know. For what God is doing to endure a lot of people have to be faithful on a regular basis. And I want to challenge you while giving thanks for your faithfulness.
But having said that, we’re not planning on limping into 2021. God is doing some … He’s opening up more doors now than I can ever remember — just stunning things. And our desire, as we’ve said throughout this whole time, is to come out stronger — stronger relationally, spiritually, financially. Come out stronger than we began this year. And so, over the next couple of weeks, you’ll hear about our upcoming harvest offering. On November 22, we will celebrate our 29th year as a church, of God’s faithfulness. And we’re going to present some tremendous opportunities, some that are very familiar, they’re investments we’ve been making for a long time, and we’re going to keep doing those. And some of them we’re going to ramp up even more. Some are new things. Let me share one example. We’ve just seen over the past many months the importance of outdoor gathering space. And so, even though it’s not going to look exactly like this (this is a very rough sketch), but right out front there, having a courtyard not just for our use, but for our neighbors, for our community. Outdoor meeting space that would be available both after services and throughout the week. And it’s much bigger than this. This is just a small glimpse. But we can provide space where people can have meetings and can gather in between services and throughout the week.
We’re going to continue to dig wells in India. And God is doing huge things there through our partners, both in evangelism and church planting, seeing many, many people come to Christ. We’re going to continue to pour resources into unreached people groups. People who have never heard the gospel are hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in partnering with our local ministries like Miracle Hill Ministries and doing many things, but also helping their foster ministry. We want to come alongside families in our church. This is a pre-COVID picture. We want to come alongside families in our church, some of whom have lost jobs, or this year has been a very difficult year.
So there are many other examples I could give. But when God’s Spirit moves in big ways, some of us are going to serve in familiar ways, like the sons of Asaph. Many of us, if not most of us, are going to serve in what would be often viewed as small ways — the gatekeepers. And then finally, all of us are called to serve in enduring ways, so that what God does is sustainable in an ongoing way. And the end of that, ironically, is the same place where chapter 12 ends. It’s a place of great joy, great joy. The joy was so loud that they could hear it well beyond Jerusalem. Let’s pray.
Father, I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. I would much rather do small things with you than so-called big things without you. There is more joy in your presence than anywhere else. In your presence is fullness of joy. At your right hand there are pleasures forevermore. God, if anyone hearing this message does not know you, may this be the invitation from your Spirit to come. Come. And I pray specifically for some who are feeling the weight of this time, are feeling useless or not sure what you’re calling them to do. I pray, God, that you would open our eyes to the small ways you use us and your desire to use us today, tomorrow. Fill us with your Spirit. Even now, as we sing unto you, may we address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that fill our hearts with joy — the joy of seeing you glorified, and our brothers and sisters edified. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.