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Ryan Ferguson


October 12, 2020


Nehemiah, Nehemiah 6:15-8:18


Good morning, everybody. Good morning to everyone who is online this morning, as well. I’m very excited to be with you this morning, jumping back into the book of Nehemiah. We are going to attempt to cover Nehemiah 6:15 all the way through the end of chapter 8 in one 30-minute message. So, we have work ahead of us. So, what I want to do this morning … If you don’t know me, by the way, my name is Ryan. I’m one of the pastors here. I’d love to pray and ask God for help to speak and ask God for help for you to hear. And I’d love for all of you to join with me and then we’ll jump into his Word. So, let’s pray together.

Father, I am going to ask you to encourage your people today with your Word. Let us understand it. Let me speak things that are helpful so that every audience member, no matter their age, receives and hears and understands your words for them. Please help me do that. Help my brothers and sisters to listen and to be blessed. And I pray this in your name, amen.

What do fireworks, whale watching, and a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway have in common? Fireworks, whale watching, and a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. All three of these things have two things in common. One, it’s encouragement. You see fireworks, you’re happy. Driving up on the Blue Ridge, it’s beautiful. Seeing a whale, that would just blow my mind. And the second thing is the opportunity to say, “Look.” When kids see fireworks, every new one is an opportunity to say, “Look.” If you’re on a boat, and you see a breaching blue whale, some of those spectators are going to yell, “Look!” I’ve ridden the Blue Ridge Parkway from one end to the other on my motorcycle, and there are more vistas and overlooks there than you have time to see. Everyone deserves its own Instagram post. Look!

If over the past several weeks of Nehemiah, Nehemiah has been telling us, “Look at the opposition going on,” now in 6:15 through 8 Nehemiah says, “Look at people responding to God.” Look at people responding to God and be encouraged. Nehemiah takes us on a walking tour and points out every possible location where God’s people are responding to God. And he does that in two ways. The first of which is, we see people responding to God’s work. Responding to God’s work. The first group is the wall-builders. We run into them in 6:15. Nehemiah says this:

“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul, in fifty-two days.”

Now this is the mission that Nehemiah set out to do all the way back in chapters 1 and 2, and now it’s finished. And it’s been completed in record-setting time. These exiles seem to be the world’s fastest wall-builders. Why did they jump into wall building project? Well, Nehemiah tells us earlier in the book how he motivated them. Nehemiah says,

“And I told them [the people, the wall builders] of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. And they [the people] said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hand for the good work.”

Nehemiah came up to them and told them everything God was doing in his heart, everything that God had done in this foreign king, how he had given him time off and timber and money to build. And he said, “Guys, join with me.” And they did it. In modern language, they rolled up their sleeves. They went into their garages and grabbed some tools and got ready to work. Look at those wall builders.

Nehemiah also says, “Look at the neighboring nations.” Look at what’s going on around the nation of Israel. He says this:

“And when all our enemies heard of it [that is the building of the wall in 52 days], all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”

Now, we’ve got nations here who didn’t recognize God as the God, who are now saying, “God helped them build that wall.” In modern church world, there’s this little phrase, “That’s a God thing.” You have nations around Israel who are saying, “That wall, that’s a God thing.” Then we get to look at Nehemiah himself respond to God’s work again. Nehemiah, the one who said, “Let’s build the wall,” he now receives a new mission. He says this at the beginning of chapter 7,

“Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.”

So, Nehemiah’s first heart mission was to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Now God puts an additional mission in his heart. Nehemiah moves from restoring the wall to restoring the people. He gathers them to enroll them in genealogy. Kind of in a modern way, think of this moment as a mass live version of Everybody is going to figure out where they came from, who they are, and what they do, and it’s this moment of enrolling everybody in genealogy. And in Nehemiah 7, it’s the one with all of these names over and over and over, that for some of us might be a little boring. But what it actually does is let us see how the exiles themselves responded to God’s work. We get to look at them and see how they do that.

So, when Nehemiah retrieves this list of people who returned from exile, he organizes them based on who their parents were and the jobs they had to serve God’s people. This genealogy reminds us that God has been working for much longer than the 52 days it took them to build the wall. God’s work is not only in the project (the wall). God’s work is in the process and the preparation. I want to argue that this genealogy, though it might seem boring, is actually a highlight reel of those who have come back to Jerusalem in order to make it once again a place where God and man can meet together. And what we do with this genealogy is, we look at what God’s people are doing to make that happen.

We look at these people risking. Even though these people were exiles in a foreign land, after 70 years they had become comfortable with where they lived. They had married, begun families, had children, built houses, grew gardens, made friends, became part of the foreign land in a lot of different ways, in some cases, even established their own cities. So, when God moved in the heart of the Persian king to allow Jerusalem to be rebuilt and the Jews to return, those Jews who chose to return, they were leaving the familiar, journeying up to 1000 miles to a broken-down city with enemies all around it and no safety net. So, this genealogy could be read as an example of faith-filled risk-takers.

We can also look at them serving. Nehemiah and Ezra give us these five groups of people in the genealogy who are serving. It’s the priests who are the overseers of sacrifice, the Levites who are the qualified family to serve in the temple. The singers — you could think of them as the worship team and the choir. The gatekeepers — you could think of them as the safety team. And the temple servants are facilities and maintenance. Why are these five groups of people important? When we look at God’s people responding to God’s work, why are they important?

Well, here we have to back up all the way to week 2 of Nehemiah when we talked about one of the effects of exile on God’s people, and we described it as distance worship. Remember, they were taken away from Jerusalem, from the temple, from the place where God and man met, where they were reconciled to God through sacrifice and were put into foreign countries where they couldn’t do that anymore. So, all of these groups of people (these five roles) were all part of that worship process for God’s people in Jerusalem. They were, in a sense, indispensable for worship and indispensable for God’s people to be reconciled with God. So, as these people read this list, they’re kind of heroes. Let’s just look at one of these groups of people and see what it would have been like to serve and then be removed to another country and not be able to do the job.

I want you to think about the singers. The singers are just that. These are people who are tasked to sing, they’re tasked to lead people to sing, and a third part at this period of leading worship is helping people be thankful. They were called leaders of thanksgiving. What happened to the singers during exile? Well, we actually know. Psalm 137 says this:

“By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

So, you have a musician, a poet, writing a song about being in Babylon, remembering Jerusalem. And they cried. This is a song from exile. They cried when they thought of Jerusalem, God’s city, the temple, the place where they could meet with God. The poet continues:

“On the willows there [in Babylon] we hung up our lyres.”

Musicians took their instruments and hung them up on trees. They didn’t play them. Why?

“For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of those songs of Zion!’”

They were required to sing songs, and they were mocked for it. The Babylonians mocked their worship and made them sing with pretend happiness.

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? [Distance worship.] If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

Imagine these singers. What they’re supposed to do is lead in singing. How will our songs work here when they’re only mockery? Musicians are saying basically, “If I forget what it was like to be in Jerusalem, to be right with God, let my hand forget how to play guitar. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.” Try singing that way, it doesn’t work real well. That’s what they’re saying, if we forget where God’s dwelling place was. So, Nehemiah lists these singers as an example of God’s people serving. Now, imagine 70 years coming back to that first gathering of God’s people reading this list and you know, we’ve got singers again. We’ve got people who’ve kept up with the songs even in Babylon and have brought them back. They walk out. The choir warms up. In modern language, the crowd goes wild.

This past Easter we were all in our homes. Nobody was in this room. It was empty — COVID — had been so for weeks. Some of our musicians and technicians got together and made a video where everybody recorded singing in their own home. We put it together and sent it in our livestream as the first thing we did in the service. It was kind of this virtual choir that sang for God’s people on Easter Sunday morning. After that, I received emails, texts, and phone calls of people who said, “When that started to play, I burst into tears. I hadn’t heard a group of people sing in weeks and I just started crying.” Imagine 70 years, and now you’ve got singers again. We’re back! This genealogy is a photo album of amazing servants fulfilling their mission during opposition.

Look at their generosity. This is at the end of chapter 7. God’s work required generous giving, and the people responded, and this giving was all about worship. They gave silver and robes and garments — given so that worship could happen. So, Nehemiah 6:15 through the end of chapter 7 takes us through and tells us, “look at people responding to God’s work.” Yes, there is opposition in the background, but look at people responding to God’s work. This is also going on.

Then in Nehemiah 8, he describes what I’m going to call a grass roots worship service, a people led worship service where we’re allowed to look and see God’s people respond to God’s Word. It began with God’s work, now God’s Word. Look at the people respond to God’s Word. And you can read Nehemiah 8 after the service. I’m going to tell you everything these people do in response.

First, the people prepare for God’s Word. The people all gathered as one man — that is men, women, and children who could understand the reading of the Law. Today, there would be no Kidstuff provided. This was everybody who was there all together. The people seem to have spread the word. This seems to be a people-motivated event. This would be like us all of a sudden on the church Facebook page, people start posting: “We’re having a worship service on Thursday night.” And the leaders don’t know. And then when we show up, everybody looks at Peter and says, “Alright, you’re on. Preach.” That’s what happened here. The people told their leaders what they wanted. Ezra, bring the Book of the Law of Moses that God commanded and read it to us. The people showed initiative and passion. They were preparing for this. It was not a top-down meeting. The people ran it. They built a platform and a stage just to make sure everybody could see and hear God’s Word as it was read.

Look as the people listen to God’s Word. The people practiced active listening. They listened with their ears and their brains. They were attentive. No one fell asleep in this gathering. They wanted to hear the Law read. And let me remind you. From now on, every time I say “Law,” that’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They wanted to hear Numbers. Read us Numbers, Ezra!

Now, look how they responded, how they were moved by those five books. First, the people stood in response to God’s Word. When Ezra opened that first scroll and was about to read the Law of Moses, all of the people stood. It appears that they were all seated on the ground. But as soon as that scroll opened, all the people stood. The people’s hearts were poised and ready to receive God’s Word. They didn’t need to be told how to respond. It would appear the very thought of hearing God’s Word demanded some type of physical move and respect to stand with awe and love for God’s Word.

The people lifted their hands, and then they bowed their heads. Why did they do that? Well, Ezra had just prayed to God and blessed God. And in response, thinking of talking to Yahweh brought their hands up and their heads down. The truth of just being with God infiltrated their bodies and came out.

The people, they spoke out loud right during this gathering. This seemed to be kind of a Baptist/Jewish gathering. These people were “ameners.” Right after that prayer, all of the people shouted, “Amen, amen! Let it be so! We agree!”

We can look and see the leaders of the people interpreted and explained the text as Ezra read it. Ezra’s team of priest and Levites helped God’s people understand the Law. And that word “understand” is going to become really important. They went about the crowd explaining it. This is what the Law means. And in some cases, that word “explained” in the text, they might have actually translated it for people who didn’t understand the language. God’s Word is read and explained and taught in this gathering.

We discover the people’s response. We look at them and see that the people wept and mourned. This was an emotional gathering of God’s people. Again, we’re gathered back. We’re able to worship again. If you are uncomfortable with public displays of emotion, this probably wasn’t a gathering for you. God’s people burst into tears. Face-to-face with God’s expectations and their behavior, they discovered they didn’t measure up. They had not kept the Law. Nehemiah did the same thing in chapter 1. Remember, he fasted and wept and prayed and said to God, “we have not kept the commandments, the statutes and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” And now the people discover the same truth about themselves. And in response, tears stream down their faces. Their heads fell. Right outside the Water Gate is where this event occurred. They worshiped and groans of grief filled the air.

But then, the scene shifts dramatically, and we get to look at Nehemiah responding to God’s people as they responded to God’s Word. Nehemiah steps in and he kind of interrupts this moment of weeping and mourning. He interrupts, and he instructs. And this is one of my favorite moments in all of Nehemiah, maybe even in the Bible. Let me read what happens at this moment when Nehemiah interrupts the weeping response to God’s Law.

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

Nehemiah and the leaders interrupt and suggest an alternative response to God’s Law. Replace the mourning and weeping with eating, drinking, gift-giving, and rejoicing. Don’t cry. Eat the fat. Sizzle up the bacon. Have the best parts. Don’t mourn. Drink sweet wine. Find the best vintage of Welch’s grape juice you can find. Don’t weep. Think of people who have very little and make them a care package.

So, why do the leaders course correct this reaction? What’s going on here? The text tells us that they’re stepping in and saying, this is a holy day or a set apart day or a holiday. I would also like to offer why I think these leaders step in and change the reaction. There’s nothing wrong with the weeping and mourning reaction. We actually see that in Ezra chapter 10. But what they’ve added here is they course correct because it seems an awareness of sin without an awareness of God’s love results in perpetual mourning. Awareness of sin with an awareness of God’s love transforms mourning into joy.

So, let’s remember who these people are and when this happens. These are the last events of Israel in the Old Testament as far as time. So, we have to remember what these people know. They are aware of all the promises God has given his people. Stuff like God promised Adam, “Hey, I’m going to send someone to crush the head of the serpent.” God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Listen, through you guys I’m going to bless the entire world.” To David he said, “Listen, from you I’m going to give my people a forever king who will never fail.” To God’s people, he let them know this sacrificial system of lambs is so that you can see that there is going to be a perfect Lamb coming who will take care of the sins of the entire world. To Isaiah he said, “I’m going to give you a Messiah, a servant-rescuer who’s going to come and save my people forever.” God, to his people, continually predicts rescue, hope, salvation, mercy, and fellowship. So, the people’s response of weeping and mourning may have forgotten the end of those promises. The leaders were stepping them in, giving them a full picture of the law and of grace.

A response to God’s law without recognizing God’s love creates sadness. A response to God’s law while recognizing God’s love creates joy. Nehemiah says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Or that can be translated, the joy of the Lord is your refuge. When you come face-to-face with God’s law and see how you fail, the truth of how powerful God’s love is, he has provided a way for you to get out from underneath your lack of fulfilling the law. Therefore, you have joy. The exiles would have seen this in the worship that was right in front of them. Every time a perfect lamb was sacrificed, they recognized, that has to happen. But in that same moment when that lamb was sacrificed, they realize I am reconciled to God. Feel that tension. I need sacrifice because I’m not right with God. But in sacrifice, I am received and accepted by God. We’re no different. We just see a different Lamb. Our Lamb had a name. His name was Jesus. He was known as the Christ. And he was sacrificed for us so that we could realize we are indeed right with God. Therefore, we can rightly recognize and mourn and weep over our sin. But we don’t have to stay there. That’s not where we have to live. The joy of the Lord is our refuge.

Nehemiah, the Levites, and the priests coach the people to a new response. Don’t mourn and weep. Don’t just stay there. In a very righteous way, throw a party. Eat great food. Drink great drink. Give gifts. Remember those who don’t have anything. Imagine that in your life as a part of your worship, that when God speaks to you, yes, you mourn over your sin. But then you invite people in to let them know what’s going on. Let’s have dinner. The people’s crying here, it needed to be calmed. Tears needed to be dried because a full response to God transformed great sadness into great rejoicing. Why did that happen? Why from great sadness to great rejoicing? Because Nehemiah tells us the people understood God’s words. How did you feel, how did you respond, most recently when you understood God’s words? Get your response in your brain. The last time I understood God’s words, I … what? Feels good. Great, Tommy. Here, the leaders are saying, “Celebrate! You understood it.” This is the life of God’s people.

So, Nehemiah finishes up his walking tour, taking us through 6:15 through 8, pointing at all of these places, responding to God’s Word. He tells us two more really quickly. Look at families responding to God’s Word. After that Bible study at the water gate, families kept studying. One emotional service was not enough.

Flowing from that, we then see people obeying God’s Word. All of God’s people realize there is this festival that they were supposed to keep in the Law called the Festival of Booths. They hadn’t done it in about 900 years, and they altered their path. They saw what God said they were supposed to do. They weren’t doing it; so, they chose to do it. And coming out of that, once more there was great rejoicing. A right response to God’s Word yields great rejoicing.

Look. Over and over and people responding to God’s word in the middle of opposition. Look at God’s people responding to God’s Word in the middle of opposition. North Hills Church, look into Nehemiah and see God at work. Look and learn.

What do we learn? All the way back in week one, we said we’re going into Nehemiah because all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for training so that we can be mature people. So, what does this teach us? What do we learn here when we look at everything going on? Well, we learn God continues to work during opposition. We learn that God’s people need God’s Word during opposition. And we learn that God’s people rejoice during opposition.

God continues working during opposition. We have opposition right in front of us, and in your brain and mine, you probably go to some of the same places I do — COVID, racial tensions, elections. But brothers and sisters, where is God at work?

Let me talk about a couple of things. One, let me tell you where God is at work in the middle of COVID-19. Do you know that your generosity has provided for family after family in need? Do you know that you’re giving here has literally kept ministries like Eleos in Nicholtown afloat? Do you know that God has worked among the elders and has reminded us that the role of pastor is as much about driving to a house and sitting in a driveway as it is running a large gathering? Do you know that God has mobilized his people to care for each other in this church at a rate that is, in my opinion, having been here for 28 years, at an all-time high? Do you know that God is working during the middle of COVID? I suggest you jump on our website. There is a free e-book there from a man named John Mark Comer, who writes 24 pages (that’s all it is) on a view of COVID, of how God is at work during the middle of opposition, that it is an invitation for the church. I invite you to read it. It is worth your time. God is working.

Do you know that God is working among us, even in this very uncomfortable place of racial tensions? God’s moved in the heart of your elders to inspect and investigate ourselves. How are we doing? Where do we need to grow? Connected with COVID and your generosity, we are reaching out to families all over so that hundreds of children are going through learning pods, so they don’t fall behind during e-learning. God has called members of our church to develop prayer gatherings focused on unity, love, and peace. God is at work in the middle of these things. He’s working. And as he is working, I want to suggest to you that God’s people need God’s Word during opposition. And that is what we learn from Nehemiah. In the middle of everything going on right now, those big three oppositions, you need God’s Word. Our brothers and sisters in Armenia who are facing war, they need God’s Word.

So, let me ask you. Right now, what, as you think of the oppositions that are in front of you (maybe different than the three cultural things I mentioned), what is your desperation level for God’s Word? Further, would you be willing to investigate yourself if you are upset, angry, frustrated about the present climate? Would you be willing to investigate yourself and ask how much of your response is God’s Word, and how much of your response is flowing from God’s Word? Brothers and sisters, we need God’s Word. If your soul is burdened and heavy and weeping and mourning, you need God’s Word.

Finally, we learn that God’s people rejoice during opposition. That’s pretty radical, right? It’s weird. During a hard thing, we are people who rejoice. Paul said in the New Testament, “Rejoice. And again, I say, rejoice.” God’s Word determines our worship and response and rejoicing, not the cultural climate. And when we understand God’s Word, we rejoice. Even when enemies are near, we make great rejoicing. In Nehemiah, those enemies were all still around them in chapters 6-8. That had not changed. Their response to God’s Word was what changed them. And when that happens, we make great rejoicing. Under God’s Word we eat and drink and send gifts and consider the poor and have an amazing time together worshiping the great God.

And in the words of Ezra, when that type of rejoicing happens, it is heard from afar. It’s loud. So, wherever you are today — whether it’s in this gathering, your reading of God’s Word this morning, last night, this week — if you understood God’s Word, will you respond in life with great rejoicing? And to build our rejoicing muscles together, we sing together on Sundays. Begin with your worship time today. In this time that we gather right now, build the muscles of rejoicing by choosing to sing, by letting it come out. Why? Because you understand God’s words. And if you’re really, really brave and you’ve understood God’s words, will you throw a dinner party and invite people? Make dinner, make up a care package for somebody who doesn’t have anything, and live it out. And if you literally do that with your friends, will you email me and let me know you did it? Because that would be really cool.

God’s people face opposition. We face opposition. But let’s look as a church, let’s look at ourselves in light of Nehemiah and respond to God’s work and his Word in similar ways during COVID, during a crazy election year. Let me say one thing on politics, and then I’ll never say anything again, probably. If God Almighty can work in the hearts of Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes (who were terrible people, some of whom claim to be God), I think he can work in the two choices that we have. I want us to look around this church. I want God’s people and the neighboring nations to look at us as a people and go look at God at work. Look at those people responding to God’s work. Look at those people responding to God’s Word. Look at them give generously. Look at them care for each other. Look at them as they care for people around the world who are also in need. Look at that church serve the vulnerable and create educational opportunities. Look at them respond. Look at that! May God grant us the grace to do that, even this morning as we make great rejoicing. May he let us do that and all the more for his glory. Amen? Amen. Let’s pray.

Father, we give you ourselves. That seems to be what the people did in Nehemiah. They gathered as one man. We’re doing that this morning. We want to hear from you. Speak through your Word. Let us be thrilled when we understand your Word, especially those of us who’ve grown up in Christianity and have been around the Bible and your words and your people forever. When we understand something you say, let it thrill our hearts like it’s the craziest thing ever. I read Psalm 137, and I understood it. I need people for dinner so I can tell them about it. God, give us a freedom to worship you because you deserve it. You are amazing. And we give you this time as brothers and sisters, amen.