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The Gospel According to Nehemiah

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The Gospel According to Nehemiah


Toby Woodard


November 8, 2020




Thank you, Peter, for that introduction. Thank you for being here. I’m honored to be here. The elders gave me an opportunity to preach, and I’m very grateful for that. Please pray for me and for yourself. I have to get my glasses. That’s going to look good on the video. Happy editing, whoever edits.

They’ve given me the job of giving the overview of Nehemiah. Specifically, where does Nehemiah fit in God’s story? How does Nehemiah fit in God’s story? And the thing about that is that it’s kind of your question, or it should be. Where do I fit? Is there a story? If so, how do I fit into it? So, how are we to understand Nehemiah? As a stand-alone or as something bigger?

We had, a couple of years ago, the opportunity as a family to go out west — one of those infamous family trips. It was actually mostly wonderful. We got to see a lot of national parks, three weeks in a van together. There was no conflict ever because we’re a perfect family, and it was beautiful. That was a lie, by the way. But it was mostly good, at least I think so. My children may say different.  One of the places we went was Bryce Canyon. You don’t have to know anything about Bryce Canyon. It’s in southern Utah, and you drive a long way to get there because it’s not close to much of anything. And when you get there you see this sign, and all of a sudden you’re in Bryce Canyon. Because that’s Bryce Canyon, right? No class, that’s Bryce Canyon.

To understand Nehemiah, don’t mistake the sign for what the sign is pointing to — something much bigger and more beautiful. Nehemiah is a sign. The whole book of Nehemiah, the man Nehemiah, are a sign pointing to something much bigger and much more beautiful. In that sense, Nehemiah is a metaphor. Remember that from school? God is going to a fallen place and restoring. Does that sound familiar? Now, I’m not saying that what happened in Nehemiah was not historical. It was. He was a real person. The archeological evidence bears that out. I’m just saying there’s something bigger going on than just this moment in time in the 4th century B.C. about a city. And we have to pull the camera back and see history that way.

A man named Augustine, some 1600 years ago, was doing very much the same thing. He lived to see the end of the Roman Empire. Now, Roman Empire was not just Rome. It was most of the known world at that time. It stretched from England all the way to India and everything around the Mediterranean down into North Africa. And it ended. Done. And the people were asking a question. Both non-Christians and Christians were asking this question: What’s going to happen now? What’s going to happen to us? What do we do now? It’s remarkable how relevant that is. 2020 has been kind of a tumultuous year in some ways. Minimal ways, right? What’s going to become of us? And what Augustine does is, he says there’s something much bigger than Rome. There’s something much bigger than Jerusalem. There’s a city that God is building — the city of God. It’s what Jesus prayed for when he said, “Your kingdom come.” That’s the city of God. And it has everything to do with middle school or being married or being single or being unemployed or being employed. It’s finding your place within this kingdom of God that Jerusalem points to.

So, we’re going to talk about the God of the city and the city of God. What is the God of the city like? Now, I want to pause for a second, because you already have ideas about God, every single one of you. You have ideas about God. The question is, are they God’s ideas about God? Are they your ideas or his ideas? We’re going to look at Nehemiah and how Nehemiah reflects the heart of God.

The first thing we see is he weeps over the city. And it is almost the first thing you see in the book of Nehemiah. Chapter 1:3,

“‘The remnant [when he gets news of Jerusalem], the remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.’ As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept.”

Some years later, Jesus would come to the exact same city and when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it. Nehemiah is foreshadowing Christ and Christ’s heart for his broken people. And what’s interesting is, this is unique. In every other religion that’s ever existed, the followers weep because of their failures or they just try not to feel anything at all. But here’s something, that God weeps. It tells you something. What does he weep over? Do you see it? Great trouble and shame. What an interesting combination. Great trouble there means things from the outside, things that are external to us, things we can’t control — someone dies, you lose a job, and it wasn’t your fault, you get COVID, your whole country goes crazy, the whole world goes crazy. These are things outside of us that we can’t control, and they cause great trouble. They threaten us. There’s not much we can do about it.

But it’s interesting because that second word is shame. And it’s not the modern understanding of shame, the psychological concept of shame. That is a different sermon for a different day. This concept of shame looks like this. Have you ever not felt what I’m about to say? “Wow, I can’t believe I just did that.” It’s when you feel a remorse over the things that you’ve done. It’s not subjective, it’s real. The pain that I’m feeling right now in my life is because of my choices. And it’s interesting that the Bible is not simplistic. It’s not reductionistic in its description of our troubles. Our troubles sometimes come from outside, and sometimes they’re of our own making. It’s both-and. It’s complex. It doesn’t matter what you’re experiencing today. Some of you are experiencing distress today. I would go so far as to say most of us, perhaps all. What distress are you experiencing that’s beyond your control? What shame are you experiencing that you’re having trouble facing? It doesn’t matter, in a sense, because the heart of the father is the same. He weeps. He weeps over distress. He weeps over shame. He doesn’t shame further. God doesn’t pile on.

And he doesn’t just weep, he moves. He actually moves into Jeremiah. His tears move him to action. I mean, into Jerusalem. Chapter 2:11, “So I went to Jerusalem.” Nehemiah didn’t say, “Hey, I really feel bad about what’s going on with y’all, and I’m going to pray for you (which he did). Y’all let me know if you need anything. I’m here. Text me if you need anything.” He didn’t do that. And there’s a place for that. He actually moved to Jerusalem. And to give you some concept of what that looks like, he was at the top of his game. He was at the top of his career. He was one of the most trusted men in the empire. He had the emperor’s ear, and the emperor had his ear. It would be somewhat like LeBron James or Lin-Manuel Miranda, people at the top of their game, moving to a ghost town in New Mexico out of love for that ghost town. That’s what Jesus did. He moved in. John 1:14,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

I heard a story growing up (it was kind of a legend around my small town that I grew up in) of this multimillionaire in town who had an employee who was going through a rough time. He lived out in the country. And for several weeks, this multimillionaire employer went out to this employee’s house and helped him pump out, and dig out, and clean out, and put in a new septic system. Just fill in the blanks. That’s kind of a cool story. I mean, do you work for an employer like that? Are you an employer like that? That’s a cool story. But here’s the thing, it’s not even a drop in the bucket of what God does to his people — the incarnation that we’re about to celebrate, God coming to a septic tank, if you will.

Now, this is only good news for people who have distress and shame. Some of you are living your best life, and that’s great. I mean, it really is. Things are going well in your job, your relationships. You’re kind of like, “Life is pretty good,” and that is wonderful. It really is. Enjoy it. Stay tuned. Destress will come. Shame will come. For the 95% of the rest of us, this is good news, because they really thought, in a sense, that God had ghosted them.  God had given up on Jerusalem, he’d given up on his people, and we’re just trying to survive. And that’s where some of you are today. I’m just trying to survive. And some of you this week, a few of you, have flirted with the idea of just giving up, just cashing it all in. And God says, “Not yet. I’m moving in.” And we desperately need God to move in and build up. Not just move in, not just weep with you, not just hang out with you. Nehemiah says to the king,

“If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”

I’m not just going, I’m not just weeping, I’m not just living. We’re going to rebuild. And the whole book is about that. Except what’s interesting is that ends in chapter 6. It’s happened. There’s something bigger going on. Jesus talks about this bigger thing in chapter 16 of Matthew.

“… on this rock [Peter’s confession] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Now, think about it for a second. Jesus was a carpenter, of all things. He had been building his whole life. In fact, God had been building for an eternity. He built a universe, and he built a nation, and he built a people, and he built furniture, and he’s building a church. And if you’re one of his, you’re part of that. And hell can’t even stand against it. In 1 Peter we see kind of the fruition, those who come to Christ.

“As you come to him [Jesus, the carpenter king], a living stone, rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”

And the next chapter says those who believe in him “will not be put to shame.” Those who believe in him will not be put to shame. God is taking a city that cannot stand and building a city which cannot fall. Countries fall, friends fail, marriages end or don’t ever come at all, jobs, health, even your athletic ability — for those of you who are at the top, it will go down — memory, money, and finally life itself will fall apart. But the gates of hell cannot stand against the city of God.

He builds up, and he covenants with. And I mention this last, but in a sense, it could be first. In some ways it should be first, because this concept of covenant, which is weird to us, it actually structures the whole Bible. It is everywhere throughout the Bible, and it shows up in Nehemiah. Remember that great worship service they had? The word is preached, the people are cut, they publicly confess their sins, God restores them, they renew their vows, and then they worship. It’s a great picture. And right in the middle of that, here’s what they say. “Because of all this, we make a firm covenant in writing.” This time we really mean it. I mean, we’re going to write it down. That’s how much we mean it. We really mean that we are not going to marry unbelievers, at least for a couple of chapters. We are going to keep the Sabbath, until there’s money to be made, and Nehemiah has to come back and cleanse the temple just as Jesus did. We are honoring the temple. We promise this time, until Tobiah, of all people, the sworn enemy of God and God’s people. They move all the stuff out of the storeroom. Where did it go? Who got the kickback? And Tobiah has a bachelor pad right in the temple. That agreement that they made with God wasn’t worth the papyrus it was written on. And some of our promises haven’t been worth much more than that.

What’s interesting is I really love the English Standard Version translation, but they miss it on this one. The word that they say for covenant in writing is actually not the word that’s used throughout the Old Testament for covenant. This word is an agreement. Agreements have their place, but they’re written in ink. Covenants are something much, much different. If you were going to make a covenant, you’re actually going to cut a covenant. Whenever you see that in the Bible where it says, “made a covenant,” it actually means cut a covenant. And the reason that word cut is used is because they did some cutting. So, I’m going to make an agreement with you. Just imagine for a moment that I’m the employee, and you’re the employer. You’re the lord and I’m the vassal. What we’re going to do to make this agreement stick, if you will, is we’re going to cut some animals in half — a bull, an oxen, a sheep, pigeons, lamb, whatever. And we’re going to put one piece over here, and we’re going to put one piece over there, and they’re going to line them up. As the lord or someone reads this contract, if you will, the vassal (the employee) walks through those pieces. This is what I promise to do. Here are the blessings if I do it, and here’s the curse if I don’t. I’ll be ripped apart just like these animals. That’s how …  covenants are serious. I have a friend who’s getting married next month, and I said, “Hey, why don’t ya’ll do this as part of your wedding ceremony?” No, thanks. Imagine the pictures.

This is no joke! And it shows up in Genesis 15. This very ceremony shows up when God says to Abram, “I’m going to cut a covenant with you, Abram.” They line up the pieces, and the ceremony is about to start, Abram is supposed to walk through, but Abram falls asleep. God shows up, the Lord shows up as a smoking fire pot, a fire, and God goes through the pieces while Abram sleeps. And it says, “On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.” The essence of the covenant is this: You will be my people. I will be your God. We even heard it in Revelation 21. God renewed those words. I’ll be your God. You’ll be my people. Their agreement was signed in ink, this one is sealed in blood. And so, when Christ stands up a few hundred years later and says at that first supper, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” You’ve heard that so many times if you’ve been around church. That doesn’t really mean anything to you. But I can tell you what. The men around that table, it rocked their world. “This is the new covenant in your blood?” It doesn’t work that way. And yet it worked that way, and there were real people around that table. People who would make great promises that very night and break them a few hours later. His best friends are going to (guess what?) fall asleep on him. One man’s faith is hard fought and hard won around that table, and every single one of them will scatter like cockroaches.

And yet he says, “I will make a covenant with you.” And in a sense, I’m at that table — all of my shame and all of my distress. Toby, I’ll be your God. You’ll be my person because it’s about my blood, not yours. I will be ripped apart so that you don’t have to be. That’s the gospel. The question is, is this your understanding of God? Is this who you think God is, a God who actually weeps for brokenness, who actually moves toward your trouble and your shame, who actually camps out with you and says, let us rebuild, who says I’m in? And I’m so in that I would rather be ripped apart than live without you. Is that your view of God? Second question, does this awaken you? Are you moved by any of this? And if you’re not, that’s where you are. But it’s worth asking the question, why? Because this is the most amazing thing in the history of history, and we’ve lost the wonder I’m afraid at times. That’s what the God of the city is like.

What is the city of God like? What’s this kingdom like? What are these people like? And the first thing we see is they’re now a people. You have to understand, nobody was living in Jerusalem. There weren’t any homes. It was a pile of rubble. People lived kind of nomadic lives, out scattered around Jerusalem. But there was no city. There was no king. There was no priesthood. There was no worship. There was no land. There was no tribe. There was no nation. There was no identity. Some of you feel that. I don’t belong. There’s no place where I belong, and I’m a nobody perhaps. And God says, “No, you’re now going to be my people.” 1 Peter again says to this,

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Now, those in this room who can remember or know about their time before they met Jesus, you understand this. “I’m a nobody. I don’t fit. I’ve got nowhere to go.” And then you met Jesus and you’re like, “Wow, my life has purpose. I fit; I belong. I’m somebody.” That’s important, because our default for many of us is to just despise ourselves. Now, some of you love yourselves way too much. That’s a different problem. But many of us just despise ourselves.

I read this week of a thrift store find. Any thrift store people in here? Yes. Any of you spend too much time in a thrift store? Yes. Buy things you don’t need to? Yes. It was actually in Asheville where this sweater was found. Kind of cool. Old, obviously, from the Army Military Academy. And a woman in Asheville was just buying up a whole bunch of clothes — bags and bags and bags. And this cost 58 cents. She took it home in bags, and her son was kind of going through some of this, and he’s like, “Oh, that looks kind of cool. It’s old. I wonder what the story is behind this.” And as he was looking at it, he saw on the tag on the back a name written: Lombardi. Now if you don’t know who Vince Lombardi is, that’s okay. Many would consider him the greatest NFL coach of all time. He won the first two Super Bowls. The Super Bowl winner gets a trophy called the Lombardi Trophy. And in 1952, he was a coach at West Point. He wrote his name on this 58 cent sweater that a couple of years later sold for $48,000. How are your investments doing? Mine, too. Just because of who owned it. Just because of whose name was on it.

You’re my people. My name is written on you. And 40% of the book of Nehemiah is just people. If you’ve suffered through some of those chapters, you’re like, “I can’t even pronounce any of these words.” But here’s the thing, that part of Nehemiah that you skipped … Okay, maybe you didn’t, I did. That’s important to the King. In fact, those names, they’re there forever. The Word of God stands forever. Those names are there forever. You belong to the King. My name is written on you.

And because of that, there aren’t any “little people” in the kingdom. There aren’t any “little people.” Here’s what I mean by that. We tend to think of the important people in the kingdom, right? The Peter Hubbards of the world — important. And he is. But there are lots of other people mentioned. Nehemiah was a layman, layperson. He served a pagan king. It’s hard to get more pagan than the emperor of Persia. Just like Daniel served a pagan king and just as Joseph served a pagan king, they honored the Lord where they were. They honored their king where they were, and God honored them as a result. Just people doing their job working for bad employers. Can any of you relate to that? I love the people who are mentioned in these lists. Let me just throw out some of them — blacksmiths, goldsmiths, a perfumer. Do you think that perfumer was really equipped to do a lot of building? Do you think they were having to be out of their comfort zone? Have you ever been called out of your comfort zone in the city of God? This guy was most likely out of his comfort zone. Shalom’s daughters, which is important because you don’t mention daughters. They don’t matter. Merchants. My favorite is Hallum, the sixth son of Zalaph. If you’re the sixth son in this culture, they don’t even remember your name. You … you know, sixth son, come here. The first son is the one that matters, but none of the first five sons are going to have their name in something that stands forever. Hallum, the sixth son of Zalaph. Trumpeters, gatekeepers, singers, male and female servants, wives and children, army officers, horse trainers, masons and carpenters. And here’s the thing. When I say there are no “little people,” if you’ve read the book, everybody had a station around the building, around the city. And what happens if you leave your station? The whole city is jeopardized. So, little servant girl manning her post, in some ways more important than Nehemiah. I don’t know that the most important person at this church is Peter Hubbard. It might be a little servant girl doing her job.

And it’s this teaching that transformed the ancient world, because it said to just common people, even slaves in the Roman Empire, “You matter. You matter immensely. You might be vital to this whole thing.” And it can transform you where you are, as well. Just as a side note, it doesn’t matter who the president is in one sense. Your job is the same. Be a gatekeeper. That’s your job. You think the old guy was a pagan? Be a gatekeeper. You think the new guy is a pagan? Be a gatekeeper. Your job doesn’t change. Be who God called you to be. Do you know whose name is not here? We find out in 3:5, “their nobles would not stoop to serve the Lord.” Too good for it. I’m not getting my hands dirty. And their names aren’t recorded. They thought they were important people. Augustine comments on this principle. He says,

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

If in your view your job is unimportant, you’re unimportant, you need to put on new glasses, because God doesn’t see it that way. Everybody is a somebody. No “little people.”

The city of God is full of habitually returning people, which is a kind of a mouthful. What do I mean by that? Well, as we saw earlier in chapters 9 and 10, there’s this amazing worship service. Just to review once more: the Word of God is preached, the people listen, they’re cut, they’re hurt in a sense, and then they’re healed, and they renew their vows to God. And then they have a worship service that only the redeemed can have. Only the people who know they don’t deserve it can stand and sing so that the nations hear about the goodness of God. And three chapters later, they’re back at it. Now, here’s the question, was that real in chapter 9? I think it was. You don’t generally volunteer to confess your sins publicly unless God is doing something, right? Anybody want to volunteer this morning? Come on. No takers? I think that was very real what was going on. And maybe what happened in your life many years ago — when you went to that camp or you heard that speaker at that conference, or something like that — something happened in your life, and perhaps it was real. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Where you are today? It’s sweet that I told my wife 24 years ago that I would love her. That’s sweet. But the real question is, what am I going to do today? That’s much more interesting to her, right? And to God. So, when I say a habitually returning people, here’s what I mean by that. Chapters 9 and 10 shouldn’t be unusual. This is the rhythm of being a Christian. Some Christian traditions, they confess their sin every week in their worship services. Sitting under the Word of God, letting it penetrate our sleeping hearts, and responding is actually the normal Christian life. It’s not unusual. And if you experience that, you might even sing a little bit.

Finally, the city of God is about a purchased people. Now reminder, this is the end of the Old Testament. It’s not there in your Bible. This is the end. The Old Testament ends, last words are this from Nehemiah. “Remember me, O my God, for good.” Now why is he praying that? He’s praying that because it was kind of a failed experiment. All these reforms, all this work he did, and in chapter 13 they’ve just gone right back to it. Now, here’s what we need to understand. There’s not a publisher on the planet who would publish the Old Testament. It is full of clunkers from beginning to end. It is not a happy story. There are moments scattered in. But it’s almost … I don’t know what was in Nehemiah’s heart and mind when he wrote these words. I don’t know. But when I hear it (This is complete, 100% speculation. This is not in the Word. This is just how I hear it), I kind of hear a guy saying, “Well, I tried.” I don’t know, but that’s kind of how I hear it at the end of that terrible chapter, at the end of this terrible story.

It doesn’t matter what he was thinking or feeling, he turned it to the Lord. He says, “Remember me. Remember me, Lord.” And another guy said, “Remember me,” a guy hanging on a cross next to Jesus who was there justly. He says he is there justly. And he turns to Jesus as they’re both dying, and he says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “I will. I will remember you.” Because Jesus’s last words are different.

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, [there’s that wine again] he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

And if you don’t understand the story of Christ, you’re like, “Well, that’s a bad ending too.” But if you understand the story of Christ, this is the greatest moment in the history of the world. He says, “It’s finished.” In Revelation 21, he says, “It’s done. I accomplished what I came to do, which was purchase a people out of brokenness and trouble and shame to make them my own. And I had to seal it with my own blood. And now I’ve done it. It’s finished.” It’s tragic, and it’s triumphant at the same time. And Augustine comments — I love this — he says,

“The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; yet by the very death of Christ the devil [and I add sin and death, punishment] was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death’s commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.”

The covenant says, Nehemiah says, the Scriptures say, the last words of the Scriptures, the last words of Christ say, “I have remembered you.”

Now, just three quick takeaways. And they’re quick. Let’s go down into the canyon for a minute. Let’s walk around inside and ask, how does this apply to my life? Just three real quick things. First one is, can you see your broken story overlaid with the beautiful true story of a covenant-keeping God? It’s a lot of words. Can you see your broken story overlaid with the beautiful true story of a covenant-keeping God? In other words, when you look at your life, do you just see the brokenness? You might need to see the brokenness, but if that’s all you see, then it’s hopeless and you know it. And yet God is taking broken things, like he always has and rebuilding something beautiful, much more beautiful than Bryce Canyon.

When I first came to North Hills 9 years ago, 9-1/2 years ago, I was in Overcomers at the time, trying to learn how to not kill myself. And I came with a friend who was also at Overcomers at the time. And we left, and I didn’t know a whole lot about North Hills. And he said, “Well, that church is just full of pretty people who have their lives together.” And I thought, “Maybe. I mean, they seem kind of happy. They’re not like me.” But then I stayed here for 9-1/2 years. And I can look just at a glance, and I know some of some of your stories. And I know some of the brokenness that you’ve lived — some of it was brought on by you, and some of it was far beyond your control. And yet I also see God overlaying this beautiful picture of what he does, which is take … They didn’t bring new stones to Jerusalem. They used the old stones. God is a repurposer. He’s a recycler. He takes the very things that fall down, and he builds them up. Can you see that?

Which city are you living for, the City of God or the city of man? Now, before you answer, here’s what I would say. It is possible to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, but yet still be living for the city of man. What is the city of man? Augustine tells us.

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love; the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God … The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to God, ‘I love you, my Lord, and my strength.’” It’s possible to be a Christian and still be living for the city of man. What do you love? What is your strength?

And finally, because we belong to another City, we must love our city. When they stood on the walls of Jerusalem and sang, the people across the plains could hear it. And in Revelation 21, when we see the new Jerusalem, God says, “the nations are coming in.” Listen, the good news is not just for you. If you keep it for yourself, it will no longer be good news, it will be stale. And so for those of you today, and I know you’re there, some of you, you feel like you have no purpose in your life — you’re not going anywhere, and your life doesn’t mean a whole lot — God is inviting you to a kingdom that will advance. It went from 12 silly men and it’s taking over the world — not by hate and sword, but by love. Augustine says,

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

That is how Christ loves us. That’s what he calls us to. Let’s ask for his help.

Father, like Abram, sometimes we’re asleep. Like Peter, we make promises and can’t keep them very long. Like the people in the Nehemiah’s time, we really mean it, but we just don’t have the strength to follow through. I thank you, God, that you did what we cannot do. You lived a perfect life, and you died the death that we should have died. Thank you for that. It is finished. And may that awaken us and move us and strengthen us and motivate us to love the world around us so that we can be part of your city which can never fail. We thank you for this in Jesus’ name, amen.