Monday, January 07, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 7: 1-73 Registering Returnees

We’ve had almost two years of President Trump, and already the talk is of who the candidates will be for the next Presidential election in November 2020. You may remember that one of Trump’s big campaign promises was that he would ‘Build a wall’ on the Mexican border. Two years on, he doesn’t really seem to be making much progress on his promise.

In contrast, over the autumn term we were watching as Governor Nehemiah returned to the city of Jerusalem, ready to build a wall. The city wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and its gates burned with fire. That was the case since Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylons had invaded, taking the people of Jerusalem away in exile. Nehemiah had heard about it all from his place in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire - the empire that had conquered Babylon.

And so, over the first six chapters of his book, we’ve seen how he determined to build up the wall, to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to again make it the place of God’s glory. We’ve listened in to his prayers of confession and intercession; we’ve watched him make the long journey home’ we’ve witnessed him hard at work with many of the residents of the city; and we’ve seen him respond to the barrage of threats that came against him.

So, when we read in Nehemiah 6:15 that the wall was completed in fifty-two days, we might think to ourselves: ‘Job done.’ Quicker, and better than the US President. You could say that Nehemiah trumped Trump. And you might think to yourself, so, is the rest of the book just about how Nehemiah took a great big rest, sat with his feet up and enjoyed a cup of tea as he looked out at the city wall he had built?

Well, we’ve already read chapter 7 tonight, and as you’ve probably noticed, sitting down and taking a rest was the last thing on Nehemiah’s mind. Even the opening words of 7:1 show us that there’s more to come: ‘After the wall had been rebuilt...’ Finishing the wall was not the finish of Nehemiah’s work. But then, if you remember, it wasn’t the only reason he was downcast in the first place.

Flick back to 1:3 and you see what it was that caused Nehemiah to weep: ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’

It wasn’t just the wall that was broken down, it was the people who were broken down. And it was always Nehemiah’s hope and wish and prayer that he would build up the people as well as building up the city. So while the city came first, because they needed a place of safety and shelter, the city wasn’t all that he had come to put right.

Maybe you’ve been putting together a list of jobs to be done in the new year. Putting the Christmas tree away. Tidying out a particular cupboard or room. Doing a spot of decorating. And it’s with great satisfaction that you tick it off. But with one job done, there’s always another waiting for you. So here, Nehemiah has the wall built, but from tonight on, we see that he tackles his second to-do item on the list - build up the people of the city.

‘After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed.’ (1) With the gates in place, you need some gatekeepers - the people who will guard and defend the gates. To oversee them, Nehemiah appoints Hanani over the city, and Hananiah the commander of the citadel. But Hanani’s appointment isn’t nepotism, or family favouritism - it’s because ‘he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.’ These were the qualities Nehemiah was looking for - integrity and the fear of the Lord.

The overseers are given instructions for the gates not to be opened until the sun is hot. (Some commentators reckon this might mean that the gates are to be closed during the siesta in the noonday sun). More guards were to be appointed, some at their posts and some near their own houses. There was no point building walls if the gates were going to be left open and unguarded. So safety and security is under control.

But go back for a moment to the other people Nehemiah appointed. Alongside the gatekeepers were the singers and the Levites. Was it an audition like The Voice which is on TV on Saturday nights? Were they looking for the next pop star? Well, no, these singers were appointed to sing God’s praise in the temple. King David had originally put singers in the temple, and so here Nehemiah is re-establishing true worship. That’s also the case with the Levites - men of the tribe of Levi who weren’t priests, but who served in the temple. Nehemiah is building up the people through providing security and spirituality.

But do you see how the two parts of Nehemiah’s work - building up the city walls and the people go together? Look at verse 4: ‘Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.’ A big city, lots of space, but it could hardly be a city if it has no people. The people need to be built up. And that’s what Nehemiah turns to do:

‘So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there:’ (5)

God puts it on Nehemiah’s heart to gather the people, to assemble them, so that they can be registered. Nehemiah is seeing who he has to work with - the people that God has given to him. But if you look closely at verse 5, the list of unpronounceables here is an older list - of those who had been the first to return. And this is almost exactly word for word and number for number the same list as you find in Ezra chapter 2. There are some slight differences in spelling, and some different numbers. But it’s essentially the same list. And what does it tell us?

It tells us that God was faithful. He had promised that a remnant would return from exile, and this big long list is a record of the people who returned again to their promised land - all 42,360 of them, besides 7337 servants and 245 singers.

It tells us that God was not finished with the Jewish people. He had promised that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah, and the tribe is still going, with Zerubbabel (7) and the men of Bethlehem (26) mentioned. The family line of David through to Jesus was still on course.

It tells us that people matter to God. Every person, whoever they were descended from (8-25), wherever they came from (26-38), or whatever their role in the temple sacrifices and worship (priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, Solomon’s servants v39-60), every person mattered and was counted.

It tells us that Gentiles were being included among the people of God. In verse 61 we see the descendants of Delaiah, Tobiah and Nekoda, who couldn’t prove their descent from Israel, but who were part of the people.

And it tells us that the purity of the priesthood was vitally important. You see that in verse 63, where the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai can’t find their family records, and so are excluded from the priesthood as being unclean. They couldn’t have just anybody serving as a priest in the temple. Its purity was important.

So almost 50,000 people have returned to Jerusalem and Judah, according to this list of Ezra, and copied by Nehemiah. God’s promises are on track. And yet the city was broken down, and these returned people weren’t much better - in great trouble and disgrace. They need to built up just as much as the city needed to be built up.

But notice that they were generous, they were willing to contribute to the work of the Lord. The governor, and the heads of the families, and the rest of the people give freely and willingly to the Lord’s work - thousands of drachmas of gold, thousands of minas of silver, bowls, and garments for the priests.

But as the closing verses tell us, the people went to settle in their own towns. The people are spread out across Judah, and the city is spacious and fairly empty. There’s more work to be done. But Nehemiah has made a start. He didn’t rest on his laurels. He needs to build up the people of Judah, so that the promised Son of David, the Lion of Judah, could come and rescue his people.

Through Nehemiah’s work, God is at work. And through the things that we do, our feeble efforts, our stumbling attempts, God is at work to bring in his people, to populate his eternal city, to ensure that the people he has elected and chosen and called will indeed be brought in. When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 6th January 2019.

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