What does it mean to serve God? (Nehemiah 11)

[otw_shortcode_info_box border_type=”bordered” border_color_class=”otw-black-border” border_style=”bordered” shadow=”shadow-down-right” rounded_corners=”rounded-10″]This sermon is part of the Expository Preaching Collective on the Book of Nehemiah. Follow the link below to know more about What Expository preaching is and Why is it important to us. (Click here)[/otw_shortcode_info_box]

Growing up I always thought serving God was a very attractive thing. Be it in the experience of leading thousands of people in worship song or preaching before a crowd. My Christian experience was defined by commercial and cultural Christianity. However, the more I read God’s Word, the more I realized how wrong that idea was. People suffered and were rejected while serving God! I believe today’s passage teaches us two things about service to God:-

  1. Serving God is unpopular yet pleasing in the eyes of God
  2. Serving God is unattractive yet beautiful in the plans of God

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1. Serving God is unpopular yet pleasing in the eyes of God (v1-2)

Though the temple had been rebuilt and the city walls repaired, Jerusalem still remained to be an unpopular place to live in. Why was that so? Nehemiah 2 actually describes how bad the condition was earlier:

I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:3)

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Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” (Nehemiah 2:17)

These two verses clearly show how unpopular the city was for inhabiting. The gates were burned down and the temple was destroyed. The word “derision” meant that rival nations were mocking them and ridiculing them. Total and utter disgrace and shame! Even though the city was restored, people were still hesitant to settle in a place which was considered as a place of disgrace and shame.

Why did Nehemiah and the other leaders deem it necessary to re-populate the “holy city”?

As we’ve been discussing the whole issue of repopulation in Jerusalem, it wasn’t because there were better job opportunities out there, it wasn’t because their life was going to get more comfortable, neither was it because it was a land occupied by their ancestors…we realized that the primary reason for inhabiting the city of Jerusalem was to re-establish the worship of the One True God. In the OT, Jerusalem was the place where the temple was located and built. Prayers were offered by turning towards the city. God would demonstrate his forgiveness, justice, grant help, shower mercy and grace from this temple and city. The whole idea was of God dwelling among His people and meeting with them in Jerusalem. You can see how this city was of extremely great importance to both God and His people. There was a very close relation between the “land” and “worship”. When the people contaminated their worship by worshipping idols, they were removed from the land and the worship of God. Why? Because God as our Creator and Savior desires our utmost affection and obedience. It can’t be shared with anyone else as if anybody else could replace or substitute God. Here’s what Solomon prayed when the temple was being dedicated way before the people were exiled into Babylon:

“If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). 52 Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. 53 For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.” (1 Kings 8:46-53)

We know what happened after that, how God lovingly pursued them and brought them back to their land. A return to Jerusalem meant that the people could once again worship and relate to God as before! It’s a huge deal.

With what the recruitment policies were the people relocated to Jerusalem?

Firstly, the leaders of the people volunteered to live in Jerusalem. (v1) Such a great example of the leaders leading from the front! People were afraid, skeptical and uncomfortable to move to the city. So what did the leaders do? They volunteered to move first and settle down. And that works wonders when it comes to motivating the others to do the same. They didn’t want to be leaders who were only asking others to make uncomfortable choices, they were the ones who took the initiative and showed the way.

Secondly, they cast lots to bring 1 out of every 10 people to live in the city. You could say that this was a fair way of choosing volunteers because people were being picked randomly and so it removed the whole argument of partiality.

Thirdly, we also see a group of people who in addition to the ones who were picked by casting lots “willingly offered to live in Jerusalem”. (v2)  No compulsion but they willingly decided to step into uncomfortable grounds. It says that those people were commended and blessed because they volunteered to move to the city of Jerusalem.

What would you do if you were in the shoes of the people of Judah and Benjamin? Would you be skeptical and stay back or would you willingly offer yourself to the work of God?

If we had to contextualize this situation in our day it would be something like this: there are places in the country and in the world where they haven’t even heard of Jesus. If God calls you out, would you volunteer to serve in the place of greatest need? It would mean forsaking your idea of a comfortable life out here, it would mean abandoning your ambitions, it would mean moving away from family, it would mean starting from scratch in a new place and so many other things.  

To top it all, this new place might not be comfortable or safe to live in. Would you still do it for the sake of the gospel? This is a serious question we need to ask ourselves. How far are you willing to go to serve the Lord? Let’s put it in another way: To what extent are you willing to relinquish your comforts, ambitions and possessions for the service of God?

These questions were to uncover the idols in our hearts but I don’t want to leave it there. Rather I want to share how the gains of our service outweigh the pains during the service.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:8-16)

When we look at Abraham’s example, do you think he was the biggest loser or the biggest winner? Winner! Such an amazing thing is written. God says “I am not ashamed to be his God!” That’s an astonishing statement of appreciation. In abandoning everything he gained everything! How awesome! Just imagine if the CEO of your company comes to you and says “I’m proud to be your CEO!” And this is God…God who says that. Isn’t that amazing? Being acknowledged by the Almighty God! God is magnified when you live out radical lives for the sake of the gospel! And He is so delighted in that! It pleases Him

2. Serving God is unattractive yet beautiful in the plans of God (v3-24)

In Nehemiah 7:66, we learn that there were 42,360 people who returned from exile but most of them were occupying the outskirts of the Jerusalem rather than be in the city. When you sum up the number of people who moved into the city, the total comes up to 3044 which is a little over 7% of the entire population. I’m sure when Nehemiah and the leaders planned to cast lots they expected at least a minimum 10% of the people to be in the city.

Another startling figure was that the number of Levites (284) was few in comparison to the number of priests (1192). Priests were selected from the tribe of Levi. Shouldn’t the number be the opposite?

Josephus, a Jewish historian noted “But Nehemiah, seeing that the city had a small population, urged the priests and Levites to leave the countryside and move to the city and remain there for he had prepared houses for them at his own expense”.

What could be the reason even after the leaders moved in, after casting lots and people volunteering to live in Jerusalem, after Nehemiah even prepared houses for them at his own expense that the numbers of inhabitants were less than expected?

Could it be that the life in exile was more appealing than the menial tasks of temple service? Isn’t it true that sometimes we think that service to the Lord is boring or tedious task in comparison to the excitement and entertainment of the world?

Haven’t we noticed a trend where you’ll find thousands of passionate people who would turn up for a worship concert but only a handful of people who would go and share their faith? There are other times when we end up making the Sunday Gathering to be a mega event. We’re there at any cost but neglect the importance of meeting with other believers during the week for encouragement and accountability. And I’m not saying that it’s easy or simple but very often we conveniently excuse ourselves from things that aren’t attractive to us. We excuse ourselves from things that are hard and messy. Like discipleship. Walking with another believer is messy because you’re dealing with your own sin and the sin of the other person. And you might end up hearing about the same struggle every single day in some seasons. It’s too much so you consider avoiding it. Another example is how some people are unwilling to move to a new place and start a GC or plant a church due to the fear of losing their identity or prominence in a new setup? Suddenly their role looks very different. Instead of maybe preaching every Sunday, they might need to arrange the chairs. That fear is the reason behind their refusal. What we need to address is our attitude toward serving the Lord.

Let’s ask ourselves this question: what is something about serving the Lord that appears to be menial to you at this point? Usually these things would make you uncomfortable and so you would generally find an excuse to opt out of these settings.

Let’s stop and think: was it an attractive choice for Jesus to die for us on the cross? No, yet He did it. Hebrews 12:2 says : looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Phil 2:5-11: Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[b] being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In God’s Sovereignty, this thing that seemed so unattractive (the cross) turned into something so beautiful! On the cross, God turned the most heinous crime & the most excruciating experience into something wonderful by restoring broken and rebellious sinners to Himself. On his body he nailed every bit of condemnation caused by your sins. Completely paid off and so there’s no wrath to be afraid of if you’ve trusted in His work. Just as Jesus looked at the joy set before him, let’s look at the joy set before us and pursue all those things that we may have thought as unattractive but it is beautiful in God’s plans.

My prayer is that our response to serving God would be the same like that of Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa 6:8)

After Isaiah was confronted with the holiness of God, understood his own sinfulness and cleansed by the mercy of God, his response was “Here am I. Send me!” A willingness to serve God in the midst of unpopularity because we know it’s pleasing in the eyes of God. A willingness to serve God even when it’s unattractive because we realize how God will use it beautifully in His great plans to accomplish His purposes.