Monday, August 6, 2012

A Sermon: "Thou shalt party unto me" - Nehemiah 12:27-47

You can listen to an audio version of this sermon here.

Please open your bibles to Nehemiah chapter 12, we’ll be looking at verses 27 through 47 today, and if you notice on the note page, we’ll be jumping around quite a bit as we gather the fruit from today’s text. This is the second to last sermon in our series on Nehemiah: Hope Builders – God will bless your discontent! It has been an amazing journey this summer through Nehemiah as we’ve feasted on God’s Word, learning about building hope through the model laid out by Nehemiah as he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the covenant community of Yahweh. As we reach the end of the series, and the book of Nehemiah, today in chapter 12 we find a dedication and celebration of the completion of the wall. While the text for today recounts a specific event, the entire event has themes and foundations that help us with our own expressions of joy and thanksgiving in worship. As we read God’s Word together we find that Nehemiah dedicates the walls of Jerusalem through a diversity of participation and a diversity of expression that conveys an overwhelming joy and thanks for the hope that has been built through Nehemiah as an instrument of God and then our text concludes with the steps taken to sustain the joy and the hope that has been built.

Please read along with me the first few verses, 27-31, as we get a grasp for the context of our passage today and as we do, we’ll recognize that in our celebration of hope building and in worship we begin by dedicating all to God.

At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem-- from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall. 31 I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate.

So as we begin with our text, I want to focus on verse 27 and 30, noticing what this last half of chapter 12, everything else that we talk about, in Nehemiah is all about. Namely this is all about a dedication. We all know what a dedication is right? You hear them all the time on the radio. This dedication, Everything I Do, I Do it For You by Bryan Adams, goes out to a very special lady on her birthday today, Benita Weems, from her loving husband, Samuel. The song is dedicated, set apart, or given on behalf of whomever it’s being dedicated to. Maybe you’ve been to a dedication ceremony before.  The most recent famous dedication ceremony was probably the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial dedication where they had speakers, musicians, poets, and all sorts of things where the dedicated this monument to Martin Luther King Jr. So that whenever anyone goes to this memorial they think to themselves, this is here because of Martin Luther King Jr. This area and this artwork has been set apart specifically for Martin Luther King Jr. So what we read today in Nehemiah, is very similar, in that the construction, namely the wall is dedicated, it’s set apart, and it has musicians and all sorts of things going on, but the dedication isn’t to Nehemiah, even though he has done an amazing job of organization, leadership, and so on and this moment is the culmination of those efforts. The dedication is to whom? It’s to God. Nehemiah understands that unless the Lord keeps Jerusalem then the walls, and all his efforts, were built in vain. Nehemiah dedicates all his efforts to God because, as we’ve seen time and time again in this book, Nehemiah recognizes God’s hand in hope building and therefore sets apart his efforts to whom credit is truly due, namely God. 

We also recognize in verse 30 that it’s not only the wall that’s being dedicated here. It’s everything. Verse 30 says that the Levites purified themselves ceremonially, that is, they performed a ceremony, probably involving the sprinkling of water, much like when the tabernacle was originally established by God through Moses everything in the tabernacle and all the people were set apart, cleansed, purified, made holy, by sprinkling of the blood of sacrifices. So that’s what the Levites are doing, they are purifying themselves, setting themselves apart, but they purify not only themselves, but the people, the gates, and the wall. Everything is purified, everything is dedicated to God. We do well to remember that when we gather together to worship, part of what is entailed is an acknowledgment, a recognition that all of our efforts, whether they be physical buildings and walls, or the more intangible spiritual growth of the kingdom, that all those efforts and indeed all of ourselves are set apart, purified, and dedicated unto God. This is the beginning of worship. We were on a mission trip in Haiti last week and in the middle of the week we did a little lesson / VBS for the local children and when some of them came they wouldn’t come in, until they ran all the way home, took a bath, and changed into their nicest clothes. They wanted to cleanse themselves, and set apart through dress and preparation before entering the church and participating in the lesson. This is why, regardless of the three types of services offered at Trinity, all begin with an encouragement to confess our sin. It’s a moment for us to purify ourselves, to cleanse our conscience, as we set ourselves apart, renewing our commitment to be dedicated unto God in our whole lives and in all our efforts. This is whole-hearted worship, dedicating all, dedicating our life’s song, unto God.

This is how we begin, by dedicating all to God, with that motive and that heart, that whatever we are, whatever we have, whatever we do, is all for the glory of God (this verse is in your notes). And we find that when we begin with this, that inexorably, as though compelled irresistibly by the Spirit within us, we continue with an overflow of joy and thanks. Primarily this is what characterizes the dedication, joy and thanks. If you miss everything else about worship, don’t miss this, this is essential: joy and thanks. We see the word thanks in verse 27, the songs offered are songs of thanksgiving, in verse 31 the two choirs are to give thanks, in fact here and later in verse 40 the Hebrew word for choir is actually more literally just “thanksgiving” or “thankgivingchoir”, one word. They are choirs dedicated to giving thanks. The entire first section of our text, from verse 27 to 43 is bookended by the word joy. In verse 27 the text says that they celebrated joyfully and verse 43 has the word, as verb and noun, occur 5 times:

And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away. (ESV)

This passage should be seen foremost as a celebration. If you have in your minds the idea of giving thanks to God, of worshipping God, is a stilted and dead formality, then we’ve significantly lost a key element in our relationship with God. Worship is whole-hearted worship, it’s an overflow of the heart into joy and thanksgiving. It’s a celebration. God commands partying, that we party unto him, in honor of him, in celebration of the joy and thanksgiving we have because of God. You know the 10 commandments right? Where are they in the bible? (Deuteronomy 5) They first appear in Exodus chapter 20. They’re a great summary of the law, but after them come more laws about how the altar and sacrifices are supposed to work, about social interactions, and then in Exodus 23 there are laws about the Sabbath and festivals. God commands us to rest and in Exodus 23:14 says “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.” In other words, the God of the Old Testament, usually we picture as you know the “Thou shalt not” heavenly voice, says three times a year you’re to have a huge party, some that last for weeks, in my honor, in my name. Let’s have a party and rejoice in joy and thanks because I’m going to be your God and you are going to be my people. This is why one of the core value at our church, and part of the title of this sermon, is “whole-hearted worship”. If you take the newcomer’s seminar or if you go online under “Who we Are” and “Framing Our Vision” is our core values and one of the seven is “Whole-hearted worship”. Our stated goal at worship services is to help you celebrate with joy and thanksgiving, to worship God.  This is why there are three different worship services at Trinity, and a fourth evening service in the works, and why each one is a little different in format and style from the others so that as servants to this worshiping community we can offer people different ways of expressing the joy and thanks, the abundance and overflow of their heart in a diversity of expressions because we know that not everyone parties the same. 

This is the next point in your notes that we see in Nehemiah, that the overflow of joy and thanks is manifested in a diversity of expression. We read that in addition to human voice that there is music provided through various instruments. There are cymbals, harps, and lyres directly mentioned in verse 27 and trumpets in verse 35. Verse 36 says that a group is there with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. It’s worthwhile to note that even though David is some 500-600 years earlier that part of what Nehemiah is doing, is re-establishing worship by reconnecting with those practices established by king David during the height of Israel, such as the musical instruments in verse 36 and later again in verse 45. Yet while Nehemiah is obviously respectful of the forms of worship that followed before him, he also doesn’t use every instrument mentioned that preceded him. Here’s a picture of a number of instruments that occur in the Old Testament. This is from by the way, which I am in no way endorsing or saying is the epitome of Old Testament musical research, but it does provide great pictures and is easy to navigate. If there is anything heretical in there, it's not my bag. I don’t know if this is what you had in mind when you pictured these instruments, but you’ll notice the variety and also especially the ones that Nehemiah used were made for traveling, because as we’ll see the processions travel around the periphery of the wall. There’s the lyre, the reed pipe or flute, the frame drum also known as a tambourine, trumpets, the harp, above the harp are wooden clappers and bells, there’s the Ram’s horn or the shofar, cymbal clappers, shakers…shakers!? I always thought that shakers were for the musically challenged people like me so they could feel like they were part of the band. There are so many instruments to express the joy and thanks, the only thing missing really is it could probably have used some more cow bell. So most of these instruments David used, and yet our passage only mentions cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets. In other words, Nehemiah was connected to past expressions, but at the same time he felt free to draw on the diversity of possibilities to use music as a stimulus and expression of joy. He didn’t feel obligated to use every exact instrument and future generations didn’t cancel celebrations if someone forgot the finger cymbals. Indeed in our worship in Haiti there was a single acoustic guitar, and they worshipped beautifully with their voices and that. We here at Trinity, continue in that theme with voice, stringed instruments, wind instruments, and percussion just like Nehemiah did, but we rejoice in the diversity of expression we have from organs to electric guitars that help us express our joy and thanks.
Continuing with this thought we also notice in this passage that the overflow of joy is manifested in a diversity of participation. There are two choirs assigned in verse 31. Here’s a picture of basically the path each choir takes. Each choir is led by a prominent lay person, not a priest or clergy. The first choir is led by Hoshaiah and they follow the yellow path and the second choir is led by Nehemiah and they take the blue path. Each choir reaches those spots and then the text doesn’t say where but they meet up and enter the temple area together. Again, you’ll notice that Nehemiah isn’t legalistic in the dedication of the wall, as there’s a section that actually doesn’t get covered. So the choirs each have a prominent lay person leading them, all the other lay leaders are split up in half so that half go with each choir, each choir also has seven priests blowing trumpets, and eight levitical musicians playing the instruments and each choir has a director of music. So we have lay people, we have prominent leaders, we have priests, professional singers and musicians, and even professional directors of the music. There is a diversity of participation going on here, which again I hope we see here at Trinity as we have paid professional leaders, we have pastors who can sing – Pastor Benita for example has sung on occasion and will be the music leader for our night time service that is in the works, we have choirs dedicated to their crafts and of course we have times when we as an entire congregation sing together. By the way let me take a moment to invite you to participate in worship, not only by singing, but also in any of the myriad of opportunities to help people worship God with joy and thanks. We have a deep need for volunteers to work with the sound and powerpoint, or ushering, or being in the choir or helping to lead worship. One of my best moments was running the powerpoint at my last church. A little boy came to church that day with his family and told his mom: "Mom, I know that God is in this church." The mom was amazed! She thought a spiritual epiphany had occurred and asked her son how he knew this. He said "Because I saw him running the powerpoint, standing above the congregation upstairs!" Apparently, his image of God was a bearded white guy running the powerpoint. Who knows how God might use you in helping people worship God? If you feel called, just write on your communication card: I want to help others worship God with joy and thanks. Ok, plug for the worship teams is over. So again the overflow of joy and thanks is manifested in a diversity of expression and in a diversity of participation.
Now the dedication ceremony basically ends at verse 43, but if we read the final verses of our section we see that the expression of joy and thanks was not to be a one time event, but to be continually provided for. Read with me the final verses of chapter 12, 44-47:

At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites. 45 They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did also the singers and gatekeepers, according to the commands of David and his son Solomon. 46 For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the singers and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. 47 So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.

So what’s going on here? The people are tithing. The people are giving the first fruits, the first 10% off of whatever they produce and they are dedicating it. Much like earlier the walls, the gates, and all the people were dedicated to God, set apart to God, now the people are setting aside, setting apart a portion, the first portion of their income to provide for these times of celeberation, dedication, and worship. We make efforts to sustain the joy and thanks. The way that this community is able to have a variety of expression and a variety of participation is that, in verse 47, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeeper and they set aside portion for the other Levites too, the other priests and clergy who took care of the temple and the worship of God. This is one of those things I usually hope doesn’t fall on me to preach about, because of the misuse and abuse that’s happened in the history of the church universal in the past and present with regards to finances, I don’t want people to feel like, especially if your visiting today for the first time, that I’m saying welcome to church, now give me your money. I can promise you that even if I didn’t have a full time ministry job that my life would be dedicated this, just as it was before when Pastor Benita and I were working 6 jobs between us, and I hope you all know how blessed we feel as pastors at this congregation where we don’t have to worry about paying our bills, or being able to afford rent, and how freeing that is to allow us to devote ourselves to ministering within this congregation and community. So we usually try to get an elder or someone from the congregation to remind us about this call on our lives, but here it is in the Word of God. If you haven’t thought about it before, think about it now. God may be speaking to you today about it.

We end here with how we began, by dedicating it all to God. We look at all that we are, all that we’ve accomplished, all of our physical building, and hope building, and we dedicate God and His kingdom. Then possessed by His Spirit we continue with an overflow of joy and thanks that manifests itself in a diversity of expression and participation and as we go forth we dedicate our best and make efforts to sustain the joy and thanks we have in our hearts.

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