UNFINISHED HOPE | Week 9: Rebuilt City - Unfinished Culture
Topic: New Testament Passage: Nehemiah 7:1–7:4
Christopher Rich – November 12, 2017
UNFINISHED HOPE | EZRA-NEHEMIAH | Wk 9
Rebuilt City – Unfinished Culture | Nehemiah 7:1-4
Introduction | Walls up, now what?
Good Morning Welcome to Damascus Road where we are Saved by Jesus Work, Changed by Jesus’ Grace, and Living on Jesus’s Mission. Today we continue UNFINISHED HOPE - Our Ruins His Restoration our sermon series looking at the books of EZRA-NEHEMIAH. In this series we have seen cycles of ruin, return to God, renewal, and regression as God’s people have moved from exile, be set free by God for the purpose of restoring worship of God by God’s people for God’s glory and their joy. Zerubbabel led the first cycle back for the purpose of renewed worship, they laid the foundation of the temple, but the tangible presence of God did not manifest. Several generations pass, and Ezra comes leads a mission to restore focus on God’s word being studied, practiced, and taught. This was/is a necessary part of how God has set about renewal to reorient His people to His word as a framework of Flourishing. Sin is recognized and confessed, but then is addressed in way that leads to more separation, not more restoration of relationships. In these cycles we are reminded of the fundamental truth that our efforts are never enough to overcome our ruins. We are now 13 years after the return of Ezra and His crew going to Jerusalem. The third cycle has begun with Nehemiah (a man of great influence) hearing of the Ruined City. He responds with mourning, prayer, planning, and petitions the king to be commissioned on a mission to rebuild what has be left unfinished. He is granted favor because of God’s work on his behalf and he goes.
The rebuilding has a process. Nehemiah arrives, surveys the condition at night to see the depth of ruin. He immediately faces opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem charging him with rebellion. The work begins under organized teams. More mocking and opposition ensue in various cycles of threats, accusations seeking to discourage and distract from the mission continue through the process yet they are all overcome through prayer and persistence of God’s people. Now we are at a place with the walls Rebuilt City with an unfinished culture. For us today we are saved people on a mission of rebuilding and renewal. The church is like an embassy, a city within our cities. What should life look like in the City of God as the People of God on the Mission of God for the Glory of God? What are some things that should characterize it?
PART I | Unfinished Culture | 7:1-4
Nehemiah 7:1-4 | Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, 2 I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. 3 And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” 4 The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.
The project of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem is complete. The physical structures, once so fragile a fox walking on them would be unsettling, are now robust and secure. Great progress is visible. Anyone inspecting the work would conclude it was a great accomplishment worthy of celebration. However, the true work of rebuilding the city has only just begun. While the city was physically wide and large, there was much missing in order for it to represent the City of God filled with the people of God on mission for the glory of God. This was the goal of this whole process was and yet is seems lacking. What is missing.
Chinese Ghost City Rising up in the middle of a barren desert in the region of Inner Mongolia is a grand city with world-class architecture, stately public plazas, and even massive sports stadiums. It’s all brand new and all built in less than a decade, quite a feat of design, engineering, and planning all expertly executed. Ordos Kangbashi has everything structurally necessary to be a vibrant city, regional hub, and international partner capable of supporting over half million residents. China has over 100 cities north of a million people there has been a population boom for generations, so another city built is totally necessary. Yet in 2009, the reports began to come out there was something vital missing in the urban core; no business or vibrant life, because there was no people. No people, No City, No Culture, No Flourishing.
People Required - Walls alone do not make a city or a church. Structures and systems are necessary to support a culture, but they cannot make or maintain a culture on their own. They exist to support the creation and sustenance of a rebuilt culture. Structures and systems necessary for a church community to remain effective on mission, as the trellis for the vine. I’d rather move into and set up shop in the Ghost city with running water and electricity than go into the frontier and have to start from scratch like Burning Man City, because the latter is not sustainable. Yet in the church we are easily distracted by focusing on building out ministries, events, programs, activities etc. We forget these only exist for people! Nehemiah was not satisfied with the finished work of the wall because he knew the work of recreating the city was unfinished. As long as the people in the city remained so few there would be no one to help bringing new life to the city. “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” – Peter Drucker Culture is created and cultivated by people. Culture flows from people’s hearts. So it matters what is in the heart of people creating and cultivating culture. Life in the city being renewed with a new culture can only come from people who have been made new by receiving new hearts for God from God.
What was the culture of the people? Team work, cooperation, mission, purpose. They had some people, they had a core who accomplished much. In fact what they did create and rebuild was extraordinary because if flowed from a culture that valued the mission and was focused on creating a place that could safely support exponentially more people than were currently present. Specifically the culture was marked by:
Participation Required – People merely present is insufficient to form a new culture. When a culture is built on the majority only consuming rather than everyone contributing, it will fail to mature. Progress will be unsupported, and eventually everything will fall back into disrepair and decay. Everyone in the City of God (and the church) is there for a purpose and is necessary for the vision and mission to advance and the culture to flourish. Active participation using time, talent, and treasure to move the ministry forward is not optional. For people who have been made new by God their purpose is to engage not just observe.
In Chapter 3 you can see with great detail the process the people went through to build the wall. Nehemiah was the leader of the people, project, but he wasn’t the only person participating in it. The mission is never a one man show. It’s always a team effort. There are distinct roles and individual contributions mentioned but none of them on their own were enough to move the needle significantly. You have whole families involved, different classes represented (with some challenges in working together). In this section I counted 25 times a version the phrase “and next to him…” “Next to them” After them, After him,” The picture painted is one of coordinated teams each owning their responsibilities, but working side by side. Individual effort on collective goals. Some people having roles in the beginning of the process and others coming in “after them” to keep it moving in the right direction. These systems and structures described only help organize the heart effort and culture of the people who are united on a mission of renewal and restoration.
Nehemiah 4:6 | So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.
Our efforts alone cannot overcome our ruins but that doesn’t mean we don’t give effort to work towards restoration. God get the credit, God is the initiator. But when God the Creator who speaks the world into existence with power of His word initiates with you to speak life and purpose where there was sin and spiritual death, better believe there is a response. So we have to be ok with the tension we see in scripture between God’s divine providence and mighty hand to move AND the response of His people to act in accordance to His will. God working for His people also leads to working in and through His people.
This means simply, everyone in the city of God works for and to the glory of God. Work is four letter word but it is not a bad one. It is not a result of sin, but has been twisted by sin. In the beginning we’ve been called to cultivate and keep/protect the garden of God to take what is formless and give it beautiful order. This means each of us has a part to play that is important and valuable as it pertains to the grand vision of restoration. Each of us has been gifted, skilled, equipped and blessed to be utilized for the work of ministry to move forward. A Participation Required culture is necessary. The church (the city of God within the city) cannot flourish if it has a culture of consumption that outweighs a culture of contribution. Church 80-20 rule of 80% of the work and contribution being done by 20% of the people is striking incitement on the ruinous culture of consumption. If my son’s Flag Football team of 10 only had 2 contributing we’d lose.
Now if you’re new and or not a part of us her at Damascus Road, we welcome you and desperately want to see you saved by Jesus work, changed, by Jesus grace and living on Jesus Mission. We are here FOR you help call you to this path. We have the ability for those who are new or not yet Christians to participate and be “fed”. for those of us who have been saved by Jesus work we are changed to live on Jesus mission which is one not of consuming but contributing. Jesus came not be served but to serve. We as new people come and gather not be served but to serve. How would you describe your participation your church community? Is it more characterized by consumption or contribution, why? Where has God called you to stop consuming and start contributing? To move from spectator to participate? Where you do you need to have “a mind to work.”? What do you believe your purpose is at and in our Gospel community?
Protection Required - The wall mattered, so the work mattered. For a new culture to flourish it must have a stable, structured, and secured environment. This requires vigilant leadership aware of what cultural influences are coming into the city and how people are being influenced. Great walls are ineffective in protecting if gates are always left open. Nehemiah appoints leaders who are “faithful and God-fearing” They have shown themselves consistent and humble before God. Specifically, they are to oversee making sure the gates to the city are not open all the time, and there is protection in the city. Outsiders can and do enter the city to freely experience the blessing of the city life while security is maintained. In the church, protection like this allows for the church to have influence in their surrounding community; living among and engaging with them while remaining faithful to God. This means being distinct and secure while welcoming.
This is another place of tension to navigate. No walls or open doors/minds/heart with no clear definition no guardrails or frame work mean a place where no one is challenged or changed. Everything even sin is accepted without compassion enough to let people know sin leads to death, and ruins flourishing. A city of refuge by definition cannot be free from distinction from the world around it. When churches only reflect the culture around it they become impotent halls devoid of the transforming resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit and God’s holy word, content to imitate and celebrate and be celebrated by the city around them rather than point people to the Holy City of God that is worthy of imitation and celebration.
But there is another ditch. Walls without gates means a community “so pure” in their own eyes that they never let anyone else in or act in ways that are so unwelcoming or undecipherable from the people around them even those who might seek refuge are left outside. We cannot have a culture of protection that is so fearful no one (or only a select few well verse in a subculture) can safely enter or participate. I actually had a guy say he wanted our church to be a place where if you didn’t “dress up” or wore a hat you should be made to feel “uncomfortable” that church (the city/embassy of God) is better when it’s a group of people who are more formal in their attire. This a wall with no gate, you better be “good enough” to get over the wall yourself and/or be part of the select few who find themselves on one side of the wall. Purity is pursued but mission is ineffective it treats everyout side of the walls an enemy when many are just exiles who need to be called home. With a leadership culture of people who “fear/revere/Worship God” and understands the mission you have people focused on cultivating and protecting a culture the flows from our new hearts. If we are going to be an embassy of another kingdom and a city within the city than we need clear on where the walls are where the gates are. Safety and structure are necessary otherwise inside the city wall is just as dangerous and chaotic as what is outside the walls. Cold weather shelter is to be a place of refuge. But when it began to look too much like the camps of chaos (with a heart to be compassionate) than an orderly place of secure structure it was time to reform in to make it secure, sustainable, for those serving and those being served. There is external protections and internal.
PART II | Perfection [Not Yet] Realized | 5:6-10
Nehemiah 5:6-10 | 6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest.
In chapter 5 we see a sneak peak of internal challenges still facing Nehemiah in rebuilding a new culture.
There is a transition and less structure, times are tough economically, there is a famine, people with land began to mortgage them just to buy grain to eat. Eventual their sons and daughters are sold into slavery to….. other people in their families and community. Here are hurting needy people who are part of the family and instead of rallying around and saying we’re gunna find a way to survive through charity some in the family/community start to act like payday lone places enacting interest that enslaves their own people. Even Nehemiah and his family had been involved. The people rose up at the sinfulness of the system and There is a model here of sin being confessed and addressed through repentance. They had a fear of the Lord that lead them to be on a mission to set captives free. So you have God’s people together for God’s worship, under His word, living on His mission but it’s still not perfect. We need not be comfortable or tolerant of internal sin, but we should not be shocked or surprised by it. Because we are “not yet perfect” there will always be disappointment and frustration when we are working with imperfect people participating in a mission of forming a culture to reflect the glory of our perfect God. We are called to continue striving to form a new and better culture of God’s people for God’s glory. But we should remember we will not create a perfect city. Brief foretaste of the disappointment Nehemiah finds after all this work should sober us, and keep us grounded in realism of the difficulty of forming and maintain an Kingdom culture. There must be something we are still looking forward to that fulfills the promise of Zion.
PART III | Hope for a Finished City | Rev 21:1-5
Revelation 21:1-5 | Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
We long for a city only God can build. We cannot build a perfect city for Him, but we hope for the one and only Finished City God has promised to build it for us. The work of rebuilding the city is a foretaste of the future city we will enjoy with Christ one day. He is at the heart of the city and people are what bring him glory. All of our building, planning, and work is about loving people for God’s glory. Everything we do now points people forward to what life will be like then. This makes every person sacred and every action taken for that purpose sanctified. We are a people who live and work in THIS city with eyes on the future Finished city. Our cities are not yet perfect so they will change and at times feel unstable, or even threatened but the Finished City is a city that cannot be shaken or threatened. A city of refuge for all who trust in God. This is a city that must come down to us. So let’s go back to the beginning. The Nehemiah’s city needs people. He leads people to build and prepared a safe city of refuge for those who are already there AND scattered exiles to return home. All that we do is for us AND is to prepare for those who are not yet here. We are in a city full of people! Many of these people who are in this city right now belong in the city to come, our job now is to call them invite them, implore them to turn from their own cities to join this city within the city, working in the church in the community with full participation and sensible protection, realizing it will not be perfect, while we long for the city that is to come.
So until Jesus returns that city comes down to us we need to be asking the same questions as Nehemiah “Where are all the people for the city has been built for them to worship God?” Jerusalem had the wall built and the systems and structures down but there was still a nation of scattered exiles that needed to come home. We need to look at the world, and our neighbors as people who need to be called to this city, to be made new join the city who’s creed is we Trust Jesus.