We’ve all seen the celebrations through the years. Choose any sport. Some of you are old enough to remember the celebration that followed after Kerri Strug’s final vault in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to clinch the gold medal for the USA Women’s Gymnastics team. Or, remember how you felt watching Tiger Woods, at age 43, sink the final putt to claim the Masters green jacket in 2019? The crowd erupted, we could hear the roar from Augusta, Georgia all across America. And Tiger? One of the greatest, if not the greatest golfer in history, celebrated like he was a rookie with his first tour win. It was something else wasn’t it! I watched the entire roster of the New England Patriots explode in ecstatic jubilation when running back James White carried the ball across the goal line in overtime to win Super Bowl “LI” back in 2017. It was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history! Oh, I’m on a roll, but just one more I promise. This past week the Dallas Mavericks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers down in Orlando when Marcus Morris hit a 3 point shot with 9 seconds left to put the Clippers up 133-132. The Clippers were celebrating the victory, but there was still 9 seconds left on the clock. The ball was inbounded to Luka Doncic of the Mavs who dribbled around for about 8 of the 9 seconds before he launched one from 28 feet that hit nothing but net…Let the celebration begin! I hope you got to see those grown men bouncing around the court, jumping on each other, hugging each other, and rejoicing with one another.
We see great celebrations like the ones I’ve just described, or any number of others we’ve seen throughout the years, and it touches our souls. We jump up out of our seats in our living rooms and high five the person who was sitting next to us on the couch. We might even wipe a tear when nobody’s looking. We get to share vicariously in the great celebrations, but what we miss are the countless hours and incredible sacrifices made by these world-class athletes to bring them to those special moments in their lives.
Well, as we turn to Nehemiah 12 this morning we are going to get to experience another celebration, a celebration that if you really understand the great sacrifices that were made, the setbacks they had experienced, and the struggles they had overcome, it’ll grab you. I’m hoping to tell the story in such a way that it touches your soul and causes you to wipe some tears. Let’s read together from Nehemiah 12:27-43.
27 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 musicians 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 musicians 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. 32 Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them, 33 along with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, 35 as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zakkur, the son of Asaph, 36 and his associates– Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani– with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the teacher of the Law led the procession. 37 At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the site of David’s palace to the Water Gate on the east. 38 The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people– past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, 39 over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped. 40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, 41 as well as the priests– Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets– 42 and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. (Nehemiah 12:27-43 NIV)
The wall had been down for more than 140 years, but Nehemiah and the workers completed the rebuilding project in just 52 days, in September of 444 B.C. It was a great accomplishment, but we need to review the timeline, take a look at the struggle and sacrifice, to truly understand the magnitude of what had happened.
If you will remember our study from Ezra then you will remember that Jerusalem had been destroyed and many of the Jewish people were taken back to Babylon in 586 B.C. God’s people living in exile, in a strange land, this was God’s method of discipline for His wayward people. Then, the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and he gave the Jews permission to go home. Who would have seen that coming? The first wave of Jews packed up their belongings and left Babylon in 538 B.C. under the leadership of Zerubbabel. About 80 years later, in 458 B.C., Ezra and a second group of exiles left Babylon for Jerusalem. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in 445 B.C. and the wall was rebuilt late in 444 B.C.
That first group that arrived back in Jerusalem found a city in shambles. The temple had been destroyed, the wall around the city which was critical for the protection of the people was breached in many places, and yet the people were determined to rebuild. The first thing they did was to set the altar for the temple in place. Then, they began to lay the foundation for the temple. We’re told in Ezra 3:11 that the people burst out in singing praise to the Lord. They sang, “He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever.” They were shouting and praising God! They were home! They were being given a second chance. The altar was in place and the foundation for the temple was being laid!
It looked like things were going to be back to the way they remembered them before long, but then opposition came. We don’t have time to discuss all of the opposition they faced through the years, but know this: Opposition came from those outside of the community, it came from among their own people, and it came often. To the leaders it must have seemed like it was one thing after another. The rebuilding of the temple was stopped, the wall remained broken for almost 100 years, from the time of Zerubbabel, until Nehemiah arrived on the scene and completed the project.
When Nehemiah and Ezra climbed up on the wall with their choirs and began to sing and march on the wall around Jerusalem, there had to have been buckets of tears of joy that were flowing that day. Before we get to that, I want to show you something we find at the beginning of Nehemiah 12. Let’s read together verses 1-7.
1 These were the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and with Joshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, 2 Amariah, Malluk, Hattush, 3 Shekaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, 4 Iddo, Ginnethon, Abijah, 5 Mijamin, Moadiah, Bilgah, 6 Shemaiah, Joiarib, Jedaiah, 7 Sallu, Amok, Hilkiah and Jedaiah. These were the leaders of the priests and their associates in the days of Joshua. (Nehemiah 12:1-7 NIV)
Now, I know this list probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but there is a great lesson here for you and me. The names that we read were the priests and Levites that left Babylon back in 538 B.C., almost 100 years before the great celebration we read about earlier. It’s a safe bet to say that none of these leaders were present at the celebration of the dedication of the wall, but Nehemiah and Ezra knew that what they were experiencing would have never been possible if that first group of brave men and women wouldn’t have had the courage to leave Babylon and travel back to Jerusalem to get things started.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to our own church. I see God’s hand at work among us. I’ve experienced His overwhelming blessings in the thirty years Connie and I have had the blessing of being part of this family, but I know that there were faithful men and women who loved the Lord with all of their heart that went before us, that God used to pave the way for us to experience what we’re experiencing today.
When I first arrived at Britton Christian Church, back in 1990, there was a lady named Margaret Basey that was an incredible leader in this church. She told me stories about her father, Orville Basey, who with a handful of other people started Britton Christian Church in 1909. Before I ever met Margaret Basey, I met Harry Myers, Jan Birsner’s father. God used Harry to bring Connie and me to BCC. I heard stories about how Harry and Burl Holmes, Ann Brown’s father, worked to raise money to build the sanctuary we are sitting in right now, as well the Education Building that was here before we built the new building. Those two men were such incredible visionaries! A member of the church who was also a builder, Frank Ketch, built this sanctuary. I could go on and on telling the stories of those who came before us that God used in such a powerful way to pave the way for us to be doing what we are doing now. Nehemiah understood the importance of the history of how God had used those who went before him. It is important for you and me to do the same.
I want us to go back to the opening verse that we read earlier, Nehemiah 12:27, so that we can understand what was taking place at the dedication of the wall around Jerusalem. Read it with me.
27 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. (Nehemiah 12:27 NIV)
Nehemiah brought in the Levites to lead the celebration “joyfully,” and with songs of thanksgiving, and with instruments like cymbals, harps, and lyres. Why the Levites? Men from the tribe of Levi? That’s a great question and to learn the answer you’ve got to go back more than 500 years before the dedication of the wall, when David appointed the Levites to accompany the ark of the covenant with songs of praise and accompanied by the very instruments we just read about. In 1 Chronicles 23:5 we read that David appointed 4,000 Levites to praise the Lord with musical instruments.
God’s people have always been a singing people. Those Hebrew slaves were singing when they came out of Egypt. The book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Jewish people. Psalm 137 tells us that while God’s people were enslaved in Babylon, the Babylonians asked them to sing some of the songs of Zion. Mary sang when she was told she was going to give birth to the Messiah. Did you know that in the first group of exiles who made their way back from Babylon there were singers. We read in Ezra 2:65, “and they also had 200 male and female singers.”
God’s people have always been a singing people. And it’s not just in joyous times that God’s people sing. Just last week we celebrated Phyllis Gibson’s life right here in our sanctuary. While those who loved Phyllis grieved, they also sang. Phyllis wanted us to sing at her funeral. She even gave me the songs we were to sing before she died. We sang, “Tell Me The Story of Jesus,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “In The Garden.”
Singing praise to our God is not an option, it’s not an outlet for those who like to sing, and neither is singing simply an opportunity for those who have a good voice–it’s a command to every person who has experienced the grace of God and has a voice. A command? Yes sir! Psalm 96 says,
1 Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2 Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3 NIV)
How many songs have been written to praise the name of our God? They are endless, limitless, too numerous to count aren’t they? They have come from every age and every nation on the planet where God’s people have ever lived. They range from simple chorus’ sung by our little ones to elaborate, classical compositions like Handel’s Messiah and every style of music in between. God’s people are a singing people! Why is this? James Montgomery Boice writes,
Singing has always been a striking feature of the worship of God’s Old Testament and New Testament people. This is not true of other religions. Many use repetitive chants. In some, clergy sing. But generally, the religions of the world are grim. It is only in biblical religion that the people of God are characteristically joyful and express their joy in great singing… Why is this? Obviously because Christianity is itself joyous. It is a response to the great acts of God on our behalf, particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which secured our salvation. (Boice, James Montgomery. Nehemiah. pg. 130)
We’ve got much to sing about, even in times of desperation and sorrow, we’ve got much to sing about. Singing isn’t the only characteristic of the people who gathered on the wall at Jerusalem. Wait a minute? They gathered on the wall? I thought those Jews wouldn’t be able to build a wall that could even support a fox? Do you remember that? That’s what Sanballat said back in Nehemiah 4, when he and his buddies were trying to get Nehemiah and the workers to stop their work on the wall. Look at Nehemiah 4:1-3 with me.
1 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble– burned as they are?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building– even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3 NIV)
That wall wasn’t only able to support a fox, it was supporting Ezra, Nehemiah, the leaders, choirs, and musicians! Now, where were we. I know, I told you that singing wasn’t the only characteristic of the worshipers on the wall. There’s another aspect of their gathering that sticks out to me and it is their joy. If you will remember, the Levites were brought in to lead the joyous celebration, but when we come to verse 43 we read,
43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. (Nehemiah 12:43 NIV)
The Levites were rejoicing, the women and children rejoiced, and “the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” We’ve talked about the difference between “joy” and “happiness” over and over again throughout the years, but I don’t think we can ever talk about the difference enough. Happiness is derived, it originates from favorable circumstances. If something good happens for you today then you’ll experience happiness, at least until some difficulty comes along. Joy, on the other hand, does not find its source in circumstances. Where does joy come from? Well, we found the source in the verse we just read. Nehemiah wrote that the people on the wall and on the ground were “rejoicing because God had given them great joy.” Our source of joy is God Himself. We can experience joy, even in the midst of trails, by walking with Jesus, pressing into Jesus, and trusting in Jesus. If you will remember our study back in Nehemiah 8, the people were grieving, convicted over their sin, when Nehemiah told them to stop and to celebrate God’s goodness. Then he said, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)
There’s one more thing I’ve got to share with you before we leave here today. I want you to notice what took place before the celebration started. If you will turn to Nehemiah 12:30 with me. Let’s read together.
30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall. (Nehemiah 12:30 NIV)
We don’t know what kind of purification ritual the Levites and the people experienced on this day, but we do know that the Jews practiced ritual cleansing in mikvehs, what was similar to our baptistery. Still today, orthodox Jews use mikvehs to practice cleansing before God. The important lesson for you and me is this: We are sinners, our hearts are hard and dark, and we have a natural tendency to wander far from God. The people of Nehemiah’s day needed to recognize their sin, confess their sin, and experience the cleansing that only God can provide.
We are taught today that if we will just confess our sins and accept Jesus then all of our sins are forgiven. That’s absolutely true, but the problem we are experiencing today is that many who call themselves followers of Jesus are living lives that are not pleasing to God, they are living no different than those who have never claimed to know Jesus or love God. There are others who live outwardly moral lives, but inwardly they are like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus spoke to those folks in His day and we need to hear His words,
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25-28 NIV)
We can fill a pew every Sunday, attend Bible study every day of the week, quote Scriptures to our friends, wear a cross around our neck, and put bumper stickers on our cars and be filled with hypocrisy, wickedness, greed, self-indulgence, bitterness, envy, anger, and so much more. We need cleansing! The Apostle John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” How about you? Are you aware of your need for cleansing? Daily cleansing, sometimes hourly cleansing from the Father? Here’s the good news. You don’t need to find a mikveh, you need to confess your sins to God and He will cleanse you and restore your joy.
Great sacrifices had been made by those who left Babylon and set their hearts on serving God. The truth is, as they marched around the city, on top of the wall, they weren’t celebrating their accomplishment, they were celebrating the goodness of God. Today, you can join the celebration my friend. A great sacrifice has been made on your behalf by Jesus. Though He was sinless, the Bible tells us He took on your sin, my sin, so that we might have the opportunity to be reconciled to God. For those of you who have never made the decision to become a follower of Jesus, this very morning could be the beginning of the greatest celebration you will ever know in your life. Won’t you invite Jesus to be Lord and King of your life?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 30, 2020
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 NIV)