As I was reading through Zechariah, and came across Chapter 8, I was reminded of a story I wrote years ago. The story included a character named Pastor John, and he gave a sermon. Here is that portion:
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Pastor came to the podium and arranged his things, then cleared his throat and began. “In continuing my series on sin, we are still in the Old Testament, rich in examples. We’re learning what sin is, how to recognize it, and what to do about it. When we sin, it is important to look at it, recognize it as sin, and confess it. Let the Holy Spirit work in you. I pray that is an effect of this message. My sermon this week is titled, ‘Sin, Confession, and Peace,’ and the main text is from Nehemiah Chapter 4 and Zechariah Chapter 8.” He stopped, listening to the rustle of tissue pages as the congregation turned in their Bibles to the passages.
“If you’ve read the book of Nehemiah, you know that he is a humble man of God. Reviewing his heartfelt prayers to God in chapter one, we see that he handles the Word of God rightly, and prays God’s own words back to Him. Nehemiah writes this in the first person: I heard these words, I sat down and wept, I prayed before the God of Heaven. This was a man who knew God’s Word, and knew how God’s people had broken His heart. In chapter one verses 6 and 7, he says that he prays and confesses, the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. He knew God’s purposes for His people, His plans to prosper them and not to harm them. He also knew God’s people had utterly rejected their God, their Provider, and their Protector. The prophets, before the Jews were carted away to Babylon, had told the people to go ahead and let themselves be carted away, to not rebel or make war. We see then that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and many of the priests who ended up in Babylon heeded the prophets. They listened to God, they heeded His Word, and they obeyed Him.
“So, there’s Nehemiah, serving the king of Babylon. Note first that God has grabbed Nehemiah’s heart. Nehemiah loves his God. In the first chapter, he pours out his heart to a very personal God. Secondly, God has put him in what may seem to be a menial position, that of a wine taster. This is not a menial position at all, and maybe that can be the topic of another sermon. Suffice it to say that Nehemiah has ongoing, face-to-face contact with the king of the civilized world. This is also a personal relationship: Nehemiah notes that he had not previously had a long face before the king. On this day, he is so sad that his face shows it, and the king notices! Not only that, but the king asks him what’s up. Not only that, but Nehemiah is on a comfort level with the king that he asks (albeit with knees knocking) a huge favor, and the king grants it – big time!
“Nehemiah gets to go back to Jerusalem and work at rebuilding the temple. He lets nothing distract him from his goal of making Jerusalem a center of refuge for the remnant of Israelites who lived in the region (Nehemiah 6.3). Here is a picture: The church needs to be a center of refuge. It is here for those who will avail themselves of it – to those who come. Notice, not all chose to return to Jerusalem; many chose to stay in Babylon. As today, not all choose to come to church; but we build this church, this body of Jesus Christ, for all who will come, and we invite His people to this place of refuge.
“In Nehemiah Chapter 4, while the people are building, the enemy is coming. Let’s pick up in verse 13.” He proceeded to read verses 13 through 21.
“Nehemiah lays it all out for us: When the enemy came, they 1) prayed to God, 2) set a watch, 3) continued to build and 4) kept their weapons and alarms in hand. God makes for us a wall of protection around us, not only as a church, but also individually. His Holy Spirit resides within each of us. We are His temple, as God tells us in 1 Corinthians 3.16. We don’t always walk in the Lord. We don’t always fully obey. Sometimes we allow the enemy to invade; sometimes it’s because we live in the flesh (and we like it); sometimes it’s through simply not knowing God’s Word and not bothering to find out (like David and Uzzah, when he tried bringing the ark back to Jerusalem and Uzzah died). When our walls are destroyed, we are desolate, and we lie in ruins (see Isaiah Ch. 64). Because God’s Spirit is within us, we can look up to Him and confess. He will quicken hearts, raise up people and resources to accomplish His work, and lead us. But we must be faithful to remain diligent in the work, else we return to desolation and ruin. This is exactly what happens later in Nehemiah, by the way, and what happens in each of us. Diligent in the work means staying in God’s Word and staying with the tasks to which He calls us. The book of Nehemiah outlines what they did back then, and we can use those same tools today. 1) Pray to God. Make sure you know to Whom you pray. 2) Set a watch. God’s Word tells us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Watch out for Satan, for evil, for opportunities for the flesh. 3) Continue to build. Read God’s Word. Meditate in it. Pray. 4) Keep your weapons and alarms in hand. Peter tells us to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. Memorize God’s Word, to keep it in your heart. Know the promptings of His Holy Spirit. Setting an alarm might mean being accountable to another person.
“While Nehemiah was building, there is no record that enemy armies are actually invading or attacking the builders, yet there were Sanballat and Tobiah with their armies, mocking. In verse 13, it says, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows. Nehemiah arranged people in their families with their swords and their spears and their bows. Sometimes it just feels safer to carry a big stick, whether danger is imminent or not. He’s a wise man, that Nehemiah. The trust is in God. He makes his people ready, should the need arise, or should God call.
“Later in Nehemiah, as I said, the people again sin. Nehemiah calls them together and reads God’s Word. They are convicted, fall on their faces, and repent. Only God’s Word has the power to do that.
“In these passages, let’s look at how God’s Word is used. First, it’s their big stick. Paul calls it the sword of the Spirit. It’s how they defend themselves, and how they feel safe. Second, God’s Word brings recognition of sin, the power of conviction; and with it, the hope of forgiveness in repentance.
“Why do all this? It’s a lot of work for Nehemiah and the people, and they stand in danger. What’s the goal? What do they think they’ll get out of it?
“Seventy-five years before Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, God raised up a prophet in that city, Zechariah. Within seventy-five years, we can only guess whether Nehemiah had access to Zechariah’s writings. He may have. Whether he did or not, Nehemiah knew God, and trusted Him.
“Let’s look at what God promised through Zechariah, in Chapter 8. It’s a fairly short chapter, only 23 verses. Its wording is powerful, and worth reading aloud, so I’m going to go ahead and read the whole chapter.”
As he finished reading, Pastor John looked up at his flock and beamed. “What a song of hope for the despairing Jews returning to their wasteland! To see what lay around them, and then to see the vision Zechariah presented to them from their God would have been a great leap of faith for these people, and a great blessing. This is what I see:
“Safety: verses 4 and 5, Old men and women in the streets with children playing. This is a picture of security, showing that they will live long lives and will not be snatched away in their youth.
“Unity: verses 7 and 8, He will save His people from the east country and bring them to the west country to dwell in Jerusalem, and He will be their God in truth and in righteousness.
“Purpose: verses 10 through 12, Before, there was no hire, no jobs, no peace. Now they have promises that the vine shall give her fruit, the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; the remnant will possess all these things. But 1) v 13: let your hands be strong, 2) v 16: speak the truth, 3) v 16: execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates, 4) v 17: don’t imagine evil in your hearts against your neighbor, and 5) v 17: love no false oath. These are things the Lord hates.
“Promise: verses 19 through 23, Fasting shall be turned to feasting. They shall have joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. There shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities who will desire to go speedily, that they may pray before the Lord of hosts, and may seek Him. People will take hold of the skirt of him who is a Jew saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.
“These are still the promises of God to His people, when we live in obedience to Him. Praise Him! In the words of Psalm 33.1, Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous! For praise from the upright is beautiful. I close with Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the LORD He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name. For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations.”