I want to serve You and do it with gladness
Dear friends in Christ,
The church calendar that we follow is different from the yearly calendar that begins January 1st and ends December 31st. The church calendar begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving and then goes to Thanksgiving; it is like a November to November/early December calendar.
The Church calendar can be divided in half. In the first half of the church year we celebrate all the great church festivals - Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. In the second half we don’t celebrate any in particular. So some divide the church calendar into the festival and non-festival parts of the church calendar.
Some have another way of looking at the church calendar. There is the half where we look at God and study who he is. We study and praise God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our focus is on him. That concludes with Trinity Sunday. The second half of the church year is when we focus on our response to him. The focus of worship falls on our response to his love.
This summer that focus is going to be pretty strong, in fact, all the way to August 12th. We are going to follow the overall theme of “Gracious Lord, Accept Our Service.” With different parts of our body we ask God to use accept the service we render. Today we concentrate on our hands and our hearts. “I Want to Serve...and Do it Gladly.” 1) Direct me, Lord, away from apathy; 2) Direct me, Lord, to serve with joy.
A seminary professor who taught homiletics (that’s sermon writing) once said that we should never turn sermons into history lessons. You are going to lose people. Today, I am taking that risk.
Not many people know the history that occurred at this time in the history of Israel. You haven’t heard many sermons in your life time from the books of Ezra or Nehemiah.
Get ready for the history lesson. Starting in 605 BC the Babylonian empire under King Nebuchadnezzar oppressed the nation of Israel. People from Israel were deported to Babylon. In 596 BC more people were deported into Babylon. Then in 586 BC, there was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its walls were broken down and what was left of Solomon’s temple. God had said through the prophets that would last for seventy years. At the end of seventy years Babylon itself would be conquered by Persia.
The King of Persia declared that the Jews in Babylon could return to Israel and to the holy city of Jerusalem. But not every Jew took the king up on that offer. In fact only a few did - a remnant.
Life was tough. Imagine what it was like for the first settlers in our country. They were in essence doing the same thing. They had heard the stories of how great the city of Jerusalem was and the beauty of the majestic Temple of Solomon in an entirely different generation. No longer! They saw nothing but rubble, broken down walls and scorched stones. You saw the rubble left behind when tornados ripped up Tuscaloosa and Joplin, Missouri. Where do you start? The prophet Haggai lived at that time and he says the people built their homes first. They planted their fields. They harvested their crops. Do you know what they didn’t do? Haggai says, “These people say, it’s not yet time to build the Lord’s house.” They were very concerned about their own houses but they weren’t about the Lord’s. While they returned to Jerusalem in 539 BC, the temple didn’t get dedicated for twenty three more years. The walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and were rubble didn’t even get touched.
But we’re not even talking about Ezra and Nehemiah yet. Believe it or not, the nation of Israel limped along for another eighty years. Ezra led another wave of people back eighty years later. Nehemiah led a third wave of Jews from Babylon thirteen years later in 445 BC.
Let’s talk Nehemiah. He had an important position. He was the cupbearer for Artaxerxes the king of Persia. He tasted the food for Artaxerxes. If Nehemiah didn’t die Artaxerxes could have dinner. While that sounds flippant, King Artaxerxes learned to love and trust his Jewish friend Nehemiah. They developed a strong relationship.
Then one day, Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, returned from a trip to Jerusalem. The report was devastating. “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” The temple, although rebuilt, was a shadow of its former self; the city still looked like London after the Luftwaffe bombed it for 57 straight days in 1940. Think about it! The first wave of people had returned in 539. Nehemiah returned in 445 BC. No one had done anything to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The city of God, the place where the LORD revealed his name at the holy temple looked like a slum. It stayed that way for a hundred years.
What was the cause? What’s the cause of all the trouble in the world? Sin! What was done in Eden has haunted every generation since. Jews returned and lived there for a hundred years and each generation by their inaction didn’t do anything about it either. What a statement God’s people were making by their inaction, by their apathy. What is the cause? Lots of things don’t get done in the church and in the home of God’s people. Why? Laziness! I don’t want to be bothered! I don’t want to put forth the effort! There is a story of an old mountaineer and his wife who were sitting in front of the fireplace one evening just whiling away the time. After a long silence, the wife said: "Jed, I think it's raining. Get up and go outside and see."
The old mountaineer continued to gaze into the fire for a second, sighed, then said, "Aw, Ma, why don't we just call in the dog and see if he's wet." As someone once said, people will do anything to do nothing. It is symptom of the sinful nature. It may explain it but that doesn’t excuse it.
Besides laziness there is selfishness. We like to say, “What is it really going to do for me? How am I going to benefit? If I don’t get anything out of it, then why should I do it and expend the energy? Just think if our Lord Jesus had that kind of attitude. Spend thirty three years on the earth? Give up the praise of the angels to mingle with the common man and get exposed to their sin? All I am going to get out of it is pain and suffering. Who wants that?
Perhaps we think that if we step forward to do something, then we are the only ones to do so. Who wants that? Let’s just let George and Gladys do it. Let someone else do it – not me.
When there is a workday, do you honestly believe that other people are not as busy as you are or have fewer responsibilities than you have? Or do you honestly think that God demands more of George and Gladys than he does of me? Lord, forgive me for my apathy. Lord, keep me away from apathy.
Lord, move me to serve you with joy. You can divide the book of Nehemiah into two parts - chapters 1-7, the rebuilding of the physical walls of Jerusalem; chapters 8-13 - the rebuilding of the spiritual walls of Jerusalem.
Ezra and Nehemiah knew that the walls wouldn’t be built for the city if there wasn’t a spiritual renewal in Jerusalem. While the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruin almost from 586 BC to 445 BC - one hundred and forty years - Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, inspected, planned and organized a good old wall-raising. Enemies like Sanballat and Tobias did all they could to intimidate the remnant. They knew that if the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, Israel was there to stay. A miracle occurred. While the walls lay in ruin for 140 years with Nehemiah leading, they were rebuilt in just 52 days. That was done while the workers were holding weapons in one hand and working with the other. Nehemiah writes, “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.”
They took time to worship God. “So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” They set aside time for national repentance and renewal.
Ezra, the scribe stood up on a platform and read God’s Law. Ezra “praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground … Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. “For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
You know why they were weeping? God’s law was being read - the do’s and don’ts of God. They realized that they loved God and each other too little; they loved themselves too much. The Spirit of God pierced their hearts and moved them to tears. But were you listening? Ezra also said, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. Don’t wallow in your tears. There is forgiveness. God forgives. He forgives so well. In fact, he forgives perfectly
The worship didn’t stop. Not long after that day of repentance they gathered again. A review of Israel’s history was read. There were all of Israel’s failures; there was also all of God’s love. “For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”
There is a pattern here people. The words of our sermon text refer to still another time when they dedicated the walls of the city. There was no ribbon cutting ceremony. It was much more than a ceremony where people recognized the mayor and the chief contractor and time brag that the project came under budget. They celebrated the hand of God in it all. They celebrated the fact that even though they were unworthy God granted the success. That’s why Nehemiah writes, “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.”
While the Bible says, Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God, some things seem so mundane. It’s hard to believe that going to work or cooking a meal and changing a diaper is earthshaking or even cleaning the church. Where’s the joy? Before we work with our hands, perhaps we need to get on our knees and do what Ezra and Nehemiah taught Israel. It wasn’t new, it wasn’t new at all. Confess the wrong. Confess the unworthiness. But hear the promise of Jesus. Listen to what the people of Israel heard, “But in your great mercy you do not put an end to me or abandon me, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” It makes all the difference in the world. That’s how we learn to serve…and do so gladly.