God at the Center
â€‹Do you remember the story of Balaam from Numbers? King Balak of the Moabites hired the pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites, but Balaam was unable to pronounce a curse on God’s people. God stopped his mouth and then opened it with a blessing on the people. The account of Balaam is in Numbers 22-24, but the very next chapter, Numbers 25:1-3, we read:
“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor.”
The Moabites were unable to bring harm to Israel by a frontal attack, but they were successful against them from the inside out. The people of Israel assimilated into their culture, slept with their women, and then worshipped their gods. If you can’t beat them, join them; entice them into living your way.
John and I have been talking with our teenagers a lot about this lately: “Worldliness,” allowing the world to dictate our values, our desires, and the way we live. Teenagers are confronted with worldliness every day. What mother of teenagers has never heard the argument, “But mom, everyone else is doing it!” But it’s not just teenagers who struggle. The world bombards us with messages in movies, music, advertising, and conversations. Of course, there’s usually no frontal attack. We naively accept these messages and ways of life as part of our culture. We become intimate with them. And then we can’t do without them. Just like the Israelites, we yoke ourselves to other gods, like materialism, sensuality, instant-gratification. We compromise with the world, seeking joy and satisfaction where we’ll never find it.
Nehemiah headed up the building of the wall around Jerusalem. He organized the city. He and Ezra called the people to holiness and led the people in rejoicing in their God. All this because the people were God’s people, called to live distinctly in the world. Today, through Jesus Christ, we are the new people of God. Every person who has repented of her sins and put her trust in Jesus is a citizen of the city of God, the new Jerusalem. In this new era, we, the church, are now God’s treasured possession, his holy nation. So let’s ask three questions that arise out of our text to help us think through the level of worldliness in our lives and to help us to fight the good fight of faith.
First, what is your life centered around? 11-12:26. Look at chapter 11:1-2.
“Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem. And the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city, while nine out of ten remained in other towns. And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.”
I am a city girl. I didn’t realize I was a city girl until one time I lived in the country. I thought I was going to die. Where was everyone? We city girls might not understand that living in Jerusalem at that time was actually a great sacrifice. The city was a shambles. The temple was rebuilt and now there was a wall around the city, but the houses were still broken down. There was a lot of work to be done to get that city back into shape. But many blessed men were willing to move into the city.
We see in chapter 11, Nehemiah orchestrated an orderly set-up of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Some were in Jerusalem to do the on-going work of the city and the temple. The rest were in the towns of Judah, “every one in his inheritance. (v. 23). Notice in v. 24, they even had an ambassador to the king for the people. But most importantly, the temple was at the center of their lives. And the praise of God was at the center of their lives. Verses 11:22 and 12:24 detail leaders of men who were employed full time to sing praise and give thanks at the temple. Nehemiah orchestrated the orderly set-up of Jerusalem so that God would be at the center of the lives of his people. They were centered on the city. They were centered on the temple.
So what is your life centered on? We no longer have a specific piece of property dedicated to the worship of God. We are the property—the church. The Holy Spirit dwells in God’s people. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well who disputed where the center of the worship of God ought to be, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father….But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23). Jesus died on the cross, taking the punishment for our sins, that we could be reconciled to God by the blood of his cross. He is now the center of the worship of the Father. And he has sent his Spirit to dwell in his people. Paul says, we have become “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22). So, local churches are God’s headquarters for activity in this fallen world.
Is your life centered on Jesus? Are you continually giving him praise and thanks? Are you committed to the people of God here at UCCD? When you move from Dubai, is your primary concern finding a church where you can worship God in community with Jesus at the center? God calls us to be Christ-centered and church-centered.
The second question I want us to consider is: Where does your joy come from? 12:27-47.
Read Neh 12:27-43.
The joy oozes out of this passage, doesn’t it? The people of God are celebrating the dedication of the wall with gladness (v. 27). They are giving thanks, singing and playing instruments. The people purify themselves, and then Nehemiah appoints two choirs to travel the wall. One choir goes to the left, one goes to the right. Every inch of these walls held special memories for one group or another. Their rejoicing would increase as they remembered the rubble disappearing and the wall being built brick by brick.
Surely, one of the songs they would have been singing was Psalm 48:
“Walk about Zion, go around her,
â€‹Number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
â€‹go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
â€‹â€‹that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
â€‹â€‹He will guide us forever” (v.12-14).
So around the walls the choir marched, but they had an ultimate destination: Eventually these two groups, singing thanksgiving to God, met at the temple—the house of their God. All the people then converged at the temple, joining with the choirs, singing praises—Men, women and children shouting with joy.
“And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” Read verse 43 again. This singing and shouting heard far away was not the noise of a raucous party. It was not the sound of battle cries. It was the beautiful, melodious sound of true rejoicing in what the Lord had done in saving his people once again and bringing them together to worship him. It’s the sound UCCD makes every Friday. And it is different from the world. We baptized Xabier a few months ago. Part of Xabier’s testimony is that, before he was a Christian, he would come to church with his wife and hear our loud singing. In it he heard the joy of people. He said he didn’t necessarily like it, but it made him realize that we had something he didn’t. He said occasionally it would make the hairs on his arms stand straight. He perceived the truth, the weight and the joy of what we were doing. Eventually, Xabier accepted this truth and now he sings joyfully too.
Joy is a testimony to others when it isn’t rooted in circumstances but is rooted in trust in the Lord. Christians are joyful people. This is why Christians sing on all occasions. We sing in church. We sing at weddings. We even sing at funerals because of the great hope we have in eternal life with our Lord. We should be the most joyful people on earth because we have the best news and the greatest inheritance imaginable.
We see the provision for ongoing rejoicing in the next verses of Nehemiah.
Read verses 44- 47.
Nehemiah organized the temple according to the Scriptures—“According to David and his son Solomon.” Nehemiah had organized a big celebration with choirs on a certain day to shout for joy and sing praises. Now, closely tied to the dedication of the wall, he organizes the smooth running of the Temple and the continued offering of a sacrifice of praise.
The dedication of the wall and the wall itself was not the goal, for God will protect his people. The goal is relationship with God—the worship of their one true king and savior. That’s why the choirs and the people meet at the temple. That is why Nehemiah moves quickly to insure its smooth running. God is to be the center of their lives and the continuing source of their joy. And during that era in history, he dwelt among his people there in the temple.
â€‹What is the source of your joy? Is your life organized around the Scriptures? Do you sing loudly on Fridays? Do people notice your deep-down joy despite circumstances and want what you have?
Our third and final question to consider is: Who are you going to be?
Throughout Ezra and Nehemiah we have seen these leaders dedicated to the Book of the Law. And we have seen them and the people respond to the reading of the Book of the Law in obedience. Here we see the people hearing and obeying once again by separating themselves from the nations. This is hard stuff. Today it looks like a form of racism to us. But we have seen here in Nehemiah, God’s desire for his people to be holy and, by contrast, the corrupting influence of the world. God’s people were repeatedly drawn in to live just like the surrounding nations and worship their worthless gods.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles. God put them in a place where the surrounding nations, the superpowers of the day, could hear about the God of steadfast love who rescued them from slavery and told them the way to live abundant lives of great blessing. In Deut 4:6-8, Moses tells of God’s purpose for the law and the mission of his people: “Keep [the laws] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people, who, when they hear all these statues, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statues and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
The identity of Israel was to be in their God. They were to be his people, his treasured possession—distinct from the nations.
In the same way, we should be women who influence the world around us but live distinct lives from it. Our lives should call attention to our God. Our neighbors and other school moms and co-workers should wonder what is different about us—what gives us such wisdom and understanding? For who else has a god who is so near as our Lord God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And who else has a god who speaks to them and gives them abundant life through his word?
This should be evident in the way we speak. This should be evident in the things we wear. It should be evident in the way we spend our time and money. It should be evident in who our friends are.
Who are you? Do you identify with the people of God? Are you growing in wisdom and understanding through God’s Word? Are you living a life that is distinct from the surrounding culture by rejecting worldly messages and ways?
Remember the Moabites. They were thwarted in their attempt to curse the people of God but were successful in assimilating them into their culture, turning their hearts to other gods. We must wake up and fight! Reject worldly ways and commit yourself to the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. We are God’s people. He is the source of true joy. Only in centering our lives on him will our satisfaction be complete.
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