Nehemiah chapter 11 this morning, and if you're a visitor with us we've been going through several weeks - with a few interruptions lately - thirteen weeks I think in total of this prophecy, Nehemiah. We've entitled it 'Building For God', and we've been learning many many spiritual principles, not just applying to individual Christians, but also to a group of God's people like this. We're looking this morning from chapter 11, and a little bit from chapter 7 going back a few chapters, at the honour of the ordinary - or 'In Honour of the Ordinary', so that is our title today 'In Honour of the Ordinary'. We'll just read a few verses at the beginning of chapter 11.
It reads: "And the rulers of the people dwelt at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities" - now we'll tease that out in a moment or two to understand it, but just note that some of the rulers of the people dwelt in Jerusalem, which infers that many of the rest didn't, so the rest of the people then cast lots to decide who would go back to live in Jerusalem. Verse 2: "And the people", that is, the whole people, "blessed all the men", and women, "that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem". So in verse 1 there's a group who cast lots to see who would dwell back in Jerusalem, and now in verse 2 were seeing that there is a group of volunteers who willingly, of their own volition, decide that they will go and dwell at Jerusalem.
Verse 3: "Now these are the chief of the province that dwelt in Jerusalem: but in the cities of Judah dwelt every one in his possession in their cities, to wit, Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon's servants. And at Jerusalem dwelt certain of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin. Of the children of Judah; Athaiah the son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalaleel, of the children of Perez", and we'll end our reading just there at verse 4.
Now that may seem a bit obscure, but just remember that my title this morning is 'In Honour of the Ordinary'. Now let me give you a background first of all from chapter 7, turn back a few chapters with me. We'll read again from verses 1 to 4: "Now it came to pass, when the wall was built", the wall of Jerusalem, "and I had set up the doors, and the porters and the singers and the Levites were appointed, That I gave my brother Hanani, and Hananiah the ruler of the palace, charge over Jerusalem: for he was a faithful man, and feared God above many. And I said unto them, Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun be hot; and while they stand by, let them shut the doors, and bar them: and appoint watches of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, every one in his watch, and every one to be over against his house. Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein" - note that - "and the houses were not builded".
Now let me just remind you of the situation so far: the city of Jerusalem had been without a wall for 160 years. If my calculations are correct, the Jews spent 70 years in captivity, and then an additional 90 years passed by before Nehemiah came on the scene, exhorting them by the word of God to build the wall again in Jerusalem. So for more, approximately, than 160 years Jerusalem was without a wall around her, and in fact she was little more than a pile of rubbish, a city of debris, a huge rubbish dump, and hardly anyone lived within her. She had no wall, she was destroyed both politically, nationally and religiously in the sense of that particular city, and she was an open prey to all her enemies. Now to add to that problem, after Nehemiah had rallied the people together, started to build up the walls, exhorted them to fight for the cause of God and to give their resources to the building of the walls and the rebuilding of Jerusalem again, the people built for themselves their own houses outside Jerusalem.
So what you have now is a ready-made city, the city is no longer filled with rubbish, it is a beautiful city, the wall has been built - but the people have built beautiful, equally beautiful houses for themselves in the suburbs outside the city wall, and they're now refusing to move into the city of God. Most of the Jews had forsaken an urban life in the holy city. Now just imagine for a moment the upheaval that this must have been for some of them to begin to move from the suburbs into an urban life in the city of God. Look at verse 1 of chapter 11: "the rulers of the people dwelt at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities". We know that two rulers of the people went, they moved from the suburbs into the city of Jerusalem. Then they decided that one out of ten would also move into the city to begin the great exodus from outside inside. Then in verse 2 we noted: "the people blessed all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem". So here is a group of unknown people who willingly offered themselves - they put their hands up and said: 'I'll go! I will go for the cause of God, and I will be one to pack my bag and leave my lovely luxurious home outside Jerusalem, and go into Jerusalem and live for God'.
The Bible says the people blessed them for it, 'Well done! You're tremendous, that's a great work you're doing, it's a great sacrifice that you're making. Praise the Lord for you, and I wish you God's speed as you go'. We don't really know the names of most of the people that volunteered to move into Jerusalem, but the fact of the matter is, one thing that I want us to dwell on today, one spiritual principle that would be very easy for us to gloss over and miss in this chapter, particularly in verse 2 is: the significance and the worth of what we do for God, even when it is unknown and our names are unknown. You see the worth of what we do for God is not determined by who knows about it, or who praises us for it, but it is determined by our faithfulness in it - the faithfulness in which we execute our work, even when it and we remain unknown and obscure.
Now this is so important: here's a group of people, we don't even know their names - we know some of their names, but later on we'll see that we don't really know who they are, and there's another group of 822 people who were involved in temple worship and we know about none of them whatsoever. What we are seeing is that these people, even though no one knows about them in scripture, God blessed them, the people blessed them for their sacrificial voluntary giving when it cost them everything. Now let me apply this contextually to our situation today in our contemporary world, and even our contemporary church, because today - I would have to say, even myself at times - we judge the Lord's work, and we are motivated in the Lord's work by fame, by popularity, by who knows us, by who recognises us, by who pats us on the back, by the renown that we have in Christian circles - we judge and measure the value of our contribution to the Lord's work by how well we are known and how well our work is known, who has heard about it. There's a grave danger here, because the Lord Jesus told us Himself in the Sermon on the Mount that perhaps the greatest works are the works that are unknown and unnamed.
Remember He was castigating the Pharisees for their alms-giving, blowing a trumpet and doing it in public, and He was teaching His disciples not to do the same. He said in Matthew 6 verse 1: 'Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven'. The greatest works, He is saying, are the silent works, the quiet works, the unknown works, the works perhaps that remain unknown for ever, that are totally obscure. Our problem is that we have been conditioned to believe the opposite. Ever since our childhood, even from a toddler up, we are taught that fame is success. If you're going to be successful, people will find out about it, and then people will know your name and your skills and so on; so success equals fame. If you're good at anything, people will talk about it, people will come to you, and there's a sense in which that is right and it's not inherently sinful - but we have been conditioned to believe that achievement therefore is to be known, worth means you will be known. As babies and toddlers we get praise when we do something right, we get praise as students at school when we do well, not when we fail. Therefore in life we are conditioned to strive to be known, for to be known is to achieve and to succeed - therefore to be recognised means that you must be worth while in life.
Now the problematic fallout of that is the converse, that if you don't achieve recognition, if you don't get famous, if you're not known for success, then you conclude: 'Well, I must be inferior. I mustn't be worth anything, I'm worthless' - and you can get what psychologists call an inferiority complex. 'I feel worthless, I'm useless. I have underachieved in my life, I don't have what's necessary to be a highflier' - and do you know what we can actually do as Christians? We can transfer that mentality into the spiritual realm, and we say: 'Because what I do for Christ and for God is unknown, and it seems to have little success, well I'm useless, I'm worthless' - a spiritual inferiority complex!
Now let me define what I'm talking about: have you ever heard a Christian say 'What could I ever do for God? Look at me, I can't preach, I can't sing, I'm no good teaching children, I'm not an upfront person, I'm not a platform person. I get nervous to do anything publicly, what can I do for God?'? Now we're not talking now about excuses like Moses made to God, when he said that he couldn't speak but the Acts of the Apostles tells us that he was mighty in word and in deed. Those were excuses, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about genuine feelings of inadequacy, a feeling that 'I'm really useless, I am useless. I'm insignificant, I'm small in God's whole programme, I'm not like you who preaches from the pulpit'. Therefore you think: 'Well, then I must be worthless, there's nothing that I can do for God'.
Now this will happen to you if you evaluate your worth by what you do, how famous it is, and who knows and praises you about it. If that's your motivation factor, you will get a spiritual inferiority complex. Let me illustrate it a bit more: it's no accident, is it, when people meet you perhaps for the first time, and they say first of all 'How do you do?', and then probably the next question that comes not too far behind it is 'What do you do?'. 'How do you do?', and then 'What do you do?'. We fall into the trap, don't we, because we define ourselves by the company that we work for, or the church that we preach for, whatever the organisation that we are affiliated with. Then that person, in a psychological equation, he values us or she values us by what we have just said. Therefore if you work for a company that is famous or known, you're worthwhile, you're a somebody - but if you're unemployed, what are you? We don't believe this, but this is the way our minds work - we're a nobody!
We judge ourselves by what we do and by who knows about it, that's why scientists attribute much of the trauma associated with retirement to a sudden loss of identity. 'I don't work for the company any more, so I'm a nobody. What do I do if I don't have that name over me?'. We do this in other realms - rarity determines value as far as we are concerned, diamonds are valuable because they're rare; the Prime Minister is valuable because there's only one, the same with the President in the States; rare stamps are valuable; rare animals and paintings are valuable. The common, as far as we are concerned, is not valuable; the ordinary is worthless. Now listen, God's mentality that is revealed within His revelation is this: the ordinary are to be honoured when they do My will! The significance and the worth of what you do for God is not determined by who knows about it and who praises you for it, but by the faithfulness by which you execute your work even when you and your work remain unknown.
Now let me show you this from God's word - but don't forget that, whatever you do, as we go along. Here is the first thing that I want you to notice: God ordains the ordinary for His work, God ordains the ordinary for His work. When God by election chose the Old Testament people of Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7, He said these words: "The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people". 'You Israelites, don't get a notion about yourselves, that you're something more special than the other nations of the word - I didn't choose you like that, I chose you for grace, unmerited favour. There was nothing in you that commended yourself to Me. I didn't choose you because you were a mighty nation, I chose you for the opposite: because you were weak, you were feeble, and so that my glory would shine forth in you and all the nations of the world would see Me and not see you'.
Now grace, in the New Testament, is little different on that score. Because when you look, and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 25, Paul says: "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence". I think it was Lady Huntingdon who said that she was thankful it didn't say that 'not any' who were noble were called, of course there are noble people called, but that is not God's normal way of working. He works through the despised things, the weak things, and when we look at the Bible we see many many examples of this: David and Goliath - who was it that slew the giant? It was the boy named David with a few small stones. Who was it that God spoke to when He could speak to another in the nation in that time of great need? It was to Samuel, 'Samuel, Samuel'. Who was it that the Lord turned to to do the miracle of the 5000 feeding? It was the boy with just five loaves and two fish. Look at the disciples! What a motley crew they were! That's who the Lord Jesus turned to, not the philosophers and the theologians of their day.
Take one disciple as an example - many have christened him 'ordinary Andrew'. Did you ever read much about Andrew? Andrew is universally regarded as the average man, ordinary Andrew, he's sort of in the background somewhere with regards to the disciples. He was the first of the twelve to follow the Lord Jesus, but we don't really see him as a prominent apostle. He's not included in the inner circle even though he was first to come to Christ - Peter, James and John, that was theirs. Andrew regularly was identified as the brother of Simon Peter, did you ever read that? 'The brother of Simon Peter', but Peter is never identified as the brother of Andrew! Everybody knew who Peter was, but who's Andrew? You can just imagine them saying 'Who's Andrew?', and they would reply: 'Well, that's the guy that always hangs around with Peter. You know Peter the great preacher? Well, he's always tagging along - I think he may be Peter's brother, but he's nobody really important'. He wrote no epistles, there are no miracles recorded from Andrew's life, he was not an eloquent preacher like his brother Peter - yet nevertheless God used him mightily. He was the first who came to Christ of the disciples, and he became an evangelist - he was the one who brought Peter to Christ! Look at the many who Peter brought to the Lord Jesus!
Now we don't believe in tradition completely, but sometimes there is the weight of truth in some of it - and tradition records that ordinary Andrew became a patron saint of no less than three cultures. Eusebius, the church historian, says that he was the first missionary to go to the north of the Black Sea, and so the Russians claim him as their patron saint. Another tradition makes him patron saint of Greece, for it says that he was martyred there on an 'X'-shaped cross, where he hung for three days praying for his enemies. Finally you know that the flag of Scotland is that white cross, that white 'X' on the sky blue background - and tradition has it that a monk brought Andrew's relics to Scotland, and the Scots were led into victory by an 'X'-shaped cross flying in the sky. We don't believe that, but the fact of the matter is: here is one who was ordinary, but God took his life and there are nations of the world that are claiming him for their own, because God honours the ordinary, God takes the ordinary, God uses the ordinary to do extraordinary things. I wish I had time this morning to show you some of the beautiful qualities in Andrew's life that were not found in Peter's or any of the other disciples - yet they're the type of qualities that we don't shout about.
One of the supreme glories of the New Testament gospel that we espouse and proclaim is this: the ministry goes forth the most through weakness. Weakness is the opportunity for God's power, our ordinary-ness for His extraordinary-ness. Do we follow this principle in our lives? Do we portray these principles in how we operate as a church and individual Christians? Listen to Oswald Chambers, what he says about this, and I think this is mighty: 'God can achieve His purpose either through the absence of human power and resources, or the abandonment of reliance upon them. All through history God has chosen and used nobodies, because their unusual dependence on Him made possible the unique display of His power and grace. He chose and used somebodies as well, only when they renounced dependence on their natural ability and resources'. Do you get that? If you're a nobody and you've got nothing going for you, praise God because God can use somebody like you! But equally, if you've got something going for you, do you know what you need to do? This is probably a harder job than the nobodies: you need to resign those resources to God, and surrender them as nothing - because they are nothing without Him. In that emptiness He will come in in His fullness. God ordains the ordinary for His work, not supermen, not great men, not statesmen, ordinary men and ordinary women!
But let's see secondly that God honours the unknown for their willingness, God honours the unknown for their willingness. Just before we left to go on Beach Missions, I think it was anyway, they commemorated here in our nation the 60th anniversary of D-Day. You would have seen it on the television or in the newspapers, many veterans and respectful bystanders gathering around cenotaphs and burial grounds around cities and old battlefields on the continent of Europe to remember those who laid down their lives for our freedom. Some people would have attended services near what has been called the tomb of the unknown soldier. You may not know this, but the tomb of the unknown soldier is where an unnamed soldier who was found on the battlefield - nobody was able to identify him - was taken and was buried in a strategic place as a representative of all those unknown people and known people who died in World War I specifically. Those graves have become, to this day, memorials of all who have died in conflict - the war-dead right across the world. You can find it in France beneath the Arc de Triomphe, in the USA at Arlington National Cemetery, and here in the United Kingdom at Westminster Abbey - but what it is seeking to do is remind all of us, through one man who died unknown, no one knew what he did, how he died, who his family was, what he had achieved in his education, his reputation, his career - but although he was unknown, he died for us! That is there so that we will not forget, lest we forget the willing unknowns.
Now chapter 11, if you like, is the Flanders Fields of the Bible - the unknown heroes of the Bible, the crosses of the unknown, the obscure, the forgotten people. Verse 2 says those who offered, volunteered themselves to move from the suburbs into Jerusalem - the Hebrew word is 'nadab' (sp?), which means to 'impel, incite from within'. They had this generosity and this willingness within their breast - it's used of those who built the tabernacle in Exodus 35 - they sacrificed through whatever means they had for God's work, they grouped together in strength, skilled men in craftsmanship used their skills, the women in embroidery used their fingers, those who were able to weave weaved. They did what they could, they gave of their substance, they gave of their talents, they gave of their time for the service of the Lord. Do you do that? Do you give of your substance? Have you given to the Lord's work today? Do you give of your skills? I'm astounded at times when men of God and people of God charge the church of God exorbitantly to do something for them! Is that right? Do you give your crafts, your talents? Do you give your time for the work of the Lord? What do you do for the Lord? Maybe you're sitting here thinking, 'Well, what I do for the Lord isn't much. Even if I was to do something it wouldn't count, it would be insignificant' - God's word is saying this: the greatest work of all was done by people like you, people who could do little but did it with all their heart!
I want you to see, before we finish this message today, five groups of willing people who are unknown. The first is in verse 2, the unknown who volunteered to move. Do you see if the Lord was to put His finger on your heart, and say: 'I want you to leave Belfast', or wherever you live, 'and I want you to go to the backends of beyond and be a witness for Me, and you may see no fruit all of your life like many pioneer missionaries did' - would you go? Would I go? These people went, and all the Israelites blessed them - this is what happened: 'That's great, you're going, praise the Lord. We'll give you thousands to go, we'll send you, we'll pray for you - but don't ask us to go!'.
Then there was the second group in verses 10 to 12, and we read just at the beginning of verse 12: 'And their brethren that did the work of the house were eight hundred twenty and two'. Those people who worked inside the temple of God - think about this workforce! Eight hundred and twenty-two people in the one temple, and these people, none of them named specifically, all working for the Lord, many jobs to do. People would have taken them for granted, I'm quite sure - some who would have dusted, some who would have lighted the lamps of God, some who would be running errands continually for the animals and cleaning - you name it, things were being done continually, 822 people doing it! But God recognised it, God honoured it, because it was done faithfully! There were those who worked in the temple - what are you doing? Do you dust this place? Do you clean the toilets? Do you set up the chairs? Do you know that that is a mighty work in the eyes of God? A mighty work!
There was a third group who worked outside the place of worship, verses 15 to 16 - in other words the maintenance of the exterior, the beauty of the temple, the grounds around the temple. There were other works like judging and counselling people. My friend, isn't this marvellous? There's a work that any man or woman can do, whatever their skill may be: there's a work for Jesus ready at your hand, just a work for you the Master has planned! They maintained God's house, they judged and counselled people.
Fourthly there was a group in verse 17, and what a group this is, led by one man - verse 17: 'And Mattaniah the son of Micha, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, was the principal to begin the thanksgiving in prayer'. Here was a man who would stand up and lead the people of God in prayer, and I think it was chiefly him who was responsible on a human level to keep the temple alive before God, and keep the worship going! That's your job, some of you - do you do it? Are you priests before God, bringing up the people of God continually?
Then there's a fifth group of people in verses 22 to 23, a fifth group: 'The overseer also of the Levites at Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micha. Of the sons of Asaph, the singers were over the business of the house of God'. There was a little group of people who sang the praises of God in the temple of God with all their might - can you sing? You maybe can't sing on your own, but can you sing at all? Now I know some of you can't! But the fact of the matter is some of you can, and some of you can do something for the Lord - but this is the point: don't strive for praise! 'Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise: Thou mine inheritance, now and always'. Be content to remain unknown and obscure, faithfully doing what God has called you to do no matter how small you think it is - it doesn't matter! 'Whatsoever you do', Paul says, 'do it heartily unto the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive a reward of your inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Jesus Christ'.
Here are some practical principles for you today that will help you to realise the honour that God gives to the ordinary. First of all: your gift makes you valuable, if not necessarily popular. Your gift makes you valuable, if not necessarily popular. Do not evaluate popularity with worth. Every one of us, God's word says, has a gift - 1 Corinthians, we studied it in great detail not so long ago, chapter 12 verse 21 says this: 'And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness'. That means we all have a gift, because we're all a member, and we all have something to do - but those gifts that you cannot see, that are hidden, are the more honourable ones in the eyes of God! Your gift makes you valuable, and I tell you: it's more valuable, perhaps, if no one sees it. Don't judge your worth on popularity.
The second principal: every labour done in love is remembered by God and is never forgotten. No one might see what you're doing and how well you're doing it, but God's word says in Hebrews 6:10: 'For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister' - I will not forget you! Thirdly, our final rewards will be determined on the basis of personal faithfulness, not public applause. I'll tell you: there's going to be some surprises for you, and some surprises for me.
You've probably seen her name and forgotten it a hundred times, yet her words probably are known by heart by most of you. She's one of God's willing unknowns. She wrote the hymn 'Just as I have without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me' - her name was Charlotte Elliott. At one time in her life she felt very bitter towards God about the circumstances that she was in. She was an invalid from her youth up, and deeply resented the constraints that her handicap brought upon her. In an emotional outburst on one occasion when a minister visited her, she accused God and expressed those feelings to this man whose name was Dr Caesar Mallon (sp?). He listened very carefully to what she had to say, and he was touched deeply by her distress - but he insisted to her that her problem should not be levelled at the feet of God, but she should divert her attention from what she had wrong with her to what she actually most needed, and that was God's salvation in her heart. So he challenged her to turn her life entirely over to God, to come to Him just as she was with all her pains, with all her problems, and even with all her bitterness and anger.
Of course, like many people, she resented what he had shared with her, and she thought that he had given it to her in a most callous way - but God spoke to her through him. Eventually she committed her life to the Lord Jesus, and each year after that on the anniversary of her conversion Dr Mallon wrote Charlotte a letter encouraging her to continue strong in her faith. But even as a Christian, like many of us, she had her fears, she had her doubts, she had her struggles - and on one day, one particularly sore point, she felt unable to come to God. She felt her inability to effectively get out and serve God because of her handicaps, and the fact that she was an invalid. Her brother was an evangelist, and at times she resented the successful preaching and evangelistic ministry, and she just longed herself that she could be used of God - 'That I could get out of this chair and do something for God, my health is preventing it, why is this, O Lord?'. Is that you?
Then in 1836 on the 14th anniversary of her conversion, while alone in the evening, at 47 years of age Charlotte Elliott wrote her spiritual autobiography in verse. One of the prayers was like an outpouring of confession to God from her heart, the feelings, countless feelings that maybe you and I can identify with at times. It's in the third stanza of that hymn 'Just As I Am', and it goes like this:
'Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt.
Fightings and fears within, without:
O Lamb of God, I come, I come'.
That was her hymn. Many years later when reflecting upon the impact of his sister, the Rev Henry Venn Elliott said of Charlotte - listen carefully: 'In the course of a long ministry I hope I have been permitted to see some fruit for my labours, but I feel far more has been done by a single hymn of my sister's: 'Just As I Am''.
Are you one of God's unknowns? Only eternity will reveal what your work has done for Him. Paul said: 'Take it away Lord!'. God said: 'My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness; for when you are weak, then I am strong'.
Has the Lord been speaking to you? Where are you? Are you resenting something that you have not gotten because of your service? Honour that is not due you, that you feel should be? Crucify it now with Christ, put it to death, live on for Him - and let us all imagine what a place this would be if all that we could do, we did with all our might.
Lord, for Thy sake let us win renown with Thee not men, and then to take the victor's crown, and at Thy feet to lay it down. O Master, Lord, let us all come, for Jesus' sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the thirteenth tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "In Honour Of The Ordinary" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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