As you may know, we have just come back from visiting our son and his family in Germany. And when I was there, I got thinking that it was just over 25 years ago, on November 9, 1989, that the wall separating East and West Berlin finally began coming down. On that day, millions of Berliners celebrated together as they were finally reunited after almost 3 decades of separation. That day became a significant symbol marking the end of the cold war.
And in our scripture reading this morning, we read about another important day of celebration. But this one was not to celebrate the destruction of a wall, but rather the successful completion of the wall around ancient Jerusalem. As you read what happens here, you realize that this dedication service was a very significant event in the life of Israel, to which people came not just from Jerusalem, but from all the surrounding countryside. Now why was it so important for all the people to take part in this dedication of the wall? It was because they recognized that the rebuilding of the wall wasn’t just something that they had accomplished on their own, but that God himself had brought this all to pass. And when you think about all of the obstacles they had had to overcome, the opposition that they had encountered from the surrounding nations, the construction of this wall was really nothing short of a miracle. And so after the completion of the wall, they took time to give thanks and praise and worship the God who had made it all possible.
And what I want to do this morning is to take a closer look at what was happening here in this dedication service, and how this relates to the way we worship God, when we come together here every Sunday morning. Why was worship so important to the people in Jerusalem? and why is it a critical element of our lives as well?
1st thing we see here is that there was a great deal of Planning and Preparation that went into this dedication service. Nehemiah began by bringing all of the Levites back to Jerusalem to take part in this service. (Neh 12:27) Now you may remember that out of the 12 tribes of Israel, it was the descendants of Levi who had originally been appointed by God to give direction to the worship in the tabernacle in the wilderness. Later David had put 4000 of them in charge of the music and the worship in the temple. (1 Chron 23:5) But during the long years of the exile, that worship had been largely neglected and ignored, but now Nehemiah realizes that just as they have rebuilt the city, it’s now also time to restore the worship of God to the place of priority it had had back in David’s era.
I have said this before, but I think it is worth repeating: Worship is much more than what we do for an hour here together on Sunday mornings. Worship is meant to be an integral part of who we are as Christians, it’s meant to be at the very center of our whole lives. In fact I believe that the primary reason that God created us in the first place, the reason why we are here on this planet, is to exalt Christ and worship him. Worship is the one thing we do on earth, that we will continue to do in heaven. It has been said that our praise and worship of God here on earth, is merely choir practice for heaven.
And Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father is looking for people who will worship him. John 4:23 (beginning of our service): “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” Worship should be our #1 priority. Everything else we do really flows out of our worship of the living God. But while worship is much more than what happens here on Sundays, that doesn’t mean what we do here is not important. There’s something very signficant that happens when God’s people gather together to worship. God wants to come and make himself present with us as we worship him in spirit and in truth.
And while worship is meant to flow freely and spontaneously from our hearts, that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow unspiritual to plan and prepare for worship. Nehemiah obviously put a lot of thought and organization into this dedication service on the wall. And I believe we would be remiss if we didn’t do the same thing. And so our worship leaders, our singers and our musicians have to do a lot of planning, and practice and preparation, so that we can bring God the glory he deserves in our worship here on Sunday morning
2. But we also need to prepare our hearts for worship. And that’s what the Levites did here: (12:30) “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.” This was in accordance with the regulations specified in the book of Numbers, where the Levitical priests had to be sprinkled with water to make them ceremonially clean, before they could minister to the people.
And so when we approach God in worship we need to first make sure that our hearts and lives are right before him. “Who may worship in your sanctuary, LORD? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill? Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right, speaking the truth from sincere hearts.” (Psalm 15:1-2)
Jesus warns us that when we worship God, it’s not enough for us to just get cleaned up and look good on the outside. What’s more important is what is happening inside in our hearts. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce!” And so when we come to church on Sunday morning, we need to take take time to examine our own hearts, confess our sin, and get right with the Lord first.
3. It’s also very evident that Music and Singing were an important part of the worship that day. “The Levites… were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem” (Neh 12:27-28) As they begin this dedication service, Nehemiah has organized a procession of 2 great choirs of singers and musicians, who slowly walk in 2 different directions along the top of the wall until they surround the entire walled city. And you can just imagine the scene, as these choirs are on top of the wall, singing songs of praise, and worshipping the Lord
There are dozens of passages in the Bible that exhort God’s people to worship the Lord in song and with musical instruments. Psalm 96: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.” Ps 150: “Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals.. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!”
Again I personally believe that the reason God gave humankind the gift of music in the first place was in order that we might use it to worship him. Music was an integral part of worship in David & Nehemiah’s time, and it has been ever since. That’s because music touches us in a very powerful way, and it can be a very meaningful way for us to express our praise & adoration for God. But we must also recognize that the kind of music that resonates with us and touches our hearts, is largely shaped by the culture we have grown up in. I’m sure the style of music that was being played in Nehemiah’s day would probably sound pretty strange to our ears today. As our music would to them as well! And so whenever the gospel reaches a different culture, or a new generation, then the church will instinctively begin to find a way of worshipping that is a natural expression of that culture or that generation Here at our church, we are blessed with a diversity of people of many different ages, with many different cultural backgrounds. And so in our worship services, we try to incorporate different styles of music in our worship that reflect some of that diversity: The great hymns of the faith, as well as some of the newer worship songs that have emerged over the past few years. I realize that in trying to blend these various styles of music, we will never be able to please everyone. But it’s important that we recognize that, even within our own congregation, there are many different ways of connecting with God in worship. We need to respect those different expressions, even though they may not be what our personal preference might happen to be
4. As part of their worship the people also brought sacrifices & offerings before the Lord. “Many sacrifices were offered on that joyous day, for God had given the people cause for great joy. The women and children also participated in the celebration, and the joy of the people of Jerusalem could be heard far away.” (Neh 12:43)
What impresses me here is that these people were not bringing their sacrifices and offerings because they were forced to, out of some reluctant sense o duty. They were bringing them joyfully and gladly, because they realized how much God had done for them, and they just wanted to express their gratitude and their love for all the Lord had done. And that’s how we should be bringing our offerings to the Lord as well. The truth is that God doesn’t need our offerings. He already “owns the cattle on a thousand hills”, the psalmist says. David says “But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us!” (1 Chron 29:14)
And so in bringing our offering to the Lord in worship, we are simply giving back to him what he has already given us. But we do so as an expression of our love for him, our willingness to make the financial resources he has entrusted to us available for his work, and as an act of faith, believing that he is going to us our offering to further his work. And as we do so, he promises that he will also graciously provide for our needs as well. And so just as Nehemiah restored worship to it’s rightful place in the life of the community in Jerusalem, we need to do the same thing: in our lives, in our homes, in our congregation here at First. When we worship God, we are fulfilling the primary purpose for which God created us in the first place. When we worship God, we are expressing our love for the 3-in-1 God: Father, Son and Spirit. When we worship God, we are saying to him: “Lord, you are the center of my life. I recognize that everything I have comes from you, it all belongs to you, and I bow before you now as I crown you as king of my life”