We are studying the Book of Nehemiah at the mid-week meetings and last evening we were having a look at chapter 7 verses 5-73. Lists of names are always difficult to make sermons from! But, they actually provide us with rich veins of teaching once we examine them. After making significant appointments as set out in verses 1-4, Nehemiah took a roll call of the people using the record of the names of those who had come from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538BC, led by Zerubbabel. Over 90 years had gone by since that first group had returned and now Nehemiah was leading a massive rebuilding programme in which the main concern was to rebuild a godly, covenant community of people loyal to the Lord.
This roll call was not his own idea, as verse 5 makes clear. God had put it in his heart to do this. In times when it is easy to grow impatient at what we perceive to be a lack of progress and gospel impact it is tempting to rush into carrying out what appear to us as very good ideas. So it is always necessary to place them before God, pray over them, wait upon him and look for his approval and guidance before we implement them, otherwise our good ideas may turn out to be very bad ideas! But what was the point of using these genealogical records?
First, linking this with the original returnees showed the continuity of the one covenant people of God throughout the generations of their history. Despite the unfaithfulness of their ancestors, which had led to their exile in Babylon, God had not abandoned them as a people in covenant with him. Nor had he cast off their ancestors so as to make a clean start with those who had returned to Jerusalem. The line of covenant relationship with God had remained in place. Similarly, while we have no excuse for unfaithfulness to God, our covenant breaking does not require God to adjust his plan or make a fresh start with a "new" Church!
But in the second place, this link with the past was designed to be motivational. A return to Jerusalem would not have been easy for that first group. To uproot from what had become familiar living conditions in Babylon and return to a wrecked temple, local hostility and an unclear future demanded faith, courage, trust in God and great self-denial. So Nehemiah was effectively motivating the people of his day to press ahead in the work of rebuilding by drawing inspiration from their past.
That's our task too. We too have a duty to use the past to serve the present for the future. We don't need to be "history freaks" (although it helps!) to do this. But we do need to know the past, especially the history of God's dealing with his people down through the generations and up to the present day. If we want to serve the present Church of God effectively so as to convey a rich spiritual legacy to the next generation, we must take time to find out what happened, and why, in the great events of the past. Why was there a Reformation in Scotland in 1560? What were it's main features? What was good and maybe not so good about it? Why was the Headship of Jesus Christ over his Church so important to those who opposed the civil and royal powers who insisted on controlling the Church? What was it like to experience the kind of gospel blessing that converted hundreds of people in times of spiritual awakening? And then there's the history of our local congregations, in which significant events and people appear in their past records and oral accounts. There's plenty to inspire us in all this, but we need to make time to look through it, study it and apply it.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the Founder and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1-2)