Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Practicing Perseverance (Nehemiah 4)

When my family and I went on our 4,079 mile road trip this summer -- we immediately went from sea level to the south rim of Grand Canyon -- about 7000 feet, and continued to live at or near that elevation for the next three weeks as we crossed into Colorado, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton.  As a diabetic at these altitudes, my blood sugar becomes somewhat erratic.  Why?  Because adjusting to higher altitude, as my endocrinologist explained, induces a stress hormone response.  In time, our bodies acclimate to the decreased oxygen and, as one's cardiovascular system finds equilibrium again, stress is reduced. Now when this has happened to me in the past – last winter on a family trip to the mountains, for example – I didn't understand the mechanism's effect on my blood sugar, and could not for the life of me figure out why I was having so much trouble regulating it.  I hardly slept all week...because I was up at night trying to bring my glucose under control!  This summer, however, I was ready -- ready for the chaos, that is.  I knew there was nothing I could do about it…but simply understanding the nature of the challenge and being able to prepare for it mentally and spiritually helped me to relax.  I knew it would be tough for a few days, but then my body would adjust to the altitude.  Sure enough, within about four or five days, my blood sugars began to normalize once again.  I had to persevere through that difficulty, but it helped to simply know that it was coming and that I would get through it!   These words of Jesus have often brought me peace: "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16: 33).  

Let's face it, whenever God's people seek to restore what is out of balance or rebuild what has been destroyed, they must be ready as Jesus was – for trouble, for adversaries and for obstacles.  Nehemiah shared this perspective with our Lord as he sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BC, one hundred and fifty years after they were destroyed. Now Nehemiah has returned to his homeland to lead hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the rebuilding effort…but as he anticipated, there were serious obstacles – adversaries who wanted to stop him before he even began the work. What were the two main obstacles confronting Nehemiah and his people?

The first obstacle was threatening and mocking from all sides. This is what Nehemiah and his workers heard from their enemies as they labored on the wall: ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish? ….That stone wall they are building – any fox going up on it would break it down!’ (Neh. 4: 2-3). 

As we review the list of Israel's enemies in this passage we discover that Sanballat represents the Samaritans to the north. The “Arabs” refer to Judah’s immediately southern neighbor…including the Idumaeans (Edomites); the Ammonites to the east and the Ashodites to the west (1-3, 7).  By pointing this out, I mean simply to say that Nehemiah and his people felt surrounded by opposition. Some things never change!  It's stunning how ancient hostilities, and millenia long feuds can be perpetuated to the present day! 
[As a side note, I take great comfort in the words of Isaiah who prophesied that one day "Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth," that old enemies shall be at peace when the Lord God is finally glorified above the nations"  (Isaiah 19:24)].   Meanwhile, we struggle to find that peace and to purge from our memories the hurtful and mocking words of others.  The feeling of being surrounded or outnumbered is one we do not easily forget.   

For me there will always be that biology professor who tried to argue in class that "with each discovery of science, God has become more and more irrelevant". How so, he never bothered to explain. I simply remember that feeling of being mocked as I sat there in my chair with two hundred other classmates, and I've a feeling I was not the only one.  Now here's the interesting part of the story.  About 20 years later, I met this same professor again (get this) in a jacuzzi!  I'm serious.  He happened to be the uncle of a neighbor of mine whose wedding I officiated at, and on the eve of that wedding I found myself sitting face to face with him in a froth of jacuzzi bubbles.  When I told him that I had taken one of his classes, he nodded in approval; but when I went on to say that I attended Princeton Theological Seminary and become a Presbyterian minister, his face registered a sign of disbelief!  I didn't have time to tell him about all the other crazy "religious" undergraduates I knew who shared my convictions, men and women who had both a great respect for science, and an even greater respect for the God whose laws science describes! When you are trying to walk with the Master, you will inevitably encounter a few taunts or jeers, a raised eyebrow, a sigh, or a subtle sign of disapproval.  Jesus told us to be ready for it... and to know that one day our time to speak will come. 

The other obstacle that Nehemiah had to face was discouragement from the inside, within his own ranks.  We learn in this passage that the wall was “half its height for the people had a mind to work” (Neh. 4:6) but then only a few verses later, we read that the people themselves were becoming disheartened. Judah said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.’  And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.’” (Neh. 4: 10-11). The area around the wall was a disaster area…with piles of rocks and rubbish.  In order for the work to be completed, that rubbish had to be removed.  There were obviously no bulldozers, or even horses, to haul away the garbage.  The exhausting work was done on the backs of the workers themselves.  Added to this were the rumors being spread that their enemies would soon try to attack and kill them. 

Imagine how these men and women felt once they reached the half-way mark.  It was a major accomplishment but then, as Williamson rightly points out in his Word Biblical Commentary, it was also a time of major self-reflection. Can we do this?  Do we have the physical strength, the supplies, the necessary defenses to complete what we’ve begun? Half-way to any goal is the point at which we are tempted either to press on or to give up.  You’re on mile 13 of a 26 mile marathon.  You’re half way through high school or college.  You’ve had one brain surgery…but you’ve still got one more to go (Esther). You’re at the mid-point of your career.  You're trying to complete the renovation of your church's facilities for the sake of future generations....but you're only half way there.  You name the situation: when we reach a milestone, or the “half way mark” -- we understand more deeply what we’ve gotten ourselves into and how much is at stake!  It's the time when we ask: Shall we roll out, or roll over?  Shall we press on, or fall back?  How did Nehemiah respond to these obstacles…and how should we respond to our own?  Nehemiah’s response is a lesson in the practice of persevering faith.

(i) He placed his people’s darkest fears and feelings in God’s hands. Listen to Nehemiah's prayer: ‘Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their taunt back on their own heads, and give them over as plunder in a land of captivity….”’ (Neh. 4: 4-5).  When we feel attacked or threatened, it’s tempting to seek revenge.  This is the usual way human beings handle things.  On the other hand, we may feel like throwing up our hands and giving up.  The first thing Nehemiah does is to take his and his people’s darkest thoughts and feelings, and place them in God’s hands.  

One of the outstanding characteristics of the Psalter is that it reveals how David first dealt with his anger and fear.  He brought these things to God.  He didn’t take matters into his own hands (at least not at first).  He prayed that God would handle his enemies, that God would take care of his adversaries (Psalm 5: 9-10). Jesus took it a step further when he said that not only should we place judgment in God’s hands, but that we should bless and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:11).  When you’re facing obstacles big or small, God wants you to take it to him in prayer…but you may want to have a brother or sister in the Lord to pray with you.  “Confess your sins to one another and be healed” James 5:16 says; but if that’s true, “Confess your anger, your fear, your worries to one another…and be healed as well.

(ii) Secondly, Nehemiah was flexible and practical. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as protection against them day and night…. (Neh. 4: 9). When we encounter obstacles to our mission and ministry, like Nehemiah, we may have to stop and rethink our strategy.  Nehemiah was willing to do just that.  He was willing to slow down the pace of the rebuilding effort, and provide the guards and the protection that gave his workers a greater sense of security. Indeed, half of them carried a spear as they worked (9). 

To refer back to the work we are doing here at St. John’s in this season of rebuilding and restoration… time is always an issue.  Are we willing to slow down, to take the time to bring everyone on board as we go forward with our plans?  I have been tested in this area!  In order for us to have a plan for the renovation of our sanctuary, we had to take the time to modify those plans until everyone on our planning team was on board; and whether we are planning a mission trip or taking a fresh look at our church’s unique sense of mission in this community, it will take patience and flexibility and time. The key is that Nehemiah was willing to take this time.  We’re kind of an impatient culture, are we not? If something takes too long…we move on!  Nehemiah said, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes, to get this done.  I’m in this for the long haul!”  Friends, that’s how I feel…and I challenge each of us to have that same attitude.  I’m willing to do whatever it takes…to make St. John’s everything that God wants us to be.  I’m willing to do whatever it takes, to continue the process of rebuilding and restoration that God wants to do among us.

(iii) Thirdly, he reminded his people of their own history. ‘Remember the Lord who is great and awesome….Rally to us wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet.  Our God will fight for us’ (Neh. 4: 14, 20).  One of the most important strategies that Nehemiah employed when confronting adversaries was to help his people remember.  This is another outstanding point made by H.G.M. Williamson.  “Remember the Lord who is great and awesome,” he kept saying.  “Listen for the trumpet blast.  Our God will fight for us.”  These were all reminders of Israel’s past.

When Pharaoh pursued the people of Israel into the Wilderness, Moses said to them, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14).  When King Jehosephat confronted Moab and Ammon, he said to his people, “Stand still and watch the Lord’s victory” (2 Chron. 20:16).  Nehemiah was reminding them that the God who was with them in the past would be with them now. We have history too. We have stories of God’s faithfulness among us, stories of God’s healing power, stories of God’s redemption and restoration that we need to tell and keep telling, because they encourage us to be faithful when times are tough.  What are your stories?  When have you felt the baptism of God’s Spirit, his presence cleansing you, surrounding you and upholding you?

(iv) And finally, Nehemiah did what he asked of others. It was Nehemiah’s strategy to keep the workers inside the city walls during this anxious period: "Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day."  The plan was to do this until the work was finished.  It was a season of vigilance in which they focused with great intensity on the accomplishment of a single goal; and Nehemiah made this commitment with them.  He too slept within the city walls; and in fact “neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me ever took off our clothes; each kept his weapon in his right hand” (Neh. 4: 23). 

As I studied these verses this week...I heard the voice of God in a most unexpected way regarding my planned 2012 sabbatical. Many of you may not even be aware that I was planning a three month sabbatical for next year -- a very generous gift of time from our church.  But as I was sharing with some of my elders this week, I have felt extremely burdened by the process and uncomfortable about the timing.  As I read the account of Nehemiah and the people staying within the city walls until the work was finished… I felt a strong sense of God’s leading… “Stay within Jerusalem until the work is finished….”  This week, he liberated me from the need to plan a sabbatical for which I 've had little passion.  I’ve come to believe that "Jerusalem" is where I need to be as we embrace this season of God’s restoring work, and that has given me great peace.

Earlier I was talking about the challenges of adapting to different elevations as I traveled this summer.  Richard Dhalstrom, the guest speaker at our family camp conference this summer wrote a phrase in his blog this week that struck me.  He was returning on a plane to Washington after an incredibly blessed summer… spending time with his daughter on a mission trip in Europe, climbing the alps with his wife and son, speaking for two different conferences…but now it was time to come home; and as his plane descended in altitude,  he acknowledged that the days would soon be getting shorter, that summer was almost gone, that many would face stormy weather.  Then he said this, “We need to learn to walk with God at every elevation.  He rejoices with us when, like children, we enjoy the gifts.  He comforts us when the season of darkness and storms come, being our light and shelter.  What could be better?" How true and how "elevating!"

As Nehemiah faced the obstacles to God’s work head-on, (i) he placed his darkest thoughts and feelings in God’s hands.  (ii) He was flexible, willing to take the time to do whatever was necessary to get the job done.  (iii) He reminded his people of their own history and God’s faithfulness; and finally, (iv) he did what he asked of others!  He learned to walk with God at different elevations,  May God help us do the same.

Awesome God, help us as your people to “consider it all joy” as we encounter various trials, obstacles, and adversaries, knowing that these trials produce in us a mature, well-developed life of faith.  As we seek to rebuild what has been torn down, and heal what has been wounded in our church and in our community, transform our fear and doubt into a deeper faith that you are steadfast, our invincible shield and defender; the One who cannot be shaken! Help us to overcome evil with good, and fear with hope.  Remind us again that in you, we have the power to turn from darkness and sin, receive your sustaining grace, and live in the knowledge that “all things are possible” through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

1 comment:

Jequaline said...

Thank you Pastor Steve for your reflecting sermons on Nehemiah.The words of God are always peaceful and encouraging.I pray and believe that God is working in each one of us and restoring us.Hope things are fine with you and family.Love and regards to church.