Friday, August 12, 2011

Working It Out Together (Nehemiah 2-3)


I used to have a motivational poster that said: Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.  Then I saw an anti-motivational poster that features a giant snowball rolling down a hill of ice:“Team work: A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.  It’s absolutely true: we know that even though we need a team to accomplish anything of value, they have their problems. In any group, team, or organization, there are two great needs: unity and diversity.  We need unity, unity of vision, unity of purpose…but we also need diversity; diversity of abilities and gifts and perspectives -- and these two needs can sometimes be in conflict.   

Nehemiah, one of Israel's greatest leaders, knew this to be true. Nehemiah was a devout man of prayer who was convinced that God had entrusted him with a sacred mission: to return to Jerusalem in 445BC and lead the rebuilding of the city walls as governor. The job of rebuilding would require hundreds of workers, and many days and nights of hard labor; and there would be adversaries.  How would the diverse group of people in Judea respond to this vision?  In truth, Nehemiah’s vision would have come to nothing if he had not inspired unity among a variety of workers who shared his passion.   Listen to Nehemiah's words to the remnant of faithful leaders that were in Jerusalem.
17 Then [Nehemiah] said to them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace." 18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, "Let us start building!" So they committed themselves to the common good. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, "What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?" 20 Then I replied to them, "The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem."

i. Nehemiah inspired unity (Neh. 2:17-20) in three critical ways. He inspired unity with his appeal: “Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we may no longer suffer disgrace” (2:17).  Notice what Nehemiah doesn’t say.  He doesn’t say, “After all these years, I’m going to finally rebuild this wall that you couldn’t seem to complete” or “I’m the new governor, and I’m here to inform you that you are going to rebuild this wall.  Report here tomorrow morning at 5am.” Nehemiah doesn’t shame them into building the wall.  He doesn’t announce his plans and expect them to simply fall in line.  He doesn’t try and force them to build the wall.  He invites them to help him…and then waits for their reply.

I think that one of the reasons that “asking” is so powerful and important is that we have to trust God and the other person for the outcome.  When we make demands, when we try to force someone to do our will, division is sown between us.  But when we ask, when we make a genuine request, we are treating others as we would like to be treated.  We are united with the other person in mutual respect and in trust that God will work out his good purpose one way or the other.

The other day a friend and I were seeing a movie with some mutual friends who don’t attend our church.  Tom surprised me when he introduced me as his pastor (the truth is, I don’t even tell people I’m a pastor sometimes); but then he invited everybody at our table to our church for a special event (and, no, I didn’t promise to use his warm invitation to these seekers as a future sermon illustration).  They seemed open and receptive because they knew Tom and respected him.  I don't know many followers of Jesus who want to manipulate, shame or threaten people into the kingdom.  But I do want to invite them like Tom did...and like our Lord did – because I still believe he is 'the way, the truth, and the life," -- and the one with the best information available when it comes to living life as God meant us to live it.

Secondly, Nehemiah inspired unity with his personal story: “I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me...” (2:18). Vision is not shared with the head…but with the heart.  Nehemiah knew that it wasn’t enough to tell a bunch of people that he wanted to do something…he needed to tell them why.  And so he shared his story, a story of God’s grace. Nehemiah told them about how grieved he was to hear about the state of his city; and how he had prayed; and how he was afraid to speak to the king (2:2) and how God gave him the words.  He told them how the hand of God upon him was טֹובָ֣ה (tob-vah) a strong Hebrew word that means "gracious, beautiful, kind and good."

Over the past few years, we have experienced turmoil in our music ministry, staff turnover and economic stresses the delayed plans to renovate our sanctuary. I believe God has been calling me to do more than survive these challenges…but to come in the opposite spirit… to bless our music ministry, to encourage and equip our staff, to pray for God’s material provision for our church, to pray for God’s healing and restoration.  I share this because I want you to know that in declaring a new season of rebuilding and renewal, I have felt his tobvah, his gracious hand upon us and our church… and I have felt it primarily in the number of willing servants that he has raised up to share the work…which leads me to my third point regarding unity.

Nehemiah inspired unity with his perspective: Listen to the words that Nehemiah speaks to those who opposed the rebuilding of the city walls, “God will give us success and we his servants are going to start building” (2:20).  Nehemiah’s perspective was this: God will give us success as we give him our service. Notice that Nehemiah does not say, “We, his volunteers are going to start building.”  He says “We his servants are going to start building.”  Nehemiah saw himself and his people as servants, not volunteers. 

Ben Patterson reminded me once that the word “volunteer” emphasizes our decision.  We volunteer on our timetable and quit whenever we find something more interesting to do.  The word “servant” implies that we belong to Another and humbly do his will; that serving him and doing his will is our first priority. Nehemiah doesn’t demand their service (he can’t)…but he does remind them that they are God’s servants.  Once we name Christ as our Lord we cease to be volunteers…we are servants of God.   The good news is that when Christ is our Lord we need never fear him…for he himself came as a humble servant (Phil. 2: 7) and showed us the joy and responsibility of serving God as our Master and King.  The result of Nehemiah’s appeal, his personal story, and his perspective was -- thanks to God’s tobvah -- the miracle of unity, despite an amazing amount of diversity.

ii. The word "diversity" has to be one of the most worn-out phrases of our multi-culturally-sensitive generation, and yet it is an important word.  Nehemiah harnessed diversity (3:1-32) in a number of ways that we as followers of Y'shua (Jesus) -- who firmly believe that every nation, tongue and tribe will be gathered around the throne of God (Rev. 4) -- need to understand.  

For one, Nehemiah harnessed diversity by gathering “next to him” a variety of workers: From priests and High Priests (3:1) to rulers, nobles, (3:9), sons and daughters (3:12) perfumers, goldsmiths  and merchants (8, 31).  There was an astounding variety of peoples, classes, guilds, and generations represented.    Religious leaders, political officials, skilled workers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. 

As this great variety of workers approached the wall, they each took a section.  Each section of the wall is described beginning in the temple area, and moving counter-clockwise from gate to gate until coming full circle to the temple again.  They worked together, which means they worked next to each other.  Listen to this selection of verses from Neh. 3. Then the high priest Eliashib set to work with his fellow priests and rebuilt the Sheep Gate… And the men of Jericho built next to him. And next to them Zacurr…next to them Meremoth…next to them Meshullam...Next to them the Tekoites... Next to him Shallum...he and his daughters....” and so forth.  This great variety of people worked side by side, encouraging one another in the task at hand.

Mark 3: 13-15 tells us that Jesus called his disciples so that they might be “with him” (or, “next to him”). His entire ministry was done in the physical presence of his disciples.  They understood and respected him because they walked beside him, they shared meals with him, they shared in his work.  They knew his heart, and he knew theirs.  “I know my sheep and my own know me,” he said.  Last night, my brother Scott and I went to a reunion of our old youth group. It’s a bit of a shock catching up with people after 30 years…but it also reminded me of the power of sharing life together, of being “next to people” even for a few years.  They remembered things about me that I had long forgotten, or should I say, "tried to forget"?!  But that’s not what really moved me last night… it was when I went looking for my brother who had left the table and the laughter thirty minutes before.  Where could he be?  Was he not enjoying the conversation?  When I went into the house to find him, I discovered that he was in the back room sitting and talking with a young man who had stage four leukemia.  I learned that our friend’s mother -- who opened her home for the reunion -- had brought this young man home fifteen years ago when he was a student in need of a home.  I found my brother listening and praying for this young man…getting next to him, just as others had drawn near to us over the years in Christ’s name. 

Christ calls us to nothing less: to be “next to him” and “next to each other.”  I want to be able to say at the end of my days that I not only sat next to people in church, but that I labored next to them in ministry, prayed next to them in their troubles, ate next to them, laughed and cried next to them.  So let’s say good bye to ministry “by remote control” and get our hands dirty as we work alongside one another with passion and compassion.                                                

As Nehemiah gathered others next to him, he harnessed diversity by honoring a variety of motives. Notice that each group of workers labored where they had the greatest vested interest.  The priests worked on the ‘sheep gate’ (3:1) which was probably where the sacrifices were brought into the temple area; others like Jedaiah (10), Benjamin and Azariah (23), Zadok (28) and Meshullam (30), worked on portions of the wall near their homes. Still others worked on portions of the wall near their place of work… the goldsmiths and perfumers, for example, worked on the walls nearest the temple courts which is where they also lived and worked (3: 8-9).  Nehemiah seemed to honor and capitalize on this variety of motives.

Many of us work in the church or community where we have the greatest interest, and even the greatest personal investment.  God wants to use those natural interests, and personal motivations for his glory. My friend Don is a career manager in the insurance business. He has access to every person in his office.  He told me the other day how challenging it is to be a Christian in business… and yet when his colleagues ask him why his team has the best numbers in the company… he says, “Well, I pray for my people, for starters.”  They roll their eyes… but he continues with all seriousness: “I know my people.  I don’t just come to them when I have a problem to discuss, I ask them about their families, I show concern for them personally. This season of renewal that I am declaring in our own church is about more than buildings or even church programs… it’s about the renewal of our own mission…where we live and work and spend the majority of our time.  What community, what office worker, what fellow student or friend has God placed in your sphere of influence?  What part of the wall does he want you to attend to?  Who are you uniquely equipped to reach and restore and bless in Christ’s name? 

Finally, Nehemiah harnessed diversity by modeling sacrifice despite a variety of responses.  One of the things that most surprised me about this account is the variety of commitment levels described.  I was curious to read that some nobles would not ‘put their shoulders to the work of the Lord’ (3:5); that most worked hard on the section assigned to them; while some like Hananiah and Hanun even completed a ‘second section’ (30)!  It’s a challenge to ask how our work might be described by others?  Would we be numbered among those who completed our section?  Would we be among those who refused to lend a hand to that work?  Would we be among those who went over and above what was asked of us?  I pray that the Master will have found me faithful with the measure of responsibility entrusted to me.

While you’re thinking about that…perhaps you’d like to know in what way Nehemiah contributed to this enterprise?  Did he recline in the governor’s office drinking tea and reading work reports? Nehemiah tells us in 5:14-17.
14 Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15 The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17 Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us.
He was out on the field, personally supervising, watching for adversaries, contributing workers, leading sacrificially and… feeding more than 150 people daily  -- "including those from the nations around us."  Yes, Nehemiah did have a kingdom perspective….which brings us back to Y'shua (Jesus) who gladly invites not just 150 or 150,000 but as many as will come -- regardless of their tribe, tongue or nation -- to eat at his table and receive the Bread of Life.  Nehemiah had many qualities which remind us of the Messiah but first and foremost – his servant’s heart; and when it comes to bringing unity out of the variety of peoples who surround us today…The Bible tells us that a humble servant’s heart is to be the unifying characteristic of all who join him at this diverse table (Phil. 2).  

Risen Savior, we boldly pray that we might be truly one even as you and the Father are one.  Forgive us where we have been divisive, and selfish, and heal our prideful hearts. We ask that in our unity there might be a spirit of service and self-giving love, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  King Jesus, through your life, death and resurrection, you saved us from the power of sin and death and vow to make us a holy and life-giving people.  As we give thanks for your sacrifice today, we pray that broken relationships might be restored; that the wounded and the downcast be refreshed and healed; that words of wisdom and encouragement be spoken among us; and that others be drawn to you through our testimony. For you are our heart’s one desire and our one unshakeable foundation.  Amen.   

1 comment:

Vanessa Carter said...


Strange where the internet takes you.This image of a snowball was perfect for my blog and my life today.I havnt read the notes yet, when I have finished runing around the house in frustration and have stopped ripping my hair out, i will take the time to read. God had lead me here for a reason,of that im sure.