TALES THAT TELL AND STORIES THAT SHAPE
We find ourselves and define ourselves in Stories. We tell stories in most conversations to make a point; The Gospel is the Story of Jesus’s Life, Death and Resurrection – a Good news story. Furthermore, they are used to sell us possessions that we don’t necessarily need but after hearing or seeing a story in an add we often find ourselves almost in the narrative using a product and in doing so we convince ourselves of our need. We find tales in books, TV and film.
We all have had times in life where we hear something – a story – and it changes our circumstance. Yet, we become so accustomed to them that we almost forget them. Our stories are most often tell about our circumstances or they are shaped by them. However, there are times in life when things are simply ticking-over. Where life is neither bad or good. It is just being lived where God has placed us and then we hear a story: A tale that does not necessarily affect our normality. A story that will affect our today or change our tomorrow – yet, with time, it affects us beyond any comprehension of logic, as we eat our lunch as we earn our salary in work we can’t stop thinking about it: by the time we make it home that night we want to tell someone what we heard – we expect them to begin the same process, they don’t and we do not understand why? The people close to us know that someone is happening in us, and we can barely explain why this thing has affected us. Have you ever had such a story? Nehemiah did.
A STORY THAT LINGERED: KEEP ON GOING
I can tell you one story, that I heard that had a similar effect. That over time it grew and challenged me even when I was not thinking. It was the story of “Songembelle”, a village in rural Africa that I had never come across before. It was the summer of 2014 and my friend had just returned home from a medium-term mission trip through Tearfund with a charity called GOMAD. I was excited to hear about what he and the team had been doing, how God was working through them and in them. I heard hundreds of stories that day, stories of hope and despair; renewal and development as the team worked on various educational and health projects. Stories of friendship, frustration and exploration. Yet only one took root.
It was the story of a small village, outside the town of Musoma, in the Mara Region of Tanzania. A place where no more than 300 people lived and worked, yet a place that over time stole my heart. I heard the story of a revival and gathering and church as I had not imaged it before. A church that gathered under a Mango tree, yet only when the weather allowed. When the rains came the church was scattered. My friend’s team had made that community their home for the duration of their trip. Over the three months they were there, they had managed to give those people of God the start of a building –Four walls that they had to be proud of, yet when it rained they still meet under a tree. Songembelle was a place that I could not get out of my head as I pictured the unfinished church, yet it was never a place I thought I would be. But as the year moved on, God clearly spoke and called me to Tanzania. So then nearly a year to date I ended up standing in the same spot as my friend, where my thoughts and prayers for a church became real, where the burden increased to desire and I knew that part of the reason I was there was to finish of a church that had already been started. I wanted to make my dreams a reality. I wanted to make the better future my mind pictured a reality. My heart for Songembelle was Nehemiah’s Heart for Jerusalem.
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept.
SETTING THE SCENE
WHEN GOD PLANTS AND IT TAKES HOLD (Nehemiah 1-2.8)
Nehemiah had the same journey after hearing a story. In Chapter One we arrive when he encounters one of his brothers who has news of the home city, of its decay and hopelessness. It is a story that upsets and convicts him; a story he cannot let go off. By the time, we are into Chapter two, Nehemiah serving the King as a Cupbearer. A believer in an important job in a foreign city – a living and positive witness to Yahweh. As cup bearer to the king, he is someone who would be trusted by the king and with time would have become a close advisor. Nevertheless, such is the impact of the desolation of Jerusalem that it is effect Nehemiah physically – the king can see it on his face. So with faith and boldness, Nehemiah uses his public profile and political influence to further the work of God.
the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but the sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
As chapter two moved forward you see the sort of leader you want, someone who just does not talk about a dream after he has sought the discernment of God begins to build for the future God has given him. Nehemiah shows great wisdom in how he presents the news to the king, not as a political statement but a personal blow (2.8). Then he begins to lay the foundations for what he feels called to do by organising an official escort that would have confirmed the king’s authority upon his arrival and material resources that would be needed to start the work.
NEHEMIAH: A GODLY & WISE LEADER (2:10-120)
When I read the book of Nehemiah, I see a leader That I could and would follow. Why? He is someone who knows his purpose; can see both the current reality and still envision a better future; Plan and build to that point; Organise and Realise people; Deal with injustice, suffering and oppression; inspire and encourage; Gets stuck in as he expects others to; sacrifices privilege and benefits of his position for the sake of the task; Lives knowing how he lives set an example; Values honesty and integrity in other people; Trusts those around him when he is not there. Finally, and most importantly he is someone whose faith in God defines his every action. As you read through the book, you see that before he acted he prayed. Consistently.
Within chapter two, we see Nehemiah is someone who does not rush to action (2.11) or even rush to speak (2.12). After he arrives, he rests and then he heads out to understand the reality of the decay. Perhaps, aware of the charge that an outsider could never understand what the people have been through, and the seriousness of the task at hand. Thus, he went out himself around the walls of the town to see the rubble and ruins with his own eyes: to give reality to the story he had heard and know what he was asking of the people and himself. Throughout, he shows the greatest quality in any leader who is commissioned by God: knowing that even though he was called by God to lead a certain project, the Project was never his: it was God’s and in the fact that it was God’s it was for all:
“I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem”
From (2:17-20) we see a leader commissioned and sent by God inspires people with his faith and determination to fulfil what God has placed on his hearts. They know that he is here until the task is complete. Nehemiah has arrived from the outside and after he has taken stock of the situation is able to convince the entire city that ‘rubble and ruin’ does not have to remain their normality – they do not have to live in Disarray. He speaks firstly of someone who has been commissioned by God and given permission by man (the King). In the same way, that you hear have been given a heart for this area by God, seek a leader who has been both commissioned by God and given permission by man – and who identifies from that. Then another miracle happens because where God is leading he will make a way.
A PICTURE OF TOMORROW SHAPES TODAY FOR EVERYONE (CHAPTER THREE)
Quickly, before we get stuck into the main part of the text we are looking at, we must understand the build-up. In chapter three of Nehemiah, we see two things. We see the strength of Nehemiah’s leadership as he can inspire and then organise thousands of people to work together for one reason: to fulfil the objective that God has given them. It is a beautiful scene as people from all over the spectrum come together as one with work to one objective, all tribes, towns, classes, careers are represented in the chapter and they work as one. It is a beautiful picture of unity when a God given vision takes hold. Nobles, commoners, musicians, artists, merchants – everyone gets stuck in.
CHAPTER 4: WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH ITS TIME TO GET STUCK IN
Chapter 4 is where we are landing. However, it was important however to understand the narrative up to chapter four so we have a grasp of the context and the situation the people are facing. You should know the road they walked up to this point to understand their fear and frustration. We see Nehemiah leading the people through four different and difficult situations; In each case, he looks up (In prayer) before he looks out (practical) to deal with whatever the situation is. In verse 6 we see that the repairs are about half way. They have worked hard and achieved so much, yet as they look around there seems to be as much rubble on the street as whence they started. I wonder if that is sometimes the feeling that we as Christians have. We are all in different situation’s and facing different task yet as we look back we can see all that God has done and be thankful for his providence and direction but then we look forward and become dismayed because the project is nowhere near finished. Added to that, as time goes on different things begin to affect us: tiredness, loss of faith and opposition.
When God Commissions His people will face opposition (4:1-6)
The simple reality is this: When the people of God (in this case Israel) follow the direction of God then they will face opposition ( Sandballat….). Looking through this book that is obvious as the author introduces three characters who symbolise geographical opposition. The Picture is that Jerusalem is surrounded by opposition no matter where the people looked they knew they were looking in the direction of an enemy.
Our minds might be drawn to paint a picture of a city surrounded by aggressive armies, or a threat from a different source. However, it is not that grand or even dangerous. It is something we have all experienced and been guilty of ourselves. Here we see the enemies oldest trick and the one that requires the least effort: Words of Ridicule; an attack that needs no basis in fact nor even to is effectively argued to have an impact. In these six verses, we see both rage and ridicule. It looks and feels like a few mates out bantering, mocking the struggles of those less fortunate than them; you get the sense than Sandballat wants you to believe that he not that disturbed by their rebuilding efforts. Nonetheless, the sense of anger and tone of his speech shows he is more aggravated than he would like to let on, see how Eugene Peterson puts it:
What are these miserable Jews doing? Do they think they can get everything back to normal overnight?
I wonder what our response would be? Would we response with equal ridicule or ‘banter’ convincing ourselves that it is only a bit of craic? See Nehemiah’s as straight away in verse 4 we are thrown into a prayer without introduction. A pray that asks for understanding from God and that he gives to the enemy what they give to them. Nehemiah asks that God acts, not that God acts through them. His faith is in the justice of God even though it may never be seen. Nehemiah sights Gods work and not his own. As Christians, we have a better answer to evil; yet we can and must learn from Nehemiah here and look to God for vindication and not ourselves, look to God for worth and not the world around us. We must never believe the lies the world might speak about that which God has called us to.
From the final verse in this section, we learn one simple thing. Keep at it. The people with all their heart and might and commitment kept at it. Everyone, not just Nehemiah, all people showed their faith through their energy, drive, perseverance and unity in the cause. Where the Strong spoke the weak outshone with actions.
We Must always look up and the Look up || vertical and Horizontal (7-9)
As the passage progresses the work has increased and the gaps in the wall have decreased. Sanballat, Tobiah and their associates become even more incensed. This time their speech has moved from ridicule to threats as they plot to find a way to infiltrate the city and create trouble. The people responded as before; by praying to God and posting guards to the weakest points of the wall. They looked up the Lord for strength but they did not stand with their heads in the sky, also immediately we see a practical response as they post guards around the city day and night to meet the threat. The primary point though is the balance between the vertical assurance of faith and their simple horizontal actions.
We as the people of God must be of the same mindset; seeking the Lord first in all trials and frustrations (Looking up) and then acting from there (Looking out). The Christian life is a partnership of heaven and earth, it is a relationship built on trust and management and it is the pattern we see throughout the book. The upward glance of prayer than the out working of management and it must be the partnership we model our lives on and our mission on. It is not that with a simple prayer God will provide a solution to our problems, but it works to ground the reality of our situation in a bigger reality: The sovereignty of God.
When your people have concerns, they might be valid (10-13)
From verse ten the passage begins to reveal more of the situation: We soon learn that the people are tired, scared and frustrated. In these few verses, we see what it is like to be stuck between the now and the not-yet. We could call it: half-way-frustrations. It is a hard thing to read, yet freeing because it paints a picture that is real and that all of us who are committed to the building the kingdom of God can relate to: This is not an idealised picture of life in Jerusalem as romantic as chapter three where everyone is getting stuck in, this is a picture of life when the going gets tough. We see a snapshot of the feelings and fears in the camp, there are growing misgivings and spreading rumours about the work and the opposition they are facing. Yet these fear and failures are not to be dismissed, they are an internal threat that could do more damage than the enemy outside. the labours have been giving it they’re all for a long period of time – they have grown tired. They look around there seems to be as much rubble lying on the streets as when they started, they begin to question what is the point and why are we doing this? It was a natural sinking of heart at the half way stage, then as we read this passage there seems to be a growing confidence and desire for conflict as they Jews who live near them carry word of the attack. They carry their fears. The workers are many, yet their concerns are few: They are tired physically and spiritually and scared for their life.
Nehemiah does not dismiss the concerns of his people as stupid, he does not rebuke them for their lack of faith. He does see them as less spiritual: he hears the concerns of all because they are valid and have foundation. These are the people at the wall who know the reality of being at the wall. Nehemiah listen and then reacts accordingly: It is immediate and simple, he stations armed guards on the wall by their family grouping. He kept people in the sections of the wall they were familiar with and had been working on but this time with a different task. He also seems to halt construction for a period, this is not just a posting of guards it is a call to war and changing of the task. We as Christians and those who lead are called to listen, to understand the reality of the people and if necessary change course, change plan even if it delays the end goal because often the people have valid concerns and frustrations.
Remember it for God and not ourselves (14)
The appeal of verse 14 shows a consistent value of Nehemiah throughout this book. He recognises the relationship between the vertical and horizontal planes of life: God as always is the first port of call, Awesome and Mighty but he also shows awareness of the importance and intricacies of human relationships that bind us together: family ties and friendships that are integral to human life and character. He calls the people to fight from God for one-and-another because there are less danger and excess in the call to serve and fight with their brothers and sisters than some high-sounding theological battle cry that may sound heavenly but lacked little substance. We are called in the same way to first remember the greatest and Awesomeness of who God is and what he has done for us, and then to serve with one-another and for one-another. The same verse for us today would simply be:
Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and services for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
Plan change but the task remains the same (15-21)
There seems to be a lull and it is accepted as a chance to go back to work and finish the task that they have been set to. Nehemiah, however, does not face new situations with old tactics. Already in this chapter, we have seen him deal with three different situations in three unique ways. Now, as the people go back to work, they are ready for battle. The task remains the same but as the situation has changed so does the plan, Nehemiah and the people are willing to follow a different road and work in a different way even to the say end goal.
This is the famous sword-and-trowel (The title of Spurgeon’s magazine) exercise that could have been deadly for the people, but as ever the new strategy is well organised: Builders, needing their hands-free, kept a sword by their side; Carries, with freer movement, carried their weapons ready for anything. There was also a plan for engagement, this was not simply about army people to fight to the death if conflict came. There were planning and organisation, the people would respond to the sound of a trumpet abandoning their position and task to go and reinforce their brothers. Also, the people worked shifts; Meaning both the load of the work was spread, allowing time for rest but also there would always be men specifically at the task of guarding. There was also an obvious structure as officers manned the wall further back to organise the people and keep stock, then even further back there was the main command of Nehemiah and those who had the trumpet with him.
However, even with all this effort and organisation, Nehemiah knew that all of this was of limited value unless their confidence and faith were in the right place, he knew that all their work and fighting would be in vain unless they were doing it for and from God. Verse 20: Our God will fight for us. So we to in
We must be ready to serve God (21-23)
The final few verses show that the tactic’s and new reality seem to have had a displacing effect on the people, as the tiredness has subsided and they commit to the task with renewed vigour, courage and faith. We are giving a picture of men who will not stop until their work is done; under the sun of the day and the stars of the night they work and stand guard. They are committed to the task God has commissioned them to. Oh, if this would be our heart and desire, that by day and night, no matter the season we would get on with our task of bringing about the kingdom of God. The people where workmen by day and guards by night, committed to the work of God and flexible in how they would fulfil it.
Verse 23, is a note to the future. A note for what to look for: Nehemiah is a leader here in the future sense as he sets the example. He lives as he asks the other people to live, he serves as he asks them to serve and he leads where he wants them to go. He did not see himself as equal to the people, he knew he was their leader but he knew he was called to the same task as the people and so set about doing his bit for it. He was willing to do what he wanted everyone to do and used his resources to make his contribution more effective.
In Tanzania, we kept on going. We got over our frustration and trusted that God’s hand would be upon us and guide us and we set to the task that he had commissions us to do. We did so in prayer, and as time progressed it became clear that the heart and picture God had given me was meant to be a reality. We had a meeting and where it turned out we only had enough to do one thing or another, through resource and appear we ended up with more than enough, not only able to put a roof on the church and a floor in but to do more than enough. God provided for the horizontal when where kept our eyes on the vertical. Even in tiredness and frustration.
I want to close with two thoughts: All of this, the Christian life of service and sacrifice is pointless unless you have got the vertical perspective unless you know your need for a saviour. Our Vertical is the cross of Jesus Christ, as we look to it we are given our perspective. There would have been people working away on the wall who was never able to look up and said with confidence that God is Mighty and Awesome. Maybe this morning, the Holy Spirit is working in you to challenge you to look up, to know your sin but also the grace that God wants to give to you. He wants to give you a heavenly perspective so that you do not define your worth by the task at hand but by the Son he gave for you, he wants you to know that you serve him as a Son and Daughter who has equity with Christ.
As the work draws on and the wall nears completion and there was still much to do Nehemiah uttered a simple prayer (6:9 NIV):
““Now strengthen my hands.”
There are those of us who feel tired, who have been doing this a long time and like the men of the stone as they look at the stones they have lifted and the work they have done it seems to pale in comparison to what is still to do. God does not call us to do this alone, or even on our own strength. In Christ and through Christ the Holy Spirit works in us to give us strength for the day ahead and the task at hand. If you are feeling tired, weary or as you look ahead and wonder if the work can be done. If your hands, body our spirit feels weary this simply make this your prayer: Now Strengthen my hands Lord and allow the Holy Spirit who is in you and working in you to renew you.