Together We Build
Stories of people’s lives seem to hold great fascination. Princess Di, John F. Kennedy, OJ Simpson, Michele Obama, Michael Jordon. Magazines such as “People” sell because there is a natural curiosity to know about someone’s affairs. When will we stop hearing about Jon and Kate Gosselin’s personal saga? Not any time soon. I just read their new TV reality show will now be called “Kate plus 8.” On a more positive note, I read of a Bonnie Brown, a mentally disabled single mom who doesn’t drive a car, never had a bank account or a cell phone, with an IQ of 70, who is raising her twelve-year-old daughter; they have discovered this daughter is a gifted child. Intriguing facts.
Does this kind of curiosity grow out of nosiness? Perhaps this opportunity to peek into the life of a unique or famous person gives a picture of someone dealing either positively or negatively with the struggles of life. Stories from the lives of people paint powerful pictures. Aristotle once said, “The soul never thinks without a picture.”
There are many wonderful pictures of people in the Bible. This week “Time” magazine paints a huge portrait of Moses. We want to look at Nehemiah today as we see a powerful picture of faith, courage and vision. We will look at his portrait this morning and also next Sunday.
For a beginning look into his life, we find that Nehemiah was a high ranking officer to the king of Persia around the time of 445 B.C. His title was that of cupbearer, an honorable and influential position, and it was his duty to serve the royal table. In those days one of the best ways to dispose of a king was to poison him. To prevent this from happening, the cupbearer usually tasted the king’s wine before he was served. The cupbearer was prepared at every meal to die so that the king would be saved. It was a risky profession but the position understandably endeared him to the king and queen.
In our story we find Nehemiah looking quite sad and forlorn before the king one day and the king asking, “Nehemiah, what’s wrong?” Nehemiah responds by telling him he had a visit four months earlier from his brother and others who now live in Jerusalem. He learned that the walls of protection that surround the city of Jerusalem are broken down; the city is in great trouble politically and socially. Religiously there is no longer temple worship, no sacrifices being offered, and the Jews now living in Jerusalem have reverted back to the pagan practices of surrounding cultures. Jerusalem, Nehemiah concludes, has once again become a disgrace to the name of God.
As Nehemiah, a believing Israelite living in Persia, hears about these conditions, he becomes increasingly burdened about the situation. Why should he want to get involved? He already has a fine job of prestige and importance. But God desires to birth in Nehemiah a vision, to use him for a very important mission. Yes, the walls are broken down; the city is in a mess. However, Nehemiah begins to visualize it differently.
It has been said that a vision is born when someone is presented with the challenge between what is and what could be.
God births a vision, often times, in the most unsuspecting ways, to change a situation from what is to what could be. David was called from sheep-herding to become a king. Moses was called from the court of Pharaoh to lead a nation. Peter was called from fishing to become a disciple of Jesus. S. R. Smith was called from making noodles to become the first president of Messiah College. No doubt S. R. Smith had a picture in his mind’s eye of students sitting in a classroom. He had a vision of what could be and he started to dream about what he might do. And so did Nehemiah. He pondered long and prayed hard about the homeland of his ancestors. He was developing an inner conviction that he needed to respond to.
What does he do about it? Does he immediately pack his clothes and get together a contingent of workers to go to Jerusalem in the next two weeks?
The scripture says that Nehemiah was so burdened he sat down and wept for some days and mourned with prayer and fasting. He first took his burden to God with intense and heartfelt prayer. “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel” (Nehemiah 1:4).
We can tell by his prayer. The situation broke his heart. There was a holy discontent stirring inside him and he takes his concern to God. Nehemiah, known as a great planner and organizer, begins this vision adventure with God. Next week we will focus on his vision fulfilled. Today we see Nehemiah as a man of faith, a man of prayer. Prayer is an important first step in the development of God’s vision. Out of his reverence for God he asks Him to hear his prayers and intervene. What does his prayer include?
Nehemiah’s prayer moves quickly to one of confession. The children of Israel have not kept the covenant; they have sinned. He is grieved because they have broken the covenant. But he takes it one step further. He makes it personal by saying “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.” It is important to note that Nehemiah had not actually been alive when the Israelites were first taken into captivity. He was born and raised in captivity in Persia. However, he takes personal responsibility for the sins of his people. He doesn’t excuse himself or his people. So his prayer is both a personal prayer and a national prayer. As theologian, Ralph Turnbull, has said, “All of us have a part in the sins of the community, the city and the nation. That is why this prayer is public and not private alone. Our praying must say, ‘our trespasses, our debts.’ The solidarity of sin makes us all kin in this. We are made of one blood and sin binds us together.” Before Nehemiah can ask God for guidance, He asks for forgiveness for His people and himself.
Then what does Nehemiah do? He waits and waits and waits some more. He knows it will take divine intervention for him to have the right opportunity to present his plan to the king, for he needs the king’s assistance to go to Jerusalem. No doubt he prays every day for an opportunity to speak with the king. We are told that four months pass. The development of a vision often takes a period of waiting. It is hard to wait, isn’t it? I don’t know about you but I must confess, I am not a good waiter! I suspect many of you can identify with me. We are not a society that likes to wait!
I know that many of us over the past several months have been concerned how long we must wait until we have a new pastor in place. Waiting seems so counter-productive. We are sure something ought to be done.
During the intervening time Nehemiah prays. “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man” (Nehemiah 1:11). God is at work behind the scenes preparing for the exact day his vision for Jerusalem will come to pass.
As with Nehemiah, vision is often birthed out of heartache and burden growing into a conviction that something not only could be done, but must be done. A passion builds into a sense of urgency. That must be how Nehemiah felt and he pours this out to God.
Nehemiah knows about the problems that need fixing in Jerusalem, yet his vision needs time to mature. Time helps to distinguish what is our own dream or idea and what is God’s vision. As Andy Stanley says in his book Visioneering, “We can no more rush a vision than we can rush the development of a child in the womb. Acting too soon on a vision is like delivering a baby prematurely. A preemie is weak and, as we know, sometimes does not survive outside the womb. Immature visions are weak and rarely make it.”
The same is true today. God is at work growing us, and maturing us and shaping us into His likeness. God is at work to prepare us for the vision that lies ahead. Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” Waiting times can be uncomfortable and unsettling. It is easy to become anxious about the future. Birthing and growing vision is hard work. It can be a soul-searching time. And it can be scary. However, growing a vision can be a wonderfully energizing time it is life-giving. Even the Bible reminds us that “where there is no vision, the people perish.”
I have been pondering recently just how a life-giving vision has been part of the past here at the Grantham Church. On the evening of May 1, 1995 a new vision was born as a congregational forum discussed accepting the college’s offer to relocate the Grantham Church to this current site. They began to visualize a picture of the future right here on this spot. What would the church look like? How would they bring together differing opinions? Would it be possible for all to agree on a new church structure? Late in the fall of 1995, as Morris Sider states in his history of our church, “ninety members of the church participated in a building workshop to plan the new structure, dividing into fifteen groups to make floor plans. Three plans were chosen and later refined by the builder.” A vision was indeed growing. Together the congregation took a big risk and acted on the vision. Together they would build.
Mike Huffnagle was named as the chair of the building committee and God used him to lead the congregation in achieving their vision. You could say that for that period of time, he became the Grantham church Nehemiah. By the time ground was broken on a Saturday in October, 1996 (13 years ago this month), the vision was coming to fruition. Then on June 7, 1998 the congregation walked onto their promised land in this very community where God’s vision became reality.
Approximately four years after the Grantham Church moved to this building there were new vision questions such as: What is our purpose? What are we about? What will be our vision for the future? Sunday School was cancelled in April and May of 2002 in favor of small groups. Alan Thrush, senior student at Messiah, another present day Nehemiah, led the congregation in having more discussions about vision. Out of that exercise, five purpose statements were birthed. Banners were created, and bookmarks such as the one in your bulletin were printed. We said that we envision our church desiring to be and do five things: 1) Worship God joyfully, 2) Follow Jesus faithfully, 3) Care for one another graciously, 4)Welcome all people warmly, 5) Share God’s reconciling love and peace globally. Powerful word pictures!
This is now October 2009. These purpose statements have united us throughout these past seven years. They have served us well. We still believe them. However, vision is about a picture of the future and our future continues to change. One thing we all can agree on: time never stands still. It is always moving, for some of us faster than ever! It means that standing still is not an option we dare take. Are we willing to move ahead thoughtfully, carefully, and spirit directed or will we go in reverse and lose ground? We must not be afraid to take Spirit-directed risks, just as on the day that ground was broken for the Grantham Church facility and you were willing to answer the question, “What do we want the future to look like here at Grantham, for our children and our grandchildren?” We ask ourselves these questions.
However, there are two important questions we must ask God at this crossroad.
First, “God, what do you have in mind for the Grantham Church for the next 15, 20 or 30 years? What picture do you see, God?” Are we willing to hear God speak to us through prayers of humility just like Nehemiah? We must be courageous and full of faith, like Nehemiah, as we ask those questions.
The second question: “God, is there anything in our church that is displeasing to you?” Are we each willing to ask God if he thinks our hearts (that means our motives and our attitudes) are right before Him, not just personally but as a body of believers? Confession of sin is just as important today as it was in the day of Nehemiah. Over the years in the life of any church, difficult situations and misunderstandings can spawn a critical spirit. Someone gets upset; hurt feelings build up. At the time someone ought to say, “I’m sorry,” but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Someone carries a grudge and when reconciliation doesn’t take place, these misunderstandings can grow under the surface like a cancer sending out its tentacles to the whole body for years to come. Corporate confession and forgiveness is critical for God’s vision to grow in any healthy church. Could we, just as Nehemiah did, take corporate responsibility for any sinful attitudes that may hinder the work of God’s Spirit among us?
Nehemiah’s prayer is also one of dependency. He cries out to God to grant Him favor. No matter how secure he felt before the king, he was fearful and realized that God’s work is so much bigger than he. We are all woefully inadequate to know God’s ways for the future. We need God’s wisdom to know whether our dreams and visions are what He has in mind and what pleases Him.
This is a crucial time for us to be very attentive to hear God’s voice and not just our own or even popular opinion. He is in the process of preparing us collectively at the same time as he is preparing the person he wants to bring to be our leader here at Grantham.
What can we do while we wait? Earlier this summer, I encouraged us all with the three words - “remember to pray”. I know numbers of you have taken that seriously. You have told me. It is still the best reminder especially when we become anxious. Let’s remember to pray first!
You will find the bookmarks in the Body Life. Some of the info on the back is out of date, as I am sure you have noticed. This is primarily a reminder for us today, for us as a church family to re-unite and re-affirm these five statements that you chose in 2002 to define the vision of the Grantham Church. We still want to worship God joyfully, follow Jesus faithfully, care for one another graciously, welcome all people warmly, and share God’s reconciling peace and love globally.
Together, brothers and sisters, we must continue to build. Yes, the physical building was completed in 1998 but we are still building. Yes, a vision was agreed upon in 2002. But our vision must still be building. Today, the church needs all of us so that together we can build for today and also for the future.