September 19, 1999
NOW THAT I'VE GOT THE ENTHUSIASM,
WHY ARE THE PROBLEMS STILL HERE?
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
When last we met Nehemiah, he had a good work going. He had motivated the Israelite people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; and, beginning with the priests rebuilding the sheep gate in the northwest corner of the city, he had been able to enthuse a large crowd of workers to build. All sorts of people had joined in. There were meals and fellowship times and a spirit of excitement. People were behind the vision of Nehemiah. And then the problems came.
Everything is not a spiritual high. In spite of the promising start, this was a huge task and there was a sinking of the heart which we can see in the word spreading among the workers in verse 10, "we cannot rebuild the wall;" or, as the words might be translated, "we shall never be able to rebuild the wall by ourselves." We can feel their discouragement in the words right before this in verse 10, "the strength of the laborers is giving out."
Doesn't this sound like churches you know? For some of you, it may sound like your situation. Your strength is giving out. You think, if one more thing goes wrong, I've had it.
Let me tell you about John Wesley. Once in July, 1743, Wesley was preaching in St. Ives in Cornwall. His text was Isaiah 40:1, "Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God." A mob broke into the meeting house where he was preaching. They threatened to murder people. They broke the windows out of the place, tore away the shutters and took the benches. Several times they surrounded Wesley and lifted their clubs to strike him. A number of the women in the meeting were beaten and dragged about. In that situation Wesley says, "the more they raged, the more power I found from above. I bid the people stand still and see the salvation of God." And what happened was that the mob fell to arguing with one another and they drove one another out of the room.
George Whitfield preached under similar attacks. Once, after a particularly harrowing evening, he learned that his wife, who was in London, had delivered a son that evening. Whitfield left for London, greeted his wife and his baby boy, whom he named John, baptizing him to be a preacher when he grew up. Whitfield went out to preach nearby and again the violent crowds disrupted the meeting. Whitfield thereupon sent his wife and son away. It was January, and in the rough carriage ride and with the cold, the infant took sick and died. And Whitfield prayed, "God, imbue me with strength from above."
Have you faced those kinds of hardships? Nehemiah did.
And here is how Nehemiah responded:
1. Verses 1-6, he meets the taunts by prayer and by keeping the people working.
2. Verses 7-9, he meets the plots by prayers and by posting a watchful guard.
3. Verses 10-14, he meets stronger threats by a plan for defense and a call for people to remember the Lord as they have heard of him.
4. And in verses 15-23, they keep up the building and the watchfulness.
All their effort sounds like yet more work, but the effect, actually, was they no longer felt tired. As we shall see in chapters 5 and 6, there will be other problems to deal with, but here they begin to face them and the discouragement. Let's consider what they do.
1. In verses 1-6, we see that trouble comes from many directions. When Nehemiah first arrived in Jerusalem, the enemies of his people were disturbed, 2:10; then in 2:19, they are amused; then in 4:1, incensed. And as their animosity increases, so does their problem to the small community in Jerusalem. It is Paul the Christian who teaches us that Christians would suffer for Christ, Acts 14:22, "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." And in 2 Corinthians 1, this same Paul writes about why suffering comes, "this happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead." Now, the believer in Jesus has resources to help him and these resources are released in prayer. Prayer is crucial to our lives.
Nehemiah lived BC, but he understood this need to pray, so in verses 4 and 5, he prays. You can sense that he is angry at the enemies; but there is an anger that is not sinful. It's the anger Paul talks about when he says, "be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." (Ephesians 4:26) It is in a similar vein, Nehemiah prays, "hear us. O our God..., give these men over as plunder." That's the prayer of a man in desperate need. Only God could save them from discouragement.
Do you know how hard it is to believe that? When was the last
time you were discouraged? And what did you do? Did you pray?
Did you believe that God is more concerned about your discouragement
than you are? Prayer is not a device for removing trouble from
our lives, like a wizard's wand. Prayer is God's provision for
helping us cope with troubles.
But Nehemiah not only prays, in verse 6, he keeps the people working, and at this stage, they are working with all their heart. This is the first stage. Everyone is still enthusiastic. They aren't exactly thumbing their noses at Sanballat and his cohorts, but they are managing to ignore the taunts.
2. Then, secondly, the pressure increases. Verse 8, the enemies begin plotting and they are ready to fight if necessary. This is where the people join in a community prayer with Nehemiah in verse 9, "we prayed to our God." Nehemiah shares a prayer request and the people understood the need, and they joined together in prayer. So if we abbreviate verses 8 and 9, we read, "They plotted... but we prayed."
Paul Jamison's oldest grandson is a young man named Marcus. Steve Lane went to school with him in Massachusetts. Marcus is engaged to a young Christian woman from Maine. This woman's stepfather lives in Connecticut and does not want her to marry Marcus and has threatened to kill him. One night a few weeks ago, at 4:30 one morning, the stepfather and mother of this young woman broke into her apartment, expecting to find Marcus sleeping there, since that is the way of the world. But Marcus, a Christian, does not do that, so he wasn't there. But the stepfather, a huge, though out of shape man, quarreled with his daughter who called Marcus for help. When he came over, he was punched in the face, but having trained in judo, he subdued the man and would later back out of the apartment without calling the police. The two of them decided that instead of bringing a restraining order, which isn't always effective, and which would certainly alienate the parents from them, they would pray and ask their friends to pray for their safety and for Got to work in this man's life. That's a scary alternative. Imagine someone threatening your life, and what you do is pray for the Lord's protection. Is that enough? That's part of what Nehemiah does. But there's another part, he posts a guard.
Think about that combination. You have enough confidence in God to pray, and enough worldly wisdom to show the enemy that you're prepared.
3. In verses 10-14, the threats intensify. And finally, the pressure begins to affect the workers. How much pressure can we take before anxiety and sleeplessness and worry set in? This is where they recognize that the strength of the laborers is giving out. People are beginning to say, "we shall never be able to rebuild the wall by ourselves." It is understandable that people get discouraged. What resources do we have to fight discouragement? One of the many resources is the Word of God. In fact, Paul tells us that the very purpose of the Scriptures is to encourage us. Romans 15:4, 5, "For everything that was written in the past meaning in the Scriptures was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Notice that Paul doesn't say, through the Spirit, we might be encouraged, though one of the things Jesus says in John 14 is that the Spirit is "the encourager;" but Paul says, through the encouragement of the Scriptures.
The great thing about the Bible is that it is not romantic about life. Life can be tough and the Bible recognizes this. And so Nehemiah calls on the people to remember the Lord as they knew Him in their history.
What else does Nehemiah do?
Verse 13, he does one of those things they do in old cowboy films at the military fort when all the soldiers are away and only a few old men and the wives are in the fort, and the Indians attack. They get the Winchesters, and dress everyone up in uniforms and put them at every visible spot on the walls. And that's what Nehemiah does. Verse 13, he stations people behind the low points in the wall. Will this trick work? Nehemiah answers, in verse 14, by talking to people about faith in God, "Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome." We are little and not particularly awesome, but the Lord is great and awesome. So let's try our trick and trust God to deliver us, because we read in the Bible how, in the past, God has done that.
Nehemiah reminds the people what God is like. He is powerful
and holy. (Great and awesome are the NIV words.) God has promised
them He will meet the needs of His people. God is not about to
go back on His word. I had a friend in college who always had
surprising thing to say about God. He spent an hour each day
meditating on the Bible and that enabled him to see God in fresh
ways, and he would regularly share some of that. That's what
Nehemiah does in verse 14.
Now even if Christians know God and have devotions, we can forget God in the midst of tensions and disappointments. Remember the Lord, Nehemiah says. How could they forget? But of course, God's people do, and we often need to be reminded what God is like. Why does Paul say to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:8, remember the Lord? Because even this young disciple of Paul's could forget. Okay, something is not going your way. Don't forget who God is and what He can do in your life and defend the weak points in your life.
4. Verses 15-23, the rest of the chapter recounts how the people keep at the work and they arm themselves against the enemies. And here's the point. In spite of the plans and the prayers, in spite of the initial enthusiasm, and the progress they have made, they still need to sacrifice. Verse 22, they sleep in their clothes so people don't want to work too near where others are working and they work day and night. It gets tougher, but they have a great incentive.
Today people expect churches to be like theme parks. One midwestern church has this huge food court and drama groups that perform regularly. They have worship teams and discipleship groups. A theme park. If one little negative thing happens in a church, they leave and go to another church. When John Calvin was writing the Institutes as a young man, and preaching seven and eight times a week, he suffered attacks of quartan fever, tuberculous, renal colic, chest infections, gout, nephritis.
John Wesley, two centuries later, while he was winning souls to Christ by his preaching, suffered from an unhappy marriage.
John Bunyan the author of Pilgrim's Progress said once, "there is no man that goeth to heaven but he must go by the cross; the cross is the standing way mark by which all they that go to glory must pass by."
It is God who is invincible, not us. It is God who takes the measure of our foes, not us. It is God who sees us through. And each hard request, each thing you don't want to do, but are asked to do, is an invitation to prove that God is faithful.
Let's see how confident Nehemiah is of that. Verses 4, 9, he prays and believes God hears him. "Hear us, O our God!" In verse 14, Nehemiah believes God is powerful to help. Verse 15, he asks God to frustrate the things against us. Verse 20, he states that God is ready to fight for us. You see the effect on the whole city that one faithful man can have. He calls the people back to God. He helps them face discouragement.
This past week, Eleanor Vandevort put me onto Lilias Trotter. She lived from 1853-1928 and was a painter from an upperclass British family. John Ruskin, in a typical Victorian attitude toward women, once said he didn't think any woman could paint, but then he met Lilias Trotter and then said, now he believes no one else can.
When Dwight Moody preached in England, she went to his crusades and was soundly converted. Her response to conversion was to say, "I can't give myself to painting and continue to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness," and so she went as a missionary to Algiers, a fool's errand, Ruskin called it. This is her description of the place as she arrived, seen through her artist's eye:
"At sunset... the first peaks of land came into sight, dim and purple, and as the night darkened, the phosphorescence became wonderful, making a firmament of green starry flashes on the water beside the silver ones overhead. We went below for a time, (she was on board ship) and on coming up again there was another far-stretching cluster of golden stars, the lights of Algiers...."
Here was all the enthusiasm of a new place. And of course, among the Berber people and the Muslims of Algiers, what could a woman, even a talented and strong woman, do? And there were discouraging circumstances. This is what Lilias Trotter said, "All one can do is to begin far back, as God begins, with the little feeble beginnings and learn from Him how to make the utmost, meanwhile, of the bits of material that He has given us, poor though it may seem."
That's the spirit! And that's what Nehemiah does. That is what God wants of us. Is it hard? Sure it is. Otherwise life would be a snap. As it is, life is much more. Life is the testing ground God uses to show us who is truly obedient to Him. Are you?
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The Grantham Church
421 Grantham Road
Grantham, PA 17027