October 9, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FOLLOW THE LEADER: NEHEMIAH
Nehemiah 2: 9-12, 17-20
The fifth in a series of seven.
There’s another debate tonight. They’ve been running them without commercial breaks, which seems a little odd. For one thing, 90 minutes is a long time to go without a bathroom break. I’m talking not just about the candidates. I’m talking about you and me as we watch. For another thing, with all the people watching, think of all the money that could be made on commercials. We could nearly pay off the national debt!
This sermon series ties in with the presidential campaign. Not that I’m trying to persuade you to vote for one candidate or the other. What we are doing in this series is looking at what the Bible teaches about leadership through the stories of great leaders. Today we look at Nehemiah.
Last week it was Esther. Esther – a woman, who ranks right up there with the men as one of the great leaders in the Bible. Because you see, women can lead just as well as men. Maybe better. But in case you think that sounds suspiciously like a political endorsement, I want you to notice that this week we are talking about a man who was also a great leader. Not only that, but a man who wanted to build a wall. Yes, we do try hard to keep things fair and balanced around here.
Here’s how the stories of Esther and Nehemiah fit together. Esther comes first (even though she comes second in the order of books in the Bible). They both tie into the period of time after the Jews were exiled to Babylon.
The Persians had defeated the Babylonians. They were the new great world power. And Cyrus, King of Persia, decided to allow the Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem to do so. Those who returned rebuilt the temple. But not all of them returned. Many had gotten used to their new life in Babylon, now Persia. Remember, Jeremiah told them to build houses and plant gardens and have families and settle in for the long haul. They had done all that, and life wasn’t so bad. A lot of them would just as soon stay.
Esther was one who stayed. She is queen while Xerxes, the negative example of last week’s story, is king. It’s a few years later that Nehemiah comes along. He’s another Jew who also chose to stay behind. He lives in Susa, the capital of Persia. The Persian king now is Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes.
Nehemiah has a good life, real good. He’s the king’s cupbearer. That means more than just bringing him his wine (and sampling it first to make sure it hasn’t been poisoned). The cupbearer was a high position that included financial oversight of the kingdom.
So Nehemiah is doing pretty well in life. He really doesn’t need a new project to give him meaning and fulfillment in his life, but then he gets the news. Things are bad, really bad for the Jews who have gone back home to Jerusalem.
Here’s a timeline to help you keep all this straight:
587 BC – Fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon.
538 BC – Cyrus allows the first Jews to return to Jerusalem.
516 BC – Jerusalem temple is rebuilt.
480 BC (?) – Esther saves her people from annihilation.
445 BC – Nehemiah’s wall is built around Jerusalem.
Every leader we’ve looked at exemplifies different leadership qualities, all of them important. Nehemiah, more than anything else, exemplifies persistence. He just won’t give up. He just keeps coming. You can’t stop Nehemiah. He is determined to build that wall.
I’ve asked Carol, our office manager, to prepare this slide to help you find where you are on the continuum between “easily discouraged” and “just won’t stop”.
Be honest. Are you more like Popeye the Sailor Man? “That’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more!” Or are you more like Charlie Brown. “Oh, good grief . . . ”
You start a diet, but you’re getting hungry for all those old foods you crave, so you quit. You are determined to instill in your child a certain character quality, but you get so much push-back you just let it slide. You want to get your financial life under control, but it’s getting painful so you revert to old habits. You want to show up for work with your best self and let God’s light shine through you, but your work environment is so toxic it’s easier to just be like everyone else. You pray about something persistently, but when you don’t get the answer you are looking for, you stop praying.
Life is not about a lot of the things we think life is about – it’s not about who is more talented or more intelligent or more charming or more attractive. Life is really about who quits last. Who has the most persistence.
There was a young man who had fallen in love. He was determined to persuade this special girl that they belonged together. He was a little more convinced of this than she was, but that would change. Because he was persistent. Even though they didn’t live in the same town, he mailed her a love letter every day. Every day for a year. That’s persistence. Finally she wrote him back. She told him she had decided to marry the postman.
We’ve used Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great in this series a couple of times. Here’s something from that book to introduce the story of Nehemiah.
The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation.
Nehemiah was exasperatingly persistent. He was constitutionally incapable of capitulation. His story begins with troubling news out of Jerusalem. Visitors to the palace report that things are real bad back there.
The survivors there . . . who escaped exile are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire (Nehemiah 1:3).
The next verse tells us that when Nehemiah heard these words he wept and mourned for days. And fasted. And prayed. He prayed that God would use him to do something about this sad situation. He gets to the end of his prayer and he says, “Give success to thy servant today” (1:12).
At this point you can see that Nehemiah is bound and determined to rebuild that wall. Nothing will stop him. But you can also see something else that is very important. He understands that no matter how determined as he is to get the job done, he’s going to need God’s help. He’s not going to succeed alone. So he prays to God: “Give success to thy servant today.”
Why is building this wall such a big deal? In the ancient world you had to have a wall around your city for it to be a safe place. To have a vibrant economy, you had to know that your city was secure from enemy attack. So a strong wall meant jobs, it meant food, it meant children free to play and learn and grow up without parents having to worry about them.
And more than that, having a wall that is still lying in ruins 140 years after that terrible day when Babylon destroyed their city, was embarrassing. It made them feel ashamed. It not only meant their enemies would attack them. It meant their enemies would laugh at them.
That is why Nehemiah is determined to rebuild this wall. With God’s help. His story is a model of persistence. His story also asks us an important question: When is it time to quit when we are doing something God is calling us to do?
It was quite a journey for Nehemiah, from Susa in Persia to Jerusalem in Judea. The shortest route would have been about 600 miles. The trade route he more likely followed was more like 1000 miles. My research tells me it would have likely taken him through the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. Has anybody heard that city in the news lately? I think our Libertarian candidate for president finally has. There is terrible suffering in Aleppo, Syria today.
Our scripture picks up with Nehemiah getting close to his destination. That’s when he meets two people who are going to become thorns in his side. Their names are Sanballat and Tobiah. They are power brokers who live nearby. We are told “it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (2:10).
So right at the beginning there is opposition. There are powerful people standing in his way. They want him to fail. Maybe they just hate Israel. Maybe they are afraid that a fortified Jerusalem will be a threat to them. Whatever the reason, Nehemiah now knows that this is going to be harder than he thought. This is going to be harder than what he signed up for. So maybe it’s time for him to quit. No, it’s not time to quit yet. Hard is not a reason to quit. Nothing worthwhile we do for God is ever easy.
Nehemiah takes Sanballat and Tobiah’s less than enthusiastic welcome into account as he does something strange. He gets up in the middle of the night and he inspects the job site. Why the middle of the night? He does not want to be seen. People might talk. He doesn’t need more opposition than he already has.
Then he gathers the people of Israel together and lays out his vision. The people buy in. They say with great enthusiasm, “Let us rise up and build” (2:18). So now it’s looking real good. It will be easy from here on.
Wrong. The very next verse tells us the opposition is back. And worse than before. Now Sanballat and Tobiah have added a third antagonist. Geshem. The three of them gang up to mock and to ridicule. They inform Nehemiah’s work crew that they are in rebellion against the king. Which isn’t true. The king of Persia knows Nehemiah is in Jerusalem. He has sent him with his blessing. But now their enemies are using this scare tactic. They want them to be afraid the Persian army is going to swoop in any time and take them on. Fear saps strength. It’s going to be hard for Nehemiah to get any work at all out of his workers now.
So maybe it’s time now for him to quit? No. Persistent Nehemiah keeps right on going.
Notice how he responds to the opposition. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t defend. He doesn’t attack. He doesn’t taunt back. He simply shares his faith in God and also his resolve. “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding” (2:20).
In chapter 3, the construction begins. Things are moving along, but there is a problem. The nobles are refusing to humble themselves and lay bricks (3:5). They are too good for manual labor. Maybe they can sit in the air-conditioned construction trailer so they won’t have to sweat. So here is another challenge.
Maybe this is the sign? Maybe this is telling Nehemiah it’s time to quit? No, it’s not time. Not yet.
The rest of the chapter goes into detail telling how, except for the nobles, they are all working together now. Things are humming right along. They are cooperating, making progress, getting the job done. Looks like smooth sailing from here on.
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed . . . “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? . . . Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble?” . . . Tobiah the Ammonite who was at his side said, “What are they building? – if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” (4:1-3)
Does anybody here have any experience at all with negative people? It is scary how much power there is in negativity. If we give it power. If we listen to the negative voices and ignore the positive voices. If we listen to the loudest voices and ignore the wisest voices.
Is it time to quit now, Nehemiah? Not quite. Not yet.
What comes next is a prayer. Prayer is talking with God about what God and I are doing together. The more the opposition comes, the more Nehemiah prays. The very next verse tells us two important things: they are working now with all their heart and they are half-way there (4:6). Whole-hearted, half-way to the finish line. That’s the power of prayer! But the job isn’t done yet, and the opposition has not gone away.
Half-way can be a difficult place. I used to run marathons. Mile 13 was always tough. You’ve come a long way. You’re tired. But you still have a long way to go. The initial energy and enthusiasm is gone. When you can see the finish line, there’s usually a little something extra you can will into existence. There’s joy in the start. There’s joy in the finish. There’s agony in the middle. That’s where you’re vulnerable. That’s where you might think about quitting.
And in this story that’s precisely where the opposition resurfaces with a vengeance.
But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it (4:7-8).
It takes a map to see how dramatic this is. Sanballat represents Samaria to the north, and now we are told that we also have the Arabs to the south, the Ammonites to the east (that’s where Tobiah is from), and Ashdod to the west, all of them joining forces to stop Nehemiah. He is surrounded!
And it gets worse. We learn next that there is trouble not just from the outside but from the inside, too.
Meanwhile, the people of Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall” (4:10)
It doesn’t get better in the next verse.
Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work” (4:11).
Now they are getting death threats. And that’s not all. The next verse:
Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us” (4:12).
Ten times! It’s almost like these negative people get a kick out of being negative. “It’s never going to work. It’s never going to work. It’s never going to work . . . ” Over and over and over the same negative message! How much more of this can he take?
So congratulations Nehemiah! You got further than anyone could have expected. Half a wall is better than no wall. But surely now is quitting time. Not this Nehemiah, exasperatingly persistent Nehemiah, constitutionally incapable of capitulation Nehemiah. He says, “No. It’s not time to quit. Not yet.”
It’s not the ideal work situation, but Nehemiah comes up with a way to move forward. Half the men work, the other half stand guard. And Nehemiah gives a speech that gives them the courage they need:
Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes (4:14).
There are still more challenges. In chapter 5 we learn of a serious situation involving social injustice. The poor in Jerusalem and Judea were starving. They were having to mortgage or sell their homes and their land, in some cases even their children. And it was other Jews who were taking advantage of the situation and getting rich off it. Something had to be done. So Nehemiah makes a moral appeal to the wealthy and they agree to give back the money they had gained in this way.
In chapter 6 Sanballat is at it again. He is spreading false rumors. That Nehemiah’s real agenda through this whole thing is to make himself king. He is actually saying that he has heard these rumors from others, though they really came from him. He’s saying he’s worried about Nehemiah. He just wants to help. Of course it’s only the latest in the long series of attempts to intimidate Nehemiah.
It’s getting kind of old by now. Nehemiah is not intimidated in the least. He sends Sanballat this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head” (6:8). Then the opposition actually hires an Israelite to tell Nehemiah people are coming to kill him and that he’d better hide out in the temple. In other words, it’s time to quit. At least you can still escape with your life. But Nehemiah is not a quitter. Not yet.
Finally we come to Nehemiah 6:15 & 16:
So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this . . . they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.
It took Nehemiah’s persistence. It also took God’s help. But God and Nehemiah and all the people he so ably led finished what they had set out to do. Is it time to quit now, Nehemiah? Yes, now it is time to quit.
So what have we learned? It’s really pretty simple. The time to quit doing what God has called you to do is when it is finished. Not when it’s hard, not when it’s painful, not when it’s costly, not when there’s opposition, not when you’re tired, but when it’s finished.
Have you finished what God has called you to do? Don’t quit until you have. Because:
The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation.
People like Nehemiah.
Some of us, dear God are over on that “easily discouraged” side of the scale. Some of us give up and give in and stop trying way too early. So we pray for persistence. We pray that you will help us see the finish line even when it’s far away and gain strength and courage we didn’t know was there. Most of all, we pray that we will rely on you for help. For without you we can do nothing. And with you there is nothing we cannot do. In Jesus’ name, Amen.