MESSAGE FOR MAY 16, 2004 FROM NEHEMIAH 4:1-23
The pulpit ministry in this church is almost exclusively given to bringing the truth of God’s word to bear in a general way. That is, most messages are not preached with the intention of addressing specific issues within the church at the present moment. This morning we will break that pattern because something occurred this week in our church that in my view requires some specific, time-sensitive and Lord willing, prophetic exposition from the word of God. As most of you know, last summer Mount of Olives began a capital campaign with the goal of raising enough money to expand the Lord’s growing ministry through the construction of a major new addition. The amount pledged to this date is slightly in excess of $1.5 million dollars. Though that was less than was required to totally complete the project, after several major cuts in the proposed plan, we on the building committee believed on good counsel that this amount would be adequate to construct the proposed facility seen in the model in the church foyer. This Tuesday, the bids from the contractors were opened and after totaling the low bids, the project is now estimated to cost in excess of $2 million dollars.
The church board, armed with that knowledge unanimously voted Tuesday to NOT solve this problem by borrowing money. There were several grounds on which that decision was based not the least of which were 1. the clear biblical teaching on the lack of wisdom involved in accruing long term indebtedness, 2. our oft-stated commitment to the church to avoid long term debt and 3. the fact that from the beginning this addition was to facilitate ministry expansion and a large debt would cripple any possibility for ministry expansion. You don’t expand a ministry with a multi-thousand dollar monthly mortgage payment on your back. What that means is we are somewhere around $500,000 short of the funds needed to build the proposed project.
I am being honest with you, when I heard that news by God’s grace my heart soared because the first thought that came into my head was, “Now, we get to see God REALLY work in our midst.” I don’t know HOW he is going to work and it is not my job to lay out the possible solutions. The building committee is hard at work going through that process, looking at as many reasonable options as they can find and will present those to the church next week. There is no escaping the fact that this is a REAL problem and it’s a God-sized problem. But we are called to work through these kinds of problems as a church in a way that brings honor to God. As we’ve said before many times, more important than the ultimate solution God provides to the problem is the process we go through to find his solution. We are called to honor God not only in the discovery of his answer but in the process of discovery. If we by his grace arrive at his solution to the problem but in the process have dishonored God through division and infighting, then we have failed because our ultimate goal as a church is not to build a bigger facility but to bring honor to our King in everything we do.
The first step in working through any God-honoring process in the church is to go to the book. I believe God is grieved by the evangelical church in North America that so often, when it is confronted with these kinds of challenges, goes for answers to the business community or to other fallen sources of human wisdom, while leaving on the shelf the ultimate source of problem solving, the word of God. This morning, we hope to not only look into God’s word to mine eternal, truth-laden principles for working through this current challenge but to bring honor to God by going to HIS book to tell us what the process of problem solving should look like. A logical question at this point might be, “where in the word of God can we find a text that speaks to the context of God’s people crashing head on into a huge obstacle in the midst of a building project?” It just so happens there is a fairly close parallel this problem in God’s word so with a sense of anticipation at the excitement of finding GOD’S answer to this kind of problem, let’s turn to Nehemiah chapter four.
You’ll recall that when God’s people were released from their captivity, they return to a badly destroyed Jerusalem. God uses a scribe named Ezra to lead God’s people in the construction of the temple but the people have been back in Jerusalem about 90 years and still have yet to rebuild the wall surrounding Jerusalem without which it was impossible for them to survive as a city in the Ancient Near East. God raises up a man of God in the person of Nehemiah to lead his people in the reconstruction of the wall. After an initial assessment of the scope of the project and an enthusiastic and promising beginning, in chapter four of Nehemiah the people of Israel are confronted with some glaring challenges to the completion of the project. So let’s look into the word to glean from it truths that will arm us for the challenges that lay ahead of us.
Nehemiah is speaking and he says, “Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?" 3Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, "Yes, what they are building— if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!" 4Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.
6So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. 7But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. 8And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 9And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. 10In Judah it was said, "The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall." 11And our enemies said, "They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work." 12At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, "You must return to us." 13So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, "Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes." … [v.21]“So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out. 22I also said to the people at that time, "Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day." 23So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.”
The fundamental truth of this text which applies to our current situation at Mount of Olives is this—If we are to accomplish what God is calling us to do, we must first understand the primary nature of the challenge before us. The bible is clear on this point and that is that our fundamental challenge for the church within any problem is not in the material realm. Its not monetary, it’s spiritual. Our fundamental problem is NOT that we are short half a million dollars to complete the project. That’s a fact and a stubborn one at that but that is not the essence of our problem. Let me give you two reasons why money is not the main issue here. First, our problem cannot be financial because our ultimate banker is God—Jehovah Jireh and his resources are limitless. The challenge at hand may be measured within that material realm in dollars and cents but because God is our Provider our fundamental issue is not with dollars but with our hearts. The essence of the problem is spiritual. Second, by far the most serious threats posed to the church are not through material challenges. Those seldom destroy churches. In fact, if managed according to correctly applied biblical principles they provide God with an opportunity to teach us something or several things about himself and his ways.
Where churches end up bringing dishonor to God is not generally by an unexpected shortage of funds or teachers or staff per se but where they are sometimes deeply torn and even brought down is in HOW THEY RESPOND to those challenges. You see, when the church is confronted with serious challenges those not only provide God with a chance to work, they also provide ripe opportunities for the enemy to work against us. And make no mistake, just as sure as you are sitting there he has already strategized a diabolical plan to convert this current dilemma into a church-rending debacle. We are foolish if we do not think he is already working out his plan to exploit this time of testing to his advantage. Paul in Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
What we want to do this morning by God’s grace is to expose his tactics so that we as a church will not fall prey to him during this season of great opportunity and great vulnerability. We have a great opportunity to see God work in miraculous ways during this season of our church, but we must not forget that times of great opportunity are often times of great vulnerability as well. With that understanding, let’s look into the text to expose both the tactics of the enemy and biblical strategies for coming through this process in a way that honors God, builds up his church and defeats the enemy. Tactic number one is seen in verses one through three where we meet a man named Sanballat. Sanballat is introduced in chapter two as opposing the building project and here in chapter four he relentlessly works to thwart it. We don’t know much about this man or his deputy, Tobiah. An ancient Egyptian document has been found indicating this Sanballat was the governor of Samaria. As a Horonite, that placed him in one of two cities, both of which were about 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem and which guarded the main road into Jerusalem.
Verse one says, “Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?" 3Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, "Yes, what they are building— if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!" The first opposition tactic of the enemy is to bring discouragement through ridicule. One of the most powerful weapons the enemy has in his arsenal is discouragement. If you do a word study on the word translated “discourage” in the Old Testament, you’ll find it is very often used in the context of spiritual warfare. Discouragement breeds self-pity and division and quarrelling and is something we should be careful to battle against. Make no mistake, when you have worked for years to expand a facility only to find you don’t have the funds to build it, discouragement can easily come in, especially to those who have worked hardest on the project and to those who feel the greatest need for the expansion. We mustn’t see discouragement as a normal, inevitable or acceptable result of this present difficulty for our church. It originates with our enemy and the adversary will be working very hard to plant these toxic, God-dishonoring, church threatening seeds in the days ahead.
He does that here through the ridicule heaped by Sanballat as he sarcastically asks these five questions of the Jews’ building project. He calls them feeble or weak, pathetic. He questions their will and capacity to complete the project. He questions whether they have the endurance to see it through and he questions whether it is even possible. He taunts them by pointing out all the negatives—he magnifies each challenge to completion. In our context we might hear his voice saying things like, “Do you know how much money half a million dollars is? If its necessary do your really think this church will give an additional 500K to this project? Do you believe a new building will just appear out of the sky? Do you know what you have to show for five years of work to get a new building?” When you hear those things from people or your own head, you are listening to the enemy who is trying to bring discouragement through ridicule. We must turn a deaf ear to that because although it is often given under the guise of common sense, it is intended to destroy us.
A second tactic used by the enemy in times like this is found in verse 10. Nehemiah reports, “In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we are unable to rebuild the wall.” Again we see discouragement and this time it’s brought on not by Sanballat but by the seemingly overwhelming challenges they were facing. This tactic of Satan involves bringing discouragement through fatigue. The people had made a good start but it seemed the more they cleared and built, the more rubble they were faced with moving and they were becoming exhausted by the work. The idea of completing the project seemed impossible—they felt horribly inadequate for the task. They needed to hear what Jesus told Paul when he was being relentlessly buffeted by the enemy in 2 Corinthians 12:9. “but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”…” Human weakness and inadequacy in the face of daunting circumstances is simply not a problem for God. In fact, he delights to place us in situations where we are in so far over our head we will drown without him. He loves to put us way out at the very end of the limb because then he can show his might by rescuing us.
In our context, it may seem like coming up with more money or another plan quickly or an alternate facility is simply too hard and this may be especially the case for those who have been working diligently on this project for a long time. Some of these folks are weary and this latest development has only increased their temptation to fatigue. We need to be praying for the building committee that they would not grow discouraged. If we look too intently at the immensity of the need we all can, like these men from Judah, grow quickly discouraged.
In verse 11 we see another tactic of the enemy to bring discouragement. Nehemiah writes, “And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” The enemies were trying to bring discouragement through fear. Don’t miss the irony here. That is, this is a threat of a surprise attack but surprise attacks are by nature not telegraphed in advance. Because the threat is given it ruins the element of surprise. The point is, the enemy was not mainly concerned about pulling off a surprise attack. This was psychological warfare intended to bring discouragement through fear. Few things paralyze faith in God’s provision faster than fear. These men were trying to get the Jews to abandon the project out of fear for their lives. In our context, the enemy may attack in other areas of fear like, “We are going to be known as the church of bozos that could never finish what they started.” “We are going to get further into this and it will probably all come crashing down around our heads somehow.” “If you give the additional amount of money to this project God has placed on your heart, you won’t be able to pay your bills.” When we hear those kinds of fear-based lies, we must consider the source and reject them.
A final tactic of the enemy is seen in verse 12 where Nehemiah says, “At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” This tactic of the enemy is to demoralize from well-intentioned insiders. Not all the Jews who had returned from captivity lived in Jerusalem. There were many who did not and who were watching all this from a distance. Always be wary of people who give advice about a project who do not know what is going on! These people felt it was their responsibility to look out for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. They doubtless thought they were doing their fellow Jews in the city a big favor. The problem was that they were not involved in the project, didn’t have God’s mind on the issues and were, through their relentless appeals, demoralizing the group. When Nehemiah says that they told them ten times “You must return to us”—that is, “you must move out of the city and live in the country with us” that phrase “ten times” is an idiom. It wasn’t that they literally went up on ten occasions and warned them. No, the point is this was said over and over and over and over again. Often, the most devastating attacks come from inside the church. They come from people who wear genuine expressions of concern on their faces and will testify that they are “just looking out for you.” They are often unknowingly being used of the enemy to demoralize because it is very hard to respond wisely and productively to well intentioned WRONG people. We must be on the lookout for this tactic as well.
Those are some tactics we must be aware of in the days ahead as we work through this problem by God’s grace. Now, let’s close with three strategies we can employ to work against these tactics and all these strategies are faith-based. They all require faith. Strategy number one is utilize spiritual not carnal weapons. In verses four and five after Sanballat and Tobiah ridicule the project, Nehemiah prays, “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.” Nehemiah turns to God and prays what is actually a very spiritual prayer.
He could have turned on these two and in his carnality said something like, “Feeble, you call us feeble...just look at all these supplies we have been able to muster from the king of Persia…if you think this wall isn’t fit for a fox, just wait—it’ll be more than strong enough to keep you skunks out.” Instead, Nehemiah prays. Nehemiah’s prayer may not seem all that spiritual, but we must understand the form of this prayer before we evaluate it. This is an imprecatory prayer and even though it may sound like it, it is NOT a bloodthirsty call for revenge. Imprecatory prayers are not uttered for personal revenge. Nehemiah knows that he and the Jews in Jerusalem are God’s people doing God’s project and when Sanballat and Tobiah ridicule the project they are in fact ridiculing God. Nehemiah knows this is an offense against God and he prays for God to bring HIS own retribution on HIS enemies. This prayer is a call for God to vindicate himself and his honor. That’s exactly how we should be praying! We should be praying things like, “God, for your Name’s sake, do miracles—bring glory to your name by working in such a way that no one could be able to take credit for this. Make this ministry expansion a cause for testimonies of your power to be given for generations. God, do what only you can do so you will receive all the glory.” That’s a spiritual prayer and we should be praying in that manner.
A second strategic truth is, we mustn’t mistake faith for presumption. When some people in the church talk about “doing things by faith” they often think that means all they have to do is pray and God will somehow mysteriously work it out while they are on the couch eating bonbons. That’s not the way Nehemiah models faith for us. In verse six after the ridiculing and Nehemiah’s prayer what did they do? “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They prayed but they also worked very hard with a mind to work! In verse nine after the death threats what did they do? “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” They prayed but they also posted a guard. That’s faith in action. They knew they needed God’s protection but they also knew God always uses a means of grace to accomplish his will and so they trusted God would protect them through the guards. Whatever option we end up pursuing we will, like the Jews need to work sacrificially. Depending on the solution the Lord provides, many of us might very well need to give much more money—that’s sacrifice. Whatever is ahead of us, we must pray but we must also be willing to sacrifice and know that God uses our sacrifices as a means of grace to accomplish his will.
A third strategy is to see the obstacles to victory in the light of God’s overwhelming power. In verse 14 as Nehemiah has given shoe leather to his prayers for protection by posting guards at the wall he says, “And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people,” Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome,…” If the people had spent their time staring at the rubble and the holes in the wall, they would have never completed the project. Nehemiah tells them that their gaze should not be fixed on their opposition or the difficulty of their task but rather on the Lord “who is great and awesome.” Half a million dollars is a lot of money when you look at it in a vacuum, but it’s a small bag of shells when seen in the light of the greatness and awesomeness of God. We must as individuals and as a church continue to fix our eyes on our great and awesome God who is more than able and not fixate on the enormity of the challenge before us. “Great is our God and abundant in power. His understanding is beyond measure.”[Psalm 147:5]
God has this week presented our church a glorious opportunity. We must by God’s grace rise to the task and honor Him through this process. The temptation for some will be to grumble and complain and play the blame game. We must have zero tolerance on those issues. God’s will is that we honor him in this process and wait with active, biblical faith to see what our part is in bringing about his wondrous plan for his church here at Mount of Olives. May God give us grace to do that for his glory.
Page last modified on 5/16/2004
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