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In the summer before Aiden was born, I was still doing youth ministry in the Indianapolis area. I remember it being an unusually hot summer, and I felt bad for Christy because she had to spend the waning weeks of her pregnancy with a big belly and miserable weather conditions. There was one regular, weekly event that helped distract us from the sweltering heat and added a little pizzazz to our Thursday evenings. It’s my brother’s fault, really, that we got so caught up in it. They were visiting us one Thursday evening and told us about this new TV show that they had been watching. They talked about how great it was and how it was unlike anything they had ever seen. They asked us to watch it with them. So we agreed. I had heard about the show before and wasn’t all that impressed with the premise. A group of ‘castaways’ are placed on an island and forced to ‘Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast’ the competition in an effort to win 1,000,000 dollars. I thought it sounded kind of hokey. But Survivor mania was taking the nation by storm. And we figured we should see what all the buzz was about. And besides, Kevin and Liz liked it.
Well, we got sucked in to the Survivor hype. The show was amazing. There was drama, humor, and action – all under the guise of being a ‘reality’ show. We were hooked. From then on, we got together with Kevin and Liz every Thursday night to get our weekly Survivor fix. We’d guess about who was going to be voted off that week and who we thought was going to win the $1,000,000. And the ‘reality-show’ craze was born.
After the second or third season, I began to lose interest in the show. With every episode, I began to think, ‘I’ve seen this before.’ It had lost its luster, and we began to find other things to do besides watch the show that had at one time seemed so fresh and so exciting. This past Thursday, I watched my first Survivor episode in several seasons. While I’m not entirely sold on the show, there was something very memorable about this week’s episode. For the first several days (maybe even weeks), the ‘castaways’ are divided into two teams, or tribes. These tribes compete against each other in physical and mental challenges to receive rewards and to establish which tribe must vote a member off at the end of the show. In the hours leading up to Thursday’s ‘immunity challenge,’ a girl and her friend overheard two other guys plotting strategy. During the discussion, she discovered that she was in danger of being voted off the island if their team lost the immunity challenge. She was a very small girl, and was considered to be a weakness to the tribe. The challenge was an elaborate relay. One person had to use a sword to chop through seven thick ropes and release a set of weights. After releasing the weights, they handed the sword to a teammate who would then do the same thing to another set of ropes. This would continue until all of the puzzle pieces were released. Then two players on each team were to figure out the puzzle, put it together, and drag it across the finish line.
The small girl, who probably weighed 75 pounds soaking wet, was the first person up for her team. She grabbed the sword and took a whack at the first rope. She had so little strength that her sword just seemed to bounce off the rope. She tried a few more times and you could just see the frustration on everyone’s face. ‘I knew she couldn’t do it,’ some of the expressions began to say. ‘Look – we’re going to lose because of her.’ And you could see it in her body language, too. With every attempt, you could see her becoming more and more discouraged. She looked like she just wanted to crawl into a hole. With each rope her opponents managed to cut, she’d look around – obviously embarrassed and feeling completely isolated and alone. You could see the voices of her fellow tribe-mates were beginning to haunt her. They were echoing in her head and it was showing in how she acted. And every time she swung her sword, it bounced off the rope, having minimal effect on the rope. At best, she began to put a half-hearted effort towards cutting the ropes. She looked like she was ready to give up. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally managed to slice through the ropes, using the sword like a saw. By the time she cut through all of her ropes, the opposing tribe was already working on putting their puzzle together. She went back to her tribe, obviously devastated. She looked like she wished she had something to crawl under and hide. She had been completely discouraged.
And that’s how life can be sometimes, can’t it? You’re going along, confident in how your life is going and where God is leading you, when – WHAM – your sword bounces off the rope. You happen to stumble, and the lifelong series of hurts, insults, and obstacles that you have experienced over the years all come flooding back to you. The voices begin to taunt you. “He’s no good.” “See, I told you she wouldn’t amount to anything.” “Why are you doing that? You’re not going to live very long anyway.” And they continue to echo in your subconscious. The question is – how do you react?
Which leads us to today’s text. Turn with me to Nehemiah 2, beginning in verse 11. Remember, it’s after 1 & 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah. Before Esther, Job, and the Psalms. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to the one in the pew in front of you. Nehemiah 2:11 is found on page in that Bible.
Remember, the land is occupied by the Persian kingdom. Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the king, has found out that Jerusalem, the holy city, a visual representation of the power of God, was still in ruins many years after its initial destruction. After asking praying and fasting for four months, the opportunity arose for Nehemiah to request that he be allowed to lead the reconstruction efforts. The king agrees and sends Nehemiah with letters to guarantee safe-passage, wood from the king’s forest, and a military escort. God had a plan and God provided.
And so, Nehemiah finally arrives in Jerusalem. The people of the city do not know why he is there. And he keeps that a secret for the time-being. We find in verse 11 that he wanted to survey the land himself in order to see the damage and figure out what needed to be done. Read 2:11-12.
And as he goes along, he discovers that things really are as bad as he thought. The wall is in ruins. In fact, some of the rubble is so deep that his horse cannot navigate it, so he has to get off his horse to examine it. Other parts were obviously burned. And the place was a mess.
After surveying the extent of the damage, Nehemiah knew they had an enormous task ahead of them. He gathered the leaders and the entire community and shared the vision God had given him. Read 2:17-18.
So, after many months of prayer, fasting, and planning, Nehemiah is finally ready to lead the people in rebuilding the walls that had been lying in disrepair for such a long time. You can feel the excitement of the people. They knew God was calling them to work towards the accomplishment of his will. And the holy city would once more be restored. Good things were happening. Very good things were happening, and people were excited. They were about to begin a God-sized task.
Not everyone was so pleased, however. Enter the three: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. Throughout the rest of Nehemiah’s efforts, we find these three as a thorn in the side of Nehemiah and the people of Israel. Whenever you hear any of their names, you know they’re up to no good. It’s kind of like the movie Jaws. Whenever you hear the orchestra playing that ominous music (ba-dum…ba-dum…etc.), you know the shark is around and up to something bad. The same is true here. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are kind of like the Jaws theme song – ba-dum…ba-dum… – and they’re up to no good. They don’t like the idea of the walls being rebuilt.
With a newly reconstructed Jerusalem, the balance of power in the region would shift. And they didn’t want anything to do with that. They needed to protect their own interests. So – they begin to taunt Nehemiah and his people. Read 2:19
Ridicule is one of the enemy’s favorite tricks in the battle against followers of Christ. There is an innate desire to be accepted. We want people to like us. Because of this desire, it can be tempting to soften our message or conveniently gloss over the fact that we are followers of Christ when we encounter people on a daily basis. That’s the enemy threatening us with ridicule and mockery – which is prevalent in our culture right now. I know I’m not the only pastor in the country whose heart-rate increases for just a moment when he’s getting his hair cut and the barber asks, “So, what do you do for a living?” With that innate desire to be liked and avoid confrontation and mockery, it’s very tempting to say something like, “I’m work for a nonprofit group,” or something similar that tries to minimize my pastoral position. Giving in to that temptation, however, would allow the enemy to win another battle over my life. It gives him more control over my life – one that has been dedicated to following Christ wherever He leads. I love Nehemiah’s response – and it should be something we continue to remember when faced with the temptation to give up on what God has called us to do because we will face ridicule or opposition. Read 2:20. Nehemiah was determined to do what God had called him to do. He was building a community dedicated to following the Lord. And the same is here at Cowan Christian Church. We are building a community of believers right here where we live. And just like with the community in Jerusalem, our enemy is not welcome here. No matter what Satan wants to throw at us, we will continue to build.
And that’s what they do. They begin to rebuild. And things are going well. Then, da-dum…da-dum…enter Sanballat again. Read 4:1-3. There they go again. They’re mocking and ridiculing, trying to dishearten the people. And like these builders, we face reminders every day that following Christ is not exactly the norm. We can face misunderstanding, ridicule, and harsh comments from those who do not follow Christ. People will mock our faith. They might even criticize us for doing what we know is right. It could be easy to respond to the insults with more insults. That’s my first reaction. I want to stand up and defend myself – maybe sharing a few insults of my own. But Nehemiah’s response is much different. It’s an example for us as to how we should respond to criticism. Read 4:4-5
Instead of firing back at their detractors, Nehemiah put the issue before God. And that’s a great thing to do – in fact, it’s the best thing to do. Responding to insults with insults is merely what the enemy wants us to do. He wants us to get so caught up in what is being said about us that we lose sight of what we’re called to do – follow Christ and display His love and grace to everyone around us. How are we doing that if we’re trading insults with someone else? Now, Nehemiah’s prayer here is not exactly what you might expect. In fact, it’s pretty harsh. “Turn their insults back on their own heads”? “Give them over as plunder”? “Don’t forgive them”? One thing that is very evident in Old Testament prayers is that they’re refreshingly honest. We tend to sanitize our prayers with flowery language and generalities when in reality we wish God would do things similar to what Nehemiah prayed here. Why not go ahead and say it to God? He already knows how you’re feeling anyway. Why try to cover it up with how we think we’re supposed to feel, rather than stand before God in an honest position saying, “God, this really stinks. I don’t understand why this is going on. I just wish it would all go away.” It probably won’t go away. It didn’t in Nehemiah’s case – as we’ll see in a moment. But isn’t it far better to be honest with our Lord and turn to Him for the solution rather than trying to solve the problem ourselves by fighting fire with fire? We can approach the throne of God with confidence. Why not do so and share all of our concerns with Him without attempting to sugar-coat them?
And that’s what Nehemaih did here. But did God do what he asked of Him? No. Not immediately. In fact, the enemies intensified their efforts to thwart God’s plans. They began to prepare to attack the builders of the wall. And once they were half-finished, all of the mockery, insults, and now the physical threats caught up with the people. And the people began to lose focus. Someone once told me that ‘obstacles are what we see when we take our eye off the goal.’ While I don’t think that’s always the case – I think it’s true in many situations. We’ve been going through the Gospel of Matthew on Wednesday nights. A few weeks ago, we discussed the story of Peter walking on water. It was only after he took his focus off of Jesus and began to notice the wind that he began to sink. Just like the hymn we sang this morning, we need to continue to make God’s vision our vision. We need to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and allow Him to guide us.
We are locked in a spiritual battle. The enemy we face will try to throw whatever he can at us to get us to give up the fight. There’s nothing Satan would like better than to see a follower of Christ ready to give in the towel, putting up a half-hearted fight. He will continue to do whatever he can to neutralize you as an effective minister of the Gospel. And remember, if you’re a follower of Christ, you are a minister.
Following Christ is not easy. Yes, Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He also said that if you’re going to follow him, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. Daily denial of self can be a difficult undertaking – especially when we have an enemy who wants us to continue to think about ourselves. It can also be difficult when you don’t see immediate results. This is especially true in our world of instant gratification. Today, we have microwave popcorn, disposable diapers, and high-speed Internet – all tools that we cannot live without anymore. So in a world where five minutes is an eternity for results, the daily decision to follow Christ and allow Him to shape you and reconstruct your life in His image can be painstakingly slow. So you live your life, continuing to pursue holiness in every aspect of your being. But then, something happens and you stumble. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s an illness that changes your emphasis from God to yourself. It could be any number of things. But when you mess up and stumble, it can be very easy to consider how much effort you’ve put forth and realize you’re not as far along as you thought you were. When the people building the wall began to feel the real threat of their enemy, they looked around and saw that they had put so much effort into this wall that they thought they should be further along than they really were. What did they do? They began to listen to the voices – the mockery, the insults, the taunting, and began to think, “Maybe they have a point. Maybe this really isn’t going to work. What were we thinking? We’re just a bunch of screw ups. We always have been. Why did we think we’d be any different now?” And they began to beat themselves up, rather than focus on the task they had and the One who ordained it.
And Nehemiah reminded them of who they are and the God they serve. Over and over in chapter 4, we find that Nehemiah reminds his workers that “God will fight for us.” Sometimes we need that reminder. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the chaos and negativity surrounding us that you can think you’re all alone. “You’ve always been a screw up. What made you think this time would be any different?” We need to continually have the reminder that God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us? That’s why we gather together every week and worship God together in one voice – not because we have pretty voices and want to show them off. It’s because we are reminding ourselves of who we are and who God is. He will never leave you nor forsake you. That’s why we gather around the Lord’s Table every week. Not because we want a mid-morning snack. And it’s not merely some memorial service for poor, dead Jesus. No – it’s a celebration of the sacrifice Jesus made and a celebration of the power of the resurrection. It’s a reminder that God is on our side and He has already secured victory for us. Things may crash down around us, but gathering together regularly and meeting around the Lord’s Table help us keep things in proper focus. And I don’t know about you, but I need to continually be reminded of God’s goodness or I’m going to start listening to the enemy’s lies about me and about God.
So the builders of the wall continued the task at hand. Nehemiah stationed men with spears all around them as a sign that they were ever ready for the battle that they potentially faced. They did not become complacent and they kept their eye on the goal. Our goal as followers of Christ is to become like Him. In our deeds, thoughts, attitudes, everything about us is to become more like Him. And as we continue along this journey of faith, there will be bumps along the way – it could be your own doing, like stumbling into sin; or it could be outside circumstances, like a financial crisis, a major health concern, or some other major issue that affects your life. How are you going to react? Are you going to listen to the enemy’s lies and give up, throwing in the towel? Or are you going to remember that God is on your side, He is fighting for you, and continue to pursue the goal of holiness? How is your life going to give testimony to the reconstructive efforts of Christ on your life? Will you focus on what hasn’t been accomplished, or celebrate what has? The choice is yours. It’s one we make on a daily basis. I challenge you to keep your eyes fixed firmly on Christ, the author and perfector of our faith. It might not always be easy. With Him in your focus, the enemy’s schemes will be defeated.