I’ve seen many churches use the phrase, “We’re about people, not programs.” And then they create so many programs that they forget who the programs are for. Our culture doesn’t need another program to go to or get involved in. Don’t get me wrong – programs are great! They’re necessary. But what the world needs is more followers of Christ pouring themselves into the lives of others. Programs aren’t going to change the world. The church being the church is what will change this broken world.
When Alexander the Great came out of Macedonia and Greece to conquer the known world, he received a message on one of his campaigns that one of his soldiers was seriously misbehaving in such a way that he was hurting the reputation of all of the Greek troops. When Alexander heard about this man, he sent word that he wanted to talk to this soldier in person.
When the young man arrived at the tent of Alexander the Great, the leader asked him, “What is your name?”
The young man replied, “Alexander, sir.”
Again, the leader asked, “What is your name?” And again, the soldier replied, “Alexander, sir.”
Alexander the Great asked the soldier a third time, “What is your name?” The soldier fearfully replied, “Alexander, sir.”
The Alexander the Great then looked him straight in the eyes and said forcefully, “Soldier, either change your behavior or change your name.”
Nehemiah had to make a similar challenge here in the middle of the reconstruction of the wall surrounding Jerusalem. For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking through the book of Nehemiah, which recounts how God used an ordinary person to accomplish an extraordinary task of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. To followers of God at that time, Jerusalem was the holy city. It was a physical representation of the glory of the Lord and His presence among His people. But after Babylon destroyed the city, it lay in ruins for many years. And the nation forgot what it meant to be the community of God. Enter Nehemiah, cupbearer to the King of Persia. God placed a burden on his heart to rebuild Jerusalem. And we saw that where God leads, He also provides. Although the King had already established a policy against rebuilding the wall, God’s hand moved in such a way that the King allowed Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the city walls. On top of that, the King agreed to pay for the entire reconstruction project. Where God leads, He definitely provides.
As the reconstruction of the city began, the people met tough opposition. The enemies of God’s people didn’t want these walls to be rebuilt. And they challenged the reconstruction efforts by mocking them, reminding them of their past rebellions, and questioning their intention in rebuilding the walls. They even began to threaten them. The enemy of God and His people will do all he can to thwart the efforts to build God’s community. And so we, just as God’s community 2400 years ago, have to remain ever vigilant against the threats made by the enemy. He will do all he can to discourage and distract us from the task God has established for us – building His community here as an example of His grace, love, and power.
Which leads us to today’s text. Turn with me to Nehemiah 5. Before Esther, Job, Psalms – towards middle of the Bible. After 1 & 2 Chronicles and Ezra. Pew Bible – page 417
As we come to our chapter today, we find that things are still pretty difficult for the people of God. Day and night, they’re focusing on rebuilding the wall. Day and night they’re keeping watch for a sneak attack from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. The stress level is high. They can’t continue to live on high alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And the stress begins to take its toll on the people. It’s not the threats of their enemies on the outside. It’s internal conflict that threatens the community.
The community had become so focused on the program that some people began to take advantage of the situation. There were some entrepreneurial spirits in the community and they saw a way to make a quick buck. With so much emphasis on rebuilding the wall, many farms were left neglected. The supply went way down. But people still needed to eat and the taxes required by the Persian government were still extremely high – and demand went way up. This led to a famine in the land. But wait a minute here. God led them here to Jerusalem and He ordained this project to be accomplished. What’s going on, then? Why are they out of food? Wouldn’t God provide some type of sustenance for the workers like He did when Moses led the people out of Egypt? Remember? Every morning manna from heaven miraculously appeared, providing enough food for that day. Why didn’t He do that here? Why is there famine?
God had already provided the opportunity for the fields to produce. We see here that there were people who had grain, but rather than share their food with their brothers and sisters, they chose to make a quick buck. People were taking advantage of the situation and of each other. The rich continued to get richer and the poor continued to get poorer. Could you blame them? When the Jews were in exile in Babylon and then in Persia, they saw how other people did business and loaned money. As they allowed that culture to creep into their own lives, they began to take on the characteristics of those who surrounded them.
So when they finally returned to Jerusalem, it just made sense to do what they had always known. When they see the opportunity here, they do what comes natural to them. And when the poorer families cannot pay them for the grain they are buying, they take advantage of the situation. Families were mortgaging their land at extremely high rates of interest. And when these families couldn’t pay the monthly bills, their children were taken off as indentured servants. Indentured servitude was not an uncommon practice at that time. The problem wasn’t the servanthood itself, but the means by which they acquired their servants. They violated God’s command in the process of trying to accumulate wealth. In the Law, God tells the people, “If you lend money to one of my people amount you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.” (Ex. 22:23) Being part of God’s community means that we take care of each other, we look out for each other and help each other through difficult situations. Though the world around us encourages us to take advantage of every situation in order to get ahead, the truth of the matter is that we are called to live by a different standard. Our emphasis must be on people – not possessions or programs.
When Nehemiah found out that God’s people were ripping God’s people off, he became very angry. And who could blame him? They were trying to rebuild a city as a testament to the power and presence of God. They were becoming a community of God in the midst of a culture that mocked Him and wanted nothing to do with Him. They were supposed to be different. They were supposed to be an example of how God changes lives and brings people together in a way that only He can. And here some people are acting just like the rest of the world is – they’re taking advantage of anyone and everyone, just to gain a quick buck. And not only were they taking the slaves for themselves, but they were also selling them off to the very people who were mocking them, their community, and their God. And what kind of example is that to the rest of the world?
After calming down a bit, Nehemiah calls these businessmen together and says this (v 9) “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” In other words, he’s saying “Look, the world is watching us. They want to see us fail. Not only are they looking at our wall, but they are looking at & judging us by what we do for each other and how we treat each other. Yes, the program of building the wall is important, but not at the expense of abusing each other. We are a community. God’s community. It’s about people, not programs.” Right here in Cowan, we are building a community of God followers, just as Nehemiah was attempting to rebuild God’s community 2400 years ago. The reconstruction was about the people, not the wall. It’s about how God used that effort to change lives. The wall itself wasn’t the purpose of God’s task. It was a program God used to build up His people. Because the community of God is about people – not programs.
We can have a beautiful building with amazing stained glass windows (which we do). But if we begin to think that the church is only a building and not a community of God’s people living and working together to spread the love of Christ to a world that desperately needs it, we change what we are supposed to be. The church is about people, not programs.
I experienced my first Bazaar this weekend and it was an amazing thing! A year’s worth of creativity and energy went into the Bazaar – and it showed! And ladies, every penny raised through the Bazaar was well-earned and I commend you for it. Thank you for all of the time and effort that was put forth to make it happen. The money that was raised will be put to good use. But I don’t think the Bazaar is just about money. It’s about people. And the money that resulted from the Bazaar is about people. If we were to worry about raising more money next year than we did this year, then we would lose our focus. The church is about people – not programs.
We could build a cutting-edge, high-tech children’s ministry with enough bells and whistles that you feel like you’ve entered Disney World. But if all of our energy gets focused on just making an event and how we can make each week more and more entertaining, we lose the focus. Because the church is about people, not programs.
This week, we’ve purchased a new projector for the sanctuary. It will be used during worship services for many different things – announcements, maybe a song or two on the screen, and maybe in ways that will help make the preacher more interesting – and we’ll need some people to help run the programs on the computer. We already have a very good sound system and now we’re adding more technology, which I believe is a great thing. But if our Sunday mornings become just about how much we can highlight our fancy new equipment, we have lost our focus. The church is about people, not programs.
And it’s not limited to the church building. How are things at home? Are you focusing so much on work that you’re gone before everyone gets up and home after they’re ready for bed? When you deal with co-workers, do you treat them like people or just a cog in the machine? Do you see people as a means to an end or as creations of God with an inner beauty that’s just waiting to burst out in God’s grace and love? Every part of our lives is an extension of the church. And the church is about people – not programs.
I think you get my point. Sometimes we get so caught up in programs – programs in church, programs at work or school, even programs at home – that we forget the real reason we’re here. People. People knowing God and being known by Him. People loving other people as God loves them. As a follower of Christ, as a member of God’s community, our focus needs to be on investing ourselves in people – not just in programs. Programs are necessary. They are tools to help us accomplish what needs to be done and they can open up opportunities for us to share with each other – but they’re just programs. God’s community is about people.
When Nehemiah called all of the people together, he reminded them that they are in the people business. He challenged the businessmen to give back what they had wrongfully taken – to renew their emphasis on people, not just programs. And in verse 12, we see that they agreed to Nehemiah’s challenge, saying, “We’ll give it back and we won’t demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
But Nehemiah didn’t just take them at their word. He gave them a visual reminder of what would happen if they began to rip off their brothers and sisters again. Read 5:13
Shaking the folds of his robe is like emptying out one’s pockets. He’s telling them that if they continue to take advantage of the people, ripping them off and leaving them with nothing, the same is going to happen to them. At the end of their lives, they will be found with nothing.
The same is true with us. God wants us to be in the people business. We need to focus our energies on building up our families, encouraging one another, helping the poor, investing more on our lives than we do on our pocketbooks and programs. If you emphasize programs over people, accumulating stuff to the detriment of everyone around you, taking advantage of people in order to advance your own personal agenda…in the end, you’ll find yourself left with nothing. Oh, you might have gotten what you thought you wanted, but God is calling us to pour our lives into people.
We are given a name as follower of Christ – child of God. What we do reflects on the Father that we have in heaven. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we are displaying His name to all around us. Are you focusing on people or the programs? God wants you to be investing your life in the lives of others. That’s what He did for you and for me. If you’re not putting people over programs, you can either change your name or change your behavior.