In preparing for this week’s sermon, I was amazed at how many commentaries failed to comment on my favorite verse in all of Nehemiah. To me, it’s the entire point of the whole account. I think the problem is most of the stuff I’ve read have focused on the leadership attributes of Nehemiah (of which there were many) and how we should seek to have that type of leadership. Or, as mentioned before, they use Nehemiah as a blueprint for a building program. And in doing so, I think they’ve missed the boat. Nehemiah, like the rest of Scripture, is about God and how He is an active participant in the history of Israel, the church, and all of creation.
Listen to A Promise Kept. We had some technical difficulties with the audio this week. If you have any difficulties, please let me know and I’ll see if they can be fixed!
I don’t know about you, but I love a good success story – especially when it involves the success of an underdog. That’s right, I love David and Goliath type of stories. You know the kind – a person or a group of people or a sports team stands up against the odds. No one expects them to succeed. But in spite of all of the obstacles, in spite of the huge potential for loss and embarrassment, the underdog chooses to pursue a dream when the rest of the world says it’s foolishness. I love to hear stores like the one about Charlie Lubin.
You see, Charlie made great cheesecake. One day, he was sitting at home eating his cheesecake and thought, ‘This is good cheesecake!’ So he decided to open a cheesecake store, which he did on the north side of Chicago. It went so well that he opened a second store in South Chicago. That store did not do so well and eventually he lost both stores as a result.
He sat in his room one night and while eating his cheesecake thought, ‘This is good cheesecake!’ So he eventually opened his original store again. After a while he opened another store which did not do so well and he once again lost both stores.
A few months later, while eating his cheesecake he said to himself, ‘This is good cheesecake!’ And so he opened his original store again. But, after opening a second store, he went bankrupt. Again. And a few months later, he found himself opening his store again. And he eventually found himself in the same position as before. Broke. Again.
Months later, Charlie sat in his house eating his cheesecake and thought to himself again, ‘This is good cheesecake!’ And so he decided to open another store. Again. Only this time, he would name his cheesecakes after his daughter. I think you’ve heard of her before – Sara Lee. It became the largest bakery in the world!
When we hear stories like this, we marvel at the persistence of a person who experiences failure upon failure. We celebrate the stick-to-itiveness of a person who perseveres in the midst of a storm. You’d think after the second or third failed attempt at running a business, Mr. Lubin would have gotten the point. But he didn’t. He had a dream and he went after it. Even when the world came crashing down around him, he continued to pursue his dream.
Nehemiah faced the threat of failure. As we’ve been looking at the account of Nehemiah’s attempts to reconstruct the city walls, we find that time and time again the odds are stacked against him. Turn with me to Nehemiah 6. Remember, it’s towards the middle of your Bible in the Old Testament. It’s immediately before Esther, Job, and Psalms. And it immediately follows 1 & 2 Chronicles and Ezra. If you don’t have your Bible, you’re welcome to use the one in front of you. Nehemiah 6 is found on page 417 in that Bible.
Nehemiah is kind of the memoirs of the man who led the reconstruction efforts of the people of Israel after their return from exile. The threat of failure surrounded him on a daily basis. And the entire project was doomed to failure from the beginning. Who in their right mind would expect a cup bearer to the king to be able to get the king to 1) change his domestic policy and allow Israel to even rebuild the wall, and 2) pay for the efforts out of his own resources? And when his neighbors, who were more organized, well-trained, and well-equipped, decided they didn’t want the wall to be rebuilt, who in their right mind would have thought that Nehemiah and his crew would have the dedication to stand up to their mockery, insults, and threats? And when some within their own community began to take advantage of the situation, when the emphasis became more about the program than the people, it probably should have ruined the entire effort. Who in their right mind would expect anything but failure for this ragtag bunch of former exiles who were trying to do what they believed God had led them to do? They had no real army to protect them. Their enemies could convince the king to change his mind at any moment. They had done it before and they could do it again. And the leader of the entire effort didn’t know the first thing about city planning or construction. He was, after all, a cupbearer to the king. But they continued. And it’s only by the power of God that they were able to do so.
As we pick up here in chapter 6, we find Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are still hanging around. And like we’ve said before, whenever you hear these three names, it’s like the theme from Jaws. You know that they’re up to no good. Read 6:1-2
Nehemiah and crew are close to completing the reconstruction efforts. So Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem decide to try a different tactic. They want to negotiate with him, rather than publicly threaten the people. I can’t help but think of the mobster stories you hear about. You know what I’m talking about. The boss invites one of his colleagues to ‘go for a ride’ with him. A ride that ends with the guest wearing cement shoes…if you know what I mean. So, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem invite Nehemiah to ‘go for a ride’ with them. Nehemiah could see through their feeble attempt at deception here and turned down their offer.
These guys wouldn’t take no for an answer. They sent him the same invitation four different times. And four times Nehemiah rejected them. Then they upped the ante a bit more. They accused Nehemiah of planning a revolt – a rebellion that would wind up with Nehemiah being crowned king of Judah. You can almost hear the desperation in their voices. They’re trying to throw out anything that will stick and will end these efforts. It appears that Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are professional political mudslingers in addition to wannabe mobsters. Nehemiah and company continue to ignore their efforts to distract and disrupt the reconstruction efforts. They’re so close to the end, it would be tempting to slow down some and deal with them directly. But they don’t allow themselves to become distracted. They keep their focus on completing the wall.
Now, I think Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem watched too many gangster movies. Maybe the local movie theater was having a mob movie marathon or something. Because they continue to act like the thugs found in those movies. Nehemiah stands up to their threats, so they decide to get rid of him. He won’t play along by going for ‘a ride’ with them. The political mudslinging isn’t working either. It’s time to get him to stop by issuing a good, old-fashioned, assassination threat. In verse 10, the false prophet says, “Let’s meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you – by night they are coming to kill you.” Rather than fear for his life, Nehemiah stood his ground. It’s not just because Nehemiah was a brave man. But it’s because that bravery comes from the faith that it was God who had begun this project. And it was God who was going to allow the project to be completed. He had no need to fear. Because God was on his side. And God keeps His promises.
Remember that more than a hundred years before this rebuilding, Jerusalem was the physical representation of the presence of God amongst His people. As the people continued to turn away from Him and place their trust in idols and other false gods, God issued them a wake-up call. In a stunning reminder that God is the one who is in control, He allowed the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem in around 587 BC. The religious and political leaders were hauled off in captivity. And the city remained in ruins for more than a hundred years. During the time of captivity, prophets rose up, proclaiming God’s word to the people whose faith had been shaken at its core. They had some harsh words to say to the leaders and how they had turned the people away from the Living God. But they also had a message of hope. “One day,” the prophets would say, “We shall return to our homeland. And one day Jerusalem will be rebuilt.”
In Jeremiah 30:18, God promises through the prophet that, “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins and the palace will stand in its proper place.”
The prophet Ezekiel used some pretty descriptive language in his proclamations of the word of God. Like the other prophets from the exile period, he issues some pretty harsh condemnations of not only the nation of Judah, but of neighboring countries as well. Yet, in the midst of all of his condemnations and promises of destruction, he issues this promise to God’s chosen people in Ezek. 36: 8-10 – “But you, O mountains of Israel, will produce branches and fruit for my people, Israel, for they will soon come home. I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor; you will be plowed and sown, and I will multiply the number of people upon you, even the whole house of Israel. The towns will be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt.”
And I love the promise made through another prophet in Isaiah 60:10 “Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you.” And that’s exactly what happened. The Lord used the finances of a Persian king who did not even follow Him to accomplish His will. Sometimes God uses extraordinary means to accomplish His will. And when you look back at how He works, all you can say is, “Wow! What an amazing God we serve!”
God made a promise. And He intended to keep it. It was by His own timetable and in His own manner, but how else could a ragtag group of exiles be able to work on such a huge task. Other people had tried. But they had failed. But here, many years after issuing the promise to rebuild the city, He fulfills His promise. Read Neh. 6:15-16
Fifty two days. After decades of waiting…After decades of watching and anticipating the restoration of God’s holy city…after decades of asking God when He was going to do what He said He would do…God kept His promise. He did so with a group of people who, on the surface, seemed destined to give in to the pressures surrounding them. And He did so in less than two months’ time.
God is the God who keeps His promises. And He does so regardless of our own faithfulness. There’s a story about a college man who walked into a photography studio with a framed picture of his girlfriend. He wanted the picture to be duplicated. This involved removing it from the frame. In doing this, the studio owner noticed the inscription on the back of the photograph: “My dearest Tom, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours for all eternity.” It was signed, “Diane,” and after the beautiful signature were these words, “PS – If we ever break up, I want this picture back.” That’s the kind of faithfulness that we are likely to show each other, isn’t it? But thank God that He keeps His promises better than we do. Thank God that He doesn’t attach a PS to His faithfulness with us.
God was faithful when, 2,000 years ago, He wrapped Himself in flesh and walked among us as Jesus Christ – both fully God and fully human. He was faithful when He willingly gave up His own life on the cross for a human race who wanted nothing to do with Him. While we were still sinners – while we were still enemies of God – Christ died for us. That, my friend, is the loving act of a faithful God.
God kept His promises more than 2400 years ago. Two thousand years ago, He kept His promise to send a Savior so we could have a right relationship with Him. Time and time again throughout the Scriptures we find that God is a God who keeps His promises. He is faithful even when we aren’t. And just like God has kept His promises throughout history, He continues to do so today.
In Hebrews 13:5 we find this promise – “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Friend, no matter what you do, God won’t give up on you. When things are going well, God is there. He’s not giving up on you because He is the God who keeps His promises. The world could be crashing down around you. You can face threats from all sides, just like Nehemiah did. You could lose your job, your house, your family, and even your faith. And God won’t give up on you. Because He is the God who keeps His promises.
In 1 John 1:9, it is because of God’s faithfulness that we are able to be forgiven – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Friends, there is nothing we can do on our own to put ourselves in a right position with God. The sin in our lives has already placed us on a path that leads towards destruction. You can’t get out of it on your own, and neither can I. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that we are able to have a right relationship with Him. Don’t listen to the lies of the enemy who continues to tell you, “Oh, you’ve really done it now. That sin pushes you over the edge. How could God possibly want to have any connection with you – a sinner? You’re too far gone. You can’t do anything right and you’re beyond hope.” Don’t allow the enemy to fool you with those lies. Stop beating yourself up and start confessing your sins to the God who forgives. And you will find acceptance and forgiveness in His presence. Because He is the God who keeps His promises.
And when Jesus left His disciples with the mission of making disciples of all nations, He promised us that we are not alone in this task. He is right there with us, at work with us and through us. Matt. 28:20 – “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Think about that. The God of the universe and all that it is in it – the God who, by just the power of His words spoke creation into being – the God who Is…yesterday, today, and forever – that very same God is right here with us right now. And we will continue to be with Him. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Because He is the God who keeps His promises.
Earlier this morning, we sang the song, Great is Thy Faithfulness. You remember the chorus – “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy had hath provided – Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
That hymn was written by Thomas Chisolm. He didn’t write it because of something great, or even miraculous that happened in his life. He wrote it because as he looked back over his life, he learned to see the great faithfulness of God. At age 75, he wrote these words:
“My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
You see, God faithful. He is the God who keeps His promises.
Nehemiah is the story of how God keeps His promises. And that very same God who was at work in building His community of believers 2400 years ago is at work today building a community of believers right here, right now. It might not line up with our own timetables. And it probably won’t look like we imagine it to look like – because God has an even better plan. He had a better plan when it came to the rebuilding of the wall. He had a better plan when it came to the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. He had a better plan then and He has a better plan today as He continues to build His church in Cowan, Muncie, Indiana, and throughout the world. And it is because of that plan that He has and the love He has for us that He will never let us go. We can face the difficulties that we experience with confidence in the One who is always right there with us. Because He promised He would never leave us. And He is the God who keeps His promises.