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We’re going through the book of Nehemiah, let me bring you up to speed. Nehemiah is a Jewish person, living and working in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire about 445 years before Christ. As he’s working his job as one of the King’s assistant, the Lord breaks his heart over his hometown, the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah starts praying, knowing that the vision that the Lord is putting on his heart is in line with God’s revealed will in the Bible, so he prays and patiently plans, plans and prays until the day, four months later when the Lord gives him opportunity to share his burden with the king, who against all odds, grants Nehemiah’s request to go on an extended leave of absence and rebuild the city under the kings protection, using the kings resources, as the kings ambassador to the region. Nehemiah notes in his personal journal that God is the sole reason that this happens. We pray, we plan, we wait: God gives opportunity & increase.
In this passage we are introduced to some guys who oppose Nehemiah’s vision for the city. I wish I could say that they made a stink here at the beginning and let things go, but they continue to be thorns in his side throughout the entire project. To do God’s work, even if everything looks like its going great, we need thick skin. Our enemy the devil knows what we are planning and will work to thwart God’s work.
• In Chinese church, we tend to value harmony and peace, and so we've heard that if we want to accomplish anything for God that there will be spiritual opposition, and so we’d rather be “normal” Christians and think we’re safe than actually set out to do anything for God. I say “think” your safe because if that is you, you’ve already lost. You’re already defeated. The enemy already has victory in your life. I don’t want to become a board member of serve in leadership, because it might be hard and I might become a target for Satan. I don’t want to share m y faith at school because then I’ll be marked.
• We need to understand that, yes, while we may need to at times move forward with caution, there is still a confidence that we can have from the Lord. We are going to see in this passage how the vision and burden for the city is transferred from Nehemiah to the people with caution and confidence.
Neh. 2:9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.
Nehemiah’s not a man of many words. He doesn’t tell us about the preparations he’s made or anything about journey that is lost in this verse. Nehemiah’s like, the king granted my request and I was there. I assume that just as Nehemiah prayed and planned for four months before we saw the king, he continues to pray and plan as he makes the four-month journey. He’s now been praying and planning for 8 months. He’s got the letters that he asked the king to draft for him, but beyond that he’s been given a royal escort. He’s prayed up, prepped up, and is ready for his great entrance. Yet just when he is ready to enter into town and set the vision and get the people fired up, he hears that there is already some opposition: We actually know Sanballet from an extra-biblical archeological find, that he was the governor of the region of Samaria, the region just North of Judah, the region Nehemiah seeks to rebuild. He’s always listed first in the lists, and some speculate that he had been given temporary jurisdiction over Judah and Jerusalem up until the moment that the King changed his policy over the region and appointed Nehemiah to be the new governor. Sanballet gets his friends Tobiah and Geshem and they all together start conspiring against Nehemiah, and he hasn’t even done anything yet! This would be like your boss assigning a project to you that had previously been under the charge of someone else, and then they are continually hounding you and hoping that you’ll fail. From the beginning, Nehemiah has to move with caution.
Neh. 2:11 So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12 Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I rode. 13 I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal that was under me to pass. 15 Then I went up in the night by the valley and inspected the wall, and I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. 16 And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work.
Here we see Nehemiah respond with caution.
1) He gets to Jerusalem and lays low for a few days. He doesn’t start with fan fare – lets it die down a little, gets settled in, maybe prays and plans some more. He knows he’s got to be cautious. One advice I got in seminary is that as a leader your often not going to change anything your first year. Nehemiah waits three days.
2) He gets up in the night with only a few men, telling no one else. Nehemiah knows that it is not only about the vision God gives you, but how and when you communicate that vision and he doesn’t just blab it right away. He get together a few people who he trusts and gets them to start praying and planning and inspecting the walls with him. They look over the whole project, inspected the whole wall, saw the work that needed to be done, took it all in, and no one else knew about it, not the priests, the nobles, the officials, nor the rest who were to do the work. Now here’s the problem: Nehemiah has the vision – but the people are the one who are going to do the work, but Nehemiah doesn’t yet feel the liberty to share his vision with the people until he has a greater understanding of the project. So there is a period of time when the large mass of people are unaware of a small minority of people that are planning things that directly affect them. The vision of a few will directly affect the direction of the many. There is something there that rubs us the wrong way and we tend to fall into a couple of different traps:
a. The Leaders Share the Vision Prematurely: I fall into this all the time. You know me, I’m not good at holding things in. Something happens, I like to report immediately. Yet I have learned in leadership, that sometimes it is detrimental to share everything at the time I know it, because it is not yet ready for prime time. The vision hasn’t been prayed and planned through and the actual work hasn’t been carefully inspected. It’s killed me the last few months to hold some of the things in that Abraham, I and the board and building committee were learning and that the Lord was putting on our hearts. We shared it in some small groups but nothing public until January 1. Yet I am glad that we waited, for when we shared the vision, it was ready.
b. The People Get Suspicious of the Leaders: Leaders have to be careful about holding on to the vision for too long, because when you're a leader, by definition, the vision of a small group of people effect the lives of many. The problem is that we don’t often like parts or portions of our lives outsourced to others. Now this happens all the time in our regular life, we would never question that our bosses or if you’re a kid, your parents, or some political leaders, we understand that sometimes parts of the vision need to be held back, but in the church, for some reason, there are some people who want there hands in everything, to know everything. Some people just want to know stuff, not to help, but because they have an insatiable desire to know the inside out.
Now we need to have grace with one another. Trust each other. I’ll try to share with you what I can, but I can’t always. Let me give you some examples.
a. When we were looking into a property – sometimes the things are confidential and we can’t share.
b. When things might impact the unity of the church. We’ve recently had a discussion about something that would affect our English congregation, but that we wanted to be sensitive to how it would be received by the Chinese congregation, so I proposed the idea to the board first, before even talking with the English ministry, then they prayed and thought about it for a month, then we met again and we talked about it and refined it, and then I talked to the English ministry team, and then in the coming months, we’ll be sharing with the rest of the church.
c. When the vision isn’t fully formed. We still are praying and planning. We may talk to specific people who are directly affected and ask to hold tight before sharing with others. If you’re not plugged-in, we’re probably not going to be a part of some of those discussions. If you want to be, here’s a hint: often we will share more with those who come to our prayer meetings at the end of the month. Here are people who come together to pray and we ask them to pray about things we see them as core, so we may talk and pray through some things there before we talk of them to the rest of the church.
We see this same cautiousness in Jesus, who in fact also faced opposition throughout the duration of his ministry. Often Jesus would heal people or release them from demonic bondage and instruct them not to tell anyone. He at times revealed things to his disciples and instructed them to Why? Because Jesus had a mission – to go to the cross and to die for our sins. His whole life was bent on this purpose. To die for your sins and mine. Satan opposed his plan and tried to tempt him by receiving human glory through other means. Jesus could achieve superstar status through any number of means, as a miracle worker, as a political revolutionary, as a social reformer – but all would have detracted him from his mission to save your soul. So Jesus was cautious as to whom he shared his mission with. Aren’t you glad he was?
So Nehemiah, like Jesus, is cautious about who he shares the vision with and how he shares, yet when he shares, he shares with confidence.
2:17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”
Nehemiah persuades the people to join him in the work God has called him to do. Notice a couple of things about what he shares:
1) He is honest about the issues they are facing. Here is an honest assessment of where we are at as a people, as a city. Sometimes we have our head in the sands of what’s going on around us.
2) He shares what God has already been doing to give them confidence. Yes, there are challenges, but here is what God has already done to give us assurance that he will lead us and empower us to meet them for his glory. People need to see the train leaving the station before they are willing to jump on.
Nehemiah lays it all on the table – what will be their response? This is crucial moment. The moment when the vision that God has given one is now taken up by the community – by all who are to participate in the work. This is so crucial because Nehemiah can’t do it without the people. A person can have the greatest vision in the world, but if no one joins him in the work, little can be accomplished.
I’ll share with you a moment like this in our church – I’ve never shared this story publically before. It was a couple of years ago, the second time I was teaching the Acts course and we had about 20 or so people from both congregations together, English and Chinese, including some members of the incoming board and leaders in the ministry teams. Going in to class one night, I knew that our discussion that night was going to be a pivotal moment in the church and in my ministry, so I prayed and asked Jean to pray (I think I even emailed a few prayer buddies outside of the church). I shared with the class a model that I had recently learned of the four stages of an ethnic church and asked where they thought we were on the model. In my own diagnosis, I had sensed that we were not doing well and the growth and conversions we were seeing in the Chinese congregation were more to do with demographics (in 2005 1 of 8 newcomers to Ottawa were Chinese) than anything positive we were doing as a church. Older members and members from the Chinese side spoke first. They said that they believed that we were in the first stage of health and outreach, because they were always seeing visitors and had even baptized 20 people the year before. End of conversation. Suddenly Jon Kung spoke out, and in his very respectful and polite tone, he said, “I’m sorry, I know you are my elders and I mean no disrespect to you. But I think you’re wrong.” Pin-drop. He went on: “I grew up in this church and have seen every single one of my older brothers and sisters leave this church as soon as they were able to pry themselves out. I am the first one of my generation to stay. Something is wrong. I see us as in the third stage, and possibly even moving toward the fourth stage, death.” Complete silence in the room. Like Nehemiah, I prayed in that moment. After what seemed like an eternity, Wang Chang, who was coming in as the chair of our church board and is well-respected among every one in the church, broke the silence: “I think Jon is absolutely correct.” In that moment, everything changed. We started talking as leaders how to reset our church to be a stage one church, praying and planning. I really trace almost everything positive that God is now doing in our church back to that moment. A few months later, I preached a message to our congregation that sprung out of that one night and people came up to me after the service and shared dedicated themselves to the rebuilding task. A few weeks ago, there was a similar response to my message. People are responding to the call to seek the welfare of our city. I feel as though God is truly preparing us to enter into a new stage of effective ministry in this city. Let me tell you, this is greatly encouraging to a leader, to see the people respond and for the vision to become not just the burden of one person or one small group, but us all.
I believe that the people’s response to Nehemiah was one more sign to him that God was indeed raising them up to make them prosper as they sought the welfare of their city. So therefore, when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem sneared, Nehemiah answered them “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” Notice, that the burden of the vision has been transferred. When Nehemiah went before the king, he that he be sent to Jerusalem in verse 5, “so that I may rebuild it.” Yet here the vision has been transferred to all the people “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build.”
Let me assure you, when you respond to God's call, there will be opposition, for the evil one does not wish to see his enemy's kingdom advance. Yet even as we are cautious, we can proceed with confidence as the Lord's will is confirmed in other's responding to the same call. God's individual call becomes a movement that the gates of hell cannot withstand.