October 11, 2009

Together We Build, Part 2

We return to our story of Nehemiah this morning. I invite you to turn in your Bible to the book of Nehemiah. In the pew Bible it is page 472. Last Sunday we began a look at this very capable leader and how he responded to the call of God to oversee the re-building of Jerusalem approximately 445 before the birth of Christ.

Have you ever watched a house being built or a building project under construction as it would go up step by step and little by little? Fascinating, isn’t it, to watch a dream become reality. How many of you remember those exciting days here at Grantham Church? Clearing the land, earth moving equipment arrives, footers are poured, steel structure and trusses are in place, the building begins to take shape. Some of you remember well. Others weren’t here for those exciting days. For those of you who were here at that time, I have brought four minutes of memories and for those of us who were not here then, enjoy this bird’s eye view of Grantham as together we build. (A video was shown.) A dream comes true! A vision becomes reality.

Nehemiah also had a vision for many months - to re-build the wall of Jerusalem and rebuild the city to once again be a great honor to the name of God. Slowly his dream became reality as he traveled to the holy city.

Let us begin the story with Neh. 2:11-12. Nehemiah carefully, cautiously inspects the site and lays out a plan. After assessing the situation, he shares the vision and a challenge with the people in verses 17-18 and they respond, “Let us start rebuilding.” And they did. The end of the verse - “So they began a good work.” – not just a few, but many people were rallied to work. They all were needed.

As you scan through chapter three, one is struck with the various sections of the wall and the gates to the city that needed repaired – the Sheep gate, the Fish Gate, the Jeshanah Gate, the Valley Gate, The Dung Gate, the Water Gate, The Horse Gate, the East Gate, the Inspection Gate – this was no small project. And sandwiched in between are the names of the families and all the people who rallied around the cause and stepped up to do the work. It may look to us as just a boring list of names. They are the people who supported Nehemiah’s cause and actually did the work, restoring the walls and the gates of the city. It doesn’t say Wolgemuth or Huffnagle or Cassel or Kraybill or Long, but we see a wonderful picture of cooperation and camaraderie.

Whole families are working together, for example at the Fish Gate (verse 3), one of Jerusalem’s main entrances. The sons of Hassenaah laid beams, put doors, and bolts, and bars in place. We learn in verse 12 that Shallum didn’t have any sons. But that didn’t stop them. His daughters helped him repair their section. Verse 28 points out that many residents made repairs each in front of their own houses. And it didn’t matter that some were not trained in building. Reference is made to perfume-makers, goldsmiths, and merchants. They all wanted to get involved with the building. I imagine even little children watched and maybe even some carried small stones for the wall.

It reminds me of some stories I hear regarding the building of the Grantham Church.
Mike Huffnagle, Chair of the Building Committee remembers, “People were encouraged to work together on manageable, tangible tasks, given many opportunities to contribute their time and other resources to both the design and building processes. Task groups and subcommittees were formed and met to address specific focus areas of the process that drew from different people’s areas of expertise such as color schemes, landscaping, and classroom layouts. There was a sense of ownership that was encouraged from the outset. This was to be their church building so they felt as though they had a stake in the process and the outcome. Through the process, I tried to remind the congregation that we were ‘only’ building a facility and that they and I were the real church.” Together they were building a church building.

Nehemiah’s vision paid off. Remarkably, in seven and a half weeks or 52 days, the city was secured and the walls were rebuilt. Nehemiah had moved from cupbearer to builder to provide leadership so that a vision would come to pass.

In case anyone might be inclined to think this is a happily-ever-after story, as with any project or dream of this magnitude, difficulties begin to arise almost as soon as the building project starts. We read early in the story that Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (local officials) hear about this mammoth building project and they mock and ridicule Nehemiah. They are not excited about the work of rebuilding that is going on. Sanballet the governor of neighboring Samaria is quite disturbed that someone would come along to promote the welfare of the Israelites. He questions Nehemiah’s motives and intentions. As the work continues, Nehemiah’s opponents get even more angry and bold in their attacks, and devise elaborate schemes to prevent the work from proceeding.

Any vision worth pursuing has with it a certain amount of risk. There are many unknowns associated with the development of a vision plus dozens of opportunities along the way for things to go wrong. For Nehemiah, he is determined. The possibility of distractions dare not slow down the process. I love Nehemiah’s attitude in the midst of criticism and ridicule. The scripture says that when the plot to destroy Nehemiah and his workers gets thicker, Nehemiah goes to the people and says, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome. Our God will fight for us.”

Someone has said that a vision easily attracts criticism. If you have ever had the courage to share a vision about something, you are painfully aware that vision is many times seen as a threat to the way things are. It stirs up many negative opinions and increases anxiety. As Andy Stanley has concluded, “Critics usually appear armed with facts. Often they have history and experience on their side. Your idea won’t work because we know from experience. That way won’t work. Why do they say that?” A vision has no history; it is about a dream for the future. It is actually the past experiences that make a true visionary discontent about the present and desirous of making a difference and seeking to make a new vision become reality.

In 4:14 Nehemiah reminds the Israelites it is their future they must think about, for their brothers, their sons and daughters, and their families. He wants Jerusalem to have a future. He wants them to see what really is at stake. Not only do pressures come from outside, they come from within.

Nehemiah also faces an internal economic crisis because some of the residents were short on money and during this very time had to mortgage their property to have enough to eat. Others didn’t have enough to pay their taxes. And right in the midst of these challenging issues from within the community, the neighboring governors were scheming to not only intimidate Nehemiah, but frighten and discredit him as the challenges come hot and heavy from outside the community.

Can you identify with pressures that come from within and without? Sometimes the risks seem so high that it’s hard to want to continue on. Obstacles can feel overwhelming. For Nehemiah, it is an opportunity to re-align the team, to re-evaluate the plan, care for the needs of his people, and communicate strong courage and conviction. It is not a time to shrink back in fear. It’s not a time to give up.

Florence Chadwick is an accomplished American swimmer. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions from England to France and back again. At age 36, she attempted to swim from California to Catalina Island. According to Wikipedia, small boats accompanied her to watch for sharks and prepare to help her if needed. After 15 hours, a thick fog settled in and she began to doubt her ability. She didn’t think she could make it. She swam another hour and finally asked to be pulled out. She came to find out she stopped swimming one mile away from her destination. She didn’t realize how close she was.

Two months later Florence tried again. This time it was different. The same thick fog settled in. However, this time she made it. Why? She had a mental image of the shoreline. She had a vision that inspired her and helped her see through the fog.

It must have seemed pretty foggy to Nehemiah during those four months while he was waiting for the king’s help. Then the fog began to lift and the vision of Jerusalem began to clearly come into view. When Sanballat spreads the false rumor that Nehemiah is doing all this building because he wants to be the king, I can only imagine that Nehemiah must have felt terribly misunderstood. He knows in his heart he is following God’s directive for the work. When the people started complaining because they are running short of funds and supplies to feed their families right in the middle of the project, Nehemiah could have become exasperated. Instead he came up with a way to speak out against the social injustice of the day and even help to provide food from his own table to feed the people.

Have you been involved in a project that seemed next to impossible to pull off? Perhaps you were assigned a classroom of students that was more than twice the size you should have been given. Perhaps you were given a deadline for a job that could take two months to complete, but you were given two weeks. Or the available funds to carry out a project were only one half of the cost that would be incurred. Whatever the risk may have been, you can identify with this kind of overwhelming feeling. What do we learn from Nehemiah’s response?

In Neh. 6:9 Nehemiah prays to God, “Now strengthen my hands.” And in just six more verses, in 6:15, we read, “So the wall was completed in 52 days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.”

I would like to highlight just one more important part of this fascinating story. In 8:1 after the city wall is built and everyone is settled, the people all assemble as one in the square at the Water Gate. Ezra, the scribe brings out the scriptures – the book of the law – and he reads it aloud beginning from early morning. All the people pay close attention as they lift their hands toward heaven and then bow down and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground (8:6). And the people began to weep as they listen to the words of the law. They were sorry for how much they had neglected. Nehemiah, their courageous leader, says, “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” In essence he was providing another new picture, not just of walls being built; he is saying, “We must rebuild our lives again in this community on God’s Word and keep His laws as He has commanded us.” The wall is not the most important. It is a symbol of protection and blessing. Obeying God’s Word is the most important part.

Five hundred years later, John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, draws a portrait in his gospel of the Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. This Word, Jesus, the Son of God, as Paul describes in Ephesians 2:20, “ has become the chief cornerstone.”
Peter tells us in his epistle that we, as a people belonging to God, are now living stones being built into a spiritual house.

How do we build our lives? On what foundation do we continue to build this community? Jesus, the Word made flesh, provides for us an example. We are to be followers of Jesus. One of our five purpose statements is to “Follow Jesus faithfully.” What does that really mean? We can’t enthusiastically follow someone we don’t know very well or talk to very often. Is that just a nice cliché that sounds good in a vision statement? Do we really mean that we will follow Jesus wherever He takes us?

Recently I learned of Ed Gibson, author of a new release, “The Year of Living Like Jesus”. He is a retired pastor from a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an educator who taught at two major universities and author of numerous books. He made a decision in 2008 to read the four Gospels every week for a year just so he would know better how to follow Jesus. He says, “I am a Jesus follower. I decided to devote a year to focusing on Jesus and his teachings. I’m reading through the Gospels every week. I’m trying my best to obey all of Jesus’ teachings. What’s the point of the Gospels every week? So I can better understand their teachings and perhaps it will help me to obey them.”

Gibson’s transition from someone who follows Jesus to someone who lives like Jesus takes him into bars, inspires him to pick up hitchhikers, and deepens his understanding of suffering in the midst of his battle with ALS. His adventure takes him deep into the heart of the grace and mercy of Jesus. This example of Gibson has challenged me to be a more faithful follower of Jesus, to allow His teachings to influence my thinking, my motives, and my decisions every day by asking the simple, yet profound question: “What would Jesus do?” I challenge us all this morning to do the same as together we build a spiritual house, no longer one of bricks and mortar, but our everyday lives built up to the honor and praise of Jesus Christ.