Nehemiah: Opposition to Rebuilding

Today’s reading is Nehemiah 4:1-23Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Thousands of years ago, God took an obscure man by the name of Nehemiah and began to use him to rebuild the walls of his city, the city of Jerusalem. For the past three of weeks, we’ve been looking at lessons from the Nehemiah. In addition to today, we have two more looks at this book—this morning chapter 4, and then a gathering together of what happened in the end. Nehemiah gives us encouragement and hope as we seek to renew and rebuild our lives following challenging times.

We have three choices in life—to leave things the way they are (the status quo), to live our way, or to live God’s way. God has a unique calling for each of our lives and for also for this church. He’s created you and me for a purpose, and there’s nothing more exciting than discovering and living out God’s purpose in our lives.

Nehemiah shared the vision of re-building and God prepared the people to respond. Nehemiah 2:18Open Link in New Window says, “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” After months of preparation, things were finally starting to happen.

Today we’re going to look at one of the major obstacles to living a life of faith in God’s purposes. When we do so, we will face opposition, doubt and difficulty.

In fact, the first sentence of Nehemiah 4:1Open Link in New Window says: “When Sanballat heard that we were re-building the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed”. God’s purposes attracts criticism. How do we handle criticism, opposition, disappointment? How can we live out God’s purposes, even when we’re up against it?

This is one of the biggest things I wrestled with before responding to God’s call back into parish ministry at St Matthews. I knew from experience—my own and others in Christian ministry and leadership, that living out God’s call for my life will lead to criticism, to disappointment, and sometimes to conflict. The same applies to you in different parts of your lives too.

It’s a fact of life isn’t it—and the baying public judgementalism of social media is a sad modern reflection. We will be criticized if you begin to live for God. We need to anticipate and prepare for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that all criticism is wrong. But I am suggesting we have to learn how to handle criticism with grace if you’re going to life a life of faith in God’s purposes. I struggle with this as much as anyone. But Nehemiah is a book to encourage. He faced it in bucket loads. Anybody who is trying to do something for God will face opposition. It will happen. The good news is that you can win over this. We can live out God’s call and purposes even when things feel against us. We can live a life of calling even if we’re sensitive to other people’s opinions.

If there was anybody who shouldn’t have received criticism, it was Nehemiah. God commissioned him. He was rebuilding a wall that would make Jerusalem a safe place for its people. This would mean people could worship God in the Temple again without fear. You would think everybody in Jerusalem would be happy about this. But you’d also be wrong.

Nehemiah encountered three types of opposition The first is the subtlest, and this was APATHY. Helen referred to this last week, as were rightly challenged to think, ‘How much do we really care about God’s purposes for his Church? Nehemiah 3:5Open Link in New Window says, “The next section was repaired by the people of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.” The people had started to rebuild the wall. Everybody pitched in, with one exception. There was a small town, about 5 miles away from Bethlehem. The leaders of that town refused to work. Is everyone really pitching in together? When we begin to share God’s purposes, we will find that some will respond with apathy.

The second was ANGER. Nehemiah 4:1Open Link in New Window says, “When Sanballat heard that we were re-building the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed…”

Has anybody here ever been the brunt of somebody’s angry attack? It’s very likely that if you begin to live a life of faith in God’s purposes, somebody will get angry with you. Expect it. Don’t be surprised when people get angry. There may be all sorts of reasons why. But it will and does happen.

The third was RIDICULE. Nehemiah 4:1-3Open Link in New Window says: “He ridiculed the Jews and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?’ Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their walls of stone!’”

This was full on. They questioned the character of the builders, their ability, their commitment. They called everyone incompetent. Things can become personal as your character is questioned and the petty insults fly.

But none of it worked. Nehemiah 4:6Open Link in New Window says, “So we re-built the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” The people worked with all their hearts, souls, mind and strength for the purposes of God, despite the huge difficulties they faced.

But things still didn’t stop. When they saw they couldn’t win with words, they went to the next level. Nehemiah 4:8-11Open Link in New Window says, “They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it…” “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

Being faithful to God’s purposes requires courage. There will be struggle, challenge and disappointment. Nehemiah had it all.

And all of this also began to feed doubts in the people, undermining confidence in God’s purposes. Nehemiah 4:12Open Link in New Window says, “Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” They’re coming at us from all sides! Rebuilding was a much harder project that they first thought. They were tired. They met difficulty after difficulty. The excitement of the original call had been worn down by events, and they were distracted and downhearted. Sound familiar? After 15 months of a global pandemic, everything feels harder now—everything.

So, what do we do? Nehemiah took three steps that we can also take when facing seemingly impossible odds.

  1. PRAY

    Nehemiah 4:4-5Open Link in New Window: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”

    Often our inclination and immediate response is to try and take everything on ourselves first, and then pray later—if we think about it. Nehemiah’s first response to difficulty and challenge was prayer. Prayer is our first response—God is our first line of defence.

    His prayer is gritty and honest. Be honest with God about how you feel. He can take it. God is interested. He wants to know.

  2. The second step that Nehemiah took: KEEP GOING

    Right after Nehemiah’s prayer, we read, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (Nehemiah 4:6Open Link in New Window). One of the dangers of struggle, challenge and opposition is that is that it can exhaust and then immobilise us. Despair can take over and we feel like giving up. Keep going. Once you’ve prayed, in the power of the Holy Spirit and with a renewed God perspective, keep going.

    If Nehemiah had given up in the face of challenge and difficulty, the wall wouldn’t have been completed. In fact, Nehemiah’s team worked even harder. After they were criticized. Nehemiah 4:21Open Link in New Window tells us that they worked “from the first light of dawn till the stars came out”. They adapted and responded to what they faced. One thing I do know that God has been saying to me amidst the confusion of these times is—Keep Going! (Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you!!!)

  3. One last step that Nehemiah took when criticized: REMEMBER

    Nehemiah kept praying and kept going. He also remembered who it was who brought him to Jerusalem in the first place. He remembered God’s intervention with King Artaxerxes and God’s call on his life. He remembered what could and should be in Jerusalem. This all gave him hope and courage to run the race.

    When we remember God’s faithfulness in our lives, it changes everything… (Richard and Gaby’s journeys to ordination…)

    Nehemiah could have remembered all the bad things—exile, broken walls, enemies and difficulties all around. But he chose to remember God’s faithfulness and goodness. Nehemiah 4:14Open Link in New Window “After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the LORD, who is great and awesome, and fight for your friends, your families, and your homes!’” Nehemiah said, “Remember the LORD.” It’s much better to remember God’s goodness.

We are all tempted to think about past failures and dwell on all the challenges, difficulties and obstacles. And this 15 months of global pandemic has thrown up everything, hasn’t it. Vicars are not immune to this, and I need to hear God speaking through the words of Nehemiah as much as anyone.

But the walls will be re-built—not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally too—by us following the example of Nehemiah—to pray first—God is our first line of defence; to keep going—be renewed by seeing things from God’s perspective, and to remember God’s faithfulness, which will fill our hearts and minds with hope and praise.

As we look to the future—with the challenges of our stewardship responses, reconnecting with our scattered church family and the uncertainties of knowing how life will unfold over the next year, will you join with me in these, and be re-filled by God’s grace and those streams of living water? Let’s start with the first one. Let’s pray.

There will be a video version of the service.

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