Text: Nehemiah 2:11-20
Let me tell you about two men of God. The first has spent much of his life as a semi-skilled labourer in the family business. He’s not highly educated, and is used to working long hours out of doors in sometimes wild weather. After a rocky start as a follower of Jesus, he has become a leader in the Christian church, and a fearless preacher of the gospel. But the church is under persecution. Some of his closest friends have been killed for contending for the faith, and he himself has been arrested and thrown into jail. Heavy chains, locked doors, and four guards combine to make escape seemingly impossible. But his fellow-Christians have been praying for him, and, in the middle of the night, the prisoner is astounded to find his cell bathed in light, and an angel standing in front of him. As if by magic, Peter’s shackles fall to the ground, and the angel leads him past the helpless guards, through a heavy door that mysteriously swings open before them and out into the freedom of the street beyond.
Different time, different place, different circumstances: our second man of God is a sophisticated and well-educated nobleman in the court of the king of Persia. But he longs for a homeland that he has never seen. When he hears news that the great city of his God is in ruins, he prays fervently, and the Lord lays it on his heart to ask the king if he may return home and organise the rebuilding of the city walls. The king grants his request, and Nehemiah makes the hazardous three-month journey to the home of his ancestors. Then, in the teeth of a gale of ridicule and abuse, he sets about organising the work of rebuilding the walls.
In a way, these stories are quite similar. In both situations, a lone servant of God faces the challenge of building up and strengthening God’s people in the face of hostile opposition. And yet they’re also very different. In the first case – the case of Peter – we discern the direct and miraculous intervention of God. In the secnod story – that of Nehemiah – God lays a burden on his heart, and he responds obediently, wisely, efficiently. But God is no less at work in Nehemiah’s careful strategy than in Peter’s miraculous deliverance.
1. Notice, firstly, how Nehemiah assesses the need, vv11-16. Suppose the first thing he did, the moment he arrived in Jerusalem, was to announce to everyone, “God has told me to rebuild the walls of this great city.” They would have asked, “Who are you? Have you ever been to Jerusalem before? Do you know exactly what state the walls are in? Do you know how much money, or how many people, or how much time, it will take to do this work?” No: Nehemiah waited three days before he did anything. Then he went out at night, with a minimum of fuss, to assess the problem. Before announcing the rebuilding project to anyone, he quietly assesses the need and counts the cost.
Luke 14:28-30 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'”
2. Notice, secondly, how Nehemiah recruits his team, v17f – Suppose you had some ruined walls to rebuild. You could try to do it on your own. Or, you could order others to do the job. Or, as with Nehemiah, you could build a team to help you. Note that although he had been there only a few days, Nehemiah identifies with the people and their need. “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” He encourages them with personal testimony: “I told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.” How did the people respond? “Let’s start rebuilding right now.”
Do you sometimes contemplate the enormity of the task of building the kingdom of God and ask, “What’s the point of even making an effort? What difference will it make whether I put my little brick in place or not?” The Bible teaches that to each one of us the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good, but it is only when we work together as a team that we start functioning properly as the church of Christ.
3. Notice, thirdly, how Nehemiah deals with opposition, v19f. We are not told why Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab were so antagonistic towards Nehemiah and his rebuilding project. But we do know that they opposed the plan from the outset, and did everything they could to undermine it. As for Nehemiah, he doesn’t stoop to answer their criticisms directly. Instead, he simply states his conviction that God has called them to the task and that God would give them success.
Brothers and sisters, once we have become convinced that we are about the Lord’s business then we too can proceed like Nehemiah, cheerfully undeterred by setbacks and opposition. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Indeed, if we find that we are experiencing no opposition, no hostility, no setbacks in our Christian work, we might well ask if we are being as faithful to our calling as Nehemiah was to his.
We are living in a time when to many eyes the Christian church seems to be in a state of near-collapse, when family life is being heavily eroded, when the moral fabric of the world is breaking down. As followers of Jesus we face a task unfinished, that drives us to our needs. And if God, in answer to his people’s prayers, grants us miracles, as he did to Peter, then blessed be the name of the Lord. Or if, in answer to prayer, he lays on our hearts a plan that requires wise, patient and determined implementation, as he did with Nehemiah, again, blessed be the name of the Lord. In either way – in every way – let us serve the purpose of God in our generation, to ‘rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; [and to] renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.’