St Michael’s 11th September 2016
Readings – Nehemiah 2; Luke 12:1-12
Have you ever had the experience where your faith has collided head on with your work? I still remember the conversation I had twenty years ago when I had to go and tell my boss I was leaving my job as a chartered accountant in order to begin ordination training. Although I got on well with my boss and I still have the deepest respect for him, I remained uncertain quite how he would take the news. His reply went something like, “Six years ago when you started I would have told you not to be so silly and given you a pay rise. But you owe it to yourself to go and do the right thing”. And indeed he was incredibly generous towards me as I began my studies, and I owe so much to him.
I think of this conversation every time I read our passage from Nehemiah, chapter 2, which really is all about someone who dares to express their faith at work. Now we finished last week by noting that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia, and I promised to explain today what that job involved. Well, cupbearer to the king was more than being some kind of glorified butler. We’re not dealing here with the world of Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs. A cupbearer was a kind of security guard. Nehemiah’s job involved tasting the wine to make sure no-one was planning to poison the king, or if they were, to cop it instead of the king. He was in a position of trust and responsibility, and that meant generally not burdening the king with his own private problems. He was there to be a presence, to keep watch and not to be noticed.
Yet Nehemiah had a problem. He was living in exile far away from his homeland of Israel. He had heard disturbing news from his brother that the walls of the capital city, Jerusalem, had been broken down and its gates burnt. It was getting harder and harder not to show his feelings at work. But the last thing the king wanted was a servant who was distracted by his personal concerns, and Nehemiah knew the king had the absolute power to fire him, or worse, to put him to death.
Eventually something had to give. Verses 1-2: In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” No wonder Nehemiah goes on to say I was very much afraid. His life and the fate of his people were on the line.
What was going in Nehemiah’s favour, however, was the fact that he had prepared for this moment. We heard last week in chapter 1, verse 4 Nehemiah’s words that: When I heard these things (that is, the news about Jerusalem), I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. And if you weren’t here last week, I would encourage you to read my sermon which looked at how exactly Nehemiah prayed. As we saw, Nehemiah finished his prayer by offering himself totally and utterly in the Lord’s service – whatever the cost.
So here is Nehemiah standing before the king telling him exactly how it is. I wonder, was his heart in his mouth? Or did he have a calm assurance the Lord was with him? One thing we do know is that the king was willing to listen and take Nehemiah seriously. I can’t prove this, but I suspect that Nehemiah had won the king’s respect by the way he had always worked up to this point. How we conduct ourselves each ordinary, boring day is, you see, really quite important so that when the crunch comes, we have a sympathetic ear from the boss, or at least some understanding we’re not simply make a meal of things.
That doesn’t mean, however, that when the conversation reaches a critical point, we don’t have an opportunity to blow it! Take a moment to look at verse 4: The king said to me, “What is it you want?” That sounds such a simple question, but any demand that appeared unreasonable or critical of the king could have had fatal consequences. What Nehemiah said next and how he said it was of utmost importance.
So let’s look at Nehemiah’s answer which gives us the first important lesson we can take away from this passage. The end of verse 4 leading into verse 5: The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
Did you notice that little pause in the conversation? Before Nehemiah replied, he paused just long enough to ask for help from the Lord, for wisdom in what he said. He offered what we would call nowadays an “arrow prayer”, that is, a brief and silent emergency prayer in a situation of critical importance. So often it’s the only sort of prayer we can offer in the midst of a busy, working day. But it is enough. The Lord doesn’t answer our prayers according to how long they are. He answers them because He delights in those who recognise their need of Him. And if you’ve never tried offering an arrow prayer, let me encourage you to try it this week.
It was because Nehemiah believed and trusted in the Lord that he was a man who asked. If you look at what he actually asks the king, it looks like he is making a list of impossible demands. Can I rebuild my city, and oh, by the way, can you provide an armed escort and arrange for all the necessary materials to be delivered. But because he asked God before he asked the king, all these things were sorted out for him just like that. As we read in verse 8: … because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.
Now from a human perspective Nehemiah’s requests made no sense. He was losing his privileged job in the royal court. He was undertaking a risky journey with all kinds of dangers on the way. And he faced opposition even after he arrived. We’ll think more about Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite later on. But for now, I simply want to make the point Nehemiah was willing to leave everything behind because he knew the Lord had called him to step out in faith. And so he trusted Him with every detail, because he knew there was nothing more important than doing His will.
So Nehemiah was a man who asked. Secondly, he was a man who assessed the situation.
Up until this point Nehemiah had only heard reports about the state of Jerusalem. He knew the task was too important for him to rely on second hand information. He had to see the lie of the land, work out what needed to be done, and where to begin. That is why he makes his night excursion which we read about in verses 13-15. And I suspect that all the time he is doing this he is praying and asking the Lord the right way to proceed.
How might this part of the passage apply to us? One answer would be that just like in Nehemiah’s time we have the care of physical buildings. We come to worship in a beautiful church which needs care and maintenance. And we need a dedicated team of people who have the skills and spiritual gifts to look after this resource the Lord has given us. That’s why we have at St Michael’s a Building Action Team and if you don’t know who they are, find out afterwards. They have a really important ministry to repair and maintain this property.
Yet the true application of this passage is not actually that much to do with buildings at all. You see, all of us are involved in a much greater task, which is building the kingdom of God. Whenever we read in the Old Testament about building we should always think of our calling as the people of God to build a new spiritual reality. Building the Kingdom of God is about extending the rule and authority of King Jesus wherever we go, whatever we do – into our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our streets and our neighbourhoods. And let’s be clear, this is our primary calling as a church.
Listen to these words from 1 Peter 2:4-5: As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Or from Ephesians 2:19-22: Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
The New Testament doesn’t talk at all about physical building projects. But it does talk about the task of building the people of God upon the foundation of Jesus Christ so that we become more and more a place where the Lord dwells by His Spirit. So why is it we spend so much time talking about physical buildings and spend so much less time talk about our calling and our mission as a church?
Now building the kingdom of God doesn’t have by accident. We have to assess the state of God’s people. We have to assess the resources and gifts available to us. We have to assess the needs of the community, and the work being carried out by other churches in the area. And then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we need to plan how to build the kingdom here in this place.
So if you were here five years ago you may remember how we spent a day away in Bovey Tracey where we drew up our Mission Action Plan. I don’t know how many of you still refer to our Mission Action Plan or even look at it as you walk into church, but it has been at heart of all that we have done since 2012. Our three goals are foundational to the life of St Michael’s and St Barnabas that we learn to be with Jesus, to be with each other, to be servants of the Lord wherever we are called. If you are on the church council, I would particularly urge you to read the Mission Action Plan before we next meet. The Lord gave us a plan and by concentrating on these priorities He has blessed us with so much growth.
But of course time moves on and circumstances change. That’s why on 5th November we are going to be meeting again for an away day at Marjons chapel. Remember, remember the 5th November! We are looking at our plan and seeing if we need to draw up a new one for the next five years. And all the while we do this we need to keep coming back to our primary calling to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Even as we draw up plans and generate lots of paperwork, we need to keep our focus, and I suggested last week, we need to pray like Nehemiah claiming the promises of God and offering ourselves in His service.
And one last point under this heading, why does Nehemiah assess the walls of Jerusalem on his own? The simple answer is that Nehemiah has been appointed to a position of leadership. The role of a leader is to oversee the work the Lord has given His church to carry out. That involves sometimes stepping out faith, seeking a new vision, working out exactly what is the next stage of the church’s mission.
But of course it wasn’t Nehemiah’s role to carry out the work on his own. Building the kingdom of God is a task we are all given to play. The idea that really the vicar runs a one-man show is, I hope, something that was left behind in the last century. We are together a holy priesthood, some of us with upfront gifts, some of us with vital gifts used behind the scene and we have to work out how together we are going to put God’s work into practice.
So Nehemiah asked in faith. He assessed the situation. And thirdly, he assembled the people.
Verses 17-18: Then I said to them, “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.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.
Now before I knew there was going to be a baptism next week, I had planned to preach on Nehemiah chapter 3. If you have your Bibles open in front of you, you may well wonder why. At first glance it seems just like one long list of unpronounceable names. But actually it’s a really important passage. It’s about all the people of God working together on one task, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Yet each person or group of people is working on a different section, each making their own unique and valuable contribution.
So in verse 8, for example, in verse we read how: Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. You see, the Lord needs goldsmiths and perfume-makers and indeed folk with every kind of skill to build his kingdom. He needs people to do the high profile jobs. He needs people like Malkijah who sa we read in verse 14 repaired the Dung Gate, not exactly the most glamorous job, but one that was essential for the health and well-being of God’s people.
Actually, when I say all the people of God worked together, what I should say is nearly everyone. Verse 5: The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors. The fact these nobles of Tekoa have gone down in history is, I believe, a reminder that when one person or group of people refuse to get involved the whole process of building God’s kingdom is affected. Building God’s kingdom is not for the spiritually keen, or for those who have nothing better to do. It is a task for everyone here today.
So let me ask, how are you going to build the kingdom of God this week? Not just at church, but at home, at work, at school, on the streets, in our neighbourhoods. Let’s take and use our faith in the Lord, the God of heaven, to make a real difference and to show that Jesus is our Saviour.
And one final point. Whenever we step out in faith to build the kingdom of God we will encounter spiritual opposition. Verse 19: But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”
However as we have seen, Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He was someone who asked in faith, who assessed the situation from the Lord’s perspective and who assembled the people in the knowledge this is what the Lord had called him to do. That is why he had an assurance of spiritual victory.
Verse 20: I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
May the Lord bless you and give you the same assurance of spiritual victory as you go out to build His kingdom in the coming week. For His name’s sake. Amen.