St Michael’s, 9th October 2016
Readings – Nehemiah 6:1-16: Luke 17:7-11
We all like the idea of an easy life. We all want a comfortable existence where we don’t have to put in that much effort to get what we want. And advertisers know that. That’s why they forever promise that their latest product will make life easier, quicker, faster, better. From beauty aids to hedge-trimmers, cable TV to financial services their constant message is, “Buy this to get the life you’ve always wanted”.
But Jesus’ message is very different. A couple of weeks ago we heard these words from Luke 14:26-27: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. That hardly sounds like a great offer, does it?
Yet Jesus’ message is realistic and honest. We must beware the slick evangelist who says, “Come to Jesus and everything will be all right”. The one worship song I refuse to sing is the one which tells us, “In His presence all our problems disappear”. Because that is simply not true, at least not yet. And indeed as many of you know from your own experience, whenever you make any step of faith, you will often find that your difficulties increase.
Why is this case? Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12: … our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. That sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it? Yet the sad fact is that we live in a fallen world which has rebelled against God our Heavenly Father. And so long as we are part of that rebellion, it may well be the case we are left well alone. But when we join the winning side, we cannot be surprised if the evil one will do all he can to undermine or nullify our faith.
And equally when we as the people of God move forward and make bold advances for the sake of the kingdom, we should not be surprised if our church comes under spiritual attack. The evil one doesn’t have to bother that much about a weak, inward-looking church which mostly cares for its own. But when that church comes alive in the power of the Holy Spirit, then battle is joined, and we have to be constantly on our guard.
Now I don’t talk or preach that much about spiritual opposition, because ultimately Jesus has already won us the victory by His death and resurrection. Yet in the here and now I am aware that probably every person here faces some kind of battle day by day and I see very much my role to help folk recognise and overcome these challenges. And I am also very concerned that as a church we grow in our prayer and practical support for one another, through our Sunday worship, our small groups, and our network of friends. Spiritual opposition, you see, is real. That struggle Paul talks about isn’t just for particularly keen believers or those who talk openly about the Holy Spirit. It is something all of us in one way or another encounter.
That is why this morning we are going to look at Nehemiah 6, to understand what sort of opposition we face as Christians and how we can overcome it.
The chapter begins with mention of Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. We’ve already encountered them before in the previous chapters and seen how they opposed Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild Jerusalem. We are not told exactly why they were so hostile. The sad fact is, some people just seem to hate the fact we belong to the Lord and do everything they can to make our life difficult. Speaking personally, I still remember what it was like growing up as perhaps the only Christian in my whole year at school. It was at times tough, really tough, and yet I don’t remember that much teaching at church which directly addressed what I was going through.
So what tactics did Sanballat and his gang use against Nehemiah?
Well, as you might expect, their first method was direct, physical threat. Verse 2: Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me.
Now I expect few of us have suffered physically for being a Christian – although if you have experienced any sort of violence, please do speak to me in confidence afterwards. No-one should ever feel that they must suffer alone, and one very good reason why we have a safeguarding policy for all ages is precisely to counter this sort of abuse.
But by and large most of us feel reasonably free to follow our faith without any kind of threat or intimidation. This is of course is not the case for many believers in many parts of the world. Some of you were there when our Kenyan visitors talked about the attack on a bus carried out by Muslim extremists. These extremists singled out everyone who professed a Christian faith and shot them dead. And that is not an isolated instance. It is reckoned there are over 100 countries where believers face persecution, torture and death.
When our friend pastor Paul came over from India, he talked about his first converts, about a dozen Hindus and a couple of Muslims. Within a couple of months these brothers from a Muslim background simply disappeared. There is little doubt they were executed because of their faith.
Now stories such as these could be repeated many, many times over. We perhaps don’t share them as often as we should because they make us feel uncomfortable. Yet we need to hear and own them. And when we hear them we need to pray for our believers who are suffering and find ways of letting them know they are not alone. We also need to ask our government to remember them and to recognise the specific persecution that Christians around the world face, particularly in places like Syria. And when our brothers and sisters in Christ do make it to this country, we need to be willing to offer asylum and shelter.
One remarkable aspect of Nehemiah’s story, however, is that despite all the threats, in the end neither he nor any of God’s people came to any immediate harm. We are not told explicitly why but surely what we have here is evidence of answered prayer and proof that the Lord so often protects us in ways we may not even be able to see.
This doesn’t mean that the opposition simply goes away. In our reading, when Sanballat and co fail in their plot against Nehemiah, they move onto their second tactic, namely rumour and innuendo.
Verses 5-7: Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his assistant to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: “It is reported among the nations – and Geshem says it is true – that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together.”
Now the problem with rumours is that they are rather like toothpaste. Once they are out there, you can’t simply put them back in their place. And it’s really important to understand that a favourite smear tactic of the enemy is quite simply to spread rumours about Christians. For Sanballat all those years ago the only means he had of spreading a rumour was by letter. Nowadays, by contrast, there are 101 different ways you can spread your opinion thanks to the ever growing use of social media.
And you don’t have to look too far to see what certain people think about us. We Christians hate gay people. We believe the world was made in seven days. We think we are better than other people. And the problem we come up against time after time is that generally people believe what they want to believe. Simply stating a few facts isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. You can explain all you want the Bible’s teaching about sex or creation or grace and still it seems you are speaking in a completely foreign language.
But then part of the cost of being a Christian is that to some extent we will always be misunderstood. Listen to Paul’s experience in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13: We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. I can’t relate to everything Paul went through, but I certainly know what is like to be cursed and slandered because of my faith.
What makes Paul’s words even more shocking is that these words were written not to those outside the church, but to a group of Christians. This leads me to the third point that comes out of our passage from Nehemiah, that sometimes and most sadly, opposition can come from within the church.
Let’s take a moment to look at verse 10: One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you – by night they are coming to kill you.” Now at first glance you might wonder what was the problem with meeting in the temple. Well, Nehemiah was not a priest. He had no right to go inside the temple and close the doors. If he was found there, his whole leadership would be compromised and undermined.
But that was only half the problem. Read on verses 12-14: I realised that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me.
It seems clear that a whole group of prophets had been speaking against Nehemiah and undermining his leadership. It is not clear whether all were in the pay of Tobiah and Sanballat or not. But one way or another they were forming an active opposition and using the name of the Lord to gain a hearing. After all, it is generally the case that prophets speak in the name of the Lord, whether or not they are on the Lord’s side. And because they seem to have the right religious language, people tend to listen.
Nehemiah, however, was able to see past their words and understand exactly what they had in mind. And we equally need to be very careful of anyone who claims to speak in the name of the Lord but actually encourages us to act in a way that is contrary to the word of God. So often churches go astray because someone says they have had a vision, or a word from God, and no-one thinks to test what is being said.
So let’s look at how Nehemiah was able to withstand the opposition and see what lessons we can learn. Three key points come out from this passage:
First of all, persistence.
Verses 2-4: Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. Or to put it another way: Meet at Ono? Oh, no!
Yet it is hard to resist when the same threat keeps coming again and again. So many believers simply get worn down, by an unbelieving spouse, maybe, or a colleague at work who month by month, year by year, constantly undermines their faith. It really isn’t surprising that some simply fall away.
So how did Nehemiah survive? If you glance back to chapter 5, verse 17 you’ll see that 150 Jews and officials dined at his table each day. Nehemiah, in other words, had the support of faithful friends and of God’s people who were there to support and encourage him. And that’s a very simple but very important point. Satan, you see, likes to pick on believers who are isolated and alone. If we are to stand firm in the faith, then we need to be there for one another and to understand the situations other people are facing. So if you are struggling on your own right at this moment, tell someone after the service, ask for prayer, and find a way of staying in touch during the week. It really is vital that you do this.
So Nehemiah was persistent. Secondly, he was prayerful.
We heard earlier how Sanballat sent round a letter claiming Nehemiah was setting himself up as king. How did Nehemiah respond? Verses 8 and 9:
I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Throughout our sermon series we’ve seen that whenever Nehemiah faced a crisis, he prayed. He prayed when he heard news about the state of Jerusalem (chapter 1, verse 4). He prayed when the king asked him what he wanted (chapter 2, verse 4). He prayed when he started the work of rebuilding and was insulted (chapter 4, verse 4). In every situation Nehemiah sought strength from the Lord.
Next week we are starting a new sermon series from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. Part of Paul’s prayer for the church in Col 1:10-11 is as follows: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…
In other words, if we want to have endurance and patience in our Christian faith, then we need to pray for the power that the Lord provides. Yes, it can be tempting to think that we can handle our difficulties on our own, and maybe for a while we can. But there will come a time when our resources will simply give out, and we will realise we can’t rely on ourselves after all. How much better to pray before that point and ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen our hands. And that is where the example of Nehemiah comes in. He was man who constantly depended upon the Lord in every situation, and the Lord prospered His work. How far, I wonder, do we depend on the Lord as we go about our everyday business and look for Him to bear us up?
So Nehemiah was persistent. Nehemiah was prayerful. And Nehemiah was also perceptive.
As we saw just now, Shemaiah prophesied against Nehemiah, and a whole company of prophets sought to undermine his authority. Nehemiah, then, was in a hugely uncomfortable position and there may well have been some who wondered if the Lord was with him or not. But Nehemiah knew what the word of the Lord really said and that enabled him to stand up to this false teaching.
And this is one important reason why we too need to know the whole counsel of God. So on the first Thursday of most months we are going to gather as the whole church family to look at the big picture of the Bible. The aim of the evening is not simply to gather more knowledge or acquire more information. The aim is to equip each and every believer so that when someone says, “This is what the Bible says” or “This is what the Lord has said to me” we have the spiritual tools to discern whether or not whether they are actually speaking in the name of the Lord. One factor which has led perhaps than any other to the decline of the church in this country has been a loss of knowledge of what the Bible says. And the result? Church leaders advocating teaching that goes against Scripture; churches who are not confident in sharing the gospel; individual believers unable to connect their faith with their daily lives. How much do we need a fresh work of the Holy Spirit to write the word of God on our hearts so that like Nehemiah we can stand firm when under attack!
Now I realise I have covered a lot of ground this morning, so let me sum up briefly all that we have looked at this morning. We started by saying that when we step out in faith we will encounter opposition. The world doesn’t like us transferring to the winning side. So the enemy will use all kinds of tactics. He will use direct threat; he will use rumours and innuendo; he will tempt us into sin, and lead us astray with false teaching.
So how do we resist? By being persistent, by being prayerful, by being perceptive, and above all, by being there for each other.
And who wins? Nehemiah 6:15-16: So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.
May it also be said of St Michael’s that we too have built our church with the help of our God, and that those who oppose us will come to a true fear of the Lord.
For His name’s sake. Amen.