Sunday, December 02, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 6: 1-19 Carrying on a great work

As some of you may know, last week we were in Bulgaria for a few days. Normally, people from here go to Bulgaria for the skiing, but we didn’t do any skiing. Instead, we visited with missionaries and a pastor. It was a humbling experience, to sit and talk with a man whose church building had been confiscated by the Communists; and who then began to lead an underground church, meeting secretly. With new legislation being debated in Bulgaria, religious freedoms are under threat, and the pastor reckoned things would be worse than under the Communists.

The question that arises is this - why are people who are seeking to be faithful to God, and proclaiming the name of Jesus, facing such pressure and threat and opposition? We don’t think it should be this way. And yet these saints are facing danger and threat in the very near future (all over again).

The thing is, though, that no matter where you might be reading in the Bible, God’s people always seem to be under some sort of threat, facing some sort of opposition. So it’s not as strange as we might think it to be. It seems to be the usual pattern for God’s people - opposition of one sort or another. And why does it happen? Well, to put it simply, we have an enemy, who doesn’t want us to prosper, who seeks to make things difficult for us as we seek to follow Jesus.

So as we turn to Nehemiah 6, we discover that he is facing all sorts of opposition. Again. You see, back in chapters 2 and 4, there was some initial opposition to Nehemiah’s building project from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. And, as chapter 6 opens, those same three names come up again.

So, what’s Nehemiah doing, and why is he being opposed as he tries to do it? The big picture is that Nehemiah, born in exile, far away, has heard of the state of the city of Jerusalem. Its walls were broken down and burned. Its people weren’t much better off. And so Nehemiah, by God’s providence, cupbearer to the king, comes with the king’s blessing to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem.

And there’s opposition to the building work. A few years ago, Channel 5 had a tv programme ‘Neighbours from Hell’ about neighbours who caused hassle. Nehemiah was living with neighbours, if not from hell themselves, then inspired by hell. You see, Nehemiah is building up the city of Jerusalem - the city of the people of God, the people of God’s promise, that the Messiah, God’s king would come from. Without the people of God, there can be no Messiah from God. Without Nehemiah’s work, Jesus could not have come to be our Saviour.

And so the devil, through these neighbours from hell, is trying to prevent God fulfilling his promises, and stopping Jesus from coming into the world. Do you see how important Nehemiah’s work is? And why the opposition is increasing in pressure - all to prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled.

In verse 1 we see the context of this renewed opposition. Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (and all the rest of the enemies) hear that Nehemiah has rebuilt the wall with no gaps (although the doors aren’t in place yet). The project they had mocked is coming to an end, the walls of safety and security are being finished, and so they need to do something to try to stop the work at the eleventh hour.

The first plan of attack comes in verse 2. The message from Sanballat and Geshem: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono’ But Nehemiah sees through their scheme, they were scheming to harm him, so he’s invited to the plain of Ono, and he says Oh no! I won’t go! Well, that’s the paraphrase. He actually says: ‘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?’

At the basic level, it’s an attempt to distract him from carrying on a great work. Especially given they try the same message four time! But the deeper threat is them scheming to harm him. The devil is trying to take Nehemiah out of the game, to prevent the work from happening.

And we can see in the life of Jesus the same attack being tried time and again. When Herod gave the order for all the baby boys of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. When the crowd in Nazareth try to push Jesus over the edge of the cliff. The storm that arises when Jesus is in the boat. Even the crucifixion itself! But none of those attempts on Jesus’ life were successful until the moment God had planned - when Jesus’ death would fulfil his purpose.

After four failed attempts, the enemies decide eventually(!) to try something else. This time, verse 5, they send the same message, but also with an unsealed letter, for anyone to read. And the message tells how a report is going around (and Geshem says it’s true, so it must be true...) about how the Jews are going to revolt, and how Nehemiah is going to proclaim himself king. It’s a bit of bribery or blackmail - when they say, now you wouldn’t want the king to hear about this, would you? You’d better come here to us and we’ll sort it all out.

Nehemiah’s reply is straightforward and fairly blunt: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ It’s all lies and nonsense. Pure fantasy. But do you see their motive this time? Not so much to harm Nehemiah physically, but to harm him mentally. ‘They were all trying to frighten us, thinking. “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”’ (9)

They’re trying to weaken Nehemiah and the workers through fear. You’ve heard that expression ‘paralysed by fear’ - that was their aim. They were trying to stop the work from being completed. But remember, no building work, no Jewish nation, no Jesus.

And we hear the same devilish accent in the words of the Pharisees in Luke 13:31, when they say that Herod (another Herod from when Jesus was a baby) wants to kill him, so he should go somewhere else. They were trying to use fear, trying to stop Jesus from completing his life’s work. But Jesus responds that he will stay on course and complete his work, and reach his goal.

So the threat of harm hasn’t worked. Neither has the threat of fear. And we see that in Nehemiah’s prayer: ‘Now strengthen my hands.’ (9). Give me strength to keep going, even when there are fearful threats.

But that doesn’t stop the neighbours from hell. Now, they try a different approach. One that, at first glance, might sound reasonable. Nehemiah is visiting Shemaiah, who appears to be a prophet in the city. He advises that Nehemiah should meet him in the temple, the house of God, behind closed doors, taking refuge there, because men are coming to kill Nehemiah.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable, maybe even sensible? And we’ve heard of the idea of taking sanctuary, taking refuge in religious buildings. But we see Nehemiah’s answer in verse 11: ‘Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’ So Nehemiah isn’t going to run away, or hide away.

But there’s more going on below the surface. You see, the prophet wasn’t saying these things because God had sent him. He was saying these things because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He who pays the piper calls the tune - and they wanted to intimidate Nehemiah.

And the aim was to make Nehemiah ‘commit a sin by doing this and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.’ (13). How would this be a sin? By going into the temple, the holy place, Nehemiah would be sinning, disobeying God’s command. He would be trespassing the boundaries God had set in place. If he had done that, then his name would be mud, he’d have a bad name, he’d be discredited.

It was a temptation to sin by seeking self-preservation. And while Nehemiah didn’t sin in this regard, he had sinned in lots of other ways (we see his confession in chapter 1). Jesus was tempted in the same way, over and over. Tempted to make stones into bread to satisfy his hunger after forty days of fasting. Tempted to throw himself down from the top of the temple to test God’s protection. Tempted to bypass the pain of the cross and receive the kingdoms of the world by worshipping Satan. Tempted (by Peter) to not go the way of the cross. But in all these temptations, and in every temptation, Jesus committed no sin! That’s why he is our perfect Saviour, the one who covers our sins through his perfect life, and his perfect death on the cross for us.

The Satan who tried to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his mission (and was unsuccessful in that endeavour!) also tried to prevent Jesus from coming into the world through his opposition to Nehemiah. But as Nehemiah joyfully records, this opposition was also unsuccessful.

The wall was completed in fifty-two days. That’s some going, with all that had been going on in the background. And when the enemies hear the news, they ‘were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.’

Project fear hadn’t worked, and now the enemies are themselves afraid. They begin to realise that there is a God, and he has been helping his people to bring about his purposes. Nehemiah shows us how God’s enemies (and the enemy) seek to prevent God from fulfilling his promises. The enemy’s plans never change - he was at it in Nehemiah’s day, he was at the same tricks in Jesus’ day, and he is at the same tricks here in Richhill, and in Bulgaria, and all around the world in our day. But we have God’s help as we carry on a great project, the building up of God’s people, as we call people to turn from their opposition and turn to the living and true God, as we wait for his Son from heaven.

[How ironic, then, that when Nehemiah’s enemies realised that God was at work to help his people, some of God’s people were at work to help his enemies! The nobles of Judah were bound in closely with Tobiah - through oaths, and relationships, and letter-writing, and advocacy for him. They talked about his good deeds, and how wonderful he was! All while the letters come seeking to intimidate Nehemiah and prevent God’s work from going forward.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Where do we fit in? Are we among the godly but confused, advocating for the enemy, blindsided by his charm? Are we on the enemy’s side? In both cases, we need to turn back to God, surrender to him.

But if we’re facing opposition of one sort or another; if we’re seeing the enemy’s tactics deployed against us - threat of harm, project fear, temptations to sin - then take heart! You are on God’s team, the winning team, and God will help, and God will bring about his plans and purposes. Pray for his strength, and stick at it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 2nd December 2018.

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