Thursday, April 23, 2015

How to Start a Wall--Nehemiah 2

Nehemiah was a Jew who served as butler to the king of Artaxerxes of Persia. Hanani visited him from Jerusalem and told him that the Babylonians had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, and the city with it.  When Nehemiah heard this, Nehemiah wept and prayed for God to rebuild the walls.
Why was he so concerned with the wall?  A wall is more than a pile of stones.  It represents the ideas and vision that surrounds people, nations, and individual.  A wall defends us against our enemies and makes us different from our neighbors.  It gives us the freedom to be ourselves and the strength to stand in opposition.
When our spiritual walls are gone, we lose all sense of personal boundaries.  Other people can push us around, so can temptations and lusts. Without spiritual walls, we don’t know where we stand.  We become fearful and afraid.
Jerusalem needed a new wall, but Nehemiah was in no position to rebuild it. First he had no right. Israel already had legitimate leaders.  They had priests and prophets operating among the exiles. Nehemiah was cut off from any position of leadership within Israel. Second, he had probably never even seen Jerusalem.  He was either very young when taken or he was born in captivity. Third, he was a butler, not a builder. Fourth, he was too busy. Artaxerxes would never allow his butler to leave and rebuild a wall.  The idea that Nehemiah could rebuild it was absurd. 
Have you ever wanted to see something happen that seemed impossible?  You say “someone needs to do something,” but you can think of a thousand reasons why that “someone” isn’t you.
  Doubt and fear are our jailors--they lock us up and they shut us up, so that we cannot say or do what we want. We are afraid to speak up for fear that other people will be angry. But if our faith is strong , we don’t have to fear. God is our protector.
Nehemiah knew the walls in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt, yet for a long time he did nothing but pray about it. He never even let his feelings about the wall show.  He concealed his concern even from those closest to him.  But Nehemiah did keep praying.  He said nothing to the king, he did speak to the King of Kings. 
Rebuilding our spiritual walls must start on our knees.  God honors those who talk to Him first.
Many Christians do not really seem to believe that. When we talk about praying for something, these Christians will complain “No, we need to act”--as if praying and acting were mutually exclusive. Then they usually recite some version of the old saw that says “we don’t to be heavenly minded that we are no earthly good!”
Rarely have I encountered a group of Christians who were too heavenly minded. Our default inclination is not to talk to God, but to take every responsibility on ourselves.  It is far more common to encounter Christians who act first and pray later than those who are the other way around. That is why we fail so much. When we act without praying we may do what is possible. But when God gets involved we often do the impossible.  God opens doors and makes things happen that otherwise would never be.
Nehemiah took prayer seriously because he needed to. He had good reasons to doubt himself. He really was not in a position to help.  It was only because Nehemiah stayed and prayed for the wall to be rebuilt that it happened. That’s he problem with the earthly minded--they are no good at storming the gates of heaven and receiving the blessings of God
Still there was something Nehemiah had to do besides pray.  For a long time, he missed something.  Here's what happened that was the answers to Nehemiah's prayer.
Nehemiah  knew a butler’s job was to fade into the background and not be noticed.  But one day his burden for Israel was so great that it showed on his face.  
 The king noticed Nehemiah’s anguish.  To Nehemiah, this was a bad thing.  Butler's weren't supposed to show their feelings.  But it wasn't until what was in his heart showed on his face that Nehemiah's prayers were answered.
If we want God to work in our church, we have to get real.
Christians wear so many masks at church that it resembles a masquerade ball.  We pretend to have it all together, but we are weak and hurting and helpless inside. I admire people who, when I asked them how they are willing to be honest and say “terrible.” Those are the people receive comfort and encouragement. Those people who will not let their pain show receive no help from it.
My father’s generation grew up with the false idea that men don’t cry. They were ridiculed if they did. This did not make them strong, however. It just made them dishonest.  We must honestly learn to share what it on our hearts.
A person who wants the blessings of God must first show their real face.  They cannot pretend that they have it all together when they do not.  They must be willing to cry before the Lord and before others.
When the king saw Nehemiah in distress, the king asked him what was wrong.  Nehemiah replied.
"Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?"
The king really wanted to know. He actually liked Nehemiah and wanted him to be happy. So he said. What would you request?
"If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' graves, that I may rebuild it."
Nehemiah had been laboring under a false assumption that king Artaxerxes was a cruel tyrant who only cared about himself. Actually he was happy to help his favorite butler. He wanted to see Nehemiah happy.
Don’t we have that same assumption about God, that He is a cruel master who has no concern about our feelings?  Let me let you in on a secret--God wants us to be happy.
I am not a fan of the “name it and claim it” doctrine.   This is the idea is that if we want anything from God all we have to do is claim it, we will have it. we can order God around like He is our servant.
But then it occurred to me—claiming blessing we would like but don't have is certainly wrong--but what about naming them?  Have you ever actually tried naming to God specifically what you want? Just because God will do what He wants doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell God what we actually want. Maybe we need to get more honest with Him about what we really do want. Instead of explaining in advance why God won’t answer my prayers, maybe I should just try asking. God may surprise us with what He will actually give.
Before we start to make excuses for why we can't do something maybe we should actually ask Him for strength and ability.  Ask and you receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open
Nehemiah asked the king to let him go to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. The king not only granted his request, but  gave letters of transit so that every governor he passed, and orders that they should be provided with all the wood they needed.  All the nations he passed through were required to give him supplies. 
God wants more for you than you are willing to ask. Don't doubt Him.  Get real, trust in God, and God will give you what you need.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Nehemiah 1 Why We Need Walls

Nehemiah was a Jew among the exiles who were carried away into Babylon in 587 BC. Israel and Judah had once been a great people, but now they had fallen because of their sins.  While they were in captivity, their captors—the Babylonians— had themselves been conquered by the Persian Empire. 
One day his brother Hanani came to visit.  He was among a small group who returned to Jerusalem after the exile.  He brought bad news in verses 1-3.
Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital,   that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, "The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire."
Jerusalem was in trouble because it had no wall. A wall was necessary for the survival of any city.  Without a wall, a city had no integrity. How could you know where your city begins and ends? Without a wall, a city had no defense.  How do you keep robbers and animals out?  Without a wall, no one wanted to live there. Who wants to settle in a defenseless place?  Without a wall, a city had no sense of identity.  Where do you hand your royal banners?
The Babylonians had torn down the physical wall of the city, but before Babylonians had torn down the physical wall the proud, sinful leaders of the city had already destroyed the spiritual and culture wall that surrounded the nation. They followed foreign gods until they saw no difference in their minds between Israel and the surrounding countries. They encouraged commerce and borrowed customs until it made little difference whether they were Jewish or Gentile.  What's the point of maintaining the wall if you have nothing unique inside?  What's the point of defending some piece of land that is no safer or more beautiful than the places outside the wall? 
Whenever a community comes together, there must be a sense of difference between what is inside and what is not. This is our spiritual wall.  Without it, the physical wall makes little difference. 
Every church has an invisible spiritual boundary.  This wall serves as our protection, defense and corporate identity. Part of that wall is our denominational and/or doctrinal affiliation that makes us different from other religions and even other Christian denominations.  This wall protects us from heretics and schismatics. 
Another part is the individual, God-given vision for a local church. This is why we exist separately as an institution.  We are not just Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist churches, but we are called to this  community,  this ministry, or this kind of approach to God's Word.  
Other Christian churches will have different walls, and they are entitled to do so.  Having walls does not mean that those on the outside are enemies.  They are our friends and allies who have their own and different walls.  They are entitled to draw their lines wherever they wish.  Our walls give us and them to freedom to exist independently, in a mutually supportive relationship.  Poet Robert Frost once wrote, “good fences make good neighbors.”  Our different walls delineate us from others, define our sole responsibility, and give us freedom to be who we are. 
When Jesus walked the earth, He operated within the walls of Palestinian Judaism. He did not turn away those on the outside, but worked mainly on the inside of that wall.  In time His kingdom expanded across the whole earth, and created a new entity called the church. But Jesus understood the need for ministry within the covenant family of Israel until the time of fulfillment. Only when it was all done did He send His disciples beyond the wall to the world at large.  
In Ephesians Paul wrote about the "wall of separation" which existed in his day between Jew and Gentile, and how the wall came down in Christ.  This was not a condemnation of walls but a creation of a new community in Christ.  The wall to Paul was Christ.  Within that wall we are one city.  When the walls go down, there is no defense. Vision needs to be nurtured within community. Without that nurture time, our vision becomes weak and fragile.
For a long time, our church has attempted to function without a clearly defined central vision. We know who we used to be, but we didn’t know who we are now. Our church wall needs to be restored, rebuilt and refined. For that reason we have been meeting with the elders to seek to redefine what the vision of the church is today.  This is not a process that can be accomplished in a day or a month, maybe not even in a year, but it must be accomplished. Just as Jerusalem needed a wall around it if it was ever to become a great city, so we must have a wall around us if we are ever to again become a great church. That visionary definition is all important. 
When Nehemiah found that the wall had not been rebuilt, he understood exactly what it meant. No city can be great without a wall around it.  Nehemiah couldn't rebuild the wall, and neither could the people who had returned.  Nehemiah became very sad and troubled.
Being sad and troubled  isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes if we don’t get upset, nothing gets done.  God allows trouble in our lives to move us on to greater things.  So here is what he did in verse 4
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
His prayers were not mechanical.  He really got down and wept. Not only did he pray, but he also fasted.  Fasting is a sign of mourning. He took his sadness and despondency and turned it over to God.  
People often talk about the “power of prayer.”  Actually, our prayer has no power—the power is all in God's hands. Prayer is simply asking for God’s power. God does not answer prayer according to some magic formula, but He answers people  who seek His help before they seek the help of others.  They ask with passion and purpose. These are the kinds of people who may be turned into conduits for His power.  Nehemiah was such a person, as evidenced by his passionate prayers and fasting. Nehemiah wanted this more than he wanted food, his high position or his own safety. That was why God could use him.
Nehemiah was in an impossible position to help.  Yet God used him to rebuild the wall. You may think God cannot use you--that you are too old, too weak, too busy or too young.  You may be asking if there is someone else. God may raise us up as leaders to rebuild the wall, but first we must be willing to get passionate about it.
Nehemiah’s prayer is found in 5-11. 
"O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,
He acknowledged God’s kingship.  God can do whatever He wants. If He wanted Jerusalem’s wall not to be built and Jerusalem to perish--so be it. Second, Nehemiah recognized His power.  He is an awesome God.  If God wanted Jerusalem’s walls to be rebuilt and Jerusalem to be a great city again, He has the power to rebuild the wall out of nothing.  Third, Nehemiah recognized God’s promise God made to Israel and claimed that promise on behalf of God's people. No human institution  will exist forever. But He will never leave us or forsake us. If we are faithful in fulfilling what God wants us to do, then our church will be blessed with a long life within the walls of God's promise and purpose.
Then he confessed his own and his country's failures. He didn’t just say “God, we had bad leadership.” Blaming gains nothing. 
The first sin mankind ever committed was almost immediately acknowledged and confessed--not by the person who committed the first sin, but by the person who committed the second one as a means of avoiding their own responsibility! Adam blamed Eve for the Fall.  Not only did he blame Eve, but he also blamed God for giving her to to him.  “God that woman you gave me caused this!” 
Suppose Adam had been willing to bear his own responsibility for the Fall, confessing his own sin and working to restore the spiritual wall around Eden that sin broke. If he had taken responsibility instead of blaming his wife, history might have been very different!  We all must take responsibility--either we caused the wall to fall, or we allowed it to happen. Nehemiah did not dwell on the past--he looked forward to the future. Repentance is turning our back to the past, not wallowing in remorse. His acknowledgement of the problem was a prerequisite to God changing the future. 
Because our wall has not been maintained, we have been scattered abroad, weakened and almost destroyed. But if we regain God's vision and again obey His Word, and rebuild that wall, God will surely bring us back. That vision will not be the same as the first vision, but it will be a great one-- better, clearer, and more suited to today.
Our job is not to rebuild the old wall, but make a new one.  In the end, the latter glory of the city can be greater than the first. One day we will reach out beyond these walls and become a great influence in the world again. But we must keep things in order. First we pray. Then we build the wall. Afterward, we will conquer the rest of the country. In the end, all will be done in its proper order, and God will be glorified again.