Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20th - Ministry in a Hostile World

Prayer Requests
Pastor Aaron Preaching / Resignation / Future
Summit Members in Foreign Lands
Christian Missionary in Sendai
Jennifer - Burn, Witnessing, Brother's Wedding
James - Band Festival
Mason - Lacrosse Game
Ben - Great Grandmother Health

Text - Nehemiah 4

Last week we talked about Nehemiah 3 and the beginning of the rebuilding of the wall when everything was going pretty smoothly. What are some things we can learn from chapter 3? It doesn't matter where you are in society, you have a roll to be playing in doing the work of God. If you want to see a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, what is the best way to do so? Strive to build up the church (1 Cor 14:12).

1 Corinthians 1:26-27 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.

Last week in Nehemiah was the rebuilding of the wall during a time of peace, but this week we add a new element and one that will greatly edify us, it is doing ministry in a hostile world. If you desire to live a godly life in Christ, will you be persecuted? 2 Timothy 3:12 promises it.

So in Nehemiah 3 they are rebuilding the wall, and they are cruising to set a new record in wall building, but in chapter 4 we see the persecution begin.

Nehemiah 4:1 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews.

Sanballat is a high up official, probably a governor of a neighboring town to Jerusalem, likely in Moab across the Jordan River. He has never been happy to see someone helping Jerusalem, for at least two reasons, one, because with Jerusalem in shambles, Judah is free for the plundering, and two, because Sanballat is an idolater and hates the Living God.

His name is likely Egyptian, and it means "God of Sin, alive." This is a telling name, because it is obviously directly against the God of Righteousness. I don't want to press too far to try to say this is an incarnation of Satan, though he definitely is a type for Satan (which means Adversary), just as when Moses and Joshua were on the home stretch in coming into the promised land and a similar man named Balak (Destroyer) stood against them. The reason I don't want to press too far and say that Sanballat represents Satan is because he may also just represent sin, and how much sin hates it when you seek to build a wall to defend from worldly influences. One of my friends on facebook pointed out that in the war that rages continually in our soul between our sin nature and new nature, that our sin nature HATES reading the Bible and so we must push to overcome and read the Bible anyways.

Romans 7:21-24 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Sanballant moves around a lot during the book of Nehemiah, sometimes he's in Jerusalem, sometimes he's in Samaria, which is North of Jerusalem. Where-ever he lives and whatever his job title is, he is well familiar with Jerusalem, and prefers that it is in shambles.

Nehemiah 4:2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?"

We see in this passage that Sanballat has found or called together an army, and in a bit we'll see that it's not the only one. We see in this passage one of the main reasons he's mad, he asks, "Will they sacrifice?" His audience here is telling too, because the Samaritans at this point had built a temple on Mt. Gerazim to say that that was the correct place to worship God. Sanballat was from Bethhoron, or the "House of the god, Horon", Horon being a mytical god of the underworld, so both the Samaritans and Sanballat were against worship of the true God.

A neat part about the rebuilding of the walls is not just that the Jews are doing it so fast, it is the material they are using. They have some brand new material, but the wall is being largely built out of redeemed material that was greatly damaged in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BC. Stone doesn't burn, but when it fell it would have been greatly damaged and then when the wood and other combustibles burned, it would have left these stones charred and looking unusable. But God is able to use the least of materials to build great things, just as he uses broken people to build a great church.

1 Peter 2:4-5 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Because of the nature of the wall, though it is thick and well built, because of the craftsmen building it, it receives derision:

Nehemiah 4:3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, "Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!"

Tobiah, who we'll see in a few weeks is an exceedingly wicked dude, looks at the wall and says its so flimsy that it will never stand long. Nehemiah at this point does the best thing he could do, instead of going out and thumping these unbelievers on the head, he prays to God to intervene. Before we read that though, I want you to see that in chapter 2, Sanballat and Tobiah were in Jerusalem, but now they are not, the first step towards separating from these sinners was to put them outside of the city of God.

1 Corinthians 5:11-13 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

Nehemiah has an absolutely amazing prayer against these sinners,

Nehemiah 4:4-5 Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.

This is called an "imprecatory" prayer, or a prayer asking God to do violence against someone. They are not at all rare in the Bible, in fact 90 out of 150 Psalms contain imprecatory language. Look at what Nehemiah asks for, both physical action, that they would be taken captive, and spiritual action, that God would hold their sins against them. Jesus prays a very similar prayer on the cross in Psalm 69:22-28, for time's sake let's just read verse 27:

Psalm 69:27 Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you.

So that leads us to the question of whether we should pray prayers like that today. I would say yes, with a minor caveat, because unlike Jesus, and God's prophets of the Old Testament, we don't know who will repent of their sins, so I always temper my imprecatory prayers with, "God, please crush or convert them, but don't let them keep working such evil."

We remember that in action we always love our enemies and we leave all action up to God, for vengeance belongs to him.

Nehemiah 4:6-8 So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.

Just when things were going well, persecution arises and now we've got even more enemies standing against Jerusalem than we had just a few days ago. Their goal isn't to wipe out the Jews, because they like having them as slaves and targets of plunder, but to make sure they can't defend themselves. They want to cause confusion, to keep the people from focusing on the task at hand. Here is our first major lesson,

Ephesians 6:16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one...

We know that if God is for us, no-one can possible stand against us in any sort of capacity. So by trusting in God, this trust becomes a shield to protect us from confusion and it keeps our minds set on the task at hand, which is building the kingdom. That's exactly what Nehemiah does:

Nehemiah 4:9 And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.

We see both a trust in God, and an action. But the efforts of the enemy are having a small effect, Nehemiah needs to strengthen his people,

Nehemiah 4:10-11 In Judah it was said, "The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall." And our enemies said, "They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work." At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, "You must return to us."

Some of the greatest damage done to the wall building effort comes from within the camp, doubters who think the work is impossible, others who are afraid of what men can do, and then verse 12 is somewhat hard to translate, but it seems to say that Jews not involved in the wall-building effort are saying, "Stop doing what you're doing, let's just live the way we've always lived, it's better than dying." These doubters are causing a lot of damage and strife to the efforts, so Nehemiah comes up with an ingenious plan, where-as during peace we had people working all over the city, now Nehemiah is going to strategically place them for ministry in a hostile environment.

Nehemiah 4:13-14 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, "Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes."

Nehemiah places the men in front of their houses and families, so they aren't just defending Jerusalem, but they are defending their whole world. It gives them a personal stake in standing firm. I love the whole church of Christ, but beloved, I love this church more than I love churches in far off lands, I love you more than I love Christians I don't know and/or am only faintly familiar with. This should be us as well, loving the whole church, but loving our own body of believers to the extent that we would rather die than see danger befall them, physically, and more importantly spiritually.

Because of this concerted effort, the plan of the enemy fails, and work can resume.

Nehemiah 4:15-17 When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.

The Jews can no longer work like there is no threat, they are prepared for war, but they are still doing the work on the wall. It is important to remember that a good defense is often the best offense. A solid wall will keep Jerusalem safe from invaders. One of my favorite quotes, and one that is failing all over the world, is that we seek "Peace through Superior Firepower." When you are weak and easily conquered, everyone will come against you, but if you're bigger and stronger and your God is so much more powerful, then you're safe without having to fire a shot. We'll see that the Jews never do have to fight, because they are prepared.

We likewise must put on the full armor of God, having the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word, ready as an offensive weapon, clothed in righteousness and truth, secured in salvation, and defended by the God of Peace. We must be ready and willing to war, not physically, but spiritually, and not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces.

Ephesians 6:12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Our goal is to build the church and see captives of the enemy come to Christ to receive forgiveness and reconciliation. It has been said that evangelism is, "One beggar showing another beggar where to find bread." It is so much more violent and dangerous than that, it is two armies standing against each other, an army of light and an army of darkness, the army of light made up of traitors to the darkness, and evangelism is those traitors boldly coming into the camp of darkness to proclaim that the King of Light is prepared to make peace if the soldiers of darkness will surrender completely. It is dangerous beyond dangerous, and the enemy soldiers are more than willing to kill the ambassadors of Christ. It is estimated that 100,000 Christians are martyred every year, and many more are mistreated. Let us be ready then to rush to the battle, where-ever it rages,

Nehemiah 4:18-20 And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, "The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us."

Boniface, missionary to Germany in the 700's, said it better than I can, "I yearn to go forth where the dangers are, not because I particularly enjoy those dangers, but because I know it is there that the battle rages for the souls of men and nations. God set me before the front lines. Let me not end my days in comfort and complacency!"

Let us rally to the spiritual battle for souls, not being complacent or pretending no war is raging, but always ready to build the church and defend the truth. The men under Nehemiah were always ready, let us likewise always be ready,

Nehemiah 4:21-23 So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.

This is another difficult Hebrew verse to translate, it likely says that the only time they were not in full battle gear was to wash, though the minutiate of this verse is not particularly important, because we see that they were always prepared. Let us likewise always be prepared, fully clothed in the righteousness of Christ, washed in his blood, having the Sword of the Spirit always at our right hand. We'll see that this wall was then completed, 52 days total, and that each person in Jerusalem had a share in building it, and each received the blessing of completing it.

It is hugely important that you take a portion of the church to build, pick a part that you care about deeply, either youth, or evangelism, or senior citizens, or whichever, find something you care about, and go forward with full strength. When the Pilgrims settled among the Massachusetts people, the first two years they had communal fields to plant and harvest, and they had a huge issue getting people to work hard and the harvests were sparse. On the third year they assigned each family a portion of the fields with the understanding that what grew belonged to that family. The effort put forth then was considerably better and the crops were bumper.

So beloved, find a portion of the church to work on, know that there is a reward in Heaven, know that you are working for your King, and know that your labor is not in vain.