Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Let us Rise up and Build

At first glance Nehemiah Chapter 3 is hard work to read. It’s a list. Not a shopping list, but a list of all the heads of the families who helped to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The whole project had started almost sixty years earlier with the first return of the Babylonian exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel. The Israelite’s had been in captivity for 70 years. Now the Persian King Cyrus had made a decree allowing the people of God to return. About 1% responded. It was a small remnant.

Later another group returned under the leadership of Ezra. These two men saw the rebuilding of the temple and the re-establishment of worship in Jerusalem. But as great as these events were the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins and its gates burned with fire. Nehemiah heard of this and was deeply moved. He prayed. He fasted. He confessed. He carried this burden for days.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer. He served the King his drinks. Under Persian law he was required to ‘look good’. Both his dress and countenance were to reflect his calling. To flout this requirement could lead to death. One day, in the presence of King Xerxes he did not have on his usual smile. The burden of the state of Jerusalem was at the forefront of his thinking and it showed on his face. The king asked what was wrong and Nehemiah became afraid, very afraid, Neh 2.2. This was to be a crucial point in the story. Instead of giving a feeble excuse Nehemiah boldly proclaims the real reason why he is sad.

The King responds with a simple question, “What do you request?” Neh 2.4. We then have one of the shortest prayers recorded in the Bible. Nehemiah is in the middle of a conversation with the King. The unexpected has happened. He has been challenged in a way, “What do you want?” Here is how scripture records the exchange, “So I prayed to the God of Heaven, and I said to the King....” In mid conversation Nehemiah prays. We are not told what the content of the prayer was. Was it for wisdom to know how to answer the King, like James 1.5 encourages us to do? Was to for boldness to speak what was in his heart, like the disciples prayed in Acts 4.29? Was it for a blueprint of things to ask for, like Moses who built the tabernacle ‘according to the pattern shown him on the mount’, Ex 25.40? We don’t know.

In a way it’s not important. The point is this. Prayer was such an integral part of Nehemiah’s life that he could do it anywhere, in any context, with anyone, even mid-way through a crucial conversation. And he got what he asked for – a passport to travel freely through all the provinces, authorisation to get wood from the forests and an armed guard for the journey. When the leaders in Jerusalem heard of the favour that was on Nehemiah’s life they got excited. Something in them stirred. They said, “Let us rise up and build”, Neh 2.18.

And so we come to Nehemiah chapter 3, the list of people who rose up to build. If we are patient to read this list some astonishing things emerge. Over 28 times in this chapter the little phrase ‘next to’ or ‘after him’ appears. You see each group of people took responsibility to rebuild part of the wall. They focused on one section and another group built the next section. So this huge task was broken down into manageable portions. Often they worked with those in their family or from the town where they came from. There was a keen sense of ‘togetherness’ in this enterprise.

This level of unity is crucial. It’s possible to be with someone and yet not be together. Proximity is no substitute for unity. On the underground trains in London people are crammed together but they are not really ‘together’ in the sense I am speaking about. Togetherness comes from a common vision and a common set of values. Nehemiah managed to inspire all these people to set aside personal agenda’s to serve God’s purpose in rebuilding the walls. And they all operated within the sphere of responsibility they had been given.

Yet each section needed to be joined. This would necessitate collaboration so that wall appeared as a whole. The only breaks came where the gates were restored; otherwise it appeared as a continuous whole. In Neh 3.13 we see that a typical section of wall that they worked on was 1000 cubits, (approx 500 yards). These walls were vital. In Bible times walls offered cities protection. They kept what was in safe and kept intruders at bay. They gave time for armies to muster should there be an attack. It often took months to break through a good sized wall, which is what makes the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho so miraculous. They came down in a day!

But walls also have other significance. They were the thing most visible about a city from a distance and so speak of testimony. At this time Jerusalem was a reproach, a byword, despised by those who looked on. Nehemiah wanted to change this. And he did. But throughout the process he faced many challenges for from those who opposed this work. It required him to stay focused.

Three words stand out throughout this process. They are ‘built’ chap 1.1; ‘made repairs’ chap 1.4; and ‘restored’ chap 1.8. A New Testament word that captures this idea is ‘Katartizo’. It is translated ‘equip’ in Eph 4.11, ‘restore’ in Gal 6.1 and ‘mend’ in Matt 4:21; Mark 1:19. The first two relate to people. But the third reference to fishing nets is a great metaphor. The purpose for fishing nets is obviously to catch fish. If the nets are torn, the fish will just swim out through the holes. They need to be mended.

And Jesus said we are here to become fishers of men! Nets in this context speak of the relationships we have that can become stressed and torn – for all kinds of reasons. They need mending. Without people being restored, the testimony of the church is weak, broken down, mocked. I believe like the time of Nehemiah we have an opportunity to rebuild the testimony of the church in Europe. But let's start right where we are. Nehemiah used many of the same stones that were in the original wall. They were rebuilt, reconnected to others stones. And all could see the progress daily.

What is also interesting is that as they started to rebuild they consecrated each section. We see this in chap 3.1. The first to build were the priests and consecration was a natural part of their daily life. Solomon waited until the temple was complete before he dedicated it, but these priests did so as they went along. Each section finished was a small victory and brought them one step closer to completion, so they praised, thanked and consecrated it to the Lord.

Many people are listed in this chapter – over 70 by name including their family decent. Each one who committed themselves to this task is recorded, but five things stand out to me.

1. There were a group of people who refused to get involved. They were the nobles who belonged to the Tekoites, Neh 3.5. We are not told why but the fact that they were the nobles implies that they thought this work was beneath them. They would have been of royal birth but they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They stand as a warning to us of human pride. Pride is subtle and has the power to deceive us, Obadiah vs3. It is an arrogant disposition that gives people an inflated sense of their own importance. Pride puffs up, 1Tim 3.6. The way of the Kingdom always involves the path of humility. This is a choice. Jesus made this clear when he instructed people to choose the lowest seat when they were invited to a wedding feast, Luke 14.7-11. From there the only way is up! When God calls His people to a task, all need to get involved!

2. The Tekoites appear again in Neh 3.27 because they repaired another section. Perhaps the lack of involvement of the nobles provoked them. Perhaps they were spurred on by the example of Meremoth who also repaired two sections, Neh 3.21. At any event they wanted a testimony that showed they did two sections not just one – a double portion if you will. They wanted to do something that would wipe out the shame of their nobles who did not join them in the work. It is an amazing testimony to the resolve of ordinary people and scripture records the double effort of Meremoth and the Tekoites. Some people have the will and the capacity to do more than others. Don’t simply stop at doing what others do. If you have the grace to do more, then do it. God is our rewarder, Heb 11.6. He sees. He will make it good in the end.

3. Neh 3.12 tells us the story of Shallum, leader of half the district of Jerusalem. What is fascinating is that he got all his daughters involved. Imagine that. Building a wall can be heavy work. In the heat of the day you get sweaty - not very dignified for women. They forsook the refinements of their status to do God’s work. Nobody would have blamed them if they did nothing. And later they would need to build holding a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, because of their enemies. Yet they willingly gave themselves to this task and Nehemiah let them. Consider also the indictment the Tekoite nobles would have felt every time they walked by that section of the wall - women doing men’s work. Really? What a great testimony to these pioneering women.

4. In the entire list of people named in this chapter not one professional builder is recorded. Instead we read of priests Neh 3.1,22,28; goldsmiths and perfumers Neh 3.8,31-32; Leaders of districts (administrators) and women Neh 3.9,12,14-18; gatekeepers Neh 3.29 and finally merchants Neh 3.32. I find this amazing. Ordinary people from every walk of life decided to re-skill in order to do the work of God. It is a testament to Nehemiah’s faith, not only in God but in the people of God. And this is my point. God can use anyone, anywhere, at any time if they are prepared to say yes to Him. All these people were skilled in their own area of competence – but necessity meant learning a new skill. And they did it.

5. Five verses record that some of the people repaired the wall ‘in front of their house’, Neh 3.10, 23, 28-30. Think about it. When enemies attacked they always looked for the weakest point to break through. If the wall is being repaired you would want to make sure that the section right in front of your house was well built! Your life depended on it. What better way to make sure that it was built well than to take personal ownership of that section? Some may argue that they were selfish. Perhaps we can see some mixed motivation here. But the truth is the wall got built and that was the task. We see something of this in the book of Philippians. Paul speaks of those who preach Christ out of sincerity and those who do it with wrong motives, envy and selfish ambition being chief among them, Phil 1.15-18. He doesn’t care. Christ is preached and so he rejoices. God will deal with people’s hearts. Paul is there to finish the task of preaching the gospel to all nations and regardless of motives it was happening. Notice how Jesus took a group of men to be His disciples who had very mixed motives at times. John and James harboured a lot of secret ambition that finally surfaced. Yet Jesus did not disqualify them from service. Rather He challenged them to be different. It’s called discipleship.

Whatever task God has called your church to do, let me encourage you to get involved. Don’t allow pride or the expectation of others about what your role in life is hold you back. God’s work is open to all. Isaiah heard God say, “Who will go for us?” Good question. How would answer? What will you do? It’s your choice.