Why do a Christmas night service?

This Christmas we will be holding a night-time Christmas service on December 22. For some people that is a strange idea (worship at night??), but for others it is a long-standing tradition! Either way – for us it will be a new experience.
I just read a blog post today by a man of wisdom, Thom Rainer, about the interesting trends of Christmas Eve services. Our service will not be on Christmas Eve, but it will be in the evening a couple days before.

Interestingly, Rainer found that evening Christmas services are…

  1. Growing in importance (especially in attracting non-Christians to church services more than any other day of the year, including Easter!)
  2. Good times for multiple services (since most people are off work, a service can be during the day, early evening, and late evening)
  3. More traditional (they include older, traditional hymns and carols with other traditional elements, such as lighting candles)
  4. Typically Brief (the sermon and overall service is often shorter than a normal service)
  5. Good opportunities to build in follow-up (especially from first-time visitors and those without a church home)
  6. All hands-on-deck (because of the importance of this service, everyone needs to be there!)

So if you can – come join us on Saturday, December 22, 2018!

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10 ways how NOT to do it

As a follower of Christ, I want to try to help others go and follow Christ. That’s called evangelism – and it is what Jesus called us to do in the “Great Commission.”
Recognizing the difficulty in that, yesterday in our worship service (link below) several men were answering the question: how do we lead others to Jesus in a post-Christian, post-truth world. 
I took the time to explain what “post-Christian” and “post-truth” meant in the service on Sunday, but for right now I just wanted to give a few thoughts on some efforts that are NOT helpful in trying to lead others to Jesus. Contrary to what some people evidently think, these are…

10 ways NOT to reach people with the Gospel:

  1. Argue with someone in the comments of a Facebook post
  2. Brag about what you do or don’t do because you’re a Christian
  3. Just be a “silent witness” and hope someone will guess you are a Christian
  4. Tell someone “I’ll pray for you” then walk away and never pray for them
  5. Invite someone to a church event and hope someone else will talk to them
  6. Do a good deed for someone but never tell them why
  7. Tell your restaurant server about Jesus and then leave a bad tip
  8. Bribe someone to pray the “sinners’ prayer” (especially children)
  9. Focus on someone’s sin in order to make them feel guilty
  10. Yell angrily at people in public, hoping they’ll feel the love of Christ
For real… don’t do those things!
So how then should we lead others to Jesus? Join in on our discussion around “The Table” (link below) from Sunday’s worship service (skip ahead to 33:30 in the video for just the discussion). Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Crying and Celebrating

CRYING AND CELEBRATING

REBUILDING 10: Nehemiah 9

OCTOBER 7, 2018 (Robert)

Birthdays were never really a big deal in my home growing up. Mine and my brother’s birthdays especially – because they were both close to Christmas. How many of you have a birthday that falls next to a holiday so it gets overshadowed?

So for my family, we would normally have a cake, some kind of present, and an awkward “happy birthday” song. It was pretty low-key. 

But when I comes to my wife’s family (in contrast to mine), birthdays are a big deal! A couple years ago, although it was in the aftermath of a few big Christmas parties, they went behind my back, made a peach cobbler and put candles in it (because peach cobbler is so much better than a cake), and we had a great time.

The funny thing is, a birthday party is a celebration of something that we had no control of! If anything, we should be throwing a party for the mom who did all the work, right?

But birthdays are really more of a celebration and validation of life. For one day or at least one party, the birthday person is reminded of how special they are. 

Even better than that, the great thing about birthday parties or Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any other holiday get-to-gether, it is not just one person that has a good time, everyone gets to be part of something. For many people, getting together for a certain holiday is the highlight of their year. It’s something the look forward to in anticipation and that they look back at each time in fondness. 

Or let me say it like this: Celebrations give life rhythm and remind us of why we are here. We will come back to this in a minute.

 

We are in week 10 of our series called REBUILDING we are studying the Old Testament books of Ezra & Nehemiah. and looking at the movement of God’s people back into their promised land to rebuild so that we can learn some principles about experiencing renewal and rebuilding in our own lives, in our families, and in our church.

Last week Jamie led us in looking at Nehemiah 8:1-8 at how Ezra stood up on a platform to read the Word of God (or at least what they had of it at the time, which was the Law). The people (who had been so starved from not having heard the Scriptures in so long because they had been in captivity), were so unified that they stood listening intently for hours.  

Because (as a side note) love for God always produces a love for his Word.

The people in Nehemiah 8 responded to the reading of the Word in 4 significant ways (that each conveniently start with “C”): they (1) cried, (2) celebrated, (2) confessed, and then (3) committed themselves. Today we’ll talk about how their crying turned into celebration and next week we will look at the other two.  

Let’s turn our attention now back to Nehemiah 8 and see what God has to say to us today. 

 

In the first few verses, Ezra was reading and expounding on the Law from a wooden platform (not unlike this one) to all the people gathered below. Actually, what they were doing here looked very similar to what we do today in the modern church. In fact, verses 7 and 8 tell us that what was being read was even explained further by a whole list of Levites to the people who were broken up into smaller groups!

Read what everyone did in response once they understood what was being read:

Nehemiah 8 [9b] …For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.

The people’s first response to God’s Word was that they cried – and this was not a happy cry. Why were they so moved by the Word that they cried? Because they recognized that their lives previously had been lived in disobedience to what they were reading and they had reaped the consequences of their sin, idolatry, and disobedience to God. 

While this is a small part of the text, it does point us to a very important truth for us today: God’s Law (specifically the 10 Commandments) is a standard or ruler that acts as a mirror, showing us all the imperfections in our life. None of us can match up to it.

Paul spends a lot of time talking about this:

Romans 3 [10] …“None is righteous, no, not one; [11] no one understands; no one seeks for God… [19] …whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. [20] For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

The law shows us our great need. And whether that drives us to physical tears or not, we cannot receive the hope of the Gospel until we first receive the conviction of our sinfulness. 

As a matter of fact, someone (especially a child) truly understands the Gospel and is ready to be saved ONLY when they first recognize that they are sinners. Because it is only the lost who can be found and only sinners who need a savior. Jesus told the Pharisees (or the ultra-spiritual religious leaders of his time):

Mark 2 (NLT) “[17] …Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

Even if you grow up in a Christian home in a good area, if someone says, “I have always been a Christian,” then they really do not understand the Gospel fully. Because (as Paul says later in…

Romans 3 [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

And to be clear, you may not remember the specific day and time that you were saved, but you must, in recognition of your sinfulness:

Romans 10 [9] …confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [you surrender to him as Lord of your life] and believe in your heart [or soul] that God raised him from the dead [the Gospel], you will be saved. [10] For with the heart one believes and is justified [from his sin], and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 

Because although at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jesus had not yet been born, died, and rose again, they knew that despite their disobedience, God had been so merciful and gracious to give them yet another chance! That is why in the midst of their crying, Nehemiah basically says in verse 9, “dry your tears – it’s time to celebrate!”

Nehemiah 8 [9] …“This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.”… [10] Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”…  

In the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3 [4] a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

While God’s Word shows us our sinfulness, it does not leave us there. 

When we receive the grace of God into our lives, when we confess and believe and are saved – we are forgiven, our eternal spirits are made alive, we are no longer slaves to sin or condemned, we are made righteous in God’s sight! As Paul said, although we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: 

Romans 3 (NLT) [24] Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

And that, above all things, is reason to CELEBRATE – which is exactly what God’s people did. 

Nehemiah 8 [12] And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, [why?] because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Then look what they did next:

[13] On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. [14] And they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, [15] and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 

So after reading God’s Word, they realized that their time of celebration should be even bigger than just a dinner party together – this needed to be a whole holiday! This Feast of Booths (a “booth” was a temporary shelter or tent made from branches) reminded them of God’s provision and protection of his people in the desert after escaping from Egypt.

[16] So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. [17] And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 

And this didn’t just last one day…

[18] And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.

This event for God’s people was a whole week of celebration – it was a holiday vacation. Then afterward they had a solemn or formal assembly, they got back to their regular lives (at least before their next time celebration – and they seemed to have a lot!).

And why was this time of celebration so important that God had commanded it to happen many years before? Because just as we started off saying, 

Celebrations give life rhythm and remind us of why we are here.

We could spend a lot of time here talking about the importance of celebrations and holidays (or retreats like the Men’s Retreat coming up or E-Women like several of you were part of) in society and how they slow down time in our mind, break up the mundane, (as we said) give us something to look forward to and look back at.

But the angle I want us to come at this from today is that specifically every time we gather for worship, it is an opportunity to celebrate. Meaning days like this and worship services within our church like this are essential times for us as believers to celebrate Jesus. We are essentially throwing a “resurrection party” for God! So I want us to end by applying a few principles of celebrating (or throwing a party) to our worship service gatherings. 

But first I feel like I have to step aside and explain something. Sadly, as a culture today we have so ruined the whole idea of celebration that immediately when we think of “partying,” many of our minds go to things such as getting plastered, throwing up, mindless amusement, and flippant immorality… and there is nothing God-honoring or healthy or helpful about that (no matter how glamorous the media paints it). That type of “partying” always ends up in regrets, shame, and scars – sometimes immediately, but normally much later.

And in response to that, several decades ago, many church leaders began to fight against this idea of “partying” and began to greatly discourage celebrations! That is why for many people, especially in the Bible Belt, the church has the stigma of no fun, no loud music (especially no drums), no dancing, no parties, no laughing too much, no gift-exchanging because it might be a pagan ritual, and the list goes on! 

But while not everything is giggles and there IS a time to be serious and reverent, and yes: drunkenness and gluttony are both sinful on multiple levels (and interestingly, Jesus was accused of both)… God wants his children to enjoy life in moderation, to find contentment in his blessings, to be a people of JOY and celebration and throwing God-honoring “parties!”, but especially in worship services!

Here in Nehemiah and throughout the Old Testament (especially in the Book of Leviticus), we see day long, week-long, even year-long feasts and celebrations and parties. They took intentional time to stop working so they could play music, dance, feast, praise God, and congratulate each other. And then they would build memorials so they wouldn’t forget later!

Because here is the thing: if we do NOT take time to stop and celebrate, life loses its rhythm, time keeps flying by, and we lose focus on our whole purpose in life. Coming together to worship in services like this regularly as a habit in our life is important. It gives our week a pattern, breaks up the monotony, and bases the rest of our week off gathering to celebrate God. 

So let’s turn the corner and I want to give us a few brief principles from our text. Or you could say: Nehemiah’s Tips to Throwing the Best Party (or Worship Service).

1. Celebrating takes INTENTION. 

Nehemiah told them, “This day is holy to the LORD your God… for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

They had to move past their past failures, forget about their enemies, and focus on the greatness of God. That is what we have to do EVERY time we come together to worship.

Without a purpose and reason, our worship services end up being a religious ritual that become a waste of time. And I am afraid that there are many people across America that gather together every week for no other reason than habit. I have heard it said that you could take the Holy Spirit out of some churches and no one would notice. That is sad.

So for us – every time we gather for a worship service, there are many great side-effects such as fellowship, encouragement, learning, mission and ministry support, and more – but primarily we gather to praise and worship God – for what He has done, what HE is doing, and what we believe He WILL do.

For many of us, our natural tendency is to focus on the negative, isn’t it? Most of us like to pinpoint what isn’t working more than what is. What change isn’t occurring despite has already has. What we haven’t been able to do yet more than what God has accomplished through us. It’s our human nature.

That is why gathering together regularly like this is so important – despite all the bad in our lives and world, we stop and celebrate God.

2. Celebrating takes PREPARATION.

Nehemiah told them to “Go out to the hills” to get branches for the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles – and of course there was all kinds of preparation that went into the feast itself. And they had to build a platform! 

And if anyone gets preparation for a party or worship service – it is a portable church like us! Every Sunday our amazing Dream Team volunteers come in and do so much to (symbolically) build the platform for us to gather and worship God.

But I must say this: some people think that a “non-portable” church (one that isn’t setting up and tearing down) doesn’t take much work – you just show up and it’s all there and ready. But if you have ever served in a ministry in a church even with a building, you know that’s not the case! There is often just as much work to do, just fewer people to do it because it is less obvious. 

Just think about if you were throwing a party at your house – everyone else gets to just show up when it starts and leave when its done, but you are getting your house ready the whole week leading up to it and then still cleaning up chips and cake for two weeks after! 

So here at Village, serving on the Dream Team personalizes “church” for you. It is moving from consumer to giver/host. It’s not just “let me help you with that” it is saying, “this is my house, I’m going to work to get it ready. And I can promise you this – If I’m up early, serving, talking, praying, or studying… my heart is always MORE ready to worship God than if I just show up at the last minute. 

That is because we get out of it what we put in. 

I have never watched that much sports on TV. I love to play sports, but I have never really followed a team enough to know who is playing or how they play. But that changed 3 years ago. Once Rebecca’s cousin, Hunter, started played football for Clemson, I started watching. Now I try to watch every game – including yesterday. And I’m not just watching passively, I invited some people over, we ate dinner, I yelled at the TV, I talked about the players, I even feel like the harder I cheer from my living room, the better they will do. 

What changed? I am more personally invested in the game. I turn the TV on in anticipation because I looked up information before the game and watched a few videos during the week. I am prepared to cheer because I have been taking about the team with friends all week.

Now when I watch the game I am ready to cheer.

When we come to worship ready to sing because we have been singing praises during the week, ready to study because we have been reading our Bible, ready to focus because we slept well… we are going to be able to celebrate God in our hearts so much better. That is why when you come back from a Christian retreat or camp or conference, your heart feels so full and you come ready to worship. Because the more we put into something, the louder we celebrate!

3. Celebrating takes INVITATION.

Not only did Nehemiah and Ezra, their leaders at the time, invite everyone to join in and celebrate, look what the people did in verse 10: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready.

The Israelites didn’t just keep the party to themselves, they went and found others who didn’t have their food ready – and provided it for them. They invited them into the celebration.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 22 and said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who threw a wedding feast for his son (there is God throwing a party again). But after the first people he invited did not come, he sent his servants to “[9] Go… to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ [10] And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

We have said many times that the Church exists (and our church exists) to reach the people that are not in it yet. The best kind of worship service is the kind that others come to because you invited them! God’s grace and love is not meant to be kept to ourselves – share it with others. 

Consider how Apostle Paul said:

2 Corinthians 1 [3] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, [4] who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God…

4. Celebrating takes EXPRESSION and INVOLVEMENT.

They ate, drank, shared, gave thanks, they played music and sang, they proclaimed the goodness of God, and they participated in the celebration event called the Feast of Booths. Look back at:

Nehemiah 8 [17] And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.

I looked up that last phrase on blueletterbible.com and it means there was an abundant, intense, rejoicing. Meaning – they threw a huge party.

For some reason, at football or basketball games we cheer and shout, sing the team fight song loudly and off-key, clap, maybe even dance and act like a fool a little bit. Most of us do it. But then we “behave” ourselves in church services: we’re kinda quiet, we keep our hands at our side, we and are pretty chill. Why is that? 

Well it is possible that some people are simply not interested (yet) in what’s going on. I’m not saying that in a judgmental way – I’m just saying that there are many people that are not yet God-worshipers, so to be expressive and responsive in a worship service would not be authentic. And my prayer is that they would experience true worship and give themselves to God.

But also some people are not expressive and involved in their worship not for a spiritual reason, but for a social reason. Most Christians in America have been so conditioned to think that when we are ”in church” we have to be somber, the music has to be at a comfortable volume, the baby better not cry, you better not laugh too loud, don’t listen to intently… etc. It’s how we have been cultured to act! 

But I think that we would all agree that when we stack sports games and birthday parties and new purchases and everything else that we celebrate up next to worshiping the King of Kings and studying Scripture which is God’s Word to us… they do not even compare! It doesn’t even make sense that we would be quiet in church. But that’s what we are used to doing, that is our tradition, and  

And how do you change a culture? It’s not overnight – it’s a little bit at a time. And I want to challenge us this morning to consider changing our culture of worship. I want to challenge us to consider giving ourselves the permission to move, to be loud, to clap, to cheer, to sing loudly off-key (if you must – on-key is always better), to vocally agree with a truth that is preached, …

When you come to worship next Sunday morning, I challenge you to come early to get your mind and heart prepared. If you do not serve on our Dream Team yet, come 15 minutes early and “tailgate” with some coffee and pre-service music. Read some Scripture when you get up and listen to some worship music on the way. Share Christ with someone this week, invite someone to join you, etc.

Let’s come ready to celebrate. Let’s come with intention, with preparation, with invitations to others to join us, and with expression and involvement. We have nothing greater to celebrate and praise and worship. Scripture says that if we do not praise him, the rocks themselves will cry out!

Higher the Goal | Harder the Road

HIGHER THE GOAL THE HARDER THE ROAD

REBUILDING 8: Nehemiah 2-7

September 23, 2018

If I learned anything from playing sports in high school, it’s that nothing worthwhile comes easy. We have to work through many challenges.

There were natural challenges like running hills and bleachers, jumping boxes, and putting on the practice uniform that hadn’t been washed in 3 days. There were internal challenges like fighting through pain, pushing past limits, and trying to play against a guy that was bigger, faster, and stronger (which was often). 

And there were personal challenges like working with teammates and trying to respect the coach (even though he was also my Drivers Ed teacher and would sometimes relate my driving to my football playing while I was driving). 

I never accomplished anything as a player without fighting through challenges. And in the same way, I have never accomplished anything as a person in life without challenges. As a matter of fact, it seems that the higher the goal we set, the harder the road to get there. Or more simply: The Higher the Goal, the Harder the Road.

 

In this REBUILDING series, we have been looking at the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah at the movement of God’s people back to their home land to learn some principles about rebuilding our own lives, families, and church.

Last week we looked at how Nehemiah led the people to re-hang the broken down gates and re-build the burned down wall – leading us to look at God’s two-part purpose for our lives: Discipleship and Evangelism. You can watch any sermon you miss on our website.

Today as we continue in Nehemiah, we are going to look at some challenges we all face. Because from before they even laid the first brick on the wall, there were challenges that Nehemiah had to go through: such as having to approach the king and giving him a list of needs to build the wall. And that was before he took the long, hard journey through the desert to get to Jerusalem – a place that he had only heard about.

In the same way, we can be certain that as we follow God’s vision for us individually and as a church, we will have to face at times accusations, criticisms, complaints, and times of confusion.

Which is why gathering weekly like this is so important. Sunday morning often feels like a half-time locker room pep-talk. We’re in the middle of the fight, the first-half didn’t go quite as planned, but we have a lot of game left to play! And today’s sermon will be no different. In fact, the main points today are more like tips from the coach than anything else. So here we go…

 

Let’s go back to Nehemiah 2 and take a more detailed look at not just what God’s people accomplished, but what they had to go through. 

They had just arrived in Jerusalem with some officially-sealed letters from King Artaxerxes to get the resources he needed. But when he got there, he had to face his first challenge that came from two guys that were against him from the start. Let’s read:

Nehemiah 2 [10] But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this [that he arrived to rebuild the wall on king’s orders], it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.

Then as soon as the Israelites were about to get to work: 

[19] But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 

But Nehemiah, in confidence because he had orders from the king (and the King of Kings) responded right away to their accusations:

[20] Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” [so get out!]

COACH’S TIP #1: To fight through ACCUSATIONS, you have to confidently KNOW WHOSE YOU ARE.

You can mark it down – if we’re going to attempt to live for God, we will face accusations from others sent from our enemy the devil. Someone is going to mock you, despise you, and make fun of you and your goals, and you are going to wonder if you are in the right place or doing the right thing.

And the reality is that unlike Jesus, all of us are unqualified to be doing what we’re doing. I’m not talking about in your job – I’m talking about in life. We are unqualified to be serving God, leading others, even being a father or husband or mother or wife. I’m unqualified to be your pastor. The task greater is far greater than us and what is required is greater than what we have. However, we were chosen by God for it.

Men: if you are saved, then you are chosen by the King of Kings to be His son, a royal heir, holy as God is holy, and a herald of the Good News of the Gospel. If you are married you are called by God to be a godly husband that loves his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it. If you have children, you are called by God to be a godly father and their earthly example of the Heavenly Father. Not because you deserve it or are qualified – but because you were chosen.

Women: if you are saved, then you are chosen by the King of Kings to be His daughter, a royal heir, holy as God is holy, and a herald of the Good News of the Gospel. If you are married, you are called by God to be a godly wife that submits to her husband as the Church submits to Christ out of respect. If you have children, you are called by God to be their godly mother and to demonstrate the unconditional love of God. Not because you deserve it or are qualified, but you were chosen.

Our enemy (Satan)’s most common position is that of accuser. He accuses us of not being good enough. And you know what – he’s right. So to work through this challenge, we have to confidently know that the Word of God (not our opinion of ourselves and not what our mom told us)… we have to know that we are God’s and he says that we are:

1 Peter 2 [9] …a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Isn’t it interesting that in the Gospels when Satan tempted Jesus at his weakest point before beginning his ministry, he was trying to get him to to doubt who he was. The enemy said accusingly: If you are the Son of God… command this stone to become bread” andIf you will worship ME, then [all this stuff] will be yours” andIf you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [and let me catch you].”

And instead of indulging him or arguing with him, Jesus responded confidently with the truth of His Word and reminded Satan who he was.

There is a new song by the band Hillsong (that writes some of the worship songs that we song) that says:

Who the Son sets free is free indeed; I’m a child of God – Yes I am

In my Father’s house there’s a place for me. I’m a child of God – Yes I am

I am chosen, not forsaken – I am who You say I am

You are for me, not against me – I am who You say I am

(Words and Music by Ben Fielding & Reuben Morgan (C) 2017 Hillsong Music Publishing)

If we are going to move past our enemy’s accusations (which he loves to make against us), we have to know whose we are – that we are God’s!

———

Let’s continue in the story to Nehemiah’s next big challenge.

Nehemiah 4 [1] Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered [again] at the Jews. [because insecurity breeds contempt for others] [2] And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, [mocking them] “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore [the wall] 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?” [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!”

Their enemies moved from accusing to criticizing. And if we live for God, we will be criticized, too. 

Others (even people that call themselves “Christians” at times) will criticize us for believing in God, reading the Bible, trusting in Creation, taking Biblical stands on cultural topics, and even praying. They will criticize you for your integrity, priorities, faithfulness, and even your generosity with others and your church. 

Some will say you are too young or too old; too smart or not smart enough; for being too committed or not committed enough to what they think, and the list goes on and on! I’ve heard it all my life – about me, about my family, about every church I have been part of. Sometimes our biggest criticisms will come from within our minds (which is spiritual warfare – fighting the lies of the devil).

If we listen hard enough, someone somewhere has a negative opinion on everything we do. And it is easy to let all of this get you down. So how do we fight through this challenge? Look at Nehemiah’s response. After praying and basically telling God, “you take care of them!”  – verse 6 says:

Nehemiah 4 [6] So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.

He considered where the criticisms were coming from, and after recognizing they were not part of them, he prayed and got back to work! He didn’t dwell on them or let them get him down or change his mindset – they just got back building the wall.

COACH’S TIP #2: To fight through CRITICISM, you have to humbly PRAY AND PRESS ON

Of course, as Paul said in Ephesians 6, our enemy today is not other people (not even those mocking us). We wrestle against evil schemes of the devil using others to get us down.

And when that happens, we should first consider the source, too, to make sure God isn’t sending us constructive criticism through people that care about us. But not (like Nehemiah), then don’t let it get you down, just give it to God in prayer, let him be your defender, and then get back to work! Which reminds me of what Paul told his younger friend, Timothy:

1 Timothy 4 (NLT) [12] Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. [instead] Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.

My friend used to say, “Don’t throw in the towel, use it to wipe the sweat off your face.”  I like that. Don’t let quitting be an option. Don’t let criticisms get you down, use it as fuel to fire you up!

———

Let’s read what happened next:

Nehemiah 4 [7] But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites [their enemies gathered support] 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. [8] And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 

Then we find how they tried to confuse them: 

[10] 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.” [11] And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” [12] At that time the Jews who lived near them [distant relatives evidently] came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”

The Israelites had so much momentum going into this, but now they were stuck with the wall half-built. They hit a wall while building a wall.  They were complaining about their work and afraid of their enemies. Others were even trying to get them to get back and stop working because of the danger. 

And then in Chapter 5 (that we’ll talk about more later), Nehemiah had to still deal with “normal” leadership challenges within the people that was distracting him. It seemed like everything was against them trying to confuse them and distract them from working. 

Ever been there? Where it seems like nothing is working out quite right and you do not know which way to go or what to do next? If your enemy’s attacks are not enough, you have your own insecurities, and all that on top of the normal challenges of living in a broken world!

If we’re going to get through, here is:

COACH’S TIP #3: To fight through CONFUSION, you have to unwaveringly CLING TO YOUR CALLING

Look at Nehemiah’s response to his people:

[9] And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. [then later he goes into more detail] [13] 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. [14] 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, [probably in his best Mel Gibson voice] and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.

Think about this: anyone can start a marathon, but less than 1% of people in America have finished one. Anyone can lower 400lbs down on a bench press, but very few people can push it back up.

But if we are going to make a difference in our family, in our community, and ultimately in this world, God’s mission and vision cannot be something that we let go of and do not finish. We have to remember whose we are, pray and press on through the difficulties, and then no matter what comes our way cling to our calling. 

And while you may have a specific calling, we are all called to simply:

Matthew 22 [37] …Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. [39] …[and] love your neighbor as yourself. [Then he said that everything starts there]

There is a reason that one of the most common phrases from the mouth of God to His people throughout Scripture is: “Be strongbecause we are often not!

This Summer we were walking about a mile to go see the the July 4 parade on our beach vacation. Bryson was complaining like crazy: It’s too hot, this is too hard, it’s too far away, I’m thirsty, I don’t want to push Abram’s stroller, etc.

So we stopped and I had a moment with him, telling him that whenever life gets hard, it’s an opportunity for us to get stronger. And cool thing was – afterward he said, “okay – let me push the stroller by myself then.”

Church: life will be hard, we will mess up, we will get distracted, at times we will want to quit – but let me encourage us to, with everything we have, cling to your calling. Or as James said (Forrest sent me):

James 1 [12] Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

The Israelites did what they had to do to keep building. Because if they had stopped building to just protect themselves, they would not get any further and would have lost their ground. They had to fight AND build: 

[16] 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, [17] 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. [18] And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built

What a great picture of our lives! We’re working – living life, doing what we’re called to do in one hand, and in the other hand we are fighting off our enemy with the only offensive weapon that God has given us: His Word. I said last week that the single greatest factor in your own spiritual health and growth is your personal study of God’s Word. Not what church you attend, not what ministry you do, not who you are around (although each of those are important in our discipleship) – the the most important factor is studying, knowing, and doing God’s Word.

———

Finally, when the enemies saw that they could not get them to stop building by attacking, they tried one more thing to side-track Nehemiah:

Nehemiah 6 [2] Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm [have you ever felt like you were in the plain of “Oh-no”?]

Sanballat even wrote a letter for the king saying that the Israelites were trying to rebel – which was a lie. And to top it off, one of Nehemiah’s friends (in verse 10) tried to get him to come and hide in the temple.

And (I love this) Nehemiah’s response to all of this was to pray to God for strength and keep working. That’s it. He said:

[3] And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down

With all he had he clung to what he knew he was supposed to do – even if it cost him his life – that wall had to get built!

God blessed their faithfulness and perseverance and miraculously:

Nehemiah 6 [15] So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. [16] And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. 

What a story of a people, led by Nehemiah, pushing through the challenges of life to do what God had called them to do.

[RESPONSE] – band enters

So how do we respond to this?

I don’t know what you’re struggling with and what the enemy is trying to do to hold you back, but at some point in our life, we will all deal with this challenges: our enemy will try to get us to forget who we are in Christ with accusations, he will try to get us to down with criticisms, and he will try to get us to stop working all together with confusion.

But with God, nothing is impossible and no-one is beyond hope. No gate is too broken, no wall too burned, and no pile of rubble to high that God cannot build something out of it and use it for his glory.

A few weeks ago I was stunned to hear about a young pastor with a young family in California who committed suicide. It broke my heart. 

What a reminder that the spiritual conflicts we face are SO real! 

Church: we are fighting a war. But we are not alone! We have the Word of God in our hand, we have the hands of our brothers and sisters on our back, and as we live in the Spirit we have the HAND of God on us. And God, who gave us our mission, says to us through the Apostle Paul:

1 Corinthians 15 (NLT) [58] “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

So the first question is: whose are you? Do you belong to God? If not, make today the day that you give yourself to him. And if so, let’s be reminded that in Christ we are MORE than conquerers!

And next, what criticisms have we been dealing with that we need to give to God and move past?

And finally, what areas in our life have we allowed our enemy to confuse us and distract us away from our mission and calling? Together, let’s push through those and cling to our calling with all we have – no matter the cost.

Hanging Gates & Building Walls

REBUILDING 7: Nehemiah 3

September 16, 2018 (Robert)

 

Last week we worked through Chapter 2 and shared several realizations about seeing and accomplishing godly vision in our lives. Today I want to recap those realizations and then move forward in the story in Nehemiah to get to where God’s people are rebuilding the gates and the wall around Jerusalem. As we study today, may we be reminded of God’s ultimate vision for our lives.

Last week we talked about 4 realizations:

1. A vision might come overnight, but it is accomplished over many nights.

Like it was for Nehemiah, visions take time, planning, and prayer to be accomplished. And prayer is not just “something we do” in a church service or before a meal, it is an essential part of our lives. As a matter of fact… 

2. Prayer is God’s chosen instrument to bring change.

Prayer (as the James says) is “powerful and effective” and should be the very first step in any strategy to accomplish any vision. Speaking of strategies… 

3. A Good vision gets nowhere with a bad strategy.

God is the Giver of our strength, our minds, and even our breath itself, but we still get to choose how we live our lives. God is the life-giving vine and we are but the extending branches. We can do nothing of value without Him. But a branch that is not bearing fruit is useless. And because of that… 

4. When God’s Hand is on us, we still have to use our hands.

God’s hand was on Nehemiah, and he led the Israelites to “strengthen their hands” and “rise and rebuild.” 

When we are in God’s will, he has a task for us to do – which is what I want to talk a little more about today. So let’s move forward in our text to talk about living life focused on God’s main purpose for us and our church. 

——— 

After praying, planning, and preparing, in Chapter 3 God’s people started rehanging the gates around the city. Look at verse 1: 

Nehemiah 3 [1] Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers and the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors…. 

To summarize the rest of the chapter, a similar pattern is repeated for each of the ten gates – each with a specific person or group that put them up.Basically everyone worked on the gates: priests, merchants, goldsmiths, performers, governors, and temple servants. There were men, women, boys, and girls (one of the main leaders’ daughters). Some worked near their homes, and others worked farther away.

As we move into Chapter 4, they began rebuilding the wall from piles of rubble. This wall was not a privacy fence. This wall was large enough to provide defense from their enemies (who were not happy about it). In fact, half-way through this enormous project, the people began to lose motivation until Nehemiah reminded them to remember God, who is great and awesome, and:

Nehemiah 4 [14] …fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”

Eventually they finished the wall by the end of Chapter 6. In just 52 days (or seven and a half weeks), they worked incessantly, courageously, and strategically to rebuild that which had been burned down many decades before. This was so miraculous that when they finished… 

Nehemiah 6 [16] And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.

This was a HUGE moment for Israel – and God was glorified through it.  

———

But what does this mean for us today? While God may lead us to build something one day, we are not building huge walls and gates – at least not physically. But just like so many of the narratives in the Old Testament, this story is for us as an allegory or symbol for some spiritual truths. Specifically, this story leads us to focus our attention on the one main vision that God has for every New Testament, Gospel-centered church today.

This vision has two parts (like a coin has two sides), and it is this: God wants the Church to glorify him by (1) building the wall of Discipleship and (2) hanging the gates of Evangelism. 

Let me explain.

The wall was a defense for Jerusalem by keeping the enemy out. It guarded their lives and health as well as their identity. It created a distinction between them and other cultures that could influence and draw them away from God. The wall was solid, tall, and consistent. It was built brick by brick.  

And similarly for us today, The Wall is our Discipleship. Our discipleship gives definition to and protection for our spiritual health and life.

Some of the sections of the wall are our home, family, and relationships; our church and Biblical community with others; our Bible study, prayer, and personal worship; and our stewardship of time, talents, and treasures God has given us. All these things make up the “wall” of discipleship around our life.  

And wherever the enemy finds a hole in the wall, that’s where he attacks. If our marriage is weak, if our family is struggling, if our finances are a mess, or our time management is bad… that is where the enemy will find a foot-hold and try to get in. Trust me: our enemy is always trying to get into our lives and church!

I read this week that after studying hundreds of churches and around 250,000 believers, a research group found that (not surprisingly), one of the single greatest factors in someone’s growing faith is time spent personally studying the Bible. In fact, they found that the longer someone is part of a church without having a personal relationship with God, the less chance they have to ever be saved. That is sobering.

———

So what about the gates? The gates were used for people traffic for business, commerce, rituals, and military troops. In a way, the 10 gates were 10 fingers for Jerusalem – it is how people came in and out.

There were even times (as Exodus and Leviticus talk about) that if a pagan “stranger” voluntarily became a God-worshiper (like Ruth, Rahab, Uriah the Hittite, and others we see in genealogies), then they would become a citizen of Israel and would be brought in. 

So if the wall is discipleship, then spiritually The Gates are our Evangelism. They are where we go out to interact with and influence others and do our “father’s business” to bring people into God’s kingdom.

———

So just like Israel needed the wall to keep their enemies out and the gates to let their allies in, we need both discipleship AND evangelism in our lives if we are going to live the kind of life on mission and pursuing God’s vision for us.

And as we consider this ultimate purpose for our lives, I want to end by giving us a couple reminders – and I’ll start with the most blunt one: 

1. It’s not about you.

Our natural tendency is to think that our opinions matter the most, that our passions are the right ones, how we think is the right way, and how we do things is the best. We make excuses for our own mistakes while criticizing others for the same things.

But if we are going to live the life on mission that God wants us to live, we have to come to grips with this same truth that Rick Warren started his famous book book,“Purpose Driven Life” off with: “It’s not about you.”

The Israelites had become focused on themselves, too, when they stopped building half-finished. Nehemiah’s challenge to not work for themselves but to work for “your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes”  hits close to home. I often need to be reminded that we are fighting a war and my comfort and convenience doesn’t matter. We are not the heroes of this story. 

God’s mission and vision involves us, but it’s not about us. It’s like what every 3 year old has to be told when they are at a friend’s birthday party: “little johnny… this isn’t your party! You were just invited to it!” Isn’t it amazing that God has invited us to his “party” not because we deserve it, but because he is gracious and (as Peter said in…)

2 Peter 3 [9] …patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Even our own discipleship is not about us. We grow in our faith and practice not just so we can be holy, but so we can be better used by God as instruments of honor for his glory and so others will be saved from a very real Hell and instead have everlasting life.

This is why we say that EVERY follower of Christ should Connect to God through worship, Grow together in community, Serve others in ministry, and then Go lead others…

This is why we talk big about one day multiplying our church through planting. This is why we say that we must be willing to do whatever it takes and go wherever we can go – because we are not here for ourselves, we are here for those that have been saved yet.

——— 

A second reminder for us is this:

2. We have to work together.

It took all of the Israelites to get out and get their hands dirty to do what they had to do. But there is a short disappointing phrase right in the middle of the big list of workers in chapter 3: “But the nobles would not stoop [or get their hands dirty] to serve their Lord.”  How sad would it be to known forever more wherever the Bible is read as “the ones who would not stoop to serve God.” 

But at the same time, how amazing does it feel to look back at a finished project that you contributed to? And the Israelites had no idea at this point that all of their work was not just to rebuild a temple and some walls from their people, but to prepare the very platform that Jesus would soon enough offer forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in Him. The project was so immense that (as the nations around them saw) they had to have the help of God or they could not have done it.

And for us church: we are part of something so much greater than ourselves, too. Something that is so big, it can only be “accomplished with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16). We have a call to rise and build, too. And it is an all-hands-on-deck project. This isn’t just for a few good men and women – this is for everyone. Men, women, boys, and girls; adults, teens, and children; employees, students, leaders, and stay-at-home parents – everyone. We each have a “gate” (if you will) to work on. We each have people that God has put around us in our lives to reach out to, invest in, and invite to follow Him. 

But remember – it is not just us, it is all of us working together, unified with each other and other churches across our county, nation, and world.

And we must remember, too, that missions doesn’t happen here (meaning in the worship service), it happens out there (meaning in the world in which we live). The church building or organization does not outreach or care for widows or adopt orphans or share Christ with others – the church BODY does. We do. That’s why when Jesus sent a group of followers out to tell people about him in Luke 10, he sent them with this:

Luke 10 [2] …“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Church: the Holy Spirit has the same call for us today. As we go and lead others to Jesus, let’s pray for more laborers in the field. That is my prayer. I hope that it is yours, too.

Lastly, here is a third reminder:

3. Things are different today.

By that I mean that in Nehemiah’s time and throughout the Old Testament, God did not tell His people to “go” and tell people about Him. Instead, other nations would see the great things that God would do.

Then God told his people through the prophet Zechariah that there would come a day that the physical walls wouldn’t matter anymore. Instead…

Zechariah 2 [4] …”Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. [5] And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.’”

Because of Jesus’s ministry on earth and the great “commission” that he left with his disciples, our call today is not to “wait and let people come to you” but to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel” and “go and make disciples”

There was a day not long ago (maybe that some of you even remember) when it seemed like if you built a nice building and had cool stuff, good programs, a charismatic preacher, and a dynamic worship leader, there were enough churched people around (especially in the south) that were looking for something new that would come and grow your church attendance. 

Like the classic movie, the mentality was “if you built it they will come.” And they did – and some still do hop around to different churches because of the programs and amenities. We call them church “hoppers” or “consumers.”  

But here is the problem – that is not church growth! Even if attendance and budgets go up, the Kingdom of God is not being built. Instead of Gospel multiplication (which is what Jesus called us to pursue), it is migration from one place to another. It’s the shuffle that I have known many church-goers to dance. Instead of helping something get better, they go somewhere else.  

I heard about a man that was stranded on a desert island by himself for several years. Finally a ship came by to rescue him. When the captain of the ship walked on to the island, he noticed that there were three huts right beside each other. The captain asked the man, “Were you here by yourself?” “Yes” the man responded. “Well why are there three huts?” 

The captain asked. The man answered: “the first one is my home – that is where I live. The second one was my church – where I go to worship God.” “Oh that makes sense” said the captain. “But what about the third hut?” “Oh that one…” the man said, leaning in a little toward the captain. “That is where I used to go to church!”  

But for real: do I hope that believers trying to find a healthy, Gospel-centered church to be involved in become part of our church? Absolutely! I pray that more mature followers of Christ join with us and even help lead the mission and vision to reach more people with the Gospel and make more of a difference here in the Valley. 

But know this: the only true church growth is when the unchurched are reached and unbelievers are saved. 

And that does not happen just because we put on better programs, build bigger buildings, or hire more staff. 

Think of it like this: it would not matter if the Mormon Church down the road had a great kids program or a really cool building or not – I’m not interested in going. Why? Because I’m not Mormon!

As basic and radical as it sounds, God’s ordained way for the lost to be reached and the church to grow is for believers in the church to reach out to unbelievers outside the church – specifically by investing in their lives and inviting them to follow Jesus with them. That’s it. The church is the only institution that exists for those not in it yet. 

And it has always been that way! When Jesus started his ministry, the first two followers of Jesus were actually first following John the Baptist until John pointed to Jesus and basically said, “there is the Son of God – go follow Him!”  

Then one of those two new disciples of Jesus was a man named Andrew. The first thing that Andrew did was to go find his brother and bring him to Jesus – and that third disciple’s name was Simon (or Peter)!

———

You might have seen a new commercial by Nike over the last couple weeks that has gotten a lot of political attention. I’ll be honest – when I saw this video, it angered me. Here’s why.

The commercial is made up many short clips of all kinds of athletes that have overcame significant adversities and handicaps to get to where they are. The point of the commercial is supposed to amp you up and (ultimately) buy Nike apparel. 

But what upset me was that the big message was that we should not just dream big, but crazy big  and that we should pursue not just doing our best but being the “best ever” – as if to say that at the end of the day, when the last whistle is blown, and when the last buzzer sounds the main thing in life that matters is how well we did in sports. Not being a great father or mother or having integrity or character… just sports. 

And if there was ever a time that there are men and women that have excelled at a sport or a business or something else and yet failed at life, it is now.

But I want to present to you today that if the vision for your life that you have pined after, planned for, and prepared for is for you to be the best athlete or the best entrepreneur or the best teacher or even the best father or mother or even humanitarian or something more noble, it will leave your soul just as empty as when you started. 

That is because we were created by God to be fulfilled and satisfied by one thing: faithfulness to Him. In the end when we stand before God, there is going to be no talk of scoreboards or resumes, the only question will be: were you faithful with what I gave you? Starting with Jesus and ending with your time, your talents, and your resources. Were you faithful?   

So as we serve in the mission God has for us:

Let’s be reminded (and encouraged) by the fact that it is not about us, it is about God. We are not alone – we are working together to accomplish this vision.

Text Messages to God

Nehemiah 2 (ESV) [1] …Now I had not been sad in his presence. [2] And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 

Nehemiah was afraid because no was supposed to be sad in the king’s presence. But he recognized that this was an open door from God for him to speak what was on his heart – either that or he would die trying. So he made the request: 

[3] I said to the king, “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?” [4] Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?”

Now watch what Nehemiah does…

“…So I prayed to the God of heaven.” 

I love that because it’s just so nonchalant, normal, and necessary. In the heat of the moment, so much rested on what he was about to say… so he shot up a quick prayer to God. A “text message” prayer.

There are times that we need to spend extended time with God, alone, with our prayer journals. Or as Jesus said – go into our closet, shut the door, and pray to our Father in secret. And Nehemiah had been doing that. There are many other times that in the course of our day we can just send short “text message” type prayers to God. 

I think some Christians feel defeated because they do not pray “enough” or read the Bible “enough” – as if there is a threshold that as soon reach it, you’ll reach gold status and get free pizza from Pizza Hut.  

But that’s not how it works, and it never has. But the Christian life is a relationship and prayer is a lifestyle. God wants us to spend time with him not because he needs us, but because he loves us and we are his children!

We see Jesus doing that during his ministry, but we know that his quick prayers were backed up by some private, intense prayers at other times.  

I was telling my friend Jeff last week in between cheers and whistle-blows of a volleyball game – that my wife Rebecca and I are in a season right now where we are running around from home to school to preschool to job back to preschool back to school then to soccer or gymnastics… the whole deal.

And anyone who has had kids knows how all that is. And although we guard our time, we try to limit how much our kids do so they’re schedules are not running our lives, and although we regularly call or text each other throughout the day… we can still end up feeling like we have no time together.

And naturally, two people that do not spend time together – stray apart relationally. That’s why putting the kids to bed and hanging out is so important. That’s why meeting up for a lunch break is important. That’s why organizing date nights is important. And that’s why in two weeks we are going away for a couple days to celebrate our 10 year anniversary! Because you make time for the people you care about. It’s not an obligation or duty – it’s a relationship.  

It has been helpful to see my time with God in that same way. While I am communicating with throughout the day through quick “text message” type prayers, short times of silence and meditation, reading a verse or a short passage here and there, sending up a quick praise and thanksgiving, I need to also take some time to just “hang out” in prayer and Bible study a couple times a week or even every day.

I have found that listening to the Bible app instead of music or preaching while I drive is very helpful in this. If I have a 10-20 minute or longer drive, I often will open the Bible app, go to my reading plan, and click “play” and it reads it to me. It’s great. But there are also times when I need to take a full-on retreat with God. A few hours or even a day or two every couple months.  

Of course, if you really have never had a desire to spend time with the Heavenly Father or reading His Word, then I would seriously question whether you have a relationship with him at all.

So let’s pray!


(this was part of a sermon in our Rebuilding series at Village Church)

God is in the Details

“GOD IS IN THE DETAILS”

REBUILDING 6: Nehemiah 2-7

September 9, 2018 (Robert)

God is in the details. You have probably heard the phrase, “the devil is in the details.” While probably is referring to the fact that things get messed up at the detail level, I’d prefer to say that (and the title of today’s message is): God is in the details.

I could give SO many examples (and if you are a follower of Christ, I’m certain that you could, too) of how God has arranged many details throughout life to bring me where I am today. From family to school to sports to college to jobs to relationships… I am certain that God is in the details!

We are half-way through our REBUILDING series studying the Old Testament books of Ezra & Nehemiah and looking at the movement of God’s people back into their promised land so that we can learn some principles about experiencing renewal and rebuilding in our lives, in our families, and in our church.

Last week we looked at Nehemiah’s intercessory prayer for his people – and for opportunity and favor to do something about the broken down gates and wall around Jerusalem. 

Today, we will read more of Nehemiah and the wall-rebuilding story with a higher up point-of-view, and then over the next couple weeks we will come back and fill in some of the gaps to see how God is in the details. And as we look at God’s Word today I want to share a few realizations that came out of my study that I hope are helpful to us as we live for Christ this week.

Let’s look together at Nehemiah Chapter 2. After Nehemiah’s passionate, humble prayer, he goes to talk with the king to make something happen.

Nehemiah 2 [1] In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I [Nehemiah, the cup-bearer or wine-taster to the king] took up the wine and gave it to the king… 

Nehemiah coming to the king is actually four months after chapter 1. So not only has he been waiting that long since he heard about the condition of Jerusalem, but this story takes place 13 years after the temple was finished – which took many years to complete. And during all this time he couldn’t do anything about it.

Here we see right out of the gate the first important realization that: 

1. A vision might come overnight, but it is accomplished over many nights

Andy Stanley (Visioneering, Chapter 2): “There’s a dreaded period of time when it appears impossible to move ahead with your vision.” And during that waiting, many visions die from discouragement. But Nehemiah’s vision stayed alive because he wasn’t just sitting around, he was fasting, praying, planning, and preparing for a conversation with the king one day.

We often have visions and dreams today of accomplishing something, going somewhere, or becoming something that we hope will work out quickly, but instead they take a long time. Maybe you have had a dream of finishing an education or certification, of having a family, of following your calling, or of seeing someone you love give their heart to God – and it is taking longer than you hoped it would.

But our waiting period does not have to be wasted. We can use the time, like Nehemiah did, to prepare. It is called the “off-season” in sports. You’re not playing yet, but that doesn’t mean you’re just sitting around. If you’re hoping for a degree one day, you are studying. If you’re hoping for the job, you are training. If you are hoping your kids will be godly one day, you have to teach them today.

Sometimes during that season of preparation, God keeps our vision alive and sometimes he redirects it. But no time of waiting needs to be wasted.

When I was in college I felt called to be in full-time ministry as a worship pastor (or really any kind of pastor). But the problem was – I was waiting tables and taking classes, not pastoring. And I really sensed God saying to me, “then use your time now to train.” 

But sadly… I didn’t. And while God was gracious to give me an opportunity later, I was not as prepared or as effective as I should have been. So the next time I found myself in a waiting period (actually several times that I have been), the Holy Spirit has prompted me to not waste my time, but to pray, plan, and prepare.

Rebuilding takes time – whether that is a city or a family or a church or our individual lies. But God is a God of rebuilding and reviving – that is what he does.

We say in our Growth Track that in many ways we are redefining “church” and the Gospel in every day life for many in our area. It won’t happen overnight – it takes time, especially in an area that is full of “cultural Christians” or “in name only” Christians.

Notice, too that Nehemiah did not pray for God or someone else to rebuild the wall – he prayed for an opportunity to go and be part of it himself! Watch what happened next:

[1] …Now I had not been sad in his presence. [2] And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 

Nehemiah was afraid because no was supposed to be sad in the king’s presence. But he recognized that this was an open door from God for him to speak what was on his heart – either that or he would die trying. So he made the request: 

[3] I said to the king, “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?” [4] Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” [But before Nehemiah answers…] So I prayed to the God of heaven. 

This brings us to our second realization:

2. God’s chosen instrument to bring change is first prayer.

Some of the main lessons that Jesus taught his followers were about prayer. He said in Mark 9 that certain works cannot be accomplished by anything other than prayer. Later James, the brother of Jesus (who probably knew more about the private life of Jesus more than most), said: 

James 5 [16] …The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

So much about how prayer works that I do not understand and that I constantly underestimate. But as God has been reminding me recently, for the Christian there is great power in prayer to bring change – and often that change is in us!

And I love Nehemiah’s prayer here because it’s just so nonchalant, normal, and necessary. In the heat of the moment, so much rested on what he was about to say… so he shot up a quick prayer to God. 

There are times that we need to spend extended time with God, alone, with our prayer journals, and there are other times that in the course of our day we can just send short “text message” type prayers to God. 

I think some Christians feel defeated because they do not pray “enough” or read the Bible “enough” – as if there is a threshold that as soon reach it, you’ll reach gold status and get free pizza from Pizza Hut.  

But that’s not how it works, and it never has. The Christian life is a relationship and prayer is a lifestyle. God wants us to spend time with him not because he needs us, but because he loves us and we are his children! 

Of course, I must say this also – if you do not really have a desire to spend any time with that Heavenly Father, then I would seriously question whether you have a relationship with him at all.

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Let’s get back to the story, with great boldness and confidence in His God, Nehemiah tells the king: 

Nehemiah 2 [5] …“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.” [6] And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time.

In chapter 1, Nehemiah prayed for the king to have compassion, but the king was not a compassionate man. As a matter of fact, not too long before this he had commanded for the rebuilding of the temple to be stopped. Nehemiah knew that unless God intervened, there would be no way his vision would come to pass. But it wasn’t his job to convince or push the king to do anything; it was just his job to be faithful and allow God to open or close the door.

I feel convicted by that all the time. I want to see something happen (or happen faster) and God says, “whoa – let me handle that.” That is what Solomon meant when he said in Proverbs 19 [21] “Many are the plans in the mind [or heart] of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Or as the New New Living Translation bluntly puts it: You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail.” 

Thankfully for Nehemiah, he wasn’t just following his own plans, he was following the Lord’s purpose – because the king said yes! So then Nehemiah goes even further:

Nehemiah 2 [7] And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, [8] and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” 

Here is evidence of Nehemiah’s preparation during his season of waiting: he came to the king with a whole strategy worked out. It was all or nothing for him. This leads us to our third understanding: 

3. A Good vision gets nowhere with a bad strategy.

God is a God of strategy. The universe was created with and continues because of strategies and systems. The coming of Jesus 2,000 years ago God’s most profound strategy. Even as I look at my own life and see God’s hands clearly at work in the details, I see God’s strategy. 

The strategy for Nehemiah involved opportunities, specific players, certain resources, traveling, and a game plan to rehang gates and rebuild a wall. And most of this he worked out before making it back to Jerusalem! Strategies are visions written out on paper, like sports plays that are drawn up, learned, and practiced by the team before they are ever used on the field or court.

You have to have a system to accomplish your vision. I heard a pastor say this week, “A vision is only as powerful as the system that you have to get it to carry it to where it is supposed to go…” 

We do not have to figure everything it all out on our own as if it all rests on us. None of this is in any way apart from God, apart from our Biblical community, or apart from prayer (as we just talked about). Prayer is a huge part of the strategy. 

But as romantic as it might sound, nothing of value “just happens” in love and family and even in the church. It would be nice, but it’s not real life. Want a better marriage? It’s not going to happen by accident. Paul gave us a big part of the strategy in Ephesians 4. Want to finish school while balancing a job and kids? You’ll have to come up with a strategic plan to study. Or as we talked about a couple weeks ago – repentance requires as “systematic strategy to separate sin.”

And some people at this point might try to start separating “godly” visions in life from regular or “worldly” visions. But the only thing that makes a vision “godly” is that it has as its ultimate goal, the glory of God. That is why Paul said that everything should be done to the glory of God. Really everything, Paul? Yes – he said in 1 Corinthians 10 [31] So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

There is much more we could say about this – especially about Jesus’s life (especially how he made disciples, which is why we have a strategy to try to do that here) – but let’s go on. After a season of waiting, after praying, and after strategizing… let’s read what happens:

[8] …And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.  

What an incredible statement: “the good hand of my God was upon me.”  Although it was the king who granted him what he asked, he recognized that it was God answering his prayer and God’s hand of provision that was on him. It is a great place to be in when you know that you are right where God wants you! We will come back to that in a minute.

Then things really start to pick up for Nehemiah and his wall-rebuilding expedition. Let’s read:  

[11] So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days. [12] Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I rode…

He went around and inspected the condition of the gates and wall for himself privately to finalize his rebuilding plan. He wanted to think through everything he could before he called the people to rise up and rebuild.

This reminds me of how Jesus said in Luke 14 to “count the cost” before building a tower, before going to war, and even (his ultimate point) following Him.

As we will talk about tonight at our Church Family meeting, our Future Home team has came back to that verse several times as we have been praying about and doing research on land and building possibilities for our church. I hope that you will pray with us as we continue to seek God’s will for our church in that matter.

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Now that he has planned and inspected and prepared, he is ready to share his vision and to charge God’s people with the task of rebuilding. After visiting several of the ten broken down gates (that you can read about in the text): 

[17] Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” [18] And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. 

Nehemiah felt confident that he was in God’s will and because of that God WOULD make them prosper and no matter what they would “arise and build.”

Have you ever felt that – like you were where God wanted you and doing what he wanted you to do? I have. And every time it was when I was (1) close to God and (2) serving Him (which makes sense, because Jesus said to love Him and love others). I have found that when I am the closest to God relationally, my service to Him becomes life-giving and not life-draining. I want to instead of I have to. 

Which leads us to realization #4:

4. When God’s Hand is on us, we still have to use our hands

After Nehemiah said that God’s hand was on them, they went and strengthened their own hands (meaning they got ready to do some work!). There is no better place to be than in God’s will – but when we are there we can be certain that he has a task for us. Because God wants to use us, the church, the body of Christ, to accomplish his will and to be (first through prayer) catalysts for change. 

It seems that there is a whole progression of thought in verse 18. 

Some people just stop after “the hand of God” and think, “well if it’s God’s will it will happen.” But following Christ is not passive, it is active. They see a need and even feel passionate about it – but that’s as far as they go.

Some people go to “Let’s do it!”… and they talk big but never follow through. They post something on social media or they put out a sign in their yard or wear a shirt to make a statement… but they do not actually do anything about it. Instead, they expect others to do something. 

And before I pass judgment too quickly, I understand that there are a lot of needs in our day today. It can be overwhelming just looking at all the causes, initiates, and fundraisers for all kinds of great things. But let me frame it like this: if everyone in America gets fed, comforted, etc…. But the local church is not effective at preaching the Gospel to its communities, then we have failed. And that was, in a way, what Nehemiah was wrestling with. 

But faith without works and belief without action is dead.

And still some people get to the part where they get read – they “strengthen their hands for the good work.” But at this point – the work still hasn’t gotten done! That is because the most difficult part of a task is not getting started. 

Instead…

5. It’s difficult to start something, but it’s much harder to finish.

Anyone can start a marathon, but according to research, only ½ of 1% of people in America have finished one. Anyone can lower 400lbs down on a bench press, but not that many people can get it back up. There are a whole lot of people that start things that they never finish: jobs, degrees, marriages, routines, healthy habits, etc. We probably all have a list of things that we haven’t finished (I know I do). 

But we are called to not just start good things, but to do them and to finish. Jesus said that anyone who puts their hands to the plow but then looks back is not even fit for the kingdom of God! What a tough statement!

Being someone that is slowly headed to his mid-life, let me say to parents: our kids do not need to see perfection, they need to see us finish. They need to know that when we mess up… we’ll get back up.

That is why Nehemiah actually said to the builders a little later in the story in chapter 4 (that we’ll talk about more next week) not to do this whole rebuilding project for yourself, but to do it for “your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”

So here in chapter 2, they’re just getting started. Then in chapter 3 we read how they actually got to work. To  summarize all the details, this was an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. Basically EVERYONE helped hang the gates from different families and clans and occupations. There were priests, merchants, goldsmiths, performers, rulers over all of Jerusalem, rulers over other towns, Levites (temple servants), men, women, boys, and girls (specifically one of the main leaders’ daughters. Many people hung the gates near their homes or even beside their homes, while some worked far away from their homes. 

There is something so unifying about serving and working and being on together. We experience that in sports teams, military squadrons, rescue teams, mission teams, and even serving on the Dream Team here on Sunday mornings. We make bonds with others while serving that would never be made sitting in a worship service! Francis Chan wrote a whole book on this (called You and Me Forever) that basically says if you want to make your marriage better, stop arguing and just find a way to serve God together!

So all of the Israelites got out and got their hands dirty… well mostly everyone. There is a short disappointing phrase right in the middle of this big list in verse 5: “But the nobles would not stoop [or get their hands dirty] to serve their Lord.” 

It is such a great feeling to look back at a project that you contributed to. Here we are reading the names in chapter 3 of the people that built the gates about 2,400 years later! 

But on the other hand, how sad would it have been for these nobles to later look back at what was accomplished and think, “I didn’t help.”

Nevertheless, despite them not chipping in, despite conflict, complaints, criticisms, and more (that we’ll talk about next week), eventually as we finish chapter 3, the gates are finished and in chapter 4 they get started on the wall – which had its own set of challenges. But in the end – they finished! And as we have said several times in this series – all of their work went into preparing the physical place that Jesus would soon come into. He would ride through this gate into Jerusalem on a donkey when the people would cry out, Hosanna – come and save us. 

And for us church – we are part of something great. And the finish line is when Jesus calls us home – whether that is soon or much later. And the challenge before us is to keep at it, keep building, keep working, that one day we may finish strong for the glory of God. 

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RESPONSE:

1. Are you in a season of waiting? Be reminded that God is a God of rebuilding and reviving, and it takes time. This whole story is incredible allegory of how God takes the rubble and ashes of our lives and creates something beautiful through the power of the Gospel. And God doesn’t want to just do a work in us that takes us back to how we “used to be,” like the prophet Haggai said, God wants to move us ahead and make us even better.

2. Are you feeling the pressure to change someone or something? Be reminded that it is God who brings real change, and not only does it take time, but it happens first through prayer. 

Think about this. If God could sway King Artaxerxes to finance the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, he can certainly change the heart of those who stand between you and the vision God has given you. Humanly speaking, there was no way in the world King artaxerxes was going to support nehemiah’s Vision but prayer takes as well beyond human possibilities.

A strategy rarely goes perfectly according to plan; often we have to tweak it as we go through it. People are not robots and the world is not a machine.

One jaded pastor said, “Originally my life’s goal was a huge silver banner with the words, ‘Win the World for Christ!’ Eventually it became, ‘Win one or two people.’ Now it’s, ‘Try not to lose too many.’”