Monday, January 9, 2012

Meeting God’s Changes: Getting Started

Preached Sunday, January 8, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 1:1-2:6; 2 Corinthians 7:2-13a

Nehemiah is not well known to most of us. He is not a Noah, or an Abraham, or a Moses, or a David. He did not hold one of the great spots in the nation of Israel. He was not prophet, priest, or king. Nehemiah was just one of the people of God who were scattered by the failure of his people to become what God wanted them to be. He transformed his nation after it had stopped being a nation at all.

Israel had stopped being a nation in our sense of the word. It stopped having a land of its own with borders. It stopped having a government of its own. Most of its people had stopped living in the land that had once been its territory. But the nation with the soul of a family continued to exist.

The people of Israel were brothers and sisters of the big family that traced its beginnings more than 14 centuries back from the time of Nehemiah to Abraham and Sarah.

God had chosen Abraham and Sarah, and called them to follow where he led them. God led them through changes that would change the world. Those changes began small enough: too small for the world to take notice; but more than big enough for them.

They were chosen and called to be people who lived by faith. They were chosen and called to be part of the plan of God to restore a rebel-hearted humanity to a relationship with God that was defined by faith. There is no better environment for faith (real faith) than change.

The faith for which they were chosen, and to which they were called, was not a faith in themselves, but a faith in God. The changes to which they were called brought about the end of life as they knew it. They were city people who were called to become desert nomads. They were an old childless couple who had grown to accept their childless condition and let it define them. God called them to stop accepting the condition that defined them.

When they left their city comforts, with a nephew, some workers, and some sheep and goats, for the desert, the only part of their life that stayed the same was God. Nothing else was recognizable or familiar in their lives: only God.

That is faith in the extreme. It is normal human nature to not want to live in the extreme. I know I don’t. Yet we should never be surprised when a time that calls for such an extreme faith comes to us. There are times when we find very little in our life that is recognizable or familiar to us but God. There are times when everything that seems to define us disappears, except for God.

God led the first fathers of his people (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) this way of faith. Then God led the whole extended family to Egypt where they became slaves for more than four hundred years. Then God broke them out of slavery; broke them out of the mold that had defined them for generations. It was a definition that they had come to accept. Slavery took care of them and gave them their niche in life. But God told them to stop accepting their definition of themselves and led them into the desert of independence, where they were independent from every condition but God.

God led them to the promised land of faith. They were to live in that land by faith. It was not an irrigated land but a land where life survived by the rain that God sent. There they would meet every challenge and every change by faith. They would be different from all other nations, because they would live upon the promises of a faithful God: they would live by faith.

But that was too extreme for them. So they lived by faith in other gods who were not so extreme. They lived by faith in the gods of money, and sex, and success. They would live for things and for themselves. They would not live to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their might. (Deuteronomy 6:4) They would not live to love their neighbor as themselves. (Leviticus 19:18)

So God sent the Assyrian Empire to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and scatter and enslave its people. Then God sent the Babylonian Empire to destroy the Assyrian Empire and the southern Israelite kingdom (called the kingdom of Judah), and scatter and enslave its people. Then the God sent the Persian Empire to conquer the Babylonian Empire.

The cities of Israel and Judah were ruins. The poor people of Israel and Judah were not considered fit to carry away by their conquerors, and so they were left to live a hand-to-mouth life among the ruins.

Some of those who had been left behind were people of real extreme faith. Others just blended in and intermarried with neighboring people who did not feel any obligation to the God of the people of Israel. What (after all) had that God done for his people but to let them be defeated, and enslaved, and relocated? Their conquerors wanted them to blend in and vanish, and some of them did.

The leaders, the educated, the skilled craftsmen, and the skilled laborers, and the people of business were relocated to other parts of the empires that had conquered them. They, also, were supposed to blend in and vanish. I think some of them did; but some of those people were people of extreme faith, and they remained loyal to the God of extreme faithfulness.

Only they didn’t quiet know what to do with themselves. They didn’t know how to be God’s people when the world around them had changed and everything was different. They found themselves living at a time in history when they could no longer be God’s people the old way. But what other way was there?

They had old ruined homes, in the old Promised Land, but that was a land of poverty and squalor. They could go back to their old towns, and villages, and homes, and farms and claim them; but those places would not really belong to them, except under the rule of the king of Persia. They could call themselves their own, but they couldn’t act on their own. They had to act as subjects of the King of Persia.

Israel could not be Israel they remembered and wanted to be. They could never be the same as they were. It would no longer work. They didn’t know how to make it work any more as the people of God, as they had always done it before. If there was another way to make being the people of God work, they had not found it yet.

Nehemiah had found a very successful way of life as an individual person of God without making “the-people-of-God-thing” work. He was cup bearer to the king of Persia whose name was Artaxerxes.

At first glance this looks like some form of food-taster job: a guinea pig job of drinking the wine from the king’s cup before the king did, to make sure the wine was not poisoned. His job was to play Russian roulette with the wine and food of the king.

This job was not without risk. Artaxerxes’ father, Darius, had been killed in his sleep by his most trusted servant. The servant (actually a kind of royal prime minister, called a vizir) claimed that the king’s oldest son, the heir to the throne, Darius Jr. had done it. So Artaxerxes, in his outrage, killed his own brother.

Then the prime minister tried to kill Artaxerxes out in the open, and Artaxerxes fought back and killed the prime minister in armed combat; mano a mano. Life in the royal court of Persia was not for the faint hearted or for the clueless.

The real cup bearer seems to have been a sort of chief of security in the palace. He was in charge of the guards that protected the royal living quarters within the vast palace complex. The cup bearer seems to have been a member of the king’s cabinet.

Since the cup bearer also had access to the queen, the cup bearer was required to be a eunuch; a castrato. Young boys were sometimes castrated with the hope of their becoming officials in the palace government, and so having influence within the royal government on behalf of their families.

Probably, Nehemiah’s parents had picked him out for this honor as one of their younger and more expendable sons. Then he would have been trained in a palace school for future service to the king and the royal family. Nehemiah did this and rose through the ranks, until he attracted the attention of the king himself. Artaxerxes promoted Nehemiah to a position of immense personal trust and influence.

But Nehemiah also kept contact with his real family. They were part of his identity. Old Israel, the old people of God, was part of his identity. His habit of prayer is clear, and his knowledge of the God of Israel, the God of extreme faith and extreme faithfulness, is clear in his prayers. He spoke often with the God of faith who kept faith with his people.

Nehemiah is an example of a person of extreme faith. Now, by extreme faith, I don’t mean that he was weird and other worldly. Nehemiah was extreme in another way, because he was extremely likable. The King of Persia, always on the lookout for plots and deceptions, from practical experience, trusted and liked Nehemiah. We will see (all through the book) that people trusted Nehemiah and listened to him; except for those whose interests lay in keeping God’s people down.

Nehemiah’s faith led him to call the Persian king of kings a man and treat him as such. That is probably why the king liked Nehemiah. No one else treated him as a real human being.

Nehemiah went to Jerusalem with all the authority of a Persian governor, but (when he talked to his subjects) he spoke to them with the language of “we” and “us”. And they liked him for that.

Faith does not look down on others, or act superior or judgmental. Faith makes us creatures of God; and brothers and sisters of our fellow creatures. Faith, after all, in not about ourselves, and so faith sets us free our true selves.

Being a person of extreme faith does not mean that Nehemiah was so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good. He had common sense.

He was capable of sizing up a situation and dealing with it in a practical way. He could look at miles of ruined fortifications and know what to do. He talk to demoralized people and know what to say. He knew how to plan, how to start, how to keep people on track, how to overcome difficulties, how to finish well.

Faith knows how to cope. Faith is reliable and faithful. You can trust faith. People knew they could trust Nehemiah.

Sometimes God’s people find the world has changed around them; so much so that they cannot be God’s people in the same way they used to, and make it work. People of faith never deny or pretend that God has not called them to follow him into a changed world. Nehemiah and his friends found a way to make being the people of God workable in their world. Let’s look at a short list of how Nehemiah got started.

When I started thinking about this I thought about starting positions. I thought about running track, and the starting block behind my foot, and how the coach taught us the balance than comes from finding your marks and getting set. There is a way of bracing yourself, and focusing forward. That is the starting position of a faith that is ready for anything.

The first part of Nehemiah’s work of leading God’s people to meet God’s changes was in that bracing, that pushing back. Nehemiah was braced backward to push himself forward. This meant claiming his heritage, claiming what had come before him.

He knew for himself the faithful God, the extreme God, whom other people often talked about without truly knowing what they talked about. He talked to this God and he showed his knowledge of what the old scriptures said about this God.

Nehemiah, in his prayer, shows that he knew the history of his people, and their failure to be the people of faith in the face of God’s changes. He felt involved in that history, he repented of it as if he shared their guilt.

He did not judge them or blame them for making his situation harder. If you identify with other people, and with their story, you do not think of being guiltless. This was the starting block Nehemiah pressed against to go forward.

One of the marks at the start was that Nehemiah was interested. Nothing would have happened without that. Nehemiah would have lived a comfortable and faithless life, and died in it, if he were not interested in what God was doing and what God wanted for his people.

His brother Hanani had made the long trip to Jerusalem and come back to tell about it. The Jews there were trying to rebuild. Maybe Hanani had gone there with the thought of helping them. An earlier Jewish Persian governor named Zerubbabel had rebuilt a humbler version of the old Temple. They had gone on to start rebuilding the walls, and the neighboring governors of non-Jewish provinces had written to Nehemiah’s king, asking him to order them to stop.

King Artaxerxes ordered some research on Jerusalem and Judah and found them to be very stubborn, rebellious, dangerous little places. He ordered them to stop building their wall, until further notice. The neighboring governors brought their guards and wrecked and burnt the work the Jews had started.

This was the news of Nehemiah’s brother. But Nehemiah was still interested.

He was interested enough to cry at the bad news that the king he served every day had stopped God’s people from being God’s people in the old way. It is not a bad start to cry for what has changed, even when God is working behind the scene of those changes.

Nehemiah identified with the old petty rebellion of his people; especially their rebellion against the God of faith and faithfulness. Nehemiah knew, in his heart, that he carried that same potential in his own heart. He knew he carried the same potential within himself to not follow God in faith, and not faithfully live as God commanded.

We are not safe agents of meeting God’s changes unless we know our capacity to make the same mistakes that others make, and to actually disobey God, even in the name of obeying God. The people who would become his friends in Jerusalem had been wrong in their way of going about what God wanted, and Nehemiah wept and prayed for them.

Nehemiah could start to meet God’s changes because he knew how to pray. He could pray good, long, theological and contemplative prayers, like the one in the first chapter. He could pray quick, undetectable prayers without moving his lips or making a sound, like the one he prayed in the presence of the king and queen.

Prayer not only changed things, but prayer changed Nehemiah. He acted on his own prayers, and it is important to notice that fear and preparation do not take away the power of prayer, because Nehemiah planned with deliberation, and he prayed with fear. His prayer obliged him to ask the king to reverse a policy that the king had made to strengthen the security of the kingdom and his own power. Nehemiah knew how to ask the king to make a decision against his own best interests in the interest of fairness and justice.

Nehemiah took his time. He takes his time more than once in the course of this book. He prayed, “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (2:11) But, “today”, took three months to arrive. He prayed his first prayer in the month of Kislev which was late November/ early December, and (although he spoke to the king every day) he spoke to the king about Jerusalem in the month of Nisan which is late February/early March.

Nehemiah took his time. He was on guard for the right time and he found it. We can let the right time pass us by. I have done that many times. But if we are people of faith who trust in God’s help to meet his changes, then we can be on guard for the right time and find it.

God’s changes do not require us to be frantic. There is a big difference between being desperate and being determined.

Paul wrote to his friends about godly sorrow and repentance. For Nehemiah and his people, it was the time for that. And Paul and Nehemiah show us what this is. Repentance and sorrow in a time that requires us to change is not a weakening thing, but a strengthening thing. It is what has often been called a holy discontent. It leads to salvation which, in this case, means healing and victory. It means overcoming with no regrets.

The Greek word for repentance means a new mind and a new way of thinking. It is exactly what we need when God’s people need to meet God’s changes; especially because we tend to hold onto the old ways of being God’s people long past the time when they have stopped working; and we all need to carry the blame and not to shift the blame to others.

But remember that it starts with the God of extreme faith and faithfulness. It is all about God. It is not about us, nor is it about mistaking our desires for God’s will. Real faith cares about others and will always be on guard to find the ways to win their hearts. Real faith is about fears, and tears, and taking time just as much as it is about courage in the face of a changing world.


  1. Obrigado Pastor Dennis, por tua visita e gentil comentário.
    Desejo-lhe um Feliz e Abençoado Ano Novo, para ti e os teus familiares.

  2. Pastor Dennis,

    inspiring yet a great reminder for all of us.
    i also found this such an encouraging write, i just need to re-read it again and again.

    thanks so much for sharing it and for making my day brighter!