Monday, January 23, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: Strategy for Faith

Preached on Sunday, January 22, 2012

Scripture readings: Nehemiah 4:6-23; 6:15-19; Ephesians 6:10-20

Now we have read the scene where the armor was put on, and the weapons were drawn, and the battle was joined at the walls of Jerusalem. Only not a shot was fired there, at the center of the great battle.

Nehemiah is all about an enormous battle. His book is all about the same spiritual warfare that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesian Christians where Paul tells them (and us) that our greatest battle is for the mission of the kingdom of God; the work of the kingdom of God in the world and in our lives. Our battle is real but spiritual in nature. In this battle we must carry spiritual weapons and put on spiritual armor. Paul calls it the whole armor of God.

The builders of the walls wore real armor and carried real swords and spears. If the story had turned out differently, they may have had to use them.

Their swords and spears were successful as deterrence in the real strategy of war. The armies they feared did not come against them. Their arms served a purpose in the strategy of the battle, but (in the end) they were not used for the most important battle of all.

You might say they fought their battle using building stones, and mortar, and cedar beams, when they rebuilt the wall of the city. And, when they finished, Nehemiah tells us that their enemies became afraid of them, because their completion of the walls sent the message that God was with them. The walls were the proof that it had been a spiritual warfare in which their God fought alongside them.

Walls were a kind of armor for cities and towns. The walls of ancient cities provided a resource for internal law and order. They trapped wrongdoers inside until they could be caught. The walls of ancient cities provided law and order by protecting their citizens from outside gangs of outlaws, and marauders, and raiders from the desert. The walls made the city a safe haven from which to provide law and order for the surrounding area.

The walls were more than a defense from invading armies. They enabled people to plan, and build, and invest, and do business, and create, and worship without fear or danger. Walls enabled the people inside to be themselves and to live life to the fullest.

The walls of Jerusalem would enable God’s people (the people of Israel) to be themselves again (at last); for the first time in generations. The world had completely changed around them, but the walls would allow them to find a way to live life to the fullest as God’s people in that changed world.

But the real battle was not about stones and mortar. The real battle (the spiritual battle) was for them to fight their way into the spiritual place where they could be God’s people in a new way. The old way would not work anymore in the new world around them.

Their job was to do more than survive. Their job was to do more than thrive. Their job was to be a blessing to the world.

The people of Israel had their beginning, and their mission, set when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave the comfortable world they had always known, and live a new life on the edge of things. They would become people of faith and that faith would be the foundation of their blessing to the world.

After the creation, the world had become divided from God by a loss of faith; by the loss of the ability to trust God to be God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted to become like God for themselves, by knowing good and evil. They wanted to run their own lives and know for themselves what was good or bad for them. Then they would no longer have to live by faith; by trust.

But a life without faith destroys what we, as human beings, were created to be. We were created to be people who knew how to love and how to be loved. The loss of faith created a human nature that was no longer able to properly love and properly be loved.

When you have no faith you live by self assertion, or by indifference, or by fear. You live by being in control. You live by justifying yourself and proving yourself.

The freedom to truly love and be loved comes from faith, and Abraham and Sarah were called to be the beginning of a way of faith that would bless the world. Only their faith needed to be more than an idea, or an attitude, or a state of mind.

True faith would depended on knowing just how faithful God was, in fact; and true faith depended on God bringing that knowledge into the human heart by changing the heart and making his home there as Savior and Lord. God would do that by his own strategy of becoming one of the people of Abraham and Sarah, as a baby named Jesus.

In Jesus, God would carry the faithless and sinful, rebel heart of the human race on the cross. On the cross, our faith-deficient human heart would die with Jesus. Because of Jesus we, in our rebel nature, could die to ourselves and we could be reborn to a new and changed life with God, through Jesus. This is how the life of faith, as begun with Abraham and Sarah and completed by Jesus, would be fulfilled become possible for us. All the world would be blessed by this new heart in a new human race.

The people of Israel, as they were called to be a people of faith, existed for the purpose of breaking down the walls between the human race and God. But, to maintain their purpose in the world, they needed to build walls for Jerusalem. They needed a place where they could find the ways to reshape their lives as a people, to be God’s people in a new way.

Their old way of being God’s people, a people who would bring faith into the world, had not worked. They made God’s purpose for them fail.

The old walls had made Jerusalem the strong city of the kingdom of Judah, in which God’s people had not learned to live by faith. They lived without faith by worshiping other gods and goddesses who claimed to have the ability to give them what they wanted in life without demanding of them the devotion that the God of Israel required.

These little gods only asked for bits and pieces of their lives, not the whole thing. The God of Israel was the God of faith because he asked for the whole thing: to love him with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength.

They lived without faith by taking advantage of each other; with each person looking out for themselves. They lived for themselves and became incapable of sharing the God of faith and faithfulness to the world. In fact that purpose was the farthest thing from their minds. Their old way of being themselves had failed God’s purpose.

So now they were building new walls where they would find a new way to be God’s people. The new walls would no longer make Jerusalem a strong city for its own nation. The walls would make Jerusalem a strong city for the kingdom of Persia.

Their governor was Nehemiah, a friend of the king of Persia; one of his most trusted servants and officials. The new walls would make Jerusalem a blessing to the kingdom of Persia. Jerusalem would help defend the empire from rebellion and invasion. It would be a good step to teach them the humility of faith and get them out of themselves.

It was a good start to being a blessing to others. God brought change to his people so that he could make them (even force them) to be part of a bigger world, a changing world.

Empires changed. Empires came and went. Borders moved. Over time, Jerusalem became a fortress city in the Roman Empire, guarding the military and trade routes between the provinces of Syria and Egypt, guarding the frontier near the Arabian Peninsula.

The time came when a wandering carpenter named Jesus rode a donkey into the city that Nehemiah had helped to rebuild. Jesus came with an offer to make Jerusalem and its people the beachhead of the invasion of the kingdom of God. Their kingdom would have the mission of bringing peace with God, through repentance and faith, to the Romans, and the Greeks, and the whole world. This strategy would work if they would learn a new kind of repentance and faith from the Messiah Jesus.

God’s people were spreading out beyond the old kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Their old capital was now a small part of a much bigger and stranger, competitive world. Yet that bigger world was more in need of God than ever.

Even in Nehemiah’s generation God’s people could be part of a spiritual battle to be faithful to the faithful God of faith, in this bigger, changing world. They could do this only if they were willing to stop being the thing that they used to be. They could do this only if they stopped working in the ways that no longer worked. They had to change to meet God’s changes.

What Paul calls “the mystery of the gospel” is not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle. Mystery, in the Bible, means God shedding light on an answer (on a solution) to the problem of the world, and of the human race, and of our own hearts and lives. The solution is that God provides a way to a new world, a new humanity, a new heart and life for each one of us, and that way is through God entering the world, and God entering our human race, and God entering our heart and life through Jesus; born, living, suffering, dying and rising. And this is about change.

The changes of this world divide us. They frighten us, and exhaust us, and discourage us, and leave us unchanged in heart. God’s changes bring us back to our creation by recreating us through Jesus, by restoring us to what we were meant to be.

By this change we die to ourselves. We seem to lose ourselves, but we actually find ourselves. We actually come to life.

But it is still change. Change makes us feel weary and scared.

Weary and scared is how the builders of the wall felt. The job was so big that it seemed impossible. “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” (Nehemiah 4:10)

They were in danger from neighboring people who wanted them to fail and had the ability to stop them wit real weapons. Nehemiah says, “Then the Jews who lived near them (near their enemies) came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” (4:11) Notice that there were people who shared their fears “ten times over”.

Weariness and fear undermine faith. When we look at ourselves and think that being God’s people requires us to give up holding onto the ways that don’t work anymore, we grow weary and fearful; especially when we don’t know what good any change will do. Nehemiah looked for ways to fight back against weariness and fear.

First of all, Nehemiah reminded his people to believe and have faith. “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” (4:14) Remembering, in the Bible, doesn’t just mean recovering lost information. It means re-confronting the realities with which you have lost touch.

Remembering the Lord is like getting on a bike when you haven’t ridden one for years; or opening up an old album or diary; or finding a recipe, written in your grandmother’s handwriting, that she used to make for you when you were a child, and making it for yourself. “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome,” requires you to get in touch with a neglected reality that was once familiar to you; once a part of your life; if it ever was a part of your life.

If you have never known this reality before, then remembering means opening up your heart to a new life where you will learn to be in touch with this old, old reality. Jesus lived this reality so that he could introduce it to you and bring it into your life.

The other tactic of Nehemiah, that he used to lead his people out of weariness and fear, was to put them together, closer than ever. He nurtured their sense of belonging to each other (a sense which much of his book shows us that they had lost).

He made them into teams of guards, organized by families. Each family guarded a weak, vulnerable place in the wall.

Families grow together by guarding their weak places. There is a fellowship of guarding together a loved one in a hospital room. There is a fellowship of guarding together when parents play together with their children or grandchildren, or help them with their homework together. There is a fellowship of guarding each other by praying for each other together.

Nehemiah paired his people up, so they took turns, within each pair, being the soldier and being the worker. Each one watched their partner work for them. Each one watched their partner stand by, ready to fight for them.

They all became soldiers. The ones carrying rubble in their left hand held their sword in their right hand. The ones putting stones in place had their sword in their belt. They were protectors of each other.

This is what we are to be in our families. This is what the church is to be. This is what God’s people are meant to be for each other. It is how we become new people who live their faith.

It is what God came to do for us in Jesus, so we could see him work for us and fight for us in life, and in death, on the cross. It is what we can see him do for us in rising from the dead; facing and dealing with what we fear most. In his resurrection he faces and deals with what hurts us most.

Our job, as God’s people in this world, is to find the way to show a changing world the God who works and fights for them. We show the world, by mediating to the world, what God has done for us. Mediating means being a bridge, being a representative, being a go between, being an example for God to others.

We work for the world around us, because the world is the object of God’s love and passion. And we fight for it with all the love that God has given us in Jesus. This is faith.

Paul calls faith a shield that extinguishes the flaming darts of the evil one. The discipline of working and fighting for others, and seeing them work and fight for us (and doing this together, side by side) quenches the arrows of weariness and fear.

Remembering the power and awesomeness of the Lord (as we meet him in Jesus); and doing together (for each other and for the world) what we recapture when we remember him; is our best defense. It is our best strategy. It is living out what God has done for us.


  1. We all have our own battles: the important is to keep faith in the lOrd!
    God bless you!

  2. good morning pastor Dennis.

    another inspirational piece of yours... thank you so much for making me feel stronger and inspired.

    faith in God is the light that guides us through the darkness, God is the light that shows me the way, for there is nothing that God cannot do.

    great pictures you paired with your post!

    hope you're having a great weekend