Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: The Well Planted Heart

Preached Sunday, January 15, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 2:9-3:7; 1 Corinthians 3:5-17

Two prisoners are shackled to the wall of a deep, dark dungeon. They are manacled and chained up tight, in a spread-eagle position. They are suspended several feet above the dungeon floor. There is only one tiny window thirty feet up. They are alone and pinned to the wall. One prisoner turns to the other and he whispers, “Here’s my plan.”

Part of the reason why Nehemiah told no one about his plans, at first, may have been because he was afraid of appearing like the optimistic prisoner. He knew he needed to be in touch with reality; the reality of the ruin of Jerusalem.

Although he had seen the ruined walls and gates when he entered Jerusalem, he had not looked at them too closely. Nehemiah was too polite to take notice.

After all, if you are going to help discourage people, you don’t want them to see you noticing the thing that discourages them. You want them to see you noticing something better. If you meet a person with a visible defect, you ignore it.

If you have a friend, you might get away with laughing at it. When I was in high school, one of the families that were friends to my family lost their family business. They had to give up their home, and they found an old rundown place up in the foothills where they could live for practically nothing.

We went up to visit them and I went with the boy, who was my age, to his room. I saw that he didn’t have a bed anymore, just bedding on the floor. I didn’t take a second look at it, but I just looked at him and said, “I see you’re sleeping like the Japanese”. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m Japanese now.” Then we were back to normal.

Nehemiah had wept when he first heard about the ruined walls. They were not merely ruined; they were twice ruined. They had been ruined, for the first time, by the Babylonian army, when they conquered the kingdom of Judah, and destroyed the city of Jerusalem (along with its Temple), and transported all the people of leadership and skill back to Babylon.

Now, the latest conquerors, the Persians, gave the Jews the freedom to go back home and rebuild. But the Persians were responsible for the second ruin of the walls.

The Persian king appointed a Jewish governor, and authorized him and gave him funds to rebuild the Temple and the walls. Then that very same king (who was Nehemiah’s boss) ordered them to stop and allowed the governors of the neighboring provinces to tear down and burn the half-built portions the Jewish people had worked on so hard.

So these were twice ruined walls. That was the news that had made Nehemiah weep, in the first chapter of his book.

Now Nehemiah was the new, royally appointed governor, and his plan required these people to rebuild what they had already rebuilt and lost again. His plan required them to trust a king who had given them permission to build before, and then punished them for doing it by destroying their work.

The conditions under which the people of Israel could be themselves, the conditions under which they were free to act as the people of God, had changed. They were bound, as they had never been for nearly a thousand years, by a bigger and stronger outside world. The bigger world had changed, and it would not allow them to be what they once were. The bigger world would not let them do things the old way. They had to change.

Some of their people had changed by changing their way downward. They had changed by blending into the rest of the world as it was. They had intermarried with the tribes that had been settled in their place by the Babylonians. Their spouses didn’t care about the God of Israel who had allowed the land to be destroyed. They were raising children who would not bother to remember the God of promises; the God of extreme faith and extreme faithfulness.

These were people who had changed, and lost themselves in the process of changing. They would lose themselves by losing their old story, their true identity, and leaving it behind.

Nehemiah wanted to lead his people through a different way of changing, in which they would not lose themselves. They would find a way to change without giving up their old story. They would change by holding onto their story in a new way. They would change, and stay the same, by building on their story in a new direction.

When I was a kid I was really bothered when other kids reinvented themselves. What bothered me was that they usually did not reinvent themselves for the better. They reinvented themselves to be more popular.

As a guy, I find I face an ongoing challenge to not be a jerk. It is a special guy thing (a guy’s temptation; women have their own unique temptations), and I saw some guys reinventing themselves in the direction of that temptation.

A friend of mine named John, whom I’ve known since we were in the eighth grade, recently emailed me a picture of him as an eighteen year old, wearing his Marine Corps dress uniform. I remember him, sometime after he had finished basic training, telling me how much more self-confident the Marines had made him. Because of his basic training he knew that, if he were walking down some lonely city street and some thug attacked him, he knew how to kill his attacker with his bare hands.

But John didn’t become a jerk. Even though he reinvented himself through the Marines he changed in a good way. He talks the same way he did as a kid. He was a ham radio geek in school, and now he is a computer geek. John changed and grew, but he did it by building on his story, not forgetting it.

Building his people to meet God’s changing world was Nehemiah’s mission. He would do it by bringing them back to their old story so that they could reinvent themselves by building on it.

The story of Nehemiah is about much more than rebuilding a ruined city wall. It is about rebuilding people. We can see how to rebuild ourselves, how to rebuild the people of God as a body, and how to change to meet God’s changing world, by means of something Nehemiah shows us as he inspects the twice ruined walls of Jerusalem.

There is a change in Nehemiah. He changes from being a weeper at the news of ruin to being an inspector of the real ruin. He measures the ruin to the best of his ability. He comes up against it and sees how impassible it appears to be. Then he goes to the people and tells them, “You see the trouble we are in.” Nehemiah himself has stumbled over the trouble, or at least his donkey has.

When Nehemiah was thinking about his need for good timing, and keeping his own counsel, and gaining the information he needed about the damage and the repair, he was also thinking about this: “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”

Once Nehemiah had been a weeper; now he was a person who knew what it meant for God to put something in his heart to do. He was looking at piles of charred and ruined stone. He was looking at discouragement and despair. And he saw what his God had put in his heart to do.

He saw what no one else could see. He saw it because he had wept, but he had also prayed. Back in the Persian capital he had prayed himself from tears to faith.

In the first chapter we see that he had learned to pray to the Lord, the God of heaven. This is about the God who rules over everything. He prayed to, “The great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey.” (1:5) The God who loved his people and set them free from slavery in Egypt was still working to set his people free. So it was natural for this God put in Nehemiah’s heart something to do for them.

He could stumble among the ruins and see what God had given him to do. He could see this because he did a lot of praying about it, but we also see that he did a lot of preparation and planning for it. He had made plans from a distance and he had given his plans to the king for his royal permission. He was making smarter plans as he climbed the ruins.

But all his plans and preparations were the result of his conversation with God about the situation. This conversation became a habit that left a habitual opening in his heart, where God could come and put something.

It is also true, in that prayer in the first chapter, that Nehemiah was committed to doing what God was planting in his heart. Nehemiah shows us the kind of faith we need to look past the ruins to see the change to which God calls us.

It is a faith that is willing to listen. If you reserve to yourself the right to not listen to God when you pray, God reserves the right to not speak to you when you pray.

This is what the Apostle James means, in his letter, by what he calls “The double minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:7) The double minded person wants things both ways; for God to answer him but for him not to have to answer God.

Some people could find the third chapter of Nehemiah boring because it is a long, long, repetitive list of the names of the groups, and families, and leaders who rebuilt the wall, section by section, gate by gate. The story has a meaning. It shows how Nehemiah saw the way to make what no one else could see possible and doable. It shows how God’s people cannot make the changes they need to make in God’s changing world unless they learn the discipline and habit of working together.

The rest of Nehemiah shows us the ways that God’s people had trouble working together. Everyone was in survival mode. They were guarding their own turf, and they were not taking care of each other.

Notice also that, even though the government of the king of Persia gave them materials to do the work, the people themselves came up with the plan that each one of them would play in building the new city together. The king really liked Nehemiah, and Nehemiah could have depended totally on the king, but he decided that (as important the rebuilding of the wall was) the most important thing that needed rebuilding was the people.

The people were rebuilt and they did their work inspired by the joy, and the energy, and the faith that came from what God had put in Nehemiah’s heart. They became God’s people, working at their very best, so that they could play their part in a world that had changed around them.

Humanly speaking, Jesus, the Son of God, was the son (or the descendant) of King David, but Jesus did not come as a king like David. And Jesus did not come to an Israel that was shaped by David. Jesus came to the Israel that was shaped by God through Nehemiah.

The story of the gospels takes place on the stage that Nehemiah built. And it was a holy stage. It was exactly the right stage for Jesus to enter, because it was built from something that God had planted in those people’s hearts. When God puts something in our heart, it leads to a place where Jesus, himself, can come on stage.

Because God had put something in Nehemiah’s heart, Nehemiah could play a part in God’s work of putting something in the hearts of his people. I would put to you that we had something like this happen last summer, when we couldn’t have someone else run our Vacation Bible School, the way we have gotten used to. God put something in people’s hearts and it spread. The work was spread (and there was a lot of work to do and it had to get done fast), but enthusiasm, and joy, and peace of heart spread too.

We knew that we were a part of something Biblical, something supernatural. We were participating together in partnership with the Holy Spirit. So we know, from our own experience, that God can do this. God works this way.

This is the grace of God. We are not always open to the grace of God, and so we try to play our part in being the people of God by resisting the changes through which God desires to lead us and teach us. We want to be the way we were in a world that God has changed.

There is no faith in that, but God can plant something in our hearts (his grace). God can make us into a new kind of people of God, who don’t forget the old story, but will build on it in a new way.

Paul tells us that we are a building, but we are a living building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-17) Buildings and walls of stone don’t move, and they resist change. They crumble with the earth moves and shakes. Change is like an earthquake that breaks rigid walls of stone and wood. We can be different because we have a moving foundation that can survive, even when the earth moves. Our foundation is Christ and Christ moves. Christ is alive.

Christ is alive, and Christ is the grace of God made flesh; born, living, crucified, and risen from the dead for us. When Jesus rose from the dead he was the same old Jesus, but he was also a transformed Jesus who was not limited by locked doors and thick walls. (John 20:19) The risen Jesus could walk through obstacles.

The change Nehemiah brought to Israel was like a resurrection. The changes that God brings to us, as his people, often look like death to us, but really they are the offer of joining Jesus in his cross and resurrection.

Experts who have studied church organization and leadership have often remarked on what they see as the ability of small churches to keep on going. I don’t think this ability comes from any particular talent of small churches. I think that the ability to go, and go, and go (in spite of predictions, and trends, and threats) comes from the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

This power is part of the foundation of the very thing we are, as a church, by nature. Christ has called us together to be his living body in a changing world. When God puts something in our hearts we can rise and walk through the obstacles in our way (just like Jesus), and meet the changes of God’s world.

Small churches live by the individuals within them who are susceptible to God putting something in their hearts, so that they can see what no one else can see, and can do what no one in their right mind would even try to do. This is the grace of God.

This is how God works. This is how the grace of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, works. We should know this and live accordingly.


  1. Pastor Dennis..
    Today I'm very sad...I Think My husband has to be submitted to a new cirgery...
    I Pray!

  2. Yes, we have to rebuild our story, our life, so we can be closer to the good Lord!

    Thank you pastor Dennis for praying for us. I Thank you so very much.

    God bless you and all you love!