July 15, 2010 David Balzer

Nehemiah 1-4: Real Progress

People often asks me how the GLENWOOD church plant is going. And I never really know what to say.

How do you measure how well a group of God’s people is GOING? Is it about HEALTH? Or GODLINESS? Or how full the calendar is?

I suspect what MOST people are interested in/ is PROGRESS. We LONG to be encouraged by evidence that GOD IS AT WORK. That he’s BUILDING his kingdom.

But then there’s ANOTHER question – what does PROGRESS look like? Is it about how many people attend church? Or are in Bible Study groups? Or how many people have been converted? Or about how many kids are in the Kids Church?

Is progress about how many babies there are? If THAT’S the measure, then Glenwood’s going GANG-BUSTERS!

Or is it about FINANCES? Collections? What’s their weekly income? On THAT measure, they’re catching up to us pretty quickly!

Occasionally I get asked whether Glenwood will look to purchase A BUILDING to meet in. Is THAT a measure of progress? Whether you own property or not!

We all have a fascination for seeing things GROW. There’s a satisfaction with seeing PROGRESS. DEVELOPMENT. HEALTHY GROWTH.

And it’s the same situation Nehemiah was in. A Jew in a foreign land. Wanting to know about the PROGRESS of his people. How things were going back home. And just like us, he was LONGING for evidence that God was at work. Building his kingdom.

It’s about 445 BC – about 70 years after the temple was re-built. – 13 years after Ezra arrived back in Jerusalem. So there’s about 12 years between the end of Ezra and the start of Nehemiah.

You’ll see it the first few verses of chapter 1. In this Old Testament book that’s really a DIARY. A diary set in the final stages of Old Testament history. A time when THE WORST had happened. Israel had BEEN CRUSHED. The people, scattered. The temple of Solomon – a heap of rubble. And the walls of Jerusalem – just scattered stones.

But in the last 90 odd years before Nehemiah’s time, there’d been a flicker of life. A tiny spark of hope. A remnant had gone back. Pioneers. A church plant.

And first the altar had been rebuilt. Then finally the temple.

But the Jews back in Babylon hadn’t heard much on the last few years. Had there been PROGRESS? Or was it more like SURVIVAL?

And so here’s Nehemiah, expatriate Jew; working for a King in a far off country. Opens his diary to a blank page in the Month of Kislev, and starts writing these words.

“… while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I QUESTIONED THEM ABOUT THE JEWISH REMNANT THAT SURVIVED THE EXILE, and ALSO ABOUT JERUSALEM.”

Nehemiah’s an exile in a far off land. He’s worked his way up the ladder til he’s in a top job. Personally, things are going well. But his heart lies somewhere else. His heart lies in his homeland. In JERUSALEM. A city in ruins.

So when Hanani and his friends get back from a tour of Judah, Nehemiah can’t wait to ask him. How’s it going? How’s progress?

Well, you can see the answer, can’t you? And the news is all bad. Look what they say. Verse 3.

“Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. THE WALL OF JERUSALEM IS BROKEN DOWN, and it’s gates have been burned with fire.”

Jerusalem’s a mess. The Israelites who are back there already/ are being laughed at. Because it’s all so pathetic. It’s heart-breaking news! Like if Pete came back, and said that Glenwood church would have to close, because everyone had left.

And so, Nehemiah sits down and weeps. And mourns for his city. And he fasts. And then he prays. And you can see what he prays in the rest of chapter 1. A prayer on behalf of the PEOPLE OF ISRAEL. Who’ve suffered for their sins. And learned their lesson. Or so you’d hope.

Will you notice, in the midst of everything else, it’s a CONFIDENT prayer. A prayer that’s based on one very simple fact. That God is a God who KEEPS HIS WORD. And you can see that if you look at the first words of Nehemiah’s prayer in verse 5.

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God WHO KEEPS HIS COVENANT OF LOVE with those who love him and obey his commands…”

God’s a God who keeps his COVENANT. And it’s the same confidence WE have when we pray. That God will keep his promises. There’s much that’s different between Nehemiah’s time, and ours. But one thing’s the same. The God we pray to. And he KEEPS HIS PROMISES. Just to remind you of some of the things God has promised. I’ve reprinted something I gave out a couple of years ago. Some of God’s promises.

If you’re a Christian, write your name in the space at the top. All these promises are TO YOU. And you can be CONFIDENT in them, because God’s a god who sticks to his Covenant promises like GLUE.

Only trouble is, the Israelites didn’t. And you can see Nehemiah admits that in his prayer. The reason the Israelites were kicked out of Jerusalem, the reason everything’s in ruins, it all comes down to one word. UNFAITHFULNESS. Because God warned them right from the start. Right back in the book of Deuteronomy when they were about to come into the promised land. God said, if you’re unfaithful to me, YOU’RE OUT. Evicted.

And if you keep reading from the middle of verse 6, you can see that’s exactly what Nehemiah says. He says “We’ve blown it. He says “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. WE have acted very wickedly towards you. WE have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” You told us what to do, and we didn’t do it.

And it’s true. The Old Testament’s full of the stories of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. And the fact they simply refused to be different. Refused to stick with God, and be his people. And so here they are, in exile. Scattered around the nations. Here’s Nehemiah the Israelite. Cupbearer to the King. IN BABYLON. Because God said, way back at the start, if you won’t be my people, you’re OUT.

Out until… you have a GENUINE CHANGE OF HEART. And here’s the point of the prayer. You can see it in verse 8. Nehemiah knows God’s a god who keeps his word. And he knows what God said. It’s back in Deuteronomy 30. That the EXILE WASN’T THE END. That if there came a time that the Israelites turned back to him, if there came a time that the Israelites wanted to repent and start again, then he was WAITING TO FORGIVE.

And no matter WHERE THEY WERE, God would bring blessing again. And go even further. He’d CHANGE THEIR HEARTS.

Take a minute to turn back there and see the promise. Way back to Deuteronomy 30. Because this is EXACTLY THE SITUATION Nehemiah and the people of Israel are facing. Dispersed among the nations. Here’s the promise Nehemiah REMEMBERS. Deuteronomy 30 from verse 1.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 THEN THE LORD YOUR GOD WILL RESTORE YOUR FORTUNES AND HAVE COMPASSION ON YOU AND GATHER YOU AGAIN FROM ALL THE NATIONS WHERE HE SCATTERED YOU. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 THE LORD YOUR GOD WILL CIRCUMCISE YOUR HEARTS AND THE HEARTS OF YOUR DESCENDANTS, SO THAT YOU MAY LOVE HIM WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND LIVE.

WHEN YOU ISRAELITES RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD. And obey him with all your heart. When you REALLY REPENT FROM THE HEART… then God will turn things around.

It’s like you say to your kids. GO TO YOUR ROOM… until you’re REALLY SORRY. And don’t come back til you are.

And Nehemiah knows they’re right at that point in history. And that’s what he’s counting on. That God will come good on his part of the agreement, if Israel comes good on THEIRS.

And it raises a question, doesn’t it? ARE THEY? Are these people of Israel ready… to RETURN TO THE LORD with all their hearts? To TRULY REPENT? I mean, Nehemiah’s PRAYING THE PRAYER FOR THEM… but what’s in their hearts? That’s what we’re going to find out. Look at his prayer again. Verse 6 and 7. I CONFESS THE SINS WE ISRAELITES, including myself and my father’s house have committed. We’ve acted WICKEDLY. We’re ready to be blessed again.

But the question is, Nehemiah prays it – but are the people of Israel going to LIVE IT? And really REPENT? That’s the question to keep in mind as you read right through NEHEMIAH. ARE THEY READY?

But let’s keep going. Flip his diary to the next page. Month of NISAN. We’ve got it as chapter 2. Nehemiah’s carrying the drink tray, wine waiter to the king. And King Artaxerxes can see Nehemiah’s face is a mile long. And the start of chapter 2, the king asks him. Nehemiah, why do you look so sad. You’re not SICK. What’s the TROUBLE?

And Nehemiah tells him. Verse 3. “Why shouldn’t I look sad,” he says, “when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

So the King – he must be having a good day – he says, WHAT DO YOU WANT? Ask me.

And Nehemiah shoots up a quick prayer to God, and then he starts talking. He spells it out. Verse 5, I want you to send me back home to Judah, to Jerusalem … so I can rebuild it. And when the king says yes, Nehemiah pushes his luck even further. Can you give me letters to the local governors over there so they’ll do what I say. And how about some timber for the gates and for a house.

And what do you know, the king grants it. Just like that. Because, Nehemiah says, – end of verse 8 – the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the King granted my requests.

So off he goes. Calls on the governors on the way and drops in the King’s letters. He’s on OFFICIAL BUSINESS. With the King’s blessing. To rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Ready for the NEW PEOPLE with NEW REPENTANT HEARTS.

Just one small hitch in verse 10. These guys Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. Not pleased at all. That someone’s come to take up the cause of the Israelites.

Keep an eye on these guys – because they keep popping up right through the story. They’re the bad guys. And they’ll do whatever they can to get in the way.

But for now, let’s follow Nehemiah. Verse 11 he’s arriving in Jerusalem, and the first thing he does is take a look around in the middle of the night. A tour of inspection. Nehemiah on a horse, verse 12, a small group of men with him. In the darkness. With Nehemiah mulling over the GREAT PLANS he’s got. For Israel’s NEW START.

Out through the valley gate in verse 13; except it’s just the blackened STUMPS of a gate. Towards the Jackal well and the DUNG GATE. Poo corner. Where there’s always the bad smell. And bit by bit, he says he examines the walls that’ve been broken down. Along to the fountain gate in verse 14, all the way to the kings pool. And finally, when he can’t get any further because of the rubble, back again. Still in darkness.

And so far, Nehemiah hasn’t said anything to anyone.

When he’s checked it out, he gets the people together. And in verse 17, he hits them with a real PEP TALK. He says LOOK AROUND. He says, Can’t you see the trouble we’re in? Jerusalem’s in ruins, the gates have been burned to a crisp. “Come on,” he says, “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we’ll no longer be in disgrace.”

Cause it’s a fact. The Israelites were the laughing-stock of the middle east. In disgrace. Jerusalem, the city without a wall. Raiders could come and go as they pleased. Take whatever they wanted. If there was anything left to TAKE. And all in all, it painted a sorry picture of what it meant to be the people of God.

So they start building. And then, v19, there they are again. Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arab is with them as well – Nehemiah says they MOCKED AND RIDICULED US. “What’s this you’re doing,” they asked, “are you rebelling against the King?”

But he’s not. The King’s already given the go ahead. And more than that, GOD’S behind it. Nehemiah says in verse 20,

“The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, BUT AS FOR YOU… you have no share in Jerusalem, or any claim or historic right to it.”

This is the CITY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD. This is our NEW START. And things are going to be different.

Now at this point, most preachers start saying, (especially if their church is about to start a building program) What a FINE LEADER this Nehemiah is. Great MOTIVATOR. And if you want to learn the 21 great laws of leadership, then WATCH NEHEMIAH. The man of FAITH. Let’s follow Nehemiah, and we can get ANYTHING built. NOTHING’S TOO HARD. We can do it.

Can I say to you, don’t go down that track too soon. Because there’s still a question… and it lasts all the way through to the very end of the book before it’s answered. It’s ONE THING TO REBUILD A WALL. But how do you REBUILD A PEOPLE? It’s one thing to lay some bricks. But what if your HEARTS AREN’T RIGHT? Nehemiah can organise the shovels and the picks alright. But ultimate success is MORE THAN A WALL. It’s new hearts. So we need to keep reading.

Chapter 3, looking good. Everyone’s doing their bit. It’s an amazing sight. Start at the sheep gate in verse 1. You’ve got Eliashib the high priest. Stripped to the waist, lugging stones. And setting in the doors. Verse 2, the men of Jericho, just out of town; come to give a hand. Verse 3. The fish gate. The sons of Hassenaah. And on it goes. A list of all the people rebuilding the city walls. You’ve got the goldsmiths giving a hand in verse 8. And Hananiah, one of the perfume makers helping on the next bit. Poor Malkijah down in verse 14 drew the short straw and has to fix the Dung Gate. And on it goes.

Huge job. Broken into bite sized bits. Everyone playing their part. And by verse 32, we’re back where we started. A round trip, and we’re back at the sheep gate. With workers hard at work all the way around.

Turn over to verse 6 of chapter 4 and you’ll see how they’re going. Nehemiah says “We rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, FOR THE PEOPLE WORKED AT IT WITH ALL THEIR HEART.” This is good stuff. It’s going up. It’s a labour of love. And everyone’s giving it everything they’ve got. And then a bit more.

And that’s in spite of opposition. And persecution. And threats. You’ve got it again at the start of chapter 4. Sanballat. And Tobiah. Getting a little bit nervous when they see what’s happening. And ANGRY. Mocking. What do you reckon you’re going to do with a pile of old burnt rocks? He says, you can’t build a WALL from a RUBBISH PILE. You’ll never make it. And Tobiah. Verse 3.”What they’re building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he’d break down their wall of stones.”

Which might have been pretty true. I mean, it mightn’t have been the best wall you’d ever seen. But the point was, THEY WERE DOING IT. And the opposition wasn’t going to stop them. Because they’re confident that GOD IS A PROMISE KEEPING GOD. Who promised that if they came back to the promised land with TRUE REPENTANCE, then he’d bless them like he had before.

And the thing they need to remember… and we need to remember as well; is that their REAL GLORY is never going to be in the quality of their wall. Or their buildings. Their REAL GLORY will be in the quality of their REPENTANCE. Of their sincerity of heart. That’s the only raw materials God needs to build just about ANYTHING.

As it is for US. The Kingdom we’re called to be part of, it starts at the very same point. REPENTANCE. A true turning to God. Doesn’t matter how fine your church buildings are, how big your budget, how many kids in kids church; the REAL ISSUE is on the inside. The REAL progress – is in the hearts of people like you and me.

Just like Nehemiah prayed back in Ch 1.

“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.  NIV

And Nehemiah’s leadership/ that so many commentaries and books want to make an example of/… well, in the end, it won’t be measured by the quality of the WORKING BEE he’s organised to fix the walls.

It’s going to be measured in whether he can bring that GENUINE CHANGE OF HEART that he prayed for. To these stiff necked people of Israel. That’s REAL progress!

We’re going to see in these next few weeks what happens. But can I say in advance, don’t be surprised if you read ahead, and find HE CAN’T. That Nehemiah is NOT THE ONE… who brings the true repentance… and circumcised hearts… that Moses talks about in Deuteronomy 30. ONLY JESUS can do that. And he has.

And over these next few weeks in Nehemiah we’re going to see I guess what true repentance looks like. And what it DOESN’T look like. We’re going to see a story of failure. Where in the end only Jesus succeeds.

And we’re going to be invited… LONG AFTER the time of Nehemiah… to NOT BE DISCOURAGED, no matter WHAT we see around us. But to celebrate the fact that we’re included… as part of the family God promised to GATHER BACK TO HIMSELF… with new hearts. And the promise of LIFE.

In the end we’re going to see it’s a matter of HEART FIRST. Something that only Jesus can bring.

Which is something we need to keep in mind as a church, isn’t it. In whatever we do. In the way we set our priorities. Because at some point even though we might do some OTHER sort of building, there’s ANOTHER sort of building that’s more important. HEART FIRST. True repentance.

You can see it there in our Core Value 3 at the bottom of the news sheet.

We value Non-Christians hearing and responding to the Gospel (both here and around the world).

And, when it comes to Glenwood- and to us here at Western Blacktown too, that’s got to be the REAL measure of success. Of PROGRESS. The real measure of whether God is BUILDING something here. Are people responding to the gospel.

It’s success that only GOD can bring. So we need to PRAY. Pray CONFIDENTLY to the God who keeps his promises. To build his church.

Matt 16:18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH , and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  NIV

That’s REAL progress!

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