4 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”
3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
4 Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”
11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”
12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.
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A couple of weeks ago we took a look at Nehemiah’s first days in Jerusalem, as he carefully evaluated the work that needed to be done in order to rebuild the city walls. And we learned from his example what is necessary to build a healthy church that lasts. If you remember, we defined a healthy church as a church that keeps Jesus at the center of all life and worship, that seeks to grow spiritually under the care and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that engages thoughtfully in the Great Commission, so that God the Father will be glorified by our witness.
Nehemiah showed us that building a healthy church requires us to seek God first and trust him to fulfill his purposes in our midst. We talked about what it means to evaluate ourselves honestly, so that we can see clearly what needs to be done. We talked about the importance of understanding and communicating a common vision, and of being willing to take risks. And we learned that, at the end of the day, if we hope to build a healthy church that lasts, we have to get to work. Every member of the body of Christ has been placed by God in our community, has been given unique gifts and abilities, and has a vital role to play in the life of the church.
Nehemiah recognized all of these things, and we read in chapter 2 that he was able to communicate God’s vision to the people of Jerusalem and organize them together to do the work of rebuilding the city walls. But the Jews faced many difficult obstacles to their success. Some of their challenges came from the work itself, which was difficult and dangerous. But some of their biggest challenges came in the form of opposition from their enemies.
You may recall at the end of chapter 2 that when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about Nehemiah’s plans and saw that the Jews were getting to work on the city walls they mocked them, and even accused the Jews of rebelling against the king? And as Nehemiah and his fellow laborers began to make progress toward the fulfillment of God’s vision, the opposition they faced grew stronger and stronger.
II. What Opposition Did Nehemiah Face?
Outside opposition to God’s vision for us can take many forms, but whatever resistance we encounter typically falls into four broad categories. Nehemiah faced all four of these in chapter 4. Let’s see if these categories are familiar.
The first is anger. Chapter 4, verse 1 says that when Sanballat heard the Jews were rebuilding, he became angry and “greatly incensed”. For those of us without a dictionary on hand, some more common words for incensed are engraged or furious. Have you ever witnessed what happens when someone is enraged? Or, maybe you have experienced it yourself. I know I have, and I can tell you that when a person becomes enraged, they become violent, out of control, unable to behave rationally. They lash out at those around them, with no thought of the consequences. Enraged people become, in a word, scary. When Nehemiah led the Israelites in fulfilling God’s vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem, the first reaction he received from his enemies was undisguised fury.
As is often the case, the anger of Nehemiah’s enemies soon turned into ridicule. You see, it is the nature of uncontrolled anger to lash out, and it is easiest to do so with our tongues. And just like a schoolyard bully, Sanballat looked for others to join him in his hatred. Verses 2 and 3 tell us that he mocked the Jews in front of the Samarian army, and pretty soon his companion Tobiah joined in. They belittled the Jews themselves and they made fun of their attempts to rebuild.
Have you ever been ridiculed, mocked, or tormented? I’ll admit that I have endured this sort of hostility on a number of occasions, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve also been the one who ridiculed, mocked, and tormented others. Most of us have been on one or both sides of this equation, and we all know well the feeling of powerlessness that is felt by the victim. No matter how many times we utter the grade school mantra “stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” the truth remains that words, especially malicious words, can and do wound us deeply. And we know the insults of Nehemiah’s enemies bothered him, because in verse 4 he prays and asks God to turn their insults back on them. But still, the Jews continued in their work.
And when the anger and ridicule weren’t enough to force Nehemiah to alter course, his enemies turned to a third type of resistance: intimidation. After all, if words won’t do the trick, maybe threats will. Verses 7 and 8 say that Nehemiah’s enemies began to plot together to cause trouble for the Jews, and this plotting became intimidation when their plans were made known.
How many of you here have ever felt truly intimidated by someone or something? How did it make you feel? Did you find your thoughts consumed by what could happen next? Did it completely steal your joy? How did it alter your thinking and your behavior?
There is an old 80’s movie that popped into my mind as I was thinking about intimidation this week. Has anyone here ever seen the movie Three O’Clock High? Well, it is a story about a well-liked teenager who has tried to do everything right. He is a good student, he hangs out with good kids, his teachers like him, and he has even been trusted to run the school store that sells office supplies. Everything seems to be going great for this young man until the day a new bully moves into town. This bully is looking to make a name for himself and finds the perfect opportunity when the main character accidentally embarrasses him, and the bully tells him that when the bell rings at 3:00, he will be waiting outside to fight. The rest of the movie tells the story of this poor intimidated kid as he tries to find a way out of the fight. All of the protagonist’s efforts to fix the problem only make things worse, and we see his life slowly unravel with each tick of the clock.
I will say this, if you are the sort of person who roots for the underdog, then you would love the way the movie ends. He finds an inner strength of character and manages to lay the bully out flat with one punch, slightly assisted by a set of brass knuckles. But throughout the story, we see the affects of intimidation; of not knowing what could come next, but fearing what the enemy will do. Intimidation steals the peace of the victim and throws their life into chaos. This is why it is such an effective weapon. Nehemiah and the Jews were subjected to this sort of intimidation, and yet despite what they must have felt they continued to work at rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
Until finally, when all else had failed to deter the Jews, Nehemiah’s enemies moved from intimidation and the threat of violence to outright violence itself, and we are told later on in chapter 6 that they eventually attempted to have Nehemiah assassinated.
III. What Does Opposition Look Like Today?
We face similar challenges when we submit to following God’s vision for us today. When the outside world doesn’t understand us, Christians often meet with anger and ridicule. We see this all of the time in the media, and many of us have experienced it first-hand from people who don’t know us. Some of us here may have even experienced intimidation because of our beliefs. Our students will experience this as they grow older, even more so today than just a few years ago. They will endure ridicule and mockery as they hold fast to the commands of scripture, seeking what is good and avoiding what is evil. Some here may have even experienced the threat of violence or violence itself because of their faith, though this is a problem much less often experienced here in America.
Not all challenges to following God come from outside influences, though. Sometimes our greatest opponents to following God’s vision occur inside the church. Churches are filled with people of varying experiences, maturity levels, and expectations. And, though it is often hard for us to admit, even churches that don’t often see new faces on Sunday are many times filled with those who don’t yet know Jesus in a personally transformative way. For all of these reasons and more, we won’t always see eye to eye in the church. Because we are all messy people, when we don’t see eye to eye or don’t get our way, we sometimes resort to anger, ridicule, and even intimidation. And because the church is filled with messy people who don’t always see things with kingdom vision, sometimes we experience opposition from other congregations or denominations when we strike out accomplish God’s vision for us in new or different ways.
But more often than not, the greatest opposition we face to accomplishing God’s vision for us comes from within. When we continue to pursue attitudes or lifestyles or relationships that are contrary to God’s best for us, as revealed in scripture, we war with the Spirit of God living in us, and we create barriers to our own progress. Sin, apathy and laziness, fear, pride, and regret. When we allow any of these to gain control over our thoughts and actions, we become enemies of the good work that God wants to do in our lives, and they can cripple us in our attempts to discern and follow God’s vision for our lives and for the church.
Perhaps the reason we don’t experience stronger persecution as Christians in the West, is because we have already so effectively setup opposition to God in our own hearts.
IV. How Should We Respond to Opposition?
Whatever the source and type of opposition we face, we find solutions to it in scripture. Nehemiah provides us with yet another example to follow in chapter 4. As we watch the story unfold, his response to the opposition he faced was decisive and filled with faith. The easy thing to do would have been to give up and run back to Susa and the king. He could have abandoned his project in Jerusalem, and moved back to the easier work of a cupbearer. I mean, it’s not like this was his city anyway, right? He had never been there before. In fact, it had been destroyed more than a hundred years before he was born. Why should he risk his life for some place from Israel’s past, this abandoned city, this pile of rubble, with gates burned to the ground? Why should he care at all?
He cared, and he carried on, because God had given him a vision bigger than himself. And because he was viewing things from God’s perspective, he chose instead to stand up to his enemies and face his opposition head on. Nehemiah took five simple steps that we can still follow today, when we are facing challenges to God’s vision for us.
First, Nehemiah prayed to God for victory in verse 4. Why is that pray is so often our last line of defense, instead of our first? I think we often buy into the great lie of our culture that says we have to be self-reliant in order to be successful in life; that we just have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The Bible tells us a sweeter truth. Scripture shows us that a life of dependence upon God and his word leads to blessings, while a life separate from him leads to curses. Through Jesus we learn that the abundant life is one that abides with God in Christ. And this begins with prayer. When we face opposition, as Nehemiah did, our first response should always be to seek God on our knees.
Second, Nehemiah led the Jews to continue the work they had started. Verse 6 says that they continued to build the wall until all of it reached half the height that it once was, even while they were being persecuted. The easy thing to do, when we encounter resistance to our efforts is to simply give up. But Nehemiah shows us that we are called to press on in the face of hardship and trust God to give us the strength we need to persevere. Sometimes we just give up too easily, forgetting that anything worth doing at all is worth struggling to achieve. If we are willing to endure all kinds of hardship in order to accomplish our dreams for success in our jobs and families and even our hobbies, why then do we find it so hard to press on when we meet with opposition in our spiritual lives and in the church? We must learn to persevere in the face of challenges, if we would see God’s vision made reality in our lives.
Third, Nehemiah organized the families of the workers to protect on another from attacks. In verse 13 we read that Nehemiah didn’t just ignore his enemies, trying to pretend that their threats weren’t real. He didn’t tell his people to ignore them either. And he certainly didn’t just throw up his hands and say, “Well, we’re in trouble! Every man for himself.” Instead, he took decisive action and organized the families of the Jews to stand guard for one another as they continued with the work they had been given to do. Sometimes we crumble in the face of opposition, because we forget that we are called to be one body in Christ. We are no longer lonely lost sheep in search of a shepherd; rather we are the family of God, with the Almighty as our Father, the Spirit as our Helper, and Jesus as our brother, who has walked where we walk. And there is great strength to be found when we seek to be unified with one another in Christ. We have to stop living as though we are a bunch of individual Christians and remember that we are each a part of the family of God.
Fourth, Nehemiah trusted in God for protection and provision to accomplish God’s vision, and in verse 14 he reminded the people not to be afraid, because God is awesome and great. Sometimes we become so preoccupied by the challenges we face, that we forget who we serve: the One and only God of the universe! He is the creator of all things, and if he can make all of this, he can surely provide for us in our time of greatest need. Sometimes, we just need to learn to trust God more.
Fifth, and finally, Nehemiah prepared the people for future opposition, and remained diligent and alert for further hostility. He didn’t pretend that, once the immediate threat was gone, everything was going to be perfect from then on. Instead, Nehemiah prepared the people for the challenges that were yet to come. Sometimes, when we have just come through a tough challenge, we let down our guard and we begin to slip back into old patterns of though and behavior, don’t we? Maybe we have had victory against a particular sinful desire, so we stop being quite so diligent to avoid the triggers that set off our temptation. Maybe we have just pulled off a successful project or survived a difficult challenge as a church, and so we sit back and take a much-needed rest, only to find that we never start moving again. Or maybe the stress of a dangerous or divisive moment has finally passed, and we find ourselves no longer earnestly seeking God in prayer, because we don’t see any immediate threat. When we drop our guard, we become vulnerable to even more devastating attacks from the enemies of God’s vision. Instead, like Nehemiah, we should prepare ourselves for what is to come, not because we fear it, but because we desire to see God’s vision fulfilled.
Opposition can teach us a few important lessons. It teaches us that God alone is our source of strength. It teaches us that we are stronger together. It teaches us perseverance and patience. It reminds us that we are not citizens of this world; that our kingdom is heaven. And opposition teaches us that nothing in this world will satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.
V. Our Hope
When Jesus Christ walked the earth, he also encountered opposition to His Father’s vision. He overcame the rage directed against him by outsiders (Romans) and insiders (Jews) alike. He turned aside their ridicule and slander. He stood strong in the face of their intimidation. And he endured their violence, even unto death on the cross. And in so doing, he freed each and every one of us here from the bondage of sin and the fear of death. Through Jesus, we can now experience true union with God and unity with the Body of Christ. And because of him, and all that he endured on our behalf, we know that we too can persevere in the face of life’s trials. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become God’s adopted daughters and sons, we are born again from above, and we become citizens of heaven. And in Jesus alone, we find the only thing that will ever satisfy the desires of our hearts.
In Hebrews 12:2-3 Paul says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” In other words, don’t give up! When opposition rises up to meet you, don’t lose heart; instead, remember Jesus. We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross. And he lives in us!
God’s vision for Nehemiah was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, so the people of God could return home from exile. God’s vision for us is that we would live holy lives, obedient to his Word, and actively seek out those who are living far away from him, inviting them back into relationship with God, through Jesus. This is God’s vision for every Christian, and Jesus summed it up for us in Matthew 22, when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Friends, now is the time for us to stand up to whatever opposition we face so that God’s vision might be accomplished in us. For you that might mean you need to confront some sin in your life. Maybe you need to confess it to God in prayer, and then ask one of your fellow Christians to support you and hold you accountable for remaining pure. Maybe for you, confronting the opposition means learning to trust God more fully in the day-to-day experiences of life, and choosing to turn over to God all your anxiety, worry, and attempts to maintain control. Maybe your greatest opposition comes in the form of regret for past sins or hurts, and your need to release those to the healing presence of Jesus, who forgets our pasts and gives us a future in him. Whatever the challenges you are facing today, remember this: We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross.
Friends, we are beginning to embark upon a new stage in our journey as a church. I believe God is calling us to consider whether we are truly fulfilling his vision of loving God and loving people, or whether we have allowed opposition to get in our way. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be talking about how we can recognize success in following God’s vision for us, and we will begin evaluating ourselves personally and as a church, to see where our hearts truly lie. This process may be, at times, difficult and painful, but I believe it will also be filled with joy and hope as we witness the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I believe that God’s vision for us is greater and more amazing that we have dared to allow ourselves to imagine, and I believe that He is waiting for us to ask him to give us eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and the strength to persevere in the face of opposition.
VII. Closing Prayer
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you this day, that you are a God who has a vision for our lives; that you have not called us to wander aimlessly, but have directed our paths. Would you come among us today, now, in this place, and give us a renewed sense of your vision for us. Would you show us what it means to truly love you and love others? Would you show us clearly where there is any opposition to your vision, and would you give us victory over anyone or anything that stands between us and you? We love you, and we thank your for sending your Son, Jesus. And we give thanks that we can overcome all things, because Jesus lives in us. Amen.