If you have a British passport, have you ever read the words written on the inside front cover? Let me remind you what they say: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
They are quite powerful words aren’t they? Words with royal authority. Words which seek to guarantee safe passage to any British citizen on a journey abroad.
Today we resume our new sermon series in the book Nehemiah. The year is 445 BC, and Nehemiah has just completed a long journey from his home in Persia to the city of Jerusalem. His reason for travelling was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem - walls which had been destroyed by the Babylonians nearly 150 years earlier. Walls which remained in ruins despite the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon. Reconstruction was well overdue.
As we saw last week, by God’s grace the Persian King Artaxerxes supported Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The king had given Nehemiah letters guaranteeing him safe passage and practical support. Letters with words like those we see inside our passports today. Letters that ensured Nehemiah enjoyed a smooth and uneventful journey to Jerusalem.
Today we discover what Nehemiah did at his journey’s end. I think our passage this morning can be summarized under three headings. Three headings, which, rather conveniently all begin with a ‘C’! They are Construction, Confrontation and Confidence. To be more specific, the 3 themes of our chapter are:
- Construction - for the glory of God;
- Confrontation - with the enemies of God’s people; and
- Confidence - in the Lord.
I hope and pray we can learn lessons from Nehemiah’s construction project, from his conflict and from his confidence in the Lord. Lessons that will equip us for our own journey in faith today.
- Construction…for the glory of God
My father is retired building surveyor, and one recurring memory from my childhood is seeing him head out of the door early on Saturday mornings. He would head out to survey one of our neighbour’s houses, to discuss with them what extension, alteration or enhancement they wanted done to their property – perhaps a loft conversion, a conservatory or an extra bedroom. No sensible homeowner in Dorking, Surrey would begin building work without a Saturday morning survey from my father!
Our passage today describes another building survey. But a survey done at night, rather than on a Saturday morning. A survey done in secret rather than in daylight.
Because before Nehemiah went public with his plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he wanted to survey the site first. He wanted to see for himself the work that needed doing, and formulate a plan for reconstructing the wall. And so he went on a discreet, night-time tour of the city.
Verses 16 and 17 tell us that it was only after this survey that Nehemiah decided to share his plan with the leaders of Jerusalem, including its “priests, nobles and officials”. He said to them: “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”
Nehemiah’s words give us an insight into his motives for rebuilding the wall. They help us to understand why constructing the city wall was so important to him.
- Nehemiah was obviously concerned for the city’s security. Without a wall, Jerusalem was vulnerable to attack. There was nothing to stop another nation invading Judah’s capital city. Simple self-defence required a wall.
- But a deeper motive lay behind Nehemiah’s construction plans. He tells us that the Jews faced derision and disgrace because of the state of their capital city. But even more seriously, a dismantled wall brought dishonor to God. You can imagine the jeers of Israel’s enemies, can’t you? “What kind of God would allow his chosen people to live in a ruined city?” “The Jewish God can’t be much cop if he lets his own capital remain in ruins!”
You see, behind Nehemiah’s ambition lay a desire for the glory of God and the honour of his name. You see, a derelict city not only brought disgrace to God’s people, it brought dishonor to God himself - something Nehemiah simply could not stand.
I hope we share Nehemiah’s passion for God glory? If we are Christians here this morning, I hope our heart’s desire is to honour the God who has made us and saved us! Glorifying God should come before every other ambition. It more important than being wealthy, being successful, being popular – or anything else we might be tempted to set out heart on.
So let me suggest two fundamental ways we can bring honour to God today:
- Firstly, by simply living a godly life. If we are Christians, God’s Spirit now lives within us. It is now our bodies that are his temple, not a building in Jerusalem. We honour God today by using our bodies for his glory, not for sinful self-indulgence. We are to live self-sacrificial lives that imitate Christ and glorify God.
- Secondly, we honour God by telling other people about Jesus – who he is and what he’s done. Whenever we share this Gospel message with our non-Christian friends and family we are telling them about God’s holiness, God’s love, and God’s grace. We are telling them how God’s name was supremely glorified through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. To explain the Gospel is to glorify God, so let’s take every opportunity we can to share it with others.
Its still January, so why not make a slightly late New Year’s resolution to try and talk about our faith a little more this year? Why not make 2017 the year when that colleague at work, that friend at the school gate, or that neighbour next door, hears the Gospel from you for the first time!
- Confrontation…with the enemies of God’s people
On arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s overriding ambition was to honour God – and so should ours be. But sadly, not all of Nehemiah’s contemporaries shared his ambition. Not everyone was pleased to see Nehemiah arrive in Jerusalem. We saw in verse 10 last week that two influential men, “Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite”, were “very much disturbed” at Nehemiah’s plans to rebuild the wall.
Bible scholars debate exactly who Sanballat and Tobiah were. But to cut a long story short, it seems likely that Sanballat was the governor of Samaria, the province just north of Jerusalem and Judah. Tobiah, meanwhile, was probably a ruler in Ammon – a small land to the east.
A third antagonist also joins the scene in verse 19 today. That man is called “Geshem the Arab”, a man who may have been the most powerful of the three. Historians believe Geshem was a powerful provincial governor ruling over Edom, Moab and parts of Arabia. He was the ruler, in other words, of a large territory to the south and east of Judah.
So between them, those three opponents of Nehemiah had Jerusalem surrounded. Their territories encircled Judah from top to bottom. Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem were influential opponents who had the potential to frustrate Nehemiah’s ambitions.
So if Nehemiah was to succeed in his mission, it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. God’s servant was going to have to face up to opposition from some powerful forces. Nehemiah had to prepare for conflict – and so have we. If we are faithful followers of Christ today, we too should expect opposition. The New Testament says this opposition will come on three fronts, from three different directions – from the flesh, the world and the devil.
- Our fight against the flesh is our struggle against temptation. It’s our conflict with the sinful desires of our fallen nature, our struggle against selfishness and pride. Its an intensely personal battle that we all face daily. A conflict in which we need the help of the Holy Spirit to win.
- Secondly, our conflict with the world includes the trials and tribulations that are put in our way by other people. The temptations and frustrations that we face as God’s people in an increasingly godless society. Again, to come through this conflict we need guidance from God’s Word, strength from his Spirit, and encouragement from other Christians.
- Thirdly, we shouldn’t be ignorant of our spiritual conflict against the devil. Just like Jesus in the wilderness, we need to know the Word of God to refute the devil’s lies. Take time this year to become more familiar with what God’s ord says. Its not too late to try and read the Bible in a year, or to start a new Bible reading plan. We need to know God’s word to know truth from lies, to discern good from evil.
Just as Nehemiah braced himself for confrontation with Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, we need to prepare ourselves for conflict with the flesh, the world and the devil. This side of heaven, we need to be on our guard against all three.
- Confidence…in the Lord
I wonder, what do you place your confidence in? At work, at home - in life - where do you look for strength when facing an uphill task? How do you hold your nerve when opposition arrives?
I think many people today look for security in themselves, don’t they? In their bank balance, their insurance policies, their abilities, or simply in their own self-confidence and sense of self-worth.
Two and a half thousand years ago Nehemiah was a man supremely confident of success. But not because he had confidence in his natural talents, his persuasive powers or his construction skills - but because he knew God was with him. Nehemiah had great confidence in the Lord.
Nehemiah’s confidence in the Lord was obviously infectious, because the response his plan received from the Jewish leadership was instantaneous and positive. Verse 18 says they said: “Let us rise up and build!”
If we had time today to read chapter 3, we would see that the people of Jerusalem set to work on the walls with great gusto. From the high priest downwards, Jews from across the land began rebuilding work on the walls.
And it wasn’t just in front of friends that Nehemiah expressed his confidence in the Lord. We can all make great claims in safe company, but a true test of our convictions comes when the heat is on. So it is deeply impressive that in verse 20, Nehemiah confidently confronts his opponents and says: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem.”
Nehemiah’s confidence was well-placed, because just fifty-two days later, the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt. By God’s grace and protection, the Jewish people completed their building project in little more than a month. Chapter 6 verse 15 is wonderfully ironic. Let me remind you what it says: “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.”
You see, Nehemiah’s confidence in God had been vindicated, and in so doing, it shattered the self-confidence of his enemies. Confidence in our own talents and abilities in no substitute for confidence in the Lord. We are fallible, fallen and fragile. But the Lord is sovereign, supreme and strong.
So as I draw to a close this morning, please have the same confidence in the Lord that that Nehemiah had.
If you are not yet a Christian, then can I urge you to replace your self-confidence with confidence in Christ. Put your trust in the Lord Jesus to save you from sin, to guide you in life, and take you to glory. Self-confidence is simply no substitute.
And if you are a Christian here today, please have total confidence that the Lord will complete the construction work that he has begun in our church, and in our own lives.
- Be confident that the Lord will build his Church. Be confident that the Lord will continue to draw people to faith in Christ - people in Gidea Park and across the globe.
- And be confident that the Lord will complete his work in your life personally. Don’t be discouraged by short-term sins or setbacks. Whether we have been a Christian for five minutes or five decades, the Lord will complete his “good work” of making us more like Jesus and fit for heaven (Phil 1:6).
If we are Christian believers, then whatever we experience in life, we can be totally sure that God will finish what he’s started. He WILL get us to glory, the best IS yet to come.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you that you are building your church and saving your people, just as you helped Nehemiah rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In this world of conflict and confusion, help us to have total confidence in you. In your name we pray, Amen.