When Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Work
The Bible is filled with examples of men and of women, old and young, from different cultures who, despite their ordinariness, managed to achieve great things: from Abraham, the nobody living in Ur, to Moses, the disgraced orphan son of a queen; from David, the least of Jesse's eight sons to Esther, the adopted child of a man living in exile. It seems that God has a fondness for these, who are small in the eyes of men, those who are not considered great even by the standards of this fallen world, to exercise His will and purpose through their small lives in order to bring honor and glory to Himself and bless with extra ordinariness the lives of ordinary people.
And so it was with Nehemiah. Oh yes, he was a cup bearer to the king, a counselor of sorts. Perhaps this had a measure of importance in that world. But the reality of the situation was that he was enslaved, part of the exiles who had been removed from Judah by the Babylonian army after the destruction of Jerusalem. Some scholars believe he may have even been a eunuch because there is no mention of his family, and the easy proximity he had to his king. But his story demonstrates so well how God can use powerless and yes, even damaged people to do great things in His name.
In addition to this, and what is more pertinent for us here tonight, Nehemiah's experience teaches us what to expect from God when He calls on us to rise beyond our ordinary circumstances and build in His name.
So before we begin, let's summarize some of what we've been studying about this particular historical period. We know that the Jewish people had been taken into Babylonian Captivity for 70 years. At approximately 538 B.C. the power of the Babylonian Empire was broken by Persia. And upon assuming supremacy, the king of Persia encouraged the Jewish remnant to return to their own country. Some 50,000 did return, and they set about the immense task of rebuilding their city and their temple, which was the center of Jewish life. They faced opposition from their neighbors and after laying its foundation, they were forced to stop building the temple for a time. It lay unfinished for almost 20 years until God raised up prophets to encourage the people to rise up and finish the building of the temple and reinstate worship.
Sixty more years passed and another group of exiles returned with Ezra the priest. Now this man, who could trace his priestly lineage to Aaron, set about reestablishing the moral and spiritual life of the people that had fallen into a neglected state. In 445 B.C., 12 years after Ezra had returned to Jerusalem to minister to the people, God raised up another servant to match the need of the hour. God called Nehemiah to come and rebuild the wall around the city of Jerusalem.
Now, Nehemiah lived and served in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes I. He obtained permission and supplies from the king in order to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its protective wall and gates. We read in his book that he encountered much opposition from the enemies of the Jews, but that in a remarkable short time, the wall was rebuilt. The rest of his memoir recounts how he had to return to the city later on in order to reinstate religious order among the leaders and the people.
In studying Nehemiah's calling. We can learn much about the way that God's servants respond and work once they are called. So I'd ask you to please open your bibles to Nehemiah chapter one and let's see how one goes from being an enslaved cup-bearer to a successful fortress builder. In Chapter 1:1-3, we'll read that together,
1The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire."
- Nehemiah 1:1-3
So Nehemiah's brother and others visit him with news of home. The problem of broken walls and burned gates was twofold: First of all, it was a safety issue. They were quite vulnerable to attack from their unfriendly neighbors as well as roaming bandits and thieves; And secondly, it was an honor issue. Their city and society were ashamed because of the condition of their wall, the very first thing that people saw when they approached the city. So we continue reading in verse four,
4When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
- Nehemiah 1:4
So Nehemiah is touched by this report. The condition of the wall symbolizes the discouragement and fear of the people. They were as broken as their wall. He is so troubled by this news that he goes to God in fasting and in prayer. We learn later that in his prayers, he's asking God what can be done about this situation?
Now in his prayer, he acknowledges that the condition of the wall and of the people are due to their sins and disobedience. He also appeals to God to fulfill His promise, to bless and to restore His people. And so if we continue reading, this time in verse 11,
11"O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man." Now I was the cup bearer to the king.
- Nehemiah 1:11
And so at the end of his prayer, we see that Nehemiah has a specific request in mind, something he wants to do to resolve the problem, but he needs God's help to do it. We're not sure what this is until the very last line where he mentions what his role is.
Now, in normal circumstances, one would put this information at the very beginning to describe who the author is and his position. But Nehemiah places his cup-bearer position at the end to establish his priorities. He's a Jew first, then he's a cup bearer. This is how his priorities lie for his life and his identity. He also uses this construction to reveal what his ultimate plan is, and that is to appeal to the king for help. He's asking God to turn the King's heart towards him in a favorable way.
So we continue reading in chapter 2:1,
1And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart." Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, "Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?" 4Then the king said to me, "What would you request?" So I prayed to the God of heaven.
- Nehemiah 2:1-4
I want you to note that four long months have passed since Nehemiah received the news of the walls and made his initial prayer. In the meantime, he has continued in his usual duties before the king. Nehemiah probably continued to pray, and by this time is beginning to wonder if God has really called him, or if his prayers have been in vain. It seems that the stress and anxiety has begun to show on his face.
We need to understand that Nehemiah wasn't acting sad to get his king's attention. He wasn't trying to make something happen. Being sad or engrossed in your own problems or distracted in the presence of the king was a capitol offense. I mean, cup bearers were dependable. So Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid, instead of the subject coming up during a discussion of politics or some normal way, the king was asking him a personal question and he was being forced to respond.
So Nehemiah tells the truth. I mean, if you're going to die, you might as well tell the truth. He reveals the condition of his city. The king responds by allowing Nehemiah to make a request of him. Before Nehemiah does this, he makes another prayer. Nehemiah was not allowed to approach the king, but God was and did on Nehemiah's behalf and answered his prayer at the proper time.
In Nehemiah 1:5-10 we read that he requests permission to return to Jerusalem to personally supervise the rebuilding of the walls. He also asks for royal permission to travel with protection and letters to governors authorizing his work. And to top it off, he requests that the king provide the materials for the project. The king agrees and sends him on his way with the condition that he return in a certain time. After all, Nehemiah was still a slave. Once Nehemiah arrives, he's greeted by neighboring leaders who question his mission and begin immediately to oppose him.
Once in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly surveys the work that needs to be done. I say quietly or secretly because he doesn't want to provoke an attack from his enemies or opposition from the people before he has a chance to speak to them. So we continue in verse 17 down to 20, we'll read that together.
17Then I said to them, "You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach." 18I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king's words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, "Let us arise and build." So they put their hands to the good work.19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, "What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?" 20So I answered them and said to them, "The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem."
- Nehemiah 2:17-20
How Nehemiah Inspires His Followers
1. Shares His Vision
First of all, he shares his vision. They, who live next to the ruined walls, are too close, too burned out to see the situation clearly. Nehemiah conveys the true meaning of what has happened: they are a reproach. Another word for that would be a disgrace in the eyes of others because of their condition. The wall's condition reflected the people's condition and it was a shameful thing for God's people to be this way. Most of the time people don't see themselves. They're so used to their weakness, their sins, their reproaches, that they just ignore them and learn to live with them.
Nehemiah's vision was not of the future. He was not a prophet. His was a clear vision of what was actually happening. He doesn't berate or rebuke the people. He simply shares the clarity of his vision and offers the natural solution: Let's rebuild. People are more likely to respond to an action plan for fixing a problem, rather than continued harping or complaining about the problem at hand.
2. Provides Motivation
The second step in Nehemiah's method to inspire the people was that he provided motivation. Now, if he were a modern motivational speaker, you know, a Dr. Phil type, he would have said things like, "Well, let's just do it," or "Believe in yourself and all things will be possible," or "Buy these tapes and books and I'll motivate you to do it." But of course he didn't. He was God's servant and God's servants are motivated by God, not themselves or other men.
"Why do this?" Nehemiah asked. Because, this is no ordinary wall. This is God's wall. Because, this is no ordinary work. This is God's work. Because, you are not just ordinary people. You are God's people. So when it comes to building anything for God, let's remember that it's the spirit of God that moves men to action, not slogans or surveys.
3. Responds to Opposition
And then finally, Nehemiah provided response to opposition. Remember a few lessons back, I said that any project has stages: Stage number one, the beginning; number two, obstacles. Godly vision and motivation are no guarantee that there will be no obstacles. On the contrary, Godly vision and motivation guarantee that there will be opposition. In every generation Satan opposes the people and the plans of God, especially when they are motivated to put their plans into action.
Once the people rose up to build, the opposition was immediate and could have killed their movement before it began. Their threat was that they would report them to the king as being in rebellion. That was the ploy that stopped the temple from being rebuilt 20 years earlier. But it didn't work this time because Nehemiah had a ready answer. In verse 20, if you remember, Nehemiah answered them and said to them,
The God of Heaven will give us success. Therefore we, His servants, will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.
- Nehemiah 1:20
It didn't work this time because Nehemiah had a ready answered. Note that he doesn't rely on his decree from the king or letters from the governors giving him permission. He appeals to a higher authority, to the Lord. He says, this is the Lord's work that we are doing and no one could stop His servants from carrying it out. So many good works are never finished because the leaders don't expect opposition or they don't respond firmly to it when it comes.
Of course, we know the end of this part of the story, an incredible construction feat to build a wall as high as a house with a thickness that would enable a person to walk on it, complete with a series of massive doors, all surrounding a city, completed in 52 days. God called Nehemiah to perform a task, and from his experience we not only see how Nehemiah responded in work, we also see what God provides to those He calls upon for service.
What's interesting about Nehemiah's story is that once he accepted the call of God to serve, he was fully confident that God would provide, he never doubted. We need to understand that when God calls us to build, and we accept the call, we can expect certain things.
Things We Can Expect, When Called by God
1. God Will Provide the Resources
We can expect resources. When God gives you a job to do, He doesn't send you out empty-handed. He will provide the resources you need to finish the job. Now, most people believe and understand this, but they get tripped up in the way that God provides. For example, God provides from His resources, not just our resources. Nehemiah was a slave, an important slave, a well-positioned slave, but a slave nevertheless. He had no freedom to leave or to gather wealth. To give him the job of rebuilding the wall seemed illogical because he had no resources, but God provided the key resources for the job through the king of Persia, Nehemiah's master, and a pagan to boot.
God demonstrated that the work was His to commission and all the resources belonged to Him as well, even the resources controlled by a pagan king. We sometimes get discouraged because our strength, or our experience, our money, our numbers are not equal to the job, but God is not limited by our personal resources. He provides from His resources; and we're always amazed and humbled when we see where He finds what we need to do the job.
2. God Will Provide at His Pace
Secondly, God provides at His pace. Nehemiah first received permission to go, then a letter permitting him to use the king's forrest for wood. He began the job with the basics and as he moved from stage to stage in the building process, God would supply his needs at every step. Sometimes what he needed were the words to inspire the people who were afraid or ready to quit, and God supplied these as well. We always want all the money up front. We always want assurances on the table that everything will go smoothly before we take on the job that God gives us to do. It's not that God is slow or cheap or possessive with His resources, it's that He uses them to build our faith. The goal wasn't just building a wall to protect them, it was to build their faith in God who is the only one who could really protect them.
3. God Will Provide the Full Amount
Another thing we need to remember is that God provides the full amount. Study each person that God called upon to do a job: Noah, Moses, Solomon, the apostles. Each one always had enough to finish the task. God provides from unexpected or unusual sources at times. For example, the angel wipes out the Assyrian army without a single Jewish soldier lost in battle, in Hezekiah's story. Three-hundred men defeat 300,000 men, in the story of Gideon. Joseph provides for his long lost family in Egypt. Jesus multiplies the bread and fish for thousands. The early church sells its personal property to provide for the poor. God does not dishonor Himself by giving us a job to do and not providing enough resources. The resources are always there, but we have to open our eyes and our hearts in order to recognize them at times.
And so, when we accept to serve God in some way, we need to first of all, expect the resources to do the job. Secondly, we need to expect opposition. Just because it's God that gives the job and the objective is to honor Him, it doesn't mean that it will be easy. Nehemiah continually faced opposition to his plan from everybody, the neighboring kings, as well as his own people.
I used to complain to God about these types of problems myself when I was trying to accomplish things, wanting to do things for the Lord, for the church, and I would pray sometimes in my prayers, "Why don't You just let me do this or why all this trouble? It's for you, isn't it? It's right, isn't it? It'll accomplish good, won't it? Why all the hassle?" And then I realized God doesn't cause the hassle, satan causes the hassle. Whenever God gives a person a job to do, Satan will be there to frustrate His plans in every conceivable way. He uses outside influences of evil men. He uses the inside influences of our weakness to sin. He uses division, indifference, laziness, lies, and discouragement to thwart any plan that will honor God. And that's what it's all about. Any job you get from God is an opportunity to honor God in some way and Satan is determined to not let that happen. So if God gives us a job, you can be sure that the snake will be there also causing trouble from the word go.
4. Expect Victory
And finally, when God calls on us to serve, expect victory. Nehemiah used the resources and withstood the enemy, the threats, the internal division, the fatigue and the discouragement. In 52 days, he built the wall. When God gives a job, He provides the resources, He sustains us through trouble and He expects victory, and so should we.
Nehemiah's victory was dramatic and inspiring and had the advantage of happening in a very short amount of time. But in the work of the Lord, the victory is not always accomplished in 52 days, even in 52 years. Abraham died never seeing the nation. Moses died never entering the promised land. David died never seeing the temple. Paul the Apostle died, never seeing Christianity becoming the religion of the empire. Sometimes the job is a longterm job and you may not see the victory in your own lifetime, but if God calls upon you to rise up and build, expected victory sooner or later, because if it comes from the Lord, nothing will be able to stop the victory. Nothing.
So Zerubbabel and Ezra and Nehemiah and others took on the task of rebuilding the city and temple and wall for an ultimate purpose. They were not aware of the coming of Jesus Christ some 400 years later. That was the part of the job that no one but God knew at the time. All of that work and effort to protect a group of people who would later produce the Savior from their midst.
Today you're planting a new congregation, expanding the reach of others and sending out missionaries in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world and exalt the church at the end of time. Our task today points to this ultimate purpose. Our advantage today is that we have not only been called on to build, we know why God has asked us to do this.
There's not much left of what Nehemiah and others built. Only a small portion of one wall remains near where the temple once stood. They call it the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. It's a place where tourists visit and Jews go to pray and weep remembering the glory of a past era. We, on the other hand, are building to eternity, because the job we've been given to do is to build the kingdom that will last forever. Let us therefore arise and build that kingdom in whatever place and time that the Lord has called on us. And let's do so remembering that He will provide the resources and He will provide the power to overcome opposition. And He will grant us the victory to His honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
And so I pray that God blesses you in all of these activities and remember that He will always provide the victory.