The Enemy is Within

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” This perfectly sums up the attitude of Nehemiah and his friends. He is now weeks into his building project. He is no longer mustering builders, inspiring ideas or repelling external threats. He has discovered that he is his own worst enemy.

Neh. 5:1 Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.

Read Nehemiah 5:1-13

The Threat from Within

In this chapter the enemies and the city walls recede from view, to  reveal a more subtle problem. Here the menace is hunger and exploitation, and the structure at risk is the community itself. We see another aspect of Nehemiah’s burdens and his leadership. Certainly the final paragraph takes us twelve years further on.

Judah’s history had not begun with Nehemiah’s arrival, nor even with the ‘great trouble and shame’ which were reported to him in Susa. His diverting of manpower from raising crops to raising walls may have been the final burden; it did not have to be the first. Now the people were facing food shortages.

Nehemiah discovers and resolves this internal struggle in chapter 5 through solidarity. He is now the leader of his people. He does not solve the problem by booming commands. He solves the problem through the strength of identification. Their problems become his. His resources become theirs.

Just as Nehemiah solves his peoples dilemma with identification, so it is with us. Jesus’ identification with humanity, becoming one of us, leads to the greatest healing ever. It is in the incarnation that God heals the enemy within. Gregory of Nazianzus when speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, becoming human put it wonderfully, “That which is unassumed is unhealed.” It is only by Jesus becoming fully human that God can fully heal us.

Forget You

The bags were packed, there I was sitting in front of the ticket counter of Iberia Airlines. But smile as I may, charm as I may there was no way I would make my flight. Why? Forgetfulness. Did ever forget something on a trip that made your trip difficult? Nearly 20 years ago I left my passport in my dorm room at university. The drive from JFK airport to back to my dorm room would have made me late for my flight. No amount of money, talent or gifts were going to get me on that plane. The only thing that would get me on the airplane would be remembering.  To enjoy the privilege and access of all that God has done for you all you have to do is remember. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.

Nehemiah 4:14 And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…”

More often than not, I discover that a lot of the stress in my life is due to forgetfulness. I forget who God is. I forget what he has done in my life. I forget what he has done collectively for his Church. The Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Forget none of his benefits.”(Psalm 103:2)

So many times in our life our stress and anxiety are linked to one small thing: spiritual amnesia. But God is the ever loving Father who loves us through our faulty memory into a glorious remembrance.

Nehemiah understood how powerful our amnesia is, that is why he encourages us to remember. On the night that Jesus was betrayed he took bread, he broke it and said, “Do this in remembrance.” We repeat this beautiful supper regularly because we are so prone to forget. The whole point of God giving us bread, wine and the Word is that they might be signs, symbols, and gift that bring to heart his extravagant love. Only when we remember will we be filled with the peace that passes understanding. This peace will guard our hearts and minds greater than any wall ever would.

Powerful Weaklings

If you have ever done a life guarding course you will be familiar with the warning that when attempting a water rescue the life guard must be wary of the panic stricken swimmer. If the swimmer is drowning, their nervousness could be fatal not only to the swimmer but also the rescuer. It is only when the swimmer reaches a point of surrender that the life saver can intervene in a safe and effective way. The only way for the swimmer to be saved is to become a powerful weakling.

Neh. 4:10   In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”

The builders of Jerusalem are tired. You can feel the atmosphere of growing misgivings and unnerving rumours surrounding the pressures of rebuilding. The rebuilders can be heard saying, “I’m exahusted. There is just too much rubble. There is no way that we will be able to finish this task by ourselves.”

This language is not the language of quitters, it is the language of a tired company of builders wanting to see the reward of their labour. They want to see the project completed, but they are aware of their own limitations. Their strength is not enough. They require assistance. They need reinforcements. The only way they will be powerful is if they admit their weakness.

Years later, you can hear Mary sing a song similar to this plea for help.

Luke 1:51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

God did not turn a deaf ear to the people of Judah. He sent help in the form of the countryside labourers. He sent a prince from a far off land to win a fight that no one thought was winnable. Nehemiah would be the rescuer that the people of Israel would need. He would be their reinforcements. Years later God would send another prince and rescuer in the powerful weakness of a Carpenter. He would rebuild the ancient ruins that no one else could.

Self Deception: Truth Matters

This past week the top American Newscaster for NBC news, Brian Williams, stepped down temporarily pending an investigation into his journalistic practices. In 2003 he was flying in a Chinook Helicopter. Another Chinook helicopter flying a completely different mission, in a completely different direction took fire. It took his production team, public relations team, camera crew and him at least an hour to get the the helicopter named “Big Windy.” When he landed what started out as a small half truth, began his downward spiral into self deception.

Nehemiah 4:3 “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”

What initially started out as a news report quickly became a story of stolen valor. The newscaster began to fabricate his personal tale of heroism and attribute the actions of the other valiant chinook crew to himself. Nearly 11 years later, dozens of talks shows, and countless primetime newslots later his story grew into an embellished tale of his heroism of RPG fire. What was all the furore about? We expect our journalists to speak truth. They are supposed to be a source of information not disinformation.

Tobiah, as we know is a Jewish name, but his identity is now “the Ammonite servant.” What caused this? Nothing more than self deception. Sir Walter Scott put it this way:

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive

What starts out as a fib to avoid persecution, “I am Ammonite, not Jewish.” Years later will lead him to a complete loss of honour and dignity. He even becomes mean spirited and mocks his fellow Jews, “Why are you building these rubbled walls? If a fox jumps on them they will fall down.” If you have ever seen a fox, it is a very light creature. The walls of Jerusalem we know from archaelogical digs are nearly 9 feet thick. There is now way a small and nimble creature like a fox could topple the wall with their little paws. His self deception was complete.

Jesus said, “I am the Truth.”(John 14:6). Truth is important because it grants us a sense of identity. Borrowed glories, conflated half truths are transitory and will be found out. We will be left not knowing who we really are. Jesus promise to us is that truth will undo the damage of self deception. Live in the reality of the truth of his love and care. Lay aside your falsely borrowed glories and receive the truth of his gifted glory.

“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

Investing In People

A few years ago a friend of mine was involved in the engineering team which refurbished and rebuilt London Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Joel was an engineer in training. For his company, building Terminal 2 was very important. It was also very important to the them to develop Joel as an engineer. In the long run, it was not just about developing real estate. Developing engieneers was. Getting the tilt walls, beams, or rebar in the right place was not enough; Getting skills, character, and gifts to grow was a major aim of the construction project. Many companies have realised that it is not just about getting a job accomplished or task done. To this reason they have invested in a human resources department. To be truly successful they make investing in people a core value. For Nehemiah, building great walls and yet not having the people of Judah rebuilt would have been pointless.

Neh. 2:17   Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.

Building people

The goal of building the walls of Jerusalem was never about having a building project to boast about. The engineering feat was never principally about their reputation, (“That we way no longer suffer derision”v 17), it was about quality craftsmanship (“good work” v18). Long before they strengthened the walls of Jerusalem, God strengthened their character.

A church is not building. A very helpful definition of church is the: All believers in all times, in all places (Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem). This means the church was about people, is about people, and will always be about people. It means the worshipping community has already been founded, is built and will be built by someone who is timeless. His works will survive the test of time. God’s building project will survive the test of time. God is in the business of people building and soul-formation.

Building Character

The builder Nehemiah, was a builder of character. He recognised gifts that God’s people had, and encouraged them. He wanted them to fulfill the gifts and callings that God had set for his people. He was the model of a spiritual leader. Spiritual leadership is aimed not so much at directing people as it is at changing people. If we would be the kind of leaders we ought to be, we must make it our aim to develop persons rather than dictate plans.  “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” (Heb. 10:24).

The only way to get the people of Judah to be successful was for Nehemiah to begin what they were unable to do. He did not dicatate plans, Nehemiah rolled up his sleaves and said, “Let us rebuild.” So it is with us, Christ Jesus is the author and perfector of our characters. He did not just dictate and thunder commands to build character from Mount Sinai, but dictated and thundered  his very love from Mount Calvary. He has set and appointed great tasks for us to do for his glory.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:10

Today Let us rebuild. Partner with God’s character forming grace and be the glorious, rebuilt ruin that he has purposed you to be.

Large Petitions

Outlandish Statements

“100 million dollars,” that is the outrageous sum that the villain Dr. Evil demands for ransom in the film Austin Powers. This demand is followed by laughs. The sum is outrageous for the 1960’s. There is no way that any world leader will answer this outrageous and large petition. At the end of chapter 1 and beginning of chapter 2 we see Nehemiah pray multiple times for success and favor. His petitions are not small ones. He is asking for the undoing of exile. He is asking for the restoration of Zion. Judah ceased to be a kingdom. The last time there was a Judahite commonwealth was 600 BC. Nehemiah’s petition is large, it is outlandish, it is brazen.

Read Nehemiah 2:1-20

After his prayer, Nehemiah declares, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”(2:20)

There is an amazing confidence in this statement. Is Nehemiah being cheeky? Is he out of touch with reality? We probably remember moments when we have asked something of friends that was extremely cheeky. Somehow we make large petitions of friends, but sometimes forget that large petitions are something which God delights in hearing. Just as our friends, if it is within their power, love to help out whenever it is possible.

Part of the reason we don’t bring large petitions is that deep down inside we think that God is actually not able to answer. It may be something as small as, “God help me find my misplaced car keys.” But then a voice inside us says, “Don’t bother the maker of the universe with such a petty request. Surely he has better things to do.” When in fact the real reason we say this is that it is just as large a petition as asking God for a great miracle. In our heart of hearts we believe God is not able to grant this.

Brazen Petitions

There is a story of Alexander the Great being at a wedding feast of one of his generals. After the night had gone on, the general was now intoxicated from the wine and merry-making. He went up to Alexander and asked a for a very large monetary gift. It was such an outragous request that the wedding party came to a standstill. The musicians stopped playing. All the party guest stared expecting Alexander to be greatly insulted and mete out an appropriate punishment for such brazen ask.

Something unexpected happened. Alexander the Great, looking at his general, said, “This man honours me, for he has said that I am both wealthy and able to fulfill this request” By making this outrageous statement petition to God Nehemiah declares two things about God’s character: 1. God is actually powerful enough to grant it 2. God is gracious enough to grant it.

We are incapable of truly knowing what to pray or how to pray. That is why the disciples asked Jesus teach us how to pray. And Paul said we don’t know how to pray but the Spirit intercedes for us.

“Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and pow’r are such
None can ever ask too much. “
–John Newton (1725-1807)

Honesty is Freeing

One of the funnest things I love doing is planning weekend fun with my family. I love it when Sophia and Michelle are excited about the plans for the weekend. The joy of planning the family movie nights, the countryside walks, the outdoor sports, the bowling alley, the play dates, or even just the jammie day. I could keep plans and thoughts to myself, but truth be told, honesty is freeing.

Nehemiah 2:19b They jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”

Read Nehemiah 2:11-20

Surely that isn’t the case, you might think, when first reading this passage. Doesn’t Nehemiah hide his intentions? Doesn’t he go out in the still of the night, undetected, so that no one will know what he is up to? No! It is the exact opposite of subterfuge. Nehemiah gathers all the facts before rushing into judgement. His desire for the truth is such that he is inquisitively seeking answers. It is as though he is saying, “Are the walls truly in shambles? What do our surrounding neighbours think of us? Are they antagonistic? I must know for myself.”

He anticipates the obvious objection that a newcomer can have no idea of the task, so he briefs himself thoroughly(verse 12) and chooses his moment to show his hand (verse 16). He would have lost this if he had been exposing half-formed ideas piecemeal to every acquaintance. But never does he compromise his convictions. Never does he compromise truth. It was when Judah compromised their ideals and the truth of the Torah that they went into exile.

The Slavery of Dishonesty

When Nehemiah is confronted by three critics, there is one that painfully stands out. In the list of accusers is a man named Tobiah. The name Tobiah is Jewish in origin and is borne by a powerful family in Ammon for centuries to come. He is referred to as a servant of the emperor and as the Ammonite. This did not describe Tobiah’s ancestry, but rather, his chosen sphere in which he had gained high office(verse 19). Many commentators believe Tobiah to be Jew who assimilated and abandoned the God of Israel.

The Freedom of Honest Self-Awareness

Tobiah’s very name means God is Good. He unlike Nehemiah is not being honest. He is not honest about his relationship with God or with his people. This is the very reason why Nehemiah calls him the “servant”(verse 19) or it can sometimes be translated as “slave.” Tobiah’s refusal to be honest leads to slavery, Nehemiah’s truthfulness though painful and leading to pressures and opposition is freeing.

Today recognise that God is your Good. Be honest about that. Accept his Grace and freedom will flow from there. It is God that makes us prosper and not ourselves.

Too Much Baggage

On more than one occasion I remember doing obstacle courses when i was in the army. There were vaults. There were ropes. There were beams. Think up an obstacle and some how a cadre member had already dreamed up that creative problem for you to overcome. To get through some obstacles we had to ditch some of our gear. Nehemiah gets off his horse. He has too much baggage. All he needs for YHWH to intervene is nothing. Empty handed, he now has the ability to receive.

Nehemiah 2:12 Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I rode. 13 I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal that was under me to pass.

We are now in the second chapter of Nehemiah. He has left his job as the royal cupbearer. He has heard of the plight of his fellow jews and has entered into their situation. When he arrives in Jerusalem he discovers the derelict walls. But he is not satisfied with secondhand information about the state of affairs. In the stillness of night, he steals away to inspect the wall. There comes a point that he realizes he cannot know the actual state of the walls unless he strips down from his position of privilege. There is some information that can only be gained indexically, that is, by first hand experience.

All you need is nothing. 

In order to properly survey the ruins he must enter into the ruined condition of the walls. He must ditch all pretenses and airs of being sorted. The only way that the city’s wall can be repaired, is if he admits his inability to bring about this repair.

Quite literally, Nehemiah has to get off his high horse. All he needs for YHWH to intervene is exactly nothing. The moment he comes to God empty handed, he now has the ability to receive. He never had the ability to receive while he was clinging to his power, wisdom, money and talents.

So it is with us. Often we come to God and say, “I will take you plus a little of my goodness.” Or “I will take you and little bit of my talents.” It is only when we come and say, “I will take you and no one else,” that we enter into that amazing covenant of love with God.

Jesus is not just the nobleman who dismounts a horse to inspect a wall. He leaves Heaven to enter into his people’s plight not only to see their broken down ruins, but to become broken down and ruined on the cross that we might be whole.

Lay your baggage down.

Sadness of the Heart

Read Nehemiah 2:1-8

Have you ever stood in front of someone who you felt was really important to you? There is nothing more that you would give than to be acknowledged, to be understood. For Nehemiah, being in the presence of Artaxerxes was an honour. Few managed to be in the respected position of cupbearer or in the inner circle of advisers to the king of Persia.

What Artaxerxes thought about him was vitally important Nehemiah.  Vitally would be an understatement, what an Ancient Near Easter king thought of you was a matter of life and death. We would not be remiss to point out that the King’s favor promoted or demoted you. It granted you standing or left you with no place to stand.

Nehemiah 2:2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.

Modern psychologist would call this codependency or an excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a relationship. The king needed to be needed; the servant needed his master’s approval.

The Bible clearly defines this unhealthy attitude in Nehemiah as “the fear of man.” A simple comment such as, “I see you are sad” triggers in Nehemiah such a visceral reaction that he describes himself as “very much afraid.” This approval seeking on Nehemiah had a debilitating effect on him.

Dealing with Fear and Codependency

The only solution to his paralyzing fear of man was a change of perspective. Nehemiah began to realise that the most important thing in his life was not what Artaxerxes thought of him. Neither was it the great exploits of rebuilding Jerusalem–which at this point he may or not do. Both of these options still placed either another person’s approval or his own approval at the centre of his universe.

He needed a paradigm shift. He needed something greater than himself. A powerful leader would not suffice; a noble and greater cause than himself simply would not do. The shift in perspective that Nehemiah has needed was the only subject worthy of reverence and fearful delight, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name.” (Neh 1:11).

Human affirmation will no longer receive the place of honour and worship that God alone deserves. Placing what God the Father thought of him above anything was simultaneously freeing and strengthening. He could now have the resolve to accomplish his task. “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”(v8)

There is another Hero who resolutely fixed his face to the task at hand. Jesus did not consider what others thought of Him as shameful, as long as His Father was pleased. “Therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:7; cf. Luke 9:53). This Hero would not just risk the disapproval of the king. He would suffer the very shame that we deserved that we would only experience grace.

Stand in the Gap

Nehemiah 1:10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Today I walked into a large hardware store. A friend of mine asked me to pick up a sink and construction materials up for him. As I waited for one of the clerks to retrieve all the pre-ordered goods, the floor manager asked me sign a document. “Are you happy for me to sign for him?” By signing for the sink, I now became legally responsible for it in the chain of custody. Whenever we do something for someone, we do it in their place. We are granted power of attorney.

Nehemiah is doing exactly this at the end of his prayer in chapter 1. He is pleading on behalf of the Jewish people. Not only does he intercede with God on behalf of Jerusalem, he vicariously places himself as their representative before the King of Persia, Artaxerxes. If his plea is listened to then all Judah will be listened to, if his plea fails then all of Judah fails.

He is empty-handed, but not uninvited. He knows the threats and promises of Scripture well enough to make a strong, not a tentative plea. He draws on several passages of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut. 28:64; Deut. 30:1–4;Deut. 12:5). At that point in Deuteronomy Israel had been threatened with extinction; now, it seems, Nehemiah sees the situation as hardly less perilous. Like Moses, he must stand in the breach with his intercession.

Nehemiah’s intercession wishes to accomplish two things. He hopes that the response will be immediate (v. 9 “today”). He also trusts the response will be specific (v. 9 “this man”). And Nehemiah has kept a surprise in store for us, who so far have had no inkling of his position or the identity of ‘this man’.

The most surprising thing of this unknown hero, is that we do not realize who he is until he has acted on their behalf. Nehemiah, the unknown hero, turns out to be one of the most influential courtiers in the Persian Kingdom. He will stand in the gap for his people. He does not consider his position something to be grasped, but humbles himself even to the point of losing his job as the royal cupbearer.

Herodotus speaks of the title “cupbearer.” He reports how the Persians held in high honour the holder this office. In other ancient near eastern literature one was not only the cupbearer, but the chief minister of the Assyrian king.

Nehemiah points to the Great Intercessor who not only hazards the loss of position as the Son of God, but also gives his life vicariously for us. Nehemiah loses status, Jesus loses all that we may be returned from exile. Know that today the Great Intercessor is praying for you.