(Note: Because of a technical hitch, the video misses about 1 minute of the sermon. The sermon audio (MP3) is complete.)
Here’s a sound bite from Stephen McAlpine’s helpful book, Being the Bad Guys, he says:
“In the eyes of much of Western society, Christianity is the bad guy (or at least is fast becoming so). Christianity is the problem. And it’s happened so quickly that it’s taken us by surprise.
Only a few generations ago, Christianity was the good guy, the solution to what was bad. Rather than being on the wrong side of the law, we were the law.
Most of us think we still live in that world… But the problem is that that’s not where we are now. The tide has shifted further. Increasingly Christianity is viewed as the bad guy. Christianity is no longer an option; it’s a problem… “.1
Do you ever feel like the ‘bad guy’? Heck, I sure do…
A few months back I went to Bek’s staff party. And as I was grabbing a beer, one of the blokes asked me why I was a pastor… Now I almost choked on my drink… and then I mumbled something like “because I think Jesus is the King”. It was kinda pathetic, and he didn’t know what to say… and I was like “What do I do now?” “Do I run?” And in that moment I felt, not only like an idiot, but the bad guy delivering bad news to a high-end BMW salesman who was enjoying life.
Now I’m sure you’ve got far more serious stories… where (as a Christian) you’ve felt like the bad guy. In fact, you might be here, and not yet a Christian, and thinking “Yes, Christians are bad guys, amen!”-well, welcome!
But what do we with that?
What do we do in a world which thinks we’re the problem?
Well, Nehemiah 4-5 has a bit to say to us. It shows us how to live for Christ when we’re not the world’s most desirable people.
You see, Nehemiah 4 and 5 sit within the larger section of chapters 3-6. And throughout these chapters, we hear about the troubles which Nehemiah and his fellow Israelites face as they rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. In chapter 3, the build begins (detailing a long list of names, gates, and doors)… and by chapter 6, after fifty-two long-hard days (and personal attacks on Nehemiah), the wall is finally complete. But between these chapters, sit chapters 4 and 5. And today, as we focus on them, we’re going to see just two ways to live for Christ in a challenging world.
Here’s number one-fear God and carry on.
In chapter 4, Nehemiah and the people of God face outside opposition as they rebuild the walls. But before we get there, just take a second to remember why they’re rebuilding the wall in the first place… it’s to reverse their shame! Just remember back a few weeks, when Nehemiah said to his fellow Israelites (Nehemiah 2:17):
“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 2:17)
This whole building project has one clear purpose: to restore dignity to Israel and their God. But as Nehemiah and the people work to reverse their shame… in chapter 4, their enemies begin to heap more on. Take a look at verses 1-3:
1 “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!”
You see what’s going on? “Sanballat” and “Tobiah the Ammonite” see Israel as the ‘bad guys’. These mud-blood Jew/Gentiles-living outside the walls and speaking from the safety of their Samaritan army-are trash talking Israel. They’re firing shots-ridiculing them and their wall-“What are those feeble Jews doing?”
But what’s Nehemiah do?
Well, he fears God and carries on. Take a look at how Nehemiah’s approaches God in prayer. Verses 4-6.
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 [And then they carry on… ] So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.”
But as God’s people carry on, the pressure increases. Sanballat and Tobiah get so angry that they plot to besiege the city. Take a look at verses 7-9:
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.”
Nehemiah faces more trouble. But he fears God and carries on with the work by posting a guard by day and night to warn the people of an invasion.
But the problem is… these threats and insults from Sanballat and Tobiah seem to work. They’ve gotten into the people’s heads and hearts… so much so that in verses 10-12 the Israelites are filled with fear as their enemies approach the city walls!
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.””
God’s people are full of fear! They’re afraid. They’re shaking in their boots. They’ve lost hope as their own countrymen rush to tell them, ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”. Also known as: “you’re doomed!”
But what’s Nehemiah do? Well, this great war general (so it seems), addresses the people. Take a look at verses 13-14.
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.”
Don’t be afraid. Remember the Lord. Remember him whose existence is “great”-him who is by definition immense, magnificent, utterly supreme. And remember him who is “awesome”-literally “him who is to be feared”.2 Don’t fear them, fear God! Fear God and carry on. And they do… verses 15-18.
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. 16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked… ” “… [Verse 23] 23 Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.”
Here in chapter 4, we’re reminded of what to do when we’re surrounded by those who think we are the ‘bad guys’. We’re to remember who our God is-the great and awesome God-and we’re to carry on. You see, fearing God is about seeing God for who he is… As Doug reminded me this week, it’s about “seeing God as God, and treating him as such”.
And so, if or when you get funny looks, if or when you need to give an account for why we do what we do and believe what we believe, if or when insults come our way, or we’re schemed against, or we need to disagree, or we need stand against the voices, the culture, the politics, the agendas of those around us… the best thing for us is to fear God and carry on with the glorious task of living for and proclaiming Christ.
We need to fix our hearts and minds on the greatness of God-which has been displayed in the person of Jesus Christ. We need be in awe of him who “created all things” and “rules all things” and is “before all things” and “holds all things together” and is “head over the church”. We need to be in awe of the one who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood-and has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven, and who possesses a superior name: “Son”, “God”, “Lord”. We need to gaze at God in the person of Christ because as we fear him-all other fears will take second place. As one person said,
“The fear of the Lord dulls and weakens all other fears”.3
Nehemiah 4 reminds us to fear God and carry on. That’s the first way to live and flourish for Christ in a challenging world.
And here’s the second way-fear God and love your neighbour.
In 2017, McCrindle Research found that the greatest attraction to investigating religion is people who live out a genuine faith (61% of people are attracted by this)”.4
Now, I was reminded of that last year…
At our 5pm service at Ann St, I met a young guy in his mid-30s and I asked him “What brought you along tonight?”. And for the next few minutes he retold his story… a story of being let down by those around him… a story where he had been affected by the sin and evil of those he thought we’re friends… and at the end of it he said: “Look, I just thought I’d come back to the place where I learned my ethics”.
In a round-about way, he came because he wanted to be around people who lived out a genuine faith, who have moral standards, who have ‘love’. He wanted to be around people who fear God and love their neighbour. And that’s Nehemiah’s helpful message, here, in chapter 5.
In this chapter, Nehemiah is confronted with an outcry against the sin of a certain ‘elite’ within the Israelite community. And Nehemiah is not only concerned for those affected, but also for Israel’s reputation in the gentile world. The story kicks off in verses 1-5:
1 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.” 3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
What’s the problem? Well, a group of Israelites are falling into debt because of the harsh conditions of the building project. But what’s so devastating is that it’s because another group of Israelites are charging interest on their goods and services. Essentially, God’s people are enslaving God’s people. Take a look at verses 6-8:
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
Nehemiah is outraged at this corruption, at this abuse, at this lack of love. This Israelite elite is reselling their “brothers” and their “countrymen”-fellow children of God-back into slavery. It’s economic abuse.
So, what’s Nehemiah do? Well, he calls this “Israelite elite” to fear God and love their neighbour… so that they’re reputation isn’t trashed. Take a look at verses 9-12:
9 So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them-one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.
And thankfully, this group of Israelites listen! Verse 12:
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.
Nehemiah brings justice. He demands repentance, real change, fear of God and a real love of neighbour… .and he gets it! But before anyone can accuse him of abusing power… he reminds Israel that he even feared God and loved his neighbour. Take a look at Nehemiah’s moment of introspection in verses 14 to the end:
14 Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year-twelve years-neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors-those preceding me-placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. 17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
Nehemiah himself sets the standard of fearing God and loving others. To which he cries out to God… verse 19:
19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.
Here in chapter 5, Nehemiah calls Israel to fear God and love their neighbour so that they “avoid the reproach” and “the shame” of the nations. When others take the opportunity to live in excess, to live for self, to love self-Nehemiah says: “Out of fear of God, I did not act like that” “Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.”
You see, Nehemiah is a man with a big view of God, a man who knows God and knows how great God is, how terrifying God is, how glorious God is! This is a man who is in awe of God and is willing to lift heavy burdens off others. He’s willing to truly love those whom he leads.
In so many ways, Nehemiah, himself, gives us a glimpse of our Lord Jesus Christ-doesn’t he? One who was a suffering servant-insulted and plotted against, one who says “do not be afraid”, one who unburdens his people, one who comes to serve and lay down his life, one who loves to the uttermost, one who lives in reverence and awe of God, and says “Not my will, but yours… “.
But more than that, Nehemiah 5 reminds us of what is demanded of those who are in Christ: to fear God and to love their neighbour-to love their brothers and sisters. The Apostle Peter writes:
“Love the brotherhood. Fear God.” (1 Peter 2:17)
You see, love for each other flows from one place-the fear of God. The more we dwell on our Triune God’s greatness, the more we’re in awe of our saviour and God, the more we appreciate the one we’ve been united to, the bigger thoughts we have of God and his love-the more we will love… and the more we will flourish in a world which considers us “the bad guys”. Because as we love, the world will that know the Father sent the Son and that the Son loves them with an eternal love. It’s as we love, that we avoid shaming our God and his people.
That’s the second way to live and flourish for Christ in a challenging world.
In his book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer writes about the greatness of our God. And he really cuts to the heart:
“We are modern people, and modern people, though they cherish great thoughts of themselves, have as a rule small thoughts of God… Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are-weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic. But this is not the God of the Bible! Our personal life is a finite thing: it is limited in every direction… But God is not so limited. He is eternal, infinite, and almighty. He has us in his hands; but we never have him in ours. Like us he is personal, but unlike us he is great“.5
Maybe Packer is on to something… Maybe our thoughts of God have become far too small.
Why do I cower in front of BMW salesman? Why do I not confidently speak Jesus’ name? Why do I move in love toward some people instead of others? Why do we love money and financial gain at the expense of others? Why do we bring shame upon ourselves in front of a watching world? Why do we fear the world? There are a complex web of reasons… But maybe, one of those reasons… is that we have too small a thoughts of God. Maybe we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that God is altogether like us. Or we only conceive of God as ‘personal’ and not ‘great’ and ‘to be feared’. And maybe, for some of you, you don’t fear God at all…
So, where do we go? Where do we go with our small thoughts of God? Well, it’s not difficult. We look again to Jesus Christ in God’s word. We look at his glory, his greatness, his personal yet ever-powerful presence… We look at him and his saving work until we see and trust God as God… until we fear him.
1 McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys, 4.
2 HALOT, 433.
5 Packer, Knowing God, 92.