Do you ever read the obituary column in the newspapers? It can be interesting to see what have been the defining features of someone's life. Have you ever wondered what might be written about you in your obituary? What would be the defining moments of your life? What would be the achievements?
One of the verses of Scripture that has made, and indeed continues to make, a significant influence on my life is Ephesians 2 v.10
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
You and I have a God given destiny. Our life has purpose and therefore meaning.
But how can we fulfil that destiny?
I want us this morning to consider what we can learn from the example of an Old Testament character who definitely fulfilled his destiny.
Please turn to our Old Testament reading: Nehemiah Chapter 1.
The Bible warns us that if we 'merely listen to the word' we are actually 'deceiving ourselves'. We need to 'Do what it says.' (James 1 v.22). May I encourage you to listen to what God is saying and to write down one concrete step, however small, that you are going to take to put it into practice this week?
Who was Nehemiah? How did he fulfil God's purpose in his generation? Where does he fit in the plot of the story of God's great dealing's with mankind.
In Nehemiah's time, his 'generation', God's people had been living in Exile from Israel for many years. They were in exile for a very simple reason. They had stubbornly and repeatedly disobeyed and ignored God and tried to run their lives according to their own purposes. God had warned them time and time again, through different prophets that this would lead to disaster and their being taken into exile in another land. But they didn't listen. And so into exile they went. But God also promised that He would bring them back to Jerusalem.
And it at this point in History, God's story, that Nehemiah comes to fulfil his unique role in God's purposes - the rebuilding of Jerusalem's shattered defences.
Nehemiah's role was indeed unique. Living, as we do, on the other side of the great defining event of History - the death and resurrection of Jesus - our roles and goals are different, as we shall see. But the principles of his response can apply to us today.
Today I want to highlight 3 steps that Nehemiah went through that we also must pass through to fulfil our God given destinies.
First, BECOME CONCERNED WITH WHAT REALLY MATTERS (vv 1-2, 8-9)
I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. (v.2)
We live in an age of information overload. There is so much going on that we can easily get side-tracked by issues of secondary importance.
It is important that we invest as much of our time, energy and resources as possible in things of primary importance. We need to evaluate. That is we need to check first that our values, what we truly believe to be important, do indeed match up with what is in fact truly important. Then, we need to check that our lifestyle matches those values.
We were still living in Central Taiwan when it was struck by a massive earthquake 2 years ago. People's values and lifestyle were significantly challenged, literally shaken, by that event. For example, many had thought investing in property would provide security, only to find it gone in an instant.
How do you know what really matters? How do you find out what is really important?
Recently we visited my sister and brother-in-law. We were out when a football match was being broadcast and they kindly recorded it for me. My one-year-old niece had a Teletubbies video in the video machine. Now I have to tell you at this point that I have little understanding of the household security measures required when toddlers are in residence. So, I had already pressed the eject button before I noticed the Mothercare lock on the machine. For those of you not familiar with this device it fits snugly over the slot you put the videos in to prevent inquisitive children such as Eleanor from posting jam sandwiches into the Machine in the hope that they will produce Twinky-winky, La-la, Dipsy or Po on the screen. The net result was that the Teletubbies tape got well and truly stuck inside the machine. Considering that this state of emergency required all the powers of my latent engineering and problem solving skills I set about gingerly poking and prodding it with a variety of instruments. For twenty minutes. All to no avail. Eventually my sister came in, located the maker's instruction book and promptly solved the problem by simply switching the power off and on at the wall as directed!
If you want to know what's really important, what really matters, then you need to look in the maker's instructions.
That's precisely how Nehemiah knew what really mattered. Look at verse 8.
Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, `If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.'
He was aware of what God's word said really matters. He had obviously spent much time reading God's word and thinking about its implications. For his particular place in history that translated to the needs of the city of Jerusalem.
But what about us. We live in a different time. Nehemiah lived before Jesus first coming and so what was important was the preparation for that coming. We live between Jesus' first coming, to rescue us from our sins by dying for us on the Cross, and his second coming at the end of history, when final judgement will be pronounced and evil totally dealt with.
What should really matter to us? What do the 'Maker's Instructions' tell us?
It will take you at least 72 hours just to read the Bible from cover to cover. I know because in my youth I took part in not one but two sponsored Bible readings. If you want an excellent overview of the main plot of the Bible. I can strongly recommend you get hold of the tapes of Ian Garrett's "Rough Guide to the Bible" that he gave at this year's day conference at Beamish. However they still need five hours to listen to and we have a flight to catch this afternoon.
So let's boil it down to a punchline. What matters to God? What does he want and not want during this time between Jesus first and second coming?
Two Scriptures let us in to the mind of God about this:
This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Tim 2:3-4
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3 v.9
What really matters to God right now? What he really wants is that men and women are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. That is rescued from their sin, their wilful and disastrous choice to disobey and ignore him and run their own lives without reference to him. He doesn't want anyone to perish.
This doesn't mean everyone will be saved. If you continue to reject God's love and his gracious offer of rescue through faith in Christ he won't force it on you. Sadly some still do this. But it is not what God wants. He wants you to become his child. He wants you to enjoy his blessing. You may think God could never be interested in you. That you are too bad or too insignificant. That you have committed too many sins. But you couldn't be more wrong. He really wants you as part of his family. He wants all men to be saved.
We have a friend who used to be involved with criminal gangs and pushing drugs. He had an explosive temper and there were some people he hated so much he wouldn't have hesitated killing them if he had the chance to do so without being caught. Because his father was a spirit medium he was also well aware of that dimension of life. However, he'd noticed that although when possessed by the evil spirit his dad was able to give apparently accurate information to the clients who sought his advice, his dad's health was also suffering. He had many unanswered questions.
At this stage God stepped in. A Christian friend invited him to a meeting and he quickly responded to God's love. There was something of a spiritual tussle as the devil sought to hamper his faith. But through prayer and a grasping of God's truth this was settled. Changes became quickly apparent in his life. Worship and praise replaced foul language. Service and love replaced criminal activity. He has become a cell group leader with a real desire to see others experience God's love.
Just before returning to the UK we attended a service at the Church in Taichung. A lady who had been baptised that week gave her testimony. She had attended the Church Christmas event almost by chance. Like lot's of people in Taiwan she was curious to attend a Christmas Eve service but hadn't been able to find a Church. She saw a queue of people at the park activity centre and asked what they were doing. When she discovered they were waiting to attend a Church service she joined the back of the queue. She had intended to just go for the evening. But our friend telephoned her every week for 6 months to invite her to the Cell Group, until in her own words she, "Had no more excuses left". Through the Cell she discovered Christ's love and had just come to faith. Our friend likes to pass on his enthusiasm to others and has already encouraged 2 members of his own Cell group to pioneer new Cell groups themselves. His vision is to see at least 60 such groups started from his own group.
It doesn't matter what you have done, God loves you, he wants you to be his adopted son or daughter and he wants your life to have meaning and purpose. You have a destiny.
So if you are still at the stage of investigating Christianity what really matters for you is to check this out for yourself. Some here have been doing that for a while already. You've accumulated enough evidence. What really matters for you is to decide. To decide to believe in Jesus, to accept God's offer of salvation, to become a member of his family and follow him all your life.
And if, like many people here this morning you have already made that decision, then what really matters is that you share God's concern for others. It becomes a focus for your life.
Nehemiah was focused on what he knew to be important. He was eager for news of how it was going in Jerusalem.
What is the focus of your time and energy?
We need to be concerned about what really matters but we need to go further than that...
Secondly, BE CONVINCED OF THE NEED FOR CHANGE (vv. 3-10)
If what God most wants is that people get rescued from a lifestyle that is heading for disaster. And if what he wants is that they experience the fantastic adventure of living as his child. If that's what's really matters, then how does the current world situation match up to this?
Nehemiah may well have been expecting a good report of how things had been going. A number years before a group of folks had already been sent back from exile under the leadership of a man with the interesting name of Zerubbabel. They had rebuilt the temple. And more recently a second group had returned under the leadership of Ezra to strengthen the spiritual life of the people. Things seemed to have been going according to God's promise. Nehemiah could have been forgiven for expecting news of further progress.
Instead he hears the news that it all seems to be falling apart.
Notice the depth of Nehemiah's emotions. "I sat down and wept." (v.3)He's not very British! But there are times when it appropriate to listen our emotions. Matthew tells us that on one occasion when Jesus saw the crowds around him he:
had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matt 9 v.36
Literally his innards were moved - a deeply emotional response. That is appropriate motivation.
What moves you? What sets your emotions on fire? Very few Christians died in that earthquake. Partly this may have been God's mercy on his people. But partly it is because the area which was worst affected had a very small Christian presence and many who died had never had an opportunity to hear of God's love for them. In Kaohsiung there are nearly one and a half million people who are facing the prospect of eternity without experiencing God's love and whose lives now often reflect the tragedy of living without Christ. I want them all to have a chance to experience the new life that Jesus brings. That's what motivates me. What about the people near you? How can they have that opportunity?
Thirdly, COMMIT YOURSELF TO A COURSE OF ACTION (v. 11)
This is the crunch point. Commitment almost always involves cost and risk. It could cost you to fulfil God's destiny for your life.
There is risk.
Nehemiah is literally risking his life here. He was cupbearer to the King. That didn't just mean he poured the Cabernet Sauvignon or Theakston's Old Peculier! In those days if you wanted to get rid of a leader you didn't impeach him or hold a vote of no confidence. You assassinated him. And poison was often the method of choice. So the guy who tasted your wine first was someone you could trust. He often became a top minister. And now here was Nehemiah saying he wanted to change his job description. You didn't normally put in that kind of request. It was likely to be misconstrued and you could literally be axed from your job!
It may mean giving things up.
When you commit yourself to something, you uncommit yourself to many other things. Even legitimate things we have earned the right to. Nehemiah turned his back on the life of a top politician in Susa for a decrepit outpost position. It was not an upward career move! I think of my friend Samuel whose now the Pastor of the Banner Church in Taichung, giving up a lucrative career as an architect, to lead a Church plant with no guarantee of success or financial security for his family.
It won't always be plain sailing.
If you read on in the story you will find that there is a lot of opposition to Nehemiah's leadership and goals. There's opposition from outside and sometimes from those who should have been among his closest supporters.
If you seek to fulfil God's destiny for you expect a struggle. I think that the year or so since we moved to Kaohsiung to lead a Church plant there has been one of the most difficult periods in our lives. Perhaps the most difficult in mine. There has been bereavement, illness, disappointments in ministry. It shouldn't be too surprising. When we try help others escape Satan's grip on their lives and enter into God's salvation he isn't going to step aside lightly.
And it won't always be safe.
Nehemiah's life was under threat on a number of occasions. Three folk I have known from Bible College days have already lost their lives because they dared to take God's love into places where there are real risks.
There is a cost to committing yourself to what really matters - making sure people hear the Good news of God's rescue plan for their lives.
This was not a knee jerk reaction from Nehemiah. There are 4 months between the month of Kislev and the month of Nisan. He had time to consider the risks. His decision was not in a vacuum either - it was, as we can see in verses 5 through 10, a result of prayerful reflection on 'the Maker's instructions'. But at some point he crossed a line. He committed himself to action.
I don't know the precise details of what that cost will be for you. It may cost you your time, your popularity in some circles, some smaller ambition, your career prospects, your comfort zone....
But there's a cost to choosing not to commit yourself. You'll miss out on the greatest challenge, the most worthwhile pursuit you could ever be involved in - to be an ambassador for Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
But it comes back to deciding what really matters.
If what really matters is that all men and women and children everywhere get the opportunity to experience God's salvation and come to a knowledge of the truth...then what we need is a what I've come to think of as a DWIT mentality.
Not a twit mentality. Some of my friends will tell you I've always had one of those. A D.W.I.T mentality says 'I'll Do What it Takes'. I'll do what it takes so that others might know about Jesus. It's the mentality we need to cross the line and act.
Nehemiah had it. Do you?
CONCERN, CONVICTION, COMMITMENT
What's the next step for you?
If you have not yet done so could I encourage you to get really serious about investigating who Jesus is and what getting to know him would mean for your life? Get a good translation of the Bible and read it. Join a group like 'Just Looking' or 'Food for Thought' that will help you do just that.
But perhaps you have been investigating for a while. You've got enough evidence that Jesus did indeed die for your sins. That he has indeed risen from the tomb. That there really is eternal life for anyone who trusts in Him. You know that following is the only sensible decision to take, despite the costs. Can I encourage you not to procrastinate. If your at that point then now is the time to ask Jesus into your life as Saviour and Lord.
If you are already a Christian can I strongly urge you to evaluate your level of commitment? I realise that some of you already have a significant level of commitment. You already have a clear strategy to share the love of Christ with your friends here in Newcastle and to be involved with supporting those working to do so further afield.
But if not, may I suggest two practical steps you might take. You need to be involved both locally and globally and you need to be both intentional and focused. If you haven't already written down a practical step to take this week you might find one here:
Write down the names of five people who you'd really like to have the opportunity to know Jesus. Think of them as your VIP's. Pray for them. Consider what the most appropriate way of helping them consider Christ's claims and grasp God's concern for their lives would be. Which of those events with Rico Tice or around Christmas would help them.
That's local. You also need to think Globally. If you are not already doing so can I strongly encourage you to join the support team of one of JPC's missionaries or partner schemes. I recommend you choose one to start with so that you don't lose focus. You can always broaden out latter. Talk to the relevant contact person or a member of staff.