Being a Christian is not easy. Paul and Barnabas, the very first missionaries, taught new converts that…
“‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’… ” (Acts 14.22)
The book of Nehemiah that we are looking at this morning illustrates vividly that same truth – namely that the life of the believer will not be easy. It was not in Old Testament times. It is not today.
Nehemiah's task was to restore the ruined walls of Jerusalem after their destruction by the Babylonians as God's judgment on the people's sin. But he found the work hard. In Nehemiah chapters 1 and 2 we read how he did not find it easy while still in Susa getting permission from King Artaxerxes to go back to Jerusalem to start the rebuilding. In chapter 3 we read how Nehemiah had a daunting management task organizing people to build the wall. Then in chapter 4 we read how some of the locals in Palestine were plotting to wage war and to…
“… fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.” (Nehemiah 4.8)
This was open, direct opposition. In chapter 5 we read how even genuine believers were causing trouble through their greed and lack of care and compassion. Now here in chapter 6 Nehemiah is facing personal attacks on himself. And these were more subtle and so all the more dangerous.
Leaders among the people of God then and now seem to be special targets for attack. That is why it is important to pray for them. I and others in leadership in this church need your prayers. And we thank you for praying. But these attacks we will be studying this morning are common to so many Christians in their life outside the Church. So there will be lessons here, I am sure, for all of us. There is a best-selling secular management book called The five temptations of a CEO. Well, chapter six of Nehemiah gives us three temptations of a Church Leader.
My headings for this morning, therefore, are the three temptations – first, TO BE TALKING WITH THE ENEMY AND NOT DOING GOD’S WORK; secondly, TO FEAR THE CONSEQUENCES OF A SMEAR CAMPAIGN AND GIVE UP; and thirdly, TO LISTEN TO AND FOLLOW THE ENEMY WITHIN.
First, TO BE TALKING WITH THE ENEMY AND NOT DOING GOD’S WORK (verses 1-3)
Look at verses 1-3:
“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it – though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates – Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’”
Verse 1 makes it clear that there are ‘enemies’. The reality is that the world is divided into two, those who believe and those who don't or those who (as Jesus puts it) are on the narrow road that leads to life and those who are on the broad road that leads to destruction. There is the church (the true Church) and there is the world. And the world, Jesus tells his disciples, hates the Church – John 15.19:
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
And that is why the world attacks the Church – the Church (or the people of God) in Old Testament times, and the Church today in this period between Christ's first and second comings – and that Church is now globalized and under Christ's Lordship. It is easier when these attacks are open. It was easier when Sanballat was attacking Jerusalem as mentioned in chapter 4. But when the enemy is all sweetness and light that can become difficult. When Sanballat says, “Dear Nehemiah, you’ve won. The walls are nearly finished. Perhaps we ought to talk about how we can now collaborate and live happily ever after,” that was a problem. Sanballat’s actual words were, verse 2:
“Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”
But this was a temptation to talk to the enemy when it was the last thing Nehemiah should do. Yesterday, 29 September, was the anniversary, 69 years ago, of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler – also called the Munich Betrayal. Chamberlain had been talking with Hitler and came up with this agreement that allowed the Nazis to continue rearming until they had sufficient strength to wage War – with the terrible consequences we all know. Hitler was using Sanballat’s tactics of talking to damage the UK, much of Europe and then the world at large. Churchill, still in the wilderness, immediately called this Munich agreement “an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged”. But how do you know when to talk to those who oppose you, whether they be one or a number, and when not? Ecclesiastes says there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3.7).
Proverbs says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26.4). But the very next verse says this: “answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26.5). Jesus in his trial just before his crucifixion both remained silent and also spoke (Mark 14.61-62). So how do you know when to speak and when not to? When should you be like Chamberlain and when like Churchill? Well, what can you learn from Nehemiah? Answer: two things.
First, note that Nehemiah knew that Sanballat and co. weren't genuinely wanting to learn from him or have his advice on anything. Nehemiah knew, verse 2:
“they were scheming to harm me.”
He knew they were either planning to do him physical or bodily harm – perhaps kill him – or they just wanted to harm him by harming his project. As yet the walls were not completed. Verse 1 says that Nehemiah had not yet “set the doors in the gates”. These enemies may have been planning some SAS-type raid while there were still entry points. Nehemiah, therefore, was not going to talk with the enemy – with people opposed to God’s plans – when all they wanted was to do him harm. I sometimes have to speak in debates at Universities and on controversial topics. In a couple of weeks time I am having to speak in a University debate (for which I would value your prayers) on the motion that “a child needs heterosexual parents”. But after such debates I find many want to carry on talking. It is obvious some people have genuine questions and genuinely want to talk, while others simply want to be aggressive and abusive. So I try to be polite to the latter but spend time with the former.
But, secondly, realize that the harm can be indirect. Nehemiah saw that talking with the enemy would waste time. And he didn’t want to be distracted from his main duty – the completion of the rebuilding the walls. Look at how Nehemiah replied to Sanballat – verse 3:
“I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’”
He saw this request to talk as a great distraction. Are you ever distracted from obeying God and doing his work? If you find some involvement with non-Christian friends too great a distraction, like Nehemiah, you have to say “No!” Of course, you must be with non-believers. Christ does not want you to go out of the world. But if an involvement means that you can hardly ever come to church on Sundays or ever meet with others for bible study midweek, something, I suspect, is wrong somewhere. So much for the temptation to talk with the enemy and give up on God’s work.
Secondly, the temptation TO FEAR THE CONSEQUENCES OF A SMEAR CAMPAIGN AND then GIVE UP (verses 5-9)
This is a temptation when people say unpleasant and untrue things about you because you are a Christian or about some stand you are talking that they don't like. So they lie about you to others. Look at what people said about Nehemiah (verse 6):
“It is reported among the nations – and Geshem says it is true – that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall.”
Then, secondly, they said to Nehemiah, “you are doing this for your own ego. You are on a power-trip” – verses 6b and 7:
“Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’”
Thirdly, they said to Nehemiah, “this is doing you no good. It will get back to King Artaxerxes before you know where you are; and you will be in real trouble” – verse 7b:
“Now this report will get back to the king, so come let us confer together.”
So what do you do, when this sort of things happens to you - when you are the object of smears and lies for being faithful to Jesus Christ? And you will be in that situation if you follow Jesus Christ. Remember how Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5.11-12:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Somehow there is blessing and good that comes from these experiences. But how do you respond? How did Nehemiah respond? He did three things.
One, he went on to the offensive and categorically denied the substance of what was said – verse 8:
“… you are just making it up out of your head.”
Two, he analyzed carefully what was going on. He saw this was another, and very clever, ploy to frustrate the building work and to demoralize his work force so they would not complete the rebuilding of the walls. For Nehemiah saw that the letter was being leaked to all and sundry (because it was left open). He reckoned (verse 9):
“They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’”
So one, he denied the charge; two, he analyzed things carefully. He then...
... three, did the only thing possible, verse 9b:
“I prayed, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’”
There are times when all you can do is pray, trust God, be courageous and carry on doing the right thing. And the Holy Spirit will give you courage – 2 Timothy 1.7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” What is courage? J.I.Packer’s definition is good: “Courage is not an absence of fear, but a resolute doing of what is known to be right however much we feel afraid, disturbed or hurt.”
So never allow some feeling of well-being to determine what is right and wrong. Doing God’s will often involves fear and nervousness and that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Courage, therefore, is not an absence of fear but, to quote again “a resolute doing of what is known to be right however much we feel afraid, disturbed or hurt.”
Perhaps you are a doctor or businessman or schoolteacher or student or whoever and God is calling you to take some ethical stand, but you fear the consequences of any publicity. Well, let Nehemiah be your example. He prayed and continued doing the right thing. May we all be men and women of courage, however fearful we feel. So much for the temptation to fear the consequences of a smear campaign and give up.
Thirdly, there is the temptation TO LISTEN TO AND FOLLOW THE ENEMY WITHIN (verses 10-13)
Look at verses 10-13:
“One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, ‘Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you – by night they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’ I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.”
This was probably the hardest of all temptations to resist. Here was a man who had a reputation as a prophet – the ancient equivalent of a bishop or famous clergyman. So people believed what he said. But he was a false prophet, who had been hired by Tobiah and Sanballat to frighten Nehemiah and make him sin and so discredited. What, then, was the precise sin in Nehemiah’s temptation? It was the sin of being so concerned for his own personal safety and well-being that he would desert his post and not complete God’s work; and what he would do to secure his safety was particularly sinful. Shemaiah was enticing Nehemiah not only to leave his post and go for safety to the Temple courtyard where a layman was entitled to go. But he was enticing him to go right into the Temple itself where only priests could go. This was a serious sin. King Uzziah is recorded in 2 Chronicles 26 as going into the Temple like this. He came out, however, covered in leprosy as a punishment for his sin. Nehemiah showing fear would have generated fear in his workers. They would have downed tools, not fixed the doors in the gates and so have left the city vulnerable as they made themselves safe. Also Nehemiah doing such a terrible (for those days) thing, as going into the Temple itself, would have been totally discredited in the eyes of the people. He would have lost all his authority, like some American TV evangelist or Roman Catholic Archbishop who gets discredited today for some flagrant sin, either sexual or financial. How vital, then, that Nehemiah realized Shemaiah was a false prophet and an enemy within. How vital that people realize who are false prophets today.
So how do you detect a false prophet. There are two tests. First, as Jesus said (Matthew 7.16): “By their fruit you will recognize them.” But sometimes it takes time for fruit to grow. So how can you tell a false prophet when you first meet them, before you have seen the fruit? Well, the second test is this: if someone says something that is so obviously contrary to God's revealed word – which for us is now the Bible – you must judge him to be a false prophet. For example, Deuteronomy 13 verses 1-3 make it clear that even if a prophet:
“… announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and [it]... takes place, and he says ‘Let us follow other gods’... you must not listen to the words of that prophet.”
In that case, his message, in spite of good things he does, is so clearly contrary to the first of those ten commandments there in Exodus 20. So today as soon as you hear a bishop or clergyman deny basic elements of the bible that are in the Creeds or basic elements of biblical sexual morality, you know they are false and you must reject their teaching – “you must not listen to the words of that prophet” as Deuteronomy puts it. Nehemiah knew Shemaiah was false once he suggested he should go into the Temple and he resisted this temptation to listen to and follow the enemy within.
I must conclude. The wall, we are told in verse 15,
“… was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty two days.”
But it was a struggle. Any great work for God will involve a struggle. Launching a new Church in Gateshead will involve a struggle. There will be temptations – the temptation to talk with the enemy and not do God's work; the temptation to worry about the consequences of false publicity; and the temptation to listen to and follow an enemy within. Relaunching, so to speak, Jesmond Parish Church (after some have left to help launch Holy Trinity Gateshead) will involve a struggle and those same temptations. But remember two things. And with this I close. First, temptation is two sided. The devil uses temptation to pull you down, but God is present at the same time to strengthen you and build you up through those difficult times. Who is going through such a time at this very moment? Well, in the strength of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the words of James’ epistle, “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4.7).
And, secondly, there is a spiritual war on as we heard in our second reading from Ephesians 6. Behind all the Sanballats and Shemaiah’s of this world is the evil one. If you are a believer in Christ, you can always be confident “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4.4). But if you are not yet a believer, why not accept Christ's free offer – of forgiveness of sins and new life through his Cross and Resurrection. That confidence can then be yours as well, as you fight (as we all have to) these spiritual battles.