The True Builder – Nehemiah 13. RBT Notes, 15th December

It takes a few weeks to build a wall. It takes a lifetime to build a community. Churches can be planted quickly, but real churches – living, authentic and sacrificial communities of Christians, take years and years to build. That work takes skill, patience, a willingness to press on through failure, setbacks through disloyalty and disinterest, and in it all, it takes the ever-present power of God’s grace.

And real communities are built on honesty and integrity. The years have moved on, and Nehemiah has had to be away from the community. What he unearths when he gets back is far from encouraging. Yes, the people have listened to God’s word, and have made big decisions about being serious in obeying it (vv.1–3). By the way, don’t mishear the command as sanctioned racism, that that community should be one of Israelites only – God purposed back then a people who would be true to Him in their marrying within their people, before He would send one who would be the Saviour of people of all races. If our first steps in obedience are not purposeful, what hope do we have that He will build in and through our own lines?

Nehemiah discovers that there is compromise in the community. Eliashib was best buddies with Tobiah, and allowed this pagan enemy of God to have all that he wanted in the temple (vv.4–5). Then Nehemiah steps in, and deals with this decisively (vv. 8–9). But that is not all that he discovers. The Levites and singers were unpaid, so understandably went off to earn their living (v.10). Nehemiah establishes new officials, and can only hope that these problems are solved (v.13).

If only. The sabbath is being desecrated, and Nehemiah has to get involved, ensuring that business stops for the sacred day (vv.15-22). The strain is, unsurprisingly, showing. When Nehemiah can see that some of the men in the community are raising children who speak in a pagan language, he explodes with rage (vv.23-28). Model leadership behaviour? Not by modern standards, and probably not by ancient standards, either. But just as Nehemiah drives one of these disobedient men away from him (v.28), we could say that their behaviour drives their leader to this rage. Authentic spiritual leadership can be exhausting, and lonely. Nehemiah is only human. And the community, after all, are only a bunch of sinners. Why should be expect any more from them?

A man would come, though, who would lead the people of God. He would provide them with walls of salvation. He would serve them to the extent of being driven to the cross, His beard pulled out. He would suffer and die on that cross, not to win one ethnic people, but people from all the nations on earth. Now today Jesus fills us with His Spirit, empowers to be dead to sin and alive to righteous, godly living. We will fail. We will let Him and each other down. He will lift us up again, and privilege us with the calling to build with Him for His community.

 

A Prayer to pray

Father, thankyou for Nehemiah. Thankyou for the strength, faith, courage and lvoe which You gave to Your servant. Thankyou, too, that he makes me look up to Jesus, the true Builder of God’s people. Help me to serve my community, to be humble, patient, faithful hardworking. And build a dwelling-place for Your glory in our church, Lord. Amen.

The Real Work – Nehemiah 7. RBT Notes, 7th December

The intimidation is not over (6.19), but at least the wall is done. And what a triumph that is! God had supplied the king’s favour, the resources, the workers, the strength, the protection and the unity to see the job completed. So,  can Nehemiah end his book here? No. He must now set out on the far, far harder project, of seeking to build up a people to live within those walls. And that is going to take all of Nehemiah’s faith, skill, courage and patience. In fact, it almost breaks him.

An important work needs the best people. Hanani is appointed first, to oversee the city, and then Hananiah has the responsibility for security (vv.2-3). Clear commands and clear delegation are a leader’s continual priority, and Nehemiah doesn’t falter here. But who will live in the city? There follows a great list of names, the great and the good, the ordinary and the…suspect (vv.6-65). Some claim to be priests, but the governor makes sure that this city is built on the worship led by true priests, not those who merely say they are (v.65).

So, 50 000 begin life again in Jerusalem. Will they thrive, or will it be a disaster? They are like a church plant. They have the walls, as well as shared beliefs and a shared life. Like a plant, they have an identity and much in common with each other. But these things alone won’t guarantee life, or success. They will need to listen to God’s Word, above all, then put it into practice. For that they need a preacher, and hearts sensitive to God. Let’s wait and see.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I know that I need to give my heart to Your church, or I will fail her, and she may fail. Help me not to hold myself back, or hide in the easy work of bricks and mortar. Make me a living stone in the work You are doing, for Your Son’s glory. Amen.

Hard Times – Nehemiah 6. RBT Notes, 6th December

Success brings opposition. When you achieve something, don’t be surprised that your achievement rouses hostility from others. The wall’s gaps are filled in, but the hatred of the enemies of God’s people gets more intense. Sanballat and his cronies start to circle, like the wolves they are. And their strategies?

#1 Violence

They want to meet Nehemiah, but he knows that they have dark schemes, and so wisely stays at his task (vv.1-4). Even when they ask him four times, he still refuses (v.5).

#2  Insinuation

Sanballat sends a threatening letter, suggesting that Nehemiah is in the process of rebelling against his Persian governor (vv.6-7). Nehemiah’s response is two-fold: he dismisses this nonsense, and he prays for strength (vv.8-9).

#3 Religious game-playing

A prophet is paid off by Nehemiah’s enemies, and hey presto, has a word from the Lord offering safety, when he’s actually leading Nehemiah into great danger. Luckily, the leader isn’t so foolish as to believe a man just because he writes Reverend before his name (vv.10-13). Nor should we.

All of Satan’s strategies against the church today are pretty much still the same. Which do we especially need to guard against in our situation?

 

A Prayer to Pray

Loving Father, thankyou that You hold me when discipleship s stressful and complicated. Lord, open the eyes of my heart to see and know the dimensions of Your love in Christ, and may I know that, whatever trials and temptations I face, Your love is deep, wide, long and high. Amen.

 

Opposition – Nehemiah 4. RBT Notes, 2nd December

Opposition happens. It’s one of the very few certainties of the Christian life. If, that is, we’re really living the Christian life. A insipid religious hobby will get noone’s back up. But building a life for Jesus, and striving to build a ministry of teaching and sharing His Gospel, will get reaction. And not all of it will be pleasant.

Sanballat was a powerful local pagan. We’ve seen him disturbed at the news that help was on its way for Jerusalem (2.10), and then we hear his mockery (2.19). Now we see that he is “angry and greatly incensed” (4.1). He scorns their efforts, and tells them that the job is far too great for them (v.2). His friend Tobiah joins in, ridiculing their work so far (v.3).

What are your strategies when you’re mocked and threatened as a disciple of Christ?

1. You pray (vv.4-5). God knows, and He cares. Prayer helps you keep your perspective. And Nehemiah entrusts God’s enemies to His purposes.

2. You keep going (v.6). Give up, or even slow down, and you’ve lost. Seek grace, and work with all your heart.

3. Take precautions (v.9). Pray, and guard your work.

4. Don’t resent the difficulties, work with them (vv.10-13). Everyone was feeling the strain, and the workers were anxious and discouraged. Leaders need to listen to their people’s anxieties, and respond to them. Nehemiah does just that.

5. Encourage the workers (v.14). We can all forget that God is in charge when tough times come. We need to remind ourselves and one another – He is the Lord! (v.14). There is everything to fight for, given that He is in charge. And with that conviction and that work we can overcome all opposition (v.15).

 

The work’s not done in a day, though, or in a week. Constant effort, constant vigilance are needed, as well as plenty of plans for when opposition comes again (vv.16-23).

Sometimes when discipleship is costly, you have to ask yourself why you’re living as you do. Why the stress of building a wall in the face of this opposition? Because the Kingdom of God is in the balance. As we serve the Gospel, God is building His Kingdom.

Fight the good fight of faith, in the power of grace.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I’m more cowardly and weak in my faith than I’ve realised, yet. You’re also more powerful and loving than I’ve yet discovered. You alone can make me strong, and make me stand, as I live for You. Do it, Lord, for Your Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

Attempt Great Things for God – Nehemiah 2 – RBT Notes, 30th November

Four months is a long time to live with an anxious, broken heart. Nehemiah has been seeking God for His forgiveness and mercy, and for His intervening power. He loves God’s people, loves God, and longs that God would move to restore His city, Jerusalem. Nehemiah offers himself for that purpose. This man, a close official, has been praying that God would “give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man” (1.11). Four months later, Nehemiah discovers that God’s “today” has come (2.1).

Nehemiah didn’t contrive to put on a sad face in the king’s presence, but Artaxerxes notices it, and asks about it (vv.1-2). We don’t know if Nehemiah’s words are premeditated, or just tumble out in an agony of heart. After his explanation, he has the opportunity he must surely have been praying for – and must have hardly dared request: leave to return and rebuild Jerusalem (vv.2-5). The other officials must have been stunned at the favour Nehemiah found. The king is intrigued, but gives his permission, and then agrees to share resources for the project after Nehemiah has the audacity to ask for them (vv.7-9).

How come Nehemiah finds such favour? Because he cared, prayed, and was courageous. Ultimately, because “the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (v.8). That is grace, and grace, though always utterly undeserved, is the gift enjoyed through believing prayer. After all, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3.20). It’s not enough to know the theory – prayer is the asking and the receiving of that abundant and powerful grace. So do we?

But any work we attempt for God is the focus of Satan’s attacks. There will be opposition, difficulty, discouragement, disloyalty, upset, frustration and exhaustion. Doesn’t Jesus warn us to count the cost of serving Him? The first hint is in v.10. And Nehemiah knows how ambitious his plans are, and is careful at the moment to keep them to himself (v.11-12). He surveys the scale of the work ahead of him (vv.13-16), again, keeping his plans secret. Notice that he’s no Lone Ranger, and he’s looking for partners. So, once he knows what he’s calling others to commit to, he gathers the community leaders, and tells them three things: what needs doing, that God is good – and that they have work to do.

The work begins. There are the gathering clouds of opposition and discouragement (v.19), but the bright conviction of faith (v.20). With God all things are possible. Do you believe that? Do you believe that God’s work is the best work to do, and that His servants will be filled with His Spirit for it? Then what are we waiting for? Let’s offer ourselves to His work.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, You are worthy of all risk, effort, sacrifice and danger. I know that, but I don’t know that. I’m always so tempted to run back to the safe and the familiar. Forgive me my cowardly and unbelieving heart. Thankyou for Your brave Son, who was faithful to the end, paying for my sins and showing me the way of brave Gospel service. I go in His Name, in His power. Amen.

Open Hearts – 2 Corinthians 7. RBT Notes, 9th November

Every true Christian hates differences or misunderstandings to come between them and fellow believers. We’ve all lost sleep as we’ve worried over whether someone in church is avoiding us, or talking about us behind our backs. And no, this sort of worry doesn’t necessarily mean that we are weak people-pleasers who need to grow some backbone – as well as a stronger faith. This could actually be the sign of a Spirit-given love for other people, which hates to see precious relationships grow cold.
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Paul sees it like that. “Make room in your hearts for us” (v.1) isn’t the trickery of a con-man, nor the whimper of a needy man. Paul declares his love and integrity (vv.1-7), because he wants the Corinthians to love and trust him. When trust breaks down in churches, love soon goes the same way. And when love goes, well, then we may as well just close the doors and give it all up.
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Notice, that love for Paul doesn’t mean that he avoids confrontation, nor should it for us. He refers to a letter where he had told some hard truths which hurt them (v.8). He’s not feeling guilty for that, though it can’t have been easy for him. In fact, he takes comfort that the truth led to repentance and change in the church, which was Paul’s purpose (vv.9-13). The challenge to us is clear: do we love people enough to that we speak the truth in love, when those words might be rejected, and when we might be rejected, too?  Avoiding saying hard things when they’re needed, isn’t love, it’s insincerity, and it’s verging on a form of hatred, as we put our own peace and comfort at the top of our priority list. Does this uncomfortable truth give us anything to repent of?
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord, I am a man of unclean lips. I listen to how I often complain and criticise, boast and serve myself with my words. And I listen for brave words where I say hard but necessary things for Your our honour – but I hear so few. Cleanse my sin, Lord, it is great. Pardon me, and put truth and love on my lips. Make me a servant of Your grace, for Your sake. Amen.