Rebuilding the Walls Feb. 17 and 18
Nehemiah 2: 1-6, 11-19
Today we hit a milestone on our journey through The Story. This is the last message in the Old Testament. Go ahead and cheer! I know what some of you are probably saying and praying under you’re breath and celebrating, because it’s been a long 21 weeks. The Old Testament isn’t easy. It’s filled with names and histories and details that don’t seem to be important to God’s upper story. So I hope along the way you’ve learned something, and I hope you haven’t given up on this journey, because the end of the story is approaching, and it’s good!
Nehemiah, where we’ll spend our time today, isn’t the last book of the Old Testament, but it is an appropriate book that helps us understand a big shift happening in the Upper Story. God is preparing to do a new thing! God is going to take the mess that we’ve made and rebuild His kingdom in a new way, a way that will lead to renewed spiritual life and a renewed world. In Nehemiah’s story, things are looking up. People are returning home, the temple has been rebuilt, and all is well! Not so fast! As Nehemiah soon finds out, there is still work to be done. The temple has been rebuilt, but the surrounding community remains a mess. Let’s turn together to our reading for this day:
Nehemiah is heartbroken. The city he loves, the place he longs to call home, is a wreck. When the foreign armies laid siege to the city, they did a number on the place. They tore down the walls, set the whole place on fire and gloated as a once proud city lay in ruins. It was a mess. But even more troubling were the memories. Nehemiah knew well that Israel’s unfaithfulness was truly the source of the city’s downfall. It wasn’t just Babylon. It wasn’t just foreign opposition. It was years of God’s people neglecting God’s ways. It was years of trying to skate by without fully committing to God’s plans. And it all led to this big, old mess, and Nehemiah had to wonder if anything could be done about it.
I probably already know the answer, but I wonder if you’ve had that same nauseous feeling that sickened Nehemiah. You look around and wonder, “How did this happen?” “How did I let myself get this way?” “How did we end up here?” “How did things become so messy?” And then you wonder if anything can be done about it? Well I have some great news for you. The answer is yes, because No mess is bigger than God’s heart! Maybe you look at your marriage and wonder if it can be salvaged…Or maybe you scan the obituaries and read about another overdose death and wonder if our current opioid epidemic can be reversed…Or maybe you want to have a closer walk with God but wonder if you’ve wasted too many opportunities…No mess is bigger than God’s heart.
Nehemiah is deeply troubled by the mess he sees, but he comes to find out that he’s not the only one. God is also troubled by it, and God wants to do something about it. And so in the middle of that broken mess, God gives Nehemiah a vision. Now a vision is picture of how things could be. Pastor and author Andy Stanley puts it this way: A vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be. (p. 18). Deep in Nehemiah’s soul, he sees in his mind’s eye what could be. He envisions that ancient city standing tall, with sturdy wall rebuilt. But even more so, he envisions the rebuilding of lives. He pictures God’s people gathering for worship. He sees children running around and playing, safely protected from the enemy. He sees new life rising from the ashes. This vision consumes him; it keeps him awake at night; his heart burns to make this vision a reality. And he knows what he has to do.
Let me ask you a question. What vision is God giving to you right now? What does your heart burn for? Maybe you haven’t thought about that question in a long time. Maybe you’ve been so occupied with simply living that you haven’t had time to think about the way things could be. And I understand that. But if you did, what do you think you’d see? Do you see a strong marriage where you and your spouse pray together? Do you see a church filled with little ones singing praises to God? Do you see hundreds of people finding victory over their addictions? Do you see a burdened community bustling with hope once again? This is the power of vision. I’m getting excited just thinking about the new life God could resurrect through each of us when we ask God to give us vision, to help us see with fresh eyes. And here’s the thing about vision. Vision doesn’t discriminate. Just ask Abraham, who was old and Mary, who was young, and Moses, who said he couldn’t talk that well, and Paul, who had some type annoying thorn in his flesh. You’re not too far-gone, messed up, old, or inadequate to experience God’s vision for you right now. You just have to ask for it. And once you have vision, once you have that burning desire, it’s time to take a step of faith and start rebuilding!
Now, a lot of people who have a vision for the way things could be are so excited to get started that they just start doing things. That’s a recipe for failure. All vision, all rebuilding, begins with prayer! I know it might sound counterintuitive and it might sound like a stall tactic, but prayer is the only surefire way to see a vision transform into reality. I’ve seen so many great ideas falter and peter out because there was a flurry of well-intentioned activity in the beginning, but very little prayer. Nehemiah’s vision of rebuilding the city walls was built on intense times of seeking God in prayer. Before he did anything, Nehemiah prayerfully walked from wall to wall, inspecting and examining every nook and cranny to know what he getting himself in to. That’s what prayer does. Prayer helps us uncover the “root” and see what lies behind the surface, because we’re bound to miss something important if we only look at the surface. But there’s a even more important role for prayer. Prayer reminds us that the vision is God’s first, who has graciously shared that vision with us. And ultimately, if the vision succeeds, it will be by the grace and strength of God. Remember, the city walls were destroyed because people forgot God’s initial vision. And the only way Nehemiah will see this new vision bear fruit is to keep his heart firmly rooted in God’s presence and God’s ways. Whatever vision God has given you, the work of rebuilding begins with prayer.
A second fatal flaw to every vision is the attempt to accomplish it all alone. That’s not going to work. All rebuilding requires help. You aren’t enough to get the job done, no matter how skilled or intelligent you think you are. You aren’t enough to see this vision unfold, but God is. And God will always be your first source of help. When you set out to strengthen your marriage, God will be there to lift you up. When you set out to help others in their struggles, God will give you knowledge you don’t have on your own. And what’s more? God will bring others into your life to share this journey with you. Remember, together, and only together, are we the body of Christ. As Paul says in his famous teaching on the body of Christ, we all have different gifts and roles and functions. Some are like hands, some are like feet, while others are like ears. And when we use them together, the result is like a beautiful symphony. But just imagine the trumpet player ignoring the tempo set by the conductor. Or the soprano who thinks the song would sound better if she was in a completely different key. The vision, the music, would come crashing down. That’s because all rebuilding requires help. Whatever vision God has given you, pray for help. And when help comes, receive that help with open arms. He, she or they are gifts from God to get the job done.
The third flaw that can cause any vision to fall is having the wrong goal. As much as Nehemiah wanted to see the walls rebuilt, his vision wasn’t primarily about rebuilding a city; it was about rebuilding faith. That’s because Nehemiah understood that all rebuilding should lead to worship. The vision should never replace the One who’s given it, but sometimes it can. Sometimes we’re satisfied with simply accomplishing the goal- saving the marriage, getting a friend some much-needed help, starting a new initiative-but that only reveals that our goal was spiritually shortsighted. Once Nehemiah’s vision became reality, he gathered the people for worship. He did what he could to help others remember that rebuilding the walls was about rebuilding the people’s faith. Listen to these words: Ezra the scribe opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” They they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. A troubled people, finding new life and reconnecting with a God who promised to never leave them. The glory of God filling hearts and lives. That’s the vision Nehemiah saw when God first moved his heart.
Every vision God gives us is part of a larger story God is telling. Every marriage rebuilt points to this Story. So does every life saved from hurts, habits and hang-ups. Even those crumbling walls rebuilt by Nehemiah and his friends are telling God’s story. Soon those same rebuilt Jerusalem walls will hear the echoing cries of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him” as Jesus makes his way through the city streets and on to a cross. And one day, the grand finale of that Story will unfold before our very eyes, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I believe every vision God gives us for the here and now is meant to point that moment. So whatever your vision, whatever burns in your heart, whatever keeps you up at night, “Let’s start rebuilding.” Amen.