Summary: Despite opposition Nehemiah keeps them building. He organises the work to go on. We too experience opposition but can trust God to help us to persevere.
Sermon by Rev George Hemmings
Sometimes you read these stories from the Old Testament and they seem so remote, so removed from our modern world that you wonder whether they can have any relevance for us. I mean, as George pointed out last week, we wouldn’t even think of getting out and building a church by ourselves. Building has become a skilled occupation. You need the right tools and you need to know how to use them without injuring yourself.
Yet as you read through a passage like this you realise that in fact some things haven’t changed. The task may be different but the obstacles are much the same. The reaction of their enemies to their success was similar and the techniques used by those who oppose them have a very contemporary ring to them.
Nehemiah knew before he left Susa that he’d meet opposition. That’s why he asked the king for letters of authority. That’s why the king sent an armed troop with him.
The moment he arrives in Judea, he’s met by the local governors who immediately express their concern at his plans. They’re worried that he’s come to promote the welfare of the Jews.
That concern only escalates as Nehemiah and the Jews go about their task with gusto. Sanballat comes down from Samaria and begins what will be a campaign of opposition aimed at stopping the work. And the slowly escalating opposition takes a familiar course.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ I’m sure you’ve heard the words before and you’ve probably even chanted them at some stage in your life. But of course there’s no truth to it is there? In fact words can hurt far more than sticks and stones and their effects can be far longer lived. Every teenager knows that if you want to hurt someone you poke fun at them. Point out their messy hair or the way their ears stick out or their weight or their lack of coordination. Laugh at their clothes or their old fashioned mobile or their computer game that everyone knows is last year’s model. You can even poke fun at them when they do well in a test or when the teacher praises them for something. It so easy isn’t it? You just need to find the place where they’re a bit sensitive or feeling vulnerable.
And that’s exactly what Sanballat does. He ridicules the Jews for their feeble efforts. No doubt that’s exactly how they’ve been feeling. There’s so few of them and the job is huge. They’ve tried it once before and their enemies have come in and knocked down the parts of the wall that they’d rebuilt; burnt the gates they’d hung in place. No doubt many of them were losing sleep waiting for the same thing to happen again.
So he touches a nerve. And then he adds to it by asking a simple question: “Will they restore things?” “Will they finish it in a day?” “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish -- and burned ones at that?” You can hear the mocking laughter in his voice can’t you? “Can’t they see what it is they’ve started?” This is far too big a job for a few weak Jews, for merchants and artists like those goldsmiths and perfumers we heard about last week. Who are they kidding? The goldsmiths and perfumers had probably worked that out on about day 3 when their sore muscles started to really kick in. In fact look down at v10 and you’ll see that the Jews were already starting to voice those same concerns: “10But Judah said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.’”
It’s difficult when our opponents point out the things we already wonder about isn’t it? How do we share the gospel in a suburb like this? Didn’t Jesus point out just how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Well aren’t we surrounded by rich people? Isn’t Australia full of people who are satisfied in their affluence? So when the atheists suggest Christians are kidding themselves and that life is good without God we get worried. What if they’re right? What if we are kidding ourselves?
And notice the other little phrase in there: “Will they sacrifice?” That isn’t a comment about rebuilding the Temple. It’s a comment about their faith; poking fun at the thought that they might pray to God so he’ll rescue them, keep them safe. Sanballat thinks history is on his side. He’s seen the Babylonians taking the Jews away in chains so he doesn’t think God has any power at all.