When God establishes a vision, effective leadership is necessary to communicate that vision clearly and practically to those whose efforts will bring it to fruition. In this study of Nehemiah 2:11–20, Alistair Begg examines the aspects of Nehemiah’s leadership that helped to plant his vision to rebuild the Jerusalem wall in the hearts of God’s people, even in the face of apathy and opposition. If a vision is God-given and humbly presented, then God will earth it in people’s hearts and move them to respond.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, shall we turn again to Nehemiah, and to the second chapter? If I may, I want just to read the second half of chapter 2, before we look at it together:
“I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.
“By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward[s] the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then I moved on toward[s] the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. The officials did not know where [I’d] gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.
“They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.
“But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’
“I answered them by saying, ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.’”
Father, again we look to you, the Lord of the Word, as we come to the Word of the Lord. We pray that by your Spirit you will teach us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, I have caught myself just a little bit off guard by not paying attention to the instructions. And it probably gives an indication of how anxious I was to go for lunch—sort of Freudian slip, that I would give thanks for lunch—but anyway, it’s nice to be slightly ahead of things, and here we are.
What I would like to do is to consider this under the heading of “Planting the Vision” or “Earthing the Vision.” It was established in the heart of Nehemiah as a result of the intervention of God in his life, but as we alluded to in the first session, if we’re going to be effective in leadership, we have to be able to translate that into the most practical of terms and in ways that are understandable both to those who will be following us and particularly those who will be engaging in the tasks, which is what, of course, we find here.
Now, I’d like to trace a line through this by giving you a number of words; I think there are some eight of them, if I remember. Yes, there are eight words. So I have eight coat hangers on which I’m going to hang the clothing, as it were, of our material.
The first word may take you a little by surprise; it emerges from verse 11: “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days…” The first word is relaxation—relaxation. This is the kind of sentence that I think most of us are tempted to overlook; it’s simply a point of information. It gives a chronological footnote, as it were, to what’s going on.
I’m tempted to suggest—and of course we have to beware of eisegesis, always—but I’m tempted to suggest that there is something here that we could very quickly overlook and miss something in so doing. Wouldn’t we expect that after he had been anticipating this for so long, after he had made this journey of all of these hundreds of miles, after he had finally got within the precincts of the realm of opportunity, that he would immediately get down to the business? That he would corral the people that were there, give them a few sketchy outlines of what needed to be done, and get on with it?
Well, if we had anticipated that, of course that is not what has happened. He gives himself these three days. And they probably included the Sabbath—again, we can’t say with conviction, but it would seem that that would at least have established part of the framework. And in that, he recognized, it would seem, that rest is a necessary part of useful action. It is not something to be overlooked, neglected, denied. It tends to be, in many of the models of contemporary business life, where successful leaders in the world of commerce and industry are seen being able to make the transition from continent to continent and from plane to plane and office to opportunity with the minimum of fuss and with the maximum of ease. Within the realm of church activities, that can easily become the case also. And it is not a good model, I would suggest, for us to begin to follow. Rather, we need to learn how important it is to take time to rest and to relax. In Ezra—in the record in Ezra—and in 8:15, we read, “I assembled them at the canal that flows toward[s] Ahava, and we camped there three days.” In Ezra 8:[31–32]: “On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from [the] enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days.”
So there seems to be some pattern here, some anticipated modus operandi that was essential in the unfolding of the actions to which he was coming. Makes perfect sense. The journey from Babylon to Jerusalem was a long one. Straight across the desert, it would be five hundred miles. If he went by way of the Fertile Crescent, which it is probable that he did, then the journey was between eight and nine hundred miles. And after such a long and tedious trek, the task to which he was about to give himself was absolutely crucial, and therefore it was imperative that he stopped, and he rested, and he collected himself before he went on.
Now, let me just make two very practical points. First of all, most of us in pastoral ministry ought to beware of talking about how tired we are. I’ve noticed in moving around places that I keep meeting these characters, and I see them in the mirror—namely, myself—and we can often sound as though we’re working exceptionally hard. And by observation, I don’t know that many of us are, in comparison to many of our lay elders, who are just about killing themselves fulfilling the responsibilities of their day-and-daily routine, trying to exercise the jurisdiction of father and husband, being faithful in the responsibilities of ministry within the church and also in the oversight of what’s going on. It is, I suggest, a word of necessary caution to the wise to quit with the assertions of our great fatigue. You get it in prayer letters and little letters: “Oh, do pray for Reverend So-and-So; he’s so tired.”
Some of you may have got a letter—I don’t know who it went out to—from our radio program, but I had been on a trip to San Francisco to do two “Evenings with Truth For Life,” the radio program we have. I took with me one of my colleagues. He wrote a report—I guess it must have gone to the members of our board—he wrote a report which he sent before I got to see it, and in a paragraph, he explained how exhausting this trip had proved to be. So I took him aside, and I said, “Hey, listen: you don’t even understand the word exhausting, and neither do I. After all, what did we do? We got on a plane, we flew to San Francisco, we went out for lunch, we did an ‘Evening with Truth For Life,’ we played golf, we did another evening for Truth For Life, and we flew home. And you’re calling that exhausting. You’re gonna get us all fired with adjectives like that!”
I had a guy on my pastoral team, I used to ask him, “And how are you this morning?” He used to say, “I’m tired, tired.” You know, he was from “Texas” or somewhere, you know. “Y’all come back now; I’m tired.” And I swear, if he’d told me one more time he was tired, I can’t tell you what I might have done to him. And eventually he faded off into the sunset, you know. And he’s lying on a park bench somewhere today, you know, just snoozing. ’Cause he’s “tired.” He’s never been tired in his life; he’s tired from doing nothing! There are fewer callings in life that afford such unbelievable opportunities to do virtually nothing that are equal to pastoral ministry.
Now, you can talk to me about that in the question and answer, but for now it’s a monologue. Most of us are not in danger of burning out; let’s face it. Rusting out is a distinct possibility: collapsing under the weight of muffins, building these little things to rest coffee cups on, which children think are a prerequisite of pastoral ministry—mostly in Scotland, where you can tell the real professionals because they can hold their coffee cups without their hands at pastors’ conferences, ’cause they’ve built a ledge on which they can set it perfectly—just sits by itself. Their problem is not overactivity, trust me.
Now, I say that because what I’m about to say is the reverse of it. But I don’t want—especially if we have some lay elders here—anybody to think that we think, you know, “Oh wow, you know, we’re really doing the job!”
Now, having said that, it is possible to get tired. And there are things that are demanding upon us, and we know from experience that usually we’re the last people to identify how tired we are. And what happens is that we diminish in usefulness, we diminish in our ability to cope with the day-to-day routine. We tend to be snapping at people and responding to people in a way that is less than marked by Christian grace. And therefore, we need to take a significant look at how we are endeavoring to fit relaxation into the framework of our establishing of vision.
And may I just say in passing, I do believe it is imperative to take a day as a day off. I take a Tuesday as a day off. And as long as I am in town, then I’m absolutely faithful to that, barring death—my own death, or the death of someone in the congregation, or some severe pastoral contingency. But failing that, Tuesday I take. I have friends who believe that they are a far better pastor than I, which of course is a distinct possibility, but largely they’re determining that on the strength of the fact that they have no time off. They are just so overwhelmed, they just have so many things to do, they have so much by way of responsibility.
Well, I haven’t always been in the luxurious position which I now find myself in America. I did work for eight years in Scotland—two as an assistant in Edinburgh, when I visited forty and fifty people a week in the course of my responsibilities as an assistant, running up and down tenement stairs. When I moved to a church by myself in the west of Scotland, I had a telephone, but it was in a corridor in the building, and it was a pay phone. I used to sweep the hall, remove all the potato chip packets, put the seats out, put the tables out, find a velvet cloth, put it on top, find a jam jar, stick flowers in it, to get ready for our midweek meeting. So I’ve been there. You know, I’ve got that T-shirt. And the kind of pressure and rest that most of us need is “upstairs” here. And I can imagine that, in light of where he’d come from and where he was going, he endeavored to do that.
When we find ourselves overtired, there are a number of things that we shouldn’t do. Number one, we shouldn’t make important decisions. Number two, we shouldn’t write important letters. Number three, we shouldn’t launch new projects. Number four, we shouldn’t shut down old projects. Number five, we shouldn’t quit. Number six, we shouldn’t assess somebody else’s spiritual condition. And number seven, we shouldn’t assess our own spiritual condition. Because most of the time, we will be warped in our perception of what’s going on. And again, it will often take someone who knows us well to point out the predicament that we’re facing, because the more tired you become, the more you tend to increase your frantic activity level, because you can tell that, in soccer terms, it’s taking you longer to get to the ball when there’s a loose ball, and so it just tyrannizes you, and you just try harder and harder and harder, when, in point of fact, what needs to happen is that you need to be substituted. Because you have now lost the ability, you’ve lost your pace to make it to the ball—and it takes wisdom around to do that. Nehemiah was clearly wise, and he understood the importance not of laziness but of relaxation. I probably said more on that than I should.
But anyway, the second word is motivation—motivation—in verse 12: “I set out during the night …. I had not told anyone what … God had put in my heart to do.” “In my heart” is the key—“in my heart.” What was “in my heart”—at the core of his being. What makes you tick, Nehemiah? Why are you involved in this? Why did you even show up? What are you planning to do?
None of this he had as yet shared with any of the people who were going to be involved. And this is very, very important, especially when we have within us a longing and a passion to see something happen—when we have the responsibility somehow or another to convey that vision to others who are actually going to be implementing the vision. Because in the initial dimension of it, it is possible for people to respond in all kinds of ways, and to look at us, and to draw all wrong kinds of conclusions. From the outside, for example, the observers could have seen Nehemiah coming to Jerusalem and said, “Oh, here we go. Here comes the empire builder; he’s simply come here to make a name for himself. After all, why would you come nine hundred miles? Does he really think he’s so significant? Do we think that we need him?”
Well, the fact of the matter was that under God they did need him, and he didn’t think he was so significant. And it was because he didn’t think he was so significant that he was about to become so significantly useful. A wonderful paradox again, that those of us who think we are so significant will live our lives in insignificance. And it is a very awareness of our insignificance that may prove to be the pathway to significance—that in Christian living and ministry, the way to up is down.
I think probably he would been aware of those things, as all who are in leadership are aware of these things. My mail, when I came back the other day… Ah, well, I came back Tuesday night, and I went into my study yesterday, and I had a significant amount of correspondence. And as I was going through it, quite a large proportion of it was email that they put on paper for me, because I’m a computer nincompoop. And so I was going through, reading this, and someone wrote from Seattle, and someone from here and there; it was tremendously encouraging. And in the middle of that, I came to a one-line letter from a man who left the church because he didn’t like a number of things in it. And you know, if not liking a number of things in the church was a good reason to leave, I would have left, myself, long ago.
But anyway, he had this letter, and it said, “Dear Alistair: Pride comes before a fall. Love, Joe.” So I said, “Well, that’s a cryptic message. How should I respond to this? Shall I be defensive? Shall I write and say, ‘It’s only because you have cheese on your mustache that you think everything stinks’? What should I do?” I said, “I’ll take it from the hand of God.”
Here I am with sixty-five or seventy pieces of mail that could give you such a fat head that your wife wouldn’t be able to sleep in the bed with you, and in the providence of God, just slots it in, says, “Hey, by the way, fathead, you liking this mail? Try this one!” God has a wonderful way of working. He speaks through Balaam’s donkey, and he can speak even through disenfranchised people, you know.
See, Nehemiah was internally driven. And whenever a man or a woman is a woman of passion, a man of passion, that is not simply a member of the “Bright Idea Society,” when they are driven by something that God has put in their heart to do, that something will become apparent to others. When you think of Paul explaining his ministry in 2 Corinthians 5, he says, “The love of Christ compels us.” “It compels us, it drives me from the inside,” he says. “It’s my great longing”—1 Corinthians 9—“to win as many as possible.” That’s actually the phrase in the NIV. What are you doing, Paul? “I’m seeking to win as many as possible.” What are you doing, Nehemiah? “I’m coming here to establish God and his glory. I believe God has sent me here.”
What burns in your heart? What is inside of us, if our children were to describe us? If you go get my teenage son and say, “What’s your dad about? Give me a sentence,” what’d he say? That’s the real test. Not “What does it say in your bio?” Not “What does it say on the back of something?” We hope that’s not incorrect, but it’s not as significant as asking, “What’s going on inside of you? What motivates you? What drives you? What makes you tick?”
One of my favorite friends died some years ago, a little Irishman called T. S. Mooney. He led a Crusader class, which is a boys’ Bible class or a girls’ Bible class—in his case, boys—in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for fifty years—fifty years. When he was asked what his motivation was in teaching this class Sunday after Sunday after Sunday for fifty years, except for the school vacation times, he said, “It is my purpose that every boy would have a Bible in his hand, a Savior in his heart, and a purpose in his life.”
Now, that’s the kind of clarity that is essential for doing ministry. You see, people can get around that kind of motivation. Not a lot of bunch of mumbo-jumbo stuff, you know, where it’s like, you know, theological moondust. It’s just talk! “What are you doing, Nehemiah? What’s the thing? What’s inside of you?” Well, he hadn’t told them yet.
Incidentally, that same wee guy, when I asked him why he’d never married—and at that time he was seventy-nine years old—he said, “Well, the reason I never got married is quite simple: because I would rather go through life wanting what I don’t have than having what I don’t want.” So he was the master of succinct expression. Some of us need to learn that; so do I. Let’s go to the third point.
Relaxation, motivation, examination—verse 13. If we’re gonna earth a vision, then we need to rest, in order that when we get on our feet we can go. If we’re going to earth a vision, then we need to be motivated by a concern that is God given rather than man engendered. ’Cause, in the words of Robert Burns, “the best-laid [plans] o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” I’ll give you a translation later. Examination: “By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward[s] the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire.” And he describes for us this little reconnaissance mission. Clear in his mind about what needed to be done, sure in his heart about his motivation, he now sets out to see how it can be accomplished.
I think this is where some of us fall down: in our eagerness to implement, we miss the reconnaissance part. And so when the engineers in our session, who think in linear progressions and are really quite bright, encounter this sort of artistic, pseudophilosophical, theological rambling going on, they’re able to cut to the heart of it very quickly and say, “I’m not sure you actually know what you’re talking about here, Alistair.” It’s very painful but very helpful. And the reason that we often don’t is not because we aren’t motivated, it’s not because we’re not relaxed and ready to go; it is because we haven’t done this part. We haven’t taken the time to do the reconnaissance. We haven’t thought about it.
Now, look at the hallmarks of his examination. First of all, he did it quietly—quietly. I think that’s the significance of the last phrase of verse 12: “There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.” I don’t think he’s identifying the fact there that, you know, he had a donkey and no one else had a donkey. That’s not the spirit of leadership—not servant leadership. It’s not Nehemiah. I think it’s an expression of the fact that the last thing you want when you’re doing this kind of thing is a lot of snorting and neighing—a lot of that stuff. I mean, horses do some stuff, you know—I mean, all kinds of stuff! If you’ve ever been to military displays, you know that the front row is not necessarily the place you want to be.
So he is not gonna carry on with a bunch of these things. There is a time to be silent, there’s a time to speak. He doesn’t come in with a big fuss, big bother; there’s no posters, “Nehemiah will be arriving next week.” [Alistair sings.] “Nehemiah’s coming to town,” you know. None of that junk! None of that classic American evangelical hype. (Sorry!) You know, if your church is this size, you get this size of picture. If your church is this size, you get this size of picture. If your church is this size, you get the whole back page. If your church is this size, they don’t even want to know who you are. May the Lord forgive us for all of that stuff. Nehemiah comes into town quietly—quietly. Some of us have a hard time with being quiet.
He comes, actually, secretly—secretly! That underlines why it is he’s coming by night. He says it in verse , verse 13, verse 15—and in verse 16: “The officials [didn’t] know where [I’d] gone or what I was doing.” Well, how does this fit with full disclosure? Well, there’s a time for full disclosure, but there is a time for full disclosure. If you get full disclosure prematurely, people may not be able to handle the disclosure that you give, and furthermore, as I just suggested, we may be disclosing things that we haven’t fully thought through. And so instead of establishing a vision, we simply establish chaos. And it takes us ages to repair the breaches, and we have to go all around and come back and start all over again.
I was saying to the gentleman who picked me up and brought me here from the airport this morning—he was asking about the transition from Scotland to America—and I said that after I’d been in this church for about three years, I suddenly realized I would have to start all over again. Now, I didn’t tell everyone I was starting all over again, and only the perceptive would know. But I essentially had to start all over again. Because the first three years, I had all kinds of assumptions. The first three years, I shared all this wonderful material that nobody had a clue what I was on about, and I realized that Mark Twain was right: “Here we have two nations divided by a common language.” And that the ropes that I was pulling, there were no bell ringing at the other end, because the rope wasn’t attached to the bell. And the people who were the bells, as it were, that weren’t making any noise, couldn’t understand why I was working myself up into such a frenzy pulling on this big bit of string. So we had to come around again and start all over again. What was the problem there? I didn’t do the reconnaissance! I didn’t do the reconnaissance. I assumed too much too soon, launched into it.
You see, I think he probably was secretive first of all to ensure that when he finally stated his plan, he knew it was feasible, and also to prevent his enemies, via traitors, from jumping on the strategy.
So, in terms of examination, it happened quietly, it happened secretly, and it happened methodically—methodically. Silence and secrecy without this dimension would yield very little. He moves around, we’re told; he arrives at the King’s Pool, which in the New Testament, we know, is the Pool of Siloam—remember, where Jesus told the blind man to wash. It’s always exciting when you read the Old Testament and you realize how it fits with the New. The place that Hezekiah had built a tunnel from inside the wall to the pool, which was on the outside, to ensure a solid supply of water in case there was a siege. And if you’ve gone to Jerusalem in the last while, you will have gone down Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and you will have broken your back examining that. That is exactly there.
And as he does this reconnaissance methodically, he realizes that the wall had fallen down the steep terraces. And because it’s fallen down the steep terraces, he’s unable to proceed on his mount, so he dismounts, and he leads his donkey. You can just picture him going around, building a picture of what needed to happen, perhaps making notes of who needed to be involved, asking God to make the concept clear in his own mind before he introduced it to the workers.
See, that’s the challenge, isn’t it, of what we do in pastoral ministry? That if our responsibility is to edify the saints so that they can do the works of ministry, if we’re gonna do God’s work in God’s way, then it doesn’t mean that we are “the minister.” (I hope I’m not standing on toes here. Nomenclature is not the issue.)
But the gentleman with whom I spent time this past weekend in Ireland was explaining to me how overrun he was, how demanding the task was, how the expectations were very high, and everything else. And I tried as graciously as I could to say, “You know, you’ve gotta start doing this biblically. And you’ve gotta be prepared to live with the fallout that comes from implementing a biblical strategy and doing it methodically.”
In other words, if you take your little brochure on your church and look at what it says against your name, there’s an inherent flaw right there. (Now, this may be true of this church, in which case I’ll get a rocket from Dr. J. But that’s okay, ’cause I can have a discussion with him about it as well.) But the thing says, “Welcome to the church,” and then it gives a list of the key people. Okay, now, what’s the first name? Right? Why do we go first? Because we want everyone to know that we are the most significant person there, is that it? I don’t know. Anyway, it’s there.
So we have the name; that’s all right, maybe it’s alphabetical. But underneath, it says, “the minister”—“the minister.” Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist sitting in the congregation to put two and two together and work this out: “We put the money in the box so that the minister can do what the minister is supposed to do as the minister—namely, minister. And let him get on with it! There’s no reason for us to start interfering.” So when the minister starts to discover a New Testament pattern for implementing ministry and discovers that he is not the minister, but that he is a pastor-teacher, that he is a shepherd, that he is a teacher, that he is a guide, that he is a servant, and as a result of the unfolding of the Scriptures, the people themselves become ministers, then it unleashes the church in ministry.
But the challenge is, how do you do that? How do you do a reconnaissance during the night to find out where Joe and Mary and Fred and Bill and Agnes are all gonna go, and then tell them, “There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do”? That’s exactly what he was doing: building a picture of who was going where.
Now, he then comes, in the seventeenth verse, to exhortation. Relaxation, motivation, examination, and exhortation. “Then I said to them”—verse 17—“‘You see the trouble we are in.’” Now, if you just pause there for a moment, I think he’s very generous. I’m looking forward to talking to him about his strategy in relationship to this. I don’t know what your observation on it is, but it’s a matter of some intrigue. Is he giving them the benefit of the doubt? Is there an irony in this? “You see the trouble we are in?” The chances are, they didn’t see the trouble they were in. In the same way that when you go down into your teenager’s bedroom or up into your teenager’s bedroom and you say, “You see the trouble you’re in? Do you see the mess you’re in?” guy says, “Mess? This is gorgeous! This is post–Second World War décor. Is there a problem here?” Say, “This is a total mess!”
The fact of the matter is, if you live in mess, you don’t see it as a mess. And these people had been living like this for so long. They’d grown accustomed to it. Oh, the wall was broken down opposite their house, but they kinda liked the shape it had taken on, and the way the grass had grown into some of the spaces. There were wee weeds that had grown up, and although they were weeds, they were kind of attractive. And in the mornings, they’d get up, and they’d look out, and it was sort of nice.
And now Nehemiah comes in, and he says, “Do you see the mess you’re in?” And the fact of the matter is, a lot of them didn’t see the mess they were in. And of those who did see the mess they were in, there were another group that didn’t even care they were in the mess. They had grown accustomed to it. Like My Fair Lady when he sings that one—what is it? “I’ve grown accustomed to your face.” Right? That’s what they were doing: “I’ve grown accustomed to the mess.”
“Do you see the trouble?”
“No, I don’t see the trouble.” They had grown accustomed to disgrace.
Now, we don’t want to understate the challenge facing Nehemiah. It was gonna take something really significant to overcome their apathy. And when we come to people who have become tired, discouraged, disgruntled in the work, then we’ll hear them saying all kinds of things—especially when we come along, maybe to a new opportunity, to a new charge; we come with fresh vision, we’ve been to a conference, something has stirred our hearts, and we come back and we’re ready to go. And we’ll be confronted by people, just as Nehemiah was, some of whom were doubtless thinking, as were they, “Well, you know what, this is out of our league. You know, I don’t know where you got these big ideas; you must have got these ideas in the capital of Medo-Persia. Now you’re coming back to Jerusalem, you’re gonna try and fill our heads full of all that Medo-Persian stuff. After all, they’re pagans!”
When I used to visit from Scotland to America, and then I would go back to my leadership, and I would tell them, I’d say, “You know, what about this?” And it never failed—it never failed. “That sounds like a Yankee idea to me!” somebody would say. “Where did you get that from? America?” I’d say, “Well, yeah I did.” “Well, I know I don’t want that over here; this is Scotland, not America!”
You know, one of the hardest things for me to deal with is to be surrounded by a group of leaders who don’t lead—who don’t take time to relax, don’t take time to discover the motivating principles of God’s Word, don’t take time for the examination, and are unprepared to respond to exhortation. And it’s one of the perennial difficulties in a church. Again, the circumstance out of which I just came, the man has seventy elders. Seventy elders! Sixty of them are hardly ambulatory, and the other ten are in need of encouragement. What do you do? Well, some of the things I think of doing are not biblical. And so we need to be much in prayer and to pray that God will create that spirit, because there’s so many people…
And then the others would be saying, “You know, this was done before.” And it was done before; that’s what we find out in Ezra chapter 4. “Hey,” some guy says, “excuse me, excuse me! We did this once before; it was a disaster.” You ever come across one of those guys? I thought they were all in Scotland! When you move from church to church, people reincarnate themselves. Have you noticed that? The one guy that you thought you had got rid of forever, who had a big red face, baldy head, and spoke with a Glasgow accent, all of a sudden appears, six foot four with a New England accent. Same stuff! (Now, you know that reincarnation statement is… it’s just stupidity. But it was a joke! Not much of a joke, but anyway…)
And also, the people who say, “No one’s excited about this.” “This is out of our league; we tried it before, it didn’t work; and no one’s excited about this.” Do you ever get those letters? “Dear Pastor, I want to write to you to let you know that I’m deeply concerned about A, B, C, D,” and so on, all the way through the alphabet. “And it may interest you to know that I am not alone in this, and there are a great number of people who feel the same way as I do!” Yeah, well, fine! Stand up and let me see you!
And you see, what is the only thing that keeps you going in that situation? The only thing that keeps you going in that situation is that God has put it in your heart to do. That’s the only thing. There’s not a salary can be paid, there’s not a coastline to be enjoyed, there is no external incentive that anybody can give to me that is significant enough to overcome that. The only thing that keeps one to the task is that God has put it in our hearts to do. And when we find ourselves full of vision, full of hope, full of potential, and are met by “We tried it before, it didn’t work; no one’s excited; it’s beyond us,” you gotta hold fast, you gotta tie yourself to the mast, you gotta ride it out, you gotta keep your foot in the door. If God hadn’t put it in his heart to do, that was sufficient right there to head back to Susa.
Now, the interesting thing is, how does he respond? (And we’re nearing lunch.) Well, he responds with information—information—verse 18. In other words, he doesn’t respond with cheerleaders. He doesn’t go out and get into the sort of the hype and “We can do it, we can do it!” you know, as if, “You know, I know you’re a little discouraged, but let me tell you.” No, he says, “Well, let me just give you some information here. You see the trouble we’re in.” Verse 18: “I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.”
Now, both of these elements were, and are, essential. If we go to people and say, “You know, I just simply want to tell you about the hand of God upon me,” they say, “Well, what does that actually mean? You know, how are you going to give any kind of earth to this subjective, sort of existential experience to which you’re referring? I mean, how can we quantify this, how can we know?”
So he doesn’t simply talk to them, as it were, in these spiritual, hidden terms, but he authenticates, vindicates, illustrates—that’s probably the best of the three; I’m looking for a word—he illustrates the sense of God’s hand upon him by giving this description of what we just read in the first part of the chapter: “I was very much afraid. I had been praying. I’d been asking God just exactly what I ought to do, had been hoping for an opportunity.”
They’re listening: “And what happened?”
“Well, I went in to my boss, just like a normal day. And my boss, on this occasion, says to me, you know, ‘Why do you look so sad? You’re not sick.’”
And the people are listening, they say, “And what did you say then?”
“Well, I said, ‘You know, why shouldn’t I be sad? After all, my people are in disgrace, the walls are broken down.’”
“You said that to the guy?”
“What did he say?”
“Well, he said, ‘How long do you want to be gone for?’”
“Oh, you mean, like he wants you to go back?”
(That’s always a significant thing, incidentally. Some of us are afraid to ask for a sabbatical, in case it lasts for the rest of our lives. If it does, let it.)
And as a result of the information he provided concerning actual historical events, he recognized and affirmed for these people that God had moved in the heart of the king. The king had given his blessing to it all; he’d even helped out in the most practical of ways. He was able to describe all of this, and as a result of the accounting of these events, he inspired confidence in the people, and they replied in the second half of verse 18, “Let us start rebuilding.”
There you’ve got it, you see. How do you earth the vision? How does he earth the vision? Well, he gives the word of exhortation, even in the midst of the challenges which will inevitably come. And when the people begin to ask him what’s going on, he responds by giving them actual, factual information.
“Why are we going to do this?”
“Because God’s Word says that we ought to.”
“Why are we establishing this kind of ministry, or this kind of outreach?”
“Because it is within the parameters and principles of God’s Word.”
“Why do you believe that it would be successful or right at this time?”
“Because of A and B and C and D.”
You see, we’re ready with the information as a result of having done the reconnaissance and as a result of having waited for 120 days on God in prayer before ever we launched into any of our strategies.
That brings us to the sixth word, which is application—application. There was going to have to be careful apportioning of tasks and responsibilities. And that comes later in the story. But for now, they’re into action. Plenty of rubble to clear, and so they get into the fray.
You see, when leadership plants this kind of vision at the grassroots level, the change will become obvious. I think if the vision is God-given and is humbly presented, then God will implant it in the hearts of people, and they will respond, “Let us start rebuilding.” It’s not, “Oh, we’re delighted to hear that! Go on, Nehemiah; get it going.” No, immediately they personalized it. They said, “This is us. Suddenly, our existence here makes sense. Suddenly, all of this rubble is a challenge for us. Suddenly, as we’ve been listening to you talk, Nehemiah, we understand that the real issue is not the gates and the walls; the real issue is God and his glory. And we’ve been settling down to this. We haven’t been lifting up our eyes and looking on the fields. We’ve been concerned about the food that we eat for now: ‘What restaurant are you going to?’”
Jesus says, “I’ve got food to eat that you don’t know anything about.” They’re looking at one another, going, “What in the world’s going on? The whole concern an hour ago was lunch; now we come back with the lunch, he doesn’t want the lunch; now he’s got food.” They even looked at one another and said, “Could [somebody] have brought him food?” The woman didn’t understand about the water, and they didn’t understand about the food.
And our churches, so many of us are preoccupied with that which is now and earthly and transient, and not about the things which are unseen, which are, of course, eternal in their significance.
“‘Let us start rebuilding.’ [And] so they began this good work.”
One of the turning points, as some of you who’ve lived long enough will know, in the morale of the British population in the height of the Second World War was when Winston Churchill delivered a speech from his little basement operation, his headquarters down underneath the ground. And in terms of motivation and encouraging people to application, it has stood the test of time as a wonderful illustration. I can’t read it and do it justice, but I want to read part of it at least. Incidentally, Winston Churchill is a wonderful illustration of public speaking, is he not? Here is a guy who had two natural impediments: one, a lisp, and two, a stammer. And he became the greatest orator in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century. He turned them both into successes. People used to copy him, and they didn’t realize that that was actually what was going on; they thought it was a style! He should have been around now, do some marketing. But, anyway, this is what he said:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. … What is our aim? I can answer in one word: … victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of … terror, victory, however hard and long the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
We shall not flag or fail. We [will] go on to the end, we [will] fight in France, we [will] fight [in] … seas and oceans, we [will] fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and … liberation of the old.
And a beaten, bloodied, battered London began just to sit up. And the Clydeside of Glasgow, destroyed by German bombs, began to produce men and women with a spring in their step. And folks who had not been able to enlist by virtue of their physical impairments began in significant numbers to identify themselves with the home-front people, who had a job in the city during the day and a uniform in the evening. And they would go out, and they would stand at various points with a whole rigamarole of implements of destruction, most of which could have done nothing to stave off a significant attack. But what had happened? Somebody with something in their heart had instilled it right to the very core of their being. And so, at the grassroots level, you had all of these amazing little songs emerging, as the people in the streets began to sing:
Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Hitler,
If you say Old England’s done?
We are the lads who will stop your little game!
We are the boys who will make you think again.
Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Hitler,
If you say Old England’s done?
Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 8:31,
Half past three, he’s home for tea.
He’s ready with his gun.
Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Hitler,
If you say Old England’s done?
Where did that come from? It came from visionary leadership. They didn’t have a musket to their defense, but they said, “We’ll do it!”
Some of us are berating our congregations: “Oh, I don’t know why nobody’s volunteering. I don’t know why no one’s initiating ministry. I don’t know why this isn’t happening, and that’s not happening.” Let’s take a good look at ourselves. Let’s take a listen to some of our sermons. Let’s consider our reaction and our counteraction. Let’s consider ourselves. Let’s start first with us. You want revival? Do what Gipsy Smith said: “Put a circle of chalk on the ground, stand inside it, and ask God to revive everything inside the circle.” If our churches will be stirred and moved under God, we are crucial, not because of who we are, but because of what God has determined as a pattern of leadership.
Seventhly, despite all of that, there was opposition, and there always will be—this unholy trinity here in verse 19. Whenever God’s work is being done in God’s way, opposition is inevitable. We don’t need to reiterate that. They came around: “What do you think you’re doing? You’ve got to be kidding.” Sarcasm, mocking, ridicule, discouragement. “Are you rebelling against the king?” How happy he must have been to be able to reach into his pocket and bring out the letters of approval from the king.
Some of us here today will be undergoing great opposition. It is a real struggle, isn’t it, in pastoral ministry? It’s difficult to know what to do. I think I find myself retreating again and again to the verse that I mentioned in the first session, 2 Timothy 4:5. What should we do? Number one, “keep your head.” Don’t let anybody spin your head around for you; keep your head. Number two, “endure hardship.” Whoever said it was gonna be fun? Fun’s a bonus. We anticipate fun, but it’s not always fun. There are no dull days; I’ve never had a dull day in pastoral ministry in twenty-two years. Never once. I’m not planning on having one. No dull days. I tell the guys on my pastoral team, “Hey, this is fun, isn’t it?”
Say, “Well, it’s disastrous.”
I said, “I know, it’s disastrous, but it’s kind of ‘fun disastrous,’ isn’t it?”
Say, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
Well, yeah, let me… See, ’cause you have delightful days, you have disastrous days, but you don’t have dull days. Dull is inside you. Dull is day seven of summer vacation: “Oh, there’s nothing to do; I wish I was at school.” I wish you were at school as well, you little nitwit. What’s the problem? There’s tennis, there’s golf, there’s swimming, there’s bicycling, there’s climbing trees, there’s falling. I mean, there’s so much to do it would kill you! What’s the problem? It’s inside. If it’s dull, it’s ’cause you’re dull. If your marriage is dull, it’s ’cause you’re dull. It’s hard to face; it’s true.
And so he affirms it; it’s the last word—affirmation. There were eight of them. Anything above six, I’ll give you an A. That’s if you got ’em down. ’Cause I can’t remember them myself. Verse 20: “I answered them by saying, ‘The God of heaven will give us success.’” Psalm 121: “I to the hills will lift mine eyes. From whence doth come mine aid?” (This is the metrical Psalms now.) “My safety cometh from the Lord, who heaven and earth hath made.”
“Hey, Nehemiah, what do you think you’re doing? Do you think you’re a big shot?”
“How do you think you’re going to do this?”
“God’ll do it. God’ll do it. Oh, he’ll do it through us, but God’ll do it. The God of heaven will give us success.” “God’s work, done in God’s way,” said Hudson Taylor, “will never lack God’s [supply].” And he says, “By the way, you can clear off, ’cause you don’t have any part in this historic city. This is our place; you’ve no legal authority here. You’ve no right over it, you have no claim to it. But our God will give us success, and we will go on.”
Can I ask you this final question? Let’s ask ourselves this question: What are we trusting God to do that is so incredible that it cannot be achieved apart from his divine enabling? What are we trusting God to do in our ministry in these days that is so incredible that, should it happen, people are gonna say, “Surely God is in this place”? Is it right for us to think in those terms? I think so.
The disciples come to Jesus, and they say, “Jesus, I think it’s time to send this crowd away. They’ve been here for an awful long time, the shops are closed, there’s nowhere to get food; we’re gonna have a disaster on our hands. Please send them home.”
Jesus says, “Why don’t you give them something to eat?”
“Well, we don’t have anything. The only thing we’ve been able to rustle up, there’s some kid, some wee guy who’s here, and he’s got five loaves and a couple of fish. But what are these among so many? I mean, you can’t possibly feed five thousand men, plus the women and the children, with five loaves and a couple of sardines, can you?”
Of course, you know the story. And you know the way it’s taught at Sunday school. The total reverse—I’m sure not in the curriculum that you dear folks put out in the Puritan and Reform, but in some of the other stuff, it’s wicked, right? Application for the teacher: “Wouldn’t you like to be a little boy like this, who gave his lunch to Jesus? Wouldn’t you like to be significant, the way he was significant? Wouldn’t you like to save the day for Jesus? There was Jesus with all those people, and all hungry and nothing to eat, and just when he was at an extremity, in came the wee boy and whoop! saved the day.”
The miracle, of course, is not that the wee boy would offer his lunch; the miracle is that Jesus would use the wee boy’s lunch. The miracle is not that Nehemiah would go nine hundred miles to the task. The miracle is that God would use Nehemiah in the task. The miracle is not that we give ourselves up in service to a great cause and to serve under a great King and commander; the miracle is that we have been given any part in the unfolding plan of God. He who could create ex nihilo all kinds of lunch deigns to use five paltry sandwiches and a couple of fish. And he who rules over all deigns to look on the likes of you and me and say, “Hey, I’m gonna give you a part.” What a great mystery. What a great privilege.
May the Lord lift up our eyes, our gaze, establish a vision. What was it Wesley said? “Give me a hundred men who hate nothing but sin and love God with all their hearts and I will shake England for Jesus Christ.” Do we really believe that out of the apparent obscurity of a building like this, on the corner of such an historic city, God can light a flame, such as will not be extinguished as we go into the twenty-first century? What are we trusting God to do that is so incredible that it can only ever be achieved as a result of his divine intervention?
Father, now we bless you again for your Word. And I pray that you would take out of all of these words of mine that which is of yourself. And all of us, because we’re peers here today, know the great danger of imagining that we’re living at a level that we’re not living at. And as a result of our imaginings, we then preach at the level of our imaginings, and we make people think that we’re actually doing stuff we’re not doing, and so bring despite on ourselves and discourage others. Bring us back to basics, we pray. We want to commit ourselves to being men and women of your truth. We want to give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. Bless us now, as we spend this time together over lunch, and give us grateful hearts for all that we share. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
 See Numbers 22:21–35.
 2 Corinthians 5:14 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 9:19 (paraphrased).
 Robert Burns, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” (1785).
 See Ecclesiastes 3:7.
 Attribution of this quote to Twain is debated and likely erroneous.
 See John 9:7.
 See 2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32.
 Ephesians 4:12 (paraphrased).
 Elsie Duncan Yale, “There’s a Work for Jesus” (1912).
 Alan Jay Lerner, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (1956). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See John 4:35.
 John 4:32 (paraphrased).
 John 4:33 (NIV 1984).
 See John 4:7–15.
 2 Corinthians 4:18 (paraphrased).
 Winston Churchill, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” (speech, House of Commons, London, May 13, 1940), https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/blood-toil-tears-and-sweat-2/.
 Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” (speech, House of Commons, London, June 4, 1940), https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches/.
 Jimmy Perry, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?” Paraphrased.
 Attributed to Gipsy Smith in, for instance, John N. Hamblin, Fire in the Pulpit (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord, 2005), 171. Paraphrased.
 J. Hudson Taylor, quoted in M. Geraldine Guinness, The Story of the China Inland Mission, 3rd ed. (London: Morgan and Scott, 1894), 1:238.
 See Genesis 28:16.
 See Matthew 14:15–17; Mark 6:35–38; Luke 9:12–13; John 6:5–9.
 John Wesley to Alexander Mather, quoted in Luke Tyerman, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Founder of the Methodists (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1871), 3:632. Paraphrased.
 See Acts 6:4.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.