Sermon Series: Lord, I want to be better
1 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” 4 Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders. 6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. 7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. 10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” 11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.” 12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” 13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” 15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.
One of the most insidious creatures that God ever created is the viper. They are cunning and adapt hunters. It is amazing that a creature with poor eyesight is able to render such a lethal blow with one strike. They identify and lock in on their prey primarily relying on their sense of smell and the body heat of their prey. The real problem with vipers is not their bit, but the toxin they release into the bloodstream of their victims is deadly.
Like vipers, hostility can at first seem insidious and even benign. There are some environments where the hostility that exists appears to be very subtle and is more of a nuisance than a problem. As the exiles where returning to Jerusalem and engaged in the process of rebuilding the walls around their city they encountered opposition to the rebuilding project. Initially the news of the rebuilding project was meet with ridicule. The opponents of the project Sanballat and Tobiah released their toxin into the environment in the form of putdowns and insults. The old saying is that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” While there is an air of truth to that statement, ridicule, putdowns and insults especially in the company of others is a passive-aggressive attempt to devalue a person and/or their work. There is a vast difference between critique and ridicule/criticism. Critique has the goal of making a person or their work better. Critique recognizes that there is inherent value in the ability and effort of others but it needs to be focused, challenged, channeled, or fleshed out in order to get the best possible outcome. On the other hand, ridicule and criticism seek to teardown, destroy confidence and halt the individual and their efforts in their tracks. Critique says, here is what you are doing well, and here are the areas for improvement. Ridicule and criticism says, why are you even bothering? You know you cannot do that?
Unfazed by ridicule and criticism mild opposition turned to open hostility. The Bible says that when Sanballat and Tobiah heard that the people had continued working they went to get reinforcements. They formed an alliance with the Arabs, Ammonites, and the people of Ashdod and “Plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.” So now, ridicule and criticism evolved into intimidation. The opponents of the rebuilding project, after seeing that the Jews had reached the midway point in their work, no longer talked about what the Jews could not do but began talking about what they were going to do to the Jews. Those in opposition to the project attempted to flex their collective muscle by proposing threats of violence. The environment was growing increasingly hostile. It is one thing to ridicule and criticize, but it is an entirely different ballgame when we are confronted with threats made against our person or threats to create problems for us. These we must take very seriously.
Following the threats made by Sanballat, Tobiah and the others, the workers complained that they were getting tired and the job was becoming overwhelming. Couple this with the fact that their enemies continued to make known their intent to put an end to the work, and people who were living near them would come up and remind them of their enemies intent and prowess. They say, when things are good they are really good, and when things are bad they are really bad. The toxic poison released by Sanballat and Tobiah had now paralyzed the body and rendered it immobile. Long and/or short-term exposure to a hostile environment will eventually wear us down. There always seems to be fires that need to be put out and we are required to expend precious energy doing our job and trying to keep things together. At some point we start thinking, why am I killing myself? Is it possible they are right? Is the reward really worth the risk?
As Nehemiah surveyed the situation he saw an environment that was not only hostile, but also it was toxic. One of the problems with a hostile environment is the toxic nature of hostility contaminates the good within the environment and can transform good workers into people with bad attitudes. You cannot shake toxicity once it gets into your system and so even though we leave the environment it is still with us. Wherever we go we become agents who transmit toxins into that environment. Have you ever noticed how a bad day at work turns into a bad month? What started out as a petty annoyance on the job carries over into our homes and other areas of life? Everyone seems to get on our nerves or we simply do not want to be bothered. Things that we used to find pleasure and enjoyment in now seem like drudgery or we are too distracted to engage in these activities. It is almost impossible to operate in an environment where poison exists and not be affected or contacted by it. One of the solutions is that we need to detox and purge ourselves we need an anti-toxin.
Nehemiah in this text helps us to see that we are not powerless. Even if the poison within an environment should infect us we can overcome it and survive in a hostile environment. Nehemiah provides us with some survival tips that we can use to ensure our survival.
1. Every act of aggression regardless of how mild it may be needs to be met with a response – Notice that after Sanballat and Tobiah ridiculed and criticized the workers Nehemiah and the workers did two things, a) they prayed and b) they set their mind to keep working. Nehemiah prayed an imprecatory prayer. An imprecatory prayer is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and power over a situation where the man or woman of God is experiencing wrong doing or persecution. The purpose of an imprecatory prayer is to turn the situation over to God with the hope that God will work out His justice and a favorable outcome. Some things we simply should not give life to, and ridicule and criticism are two of those things. When people try to disrupt us with ridicule and criticism the response is turn it over to God and keep on working.
2. The greater the threat the more tactical we need to become – Sanballat and Tobiah became incensed when they saw that their initial ploy did not work and so they went to get reinforcements and resorted to intimidation. Again, Nehemiah and the workers did two things, a) they prayed and b) they set watch. Since this was a different act of aggression it required a different response. We cannot treat prayer as a one size fits all. Different situations call for different types of prayers and we must not forget that even though God may deliver us from one situation there are many more that we will also need God’s help and assistance with. Some would say well if you pray why do you need to watch? The Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” Even if you and I pray, there is still work that we need to do following our prayer. While God promises to protect His people, Jesus reminds us that, “We must watch and pray.” If you and I were to go into a neighborhood with a high crime rate, we would not leave our car windows down or walk around with our wallets in our hand. We would take precautions to ensure our safety. We would watch as we walked. The Bible says, “The Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over,” what the enemy was going to do – God will tell us what to watch for if we are listening.
3. In addition to addressing our spiritual and practical needs, we also need to address our personal needs – The toxicity that permeated the environment was such that it began to affect the workers and the entire community. Nehemiah brought everyone together and said three things, a) do not be afraid, b) remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and c) fight back. While we need to be encouraged, reassured, and inspired, we also need to find a reason to fight. Sometimes it is not enough to say, do it for God. Some things we need to do for ourselves, for our family and for what God has given us. There is no better motivation or reason to fight back then for our own personal survival.
Nehemiah used a three-pronged approach that addressed the spiritual, practical, and personal needs of the people. Using this approach Nehemiah demonstrated that we could overcome opposition, survive in a hostile environment and beat back those who try to bully us. No one likes a bully and the best way to beat a bully is to stand up to him or her. While our situations may differ from Nehemiah’s there are still some basic principles that we can apply, when people are increasingly hostile towards us spend less time getting even and devote more of our energy and focus to becoming successful. Remember, success is the best revenge.