Casting A Vision In Perilous Times

Nehemiah 1

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 17, 2006


            Knowing what we are here for is important. If we are to invest significant time or energy into something, we usually require at least a sketch of what lies ahead.


            Three years ago, the deck at the manse was rebuilt. And since I’m not nearly skilled enough to handle such a project on my own, I needed to enlist some help. But before my friends would give me any level of assistance, they required me to adequately explain to them what the final structure would look like. Once they understood what we were working towards, they were willing to engage in the work.


            Last Sunday, we examined the vision cast by the Resurrected Christ in Matthew 28, 19,20. This was a vision of the work that was to be carried out by His disciples. You may recall my paraphrasing of this vision: Bring in Others. Teach Jesus.


            This vision continues to be relevant as a description for the work that should be done by the local church in 2006 and beyond. And yet, I admit, such a vision appears tantamount to me telling my friends that I simply need them to help me build cement pillars and hammer pieces of wood together. We need to have a sense of what kind of structure will result from our work.


            If we are faithful to the vision cast by the Resurrected Christ, if we are diligent in Bringing In Others and Teaching Jesus, what will be the result?


            The most obvious result is that we will grow numerically. (Physically, we have lots of room for such growth between our two services.) One of my favourite things about numerical growth is the new relationships we are able to forge. When I accepted a call to St. Giles Kingsway more than 4 years ago I was greatly impressed by the quality people that make up this congregation. I am even more impressed today. Our new members and adherents have added significantly to the identity and character of this community.


            It should also be said that our aim in wanting to add new people should not be tied to a desire to buttress growth statistics, a desire to gain volunteers, or a desire to gain additional revenue. These things will naturally follow numerical growth, but they are not to be our chief motivation for pursuing Christ’s vision of adding to our number.


If we agree that our chief aim is to promote the name of Christ, if we agree that our primary purpose is to shine a bright light for Christ in Central Etobicoke, then it follows that having a large and growing community will help us. And so Christ implores us: Bring In Others.


            Now, of course, just because a large community is gathered doesn’t guarantee a positive impact upon the surrounding community. A large and growing community must be marked in a particular way. To this end, our focus ought to be to Teach Jesus. As we increasingly become a community committed to thinking and acting as Jesus did, our corporate witness will be greatly enhanced. The light we shine for Christ will grow in its intensity.


            In addition to promoting the name of Christ, I reckon that as we intensify our efforts to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, the blessings we will gain from being a part of this community will greatly increase.


            Nearly 2,500 years ago, a man named Nehemiah had a similar vision. In his opening prayer, Nehemiah articulates that his motive was to “honour” the God of Israel (1:11). His vision was to bring God’s people together, and for them to follow the Law of God (1:9).


            The story ends well. Nehemiah’s vision is realized—not perfectly, not without people problems, not without a myriad of obstacles—but, nonetheless, his vision to bring together God’s people within the reconstructed walls of Jerusalem is realized.


            Because of his success, I expect that we will profit from studying Nehemiah over the next number of weeks. There is so much Nehemiah can teach us about how to be an effective leader in the context where God has placed us. There is so much we can learn from Nehemiah about how to cast and implement a vision within a challenging environment.


            Does our current context at St. Giles Kingsway constitute ‘a challenging environment’? Could we accurately say that we are living in ‘perilous times’? Even if we were to answer ‘yes’ to those questions, we would have to admit that our current context is far more favourable to Nehemiah’s. And whatever peril we are exposed to, as we seek to represent Christ in our present society, it pales in comparison to what Nehemiah faced.


            This makes the account of Nehemiah most fascinating and hope-inspiring. Put another way: If Nehemiah can do it, so can we. If Nehemiah can overcome the gargantuan obstacles he faced, we can overcome the relatively modest challenges before us. With the right motives, with the right vision, and with Divine assistance, we can succeed in Bringing In Others, Teaching Jesus, causing this congregation to become a most blessed community.


            Who was Nehemiah? Nehemiah was a Jewish man, living in the Persian capital of Susa (1:1), serving King Artaxerxes as his cupbearer (1:11). The year was about 445 BC when Nehemiah was visited by his brother and some friends from Judah (1:2).


            Nehemiah wanted a report on the state of affairs in Jerusalem. The news was not good, “Those captives who have come back are having all kinds of troubles. They are terribly disgraced, Jerusalem’s walls are broken down, and its gates have been burned” (1:3).


            Nehemiah writes that when he heard this, he “sat down and cried”, and then “for several days” he “went without eating” (1:4).


            What’s this about? The walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed more than 140 years ago when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, attacked Judah and carried away many of the inhabitants. Why is Nehemiah so shocked by this report?


            When the Babylonian reign gave way to the Persian reign, certain levels of restoration within Jerusalem began to be tolerated. Although it took 15 years, the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt. However, the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls were viewed as a greater threat to the surrounding regions. Consequently, the attempt to reconstruct the walls were halted at various times, most recently during the early part of King Artaxerxes’ reign.


            Perhaps Nehemiah had heard the rumours of restoration. He had heard that the temple had been rebuilt. People were returning to Jerusalem. The next logical step was to expect news of the walls being rebuilt. But instead, to his dismay, Nehemiah learns that the ruins surrounding Jerusalem remain. There has been a serious setback.


            Whatever efforts had been employed to rebuild Jerusalem in recent years, those efforts had failed.


            There is something delightful about failure. Yes, you heard me correctly—there is something delightful about failure. Failure has the ability to inspire. For many people, once we shake off the dust of discouragement, we find that failure often causes us to press on with even greater determination than before.


            And for the follower of God, failure not only inspires our subsequent efforts, but failure brings us to our knees. Failure—whether our failure, or the failure of others, causes the Christian to pray.


            This was Nehemiah’s response. Nehemiah had a vision for the reconstruction of Jerusalem; he had a vision for the restoration of the people of Jerusalem.  But before he would pursue this vision with his people, he would first pursue his vision with his God.


            Nehemiah understood that in order to have any level of success, he would need God’s help and approval. And so he prayed.


            There was so much working against Nehemiah. First of all, Nehemiah was 800 miles from Jerusalem. Can you imagine having to travel from Toronto to Knoxville, Tennessee, without a car, train, or airplane to expedite your trip?


            And, even if Nehemiah does make the trip—what then? It’s not like he would be the first person to ever attempt rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Many had failed before him, even during the reign of his current employer, King Artaxerxes.


            You can hear the critics, ‘Nehemiah, how do plan to get there? Won’t you lose you job as cupbearer? Who is going to help you? Don’t you realize how dangerous the region has become? Nehemiah, don’t you realize that this task is too big for you?’


            There was so much working against Nehemiah, and so he prayed. The successful fulfillment of Nehemiah’s vision was unlikely, and so he prayed.


            It was said of Hudson Taylor that the sun never rose for 40 years in China without God finding him on his knees in prayer for that great land. Reconstruction is hard work. Casting a vision and following it through requires constant prayer.


Prayer helps us remain patient as our vision progresses. Prayer keeps our anxiety in check when obstacles arise. Prayer activates our faith, preserving our trust in God. It is in prayer that we recognize that we can’t do it alone. We need God’s help.


            The Resurrected Christ has given us a vision to Bring In Others and to Teach Jesus.


            I’m not suggesting for a minute that the average person in Central Etobicoke has any interest in belonging to a church community. For some, it may be the furthest thing from their minds. For others, the thought of having one’s life directed by Jesus may even be repugnant.


            Many of you know this already. You’ve attempted to share your faith before, and your attempts have been spurned. Indeed, these are perilous times to sign on for a vision that states: Bring In Others and Teach Jesus.


            But the vision for the Christian Church is not ours to invent; it is ours to follow.


            Nehemiah is a delightful example of how to pursue a vision in the face of contrary circumstances. Nehemiah’s vision begins as a deep concern for the state of Jerusalem. His tearful concern then leads him to pray and to fast. And then Nehemiah’s prayer and fasting eventually leads him into the presence of King Artaxerxes, his employer.


            Nehemiah could have given 50 reasons why this was someone else’s problem, but he didn’t. Nehemiah could have waited until there was less danger in the region, but he didn’t. Nehemiah was compelled by that which he knew to be the right thing to do.


            It will be good for us, at St. Giles Kingsway, to commit ourselves to Bringing In Others and Teaching Jesus. It is the right thing to do. And because doing the right thing will be difficult, let us spend much time in prayer.


            God has a plan for this community, and I believe that St. Giles Kingsway is part and parcel of this Divine plan to bless those around us, and to glorify Himself along the way. Amen.