God’s Plan and Good Planning

Nehemiah 2:1-10

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 24, 2006


            Wouldn’t it be nice, at least once in a while, to have the ability to change a person’s mind? I’m not talking about the ability to make compelling arguments; I’m talking about something even more extraordinary. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could cause people to think and behave according to our design?


            For the person looking for a new job, he or she could compel any employer to hire them on the spot. The mistreated child in the playground could tame the bully. The devoted baseball fan could cause the manager to substitute for the struggling pitcher. The churchgoer could cause the minister to select their favourite hymns to be sung each Sunday.


            Oh, but such a power will never rest with us. And yet, the ability to compel behaviour is not beyond the God of this Universe. King Solomon writes, in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1). Our Contemporary English Version is even more forceful, “The Lord controls rulers, just as He determines the course of rivers.


            Scripture testifies that God, indeed, possesses the ability to affect the way we think and act. With this in view, we had better make some qualifications when we speak about ‘free will’. Yes, there is no doubt that we possess a will. By our own volition we move about doing all sorts of things. We make choices and we see choices through every day of our lives. But to say that this will of ours is ‘free’ of overriding forces is simply inaccurate.


             The Lord God of this Universe has the ability to trump our will, and even change our will. And according to the testimony of Scripture, this is not mere theory, this is not some hypothetical scenario—this is something God actually does. Solomon, a king himself, confesses, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.” Likewise, in Isaiah, the Lord says of Cyrus, King of Persia, “he will perform all My desire” (Isa. 44:28).


            God is readily able to do that which would be impossible for you and I. God can change the way a person thinks and behaves.


            In light of this, what do you do when trouble arises? What do you do when the land of your ancestors is in ruins? What do you do when the people you love are in great distress? What do you do when you are powerless to change your predicament? You pray. You bow before the One for whom nothing is impossible. You petition the heart-changer to take up your cause. And that is precisely what Nehemiah does. We have a portion of one of Nehemiah’s prayers recorded for us in chapter one.


            Nehemiah understands that he is bowing before the great heart-changer, and so he prays, “When I serve the king his wine today, make him pleased with me and have him do what I ask” (1:11).


            Now, it should be noted, that such a prayer is effective only when the will of the one praying matches the will of the Lord. If Nehemiah’s will was at cross-purposes with God’s will, his prayer would have been denied. This is because prayer does not force God’s hand. Prayer does not cause God to do something that He would otherwise oppose.


            Prayer, in its best sense, is an act whereby the will of man merges with the will of God. Prayer is the place where we discover which of our good ideas are actually God ideas.


            Nehemiah understands that God has the power to change Artaxerxes’ heart, but he also understands that God has ordained prayer as our entry point into participating in His will. In other words, God’s plan does not preclude our participation. God’s plan does not preclude good planning.


            Many folks make the mistake of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. Some Christians are so convinced of God’s sovereignty over all things, that they mistakenly retreat to a position of total inactivity, believing that God will do what needs doing, totally apart from any human involvement. We sometimes see this with evangelism—where Christians use God’s sovereignty as an excuse not to share one’s faith.


By contrast, there are other Christians who immerse themselves in planning and strategizing who do not give much thought to how God may enter into the equation. We often see this in our budget planning. We ‘number crunch’, we calculate, and we make projections without ever considering how God’s plan may come into play in the management of our finances.


Nehemiah avoids both of these extremes. Nehemiah possesses a very balanced perspective. He understands that God has a plan, and that prayer helps us to get in step with what God is doing. Nehemiah also understands the value of good planning. Or, as Chuck Swindoll explains, “The presence of faith does not mean the absence of organization.”


We have already said that in order for our prayers to be realized, our hopes need to be congruent with the will of God. That statement needs to be qualified in terms of timing. Nehemiah, chapter 1, takes place in the month of Chislev—equivalent to our December. Nehemiah’s request of the king does not happen until the month of Nisan (2:1), which is our April.


Even though Nehemiah’s vision for Jerusalem was in step with God’s vision for Jerusalem, there was still four months where nothing noteworthy took place. And so we conclude that even though constant prayer is essential to the progress of a vision, prayer does not always yield immediate results.


If we pursue a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, we may find that our forward movement towards fulfilling such a vision comes slowly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was Jerusalem rebuilt in a day. And I do not expect St. Giles Kingsway to double in size overnight. But, would I surprise you if I told you that I do expect St. Giles Kingsway to double in size?


If God’s plan is for us to Bring in Others and Teach Jesus, and if we pursue God’s plan with prayer and good planning, I expect that tremendous things will result.


            What constitutes ‘good planning’? I thinking of planning that advances the vision. And I’m not thinking of merely being organized. St. Giles Kingsway is one of the most organized congregations I have ever seen. Our committee structures are sensible, our methods of communication are myriad, our mechanisms for promoting efficiency abound—we are a highly organized group! Being organized is important, but being organized will not compel the progress of a vision.


            Our good planning must be sensibly, and prayerfully, connected to God’s plan. Our good planning must promote the vision.


            Nehemiah had a vision to oversee the reconstruction of Jerusalem. And, after four months of prayerful reflection, Nehemiah presented a well thought out plan for making headway on that vision.


            First of all, he knew the right person to approach with his vision. If Jerusalem was to be rebuilt, the King would need to allow it. Moreover, the King would need to approve Nehemiah’s leave of absence from his duties as cupbearer. In addition, letters from the King would be necessary for ensuring Nehemiah’s safe travel and for acquiring building materials.


Nehemiah had evidently thought through what was required to fulfill his vision.    Can you imagine Nehemiah’s experience without this good planning? Nehemiah begins his 800 mile journey and is greeted by an official just beyond the province of Susa,


‘Where are you going?’

‘Well, I was hoping, by faith, to go to Jerusalem.’

‘Good for you, but I’ll need to see your letters.’

‘I don’t have any letters.’

‘Then, I’m sorry—you’ll have to return to where you came from. I need to see those letters before I can let you pass.’


So, Nehemiah returns and gains his letters allowing him to pass through the regions between Susa and Jerusalem. Now he reaches Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest.


‘What can I do for you?’

‘I need lumber, and lots of it.’

‘Can I see your requisition?’

‘Requisition? I am Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer—haven’t you heard of me?’

‘Sorry—I can only release lumber by requisition.’


You get the idea. Nehemiah saved himself a great deal of time, and prevented all kinds of hassles, through his prudent planning. Nehemiah did not use God’s approval as a reason to be lax in his preparations. Yes, Nehemiah prayed to God. Yes, Nehemiah trusted God. But Nehemiah also planned carefully, because “The presence of faith does not mean the absence of organization.”


And note how the king offered to do even more than what Nehemiah asked. Not only did Nehemiah receive letters for travel and for lumber, but the king commissioned some of his army officers and horsemen to go with Nehemiah as well (2:9).


Why was the king so gracious? Was it because Nehemiah was his all-star cupbearer? Perhaps, this was part of it—but that could have worked against him. If Nehemiah was viewed as an indispensable employee, the King might have resisted letting him go.


We should also remember that previous efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls were halted under King Artaxerxes regime. Nehemiah’s request was a request for a change in the King’s policy. And yet, this was one of those rare occasions where a King experiences a change of heart. Yes, indeed,  The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.


Nehemiah recognized this, and so he writes for our edification, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (2:8).


Nehemiah’s vision was grand. One could have easily argued that his vision was unrealistic. A king would need to change his policy. Administrative red tape would need to be cut through. A team of volunteer builders would need to be assembled. Enemies would need to be kept at bay. But, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (2:8).


Friends, are we together as we pursue a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus in 2006 and beyond? Some might say that a vision to significantly increase our number and vibrancy is unrealistic. Some might say that too much is required. Some might say that the obstacles to growth are too big. But what if we, like Nehemiah, become the special recipients of God’s favour?


Remember, nothing is too difficult for the Lord. Changing a human heart is God’s specialty.  Moreover, changing a human heart is often a part of God’s plan.


So let us be constant in prayer, and let us engage in good planning, as we seek to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus. Amen.