Implementing A Vision Amid Opposition

Nehemiah 4:1-9

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 8, 2006


            Before we begin our 5th sermon in our series, “Vision For Life”, I think it will be helpful to engage in a bit of review. This series began under the assumption that possessing a vision is necessary for promoting health within an organization. Such a conviction is supported by Scripture, as we hear from King Solomon, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).


            Typically, once an individual or organization recognizes that a vision is necessary, they proceed to decide on what the vision should be. For a church, however, the process is a bit different. A Christian congregation is not in a position to decide what the vision will be. Since we are ultimately governed by Jesus Christ, we look to Him for our vision. Our congregational vision then, is not something we create, but rather it is something we discover.


            Thankfully, the Bible is not like a puzzle-book. We need not possess specialized skills or advanced degrees to discover what a sensible vision is. The Resurrected Jesus instructs us, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I commanded you” (Mt. 28:19, 20).


            Pare that vision down, and what you have is: Bring In Others. Teach Jesus.


            We have been studying Nehemiah—the book and the person—believing that Nehemiah can help us with such a vision. Nehemiah’s example presents us with some effective principles for pursuing and implementing a vision. To help us remember these principles, I have managed to identify them using words that begin with the letter P.


            First of all, Nehemiah prayed in order to ensure God’s approval of the vision, and in order to secure His assistance for realizing the vision.


Secondly, Nehemiah planned, because he understood that the presence of faith does not mean the absence of organization (Swindoll).


            Thirdly, when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, we noted that he did not immediately begin rebuilding, but rather, he spent considerable time probing the work site.


And, fourthly, once Nehemiah had a handle on the scope of the work ahead, he skillfully presented his plan to the people gathered in Jerusalem.


Pray, Plan, Probe, & Present. The progress of Nehemiah’s vision has been on the back of these four steps.


Indeed, the vision has been advancing reasonably well, but there have been some hints of resistance. Midway through chapter 2, Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite are introduced as critics of Nehemiah and his vision to rebuild Jerusalem (2:10). By the end of chapter two, Sanballat and Tobiah, now joined by Geshem the Arab, are found to be mocking Nehemiah and his intentions for Jerusalem (2:19).


In our text this morning, chapter 4, Sanballat and his critical friend, Tobiah, take centre stage. And what we find is that not only must Nehemiah excel in his prayers, planning, probing and presenting, but for the vision to succeed Nehemiah will also need to excel in problem-solving.


Chuck Swindoll, in his fine commentary on Nehemiah, asserts that “you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of the critic. For the leader, opposition is inevitable.”


Most of you, if not all of you, know this to be true. Even Nehemiah, the godly man, the meticulous planner, and the compelling orator, was familiar with criticism. To ultimately succeed, Nehemiah would have to demonstrate skill in problem-solving.


For some of us, our tendency is to ignore our critics—we think they’ll eventually grow weary and leave us alone. We sometimes imagine that seasons of criticism, like an overnight storm, will soon pass. I’m afraid that I lack evidence to support such an expectation. In the case of Nehemiah, the criticism persists. Moreover, the opposition actually gains momentum as the critics start to garner new recruits.


Nehemiah notes that when Sanballat insulted those working on the walls, he did so “in front of his friends” and in front of “the Samaritan army” (4:2). In verse 3 it is pointed out that Tobiah “was standing beside Sanballat” and weighs in with a sarcastic comment of his own, “Look at the wall they are building! Why, even a fox could knock over this pile of stones” (4:3).


If the criticism was isolated, perhaps it could be tolerated. However, we see here the principle affirmed that critics tend to run with other critics. The opposition to Nehemiah and his vision of reconstruction was substantial. The company of folks opposed to his project was growing.


Again, this should not surprise us. When a leader challenges the status quo, when a leader is encouraging change, when a leader urges a group forward to unchartered territory, he or she should expect resistance.


Here is something interesting for you to consider: Conceivably, God could prevent, or at least, eliminate, any resistance to a vision that is aiming to glorify Christ. We see here, that God’s favour is upon Nehemiah, and yet this favour does not preclude Nehemiah having to face intense opposition. God allows Sanballat, Tobiah, and friends to intimidate and to interfere with a vision that has met His approval.


This leads me to conclude that, while facing opposition is highly unpleasant, there must be something positive in it for those supporting the vision. It appears that God’s design for allowing opposition is to draw us closer to Himself. Additionally, based on what we find in Nehemiah, opposition can inspire our determination to finish the work.


If Nehemiah shouted and argued with his critics, it is not recorded here. What is recorded for our edification is that Nehemiah responded to opposition with prayer. Prayer isn’t merely a first step in advancing a vision, it must be the constant companion of those seeking progress. Our plans, our probing, our presentation, and our problem-solving ought to be pregnant with prayer.


Admittedly, Nehemiah’s prayer is not your typical Sunday morning prayer. Let’s hear it again: “Our God, these people hate us and have wished horrible things for us. Please answer our prayers and make their insults fall on them! Let them be the ones to be dragged away as prisoners of war. Don’t forgive the mean and evil way they have insulted the builders” (4:4,5).


Can you imagine hearing me offer such a prayer from this pulpit? And yet, this prayer is contained within our holy canon! I confess that I am unsure of how to commend this prayer to you except to say that I commend Nehemiah’s instinct to pray. He did not lash out at his critics. He did not employ manipulative techniques in order to put down his enemies. But rather, Nehemiah bowed in prayer before the Almighty—he turned to God believing that his problems could be best overcome at the throne of grace.


Nehemiah’s first response to criticism was to pray, but we also note that his second response was to stay with the task. In the NASB we read, “So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work” (4:6).


What a great response to criticism—just keep working!


I think it is a temptation for us to give up the work when opposition arises. This is a particular challenge in a church setting where the great majority of the workers are volunteers. It is one thing to be criticized for a job that we are getting paid good money to do, it is quite another thing to be criticized for work that we are volunteering for.


Many a church volunteers have been lost because of the unkind words of critics. On one hand, I can hardly blame a volunteer for stepping down in such circumstances—life is too hectic to allow your volunteer work to be unduly scrutinized. And yet, Nehemiah and his volunteer builders stay with the task. The criticism, at least in this instance, appears to inspire their work!


And friends, that’s the kind of response that moves a vision forward—earnest prayer followed by resolute effort. This is Nehemiah’s approach to problem-solving.


We must concede, however, that problem-solving is a long-term enterprise. Prayer and resolute effort is no quick fix to the opposition that assails us. For it appears that just as opposition inspired the efforts of Nehemiah and his workers, so too were the critics inspired to step up their opposition.


But Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the people from the city of Ashdod saw the walls going up and the holes being repaired. So they became angry and decided to stir up trouble, and to fight against the people of Jerusalem” (4:7,8).


The opposition is growing. The group has become so large in number that Nehemiah is unable to name each individual. Instead, groups of people are named as being a threat to reconstruction. The level of opposition is also intensifying, as it appears that the critics are preparing to physically disrupt the efforts to rebuild.


And how does Nehemiah and his crew respond? They continue in prayer, Nehemiah writes, “Nevertheless, we kept on praying to our God” (4:9). And, in addition to prayer, we read that they also “stationed guards day and night” (4:9).


I would like us to take careful note of the balance in Nehemiah’s approach to problem-solving. It is very spiritual, on the one hand, and yet highly pragmatic on the other hand.


            Most people tend to one or the other. Some people simply pray and expect God to work things out apart from any participation on their part. Others neglect to pray, hoping to solve their problems through sheer effort and clever innovation. But taken alone, neither will suffice.


            Prayer without pragmatics is presumption. Prayer without stationing armed guards is going to get someone hurt, or possibly even killed. On the other hand, pragmatics without prayer flows from pride. To attempt to engage our critics without Divine assistance is to court disaster.


            As you can see, our ongoing communion with God is necessary on so many fronts. We need to continually test whether our vision is on track—we need to determine whether our good idea is, in fact, a God idea.


            I believe that a vision requiring us to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus is a God idea. It would be much easier if we emphasized some other things instead. We have a better chance of avoiding controversy if we simply preserved the status quo. By contrast, responding to the call to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus is going to force us out of our comfort zone. And a movement, on our part, to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, will probably require some change—and that change will likely give rise to some level of opposition.


            We learn from Nehemiah, that pursuing a God idea is not a ‘walk in the park’. Much prayer, planning, probing, presenting and problem-solving will be required. We translate that to mean that a significant amount of time, resources, and effort will be needed.


            I pray that St. Giles Kingsway is up to the task. I know that we can do it—with God’s help, we possess the ability to succeed in Bringing in Others and faithfully Teaching Jesus.


            The question is NOT: ‘Can we see this vision through?’


            The question IS: ‘Will we see this vision through?’