Monday, June 25, 2012

Moving from "Just Us" to Justice: Building Hope in Nehemiah - A Sermon

Good morning. It’s an honor to be before you this morning and have the privilege of opening God’s Word together with you. Please join along with me, by opening your bibles, your phones, or your apps to Nehemiah chapter 5 as we continue our series “Hope Builders: Learning from Nehemiah, God will bless...your discontent!” The title for today’s sermon is Building Justice as we find ourselves in chapter 5 and as Nehemiah leads the efforts to build hope, to specifically rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, along the way he is confronted with issues of injustice. Now as I prepared for this sermon, I had a certain degree of apprehension and anxiety in doing so. You see there are certain topics that pastors aren’t always the most excited about delivering. In fact I read an article this week that polled pastors and over half of the ones that responded said there were certain topics that they flat out would not preach at all or sparingly. Can you guess what number 1 was? This is like that game show where you guess the percentages – I believe it was called family feud. Well here are the results and actually, these are such hot topics I don’t even feel super comfortable even just reading them to you:

Politics - 38 percent
Homosexuality - 23 percent
Abortion - 18 percent
Same-sex marriage - 17 percent
War - 17 percent
Women's role in church and home - 13 percent
The doctrine of election - 13 percent
Hell - 7 percent
Money - 3 percent

So as I prepared this sermon I had a bit of apprehension because of the association that the word justice has with politics. Especially the term “social justice” has really become politically charged. People leave churches at the very mentioning of the term. So all that to say I just want to assure you, and to avoid an avalanche of political emails to which I’m ill-equipped to respond to, I am not pushing a political agenda. I’m going to try to avoid the phrase “social justice” like the plague because what we’re looking at today isn’t something that is republican, or independent, or democrat. I pray that today, as whenever I have the honor to preach, that we will look at what God’s Word says to us. Sometimes, we as preachers, like to avoid hot button topics, but if we are to take seriously 2 Tim. 3:16, that “All of scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” then we must submit ourselves to all of it and friends the word justice is unavoidable when we read scripture. The word itself occurs at least 134 times, based on my own search, and the concept of justice, though different words are used, is part of the very DNA of God’s revelation, His Word. In our passage for today we find that Nehemiah is confronted with some real justice issues. He’s focused on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but he also understands that his call is not only about the specific mission he’s doing, but also, along the way, to embody the values of God, one of which is to have a justice mentality. If we don’t have this yet, then we must move from a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality. We, as children of God, and followers of Christ, are called to be concerned not only with our own projects, our own building, our own designs, even if they are what we are called to and are doing to advance God’s kingdom, but we are called also to be concerned for the poor, the outcast, and systems of injustice. Here are a few key verses, probably ringing in Nehemiah’s heart as it should in our own:

"Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"  Deuteronomy 27:19

This passage points out the alien, the fatherless, and the widow. In other words, these are people that were not able to fend for themselves and had no support system. We find that God has a heart for justice and we, as God’s people, have a moral obligation to care for the oppressed, the outcast, the hopeless, who in many ways find the very structures of a fallen world, of a fallen society, against them. Here’s just a couple more:

“For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” Psalm 11:7

"[L]earn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17

And finally from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:

                “"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice,   mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Matthew 23:23

Justice is one of the “more important matters”, some translations say the “weightier matters”. How important is mercy in your walk as follower of Christ, as a child of God? How important is faithfulness in your walk with Christ, as a child of God? How important is justice in your walk with Christ, as a child of God? So as we turn to God’s Word today, I encourage us all to remember, this is just that, the Word of God. While as a human being my illustrations may be flawed and the way in which I communicate always needs work, as much as I speak according to the Word of God, it is as though God himself is speaking to you today on matters of justice.  Look with me at the first seven verses of chapter 5:

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3 Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." 4 Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others." 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials.

So we read that there was a problem going on here and at the end of this section how does Nehemiah respond? Nehemiah could ignore the “great outcry” and respond by saying “press on!” Let’s press on and take the hill! There will be causalities but let’s rebuild these walls! Instead of putting them to the side, Nehemiah rather, along the way in his rebuilding efforts, listens to these issues of justice. So what does Nehemiah hear in his context and what do we hear in our own? Well we read that a wide part of the community is on the brink of economic ruin and collapse. There are those without land who see their food supplies running out, there are those who have land that they’ve mortgaged in order to make it through the difficult times, some who are having to take out loans to pay the high taxes on the populace, and others who are so far in trouble that they’ve had to hire out their children as bond-servants. It could be that these problems were created by the rebuilding program of Nehemiah, but more likely the rebuilding brought to light problems long simmering that came bubbling up during the reconstruction. Overall long term problems resulting from the famine mentioned in verse three and the high levels of taxation and corruption historically known to be a part of the Persian empire. So in summary, a wide breadth of people in Nehmiah’s community are in a time of economic trouble and they are crying out for help. Nehemiah chose to listen and act.

Now, does this sound like anything that we can apply to our current situation today? I read a recent article in Florida Today that reported despite the rumors of an improving economy, that there are more jobs and unemployment rates are going down, and certain areas of the economy are seeing growth, the hungry in Brevard county, our county, our community, our extended family is not letting up. “About 16.4% of Brevard residents – nearly 89,000 – are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all time…” South Brevard Sharing Center, one of our mission partners, reported that it “still sees about 100 to 200 newly unemployed families come in its doors each month signing up for services.”  Daily Bread, another organization we partner with in mission and where members of your church community served yesterday, has seen an increase in the numbers of meals served averaging around 237 since October and some days serving over 300 people. So in summary, a wide breadth of people in our own communties are in a time of economic trouble and they are crying out for help. Nehemiah chose to listen and act.

In Nehemiah’s case we read that, even though he is focused on rebuilding the wall, he hears and he is what? He’s angry! Nehemiah, discontent about the state of Jerusalem, along the way hears the issues of justice and has a new dimension to his holy discontent! There are times, even when we are focused on something important like building our own programs, or perhaps focusing on how to effectively tell the gospel to our friends and neighbors, that along the way we listen to issues of justice that come bubbling up as we build hope and rather than putting them aside gain a whole new dimension to our discontent along the way. Nehemiah gets angry, but then we read in the first part of verse 7 that he reflected, he ponders them in his mind before moving forward with a carefully aimed charge and solution.

So how did Nehemiah move forward after reflecting? We read in verses 7b-13.

I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them-- the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." 12 "We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say." Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!" At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.

Jason Caro during the workday 
Nehemiah moves forward, not alone, but by involving the community to enact justice. We must involve the community to enact justice. We read that Nehemiah draws together a large meeting and he involves the population at large. He identifies himself as being part of the community and even a part of the problem as he says in verse 10 that he is also lending out money and grain to the people in need. Nehemiah presses this gathering to not think just about their own gains, the financial opportunity they have to increase their wealth, but to move for a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality. Nehemiah, gives the community a direct challenge to charity and generosity. Nehemiah involves the community because number one: we are designed like our Trinitarian God; to be in fellowship with one another and to work together to see His kingdom come and number two: because sometimes the issues of justice are too big and ingrained into the societal structures to not be required to work together as a community. One of the first mission partners we served with this summer in our “Summer of Service” was Space Coast Center for Mothers with children and when I was there I heard a story about one of the women. And by the way you can read this mother’s own account here.  She lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. The report said that “the child was well cared for by her mother. There was food in the home, the girls were well groomed, the home was clean, nothing to show she was a bad mother…[but that] the husband had a car, a wife (of one day), a job, and could take the child on vacations.” In other words this mother lost custody of her child because she was poor. This isn’t the only case of injustice, where those with more money end up with what they want simply because they have more money! Now we can help individually, and through our partner at Space Coast Center for Mothers with children we are, but stories like this hopefully lead us to realize that we need to sometimes act together, as a community, because the issues of justice are too big and ingrained into the societal structures to not be required to work together as a community.

So we involve the community to enact justice, but also as we continue to read the final verses of this chapter, we recognize that we must also individually embody biblical justice.

Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year-- twelve years-- neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors-- those preceding me-- placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. 17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. 19 Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.

In our passage we read that Nehemiah personally bends over backwards and sacrificed what was normally his due. Nehemiah recognizes that a huge part of the problem is the system of taxation and individually, as governor of the province, both gives up his right for a salary and provides an open meal for hundreds of people. In order to ease the burden of taxation, he works as governor of the province for free, even though clearly it was his right to collect a salary and to help alleviate hunger he provides a lavish meal. We read about this model again later in the New Testament when Paul writes about his own right to receive support from congregations as an apostle of the Gospel. He writes in 1 Corinthians 9:12b, printed in your bulletin:

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

Nehemiah, and Paul, are guided by service rather than opportunism and they both guide the community through their personal example to see that generosity is to be preferred to personal gain. We as individuals must give up our own rights and embody biblical justice so as not to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel in the way of His kingdom.

Nehemiah uses his place of influence and leadership to urge creditors to relinquish their rights by returning the lands and interest gathered to those in hard places financially. Then personally he, himself relinquishes his own rights as governor. Could you imagine what our communities would look like if we demonstrated this kind of love? Could you imagine a situation where the wealthy in our community gave so liberally of themselves to ease the plight of the poor? Releasing debts, returning lands? How amazing it would be if we moved from a “just us” mentality to a justice mentality and listened to the issues of justice both together as a community and in our individual lives. 

But when we think about it, is it really so hard to imagine for followers of one who gave up his life for our own release of debt, and for our own return to an eternal inheritance? We give praise and thanks that Jesus didn't take a “just us” mentality and remain in heaven, but rather entered into our situation, listening and bringing us into community with him, granting us new hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are not our own, our material possessions are not our own. Let us encourage one another to have a heart for others, a heart like our Father in heaven, a heart for justice.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Losing your child for being poor

This Sunday in my sermon, Building Justice: Moving from "Just Us" to Justice, I'll be mentioning part of the story of a mother from our mission partner Space Coast Center for Mother's with Children . Below is the full essay in the mother's own words, reprinted with her permission for anyone who wanted to look a little deeper.

Jackeline M.
Prep writing 2, M-T
Assignment #1

The painful feeling I have to go through not being able to show my little girl her birthday cake and say happy birthday and not be able to see her face of joy and happiness. On January 16, 2000 a beautiful baby girl born and that is the day that I became a mother. Five year ago my little girl was taken away by the state of South Carolina and let her father have custody of my little girl. There court excuses was that I cannot afford a cruise trip for my kid but her father can, another excuse was that my English was not good enough. I’ve been working very hard to fix that by going to college and give my best. Since she is gone I always get a cake and celebrate her birthday with my youngest daughter, but on this occasion I bake and decorate her birthday cake, I bake it with a lot of love and thinking on the day I have her in my arms for the first time. As I keep decorating, I was feeling exited making little lollie pops, ice cream cone, milk shake, sundays, and ice pop. But everything change when I start to realize that my little girl wasn't going to see or celebrate her birthday with her sister and me. I try to be strong about it especially since I still have a daughter at home to take care of. But it was impossible for me to hold the pain inside of me because so far I have missed five birthdays since she was taken away. Every year her father try not to let me talk to her on her birthday, he try to tell her I don’t care, but I do care she my joy, my blessing from God. However, as I keep decorating the cake tears were coming down my face it almost feel like they were tears of blood. Why this have to happened to me? I started to cry more at this point, I was almost screaming desperate asking my God to stop this horrible pain by bring my baby back home. But something came to me, I proceed to calm myself down by saying to myself I can do this by get more stronger. Strong for instance by keep working hard at school, take good care of my daughter that I already have with me, and by teaching her good morals, good behavior, and good education.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

ECO: An Empty Warehouse No Longer

It has been an interesting first year as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament. I wasn't sure if this time last year I would continue being a teacher in Orlando, FL at Orangewood Christian School (interestingly enough a PCA church sponsored school!), under care at First Presbyterian Church Orlando (who was dismissed the same day in our presbytery to the EPC) or having completed the extra requirements of Central Florida Presbytery, 3 years after graduating from Reformed Theological Seminary, if I would receive a call in the PC(USA). As God would have it, not only I, but my wife also were both ordained on September 18th 2011 after accepting a dual call to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Satellite Beach, Florida last August.

What a year it has been and what an exploration is has been to see the difference between the PC(USA) on paper, the PC(USA) in practice, and the great divergence of application of the constitution between individual churches and different presbyteries. Now, almost a year later my wife and I, still called to this church, find ourselves as members of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians!  At the June 05, 2012 meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery, Trinity Presbyterian Church in one motion and its three pastors, including myself and wife, in a second motion were dismissed without any financial penalty. Our presbytery dismissed us directly into ECO so we are officially the first church and first pastors in this new denomination. (Correction: Apparently we join First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, already in ECO!)

I must confess that having read about some of the nightmarish situations across the country with regards to leaving the PC(USA) I was so comforted by the way in which our leadership and our presbytery conducted itself. It's a great presbytery! My prayer is that they continue to be able to be that while connected with the problematic issues that plague the denomination on a national level. I must admit that reading about the Santa Barbara presbytery's efforts to become a union presbytery made me jealous and wishing that Central Florida Presbytery had considered the same sort of option. In the meantime, I'm excited to be a part of ECO, and to begin to use more of my hours each week thinking of reaching our local community through Missional Communities and a new service rather than constantly being engaged in arguments over orthodoxy, "listening sessions", the nature of being connectional as Presbyterian and arguments for the various paths forward.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Building Hope in our Personal Relationships: Nehemiah 2:1-10 - A Sermon

Click Here for an audio version of this sermon.

Today we continue our series, Hope Builders – learning from Nehemiah, as we look at Chapter 2 of that book. One of the questions we hope to address as we move through this series together is how we not only as a church but as individuals can work to be builders of hope in our relationships and communities. How can we, as God’s people, sent out into the world in a myriad of individual circumstances and spheres of influence share the hope that we have in Jesus Christ? Today, as we travel through Chapter 2 of Nehemiah, we think about building that hope on a foundation of prayer and by using our influence, building towards key moments of personal engagement with others and all the while expecting there to be personal opposition along the way. Please follow along in your bibles as we read God’s Word.

 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; 2 so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?" 4 The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it." 6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?" It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. 7 I also said to him, "If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?" And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. 9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king's letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.

As we begin, I’m actually going to pilfer a verse from chapter 1, specifically the last verse, which sets us up with the context of Nehemiah’s situation. He says in verse 1:11 “I was the cupbearer to the king.” In order to be true hope builders, like Nehemiah, we build knowing and expanding our personal influence. Nehemiah, as cupbearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes, had a tremendous amount of influence and certainly he knew it. During the time of Nehemiah the kingdom of Persia was enormous. I’m sure you’re all as up to date on your 5th century BC history as I was when we began this study, but here’s a map, just in

case, to help refresh us. This was the Persian Empire during the time of Nehemiah. Clearly you can see that Israel, and Jerusalem, along with Babylon, parts of India and Egypt are all part of the empire. This was the empire that conquered the Babylonians under Cyrus and Cyrus had released the Jewish people to go back, out of exile, to Judea and Israel. Cyrus’ grandson, was Xerxes, the guy from the movie 300 who pushed the Persian empire into Greece.

The king in Nehemiah is Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes. I’m not sure if Artaxerxes looked like king Xerxes is portrayed in that movie, but what’s certain is that this king held a great amount of power. Cupbearer Nehemiah was one tasted the king’s wine to prevent the king from being poisoned. Cupbearer Nehemiah was not just a menial servant, he had access to and probably guarded the royal chambers. Some have gone as far as to describe his position as a type of personal advisor to Artaxerxes, the emperor of the world. Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king and seeks to use his influence to rebuild Jerusalem. If you look in on your notes page you can see I’ve made a sketch for you using my extensive Microsoft paint skills. You can tell it’s a Samuel Weems original by the way none of the arrows are uniform. Now you may not have names you can put in each of these circles, and maybe you need to scratch out one of the circles and change the label to a different type of sphere of influence, but take a moment and write down some names. Write down the names of nonbelievers or people far from God, like Artaxerxes, not someone who is already in the kingdom, who already has the hope of things unseen rather than someone who does not. Who are some people in these different circles that you have a measure of influence with? You might not be preventing them from dying on a daily basis like Nehemiah was by tasting the king’s wine, but you have influence and relationship. You might not have many names to write down. It’s doubtful that Nehemiah started off in such a place of influence and trust with king Artaxerxes. If you’re like me at all, you may need to work on your interpersonal skills, to build some influence by investing in people’s lives before trying to use any! As I was preparing for this sermon I ran across an app that lets you know how effective you are in using social media, like Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc… in influencing people. It’s called Klout, with a K. So I tried it out to see how much clout I have and this is what it said:


“You don’t share very much, but you follow the social web more than you let on. You may just enjoy observing more than sharing or your checking this stuff out before jumping in full force.” That rating by the way, the 14, is out of a 100. I have a 14% klout rating…that’s not good. Justin Bieber has a 100 klout rating. Our very own Jonathan Cronkhite, director of student ministries has a 45 klout rating, while I am an “Observer”, Jonathan is a Networker.

Here’s how klout describes Jonathan: “You know how to connect to the right people and share what’s important to your audience. You generously share your network to help your followers. You have a high level of engagement and an influential audience.” So again, if you look down at your circles of influence and you can’t think of any names that go there you may not have a high clout rating, you may, like me, currently be an observer in building hope and now know that our level of personal engagement needs work. Now, whether you have an abundance of names or none at all, next to each circle, write some things you can do to have more influence, ways you can listen, or grow and be engaged in your relationship network, perhaps creating a whole new circle of personal relationships. We all have different ways of engaging people personally, but as Bill Hybels says, we need to “rub shoulders with irreligious people.” We can’t possible expect to build hope in those outside of the kingdom of God if we never spend time with them. It may be that you need to take a look at using your Facebook or twitter account to help build relationships. It may be that we need to be involved with people’s lives by involving them in our everyday activities like meals, sporting activities, exercise and activities with our children and grandchildren. Last week Michael mentioned Publix as being a potential mission field. Now if you go to Publix, buy your macaroni salad, checkout and then leave, then you haven’t been missional because you have developed 0 relationship and 0 clout or influence with anyone there. Maybe if we intentionally spoke to the person who made the macaroni salad, or checked out with the same cashier each time with the intention of building relational networks with the unreached then a trip to Publix could be considered missional. I encourage you, and I encourage myself before you, connect with people and be intentional about building relationships with those who don’t have the hope that we have through Jesus Christ.

We build hope knowing our personal influence, expanding it even, and we also build patiently towards a moment. When we notice that chapter 2 starts in the month of Nisan and that chapter 1 starts in the month of Kislev, we realize, after doing a little digging, that this is about a four month gap. Nehemiah, while knowing the level of personal influence he has, also recognizes that storming into the throne room is not the appropriate approach to take. He’s very careful and fearful of approaching Artaxerxes with his concerns. In verse 2 the king asks Nehemiah “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?” Nehemiah, as a cupbearer to the king, was not supposed to be downtrodden or sad in his presence. It wasn’t the king’s job to comfort his servants, but Nehemiah carefully allows his emotions to show. Nehemiah takes this moment to show his discontent with the state of Jerusalem and provide an opportunity for Artaxerxes to inquire further if the king so desires. Again it’s been four months so certainly, Nehemiah could have shown his discontent earlier but he patiently waited for this moment. And when the king asks Nehemiah in verse 4, “What is it you want?” Nehemiah realizes that his patience has paid off! He built patiently toward this moment and has reeled the king in, now is his moment! Let us note, that we also should take a cautious approach in our own personal hope building. We build patiently our influence and relationships. As we use our networks of influence, we should be cautious as Nehemiah is by creating opportunities for people to respond and engage. Picture yourself touching the water gently so as to create ripples.We want our influence to be like that,creating a ripple effect through
the relationships which we influence. We do not want to create a tsunami that destroys any fledgling relationships we may have with nonbelievers. Of course the measure of boldness depends on the level of relationship and influence you have with someone. However, let us never rush these relationships by looking at people as objects, goals, or decisions, rather than children of God, created in His image, with whom we want to share hope so earnestly. A good way to provide the opportunity for hope building, patiently, like Nehemiah who shows his discontent through a simple facial expression, would be to incorporate God into your language. If you are surfing, and the moment is right mention briefly how amazing it is that God provided such a day and such beauty. If you’re at work Monday morning, and the moment is right, maybe mention how refreshed you feel after going to church on Sunday. Again, the level and degree of caution depends on your influence and relationship, but the point is to be intentional. As Nehemiah waited for four months, patiently, and chose the right time to present an opportunity for spiritual conversation, for hope building, so also must we if we are to be faithful disciples.

Now, indeed it’s our responsibility as faithful disciples to go, sent by Jesus as the Father sent him, but we build, not basking in our own skills, but with prayer as the foundation.
The next part of verse four, after the king says “What is it you want?” We notice that Nehemiah writes “Then I prayed to the God of heaven”. Nehemiah shoots up what we sometimes call a bullet prayer, or an arrow prayer. A quick prayer and recognition that in this crucial moment that has been patiently anticipated, he needs God. We have a responsibility to know and expand our personal influence, to build patiently towards these moments, but ultimately hope only comes through our sovereign God. Nehemiah recognizes this at this crucial turning point of the passage and spontaneously prays. In fact, we notice Nehemiah does a boatload of praying. Chapter one began with prayer and fasting and in the thirteen chapters Nehemiah records nine prayers. Indeed those who are the boldest for God, who participate in His kingdom and in building hope, have the greatest need to be in prayer. Here’s a good little test. If we don’t find ourselves in moments of prayer because we need God to act, then there’s a good chance we are actually quite far from participating in building hope. Prayer isn’t something we do because it’s on the list of good things to do: Go to church, go to bible study, have a quiet time, pray, take your pastor to lunch, take your pastor surfing, etc… Prayer is something we do as God’s people because we need Him. We can’t succeed without Him. The mission is a guaranteed failure without Him. When we actually start being the church in our everyday lives and seek to build hope in our personal relationships, desiring to see God work, we pray not because we force ourselves to, but because without Him we can do nothing. We need Him not only in our moments of suffering, but we need Him to build hope. If we’re being faithful, knowing and expanding our personal influence and building patiently towards these moments, then we will recognize the need to be bathed in prayer every step of the way. If we find ourselves not needing prayer, then chances are we aren’t really being the church, or participating in hope building. I encourage you to pick one of the names you might have written in your bulletin. Commit to praying for moments to be used by God in their lives, and pray that God Himself would bring that person the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Continuing in verses 5-9 we read that Nehemiah, empowered by prayer, presses his advantage. It’s clear that Nehemiah built prepared for this moment. Build being prepared for your moment! The king responds favorably and Nehemiah was prepared. He clearly knows the time frame, how long his mission is going to take, and what supplies he needs. He asks for letters of safe conduct through the lands on the way to Jerusalem, for supplies from the royal forest, and even accepts military escort. Nehemiah was prepared! For us, the question becomes, are we prepared for these moments? Are we prepared, when we provide opportunities to have spiritual conversations if they respond? If someone asks you why you believe in God, or more specifically why you believe in Jesus, could you answer them? Would you answer be something you stumbled through, or would it be carefully crafted and prepared for the moment and for that specific relationship? A good place to start is to take the time to write out your own testimony of how God has brought you to where you are in your own life and separately what it is, in your own words, that you believe about God the Father, Son and Spirit. If you don’t like writing, make a webcam video that expresses your faith and watch it. If someone expresses spiritual interest, if they say, with interest as king Artaxerxes does “What is it you want?” then be prepared to invite them to Men’s Fraternity, or to a life group or to a Newcomer’s seminar. Don’t be caught off guard! As the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I can promise, from personal experience, that if we build hope knowing and expanding our personal influence, do so patiently, and with prayer as a foundation, that these moments will come. As you participate in hope building be prepared for these moments.

 Finally as we build, we do so expecting personal opposition. In the final verse we read about Sanballat and Tobiah, who I touch on briefly here knowing they will play larger roles as we continue in Nehemiah. Keep an eye out as we do, because you’ll notice a pattern that every new initiative by Nehemiah is met by escalating opposition, from being displeased, to mocking, to full out threatening a battle. We should, as Jesus warned, expect the same. If you really take the personal call of Jesus to follow Him seriously, to be more than an observer, if we want to confront darkness and hopelessness with the hope of the light come into the world who is Jesus Christ, expect personal opposition.

  As we conclude, let me remind ourselves that as we talk about building hope, as our key theme for this series, we must be careful to not become confused. It is not our job to build the church, our job is to be the church. Jesus said “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” This series isn’t a building campaign or even an encouragement to bring more visitors to our services as great as that may be. It’s a call for us all, myself included, to be the church, not just go to church. We gather together for equipping and training so that we’ll be ready for our moments of being the church, but the church is not this building. The church is wherever you, the body of Christ with Jesus as the head, are, whether that is on 

Facebook, at Publix, or surfing. As disciples of Christ, we are to be the church, building hope not with bricks and mortar, but through our personal relationships and moments of influence and we recognize, especially in prayer, God’s sovereignty in it all. Nehemiah writes in verse 8 “And because the gracious hand of God was upon me, the king granted my requests.” As we remember today, the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus’ disciples like tongues of fire, we remember that when we are the church, we are empowered by God’s Spirit and the gracious hand of God is upon us. Sometimes we wonder why we aren’t experiencing the power of God like this but the truth is friends, we don’t need tongues of fire to sit through a sermon or a bible study. We don’t experience the Spirit sometimes because we aren’t doing anything that requires Him, because we aren’t on mission, because we aren’t hope building in our personal relationships and in our communities. When we do something about our discontent, when we become hope-builders and become participants rather than observers in the kingdom of God then expect His hand, His Spirit to be upon you. Then in humble reliance on that Spirit, we go out and intentionally be the church, salt and light in a world that needs hope, that needs Jesus the Messiah.