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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.