More Than a Wall

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nehemiah 8 God’s Vision For You: More Than a Wall

Carry On
I went on a quick trip to Chicago earlier this week. I went to a gathering of pastors on Monday and Tuesday. So I flew out. I went down to Sioux City and caught the 6:10 a.m. flight to Chicago O’Hare.

The Sioux City airport is not a large airport. They have a grand total of three outgoing flights a day. Two to Chicago, and one to Denver. So it’s not exactly a busy place. And the plane that flies to Chicago isn’t the largest. So, as I’m boarding the plane they hand me a red tag and tell me they want to check my carry-on. I’ve got a little pull behind suitcase that fits in most overhead compartments, but not on this plane. So I put the tag on the suitcase and about halfway down the jetway they have this cart for me to put my suitcase on. They call it “gate-checking.”

So I find my seat on the plane and get my Sports Illustrated out and start reading. Other passengers are coming down the aisle when all of a sudden this woman, about 4 rows in, turns around and says, very loudly, “I did NOT push you!” You know how a deer drinking at a stream, when it hears something unusual, will raise up its head? That was me when I heard that. Not something one usually hears on an airplane.

The woman makes her way back to her seat and sits down. A little later, the guy with the orange jacket on—the baggage handler, who at the Sioux City airport also apparently doubles as the air marshal—comes onto the plane and goes back to engage in an urgent conversation with the woman who shouted. I can’t hear what’s being said, but another pastor who I am traveling with and who is seated farther back says the words “federal offense” and “you need to leave the plane now” were prominently mentioned.

Apparently, as this woman was coming onto the plane she was asked to gate-check her carry on and refused. Some sort of tug-of-war ensued between her and the flight attendant, and—allegedly—some shoving took place.

So now the guy in the orange jacket is threatening to remove her from the plane and she’s very, very apologetic. She begs for the chance to go and apologize to the flight attendant. Then—within full earshot of everyone on the plane (it’s not very big, remember)—she goes up says: “Can we just start over? Can I just have another chance?” Eventually, they let her stay on the plane and we have a very uneventful flight to Chicago.

So, I get off the plane and go stand with everybody else on the jetway, waiting for them to bring up our bags. We hear the clang of the elevator and the gate opens up and we all crowd around. There’s about 18 of us. When the gate opens, though, there are only 5 bags.

Mine is not one of them.

Neither is the woman’s who got into the shoving match with the flight attendant.

It would appear that in the excitement of the boarding, nobody remembered to load our bags into the belly of the aircraft (probably the baggage guy was too busy making his report to Homeland Security). The folks in Chicago called the folks in Sioux City, and, sure enough, there were the bags sitting on the tarmac.

Our friend the shover was NOT happy. When they offered us all $100 travel vouchers for the inconvenience, she refused to take one because she wasn’t going to sign anything releasing the airline from responsibility. And I’m thinking, the whole time, this is all her fault!

They promised to find our bags and get them to Chicago on the next flight, which would be at 4:30. I got a call about 9:30 that my bag was in town and they would deliver it to my hotel, but it didn’t actually show up until 11:00 the next morning—which was just hours before I was scheduled to fly back home. At that point, I didn’t bother to change clothes. I ended up flying home in the same clothes I flew out in.

So, anyway, I tell that story for a couple of reasons. One is I think it is a really good story and I just wanted to tell it. How many people do you know who have had an airline lose their carry-on bags?

Making it Real
The second reason is because I believe it ties in—however loosely, to the topic we’ve been talking about the last several weeks: Vision.

We often talk about life as a journey here at Hope Church. We are all on a journey somewhere. Our lives are going in a certain direction. And the point of having vision is to make sure your life ends up going the direction you want it to go. If you don’t have vision—if you don’t have a picture of the preferred future you are aiming at—then you are liable to wake up some morning and discover that your career is not what you wanted, or your marriage doesn’t look like you would have hoped, or that your life choices haven’t brought you to a good place. It’s kind of like having your luggage end up in Denver instead of Chicago (which isn’t exactly what happened to my bag, but I hope you get the point).

It’s important to have a vision for your life, for whatever season of life you are in. It might be a vision about how you connect with your grandchildren. It might be a vision about a business you want to open. It might be a vision for going to college. Or, it might be a vision for becoming a missionary.

Even more significant, we’ve been talking about finding our God-given vision. We believe that, for every season of life, God has a purpose and plan for our lives. There are ways that God wants us to go about being grandparents, or business owners, or college students, or whatever; and when our vision matches His vision that is where we are going to find our sweet spot.

So today we are wrapping up this series on vision. And you may have noticed the cards and envelopes that you have been given. And you’ll see that those cards say: “At this season of my life, I believe my God-given vision is…” Today, we are going to ask you to put pen to paper. Today, we are going to ask you to give words to what God has called you to do.

I hope this series has been making you think. I hope you have been wrestling with what breaks your heart. Where you see a difference between what is, and what should be. And I hope you’ve been praying. I hope you’ve been praying for God to create opportunities to step into those heart-breaking situations. I hope you’ve been inspecting the situation and dreaming about what would make a difference. I hope you’ve been powering through the obstacles and—as Jay challenged us last week—thinking about the kind of person you want to be even as you pursue your goals.

And now, this week, we’re going to challenge you to write it down. Your vision won’t be concrete unless you have a record of it. So as you listen to this sermon, you can also be thinking about how to capture your vision in a sentence or two. We’ll tell you what to do with these cards at the end of the message.

But first, we need to catch up with Nehemiah. Nehemiah has been our guide through this process of discovering vision. Nehemiah, you will recall, was the cup-bearer to the king of Persia who couldn’t bear the thought of the capital city of his homeland being in disrepair. So he mustered up the courage to talk to the king about it and got himself appointed governor of Israel so he could go back and rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. And, in spite of all kinds of opposition and obstacles, and against all odds, Nehemiah and the rag tag collection of Jews who had returned to the area got that wall built in an astonishing 52 days. It’s a great story of vision and leadership.

But today, we’re going to see that for Nehemiah, it was about so much more than just building a wall.

In my opinion, chapters 8 through 10 are the real highpoint of Nehemiah’s story. Even though the wall is completed by the end of chapter 6, chapters 8 through 10 are the key because they tell us what happened after the hammering was over: the building of the wall led to a revival of faith in Israel.

I’m going to take you through most of chapter 8, and then we’ll touch on a few verses from chapters 9 and 10 to get the story. Let’s start with Nehemiah 8, verse 1:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns,1all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So, the seventh month on the Persian calendar is Tisri. It comes right after Elul. Again, I’m sure that means nothing to you. But if we go back to chapter 6, verse 15 we discover that the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul. So, basically, we’re looking at one week later.

And what we’re told is that after the wall was finished, everyone went back home. A lot of the workers on the wall actually lived outside of Jerusalem, so they’ve all gotten back to their regular lives.

But now, they all come back into Jerusalem to listen to the reading of the Book of the Law of Moses. Finishing the wall is not enough. Nehemiah wants everyone to come back and be reminded of who they are.

And so, he pushes Ezra to the forefront. We haven’t talked much about Ezra yet, but he and Nehemiah are definitely a pair. The book named for Ezra comes right before Nehemiah’s in the Bible. And while Nehemiah is the political and practical leader in this story, Ezra is the spiritual leader. He’s identified as a “scribe”, which means he’s a priest, a scholar, and a teacher of the law. In this effort to rebuild and restore Jerusalem, Nehemiah has been responsible for the wall while Ezra has been responsible for the temple. And now we are going to see their interests converge. Verses 2 and 3:

2So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

It’s one thing to call a meeting; it is quite another thing for people to come to it. Nehemiah must have wondered what sort of a crowd this meeting would bring. After nearly two months of intense labor, you would think people would want a break to tend to business at home. And yet, here they are, 5 days later. En masse. An “assembly.” “Men and women and all who were able to understand.” They gather to listen to attentively to the Book of the Law. For 5 hours, from sunup to noon, they are prepared to take in God’s Word.

There is a shared expectation, excitement and impatience; there is a desire to hear from God. And really, this is the point of this whole book.

You’ll remember, we’ve been saying all along that this has always been about more than building a wall for Nehemiah. He cared about the condition of the wall because he cared about the glory of God. As long as the city of God was in rubble, God looked bad. As long as God’s people were scattered and weak, they were also distant in their relationship with Him. So Nehemiah’s vision was to rebuild the wall, but the fruit of that vision is found here, outside the Water Gate, as the people assemble to hear God’s word. Let’s skip ahead to verses 5 and 6:

5Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6Ezra praised the Lord , the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

What we have here looks very much like one of our church services. Ezra leads them in singing and worship, and they lift their hands and bow with their faces to the ground. And then Ezra unscrolls the Book of Moses and all the people stand in respect. It’s very similar to one of our church services, with the exception that the sermon takes 5 hours. Verses 7 and 8:

7The Levites-Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah-instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.8They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

This is more than just Ezra reading from the book of Deuteronomy for 5 hours straight. Because the Book of the Law was written in Hebrew and most of the people spoke Aramaic at this time, the scriptures actually needed to be translated. So, all of these Levites (there are 13 named) would have stood in the midst of the crowd. And Ezra, up on the platform, would read a section of scripture, and then these Levites would translate (remember there were no sound systems). And, more than that, it said they would “make it clear and give the meaning”, so more than just reading, they were preaching. I’m sure they discussed it in advance with Ezra, and they helped people understand what God was saying to them.

And look at how the people respond. Verse 9:

9Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

The people began to weep. Apparently, it had been a long time since they had heard the Word of God. Now they are getting a picture of God’s holiness, His power, and His grace. And they’re hearing about what God requires, and they’re facing how far short they have come in following God’s demands. And the Holy Spirit is working on their hearts and they are under a deep conviction. They are mourning their sin and shortcomings.

But notice what Nehemiah says: “Do not mourn or weep. This day is sacred to the Lord your God.” It is good that they are under conviction for their sin, but the point is not to make them feel bad but to turn them back to God. The point is not to beat them down, but to raise them up. Verse 10:

10Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

This is probably the most often quoted verse from Nehemiah: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” And in context what it means is: “You have been distant from God. You have broken His commands. But don’t weep and mourn; rejoice. Because God forgives you. Because you can turn back to Him. And what he offers is not condemnation but joy.”

So the people do what Nehemiah says. They feast and celebrate God’s grace. And then, the next day, they come back for more. Verse 13 says that the following day the heads of all the families come back to give attention to the words of the law.

And they read a portion of scripture that says at this time of year, in order to remember what it was like when their ancestors came out of Egypt, everybody is supposed to live for one week in temporary housing. It’s called the Festival of Booths. And nobody had been doing that in Israel for about 500 years, not since the days of Joshua. But they resolved to do it, so everybody goes out and gets olive branches and palm branches and makes these flimsy structures to live in. Because they are committed to following God’s word. Verse 17 says:

17The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them.
From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.

“There joy was very great.” They are turning back to God and they are obeying His word and they are feeling revived and energized and they are filled with joy.

What comes next, chapter 9, is a wonderful prayer of dedication and confession. They go through God’s history with the people of Israel and they confess their failure to keep covenant and beg forgiveness. And then they recommit themselves to God. Chapter 9, verse 38:

38"In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing,
and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it."

Chapter 10 details the commitments. They are going to stop intermarrying with foreign people, and thus diluting their faith in the One True God. They are going to stop selling and buying on the Sabbath. They are going to protect the poor and be generous with those in need. They are going to begin tithing to the Temple. Chapter 10, verse 39 says:

39"We will not neglect the house of our God."

More than just a commitment to support institutionalized religion, what this represents is a wholehearted renewal of faith in God. This is a revival in the land, a return to being the people who represent God on earth. The people are resolved to put God first in everything.

The Fruit of Vision
Now, there are a lot of points I could make about this story. We could talk about the importance of knowing and reading and preaching God’s Word. We could talk about the importance of gathering together as the people of God to worship together. We could talk about the importance of confession. We could talk about the power of God to revive His people.

But since this is a series on vision, I want to focus in on how this relates to our God-given visions. And the point, as I’ve said throughout the message, was that this was always about more than a wall for Nehemiah. His vision was to rebuild the wall, but he knew there was more at stake than whether the Dung Gate had a door. He knew that rebuilding the wall would be a part of God’s greater plan to revive His people.

And that’s what I want you to see today: the visions we are so intent on seeing through to completion actually prepare the way for something much greater. If you are actually living out God’s vision for your life—wherever it is—it’s always going to be a part of something so much greater than just fulfilling that vision. It doesn’t matter if your vision concerns your business, or your marriage, or your family, or your neighborhood, or your church: if you are living out God’s vision for your life in God’s way then the fruit of that vision is always going to be so much more than a profitable business or a happy marriage or successful children or whatever—it’s going to be a part of God’s greater kingdom purposes in this world.

Let me put it this way: the first week of this series I made reference to Ephesians 2:10. Here’s how we know that God has a vision for each of us. That we are all made with a plan and purpose for what God wants us to accomplish:

10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

When we are doing those good works, whatever they are, then we are joining God in His greater plan for the world. Our visions become more than a wall as well. It becomes more than just our marriage or our business or our neighborhood. It becomes a part of God’s great mission of renewing and reclaiming the earth.

Let Your Light Shine
So what happens when you live out your God-given vision? How does your little vision fit into God’s grander plan for the world? Very quickly, I can think of two ways:

First, when you live out your God-given vision in God’s way you point people to God. Jesus says this in Matthew 5:14 and 15:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

You don’t always have to say the name of Jesus in order to tell people about him (though some of us probably need to talk about Him more than we do). When people know you are a Christian and they watch the way you conduct your business or the way you volunteer in your neighborhood or the way you treat your spouse, they are learning something about what it means to follow Jesus. As you live out God’s vision for your life, you are letting your light shine for Him.

Too often, we draw a line between the things we do at church and the things we do in the rest of our lives. Like there is a time for being “Christian”, when we are doing “Christian” activities, and a time for everything else. But if we seek to find God’s vision for us in every aspect of our lives, then we can’t draw that line. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. It is all about letting our light shine for Him.

And then, second. When you live out your God-given vision in God’s way you bring Glory to Him. Jesus goes on to say this, Matthew 5:16:

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Ultimately, God’s glory should drive everything we do. As Andy Stanley says, “The end of a God-ordained vision is God.” (Visioneering, p. 237) The whole point is to point back to Him.

The rebuilding of the wall wasn’t about how great Nehemiah was, but how great was the God working through him. The point wasn’t to have something sturdy between the citizens of Jerusalem and the outside world, it was about restoring God’s reputation. The point isn’t you living out your hopes and dreams, but letting the Living God shine through you.

Andy Stanley uses the example of Billy Graham. He says that our generation has had the unique opportunity to watch one of God’s choice servants finish well. Billy Graham has spoken to over two hundred million people and literally millions have given their lives to Jesus Christ as a direct result of the Billy Graham Association’s ministry. Dr. Graham’s perspective on his achievements is refreshing:

I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is ask: “Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farmboy from North Carolina to reach so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?”

As I look back over the years, however, I know that my deepest feeling is one of overwhelming gratitude. I cannot take credit for whatever God has chosen to accomplish through us and our ministry; only God deserves the glory, and we can never thank Him enough for the great things He has done. (Ibid, p. 247)

The end of a God-ordained vision is God. When you allow Him to carry out His work in you, you too will find yourself asking: “Why me?”

Building Our Wall
So, here’s how we’re going to end this series on vision. I hope you’ve been thinking about how to express your vision in a sentence or two. If you haven’t written it on your card yet, I’ll encourage you to do so now.

Then, we’re going to use an old Bible Camp idea. We’re not going to ask you to share this vision with anyone else, but we don’t want you to forget it either. So we’re going to invite you to put your address on the envelope, put the card in the envelope, and then bring them forward. And, in a couple of months, we’ll mail these cards back to you as a reminder of what God has been speaking into your life.

So, every fall, we like to have a service where we move people around a little bit. The team is going to play a couple of songs, and we’re going to invite you to come forward. You can just toss your envelope up here on the platform.

And you’ll also notice all these bricks lying here in piles of rubble. To tie this in to Nehemiah, and maybe make it a little more meaningful, we’re also going to invite you to grab a brick and start building a wall. The way I picture it, when we’re done we’ll have a wall on the edge of the platform with all of our God-given visions inside.

For those of you in the balcony: come on down. And then, feel free just to stay on this level, as we’ll be wrapping up with “Be Thou My Vision” just as soon as everybody has had a chance to bring their envelopes forward.