Overcoming Obstacles

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 7, 2014

Nehemiah 4 and 6 God’s Vision For You: Overcoming Obstacles

The Musical Montage
Have you ever noticed how often, in the movies, there is a part in the middle of the movie where there’s a musical montage? Call it the happy music moment. You know, there’s this really cool song playing and you see the characters making real progress toward their goal. If it’s a sports movie, this is usually when the team really comes together and starts doing their drills with precision. Or when Rocky starts punching sides of beef. If it’s a RomCom, the happy music moment is usually when the women go shopping for bridesmaid dresses. If it’s a superhero movie, it’s usually a sequence where the hero is getting his powers under control and breaking up a series of small time crimes. Lots of movies have a happy music moment.

Well, if Nehemiah were a movie, then I think Nehemiah 3 would be the happy music moment. Nehemiah 3 is where all the people of Jerusalem come together to work on the wall. Nehemiah has laid out his vision, the people have rallied around it and said “Let us rise up and rebuild!” and they’ve all gone to work. If I were filming this story, this is where I’d start the cool song—[sound of a guitar riff]—and start showing people grabbing their hammers, stacking bricks, mixing up cement, chest bumping each other as the work gets done. [“I’ve got the eye of the tiger!”]

Nehemiah 3 is the happy music moment in Nehemiah’s story. It’s where the people go to work.

But, have you ever noticed in the movies that often, right after the music montage, some new adversity hits the characters? Usually, right after the music ends, reality sets in, and some tension crops back up and you wonder how it’s going to be resolved. It’s the tension that keeps you watching.

Well, the same thing happens in Nehemiah’s story. After chapter 3 ends, chapter 4 hits, and we read about opposition to the rebuilding. We find out: not everybody was crazy about Jerusalem getting fixed.

And, as we talk about discovering and carrying out God’s vision for your life, here’s an important but hard truth: Anywhere there is vision, there will also be obstacles. If you’ve got a vision for how things can get better, you can count on it: there will be resistance.

You see, vision means change. Vision is the difference between what is, and what could be. Vision is a picture of a preferred future. And that means, if a vision is going to be carried out there is going to have to be change. And change can be hard. Change doesn’t happen without resistance. The natural human tendency is to keep things the way they are—the way we’ve gotten used to—and so any sort of vision for change is going to face an uphill battle.

Let me give you some examples. I’ll just make up some scenarios, but they’ll probably sound familiar to you:

Kelly had a vision for reconnecting with her husband Ben, making time for just the two of them. So she set out to make Friday night date night. The first week it went pretty well. But the second week, they couldn’t find a sitter because all the High School kids were at the football game. The third week, Ben was out of town on a fishing trip with some buddies. The fourth week one of the kids was down sick. By the fifth week Kelly had forgotten all about date night, and the vision had died.

Or, again: Derrick and Becky are buried under a pile of debt because of some poor decisions early in their marriage. But they catch a radio program that gives them a vision for debt-free living. They start to make changes, but Becky’s parents think they are crazy. “That’s unrealistic,” they say, “everybody has debt.” Derrick and Becky walk away discouraged. A few days later the vision fades away.

Or, again: Pete is a college freshman who has a vision for living for Jesus on his campus. He puts out an invitation to the guys on his dorm floor to attend a Bible Study. Three weeks later, he’s sitting alone in his dorm wondering why everybody is avoiding him. His roommate sticks his head in the dorm and says: “Give it up Pete. I know you mean well, but nobody’s interested in that Jesus stuff. Come on, let’s go grab a beer.” Pete grabs his jacket and follows his roommate out into the night, and the vision is snuffed out. (examples taken from Andy Stanley, Visioneering, p. 146-147)

Whatever your vision is, whether it is big or small, it’s going to encounter obstacles. What do you do? Nehemiah faced obstacles, but he also models for us how to stay vision-focused in spite of the resistance.

Hear Us, O our God
Let’s look at the story. Nehemiah 4:1-2:

1When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, "What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble-burned as they are?"

Sanballat is the governor of Samaria, the province north of Judea. He seems awfully grumpy about Jerusalem being rebuilt, and his motivation is probably political. If Jerusalem is weak, then Samaria is much more important in the region—and so is he. But if Jerusalem gets strong, then Nehemiah’s position as governor of Judea is going to be much more important than his position in Samaria. And there are probably going to be economic repercussions as well.

So Sanballat gets together with Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arab—two other regional governors who stand to lose if Jerusalem gains—and starts to heap ridicule on the Jews. They are weak and feeble. There’s no way they are going to start offering sacrifices again. They aren’t going to bring life to those heaps of rubble.

Tobiah even throws in this gem. Verse 3:

3Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, "What they are building-if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!"

Apparently that was quite the Old Testament burn. “They’re so bad at wall building that even a fox could knock down their wall.”

It is mocking like this that so often derails our visions: “You think you’re going to go to college?” “You really think you can run your own business?” “You are going to going to go overseas and lead people to Jesus? Who do you think you are, Billy Graham?” Anytime there is vision, there are going to be critics.

So what does Nehemiah do? He prays. Verses 4 and 5:

4Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

I love this about Nehemiah: he is a man of prayer. We saw this a couple of weeks ago, and now we see it again. There’s nothing obviously miraculous in the book of Nehemiah, but Nehemiah is praying at every turn.

In this case, he refuses to get sidetracked by his critics, so he hands them over to God. He says, in essence, “God, I’m too busy to deal with these jerks, so you are going to have to handle them.”

And notice, his prayer really is about that blunt. Nehemiah isn’t going to score a lot of points for mercy. He says “Turn their insults back on their own heads… Do not cover up their guilt…give them as plunder in the land of captivity.” Clearly, Nehemiah is angry about what they are saying, but instead of getting into a pointless war of words with his critics, he pours out his frustration to God and gets back to work.

And here’s the first thing for us to learn about facing obstacles: Remember the source of your vision. Instead of getting pulled down by the resistance to your vision, give it back to God. Nehemiah knows that, ultimately, this work of restoring Jerusalem is about God’s glory—it is God’s project, God has called Nehemiah to do it—so when obstacles get in his way his first instinct is to call on the Lord. Look at verses 7 and 8:

7But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.

When insults and put downs aren’t enough to discourage the people from the work, Sanballat and his cronies decide to put on a display of force. They start assembling the troops. So what does Nehemiah do? Verse 9:

9But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Nehemiah keeps the focus on God and what God is calling him to do. He knows that this vision is worth fighting for because it is a God-given vision.

One more example of Nehemiah keeping God at the forefront. Verse 10:

10Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, "The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall."

Aside from the opposition from outside, there were also difficulties within. The work was hard. There was a lot of rubble to clear out. Now there were threats of being attacked? The people were getting tired and discouraged. So, skip ahead a few verses, verse 14:

14After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."

Nehemiah reminds them of the great and awesome God. He deals with the present circumstances by reminding them of God’s faithfulness in the past. He points them to a future—for their brothers, their sons and daughters—that will be better because God is in this.

Anytime you have a vision for change, there are going to be all kinds of “what ifs” and “maybes” that make it look like an impossible task. If it were easy, it would have already been done. As long as you respond to these obstacles according to your potential or the potential of the people around you, the temptation is going to be to give up. But when you remember that it is Lord—who is great and awesome—who has called you, it is a different story.

Posting a Guard
There is something else we can learn from Nehemiah. Just because he gave these obstacles back to God, that doesn’t mean he stopped thinking or working. There is a fine balance between walking by faith and leading strategically. Nehemiah’s trust was in God, but at the same time he didn’t abandon his responsibility to do what he could to move the vision forward. Let’s go back to verse 9, where Nehemiah learned that Sanballat was organizing an army to come and stop the work:

9But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

I love this about Nehemiah. He gives the problem to God, and then he does something about it. He doesn’t just sit around and wait for God to do something, but he understands that one of the primary ways God is likely to answer his prayers is through him.

So here’s the second thing we can learn from Nehemiah about dealing with obstacles: Revise the plan, not the vision. We need to distinguish between our God-given vision, which (if it is a God-given vision) shouldn’t change, and the means for accomplishing that vision, which likely will.

Nehemiah’s original vision was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His original plan had nothing to do with posting armed guards. But now a threat has arisen, so the plan has to change. Verses 16-18:

16From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.

Suddenly Nehemiah’s effective work force is cut in half. Half the men do masonry, the other half stand guard. Even those who are doing the work do so with a trowel in one hand and a weapon in the other, which can’t be the most effective way to build a wall . It wasn’t the original plan, but in order to accomplish the vision, this is what they had to do.

And you know what? It worked. Verse 15:

15When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.

It turns out that Sanballat and his cronies were mostly just saber rattling. If they had the element of surprise, they were willing to come in and push some people around. But as soon as they saw that the Jews had posted a guard and armed themselves, they weren’t so brave anymore.

But what I love is Nehemiah’s adaptability. He knows what he wants to accomplish—he wants to rebuild that wall—but he also knows there is more than one way to get it done. If they need to take turns standing guard, that’s what they’ll do.

And I think this is a good lesson to us: don’t confuse your plans for your vision. Just because you try one way to accomplish your vision and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean your vision is bad.

For instance, earlier in the sermon I used the example of a woman who had a vision to reconnect with her husband and tried to do so through Friday night date nights. The date nights fell victim to scheduling conflicts, but that doesn’t mean that her vision had to die. The date nights were just one plan. Maybe she has to try something else. Maybe daily walks after supper. Maybe Sunday afternoon drives around the lake. Maybe… The vision is still good and God-honoring, it just might need to be accomplished in a different way.

There’s a phrase that some of us on the church staff picked up several years ago from Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana. The phrase is “wet cement”. You put things in wet cement, and they tend to stay put. And yet, as long as the cement is wet, you can still change things around if need be.

And the idea is that while the vision of what we want to accomplish does not easily change, the things we do in order to accomplish it might. So, take the church for example. One of our visions is to honor and praise God. We want to sing joyfully to him. For years that was accomplished with the help of an organ and hymn books. Now we use guitars and drums and a projector. In years to come, who knows what it will look like: maybe we’ll go back to candles and incense, or maybe music will get very computerized. The point is: the vision doesn’t change, but the means to accomplish it may. That’s what is meant by “wet cement.”

So as you seek to live out God’s vision in your life: don’t confuse your plans with your vision. You vision should stay solid, even as you plans for accomplishing that vision may change.

I am Doing A Great Work, And Cannot Go Down
The third thing, then, that we can learn from Nehemiah about dealing with obstacles is this: Don’t get distracted. Don’t let the obstacles become the focus of your attention, but keep you focus on the vision. Let’s jump over to chapter 6. Verses 1 and 2:

1When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it-though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates- 2Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: "Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono." But they were scheming to harm me.

It’s not entirely clear what is happening here, but I think it was something like this. In spite of their ridicule and saber rattling, Sanballat and the boys have not been able to stop the work on Jerusalem’s walls. So now, when the work is substantially completed and all that is left is to put doors on the gateways, they change tactics. They start sending invitations to Nehemiah to come and meet together. They want to come to the negotiation table.

And the pretext for these meetings, apparently, is that they want to make peace. Instead of taunting Nehemiah and his workers, now they want to work with them. Perhaps they can sit down and figure out how trade and taxes and so forth are going to be handled going forward.

Nehemiah sees through all that, however, and realizes this is all an attempt to get Nehemiah alone so that they can assassinate him. (Perhaps his clue was that they wanted to meet on the plain of Ono!) So here is his response, verse 3:

3so I sent messengers to them with this reply: "I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?"

This is a great answer, and one we should all learn. Other translations phrase it slightly differently, and (I think) a bit more poetically: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Why don’t you try that? Repeat it after me: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”

Nehemiah knew that what he was about was a God thing. It was an important thing. He was doing a great work. So why should he stop it to go to some meeting? He certainly didn’t have time to go and be assassinated. But even if they were being genuine and wanted to discuss terms, that wasn’t his mission. He wasn’t going to be pulled away from the great work he was doing even if it was for a good thing. He wasn’t going to be distracted. He wasn’t going to let up. He was going to stay focused on what God had called him to do.

And I think some of you need to hear this about what you are doing: “It is a great work, do not go down.” Some of you need to learn to say this about yourself: “I am doing a great work, I cannot go down.”

• When you have a vision to live for Jesus and it seems like everybody else on campus couldn’t give a fig newton for Him, you need to remind yourself: “I am doing a great work, I cannot go down.”
• When you have a vision to stay home with the kids even though it puts a financial pinch on the family and everybody else seems to be a dual income household and you’ve just changed the 5th stinky diaper of the day, you need to remind yourself: “I am doing a great work, I cannot go down.”
• When you have a vision to run your business by Christian principles and it seems like everyone else is cutting corners to get ahead and you think you might need to bend or compromise a little bit, you need to remind yourself: “I am doing a great work, I cannot go down.”

Nehemiah knew what he was about, he knew what God had called Him to do, and He wasn’t going to be distracted.

Consider this: when Sanballat couldn’t get Nehemiah to come down to be assassinated, he tried to assassinate his character. Verses 4-7:

4Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. 5Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6in which was written:

"It is reported among the nations-and Geshem says it is true-that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: 'There is a king in Judah!' Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together."

This is a pretty underhanded thing to do. Sanballat sends an open letter—so anybody can read it—that essentially accuses Nehemiah of treason. It paints Nehemiah as a power hungry usurper who, as soon as the gates are hung on the wall, is going to proclaim himself king and then declare rebellion against Artaxerxes. The letter even implies that if Nehemiah doesn’t present himself, they’ll send this information to Artaxerxes themselves.

It’s a blatant example of a malicious rumor. And if you are a leader who carries out a vision for change, you may find yourself the subject of the same kind of misleading and unflattering rumors. Whenever you lead change, you are going to run across people who question your motives. But I love Nehemiah’s answer. Verse 8:

8I sent him this reply: "Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head."

That’s it. Short and to the point. Nehemiah would have loved email or texting (but there’s no smiley face emoticon on this message!) Nehemiah doesn’t try to defend himself. He doesn’t get in the gutter with them and start slinging accusations back and forth. He just says: “You’re wrong” and then carries on with the work. He refuses to be distracted. Verse 9:

9They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, "Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed." But I prayed, "Now strengthen my hands."

There he goes, praying again.

But notice, he’s not going to be distracted by the criticism. He’s not going to be pulled away from the great work he is doing. Nehemiah knows what his motives are. He knows that Artaxerxes knows what his motives are. God knows what his motives are. He trusts that that is enough. He’s not going to be pulled away from the work in some sort of campaign to protect his name.

And sometimes, when criticism comes your way, the best thing you can do is ignore it. You can’t correct every rumor. You can’t fix every misperception. All you can do is stay focused on the vision and let your actions speak for themselves.

**When All our Enemies Heard*
In the end, that’s what Nehemiah did. Skip ahead a few more verses, to chapter 6:15 and 16:

15So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

You’ve got to love that. Nehemiah’s critics lost their steam when they realized God was involved. A huge wall built in 52 days has a way of doing that. Nothing silences criticism like divinely ordered success.

If God is the source of your vision, the day will come when even your harshest critics will have a difficult time explaining away what He has done through you.

So don’t let obstacles distract you. Take them to God, and then channel your energy back into the thing He has called you to do. Revise your plans if you have to, but don’t let the resistance shake you from the thing God has put on your heart.

Obstacles are bound to come, but you can stay vision focused.