The Power of Vision

Original Date: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014

Nehemiah 2:11-3:32 God’s Vision for You: The Power of Vision

Church Medicine
The first time I ever preached in a church it was in a tiny, no stop sign town in eastern Iowa. It was a disaster. But I’m not sure anybody noticed.

I was a senior in college when I decided I was called to go to seminary. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a preacher, but I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do either. I just knew that I liked being in school, and I liked studying the Bible, so if there was a way I could drag my education out and make it about Jesus, I was all for it.

I told my friend and campus pastor, Ron Bartlett, that I was thinking about going to seminary and he decided I needed to get some experience preaching. Because most of his ministry took place on campus during the week, he got a lot of invitations to be a guest preacher. He decided instead of taking them all himself, he’d send me.

My first assignment was actually a dual assignment. Two churches, about 7 miles apart, shared a pastor. And instead of having everybody come to one church building and worshipping together, they asked the pastor (or the guest preacher, me) to go first to one church service and then get in the car and go to the other.

So the day came, and Beth and I drove out to the first church. I made her drive. I was busy trying to get my breathing under control. We found the church about 30 minutes before the service started, and nobody was there. The doors were still locked. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes before the service that somebody showed up with a key. About 5 minutes before the service about 9 people filed in. By the time we started, there were maybe a dozen people there.

I don’t remember much about the actual service, other than it was very painful. We sang several songs, but nobody in the congregation sang very much. I could hear myself singing, and that’s never a good thing. I remember being very nervous. I tend to sweat when I’m nervous and I was in full soak mode. But nobody seemed all that engaged with what I was saying. I’m sure it wasn’t a very good message, but I got the distinct impression that nobody really cared. If I had been Billy Graham, I’m not sure it would have changed their interest all that much. When the service was over, Beth and I were supposed to hustle over to the other church, but I bet we were still the next to last car to leave. Nobody wanted to stay around to visit. Nobody seemed glad to be there.

The other church had a slightly larger crowd, but the atmosphere wasn’t much different. It was a group of people who looked like they were getting their church obligations out of the way for the week. People who were keeping their church going out of a sense of duty. Over the next several months Ron lined up other preaching opportunities for me, and most of the churches I entered felt the same way. If I hadn’t been the speaker, they were churches I never would have chosen to attend.

I didn’t realize it then, but God was beginning to create a vision in me.

My frustration, the thing that broke my heart, were churches that made serving and worshipping God feel like taking your medicine. You knew it was good for you, you knew it was something you should do, but it didn’t taste very good. I was becoming discontent over churches that made the whole church experience into something to be endured, rather than something to be enjoyed.

And the vision that God was creating in my heart was for a church experience that would be fun. I believed then—and I still believe today—that being in a relationship with Jesus is what we were all created for, and that when we are growing in that relationship we are living the best possible life.

So when people who love Jesus get together it should be exciting. We should sing passionately. We should enjoy one another’s company. We should discover new things about God. We should find purpose and direction.

The vision that God was birthing in me, and which still guides my life (at least as far as I see myself as a pastor) is that church should be a place where we experience joy. I want to lead a church that people are excited to attend and excited to leave. (Wait, that didn’t quite come out right. What I mean is that my vision is when you leave a church function it won’t be with a heavy heart, like you just did your religious duty or took your religious medicine, but that you’ll be excited and inspired to take what you experienced into the rest of your week.)

That’s what fires me up. And that’s the kind of place I’m striving to make Hope Church.

What’s Your Vision?
So that’s my vision.

But the series we’re in isn’t about my vision or calling. The goal of this series we are in is that each of you will be able to discover and clarify God’s vision for you. It is my hope that at the end of this series all of us will be able to write out in a clear and compelling way what we believe to be God’s vision for us for the stage of life we are in.

And to do that, we are working our way through the book of Nehemiah. The first thing we saw is that we need to figure out what breaks our hearts. What is it that you just can’t stand? For Nehemiah, it was the news of Jerusalem’s broken down walls. Then, second, we saw the importance of praying for the opportunity to get involved. Prayer must always come before action.

Now, today, we are going to continue to follow Nehemiah as he puts his vision into motion. We’re going to look at the second half of chapter 2 and chapter 3. We can organize this section of scripture around three words: Inspection, Inspiration, and Mobilization.

What’s that Smell?
Let’s start with inspection. As we seek to form a vision for what can be it is important that we acknowledge what is broken. The first thing Nehemiah does when he arrives in Jerusalem is take stock of the situation. Nehemiah 2:11-16:

11I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.
13By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.

When we last left Nehemiah he had just mustered up the courage to ask King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city. Artaxerxes, you will remember, was the one who had ordered previous work on Jerusalem’s walls to stop; and it wasn’t exactly imperial policy to allow conquered peoples to refortify. But the great and awesome God worked on the heart of Artaxerxes and he appointed Nehemiah the new governor of Israel, gave him a line of credit at Home Depot; and sent him west with a contingent of army officers and cavalry.

But when Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem he doesn’t immediately announce his intentions and set to work on the wall. He’s too good of a politician for that, in the best sense of the word. He understands that the people of Jerusalem are going to look with suspicion on anyone sent from the Imperial capital, and are not likely to spring into action just because he says so. Also, he understands that there is plenty of resistance to the idea of rebuilding the walls. Some people, as we are going to see, are flat out opposed to anything that might “promote the welfare of the Israelites.” (2:10) Others are just so discouraged by the state of affairs that they see it as an impossible task.

So before Nehemiah says anything publicly, he inspects the wall for himself.

And there’s an important principle for us here: Inspect first. Walk before you talk, investigate before you initiate. Just because God has placed something on our hearts doesn’t mean that we have to take off half-cocked. It’s neither smart nor heroic to take action before you have at least some grasp of the facts. It is not a lack of faith to ask hard questions before making a move.

We’ve already observed that Nehemiah was a patient man. There’s nothing wrong with having a plan. It’s a good idea to aim before you shoot.

So quietly, and secretly, Nehemiah arranges an inspection tour of the walls. He’s heard that the walls were in disrepair, now he needs to see for himself. What Nehemiah is dreaming of doing is no small task. Scholars estimate that Jerusalem’s wall at this time would have been one mile in circumference. It would have been, on average, 3 to 4 feet thick; at times much thicker. And it would have stood 15 to 20 feet tall. This is not a small structure. And Nehemiah is going to rebuild it in a little more than 7 weeks time. This is a massive undertaking.

So Nehemiah needs to see it for himself. He needs to know what he is up against. He needs to see the challenges and the problem areas.

And here’s another important principle: Inspect honestly. It’s important that as Nehemiah makes his circuit of the wall that he come away with an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. It won’t do anybody any good if he misunderstands the challenges.

As we develop our vision it’s so important that we take an honest assessment of where things stand. Whether your vision is for your family, for your business, for your church, or whatever, it begins with a clear understanding of where the weaknesses lie. Before you can paint a clear picture of the future, you need to be able to say: “This is where we fall short.”

Nehemiah was able to do this for Jerusalem because he was able to look at the situation with fresh eyes. The people living in Jerusalem had become accustomed to the state of the walls. That is, they were comfortable with it. Everybody knows that broken down walls are no good, but when you’ve lived with them for so long you start getting used to it.

Think of it this way: when I was a kid I used to go play at a neighbor’s house, and every time I went inside I noticed the smell. It wasn’t an awful smell, but it was different. Kind of a combination of mustiness and leftovers. And I always wondered: Why don’t they do anything about that smell? But it was probably something they didn’t even notice anymore. Just like if they came over to my house, they probably noticed smells that I had long gotten used to. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes—or a fresh nose—to see problems that have become part of the wallpaper.

So as we dream about things changing in our business or at school or with our friends, we need to look at the situation objectively. We have to inspect the walls to see where they are breaking down.

And this can be painful. Sometimes, when we’ve had a hand in putting the walls up—in our family, in our work, here at church—it’s hard to admit that they are falling down. (That’s why it is much easier to inspect other people’s walls). But, if we are not willing to identify areas of weakness and our contribution to it, then we are no longer engaging in mission, we’re involved in an exercise of self-preservation. If our only goal is to keep things the way they are—regardless of the dysfunction or ineffectiveness—then we aren’t about growth but about protecting our own pride.

God wants the walls to be stronger. Whether that’s in your family or in the church. So it’s key that we take an objective look at where the weaknesses are.

But, let me say one more thing: Inspect constructively. Nehemiah was examining the walls for the sake of rebuilding. He wasn’t interested in pointing out the problems just for the sake of pointing out the problems. He was looking to do something about it.

Too many people inspect just for the sake of inspecting. They like to find fault just because they like pointing out problems to other people. They criticize. Not constructively. Just critically.

Take the church, for example, since that’s where I spend so much of my time and energy. I love it when someone comes up to me and says something like: “I think this is an area where our church can be stronger, and I want to be a part of it…”. That goes over so much better than a person who comes to me and says: “Pastor, you really ought to do something about…” Or: “The church could really do a better job in such and such an area…”

Don’t find fault just to find fault. Inspect constructively.

Let Us Rise Up and Build!
From inspection Nehemiah then moves to inspiration. In order to carry out our vision we are going to need to rally others to the cause. Now that he has seen the situation for himself, Nehemiah is ready to go public with his dream. Verses 17 and 18:

17Then I said to them, "You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace."18I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.

This is the actual statement of Nehemiah’s vision. Leaders sometimes call this visioncasting. Nehemiah is sharing the burden of his heart in a way that others can feel it too.

Let me point out a few things: Nehemiah comes alongside the Jews. He says: “You see the trouble we are in”. He says “we”, not “you”. He’s not just a high-falutin’ official from Susa, come to rule over the Jews. He’s one of them. He’s in this with them. It’s his problem as much as it is theirs.

For another thing, he is very clear about the problem: “Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.” He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t sugar coat the issue. “Hey, your house smells funny.” This is an untenable situation.

He also proposes a solution to the problem: “Let us rebuild the wall.” He’s not the first one to suggest this, he’s not the first to notice that Jerusalem’s walls are rubble.

But he has a couple of things previous leaders have lacked. For one thing, he inspires motivation. He says: “we will no longer be in disgrace.” This is about more than just crumbling walls or burned out gates. The condition of the city is a judgment on the people—and thus it is a judgment on God. The Jews are a laughingstock because Jerusalem is falling down. God’s reputation is being damaged.

And so, Nehemiah paints a picture of a preferred future. If they fix the walls, they will no longer be disgraced. If Jerusalem is whole again, the nations will stop laughing at God.

This is such an important element as you share your vision with others: how will things be different if your vision is carried out? What is the motivation for getting involved? Whether your vision is a big one: like getting millions of people to sponsor children in third world countries; or a small one: like getting your family to do table devotions after supper; can you paint a picture of how things will be improved because of it?

And, also, Nehemiah inspires confidence. He says, in verse 18, that he told the story of how “the gracious hand” of God had been on him and “what the king had said.” Rebuilding the wall looks like an impossible task, but so had changing the king’s mind. And yet, God was clearly at work in leading Nehemiah to Jerusalem. If God is for us, then who can ever stop us?

As you develop your vision, then, be very clear about where God is at work. How has he led you to this place? Where is the evidence that this is something He wants you to do?

Andy Stanley writes:

People will give what they feel they can afford to meet a need. But they will give sacrificially toward a vision that bears the marks of God’s involvement. There will always be needs. The list is endless. But when an opportunity comes along to invest our time and resources in something God is up to, it is amazing how much more of our time and treasure we are willing to invest…

If this is a vision God has placed on your heart, and if this is, in fact, the time to act on it, there should be something of a divine nature to point to—something that will indicate to people that God has gone before you to prepare the way. People want to be a part of something God is up to. They will join you in your vision if they are confident it is not simply your vision. (Visioneering, p. 105)

Nehemiah told a clear and compelling story. He painted a desirable picture of the future. And the people responded. The end of verse 18:

They replied, "Let us start rebuilding." So they began this good work.

The people of Jerusalem who had been so demoralized and defeated suddenly had a vision they could believe in. They rallied to the work. But not everybody. Verses 19-20:

19But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. "What is this you are doing?" they asked. "Are you rebelling against the king?" 20I answered them by saying, "The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it."

This doesn’t really fit into my outline for today, but it is an important bit of foreshadowing for next week. We’ll be hearing more from Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem in chapter 4.

Next to Them
But before we look at dealing with opposition, we need to see how the people responded to Nehemiah’s call to action. The last section of our scripture today I am labeling Mobilization. We need to do our part in God’s great work. Nehemiah chapter 3 actually describes the building of the wall, and it’s a long list of names. Nehemiah 3:1-12:

1Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the
Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the
Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel.
2The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zaccur son of Imri built next
to them. 3The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 4Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of
Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the
son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs.

5The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors. 6The Jeshanah Gate was repaired by Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodeiah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 7Next to them, repairs were made by men from Gibeon and Mizpah-Melatiah of Gibeon and Jadon of Meronoth—places under the authority of the governor of Trans-Euphrates.
8Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section;
and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They
restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall.

9Rephaiah son of Hur, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next
section. 10Adjoining this, Jedaiah son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his
house, and Hattush son of Hashabneiah made repairs next to him. 11Malkijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-Moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. 12Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.

The rest of the chapter goes on like this. A listing of names and the section of the wall they worked on. If you are expectant parents, and you would like to choose a Biblical name for your child, here’s some fertile hunting ground.

Part of me feels like I should read the whole chapter. Here are the people who rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, and my guess is that when most people get to this chapter they skim right over it. But, at the same time, I realize most of these names and places don’t mean much to us.

The reason I read as much as I did is because I wanted you to get the picture. Nehemiah mobilized everyone. You read about priests and goldsmiths and perfume makers (what does a perfume maker know about building a wall? They at least could have assigned him to the Dung gate.) You read about men and women. Whole families.

A lot of people mentioned were assigned to the section of the wall across from where they lived. You read that a lot later in the chapter, where it says “opposite his living quarters.” That makes sense: if you were working on the part of the wall that most directly protected you, you’d be motivated to do a good job. But there are also a lot of people mentioned who were serving in areas where they had no direct benefit. People from Gibeon and Jadon and Jericho. People who lived outside the city walls but still realized how important it was for Jerusalem to be rebuilt.

And that says something to us about the importance of everyone finding their place to serve. Everyone can be a part of God’s work. Whether it’s older couples whose children are grown and gone doing ministry to kids or younger people getting involved in serving the elderly, there’s something to be said about working toward a vision that isn’t necessarily all about you.

The other thing that stands out in chapter three is how often you read the phrase “next to him” or something similar. “Meremoth… repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam…made repairs, and next to him Zadok…also made repairs” and so on. The building of the wall was accomplished because so many people were mobilized together. It wasn’t one work crew, moving down the wall and building it, but it was everyone in Jerusalem working on their particular section of the wall.

It would have been so easy for some of these folks to look at the little section of the wall they were working on and think there wasn’t much way it would make any difference. But then they could look to the left and look to the right and they’d see their neighbors working on their section, and the neighbors beyond that working on the next section and so on and so on, and they’d see that they were a part of something so much bigger than their little section of wall.

And the same thing goes for us. It is tempting to think: well my vision for Christ isn’t that big. My vision is to have a Godly marriage. Or my vision is to be a good influence in my office. Or my vision is to create neighborhood gatherings where my unchurched friends can meet Christians. How much difference is that going to make? But look to your left, and look to your right. If you are doing your part to live out your God-given vision… and the person sitting next to you is doing their part… and the people sitting behind you are doing their part… and the people sitting in front of you…and so on...

If everybody in our church is doing are part to live out God’s vision for us, and every other Christian in Spencer was doing their part, and every Christian throughout America, and throughout the world, think of the impact that would have. Don’t get tunnel vision to only see your part. Always remember you are a part of something so much bigger.

This is the power of vision. Vision has the power to move us and sustain us to accomplish way more than we ever thought possible. It had the power to rally the dispirited people of Jerusalem to build a wall, it has the power to keep me going as a pastor, and it can motivate and sustain you as well.

So, inspect. Take an honest assessment of where things stand. Inspire. Paint a compelling picture of the future. And mobilize. Take your place in the larger work of God.