Lay Reader = 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
10Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
We are still in our series trying to learn from Nehemiah, because he was able to dream of a better future for his people and rally the help he needed to achieve it. Last week we saw how he inspired people to care, and out of that caring they went above and beyond for each other. Good stuff is happening!
To illustrate this week’s chapter in the story, do you remember the movie Jaws? That giant shark so terrified audiences that there was a measurable decrease in beach attendance that year. Steven Spielberg was the bane of ocean tourism that year. But it was only temporary – about a year later things were back to normal. But then about two years after that, a new movie poster appeared that said, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” – Jaws 2!
Chapter 3 was good to our friend Nehemiah. Everything was finally running smoothly. But “just when you thought it was safe…” we see chapter 4. Just when they thought it was safe, their enemies arrived. Just when they thought it was safe, trouble appeared. Ever had that experience? Listen to how Nehemiah and the people of Judah responded.
7But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and the gaps were beginning to be closed, they were very angry, 8and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 9So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. 10But Judah said, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” 11And our enemies said, “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.” 12When the Jews who lived near them came, they said to us ten times, “From all the places where they live they will come up against us.” 13So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” 15When our enemies heard that their plot was known to us, and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.
16From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor; and the leaders posted themselves behind the whole house of Judah, 17who were building the wall. The burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon. 18And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. 19And I said to the nobles, the officials, and the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread out, and we are separated far from one another on the wall. 20Rally to us wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet. Our God will fight for us.” 21So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from break of dawn until the stars came out. 22I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night inside Jerusalem, so that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day.” 23So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me ever took off our clothes; each kept his weapon in his right hand.
On Every Side
There is a major flaw in many movies about war. I call it the courtesy of the enemy. Let’s say the heroes are outnumbered five to one. In a movie, the enemies will courteously line up and only charge the heroes one at a time. If you ever find yourself in an epic swordfight, here’s a pro tip – attack at the same time! Practical advice, right?
Nehemiah isn’t facing courteous enemies in a movie. He’s facing enemies on every side. Sanballat and the Samaritans? They came from the North. The Ammonites? They came from the East. The Arabs? They came from the South. The Ashdodites? They came from the West. And they were smart enough to attack at the same time from all sides – how rude!
Isn’t life like that, though? We can usually handle one enemy – an unexpected medical bill, the death of a loved one, a challenging relationship, troubles at work, a pipe bursts at home. We can handle our enemies as long as they are courteous enough to line up one at a time.
But when they come at the same time? When we’re facing the Samaritans AND the Ammonites AND the Arabs AND the Ashdodites? When we’re facing struggles in our household AND struggles in our work AND struggles in our health AND struggles in our relationships? Then we got problems.
Are the struggles in your life courteous enough to line up one at a time? Or do they rush you at the same time? I’ve experienced a lot of the rushing, not the lining up.
First Response is Prayer
I have never been accused of excess emotion, but when life rushes me from every side I get even more rational and even less emotional. When I don’t have anywhere to turn, I rely on my greatest ability – my reason. What do you do when you are overwhelmed? What’s your response when life rushes you from every side?
Nehemiah was surrounded on every side, from the North and the East and the South and the West. But he was prepared for that. That’s why he wanted to rebuild the walls to begin with. He had guards ready to go. Did you catch what the breaking point was for Nehemiah? What pushed him over the edge?
The fear and disunity of his own people. The rumor mill was running at full speed. Our laborers are tiring. There’s too much debris to clear out, so we can’t actually rebuild the wall. We’re afraid that our homes aren’t protected enough – we need more guards at MY house, even if you have to pull them away from my neighbor’s house!
That’s what got to Nehemiah. And his response? He prayed. His first response was prayer! Not my hyper-rationality. Not relying on his greatest strengths. Not hiding or giving up or sweeping it under the rug. Prayer. When he was assailed on every side, including facing fear and disunity and opposition from within – he prayed.
If you want to read a salty prayer, go look up the beginning of Nehemiah chapter 4. Nehemiah is very honest – actually he’s very aggressive in his prayer. That may not be a perfect model of prayer, but I do think we can learn from him. His first response when overwhelmed is prayer. And that prayer isn’t some generic, “Oh God, I hope you’ll maybe kinda sorta help me out, but only if it’s in your will…” No, it’s very direct. He says, “Take their taunts, O God, and fling them back at their own heads! Dash their strength! Let them be overrun by their enemies!” And it gets more interesting from there. He prayed for real, not a nice and tidy gentle prayer. I think we can learn from that.
If you feel overwhelmed, if life is rushing you from every side at once – maybe even attacking you from within – have you prayed? And have you prayed with unbridled honesty? Have you prayed what you’re actually thinking, not the cleaned-up version you’d admit to your pastor?
After praying, Nehemiah realized the real problem he had to face. He needed God’s protection, but he had already anticipated that. Now his real enemy was disunity and fear. If the people didn’t rally, their fears would come true.
This is what he did. “13So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
He took these frightened people and put them in the gaps between the walls – the most exposed part of the city. The least defended. In plain sight of their enemies. And in plain sight of their own families.
And he reminded them who they were and what they were doing. “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord. Fight for your sons and daughters and spouses and homes!”
One of my professors in seminary used to say that a lot of the good news of Jesus can be summarized with the word, “nevertheless.” Jesus, the Son of God, died. Nevertheless, he rose again. I like how Paul says it in 2 Corinthians 4 – “8We are pressed on all sides, but (nevertheless) not crushed; perplexed, but (nevertheless) not in despair; 9persecuted, but (nevertheless) not forsaken; struck down, but (nevertheless) not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
We are the “nevertheless” faith. We are surrounded by enemies from the North and the South and the East and West. Nevertheless, we are not afraid!
We are divided among ourselves and afraid. Nevertheless, we have a great and awesome God who fights for us!
We are drained emotionally and mentally and spiritually and physically. Nevertheless, we are alive in Christ!
We have been slowly declining for years. Nevertheless, we will be faithful to Jesus today!
That willingness to cry “Nevertheless!” is how we claim the LIFE of Jesus even as we feel more like death with Jesus.
When we stand in the open places, in plain sight, and say, “Our troubles are real. Nevertheless, I will keep going because of my faith in Jesus!” That’s the gospel.
That’s what we should be showing the world around us. We aren’t perfect. We don’t have everything together. Our God doesn’t magically make our problems go away. Nevertheless, here we stand! Nevertheless, we have hope. Nevertheless, we can have joy! Nevertheless, we stand together. Not alone. Together.
Alive in Christ
So can we live with that “nevertheless?” Can we live with that inexplicable joy? Can we live with that ability to stand together even though life is rushing us from the North and the South and the East and the West? Can we remain united even then? Can we remain alive in Christ even then?
That’s what our faith is about. That’s what the church should be about. That’s what we can offer each other when we notice that someone has life rushing them from all sides.
If you know someone being rushed from every side, how can you stand with them in the open spaces, in the gaps in the walls?
If you’re like Nehemiah being rushed from every side, how can you cry, “Nevertheless!” because of your faith in Jesus?
Don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. Remember the words of Nehemiah: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” Amen.