Nehemiah 4:1-9- Responding to Opposition

Nehemiah 4:1-9 NRSV

Nehemiah chapter four teaches us a very painful truth.  That is:  as we seek to fulfill the passion of our hearts and become the church God is calling us to become, as we seek to accomplish great things for God by improving and expanding our facilities as well as our ministries, as our church grows and changes into something even more dynamic and more alive, and as we seek to invite others to join with us in glorifying God, we must remember that there will be opposition.

Our old friend Sanballat (you remember Sanballat, that fellow with negative passion I sadly said a couple of weeks ago was in every family, every organization, even every church) well, when he heard what was taking place in his town as people from everywhere, from all walks of life, governors and priests and perfumers, white collar and blue collar, began working together to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and repair her gates, he became angry and greatly enraged.  He was incensed!

A rather curious response, isn’t it?  Why not be glad and encouraged and excited that not only a wall which was in ruins for 150 years, but a people who were also in ruins for 150 years were being restored?  Why not be glad and encouraged and excited that the church is growing by leaps and bounds, that there in the church exists a spirit of excitement which had in the past been absent.  Why be angry and greatly enraged?

I believe one reason Sanballat was angry and greatly enraged was that Sanballat was one of those persons who abhor change.  Some people are just content living in the ruins.  Because in the ruins Sanballat believed he was somebody.  Now all of these new people have come to town.  And they have not come quietly.  They have come stirring things up.  People from all over are changing the status quo and you know something, these people do not know and really do not even care who Sanballat was or is.

Sanballat reminds me of a man who believed he ran the church in one of my former churches.   He too became greatly enraged at the number of new people who joined our church one year.  In one year the size of the congregation nearly doubled.  And the majority of folks who attended on Sunday morning did not know that this man was the man who made most of the decisions. And they really did not care. He was losing his position and power.  And, like Sanballat he was angry and greatly enraged.

Whenever God’s people pursue God’s agenda and God’s vision and seek to fulfill the passion of their hearts given by God, when like Nehemiah, God’s people begin the process of rebuilding walls for God’s glory and enlisting a multitude of different people to join in, it will bring conflict.  People like Sanballat will always raise their ugly heads, people who like the status quo, people who are content living in the ruins, who derive their very sense of identity from the ruins of others, who regard progress and growth as a threat.

The ministry of our Lord and Savior is a prime example.  The lame walk.  The lepers cleansed.  The blind see.  The dispossessed restored.  The outcast accepted.  The poor favored.  The sinner forgiven.  The dead raised.  And what was the response of the religious authority?  Was it joy and celebration?  No.  It was opposition.  It was anger.  It was ridicule.  It was conspiracy.  And it was crucifixion.  All for the same reasons Sanballat was angry with Nehemiah and his progress.

It bothers me tremendously when I hear the TV evangelist say that if we trust God and follow God, God will protect us and bless us.  No the truth is, the more we stand for right, the more we stand for justice and for liberty, the more certain we can expect opposition.

The truth is that if you stand for God’s justice, there will be people will want to kill you

Sanballat’s anger was expressed the way anger is mostly expressed, especially in the church: through personal attacks.  Reminiscent of Goliath’s taunt of David, Sanballat ridiculed the Jews calling them feeble and weak and incompetent.  Sanballat was completely blind to the truth that the people received their strength from the Lord and that God receives greatest glory when His purposes are achieved through weak vessels.  Sanballat also ridiculed the work itself, calling the project unworthy and unattainable.

And the scary thing is that the negative Sanballats of the world often have the power to recruit others to join them in their criticisms. Sanballat’s negative passion leads Tobiah to join with him in spouting poisonous words of criticism.   They tried to spread their negativity to others, making phone calls, having meeting, plotting to do anything they could do to undermine Nehemiah’s work.

Together they ridicule the finished product.  “Even a fox will make it collapse.”  “It may look good now, but it will not last.”  Have you ever heard that before?

I am often astonished at the people who criticize others for beginning to live for God. “Oh, we have a lot of young people coming to church now, but it won’t last.  Yeah, she seems to be turning her life around, but it won’t last.  Yes, he really is excited about beginning about teaching that class, about beginning that ministry, but it won’t last.”

Yes, the sad truth is that when we begin to live for God, and begin to do something new we can expect opposition.  Opposition is inevitable.  So what do we do?  How do we respond to opposition when the Sanballat’s and Tobiah’s of the world raise their ugly heads?

This is where I believe Nehemiah chapter four can especially help.   Let’s look closely at Nehemiah’s response.  Nehemiah simply refused to engage his critics on their terms.

Nehemiah did not stoop to their level.  Nehemiah did not argue.  He did not explain that how these weak Jews gained their strength from God.  By not responding in kind, Nehemiah exhibited the classic New Testament response of non-retaliation and refusing to be controlled by the actions of others.  Nehemiah understood that engaging his detractors on their terms would only dignify their negative remarks.  And Nehemiah understood that doing so would only detour his work, thereby accomplishing the very desires of his critics.

So what did Nehemiah do?  Nehemiah responded by praying.  And noticed that Nehemiah prayed to God very honestly, asking God to take care of his detractors.

Nehemiah also responded through persistence.  Nehemiah responded by laying bricks.  Nehemiah simply continued doing the work he knew God had called him to do.  Nehemiah did not allow anyone to keep him from what he believed was God’s work and his purpose in life.

Nehemiah also took practical steps to keep the work going.  He posted guards when the opposition intensified.  He prayed that God would take care of his detractors, but he also used common sense.  I believe the church must use the same type of common sense also in dealing with negative people.  I do not believe we should go out and hire security guards, but we should be very careful and prayerful in choosing who we elect to serve as leaders in the church.

Because the sad truth is when we are living for God and when we are especially seeking to accomplish great things as I believe this church is doing, not everyone will celebrate, rejoice or join with us in the work.  May we learn from Nehemiah as he teaches us that when opposition arises, we can meet it squarely, with integrity, with common sense and in a manner that prevents detours.  We can keep building, keep laying bricks, keep doing the things God has called us to do even when others are trying to tear us down.

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