Discouragement

First in the “As the Wall Turns” series,
Delivered February 3, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Discouragement is a loss of perspective that can change when we remember that the battle is the Lord’s.

In the series, “As the Wall Turns” we look at the obstacles Nehemiah faced as he sought to carry out his mission.

Sermon Text:
Nehemiah 4:1-14 and
II Cor. 4:1,7-18
1 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,
2 and 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?”
3 Tobiah 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!”
4 Hear 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.
5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of [1] the builders.
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.
7 But 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.
8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.
9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
10 Meanwhile, 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.”
11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”
12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.
14 After 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.”

Last week Pastor Cooper did an excellent job covering the first three chapters of Nehemiah and in so doing unfolded the spirit and faith of a great man of God, a man who had received bad news from a broken people and responded to the call of God to do something about it. Now if you weren’t here or you need reminding, you may recall that his own people in his native land of Israel were exposed to attack because the Walls of Jerusalem had been broken down; however, Nehemiah’s goal went beyond rebuilding walls. His goal was to restore a sense of wholeness to his people, to do away with the disgrace that had come to them and to honor the God of Israel. Nehemiah had a great vision. He had a sound plan, but he encountered opposition. In his story is a clear example of what we will encounter when we try to build for God, whether we try to live lives that are pleasing to God, or whether we seek to build the walls of Christian community. As we grow into the kind of people that God wants us to be we can expect obstacles, that’s one of the truth’s that we learn from the Book of Nehemiah.

Now the leadership of Central Presbyterian Church has a great vision: to see every disciple gifted and equipped. Every disciple is gifted and we are rallying ourselves to say, “you know the ministry really is the people’s. We don’t want it to just be a theory, we want it to be a living reality of what we experience.” And in many ways it already is, but we are trying to change structures and emphasize philosophies that bring this home to everybody who becomes a part of this family of faith. A new approach to this ministry is happening for the same reasons that Nehemiah worked to instill wholeness in the people of God, to bring honor to God by fulfilling the Lord’s command to make disciples of all peoples. As his work unfolds, and as this work at Central unfolds, we can learn in these next few weeks from Nehemiah how to deal with various pitfalls of the journey. Each week we will see a different “D” word, a different obstacle that he encountered so that we can learn how to deal with spiritual opposition. We will discover the forms that opposition takes, because even the spiritually well prepared and the spiritually prudent can expect challenges to their faith. That’s what the Book of Nehemiah is trying to teach us.

Chapter 4 introduces us to the first obstacle. At this point things are going fairly well, the plan is launched, forward progress is being made and it’s then that the enemy launches the first mortar and it’s called discouragement. Someone called discouragement, “the devils calling card.” There are many things that can cause discouragement and we can’t possible cover them all, but what we will see from Nehemiah, in Chapter 4 is that our deepest discouragements are often preceded by negative talk. Negative talk from others, and later in the text we will see that those negative statements can start to sound in our own head as well. Statements that say that what you want, can’t or won’t, happen. Let’s look at Verse 1 of Chapter 4:

“When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews. 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?” Tobiah 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.” The first form of seeking to induce discouragement was ridicule and criticism. And we all know that nothing will take the wind out of your sails faster than critical, insulting words. Anyone who has ever taken a stand for their faith in Jesus Christ has probably encountered this. We hear the world say, “You Christians say that Christ is the world’s hope. What a narrow view, rather outdated and naive, rather feeble when you think about it.” My daughter said she saw a bumper sticker this past week, maybe some of you have seen it. We are all familiar with the Christian fish symbol, the ichthous, well this bumper sticker had the exact same symbol and two legs coming down from it and in the middle of the fish was “Darwin”. Now everybody has the right to express their view, but it was obvious, I mean they didn’t say “Darwin rules” without the fish, they had the fish in there. So in a way it wasn’t just making a statement, it was a ridicule of the faith. But you know this can happen even amongst the closest family members. When somebody really tries to follow the Lord, somebody within their own family can say, “Well look at you, Miss Christian, Mr. Christian. Who do you think you are? Holier than thou?” One partner will say to another in a relationship, “You know I think we have lost our center; we need Christ to be in the center of our marriage.” The other partner will say, “What are you, a fanatic? What’s wrong, have you gone off somewhere?” It’s my suspicion too that one of the reasons why we don’t step out in leadership, that we really don’t get out on the limb in trying to do certain ministry or taking a risk is because we don’t want to put up with the criticism that comes with being a leader of any sort. A leader is anybody who advances the purposes of an organization. So leaders aren’t just people who are up front, leaders are anyone who moves the ball down the field. But one of the reasons that we don’t even do that is because we fear the criticism of others. Even when we challenge each other to go higher, “Who does he think he is? What does he think he is doing?” Have you ever heard of hate mail in an offering plate? I don’t want to give anybody any ideas, but this happened to me in my first year of pastoral ministry. I’ll tell you what friends, that will ruin your week. And you know the saddest part is not the words, it’s where it was. It’s where it came from. So what’s the goal of all of this discouragement? “Well just cut it out, stop what you’re doing, and quit believing so hard”. Like the guy who comes to work on the first day on the assembly line and he is working harder than everybody else and they say, “slow down, you’re making us look bad.” I read a journal this past week that said that 1,300 pastors leave the ministry monthly. Now if you do the math that’s over 15,000 a year. The top three reasons for leaving the ministry were listed as disillusionment, burnout and resigning over a stressful situation. The article said they were discouraged over the nature and the condition of the church. They felt it wasn’t worth it and stopped believing in what they were doing. And in many cases you can’t blame them.

Now what did Nehemiah do when Tobiah mocked him? When Tobiah said, “even if a fox climbed on your wall…” See this was in public too. They had the associates there, some of the army of Samaria, a little crowd. Nehemiah didn’t stand there and say, “oh yeah, well I hope a fox jumps on your head.” He didn’t stand there toe to toe with that stuff. Look what he says, in Verse 4. “Hear us O our God for we are despised.” You see it wasn’t just prayer in the general sense, it was “Hear us O our God.” It was a prayer that reflected an identity. “God I am yours. I belong to you O God. This work belongs to you and no matter what it looks like, I will not despair, I will not be discouraged. No half-baked critic is going to stop it. God, they are really opposed to you and you’ve just called me to be your servant. Now judge them because they provoked you to anger.” That’s really the preferred translation. They have provoked you to anger Lord by their insults. Please Lord you take care of them. And then look at Verse 6, we will see that the prayer worked because it says, “so we rebuilt the walls till all of it reached half its height.” Why? Because the people worked with all their heart. You know the answer to the prayer wasn’t the wall reaching half its height, the answer ot the prayer was the second part of the verse. The people worked with all of their heart. They didn’t listen to the criticism. They didn’t listen to the negative comments. Let me say that in the course of this whole message we have to be really careful about what we say. Life and death are in the power of the tongue. And sometimes we are not aware of the fact that we’re the source of someone else’s discouragement. But it goes on and Nehemiah didn’t get himself down. He said to the Lord, “Lord this is your ministry, I think it’s just like Jesus in a way.” You know is there any scorn or criticism or insult that he has not first endured? You know the gospel text, they grabbed a hold of him. They laughed at him and they spit on him. They put a reed in his hand, they put the thorns on his brow mocking him as a king, “Hail Mr. King of the Jews.” They must have been laughing and taunting. Jesus knows, he’s been there and his word to you today is, don’t fail to keep it up, just keep at it, keep building. It’s the Lord’s work.

Now notice that even though the first wave of discouragement was countered, in Verse 7 the enemies double their efforts. That’s the nature of discouragement. It doesn’t just happen once, it keeps happening. We keep waking up every day, sometimes with discouraging thoughts, even though things have gone well and the day has ended well, sometimes we can wake up and there is another wave of discouragement. And notice how it says that some others join the attack. Verse 7: “Not only was there Sanballat and Tobiah, but now there are the Arabs, the Ammonites, the men of Ashdod.” And what’s not easy to pick up here is that these areas were all around Jerusalem. Every person represented here and every people gives an indication that Jerusalem was surrounded by these enemies. “And when they heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry and they all plotted to come together and fight against Jerusalem to stir up trouble against it.” You see they didn’t do an all out attack. It says they were just going to stir up trouble. They were going to do these raids, these hit and runs, why? Because they knew that Nehemiah’s work was sanctioned by the King of Persia. They knew that he had some backing, so they couldn’t do an all out attack. But what I wanted to point out to you today is that we have the backing, we know this. We have the backing of the King of Kings. But still we can expect difficulty. The metaphors of our faith teach us this. We are told to put on the armor of God. We are told that we are soldiers of Christ. We are told that the battle we fight is not against flesh and blood. We are told that the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly. They are for the using so that we can bring down strong holds raised up against the knowledge of God. You see one of the ways of dealing with discouragement, is not to be surprised by it. To just expect it, because it’s part of being a soldier. So even though the people of Israel were advancing toward the goal, the voices of the enemy kept getting louder and now they sounded in their own head.

Verse 10. “Meanwhile 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.” You see, the second way that discouragement happens besides ridicule and criticism, is the size of the task. You just don’t think you can get it done. And what also is subtle here is that the people of Judah were saying this. That’s the tribe that is supposed to be the strongest, the tribe of whom was predicted that they would put their foot on the neck of their enemies. Sometimes what you expect from the best, you get the worst. So even though this was happening, note the connection between vv. 11 and 12. “Also our enemies said before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them.” In other words, they won’t even see us coming and we will put an end to their work. And in Verse 12, listen. “Then the Jews who live near them came and told us 10 times over, wherever you turn they will attack us.” You see the closer you are to the Jews that live near them, the closer you are to the negative talk of others, the more it starts to get inside your own head. And it always get exaggerated beyond what it really is. Its repetitive like a broken record. You won’t be able to do it. You can’t succeed. Forget about it. And here’s the thing, they were halfway there. They were halfway there. That’s a sure sign of discouragement. Looking at what’s not done, instead of what is. Discouragement when they are halfway there.

You know one of the dangers at Central? One of the pitfalls that we have to avoid as we try to change the structures, and as we try to create a new way and forge new paths and do the work by a different philosophy of ministry: is that it will be easier to focus on the glitches that come with any new enterprise and forget how far we have come. To say, “you know this whole thing was a good idea, but it’s too big. It’s too big a task.” I wonder if there are any PNC members in the audience that can relate to what I am saying. It’s just too big, we’ve been at it too long and you know what the danger would be? To just settle. I want to get done with this. But don’t do it, keep going towards the goal. Don’t let a defeatist attitude set in. You know there is so much encouragement going on at Central it’s hard to even make these applications, but what I want to point out is this- they had the king’s blessing. They had all the right equipment. They rallied the people. They had a unity of purpose and WHAM that’s when it happened, the worst. When everything seemed to be going well. Look at how Nehemiah responds to these discouraging developments. Look at Verse 9. “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet these threats.” What a great verse. “We prayed to our God and we posted a guard.” You know one way to deal with discouragement? It’s when we have just done something about the problem. And I prayed O Lord, help me pass this test and I studied. And I prayed O Lord, I don’t like this job; and I want a new one, and I prepared to find new skills. You see sometimes our discouragement is because we are not willing to take a step. In Verse 13 it picks up the same theme. “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families with their swords, spears and bows.” One commentator said what Nehemiah was trying to do was not just protect the most vulnerable places, he was trying to show them their strength. He was trying to show them what they had when they all rallied together. And he says, “after I looked things over and I thought it through and I addressed the needs, I said, “don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord.” Why did he say that? Because they had forgotten. They had forgotten. What did they forget about the Lord? He said, “remember the Lord who is great and awesome.” They didn’t know the God they were dealing with. He’s the God of the universe, He is the one that has called you to this ministry. You build, because you’re building for Him. And therein lies the pitfall of discouragement in a nutshell. The problem of discouragement is really a loss of perspective.

The story is told and maybe you have heard it. How Martin Luther’s wife once came to breakfast dressed in black. And he looked up and he said, “What’s the matter, who died?” And she said, “Well dear, I thought that God must have died, they way that you have been moping around the house.” It was an object lesson. You see discouragement comes because we shift our perspective, or our perspective gets shifted and we get our focus off of the great and awesome God and onto our circumstances and we forget His love and power and concern for our every need. We ask how do I get the right perspective back? Well listen to the Psalmist. Now how’s this for a phrase that explains discouragement. He says, “my soul cleaves to the dust.” That’s pretty good. That’s a pretty good description of discouragement. But then what does he say? He says, “revive me according to thy word.” He goes on in Psalm 119:25. “My soul weeps because of grief. Strengthen me according to thy word.” Nehemiah said to the people, “take up your swords. And I say to the people, take up your swords. Here it is. The sword of the spirit that can give us a new perspective.” Nehemiah had the king’s letters. We have the kings letters in our hands. The answer to a new perspective. That’s what to do when you get down, get that perspective from the word of God, and protect and fight for what the Lord has given you. You know we don’t only have the king’s perspective, the king’s letters, we have the king living in our heart. Now look how it ends in Verse 15. “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, who frustrated it? Nehemiah? No, God had frustrated it. We all returned to the wall, each to his own work. Fight discouragement in whatever form it comes, because God is the one who is fighting for you. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we thank you and bless you for your love, for your grace, for your power. We confess that we forget often how great you are. For those who are bowed low, lift them up to the rock that is higher, even Jesus Christ himself, even as we gather around this table, encourage our hearts so that we might be joined again with you and with all we love. We thank you now Lord, in Jesus’ name. Amen.