Lessons In Tackling

Delivered January 27, 2002 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.

Sermon Text:
Nehemiah+1-3

Well, at this time I would like to ask Maggie if she would come forward. Many of you haven’t seen Maggie for a little while. After she graduated from college she was here at Central for a couple of years and then we sent her away for a year in East Asia, to a short-term mission. When she came back to the U.S. she went directly to seminary for two years, studying missions and she graduated, and she is now preparing to head with OMS over back to East Asia and so she is back to share with us what she is doing and what the Lord is doing in her.

It’s so exciting to be here with you and to come and worship with you and look out and see familiar faces. It’s hard to believe that is has been 2 1/2 years when I last stood in front of you and shared what the Lord had done in my life, when I came back from East Asia the first time. During this time that I have been at seminary the Lord led me to commit my life to serving him in long-term service and reaching unreached people. And so this summer I am going to head out again to East Asia, this time for long-term and it’s exciting. I will be working in a different ministry this time. I will be working with unreached tribal people and these tribal people are minorities and they have been historically oppressed and looked down upon by the other people in the country and there is a real barrier for the gospel to reach them. There is physical and social isolation that they experience. One Christian from the majority group even said this; “It is impossible to reach these tribes for Christ.” But I don’t believe that it is impossible for these tribal people to come to know our Lord. The Bible promises that every tribe, every tongue, every people, in every nation will be with us in heaven, and so when people ask me, “Why are you going to go away to a far away remote place?” My answer is really simple. There are still some people that have not yet heard the gospel even for the first time, and unless someone goes to preach the good news to them, they will not have the chance to hear or the chance to believe. I thank you so much for being part of my sending and support base because unless I was sent, I could not go.

I thank you also for your many prayers. Some of you have been praying for me for years now. and I want to share three prayer requests with you. They all have to do with the Lord’s leading so they will be easy to remember. The first one is please pray that my walk with the Lord would be close so I could hear his leading. The second, please pray that in these next five months before I go that the Lord will lead me very clearly and help me prepare so I will be ready to go and thirdly, please pray that the Lord will continue to direct me and lead me in future ministry decisions, like what team to join, what work to do and where to live long-term. Those decisions I still need to make. So I thank you, and in closing I just want to mention that I have a table in the concourse with materials, and I will be there after the service if you would like to talk with me more. There are these yellow cards that are on the table, that if you feel led to be more involved in my ministry and prayer, please take one and there is also a lunch after the Epic service at the Grogan’s if you would like to talk more, you’re invited. So thank you so much and God Bless you.

Maggie, as most of our missionaries, we ask them to have a missionary advocate who is a person who will be a link between Maggie and the congregation and Maggie is looking for an individual of that nature, so if as you are praying the Lord leads you to something that maybe the Lord would call you to. Let me know or let Maggie know, and we will talk to you about that. Let’s pray for Maggie at this point.

Lord, we do thank you for Maggie. We thank you for the gifts and the passion and the vision that you have given her for ministry and mission to your people around the world. Lord we thank you for her heart that was willing to obey and follow. And Lord we pray that you would gift her with everything that she needs to fulfill your calling upon her life. Lord we thank you that you would go with her, that you would go before her and even now you are preparing the place and the people, both with whom she will work and with whom she will labor and reach. Lord we thank you for allowing us as well to be partners in ministry with her. For we pray it through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Well, Maggie herself said it. She is really going off to do something impossible. To reach minority groups in East Asia is an extremely difficult task. From the human perspective, it really is impossible. It is certainly beyond any of Maggie’s resources to be able to accomplish bringing a people group to Jesus Christ. And that’s what we are going to be talking about this morning is lessons on tackling impossible tasks. Now when you saw the sermon title, Lessons on Tackling, maybe you thought I wanted to preach about the Ravens, who definitely did need lessons last week, but I think they got their lesson from the Steelers, so I am just going to let that lie. But each one of us needs to hear, in fact not just once but over and over again, lessons on how to tackle impossible tasks, because that’s what God calls us to. Whether it’s Maggie being called to the people, the minority people of East Asia, or whether it’s Central Presbyterian Church being called in to a new way of doing ministry, whether it is you as an individual Christian being called to do something that you just feel your not up to it, I can’t do it, this is impossible. If we feel that way then we are probably in the right place.

This morning I want us to take a look at a guy named Nehemiah and what God did through him in accomplishing an impossible task. You can find the story of Nehemiah in the book of Nehemiah and if you want to open your Bibles, it’s page number 342 in your red pew Bibles. Now we are actually going to be going through the first three chapters, and I am not going to read all the verses, so don’t worry. If you saw Nehemiah 1 to 3 it wasn’t verses 1 to 3, it really was the chapters, but I am going to be moving through different verses, and I will let you know the verses as we hit them. But before we jump in just a little background about Nehemiah, since he’s just not really a mythic figure in our culture today. Nehemiah was a high placed court official under King Artaxerxes, who I am sure you all know. He was the king of what is current day Iran, that’s where his palace was. He was the king of the larger Babylonian Empire that stretched across much of the Middle East and included Israel at that time. The most powerful man in the world is who he would have been. By the way, Artaxerxes if you’re expecting a child, great name consider it. I should think that is Art Moorshead’s real name, isn’t it. No. But Nehemiah was a high official, actually the cupbearer under King Artaxerxes and the cup bearer not only chose the wine and drank it before the King did to make sure it wasn’t poisoned, but was most often also an entrusted advisor of the king. So Nehemiah was well placed, but he wasn’t a Babylonian. He was actually an Israelite. He was a Jew in exile in Babylon, but his home or his motherland in a sense was still Jerusalem and Israel, even though he was a long, long way away. And where we find him in this story, at this point is that his brother has just returned from Jerusalem and is bringing him news and its not good news.

Chapter 1 of Nehemiah, Verse 3:

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
See the report came back to Nehemiah that the walls were still broken down. After 150 years, it was 150 years before when Nebuchadnezzar had actually taken the people of Jerusalem into captivity and had broken the walls, and even though the temple was rebuilt quite a while ago, decades ago, still the wall was broken down. That was a disgrace for a city in ancient times; the wall was a symbol of a number of things. The wall was a symbol of the people’s identity. These are the bounds of our city Jerusalem. A symbol of identity was also a symbol of strength and defense. If you had no wall, armies could march right through you. To not have a wall was a disgrace or a discouragement. You lost your self-esteem; you lost your self-confidence without a wall around your city. And Nehemiah reacted to this news with great passion. He wept it says and not only did he weep, but he mourned and he fasted and he prayed for many days, because of this report that he had heard.

It’s interesting that the people in Jerusalem itself they seemed to have simply become comfortable. They might not have liked it, but that’s just the way it is to not have a wall. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see the way things really are and Nehemiah saw the way things really were, that the city of God was disgraced and he wept and he mourned and he prayed and he fasted. He didn’t just stop there, he did that for a long time and then finally, in fact according to the dates that we have in the Bible, it was about four months later, four months of mourning, fasting, and praying to the Lord, the God of heaven. Finally, Nehemiah prays this specific prayer that we have in scripture. I want to read a few verses of it. He begins: “Oh Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands.” He begins his prayer by acknowledging who God is, praising him. Saying Lord I know who you are. He goes on, then he confesses his sins. In fact, he not only confessed his sins, but he confessed the sins of his forefathers. “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.” After confession he then moves on to claim the promises of God. In Verse 8 he says, “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.” Nehemiah claims that promise. That God, if we return to Him will be faithful and will bring us back to the place where his name dwells. He claimed that promise even as the vision of rebuilding the walls took a hold of him. And then finally he ends by saying in Verse 11: “Oh Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man. This man being Artaxerxes.” Four months of mourning, of prayer, and of fasting, four months of seeking the Lord and finally he goes before the Lord, the vision that God has given him is clear, his passion and his courage are strong and he says, “Lord, today give me success.”

And in the next chapter it tells us what he did. It says he goes and in the presence of the king, his face was downcast. It was sad. Now this is something that Nehemiah intentionally did. He had been sad for four months, but today he decided to let it show. And the king said, “Nehemiah, why are you sad? What’s wrong?” In verse 4 and 5 it says: “then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” He had been praying for 4 months, but he needed just one more. He knew that without God’s help he was lost. What he was about to do without God’s help, would probably get him killed. Even being sad in the king’s presence could cause great consequences to befall that person. But after having prayed, he took bold action and he said, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant is found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so I can rebuild it.” Now that’s quite a request. Why are you sad? Well, what I would really like you to do king is send me so I can rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Just forget the previous revolts. He goes on though to ask more. In fact, the king asks him, “Well, how long will it take?” And “when will you be back?” And the interesting thing is that Nehemiah doesn’t even answer the king. He goes on to say, “Oh and by the way if it pleases you, I would like a few more things as well.” First of all it says in verse 7, “May I have letters to the governors of the Trans-Euphrades, so they will provide me safe- conduct until I arrive in Judah.” “And one more thing, and may I have a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence that I will occupy?” “Not only send me, but give me safe passage and provide all the resources I need to rebuild the city.” I mean if you’re going to step your foot in you might as well just dive in, right? Nehemiah had a vision. He prayed to the Lord and then he took bold action. And what happened? Well he says in verse 8, “because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my request.” Nehemiah depended upon the Lord and then jumped out in faith, didn’t just step he jumped and the Lord blessed it.

You know one of the reasons that I am proud of Central is that we pray and we do take bold action and I remember, and George keeps telling us how crazy we are, or faithful, right George? I think it is the right word, sorry. Yeah. If you remember our former senior pastor, Ron Skates left in March, the next month we decided let’s start a third service, rearrange the worship schedule and reach a whole new segment of people for Jesus Christ. Because we believed that God had a call on us as a church. God had given us a passion for bringing people to Jesus Christ. He had given us a vision for how we could do that in worship. We prayed about it and we jumped, even before we had an interim pastor, we just did it. And because the gracious hand of the Lord was upon us, the Lord has blessed us beyond what we thought. In fact, this service here, which had to take the brunt of the schedule change, has actually grown faster than any other service including Epic after it’s first Sunday when 300 people came. But this service has grown 10% to 20%. The Lord has blessed us all across the board in this last year, because we did something that everybody else thought was crazy, but we stepped out in faith because we believed God had given us a vision and we were moving forward with it.

You know another thing that Nehemiah did, and you have to put this in context, remember he was in Sousa, the palace in the Babylonian area; he had everything that his heart could desire. He was asking to be sent where? Back to Jerusalem. Now, today Jerusalem is a very beautiful place. It was actually my favorite place in Israel, but back then the wall was broken down, subsistence living was difficult. He was asking to go back to the homeland, but most people didn’t want to go back to the homeland, life was better in exile. It reminds me of Maggie. Maggie is going back to East Asia. Her parents actually left East Asia to give their family a better life. In fact, they don’t’ really understand why Maggie is going back when they got out for her sake. But like Nehemiah, she has a vision and a passion and a burden and she is stepping out in faith that it’s where God wants her to be. He is calling her to an impossible task, but he will supply the resources.

As we move on through the life of Nehemiah, in verse 13 of Chapter 3 we find that he is now in Jerusalem. Traveled about a month or so, maybe a little bit more to get there. He took 3 days to rest and then is says in verse 13, “By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward theJackal Well and the Dung Gate.” You don’t need to worry about the geography. The point is he went out at night, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then in verse 16, “The 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.” Now you got to love that, don’t you? He already has the commission from the king; he’s got all the material resources. He goes out to survey the wall to figure out what to do, but he hasn’t told the people who are actually going to do the work yet, what he is doing. You know that sort of goes against modern sort of leadership thought, which says you build vision from the grass roots up. Wasn’t quite the way he did it. In fact, that was a comment made about the new direction we are going here at Central. New philosophy of ministry seeking to empower every person in the congregation for ministry, trying to push a thorn in the responsibility for ministry down as close as possible towards actually being done. But we didn’t go through a visioning process with ten congregational meetings and trying to get everybody’s input, partly because the leadership of Central that you elected as the spiritual leaders of the congregation had a passion. The Lord gave them a vision for how we could even be better in ministry, even more effective for Jesus Christ.

You know often we get comfortable where we are, just like people in Jerusalem are comfortable with the way things are. They might not have liked it, they might have seen a few problems, but they were just use to it. Now it’s not that we were in bad shape like Jerusalem, but still we could be better. The leadership worked on it for about two years, you’ve been hearing about it for two months. But just as Nehemiah carefully prepared the plans, so also the leadership has been praying, agonizing, working to seek the discern of where the Lord is leading us. The good thing is that the results have been so far the same as Nehemiah’s. Because Nehemiah finally he does in verse 17 says to the people what’s going on and he says to the people, “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.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. Nehemiah tapped into the passions of the people and their desires, even if they have never been able to mobilize before for it, he tapped into what they knew to be right, and they recognized this as a good work of God, and they dedicated themselves to rebuilding the walls. They said, “yes, let’s begin. Let’s do it.”

In the same way as the people of Jerusalem at that time were willing to dig in and move forward, in the same way I see the same response in Central. If the Lord is leading us, let’s do it. It’s a good work. Let’s move forward and trust him to accomplish something in our midst.

The next few verses I am not going to talk about because George is going to talk about them and similar verses for the next five weeks. And that is the next few verses talk about well the opposition that the Israelites faced. From that point on it wasn’t all easy. There were many enemies all around, and there are many problems they had to overcome, both internal and external. I get the good part, I get to tell you the good part of the story, and George will tell you the obstacles in the next few weeks.

And then we get to Chapter 3, one of the more boring chapters of scripture. It’s sort of like reading the genealogy of Jesus, you know. That George almost, but not quite did a few weeks ago. It lists a lot of names and then tells what section of the wall they built. And if you don’t know, well even if you do know the geography of Jerusalem, it’s not terribly exciting. I just want to pull out a few verses because although it may be boring in some way, hidden in Chapter 3 are a number of key principles for how to do ministry and how to move forward together. The first, verse 1: “Eliashib 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. The men of Jericho built the adjoining section and Zaccur the son of Imri built next to them.” Now in those scintillating verses we have a few principles that come out. The first is that everybody was a part of the work, beginning with the priests who could have said, “but we are priests, that’s not our job,” but beginning with the priests everyone else, no matter who they were, later on it talks about even the perfume makers built a part of the wall. I am not sure I would want them building the wall near me, but they probably got good training. The point is everybody gathered together to build the wall, everybody in their own section. The first principle is that everybody works in the kingdom of God if we want to accomplish God’s purposes. No one should be left out.

The second principle also comes out of here and that is that they cooperated. You cannot build a wall unless the people when you are adjoining are building together. You have to at point’s work very closely together, sometimes laying your stone upon theirs and upon theirs. You’ve got to know what is going on, and you’ve got to communicate, so the wall has a seam that is strong. Everybody was involved and they were cooperating together. Now unfortunately not everybody was involved. In verse 5 it tells us “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.” There were a few bad eggs. The nobles of Tekoa who would go down in infamy, the only thing we know about them, the only thing the world has known about them for 2 1/2 thousand years is that they wouldn’t work. Now you don’t want to be known for that, do you? I would rather be known as one of the men of Tekoa because later on in the chapter it tells us that they built a second section of the wall. So zealous were they for the work. Now it seems the nobles didn’t work out of arrogance, but there are a lot of different reasons why people don’t work. The church is like any other human organization and that is that you have some people who do a lot of work, some people do a little and you have some people who don’t do much at all. And there are reasons for that. Sometimes people don’t know where to plug in. Where is there a place where I can do something? Or maybe they think that their work wouldn’t matter much anyway. Maybe they don’t know who God has made them to be and so therefore they don’t know how they can best use who they are.

At Central I would say we are better off than the average church, but we still have a long way to go to having everybody involved, cooperating together in the work of the Lord. Which really leads us to the final principle, the main principle that comes out. It comes out in many different verses, but I am just going to read verse 23. It says, “Beyond them, Benjamin and Hasshub made repairs in front of their house;and next to them Azariah son of Maaseiah, the son of Ananiah made repairs beside his house.” Many times it says that this person made repairs beside their house or in front of their house or near their house. You see the building of the wall took both people from Tekoa, who are ten miles away to take a section of the wall. It also took people who lived in Jerusalem itself and when that was the case, they took the wall right near their house. In other words, God set them to work; Nehemiah set them work where God had placed them. And it’s the same thing with us. Whether geographically or spiritually. Geographically, if you live somewhere, which I think most of you do, that’s a place where God is calling you to minister. It’s one of his basic principles. If you work somewhere, specifically outside of the home that is a place where God is calling you to minister. In your family he has placed you there, he has placed you there to serve him, but not just geographically, but spiritually as well. God has placed each of us in a different place through our giftedness, through our personality, through our history of how he has molded us, our past experiences. Each of us is in a place in life and God wants us to, and by the way, around here we call that your spiritual design, how God had designed you and how he has molded you through your life to this present place because that’s how God wants to use you. Do you understand how God has designed you? And what that means for ministry? If you don’t, low and behold there is an opportunity for you to figure that out, or at least begin the process. We have a class called Exploring Your Spiritual Design. There is one going on right now at 11:30. In April there will be one going on at 10:00, during this hour. There is going to be one starting in February on Tuesday evening and they will be running for the rest of Central history as far as we can see. Understand your spiritual design so you can know where God is placing you.

Well when all this happened, God did an amazing thing through the Israelites. It tells us in Chapter 6, verse 15: So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. Fifty-two days they rebuilt a two-mile wall all around Jerusalem. When all of 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. When the people of God came together and did a work, the result was that God was glorified in the nations around them. You know, God has placed us here for a reason. Here at Central Presbyterian Church and one of the reasons is to transform Baltimore. He wants to use us to transform Baltimore. That’s only going to happen as God’s people all work together, cooperate together and not even folks just here at Central, but at other churches in Baltimore as well. As we cooperate together to see the work done in Baltimore that God wants done. To see this city transformed for him. Now most of you would say impossible. You read the newspapers. And it is impossible without God, but God calls us to do a lot of impossible things. It also calls us to depend on him, but it means working together.

The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, 6 1/2 million square feet of space. From its conception as an idea in a brigadier general to its completion and dedication was 18 months. It took us longer to add our addition on. It happened because the different branches of the Armed Services came together and agreed to work together, agreed to move from their more than 17 buildings scattered out Washington, D.C. and agreed that they would all come together in one place that they might be more effective in World War II. If God can do that in Washington, D.C., he can do it even more through Central Presbyterian Church.

I just want to end with some questions. These are questions that address the main points of the lesson that we get from Nehemiah. I want to give them to you and ask you to think about them. Somebody asked me at the first service if I would put them in next weeks News and Views and I will do that if you want to think of them more, but here they are.

First of all, what stirs your godly passions? Just as Nehemiah’s passion was stirred when he heard about Jerusalem, what stirs your Godly passions?
And what vision for ministry has God laid on your heart? Just as he laid a vision on the heart of Nehemiah.
Third, where have you forgotten to depend upon God in prayer? Another way of saying it, in what areas of life have you decided not to go beyond your own limitations rather than depending upon God in prayer?
Fourth, where do you need to step out and take bold action? Maybe jump out rather than step. Is there an area in your life where you have been hesitating and you need to just say, “Lord, I am just going to make the leap and I am trusting in you.”
The fifth, what part of the wall has God gifted and appointed you to build? Where is he calling you? And then finally, what is it that might be preventing you from joining in the work?
Please join me as we pray. Lord we thank you that you have called every single one of us to your purposes. Lord we pray that you would give us courage and strength as we move forward for your sake, for your glory. Lord help us to be an encouragement to one another as we move forward both as individual Christians and as a community. Lord we need you. We trust in you and we ask it through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.