Overcoming Problems in God's Work: The Halfway Hurdle (Neh. 4:7-23)
If you are like me, I am sure you would agree if I said, “Being halfway done with something is the hardest part.” For example, when is it the hardest time of the day at school or work? I know you want to say, “All the time!” but you know right in the middle of the day is the hardest time, right after lunch, right? You probably have 3-4 hours left to go. I remember while working at Moody how I hated meetings right after lunch. I would have so much “food coma.” Initially when I get to work, I would have many emails and phone calls to return, so that kept me busy and toward the end of the day, I just want to finish, so I’m working hard to end. But right in the middle? It’s hard!
Halfway through the school year is especially hard isn’t it? The initial excitement about seeing friends after along summer and wondering who’s in your classes is over and now mid-terms! They say when you hit 40, you may experience a dramatic period of self-doubt as you realize youth has passed and old age is imminent. They call this what? A mid-life crisis! I don’t know any other periods of life called a crisis!
Whenever we drive to NY from here, do you know which part I hate the most? Pennsylvania! I call it the never-ending-state and do you know why? You guessed it…it is right in the middle of the journey. I remember when Jenny was pregnant with Abbie, that between the initial excitement and the final few weeks, those middle months of just waiting were really hard! I can tell you that my hardest part of sermon preparation after the initial work is right in the middle. There is a lull that happens for some reason that causes me to do something else for a while and come back later. What about halfway through a home renovation project? When the mess looks bigger than the goal?
Today I want to talk to you about the halfway hurdle in the work of God. The theme of the book of Nehemiah is “Building God’s People for God’s Work.” Chapters 1-7 deal with doing God’s work, while chapters 8-13 will be building God’s people. We talked about how God prepares us for His work, how He prospers us in the work and now, in Neh. 4-7, problems in the work. Last week, we dealt with overcoming the Enemy’s ridicule. Today, the title of the message is “Overcoming problems in God’s Work: The Halfway Hurdle.” Although for us, we don’t have a half-way point in the work before us, there can be periods of time when we are just trudging through. These are the times when it is just another week in your life. These are the times when nothing particularly exciting going on, just the “same ole same ole.” Actually most of our life is that way isn’t it?
In the summertime, some would call it “the dog days of summer.” I want to call it today in relation to Nehemiah, the “Halfway Hurdle.” Amazingly, this message is so appropriate for us, right at the end of July! Isn’t God’s providence amazing? If we are not careful, halfway hurdles can paralyze us spiritually and keep us from serving the Lord effectively. If that’s the case, what are the signs I am about to collapse under this hurdle? How can I jump it effectively? This is what we are going to explore today in Neh. 4:7-23. Here is our first thought:
I. Halfway hurdle times are vulnerable times (Neh. 4:7-9)
We left Nehemiah and the Jews listening to the Enemy’s ridicule and overcoming it through prayer and perseverance. The wall was halfway done (Neh. 4:6). So guess what happens when there is another advance in the work of God? That’s right…a setback! Motion always causes friction. Look at Neh. 4:7. The enemies are now growing in number and now they are on every side! Jerusalem was now surrounded by enemies: the Samaritans on the north, the Ammonites on the east, the Arabians on the south, and the men of Ashdod on the west. Ashdod is another name of the Philistine area west of Jerusalem. Isn’t it amazing that when God’s people often have difficulty working together, that the people of the world have no problem uniting in opposition to the work of the Lord? Spurgeon says, “It has always struck me as a very startling thing that you have never heard of any division among the devils in hell. There are no sects among the devils; they seem to work together with an awful unanimity of purpose in their wicked design. In this one thing they seem to excel the family of God. Oh, that we were as hearty and united in the service of God as wicked men are in the service of Satan!”
If you had a Google Earth overhead view or have you ever seen a war movie where they show you those infrared shots of where you can see the Enemy approaching the camp very subtly? If Nehemiah had one, he would see in every side, they were surrounded. Listen, beloved, when you are advancing with the Lord, there is not an angle where the Enemy will not attack you. Which area of your life do you think he will leave you alone in? The answer is none! You are surrounded.
The ridicule did not work. They are now “very angry” in Neh. 4:7. This phrase refers to something “like the kindling of a fire.” It is explosive, ferocious, spitting anger. This is not just like water boiling, it is acid boiling with its awful vapors seething into the air poisoning those around. Notice their anger is now expressed in violence in Neh. 4:8. I hope they realize that Nehemiah has the King’s letters behind him?! But unfortunately, this is not something to lean on because when the wall building was attempted before, the enemies lied to the King saying they were attempting a rebellion (Ez. 4:7ff). They could very well do the same thing here.
Notice they want to cause “confusion” in it (says ESV and NLT). The KJV says “hinder,” while the NASU says “disturbance” and the NIV says, “stir up trouble against” it. The idea is to cause “uproar, i.e., a state of hostility and strife apparently as a riot and not a full battle or war.” They want to come all around them and scare them so that the Jews all scatter and trample upon each other like those out of control soccer games you hear about from time to time.
So how does Nehemiah answer the latest opposition? Look at Neh. 4:9: Prayer and Planning or to use the language here, watching and praying. He is always doing both and we will see that throughout this section today as well as one of the themes of this book. If there was a time Nehemiah is going to pray like he never had before, it is now. And ff there was a time Nehemiah is going to plan like he never had before, it is now. Why? The wall was halfway done. Halfway times are vulnerable times.
I would like to define “halfway times” as the period of time which is more routine, mundane or ordinary, usually following a season of activity or in between activities, which together with idleness, allows a fertile ground for the Enemy to work. Our idle days are the devil’s busiest days. I believe we are in that time now with the retreat and VBS over.
I know exciting events are happening with a new name for this ministry coming up and our junior high/high school ministry starting up, but we must be careful for overall, it is a “halfway time” for us. Especially in America, everyone seems to have a sense of entitlement. I deserve better and I need this and that-kind of attitude. I need entertainment. I need a break. It is one thing to take a break and relax and another for sloth and laziness to feed your flesh and allow Satan to get a foothold in your life. Stagnant waters are a breeding ground for thousands of insects, but not so with living water!
We are very much performance driven. We pray a lot for our serving times don’t we? We prepare much for retreats, VBS’s and perhaps our small groups and sermons, but what about the times when no one is looking? When the performance is over? What about the times only God sees? God cares as much if not more about those “halfway times” as our times preaching, teaching or leading. And if we do not pray and watch over those times, we will fail.
So how did the people of God do with their “halfway hurdle”? So far with every setback, they have pressed on right? (Neh. 2:20, 4:6). But now, they collapsed! Jot this down:
II. Watch for Signs of Halfway Hurdle Collapse (Neh. 4:10-12)
Finally, the enemies were getting somewhere. Look at Neh. 4:10. In Judah, in other words, not from a single person, but from everyone: “The strength is failing.” They had accomplished much up to this point. I mean, they have never ever even gotten this far before. They were halfway done! The enemies made another push, this time surrounding them in every corner and threatening military attack. They had even prayed, even watched carefully, but they collapsed at this hurdle. Here are some signs that we too may collapse at the halfway hurdle:
a) Physical exhaustion (Neh 4:10a)
Notice the word “failing” in Neh. 4:10. This word means “stumbling, staggering or tottering” and the image is the picture of “an exhausted laborer, reeling under the heavy load he is trying to carry.” They had been working now for several weeks. The initial enthusiasm has waned, the external pressure has mounted and to top it all off, they were physically tired. It was a deadly combination. It is always easier to begin a work of God than to continue it right?
This is another extreme the devil will take us and the power is always in the balance. Either we become lazy and make ourselves look busy or we work ourselves to death to make ourselves look important. Here, physical exhaustion made them disillusioned about the work. I wonder if this is why God created a seventh day for rest? I think I have mentioned the prophet Elijah already. He was doing intense ministry, so much so that he became drained and fatigued and even suicidal (1 Kings 18-19). He went from great victory to emptiness, because he forgot about rest. God’s “spiritual” treatment was sleep, rest and a good meal. One of the best advice I have ever received from my seminary professors was to make sure I’m eating and sleeping well. So servants at EFC, don’t stay up late on Saturday night and come serve on Sunday. Actually no one should stay up late on Saturday night period, whether you are serving or not. We want to come giving our best worship to the Lord, especially as you are serving. When I get home on Sunday, I am so tempted to start studying the next passage. Not always, but sometimes. But I am so spent, so I have to train myself to put it all away and just be.
b) Loss of perspective (Neh. 4:10b)
Notice the words “there is too much rubble.” Not only were they physically exhausted from the tremendous amount of work they had already accomplished, they started looking around at all the work left to do and became discouraged. They started to lose perspective. The glass was half-empty.
They did not look back and see how much progress they had made, but rather on all the work left to do. There were piles of huge stones, overgrown vines, rubbish and mounds of dirt. That was all they can see. This happens all the time. You get covered under the mountain of “still to do” and become overwhelmed.
Again, sometimes it is a matter of stepping away from everything and getting recharged again, allowing God to show you what He has already done. This will strengthen you to hope for the future.
c) Hopelessness (Neh. 4:10c)
Once fatigue sets in and you lose that perspective and that starts to settle in, automatically, hopelessness is right around the corner. “That’s it Nehemiah. We tried. We made it halfway, but we’ll never make it to the top. It is a hopeless endeavor.” Notice the key words now coming from their mouth: “We WILL NOT BE ABLE.” You hear it all the time: “I can’t stay in this marriage. I can’t stay with this ministry. I cannot step out for the Lord. I’m not going to do anything anymore.” Clare Boothe Luce once said, “There are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.”
What has crept into the hearts and minds of the people of God? Unbelief. Trials reveal the depth of your faith. Author and pastor Chip Ingram says, “It’s interesting that when the wall wasn’t built at all and they had a big God, they were ready and willing. Once they got tired and lost perspective, the focus went from upward and outward to inward and downward.” When hope dies, the motivation to change dies and you quit trying.
d) Fear and Insecurity (Neh. 4:11-12)
This is exactly what the enemies wanted. In Neh. 4:11, as the Jews were weakening internally, they amplified the attack externally. They started looking at all the work left to do. As they were looking at that and being paralyzed by it, they hear that if they try to even attempt fixing it again, there is a possibility of being slaughtered while doing it.
To make matters worse, the surrounding Jews came to them in Neh. 4:12 and say “you must return to us” (ESV). This is hard to translate from the Hebrew, but most likely it is saying something like “Wherever you turn, they will attack us!” (NIV). In other words, “You’ll never make it. You won’t survive. The enemy is too numerous. No matter where you turn, they’ll be waiting for you.” Thanks a lot, friends!
What is Nehemiah going to do? Exhaustion, loss of perspective, hopelessness, fear and insecurity had hit God’s people with one blow after another, pushing them into the corner. I don’t know a lot about boxing, but I hear that if a fighter ends up “on the ropes” or ends up standing in a corner, this is the most dangerous time, because this is where you can get pummeled. So the boxer must jump back in the center of the ring to regain perspective. Like tired, worn out boxers, who have just been hit with punch after punch, there were the Jews with their hands on their face, about to give up. But Nehemiah does not give up. Thirdly and lastly, let’s now look at:
III. How to Jump the Halfway Hurdle (Neh. 4:13-23)
Nehemiah does several things here to get the people back into the center of the ring, to jump over this halfway hurdle. Take note of this:
a) Resist passivity proactively (Neh. 4:13)
The worst thing to do when you are discouraged is to do nothing. It is always easier to steer a moving car than a parked car right? This is what the Enemy wants. He wants to disable you permanently so God cannot steer your life again.
Look at Nehemiah in Neh. 4:13. He starts with positive and practical action. He took people off building the wall and set them up at vulnerable parts of the wall by families. Commentator Ray Brown says, “Members of extended families knew each other well enough to allocate respective duties effectively, and the presence of their women and children close at hand was a constant reminder that they were not simply fighting for the city’s walls but for the family’s and community’s future.”
Discouragement and all the signs we just talked about do not come suddenly. They come gradually. We can usually tell when the fog starts to move in right? You start to feel a loss of energy, a mild dissatisfaction, boredom, laziness, procrastination, self-absorption, etc. before it all comes tumbling down. It is then you need to move forward! Take small practical steps. When you don’t want to do anything…is when you do something! Write a positive note to someone. Take a walk. Wash the car. Do the laundry. Get around godly people. Nehemiah put the people together by families. This provided a sense of ownership and importance of what is going on. No time to be passive because it is a matter of life and death for my loved ones. Some of us may not think being with our families are not always the most encouraging when we are discouraged. Sometimes they are the source of our discouragement! But it is important to be around the family of God.
b) Refocus on the Lord (Neh. 4:14a)
It is not enough to be out doing something to get your mind off of things when you have collapsed at the hurdle. Christian life is not about taking our mind off our problems, but putting our mind on the Lord. Look what he says in Neh. 4:14, “Do not be afraid. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome!” The last time he called the Lord that was in his prayer in Neh. 1:5. The word “great” refers to His power, while “awesome” (remember reserved for God alone) refers to His holiness.
I like how he says, “Remember.” Is it because they were forgetting Him? They did forget Him. Nehemiah is calling the people to look away from the rubble, look away from the enemies, look away from yourself and how tired you are and remember the Lord. Consider who He is. Consider what He has done for you. Consider how far He has brought you. Yes, since that day everyone said, “Let us rise up and build” (Neh. 2:18), circumstances have changed. The enemies have become more and more active. The work has become more and more difficult. Yes, all these have changed, but God has not changed!
How do you refocus on the Lord? I would recommend the following to you. 1) Christ-centered praise music 2) review your journal, counting God’s blessings, (if you journal) 3) Have you ever written or typed your prayers out? I would commend that exercise to you. It helps you stay focused in prayer and think about the Lord. Andy Stanley, pastor out in Georgia, says that on his desk, he has a card that reads, “Lord, you got me in this. I am trusting you to get me through it.” A great reminder for when we hit a snag in ministry to refocus on the Lord. Or as the Apostle Paul says, “”And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Here is one of my favorite prayers from St. Patrick that brings me back to the Lord each time I see it:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.
Christ shield me today
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation
c) Remain balanced with faith and action (Neh. 4:14b-17)
This is a theme in the book of Nehemiah. Prayer and Planning; Faith and action—all go hand in hand. It was not enough to re-orient their thinking. They had to resume building. Take a look at that combination showing up here from Neh. 4:14b-17:
14 And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome [FAITH], and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. [ACTION]” 15When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. [FAITH] 16 From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, [ACTION] 17 who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand [FAITH] and held his weapon with the other [ACTION].
You can probably argue faith or action or both for a couple of these, but you see the idea. We saw it earlier as well in Neh. 4:9 where the people prayed, but they also “set a guard.” Notice that when Nehemiah prayed, the enemies did not go away. In fact, they attacked more! Well, that is, until Neh. 4:15. Nehemiah called their bluff. They weren’t really ready to fight. It was all bark and no bite.
But remember that prayer without work is presumption, and work without prayer is self-confidence. Remember the Lord, but fight. Pray for your marriage, but take some steps for change. Pray to God against temptation, but take some steps to make it really difficult to fall into the same thing over and over again. Pray for that test coming up, but study hard. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14).
d) Rally together with others (Neh. 4:18-20)
How do you picture this scene so far? When I picture this, I picture people with a trowel in one hand and a sword in another. That was if you carried materials. If you were builders like in Neh. 4:18, you needed your hands free, so the sword is at your side. CH Spurgeon, once had a magazine called “The Sword and the Trowel.” Isn’t that a great image for the Christian life? We are soldier servants or servant soldiers! So Nehemiah here spreads everyone out and gets them back to work.
He also does another thing here. He determines a rally point. He has a guy with a trumpet next to him at all times. So in case of attack, the trumpet would sound and everyone would rally together where the trumpet sounds and again, he reorients people’s focus on the Lord as he says: “Our God will fight for us.” In other words, “Hey guys, we are in this together!” The principle? Do not fight alone.
But what the Enemy wants us to do is the opposite: Just get off by yourselves. I’ll find an escape and distract myself with entertainment. I won’t answer any phone calls. Stay away from church, you are going to feel guilty being there and no one is going to miss me anyway, says the Enemy. Stay away from the Bible and prayer, God does not want to listen to you, you start to think.
e) Recommit to sacrificial service (Neh. 4:21-23)
They got back to serving selflessly. They worked all day into evening in Neh. 4:21. They put themselves wholeheartedly back in the work of God. Even those who lived far away, did not go home according to Neh. 4:22. In fact, they were so zealous for the work of God again that they didn’t even have time to change their clothes, meaning no time to even bathe! Notice who is leading this example: Nehemiah, the chief servant. The head grows by taking in but the heart grows by giving out.
Everyone is building a wall. Either you are building something for God or you are building a wall between yourself and others or you are building a wall around yourself. You make it strong and thick and high so that no one can ever break through. It is easy to build this wall, satisfied with your lives with no ministry, no compassion for others and no sacrificial service. With these kind of walls, you will not be facing the attack of the Enemy. You will have become your own enemy.
Pediatrician David Cerqueira shares a story of how a dying girl showed his church the honor of serving God:
One Sunday my wife had prepared a lesson on being useful. She taught the children that everyone can be useful—that usefulness is serving God, and that doing so is worthy of honor. The kids quietly soaked up my wife's words, and as the lesson ended, there was a short moment of silence. [A little girl named] Sarah spoke up. "Teacher, what can I do? I don't know how to do many useful things."
Not anticipating that kind of response, my wife quickly looked around and spotted an empty flower vase on the windowsill. "Sarah, you can bring in a flower and put it in the vase. That would be a useful thing."
Sarah frowned. "But that's not important." "It is," replied my wife, "if you are helping someone." Sure enough, the next Sunday Sarah brought in a dandelion and placed it in the vase. In fact, she continued to do so each week. Without reminders or help, she made sure the vase was filled with a bright yellow flower, Sunday after Sunday. When my wife told our pastor about Sarah's faithfulness, he placed the vase upstairs in the main sanctuary next to the pulpit. That Sunday he gave a sermon on the honor of serving others, using Sarah's vase as an example. The congregation was touched by the message, and the week started on a good note.
During that same week I got a call from Sarah's mother. She worried that Sarah seemed to have less energy than usual and that she didn't have an appetite. Offering her some reassurances, I made room in my schedule to see Sarah the following day. After Sarah had a battery of tests and days of examinations, I sat numbly in my office, Sarah's paperwork on my lap. The results were tragic. [She had leukemia.]
On the way home, I stopped to see Sarah's parents so that I could personally give them the sad news. Sarah's genetics and the leukemia that was attacking her small body were a horrible mix. Sitting at their kitchen table, I did my best to explain to Sarah's parents that nothing could be done to save her life. I don't think I have ever had a more difficult conversation than the one that night.
Time pressed on. Sarah became confined to bed and to the visits that many people gave her. She lost her smile. She lost most of her weight. And then it came: another telephone call. Sarah's mother asked me to come see her. I dropped everything and ran to the house. There she was, a small bundle that barely moved. After a short examination, I knew that Sarah would soon be leaving this world. I urged her parents to spend as much time as possible with her.
That was a Friday afternoon. On Sunday morning church started as usual. The singing, the sermon—it all seemed meaningless when I thought of Sarah. I felt enveloped in sadness. At the end of the sermon, the pastor suddenly stopped speaking. His eyes wide, he stared at the back of the church with utter amazement. Everyone turned to see what he was looking at. It was Sarah! Her parents had brought her for one last visit. She was bundled in a blanket, a dandelion in one little hand.
She didn't sit in the back row. Instead she slowly walked to the front of the church where her vase still perched by the pulpit. She put her flower in the vase and a piece of paper beside it. Then she returned to her parents. Seeing little Sarah place her flower in the vase for the last time moved everyone. At the end of the service, people gathered around Sarah and her parents, trying to offer as much love and support as possible. I could hardly bear to watch.
Four days later, Sarah died. …
I wasn't expecting it, but our pastor asked to see me after the funeral. We stood at the cemetery near our cars as people walked past us. In a low voice he said, "Dave, I've got something you ought to see." He pulled out of his pocket the piece of paper that Sarah had left by the vase. Holding it out to me, he said, "You'd better keep this; it may help you in your line of work."
I opened the folded paper to read, in pink crayon, what Sarah had written:
This vase has been the biggest honor of my life.
Sarah's note and her vase have helped me to understand. I now realize in a new way that life is an opportunity to serve God by serving people. And, as Sarah put it, that is the biggest honor of all.
I was thinking after I read this, “What is the biggest honor of my life so far?” I can only say one thing, “Serving the Lord who saved me.” Even through all the halfway hurdles I have been through, He has been faithful, still giving me this biggest honor of my life. I pray we can all say the same, for the Lord’s sake.
“The Two Guards, Praying and Watching”http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2254.htm accessed July 23, 2009.
R. Laird Harris, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed., 322 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980).
“Dealing with the Anger of Others”
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed., DBLH 9360, #1 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations, 495 (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2000).
From preachingtoday.com accessed July 25, 2009. Condensed from an article in Today's Christian ©2008 Christianity Today International.