Do you remember just a few months ago? We were heading into a new year with bright hopes and big plans that this year would be better than the last. That was the plan wasn’t it? What happened? It feels like we got hit by a truck and none of us saw it coming, doesn’t it? What is different about this trial than every other trial that we’ve encountered so far in life? There is an easy answer to that question. Every single day some of us are facing obstacles, some of us are having to deal with the troubles of life, but not all of us at the same time. Now, we’re all in the same boat together. How do we overcome the obstacles of life?
N.T. Wright wrote an article for Time magazine a couple of weeks ago. The article was titled, Christianity Offers No Answers About The Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To. I love N.T. Wright and I agree that you can’t go to Strong’s Concordance and look up “coronavirus” in your Bible, but I do think we can learn so much from God’s Word about how to overcome obstacles…and we have definitely run into an obstacle haven’t we?
This morning we are going to go back to our study of Nehemiah, the study we were in before we were no longer allowed to meet together for worship or Bible study. Let’s pick up where we left off by turning to Nehemiah 4. Let’s read together verses 1-3.
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– even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3 NIV)
Just like you and me, I’m sure Nehemiah felt like he’d been hit by a truck that he didn’t see coming. It’s been awhile since we were in Nehemiah so I really need to refresh our memory of what had happened leading up to this point.
If you will remember, Nehemiah came from Susa where he was the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes, the king of the Persian Empire. Susa was located in modern-day Iran. Nehemiah had heard from one of his brothers about the horrible condition of Jerusalem. The wall was down, Israel’s enemies were able to come and go as they pleased, and the Jewish people were in despair. Nehemiah was so moved when he heard the news that he sat down and cried, he fasted, and he began to pray. Over time, Nehemiah felt compelled to go and help rebuild the wall. He got permission from the king and made his way to Jerusalem. Once he was in Jerusalem, he toured the city at night and surveyed the wall so he could assess what needed to be done. After he gathered the facts he gathered with the leaders. Nehemiah told them what God had laid on his heart and the people responded. Turn to Nehemiah 2:17-18 and let’s read together.
17 Then I said to them, “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.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. (Nehemiah 2:17-18 NIV)
The people of Jerusalem embraced the outsider and said, “Let’s start rebuilding. Let’s go to work!” What an incredible sign of God’s grace! No pointing fingers. No blame game. No “us” and “them” lines drawn in the sand against the man who had come from a land far away. They saw the wisdom of Nehemiah’s plan, they had confidence that God’s hand was at work, and so they rolled up their sleeves and picked up their tools.
Then, when we turn to Nehemiah 3, we read about all of those who went to work. They weren’t civil engineers, heavy equipment operators, or stone masons–they were priests, perfumers, merchants, goldsmiths, and pharmacists. They were citizens of Jerusalem as well as men and women from surrounding suburbs. It was all hands on deck and they were shoulder-to-shoulder as they worked to rebuild the wall together, focused like a laser beam. It must have been an incredible sight to see. Things could not have been going better for Nehemiah.
Nehemiah and the workers could not have gotten off to a better start, but then came the opposition. Nehemiah’s first obstacle came in the form of Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, Geshem the Arab, and the people of Ashdod. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria, to the north of Jerusalem. Tobiah was the governor of Ammon to the east of Jerusalem. Geshem the Arab was the chief of the Arabs who lived south of Jerusalem. Last of all, the people of Ashdod were located west of Jerusalem. Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem were surrounded by those who wanted to see them fail. We’ll learn that they were willing to do everything in their power to make sure the wall project would not be completed.
Sanballat was the ringleader of the group and he launched his first attack in Nehemiah 4:1-2. His first tactic was ridicule and mockery: “Who do you think you are?” Words are powerful. Words sting. Words can discourage us and beat us down. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me” just isn’t true. The messages that others feed us and the messages that swirl around in our own heads can be some of the biggest obstacles we face in life. Take a look at verses 1-2 so you can see what Sanballat said to Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem.
- 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?
We read in verse 3 that Tobiah the Ammonite was at Sanballat’s side, so of course he had to add to Sanballat’s razor-like ridicule. We read in verse 3,
3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building– even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Nehemiah 4:3 NIV)
Several years ago the New Yorker film critic, David Denby, wrote a book called Snark. Mr. Denby’s book highlighted the way our modern-day discourse in the media, politics, and social media has set its sights on erasing a person’s effectiveness and undermining their image with the public. Sanballat and Tobiah were ahead of their times with their snarky comments aimed at undermining Nehemiah’s authority and influence with the people of Jerusalem. How did Nehemiah respond to their snarky comments? Let’s take a look. Turn with me to Nehemiah 4:4-6.
4 Hear us, 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 the builders. 6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. (Nehemiah 4:4-6 NIV)
Nehemiah didn’t get into a battle of words with those who wanted to discourage him and neither should we. Nehemiah took his concern to God in prayer. I bet Nehemiah’s prayer shocked some of you. Some might be thinking, “Nehemiah should have prayed for Sanballat and Tobiah or he could have invited them over for dinner so they could see he was no threat.” Maybe, but I want us to stay focused on how we overcome the obstacles that come our way in life. Nehemiah prayed and he went back to work. Look at verse 6 again,
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. (Nehemiah 4:4-6 NIV)
It is important for you and me, when we encounter obstacles in life, whether they be people who want to discourage and distract us or experiences like the one we are in right now, we must stay focused and not give into the negativity of others or the negative thoughts that can rule and ruin our own minds. Nehemiah and his friends went back to work. I want you to notice that even though Nehemiah prayed, the opposition didn’t go away. As a matter of fact, Sanballat and his buddies took their threats to another level. Read with me from Nehemiah 4:7-8.
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people 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. (Nehemiah 4:7-8 NIV)
They were no longer tossing word grenades and firing mortars filled with ridicule and mockery, they were planning their assault on Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem. I want you to notice what Nehemiah did in response. Take a look at verse 9 with me.
9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. (Nehemiah 4:9 NIV)
Nehemiah’s course of action is so helpful for me and I hope it will be helpful for you as well. Some of my more spiritually minded friends would say that Nehemiah didn’t need to post a guard. If Nehemiah had faith then he would have just prayed and trusted God to take care of the obstacle that was before him.
Let’s shift our focus for a moment from Nehemiah to the obstacles you and I are facing right now. As I said earlier, we’re all in the same boat right now because of the limitations that have been placed on us because of the coronavirus and yet there are differences in our individual predicaments. Connie and I don’t have kids at home with us any longer, but some of you now have your kids with you 24/7 and it is exhausting. Most of you are not teachers and yet…you are now…and it’s overwhelming. I told Tre, Ryan, Irvin, and Jessica just this week that if this would have happened when my kids were young we would be having recess five periods a day! I’m so thankful to still have a job that I get to go to each day, but some of you have been furloughed, some have lost their job, and money has gotten really tight really fast. Some of you are in the “high risk” category and you have to be extra careful not to be reckless and put yourself in a situation where you might become infected. There are many other obstacles that you are facing right now, some coronavirus related and some not, but we can learn from what Nehemiah did in his own situation. He prayed and he posted a guard. Notice that Nehemiah always begins with prayer. And so should we. Oswald Chambers once said,
We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all. (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest.)
And after we pray, God will give us the wisdom to act. “I lost my job because of the current situation. I prayed and asked God to open a door of opportunity for me and then I hit the streets and started looking for a job.” Now there’s wisdom! “I wasn’t a good student in school, but now I’m being asked to teach my kids and I don’t have a clue what to do. I prayed and asked God for help…and then I called a friend who has been a teacher for years and she was a huge help!” Now there’s wisdom! When we pray God will give us wisdom about our next move, that’s the promise of God for all of His people. James wrote,
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (James 1:5 NIV)
Nehemiah prayed and things went from bad to worse. The obstacle he had been facing was opposition from those outside of his “family” — the Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs, and the people of Ashdod. Now, his own people were becoming disillusioned and discouraged because of the constant attacks. In verses 10-12 we read,
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.” (Nehemiah 4:10-12 NIV)
The obstacles weren’t going away, they were piling up on Nehemiah. There will be times in our lives when the obstacles will seem to multiply and become immovable obstacles, even though we are praying and staying focused on trusting the Lord to see us through.
I know there is a popular teaching which has been circulating among God’s people for a long time that teaches us that if we will simply believe, if we will just have faith, then God will remove all of the obstacles in our path. You lack money? Claim your blessing in the name of Jesus and the check will be on its way! Are you suffering from sickness? Agree with your brothers and sisters for your healing and you’ll have no need of a doctor! Name the obstacle, claim your victory, and if you have faith it’ll be done in Jesus’ name! I know the teaching all too well because I’ve had many friends whose faith has been wrecked on the rocks of the name-it-claim-it teaching.
The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth that he had a “thorn in his flesh,” we have no idea what it was, but we know it wasn’t a literal thorn. Paul was facing some kind of obstacle, something that he would have liked to have put behind him, so he prayed. Paul tells us,
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10 NIV)
Paul was able to see the power of the Risen Savior in his weakness, in his hardships, and in doing so he found strength…and his strength was in his dependence on the Lord. When Nehemiah heard his own people’s complaints and discouragement he told them, in verse 14,
…Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes. (Nehemiah 4:14 NIV)
The people had shifted their focus from the work that was before them, from the hand of grace that was upon them, to the enemies and the rubble that was all about them. Nehemiah said, “Don’t be afraid of them…remember Him!” God’s Word is such an encouragement to us isn’t it?! As we read the stories of those in God’s Word, we see ourselves so clearly don’t we? Those who were now complaining and had become discouraged were the same people who were so committed and excited about what God was doing not that long ago…and then came their problems. Those who opposed their work were relentless. The work was tiresome and it didn’t look like they would ever get all of the rubble cleared out. It all began to weigh heavy on them and they lost sight of the opportunity before them.
I know you. I know how much you love the Lord. I know how committed you are to sharing the good news of Jesus and sharing His love with others in all kinds of ways, but… What happens to our love and devotion when hard times come around? What happens to our passion for the Lord when the problems of life persist, they just won’t go away? We get distracted just like the workers on the wall don’t we? The more we focus on the obstacles, the less we are aware of God’s abiding presence and His wonderful promises to be with us in the trials of life, and to provide us with everything we need. It is in times like these that we must remember Nehemiah’s words to the workers, “Don’t be afraid of them, remember Him!”
We are about out of time, but before we go I want us to remember the power of remembering the Lord when we face the obstacles of life. When the cares of life weigh us down and the obstacles we encounter in life are wearing us out–we must remember the Lord. What is it that we should remember? That’s a great question and we will find the answer in God’s Word. There are two things we are to remember. First, we are to remember Who our God is. “Who is a God like you?” You can read that phrase in Scripture over and over again. Each time you read it, the writer will follow the question with a description of the holiness, faithfulness, love, compassion, or majestic glory of our God. God is holy, He is righteous, His mercy endures forever, and He is faithful. It is so important for us to remember these truths my friend.
Second, we are to remember the way the Lord has worked in the lives of those who have gone before us. Take a look at Psalm 77:11-13 with me.
11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” 13 Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? (Psalm 77:11-13 NIV)
If the Lord has been faithful to those who have gone before us, He will most certainly be faithful to you and me. If He was with Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, and Paul, then He is most certainly with you and me. You want to know how to overcome obstacles? Put your faith in Jesus Christ and know He will lead you through every circumstance and situation you will ever encounter in life.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114