Implementing A Vision Together
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 1, 2006
Success is something we all strive for. Sure, we might define success differently, and we likely have varying ideas about how to obtain success, but I think it is safe to say that we all want to succeed. We want to do our best. Whether we are cooking a meal, preaching a sermon, presenting a business plan, or planting a garden—we want our endeavours to be fruitful; we want our endeavours to appeal to the sensibilities of those around us.
Nehemiah wanted to succeed. Nehemiah believed that he could honour God and encourage God’s people if the walls and gates of Jerusalem were rebuilt. Those of you who have read to the end of the story already know that Nehemiah does, in fact, succeed in completing the project. There are many important steps Nehemiah took in pursuit of his vision, and so we shall seek to retrace some of those steps this morning.
We noted that, from the very outset, Nehemiah has been constant in prayer. Nehemiah’s instinctive response to hearing the news of the dreadful state of Jerusalem was to pray and fast (1:4). Even in the presence of King Artaxerxes, with his knees buckling beneath him, Nehemiah writes that before making his request of the King, “I prayed to the God who rules from heaven” (2:4).
Nehemiah was a man of prayer. Nehemiah was a man of faith. And because “the presence of faith does not mean the absence of organization” (Swindoll), Nehemiah also engaged in prudent planning.
Nehemiah thought through what it would take to get his vision of reconstruction rolling. He approached the right person for permission, in King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was able to articulate how long it would take him to implement the plan (2:6). Nehemiah knew enough to request letters from the king—letters that would ensure his safe travel, and help him to acquire sufficient building materials (2:7, 8). Nehemiah was a man of prayer, and he was also a good planner.
We pick up the text in the middle of chapter 2, where we see that Nehemiah’s prayers and plans have indeed landed him safely in Jerusalem (2:11).
I find it interesting that Nehemiah’s narrative, following his interaction with the King, does not resume until “three days after” his arrival in Jerusalem (2:11). Nothing from his 800-mile journey is recorded for our benefit. Not even his arrival in Jerusalem. I suspect that if the story of Nehemiah were to be made into a large-scale motion picture, the director would want to make a big deal out of Nehemiah’s arrival in the Promised Land. Jerusalem had been the burden of Nehemiah’s prayers and plans for the future. He had traveled 800 miles in order to pursue the great desire of his heart—and yet, nothing is noted about his arrival.
I can only conclude that Nehemiah omitted much information because it was not immediately relevant to the pursuit and implementation of his vision. No doubt, many interesting things happened between Susa and Jerusalem, but Nehemiah was far too focused to record them. If it wasn’t related to reconstruction, if it wasn’t related to the restoration of God’s chosen people, Nehemiah wasn’t going to waste the parchment.
I think we would benefit from a similar focus. Whether you are pursuing the vision for St. Giles Kingsway, the vision you have for your career, or the vision you have for your family, you will benefit by eliminating those things that do not advance your vision. Howard Hendricks says it well,
“There are many things I can do, but I have to narrow it down to the one thing I must do. The secret of concentration is elimination.”
At St. Giles Kingsway, there are many good things that we could do, but we need to narrow it down to the few things we must do. And following the lead of ‘The Great Commission’, I regard that our focus should be to Bring in Others and to Teach Jesus.
If the first two steps of pursuing a vision are prayer and planning, we see the third step in the verses that follow 2:11,
“I got up during the night and left my house. I took some men with me, without telling anyone what I thought God wanted me to do for the city. The only animal I took was the donkey I rode on. I went through Valley Gate on the west, then south past Dragon Spring, before coming to Garbage Gate. As I rode along, I took a good look at the crumbled walls of the city and the gates that had been torn down and burned” (2:12, 13).
Restoring Jerusalem’s walls was an urgent matter for Nehemiah. And yet, this urgency did not cause Nehemiah to launch forward in haste. Nehemiah was thorough, and thoroughness takes time. Nehemiah’s phrase “I took a good look” is rendered in another translation as “I inspected” (2:13). The Hebrew word Nehemiah uses is a medical word, it is a word used to describe the probing of a wound to see the extent of the damage.
Delightfully, this gives us yet another P word for our steps in pursuing a vision: Nehemiah begins by praying, then he engages in planning, and then he probes the actual site.
There is a story that is told about Michelangelo and one of his most significant projects. I have no way of confirming the veracity of this story, but the point of the story is nonetheless helpful.
A Prince came to visit the great artist in his studio and found Michelangelo staring at an 18-foot block of marble.
The Prince then knew that the rumours were true. It had been circulated that Michelangelo had come in every day for the past four months, stared at the marble at length, and gone home for his supper. So the Prince asked the artist, "What are you doing?" Michelangelo turned around and whispered, "Sto lavorando". "I'm working." Three years later, that block of marble was the Statue of David.
Nehemiah understood that rushing in headlong wasn’t going to advance the vision of restoration. The city had to be carefully probed, the damage had to be properly assessed, and the needs had to be appropriately calculated before the work could begin. An outside observer might say that Nehemiah was procrastinating, but from an inside perspective—as we read Nehemiah’s account, we regard Nehemiah to have been hard at work as he walked around staring at a city in ruins.
Nehemiah prayed. Nehemiah planned. Nehemiah probed. And then the time came to present his vision. There came a time when, if the vision to reconstruct was to be fulfilled, it needed to be shared by many other people. To this end, Nehemiah presents his vision to the people of Jerusalem.
The presentation of the vision follows the identification of the problem. “Jerusalem is truly in a mess!” (2:17) is the rendering of the Contemporary English Version.
Nehemiah is stating the obvious. Everyone in Jerusalem knew the city was a mess. Why would Nehemiah choose begin his presentation in this way? Perhaps the people had lived with the mess for so long, that they had become accustomed to seeing ruins. Perhaps the mess no longer bothered the people as it once did.
No doubt, Nehemiah’s message would serve as a wake-up call for those who had become apathetic. Nehemiah didn’t say anything new about the state of the city; he was simply saying out loud, what everyone knew to be true, “Jerusalem is truly a mess!”
A more literal rendering of the Hebrew has Nehemiah saying, “You see the bad situation we are in” (2:17). This more literal rendering teaches us something about Nehemiah’s methods for motivating the people to support the vision. Nehemiah, in identifying the problem, is wise enough to include himself in the predicament.
As a goaltender in hockey, I had to learn the hard way about how to present problems to teammates. When your defence has been terrible, it is not helpful to say to them between periods, ‘You guys are really struggling out there, can you try to get things together.’ That kind of exhortation is counter-productive in terms of motivating a group of people. I have learned that, even if my play has been stellar, I need to say, ‘We are struggling a bit, let’s all try to bring it up a notch next period.’
Nehemiah had not contributed in the least to the problems in Jerusalem, and yet he does not detach himself from taking responsibility for the predicament, “You see the bad situation we are in”, he says to the people.
Nehemiah consistently employs ‘we’ language, while resisting ‘you’ language when presenting his vision to the people. “We must rebuild the city wall so that we can again take pride in our city” (2:17), is Nehemiah’s plea. He goes on to tell them how God had shown His favour and how the king had been so cooperative (2:18).
I like how the New American Standard Bible records the people’s response, “Then they said, ‘Let us arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work” (2:18).
Pray. Plan. Probe. Present.
The progress of Nehemiah’s vision had come along way on the back of those 4 steps. The people had now signed on; they were now ready to roll up their sleeves in order to get the walls rebuilt.
We must not miss the profundity of this event. It’s not as if Nehemiah entered Jerusalem and stumbled across a bunch of countrymen with nothing to do. We should not imagine Nehemiah approaching a group of folks standing around with their hands in their pockets. This was an agricultural society—if you weren’t working, you weren’t eating. These folks were up to their eyeballs with things to do. Signing on to Nehemiah’s vision would require putting some very important things on hold (Stanley, Visioneering, 128).
Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that many of these people were not even living within Jerusalem. To sign on with Nehemiah would cause many to spend significant time away from home. Much was being required of them, and yet there is no sense of hesitation. Rebuilding walls would allow for the rebuilding of a community, and so they put their hands to the good work.
St. Giles Kingsway is not in ruins. Not physically. Not spiritually. You could say that fact helps us pursue a vision to Bring in Others and Teach Jesus. Unlike Jerusalem, our infrastructure is in decent shape.
You could also say that our relative health might be hindering us. Because things are running relatively smoothly, because the bills are all being paid, because we see a group of happy children at the front each Sunday, we are in danger of losing our urgency for what God requires from us.
Jesus wants us to Bring in Others and to teach everything that He has commanded (Mt. 28:19, 20). You may be up to your eyeballs with things to do, but this is not just any kind of work—this is a ‘good work’—this is God’s work.
Will you partake? Will you turn to one another in our hallways, in our auditorium, and in our meeting rooms, and say, “Let us arise and rebuild! Let’s work at Bringing in Others and Teaching Jesus.”
It’s the right thing to do. It’s what we’re here for. Amen.