Needed: Personal Sacrifice
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 5, 2006
When Nehemiah presented his vision for the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt, he did not view himself as irrelevant to the process. Perhaps, some of you have been in a work context where your employer casts a vision and then leaves everyone else to do the heavy lifting. Perhaps you have seen a vision cast within a domestic context, but the person casting the vision has no intention of making a contribution.
Nehemiah was not that kind of a leader. Nehemiah had an appreciation for the sacrifice many would need to make, including himself. Nehemiah understood that he would have to lead by example. He recognized that for the vision of reconstruction to succeed, he would need to set the tone with his work ethic, his integrity, and his generosity.
We have already noted how visions are often met with opposition from others. We have noted how those working diligently towards a vision must often battle the giant named Discouragement. For this reason, we have put forth that a leader of a vision must possess skill in problem solving.
This theme of problem solving continues as we work our way through Nehemiah, chapter 5. This is an unusual chapter. It is quite different from the rest, in that there is no mention of the wall here.
The vision of Nehemiah was to oversee the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem. And yet, we come to chapter 5 and there is no reference to the walls or anything else relating to reconstruction. This is because the vision to rebuild has come off the rails.
I think there is an important observation to make from this.
Nehemiah and his countrymen had faced challenges before, but until now, the work had continued in the face of those challenges. When the challenges came from without—when the problems were external—the builders were able in some measure to carry on. But now that the pressures were coming from within, the project grinded to a halt.
I do not think I am overstating things when I say that there is nothing that threatens a vision more than internal strife.
Commenting on the history of the Christian Church, James Montgomery Boice writes, “the most successful attacks upon the church have come not from unbelievers but from those within, from people who have professed to know God and Jesus Christ” (Boice, Nehemiah, 60).
Similarly, those gathered in Jerusalem found a way to keep working when their lives were threatened by outsiders. They could not keep working, however, when it was perceived that they were being threatened from within, by their own countrymen.
Thankfully, Nehemiah did not have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to problem solving. In this instance, Nehemiah confronted error with precision and firmness, backed by an unshakable moral example. But first, to the problem.
In verse one we read, “Some of the men and their wives complained about the Jews in power and said, ‘We have large families, and it takes a lot of grain merely to keep them alive.’”
You may remember from a few sermons ago, we noted the sacrifice that would be required for this project. This was an agricultural society where people worked in order to eat. Consequently, time spent as a volunteer wall builder was time spent away from working the land to feed your family.
By chapter 5, this equation had pushed some into a desperate state. Nehemiah would have to respond wisely in order to get this project back on track.
Three causes are identified as the reason for the impoverished state of some of the people. First, those making the complaint note that “the famine” had caused them to sell off possessions in order to buy food (5:3).
Secondly, they explain how “government taxation” forced them into a position where they needed to borrow money from their wealthier countrymen (5:4).
The third cause is inferred by what follows in the remainder of the chapter—the wealthy Jews who were lending money to their poorer countrymen were exacting interest (5:6) and were asserting undue influence over those in their debt.
How does Nehemiah respond? “When I heard their complaints and their charges, I became very angry. So I thought it over and said to the leaders and officials, ‘How can you charge your own people interest?’”(5:6,7).
I would like us to notice where Nehemiah directs his anger and where he does not. Nehemiah does not address the famine—he does not ask God why these miserable conditions were allowed to prevail. Nehemiah does not waste energy complaining about things beyond his control.
Nor does Nehemiah direct his anger against the government. In our day, there are denominations, there are congregations that spend considerable time lobbying the government about matters that concern them. Nehemiah is apparently unmoved by the notion that government policy is harming his countrymen. Either he does not see the taxation as excessive, or he does not regard government policy to be a factor of great significance.
Three reasons for the current predicament are named, but Nehemiah takes aim at only one of these “How can you charge your own people interest?”
Nehemiah teaches us that good leaders resist confronting peripheral issues and issues beyond their control. Instead, good leaders confront issues that can and should be corrected. Good leaders address issues that relate closely to the health of a vision.
One option would have been for Nehemiah to organize a rally against the government—he could have organized a protest against taxation. He could have called a time of prayer asking God to send a season of abundance to counteract the harm of the famine. Nehemiah could have blamed outside influences, but he did not.
Nehemiah, risking his popularity status, rebuked the leaders of his community—he challenged the practice of the nobles charging interest to their fellow countrymen. Nehemiah demonstrates sound leadership by addressing behaviour that was measurably inappropriate.
You may recall that the guidelines for lending money had been set out in the Torah. In Exodus, the Lord instructs, “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest” (Ex. 22:25).
Similarly, in Deuteronomy we read, “You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. You shall charge interest to a foreigner, but to your countryman you shall not charge interest” (Deut. 23:19,20).
And did you know that, in the same passage, the Lord provides incentive for his people to follow this command? “ . . . to your countryman you shall not charge interest so that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake” (Deut. 23:20).
From this we infer that, God blesses visions when His Word is being obeyed. There was a wall to rebuild. Protection from enemies was needed. There were people who needed to be in better position financially. This could only happen, Nehemiah believed, if the people were living according to God’s design.
Nehemiah is determined to correct the errors of the nobles and so he calls a public meeting (5:7). At that meeting, Nehemiah provides another compelling reason to follow God’s Law, “We must honour God by the way we live, so the Gentiles can’t find fault with us” (5:9).
You could then say that there is a two-pronged motivation for obeying God’s commands: worship and witness. Obeying God’s laws is worship in that our obedience is an appropriate response to Him as our Lord. Obeying God’s laws is also a witness to those who do not yet know Christ as it marks our faith with authenticity.
Now, what does all of this have to do with ‘personal sacrifice’? While God’s laws are intended for our ultimate good, we have to confess that many of God’s laws require considerable sacrifice.
For the leaders of Nehemiah’s day, obeying God meant forgiving the loans. The leaders would have to give back the properties and houses they had received as payment. Moreover, they would need to return the interest that they had collected. In short, doing ‘the right thing’ came with a price.
And though Nehemiah had not sinned in the manner of the nobles, he did not exempt himself from sacrificing personally. We read in verse 14 that, for twelve years, Nehemiah refused his food allowance. Nehemiah also refrained from buying land during this time. Moreover, Nehemiah resisted the usual practice of governors, which was to exact money and possessions from the people. To the contrary, Nehemiah provided for the needs of others (5:17). Nehemiah sacrificed personally for the sake of the vision.
We would be wise to heed Nehemiah’s example. As we attempt to move ahead on a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, we must first ask if there is anything holding us back. Is there anything we are doing that would cause us to forfeit God’s blessing? Is there anything about our lifestyle that would compromise our witness to those around us? Is there anything about our habits as a congregation that would negate our forward progress?
Or, to put it another way: What are we willing to sacrifice for the progress of the Gospel?
Each of us will have to give account to God for our particular contributions. As individuals, our contributions will differ in nature and in quantity, but what should be held in common is summarized by the word sacrifice.
We see in Nehemiah the necessity of sacrifice to move a vision forward. Our gifts of time and resources should be of such a nature, and to such a degree, that it hurts a bit.
And yet, when we consider what has been done for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, we might be tempted to blush at the notion that we are sacrificing anything by our efforts.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life my all.
As we pursue a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, may we hold nothing back. Amen.