Foundations for Tomorrow: The Way We Were
Some ten years ago now, my wife gave me this Bible. There is an inscription in it which reads: “This Book is an infallible guide, a source of truth, a standard of direction. Take it to your pulpit and take it to your heart.” I have followed that instruction. And I have discovered that when I do what this Book says, I find myself at peace with God and with myself and with the world around me. And when I disobey the directives of this Book, I find that I am at odds with God and with myself and with my neighbor. So I trust this Book completely. It is God’s word to our world…and to you…and to me. Therefore, as we prepare to commit ourselves to securing the future of this great church, the Word of God is an infallible guide. For tucked away in the midst of the Word of God is the story of Nehemiah. It is a story we do well to hear and to ponder. Here is what happened.
Jerusalem was in ruins. Many of its citizens had been led away into slavery. One of them was Nehemiah. He did rather well in slavery. He managed to achieve a position of prominence. In fact, he became an assistant to King Artaxerxes. It was then that he became aware of the situation in his homeland—about how the city of Jerusalem needed to be restored—about the crushing needs of the people there—about how the city seemed unable to pull itself back together. The Scripture notes that Nehemiah was pained in the heart. He then prayed to God to guide him in how to respond. God said: “Nehemiah, you’ve got the ear of the king, start there.” So Nehemiah appealed to King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to build the city. The king granted permission. Nehemiah went to Jerusalem. And what he did there has something to say to us about the way we were, about how we got to where we are now.
First, Nehemiah prepared a plan.
The Bible says that Nehemiah did not begin by telling everyone what he had in mind. He told only a few men, the Bible says, and he secured their help in drafting a plan. He did that for good reason. It’s a terrible thing to raise people’s hopes and then not fulfill them. It’s a terrible thing to hold up before God’s people a dream and then turn it into a nightmare right before their eyes. So Nehemiah took just a few men and he went out at night—he evaluated the scope of the task by moonlight—he drew up the preliminary plans away from the public view.
And so it was that here a small group of people, a commission of our governing board, worked for nearly a full year, quietly, without fanfare, at many night meetings, studying the needs, evaluating the options, and structuring the beginnings of a plan. They worked, by moonlight, drawing some dreams for our tomorrows.
Then the Bible tells us that only when Nehemiah was prepared did he take his plan to the people for their response. He writes of that occasion: “I told them of the hand of God which had been upon me for good, and also of the words which the king had spoken to me.” Nehemiah then laid out the details of the plan. He told the people that he believed the plan to be within the will of God, that he believed God was calling them to build the city, to restore it to greatness. The response of the people was overwhelming. They said: “Let us rise up and build!”
And that is precisely what has happened here. The people of this church were called to pray. The details of the plan have been gradually revealed. Our homes have been visited as we sought to have the involvement of all. God is calling us to build this church. And I am convinced that our people will respond. Already we are beginning to receive gifts—magnificent gifts, significant not for their size but for the commitment and the enthusiasm they represent. Yes, I believe that we are going to build here at the heart of this city a church which shall stand for Jesus Christ for generations to come. All the preparation has been done. The plan is in place. The program is under way. We only await the response of the people. “Let us rise up and build!”
Secondly, Nehemiah responded to objections to the plan.
We are told in Scripture that three men, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem—opposed the plan. I don’t know why it is, but where there is a will, there is always a won’t! I have been in the ministry for nearly eighteen years now, and I have discovered that no group of Christians, large or small, can ever be totally unanimous about anything. The vote may sometimes appear to be unanimous, but there will always be someone who abstained or who is in silent opposition. There will always be difference of opinion. That is true in what has happened here. Nehemiah had three votes against him. But frankly I have heard only two differences of opinion with regards to our plans. I think it is important to respond to those concerns.
One person objected to the church making a decision to use a highly-organized campaign to carry out its purpose. Well, the Bible speaks to that concern. Take the most majestic figure in the Old Testament: Moses. If ever there was an organizer, it was Moses. The Exodus would have been a mob scene if it hadn’t been for that. He divided the people into thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens and put captains over each. He handed down a detailed set of rules and regulations and expectations. Organization. Look at Jesus. He gathered twelve people together. Out of the twelve, He chose an executive committee of three: Peter, James, and John. There was even a treasurer: Judas Iscariot. When the job got a little too big, He selected 70 more and He sent them out by pairs on specific assignments. Organization. He said: “I will build my church”—and when the church began to grow the first item on the agenda was to elect a successor to Judas Iscariot. Having done that, they formed a committee to handle benevolences and special offerings. They moved out into other communities, establishing churches and organizing fellowships. They met together in formal meetings to resolve differences and difficulties. Organization. I know, sometimes the organization of it all puts us off. I love the story about the visitation team from a particular church which made a call on a prospective member. The young lady told the team that she wasn’t sure she wanted to join the church. She said: “I don’t like organized religion.” Like a flash, a member of the team replied: “Well, you’ll be happy at our church, we’ve been trying for twenty years, and we ain’t got it organized yet!” Yes, sometimes we don’t think much of the organization, but I want to tell you something. It is hopelessly naive to believe that an unorganized, unstructured faith can oppose organized and entrenched evil in this world. And the whole of Scripture testifies to that truth.
Another person expressed concerned that the church is too building conscious. The Bible speaks to that concern as well. The Psalmist writes: “Blessed are those who dwell in Thy house, O Lord, ever singing Thy praises.” That’s the inspired Word of God calling people to the church. Oh, I know, it sounds very holy to say that the church is not a building. And it’s very true to say that the church’s strength is not in its stones but in its soul. But the fact is that the remarkable ministry of the Spirit of Jesus Christ which arises out of this place would be impossible to perform if these stone walls did not stand in this place. So, yes, we are benevolent-conscious here, but we’re also building-conscious here. We do both. A little book called Heavenly Humor has a dialogue between an agnostic and a Christian. The agnostic says: “If Christians would stop worrying about buildings and give the money to the poor, it would be to the Christian’s credit.” The Christian said: “I’ve heard that remark before.” The agnostic replied: “Indeed! By whom may I ask?” And the Christian said: “It was Judas Iscariot!” You remember in Scripture when the woman broke a costly vial of oil as an act of love and devotion to Jesus and Judas said the money should have been given to the poor. Jesus said: “No.” It’s never one or the other. It’s both. The stronger we build the church, the greater is our ability to meet human need.
So we are trying to raise a substantial amount of money; some of it will be spent to secure our future in this location, and some of it will be spent in ministering to others. But you know when you spread that sum of money across all of the years that these buildings will stand at the heart of the city of Orlando, and when you think of the numbers of people whose lives will be touched and enriched by Christ’s ministry in this place, then somehow the sum begins to shrink. I think that’s worth remembering.
Thirdly, Nehemiah put the plan to work.
We are told that Nehemiah drove out those who opposed him and rebuilt the city. This is where Nehemiah and I part the ways. Yes, there will be people who will give little or nothing to this campaign and yet expect every service this church has to offer. But we must not cut them off. We must love them and hold on to them. Yet, we must not let them deter us either. We must sacrifice to guarantee the future ministry of this church for all who will need it in years to come.
So let us give of what God has given to us. Let us build this church! Our past is glorious. Our future is bright. Let us rise up and build this church!
I close with this parable. It is about a shepherd and some sheep. This shepherd cared about his sheep and he was good to them. He even let them express their views and opinions openly. He often had little meetings in which they could do this. On one occasion, he called all the sheep together and he said: “Our wool production is not what it ought to be this year and I would like to know what you think we can do about it.”
One of the ewes got up and said: “Well, you know the pastures haven’t been as green this year. The water hasn’t been as abundant. You can’t expect us to do the same this year as we have done in other years.”
Then one of the young rams said: “We’ve done a lot of moving around this year. There have been a lot of changes. I believe that if the flock would move more slowly and would not undertake to do so many things at one time, then things would be better. You see, we are running off all our wool. If you would take things a little more slowly then we would do better.”
Another sheep then stood up and said: “I don’t like the way they shear us. They just throw me down and take my wool away from me.” And everybody else agreed that the nature of the shearing needed some improvement.
Yet another member of the flock said: “The problem is there are too many newcomers to the flock who have come to enjoy our pasture and our water and the goodness of our shepherd. But they aren’t producing wool like the old ones did and that hurts our average.”
But the sheep who got the most applause was the one who stood up and said: “I think you’d get more wool out of the flock if you would be more careful with what you do with the wool after you get it. We just aren’t too happy with the way the wool is being used. Therefore, we are holding back in production.” There was a great roar of approval.
Then the sheep waited to hear what the shepherd would say. He was very loving. He was very tender. He was very self-sacrificing. So they expected from him a tender word of love. Instead he looked at them and said: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, whosoever shall keep his wool shall lose it and whosoever shall give up his wool for my sake will save it.”
I say to you—and believe me there is no pun intended—no man or woman, boy or girl who has ever lived has ever succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of Jesus Christ. He is our Shepherd, our Master, our Lord. If we so call Him, then we must so serve Him.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.