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“‘But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you…” - Nehemiah 1:9-11a (NLT)
We wake up this morning to a fresh, shiny year - from one day to another it’s no different, but something about a new year always compels us to evaluate, to correct, to resolve--to promise ourselves to do better, greater things.
Through the book of Nehemiah, we see a man who possesses a wildly impassioned zeal - he is dedicated to the Lord and working to bring Him glory. And it’s here, in the first chapter, that we see the foundations: Nehemiah clinging to the promises of the Lord. Today’s text reflects a structure that Nehemiah constantly follows - of recalling the Lord’s character and serving fervently because of the way He delights in that character.
When we reflect clearly on God’s truths and what He has spoken over us - freedom, redemption, rescue - we hear His heart, the passions He has given us specifically, and can serve with purpose and humility. Our ultimate joy is in who the Father is and what He’s done for us, and it’s a joy that compels us to action. The greater things we dream of can only be accomplished well when we are rooted in love and joy.
So as we put pen to fresh calendar pages and plan with high intention to resolve some habit, maybe some that are shameful or unhealthy, may we start the year and learn how to start every day with a joy deeply rooted in the Father’s truth so we may serve abundantly and outrageously.
“Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king. They replied at once, ‘Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!’ So they began the good work.” - Nehemiah 2:18 (NLT)
One of my best friends is currently living in Athens, Greece, and doing ministry with refugees and sex trafficking victims. The journey that took her there was a crazy and messy one, but watching the Lord provide in every minor detail has been astonishing. And while her story speaks glory to us here, it has perhaps even more impact in Greece, in a faith-culture that doesn’t typically think of God as someone who provides or is personally active.
Meanwhile, my ministry has been in Southland Students this semester, and I’ve watched the Lord bring purpose to my own tragic, redeemed high school experiences (we’ve all got ‘em) to speak into the lives of girls struggling with the same rejection or insecurities I did.
We all have a story. It might not cross oceans and it might not be glamorous, but there is a journey the Father is inviting each of us to, and all we have to do is to say “yes” with willing hearts and start the good work.
Nehemiah, with a burning dream in his mind, works ceaselessly to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, and each time he is questioned - from the king to these city officials - he diligently responds with a testimony of the grace of God. Faithfulness is always the story he tells.
Not every season will be the big-dream season, but every season will speak a faithfulness that we can speak to others. The “good work,” is often not the biggest and most Instagram-worthy work, but much more often it’s the in-between, and it’s worthwhile. We all have a wall to build, bricks to lay, dreams to pursue, and we can begin by seeing God’s faithfulness in our stories, inviting people into it and doing the good work.
“...so I replied by sending this message to them: ‘I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come’… They were just trying to intimidate us, imagining that they could discourage us and stop the work. So I continued the work with even greater determination.” - Nehemiah 6:3b-9 (NLT)
We tend to think of setbacks or discouragement as a bad sign on the road to whatever we’re conquering, right? Like when I’ve been told so many times to “stick with running; eventually you’ll really enjoy it!” and that day has never come. Or when we keep knocking on doors that won’t open. Or when what we desperately want ends in disappointment, again. In those moments, I’m left much more crippled than empowered; I tend to think I’ve done something wrong (okay, probably true on the running front).
Nehemiah, with no shortage of opposition and negativity pressing against him, relentlessly gives one answer: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (Neh. 6:3, MSG). His determination for the works the Lord has put before him is not swayed by lies or deceit or setbacks because he hears these voices for what they are.
God always has an agenda for us, of wholeness and redemption and joy; but Satan also has a plan. John 10:10 tells us, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” Will Satan try to trip us up? Yes, absolutely. But the only power he has is whatever we give him; ultimately, Jesus already won. We wouldn’t be attacked if we weren’t posing a threat, so opposition is a given when we are pursuing what God has called us to.
Isn’t that an empowering thought? Not only do we already have victory, but it means our deepest wounds and sins and disappointments, where we have been the most attacked, have the potential to be our greatest strengths. In the face of lies, may this give us the courage to say, “I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down.”
“The former governors, in contrast, had laid heavy burdens on the people… Even their assistants took advantage of the people. But because I feared God, I did not act in that way.” - Nehemiah 5:15 (NLT)
We’ve talked a lot about how we can learn from Nehemiah in his conviction and tenacity. In this chapter and verse, we see his character as a governor fighting to defend the oppressed. But in looking through the book as a whole, his story actually isn’t dazzling or successful; in fact, by the end of chapter 13, Nehemiah’s passion has made him aggressive and demanding. Tim Mackie, via the Bible Project, explained it this way:
“The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a realistic story of religious people who are zealous to help others see the world and God in a new way. They are full of passion and love for God, and do everything in their power to lead the Israelites into a new era of devotion to their God… and it doesn’t work… and that’s because these books aren’t offering us a list of tips to successful leadership. That’s actually the opposite of their message. In reality, they offer a sobering story of leaders who cannot bring about the full realization of their hopes and dreams, even when they tried and prayed their hardest.”
I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’ve had my own versions of that story. We can have the most passion with the best intentions, but we will never accomplish all that we dream when we don’t start with the Father’s heart in mind. What we create in striving will take more striving to maintain.
Nehemiah is in his best moments when he remembers that his ultimate goal is to fight for the oppressed and for God’s people. In the same way, when we look to God and what He’s aching for, His dreams for us and the people He’s asking us to reach, it’s no longer about us, or our success or failure or efforts. When we start with surrender - with joy and love and the Father’s heart for His children - we can be the most effective for the Kingdom.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” - John 14:12 (NLT)
Did you catch that? Jesus declared we were intended to do even greater works than He did. This guy literally raised the dead; and maybe I’m having an off week, but I have revived roughly zero dead people recently.
So what does that mean for us, practically? I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the pressure, shrugs it off and says, “Well, not me.”
But Jesus serves not just as our Savior, but as our example. And this verse isn’t about what we can accomplish; it’s about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish through us. This requires a willingness not only to surrender, but to believe in who Jesus was, what He came for, and what that means for us.
If I’m being honest, my prayer and faith tend to largely revolve around what God wants for me, my life and my future - and He cares about the intimate details of our lives, deeply. But I don’t think Jesus died for us to get that promotion or a bigger house or idyllic lifestyle - these are all beautiful blessings, but we have also been called to greater things. Do we believe we’re capable of them, that He has always wanted that adventure for us?
I think about a sermon I heard years ago, and some wisdom that stuck with me: “You have to say no to good things to say yes to great things.” We will always settle for good things if we don’t genuinely believe the Lord has GREAT things for us. That “no,” is almost always a risky one, and largely inconvenient. It might mean rearranging your schedule or leaving a job or sacrificing a comfort, but on the other side we will find the greater things - the simple abundance we are free to live in, the hurting and oppressed we are called to love, and the miraculous works the Holy Spirit has empowered us to do.