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Finding Satisfaction

I think I’ve mentioned before that when Heather & I were first married, I spent one spring working out at the Meadowbrook greenhouse just west of Penhold here. For the first two weeks of that job, when I came home from work at night, my body was sore. I was just carrying around these fairly light trays of plants, but I was using muscles that I didn’t usually use – straining them beyond their usual capabilities. But after about two weeks, I wasn’t really sore anymore. My body repaired the damage done and built up my muscles so they could handle that strain without issue.

And this is exact where this saying of “no pain – no gain” comes from. Without the pain that comes from straining your muscles, you will have no gain in strength. And so we often do this on purpose – (well, some people do). We call this exercise – or working-out. We purposely bring on this pain in our muscles so that we can grow in strength. A certain amount of pain is required if you want to gain muscle.

Well over the next few weeks, I want to use this catch phrase of ‘no pain, no gain’ as a way to remind us of what Easter is all about. At this time of year, most North Americans start thinking about eggs, bunnies, and chocolate – but of course, there is much more to Easter than that. And so over these next few weeks, I want to talk about what Easter is all about and why Easter matters. And I’ve titled this series “No Pain – No Gain.” Because this principle is true not just when it comes to our building our muscles – but it’s true when it comes to understanding the significance of Easter.

So the two big ideas I want to tackle over the next couple of weeks is the idea of pain and the idea of gain. I imagine most of you didn’t come here today to learn about body-building, so what is the ‘gain’ that we are looking for (if we’re not talking about gaining muscles) – and what is the ‘pain’ that leads to that gain? And of course, how does that all tie into Easter?

Well, let’s start by defining the ‘gain’ – that’ll be our focus for today.

And to do that, I want to start by taking a brief look in Ecclesiastes. Now Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon and for much of the book, he writes about all the things that he tried to do to find meaning in life. Now keep in mind that King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived.

Table of contents for No Pain, No Gain - Why Easter Matters

  1. Finding Satisfaction
  2. The Origin of Death
  3. The Substitute
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Engaged in a Great Work

Today we continue looking at the story of Nehemiah – and if you’ve been tracking with us for these past several weeks, I imagine you’re really starting to appreciate what an effective leader Nehemiah really was.

And you might not expect that from your average cup-bearer. It’s easy to forget that less than a year  previous to all this, Nehemiah was spending his time hanging out with the king in the comforts of the palace – sipping wine and eating snacks. As the cupbearer – that was his job – tasting food and wine before it was served to the king. It was a pretty good gig – but not really the kind of job you’d expect to springboard you into such a position of leadership.

And yet, here he is, heading up this huge project in Jerusalem – facing all kinds of opposition from the enemies around him, dealing with one crisis after another. And so far, he seems to be doing a pretty fantastic job.

It’s always interesting how God throws these little curveballs into our lives. He takes us from our comfortable, predicable life, and he leads us into the wild unknown. And most of the time, we feel completely under-qualified to do whatever it is that God’s called us to do. We should be the last one God chooses to do this – and yet God chooses us anyway.

I imagine that Nehemiah felt that way quite often – completely under-qualified to be the guy in charge of this huge project. Perhaps that’s why he spent 4 months in prayer before even bring up the idea to the king – perhaps he was wrestling with God – “Why me, God? I’m just a cup-bearer. Isn’t there someone else more qualified for this job?”

But, as we’ve seen so far, God knew what He was doing in choosing Nehemiah. Even though he wasn’t an engineer – the wall and the gates were quickly being repaired. Even through he wasn’t an army general – the people were safe from the attacks of the enemy. Even though he wasn’t an economics expert, he averted a major financial crisis.

It is clear that Nehemiah was the exact right person for the job that God called him to do. And I hope thats an encouragement to you this morning. God doesn’t make mistakes.

When God throws you a curve ball and you feel completely under-qualified for the task that lies ahead, know that you are the exact right person for the job that God has called you to do. You might not realize it, but He’s prepared you for this through all the things that you’ve experienced already – and He’s promised to stick right beside you as you go through this new challenge.

It’s ok for us to be under-qualified to do whatever God’s called us to do – because God is completely over-qualified to do it. He doesn’t even need us – but he chooses to work through us – giving us purpose and fulfillment and bringing glory to Himself.

And that’s what we’ve seen so far in this story. Nehemiah may not be the most qualified, but God is definitely working through Him to accomplish great things for God’s glory. In fact, today we find out that the project is nearly complete. The people have been working hard and with enthusiasm – their enemies haven’t been able to slow them down or discourage them – and now the walls have been repaired and all that’s left to do is to setup all the gates.

Now of course, their enemies haven’t given up either. It seems that everyone in this story is pretty persistent – good guys and bad guys alike. They’ve not yet run out of creative ways to hinder the work, and so we’re going to see a few more attempts in this chapter. So let’s take a look. Here’s what it says in Nehemiah chapter 6 – starting at verse 1.

Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet set up the doors in the gates. 2 So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono. Nehemiah 6:1-2a

Now at first glance, this doesn’t seem to be all that threatening. In fact, this could be seen as a gesture of goodwill. The plain of Ono was located northeast of Jerusalem – kinda half-way between Jerusalem and Samaria. And as such, it would be like the neutral zone between these two disagreeing parties. It was like these guys were inviting Nehemiah to come and meet them for peace talks in this neutral territory. We see that sort of thing today when all the world leaders meet in some neutral country to discuss peace treaties and trades disputes and all that other good stuff.

In fact, if this story were to happen today, we would read something like “So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the ski resorts in Swiss Alps.”

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The Generosity of God

The main theme in the story of Nehemiah is of course, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. We’ve talked about this for several weeks now so I’m not going to rehash all that. But this morning our story takes a short pause and it goes down a little rabbit trail. Now I’ll admit, that quite often we go down these little rabbit trails primarily because my mind has all these random thoughts that don’t always have anything to do with the main point – but our rabbit trail today isn’t even my fault. This one is written right into the pages of Scripture.

For the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about some of the challenges that Nehemiah has had to face as he rallies the people of Israel to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. I mean, it was a challenge for Nehemiah just to get permission from King Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. The job itself was a huge challenge with about 4 km of massive walls to repair and rebuild. It was a challenge to keep the people motivated and excited about the project when – especially when their enemies were making fun of them and mocking their efforts. It was an even greater challenge to keep the people safe as their enemies ramped up their opposition and resorted to physical threats and violence.

But today, we’re going to read about another challenge that Nehemiah faced. And this one came from within the walls – right from the Israelites themselves. And I say it’s a rabbit trail because it’s not directly related to the rebuilding of the wall – it’s almost like a little sidenote – but it certain has the potential to derail the whole project.

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The Reality of Discouragement

dis·cour·age·ment

noun

  1. a loss of confidence or enthusiasm; dispiritedness.
  2. an attempt to prevent something by showing disapproval or creating difficulties; deterrent.

How many of you are familiar with this word? I’m pretty sure we all are. And not just linguistically. We are intimately familiar with this word in our lives.

Discouragement is a reality that we all face. When our plans don’t turn out how we hope – or when unexpected problems arise – or when others do or say things that steal our joy and cause us to question why we’re even doing this – discouragement can set in.

We get discouraged at our workplace or when that pile of laundry or dishes never goes away. As kids, we get discouraged at school when we struggle with academics or when our friends are being jerks. We get discouraged as parents when our kids just don’t get it and they keep making poor choices. We get discouraged when we struggle with health or emotional problems or when our relationships are strained. We get discouraged when we pay our bills or when the car won’t start or whatever it is!

I think most of us face discouragement nearly every day of our lives.

So what do we do when that happens? How do we deal with discouragement? It’s easy to throw up our hands and say “I give up! I’m not doing this anymore.” Or maybe we get angry – at people or circumstances – ourselves – or even at God. Somebody’s got to take the blame – right?

How do we deal with discouragement?

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The One True God of Nehemiah

This morning we continue looking at the story of Nehemiah. And if, by chance, you’ve missed the last couple of weeks, let me try to quickly catch you up.

The story of Nehemiah takes place roughly around 450 BC. It’s one of the last stories in the Old Testament (chronologically speaking) before we pick it up the storyline again around 400 years later in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus.

So Israel has already had a lot of history by this point. Way back 1000 years before Nehemiah, God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and had established them as his own special nation. They were to be a holy people – set apart from all the other people of the world – as God’s special representatives. Of course, they didn’t always do very well at that. Although there were some people and some eras where the Israelites did follow God wholeheartedly, as we look at their history as a whole, we find they often disregarded God’s instructions – worshipping other gods and really, just acting like every other nation around them.

Now when God had first chosen them as his own special people – God promised that if they were to follow Him, He would bless them beyond their wildest imaginations. (And in those times when they did follow God, we see God doing exactly that.) But God also promised that if they choose to follow other gods, then God would remove his blessings and would in fact, remove them from the land that he was giving them. They would be destroyed and exiled into other nations. And this too, is what we see happening. After years of the Israelites chasing after other gods, God finally removed the Israelites from their land. The northern part of the kingdom was conquer by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern part of the kingdom (including Jerusalem) was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC.

For the next 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Israelites lived in exile in Babylon. But during their time in exile, it seems they learned their lesson. The repented of their sin and turned again back to God – and so, God began to restore them to their land. The first set of exiles returned to reestablish themselves around Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Another group returned about 80 years after that under Ezra. About 13 years after that, we meet Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was a Jew who was still living in exile – he was actually the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia – which made him a rather prominent person in the king’s court. He was one of King most trusted companions.

But when Nehemiah heard the reports that the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem were still living among the ruins of Jerusalem – God stirred Nehemiah’s heart to do something about that. It was not right that 150 years after it’s destruction, that Jerusalem still lay in ruins.

Centuries ago, Jerusalem was the centre of the nation. God had chosen Jerusalem as the location of his temple – it was the symbol of God’s presence among his people. And now, for the city to lay in ruins – it was a bitter reminder of Israelite’s failure to be God’s holy people. But now that God had given them a second chance, and they had returned to Jerusalem, now was time to rebuild the city and once again live as God’s holy people in God’s holy city. So after 4 months of prayer and fasting before God, Nehemiah asked the king to allow him to go to Jerusalem to rebuilt the city.

Now this was a little scary – since the king had early declared that Jerusalem was not to be rebuilt except at his express command. Nehemiah notes that he was terrified to bring this up to the king, but because he was convinced that this was what God wanted him to do – he did it.

Well, God moved the heart of the king to grant Nehemiah his request. And actually, the king sent him on his way with royal letters granting Nehemiah permission to travel through the empire and to acquire wood from the royal forest for the project. And, as we’re going to see in just a minute, the king also sent along a regiment of soldiers and horsemen for Nehemiah’s protection along the way.

All of this happened because, as we read in chapter 2, verse 8, the gracious hand of God was on Nehemiah. And it’s a good thing too, because the challenges that Nehemiah was about to face were  about to start coming fast and furious.

So we’re going to start reading right where we left off last week. So if you want to follow along in your own Bibles, we’re going to be in Nehemiah chapter 2 – starting at verse 9.

9 When I came to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, I delivered the king’s letters to them. The king, I should add, had sent along army officers and horsemen to protect me. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel.

Nehemiah 2:9-10

Right out of the gate, here is our first challenge facing Nehemiah. Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official were not happy that Nehemiah had come to help the people of Israel. Why? Probably the main reason was that a strong Jerusalem would weaken their own political positions.

Both men ruled the areas around Jerusalem. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria to the north (we’ll learn that in chapter 4 – and Tobiah ruled the Ammonites to the east.) Interestingly, Tobiah is actually a Jewish name. So it seems that Tobiah, although not a full-blooded Israelite himself, at least had some Israelite heritage in his ancestry. And that will actually come up again, at the end of the chapter, so we’ll revisit these two guys again when we get there.

But for now, let’s keep reading. Verse 11.

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Praying to a Sovereign God

When we left Nehemiah last Sunday – he was weeping and mourning and fasting and praying to God because he heard about the terrible state of his countrymen back in Jerusalem. After many years of exile in Babylon, some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, but the city was still in ruins. The walls had been torn down and the gates had been destroyed nearly 150 years ago – and they had still not yet been repaired.

And this broke Nehemiah’s heart. It was bad enough that the Israelites were living in the ruins, but this was Jerusalem! Jerusalem was the city where God had chosen to make his name known. This was the city where the temple of God was. This city was a symbol to the world that the Israelites were God’s special, chosen people. But now – Jerusalem lay in ruins. Now it was a sorry reminder that the Israelites had abandoned God – and as a results, it seemed that God had abandoned them.

But God hadn’t abandoned them. Yes, he allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sin, but He never abandoned them. In fact, when they repented and returned to him, God was eager to forgive them and to restored them to their land.

And Nehemiah was convinced that God didn’t want them to go back to Jerusalem just to live in the ruins. God wanted them to rebuild. To start anew and to flourish! Nehemiah no doubt was familiar with God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah – given when the Israelites first went into exile:

10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:10-14

Jeremiah and Nehemiah understood that God was not yet finished with Israel. He had good plans for them – plans to give them a future and a hope.

And by the way, God promises to deal with us the same way. Even though we seem to do a fantastic job of messing up our lives and ignoring God and we end up suffering the consequences of our sin – even then, God is eager to forgive us and to restore us. He’s just waiting for us to turn to Him and repent. If we do that, God will carry out his plans to give us a future and a hope. He doesn’t want us to live in the ruins.

Now for Nehemiah – he wasn’t the one living in the ruins. He was living in the presence of the king as the royal cup-bearer – which as we learned last week, was actually a pretty prominent position. The cup-bearer for the king would have been one of the king’s most trusted and loyal companions – since, as the one who tasted the king’s food and drink and safe-guarded it against poison, the king had to trust him with his very life. Because of that, Nehemiah, I’m sure, was well-taken care of.

Yet, as soon as Nehemiah heard the report of how bad things were for the Israelites back in Jerusalem, Nehemiah began to weep and mourn.

Usually we weep and mourn about the bad things that are happening to us – but Nehemiah had such a heart of compassion and empathy for his fellow Israelites, that for days he wept and mourned for them.

And I don’t know how that impacts you, but it sure convicts me! My own lack of weeping and mourning for others sure makes me consider how much (or how little) I care about the people around me who are suffering and hurting. And that was kinda how we ended last Sunday – asking God to soften our hard hearts, so that like Nehemiah, we might not only weep and mourn for others – but that our concern for them would drive us to do something about their situation.

Because that’s exactly what Nehemiah did. Today as we continue to look at the life of Nehemiah, we’re going to see how he doesn’t just feel bad for the Israelites – he actually begins to take action.

So let’s continue by looking at Nehemiah chapter 2 verse 1 through 3.

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