Scripture: Nehemiah 2:1-20
The Vasa was the most advanced and heavily armed ship in the world. On August 10th, 1628 when it embarked on its maiden voyage it was to be a message to the world that Sweden was now a true world power. The Vasa was to be the firm foundation upon which Sweden would establish naval dominance of the European waters. The Vasa was the brainchild of Sweden’s regent King Gustavus Adolphus. For over a decade he had been a fairly successful king. Starting with his predecessor, Sweden had begun to move from being an obscure European backwater to a major continental power in the 17th century. While England, Spain, and France bickered for control of the New World, Sweden had quietly carved out an empire in the old one conquering what is now modern day Finland, Estonia, and other Baltic regions. The Vasa was the first step in the next phase of the king’s grand plans for building a worldwide Swedish empire, and it was built for the part. Large warships of the era were often equipped with around fifty cannons but the Vasa was designed to hold seventy two. Not only was the Vasa a formidable warship it was designed to look the part of a national flagship. The Vasa was covered with 500 unique sculptures that adorned the hull. An example of these sculptures, all carved in wood, were twenty little statues representing twenty different Roman Emperors that lined the beak head of the ship. A team of six expert sculptors with a legion of assistants and apprentices spent six years working on all of this adoration. King Gustavus was personally involved in the entire process of building the ship.
The Vasa launched on its maiden voyage with much fanfare. It was a beautiful day with light winds and hundreds, possibly thousands of people came out to watch the new national flagship of Sweden unfurl its sails and disembark in all of her glory. It turned out this crowd would be the only people to see the Vasa at sail, because the boat sank: On its maiden voyage, hundreds of yards from shore. The cause of this disaster was the wind. The Vasa was a sailboat that apparently could not handle gusts of wind. It turns out the Vasa was built with a center of gravity that was too high and gun ports that were too low. This meant that a wind gust rocked the boat a bit too much to one side, and when it did sea water rushed into the lower gun ports. This caused the boat to list, ride lower in the water, and take in more water. It did not take long for the Vasa to sink.
The Vasa was designed to be the most advanced and deadly warship in existence. It was armed with more guns than any ship its size at that point in history. It was a national flagship and it was absolutely decorated to look the part. However, as soon as this ship of the line encountered something stronger than a light breeze it was foundered and lost to the depths. The Vasa of course was a national disaster and embarrassment. A lot of the blame for the absolute failure of the Vasa can be put at the feet of King Gustavus. He was the sole person who oversaw and controlled the project. It turns out that being a competent ruler does not qualify someone to weigh in on ship design and construction.
King Gustavus is remembered as a religious man, so it is unfortunate that he did not pull lessons from the bible that could have informed his project management and possibly saved his mighty flagship. The story of Nehemiah is one about undertaking a large building project and had Gustavus studied this story, he could have learned that when it comes to doing something big worth doing it is not something we should do alone.
Nehemiah is a book in the bible that is a bit off the beaten path for us. In the lectionary, the three year scripture reading cycle that many churches use for the weekly scripture readings, Nehemiah only occurs once. Given how little we encounter this book of the bible some background is needed. Nehemiah and its companion book Ezra tell of the Israelite’s return to the promised land from exile. After generations of warnings from prophets, the Israelites did not listen to God and continued in idolatry and injustice. In judgement Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, leveled the temple, burned the city, and hauled the people off into exile. For seventy years God’s chosen people suffered in exile. During that time there was a regime change, and the new Persian rulers relented and allowed the Israelites to return to the ancestral land. First Ezra led to the rebuilding of the temple, and then Nehemiah came to oversee the rebuilding of the city’s walls.
As we read in this morning’s scripture Jerusalem is in ruins. Some of the rubble and destruction from two generations ago remained. Walls around ancient cities were a form of defense, but this was about more than a defensive wall. Cities had walls, villages and hamlets did not. Rebuilding the wall was more than a practical defensive action, it was a symbol. It was a symbol that Jerusalem, God’s holy city, was restored. It was a symbol that a fallen people had been redeemed. It was a symbol that God was still with God’s people. The scripture we read this morning sets the stage for the rebuilding of the wall. If we continue reading Nehemiah, that is exactly what happens. Normally it takes years to complete a city wall. Now the ancient Israelites were not starting from scratch and they were able to reuse some materials, but the book of Nehemiah records that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in a miraculous fifty two days.
Rebuilding the wall was symbolic but it was also important. It did reestablish Jerusalem as the heart of Judaic worship. It allowed the city to be re-settled and it was a necessary step that created the second temple period that existed during the time of Jesus. It was a large project that made a real and necessary difference. When it comes to undertaking projects that have the potential to transform the world, the story of Nehemiah gives us three major guiding principles.
First Nehemiah lifts up the importance of prayer. One of the literary characteristics of Nehemiah is the way that it features prayer. The entire first chapter of Nehemiah is a prayer. We see in this morning’s scripture reading Nehemiah’s reliance on prayer. In the scripture we read Nehemiah makes his big ask to King Artaxerxes to restore the wall. Verse four records right before he did this he prayed to the God of heaven. This is a common theme we see throughout the book of Nehemiah. Prayer is not a magic spell. We do not just say certain words and then conjure what we want. Prayer is seeking God, it is a reliance on God. Seeking God’s help in prayer is an acknowledgement that we are not going to do this thing, but we believe that with God all things are possible. We should not pray as a back-up insurance policy to ensure our plans are successful. In prayer we should be surrendering our plans to God, and seeking God’s will not our own. Prayer is not about invoking God’s power, it is about seeking God and relying on God.
The second major guiding principle is to then actually rely on God to show up. Again, we see this in this morning’s scripture. Nehemiah makes his ask, and verse 8 records “and because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.” We continue to see Nehemiah’s confidence in God. Towards the end of this morning’s scripture reading we are introduced to Sanballat the Horonite, Tobia the Ammorite official and Geshem the Arab. These three oppose Nehemiah’s work. They challenge him and try to intimidate him. Nehemaiah answers them in faith in verse 20 by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success.” Part of relying on God is to trust that God is faithful. Jesus himself said something similar in Matthew 17:20 “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, Move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
The third major guiding principle, the one that King Gustavus could have learned from, is that we do not need to do the work alone. Our scripture reading this morning was the second chapter of Nehemiah, but if we continue into chapter three they actually start rebuilding. Chapter three goes section by section with how the walls were built. Here is an example from 3:23-5: “The fish gate was rebuilt by the son of Hassenaah, They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Meremoth son of Uriah repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs.”
The entire chapter continues on like this. It gives the name of someone and then continues, next to him. The wall was not rebuilt by one person. This was more a passion, vanity project of Nehemiah’s. He was not a lone ranger responsible for being the sole hero. He had his part to play, but so did everyone else. As followers of Jesus, we are by design, meant to be in community. When Jesus sent his followers out to do ministry he sent them in groups, not alone. When it comes to transforming this world and building God’s kingdom we are not meant to go alone. Yes, we might have a specific job to do but next to us should be another member of the family of God as we work together to accomplish the great mission of the church.
Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of the ways that we seek to fulfill this mission is through our outreach ministries. These ministries seek to share the love of Jesus Christ by meeting the needs in our community. Kid’s closet provides necessary clothing and school supplies to families. The food pantry provides food for those who need it. These ministries are concrete ways that we can build the kingdom of God. It is a way that we as a church, a community of faith, can declare to our neighbors we see you, we care for you, and we will help you without judgement. It is my sincere conviction that these ministries are rooted in prayer and an absolute reliance on God. It is also my belief that these ministries, the ways that our church family is the hands and feet of Christ in the world is not supposed to be the work of just a few. We all have a part to fulfill as we stand next to each other engaging in the work of God. Some people are able to be the boots on the ground distributing food and clothing. Others can provide support behind the scenes, and those who cannot support the ministry with their presence can support it with their gifts, their prayers, and their witness. Our current outreach ministries are not the only ways we can take part in building God’s kingdom here. Perhaps there is another way we can serve our community that we are not yet doing, and perhaps you are the person to be the Nehemiah, the leader, for that project. If through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God has put a grand project on your heart then let’s have that conversation and we will see who else will work next to you.
As you have likely read and heard, we as a church are ready to take a step forward with the purchase of the outreach building. This project is not quite as big as rebuilding the city walls, but it is still a step out on faith. It is a strategic investment in the continued work of meeting needs, changing lives, sharing God’s love, making disciples, and transforming our world. We all have our role to play and I look forward to standing next to you as we join with God in building God’s kingdom here.