I want to begin this morning by asking a question – How many of you feel that life turned out to be just as easy as you thought it would?  You see, I think, most of us, when we’re young, think that life is going to be like a beautiful day at the beach.  We get there and the weather’s perfect, warm but not too hot.  And if you have kids, they’re all well-behaved, all of them listen and do what they’re supposed to do.  Throughout the day, nobody gets a sunburn and you just enjoy your time together and you go home singing songs together in the car.  It’s just a perfect day. 

            And we all think that life is going to be like that.  We’re going to get accepted into whatever school we apply for and we’re going to find the woman of our dreams, have an amazing marriage, buy the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood, we’ll climb up the career ladder with promotions every few years.  We’re going to have two well-behaved perfectly obedient respectful children, we’ll have a dog that never pees on the carpet.  And then as we get older, we’ll have grandkids and all the family will live in the same town so that we can enjoy family dinners together and then send them all home when you’re done with them.  In your fifties, you’ll travel the world, and then when your time is done, you’re going to die peacefully in your sleep, not ever having experienced any real pain or suffering in your life.  Everything’s going to go as planned.

            But, of course, we all know that that’s not the kind of day at the beach that life actually brings.  It’s really more like this (video). 

            That’s the reality of life in this world.  We plan for things to be one way in life and then not just one wave but wave after wave after wave comes to knock you down.  Maybe you never do find that perfect spouse and you end up single in your 40’s.  Or maybe you get that marriage but it hasn’t turned out quite the way you thought it would, and it’s been rough, or maybe it’s even ended in divorce.  And you planned to have these perfect kids, but you’re dealing with infertility or miscarriage and you’re experiencing the grief and the pain that goes with that.  Or maybe you have kids but it’s a constant struggle with them, either physically or educationally or maybe they’re just prodigals, running from you and they’re running from the Lord, and as a parent your home doesn’t have the joys you thought it would.  And that job that you thought was going to be so perfect, now you’re unemployed, struggling just to find something.  And so instead of retiring in your 50’s and traveling the world, chronic illness has slowed you down.  And instead of getting easier, life just gets harder and harder and harder.

            Which brings me to my topic this morning – perseverance.  Because, you see, what I’m noticed is that most of us can handle the difficulties of life as long as it’s not too hard for too long.  We can handle the physical pain that we experience, but when that pain goes on for weeks or months or years, it gets to be unbearable.  We can deal with the inconveniences of COVID for a while, but when it goes on for weeks or months or years, it gets to be unbearable.  We can deal with people who say hurtful things to us and we can shrug it off, but when it goes on for weeks or months or years, it gets to be unbearable. 

            And the only thing that gets us through those moments is perseverance.  The Japanese have a proverb that says, “Fall down seven times, and get up eight.”  Persevere.  But sometimes it feels like it’s not seven times, but seventy times seven.

            There’s something else I’ve noticed about dealing with hardship.  It can be especially difficult if you get through one hardship only to have to turn around and deal with it again a short while later.  I think about the disciples of Jesus, how painful it must have been to have Jesus taken away from them when he died on the cross.  And the pain must have been unbearable until the third day when Jesus rose from the dead.  And then their pain was replaced with great excitement.  Which lasted exactly 40 days, and then Jesus was taken away from them again as he ascended back to his Father.  I wonder what the mood was like when the disciples met together, having to deal with the fact once again that they were going have to learn how to deal with life without Jesus.

            We see this in cancer patients.  They pour everything they have— physically and emotionally — into getting rid of the cancer, and then when it goes into remission, they breathe a sigh of relief.  But if there’s a recurrence of the cancer, it can be even harder to deal with.  I think we’ve experienced this as a church because we felt like we got through the difficult days of COVID and things were finally getting back to normal only to have things get set back once again.  Recognizing that there will always be ups and downs reminds us that we all need the quality of perseverance, the ability to hang in there.

            There’s something else that I saw this past week that made me aware of how much we need perseverance in our lives.  It was a news segment on TV that greatly disturbed me.  In fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and what it could mean to us somewhere down the road.

            In Durham, there’s a church called the Pioneers Church which made the commitment to move into a location in Durham where they could connect with low-income people and help them to turn their lives around.            Their goal is to operate a coffeehouse throughout the week, a place to meet people and connect with people, and then have the church meet on the premises on Sundays.  It sounds very much like they have the same commitment that we have here at Cruciform in this community – to share the love of Jesus in a way that blesses the community and draws people to God.

            But there were some people in Durham who were opposed to this church coming into their community.  Because on the church’s website, the minister says, “I, personally, hold an interpretation of scripture that Christian marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman and believe that sexual intimacy has the potential to be at its healthiest in that context.”  The LBGTQ community immediately began attacking that church.  They insisted that the church leave that location and insisted that the landlord cancel his lease with the church.  As of this moment, there are nearly 7500 people who have signed this petition to kick the church out of their neighborhood,

            As I listened to that news report, I thought about how fortunate we are here at Cruciform because our efforts to share the love of Jesus have been appreciated by this community.  But, I can’t help but wonder, how would we respond if the people in our community suddenly decided to turn against us?  How easy would it be for us to keep doing what we’re doing in the midst of such hatred and animosity?  And I wonder, are we prepared to continue to be faithful to our Lord even in the midst of persecution?

            This morning, I want us to take a look at the story of Nehemiah and the Jews as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.  First, let me fill you in on some of the back story.  Because of their unfaithfulness, the Jews were carried away into Babylonian captivity for 70 years, and then they were allowed to return home in stages to Jerusalem.

            But when the first captives returned home, they found a city that was in ruins.  The temple was destroyed, their homes were destroyed, the walls were destroyed.  They needed leaders who would help them get things back on track, and Nehemiah was one of those leaders.  He prayed to God, he gathered building materials, and then he went to Jerusalem to help the people rebuild their city walls. 

            Fortunately, according to Nehemiah 4:6, “The people had a mind to work.”  And they worked hard.  Some of them worked on rebuilding the Sheep Gate.  Some of them worked on rebuilding the Fish Gate.  They worked on the wall, section by section.  There are hundreds of people mentioned in chapter 3, working side by side, getting the job done.

            But, one of the things the Jews had to deal with was opposition from their enemies.  Because, while they were trying to do what was right, what God wanted them to do, their enemies did everything they could to make them quit.

            There’s one thing we can be sure of — if you are really trying to live faithfully as a child of God, if we are trying to live faithfully as God’s people here in this community, opposition will come. That’s what Jesus said.  We’ll get into that in just a little bit.

            But one of the questions I want us to consider this morning is this — How do we, as the people of God, respond to opposition in our lives? 

            And by opposition, I mean this — opposition is anything or anyone that threatens your perseverance in the faith or your work of ministry, anything that tempts you to give up doing what God wants you to do.

            Now it’s important for us to see opposition not as something that gets in the way of us doing what we want to do, but something that gets in the way of what God wants for us to do, that gets in the way of us living faithfully for Jesus Christ. 

            The opposition in Nehemiah begins in chapter 2:  “So they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’  Then they set their hands to this good work.  But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they laughed at us and despised us, and said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?’” (Nehemiah 2:18-19)

            In chapter 4, these troublemakers show up again.  “But it so happened, when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, that he was furious and very indignant, and mocked the Jews.  And he spoke before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing?  Will they fortify themselves?  Will they offer sacrifices?  Will they complete it in a day?  Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish—stones that are burned?’” (Nehemiah 4:1-2)

            Here’s Sanballat, with his posse gathered around him, mocking the Jews.  “You guys don’t have the ability to do this!  This is a big project.  You don’t know what you’ve taken on.  You’ll never be able to accomplish your goal.”

            Then in verse 3, Sanballat’s little buddy speaks up.  I don’t know how you read this, but I see Sanballat as sort a schoolyard bully.  He’s the guy who’s more vocal and then there’s this little guy tagging along, Tobiah, and he says, 

            “Whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall.” (Nehemiah 4:3).  “Yeah, even if you do get your little wall built, it’s gonna be a lousy wall.  All it will take is one little fox jumping on it, and it’s going to come crashing down!” 

            These guys sound like a couple of middle school students, don’t they?   But this sarcastic mockery can be discouraging.  And we see God’s enemies doing this throughout history.  We see it when Jesus was crucified.  Remember what everybody around the cross was saying?  “You said you were going to rebuild the temple in three days.  If you’re so great and powerful, come on down.  You saved other people, but you can’t save yourself, can you?  You think you’re the King of Israel?  You don’t look much like a king.  You trusted in God.  Let’s see what God will do for you now.”

            And we still have to deal with that kind of sarcastic mocking.  Kevin Thompson has said, “Mocking Christianity is the latest American sport.  Everywhere one looks, there are articles espousing the evils of faith, laughing at the irrationality of belief, and belittling Christian thought.” (“When It’s Cool to Mock Christianity”),

            And, folks, we are experiencing more and more of that.  Our children are facing more of that sarcastic mocking than what those of us who are older faced when we were kids.  When we were kids, almost everybody went to church, and everybody at least respected the Christian viewpoint.  That’s not the case anymore. 

            So if you don’t fill your life with all sorts of materialistic “stuff”, or if you say you believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, or that it’s wrong to have any kind of sex outside of marriage, don’t be surprised if Sanballat and Tobiah show up to make fun of you and tell you how stupid you are.

            Opposition can come into our lives in a variety of ways.  So let me ask you to give some thought to this question – what is it that’s tempting you or threatening your faith and your perseverance in the will of God?  What is it that may be causing you to consider quitting?

            Maybe it’s a bad relationship with a coworker or your supervisor on the job.  Maybe it’s a lingering sickness in your body or in the body of someone you love.  Maybe it’s tension with a particular person in your circle of friends or struggles in your marriage or within your family.  

            Maybe it’s your teacher who discourages you and tells you, because of your views about Christ, you’re a close-minded bigot.  Maybe it’s fear of your peers and what they think about you, the constant fear of whether or not you’re going to be accepted.  

            Whatever it is that threatens your perseverance in the faith, whatever it is that hinders your ability to be faithful to what God has asked you to be as a Christian, the important question we all need to ask ourselves is this — How should we respond to opposition? 

            Let’s see how Nehemiah and the Jews responded.  In verse 4, Nehemiah starts by calling out to God.

            “Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads, and give them as plunder to a land of captivity!  Do not cover their iniquity, and do not let their sin be blotted out from before You; for they have provoked You to anger before the builders.” (Nehemiah 4:4-5)

            Nehemiah’s first response to opposition is to start praying.  And in that prayer, he basically says, “God, you deal with this.  These guys are a thorn in our side, and we would like for you to take care of it for us.”

            Then in verse 6, “So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” (Nehemiah 4:6)

            I love that!  Their response to criticism was to ignore it and to keep on working.  Nehemiah didn’t get into a shouting match with Sanballat.  He prayed to God, and then they got back to work.  Nehemiah didn’t allow himself to get distracted by the opposition and the taunting and the mocking.  Let me tell you one of the reasons I think he didn’t.

            This is conjecture on my part, but I think one of the reasons Nehemiah didn’t get distracted when opposition came is that he actually expected it, which, incidentally, is (I think) one of the reasons that you and I often do get distracted when opposition comes.  We live our lives as if we don’t expect opposition.

            Maybe mentally we know it’s possible, but the reality is, we just don’t expect it.  And because we don’t expect it, when it does come, our world falls apart.  So instead of responding like Nehemiah with prayer and getting back to work, the way we often respond to opposition is with anger, despair, fear, anxiety, hopelessness.  Opposition comes and our world begins to crumble, and our faith begins to flounder, and what that tells me is that we didn’t really expect it.

            But, as Christians who are trying to live faithfully in a culture that’s increasingly hostile toward us, we need to expect opposition.  Jesus himself said, “If I’m your Lord and they’ve done this to me, they’ve treated me like this, how in the world do you think they’re going to treat you?  Do you think they’re going to treat you better than they treated me?  No.”  

            That’s my paraphrase of John 15.  What Jesus was trying to do for his disciples was to prepare them for what it means to follow him. He said, “This is a sinful world, and until I return, things are not going to be easy.  So, you just need to expect it.”

            Paul Tripp has written a book for married people called “What Did You Expect?”  And the point of the title is this — “Of course there’s conflict in your marriage. What did you expect?”  But, the problem is, many people don’t expect for there to be conflict in their marriage.  Many people don’t go through premarital counseling; they don’t think about some of these underlying issues that are going to surface.  And, as a result, when they experience conflict, that conflict leads to discouragement.  It leads to frustration.  It leads to more conflict.  And ultimately it can lead to divorce.

            One of the things I do in premarital counseling is to make sure couples know, “You are going to argue about this…and this…and this.”  My purpose is not to discourage them, but to prepare them.  Because if you know that problems are going to come, then when they come, you can say, “I expected this.  This is not going to destroy my marriage.  I can deal with this.”  But if you aren’t expecting those times of conflict, it can destroy a marriage.

            It’s the same way with our Christian faith.  If we know that opposition is going to come, we can say, “I expected this.  This is not going to destroy my faith, I can deal with this.”  But if you aren’t expecting that opposition, it can destroy your faith. 

            And it may be that some of you are in that place right now. You’re deeply discouraged because things have gone wrong in your life and you didn’t expect it.  And it’s hard for you to understand how that fits in with God’s faithfulness.  So maybe, as a result, you assume that God doesn’t love you or that he has some bad intention for your life, but nothing could be further from the truth.

            I want you to see that when opposition came, it did not discourage Nehemiah.  I love the next verses, because notice this.  The opposition came. Nehemiah and the people prayed and they got back to work, and then everything got better.  Right?  Wrong.  That’s not how it happened. They prayed, they got back to work, they remained faithful to God, and do you know what happened next? It actually got a lot worse.  Starting in verse 7.

            “Now it happened, when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were being restored and the gaps were beginning to be closed, that they became very angry, and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion.” (Nehemiah 4:7-8)

            So now things have moved from just mocking and jeering to they’re actually plotting together to come and fight against Jerusalem.

            Sometimes we’re tempted to walk away from God, not because we don’t expect opposition to come, but because when it comes, we expect for it to go away faster than it does. In other words, it’s not actually the opposition that threatens our faith; it’s the opposition that stays against us that threatens our faith.

            And again, some of you may be in that category this morning. It’s not that you didn’t expect for the opposition to come in your life.  It’s that you didn’t expect for it to last as long as it has. 

            As I suggested earlier, even those who are most mature in faith are tempted to crumble underneath the weight of extended opposition.  There are sicknesses in people’s bodies that just haven’t gone away. They’ve prayed about it, they’ve gone and seen doctors, and it hasn’t gotten better; maybe it’s gotten worse.

            Unemployment that has remained (not just a day or a week, maybe even a year of unemployment), separation from spouses that have remained unreconciled even though one spouse is doing everything possible to pull things back together, dealing with teenagers who seem like they’re just never going to get it, friendships and relationships with your family that are still not mended despite years of prayer and efforts to reconcile. 

            The longer that opposition sticks around, the tougher it gets.  And the tougher it is to remain faithful to God.

            The problem is this — we’re used to living under the illusion that we can do things by our own strength and that we are in control.  And so, when opposition comes into our lives, we grit our teeth, we buckle up.  And we can often control our situation to such a degree that we don’t have to actually depend on God.  We can fix it ourselves, or at least we can tolerate it.

            But when we get thrown into situations where we get disoriented and the problem doesn’t go away, our strength eventually runs out, and the degree to which we’re walking by our own strength is exposed.

            But, it’s at that moment, when we come to the end of ourselves, it’s in that moment that God teaches us to depend on him.  The sad thing is, it’s right when we get to that point that many people decide to just run away from their faith or their marriage or their responsibilities as a church member or whatever circumstance is bothering them.

            But, it’s right in that moment where we’re finally broken, where we’re finally at the end of ourselves, that God intends to show us how he wants to lead us and guide us.  But we’re inclined to bail because we don’t have control anymore, because we can’t be independent anymore and that’s what we really want.

            A second problem is this.  What inevitably begins to happen, if we’re not careful, is when we have opposition that stays with us for an extended period of time, getting rid of the opposition actually becomes the focus and the pursuit of our hearts.

            The pain of what we’re going through can be so excruciating that it shifts our focus away from the Lord and onto the pain.  And when that happens, getting rid of that pain, getting rid of that despair, actually becomes our goal in life.

            And what’s sad is that many of us fail to realize that although God is not unconcerned with our pain and discomfort, he is much more concerned with teaching us to trust him through our pain than he is with taking it away.  But we’re so focused on God taking away the pain, we don’t hear that.  We don’t see that.  And because we don’t, we despair.

            The whole time God is saying, “My child, you know what life is really about, don’t you?  It’s about me conforming you to the image of my Son.  And the pain that you are going through is going to teach you something about what it’s like to be my Son.  And by the way, my Son knows what pain feels like. So run to him.  Don’t run to the obliteration of discomfort as your god.  That’s not your refuge. Your refuge is in me.”

            Sometimes that pain remains, like it did for Nehemiah, like it did for Jesus, like it does for many of you, but it’s not because God is angry at you; it’s because he loves you. Some of you, I know the opposition in your life has just stayed there for so long.  That cloud has stayed over your life, over those circumstances, over those relationships, so even here this morning you’re just so beaten down by it.  You’re just done, and you’re doing everything you can to fix it yourself.  But, of course you can’t, because you’re not in control.

            So maybe this morning the Lord needs to whisper to your heart, “Just trust me. Quit trying to get rid of this, and just trust me through it. Just hold on to me,” and my prayer this morning is that  you can all find the encouragement to keep going.

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