Message presented by Dr. Stephen Grcevich at Sunday Worship, Linwood Park, Vermilion OH, August 9, 2015
Good morning…I’m honored Hu invited me to share with you today. I’m Steve Grcevich, and in addition to the neat things Hu shared with you about our work at Key Ministry, I’m in my thirtieth year as a physician and my 25th year as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
I’m aware that Hu has been leading you through a summer-long series on faith, family and friendship. My day job affords me “floor seats” to see the walking wounded among our kids and families up close and personal. We find ourselves in the midst of a culture war…a war for the hearts of men and women that has raged since the beginning of time…a war that will rage until our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ returns to end it once and forever. The Lord’s enemy seeks to lie, steal and destroy and one of his fundamental strategies is to disrupt efforts to prepare the next generation for service in Christ’s Kingdom.
Given the recent developments in our culture, I’d be an utter hypocrite if I didn’t disclose I worry more than I should for someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. I worry for myself about how I’m going to cope with the challenges to come for those of us who seek to publicly exercise our faith, but what I REALLY worry about is whether we’ve done enough to prepare our daughters for the challenges they’ll face as they seek to live out their faith.
I wonder how many of you share the same worries about your kids or grandkids, your nieces and nephews, or the children of your friends. What can we do NOW to build families capable of serving as fortresses…families that honor God and serve as outposts for the reestablishment of Jesus’ Kingdom in the midst of “enemy territory?
As we explore God’s Word in search of guidance for implementing God’s vision for our families in a culture more overtly hostile to Christianity and Christian virtue than at any point in my lifetime, let’s turn back to a point in God’s story 2,400 plus years ago when another group of God’s people faced strikingly similar challenges. If you brought your Bible or downloaded the Bible app on your tablet or smartphone, turn to Nehemiah 4:7-14.
Before we dive in, a little historical context. Nehemiah was 5 1/2 centuries removed from King David’s reign on the throne of Israel. Despite being “a man after God’s own heart” David began an unfortunate trend of kings who loved and honored God but were universal failures at raising sons to continue their spiritual legacies. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem but pursued earthly alliances that led to marriages of political expediency. Through Solomon’s marriages, the influences of the pagan gods and cultures surrounding Israel penetrated the nation’s ruling class. Infighting among Solomon’s heirs led to a spilt between the Northern Kingdom (Israel, later renamed Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (Judea).
Each kingdom turned to worship of pagan gods…worship that frequently included ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. The cultural decline occurred more quickly in the Northern Kingdom, given over by God to the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom was conquered in three stages by the Babylonians, with the fall of Jerusalem complete in 586 BC. The best and brightest of Judah were taken captive and sent into exile in Babylon. You might remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, along with their friend, Daniel.
The practices of the Assyrians and the Babylonians for populating conquered territory differed, which will come into play later in our passage. The Assyrians repopulated the Northern Kingdom with pagans from other cultures, while Judah largely sat vacant when the Babylonians exiled the people of Judah.
Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, followed by the return of 50,000 Jews the following year. The prophet Ezra led a smaller group back in 458 BC, and Nehemiah led a third group back when he returned in 445 BC.
Nehemiah was a descendant of the exiles who stayed in Babylon. He’d earned a trusted position in the inner circle of Persia as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. The king’s stepmother was Queen Esther, and she may have influenced the king to view the Jewish people with favor. Nehemiah was likely influenced by Esther’s willingness to risk her life and her position in the palace to save her people from extermination.
God had placed a burden on Nehemiah’s heart for God’s reputation and the state of God’s (and Nehemiah’s) people. In the 90 years since the Jewish people first returned to the Promised Land, the returning exiles struggled with misplaced priorities and appeared headed down the same road as their ancestors. In Ezra 9 we learn that ten years prior to Nehemiah’s arrival in the city, intermarriage with pagan peoples was rampant and involved family members of the High Priest.
The first group that returned to Jerusalem arrived with an order from King Cyrus granting permission to rebuild the temple. The leaders of the people in the land were less than thrilled by God’s people re-emerging as a power in Jerusalem. They undermined construction of the temple for 16 years, abetted by the misplaced priorities of the Jewish people. The prophet Haggai (Haggai 1:4-9) notes the people prioritized their lifestyles over rebuilding the Temple…and endured poverty from a drought resulting from their disobedience. The Temple wasn’t completed until the subsequent Persian king (Darius) issued a decree reaffirming the original decree from Cyrus… including authorization of taxes from the Samaritans and other pagan peoples of the region to pay for it!
A temple in a city without walls wasn’t terribly helpful in the ancient Near East. People couldn’t attend to the study of God’s law when they were exposed to bandits, robbers and others who might want to plunder God’s temple. Nehemiah was called to rebuild the walls of God’s city so that the people might be called back to the study of God’s law and recognition of their sinfulness. He foreshadows the second coming of Jesus, who will provide the ultimate restoration of God’s people in God’s city.
Let’s jump ahead of our text by one verse and look at Nehemiah 4:6
“The people had a mind to work.”
The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 53 days without modern construction equipment… an accomplishment that didn’t seem humanly possible. The people put God’s work first – leaving us with an illustration of God’s power at work when God’s people are faithful.
The Jewish people had been exiled because their ancestors failed to put first things first. They rejected God and his law. Nehemiah and the people attracted the attention of their enemies when they pursued their task from God. We need to recognize that when we prioritize God’s work and God’s plans for our families, we become a threat to the established social and political order. Verse 7:
But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry.
Sanballat was the Persian governor of the territory…and a Samaritan. The Jews returning to Judah viewed Samaritans as “half-breeds” because of their polytheism. The Samaritans resented the Jews because their taxes supported the reconstruction of a temple where they were excluded from worship. Verse 8:
And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.
How does the enemy cause confusion?
From where I sit, the enemy’s principal tactic is moral relativism. Moral relativism is a philosophy that asserts there is no global, absolute moral law that applies to all people, for all time, and in all places.
Look back at Genesis 3. The enemy hasn’t made significant changes to the playbook since the Garden of Eden! He uses the same tactics over and over…because they work!
Does your Bible REALLY say that?
God must not want you to be happy!
How could a loving God punish someone for _____?
All religions point to God.
Moral relativism is foundational in the enemy’s plan to kill, steal and destroy. When I criticized a New York Times op-ed piece encouraging parents of teens to host sleepovers for their boyfriend or girlfriend, my radical suggestion led to an interview with Canada’s most prominent news magazine. The rate of suicide attempts among teens increases incrementally with every new sexual partner they experience. The “means justifies the ends” philosophy leads many kids to see nothing wrong with cheating on tests or buying prescription medication off the street to get better grades or a better SAT or ACT score.
Look at the confusion the enemy has caused in the church! We have denominations fighting long-time church attendees for control of church property as some denomination leaders have abandoned the view that Jesus represents our only path to salvation or the view that Scripture is authoritative.
We’re now seeing confusion in the redefinition of marriage, gender roles and the God-ordained and complimentary roles of fathers and mothers. God made man male and female…Facebook came up with 50 more genders.
On to Nehemiah’s response-Verse 9:
And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night… or The Message translation: We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
“We countered with prayer.” How often do we consider prayer as a strategy to protect our families from the culture? If you’re like me, not often enough. We don’t know from the passage if Nehemiah’s next steps resulted from his prayer, but we see that his prayer is accompanied by concrete actions. He prayed, but also posted a round-the clock guard across the work area to monitor for an imminent attack.
What do we expect when we pray for our families? I think many of us ask God to look after our families while we address priorities in our workplace. That begs the question of why God would want us to invest more time and attention at jobs hundreds of other people could do at the expense of fulfilling family responsibilities He’s uniquely positioned us to address?
Were Nehemiah’s problems fixed? Not quite. Verse ten…
In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”
God had Nehemiah and the people positioned right where He wanted them! We’re more likely to be doing God’s will when God’s involvement is necessary for success. Libby Peterson is a fellow Board member at Key Ministry who frequently points out that we know we’re pursuing a “God thing” when God’s involvement is essential for success.
God wants us to depend upon him! After all, He gave His son to die on a cross to remove the barrier to relationship with Him resulting from our sin. Relationship is so important to God that we can anticipate He’ll put us in uncomfortable situations if ou discomfort serves to advance the relationship with Him.
Next…we get the threats from the enemy and seeds of doubt planted among the people. Verses 11 and 12:
And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
The enemy often works through intimidation and bullying. In 2015, the threat may be “You’re going to bake me that cake or I’ll destroy your business.” It’s the military chaplain or officer threatened with court martial for being too forthright in sharing their faith. It’s the Little Sisters of the Poor threatened with ruinous fines because they refuse to compromise their consciences or regulations crafted to force faith-based organizations out of providing social services.
We’ll all face threats. Getting “unfriended” on Facebook isn’t a real threat. Some in my practice may lose our licenses if we try to help a teen seeking help to refrain from acting upon their same-sex attraction. My older daughter will spend the next fifteen years of her life and $500,000 training to be a physician. When she finishes, she may be threatened with the loss of her license for refusing to help her patients commit suicide. Think that’s far-fetched? Across the lake, the Ontario Medical Society considers refusal to participate in physician-assisted suicide a violation of professional ethics if no other physician is available to help.
How did Nehemiah respond to the threats? He reminded the people of what mattered most! Verses 13-14:
So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
“Remember the Lord who is great and awesome.” He reminds the people that God comes first. He then positioned men in the lowest spots of the wall alongside their families so that their families were at the forefront of their minds.
Where are our families most vulnerable? I’d like you to ponder that question as a family in the coming week. From where I sit, here are three observations…
We worship the wrong stuff: Similar to the people of ancient Israel, we worship idols. We don’t pray to little bronze statues or hook up with temple prostitutes, but our idols are all of the things held in a higher place in our hearts than God. Career advancement. Money. Status. The boat. The beach house. Control. Security. Our kids’ accomplishments. When God is a secondary priority, our families are vulnerable. I’ve included a link in your handout to an article from Timothy Keller offering four suggestions to help you identify your idols.
Our faith is without foundation: Too many professing Christians lack a deep understanding of what they claim to believe and why they believe it. Without such understanding, we’re vulnerable to the lies and deceptions we encounter on a daily basis. If we don’t know what God said in God’s Word, how do we recognize when God’s Word is being distorted? We’re vulnerable…and our families are vulnerable when we lack a working knowledge of the Bible to apply its’ teaching in our everyday life. You guys are into hymns. Remember “In Christ the solid rock I stand, all other hope is sinking sand”?
1 Peter 3:15, encourages us to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Are you prepared to explain why you’re a Christian or why you live and believe as you do? You need to be.
We don’t walk the walk! Teenagers are born with great hypocrisy detectors. While we want our kids to know the Bible, most kids learn far more about Christianity from watching their parents live their faith than they will from their Bibles. How is the faith of our kids impacted by their daily interactions with us?
What can we learn from Nehemiah in building families prepared to thrive in the face of the distortions present in our culture?
- Put God first…and prioritize the spiritual growth of our families.
Libby Peterson (mentioned earlier) directed the children’s ministry for many years at BPC while Hu served as senior pastor. Based on research from the Search Institute, Libby encourages parents to:
- Regularly pray together as a family
- Regularly study the Bible as a family or participate in family devotions
- Regularly serve together as a family
The Barna Group found the most important determinant of kids from Christian homes maintaining active, personal ministry in their 20s was the average length of time they spent in conversations with their parents when young.
Pray together. Read the Bible together. Serve together. Talk to your kids. It works.
- Model for your families the public exercise of your faith
Imagine the impact upon the wives and children positioned near the low points in the wall from seeing their husbands and fathers working to protect them by day and standing guard to protect them at night? The work on the wall was an act of worship. The way the people of Jerusalem spent their time and money reflected their priorities. How do you reflect your priorities in front of your family?
- ALL Christians have a role to play in the effort to build strong families.
Nehemiah reminded the people that they needed one another. Every family owned the fight. And we need the support of other families to sustain the fight. There were far too many low spots in the wall for any one family to guard.
When Hu prepped me for today, he described your screened-in porches, houses clustered closely together, unlocked doors and open windows. Linwood can be a special place where kids and families develop relationships to encourage and sustain one another on the faith journey.
From the time they were young, my wife and I wanted our daughters to have relationships with mature Christian adults outside of our family. As your children get older, you as parents will transition from maintaining control over your kids to exercising influence with them, and your capacity for influence depends upon the quality of your relationship with them. One way to maximize our influence is when we encourage other like-minded adults to invest in relationships with our kids. Allow me to explain.
I knew from my job that as our daughters got older, situations would arise that they wouldn’t want to share with my wife or myself. We make the rules, pay the tuition, provide their transportation and pay their cell phone bills. Trust me, your kids don’t tell you everything! We wanted our girls to have established relationships with adults from outside of our family who share our faith so they would have people to give them wise counsel when the time came that they couldn’t talk to us.
To prepare our kids for the culture they’ll face, they need to know there are other people who believe as they believe. I heard Jessie McMillan taught here on Deuteronomy 6… a great picture of the entire community owning responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the kids.
Here’s a challenge I’d like to offer…Your mission (should you choose to accept it) in your remaining time here at Linwood is to be intentional in building relationships with kids from another family so you might support their parents in preparing them for the challenges of the culture they’ll inherit.
Joshua (in Joshua 24:15) states… But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. How about your family?
- If you were to “inspect the walls” of your family, what vulnerabilities would you find? How might you shore up any “low spots” you identify?
- Are you an idol worshiper? Does anything (or anyone) hold a higher place in your heart than God? See this link from Timothy Keller to learn more: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/octoberweb-only/142-21.0.html
- How would you respond if someone asks why you’re a follower of Jesus?
- Who might you seek out at Linwood for the purpose of building relationships to promote the spiritual development of one another’s families?