You may have heard of Bob and Maria Goff. We’ve had Bob Goff speak here at St. Luke’s several years ago, and we’ve taught a couple of his and his wife’s book studies in groups. Besides Bob’s work of being an author, lawyer, popular Christian speaker, and foreign diplomat, Bob and Maria Goff have made it their mission to live their lives in a way that is extravagantly generous.
One of the results of this generosity is a place called Malibu Lodge, in Canada (SLIDE- picture of Lodge). The Lodge is a place where Bob and Maria initially built in order to be a place of rest for the young adults working at the nearby Young Life Camp on their days off. As time went on, The Lodge expanded to be a sacred space of rest for people from all different walks of life- celebrities, business executives, musicians, and faith leaders have all taken time to visit The Lodge in order to rest, reflect, and experience meaningful connection.
One of the things that makes The Lodge so special is that it is REALLY difficult to get to. It was built in a remote inlet in British Columbia, only accessible by boat or sea plane. The Goffs noticed that the forest surrounding the Young Life Camp was in danger of being sold to a logging company, so they bought it instead, saving the land and creating this haven, and spending the next 20 years creating a sacred space for people to experience God’s creation.
The Lodge was a sacred place to thousands of people over the span of two decades. But in 2017, in just 2 hours, this sacred place caught fire and burnt to the ground.
Maria Goff writes in her book, Love Lives Here, that the fire at The Lodge was so intense, it was so hot, that it destroyed even the building’s foundation. There was nothing left- everything was reduced to ashes, leaving Bob and Maria to sort through the rubble and try to figure out what might come next for this place that they and so many others loved so much.
Besides the emotional toll of sorting and cleaning and trying to salvage ANYTHING, the logistics of rebuilding The Lodge were complicated. The original building had been massive, built with hand-hewn logs that fit perfectly together. It was filled with artifacts and possessions and memories that could not be replaced. And remember- getting to The Lodge is no easy trip. With no roads and no nearby town, everything about the rebuild would have to be painstakingly planned out.
Restoring The Lodge would be possible, but it wouldn’t be easy. Restoring The Lodge would be possible, but wouldn’t be without pain.
Restoration could happen- but it wouldn’t be simple. Because as we will see in our Scripture reading this morning- Restoration never comes without its challenges:
Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 4: 1-6
So our story opens today with Nehemiah doing some rebuilding and restoring of his own. In Nehemiah’s case, he’s leading the charge to rebuild the fallen walls of the city of Jerusalem. And the backdrop of this building project is bleak- it’s not an accidental fire, but intentional, pure destruction meant to wipe out everything they had known. Because those warnings that Matt talked about in the recap video? Those words that the prophets would speak to the people and the kings about what was going to happen to them if they didn’t start following God? All those things came to be, and the reality was devastating.
The Babylonians made their way to Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, the city walls, and leveled homes and buildings, and killed people without any mercy. And everyone they didn’t kill in that moment- they were taken away to a new land, a foreign place, to live a totally different way of life. Everything the people had known about life and who they had been was now reduced to ruin.
But there’s more to this story- time keeps moving forward, and now, it was time for some of these exiled people to return home. It’s time to move beyond rubble and ashes and begin to dream about what God could do. And this is where we meet Nehemiah. Nehemiah whos even though he’s living a pretty comfortable life working for the king, is one of the leaders who hears God’s call to bring these few people back to start this work.
This is where we meet Nehemiah, whose name means “Yahweh has given comfort” but who is experiencing an incredible amount of DISCOMFORT. The whole reason Nehemiah starts on this restoration project is because God begins agitating him about the state of Jerusalem. Have you ever felt like that? Like a holy discomfort, where you can’t NOT pay attention to the things going on around you, where the same problems keep showing up again and again? Where you feel like God is not only inviting you to observe and act, but that God is COMPELLING you to take the next step and do what you’re being called to do?
If you do, then you might know how Nehemiah felt. It’s this kind of intense agitation that takes Nehemiah’s comfortable existence and starts to make it feel more and more UNcomfortable. He has trouble sleeping, he doesn’t look great- it’s not a pleasant experience! But this agitation is so important- because it’s this feeling that something isn’t right and I have to DO something about it that propels him into action.
And so he takes the risk of approaching the king, asking for help. And this was the first challenge, because I don’t know if you picked up on this from the last couple episodes here on Bingeworthy, but a trait that most of these kings had in common was they could be a little unpredictable and a whole lot of self-absorbed. THEY wanted to be the ones with the ideas, THEY summoned YOU if you if THEY wanted to talk. This wasn’t like Shark Tank where you could have a lightbulb moment and waltz in go pitch it just for fun. Because you know what wasn’t fun? If the King was in a MOOD and you ended up dead because you had poor timing.
But Nehemiah is smart. He’s in the right place with the right skills and he’s worked up enough that he KNOWS he has to do something. And here’s the most important part- not only in Nehemiah compelled to action but believes that God is at work.
And he’s right. He goes before the King, and the king gives him the green light to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild. And at first it seems like open road, like the obstacle has been cleared. Not only does the king say yes, but he gives Nehemiah resources, a decree for safe passage, and lets him take people with him!
But this is just the beginning. Restoration is possible- Restoration is coming! And Restoration... is never simple. (Slide)
The rebuild begins, the restoration gets going...and here comes the opposition, which we heard in our Scripture reading. And this opposition is loud, it’s annoying, it’s rude, and it’s making a hard job even more difficult! It doesn’t matter that Nehemiah is following God, it doesn’t matter that he trusts what God is up to, even his faith and his trust don’t make this work of restoration easy.
And this is the challenge not only in Nehemiah’s story, but in our stories too. Because sometimes we think that when we follow God, when we do the right things, it is all going to work out just the way we’ve planned it. We want to believe that if we just follow the rules and are faithful, that everything will go the way we expect.
But that’s not actually how this works. It’s never as easy as we might hope or expect or plan, even if we do all the right things. And if you want this illustrated in a very real-life way, let me ask you a question: have you ever done a home renovation?
Or even if you are wiser than me, and you’ve never traveled down the home renovation road, have you even just watched a SHOW about home renovation?! Because spoiler alert- the restoration project NEVER goes as planned!
I will never forget when we remodeled the bathrooms in our old house. We had two bathrooms and we decided to remodel two- basically at the same time. Now we knew we needed to redo the upstairs because the shower was a bright yellow, two by two, dysfunctional box with drainage issues that served no purpose except for looking terrible. But we kept putting this project off until one day, we noticed that in our downstairs bathroom the one that DID work, that the tile wall in the shower would move if you touched it. Which, although I am not a contractor, I can tell you with certainty, is not actually how walls are supposed to work.
Another fun element to this story is that I was about 7 ½ months pregnant with our son and we discovered this movable wall and decided to gut both bathrooms.This was a GREAT IDEA. The contractor estimated the project would wrap up the week before the due date...so NOTHING could go wrong, right?
Well, let me tell you about demo day for the downstairs bathroom. Because as the workers began tearing out the shower tile, we started to hear some...surprised sounds coming from the bathroom. That wall that moved? It turned out that part of the problem we had been having was that there was no actual insulation in the wall...but instead, when the previous owner had done their OWN remodel years before, they kept things very much to code, and stuffed newspaper in the walls. So instead of rolls of insulation, we had walls packed with issues of The Catholic Times from the 1970s. Which I’m sure made for interesting reading but did NOT actually insulate my house!
That was one of the most ridiculous but amazingly, one of the EASIEST parts of that restoration. There were major plumbing and electrical issues, delays in fixtures arriving, rotted floors...but you know what? The challenges and the opposition- it was annoying and it was frustrating- but we could not give up. Because to give up on this restoration would have meant we would have a newborn baby with no working bathrooms in our home in the middle of December!
Once again- restoration is possible, but it is never simple.
Nehemiah encounters significant struggle while he leads the project to restore the city walls. But just like our bathroom project, even with all the difficulty, the doubts, and the opposition, giving up is not an option! The stakes are too high. The place is too important. And God is too much on the move, acting in NEW ways to bring NEW hope to a people who had all but decided the story was over.
Because with God, here’s one thing we can be sure of- even when we are convinced it’s the end, even when the challenges feel like too much- the story is never over. And even though these are people whose collective story reminds them that terrible things have happened in their past- even though the Babylonians ruined Jerusalem, tore down the walls, destroyed the temple, and every single prophecy of destruction came true- even though those terrible things happened- those hard and terrible things being true didn’t mean that God was done working.
Even when they hit rock bottom, when everything they thought they knew was stripped away from them- all was not in fact lost. Because here’s another truth that the Israelites knew- even though their story was punctuated with pain and suffering, they followed a God who is faithful. They followed a God who can always make something new out of the rubble. (Slide)
Because as terrible and traumatic as the fall of Jerusalem was, the Babylonians don’t get the final word here. In fact, in the not too distant future after they destroy Jerusalem, the Babylonians would go on to lose their empire to the Persians. And now we can call it politics, call it fate, call it whatever you want, but once there’s a new king- the new king who Nehemiah works for, by the way- it is this new king who allows and empowers the people to go back home and rebuild their lives.
And so God starts to work in a new way. And God starts to stir up something in people like Nehemiah and this religious leader named Ezra, and they begin to recognize that God is indeed up to something. That maybe the God who has seemed angry and distant hasn’t left after all, and it’s time to pay attention. God’s not working in the same ways, but they aren’t the same people.
...because this time, the Israelites aren’t the victor. They’re not in charge. There’s no assurance of power or even guaranteed safety. The process of returning and rebuilding doesn’t look like the miracles of the past. Instead of trumpets and burning bushes and a gilded ark, God gives them piles of rubble and faithful people.
Restoration is coming. But to experience it, this remnant, the few faithful people who God would use to do something new, they had no choice but to change their view of what God’s faithfulness could look like. They had no choice but to embrace that God could work in a new way, and that even if they couldn’t see the end result, that they could follow and be a part of what God would do next.
Sometimes we find ourselves in this exact same place. Sometimes we find ourselves holding the scraps of our faith wondering what God could POSSIBLY do with whatever we have left. Sometimes we’re sure that we’re too lost, a relationship is too broken, a situation is too far beyond repair. And it’s when we find ourselves in these situations that we need to know this story! We need to know that God has done this seemingly impossible work of restoration before!
God has done it before and God will do it again.
Our God can be trusted with the rubble of our lives. And that’s what Nehemiah and Ezra do- they trust God’s leading, they return to the land, and they get to work. And there’s one more piece of opposition that they encounter as they work toward restoration...but the opposition isn’t from a king, it isn’t from doubtful hecklers, or lack of supplies. It comes from inside of them.
It comes from the inside and it might actually be the biggest struggle that any of us experience when we try to rise up from the ashes. See, Ezra and Nehemiah, they want to be faithful to the work that God has called them to, but you know what else they want? They want to go back to the way things were before. They want to go back to who they were before all of this bad stuff happened to them. They want to bring back a way of life that worked in the past but needs to look differently now because nothing is the same anymore including themselves.
Ezra 3:12-13 (slide) shows us just how hard it can be to let go of the past and step into the future. Listen to this:
Many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted loudly with joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.
Restoration is bittersweet. Because even though restoration brings joy and new beginnings, to need to be restored tells us that something has to be broken. And these elder priests, they’ve seen the brokenness, but they also remember the good. They remember the way things used to be and they weep- because new beginnings mean the end of something else.
And our temptation is that we want to go back to what we know instead of running forward into the new thing that God might be doing. But here’s the problem- when we get to the point of needing a restoration, we can’t actually come out the other side the same. Because what if- what if- God is more interested in who we are going to become than who we used to be?
Thinking back to that story about The Lodge, as they considered what rebuilding and restoration would mean, Maria Goff writes that they would in fact rebuild, but they would do so in light of who they were NOW, instead of trying to recapture something that is no longer true, or doesn’t fit anymore.
The thing about this story of Nehemiah rebuilding the city walls and Ezra rebuilding the temple, is that this was just the first step in God’s big restoration plan for God’s people. And as God works, as God restores, their expectations of how God could work are challenged. Sometimes we have to let the past and our expectations go to receive the restoration that God wants to give us. But that is easier SAID than DONE. Because our expectations can be big. Our expectations are often built over time and become the foundation of how we think things should be.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our time together in the Bible, it’s that God loves to challenge our expectations. God loves to do the unexpected.
What are you waiting for right now? What are you expecting God to do- in your life, in your relationships, in your faith? We all have something that needs restored...but restoration is never simple. It is often unexpected.
The Israelites didn’t just hope and expect a rebuilt city. They were waiting and hoping and expecting a messiah. All of their hope hinged on not just what they knew to have been true about God in the past, but about what they were expecting God to do in the future. But what they didn’t know- what they couldn’t possibly expect- was who this Messiah would be.
They THOUGHT they needed a military king. They THOUGHT they needed someone to save them from the politics and invasions of the time. They THOUGHT they needed a messiah who was powerful and strong and looked a lot like what they had known in the past.
But restoration is never simple. And it’s often not what we expect. And what we THINK we need, and what God KNOWS to do...they aren’t always the same thing.
Because that powerful, mighty, military messiah? Well, the messiah was coming. The best restoration of all was on the way, due to arrive in about 400 years. The messiah was coming, but who that messiah would be, the things that he would do? THAT was a restoration no one saw coming.
For ways that this restoration might have challenged people’s expectations of how God could work...
We can hang on and try- Pharisees and Sadducees- but what if God is more interested in who we can become than who we once were? God is about to flip the script in 400 years, and the things that seem so important now will pale in comparison to who Jesus is and the life Jesus wants God’s people to live.
And when God wants to work in our lives, when God wants to do that work of restoration, we can choose- we can hold on to what used to be true, and we can fight it. Or we can get our hands dirty, like Nehemiah, we can build something new from what was once just rubble. We can push through the opposition and the challenge and trust the God is at work and is with us.
Landing: Expect the unexpected
What are we expecting God to do in our lives? Or “Expect the unexpected”
They EXPECTED a messiah, a military power...because that is how it “had always been done before”- but Jesus was an unexpected solution to this problem.
What’s your wall? What’s your temple? What is the thing that you are so sure can’t be rebuilt? Are you willing for God to take you by surprise?
Open with a time when things felt hopeless...can it be saved/made better?
Is it worth mentioning the destroying of Jerusalem/the temple in 2 Chron 36:17-21?
They both make these very ethnic-centric decisions because they want things to go back to how they used to be...what do we do when we cling to the past and can’t see God’s vision for the future?
Ezra 3:12-13: The bittersweet nature of restoration- it CAN’T go back to exactly the way it was before.
Add context- what was happening in this time that would have made it difficult to believe that restoration could happen, that they needed a savior?
Some were allowed to stay, some would have wanted to stay...but the ones who went back
Jeremiah 29- marry, have children, build homes, plant vineyards and thrive in babylon
The remnant- talk about this theological concept. Even looking back at Noah, Joshua and Caleb, God is always working with the remnant to move forward.
Why did they want to go back?
The person who inspires them to rebuild again is Nehemiah- they’ve been in it so long that the rubbish has become scenery. It takes someone to see it with new eyes and ask the question- what would happen if we began building again?
What were the people able to see in a new way that got them wanting to rebuild?
Nehemiah couldn’t sleep knowing the condition Jerusalem was in
Even though so many were going about their lives, God agitates some of us to urge the people toward something better than they are already experiencing- has God ever agitated you into action?
Being stirred is a theme here- in Ezra and Nehemiah
Rebuilding the walls was rebuilding a way of life
Nehemiah was a Persian official, but he is out there building, getting his hands dirty, which would have been strange and unexpected. (Is there a contrast here between the people coming together to rebuild the temple and the walls v. Solomon and building with slave labor??)
When God restores- a wall, our lives, a savior- it doesn’t look like we think it’s going to look.
End with: What are we expecting God to do in our lives? Or “Expect the unexpected”
They EXPECTED a messiah, a military power...because that is how it “had always been done before”- but Jesus was an unexpected solution to this problem.