One of my favorite movies of all time is The Power of One. It’s based on the Bryce Courtenay novel, but the film version stars Morgan Freeman as Geel Piet, a black South African who teaches a young man named PK (Stephen Dorff by the time he’s older) to box. It’s set in the troubling times for South Africa around World War II, and it shows the ugly side of prejudice, of social stigmas, of fear. But the thing is, in the midst of all of the violence, this young man learns that color doesn’t matter, that the battle for freedom is one that we all should be passionate about is hard. PK undergoes ridicule and persecution for being allied with the blacks who are seen as less than worthless, but in the process of standing for freedom and justice, he finds that his passions find meaning.
It’s funny how that pattern is repeated over and over again; one group of people find that they benefit by holding another group down, the held down group fights back and gains followers from the more respected class or those sitting on the sidelines, and in the process, that individual or group leads those oppressed people to freedom (Spartacus, Avatar, the story of Moses, etc.) But we can see it in the story of Nehemiah, too.
Nehemiah burned with a passion for the restoration of his home city of Jerusalem, so he prayed to God and found himself standing in the midst of the broken city, with the authority to make it happen. But not everyone is happy when things get fixed; the world operates in a way that allows the “status quo” to keep some people up and hold some people down.
In Nehemiah 4, we meet one of the people held up by the broken wall: Sanballat.
Have you ever been ridiculed for doing something right? Sanballat finds the people working around the walls, and he makes fun of them. Of course, a crowd gathers because people invariably feel better when someone is being made to feel bad. It’s part of our faulty human nature, and Sanballat uses it to get his buddies going.
“The Jews are weak! Do you think they can actually fix this? Will they actually worship something here? Can they even use these materials?”
Like the “other” judge on The Muppets, Tobiah the Ammonite points and says, “It’s so rickety, even a fox climbing up there would cause it to fall down!”
Um… what a zinger?
But as is typical in many of these stories of the prophets, this isn’t about the neighborhood bullies, Sanballat and Tobiah. This is about the way that the people of God respond when they are faced with opposition, when they encounter evil.
Nehemiah prayed: “Hear us, O God, we’re hated. Turn their insults back. Give us this land and defeat our enemies.”
Pretty straightforward, right? Nehemiah isn’t going with the “kill ’em with kindness” approach. He wants God to give he and the people victory, and to shut the bullies up! But the remarkable thing is that Nehemiah prays and they keep building! How often do we pray and then sit back? Or work without praying?
Nehemiah’s approach is fully integrated. Nehemiah knows who has the whole situation in hand, and he’s not going to try to fight a battle that’s not his or fail to follow through with the task that’s been assigned to him. Nehemiah knows the plays from the game plan he needs for right now, and he trusts that God will take care of the rest. Nehemiah knows that he just has to do what’s laid out in front of him: he can’t outkick the coverage, he can’t miss what his responsibilities are.
And it made Nehemiah’s enemies even angrier when the people found success rebuilding the wall, because they worked with their whole heart! The people are locked in, focused, and ready to work hard.
Let’s take a look at the enemies of Nehemiah for a minute. Why would they be angry that the wall would be completed? Why would they plot to fight with the people who were doing the rebuilding? Why wouldn’t they want these people to thrive? That doesn’t make sense, does it? But I think we need to make sure we’re not like them!
It’s amazing that the people working with Nehemiah refused to give up. Even when the enemies of the rebuilding threatened them with death and bodily harm. Even when Nehemiah had to arm his followers to make sure that the building could go on.
In the midst of their fear and apprehension, Nehemiah took the necessary steps to prepare them for the task before them, and then he gave them the battlefield speech revolving around the glory of the Lord: “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” It’s not exactly Braveheart material, but it worked, and the walls were erected as they planned.
I wonder sometimes what we’re “tasked” to do. Are we supposed to stand for something? Are we supposed to speak up for something? Are we supposed to build or rebuild something that we haven’t even heard before? We’ve been looking at our brokenness and the way that God can heal us, and heal the situations we experience, but have we looked at the things that actually cause our brokenness in the first place?
Where does the adversity we face come from? Is it internal or external? Is it caused by someone else or self-inflicted? Is it spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or physical?
What if we’re better off when there is adversity, rather than when there isn’t any? Does it matter what adversity we’re talking about?
I read several years ago that countries have found that it’s best politically to not let a long time of peace settle in, that those times when there’s no outside threat tend to be a time when people begin infighting, and judging harshly the ways that the government works. So, there’s been the conjecture that governments invent or force the situation, creating an external problem to make sure that the constant friction or frustration causes the nation’s people to be focused on their mutual enemy rather than imploding.
What if we saw the adversity we face when we are doing good as the means which God allows us to be who we’re supposed to be in the first place? What if we recognized that we’re not really being the church God that wants us to be if we’re too comfortable?
I believe if the adversity is self-inflicted, if you’re dealing with addiction or you have a self-fulfilling pattern of poor behavior, that you need to pray to God for healing for your brokenness. But if you’re doing what’s right, if you’re aimed at justice and peace and mercy, and you experience adversity… then maybe, just maybe, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
The Apostle Paul knew a little bit about adversity, as he travelled to places that he wasn’t welcome to spread the gospel and found himself locked in chains awaiting execution for his faith. He wrote, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). And later, he received from God, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What if we saw adversity as a mark that we were loved and where we should be?
Paul in fact said that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Maybe instead of resting in our own comfort, we should see it as the way we can make other people’s lives better. Maybe we’re supposed to be comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Who do you know who needs comforted? Who do you know who is in trouble? Who are you supposed to be freeing from sadness or pain or loneliness by inviting them to church, where they can find true community?
It’s counterintuitive, I know, but try this:
Go find some adversity today; you might just meet Jesus there.
This sermon is for the Stand worship service at Blandford United Methodist Church at 9 a.m. on September 29 in Prince George, Va.