Ezra 4:6-16 & Ephesians 6:10-20

Facing Opposition

I wonder if you ever get the feeling that there’s always something getting in the way. Somehow life has become one big obstacle course. Now obstacle races can be fun at a school sports day, and some people enjoy adventure racing over assault courses, but when life itself – work, family life, friendships, projects, become a relentless exercise in hitting brick walls, then it can wear us down. Over the last month or so we’ve been reading the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah leading the people of God in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple. This was not always a smooth process for them. Despite the worship, the working together, the concern for social justice, and being centered on God’s word, things did not always go well. There were many obstacles, and these were often people who did not want to see them succeed. These people opposed the rebuilding, and had a variety of weapons at their disposal. One of them was writing letters to the King objecting – one of which we read part of this morning.

In the short term this opposition succeeded. As we read on in chapter 4 of Ezra we find the King’s response, which commands the building to stop. The chapter finishes with, “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill.”

But, we also know that the opposition failed in the long run – the Temple did get rebuilt, and so did the walls despite similar opposition and challenges that Nehemiah faced. So, how did they do it? What can we learn from their example about what we could do when we face obstacles, opposition, challenges, especially as we rebuild after Covid?

The first thing that I’d like to pick out comes at the beginning of the next chapter of Ezra. The people of God listened to the prophets. We read that Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the people of God. We have accounts of what they said in the books named after them in the Old Testament. A good summary of it is found in Haggai 1:2-4:

‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”’

Basically Haggai calls them out. The king’s edict in the letter from chapter 4 had commanded all building on the city to stop, but they’d still built their own houses – and made them very nice thank you – while the Temple was still in ruins. They’d become comfortable, and perhaps were hiding behind the edict to give them an excuse not to get on with rebuilding the Temple.

The second thing I’d like to pick out is prayer. We don’t see this so much in Ezra, but in Nehemiah, in the face of similar opposition to the rebuilding of the city wall, we read this,

“Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.”

Now, we might not be comfortable with the content of the prayer – it’s not very “love your enemies”, but it is the first thing that Nehemiah does in the face of opposition. He turns to God and tells him how he feels, honestly. He knew that there’s no point hiding true feelings from God – God knows the heart.

This emphasis on prayer is picked up in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” says Paul. He doesn’t leave any gaps or exceptions. All occasions. Every time. Whatever is going on. All kinds of prayers and requests – honest, cheeky, small, big, angry, sad, happy, – all kinds.

The third aspect of dealing with opposition I want to focus on is the practical. The people got on with it. In Ezra 5, in verse 1 we get the prophetic kick up the backside, and in verse 2 we get, “Then Zerubbabel and Joshua set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem” They got on with it. In Nehemiah, we read that as the people were rebuilding the city wall they organised guards on the low bits of the wall – half of the people guarded and half worked on the wall. Even those working had a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. They made practical plans and got on with it.

So, that was their situation in rebuilding Jerusalem. They faced opposition but overcame it by listening to the prophets, praying, and taking practical steps.

What about us, as we return and rebuild after Covid. I wonder what opposition or challenges we face? I don’t think that people are writing nasty letters about us to the council complaining about us. So what do we face?

There are two things that I think that I see, and that I’d to explore a bit this morning.

The first is the mental health impact of the pandemic. Today is World Mental Health day, and as part of the focus on this, the World Health Organisation has stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on people’s mental health. Some groups, including health and other frontline workers, students, people living alone, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, have been particularly affected. And services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders have been significantly disrupted.”

This is affecting us, our communities, and our church. I want to share some of my story this morning, not to ask for your sympathy or concern particularly, but just to be open. I have lived with bouts of depression and feeling low for at least the last fifteen years. I’m a typical bloke and have resisted going to the doctor about it. During lock down, it got worse, and was accompanied by anxiety. I was praying about it one morning, and got a sense of God looking at me in fond exasperation asking why I was resisting going to see a doctor. So I did. He prescribed some anti-depressants and some online CBT, which I’ve been taking and doing for about three months, and I do feel somewhat better for it. Not completely sorted, but better.

I prayed about it, I finally listened to what God was saying, and I took practical steps – I did something about it. I’m not saying that these are the silver bullets to overcome all mental health issues, and I don’t want to over simplify or trivialise complex issues, but it does seem to me that these three approaches, taken together, can be powerful in releasing us from our anxieties and helping us to re-engage in community and church life.

The second thing that I see is what I’ll call priority changes. I feel a real tension about this one as a church leader. One of the things that lock down did was force many of us to put things down – particularly those things we did voluntarily. For some it also meant a lot more time at home with family and the opportunity to do things together. For others it meant work going completely insane, working all hours, in horrible conditions.

For some life got much less busy, and they found that helpful, and as a church leader I want to commend the rediscovery of Sabbath rest and a healthier life balance. For some life got much busier, and they are now exhausted, and as a church leader I want to say – relax, take some time, recharge, don’t burn out.

The problem is, that if we all take a step back, then the rebuilding doesn’t happen, and the community life which we value, and which many of us experienced as really important through Covid, will fall apart.

As a really practical example of this, our AV team has shrunk significantly, and at the moment we don’t have anyone to look after the sound system or Songpro on Sunday November 7th. There is still time to train some folk, but if we don’t, then we’re going to have a problem. I don’t share this to make those who have stepped away feel guilty, or to try and browbeat people into stepping forward, I’m just sharing a challenge we as a church community face across a number of areas in our church life.
I don’t know what the answer is. It may be that we do need to do less, and to do what we do more simply. I’m not sure what that would look like. My fear is that folk would miss some of the richness of what we have been able to do, and we would enter into a slightly drawn out death spiral.

So, what can we do? Well, let’s go back to Ezra and Nehemiah. We can keep our ears open for the prophetic and challenging voices – is there a sense in which are we comfortable in our panelled homes while the Temple is in ruins? Or are there other things God is saying to us?

We can pray – we can share our mixed feelings about all this with God, and pray for guidance, wisdom, and the resources we need to do what God is calling us to do. And we can do the practical stuff – we can get on with it.

A few months ago you may recall we did a discipleship survey. I wouldn’t want you to think that it just disappeared into the ether. We have processed the answers, and talked about them at Mission and Discipleship Action Group. It was very encouraging, a lot of positive feedback, and it is helping us think about what we prioritise. One of the encouraging things was a number of people who said that they would like to get involved in different ministries. The problem is, it was an anonymous survey, so I haven’t been able to follow them up. So, if you filled in that survey, and said you’d like to be involved in something, please get in touch so that I can connect you up. And if you didn’t fill in that survey, but there’s an area of church life you would like to serve in, or you feel God might be prompting you to explore, talk to me or Nick, Caroline or Clair. There are plenty of opportunities.

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