Arise & Build. Nehemiah: A Guide to City Transformation

By Dr. Ron Burgio
(originally published in THRiVE! Winter 2008)

While in exile in Babylon, Nehemiah received bad news from his brother who had just returned from Jerusalem: "The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire" (1:3). The wall, of course was the protection for the city. The gates represent the entry points for the people and for trade as well as the place of government. Nehemiah, an official in the court of King Artaxerxes, was deeply and personally affected by this news. His concern for the poor spiritual, moral and economic condition of the city led him to grieve for Jerusalem.
     Do we grieve for Buffalo when we see her poor spiritual, moral and economic condition, or do we complain like everyone else? Do we just hang in there or think of moving away? What if we would grieve, like Nehemiah, and start a time of fasting and prayer? Genuine, real remorse should come from genuine concern which leads to fasting and prayer.
     Nehemiah knew that the condition of Jerusalem was a result of sin. Really, any negative condition on earth is the result of sin, ours or someone else’s. Nehemiah didn’t spend any time laying blame on anyone in particular. It didn’t matter, here is his prayer: “I pray before You day and night for the Israelites, Your servants, confessing the sins of the Israelites which we have sinned against You. Yes, I and my father's house have sinned” (1:6). He made no excuses. He put no blame on any one person, but he blamed everyone including himself. Repentance becomes powerful when it incorporates confession of the sins of the people and our own sins. “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
     After confession, we need to believe God for success. Nehemiah prayed in full faith that God would keep his word. “Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name’ (1:8-9) God had put it in Nehemiah’s heart to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. God’s covenant never fails. Even today, as we recently celebrated Israel’s 60th birthday, His covenant with Israel still stands. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray… (1:11)
     A few years ago the Lord spoke to me when I read Psalm 2:8: “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.” He told me “Ask of Me, and I will give You Buffalo for your inheritance, and the suburbs for your possession.” He wants us, the Church at Buffalo, to make this declaration: “God has given us the city, the suburbs and the rural areas of Western New York.” They are ours to minister to, to pray for, to serve in, to lead and to win to Christ.
     After his long trip from Babylon to Jerusalem, Nehemiah inspected the city. He saw firsthand what his brother had reported to him. The gates and walls of Jerusalem were indeed broken down and destroyed, but Nehemiah encouraged and motivated the Jews, “Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” (2:17) Nehemiah had an infectious faith. And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me…” (2:18). He had a history of the goodness of God. It caught on. The officials declared, “Let us rise and build. So they strengthened their hands for the good work” (2:18).
     The gates of our city are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, the churches, political and community leaders and the believers of Buffalo. We must pray, encourage each other and strengthen all with the Word of God.
     The builders of Jerusalem’s walls worked together. There is strength in unity and in united purpose. Chapter 3 records the details of the work. At least 38 times it mentions “next to him” or “after him” as indicating they worked side by side to build up the walls. The people and the clergy and the officials all partnered together, each doing the work in their own sphere of influence.
     When the Body of Christ of all denominations and races comes into unity we will see a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our area. Psalms 133 speaks of this type of unity and blessing.

Psalm 133
  1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
         For brethren to dwell together in unity!
  2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
         Running down on the beard,
         The beard of Aaron,
         Running down on the edge of his garments.
 3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
         Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
         For there the LORD commanded the blessing—
         Life forevermore.

Nehemiah won a great victory when he unified the people and when he motivated and encouraged the officials. He didn’t have long to enjoy his success however. No sooner did the work begin, the attacks came from the outside. Nehemiah 4 records the assault by Sanballat and his companions. “But it so happened, when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, that he was furious and very indignant, and mocked the Jews (4:1) We can learn valuable lessons from studying Sanballat’s assaults, threats and schemes.
     We need to expect distractions. One of the great tests of leadership, of being a person with vision, is how to handle opposition. Nehemiah faced the usual tactics of the opposition:
1.              Ridicule (4:1-3)
2.              Resistance (4:7-8)
3.              Rumor (4:11-12)

     Nehemiah was not about to let the whining and complaining of a few unbelievers get in the way of his God-given purpose. John Maxwell says Nehemiah modeled the right response to all three of these challenges. He…
1. Relied on God (4:4,5)
2. Respected the opposition (4:9)
3. Reinforced his weak points (4:13)
4. Reassured the people (4:14)
5. Refused to quit (4:1)
6. Renewed the people’s strength continually (4:16-23)

The Apostle Paul said it this way: For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:9). He also said, But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:25)
     Persistence is the secret to outlasting our critics. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Hebrews 10:36)
     Nehemiah’s vision, work and persistence resulted in a revival in Jerusalem in his day. What will revival look like in Buffalo?
     Revival in Buffalo will include many people, young and
old and of all backgrounds, coming to faith in Jesus Christ, joining the Church and being discipled.       I believe the Church will finally be seen as having the solution to people’s suffering. There will be signs, wonders, miracles and healings, not only in church buildings, but in the streets, the market place, in schools or wherever believers share their faith.
     We’ve only scratched the surface of what God wants to do through the Church. Jesus’ commission to us includes the miraculous: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:15-18).
     My vision for the Church in Buffalo is that we achieve unity across denominational and racial barriers. If we do this we will through our cultural and ethnic diversity be able to reach many more people in Buffalo and the world. Our natural tendency is to examine weaknesses in each other, rather than embracing strengths. In order for the Church to be united across racial boundaries, we need to enlarge our hearts to receive those that are different from us. The problem is that many of us deal with prejudice in our lives. Webster says that prejudice is “a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known, preconceived ideas, favorable or more usually, unfavorable.” It's usually suspicion, intolerance, or irrational hatred of other races, regions, people groups, or occupations.
     People of different nationalities, races, creeds and geographic areas are looking for someone to come and bandage their wounds as the Good Samaritan did to the man who was robbed and left for dead. He poured on oil and wine; a healing element to soothe those wounds. And then he put him on his donkey and took him to an inn and took care of him. Jesus was speaking into a racial situation with this story. He was speaking of the need for reconciliation and love between ethnic groups. Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."
     Revival in Buffalo will result in more than spiritual or physical benefits for individuals or local churches. Recently I read a paper by Dennis Hussak entitled Let The Light Return, a marketplace approach to transform the Buffalo/Niagara region into The Center of Light. Dennis gave me permission to quote his paper extensively, so here is part of his chapter called “Vision.”
     Imagine walking the streets of Downtown Buffalo on a warm summer evening with a cool breeze coming in off the lake. As you travel through the Theater District to Lafayette Square you pass numerous boutiques and delis open for business and drawing a good crowd. Many of the buildings have the soft glow of light illuminating their architectural wonders of a century ago. New housing on the second and third floor lofts is drawing increased numbers of young and retired from all over the region. People from as far away as Arizona and Oregon are hearing of a transformation sweeping a community that was once referred to as the “armpit of the east.”
     What strikes you about the people you encounter is that many exhibit a joy and unity that is uncommon for this day and age. There is a sense of excitement and optimism that didn’t exist in Buffalo years back. Something dramatic has happened that has taken a metropolitan area, which was the brunt of jokes, to a jewel that reflects a new light of optimism.
     As you disembark from the trolley you get a copy of the Buffalo News. The headline is “Police Precincts Reduced Again.” That sounds familiar considering what the Control Board did just a few years ago. Your first thought is “here we go again” but you read on and discover the subtitle indicates that crime is down dramatically and the closing is good news saving the city additional thousands of dollars. Another article reports that Buffalo Public schools have gone from the worst in the area to number 3 in Western New York. It talks about how parents are getting involved in their children’s education resulting in a whole new climate in the city’s schools.
     Walking through the magnificent floral gardens with fountains bathed in colorful light you reach a kiosk advertising numerous neighborhood ethnic and cultural festivals. The local churches have come together with residents to sponsor and fund events that highlight the significant contributions of their neighborhoods.
     Do we dare to dream that big? Dennis Hussak’s paper starts with the vision and then outlines a project plan for achieving that vision. If you examine this transformation at www.ltlr.org you will see that the cause is not the infusion of multiple millions of dollars by the government; it is not the result of the addition of thousands of jobs by a corporate giant; it is not powered by some climactic change that results in better weather. Instead it is the result of a dramatic new way in which people think, and live their lives. Imagine a society in which people life by the motto: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
     This vision is too big for one individual. It will need everyone who calls on the name of Jesus Christ in Buffalo. Under Nehemiah’s leadership the people of Jerusalem worked side-by-side to rebuild the city. They maintained unity in spite of attacks and ridicule. Let’s support those who have great vision for our city. Let’s each be a light to our community and do our part to live as Christ has taught us.