Dealing With Change & Anxiety – Nehemiah & The Rebuilding of the Walls

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
Image via Wikipedia

Today I would like to talk to you about change.  If there is one constant about the world today it is change.  Change is happening all around us and, no matter what stage of life we are in, we are changing too.  But even though change is everywhere, it is very challenging for us because change means going from what is known to what is unknown.  Change is like a circus performer swinging on a trapeze high above the floor.  At a critical moment in her performance, she must let go of one swing before she can grab hold of the other.  And so it is with change.  We must let go of the old and familiar and extend an arm out towards what is new and unknown.  And generally speaking, we don’t like to do that.  Even when the status quo is detrimental and we need to change to a better way, we tend to get anxious about change when it confronts us.

And so, what I hope to do today is give you three things that will help us, both as individuals and as a community, to successfully transition through the changes that we need to make.  And to do that we will look at the Old Testament story of Nehemiah and the Rebuilding of the Walls of Jerusalem.

But first you need to know the back story.  In 586 BC, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the walls surrounding the city were torn down by the conquering Babylonian army and much of population of Judeawas taken into exile in Babylon.  About 50 years later, in 539 BC, the Persians defeated the Babylonians to become the new world power and the next year, Cyrus, the King of Persia, issued a decree allowing the Judeans to return to their homeland.  Those that did return began the arduous task of building a new life in their homeland while, at the same time, rebuilding their devastated city.  A smaller and more modest version of the temple was completed in 516 BC but seventy years later Jerusalem was still vulnerable to attack without walls.

Nehemiah was one of many Judeans who stayed behind in exile and he served as an important official in the court of King Artaxerxes I of Persia.  When messengers from Judea reported about the shame and the trouble that Jerusalem was experiencing because of her broken-down walls, Nehemiah asked for and received the King’s permission to return to his homeland to help his people.  And in 445 BC, Nehemiah returned to Judea and began leading the people of Jerusalem in the rebuilding the city walls.

As the work progressed, Nehemiah began encountering the resistance that invariably arises when change occurs.  We pick up the story in Nehemiah 6:

1 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”

But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.

5 Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6 in which was written:

“It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”

8 I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

10 One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because some people are coming to kill you—by night they are coming to kill you.”

11 But I said, “Should someone like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” 12 I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.

14 Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophet Noadiah and how she and the rest of the prophets have been trying to intimidate me. 15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.  (Nehemiah 6:1-15)

So why did Nehemiah encounter this resistance when he was making what we can see with the benefit of hindsight was a much-needed change?  What can helpful to us as we consider this question is Family Systems Theory.  Family Systems Theory looks at a family, or any other group, as an inter-related emotional system, in which a change in one part of the system has an effect on the whole system.  We know how systems work from other things like our cars.  When the gas tank, which is in one part of the car, runs dry, it causes the engine, which is in another part of the car, to stop and the whole system shuts down.  And we know about the interconnectedness of emotions in families from some of the sayings that we have.  Three years ago when I was here in Langley looking for a house and Susan and our children were still back in Saskatchewan, I was reminded by some people here of the saying, “Happy wife, happy life.”  I think that was good advice and I can tell you today that Susan is a happy wife, and that means I’m having a happy life.

As we look at all the people in and around Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time, what we see is an emotional system that is very anxious because of the change that is being introduced:  the city walls are being rebuilt.   And a system invariably reacts to change by trying to stay the same.   Scientists call this tendency to stay the same “homeostasis.” And the persistence to stay the same increase as anxiety increases.  In his book, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope, Peter Steinke indicates that this persistence to stay the same can take three different forms.  First, there can be emotional barriers to change.   These are unquestioned beliefs, preserved by tradition or anxiety, that predetermine how a situation is viewed and understood.  An example of an emotional barrier is the unquestioning commitment to tradition wrapped up in the saying “We’ve never done it that way before.”

The second form of homeostasis is imaginative gridlock.  When an individual or a system becomes anxious, the thing that they need the most – imagination – becomes paralyzed and they are unable to imagine creative solutions to the challenge.  An example of this occurred in Montana in the hot, dry summer of 1949.  Wagner Dodge and about a dozen other firefighters were fighting fires in the Mann Gulch area when the winds reversed and drove the inferno towards the fire fighters.  Knowing that they could not get to the river ahead of the fire, Dodge stopped and ordered his men to do the same.  Instead, they panicked and kept moving.  Dodge lit the grass around him on fire created a small area of burnt grass.  Then he laid down on the ground with a wet handkerchief over his head.  In a moment of severe stress, Dodge was still able to think of a creative solution which enabled him to survive. The dozen other men were trapped in emotional gridlock, and only two of them survived.

The third form of homeostasis is resistance.  Resistance tries to stop the change process by sabotaging it.[1]  This was what Nehemiah was facing.  He was facing sabotage from the outside with Sanballat slandering him and conspiring to assassinate him.  But Nehemiah was also facing sabotage from inside his own circle with Shemaiah. Shemaiah was a fellow Jew, a prophet and perhaps also a friend, and yet Nehemiah discerns that Shemaiah is giving him a false message.  God wouldn’t call Nehemiah to flee, especially now that the job of rebuilding the walls is nearly complete.  And God wouldn’t call Nehemiah, a layperson, to go into the sanctuary of the temple, a place where only the priests were supposed to go.  Nehemiah correctly exposes Shemaiah’s treachery.  Nehemiah is definitely encountering resistance in the anxious system that he is leading.

But notice what Nehemiah does and what he does not do.  First, he does not run away.  He maintains good emotional contact with the people in and around Jerusalem even though they are anxious and worried.  Second, Nehemiah does not stop rebuilding the walls.  He continues to move forward based on good and godly principles.  The city walls need to be rebuilt so that Jerusalem can be secure.  So Nehemiah continues with the project even though other people are getting very, very anxious about it.  And third, Nehemiah doesn’t let his own anxiety run free.  He manages his personal anxiety by turning to God in prayer.  He prays,  “Now strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6:9b)  And God gives Nehemiah the strength he needs to keep on leading faithfully even when there is resistance.

God’s encouragement to us to not be anxious is one of the themes that we find running throughout the Bible.  Maybe God keeps repeating this message because he knows that fear is not an attitude of faith.  Or maybe it is because God knows that we cannot follow him when we are impaired by our worries.  Or maybe it is simply because God loves us and he does not want us to be anxious.  Whatever the reason, time and time again we read and hear, “Do not be afraid,” “do not be discouraged,” “do not let your heart be troubled.”  And then, right after these words of encouragement, God always gives the reason why we do not have to be anxious:  “It is I,”  “I am with you,” “I have prepared a place for you” he says to you.

And we know that God’s words of encouragement are trustworthy because God has stepped into human history and truly became God-with-us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Towards the end of his season of ministry, Jesus’ own Jewish community of faith become very anxious because of the change that Jesus was introducing through what he did and what he taught.  The resistance became so strong that some in his own group began conspiring to kill him.  And yet Jesus stayed connected to his own community of faith in spite of the anxiety.  Jesus also kept on moving forward based on good and godly principles.  He described his life mission in this way: 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)  And finally Jesus managed his own anxiety by turning to his Father in prayer.  Matthew describes for us one such occasion in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)  With the comfort and the encouragement of his Father, Jesus was able to move forward in accomplishing his mission, even though it led to the cross.  But Jesus did that for you, so that, in the midst of all your anxious moments, you could turn to him and receive the peace and the encouragement that you need to

  1. stay connected with the anxious people around you,
  2. make decisions based on good and godly principles and 
  3. manage your own anxiety with Jesus’ help.

Faith in Jesus is not pie-in-the-sky for the super-spiritual.  Change and anxiety are real life events and the story of Nehemiah and the Rebuilding of the Walls of Jerusalem show what faith in Jesus really is.  It is Jesus coming to us and actually helping us as we live our everyday lives.  And the story gets even better because we know how it ends.  Peter Steinke writes of that ending with these words, “With the resurrection of Jesus, everything changes.  Both the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for the renewal of the world have been launched.  All is redeemed—space, time, matter people. What is broken in creation will be restored and made whole.  God’s promise to make all things new embraces everything in creation—the animate and the inanimate, the sea and the mountains, the stars and space.  It is cosmic—the whole creation is redeemed.  Easter’s grand promise is a newly embodied person in a renewed world.”[2]  Now that’s a change we long for.   Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 22 May 2011.)

[1] The information on homeostasis and the three forms it takes—emotional barriers, imaginative gridlock and resistance—are from Peter L. Steinke, A Door Set Open:  Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Herndon VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), 25-29.

[2] Steinke, 85.


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