‘Awesome’ is overused. Fact.
Yeah, yeah, we want to move with the times and be down with the kids, but sometimes we need to take a word out of its lazy cliché and look at it, long and hard in order to make any sense of the message it’s sending. Can we use the same word to describe a brioche doughnut (from Crwst, the best little doughnut shop in Wales) and also to describe God?
No! It’s one or the other and I reckon God wins, hands down.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:
150 years after Jerusalem was destroyed, a remnant of its people had returned but the walls remained no more than great piles of rubble and the city gates were burnt and useless. All around Jerusalem were hostile peoples, ready to break in and plunder, to destroy. Despairing at the danger his people were in, the lack of vision maybe, the lack of progress and energy, Nehemiah stepped up to restore the safety and the integrity of the city. We don’t know how tall the walls would have been then – probably not as high as in the photo (rebuilt over the ages, particularly the Middle Ages) but certainly they would have been too high for a man to scale, for a horse to clear, for an arrow to reach to the ramparts from the ground. Tall enough. Let’s say ten metres. And a couple of metres thick at least, so that men could walk along the top of them, defending them.
Nehemiah had a role in a foreign king’s court, but his concern for his home city and its people was so real and passionate that he returned home to rally everyone. And I do mean everyone – from perfume makers to priests, from rulers to guards, men and women both. He wasn’t the obvious choice for a huge engineering project – he’d been a top courtier to the foreign king, not a builder or an engineer, or even a governor, but driven by necessity, and full of prayer, he did the job (I like to imagine him having a minor rant and ending up throwing his hands in the air saying ‘OK, OK, well, someone has to do it so it may as well be me!). He’s like Moses, not cut out for the job. And like Paul, not cut out for the job.
But this unlikely man supervised the rebuilding of this huge city wall, mile upon mile of it, organising work parties, pulling men away from their usual employment, to sacrificially spend time and sweat on the task. And there was only man-power to call on, muscle power and back breaking effort under an unrelenting sun. He met fierce opposition. It was ridiculous – everyone said so! How would they take the ruins, the burnt and fragmented rubble of the last hundred plus years to make strong, reliable fortifications? How would they feed their families while they did it? What about the crops? And as they worked, they were open to attack. It was crazy.
It wasn’t just the enemy without they had to contend with, working with one hand and carrying a sword in the other, their families huddled close-by for protection; the enemy within also attacked them over and over again. If it wasn’t complaints about the time they spent on the work, neglecting the land, it was complaints about the expense, it was panic about the attacks of their enemies, it was disbelief that the job was worth doing. Nehemiah, a good leader, heard the complaints and acted upon them – he sorted out the financial burden by calling on the rulers and tax officials to treat the people more fairly, and he reorganised the community so that the workforce, and its families, were protected as they worked. When his workers were treated unjustly he was angry on their behalf and he protected them. When they came to him in panic he wasn’t just their manager, he was their teacher and pastor, giving them courage, saying
‘Don’t be afraid. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome’
See? God is great and awesome. God is awesome. The words go together. Much better than ‘doughnuts’ and ‘awesome’. Or anything else you can think of and ‘awesome’.
Whatever happened, Nehemiah always ‘remembered the Lord’. He was a man of prayer at every point in the story; as he wept for Jerusalem at the very beginning, as he saw the magnitude of the job they faced, as they were in danger, and as the work got under way. Whatever came his way, Nehemiah prayed and remembered the Lord.
I think the word ‘remember’ means more than ‘call too mind’. I think it means ‘remember the nature of God, know Him, recognise Him.’ And I think that Nehemiah was able to continue a seemingly impossible task because he knew God and he fully understood what ‘awesome’ meant. His God aroused awe in him, his God loomed so large and so real in his life, that his reaction was one of wonder and amazement, humility, total obedience and love. The people of Jerusalem didn’t need a master builder or an engineer to draw up plans, or a fleet of JCB’s to move the tons of boulders, or the SAS to protect them, they just needed what God had sent them, a man of prayer, a man who knew and obeyed the will of God – no matter how badly they behaved, how much they fought against him, no matter what his enemies did. A man of prayer who just stuck it out.
When his enemies realised that the rebuilding was succeeding and they couldn’t nip in and out of the city any more, to steal and destroy, they grew sneaky and cowardly, plotting to kill him, and then – when that failed – they spun lies about him to ruin his reputation, they said he was setting himself up as king, they schemed to ruin his leadership. There was evil all around him, overt and covert and it must have been lonely, up there in the leadership role. But still he just prayed and worked on. No one could budge him. He was one stubborn son of a gun, that man.
Nothing could shake him from his faith in God. Nothing could make him fear failure more than he feared God. He believed that he had been given a job, and he was bloody well going to do it, whatever the world threw at him. He’s like Noah, when the world thought he was a lunatic, he plugged on. He’s like Abraham when it seemed that obeying God would break his heart, he plugged on. I’m full of admiration for these men, but I know that it wasn’t just them, it was the enabling of God. Alone they would have failed. Their strength was the strength of God in response to obedience and prayer.
God is awesome. Think about the word, my chitterlings (that’s a Derby delicacy – pig offal in jelly. See how I love you?) ‘awe-some‘. If we see Him, truly see Him, we will be filled with awe. Remember the yanks in the attack on Iraq threatening ‘shock and awe’? The greatest force, power, magnificence, the world can imagine, that is what creates awe. The force which can never be beaten brings out our awe. Awe makes us sink to our knees in love and worship. America falls short in the awe department. But if we truly understand the nature of God, then, then there is awe. When we see how powerful, how awesome God is, we are compelled to pray, just like Nehemiah was compelled to pray at every turn in his life. Knowing God, simply knowing Him, creates the overwhelming desire to turn to Him, to love Him, to depend on Him.
And this is what I’m stumbling towards, my loves – ever so slowly and clumsily, but I have so much to say about this and I can’t quite get it all in line so I’m a bit all over the place : If you are afraid, and we are all afraid at times, remember (think of and recognise the nature of) the Lord, who is great (powerful) and awesome. Look to see Him. Turn to prayer. Pray in love and worship, pray in awe. Fear will go.
When the walls need rebuilding and the world is against you, and you’re afraid and uncertain and confused, when you know the right path to take but you can’t quite move your foot onto it….. ‘Don’t be afraid. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome’
Instead of staying in that place of fear, think of God, recognise Him, and when you do that, well, that’s prayer! You don’t have to have words, you don’t have to be poetic, you just have to turn to Him. Turning to Him, thinking about Him, that’s prayer.
In the bible we are told ‘Do not be afraid’ 365 times. When you come face to face with God that becomes a do-able command. I think the secret to those 365 commands is hidden here in this line in Nehemiah. Your Lord is great and awesome. You belong to Him and He belongs to you, and you are safe in His hands.
Doughnuts are delicious. God is awesome.