Sunday, August 17, 2014

Nine Ways to Bet the Farm

Early the following spring, in the month of Nisan, during the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was serving the king his wine.  I had never before appeared sad in his presence.  So the king asked me, “Why are you looking so sad?  You don’t look sick to me.  You must be deeply troubled.”  Then I was terrified, but I replied, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad?  For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”   The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?”  With a prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, “If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.”   The king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked, “How long will you be gone?  When will you return?”  After I told him how long I would be gone, the king agreed to my request.  I also said to the king, “If it please the king, let me have letters addressed to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, instructing them to let me travel safely through their territories on my way to Judah.  And please give me a letter addressed to Asaph, the manager of the king’s forest, instructing him to give me timber.  I will need it to make beams for the gates of the Temple fortress, for the city walls, and for a house for myself.”  And the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.  When I came to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, I delivered the king’s letters to them.  The king, I should add, had sent along army officers and horsemen to protect me.  But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel.
So I arrived in Jerusalem.  Three days later,  I slipped out during the night, taking only a few others with me.  I had not told anyone about the plans God had put in my heart for Jerusalem.  We took no pack animals with us except the donkey I was riding.  After dark I went out through the Valley Gate, past the Jackal’s Well, and over to the Dung Gate to inspect the broken walls and burned gates.  Then I went to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but my donkey couldn’t get through the rubble.  So, though it was still dark, I went up the Kidron Valley instead, inspecting the wall before I turned back and entered again at the Valley Gate.  The city officials did not know I had been out there or what I was doing, for I had not yet said anything to anyone about my plans.  I had not yet spoken to the Jewish leaders—the priests, the nobles, the officials, or anyone else in the administration.  But now I said to them, “You know very well what trouble we are in.  Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.  Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace!”  Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king.  They replied at once, “Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!”  So they began the good work.   But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard of our plan, they scoffed contemptuously.  “What are you doing?  Are you rebelling against the king?” they asked.   I replied, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”   Nehemiah 2:1-20 (NLT)

Have you ever heard someone say, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it?
I first heard that expression in connection with the political season of 1959-60.  It was uttered by a less-than-prophetic man in our community, who thought that “upstart” Senator from Massachusetts….somebody named Kennedy…didn’t have a prayer of beating out Vice President Nixon in November. 
Did you ever wish you had bet the farm on some long shot?  Today the Nehemiah Journal shows us a man who bet the farm nine different ways.  In chapter 1 we saw that Nehemiah, cup-bearer to the king of Persia, had gotten the bad news that his homeland, Jerusalem was in disgraceful rubble.  The walls were broken down, and the people were severely distressed. 
For four months Nehemiah fasted, prayed and mulled-over in his mind just exactly what he could do about it.  He was a thousand miles from home in service to a king who had ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem to cease.  It wasn’t normally a good idea to speak out on such issues; his boss, Artaxerxes was not a nice man!
In some ways perhaps you and I can identify with Nehemiah.  I’m certain none of us have the job of tasting the king’s food to make sure it isn’t poisoned (who would want that job, anyway?).  However, we can identify with seeing the walls of our society crumbling (divorce, drugs, crime, homes in shambles), and wanting to do something, yet feeling helpless.
In order to do something, Nehemiah had to bet the farm.  He had to stake everything on God coming through.  He had fasted and prayed, and worked on plans to act – if he ever got the chance – and that’s what betting the farm is all about…being ready when God makes the impossible possible! 
Let’s discover together nine ways to bet the farm, ways to be ready to do whatever God calls you to do:

1.            When the stakes are high, pray, plan and trust God.

     Nehemiah spent four months (between Chisleu, December and Nisan, April), fasting, praying and planning.  Some things require quick decisions; you cannot spend a long time praying when you’re on a train track and the whistle is blowing! 
When, however, you are faced with a major decision, even in time of crisis, God’s plan includes including Him.  The higher the stakes, the more we should fast and pray.
I am aware of a man who was involved in a crisis some time ago who took off from work for the day to pray.  God blessed him with wisdom and the right spirit in the crisis.  Betting the farm means praying, planning and trusting God to provide an opportunity to act.

2.            When afraid to serve, serve anyway.

Nehemiah knew how this whole situation was shaping-up to be a dangerous minefield.  Navigating the political waters of Susa’s capitol brought visions of hangings!
One of his predecessors, Esther had access to the king as well.  It is even recorded in the book named for her how the Jews were subject to the whims of the king…even to death.  She recorded how no servant was allowed to come near the king with a sad face (Esther 4.2). 
The task itself, of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem would be difficult and dangerous.  Conventional wisdom told Nehemiah that approaching the king was suicide.
A young soldier who was fighting in Italy during World War II jumped into a foxhole just ahead of some bullets.  He immediately tried to deepen the hole for more protection and was frantically scraping away the dirt with his hands.  He unearthed something metal and brought up a silver crucifix, left by a former resident of the foxhole. 
A moment later another leaping figure landed beside him as the shells screamed overhead.  When the soldier got a chance to look, he saw that his new companion was an army chaplain.  Holding out the crucifix, the soldier gasped, "Am I glad to see you! How do you work this thing?"[1]
Well, how you work this thing about betting the farm for God is to remember that fear has no place alongside faith.  When you’re afraid to serve, serve anyway.  And remember His promise…
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.  When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.  When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.   Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)

3.            When told to speak, pray first.

     King Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah to tell him what he wanted.  This was the invitation for which the cup-bearer had prayed.  Yet, even at this time, after four months of fasting, praying and laying out plans, Nehemiah was reluctant to speak before asking God one more time. 
We call it a “prayer-fax” or “knee-mail” – whatever you call this darting arrow of a request, it was meant by Nehemiah to subject himself to the King of Heaven before he spoke to the king of Persia.  That is showing proper respect – in the order in which it should be shown. 
And, incidentally, a quick prayer in emergency is a good thing.  We ought to keep in mind that it is not a substitute for four months of earnestly seeking God’s face!

4.            When sacrifice calls for the best, volunteer.

I personally believe that prior to the king’s invitation to make a request Nehemiah had not laid out ALL the plans for rebuilding.  I think between verses 4 and 5 Nehemiah discovered that God was moving his heart to be personally involved.  He probably flinched when he said the words, “send me” to the king.
Some of us in this congregation would be surprised to hear the words tumble from our own lips, send me, O Lord, send me.  We think, “I’m no Isaiah.  I’m no Charles or John Wesley.”  Well, my friends, where do you suppose God gets His servants; if not here, where; and if not, why not here?  Don’t ever try these words on God: 
 I don’t speak so good…..It didn’t work for Moses.
 I’m just a kid…..It didn’t work for Timothy or Jeremiah.
 I’ve sinned, unclean lips…..that didn’t work for Isaiah or Peter.
 I’m all alone in this…..It didn’t work for Elijah.  And so on…
Like the man who fell off his horse and exclaimed, Saved between the saddle and the ground, Nehemiah made up his mind that he would volunteer to serve because this called for the best, and he was willing. 
Have you got time to serve God?  No?  Volunteer anyway.

5.            When the task is big, plan big, and ask in faith.

The king had entertained Nehemiah’s request to go by saying, “and how long will this take?”  Once Nehemiah’s plan was affirmed by the king’s readiness to let him go, he understood that he had understood God correctly; Nehemiah then asked for the moon. 
That, my friends, is just an extension of faith-asking.  We understand that God is in control.
The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord;
    he guides it wherever he pleases.  Proverbs 21:1 (NLT)
Betting the farm means you pray, asking God for as many resources as you will need – and then set to work planning out how you will respond when God acts.
Chuck Swindoll is a well-known Bible expositor.  He said,
“I weary of people who call it “faith” when they can’t tell you their plans.  Have you ever heard an individual say, “No, we’re not going to think this through.  We’re just going by ‘faith.’  God will lead us.”  The calculating businessman says, “Uh huh, yeah.  You’ll be back needing more bucks before you’re halfway there.”  The presence of faith does not mean an absence of organization.”[2]
     Do you have a plan?  Do you have a plan on which you’ll bet the farm when God calls? 
Betting the farm is an act of faith that includes using all you’ve got, including your God-given wisdom.  Nobody ever said you’ve got to check your brains at the door when you come to church. 
Following God is not a game of “blind man’s bluff”.  People who think blindly wandering their way through life without regard to the costs they inflict on others who bail them out constantly are not acting in faith – they’re an irresponsible drain.  You cannot plan for every contingency, but you must set goals, and lay plans to reach those goals.

6.            When God wants YOU, don’t imitate someone else.

If you check-out Nehemiah’s predecessor, Ezra the priest, you find that he went back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.  He went alone.  In Nehemiah’s journal we find that this loyal layman went back accompanied by half the Persian army.
Whatever the reasons – and many scholars suggest many theories – it is good for us to recognize that God uses whom He chooses.  Most preachers imitate their heroes.  I have a friend who sounds exactly like Billy Graham sometimes.  Now, that isn’t bad, but if God had wanted Dr. Graham to preach the sermons my friend was supposed to preach, my friend would be a shoe salesman somewhere.
My pastor, L.B. Thomason had a gracious way of welcoming folks to church.  With a grand South Georgia slurring drawl, he would intone, “Wellllcommmme, Friiieends”.  Now, I couldn’t do that – I liked it, but it just isn’t me to talk like that.
And you don’t have to be a millionaire donor to the building fund if you aren’t a millionaire.  You don’t have to preach if you’re not called.  But, you DO have to do what God called YOU to do!  He calls and uses people in different ways…His ways!

7.            When opposition comes, close your mouth and open your eyes.

Nehemiah looked and looked, and kept his observations to himself.  He knew that critics would try to derail his plans.  He pondered and focused on what God was up to.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.   Psalm 27:13
Sanballat and Tobiah were local governors of Samaria and Ammon, respectively.  They had had some influence in Jerusalem.  The coming of Nehemiah with papers from Artaxerxes meant their power was diminished.  So they sniped.  It is true that when God decides to move it will always disturb those who are comfortable, and who don’t know Him very well. 
Our job is to maintain focus on who is in charge.  That means it is so important to focus on what God is doing.  When Mary heard the angel tell her she would bear the Messiah, and she saw the kings from afar worship her little son, she pondered all these things in her heart.  She kept her mouth shut, but her spiritual eyes focused.

8.            When it is time to speak, trust God’s people with the truth.

Betting the farm is a great expression for this one.  It is hard in our day to trust people.  All you can do is lay out the truth and let it rule the day.  When Nehemiah gathered the people together he pointed to the walls, the broken, charred remains of the greatness of God’s city Jerusalem, and he said, “Brothers, that’s a disgrace!”  That was the truth!  He also said, “Brothers, let’s put it back up!”  That was encouragement.  And then, Nehemiah trusted the people to respond.  That was the hard part…and that was God’s part. 
In our day we have self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.  All the groups start with facing reality…”Hi, I’m Russell, I’m a chocoholic!” 
In the matter of faith and salvation, the time to speak is called confession.  “Hi, I’m Russell, I’m a sinner.”  You have to trust God with the rest.  He has promised to forgive.  Do you trust him?

9.            When unbelief mocks, stand firm!

     In Hebrews 11 we have the “roll call of the heroes of the faith”.  Part of that reminiscence is about how the prophets of old were mocked and ridiculed.  I believe the writer of Hebrews looked at Nehemiah’s journal.  The NIV translates verse 19b, they mocked and ridiculed us.  There are times when you have to stand firm.  In fact, betting the farm is all about standing firm for God and what’s right.
     Some say Dan Quayle and George H.W. Bush lost the 1990 Presidential election because they stood firm.  Quayle was ridiculed and mocked for his statements about Murphy Brown, Candace Bergen’s character on the TV show.  Quayle said Murphy Brown, as a single mother of choice, is not the best role model.  A mom and dad should be in the home raising a child. [3] 
In his book Standing Firm, Dan Quayle talked about the pain of losing the election.  In the long run, he lost nothing.  It was the American public who lost.
Some years later Candace Bergen herself in an interview on national television referred to the issue, and said I never intended to portray single motherhood as the ideal.[4] 
The issue is unbelief.  How do you recognize (and reject) unbelief, so that you can stand firm, and not just stand stubborn?  Consider Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arabian (v.19).  They were, according to some scholars Yahwists (worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Abraham).  However, they brought in some outside thinking; they worshipped the local pagan gods, including Baal.  They named their children Jewish, Godly names, but mixed ungodly things with their worship.  That is the essence of unbelief – anything that doesn’t give God the unquestioned first place of sovereignty!  After all, He did say,
“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”    Exodus 20. 2-3
     Nehemiah recognized unbelief when he heard it.  And he stood firm. 
If you want to bet the farm on anything, make it this:
When God says:  “do - I will do;
When God says:  don’t - I won’t!
I’d bet the farm on that any day!

[1] James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 254.
[2] Quoting Chuck Swindoll in How to turn intentions into actions,
[3] This is my recollection, not a direct quote.
[4] Again…this is representative of my recollection, not a direct quote.

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