“Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” Neh. 5.19
Pray and Be Strange for God’s sake, your good, and others…and expect costly opposition
A few years ago I had the opportunity to make my first trip to China, to Shanghai. Two things particularly are seared into my memory. One is how big it is and how fast it’s developed. Thirty-five years ago, much of Shanghai was still farmland, now it’s got more than 1,000 buildings taller than 30 stories. There are now twice as many skyscrapers in Shanghai as there are in New York.
There are 24 million people in Shanghai, eight million a day who ride the metro. Start in the middle of the city and you can ride the metro for pretty much 90 minutes in any direction, on one of it’s 14 lines. The first line was built just 25 years ago.
The other thing about this huge city that is seared into my memory is a strange little historic section of town right in the middle of it that was known in the 1940s as “The Shanghai Ghetto.” I happened to stumble into it while walking around the city. In the 1940s it was home to about 23,000 Jews. I wasn’t expecting to find a Jewish enclave in the middle of huge Chinese city!
What in the heck, how did that happen?
It happened because a man of prayer and principle decided to act strangely for God’s sake and for the sake of others, even though he encountered costly opposition. I’m sure he had read Nehemiah. As I was reading Nehemiah with the question, “Lord, what here is for us now?” one verse and phrase in particular that I feel led to share.
The phrase for us is “Pray and Be Strange for God’s sake, your good, and others…and expect costly opposition”
Throughout Nehemiah we see that he was a man of great prayer, whose only audience was God. When he heard about the pitiful state that the city of Jerusalem was in, he fasted and prayed for days (1.4-11) When he had an audience with the King he prayed (2.4). Upon arriving in Jerusalem he surveys the city when others are sleeping, and held tightly in his own heart what he felt like God was calling him to do (2.12). He relied on God for the strength to do what God had called him to do (2.20 and throughout the whole book). At key points throughout the book he calls people to pray for the task, and after all is said and done, he leads the people in corporate prayers, and especially prayers of repentance and confession. As he continues to do things that are hard and challenging and unpopular, he appeals to God for notice, not looking for the approval of others. (5.19) This is my verse to highlight, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.”
A wise and spiritual man once observed that the deeper a person goes into God, they end up doing things that seem strange to many, precisely because they’re not listening to the many. They end up marching out of step with the masses. To the one who goes deeper into God, only one voice matters. You see this in spades in the life of Jesus, our Lord.
And you see it all through Nehemiah’s story. He didn’t care what other people thought. He is acting outside the norm at every turn. And because of it, he attracts opposition. Early on we find him fasting and praying for days on end, crying. Strange.
He makes a request to the conquering pagan King who, who could have had him executed with the snap of a finger, “Let me leave my job with you and go home and rebuild the city that you destroyed.” And not only that, “Let me you use your stuff to rebuild it…And not only that, give me a letter with your name on it so I can have safe passage”. Bold.
He goes out at night to pray. He directly confronts those who were opposed to him. He sets a ridiculous goal and calls people to it. He who had been a royal servant finds himself being an engineer and then a warrior construction manager. He ends up being on the receiving end of death threats a bunch of times, and had whole armies that were looking to kill him. When his assassins showed up, and he was encouraged to hide, he didn’t. And then, in the middle of this huge rebuilding project, being threatened on every side, he noticed that the poor were being taken advantage of by the rich. He pauses the work, calls everyone together, reminds the people that the poor are their brothers and sisters, makes the rich return all that they had taken and stop charging interest on loans. And they do it! And then to go further and for the 12 years after he had rebuilt the wall and was the governor, Nehemiah himself doesn’t take advantage of what was due to him in his position because it would make it too hard on the people.
Why? Why would Nehemiah do such things?
Because he wanted God to know and remember that he was doing good. He wanted to rebuild Jerusalem for God’s sake, and wanted to take care of the people for their sake, SO THAT God would remember him for good. To want to be blessed by God because of what I do for his sake and for the sake of others is not only right, it’s wise. It’s after Nehemiah stops the injustice and goes on to describe his own lifestyle of radical generosity and equity that he prays our verse in 5.19 “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.”
This is where Nehemiah’s story ends too.
- the wall is built and dedicated and
- the sins confessed and
- the people’s devotion to the law reestablished and
- the Sabbath is reclaimed and
- justice served and
- wrongs righted and
- the priesthood purified…
Last chapter, 13.14 “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service. 13.22 “Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.” And the last verse in the book 13.31 “Remember me, O my God, for good.” Throughout his life Nehemiah demonstrates for us that it doesn’t matter what the people around me do, it matters what I do in the sight of God, even if it incurs costly opposition.
So how in the world did thousands of Jews find themselves in Shanghai in the 1940s? Because of the courage of several men, each acting alone at great risk to do the right thing.
Foremost amongst them was a Japanese bureaucrat named Sempo Sugihara, born in Tokyo in 1900. There certainly weren’t that many Christians in Japan at that time, but Sempo Sugihara was one of them. He worked in Japan’s foreign service, stationed first in China. That’s where he became a Christian. He became so discouraged by the brutal treatment of the Japanese towards the Chinese in the late 1930s that he resigned his post.
As punishment, he was sent to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania in eastern Europe as the consul there. In the early 1940s the Jews there were worried, for good reason, caught between the Soviets and the Germans and with few options to escape to safety, and the only hope was to get a visa to another country.
Sugihara found himself on the receiving end of requests made by Jews seeking a visa to anywhere to escape the Nazis. He knew that if they couldn’t escape, they’d likely be killed. He asked his superiors three times if he could issue transit visas to these people. He was denied three times. So he just started writing the visas.
As one writer tells it “The consul could not ignore the imploring faces of the people outside his gate. He consulted with his wife and made the decision to disobey his government’s orders. He knew what the consequences of his action would be-he would surely be dismissed from his position when found out, and was placing he and his family in danger. The Japanese government could try and execute him for insubordination, and the Soviets and Germans could both retaliate as well. But Sugihara decided he was morally obligated to risk his future to save these human lives.“
So he began writing transit visas by hand, with the impending closure of the consulate looming. For four weeks Sugihara and his wife spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas for Jews, rarely breaking for meals. It’s estimated they did a months worth of work a day for 29 days straight. When he was forced to leave Lithuania, the night before in his hotel, he didn’t sleep but instead keep writing visas. From the train waiting for it to depart, he wrote as many visas as he could and handed them out the window. When the train started pulling away from the station, he handed his issuing stamp to a trusted local and threw the rest of the blank visas out the window. 10 months later the Germans took over. Before they came there were 235,000 Lithuanian Jews. After they left there were 5,000.
Sugihara was restationed to Prague, and his superiors asked him how many visas did he issue? He told them. He’d issued almost 2,200 family visas, representing around 6,000 lives that were saved. Jewish families on the Sugihara visas traveled overground across Siberia on their way to Kobe, Japan, and eventually were settled in Shanghai, China in the Shanghai Ghetto til the war ended.
It’s estimated that today more than 40,000 people are alive because of Sugihara’s visas.
After spending time in a Soviet prison camp, when he returned to Japan, he was forced to resign from the foreign service in disgrace. He ended up selling lightbulbs door to door to make a living for him and his family in post-war Japan. His story was little known until 1968 when Israel was finally able to track him down. He didn’t talk about his story much. He was recognized by Israel as a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1985 and died a year later. He has become known as the “Japanese Schindler”. And he was a devout Christian.
He was a man of few words, but those few word speak. “I didn’t do anything special….I made my own decisions, that’s all. I followed my own conscience and listened to it.” And this… “Do what’s right because it is right.”
I wonder how many times he had read Nehemiah.
So from Nehemiah for us….
“Pray and Be Strange for God’s sake, your good, and others…and expect costly opposition.”