On Sunday 9 January 2022 we began a series of studies in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah that will take us, on and off, through to the end of July.
This diary/memoir of Nehemiah records the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. I’m quite excited about what we can learn from this book because I’ve found it to be particularly relevant as we seek to re-imagine what it means to be church in a (post?) pandemic world with increasing communal anxiety and how we connect with the changing world around us.
There are two main themes to this book: chapters 1-7 examine the Rebuilding of the Walls and chapters 8-13 focus on the Reforming of the Community.
There are striking similarities between Nehemiah, Joseph and Daniel, and we find wonderful examples of obedience, prayer, determination and the value of collaborative working and there is also some great imagery. And, in the midst of all this, Nehemiah demonstrates inspiring godly leadership.
Nehemiah wasn’t a prophet, but he spoke and acted in a manner reminiscent of the best of them. He didn’t belong to the priesthood, yet he supported the priests with enthusiasm and shows priestly characteristics in his everyday life. He wasn’t a king, but his work reminds us of great regal enterprises. Who else but a King would want to rebuild a city?
1. Nehemiah Cared Enough To LISTEN vs 1-3
The name Nehemiah means The Lord comforts. We know, vs11, that he was a butler/cup bearer to the Emperor, Artaxerxes I (an ancient predecessor of the Ayatollah, for Persia is now the modern nation of Iran).
Vs1-3: The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev [that is December] in the twentieth year while I was in the citadel of Susa [the winter capital of Persia], Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’
Nehemiah listened to what his brother and friends had to say and asked them questions to clarify what they were saying. The people of Jerusalem were in trouble. They were feeling a great sense of disgrace. There buildings had been destroyed. The walls of the city were broken down.
The gates had been burned and were no longer usable. It was at this point that Nehemiah began to think that he could, or should, do something about this unacceptable situation. John Mott, founder of YMCA: The call to ministry is the awareness of a need and the capacity to meet that need: this constitutes a call! Nehemiah’s call was discerned/formed in this way.
2. Nehemiah Cared Enough To WEEP vs 4
Vs4: When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of Heaven. What makes people laugh or cry is often an indication of their character. I have to be honest and confess that I laugh at Father Ted. Dislike the Vicar of Dibley and cry at Rev!
Nehemiah was so distressed about the state of his ancestral home that he sat down, wept, mourned, and fasted. This great building programme, with all of its success and all of its challenges, begins with Nehemiah sitting and weeping. I guess many of us have been in a similar place at many times in our lives.
The New Testament equivalent that comes to mind is of Jesus entering Jerusalem before his trial and crucifixion. Remember how Jesus lamented at the political and spiritual state of God’s Holy City (Luke 19:41-44). However, it was his passionate compassion that gave Him the motivation and grace he needed to fulfil the greatest Kingdom building mission of all time. Nehemiah clearly has a deep sense of personal concern. He is willing to face the facts, to weep over them, and tell God about them – and that is clearly the best place to start.
3. Nehemiah Cared Enough To PRAY vs 5-10
There are twelve prayers in the book of Nehemiah. It opens and closes with prayer, and it shows us how much of a priority Nehemiah thought prayer was for the task God was calling him to do. In the same way, if we want the Lord to pour his spirit upon us and bless us in our mission and ministry, then we have to make prayer our priority. If we want God to move, then let’s be prepared to get on our knees, weep and seek His face. Nehemiah did and God blessed his work. Of course, there will be many times when we will feel inadequate for the task, which is why prayer is so important.
In vs5b-6a, Nehemiah recognises the character of God: Oh Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.
In his prayer, Nehemiah reminds himself of the nature of God. A God of forgiveness, a God of restoration, a God of reconciliation and a God of renewal. When our heart is right, God can change all the external circumstances of a situation and make it into something entirely different.
In vs6b-7, Nehemiah repented of all personal and corporate sins: I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. This is an honest facing of his own guilt. Nehemiah doesn’t say, Lord, I am thinking of those terrible sinners back there in Jerusalem. Be gracious to them because they have fallen into wrong actions. No, he puts himself into this picture, saying, I have contributed to this problem. There are things that I did or did not do that have made this ruin possible. I confess before you, Lord, the sins of myself and my father’s house. There’s no attempt to excuse or to blame others for this – it is a simple acknowledgement of a shared responsibility of wrong.
Nehemiah teaches us that it is only with God’s help we can actually change ourselves and recover from the damage and ruin of the past. And, whilst Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the walls, it’s much more than that. It’s also a story of the restoration of a people from ruin and despair to a new walk with God.
4. Nehemiah Cared Enough To VOLUNTEER vs 10-11
In vs10-11a. Nehemiah requested specific help to begin this process: O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man (The King).
Nehemiah could have felt overawed and overwhelmed by the task ahead. He could have been filled with despair, but he wasn’t – he knew he could do something about it. He hears the call of God on his life and responds, as all of us should with:
Nehemiah knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but he knew what he had to do. It was going to take the authority of the top man in the whole empire to get him on the move. Nehemiah believes that God will help him. And so, he starts to pray, and asks for grace and strength to carry out the steps that are necessary to begin the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem.
God is still looking for people, in these challenging times for His church, who, like Nehemiah, care enough to listen to the facts, weep over the needs, pray for God’s help and volunteer to get the job done. I believe God raises up in every church, in every generation, people who answer the call on their lives to do His will. I believe that God, more than ever, is looking for people who will make a difference in the difficult places of life to do His work, people of:
- Vision to see beyond the improbable
- Faith to make a start and to believe that God can use them
- Courage to do what it takes to finish the job.
I’ve entitled my talk today: Don’t despair – begin to repair. For Nehemiah, it was the walls of Jerusalem. What might it be for you? What might be causing you to despair in your life? What is in ruins that you’d love to see rebuilt? What might God have highlighted in your own life, or past history, that needs to be healed, repaired and restored?
A broken relationship; a difficult, almost impossible, situation; it may be illness; a family disaster; death or disease. You may be about to lose your job or be heavily in debt. It maybe depression – it could be anything and everything, but it’s often only when we are in a desperate state/situation that we cry out for God’s help. Nehemiah didn’t know where to start, but he began with tears, prayer and the ever-increasing realisation that God had promised to be with him, always.
Perhaps, like Nehemiah, we should pour out our hearts before God, in tears and prayer and tell him all our hurt, our fears and our pain. And as we do so, let’s remember that God is in the business of both repairing, rebuilding and restoring people’s lives.
It’s been our tradition over many years to say John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer at the beginning of a New Year.
And finally, a song we sung in church which seems to echo so much of the ambition of Nehemiah – and those of the contemporary church!