Nehemiah 1. 1-11 Prayer of the Faithful
January 1, 2012 Series: Stand Alone Sermons
Topic: Stand Alone Passage: Nehemiah 1:1–1:11
Prayer of the Faithful
Good morning… my name’s Randy, I’m one of four pastors here at Damascus Road. Happy New Year to all of you. I trust you had a fantastic Christmas worshipping our Creator and Redeemer with your family and friends on Christmas.
For those of you who are new here – you should be informed. This is the first time I have preached a sermon. I don’t say that to make a big deal about it, but simply to lower your expectations. Some of you may be tempted to latch onto things that are a result of my inexperience in preaching… whether it’s awkward delivery, a lack of charisma, or me stumbling over a word now and then… you’ll be prone to focus on that rather than on God’s words that I am speaking.
My challenge this morning will be to fear God more than I fear all of you. I love you, but in my flesh, I fear being seen as a failure in your eyes. That’s me being honest…
Though this is the first time I’ve preached from the pulpit – I can assure you of three things:
This will be the best sermon you’ve heard all year.
This will be the worst sermon you’ve heard so far this year
I would not be doing this if it were not for God commanding me, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
A LITTLE ABOUT ME
I know it’s important for you to know about who your pastors are… here’s some basic info about me:
- I have a wonderful bride – her name is Kari. We’ve been together since I was 17 – she is truly my other half, my better half, and next August will be our 10th anniversary.
- I have four children – Aryn, Nathan, Abigail, and Haylee. The older three were adopted through the state foster care system, the youngest is still in that system.
- I am a structural engineer
- It was never an aspiration or goal of mine to preach
- I am an introvert – I hate the sound of my own voice and regret ever buying a video camera.
I am not the most gifted orator – I can really identify with Moses’ response to God when asked to speak with Jewish leaders and Pharaoh about Israel leaving Egypt. He told God… ‘hey, have you considered my brother Aaron? He’s really quite good at speaking… I speak with uncircumcised lips.” But I did have a very Godly woman tell me about 10 years ago that she had a very clear vision of me preaching. I told her she was crazy, but there are so many things I wish I would have asked her… like, “what color shirt was I wearing” or “what was I preaching about.” I was actually hoping I’d see her here today so I could convince myself the prophecy had been fulfilled… I guess I could send her a link to the video recording…
Okay, enough about me….
Back to Nehemiah – Nehemiah, the book, describes the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the return of the people of Jerusalem to living in accordance with God’s commands. The text for this week is a description of how it all started.
So this passage gets us started by telling us some key information:
Nehemiah is in Susa, the capital (v1). A city in modern-day Iran. Susa was more than 700 miles from Jerusalem and was the capital of a Persian state.
Nehemiah asks Hanani about the state of the Jews in Jerusalem. He’s given the following report:
The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jeruslalem Is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.
Now, before I dive in any further, let me do my best to give you some context ...
The events described in the book of Nehemiah take place during the time of the PERSIAN EMPIRE. The first verse of Nehemiah tells indicates the story takes place in the 20th year… which, if you read on, is clearly the 20th year of Artaxerxes (the king of Persia), which places this story at approximately 446 BC. – 800-1,000 years after the conquests of Joshua.
Initially, Israel was a single nation with God as the supreme ruler. This has been the case as we studied through Exodus and Joshua. After the death of Joshua there was no clear ruler left for the people of Israel to follow. This is known as the period of judges. In a few months, we will begin a new sermon series on the book of Judges and you’ll learn more…
The book of Judges ends with a story illustrating how out of control Israel was after years after 350 years without a clear leader… which is followed by the statement:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
This gives you a sense of where Israel is at this time. Then we enter the period of the kings. Israel was ruled by kings, and eventually split into two nations – each with its own King. After Solomon’s death, Israel broke into two… the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem, the city that Nehemiah is so upset about, is the capital of Judah – the southern kingdom.
An important note is that Jerusalem was where God ‘resided.’ David first brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and Solomon later built a great temple – known as Solomon’s temple. It took seven years for Solomon to build his temple... after which God tells Solomon that His ‘eyes and heart will be there for all time…’
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem three times, taking most of inhabitants of Judah captive – leaving only the poorest of people behind. The Babylonians typically took their captives out of their homeland and exiled them, which is what they did with the people of Judah. About 140 years before Nehemiah’s story begins, both the temple and the city walls were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
The Babylonian empire eventually imploded and the Persians took over. When they did, they allowed captives to return to their homelands. Some returned, but some stayed where they were – it had been 40 years or more since being taken captive.
And we finally arrive at Nehemiah. Nehemiah was one who had not returned to Jerusalem. It had been 140 years since Jerusalem had been destroyed. Most likely, Nehemiah had lived his entire life far from Jerusalem, never having seen the homeland himself.
Nehemiah 1:11 says… Now I was the Cupbearer to the king. This is significant. We hear this term and tend to think of this position as being that of a glorified butler… Much to the contrary, the cupbearer was an important position, held by a person whom the king trusted greatly and a person with great ability. The cup-bearer was responsible for making sure the king’s wine was not poisoned before the king drank. Due to the nature of his job, the cupbearer was around the king a lot – as such, he generally had the favor of the king and knew him better than most. Of course, this is not something he’d need to be careful about taking advantage of, since the king had the power to have him killed at the snap of a finger.
So, Nehemiah is a prominent man, one who has favor with the king – this point is vastly important as we move on in the text…
NEHEMIAH’S RESPONSE – He Cares
The response to the report. After being told the walls had been destroyed and the people were in distress, Nehemiah responds in an interesting way. Remember that Jerusalem was destroyed some 80 years prior – it is likely that Nehemiah had never seen Jerusalem. Verse 4 reads:
4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Jerusalem was a vulnerable city without the protection of walls and gates. They were distressed, and when you read through Haggai and Zechariah, you see that they were unfruitful and unproductive as well.
Nehemiah Mourned. He mourned for a place he had probably not seen – a place that was a 4-month journey away. He didn’t mourn because it was a great city, but that it was God’s City. But not only that, but he mourned because the condition of the city was the direct result of the sin of the people of Judah. Notice the beginning of his prayer – he prays “Let your ears be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even me and my father’s house have sinned.”
Nehemiah connects the destruction of Jerusalem with the sin of the people – but notice he includes himself in this. May we always be so quick to make this connection. While there are times to help others see their sin, we must first see our own sin, and connecting IT with OUR problems… how are we to pluck a speck from our brother’s eye when we have a plank in our own?
This begs the question: how much do we care for the things of God? What is our reaction to distressing news to the sin in our own hearts and in our families and in our church? How do these reactions compare to bad earthly things that may happen?
Imagine one of your children is in a rotten mood one day. I know this is tough to imagine, but stay with me. He/She has done everything they shouldn’t, and nothing they should. This child seems to be at odds with everyone, picking fights with you, siblings… whoever. Now, imagine your response. Are you focused on the things of God – on the fact that this child needs the truth of the gospel to reach into their heart and transform it? Or, are you focused solely on the behavior. Do you care for the things of God?
I had an interesting experience earlier this week. I had some Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door. They didn’t identify themselves in that way – it was actually a remarkable short conversation. It seemed they were mostly interested in giving me a magazine sharing the good news. I identified myself as a pastor, which may be why they were so quick to leave, but I failed – as a pastor of a church in this community they were walking around, I made no effort to understand who they were or what they were doing. I had a dozen reasons for not asking more questions, but my apathy was a direct result of me not caring for the things of God in that moment. Instead, I quickly released them so they could distribute their heresies through the community. Later that day, I prayed they would come back… we’ll see if that happens… but more importantly, I confessed my sin of apathy and repented.
Nehemiah Fasted and Prayed.
I quickly wanted to focus our attention on the fact that Nehemiah fasted and prayed. This may not seem like an important fact to some of you, but it really is. He realized his sin, and that of the people of Judah, and his response was not despair, but to fast and pray.
We must be careful here. We cannot get to a point where we think the answer to any of our problems can be found anywhere but in our hearts. Fasting, prayer, and devotion to the scriptures are great – but they’re not the core of the answer. When you are faced with your sin – pray. Not to the great vending machine in the sky because you want to be comfortable. But pray for the condition of your heart – pray that you would be changed through the gospel.
Fasting. Many of you are probably aware of what fasting is, but I doubt many of us practice it regularly. In the next couple days, I will post something on Road Life with more information on fasting for you to read study if you’re interested, but here’s a very quick summary:
Fasting, as practiced by Nehemiah, is a spiritual discipline. It is typically abstaining from food for a specific period of time, though it can also be abstaining from certain foods or activities. It is a way to draw near to God through self-denial and submission. It is recognizing that we don’t live on bread alone, as Deuteronomy 8 says, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Now Let’s quickly take a look at how he prayed…
He begins by remembering God’s power and goodness (v5).
He asks God to hear his prayer (v6a).
He confesses his own sin and the sin of his family and of Israel (v6b-7). This is remarkable. In his distress, he realizes his own sin. This is not a self-righteous prayer of piety, but one in which he identifies himself as one sharing in the responsibility for the way things are. He did not keep the commandments and statutes God had given Israel to follow.
He intercedes, or prays on behalf of, Israel – remembering God’s promise made to Moses (v8-10). Read Deuteronomy 4:25-31. God knew what was going on would happen – he wasn’t surprised. Nehemiah remembers God’s promise to be faithful despite the infidelity of Israel. This is something you see throughout the scriptures – men praying God’s promises back to him.
He prays for success in what he is about to do. (v11).
Nehemiah Continues to Pray. It is important to note that Nehemiah didn’t just pray, go, and pray no more. There are several instances of his praying recorded in Nehemiah specifically in response to opposition of his work. We are given a picture of a man who prays like what Paul must have had in mind when he encouraged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. In fact, four months go by between the time he learns of the problem and discussing it with the king.
Read Nehemiah 2:1-5
Nehemiah was put in a situation he had not planned. God provided an opportunity that it took some courage to act on. The king asks him what he wants…Remember, the king had every right to kill any of his subjects – even if it was just for being annoying. In that moment, Nehemiah prays… We are not told exactly what he prays for, but no doubt he prayed for assistance and blessing from God. It seems, based on the text, that it was but a brief pause in his conversation. He needed God’s help and guidance and requested it. I pray that my faith would be so bold.
A few days ago, I had one of those days where everything seemed to be going wrong. I was getting over being sick, my wife was sick, my kids were all coughing like they had black lung. Kids were disobedient and whiny, I was grumpy – we were all grumpy. I hadn’t slept well for several days… I could go on. Things were dark – like there was a dark cloud hanging over my house. Though it was not my first response, I prayed. I prayed for our family’s spiritual health, for our physical help, that God cause us to have joy – that we would continually live in response to the gospel. Things didn’t all of a sudden get better, but I could sense that the focus of my heart had shifted from me to God.
Consider where God has you in your life. Nehemiah was obviously a man who cared greatly about Israel and about what was happening in Jerusalem – yet he was in Susa. More than 700 miles from his people. Nehemiah 1 records a moment of drastic change in the life of Nehemiah. He was thrust into immense change and, one would think, discomfort. Moving him – and his family if he had one – to nasty run-down Jerusalem from the glory of the throne room of perhaps the most powerful man in the world. Moved to lead the remnant. A group of people consisting of those so undesirable they were left behind by captors and those who really had nothing going for them wherever they moved back from. Nehemiah chose to suffer…
Is this not a great picture of the gospel? That Jesus, the creator of everything and fully God, as we learn from Colossians 1, would descend into our sin and brokenness from his throne of greatness. And as foretold by the prophets, He took the form of a man. He subjected himself – for the glory of the Father – to death on a cross. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2 – do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
You see, just as Nehemiah’s response was dictated by his desire to be obedient to God and not the worth of those he would serve, so was the obedience of our Lord Jesus, whose prayer immediatetely before his arrest is recorded in Matthew 26:38-39: Then he said to them (Peter, James and John), my soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
As you consider the year to come, consider the question of whether you will waste another year living according to your fleshly desires or if you will submit to… pray to… humble yourself before… the creator and sustainer of the universe. The reality is that you will never perfect this – but that’s no excuse to not engage in the battle
We need to be in a place – I need to be in a place – where we LISTEN for God, we TALK to God, and we FOLLOW God. Not to earn our salvation – because we can’t, not to gain prosperity, not to be comfortable, but to glorify God through our obedience. To be on mission – spreading the good news of the gospel. It may mean radical changes for some of you. For others, it might be as simple as cracking open that Bible and getting on your knees – which, by the way, will probably lead to radical changes for you.
So here’s my hope for you and for me in this coming year – that we would imitate the example of Nehemiah. That we would follow Jesus – even if he calls us to do something radical. That we would be a people who pray.
READ EPHESIANS 3:14-19