St Michael’s, 4th September 2016
Readings – Nehemiah 1;Luke 13:1-8
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yeah, we wept when we remembered Zion.
There was a time back in 1978 when these lines from Psalm 137 briefly became the most well-known of all the verses in the psalms. Now I won’t embarrass anyone by asking how many of you spent that summer dancing along to Boney M, but for some reason completely unknown to me, their song became a worldwide phenomenon which sold over 4 million copies. I expect some of you are even now humming the tune under your breath.
Yet in many ways these words are probably the most unlikely lyrics for a disco hit. Psalm 137 was written in a situation of the most terrible misfortune despair. For three years the city of Jerusalem had been under siege from the king of Babylon. In 587 BC the invading army finally broke through. Many of the people who hadn’t already died of disease or starvation were killed. A few very poor folk were left behind to work the land. But most of the survivors were carried off to Babylon, away from their home, away from their families, deeply traumatised by what had happened, uncertain if they had any future. And if you want to imagine what it must have been like for them, you only have to switch on the news and look at events in a place like Aleppo, whose people are suffering in a similarly tragic way today.
So the people who had been carried off to Babylon certainly weren’t dancing when they wrote: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yeah, we wept when we remembered Zion. They were wondering what had happened to them, and even more importantly, where the Lord was in all this. What had become of all the promises He had made to them? Why had He let the land, the temple, the royal family, all be destroyed?
Yet, remarkably the fall of Jerusalem was not the end of the story. In 539 BC the Persians took over the Babylonian empire and one of the first acts of the new king was to allow the Jewish people to go back to their own country. Not that life back home was necessarily easy. From this point on Judah was a small, impoverished country ruled by a foreign government and it was incredibly tough starting again from scratch. That’s why many people instead chose to stay on and to work for the Persian Empire instead.
And it seems that Nehemiah’s family was one of those that chose to stay. The book we are looking at over the next few weeks begins in about 458 BC. Nehemiah is living in the city of Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, located in what is now modern-day Iran. He has a brother called Hanani who for whatever reason has travelled back to Judah to find out what’s been going on. The news Nehemiah hears on his brother’s return is disturbing. Verse 3:
“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.”
Now we don’t know if Hanani is simply saying nothing has been done to the walls of Jerusalem since they were destroyed, or if there has been fresh destruction. The point is, the people trying to rebuild their lives in the land of Judah are in great trouble. They are vulnerable, they are struggling to get by, and their future looks bleak. And of course behind the headlines there is the ongoing question: where is the Lord in all this? Yes, by some miracle the people of Judah have come back home, but is this really the future the Lord has promised for them?
It’s not surprising, then, that Nehemiah turns to prayer. But what I find really interesting is that, as far as we can tell, Nehemiah does not immediately voice his prayer. I guess in that kind of situation my first reaction would be to open my mouth and tell God exactly how I am feeling, if not indeed tell God exactly what He should do about the situation. But Nehemiah reacts differently. Verse 4:
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Did you notice that faint echo of Psalm 137? Just like his ancestors before him, Nehemiah’s reaction is to sit down and weep, as he remembers what his land has been like, and as he struggles to come to terms with what is happening now. And I suggest the reason why he takes time before praying loud is that he’s seeking the Lord’s perspective on the situation. That’s why Nehemiah talks about mourning and fasting. He wants more than anything else for the Lord to show him what is going on, and indeed how he should pray.
I have to say that when I read the example of Nehemiah I find myself deeply challenged. I guess we all like the idea of prayer. We find it great that we can come to the Lord at any time and at any place. But are we comfortable with the idea that prayer might actually cost us something? That we might need to expend energy and effort in seeking the Lord’s will? Don’t forget – before Jesus began His public ministry, He spent forty days alone in the desert. After the apostle Paul was converted, he spent three years in Arabia, as far as we can tell, on his own. Like Nehemiah, they were spending time in the presence of our Heavenly Father, trying to discern His plans and His priorities. I wonder, dare we pray like this?
And one more thing I want us to notice before we look at the actual words of Nehemiah’s prayer. All that Nehemiah goes on to say in verses 5-10 is soaked through with the words of Scripture. If we had the time, we could sit down and see how almost line by line Nehemiah is quoting from the book of the law we now know as Deuteronomy. It would seem that in this time of preparation Nehemiah is, as it were, absorbing the word of God and applying it to the situation he is facing.
But that should not surprise us, because you cannot pray effectively without knowing what God is saying to you. To put it another way, if our prayers are one side of the conversation that we have with our Heavenly Father, then the Bible is the other side of the dialogue. Yet I am constantly amazed by the number of Christians who say they pray yet never read the Bible. Let’s be clear: reading the Bible day by day and prayer are not totally separate activities, where we can choose to do one but not the other. The two have to go hand in hand, if we are truly to discern the Father’s will for our lives, and for the situations on our hearts.
This morning I think it particularly important that we take Nehemiah’s example and apply it to our own situation as a church. Now of course we are not facing an imminent disaster (at least, I hope not) but we have some big decisions to work through: the merger of the two parishes, the future of the building at St Barnabas, drawing up a Mission Action Plan for the next five years, to name but a few examples. Folk have said to me that they want opportunity to pray and reflect, and rightly so. We all need time and space to discern what the Lord might be saying to us, and to gain His perspective on our situation. So let’s spend time and effort actually doing some serious business with the Lord. Let’s get our Bibles open and work out how to apply His word. And when we are ready to voice our prayers, let’s dare to use Nehemiah’s words as we ourselves pray to the God of heaven and claim His promises.
How, then, does Nehemiah actually pray? Well, to begin with, he declares what he already knows of God. Verse 5: O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands… And again, as I read this passage, I am left wondering if I have ever started my prayers like this. Yet the point to remember is, that Nehemiah’s God is still our God. Over 2000 years later, He is still the great and awesome God who reigns in heaven. He is still the God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands. He is still the same God who quite simply is Lord over whatever lies before us.
And if we focused perhaps a little more on who this God is when we prayed, we would know rather more the power of prayer. Too often, I believe, we offer a little prayer to a little God and don’t really expect Him to do that much. If we could but lift our eyes and remember the wonder and the greatness and the majesty of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, then I believe how we pray would be radically and utterly transformed.
But notice also this: as so often in the Bible where there is a big vision of God, there then follows also a prayer of confession. It makes sense really. You see, when you understand exactly who God is, then you begin to see who you are, and how short you fall of God’s holiness and perfection. And so Nehemiah goes on in verses 6 and 7:
I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly towards you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Now it seems to me that nowadays this sort of confession is rare. We live in a culture where we are used to blaming other people, and/or God for our misfortune. When something bad happens, it’s not our fault, or if it is, it’s only because of our genes or our environment or the way we were brought up. It reminds me of the old joke about the garden of Eden where Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on. Actually admitting that I have got it wrong before God is something that we find incredibly hard to do, and we love to make excuses.
Yet Nehemiah doesn’t blame God. He doesn’t blame the brutal Babylonians or the persecuting Persians. He admits that he and the people around him have acted wickedly. And that’s a brave prayer to pray. So often we ask God to change the hearts and minds of other people. We can see the wrong they have done and it’s only natural we want God to do something about it. But what about also asking God to change our desires and our attitudes? Because at the end of the day that is what repentance is all about – standing in the presence of a holy God without excuses, without blaming anyone else and asking that before He changes anyone else, He might change us.
So as Nehemiah prays, he starts by remembering who God is. As he understands more truly the God to whom he is praying, he recognises his sin and his wickedness. But that does not make him any less bold in what he asks. You see, he knows the promises that God has made to His people and he holds on in faith to the fact that however dire or desperate his situation might seem, these promises still stand. That is why he appeals to the mercy of God, trusting only that the Lord might hear and answer his prayer.
Moving on to 8 and 9: Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.'”
Now as we read these words, I think it is important to understand just what Nehemiah is asking the Lord to do when he prays for Him to remember His word. In the Bible remembering doesn’t simply mean the opposite of forgetting. It’s more about making something said or done in the past real in the present. That’s what we are doing, for example, whenever we celebrate Holy Communion. We break bread and drink wine to remember Jesus – that it is to make His death on a cross a present and living reality for us.
And here when Nehemiah is asking the Lord to remember His word, what in effect he is doing is asking the Lord to bridge the gap between what he said a long time ago and what is happening now. The Lord told Moses way back at Mount Sinai that one day the people of God would be scattered because of their wickedness. And that clearly has happened to the people of Israel now dispersed throughout the Persian Empire. But the Lord also told Moses that if the people of God then came back to Him, He would gather them from exile. That in essence, is the reason why Nehemiah is praying. The first part of God’s word has come to pass. His greatest desire is that the second part would also be fulfilled.
Have you, I wonder, ever wrestled with the word of God and asked the Lord to fulfil His promises today, in the here and now? That may seem a bold or a strange thing to do. Yet throughout the Bible we find men and women who do exactly that. They understand that Scripture is not just some words of an ancient dusty book from far-off times. It is the living word of God whose promises have been written for us to read and to claim.
So how practically might we do this? Well, if this sort of prayer is completely unfamiliar start with a simple verse from Scripture that you might know. For example, the opening verse of Psalm 23 that we looked at a couple of weeks ago: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. As you read this verse you may well realise that you are in real need, that you have messed up and that you may be feeling anything other than confident and secure. So your prayer, then, is to come to the Lord and say, “Lord, you have promised to be my shepherd. I recognise my need of you. Please would you remember your word in all that I face, so that I can know your protection and your provision. Amen”.
Now I’m not guaranteeing how the Lord will answer that prayer. But I do know that the Lord hears and answers prayers like this which are based on His word and offered in faith. So when I arrived here fourteen years ago, the Lord gave me this verse: I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. And what has kept me going year in, year out is seeing how the Lord has remembered his word, and often in spite of myself built His church in this place.
Of course in one sense it is easy to pray that the Lord might remember His word. What is harder to accept is that you might just been the answer to your own prayers And this leads to the final and most challenging point about Nehemiah. Having understood the God to whom he is praying, having confessed his sins and claimed God’s promises, he then offers himself in the Lord’s service.
Verse 11: 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.
And just in case we are unclear who this man might be, the next line makes it clear: I was cupbearer to the king. We’ll see next week what was involved in being a cupbearer, but the point I want to make for now is that Nehemiah wasn’t someone with a religious vocation. He wasn’t a prophet or a priest. He had what we would call nowadays a secular job. Yet he had the courage to ask the Lord to make a difference in the place where he worked and to step out in faith.
The Lord, you see, doesn’t just want to use religious professionals. He wants to use ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary ways of life, not just on Sundays but from Monday to Saturday. So the question is, what are you going to do with Nehemiah’s prayer this morning?
I would suggest that God is looking for people who are willing to do serious business with Him, who long to know Him better, who stand on the promises of His word and who dare to offer themselves in prayer. In two months’ time we will be meeting as a church on 5th November to draw up a new Mission Action Plan for the next five years. Let’s make the time between now and then a season of prayer and preparation, so that when we come together we are open to what the Lord wants to do through us for the sake of His kingdom. And whatever may happen let us like Nehemiah fix our eyes on the Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands. For His name’s sake. Amen.