Scripture: Nehemiah 1:1 - 2:5
Sermon prepared by Rev. Thomas E. Pettinga, Cedar Hill, Texas
Dear people of God,
The story of Nehemiah is a personal private journal from a layman, not a pastor, not a priest, not a even a prophet... that God is going to do some important leadership stuff for His people who are far away.
It happened already a few years ago that the students of the A&M University in Texas had built a huge bonfire. It had become a tradition at the time when the football season started. The students would create it, they would engineer it, they'd stack the logs of wood, they would light the fire and go through the whole thing of remembering the pride they have in being a Texas A&M student or alumni.
And year upon year everything went well until one November when, while they were building the third layer of logs, stacked up on end, out in the open field where it had always been done, something snapped and then crackled and then moved and the pile collapsed and several students were injured and several were killed. It was a tragedy for A&M. It clouded the whole weekend and the whole Saturday game and the whole State of Texas mourned because a tragedy had happened to something so important, and something that was such a tradition.
It was sometime later that the President of the University at A&M made the announcement, “We're going to start over, we're going to do it again,” but he made the sad announcement that there was going to be two years without bon-fire, only a memorial service for those who had lost their lives.But they would start the fire again; they would light it again, they would celebrate bonfire once more, in three years. They would start slow and they would start right. And they would do it over again and engineers would be called in. Hopefully good A&M engineers, and they would re-do things. They would start over. Sadness and tragedy and the awful consequences parents, students and alumni had to go through. But starting over is important. Starting over had to happen for the tradition to go on.
Starting over again is part of our lives. If you are a believer and if you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ with all of your heart, if you love God with everything that you have, then you don't have any choice but to start over. Because you are you! and you are a human being. And human beings, like bonfire with stacks of logs, fall over and fail. They crush and maim. We blow it and sin, we rebel against our God.
But the news of the Old Testament to the New, from the beginning of Scripture to the end of it, is, that God is a God of people who start over.
That's shown to us in this picture of devastation in the book of Nehemiah. This is a picture of hope and renewal and of starting and rebuilding. Nehemiah, in effect, is crushed by the news. Fifteen years before, Ezra had led a contingent of Jews back to the promised land. They had been given permission, not only to go, but also given the resources to do some rebuilding. Yet, when they got there they were threatening to the local inhabitants.
We know from the New Testament that the Samaritans were not in favor of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. And so, they got the king, the very same king that Nehemiah was the cup-bearer to; they got this king to sign a formal notice that no rebuilding would be allowed in Jerusalem.
The Samaritans said that those Jews were rebels and if you would give them a covered city, a surrounded city, a safe city — they would rebel against your highness — may the King live forever — and you would lose your tribute and you would have rebels on your hands. So, the king said, “OK, no rebuilding! No allowing the people to put the wall back together or to replace the burned gates and rebuild the temple. Can't be done. I issue my royal edict. Nothing may change.”
The messengers come to the castle — they come to the citadel, the summer castle of Artaxerxes and there they mention the news to a Jew. To Nehemiah, who had risen through the ranks and now has this important position of keeping the king from being poisoned but has also gained the king's ear apparently over the years because of serving him. And he is crushed by the news. He takes it very personally.“It's not just some Jews 200–300 miles from here, ...these are people that are part of my family. They are my brothers and my sisters — we serve the same God — we come from the same roots — we have the same spiritual genetics running through us — running through our hearts. And they are in disgrace. And so I am too.”
Brokenness has taken place. There is failure — there is brokenness that is caused by sin. A whole city broken down because God punished his people through the exile to destruction. And now this disgrace has lasted and it's just a shame. These are people that went back with hope and now they are still living in rubble, they are not safe and they aren't happy. And there is nothing good happening there. Everything is broken down.
Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever look around you and say, “It looks pretty nice on the outside where I am, but I can sense with other people that their lives, that their families, their hopes and their future, maybe their jobs, maybe their spiritual life, maybe their emotional lives, are in tatters. There is nothing but a pile of rubble. This is crash and bum time. For me, for them.
That's what Nehemiah felt in his bones. And he grieved over it. In fact, we know he grieved four months, he fasted and he cried. He wept and he talked to God. He did good stuff, by the way. We need to grieve when things are broken.
We do not need to behave and believe that nothing important has taken place. When life falls apart, when there is a crash, when there is a fall and a failure, we need to say, “it happened.” Stuff undealt with, small walls broken down and left in a pile. That creates insecurity and problems later on.
Things that happened years ago have an impact on our lives, there is brokenness from the past. And we need to just look at it and say, “that's us, that is our situation, we're broken.”
It was not Nehemiah's sin that caused the walls of Jerusalem to fall down and caused the gates to be burned with fire. It were Nehemiah's relatives, way back then, you could always blame it on another generation. Those parents and grandparents of mine. They were the ones who did it and now I'm stuck with the consequences.
The same situation is found with a family where the parents are alcoholics. And when you have two alcoholic parents you have an unsafe home. You don't know what's going to happen from one day, sometimes from one hour, to the next. And so the children run for cover, run for protection. if you will, to a friend’s house and there they hide for awhile until things calm down.
These kids have learned that things will just keep on going and nothing seems to be able to stop it. These kids sometimes put their parents to bed, instead of having parents put the kids to bed, because these parents have passed out. These are kids, who don't live in a safe house, go to bed late, sometimes 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, because nothing is certain until Mom and Dad are out for the night. And it's broken — it's awful. But they are typical kids of alcoholics — they don't think about it — they don't want to talk about it — they just want to make it through the next day — they just want to survive and they'll do anything to survive. They're doing everything to survive.
One of the boys copes by being angry and by staying angry. He is sick of putting his fist or foot through pickets in the back yard fence. He wants to do something else with his anger. But he doesn't quite know how to do it.
The little brother typically is the forgotten one in an alcoholic family — out of view and out of sight. His brothers care for him, but he’s not sure whether his parents care about him. It's broken. Sometimes they need to talk about it. And so we listen to their stories. We somehow seem to give them permission to state the obvious and then to grieve over it for awhile before they can move on.
Nehemiah does that. He grieves, but then he does something about it — he prays and during these four months of praying he begins to think what can be — not what is, not what used to be, but what can be. Is it possible to build a city out of rubble? a city that can be safe? — a city that could harbor God's people? A city that can take away their disgrace? a city within which they could safely honor and worship Him again?
After all these years, after all this sin, after all this brokenness, could we do this again?
And Nehemiah reasons: “Could I do it? Could I be a part of this? God, what are you saying to me? Am I suppose to leave here? It's comfortable, I’ve got it good. I can be a witness right here where I am, in Susa! Do you want me to go there and do this and serve that way? Be a leader?”
God starts to talk and Nehemiah starts thinking about what can be. He starts to believe and hear from God about starting over.
And in his prayer — it is very interesting to read the prayer — there is magnification of God’s name. And there is confession. Very necessary when you’ve sinned. Even for Nehemiah. He might not have sinned as much as his parents, but he puts himself in the same ball-park with them and says, “We’re all one here.”
He prays a prayer of confession on their behalf. “My fathers have sinned and I have sinned. And all of our sins have caused this broken condition. Forgive our sins, O Lord, for we have sinned against You.”
But then he does something else. He says, “You told us we could start again.” You catch those words? They are quotes from Deuteronomy. “Remember the instruction (verse 8) You gave to Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations.’” It’s going to happen. But if you return and obey my commands then, even if you exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them and bring them back.
It is important to realize that we fail and we fall. It’s even more important that we realize that God knows that we fail and fall and that He makes provision for it before we fail and fall. That is the mark of a gracious and powerful God, isn’t it? The God who says, “I know what they are going to do.”
In Deuteronomy, when Moses gives these words, he is saying, “I feel it in my bones, they are about to die. But the last feelings I have is that, after you get into that land, and after you get everything God has to give to you, you will spurn Him and push Him away and you will sin and He will turn His back on you and He will take you and destroy your land and send you into exile. I know it is going to happen. But when you turn again, He will answer and He will hear and He will renew you. He will take you back. He will love you. He is a gracious God.”
What a God we serve. This God prepares for the sin, prepares for the rebellion, prepares for walls and lives as well as cities to break down — to break and bust and burn. He prepares for it by giving a promise that if there is a return, there is repentance, there will be grace.
This, we believe, points to Jesus, because all salvation is in Him. We have the cornerstone, the cornerstone rejected and down and ignored. But if you are going to rebuild, He is the One to rely on. He is the One you go to. He is the One who, at the bottom of the wall, gives strength and direction for the whole rebuilding process.
If you are going to start over, go to Him. He is the standard bearer of God’s grace. He is the great Forgiver. He is the great Redeemer.
That is the provision of a gracious God, who never says, “You messed up one time too many, and that is it! I’ve written you out of My will and out of My life.”
We have a God who is willing to put people into exile, to watch when the rocks of their lives fall to the ground into a pile of rubble. But who never says, “No more.” Who never says, “I quit.” Who never says, “I don't love you anymore.”But instead says, “Now, you are ready to start over. Now you know you need Me, don't you? Now come!”
It's a miracle. And the third lesson of this passage is that the miracle only comes when you are in an ongoing conversation with a Father who loves you. Nehemiah spent four months, it probably seemed like four years at times, in prayer. But he didn't stop when those four months were over. We learn that when we read the rest of the book of Nehemiah. It is peppered with prayer, it is, kind of, “I did this and then I prayed and here is my written prayer. I had to write it down because it is too painful to pray just to myself.”
Prayers are throughout the whole diary of Nehemiah. But this one is the best: verse. 4, “The king said to me, ‘What is it that you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven and I answered the king...” Now there is the number for verse 5 between those words..., but you could not separate those two verses, because Nehemiah prayed and worked — he worked and prayed — He prayed through his work and in his words and in his leadership.
And he grew. You watch his growth as you read the rest of the letter. You watch his anger over injustice and sin and you also watch his gaining great power as leader. And you watch him help a group of people too. He said, “Rebuild the walls!” This is powerful stuff..., because of prayer.
And that's why you get to help with everything, that God is rebuilding and re-doing. Because you can pray. Maybe you don't show up in person on the field, but you show up on your knees and you pray.
Before this 1st and 2nd chapter of Nehemiah are over, Nehemiah finds in his prayers that the king has power, but it is God who works through him. “I have power,” the king says, “to rebuild...”, but it is God who is going to rebuild. Through the prayer God is going to take central position.
Through prayer, God takes rocks, scattered, mortar, crumbled and rebuilds. God does this. And He will do that in us. He promised He would. In answer to our prayers. So, would you pray? Would you keep on praying? Because that is the only way we are going to be able to start over.
Lord, we realize that there are many people, even here in this sanctuary, who have been stricken with grief, that they have to start all over. They didn't want to. And then there are some parents who look at their own kids today and say, “Father, they don't trust you, will you start over in their lives. Win this time. Bring victory this time.”
People are looking at their lives right now and maybe their own marriages and saying, “this is a pile of dust, if I have ever seen one. This is nothing but rubble. O Lord, come and begin a new work, do renewal, bring changes in our lives today. Come by your Holy Spirit, we pray. Clear the rubble, stack the stones, set the gates, change our lives, change our world, change our neighbors and our neighborhoods, Start again, Father, please, because You care, and because You promised.