Monday, July 28, 2014

Nehemiah Journal, Part ONE - Faithful Servant-Prayer Warrior

A few short quotes about the man called Nehemiah, before we dig-in to the book called after the man:
“Nehemiah was an energetic leader who combined a deep trust in the Lord with precise planning, careful organization, and discreet but energetic action.”[1]
“He stood like an anvil, till the hammers of opposition wore themselves out vainly beating against him.”[2]
“A man with the counsel of God alone in his mind and in his heart….He will not begin till he has counted the cost.  And then he will not stop till he has finished the work.”[3]
At the outset, let me tell you – I LIKE THIS MAN!  If I could go back in time and make a life-choice, I would follow Nehemiah around, learning how to be a servant and prayer warrior.
Our journey through the Nehemiah Journal must begin with a bit of background, so that we may fully appreciate what God did with this man.  What we have is Nehemiah’s personal account, or journal, set against the backdrop of history.
In the 8th Century B.C. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.  The prophets foresaw it; the Lord brought it to pass.  The people had become backslidden.  Instead of worshipping the Lord God, they had fallen-in with the pagan nations surrounding them.  It isn’t much different in America today.
A few centuries later the southern kingdom followed suit, as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian empire.  Later it was the Persians whose dominance in the ancient world replaced Babylon.  We are talking here not only about ancient history.  The regions extend from Afghanistan to Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The problems are just early chapters in the ongoing saga of strife in the Middle East.  Jacob and Esau have never ceased their struggle.
In the 5th century, seven decades after being conquered and deported, the Persian rulers began allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem.      It happened in stages.  First a man named Zerubbabel led a group to begin the rebuilding process.  The city had been destroyed, and lay in rubble.  But, Zerubbabel’s efforts only partially restored things.  Fifty years later Ezra, a priest, returned to rebuild the temple.  Then, fifteen years after Ezra the story we are about to investigate begins to unfold in Susa, the capitol city of the Persian Empire.
Nehemiah was a Jew, probably born in exile.  He was a sharp pencil, trained in the art of business and administration.  He was also the man God would use to change history’s map and the courage of a nation he called “home” – even though his eyes had never seen the place.
Some of Nehemiah’s accomplishments include rebuilding the walls and military defenses of Jerusalem.  Later he also instituted reforms among God’s people.  He helped restore purity in worship, and integrity in family relationships.  In short, he helped restore behavior among God’s people more in line with the belief God’s people claimed they had! 
What is so profitable about the book of Nehemiah is that he accomplished all that in the face of great adversity.  Among the obstacles he faced were these several:
a.              He was not a “ruler”, but part of the conquered exiles, outnumbered and with little “moving and shaking” ability.
b.              There was a widespread laziness among God’s people to overcome.
c.               There were plots from his own people, attempting to cause his efforts to fail.
d.              Misunderstandings and lack of faith abounded.
All of Nehemiah’s mountains to climb are present today in the Christian experience.  We NEED to explore this. 
Today we also see the same problems Nehemiah encountered...
*       The walls are broken down.  American life and culture is obsessed with self, sex and little direction for family life.
*       Community in America, even in the church is anemic, if not comatose.
The typical approach that most Christians have when trying to address problems center on the worldly model rather than the Biblical model.  We can shake our heads and cluck our tongues all we wish…but when God’s people do things the worldly way, and then celebrate our cleverness, or gush over how wonderful we are, we are standing in the midst of crumbling walls.  That’s the trouble with rubble!
Nehemiah demonstrates the opposite.  Notice the reaction of a servant and prayer warrior as he hears the news of broken walls and disgraceful conditions in his homeland…
These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.  In late autumn of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa.  Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah.  I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.  They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah.  They are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned.”  When I heard this, I sat down and wept.  In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.            Nehemiah 1: 1-4 (NLT)
With a heart blazing alive for God, Nehemiah hears of the distress and disgrace of Jerusalem, and he immediately wept.  It started him mourning, fasting and praying for days.  At the end of those days of praying and fasting, Nehemiah did not get up and get on with life as usual…something altogether different occurred…Nehemiah got on with doing something.  And in that we find our prayer model for servant warriors.
That very model was demonstrated to me by a leader in a church I once served.  Bill contemplated the rubble of the offering for missions in the church.  It awoke him in the night and distressed him until he asked if I’d let him talk about it in the worship service.  He shared his heart and then gave more than he had before.  When he did, it started a holy fire, and the giving goal was met and passed…and then doubled!
There is a disclaimer that comes along with this sermon; it is much like the warning on children’s toys about “some assembly required” – or the health thing on tobacco products.  Here is Nehemiah’s warning:
Studying the book of Nehemiah may lead to
doing things God’s way;
you will find the world will marvel,
worldly Christians will snipe and criticize and…
God will be pleased!
Now, with that as our caution…and our target…let’s look at the model prayer of Nehemiah, a servant prayer warrior.  First of all he expresses:
Then I said, “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands,   Nehemiah 1.5 (NLT)
To “adore” the Lord in prayer is to recognize Who He is, and respond accordingly.  Nehemiah recognizes the Lord as great and awesome the powerful God who is in control of all. 
To adore the Lord means to respond to Him as He has laid it down…love Him and obey his commands.  This is just common sense when you recognize that He is God and we are not! 
Nehemiah started his prayer with adoration.  One of the reasons we don’t always see that in prayers is because our minds are so full of adoration for ourselves.  It is impossible to recognize the sovereignty of God when you are having someone else occupy that position. 
Who is on the throne of your life?  Is it you?  Or is it God?  If it is you, then you won’t adore God…you don’t even recognize who He is!  That’s why the next part of the model is so important for our prayers…after adoration is…
listen to my prayer!  Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel.  I confess that we have sinned against you.  Yes, even my own family and I have sinned!  We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, laws, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.       Nehemiah 1.6-7 (NLT)
Nehemiah’s confession isn’t popular today.  Today, if anything has gone wrong it is always the other guy’s fault.  Hardly anyone accepts responsibility for anything these days. 
*             If a CEO sells his company down the tubes, he leaves with $38 million in golden parachute separation funds. 
*             If a high-profile preacher lives a scandalous life of sexual sins, he thumbs his nose at his denomination and is back on the air in no time at all. 
*             If a president lies, he has merely “mis-spoken” himself and doesn’t skip a beat.
By contrast, Nehemiah, born a thousand miles from Jerusalem, having never been there, included himself in the national sin of Israel.  You say, “Boy, that’s stretching it just a bit far!”  Not really.  You see, Nehemiah is wise enough to know that, had he been there, he also would have sinned.  He understood that he was no stronger than any of his fellow Israelites.  He was under the same commands of the Lord to live ethically and morally, and obediently to the law of God.  Nehemiah knew his own heart.
In our text Nehemiah says “we have sinned terribly”.  Literally, the word means “offended”.  He is admitting the actions of God’s children, including himself, are offensive to the God of Heaven.  Ladies and gentlemen, that is what confession is all about.  It is recognizing that our sins do, indeed offend holy God. 
In the cultural/political climate of our day, there are regulations against offending everyone BUT God!  Him we kick out of our schools, courts and council rooms.  God help us to confess our sins against the Holy One! 
If you want a model for being a servant prayer warrior, there is adoration, confession, and…
“Please remember what you told your servant Moses:  ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations.  But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’  “We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power and might.   Nehemiah 1.8-10 (NLT)
Usually we associate “thanksgiving” with smiling to God for our blessings.  It is one thing to say “thanks” when someone gives us a gift we like.  It is quite another thing to say “bless you” (even to God) for hauling us out to the woodshed.  Yet, that is exactly what Nehemiah has in mind here.  Basically, he is rehearsing the fact that God said, “You sin, and I’ll get you!  I’ll hunt you down, and I’ll bring you back and we can do it all over again!”  Then Nehemiah says, “That was our rescue!  Thank you, Lord!”
In acknowledging God’s goodness over the chastisement, it is reasserting the nature of God to be faithful to His other promises of blessing and joy.  God had told them He knew they would go astray, and He was prepared to do whatever necessary to bring them back under His wing:
“In the future, when you have children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time, do not corrupt yourselves by making idols of any kind.  This is evil in the sight of the LORD your God and will arouse his anger.  “Today I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you.  If you disobey me, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy.  You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed.  For the LORD will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive.  There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.  From there you will search again for the LORD your God.  And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.  “When those bitter days have come upon you far in the future, you will finally return to the LORD your God and listen to what he tells you.  For the LORD your God is merciful—he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.                     Deuteronomy 4: 25 - 31 (NLT)
How about that?  God predicted just exactly how they would sin, and how big the sin would be.  And yet He was prepared to offer them forgiveness, based upon his loving covenant.  Do you know what that tells you and me about God?  It says, loudly and clearly, You CAN begin again.  If that isn’t something for which we can be thankful, I cannot imagine there is anything!
And so, our model is nearly complete…There is adoration to acknowledge God as deserving worship; there is confession to recognize our sinfulness and need of his forgiveness; and there is thanksgiving to realize He extends his love no matter how big we have sinned, if we will just repent and be ready to follow Him; and then Nehemiah moves to…
O LORD, please hear my prayer!  Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you.  Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor.  Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”  In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.     Nehemiah 1.11 (TNLT)
There is always a decisive moment in life when talking, or thinking becomes insufficient.  There is a moment in time when we must have the rubber meet the road; we must act on what we believe.  In our culture there is the expression which defines that: 
Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition! 
There is a time when praying ends and doing begins
For Nehemiah, that time had come.  He was, after all, a man of action.  The most used word in this book is “so”.  It is used 32 times.  They are all phrases of actions precipitated by intent to accomplish the task:
*                So I prayed  (1.4)
*                So I came  (1.11)
*                So they strengthened  (2.18)
*                So built we the wall  (4.6)
*                So we labored  (4.21)
*                So the wall was finished  (6.15)
This is the nature of the man Nehemiah…and all servant/prayer warriors.  Nehemiah was committed in his prayer – then he got up off his knees and forged ahead.
Now, to say that he only prayed, and that he laid no plans is inaccurate and naïve.  He did plan; we see that in his prayer, asking God to move in the heart of Artaxerxes the king.  Why?  It was Artaxerxes, Nehemiah’s boss who had stopped the previous work in Israel to rebuild the city:
Therefore, issue orders to have these people stop their work.  That city must not be rebuilt except at my express command.                            Ezra 4:21 (NLT)
Nehemiah was about to stroll into the throne room and contradict a royal edict.  Sharp guy and good servant or not, Nehemiah was about to give the good king Artaxerxes (a man who had killed his own brother to get the throne) all the reason he needed to lop off his head.  You KNOW he had to be committed to God’s hand to step into that kind of quicksand.
When’s the last time you stepped out in faith?  When’s the last time God put it in your heart to involve yourself in such a way that you knew if He didn’t come through, you were toast?  My dear friends, THAT is what supplication is all about; THAT is what depending on God is all about.
We will see in the coming weeks that the Lord gave Nehemiah success in dealing with Artaxerxes. 
We will also see that God watched over the entire process, as Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, overcame constant opposition and rebuilt the city walls and defenses – just exactly as the Lord had put it in his heart at the first.
The lesson, of course, for Christian believers is how to be a servant/prayer warrior for God.  Face adversity with faith, humbly depending on God, as you build His kingdom with other believers.  It all starts with prayer – as does this book of Nehemiah.  It opens with prayer, and the book ends with prayer.  It tells us God uses cup-bearers, servants who are prayer warriors!
By the way – it is also the pathway to salvation in Christ Jesus.  Look once again at the model:
*          Adoration – Recognize God is in charge, and He sent Jesus to purchase our forgiveness on an old rugged cross.
*          Confession – Acknowledge who you are, a sinner who needs the forgiveness Jesus died to extend.
*          Thanksgiving – Acknowledge your gratitude for the cross.
*          Supplication – Ask Him to forgive your sins, and receive Christ and eternal life.
This is the way to start your life as a servant/prayer warrior!

[1]   Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol 10, (Nashville, Broadman & Holman, 1993),  168
[2] Dr. Herbert Lockyear, All the Books and Chapters of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1966) 105.
[3] Dr. Herbert Lockyear, All the Men of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1958), 256

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