Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Praying our Plans (Nehemiah 1-2)

Construction of Freedom Tower, New York, Aug. 2011
Back in February, after some conflict in our music ministry, staff turnover, and the stress of our troubled economy… I felt called as a pastor to declare a season of restoration, a season of rebuilding (I know, no surprise there)!  Along those same lines, I want to peer into the Book of Nehemiah and consider something which God has laid on my heart this week: to tear something down takes a moment; but to build something that truly lasts, that’s a different matter.

This week I was reading about the original plans to build the16-acre World Trade Center.  It began in 1962 (the same year the sanctuary where I pastor was built) and the second tower opened ten years later.  Five streets were closed off and 164 buildings were demolished. Construction required the excavation of more than 1.2 million cubic yards of earth.  During peak construction periods, 3,500 people worked at the site.  Ten thousand people in all worked on the towers, and 60 died during its construction. Almost ten years ago, we all know that the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center were destroyed in one brief, horrific moment, but that material loss was inconsequential when compared to the loss of human lives.  After many tears were shed, and the dead were honored…construction on a new Freedom Tower began in 2008.  It will rise 1,776 feet in the air; and as of yesterday, the tower had reached the 78th floor.  The original plan was to finish by Sept. 2011 but it will not be completed until next year at a cost of 3.1 billion dollars.

All this is to say that to tear something down takes a moment… but to build something that truly lasts will take passion, planning and, above all, prayer.  Consider the books of Ezra-Nehemiah which tell the 100 year epic story of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile and the restoration of its national life.  The glory of Jerusalem under David and Solomon was never duplicated in Israel’s history.  It’s temple was a wonder of the ancient world, but during the year 587 BC both the temple and the city were burned and razed to the ground, its population taken captive or scattered to other parts of the Mediterranean world. 

Fifty years after the city’s destruction, Zerubbabel the governor of Judea and Jeshua the high priest were given permission by King Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon, to rebuild the temple.  But though they were able to rebuild the temple, adversaries prevented them from repairing the city walls.  More than 100 years after this rebuilding work began, Nehemiah the king’s cupbearer (a trusted servant who tested and tasted anything the King was given to drink before he did), wept when he heard about his homeland.   It was 445 BC.  He wept not because he was surprised that the city walls were in ruins...but because after 150 yrs…the city walls were still in ruins. Nehemiah was determined to finish what others had been unable to begin. He longed to repair what had been broken.  I have found inspiration in Nehemiah’s sense of mission and his methods even as we have claimed this to be a season of rebuilding and restoration in our own church.

i. Notice, first, how Nehemiah turned his passionate concern for Jerusalem into a conversation with God (Neh. 1: 5-11)
5I said, "O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. 7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.'10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!" At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah’s call was the call to rebuild what had been destroyed.  That’s our mission too… to rebuild what has been torn down.  God’s people are to be on the look out for what has been broken, destroyed, wounded or torn apart. Notice that Nehemiah’s calling was fired by deep feelings.  This was his city!  These were his people!  He sat down and wept and mourned for days.  This was not just a news story…this was his story.  I think we’re supposed to care about our spiritual family (our church) with the same kind of passion that we care about our own families, our own home, our own health.

Nehemiah did not simply grieve -- important as that was.  He let his concern move him toward God.  He stopped and prayed for four months before speaking to the King!  That’s significant, considering what a man of action he was. What can Nehemiah teach us about praying our problems and our plans?    
  • Nehemiah gained perspective in prayer - “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him….” (5).
  • Nehemiah took responsibility in prayer.  “We have sinned against you.  Both I and my family have sinned….” (6). Before we jump in and try to fix what is broken, we must remember that we ourselves are among the broken and take responsibility for the brokenness that we ourselves have caused.
  • Nehemiah responded to God’s word in prayer.  Listen to this bold statement: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses….If you are unfaithful I will scatter you, but if you return…I will gather you” (8).  Nehemiah knew God’s word, and he let it guide and courage-ify his prayer life.
  • Nehemiah found new confidence in prayer. “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (11).  This is a bold prayer, for what Nehemiah wanted was an opportunity to ask King Artaxerxes to revoke a former edict which prevented the Jews from rebuilding the city (Ezra 4).   
Look how he boldly asks God to restore the fortunes of his people and to grant him success in rebuilding the city walls. That confidence could have only come from a daily walk with God that gave him both clarity and conviction; and then there's the way he responds to the King’s question four months after he began praying: “Nehemiah, why is your face sad, since you are not sick?” (2: 2) asks the King. Nehemiah knew this was his God-given opportunity:  “I was very much afraid,” Nehemiah admits as he explains to Artaxerxes the reason for his sadness.“What do you request?” the King inquires.  Listen to Nehemiah's response: “So I prayed to the God of heaven” (2: 4) [that is, before speaking another word].  We can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah honored God moment by moment, recognizing his dependence on God for the very words he was about to speak.           

To recap here, Nehemiah teaches me to pray my passion.  If I have any doubt about my mission, Nehemiah (and Jesus) call me  to restore what is broken as one who is also broken and in need of repair…and to begin this mission in prayer.

ii. Look next at how Nehemiah followed up his passionate prayers with careful planning (Neh. 2: 1-16). Nehemiah’s prayers helped him to formulate a very specific plan for returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the walls.
  • He told the king exactly where he was going and how long he would need to be gone (2: 6). 
  • He anticipated opposition and obstacles.  He requested letters of commendation from the King so that he could travel to Judah without being troubled by neighboring governors.
  • He asked for material resources: timber from the king’s forest for the work. 
  • He counted the cost.  In v. 11, we learn that he secretly inspected the walls by night so that he could evaluate the problem for himself.  Aside from watching out for his enemies, I think Nehemiah wanted to personally experience the enormity of what he was about to do and prayerfullycount the cost” before starting (cf. Luke 14: 28). 

There is no goal in this life worth pursuing that comes without cost.  I find that I am challenged in a number of areas whenever I am trying to accomplish something for Christ.  Perhaps you can relate to some of these challenges as well.  The cost of my pride – being willing to keep learning what I need to learn in order to get something accomplished or grow personally. The sacrifice of my fears: The fear of being rejected by others for following Christ or challenging others to follow him. The cost of time – the willingness to be patient with the often slow process of rebuilding and renewing his church. The cost of my stuff – the willingness to put my possessions and material resources at God’s disposal.  

iii. In the end, Nehemiah’s prayerful dependence upon God and thoroughness of planning resulted in a bold confidence that inspired others (Neh. 2: 17-20).  John Ortberg asked a friend last fall, "What's the main thing I need to be doing for our church to be a place where lives are being transformed?" He said, “Your primary job is to experience deep contentment and joy and confidence in your everyday life with God" (from "Redeeming Authority," Leadership Journal, Summer 2011).  I really resonated with that!  Nehemiah had that same confidence, and after he shared his plans with the other leaders in Jerusalem they quickly caught on: "Let's start building!" (2:18) they shouted.  But where does that confidence come from, again?  Let’s recap what we’ve learned:
  • Confidence  comes from a life of prayer in which the reading of God’s word informs us how to pray for the things that concern us; and leads us to pray for the things that concern God on an everyday basis. 
  • Confidence  comes from consciously bringing God’s presence to mind in the midst of the most difficult moments of our day, and asking for his help.  The next time you are in a heated conversation, the next time you are standing next to that friend, or neighbor or co-worker this week, the next time you are searching for the right words, and before taking the next step, stop and ask God to give you the words and the wisdom.  Nehemiah did…and so can you. Some of our students are going to Creekside this week… which was the camp that I worked at when I was in my mid twenties.  It was also the camp where I learned to pray and read and memorize Scripture.  It’s where I learned to spend 7 minutes with God, 7 times a week!  They taught me that spending time with God was not just for my benefit, but that Jesus desired that time with me as well and had important things to teach me.  That perspective began changing my life, and it still is.
  • Confidence  comes from plans that are carefully made, thoroughly prayed over, and genuinely receptive to the input of others (more about that next week).  When it seems like nothing is moving…ask yourself if you have made a move, taken a risk, drawn up some plans, and asked for input from others in whom you recognize godly wisdom and sanctified common sense?
I said earlier that it’s easy to tear things down…but that building something takes passion, planning, and prayer.  Several of our church families were at Family Camp at Forest Home Christian Conference Center last week.  While we were there, I heard about some work that was going on around the Lakeview area which surprised and even saddened me a little. Some very old oak trees that provided a tremendous amount of shade around the lake were found to be diseased and dangerous.  They were filled with insects.  On the outside they looked healthy, but inside they were literally falling apart.  The old friends were hundreds of years old…and beautiful, but in a single day, they had to be removed and every trace of them was now gone. When I talked to Stan White about it (I've known Stan for more than 35 years...and deeply respect him as Forest Home's President), I offered him my sympathy…but then he reminded me that it was actually an opportunity to do some different things with the property up there.  He said they were already making plans to build some kind of shade structure and to use that part of the lakeshore in a new way.   

It may be that in this season of restoration and rebuilding, some structures or old habits will need refinement, or even removal in us, our in our church, but that will only allow for new seed to grow, new growth, renewal, and new possibilities… which we should not fear.  This is an exciting time that we are living in! This is the season of Nehemiah…a season of renewal; and I am confident about this process if only because I know that our foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord, and no tower or church can stand that is not built on his word and risen life.  

Risen Lord, you alone can rebuild Jerusalem. You alone can rebuild the walls that have been broken in this church and in our hearts.  We ask your forgiveness for every destructive word and deed that has undermined what you long to renew and restore.  We declare and bear witness to a new season -- a season of renewal and rebuilding -- as we submit ourselves to your authority and the truth of your word.  May every passion, proposal, and plan be refined by your Holy Spirit.  May relationships be restored that were considered at one time beyond repair.  May the wounded and the downcast be refreshed and healed.  May words of wisdom and encouragement be spoken among us.  May others be drawn to you and your saving grace through our testimony. For you are our heart’s one desire and our one unshakeable foundation.  Amen.

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