How's your prayer life? It's an awkward question isn't it – how can anyone say their prayer life is as good as it could be?
That's why this year we're spending time reflecting on the prayers of the Bible – we want to grow in our praying.
So we're half way through – is it helping? I pray that it is, don't let this sermon series leave you untouched, of all the practical series we could do this one could be the most important.
I hope by now you're beginning to see that a good prayer life isn't purely measured in hours on our knees. Time spent in prayer is important – a few quick prayers thrown up in desperation will never be as helpful to us as sustained prayer and reflection… but just as important is the things we pray about. I hope you've seen that that over the last few weeks, and I hope you'll see it clearly this morning, as we look at Nehemiah's prayer (if you don't still have that open please turn to it now on page 342).
What's so special about Nehemiah's prayer? It's a model prayer of repentance; but even more than that it models a right focus and priority in prayer.
Nehemiah was rich, successful and comfortable. But those things weren't important to him. Nehemiah prays in repentance not because he wants to be blessed and comfortable, but because he wants God's glory to be seen on earth.
Before we dive into the details let's get our bearings. The book starts with an historical note so we know where we're at – Look at verse 1:
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa,
That helped didn't it?
Susawas where the Medes and the Persians had theirWinterPalace. The twentieth year means the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, or 445 BC to us.
So since Solomon around 500 years have passed (A helpful memory aid, David lived 1000BC) – Solomon would have been to Nehemiah like Henry VIII today; the Kings have come and gone, the Northern Kingdom has been destroyed, and the Southern Kingdom carried off into Exile in Babylon. AndBabylonhas been invaded by the Medes and the Persians – so Nehemiah is at the centre of the new empire.
Verse 2 tells us exiles have gone back andJerusalemhas been resettled. In fact it's almost 90 years since the exiles went back, and almost 60 since they rebuilt the temple. Everything should be going well.
But it isn't. Listen to how the returnees describeJerusalem:
3 They said to me, "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."
Things aren't going well at all. There has been very little progress in 90 years, if anything they're going backwards – twenty years earlier they'd started rebuilding the walls before King Artaxerxes – Nehemiah's King – had order them to stop.
So how does Nehemiah respond? He cares passionately forJerusalem, so he prays – and when I say he prays, he sat down and wept and for three months mourned and fasted and prayed. He prayed, he really, really prayed. That's chapter 1, what we're looking at this morning.
After praying he gets permission from the King to rebuild the city walls, then he goes toJerusalemto lead the rebuilding project, and eventually leads the people in repentance and renewal of the covenant. That's the rest of the book in a nutshell. His prayer was answered spectacularly.
So let's focus in on that prayer now. We won't be able to fully mine the depths of it this morning but there are five things I want us to see and learn from it.
1) Nehemiah prays out of a passion for God's Glory
2) Nehemiah's passion flows from seeing God's Glory
3) In the light of God's Glory he is ashamed of his sin
4) Nehemiah prays confidently on the basis of God's promises; and a sort of postscript fifth point:
5) Nehemiah prays specifically for strategic results
So let's start with point one:
Nehemiah prays out of a passion for God's Glory
Read verse four with me:
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. 5 Then I said: "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, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.
We need to understand that Nehemiah isn't affected like this simply because his team got relegated and he's going to get a ribbing from the blokes in the office. Even transposing that up into national glory versus national disgrace doesn't explain Nehemiah's response.
Nehemiah weeps and mourns and praysbecause the people in great trouble and disgrace were God's people, the city that was broken down was God's city. Their disgrace reflected back onto God.
Remember before Jesus cameJerusalemwas the centre of God's visible Kingdom on earth. God had promised to live there with his people. And his glory was supposed to be represented by the glory of the city, especially the temple. Briefly, under David and Solomon, it was – the temple was a magnificent structure lined inside with Gold. The city was spectacular, it's magnificent walls a source of pride (read through the Psalms and it's surprising how often they're mentioned) and they ruled over the nations around them.
But it didn't last, their sin brought it all undone and led them into exile.
But from the beginning (Deut 4, 10, 30, 1 Kings 8 and more) God promised that after exile, if the people would be faithful and repent he would hear from heaven and restore Jerusalem, and the glory of the new temple would be greater than the glory of the Old.
So where is the glory now? Jerusalem– the city ofGod– is filled with rubble and ruins, a monument only to their disgrace. We read Psalm 79: The nations see the city and ask 'where is their God?' and well they might because they are a ruler of none, and subject to all.
Nehemiah understood that state of God's people was the state of God's name on earth. Their disgrace was dragging God's name through the mud, so he mourned, and he cried out to God.
Notice this is corporate. Nehemiah was personally successful – he was cup bearer to the King – and he was righteous. But he knew that he didn't stand alone. God's people are just that – a people, not a group of individuals. Even while he enjoyed personal success he felt the sting of corporate shame. The people of God were in disgrace so all God's people were in disgrace and God was disgraced by them.
You could make an analogy to football glory here – when Newcastle United were relegatedNewcastlewas relegated (andGatesheadwith them). They represent us, their glory is our glory, their shame, our shame. That's why fans gathered outside St James Park to mourn. Now some of us here don't even care about football. Perhaps in an Olympic year you'll find yourself getting excited about gymnastics or decathlon or triple jump instead… but the analogy's the same.
The people of God represent him because he has redeemed them to be his own – they are his. God cares passionately about the state of his people – far more even than the most passionate football fanatic. Then the people of God was a national grouping, today it's the church. But we still stand and fall together; we belong to the body, the church.
Can you see the challenges to us here? How often have you or I been overwhelmed by our passion for the glory of God? How many hours have we spent weeping and fasting and mourning for the disgrace that is caused to God's name when his people sin?
Like Wicks building materials, Christ loves us so much he's put his name on us. What do Christians do for the honour and glory of Christ? How is God's name affected by our lives and by the life of the church in the world?
Isn't it tragic that often the church is the reason people say they don't believe… How much damage is done to the reputation of Christ when we sin? How much damage is done to the name of Christ when we refuse to sit under his word? How much damage is done to the honour of Christ when church is full of hypocrites or when buildings lie empty all over the country or when churches preach prosperity instead of the gospel? The list could go on and on and on…
We need to pray passionately for the integrity of God's church, for it's faithfulness to the gospel, for it's testimony to Christ. Christ's honour is at stake.
Point two: Nehemiah has a big view of God – God's name is worthy of special honour
Read with me from verse 5, 10 and 11:
5 Then I said: "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,
10 "They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.
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.
This point of course, underlies and explains the first point. If God's name was only as important as the name of our football club, then it would be foolish to mourn and weep and wail when it's disgraced. But it is entirely appropriate when we consider that the God who is being disgraced is worthy of all glory and honour and power. In verse 5 Nehemiah calls God the God of heaven, the great and awesome God – the God whose glory is seen in precisely the way that he relates to his people – the God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands.
God has chosen to reveal his glory by rescuing a people to be his very own. In verse 10 Nehemiah looks back to the Exodus when God first redeemed a people to be his very own. His people, the people ofJerusalem, the people now suffering in disgrace – they are God's servants, those whom God redeemed (fromEgypt) by his Great Strength and his Mighty Arm.
And in the NT we find that the exodus was just the warm up act for the redemption that would come in Jesus. In fact all God's plans and purposes from before the creation of the world are centred on making Christ glorious, and they find their focus and their fulfilment in His death and resurrection as he redeems a people for himself.
So stop and take that in for a moment. God is the great and awesome God. He made the heavens and the earth – the whole creation stands as monument to his power and strength. But God's glory is too great for even the creation itself to adequately reflect it. God's glory is not impersonal force or power, nor creativity. God's glory is his love, his grace, his covenant faithfulness to the people he has chosen for himself.
And that God, the God who is that awesome, that great and mighty God is slighted in the world that he has made. Nehemiah's weeping and mourning is no less than appropriate.
Imagine the Principal from the local school comes to make a visit to your house – do you role out the red carpet for him? What if the Prime Minister comes to visit? What if the Queen announces she wants to drop in as she passes by to celebrate her jubilee this year?
The greater honour is due to the greater person isn't it? What honour should we give to the one who created us all? What honour to the one who bought us back out of slavery to sin and death by giving up his own life in our place?
What has this got to do with our prayer? God invites us to pray about everything, and that includes all of our small even trivial worries. But Nehemiah reminds us that we must not neglect to pray for the big things even while we worry about the little things. God's glory is the very reason for creation, the reason for Jesus' death, and the reason the world keeps turning to this day. If God's glory is supreme in God's concerns, it should be supreme in ours.
If we only pray about our own concerns we are treating God as a genie to get what we want. But he is so much more than that. He loves to meet our needs and answer our concerns, but should we not also concern ourselves with the things that are closest to his heart? Nehemiah reminds us, challenges us even, to lift our thoughts beyond our own circumstances and to pray for God's concerns as well as our own.
Point three: In the light of God's Glory he is ashamed of his sin
In the light of all he knows about God – of his power and might, of his holiness and perfection, and of his glory – well Nehemiah sees himself as he really is, a weak and guilty sinner.
6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly towards you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
He says 'we're in disgrace today, and it's all our own fault, we deserve it. We deserve it because we've not been faithful to God, even though he has been faithful to us'. In chapter nine he'll expand on this point. But here it's stark in its directness. Nehemiah wasn't there whenIsraelwent astray. He wasn't responsible for the rotten Kings and the decline of law keeping and all the other things that led to the exile. But still he can't for a moment pretend that he is blameless before God. He so identifies with them that he says it was him, and his fathers, who sinned, who acted wickedly and committed sins against the God of heaven. He is implicated in the very sin that has lead to this disgrace, with them all he has failed to obey God's commands, decrees and laws.
Remember this is years after the exile. They've had plenty of time to reflect on the cycles of sin and punishment and repentance that characterise the OT.Israelhas have never been able to sustain obedience to God, never. Days after the Exodus they were rebelling in the wilderness. The days of the Judges were appalling, but even in the glory years they went astray – King David was a murderer and an adulterer after all.
Sin always makes a mess of things. As long as God's glory relies on the faithfulness of his people the promises seem a long way off.
Now of course at this point we have a great advantage over Nehemiah. We can see how this problem is resolved in Jesus, where our guilt and failure is dealt with on the cross.
But we mustn't rush too quickly past this repentance. We need to understand like Nehemiah that if we'd been there we would have fared no better thanIsrael– sin is not anIsraelproblem, but a human heart problem.
We have forgiveness in Jesus, but that must never lead us to a light view of sin. Sin – your sin, and my sin – is serious enough that Jesus had to die for it. Don't be fooled by the voices that say 'it's just a little…' sin is serious. Repentance is the life of the Christian, turning away once again from ourselves and turning after Christ to follow him.
Point four: Nehemiah prays confidently on the basis of God's promises.
This has been a constant theme of our prayers series. Look at verse 8:
8 "Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying,`If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 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.'
See how this works – Nehemiah is aware of God's greatness and the glory and honour due to him. And Nehemiah is aware that he and all God's people fall very short of giving God his due. That means that in and of themselves they couldn't pray to God, But Nehemiah can still come to God and confidently ask for God's help because he has the clear word of God that invites his trust – God has promised to respond to this very prayer.
This, as I said, has been a theme of the prayer series so far. God's people pray effectively and confidently when they pray the promises of God. This isn't a sign of their lack of trust in God, as if he needs to be reminded before he'll keep his promises, no it's a sign of the sure trust in God's promises – without them we could never ask so boldly for his help. God's goodness in making promises to us is rightly met by faith when we respond by asking God to keep them. That's the nature of God's promises to us. The only basis for Nehemiah's prayer is that God has promised. He could never pray on the basis of his goodness, or the goodness of the people of Israel, nor even on the basis that he would do better in the future – answer our prayers now God and we promise we'll never go astray again. That's a foolish promise, because our hearts are constantly going astray. These things are not leverage enough to move God for us. But we don't need leverage to move God for us, he's already for us – we can trust him to keep his promises.
Again we have greater confidence than he could have because we know that Jesus speaks to the Father for us. Right now he sits at the right hand of God on high to represent us to God. God's good promises all find their yes and amen in Jesus. So we can pray with all the confidence of children speaking to their Father.
Postscript: Nehemiah prays specifically for strategic results
Very briefly, look at verse 11:
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." I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah is not impractical, he see's no juxtaposition between prayer and action – he does both. Not only does he cry out to God for help, but he acts to resolve this blight on God's name.
He was cup bearer to the King, meaning he had unique access to him – and since it was the King who ordered thatJerusalemshould not be rebuilt, it was the King who needed to change that order so that the disgrace could be removed fromJerusalem. So he forms a plan to ask the King to reverse hisJerusalempolicy. And he prays to ask God to help him to execute this plan.
So notice how he doesn't just pray in the abstract or in high falutin generalities, he also prays in the particular, for this meeting he was about to have with the King. Again there is theology behind this – Proverbs says, does it not, that the King's heart is in hand of the Lord. And Exodus showed that God has the power to overrule any King to achieve his ends. And as well as those things about rule and authority this prayer also reflects a confidence that God works through the faithfulness of his people. God could have spoken to Pharaoh directly – but he sent Moses instead; God could have rescued the Jews directly in the time of Esther – but he chose to put Esther in the Kings palace to do it.
God rules through the faithfulness of his people. This is the direct corollary of the first point. God's name is disgraced and brought into disrepute by the sin of his people; and his name is lifted high by the faithful obedience of his people. He invites us to pray, and he invites us to act for his glory.
What should we learn in response to Nehemiah's prayer? Nehemiah rebukes our lack of prayer – four months of prayerful repentance and pleading with the Lord… but more than that we will not learn to pray until we learn to see God as Nehemiah sees him. He is the God of the whole universe, the great and mighty God, the loving and faithful God, the God who chose us before we chose him, the God to whom all glory and honour and power are due; more than that he is the God who has acted in Jesus to bring an end to the endless cycles of sin and repentance, an end to our disgrace.
And we are unfaithful, small, pitiful and ungrateful – we have no place praying to him, except for one thing, he loves us, forgives us and invites us to pray to him. So we come to him and we plead his promises to him –not because we think that he might be unfaithful to them, but because he has told us to, in fact that is how he keeps his promises, but answering the prayers of his people.