About 4000 years ago, around 2000 B.C., God appeared to a man called Abram. He called him to leave his home and move to the land of Canaan.
And he promised Abram that 1) His descendants would become a great nation 2) That they would inherit the land of Canaan 3) That he would be their God and they would be his people.
Abraham had a son called Isaac. Isaac had a son called Jacob, and Jacob had 12 sons called, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.
The rest of the brothers didn't like Joseph so much, so when they got the chance they sold him into slavery and he ended up in Egypt. Through God's amazing way, Joseph rose to greater and greater power in Egypt, until he was second only to Pharaoh.
Meanwhile back in Canaan, God had changed Jacob's name to Israel, and there was a famine.
To cut a long story short, eventually the whole family of Israelites moved to Egypt where they settled, and grew. And grew, and grew. Until there were about 600,000 of them! And that scared Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, so he oppressed the Israelites. He made them his slaves.
400 years later, around 1500 B.C. God sent his people Moses to be there leader. And, to cut another long story short, Moses led the people out of Egypt. God made a way, through the Red Sea, for the people to walk on dry ground, but when the Egyptians tried to follow, God let the waters role back.
After he had destroyed their enemies, God led his people to Mt Sinai. And on top of the mountain he gave Moses the 10 commandments. He made a promise again, a covenant, to be their God and for them to be his people. And he showed them how to follow him and obey him.
But the people didn't. When Moses came down the mountain the people were worshipping an idol they had made as their god. Over and over and over again the people complained and grumbled and moaned. So God refused to give them the land he had promised.
For 40 years they wondered in the Wilderness until Joshua, their new leader, led them into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, which they renamed Israel. They were a great nation, in their own land, with God as their king. But the people still weren't happy.
They were supposed to be distinct from the nations around them, because they worshipped the God of heaven. But instead they wanted to be just like the nations around them. They wanted a king as their leader. So they chose the strongest, tallest, most handsome man to be their king, called Saul. And he was a rubbish king. So God gave them a good king, called David, that was around 1000 B.C.
King David had a wise son called Solomon, who, when he became king, built the temple in Jerusalem, the capital city. The temple was the place where God would be with his people and meet with his people. They were good days, but they didn't last long.
Solomon didn't end well, and his son, Rehoboam, was even worse. So bad in fact that the Kingdom split in two. 10 tribes in the North left the 2 tribes in the South. The Northern Kingdom kept the name Israel, but they left the God of Israel behind. They had many kings who went from bad to worse.
God sent them his prophets, but they would not listen to them. So finally in 722 B.C. God sent the Assyrian Empire to wipe them out.
The two tribes left in the Southern Kingdom were called Judah. They had a couple of good kings, and God sent them many prophets as well, but essentially over time they too went from bad to worse, rejecting and ignoring God. So in 586 B.C. God sent the Babylonian Empire against them.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem. He destroyed the temple, took away nearly all the people, and left the land desolate.
It's a time the Bible calls the Exile. For 70 years God's people, like Daniel whose story we looked at 2 years ago, were in Exile in Babylon. But after 70 years, just as God had promised, Babylon was overthrown by Persia, and Cyrus, the King of Persia, sent God's people back to the Promised Land.
In 538 B.C. the first wave of returnees were led by Zerubbabel, the governor, and Jeshua, the priest, and the first half of the book of Ezra is all about how they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Then 60 years later in 458 B.C. Ezra, the priest, led another group of God's people back to Israel. And Ezra's mission was to teach the people the law of God, and bring them back to worshipping Him. That's what we looked at this time last year.
Then, 13 years after Ezra had returned to the Promised Land, a man called Hanani visited Jerusalem. And then he went back to Persia, where he told his brother everything he had seen. His brother's name, was Nehemiah.
There are times in our lives when we stop and we ask ourselves big questions.
Perhaps it's at the start of a new year? It might be at the funeral of a friend, or at the birth of a child. It might even be while we're celebrating your own birthday? Perhaps it's when we meet up with old friends, or go to a school reunion? Or perhaps it's just at the end of a terrible day at work?
There are times, aren't there, when we stop and we ask ourselves, what am I doing with my life? what's the point? what difference am I making?
Perhaps most of the time we're so busy that we never stop to think about those things? I wonder if sometimes we make ourselves busy so that we don't have time to stop and think about those things?
But every so often the question comes back again. What is the point of life?
Well, I want to suggest to you this evening that Nehemiah chapter 1 can help us start to find the answer to those questions. So let's pray and ask God for his help us understand his word.
Look at Nehemiah 1v1…
"The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 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."
The book starts with Nehemiah hearing, from his brother, how things are going back in Jerusalem. And the news is not good. The people, he hears in v3, are "in great trouble and disgrace" Why? Because the city wall around Jerusalem is in ruins.
v4, Nehemiah says…
"When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven."
Nehemiah was a Jew living in Persia. As far as we know, he'd never been to the Promised Land. And he'd never even seen the city of Jerusalem. Yet when he hears about the wall of the city being broken down, he weeps and mourns and fasts and prays. In fact, as we'll see when we get to chapter 2, when Nehemiah heard the news about Jerusalem he wept and mourned and fasted and prayed for four months!
Why did he do that? Well, the example of his prayers which we have in vv 5-11 show us that it's because he knew God's plans.
Knowing God's plans, 1 vv 1-10
Look at v5 with me...
"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, 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. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses."
Nehemiah starts his prayer by remembering who God is, and who he is. 'God,' he says, 'I know that you're all powerful and all loving.' 'That you're the God who made promises, covenants, with Abraham and Moses and David.' 'That if we love you, then you would bless us and be our God.'
And then he recognises that he, and his family, and all the people of Israel for 100s of years have consistently failed to do that. They haven't obeyed God, or loved God. Then he goes on, vv 8-9…
"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.'"
'Remember,' Nehemiah says, 'the promises that you made.' 'That if we were disobedient, you would scatter us among the nations, but that if we turned back to you, you would bring us back.'
Do you see what Nehemiah is doing? He is quoting God to God!
Many times in the past God had made promises to the people of Israel like the one we find in Deuteronomy 30…
"When…the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers."
Do you see? Nehemiah knew God's word, so he knew God's plan. And he knew that so far God had kept his word. After 70 years in exile the people had repented and turned back to God, and God brought them back to the Promised Land.
The first wave had gone with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, to rebuild the temple, and the second wave had gone with Ezra to teach the law. v10…
"They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand."
The God of heaven, the great and awesome God, had kept his covenant of love with those who loved him and obeyed his commands. God's people were back in God's land. But as yet, God had not restored their fortunes. They were in great trouble and disgrace.
Nehemiah knew God's promises. He knew God's plans, because he knew God's word. And so when he heard from his brother Hanani that God's plans had not yet been fulfilled. He wept, and he mourned and he fasted and he prayed.
Now, perhaps this feels like an obscure point? Or perhaps it seems entirely obvious? But I think it's right at the heart of us finding an answer to those big questions that we ask in life.
Nehemiah knew that this world was not some cosmic explosion, created by accident and continuing at random. He knew that this world was created by God. And that God has a plan for it.
So let me ask you, is that how you look at the world? Are you aware of God's plans? Do you know where we've come from, and where we're going?
Do you look at the world around you and shrug your shoulders? Or do you look at the world around you and remember God's plans? Do you live each day remembering that the book of Acts and Timothy and Hebrews and James and Peter, tell us that these days we are living in are 'the last days'?
That since Jesus lived, died, rose again and went back to heaven, now we are only waiting for him to come back? And that when he does this world will end, and all of us will face God's judgment? That's what God says in His word. That is God's plan.
Now, perhaps all of that is news to you? Or perhaps you've heard it all before? But let me encourage you as we start this new year, to get to know God's plan. Because it's only by knowing God's plan for our world, that we can find our place in it.
Finding our place, 1v11 – 2v10
For four months Nehemiah wept and mourned and fasted and prayed, But at the end of chapter 1 and beginning of chapter 2, we discover that during that time Nehemiah had also devised a plan. Look at v11…
"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 favor in the presence of this man." I was cupbearer to the king."
Nehemiah's job was to bring Artaxerxes, the King of Persia, his wine. To make sure it tasted OK, and wasn't poisoned. In other words, he had access to the king, and the king trusted him. So when the opportunity came, after months of prayer and planning, look at what happened, 2 vv 1-5…
"In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?" The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
This was a risky strategy. Being unhappy in the presence of the King, I'm told, was punishable by death. And Nehemiah tells us in v2 that he was very much afraid. But he prayed, and he took his chance, vv 6-8…
"Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?" It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. I also said to him, "If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?" And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests."
Nehemiah knew God's plans. He knew that God had promised that he would restore his people back to the Promised Land and restore their fortunes.
So he was devastated to hear about the walls of Jerusalem were broken down. So he prayed, and he saw an opportunity to play a part in God's plans, because he was cupbearer to the King.
When he spoke to the king Artaxerxes, he didn't know, yet, if his idea was going to be part of God's plan. But he prayed, and he asked, and because the gracious hand of God was upon him, the king granted his requests. He gave him time off work, and safe travel, and building materials from his own supply, and, as we see in v9, he even gave him a small army to go with him!
And that's what we're going to be studying together for the rest of this term, how Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. But here is where it all starts. It starts with Nehemiah knowing God's plans and finding his place in them.
So I want to start our time together, this term and this year, by asking you if you have found your place in the plans of God yet?
When I worked for a church in Essex, my boss, the pastor, had become a Christian through his school CU. That's not so unusual. What is unusual is that in his year group at school around 30-40 boys became Christians, in one year! There were faithful Christians in that school who prayed, and who took opportunities to tell the boys about Jesus.
I know a lady who runs a Sunday School class in her church. She commits herself to praying not just for the children who are in her class this year, but for all the children she's ever taught. And she prays, not just that they would become Christians, but that they would become missionaries! She told me that one year she had 10 children in her Sunday School class, and today, nine of them are missionaries!
I've got a friend who's a designer at a company in London. The last I heard he was meeting with a group of his colleagues every week to do Christianity Explored with them.
They have found their place in the plans of God.
And they did it just the same way that Nehemiah did. They knew God's plans. Each one of them believe God's word when it says that these are the last days and that only people who worship Jesus now will be saved when he returns. And then they prayed, and thought, "I was a teacher to a class of boys." "I was Sunday School leader to a bunch of 5-7 year olds." "I was a designer in a firm."
And God is using them in his plan, to save people who are lost before it's too late.
Do you know God's plan? Have you found your place in it? Your job, your family, your neighbours, your street, your colleagues, your Sunday School class, your old school friends. Maybe God wants to reach them, and carry out his plans for them, through you?
And maybe it's not where you are right now, or who you know right now, but there are people in this church, or in this community, or in Turkey or Tunisia or Turkmenistan, and God wants to use you to reach them?
What is the purpose of life? What are you doing, and what difference are you making?
I believe you and I will find the answer only when we follow Nehemiah's example. When we know God's plan, and find our place in it.