Pastor Walther / June 3, 2018 / A Pastor’s Prayer for the Future / Pentecost 3 / Nehemiah 1:5-11
We pray to God that this would never happen, but imagine in some alternate universe that Appleton had some bad spring weather and a tornado ripped through downtown and hit parts of our church and school. How would we move on with our ministry? It could still work to hold church and school. But there would be no protection from the weather or from people coming in and looting the electronics. And although it isn’t the most ideal, the children sort of would get used to just showing up with an umbrella on rainy days. And then, the teacher would get used to writing on a broken wall instead of using a white board. The pastor gets used to preaching from on top of a big rock that flew through the window, instead of fixing the pulpit. From an outside perspective, it would seem silly that we wouldn’t want to fix everything right away. It’s not that we wouldn’t try, but because of budget set backs, or people coming in and vandalizing, or lack of help, it’s hard to get things going or even finished. And after a while, you know as I do, you sort of get used to it and become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
It was uncomfortable for Nehemiah to see his city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, was no longer the city it once was. The walls of the city lay in ruin for more than a hundred years. It was Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, who had breached Jerusalem, burned the temple, carried all but the poorest of the remaining Israelites off to Babylon, and knocked the walls down. After some time and new authority in the middle east, some of the Israelites were allowed to return home to Israel. An attempt was made under a Jewish scribe named Ezra to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but the project never quite got off the ground because enemies in the area saw to it that it never reached completion.
These unfinished city walls were a bigger deal than someone who hasn’t gotten around to finishing their basement. The walls were more than just protection, but they were also symbolic: Unwalled cities were looked at as worthless. Walled cities were seen as significant and important. Nehemiah could not stand the thought that the city of God would be viewed as insignificant. He was so sad to hear that the wall of the city had been torn down, and gates had been burned that he broke down crying.
Interestingly, Nehemiah had never lived in Jerusalem. He was the second and third generation of Israelites living in exile in Babylon. Nehemiah looked at Israel from the outside perspective. But he knew that in his position, he could do something about it. The last sentence of our text shows what his job was. He says, “I was cupbearer to the king.” Now a cupbearer’s job wasn’t just to hold a cup for the king or be a wine connoisseur, but Nehemiah was responsible for the safety of the king and to be sure that his cup was not poisoned. That was essential in ancient monarchies, because the removal of THE one man could overthrow a government. So, cupbearers developed such a very close and influential bond with kings that we could equate them to members of the presidential cabinet in our government. There is no doubt then that Nehemiah, who was a believer, was well respected by the king because of his godly virtues.
It’s fascinating to see how similar Nehemiah’s life was compared to our lives in this American culture. Nehemiah lived his entire life in a country that was a super power. It was a melting pot of culture and religion. And yet in spite of all these different kinds of religions, Nehemiah acknowledged the LORD as the only true God, and only God could do something about his people and these walls. And so Nehemiah prayed. That prayer is our text for today.
In his prayer, Nehemiah essentially looks at a timeline. Nehemiah praised God for his greatness and His love to His people. God never abandoned them. Nehemiah pleaded with God to remain faithful to his covenant and to his promises. Unfortunately, the people weren’t always faithful. In fact, it was because of their unfaithfulness that the Israel nation had been conquered to begin with and taken into exile. The people forgot about God because they cared more about themselves and what they wanted. God had given them the commandments on Mt Sinai, not because he liked watching them suffer with things to do, but because he loved them and wanted to keep them close to him. But they failed to listen.
Now that some of the Israelites were back in Jerusalem, the people were beginning to fall into the same kinds of sin that their forefathers did. Being back in Jerusalem was something that they longed for, to get back to the city of God, and yet the pasture isn’t always greener on the other side. No doubt they were burdened and weary from persecution. But in the process, they were also growing apathetic towards God and towards their situation. From an outside perspective like Nehemiah, it would seem silly that they wouldn’t want to fix these things right away. But they were clearly showing their indifference and lack of trust in God.
And even though Nehemiah never lived during the time when the nation of Israel was taken into captivity, and even though he never saw Jerusalem with his own eyes, even though he maybe never fell into those same sins as his forefathers, Nehemiah confesses his own sin of neglect to the city, neglect of his God, and neglect even of his people. Nehemiah points out that God’s people didn’t need just a new physical place, but they needed a holistic change of their hearts if they were ever going to fully obey and love their God.
I think about our timeline at St. Paul. God has truly blessed us here in Appleton. We have had a church and school for a long time, and now have been blessed to have a childcare for a while too. We have been able to share God’s message with so many generations of people. I think about the buildings that we have been blessed with and the beauty of the design. God has truly been faithful to us.
But I wonder if we become a lot like the Israelites. We take these blessings for granted and we neglect our God. We have seen the numbers decline not only in worship but also in our school. Bible class and Sunday school attendance are sometimes slim to none. I wonder if we become content with that decline, content with the status quo of our church. Do we become apathetic towards our ministry or even towards our own spiritual life? Do we fall into the sins that we know are wrong but we have grown used to because of our society around us? In other words, do we intermarry our faith with the viewpoints of the world around us? Do we make excuses that the church’s failings are not my problem? Do we blame the politics of the government as an excuse for our lack of mission work? Do we blame the younger generations about not knowing Jesus when we the older generations fail to actually teach them? Maybe it’s that we forget about God because we care more about ourselves and what we want. Or maybe we think that the grass is greener on the other side, and that if only we had the right person, or right item, or this right kind of music, or the right kind of building, then we’ll be better off. Israel got what they wanted, to be back in Israel, but they still failed to be close to God. They still failed to do God’s mission. I’ll be the first to admit that I have failed in these areas.
When we look at the timeline of our walk with God, we see our unfaithfulness time and time again. We see our laziness to keep God’s first commandment and to love God above everything. We see our distaste for God’s command to love our neighbor, especially the bad neighbor. We turn a blind eye to God’s command to spread the gospel on an individual basis. We become content with seeing the falling numbers in church and we assume, well that’s just the times we’re in. It’s Israel all over again.
So many times as an adult, I’ve wanted a fresh start for myself because priorities get twisted, bad habits develop, ways of thinking do not fit with what I want to be as a Christian. I just want to wipe them away and start fresh, make a new beginning. For people like Nehemiah, he saw that Israel needed a fresh start, because the years had passed and the old patterns of life, the old materialism, the old values all crept in.
And maybe it’s because we are hearing only half of what God is saying. We are only seeing the law, seeing what we have to do for God. When the law becomes the motivation, it becomes depressing. A parent can train a child to do what they say when they threaten them. The child will listen because the threat of punishment is a very influential motivator. But it’s only when the child hears, and knows, and feels their parents’ love that they would ever be happy to do what the parents say. Just like the Israelite nation, we need a holistic change of heart if we are ever going to fully obey and love our God. God’s love is what changes our hearts. Love is the proper motivator. It was God’s love that wiped our slate clean and gave us the fresh start that we needed. That promise is always ours. In repentance we turn back to God, we acknowledge our sin, and we hug our Savior Jesus and never let go because it is our God who loves us and he wants what’s best for us. He wants us to prosper and to grow because he is faithful and loving and most importantly, he is forgiving.
Our God wants to stay close to us. What better way than through conversation! God speaks to us through his word and we can speak to God through prayer. The prayer life of Nehemiah is a model that I pray that we can all strive for. Nehemiah was a man of constant prayer. There are about fourteen recorded prayers in the short book of Nehemiah. Before he set out on a project, Nehemiah prayed. When he approached the king, he prayed. When he was in trouble, he prayed. His prayers show that his trust was not self-centered but God-centered.
Humanly speaking, only one person could make it possible for Nehemiah to help the Jews in Jerusalem: that was the king he served. In the eyes of the world, Artaxerxes was a man of influence and power, who could decide life and death. In the eyes of Nehemiah, Artaxerxes was just a man like any other. I love how vague Nehemiah is with describing the king. In his prayer to God, he simply describes him as “this man,” or this “guy.” Nehemiah showed the difference between his reverence for the Lord and his perception of his boss, the Persian king. The Lord of history makes the decisions, not Artaxerxes.
What a great reminder, though, that we need to pray not only for ourselves but for our government leaders. We should pray for success with our government that we may be able to continue to preach the good news about Jesus in peace and prosperity. Pray knowing that God will work everything for our good. We should also pray for our spiritual leaders like pastors and teachers. Pray that we help, encourage, and especially accompany our pastors in their work. It’s important to remember that Nehemiah wasn’t a pastor. He was a cupbearer. He was a government worker. In other words, we can all play a roll in sharing the gospel, not just laying that responsibility solely on the pastors. But, God has given each of us amazing and different opportunities to tell people about Jesus and to invite them to church. Nehemiah saw that opportunity with his job, he prayed about it, and he did something about it!
Nehemiah’s name literally means “The Lord comforts.” Nehemiah learned the meaning of his own name. God has not changed, nor will he ever. He is still holy and awesome. But above all, God is faithful to his covenant of love. When in weakness we sin, we can turn to God as Nehemiah did, and we can enjoy the same confidence of the forgiveness of sins that he had. Nehemiah’s prayer is a wonderful guide to our prayers for our future.
My prayer for St. Paul is that we never grow stagnant, never satisfied with decline, but that God fill us with his promises, and fill us with his love. My prayer is that our people here become people of prayer, and that we put our trust in God who controls all things for our good. My final prayer is that we share this message, each and every one of us and God will grant success. The gospel will be spread! It has been a joy and a privilege, for the last 5 years, to walk together with you in God’s mission! Amen!