Rebuilding begins with prayer
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
Nehemiah 1:4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. This brings us to the big idea of our passage: Rebuilding begins with prayer. There are three basic kinds of prayer: upward prayer (praise), inward prayer (confession), and outward prayer (petition). How does prayer rebuild us? 1. Praise reorients us 2. Confession humbles us 3. Petition empowers us. (Nod to Tim Keller)
Nehemiah 1Prayer by Tim Keller
NICOT commentary on Nehemiah
Tyndale commentary on Nehemiah
ESV Study Bible
Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World by Tom Schreiner
There is an old story about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, traveling by horse and buggy with one of his colonels. After hours of travel, the colonel paused to give the horses a break and pulled a bottle of whisky out of his bag, offering Lincoln a drink. Lincoln declined, saying that he never drank whisky. The two men continued traveling, having a wonderful visit, then after several more hours they paused for another break and the colonel offered Lincoln a cigar. Lincoln replied, “you’ve been so kind to escort me, I should enjoy a cigar with you, but before I do, I want to tell you a story. When I was nine years old, my mother lay in bed dying. She called me to her bedside and said, ‘Abey, the doctors tell me I will not get well. Make me this one promise, that you’ll never drink whisky or use tobacco.’ So, advise me colonel, should I break the promise I made all those years ago and have kept until this day.” Overcome with emotion, the Colonel put away his cigar and Lincoln kept his promise. This morning, Citylight Church begins a three-month journey through the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, and at the very center of Nehemiah is the Lord, the God who truly and always keeps his promises. Let me explain…Some 4,000 years ago, God promised a man named Abraham that he would bless him, make him into a great nation, plant that nation in a promised land, bless all the peoples of the earth through them. Fast forward almost 1,500 years and only a small remnant of that nation remains in Jerusalem, having returned from the Babylonian exile under the permission of the new world superpower, Persia. This all brings us to a man named Nehemiah, whose hope is in the God who always keeps his promises to his people. Nehemiah lives in the Persian royal city of Susa and he works the as king’s cupbearer, a trusted and influential role in the royal court. Nehemiah loves God, loves God’s people, and loves God’s city, Jerusalem, and the book of Nehemiah begins with Nehemiah learning some startling news. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). God’s city and God’s people are broken down and in great trouble, but the message of Nehemiah is that God does his greatest work of rebuilding and renewal in our times of greatest trouble. Nehemiah is all seeking the renewing and rebuilding grace of God together. Citylight, in light of the trials we faced in 2020 and wickedness we witnessed at our nation’s capital this week, who of us doesn’t long for the renewing and rebuilding grace of God to fall on our lives personally, in our church as a gospel-culture that is meant to portray the beauty of Jesus through our relationships and life together, and upon our nation through us, his attractively different witnesses?! Nehemiah is just what we need to continue strengthening our gospel-culture. How do we seek God’s renewing and rebuilding grace together? Nehemiah 1:4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. This brings us to the big idea of our passage: Rebuilding begins with prayer. There are three basic kinds of prayer: upward prayer (praise), inward prayer (confession), and outward prayer (petition). How does prayer rebuild us? 1. Praise reorients us 2. Confession humbles us 3. Petition empowers us. (Nod to Tim Keller)
PRAISE REORIENTS US
There is something you need to know about Nehemiah, the man. Nehemiah is a man of emotional passion and physical action. When he hears that the remnant of God’s people in Jerusalem are in trouble, he weeps, mourns, and fasts for days over their trouble. He’s also a man of physical action. This is a guy who leads men, builds walls, risks his life, and gives generously. He’s practical, passionate, task oriented, and cunning. In light of what we know about Nehemiah, you might expect him to hear that God’s people are in trouble rush to action or rush into prayerful petition for God to rescue, renew, and rebuild Jerusalem and his people, but that’s not how Nehemiah begins. He begins with something that doesn’t seem very productive: praise. Nehemiah 1:5: And I 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… The prayer that puts God’s rebuilding grace into motion begins with praise to the God who is great and awesome because he chooses to establish a relationship with his people, binding himself to us with an oath, and always upholds his end of the covenant promise. Always. Here is the point: Rebuilding begins with prayer and praise to the awesome God who keeps his promises comes first.
Why does the practical and emotional man of action respond to great trouble with praise? Why is praise primary and first in prayer? Praise reorients us. The great temptation that we all face in times of great or even modest trouble, is to believe that our trouble is the most awesome thing in our life and in the universe. Praise reorients us. Without praise, even our prayers become disoriented. When our problems, rather than God’s praise dominates our prayers, we begin to treat God like a vending machine; if I just push the right prayer buttons, he’ll bend to my agenda and give me what I want. Without praise, prayer becomes “my will be done.” In fact, without praise, we run right into our prayer list, replay all of our needs and worries in God’s direction and leave more anxious and burdened than when we started. Without praise, prayer is little more than worrying in God’s direction. But praise reorients us. Why? Because praise has the power to heal what is really wrong with us. Praise develops our love for God and our greatest problem is that we love other things more than God and see our problem as more awesome than God. Praise stokes the flame of our love for God and frees us from the horror of being the center of our universe. But praise doesn’t only reorient our hearts, it reorients the rest of our prayers. Praise establishes the baseline we need to rightly confess our sins and petition God for grace for our needs. The more we praise God for his holiness and love, the more readily we’ll see our sins and confess them. The more we praise God for his majesty and see our dependence on him, the more readily we will go to him for every need. Rebuilding begins with prayer and prayer begins with praise because praise reorients us. Now, praise and thanksgiving are more contrary to our hearts than other kinds of prayer, so three quick tips for developing the habit of praise. First, take life personally. Learn to say, “how good of God to give me_____,” and “what kind of God would give______ to us.” Second, plant yourself in the Bible in 2021 and turn what you read around to God in praise and thanksgiving. I often begin my prayer time by paraphrasing the Lord’s prayer because it helps me begin with praise. Finally, sing. Sing alone at home or in the car and, more importantly, whether our services are online or in person, join in because singing praise is at the heart of our services. Rebuilding begins with prayer and prayer begins with praise. The second way rebuilding begins with prayer…
CONFESSION HUMBLES US
Confession is agreeing with God about our fault and guilt. Confession is to say to God the same thing about our sin that He does and ask for his gracious pardon. Confession is the heartfelt recognition of who we really are, which cleanses our conscience and opens our hearts humbly to God. Rebuilding begins with prayer because prayers of confession humble us. Let’s read Nehemiah’s prayer of confession. Nehemiah 1:6-7: 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 the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. In the face of great trouble, Nehemiah confesses that he and the rest of God’s people have sinned greatly. Nehemiah agrees with God that he, his family, and all the people of God experienced the great trouble of exile because they didn’t uphold their end of the covenant God made with them. Nehemiah responds to great trouble by agreeing with God about who he and his people really are through confession of sin.
It’s important for us to understand that there is a difference between the trouble that Nehemiah and God’s people were experiencing and the trouble that we experienced in 2020 and are still experiencing. Israel was sent into exile as a direct result of our sins, but the same cannot be said about the global pandemic. Nevertheless, the Christian church has always received plagues and pandemics as opportunities for us to examine ourselves, see if there are any sins of commission or omission that have begun to characterize us, and say to God the same thing about those sins that he does.
Now, the interesting thing about Nehemiah’s prayer of confession is that it’s “corporate.” Nehemiah doesn’t simply confess his sins. Rather, he confesses the sins that characterized God’s people, his family, and himself. In our terms, he confessed the sins of omission and commission that had become normal, tolerated, or characteristic of himself and his church. This all leads me to a question: what sins has the pandemic revealed to be characteristic, normal, or tolerated in our church? Don’t let this be a discouraging question, Citylight. The pandemic has revealed that our church is characterized by concern for and generosity toward the poor, love for one another despite significant political differences, and by an eager willingness to bear one another’s burdens in a difficult season. God’s grace is on us and that’s why we can risk asking the question: what sins has the pandemic revealed to be “normal” for us? I want to gently share one with you that is on my heart. The pandemic has revealed that we as a church have neglected the duty and privilege of evangelism; speaking the gospel with the aim to persuade others to believe. Of course, there are noted exceptions to this neglect in our church, but I would say that a lack of evangelism has generally become tolerated and normal in our church, and we have every excuse in the book on the ready. We have become a church that is far too comfortable busying ourselves with our own lives and agendas, while friends, neighbors, co-workers, and classmates perish forever without Christ. I love the old quote from Charles Spurgeon: If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for. Citylight, we’ve lost that kind of urgent passion for our neighbors. To be honest, this has become characteristic of us, in large measure, because it’s characteristic of me as your lead pastor.
What should we do? It simply won’t do for us to turn from unfaithfulness to faithfulness. That’s not how God did his rebuilding work during the time of Nehemiah and it’s not how he’ll do it now. First, we need to humble ourselves before God by confessing our sin to God. I want to invite you to do just that this week with our entire congregation. On Wednesday night, we’ll have a congregation-wide prayer gathering over Zoom. Rebuilding begins with prayer because prayer puts rebuilding in motion. We’ll spend a significant amount of time in praise and worship because praise reorients us. But we are also going to have a time to humble ourselves before God by saying the same thing to God that he does about the sins that have come to characterize us. We can’t just rush from unfaithfulness to faithfulness because rebuilding begins with prayer because prayer humbles us before God. Join us on Wednesday night, I’m trusting God for a revival-like rebuilding work among us.
PETITION EMPOWERS US
Petition is calling down the power of God to fulfill the promises of God and the godly desires of our hearts. Petition is where the prayer that puts rebuilding in motion concludes. Nehemiah 1:10-11: They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by 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 to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
o Explain that Nehemiah’s prayer here is a petition to God, for God to keep his covenant promise to Israel.
• Timeless application
o Petition is calling down the power of God to fulfill the promises of God
• Application question
o Where would you like to see God do a rebuilding work in your life in 2021?
o In your family?
o In our church?
o In the world?
• Practical application take-away options
o “Tethered” prayer – learning to pray Scripture because one central feature of Nehemiah’s prayer is that it clearly grows out of a thorough understanding of Scripture.
o Prayer cards that put God’s promises in Scripture to work
o Provide prayer card examples
• Preaching Christ
o How can we pray all this? God kept his promise to make a new covenant with us through the blood of Christ. We pray in the name of Christ.
and before I share why I believe that Nehemiah is perfect for us right now, I want to tell you a little bit about the book. To do that, lets travel back in time about 3,500 years to the sandy desert of Egypt where God’s people, the offspring of Abraham were enslaved. God remembered his promise to make Abraham’s children a great nation in a promised land from which they would bless all the nations of the earth. So, God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt and to a mountain called Sinai where he declared them his special people by grace commanded them to live for his glory. There, God made a promise to prosper his people, Israel, in the promised land. All God’s people had to do to enjoy long life in the promised land was to love God back and obey his commandments. But instead they committed something called idolatry. Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the creator for hope and happiness, significance and security. The curse and consequence for their idolatry was exile; removal from their homeland. In 586 BC, the world powerhouse known as the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, torched the city, destroyed the temple and hauled most of God’s people off to ancient Babylon in exile, just as God said they would. But about 45 years, the Persian Empire overthrew Babylon, and the Persian king permitted some God’s people to slowly, in waves, return to Jerusalem, just as God said it would happen.