While I was at the conference, one of the speakers shared a story about a man who attended a revival week at his church. The times of praise and worship were moving and he knew had been in the presence of God. The sermons were inspiring. And by the end of the week, he knew things needed to change. At the close of every service, people would line up towards the front of the tent and share their concerns with the Preacher. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the man finally found himself at the front of the line. “What do you need prayer for?” the Preacher asked the man. He replied, “I need you to pray for my hearing.” So the Preacher placed one hand on his head and another on his ear. He prayed a moving, powerful prayer. After the prayer, the Preacher asked, “How’s your hearing now?” The man replied, “I don’t know. You see, I’m not supposed to appear for my hearing until Wednesday morning.”
Sometimes the prayers we pray don’t result in the answers we expect. Nehemiah learned that prayer is a powerful thing – and it can have unexpected outcomes. If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Nehemiah 2. You’ll remember from last week that it’s kind of in the middle of your Bibles. It’s to the left of Psalms, after the Chronicles and the book of Ezra. If you don’t have your Bible, you’re welcome to use the one in front of you. Nehemiah 1 is found on page 414 of that Bible.
When we pick up the story here, it’s four months after Nehemiah received the news that Jerusalem was still in a shambles. Remember, the city of Jerusalem was in ruins after Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians had destroyed the entire city. They conquered the nation of Judah and carted the religious and political leaders off as exiles. As the people of Judah longed to return to their homeland, things began to change in the land of Judah. The Temple was no longer the center of Jewish life. How could it be? There wasn’t a Temple for them to go to in order to offer sacrifices and worship the Lord. And so, just like so many times before, God’s chosen people returned to practicing idolatry. Several years later, Cyrus the Great and the Persians vanquished the Babylonians and the people of Judah found themselves under Persian rule. This turned out to be a very good thing because in 538 BC, Cyrus the Great declared that all exiles could return to their homelands. And the people who returned home realized that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
And when Nehemiah found out about this, he was devastated. He knew there would be obstacles, but he, like many of his colleagues who remained in the Persian capital, probably believed that in spite of the obstacles that were present, that this was the time that God’s Holy City was destined to be rebuilt. And they faced some pretty big obstacles. For political reasons, Judah’s neighbors didn’t want the city to be rebuilt. They wanted the Jewish people to remain under their thumb so they would have more power over the region. The book of Ezra tells us that they bribed King Artaxerxes to keep the people from rebuilding the city walls. And so they were ordered to stop the reconstruction. But these were God’s chosen people! Surely they believed that the Lord of Heaven and Earth would protect them. He had promised that they would return to Jerusalem. And this was the time. Instead of acting in confidence in the Lord and continuing the reconstruction project, apathy set in. They put down their tools and returned to life as they knew it. After all, it was what they had become accustomed to. Why risk angering the King and incurring his wrath by disobeying his direct order? And so the Holy City remained in ruins.
When Nehemiah heard the news, he was devastated. This just wasn’t right. So he did the only thing he knew how to do. He prayed. We saw that in chapter one. His first reaction to the news was to turn the whole situation over to the Lord of all things, the God who is in control. And so he prayed. We read that prayer last week. But he didn’t stop there. Over a period of four months, Nehemiah fasted and prayed. And at the end of this time, Nehemiah’s ready to make his request to the king.
You can just imagine some of the conversations Nehemiah had with God during this four month period. I’m sure some of the conversations went something like this…
“Nehemiah, I’ve heard your prayers. It’s time for me to fulfill my promise and rebuild the city.”
“That’s great news, Lord! Please give me confidence to go before the king and ask him to allow Your people to begin reconstruction. Just out of curiosity, who’s going to oversee the reconstruction efforts?”
“Well, you are, Nehemiah.”
”Uh – what do you mean? You can’t possibly mean me. I’m just a cupbearer. I’m no architect. I’m no contractor. I don’t know the first thing about building a wall. And I’m not a religious leader. I haven’t been to Bible college or seminary. Shouldn’t you use someone who knows what he’s doing? Remember – I’m just a cupbearer. You can’t be serious.”
“I am serious, Nehemiah. The walls will be rebuilt. And I’m going to use you to do it. Don’t worry about the details. I’ll provide. And don’t bring this before the king just yet. Wait until I provide the opportunity.”
And so he waited. And God used these four months to prepare Nehemiah for the task He had in store for him. And there’s an example for us here. It is important for us to wait for God’s leading before we move ahead with a God-sized task. There are times where we need to act swiftly in response to God’s call. During our Wednesday night Bible studies, we’ve been working through the book of Matthew. And in the chapters we’ve been studying, we’ve seen many examples of people coming to Jesus with their problems – sickness, blindness, deafness, lameness, even hunger. And when Jesus sees these things, he acts immediately. He doesn’t say, “Well, let me pray about your troubles.” Or, “Let me take this to a committee.” No, he acts immediately. And there are times where we need to act immediately. On the flip side, there are times where we need to have patience and allow God to prepare the work ahead of time. We need to remember to allow God to lead us, not the other way around. I think there are too many times where we rush to act where God really wants us to wait on His guidance and direction. We cannot allow our own agendas to try to dictate God’s agenda. God has a plan and He wants to accomplish it through us, but we have to make ourselves available to His direction. And sometimes that means we need to wait, because we can’t force God’s hand. And sometimes waiting can be the hardest part. I know it can be for me. And it probably is for you. But sometimes, waiting is the most important part.
And so, after four months of praying, after four months of seeking God’s face and pursuing God’s will, the time has come. Everything has come together, providing Nehemiah the open door to make his God-ordained request.
Now, it doesn’t really say why Nehemiah was sad. Maybe he had been sad the whole time and the king hadn’t noticed it. Maybe God pricked Artaxerxes’ heart, allowing him to see the sadness his cupbearer was experiencing. Or maybe Nehemiah had spent the night deep in prayer, in agony over the ruined city and how that was reflecting on God’s power. We don’t really know why he was sad. In reality, it doesn’t really matter. But once the king asked Nehemiah this question, he knew that this was the open door that God had orchestrated for him.
And he was afraid. Sometimes we get this crazy idea that following God means that things will no longer be difficult. We picture the characters of the stories in the Bible as walking around in a pious posture with a halo surrounding their heads. We somehow think these people are extraordinary in that they were superhuman with no common emotions like fear, worry, or sadness. And that’s hardly the case. And this should be comforting. Knowing that people in the Scriptures experienced the same emotions that we face – even when they were confident in the Lord’s direction and power – helps us remember that God uses real, ordinary people to accomplish His task. And so Nehemiah admits here that he was afraid. And who wouldn’t be? Although he had spent months in preparation for this moment, there was still the very real possibility that he could fail. Maybe he had been delusional. Maybe those conversations he’d had with God were just voices running around in his head – figments of his imagination. He was about to make a bold request. And if the king was somehow angered by this appeal, one word would mean the death sentence for the cupbearer. But God gave Nehemiah courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s doing what needs to be done even in the presence of fear. And so, it is with God-given courage that Nehemiah makes his request to the king.
Remember, the story of Nehemiah isn’t really just about Nehemiah. It’s about how God uses ordinary people to accomplish His will and keep His promises. And so we see here that God uses an ordinary Nehemiah, a servant to the king to accomplish his plans. Artaxerxes allowing Nehemiah to begin the rebuilding process was a miracle all on its own. If the scene ended here, it would still be a remarkable testimony to the power of God at work in our lives. But it doesn’t stop there.
Nehemiah continues. After gaining permission to begin reconstruction, he asks the unthinkable.
You can almost hear him gaining confidence as he continues his request. “King Artaxerxes, after you’ve changed your entire domestic policy by allowing my people to rebuild their city, maybe you’ll consider some other things that I have in mind. Would you consider sending protection for me? My people have many enemies, and if you send me without any protection, this project will fail and I’ll probably be killed. Why don’t you send official letters with me, promising me safe passage? Thanks, king. It means a lot to me….Oh yeah. One more thing. What do you think about paying for this whole rebuilding project yourself? Would you tell your chief logger to send me timber for the gates and the buildings? You think you could pay for that out of your own pocket?”
Talk about boldness! And we know that it’s not a boldness that comes from just the personality traits that Nehemiah displays. Remember, he was afraid. You can practically hear his knees knocking at the beginning of his request. He knows that this whole series of events comes from an act of God. Look at what he says in 2:8b-10. Read.
You can almost hear him gaining confidence as he continues his request. “King Artaxerxes, after you’ve changed your entire domestic policy by allowing my people to rebuild their city, maybe you’ll consider some other things that I have in mind. Would you consider sending protection for me? My people have many enemies, and if you send me without any protection, this project will fail and I’ll probably be killed. Why don’t you send official letters with me, promising me safe passage? In addition to that, would you consider sending a detachment of officers and cavalry to keep me safe? Thanks, king….Oh yeah. One more thing. What do you think about paying for this whole rebuilding project yourself? Would you tell your chief logger to send me timber for the gates and the buildings? You think you could pay for that out of your own pocket?”
Talk about boldness! And we know that it’s not a boldness that comes from just the personality traits that Nehemiah displays. Remember, he was afraid. You can practically hear his knees knocking at the beginning of his request. He knows that this whole series of events comes from an act of God. Look at what he says in 2:7b-10.
Artaxerxes gave him everything he asked for and more! Not only did he send letters granting him safe travel, but Artaxerxes also sent a detachment of officers and cavalry to make sure he stayed safe! Talk about a God-sized accomplishment! And it all began with a follower of God saying, “What do you want, Lord? Use me.” Then bathing the entire operation with prayer. That’s what makes this story so amazing. It’s not the innate characteristics that Nehemiah displayed. It’s the amazing way God works through one person who is willing to give up personal agendas and follow Him.
God is calling you to a ministry. He is preparing you to do something specific for the betterment of His kingdom. Do you know what it is? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. I do know that God has uniquely shaped each and every one of us to accomplish His plans. And God wants to use you in mighty ways to build His own community right here in Cowan.
And maybe God has something planned for you that is far beyond anything you imagined. That’s what he did with Nehemiah. He was a servant of the king. He didn’t plan on becoming an administrator of a huge building project or the governor of his people. But God’s call, God’s dream, was much bigger than Nehemiah’s.
It is our responsibility as a church to help you find what God is calling you to do, to help equip you for that work, and then empower and encourage you in your efforts. But it begins with a willing heart and prayer. Continual, constant prayer. When we do that, we’re tapping into the power of the God who created the universe with the mere power of His own voice. When we begin our efforts with prayer, we allow God’s agenda to take the place of our own agendas. And that’s what we want to be at Cowan Christian Church – a people who are about God’s agenda. We can accomplish extraordinary things as a church, regardless of size. Lives can be changed and God can be praised. And when people look at us, they can say, “Wow! Look what God can do through them. What an amazing God they serve!”