[Audio at bottom of post]
Every year people ask me – what’s the theme for this year? And every year I admit – I am no good at picking themes. Well, this year is different! We have a theme! At least for the first couple of months or so J. I’ll introduce the theme later this morning, but we are going to start this morning by looking into the book of Nehemiah. My sermon this morning is entitled, “A Tale of Three Cities”.
Our story starts today in a city called Susa. Susa was a political city – long the capital of the nation of Elam, and, at the time our story begins (445BC), it had become the capital of the Persian Empire – one of the most powerful cities in the world. It was renowned for two things – its palace and its partying. The palace was built by Darius and used by several of his successors. The Persian kings held court in an enormous audience hall, where the Persian kings held court. It was a square building over 350 feet on each side featuring seventy-two stone columns each estimated at sixty-five to eighty feet tall. http://iran.fouman.com/history/img/Susa_Apadana_Palace_Temple_Model.jpg. And how the royal class at Susa made the most of this palace! The book of Esther, which is set in Susa, describes a marathon feast lasting 180 days, given by the king in honour of the Persian and Median princes (Est. 1:3ff.). This was followed by a 7-day banquet in the royal gardens, to which all the palace staff were invited. Susa was a lavish capital.
Jews were numerous in Susa, thriving and even holding positions of considerable influence. It was in Susa that the prophet Daniel spent his twilight years. One of those living and working in Susa, was the Jew, Mordecai, who uncovered an assassination plot against the King of Persia. And of course, his niece daughter Esther, who actually became queen of all Persia, and through whom God saved the Jewish people from an ancient Holocaust. You can read about her in the book of Esther.
Why were these Jews living in Susa – far from the country of Israel that God had promised to them? Did they immigrate there for a better life for themselves and their children? No, not at all. The reason the Jews were living in Susa goes right to the heart of the Old Testament. The bible tells us that over four thousand years ago, God promised a man named Abraham that he plant his descendants in the land of Palestine and make him into a great nation through which the entire world would be blessed through the advent of the Messiah – the savior of the world. They would be his people, a kingdom of priests bringing the light of salvation to all the nations. Yet after bringing the descendants of Abraham out of slavery in Egypt and establishing them in the land, the people and their kings turned away from God to worship and serve false God’s. After calling out to his people for four hundred years to turn back to Him through prophets and godly kings, the people ultimately rejected the Lord leading to their destruction at the hands of the nations of Assyria and Babylon. This is what is being referred to when we speak of the exile. Yet the Lord still did not give up on his people entirely, but promised that he would bring them back into the land someday, restoring them nationally, but more importantly, restoring them spiritually though the Messiah, would be God with them, set up his kingdom forever, and change their hearts through the Holy Spirit of God.
We see in the books of Daniel, Ester and Ezra the Jews living in exile, awaiting their restoration. We’ve seen that they not only survived in exile, but thrived, being set in positions of considerable influence in a land in which they were strangers and aliens. They lived in accordance with the instruction given them by the prophet Jeremiah as to how they were to go about living as people in exile: Jeremiah 29:4: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. While they awaited their restoration, the Jews did not just wall themselves off from their neighbors or the society, but they actively sought the welfare of Susa, were good citizens doing good works, learning the language and the culture, not forgetting their Jewish heritage, but strengthening themselves in their identity as the people of God even as they lived as exiles in a foreign land. They prayed for the city and its inhabitants. They shared the promised of God with their neighbors. They engaged in business and politics – they sought the welfare of the city.
The book of Nehemiah, begins in Susa. As we will see, Nehemiah is a man living in exile, yet who has retained a deep personal faith in the Lord God and in his promises. He is a man who has sought the welfare of Susa – to the point that he has a very important and influential career that brings him into contact with the King daily. Let’s read :
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem.
This account is taken from Nehemiah’s personal journal, as is most of the book of Nehemiah. This is obviously before the days of the internet or of 24-hour news networks, so when some of his countrymen from Judah come, Nehemiah is very interested to know how the rebuilding project is progressing in Jerusalem. Notice that he asked Hanani two specific questions – how are the people doing, and how is the work on the city coming along. The answer is not good.
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, hand its gates are destroyed by fire.”
People – not doing well. City – not doing well. Suddenly all the workings of the palace, the prosperity, parties fall silent around Nehemiah as he hears news of his people and his city and his heart breaks. Neh. 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.
A couple of months ago I heard a pastor talk about Hermeneutic moment – those moments in your life or in the life of a community in which something happens that makes you see everything through new eyes, or set about season of reflection and meditation – a refocusing on priorities and vision. Maybe you have a brush with death and you realize how fragile your life is and its gets you thinking of eternity and priorities. Maybe you or your co-workers have been laid off and it makes you rethink career priorities. Maybe your wife tells you she’s pregnant – everything changes! Your view of life shifts. Nehemiah has one of these moments, and he starts praying like he’s never prayed before. For days. We find out in the first verse of chapter 2 that it actually Nehemiah prays for a few months. And the thing is, this is a bit strange isn’t it? Did Nehemiah not know before that Jerusalem was in disrepair and the people were struggling? He had to have – Jerusalem had been destroyed 141 years ago. We know from the book of Ezra that people had been going back to and from Jerusalem already, and I find it hard to believe that Nehemiah did not already have a fuzzy conception of how the work was progressing. Yet, for some reason, at this report, it becomes very personal to Nehemiah. It hits close to home. See. I believe Hermeneutic moments – Nehemiah moments are a work of God. Two people can have a brush with death – one brushes it off and one changes his life. Two people can get laid off – one scrambles and worries, one resets priorities. Two people can be told their wives are pregnant – one rises to the occasion and one goes on living the way he always has. God opens the eyes, God gives the burden, and God resets the priorities. Nehemiah has been granted a special gift – a hermeneutic moment – a vision and burden from God to pray and to work for. And it brings him to his knees. What is Nehemiah’s burden – well, that’s what we’ll be looking at as we progress through this book, but I want to direct your attention to one verse that sums it up, chapter 2:10. Nehemiah is recounting of how there are people who oppose his vision because “it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel”. Sound familiar? It should – it is the same phrase that is used in Jeremiah – the only two times the phrase is used in the Bible. So the people in exile were to seek the welfare of the city of Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah’s burden was to seek the welfare of the city of Jerusalem, the capital of the nation of Israel.
I believe God has brought OCBC to a Nehemiah-like hermeneutic moment. It started a few months ago, when we set aside the month of October to earnestly pray for our building search. First, let me say this – I was so proud of our leaders and our church for taking that approach. Other pastors asked me how’s your building search doing? I said great! We’ve given up and are just praying! The highlight of the month was a 24-hour prayer chain we did on October 14-15. They youth and young adults stayed up all night praying at the church, and others came in throughout the day on Saturday or prayed from their homes. The next day, one of the members from our building search committee team followed up in a contact that she had been given and called the pastor of Parkdale Baptist Church about the Baptist church down on Richmond. He told her that they had just, that day, had a board meeting in which they decided to put the church up for lease. God’s timing is perfect, eh? So we went to visit the church that week – it looked suitable, the sanctuary and fellowship hall are really nice. Before we left though, Pastor George felt that he should share with us that there has been some significant spiritual warfare waged against churches that have been located in that building. Specifically, he told us of a witches coven nearby which he believes prays against churches in this area. He said that as he was taking down the sign from the previous church, he saw out of the corner of his eye a lady snickering and muttering under her breath, celebrating the closing of another church.
Now, just like Nehemiah, I had known about the spiritual condition of Westboro. In the short kilometer-long stretch of the commercial district of the village alone one can find:
- A Transcendental Meditation Center
- A Buddhist temple
- A “Spiritualist” Church which invites fortune-tellers, mediums, and such to speak.
- One of the largest homosexuality-affirming churches in the city
- The largest Universalist-Unitarian church in the city (also invites mediums to speak)
- A Masonic Temple
- Another spiritualist/universalist church that affirms the book of Mormon (?)
- The witches coven
- Multiple yoga centers (not sure what your view on yoga may be as an exercise, but given the rest of the spiritual climate of Westboro, I’m pretty sure that most of these places teach the spiritual principles of yoga to receptive audiences.
In addition, Westboro is also known for its thriving lesbian community and trendy New-Agey stores. It seems that the envelope is being pushed further: the themes of the last two community (family!) festivals were “Westfest Gets Naked” and “Wickedly Westboro”.
We knew all this, yet the conversation with George was a Nehemiah moment. It opened our eyes. We prayed for this community like we never have before, weeping at times as we’ve prayed. Abraham and I have been meeting with the Pastor Paul from Highland Park – a church just a few blocks from us – weekly for bible study and prayer for this community. God is already starting to do amazing things. Pastor Paul’s preaching has changed and Highland Park has been undergoing a mini-revival, as their people have experienced a Nehemiah-moment for this community. On December 4th, members from the two churches met and prayed with and for each other and then went out into the community to pray for the community. We believe that as we pray, God will break down spiritual strongholds in this area and open up doors for the Gospel. One of the things that was prayed for specifically was that the Spiritualist church next door – a place where they invite fortune tellers and astronomers and mediums to speak each weekend – would move out and that god would bring other churches into the area. Just last Friday I was told that the Spiritualist church is indeed moving out of the village and that a Baptist church that had to lave Westboro for a while is praying about moving into that space! What an amazing God we serve! Just a few weeks ago, our worship team put on a Christmas concert and went out caroling to invite people from the neighborhoods – we were able to make connections with many in the community and at the concert there were nearly more people from the community visiting than came from OCBC! In the last few months I have been running into Christians who live and work in Westboro and God is placing a burden on them to pray for this village as well. Churches and Pastors around the city are praying for us, that we might be the light here.
I have never been so proud of our church board as I was last month. The building committee shared about this opportunity for us to move back into Westboro, into the church down the road. They heard about the physical aspects of the building, but were far more interested in the spiritual opportunities. In short, they admitted that our congregation has for too long been ambivalent to the spiritual needs of the surrounding community and that if God is sending us back to Westboro, we must be ready to engage the neighborhood with the light of Christ. One member from the Chinese side said, “maybe God is giving us not only a building, but also a mission”. A Nehemiah moment.
That brings us to our theme for the year: “Shining for the City” Just as the exiles sought the welfare of Susa, and Nehemiah sought the welfare of Jerusalem, I believe that God is raising us up to seek the welfare of Ottawa, and more specifically at this time, Westboro.
Over the next couple of months, Abraham and I and the rest of our leaders will be preparing for our church’s move back into the village. We will be preaching through Nehemiah 1-7, preparing our congregation by building strong spiritual walls. John MacArthur says "The book of Nehemiah is a wonderful primer for anyone who faces a daunting situation and needs to be reminded that deep trust in and unflinching obedience to Almighty God can result in the accomplishment of the "impossible." Nehemiah is a book about dreaming big dreams, about solving monumental problems, about the power of prayer, about standing strong in the face of harsh opposition, and about motivating people and leading groups to do great works for a great God." As we preach, we hope that the ministry teams of both congregations can pray and strategize for the move. In our English congregation, we are probably going to be transitioning our Sunday school time into a time of prayer and strategizing so we can be fully prepared for the move.
After that, in March sometime, we will probably move into the building down the street. We hope that first month can be an “open house” of sorts in which we invite the community in. We will be preaching a series that stresses our core values as a church, re-introducing our church to the community. After that, we hope to preach a series called “Seek the Welfare of the City” which will be the fruit of the study Abraham and I are doing to together now. How can you pray?
1) Become a Christian
2) Pray for a Nehemiah burden to seek the welfare of your community: Westboro as a church, but you all live in neighborhoods, work in offices, ask God for a Nehemiah burden to seek the welfare of the city.
3) Pray for our church in this transition: spiritual protection, unity in transition, cooperation.
4) Pray for opportunities in this neighborhood:
- Ping-pong? Bingo?
- Ministry in the Condos?
5) Pray for other churches: Highland Park. Immanuel Baptist Church. The faithful remnant in the other churches.