Last week we introduced our theme for the year, “Shining for the City” in a sermon I entitled, “A Tale of Three Cities” setting us off on a study of the first 7 chapters of the book of Nehemiah. We looked at three cities in particular: Susa, Jerusalem and Ottawa, particularly the village of Westboro. We talked about how the Jews in their captivity sought the welfare of the cities in which they were exiled, being obedient to the word of God in Jeremiah 29:4-7:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.
And this is what they did. The Jews, even as exiles and aliens, foreigners and immigrants, did not shut themselves off from the cities in which they resided, but actively sought the welfare of those cities like Susa, even as they kept themselves undefiled from the idolatry around them and sought the favor of the Lord. In the books of the Bible written of these dark times in exile, we are introduced to people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Daniel and Mordecai and Esther, men and women who became advisors to Kings and national administrators, who sought good occupations and raised godly families. And as they prayed and sought the welfare of the cities around them, God preserved their faith and their people.
Then we saw in Nehemiah chapter 1 how God grasped the heart of his servant, Nehemiah, a working man in the Palace at Susa, and set him toward a new life mission: to seek the welfare of Jerusalem, the city of the Jews. Some brothers had come from Jerusalem and informed Nehemiah of the sad state of the people and of the city, and Nehemiah’s heart was shattered. We called this a Nehemiah moment: those moments in your life that God gives you new eyes and a new heart, a new mission, a new passion. Nehemiah is set to pray. We’re are going to look more closely at Nehemiah’s prayer today and also see that this prayer was not a one-time thing, but that the visit from Hanani sparked a season of intense prayer and prayer-led planning as Nehemiah waited for the appropriate opportunity to pursue what God had put on his heart.
Planning and prayer – we’ll see today that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits but pursuits that go hand in hand. The problem is that many of us do not know how to join them together – so God gives us a Nehemiah moment for our family, or our career, or our ministry, and some of us just pray and others just jump in and start planning. I believe that most of us, myself included are planners – good pragmatic Chinese! God gives a Nehemiah moment, immediately we start thinking logistics and strategies and five-year plans and timelines and budgets. This is me. And then when I mess things all up, God says, maybe you should’ve asked me first. So this is something I am learning – how to pray and plan so that I’m able to wait on God’s will in God’s time and see things happen for God’s glory and not my own great planning. Others of us, whose first response is to pray, God bless you, need to understand how God turns that prayer into planning, so that you’re ready when the opportunity comes to do that the Lord has put on your heart.
In verses 5-11 we see that Nehemiah’s moment drove him to prayer and we find the content of Nehemiah’s prayer.
- Personal and Biblical: Nehemiah knew personally the God of the Bible. Prayer is central to the book of Nehemiah – he throws up long prayers and short prayers and spontaneous prayers and thought out prayers. Prayer to Nehemiah is like breathing – natural and obvious. Although Nehemiah grew up in a land that did not believe in His God, he had formed a personal relationship with God. Perhaps he struggled with preserving his faith in a country that did not believe in the God of the Bible. Yet he had also seen the Lord’s deliverance first hand. He was not probably much older than a teenager when God providentially elevated the lowly Jewish maiden, Esther, to be Queen of all Persia and then used her to save his entire race of people from genocide! After that, how could Nehemiah ever doubt the sovereign plan of God? You hold onto to those building block moments in your relationship with God to go back to and build on at the next crucial moment. So when God gives him his Nehemiah moment, his heart breaks and he recounts in verse 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. If you have a true personal relationship with God, your Nehemiah moments will drive you to Him. Nehemiah knew his God. His prayer was personal and biblical: (v 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. Here’s the thing. It matters to whom you pray! It is not enough to be a spiritual person of prayer and meditation. People pray all the time – but do they confidently know to whom they pray? Nehemiah has confidence because He is praying to the God who has revealed himself in the scriptures. The words Nehemiah prays are taken directly from Deuteronomy 7:6-11, which in turn is a rephrasing of Exodus 34:6-7: the supreme self-revelation of God in the Old Testament. These words were not invented by any man, but were spoken of the Lord himself to Moses: The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Is the God to whom you pray the true God, the God who has revealed himself in the Bible and ultimately in the Lord Jesus? People pray all the time, and often to gods that they or others have made up! We are confident in prayer because Jesus has revealed God to us and opened up a new and living way for us to approach the Father in prayer.
- Penitant: For his people and himself: Nehemiah never excludes himself from his peoples’ sin. 6 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. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples. Revival always begins with repentance. Nehemiah moments are often painful, accompanied by weeping and self-doubt and repentance. God humbles us to exalt us in his proper time.
- Pointing to God’s Promises: Again, Nehemiah’s confidence in prayer is based on God’s revealed will through the promises he has made in His word. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. Remember, God. You said it! You said that when we disobeyed you would remove us from the land, but if we would turn to you that you would restore us. Nehemiah held God to His word, and proceeded confidently in prayer because he knew God to be a faithful God.
We spoke last week that like Nehemiah, God is giving OCBC a similar vision and burden for our own city, our own neighborhood, to seek the welfare of Ottawa and even Westboro, to love it and shine as a light to it, and pray for and work for its benefit. Nehemiah lived under the Old Covenant, in which the people of Israel were given particular promises and mission, so we don’t just simply co-opt Nehemiah’s prayer and his mission and his planning for our own. We are under the New Covenant and have been given our own promises and mission and so we pray and plan according to the word of God given us. We’ve been given a mission to pray over and plan towards: to go into the world and make disciples, establishing them in the way of Christ and the apostles. We’ve been given our own promises, that Jesus will be with us always, even unto the end of the age and that He will build his church so that the gates of hell will not prevail against us.
- Preparatory: Here we see the intersection of prayer and planning. 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.” Now I was cupbearer to the king. Nehemiah is praying and as he prays the genesis of a plan unveils before him. Let’s read on.
Neh. 2:1 And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, Patient: The Month of Nisan: Four months. Nehemiah prayed and planned for four months, waiting for the right moment to petition the king. We sometimes need time to pray and plan. Maybe we have a great plan, but we haven’t sought the Lord. Maybe we’ve sought the Lord, but we haven’t though through a plan. Maybe our plan and our prayers are both out of line. Nehemiah prayed and planned and waited for the opportunity. We’ll see later in the book that it took them 52 days to build the wall. Nehemiah prayed for more than twice as long as it took them to actually do the work.
Neh. 2:1 ¶ In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Neh. 2:4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” S o I prayed to the God of heaven. Prayed Over Again Nehemiah prays again because he senses, this is the moment! He’s been praying and planning for four months, day and night, and now, sensing the moment he offers up one more short prayer to God. But this short prayer is grounded in the season of prayer.
Neh. 2:5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” Neh. 2:6 And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. Neh. 2:7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, Neh. 2:8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.
Particular Here we see Nehemiah’s planning. When the king asks him what he wants, he doesn’t go, umm, I don’t know, let me pray about it some more. He’s prayed and he’s planned and he asks the king for specific requests:
- That he could take a leave of absence: Nehemiah’s become an important person in Susa, so to ask for a leave of absence is asking for something in itself. The IVP Biblical Background commentary remarks: The cupbearer in the ancient Near Eastern court held a very important position. He had direct access to the king and thus had great influence. Texts and reliefs describe cupbearers in Assyrian and Persian courts. The cupbearer was in close proximity to the king’s harem and thus was often a eunuch, although there is no evidence that this was the case with Nehemiah. In addition he was the bearer of the signet ring and was chief financial officer. Someone has to be trained to fill in for Nehemiah while he’s gone, someone the king trusts with his life – don’t think the King isn’t aware of this.
- That he could go to rebuild Jerusalem: This is a very treacherous request and probably the reason as to why Nehemiah was so careful in prayer. To ask to rebuild the city and, specifically, the walls of the city was dangerous, for according to Ezra 4 the Persian kings were warned by enemies of the Jewish people that the Jews were conspiring to rebuild the city so that they could rebel against the King. Nehemiah is asking the king to reverse decades of foreign policy. If Artexerxes had any suspicion of Nehemiah’s motives, the very act of asking could be seen as treason.
- That he could be gone for twelve years: Amazingly, the King only asks how long he’ll be gone for. Nehemiah doesn’t tell us in this chapter a timeframe, but in 5:14 he tells us that he was governor of Jerusalem a total of 12 years. 12 years! Try going to your boss and asking for some time of for personal reasons. He asks how long? 12 years. Nice.
- That he be given royal covering for his journey: letters so no one gives him trouble on the way. Make me an ambassador going on your business.
- That the king would underwrite the expense of the building project: Specifically, Nehemiah gives the king his shopping list. He’s been praying and planning. He is prepared spiritually and practically for this moment. He’s done his praying and out of that prayer, God’s given him a plan. He’s prayed and googled the names and addresses. King, I want you to open an account at Asaph’s home hardware for me. I need wood, I need beams. Put it on your tab. Oh, and finally, I’ll need a place to live. That the king would pay for his housing
I need time off, I need you to reverse you foreign policy, and I need you to pay for everything. Now we see why he prayed for four months! We could only call his plan preposterous! But remember his prayer – to a great and awesome God, a God who made sure promises. And we come to one of the more amazing lines in the Bible: And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me (2:8). Nehemiah prayed and planned and God honored him and blessed him.
As we attempt to “Shine for our City” this year, we seek to inform our mission as the people of God not only from the book of Nehemiah, but through the lens of the new Testament. The book of Acts in particular illustrates and sets the tone for a church intent on fulfilling its mission through prayer and planning. I call this the “Spontaneous and Intentional Expansion of the Church.” In Acts 8 to 11 we see the church expand into Samaria and the city of Antioch. Luke presents this expansion as a spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit, of which the church is playing catch-up. The Holy Spirit dries the church out through persecution and uses regular, every day, praying Christians to do the work of God while the established Jerusalem church works to stabilize and interpret what the Sprit is doing. Yet in Acts 13 we see the church, again in prayer and again led by the Holy Spirit, but now more intentional in their strategy and defined in their planning. The engine is prayer, the spirit is planner, yet he gives us strategies and goals and specific work to do. Here’s what that looks like in our church and my own life.
Our Church: We are planning to move back onto the main street in Westboro in two months. I’ve already been praying and planning for about two months, now I’m asking you to join in prayer and planning. How are we to prepare ourselves? Where do we need to mature? How can we streamline our ministries and policies and work so that we’re attractive to outsiders? How can we outreach to the village and work alongside the community to seek its welfare through good works? Pray and plan. Sunday School time.
Personally, looking longer-term, I have been praying and planning myself. I have a year and ½ left in my contract. I have always tried to direct my ministry by the word of God and have felt that God has called me to OCBC for a particular ministry, to establish believers in the way of Christ and the apostles. So I’m thinking ahead and trying to think of what the next phase of ministry for me might look like – not that I’ll leave OCBC, but what might the next phase look like? So I’m praying and planning and here’s where I’m at: I am really hoping to raise up 5-6 guys who are able and competent ministers, who can preach and teach and handle the word. It’s what I’m going to be working toward the next 18 months. I don’t know what doors the Holy Spirit might open for us, whether some of these guys might be part of a church-planting team or that we form some sort of church refreshing ministry, or I go out and plant or refresh churches and these guys form some sort of preaching rotation here with me, I don’t know. So I pray, hopefully we pray, and we work hard and plan for wherever the Spirit leads. It may not happen, but it the plan God’s given me now, so I write it in pencil and keep praying. Maybe some of you are going through your own Nehemiah moments. Pray with a pencil, plan on your knees, wait for God’s timing, for He will exalt you at the proper time if you humble come before him in prayer and planning.