It’s always a joy to visit a church and see what God is doing in and through his people. It’s particularly exciting to do that with a nearby church – we serve different communities but we have the same goal: to bring honour to our Lord Jesus. And it’s a joy to see various churches in this area doing that in partnership.
But let’s not get carried away – let’s be realistic for a second. In many ways, the church in our country isn’t where we’d like her to be – with falling attendance, with Christians seeming to be marginalised more and more in the public sphere. If you’re here this morning as a visitor or someone looking into the Christian faith from the outside, perhaps you think the church is irrelevant, in terminal decline.
You won’t be surprised to hear that’s not my assessment. But I’m not here to throw stones at other people – or the church ‘out there’. Because while I’m sure you have great reasons to be thankful for what God is doing at St Michael’s – as I do at St Paul’s – I guess you and I can both acknowledge that our own churches aren’t fully what we long for them to be. They’re not fully what God intends them to be.
There are about 10,000 people who live in our parish in Harold Hill – a similar size to yours, I think. And on an average week we probably see 70 or 80 of those people in church, with a few more at other activities through the week. We had lots of people through the doors over Christmas at various services – many of whom won’t come back till the Christmas light are back up next year. We are pretty small and many would say pretty insignificant.
Our church is not fully what we long it to be. And it certainly isn’t what God intends it to be – after all, Jesus promised to build his church, to gather many people to himself. So what do we do when church feels like that? How do we respond when it looks like God’s people are small and struggling?
That’s why we need God’s word to us through this book of Nehemiah. It’s one of those hard-to-find books tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament. I’m praying that over these next four Sundays you’ll see just how relevant it is to our service of God.
The action in this book takes place the best part of two-and-a-half-thousand years ago, starting in the 440s BC. You might have guessed that the central character is Nehemiah, an Israelite, one of God’s Old Testament people. A century or so earlier Israel had been invaded, Jerusalem ransacked and Nehemiah, along with many others had been deported to serve the foreign king. Since then, the formal exile had been ended and some of the Jewish people had returned home and tried to reestablish themselves and their capital city. Others, like Nehemiah, had stayed abroad. Our reading this morning started with Nehemiah hearing an update on the situation back at home. You can see the report in verse 3 of chapter 1: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
I don’t know if you enjoy property restoration programmes on TV – there seem to be so many of them these days. Well, Nehemiah had Grand Designs for a restoration project long before Phil and Kirstie were around to film him. This book is all about the restoration of Jerusalem and ultimately the restoration of God’s people.
The question at the start is how will Nehemiah respond when it looks like God’s people are small and struggling? As he hears about the state of God’s people, he doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and treasure the memories of the golden age in the past.
Have a look at how he responds in verse 4. Nehemiah is driven to concern.
1. Driven to concern
Do you see verse 4? When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. Nehemiah hears about the state God’s people are in. And he’s concerned.
The neighbour underneath us in our block of flats is concerned – not about the state of God’s people, I don’t think. We reckon it’s his football video game. But, judging from the volume of the shouting, he takes it pretty seriously – and, judging by the language, pretty badly sometimes too!
Nehemiah hears about the state of God’s people and he’s concerned. And his concern isn’t seen in screaming and shouting but in sitting and weeping. He hears God’s people in a mess – physically and spiritually. Not fully what God longs them to be. And it matters to him.
And he cares about the state of God’s people in the world much more than I normally do, to my shame. It’s easy to become desensitised to the decline of the Christian faith in our country, even in our area. We’re just used to that, so maybe it doesn’t affect like it should. It is a tragedy, though, isn’t it? That there are hundreds, thousands of people living around us who know so little about the living God – who do not know Jesus as Saviour and friend.
Nehemiah is driven to concern and we should be too – as we look at the state of God’s people. Some people stop there, don’t they? Concerned by the church’s decline, saddened by it, but resigned to it. But Nehemiah doesn’t stop there. Can you see that in verse 4? He’s driven to concern – and so he’s driven to pray.
2. Driven to pray
Verse 4: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” He’s concerned so he prays. It’s so simple, I should really go and teach it to the Sunday school!
Great, Phil has invited a guest preacher this morning – maybe there’ll be some really fresh insight and he tells us we need to pray! It’s such a simple lesson…I just wish I would learn it. Maybe 2017 will be the year. When my concern for the growth of the church flows far more naturally into prayer for the church.
Look, I don’t know how you’re getting on with prayer for God’s people – I can only speak for myself. I don’t know how many people meet to pray at the church prayer meeting – if that’s a high priority or not. I don’t know how you’re doing when it comes to keeping on praying for Phil and Ken and the other ministry leaders here. You’ll have to think about those things for yourselves. And perhaps the start of a New Year gives us an opportunity for a fresh start with those things. But the opening chapter of Nehemiah lays out the challenge quite clearly. If we’re concerned about the state of God’s people, we will pray.
We get a window into Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter 1 – it’s worth reading for yourself later. In fact, it would be a pretty good model for our prayers. Nehemiah prays because he knows God’s character. See how he starts his prayer – it’s chapter 1, verse 5: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands…”
That gives you reason to pray, doesn’t it? When we pray, we are speaking to the LORD, the God of heaven, great and awesome. A mighty God able to act. And a promise-keeping God, faithful to his covenant of love, totally committed to his true people. That’s the character of God we see throughout the Bible. It’s the character of God revealed as he walks on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
Nehemiah prays because he knows God’s character and he knows God’s promise. He knows God has promised to grow his people, to gather them in. In those Old Testament days, that was a promise to gather people to a place – the temple in Jerusalem, where God symbolically dwelt. Today, God’s promise is not to gather people to a special place but to gather them to a special person – Jesus Christ. And for 2,000 years that’s what God has been doing around the world – and I trust he longs do it in Gidea Park.
If we know God’s character and God’s promise, we will pray. We’ll ask the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, to use us and our church as he gathers many people to Jesus. If we want to respond rightly to the state God’s people are in, we’ll be driven to concern. We’ll be driven to pray. But we won’t stop there. Nehemiah didn’t. He was driven to concern, driven to pray and driven to act.
3. Driven to act
Really this is where the action of the book begins. And by the way, this book is gripping. Tension, cliff-hangers, intrigue. If you’ve never read the story, I really recommend making some time to do it. I managed to read most of it on a bus to Romford earlier this week – it doesn’t take too long. (I mean reading Nehemiah doesn’t take too long – I make no guarantees about the buses!) And let me recommend those House Groups for another chance to think about this message together.
Pick up the action with me at the start of chapter 2. Nehemiah’s job is to be cupbearer to the king. And the king notices he’s looking pretty glum as Nehemiah brings him a glass of Burgandy – and the king asks why. Nehemiah says, ‘It’s because of the state of Jerusalem back at home.’
Let’s pick it up from verse 4: The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
Nehemiah is driven to concern by it all. He’s driven to pray. And he’s driven to act. He’s determined to play his part. And you’ll have to read on or come back next week to see how he gets on. But notice how, for Nehemiah, praying and acting go together in the restoration of God’s people. We don’t pray and then just sit back. We can’t just say, “I’ve prayed, so I’ve done my bit.” But nor can we just plough straight in and try to sort everything out ourselves, as if we don’t need God at all.
No, praying and acting go together in the restoration of God’s people. We must pray and we must act. It’s often going to be costly to act though, isn’t it? It was for Nehemiah. A huge risk to ask the king to let him go back to Jerusalem. And it will often be costly for us to act towards the restoration of God’s people. Costly to risk our reputation by speaking up about Jesus to a colleague or to a neighbour. What will they think of me? Very costly. Costly to change as a church family so we can reach out with the good news of Jesus more effectively. Costly to make a decision on the church council, costly to adjust to a decision that has been made.
It’s always going to be easier to do nothing. To avoid taking a risk. It would be easy to think Nehemiah is a special case. Bold as brass, naturally overflowing with courage. Not really. Verse 2 of chapter 2 tells us he was terrified of speaking to the king.
But did you spot his secret? When the king asked him what he wanted, did you see what Nehemiah did? Halfway through verse 4: he prayed to the God of heaven and he answered the king. He didn’t rush off and have a prayer meeting there and then. But quickly and silently he prayed – for courage, for God to work – and then he acted. It will always be easier to do nothing. But it will be easier to do something when we seek the Lord’s strength in prayer. If we look at the state of God’s people and are driven to concern and driven to pray, then we will be driven to act.
That was the attitude of Nehemiah. That was the attitude of Jesus Christ. Again and again in his ministry on earth Jesus was driven to concern and compassion for his people. He wept over those who were unwilling for him to gather them in. He was driven to pray – those times in Jesus’ life where no one could find him because had left them to pray. Or the night before his death, in the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing that the time had come. That something had to be done to deal with his people’s sin and guilt. He prayed. And then having prayed, he acted. He went to the cross. Gave up his life in place of ours. To gather his people, buying us forgiveness and friendship with God.
Concern, prayer and action. Nehemiah’s pattern, 2,500 years ago. Jesus’s pattern, 2,000 years ago. The call for us in 2017. Who knows what this year might hold for St Michael’s if each one here felt that concern, was committed in prayer and was willing to play our part, big or small, whatever the cost? To me, at least, that’s a thrilling vision of the sort of church God loves to build.
Let’s ask God for his help: Our Father, we thank you for the work of your servant Nehemiah and for how he points us to the greater work of your Son, the Lord Jesus, for our salvation. We ask that, by your Spirit, you would make us people who, as we look at the state of the church, are driven to concern, driven to pray and driven to act for the growth of your church and the glory of Jesus’ name. Amen.