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The One True God of Nehemiah

This morning we continue looking at the story of Nehemiah. And if, by chance, you’ve missed the last couple of weeks, let me try to quickly catch you up.

The story of Nehemiah takes place roughly around 450 BC. It’s one of the last stories in the Old Testament (chronologically speaking) before we pick it up the storyline again around 400 years later in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus.

So Israel has already had a lot of history by this point. Way back 1000 years before Nehemiah, God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and had established them as his own special nation. They were to be a holy people – set apart from all the other people of the world – as God’s special representatives. Of course, they didn’t always do very well at that. Although there were some people and some eras where the Israelites did follow God wholeheartedly, as we look at their history as a whole, we find they often disregarded God’s instructions – worshipping other gods and really, just acting like every other nation around them.

Now when God had first chosen them as his own special people – God promised that if they were to follow Him, He would bless them beyond their wildest imaginations. (And in those times when they did follow God, we see God doing exactly that.) But God also promised that if they choose to follow other gods, then God would remove his blessings and would in fact, remove them from the land that he was giving them. They would be destroyed and exiled into other nations. And this too, is what we see happening. After years of the Israelites chasing after other gods, God finally removed the Israelites from their land. The northern part of the kingdom was conquer by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern part of the kingdom (including Jerusalem) was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC.

For the next 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Israelites lived in exile in Babylon. But during their time in exile, it seems they learned their lesson. The repented of their sin and turned again back to God – and so, God began to restore them to their land. The first set of exiles returned to reestablish themselves around Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Another group returned about 80 years after that under Ezra. About 13 years after that, we meet Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was a Jew who was still living in exile – he was actually the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia – which made him a rather prominent person in the king’s court. He was one of King most trusted companions.

But when Nehemiah heard the reports that the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem were still living among the ruins of Jerusalem – God stirred Nehemiah’s heart to do something about that. It was not right that 150 years after it’s destruction, that Jerusalem still lay in ruins.

Centuries ago, Jerusalem was the centre of the nation. God had chosen Jerusalem as the location of his temple – it was the symbol of God’s presence among his people. And now, for the city to lay in ruins – it was a bitter reminder of Israelite’s failure to be God’s holy people. But now that God had given them a second chance, and they had returned to Jerusalem, now was time to rebuild the city and once again live as God’s holy people in God’s holy city. So after 4 months of prayer and fasting before God, Nehemiah asked the king to allow him to go to Jerusalem to rebuilt the city.

Now this was a little scary – since the king had early declared that Jerusalem was not to be rebuilt except at his express command. Nehemiah notes that he was terrified to bring this up to the king, but because he was convinced that this was what God wanted him to do – he did it.

Well, God moved the heart of the king to grant Nehemiah his request. And actually, the king sent him on his way with royal letters granting Nehemiah permission to travel through the empire and to acquire wood from the royal forest for the project. And, as we’re going to see in just a minute, the king also sent along a regiment of soldiers and horsemen for Nehemiah’s protection along the way.

All of this happened because, as we read in chapter 2, verse 8, the gracious hand of God was on Nehemiah. And it’s a good thing too, because the challenges that Nehemiah was about to face were  about to start coming fast and furious.

So we’re going to start reading right where we left off last week. So if you want to follow along in your own Bibles, we’re going to be in Nehemiah chapter 2 – starting at verse 9.

9 When I came to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, I delivered the king’s letters to them. The king, I should add, had sent along army officers and horsemen to protect me. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel.

Nehemiah 2:9-10

Right out of the gate, here is our first challenge facing Nehemiah. Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official were not happy that Nehemiah had come to help the people of Israel. Why? Probably the main reason was that a strong Jerusalem would weaken their own political positions.

Both men ruled the areas around Jerusalem. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria to the north (we’ll learn that in chapter 4 – and Tobiah ruled the Ammonites to the east.) Interestingly, Tobiah is actually a Jewish name. So it seems that Tobiah, although not a full-blooded Israelite himself, at least had some Israelite heritage in his ancestry. And that will actually come up again, at the end of the chapter, so we’ll revisit these two guys again when we get there.

But for now, let’s keep reading. Verse 11.

Table of contents for Hope in the Ruins

  1. The Promise of Restoration
  2. Living in the Ruins
  3. Praying to a Sovereign God
  4. The One True God of Nehemiah
  5. The Reality of Discouragement
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Praying to a Sovereign God

When we left Nehemiah last Sunday – he was weeping and mourning and fasting and praying to God because he heard about the terrible state of his countrymen back in Jerusalem. After many years of exile in Babylon, some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, but the city was still in ruins. The walls had been torn down and the gates had been destroyed nearly 150 years ago – and they had still not yet been repaired.

And this broke Nehemiah’s heart. It was bad enough that the Israelites were living in the ruins, but this was Jerusalem! Jerusalem was the city where God had chosen to make his name known. This was the city where the temple of God was. This city was a symbol to the world that the Israelites were God’s special, chosen people. But now – Jerusalem lay in ruins. Now it was a sorry reminder that the Israelites had abandoned God – and as a results, it seemed that God had abandoned them.

But God hadn’t abandoned them. Yes, he allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sin, but He never abandoned them. In fact, when they repented and returned to him, God was eager to forgive them and to restored them to their land.

And Nehemiah was convinced that God didn’t want them to go back to Jerusalem just to live in the ruins. God wanted them to rebuild. To start anew and to flourish! Nehemiah no doubt was familiar with God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah – given when the Israelites first went into exile:

10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:10-14

Jeremiah and Nehemiah understood that God was not yet finished with Israel. He had good plans for them – plans to give them a future and a hope.

And by the way, God promises to deal with us the same way. Even though we seem to do a fantastic job of messing up our lives and ignoring God and we end up suffering the consequences of our sin – even then, God is eager to forgive us and to restore us. He’s just waiting for us to turn to Him and repent. If we do that, God will carry out his plans to give us a future and a hope. He doesn’t want us to live in the ruins.

Now for Nehemiah – he wasn’t the one living in the ruins. He was living in the presence of the king as the royal cup-bearer – which as we learned last week, was actually a pretty prominent position. The cup-bearer for the king would have been one of the king’s most trusted and loyal companions – since, as the one who tasted the king’s food and drink and safe-guarded it against poison, the king had to trust him with his very life. Because of that, Nehemiah, I’m sure, was well-taken care of.

Yet, as soon as Nehemiah heard the report of how bad things were for the Israelites back in Jerusalem, Nehemiah began to weep and mourn.

Usually we weep and mourn about the bad things that are happening to us – but Nehemiah had such a heart of compassion and empathy for his fellow Israelites, that for days he wept and mourned for them.

And I don’t know how that impacts you, but it sure convicts me! My own lack of weeping and mourning for others sure makes me consider how much (or how little) I care about the people around me who are suffering and hurting. And that was kinda how we ended last Sunday – asking God to soften our hard hearts, so that like Nehemiah, we might not only weep and mourn for others – but that our concern for them would drive us to do something about their situation.

Because that’s exactly what Nehemiah did. Today as we continue to look at the life of Nehemiah, we’re going to see how he doesn’t just feel bad for the Israelites – he actually begins to take action.

So let’s continue by looking at Nehemiah chapter 2 verse 1 through 3.

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Living in the Ruins

Last Sunday we began looking at the story of Nehemiah. Well, that’s not entirely true. We actually didn’t quite get to the story of Nehemiah. Instead, we looked at the history and the background to the story of Nehemiah – which I think will come in handy as we go through this series.

But basically, we started way back at the formation of the nation of Israel. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant or an agreement with them. In that covenant, we saw how God promised that He would pour his blessings on them if they followed his ways and obeyed the terms of the covenant that God had made with them. On the flip side of that, we also saw how, if they choose to abandon God – going their own way and breaking the terms of the covenant –  then God would send curses upon them and they would uprooted and exiled from their land.

So with that in mind, we took a quick snapshot of the history of Israel, and we saw both sides of those promises coming to pass. When Israel and it’s kings obeyed God and followed His ways – they enjoyed peace and prosperity on every side. It was the golden years of Israel. However, as Israel & it’s kings choose later to abandon God and worship idols and do things their own way – calamity overtook them. They ended up being invaded by other nations, defeated, uprooted from their homes and exiled into captivity – just as God had promised.

However, this was not a surprise to God. In fact, as part of that original covenant, God also promised that when all this would happen (as he knew that it would) – that when they found themselves in exile because of their disobedience, if they were to turn back to God – if they were to confess and repent of their sin – then God would forgive them and would restore them to their land.

And this is exactly what is happening in the lead up to Nehemiah. While in exile in Babylon, the Israelites began to see how they had sinned and had turned away from God – and so they confessed their sin and began to repent. And as a result, God kept his promise once again and began to restore them to their land.

The Bible records three major excursions of Israelites from Babylon back to Jerusalem.  After 70 years in exile, the first group of Israelites was led by a guy named Zerubabbel. He brought about 50,000 Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to once again worship and serve God there – just as God had instructed centuries ago. So that’s what they did – they resettled around Jerusalem and then they rebuilt the temple.

80 years after that, another group arrived – a much smaller group – probably around 2,000 people – and they were led by a scribe named Ezra. Ezra’s main purpose in returning to Jerusalem was to teach the people the Word of God – which is another thing that hadn’t been happening for centuries. Back then, not every person had access to a Bible like we do, and so without a teacher like Ezra to teach them, much of what God had said in his Word had been neglected and forgotten. And so Ezra was actually commissioned by King Artaxerxes of Persia, to return to Jerusalem and teach the Israelites the ways and the laws of God.

Then so that brings us to Nehemiah. Nehemiah would arrive with a third group of Israelites about 13 years after Ezra – but that’s getting ahead of the story. We’ll probably get to that part in couple weeks.

But now that we’ve got the big picture of what’s going on, I want to start looking specifically at Nehemiah. How did he get involved in all of this? What’s his story? So to find that, we’re going to start reading in Nehemiah chapter 1.

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The Promise of Restoration

Today we begin a new series of messages from the Book of Nehemiah. I’m guessing that most of you wouldn’t list Nehemiah in your top five favourite books of the Bible, and in fact, it’s quite possible that some of you who couldn’t even tell me who in the world Nehemiah was. So it’s probably a good idea before we start, to briefly have a look at the history and background of Nehemiah. And there is a lot of history to this story – Nehemiah is one of the last stories recorded in the Old Testament – so basically the entire Old Testament is the history and background to Nehemiah. Now I won’t take you through the entire Old Testament, but we really need to go way back and have at least a basic understanding of the history of the nation of Israel.

So I want to start today about 1000 years before the actual story that we’re going to look at. Basically we want to start with the formation of the nation of Israel. As most of you know Jospeh brought his family of about 70 to Egypt to escape a famine – you can read about that in Genesis 46. Well, this visit to Egypt turned into a 400 year stay – and during that time, they grew from a family of 70 to a family of about a million. These people would be the founding fathers of the nation of Israel.

So we’re going to pick it up just after God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them out towards the Promised Land. Now when God did this, he made a covenant (or an agreement) with them. This was the deal – if they were to obey the terms of the covenant – which include all the instructions you find in Exodus and Leviticus – basically summarized by the ten commandments – but if they were to obey God in all these things, God promised to bless them like crazy!

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The Great Exchange

I want to begin this morning simply by reading through the account of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke 2. This really is the centrepiece of Christmas and this will set the stage for what we want to talk about today.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

21 Eight days later, when the baby was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel even before he was conceived.

Luke 1:1-21

We’ve probably heard that passage at Christmas so many times that we’ve started to forget how amazing this story is. The very idea of Christmas is pretty incredible. It’s amazing enough to think that God Himself would come and live on the earth with us – that’s amazing! – but when you think that the Almighty, Everlasting, Infinite Creator of the Universe would confine Himself to the tiny helpless body of a fragile, human baby and actually become like one of us?! THAT is pretty mind-blowing!

We probably can’t ever grasp just how incredible it was for God to become human and to be born as a baby.

Think about it. The omnipotent, all powerful God who set the boundaries for the oceans and created billions of stars and galaxies – that God, as a baby needed someone to feed and cloth him and carry him and change his diapers. The omniscient all-knowing God – who calculated the earth’s perfect size and rotation and tilt and distance from the sun so that life could flourish, that God had to learn to walk and say his first words.The omni-sufficient God – the God who has never needed anything from anyone, now had to depend on his very own creations to care for him and to provide for his basic needs. He would experience hunger and thirst and pain and tiredness for the first time ever.

Imagine all that Jesus gave up and all the limitations and restrictions that Jesus had to take on to born as a human baby.

I know it’s not even close, but here’s the best way I can imagine it: We are extremely privileged to live in Canada (we have health and wealth and comfort beyond what most people dream of)- but imagine giving all that up to be born in some of the poorest places in the world.

  • Imagine choosing to give up your family to be born as an orphan on the streets in India.
  • Imagine choosing to give up your nice house to live in a cardboard box in some rat-infested, garbage filled back alley.
  • Imagine choosing to give up all the great food you eat every day (Tim Horton, Christmas dinner, roast beef & mashed potatoes) to instead live in the slums of the Philippines and eat rotting or moldy bits and pieces of stuff that you find in the garbage dumps.
  • Imagine choosing to give up your health in exchange for being born with aids or some other life-threatening disease – knowing that you’ll die a painful death long before you grow old.

That’s really what Jesus did. Jesus gave up all the amazingness of heaven (And I can’t even begin to imagine that) – and in it’s place, he came to live here. And he wasn’t born in a palace or among the wealthy or the affluent – but his first bed was a feed trough in barn. He took on the weakness of humanity. He came into this sin-filled world and lived in within the restrictions and limitations of a fragile human body.

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