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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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The Unexpected Source of Joy

We’ve been preaching through the season of Advent – remembering the first (and looking forward to the second) coming of Jesus. These Advent candles remind us of the many gifts we have (and the gifts we look forward to) because of Jesus’ coming.  We started two weeks ago with God’s gift of hope – last week was a reminder of the gift of peace – and this week, of course, we want to look at God’s gift of joy.

This gift of joy is made possible only because of Jesus’ arrival into the world as a little baby. We read at our Christmas Celebration on Friday in Luke chapter 2 of how, on the night of Jesus’ birth, angels appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem and announced to them this good news that would bring great joy to all people. Let me read for you in Luke 2 – starting at verse 8.

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.” Luke 2:8-12

This little baby boy, born in the Bethlehem some 2000 years ago would be the source of joy to the world – even for us here in Penhold in 2017.

And I know this probably isn’t necessarily ‘new’ news for you this morning. Chances are, you many of you have heard this good news before. Especially if you’ve been here for the past two weeks.

One of the concerns that I had when we decided to do these Advent messages was that hope, peace, and joy are so intertwined with each other that I feared I’d be preaching the same message every week – just using a different word.

  • I could talk about how Jesus gives us hope because our sins are forgiven and he has promised to return and make all things right.
  • I could talk about how Jesus gives us peace because our sins are forgiven and He has promised to return and make all things right.
  • And I could talk about how Jesus gives us joy because our sins are forgiven and He has promised to return and make all things right.

And of course, that would all be very true! Christmas really is a ‘buy one, get two free’ kind of a deal. Hope, peace, and joy are all part of the same package. They are all made possible by Jesus coming to earth, being born as a baby in a manger – living and then dying on the cross and being raised back to life again.

But even though they are all so closely related, I do want to talk a little bit today specifically about joy. As I was studying up on the topic of joy this week – I found that even defining ‘joy’ could be a little tricky. There was no one clear definition of joy.

  • Some would say that joy is another word for happiness. Others would say that joy is certainly not the same thing as happiness.
  • Some would say that joy is a feeling or an emotion. Others would say, no. No it’s not.
  • Some would say we can choose to be joyful – that is it an act of our will – but others see joyfulness a natural by-product of something else.

There are lots of different ways to define joy – I think there can be good arguments made for all of those different ways.

So how do we understand joy? What exactly did the angels mean when they said that this good news would bring great joy to all people? How does this good news help you and I experience joy today?

Regardless of how we define it, joy sure sounds like a good thing – so how do we get it? I guess that’s really our bottom line – how do we experience joy in our lives today?

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Peace on Earth – Goodwill to Men

How many of you have ever heard Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”? I asked Greg – and he had no idea what I was talking about – so I started feeling a little bit old – but I’m glad that some of you know what I’m talking about. But for those of you who don’t know Paul Harvey – when I was a kid, every Friday at noon, Paul Harvey would come on the radio and do a 3 minute spiel on the rest of the story. He would take a real life famous story – a person or event that everyone would know about, but then he would tell you the story behind that famous person or event.

On Thursday I listened to one of his clips – a story about a struggling poet and author in New York named Ted who’s book had been just been rejected for the 27th time from different publishers. So finally in frustration, Ted decided to go home and burn his manuscript. But just as he considered this, he happened to run across an old school buddy. Well, as they talked, it came out that this old school buddy was starting up his own publishing company – and believe it or not, he wanted to specialize in publishing works that had been rejected by other publishers. Well, you can guess what happened. Ted’s book was published. And it was only the first of many. He went on to write and publish many books – you might even recognize some of the titles like – Horton hears a Who, Green Eggs and Ham, or How the Grinch stole Christmas.

Yes, that struggling author that was about to set fire his first manuscript was Theodore Geisel or as you probably know him – Dr. Suess. And as Paul Harvey says, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

And I always enjoyed those “the rest of the story” stories. And this morning, I want to share one of those with you. Not about Dr. Suess – but about a famous Christmas carol.

The story begins with a man name Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was a fairly famous American poet who lived in the mid-1800s and he wrote a poem that formed the basis for the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. You might be familiar with that one – I’m sure you’ll hear it at least sometime this Christmas season.

The poem that it was based on was written on Christmas Day of 1863. The American Civil war had been raging for over 2 and a half years by this point. Over a million fathers, sons, and brothers would not be home for that Christmas – and many of those would never return.

But on that Christmas day in 1863, Henry Longfellow pondered the dismal state of the world in which he lived. He was no stranger to tragedy. His first wife, Mary, had died six months into her first pregnancy at the age of 22. His second wife, Frances, had died from severe burns after her dress caught fire. And now, as the Civil War raged around him, Henry would spend this Christmas nursing his oldest son, Charles, back to health after a confederate bullet nearly paralyzed him.

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