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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.

1 Early the following spring, in the month of Nisan, during the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was serving the king his wine. I had never before appeared sad in his presence. 2 So the king asked me, “Why are you looking so sad? You don’t look sick to me. You must be deeply troubled.”

   Then I was terrified, 3 but I replied, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

Nehemiah 2:1-3

There’s lots of great little tidbits in there, but the first thing I want you to notice is the time of year. If you remember from last week, it was late autumn when Nehemiah got the report from the men who had returned from Judah, but when is it now as he first mentions this to the king?

Early spring. My question is, “What did he do all winter?” Let’s back up to verse 4 of chapter 1.

“When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.” Nehemiah 1:4

How long do you suppose “for days” is? Not 4 days, for days! (Actually, the time difference between when Nehemiah first heard the news and when he talked to king about it – is about four months.) The prayer in chapter one is certainly not the only prayer that Nehemiah prayed. It’s sounds like it’s perhaps the prayer that Nehemiah prayed just before going before the king here in chapter 2 – but it certainly not the only time Nehemiah spent praying about this.

It seems that Nehemiah spent the winter praying to God, probably following a similar pattern that we saw last week –  confessing his sins and the sins of his family, seeking God’s guidance and direction, and asking God to go before him when he would talk to the king. He didn’t just automatically rush in to things – even though the plight of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem was obviously a huge concern for him. But before he did anything, he spent a long time in prayer. He wanted to make sure that He was on the same page as God was.

And I think this is an important step that we tend to skip over.

In our world of instant gratification, everything is available to us in the moment we want it. We have power and water and heat and light all at the flip of switch – we microwave our meals in 2 minutes or less – if there is anything we ever want to know, we google it and have our answer in seconds. We don’t even have to wait anymore for our favourite show to come on tv – we simply watch it on demand.

So is it any wonder that we have difficulty praying for anything for any amount of time? When I was a kid, I can remember the older folks at my church – when they would pray long and hard about something, they would say they were “bathing it in prayer.” Do we ‘bath’ our concerns in prayer? Or do we simply sprinkle our concerns with prayer? I think if we’re honest, we probably don’t even sprinkle – its more like a mist.

I think we often lack the patience and perseverance in prayer that it takes to really be in-tune with God. But John 15:5 tells us that apart from God, we can do nothing. We simply cannot live a God-honoring life if we do not abide in or remain connected to God.

And prayer is a primary way to abide in Christ. Without spending that significant time with God, we will always struggle to know his will or to hear His voice.

And that’s really the point of prayer. It’s not so much our opportunity to beg God for the things we need and want – God already knows what we need and what we want. But prayer is our opportunity to make sure that we’re on the same page as God. That we’re going in the same direction that God is going. That we’re following his lead and submitting to his ways – and not the other way around.

I think that’s why Nehemiah spend 4 months in prayer before he went to the king. What Nehemiah had in mind was a significant, life-changing course of action and so Nehemiah wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just his own crazy-scheme. He wanted to make sure that this was God’s crazy-scheme.

But based on what we see heard and throughout the book of Nehemiah, I would guess that Nehemiah didn’t just pray about the big things of life – I’d guess that He prayed about everything. He wanted to be on the same page as God in the big things and in the little things. He was following Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians long before Paul wrote them. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says:

“Pray continually.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

And I think that’s exactly what Nehemiah did. He prayed continually. He prayed when he first heard about the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem. He prayed for 4 months after that – discerning what God would have him do about it. And now, in just a minute, we’re going to see another example of Nehemiah praying.

But hold that thought for a minute, we’re getting ahead of our story. Let’s jump back to verse 2:

So the king asked me, “Why are you looking so sad? You don’t look sick to me. You must be deeply troubled.” Then I was terrified…. Nehemiah 2:2

Just as a note of explanation, it was pretty risky to appear before the king looking sad. As a general rule one does not appear before the king looking unhappy. You should be over-joyed to be in the presence of the king. Anything less, reflected badly on the king. Kings didn’t typically concern themselves with how their servants felt – they were concerned about how they, the King, felt – and if your sadness made the king feel bad – well, you might end up in the dungeon or worse.

And that’s only one of the reasons that Nehemiah would be terrified. The big reason for concern is what Nehemiah is sad about. He’s sad that the city of Jerusalem remains in ruins – and Artaxerxes is actually one of the reasons why it still was.

If you look back in Ezra chapter 4, you see that some time earlier, apparently some of the Jews had started to work at rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, only to be met by great opposition. Some of the enemies of the Jews wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes which read:

“To King Artaxerxes, from your loyal subjects in the province west of the Euphrates River.

12 “The king should know that the Jews who came here to Jerusalem from Babylon are rebuilding this rebellious and evil city. They have already laid the foundation and will soon finish its walls. 13 And the king should know that if this city is rebuilt and its walls are completed, it will be much to your disadvantage, for the Jews will then refuse to pay their tribute, customs, and tolls to you. Ezra 4:11-13

Now, at this point, the progress that had been made in rebuilding was likely an exaggeration – from what we can see later in Nehemiah – they were no where close to laying the foundations and completing the walls. But regardless, Artaxerxes took the matter serious and replied to them in verse 18 of Ezra 4.

18 “The letter you sent has been translated and read to me. 19 I ordered a search of the records and have found that Jerusalem has indeed been a hotbed of insurrection against many kings. In fact, rebellion and revolt are normal there!20 Powerful kings have ruled over Jerusalem and the entire province west of the Euphrates River, receiving tribute, customs, and tolls. 21 Therefore, issue orders to have these men stop their work. That city must not be rebuilt except at my express command.”

Ezra 4:18-21

So we don’t know exactly when this all happened, but at some point earlier, Artaxerxes had specifically commanded that Jerusalem not be rebuilt. And so for Nehemiah to say, “I’m deeply upset because Jerusalem lay in ruins – which by the way, is your fault.” Of course, that could be seen as a direct insult to the king or at the very least, a sign of opposition to the king. No wonder Nehemiah was terrified.

But despite the fear, Nehemiah knows that God has led him to this moment, and so he proceeds to tell the king about the trouble in Jerusalem.

Then I was terrified, 3 but I replied, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

4 The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?” With a prayer to the God of heaven, 5 I replied….

Nehemiah 2:3-4

And before we get to his reply, just notice that again, he prayed. Right there in front of the king. He may not have got on his knees and folded his hands and recited a long prayer, but he prayed. Probably not out loud – and probably something like… “Help me out, God!” Or something like that.

But you can see that prayer had become just a natural part of Nehemiah’s life. Perhaps he learned from Queen Esther who, before she appeared before the King in order to save the Jews, had spent three days in prayer and fasting. Perhaps he heard the stories of a previous Prime Minister of Persia – Daniel – who interrupted his day three times every day to pray to God. We’re not sure where He picked up this lifestyle of prayer, but Nehemiah had certainly learned the value of being constantly in prayer.

And I think we would be arrogant or at least foolish to think that we can live God-honoring lives – like they did – without spending the time in prayer like they did. We need to learn the value of prayer. And not just in the big decisions of life, but every day. Prayer should be a natural part of our lives where we are always in communication with God – aligning our actions and thoughts with God’s.

Our prayers don’t have to be eloquent and beautiful. I can’t imagine Nehemiah’s prayer right then and there before the king was! And that’s ok. I know several people who have told me that they just don’t know what to say when they pray – they don’t know all the right words. But the fact is, God doesn’t much care for eloquence. Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 6:5…

5″And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:5-8

In other words, don’t worry about saying all the right words. Just simply talk to God. The real you talking to the real God. That’s the kind of prayers that God wants to hear. In fact, Jesus goes on to give us a simple template for prayer in the next verses (which we’ve labeled today as the Lord’s Prayer) – verse 9:

9 Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.

10 May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today the food we need,

12 and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus isn’t saying “Pray these exact words.” Of course, we can – and sometimes we do. But if we’re simply reciting words, I think we’ve missed the point entirely. Jesus isn’t giving us a set of words to recite – but a simple pattern to follow when we pray. And by the way, just as a bonus thought for today – notice that there are only 7 words that have to do with asking God for what we need and want. “Give us today the food we need.” That’s it. 12% of the prayer is about our needs – the rest of the prayer (the other 88%) is about honouring God, aligning our will and our lives with God’s will and what He is doing in the world. But in our prayers, how often do we flip those percentages around – where 88% of our prayers are about our needs and desires – 12% is about God and what He’s doing in the world. Anyway, that’s probably another sermon for another day, but it something worth thinking about.

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d guess Nehemiah had a pretty good percentage in his prayers about honouring God and wanting to join with God in what God was doing in the world. Otherwise, I’m not sure someone with a cushy position in the palace like Nehemiah would want to give that up to go and do what he’s about to propose to the king.

After Nehemiah explains how Jerusalem was still in ruins, the King asks: “What can I do for you?” One more prayer goes out to God and Nehemiah responds in verse 5 of chapter 2.

I replied, “If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.” Nehemiah 2:5

And there it is. I can only imagine how scary it was for Nehemiah to say that to the king who had ordered the city not to be rebuilt, but that’s the burden that Nehemiah had for Jerusalem. After hearing how the Israelites were still living in the ruins, and after 4 months of mourning and fasting and praying about this to God, Nehemiah concluded that someone needed to rebuild the city – and that someone was him. This was the task that God had given him and he would rather face the wrath of the king than to ignore God’s leading in his life.

And I think we would be wise to follow Nehemiah’s example. There are most certainly times where God leads us to do hard, scary things. But if we have spent sufficient time in prayer and in God’s Word, making sure that we really are hearing the voice of God, then we can have the confidence to move forward – even when we are terrified of may lie ahead.

I imagine in those four months previous to this, Nehemiah prayed through a hundred different scenarios of how God could fix the problem in Jerusalem without Nehemiah. Maybe God could raise up some master architect  – not a cup-bearer – to rebuilt the city. Maybe the king would just change his mind for some reason and cancel his earlier edict and the people could go ahead and rebuild. But the more he prayed, the more he became convinced, that God wanted him to go and rebuild the city.

And so he says to the king “Send me to rebuild the city.” God’s has put this on my heart. God has put me in this position. Send me to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls!

And then we get this curious little verse.

6 The king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked, “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” After I told him how long I would be gone, the king agreed to my request.

Nehemiah 2:6

Its interested to me that they include that little phrase “with the queen sitting beside him”. Why is that an important detail? Well if you remember our timeline from last week, we learned that Queen Esther was either the wife or the mom or the mother-in-law of King Artaxerxes. We don’t really have enough information to know for sure. But I wonder, if the ‘queen sitting beside him’ may have indeed been Esther? If so, that might have something to do with the king’s willingness to allow Nehemiah to go and rebuild Jerusalem – even though he had earlier commanded that it not be rebuilt.

Again, that’s just speculation, but even if that was Queen Esther and even if she did have some influence on the king in this matter, the Bible makes it clear that the determining factor in the king’s decision was that God was at work.

Look at verse 7:

7 I also said to the king, “If it please the king, let me have letters addressed to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, instructing them to let me travel safely through their territories on my way to Judah. 8 And please give me a letter addressed to Asaph, the manager of the king’s forest, instructing him to give me timber. I will need it to make beams for the gates of the Temple fortress, for the city walls, and for a house for myself.” And the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.

Nehemiah 2:7-8

Why did the king grant Nehemiah all these requests? Not because of the influence of the Queen. Not because Nehemiah had been such a loyal cup bearer over the years. And not because he relentlessly petitioned the king? No.

“The king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.”

God was at work. God had a job for Nehemiah to do – and God was going to provide everything Nehemiah needed in order to do it. Even if that meant changing the heart of the King.

The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases. Proverbs 21:1

There are no authorities in place that God cannot overrule. There are no hearts and minds that He cannot change. God is still sovereign over all of his creation. If he wants something to happen, nothing and no one can stop Him.

I think that should be pretty encouraging to us. The hearts of our kings or our prime ministers or our premiers or our bosses, or any of the people in authority over us – their hearts are in the hands of God and he can guide them however he pleases. Now many times, they don’t act inline with our wishes – but we can rest assured they they never act out of line with what God allows for his own good purposes.

“Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes.” Psalm 115:3

God never loses control. If God wanted Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, then God would make it happen. God has absolute control over every event and every person, including kings, presidents, and prime ministers, bosses, neighbours, mother-in-laws — everything.

To go back to those hard, scary things that God sometimes asks us to do – really – if we know that this is God’s will for us – what do we have to be afraid of?

“If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” Romans 8:31

It kinda makes it hard to worry about things then, doesn’t it? If God is in control, what are we really worried about?

It doesn’t matter how difficult a task seems or how unqualified we feel or what obstacles stand in our way – God is sovereign. There is no problem too big or too complicated for Him to handle with ease.

And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so great to be a child of God. We are in such a privileged position to have a Heavenly Father who loves us more than we can imagine and has all the power and authority in the world to take care of us. What a joy to be a child of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords!

I don’t know what this next week holds for you and there are probably some things that you don’t even know about yet either. God may ask you to do some hard, scary things. God may allow hard, scary things to happen in your life. But you can be assured that nothing will happen this week that is outside of the sovereign control of your Heavenly Father.

Remember, God knows the plans he has for you – they are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Now that’s not a promise of health, wealth, and prosperity – that’s not a guarantee of a life free of pain and hardship. Many times God’s ways and God’s timeline is way different from ours. But this is a promise that God is sovereign and that God loves you more than you can imagine – and that He will work out the details if we place our trust in Him.

And over the next few weeks as we see the obstacles that Nehemiah faces and how God helps him overcome each one, I think we’ll be all the more encourage to trust God with all the stuff that’s going on in our lives. We’re going to see that God is good and that God is faithful and that God is sovereign over all of his Creation.

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