Sermon May 25, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

May 25, 2014

“What’s Your Problem?”

Nehemiah 1:1-4; 2:1-8

Do you have a problem? I’m just assuming that there have to be a few people here who have a problem. By problem, I don’t mean that maybe you were up late last night and now I’m keeping you awake; or that the person next to you is annoying you. I mean a problem in kind of the big sense of the word; problem as in a challenge or a mission or a calling. Actually, I think everyone should have a problem, or maybe even several problems. In fact, if you don’t have a problem, feel free to call the church and we’ll assign you one.

A problem is something that leads you to say – that’s not right. That shouldn’t be happening. I need to speak up about that. I need to do something about that. A problem is something that might get you angry; it might get you fired up. A problem arouses your passion, your concern, your commitment. Tell me, what’s your problem?

Nehemiah was a man with a problem. Nehemiah’s life was defined by the times in which he lived. After King Solomon’s death, Israel had been divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, called Israel, was destroyed in the 8th century B.C. by the Assyrians. For all practical purposes it ceased to exist after that time. In 587 B.C. the southern kingdom, called Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed and Solomon’s temple was demolished stone by stone. Many Jews, especially the most intelligent and gifted, were led off into exile to Babylonia. The seventy year period which followed is referred to as the Babylonian Exile.

When King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians, he gave the Jews permission to return home to Jerusalem. This was the second exodus, when the Jews returned to the promised land. It was the first wave of returnees from Babylonia, while Cyrus was ruler of Persia, who rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem and reinstituted the worship of God in Israel. With the second group of Jews to return, when King Artaxerxes was ruler of Persia, the emphasis was on re-establishing the Jewish people as a community of faith. The book of Nehemiah tells us about the third wave of exiles to return to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah was a Jew whose ancestors were deported from Jerusalem in the Babylonian Exile. Later, after the Persians had conquered the Babylonians, Nehemiah had risen to a position of prominence in the government of King Artaxerxes. The last line in chapter one says: “At the time I was cupbearer to the king.”
What sounds like just a glorified butler was in reality a position of great trust. For instance, the cupbearer tasted the wine served to the king to make sure it was not poisoned. One ancient Babylonian document says concerning another cupbearer that he “had been the chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet ring, and in charge of the administration of financial accounts.” This meant that Nehemiah was an important and influential official in the royal household with access to the king.

A problem came knocking on Nehemiah’s door. Nehemiah’s brother Hanani arrived with news about Jerusalem. From his brother, Nehemiah heard that the survivors, those who had not been deported to Babylonia when Jerusalem was destroyed, were in great trouble and shame. Additionally, he heard that the walls and gates of the city were still in ruins, which would have been the reason for the trouble and shame of the city’s inhabitants. 142 years had passed since the destruction of Jerusalem and the people were barely surviving.

The news Nehemiah hears breaks his heart and it says he sat down and wept. The same phrase appears in Psalm 137. There, verse one says that when the exiles from Jerusalem remembered their home, they sat down and wept.

In the ancient world, the walls were what made a city a safe place to live. Strong walls and gates provided security and a sense of identity; it enabled a community to exist and to engage in commerce and trade. Rebuilding city walls was a little like rearming an army. It had serious political ramifications for neighboring powers, who in turn had an incentive to keep them from rebuilding the walls.

Nehemiah is confronted with a great problem – the impoverishment and despair of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. Nehemiah says that his reaction was to weep and mourn, but also to fast and pray. There’s an old saying that there are three kinds of people in the world. Some people make things happen; some people watch things happen; and some people wonder what happened.

Four months go by. Every Jew must have shared Nehemiah’s lament at the discouraging news about Jerusalem. But the heartrending news Nehemiah received begins to formulate into a plan of action as he prays to God. The prayer in the second half of chapter one, what I did not read to you, constitutes one of the great prayers of the Bible.

Nehemiah is facing a huge problem, but he does not begin his prayer with how big the problem is, but rather how big God is. He opens his prayer with an emphasis on the sovereign power of God. He prays: “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.”

Nehemiah perceives that the answer to his problem begins with God. He brackets his prayer at the beginning and the end with an appeal for God’s attentive presence. Nehemiah prays: “Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant.” Also, as Nehemiah lays out the problem confronting him, he confesses not just the sin of Israel, but his own sin as well. And as Nehemiah prays he begins to sense God’s calling.
In chapter 2 we see how Nehemiah’s prayers lead to action. Nehemiah has waited four months, all the time praying and discerning God’s will to go forward. Now he says: “I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before.” All this time he hadn’t let on about how he was feeling. But now he does, purposefully. “The king said to him, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid.”

To deliberately display sadness or discontent before the king was a risky thing. If the king ever suspected that his cupbearer might be disloyal or dissatisfied, and open to bribery by the king’s enemies, he would be terminated immediately. And in those days, if you got terminated, you got terminated. Nehemiah has revealed his sadness to the king for a purpose, but we can understand why he says, “Then I was very much afraid.”

Then Nehemiah revealed what was troubling him. The city of his ancestors still lay in ruin and destruction. Some people point out that Nehemiah never says the name of the city, that it was Jerusalem, although we might expect the king to know where Nehemiah was from. However Jerusalem was the capital city of a country Persia ruled. With a rebuilt capital, the Israelites might seek to be independent. In fact, there had already been at least one attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the one who stopped it was precisely this king, Artaxerxes. And so Nehemiah is navigating through a minefield, and he knows it.

I imagine that after Nehemiah reveals what is on his heart, there was a tension-filled pause. And then the king replies, “What do you request?” Note what Nehemiah does next. He says, “So I prayed to the God of heaven.” He had been praying about this for four months. Now he offers up a quick prayer. Was this a prayer of thanks that the king did not react negatively? Was it a prayer for courage to keep going? Either way, Nehemiah’s first reaction was to offer a quick prayer to God before he speaks to the king.

Now Nehemiah sets into motion the strategy he had been working on. First he says, “I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” The king asks, “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?”

So Nehemiah goes boldly on. He asked for letters to the governors of the province Beyond the River. Essentially, what he was asking for from the king was a military escort. But he didn’t stop there. Next, he asked for a letter to the keeper of the king’s forest for timbers for the reconstruction. Which is another way of saying – And I would like you to pay for all the reconstruction costs.

Maybe we can appreciate why Nehemiah’s plan took four months to set in motion and why when the time came he was very much afraid. However the prayers of Nehemiah had prepared the way ahead. The king was receptive to his trusted servant and gave him all he asked for. Even so, Nehemiah knows whom to thank. He says, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”

Nehemiah’s story has just started, but I’m going to stop here. Next week we’ll see what happens when Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem. But for now, the example of Nehemiah has much to teach us. Let’s go back to our question – What’s your problem? What is it that moves you; that motivates you? What is it that touches your heart?

Bob Pierce, the founder of the organization World Vision, used to pray: “May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” With whatever energy you have; with whatever gifts you possess; with whatever resources you can contribute; what message does God want you to hear?

The insert in your bulletin with the title “Did You Know?” is in your bulletin today because we wanted you to be aware of some of the things our church has been able to accomplish in mission in the previous year. When you put it all in one list, it’s more than we realize. And it’s more than money contributed. It shows time spent and effort expended.

I also wanted this insert on this Sunday so that you can see – here are some problems people in our church are addressing. What problem has God laid on your heart? There are many more things that we can and should be doing.

I wonder about Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about Jerusalem. Was that the first time he heard about it? After all, the destruction took place 142 years before. Didn’t he already know? Maybe so, but this time when he hears about Jerusalem his heart was deeply moved. Maybe God had been preparing Nehemiah for service by opening his heart in a new way. That’s how it can happen with us. Our new problem may be an old problem whose time has come.

I invite you to think and pray about where God wants you to apply yourself. And let me share with you one last thing about the book of Nehemiah. This is really like Nehemiah’s memoirs. In the last line in the last chapter, Nehemiah says: “Remember me, O my God, for good.” What do you want to be remembered for?

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