by Chris Ritter
We have lived to see things we never thought we would see: Churches and school closed, businesses locked down, and loved ones separated. The past fifteen months has demonstrated that life is fragile. Things can break down in an instant. This has always been true in our fallen world. But now we are acutely aware.
Because things break, rebuilding is a part of life. Someone reading this working on rebuilding their marriage, their finances, a friendship, or maybe even your faith. Rebuilding is not fun, but it does provide some opportunities to reflect on how to make the future different from the past. I have some friends who experienced a house fire a few months ago. They are now in an apartment and rebuilding their home. This is a time for them to think about what they need in the future rather than just re-creating what was lost.
Fortunately for us, there is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the theme of building again what has fallen apart. Today we launch a message series on the Book of Nehemiah.
A Little Background
Did you learn about the Fertile Crescent in Social Studies? It is called the Cradle of Civilization. This swath of arable land runs from the Nile Valley in Egypt up along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and then eastward toward what we know as Iraq and Iran. This band of green is the setting for the entire Old Testament. The Garden of Eden was said to be bordered by four rivers, two of which are the Tigris and the Euphrates.
God called Abraham out of the vicinity of modern-day Iraq to the Promised Land. If you look at a map, Israel is situated on the narrowest part of the Fertile Crescent. God placed Abraham strategically to do just what he called him to do: Bless all the nations of the known world.
After a time of slavery in Egypt, God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and established twelve tribes into nation and then a Kingdom. But, as humans are wont to do, Israel fell into sin and idolatry. The nation fell in two and God sent prophets to warn both kingdoms that worse things would happen if they did not repent.
God’s judgement eventually came in the form of super-powers on either side of them. Instead of being positioned to bless the world, Israel became the land through which larger nations marched to fight with one another. The first super power to harass Israel were the Assyrians, headquartered in Nineveh. They marched in and obliterated the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But the Assyrians themselves were conquered by the Babylonians. Under King Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon laid seige to Jerusalem, sacked the city, and led the best and brightest captive back to Babylon. Among these exiles were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego.
Jerusalem revolved again in 587BC and this time the Babylonians destroyed the city along with Solomon’s magnificent temple. More captives were led out of Israel and outsiders were brought into Judah. This exile lasted seventy years. But, alas, the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Zerubbabel led over 40,000 exiles home and they rebuilt the altar of the Lord and eventually the temple (a shadow of the great temple that stood before).
But many Jews did not return home. Most, in fact, lived as a distinct communities throughout the Empire. They raised families, ran businesses, and prayed toward their homeland. From this time we get stories like Esther. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (originally a single scroll) chronicle 100 years of history in this post-exilic period. For Nehemiah, the destruction of Jerusalem was history as old as the American Civil War is to us. He was born in the Persian Empire and has never been to the land of his ancestors.
News from Back Home
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:Nehemiah 1:1-4, New International Version
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
3 They said to me, “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.”
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.
Nehemiah was a Jew that was born in Persia. He was raised to love the God of Israel and his native land, but (like today) most Jews lived outside Jerusalem. In fact, the most faithful Jews lived outside Jerusalem. The best and the brightest were taken into exile. The people left in the land tended to be seen as a rag-tag group of leftovers who were suspected of intermarrying with the people brought into the land by the Babylonians.
Nehemiah had made a good life for himself. He was the Chief Cup-bearer for the most powerful man in the world, King Artaxerxes. He would have been in charge of the king’s Food and Wine. Back then they didn’t have elections, they had assassinations. So the royal cup bearer would taste the king’s food and drink the king’s wine before he did and proof that it was not poisoned. He probably was over the royal food service apparatus. It was a position of trust at the right hand of power. The king chose someone he liked and trusted because he would spend a lot of time with this person. Being a king is thirsty work.
News ran slow in those days. You always were eager to speak to travelers who could tell you what was happening elsewhere. Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, came from Judah to the Susa, one of three capitols of the Persian Empire. Artaxerxes used Susa (in modern day Iran) as his Winter Quarters and the whole royal court would have travelled with him there. Susa was all the way on the Eastern side of the Fertile Crescent, a world away from Jerusalem. Hanani’s visit was quite an opportunity to learn about how things were going in Judah.
The news was not good. The Jewish people, he reported, were in great trouble and disgrace. They are surrounded by enemies. Jerusalem’s walls had been broken down and the gates were burned, leaving the city defenseless and weak. Nehemiah sat down and wept. For days he fasted and prayed.
This is noteworthy. Jerusalem, I presume, was a city he had never seen in a land he had never visited. This is 141 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Nehemiah has hoped that Ezra the priest who travelled to Judah a few years earlier, was having greater success. Instead, it seems like just enough was happening to rouse Jerusalem’s enemies against the city.
It would have been the most natural thing in the world for Nehemiah to say, “That’s too bad” and go on with his life. But that is not what happened. He got a broken heart.
What Breaks Your Heart?
Rebuilding starts with a discontent. Discontent comes from a broken heart. God sometimes breaks our heart so that we can take action toward a new reality.
There was once a nun from Albania that began doing work in Ireland and later had an opportunity to move to India and teach Geography at a Catholic high school for girls. On her way back and forth to school she would notice the deplorable conditions of the street people. Homelessness was rampant and some people were left on the street to die. She just couldn’t take it anymore. But what could one person do. One day she stooped down to help a man by washing his wounds. He asked, “Why are you doing this?”
Theresa replied, “I love you.” Today the world knows her at the Mother Theresa who built a global organization called the Missionaries of Charity. The Catholic Church calls her St. Theresa of Calcutta.
What breaks your heart? A broken heart is sometimes your call into ministry. Many of the ministries in our church started with a broken heart. I had a broken heart in 2012 when I visited a Methodist school in Guinea. I noticed a group of nine or ten children standing on their tiptoes looking in a classroom window. I asked the principal about them and he said these were kids who could not afford to go to school. So they stood outside and tried to listen in. It broke my heart. I knew I had to get those kids on the other side of the window. I came home and told the church that story. Other people’s hearts were moved. We started the Hope Scholarship Program and each year we provide a full scholarship to 100 students in Guinea, Africa.
From Sadness to Boldness
Nehemiah was given an opportunity by God to turn his sorrow into action.
2 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.
In the midst of his fasting and prayer, Nehemiah stood before the king to do his job. When you work for the King of the Persian Empire, there is no casual Friday. You always look your best. If the king didn’t like you, he could dismiss you with a wave of the hand and an eager replacement was always waiting in the wings. But this day Nehemiah could not hide his sorrow. The king noticed and inquired what was wrong.
Nehemiah explained that the city in which his ancestors were buried was laid in ruins. It was then the most powerful man in the world asked, “What would you like for me to do?”
When you pray about a problem, God starts opening doors. Our job is to be bold enough to walk through them. Nehemiah was given an huge opportunity and he took it: “Send me to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls.”
We have zero evidence that Nehemiah has any construction experience. It is not clear that he had ever led a large project of this type. We don’t know if he liked to travel. There is no detailed analysis of the scope of the project or how long it will take. He does not have a true accounting of the obstacles and resources. But Nehemiah says it anyway: “Send me.”
I am sure there was a present pause. The king and the queen looked at one another. Then the king asked, “How long will you be gone?” Ka-ching! He just got permission.
Nehemiah went from bold to very bold. He asked the king for papers guaranteeing safe travel. He asked for requisition forms for all the timber that he would need for the gates. The king gave him everything for which he asked.
When we are bold to step through the doors God opens, God is always faithful to meet the need. In my experience, he never provides before we commit. We commit, and then he provides. Where God guides, He provides.
Nehemiah says, “The king granted What I asked, for the good hand of God was upon me.”
The good hand of God is upon you, too. That thing that is breaking your heart may just be your call to ministry. Be bold to step through the doors God opens. Let’s rebuild!