IIT UBF - University Bible Fellowship at IIT




Prayer: the Foundation of Rebuilding

Date: Apr. 3, 2022

Author: Michael Mark

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Key Verse: Nehemiah 1:9

Before Nehemiah started the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, he prayed earnestly to God.  Through his prayer we can learn about exalting God, confessing our sins, and, and praying according to his word to enrich our own prayers as we seek to rebuild the ministry in 2022.

The pandemic has been devastating to the social, mental, physical, even financial aspects of the lives of people all over the world.  It has distanced and isolated many people.  Some students at all levels have not experienced what school was like before the pandemic.  When we put our daughter into daycare five months ago, we thought we were getting her there on time by 9:30am.  It was only at the last parent teacher conference they told us we were sending her in too late, and by that time they already finished their most important circle time and art time, and she was just coming in to sensory play.  One could argue that maybe we should have been more diligent to find out, but at the same time, if it weren’t for the pandemic, and I had to go in to the office by 8:30, we would have also sent our daughter to daycare much earlier every day.  Now that the pandemic is subsiding, even workplaces are trying to rebuild the company culture that was lost, and many are requiring that employees start coming in person 3 or all 5 days in the week.  Because of the pandemic, our Bible House was mostly empty and unused for almost 2 years.  We were not able to meet together, sing together and fellowship together for nearly that same amount of time.  Thank God, our ministry sustained through live streams and the Word of God, but at that point it seemed like we went into a survival mode, down to the bare essentials of a ministry, and in other ways we got disconnected from one another, and from students, especially outreach and meeting new ones.

For these reasons we chose our 2022 Key Verse from Nehemiah 1:9, with the theme of the year being “Rebuild.”  We wanted to rebuild our ministry, to rebuild our connections, and to rebuild each other up.  We have a vision to see the Bible House filled up with spiritual, productive and enriching activities.  We have a vision to see the Chapel filled with worshipers of God.  We have a  vision to see the Bible Club filled with students hungry and being satisfied with the Word of God.  Our goal has often been stated that we want to know God, and make him known.  We want to see lives changed, to be transformed from darkness to light, to be flipped from evil to good, from the lies of Satan to the truths of God.  We do this ultimately because we want to see God glorified, and give glory to God.  Our inspiration for this vision comes from the book of Nehemiah, where he had a desire to honor God’s name by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem that had fallen into ruin and disrepair.

Look at v.1, “The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa.”  The citadel of Susa was a fortress where the kings of Persia resided in the winter months.  Kislev corresponds to November/December on our calendar.  Here you can see that Nehemiah, who you could tell was Jewish by his name, either lived and or served in the royal palace.  We find out later that he was a cupbearer to the king, which is a position of prestige and honor.  It’s not unreasonable to think that there were many who would try to knock a king off of his high position, and one of the ways is through poisoning his drink.  The cupbearer to the king was the person who tried or tasted the drink first to see if there was any poison in it, therefore the cupbearer risked his life to serve the king.  The privileges of the position was that you were able to come into the direct presence of the king, so in order to get this close, you also had to be someone who the king highly trusted and favored.  The king wouldn’t just appoint anyone to be his cupbearer.  It had to be someone he not only trusted with his own life, but someone that he liked as well.

The reigning king of Persia at the time was Artaxerxes, who was in his twentieth year of rule.  This puts the date of this passage in around December of 446 BC.  Around this time, Hanani, who was Nehemiah’s brother, came from Jerusalem with some other men to Susa.  Nehemiah asked them about the welfare of the Jewish survivors of the exile, and about Jerusalem.  They said in v.3, “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.”  If you recall, God had exiled his people from Jerusalem because of their idolatry and wickedness, from their disobedience to his laws and commands.  The exile happened in 608 BC (162 years prior).  At that time the king of Babylon seized Jerusalem and the Jews, and destroyed the city walls, the city and the Temple.  70 years later, in 538 BC, Zarubbabel led the first group of exiles to return to Jerusalem, and it took over 20 years to rebuild the Temple due to opposition from enemies and a lack of motivation by those who returned.  Then, 80 years later in 458 BC a second group of exiles returned, led by Ezra.  This was probably the journey Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, took while Nehemiah stayed in Persia.  12 years later in 446 BC, we come to our passage, where Hanani and some other men came back to talk to Nehemiah, travelling around 900 miles or about 3 months to get from Jerusalem to Susa.

Look at the heart of Nehemiah when he hears about the trouble and disgrace of his people in Jerusalem, in v.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 lost the strength in his legs; he had to sit down as soon as he heard the news, and he wept.  He mourned and fasted and prayed for days.  The news of the disgrace of his people, even though they were 900 miles away, broke his heart.  Nehemiah was living in relative ease and comfort; he was a servant of the king and might have lived in the citadel, but he did not care for these things when he heard his people were struggling.  He had a heart and deep concern for his fellow Jew – because they were his family.  When I used to hear about my little brother getting picked on in grade school, my face turned red and I wish I could have gone to the school and have a word with the bully.

Nehemiah took the problem to heart.  We learn in Ch. 2:12 that God had put it in Nehemiah’s heart to rebuild the wall.  He understood the issue.  There was a saying at that time, that a city without walls is not a city at all.  Their enemies could oppress them by day and harass them by night.  They had no way to defend themselves.  But there was also a big issue.  Jerusalem was under subjugation to Persia, and it had a history of rebellion against kings.  To rebuild and refortify its gates would be like an offense to the king.  It would pretty much like declaring independence from Persia, but that’s not exactly what Nehemiah had in mind.  He wanted to rebuild the wall not in rebellion to Persia, but to remove the shame and disgrace from the Jews.  But how could the king know?  Yet, if you read through the rest of Nehemiah, you can see that he directly asked the king if he could do this, and the king did not oppose it.  In fact, the king was pleased to send Nehemiah, and even gave him the lumber to do it, a letter of approval, and to top it all off with a cherry on top, the king made Nehemiah governor of the province of Judah!  Not a bad promotion to go from cupbearer to governor!  There was fierce opposition to the rebuilding of the wall, but they were so powerless that it only took 52 days to rebuild and refortify the wall.  What the people saw was not just men at work, but God at work.  It was God who moved the king’s heart.

How was this astonishing success brought about?  It was brought about by prayer.  The first thing Nehemiah did when he heard the news was to pray.  He did not try to take matters into his own hands, but immediately took it to God.  His prayer was only intensified by fasting and mourning.  And he prayed for days.  And when you read through the book of Nehemiah, it is interspersed with prayers to God throughout.  But here in this chapter, we witness one of the most moving prayers in the Bible, perhaps a summary of all that Nehemiah prayed throughout those days.  Prayer was the foundation for rebuilding, and as we are seeking to rebuild our ministry, prayer must also be at its foundation.  Charles Spurgeon once said, “My own soul’s conviction is that prayer is the grandest power in the entire universe, that it has more omnipotent force than electricity, attraction, gravitation, or any of those secret forces which men have called by name, but which they do not understand.”  We believe in electricity, but has anyone ever seen an electron with the naked eye, or how it moves?  But somehow, it works.  We acknowledge the force of gravity, but we cannot see it, nor do we fully understand the source of it.  Is it simply the speed of a moving body of mass, or is it related to the curve in space time?  But more powerful than electricity and gravity, is the power of prayer.  For the natural forces are limited to this world, but prayers reach far beyond.

We can draw out some lessons and encouragement from Nehemiah’s prayer here.  These next three points are not exactly a model for prayer.  Jesus gives us a model for prayer as he taught his disciples.  You don’t have to pray these next three points in every prayer, though I do recommend that they should be prayed every day.  These points are not a how to guide to pray, but meant to enrich and encourage your prayers, so that we could all pray for the rebuilding of our ministry.  In Nehemiah’s prayer we can draw out at least these three elements to prayer: the exaltation of God, the confession of sins, and the prayer in accordance with God’s word.

The first element of prayer is the exaltation of God.  This is the lifting up and glorifying of God in prayer.  Look at how Nehemiah begins his prayer in v.5, “Then I said: ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments.”  God’s name is glorious in itself.  Nehemiah starts off with “LORD,” or “Yahweh,” or “Jehovah,” the proper name of God, and adds the title, “the God of heaven.”  He is the highest in all of the heavens.  And praises him even more – “the great and awesome God,” who does great and awesome things, like keeping his covenant of love.  Even Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer, first saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”  That hallowed means to be sacred, to be holy, to be set apart from everything else.  The name of God is holy, and like no other.  This is praising God for who he is.

There’s something satisfying about praising God.  For one thing, it is what we were created to do: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  But it is also satisfying because it is an expression of the truth, and it is beautiful.  It’s like the expressions that come out when you see some majestic hills, mountains or valleys, or waterfalls, or when you see precious gemstones, beautiful flowers or amazing animals.  You just say to yourself, “Wow,” that is awesome, or amazing, or beautiful.  It’s the same way with praising God – it is an expression of the truth, and it’s enjoyable when we experience it.  God is gracious, compassionate and merciful, his love endures forever.  He is patient and kind.  God is holy, and infinitely wise, powerful and just.  He fills heaven and earth with his glory.  He is the Creator, He is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.  It is sad when people reject God, or deny him, or mock him, for they are blind to this beautiful truth.

The second element of prayer is a confession of sin.  Look at v.6b, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.”  He understood that the Israelites were distressed and in trouble, but he didn’t complain about their enemies or whine about their situation.  He got right to the root of the problem – the Israelite’s sin, including himself.  It is interesting he includes himself in here.  It’s easy to point the finger at someone else, or even blame or curse God for a bad situation.  It’s much harder to look at ourselves and say, I sinned.  I’m wrong.  I did wrong. Verse 7 defines sins pretty clearly for us: “We have acted very wickedly toward you.  We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.”  By this we can examine ourselves to see if we have sinned.  Have you sinned?  Do you know you have sinned, and how often?

As we learned from the book of Exodus, all of the commands God gave Moses was summed up in the Ten Commandments, and those can all be summed up this way: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Oh but how often do we transgress these sins, and every day!  How much more do I prefer to surf on social media, than to read the Bible and pray to God.  I have neglected God in being too busy.  I had prideful and judgmental thoughts against my neighbor.  I cursed at my family and at God.  I was not thankful for the good things God gave me.  I hurt my brother by my words.  I was impatient and not loving towards my children.  Judging by this, who here has not sinned?  We all have sinned.  Sin is what is wrong with the world.  When we sin, a heavy price is paid.  We feel guilty, or anxious, or shameful.  It causes us to feel more distant from God, and prevents us from coming close.  It makes it harder for us to pray, and it dampens our spirits.

When we acknowledge our sin, we are coming closer to the truth.  When we realize that we sin, we realize that we really need God to have mercy on us.  We come to an understanding that we have to depend on God for His mercy.  It shows us that God doesn’t owe us anything.  It shows us that it is not because of our good works, or our merits, or any credits we have that we deserve anything from God.  It shows us that any mercy, any good thing we do get from God is solely because of his grace.  It makes us humble, because we see that we have no power in us to do good.  Rather, it seems we constantly mess up, as much as we try to do good.  Without God’s truth we are all lost and confused in the darkness of sin.  We need God to help us to do what is right.  Finally, in confessing our sins, we begin a process of healing and reconciliation.  If we deny or do not confess our sins, we remain in a wrath that is deserved.  But if we confess our sins, the healing begins.  When my daughter does something wrong, but she comes to me sadly and says “Sorry Daddy,” how can I hold it against her?  Rather, when she says sorry, it makes me want to hug her and say it’s ok.  It’s the same thing with my wife.  When we get into an argument it feels like we are two trains on different tracks until one of us says sorry, then the walls start to come down.

The third element of prayer is to pray according to God’s word.  It makes no use to pray outside of the word of God.  To pray according to the word of God, you have to read and listen to the word of God.  Can we read v.8-9, which contain the key verse: “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’”  Nehemiah is essentially saying, God, you said this, and God cannot say, “No I didn’t.”  These words he quoted are given by God in more than one place, in Lev 26 and Deut 4.  This whole prayer also sounds very similar to the prayer the prophet Daniel prayed, in Daniel 9.  This happened around 100 years earlier, and Daniel’s writings may have been available to Nehemiah.  Because God said this, Daniel can be assured that God will do it.  This gives him boldness in his prayers which led him to pray in v.11, “Give your servant success today.”  When he prayed according to God’s word, he was praying according to God’s will, and when he knew he was praying according to God’s will, he was more encouraged to pray, and even pray boldly.

Nehemiah had faith in the promises of God, and his purpose in rebuilding Jerusalem was to lead to the fulfillment of what God had said.  Think about it.  These things had not happened yet.  The Jews did not possess the promised land, the Temple was only a shadow of its former glory under Solomon, and King David’s throne was empty at the time of Nehemiah.  But as we learned from Exodus, it was always God’s plan and purpose to draw near to his people and dwell with them.  The Tabernacle became the Temple, which was the House of God in the center of his people’s land.  But also, as we learned last week from Dan, as we concluded the book of Exodus, God’s dwelling place is now in our hearts, and we, the church, have become the Temple of the Living God.  And this is also a foreshadowing of an even greater promise that is to come – that we will all be gathered into the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, where God will no longer be hidden, but dwell openly in that new earth, and we can see him face to face.

This promise is God’s New Covenant, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  The birth, crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus Christ, the Son of God accomplished the New Covenant. It is through Jesus, we can draw near to God.  It is because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, taking them all away, that we are able to boldly come near to God.  And that is what the Bible Club studied this Friday, in Hebrews 10.  Jesus’ sacrifice of his body has made us perfect forever, because through this sacrifice all of our sins have been forgiven.  So Hebrews 10:22 tells us, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” 

So now, we have a new way to pray to God, and to pray according to his well.  Before taking us to his dwelling place in heaven, where his Name resides, he has given us a Name by which we can draw near to him, and this is the name of Jesus.  So when we pray now, we always pray “in Jesus name.”  Have you ever stopped to think about why you say, “in Jesus name?” every time you pray?  It’s because you can only come to God in Jesus’ name, which has authority to allow you to come near.  Only Jesus’ name has the merit and credits to allow you to enter.  Two weeks ago, we went to a Trampoline Park in Skokie.  I bought tickets in my name.  If I go to the counter and say, “Hi, my name is Jack, let me in.”  They’ll say, “Oh no you don’t, hit the road Jack and don’t come back no more, your name ain’t on the list.”  But if I say, “My name is Mike,” they’ll check their system and see that Mike has paid, and he can come in.  So it is when you come to God, you always come in Jesus’ name.  You always come, because Jesus has made the way.  When you approach God and he says, “Who sent you?”  You say, “Jesus did,” and God will say, “Ok, he is my son, whom I love, and if Jesus knows your name, I know you too.  Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.”

And so we can only come to God through Jesus, and in no other way.  You cannot come to God on your own.  You cannot come to God through other gods who are not Jesus Christ.  You are only given one name and that’s it.  In fact, Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  So the only way to pray, the only way to draw near to God, is to repent of your unbelief, and turn to and trust in Jesus.  Without Jesus you have nothing, O sinner, nothing to save you.  But if you have Christ, you can pray according to God’s will.  Jesus gives you these promises in John 14:13-14 “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it,” and again in John 15:7-8, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” 

Some people will misuse the name of Jesus, and make it like a genie to get what you want.  But when you truly ask in the name of Jesus, you think about if Jesus would approve of this request.  When you come in the name of Jesus, you have an idea of who he is.  If my daughter went to the cashier at the Trampoline Park, and said, “My dad Mike also bought that whole box of skittles,” the cashier would say, “No he didn’t, he wouldn’t do that.”  So there’s a balance.  While we don’t need to ask for exorbitant pleasures, we can ask for good things, as a child would ask their own father for a gift.  It’s interesting that when Jesus talks about this with this disciples, he mentions a father giving gifts to children.  When children ask for gifts, they aren’t very shy about it.  When I was young, every Christmas our family would do a grab bag, but the adults also bought gifts for the kids.  Nowadays, I’ll ask for some socks or pens, but when I was a kid I asked for a Super Nintendo and Street Fighter 2.  And lo and behold, my mom bought us just that, which at the time was probably close to $300.  So pray boldly, for little things and big things, for everything for every aspect of life: health, food, clothing, financial support, relationships, academics, athletics, struggles, or ministry, ask in Jesus’ name in light of a loving father.  We also should understand, that sometimes it’s not material gifts that we have that will show others the glory of God, but also gifts such as humility, love, patience, honesty, good character and holiness.

So let us pray for the rebuilding of this ministry.  We have many prayer topics, but to keep it concise I’ll list a few.  Please pray for the upcoming Easter Conference, the next leadership for the Bible Club, for our elders, and for one another.  I love it when I hear people praying for my message when it’s my turn.  And as soon as the messenger is done on Sunday I’m praying for the next one immediately.  Spurgeon was once asked why he was so effective, and he said it was because his church prayed for him.  Allistair Begg ended a sermon with a prayer “May we learn that prayer is the work, and preaching is just gathering the crop.”  And again, pray for one another, so that we may build each other up.  Just as Nehemiah prayed that the walls could be restored, so that his people could thrive and be protected from their enemies, so too, we pray for the rebuilding of the ministry so that we can actively and joyfully do the work of God, and that the truth will defend and protect us and our children from the lies and toxic culture of this world.  We have a vision of a thriving ministry where the Bible House is full, the Chapel is full, and the Bible Club is full, and that all of us are full of life and joy in Christ.  We learned today some elements of prayer that I hope will enrich your prayer life.  At least once a day, in your prayers give praises and honor to God.  Confess your sins and be refreshed.  And pray according to God’s word.  Nehemiah prayed boldly at the end, “Give your servant success today,” and we can pray even more boldly, because we have the name of Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God.  Draw near to God, and come to the God’s throne of grace in Jesus’ name!  Amen.

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The Lord God Moves About Your Camp

Deuteronomy 23:1-25

Key Verse: 23:14

Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

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