IIT UBF - University Bible Fellowship at IIT




Rebuild with God’s Vision

Date: Jul. 17, 2022

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Key Verse: Nehemiah 1:9

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.

Welcome to another rendition of the 2022 Key Verse message for our ministry. This will be the third time we will be having a message from our key verse passage this year and it is just over halfway through the year. We last heard from Mike in April, just before Easter, concerning this passage and his focus was on prayer being the foundation of rebuilding. It is wonderful thing for us to have multiple people giving messages on the same passage over the course of a year. It allows each of us to have a different view and focus on the passage that we are to hold on to over the course of the year. My focus is a bit different than Mike’s and Bob’s, but we are still here to talk about rebuilding. Now, rebuilding has many different aspects. In terms of buildings, it can require just a few changes, a complete gutting of the interior, or even a rebuild of the exterior. The Pilgrim Baptist Church building on 33rd and Indiana suffered a devastating fire in 2006 and only a handful of exterior walls were still standing. In 2020, one of the remaining walls collapsed and only two of the exterior walls remain. There has been talk of rebuilding the structure, but it would require millions of dollars and a ton of work. Not only would the work need to be completed, but there also needs to be a plan and a vision for the work, otherwise the work would be haphazard and half-hearted. Today, I want to focus on that vision for rebuilding. It is not something that is taken lightly, and Nehemiah has that vision for Jerusalem, a vision from God.

Our passage starts out, “The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa” (1) This is the beginning of the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a man who lived during the time of the Exile of Jews from the Promised Land. His name means “the Lord comforts” and the Lord used him to bring hope to his people in Jerusalem. The first seven chapters of the book are written in the first person and were probably written by him. The book was probably organized by the priest Ezra who was a contemporary of Nehemiah, who served as priest during the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. This chapter takes place in November or December in the year 445 B.C. The passage mentions that it was the twentieth year, which would mean that twentieth year of the king, who was Artaxerxes I. Nehemiah was in the citadel of Susa at this point in time, which was the royal winter residence. This leads us to know that Nehemiah worked in the royal household and, in fact, by the end of the chapter, we find out that he was the cupbearer to the king. This means that Nehemiah was extremely trusted by the king because the king’s life what in Nehemiah’s hand.

During this time a delegation arrived from Jerusalem to give news about the construction efforts. “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.” (2) Hanani was one of Nehemiah’s brothers who was among the Jews who was able to return to Jerusalem. In 586 B.C. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians who carried off most of the people and scattered them throughout the empire. Babylon fell to the Medo-Persians in 539 B.C. The next year Cyrus the Persian king allowed the first group of Israelites to return to the Promised Land under Zerubbabel. In 465 B.C. Artaxerxes began his rule and he allowed a second group to return in 458 B.C. under Ezra. It was in that second group that Hanani went to Jerusalem. The city was about 900 miles away and took three months to travel. Hanani was bringing word of the Israelite progress in restoring the city and the temple. Nehemiah really wanted to know how things were going. He probably wanted to go when his brother did, but he was unable to because of his position before the king. Nehemiah wanted to know how the people that returned were doing and how the city was. He had a great concern for his people whether they were far away or near. He wasn’t just concerned with how his own family was doing.

The response Nehemiah got was not what he had hoped for. “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.’” (3) Hanani did not have good news. The people that returned were in great trouble and disgrace. The city was in terrible disrepair with the wall torn down and the gates burned with fire. It is not entirely certain that what Hanani was referring to happened when the Babylonians destroyed the city, or someone tore down the walls and burned the gates since the exiles returned. It is probably the latter. Ezra 4:12 mentions that the walls of Jerusalem were being rebuilt and since Hanani is bringing this report, it is safe to say that the work that was done after the second batch of Jews returned to Jerusalem may have been destroyed. Furthermore, Ezra 4:21 states that Artaxerxes issued a decree to stop the work of rebuilding Jerusalem. This may have been discouraging to the Jews and a sign of disgrace for the people.

Nehemiah was heartbroken over what his brother had told him. “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (4) It was really disheartening for Nehemiah to hear that his brethren were suffering in the ways that they were. His heart went out to them. It was like hearing about the atrocities in Ukraine, the shooting in Highland Park on July 4th, or the shooting at the school in Uvalde, Texas. Innocent people were killed for no real reason, and it can break the heart and sicken you in your stomach. It can cause you to cry at the injustice in the world. Nehemiah felt the same way at the treatment of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. He was filled with sorrow and had to sit down. He wept over his people. As he says, Nehemiah then mourned, fasted, and prayed for some days. These weren’t just a couple of days. It was up to four months that Nehemiah mourned, fasted, and prayed. In the next chapter, which takes place in March or April, Nehemiah goes before the king to serve him, but he is visibly sad. The passage says that Nehemiah was never sad before the king before, so this means that he did not go before the king from the time he heard the news about Jerusalem until then. Nehemiah took four months to mourn, fast, and pray about the situation.

It was at the end of his time of mourning that we get the prayer in this passage. He begins his prayer, “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, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.” (5-6) Nehemiah’s prayer is a prayer of repentance. He is coming before God with a request to be heard. He starts out by acknowledging God. The first word is “Lord”, which is “Yahweh”, the name of God. It is the name that God refers to himself when Moses approached the burning bush. Nehemiah also refers to the Lord as the God of heaven. This was a common term for Persians to refer to their god and it seems like it became an accepted term for the Lord. He, then, acknowledges God’s greatness and his love for his people. He was giving praise to God before presenting his petition. He calls on God to hear his prayer because he has been praying day and night for his people, for God’s people.

Nehemiah, then repents before God, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (6-7) Nehemiah not only repents of his own sins, but he confesses the sins all of the Israelites committed including his own and that of his family. Nehemiah recognized that it was because of sin that his people were in this predicament. Before the exile, the Israelites kept going further and further from God. The kings of Israel and Judah were increasingly becoming depraved and selfish. They began worshipping pagan gods and even sacrificed infants to the fire. They had countless opportunities to turn from their wicked ways and return to the Lord, but that didn’t happen. When they walked away from God, they walked away from his protection and were scattered around the world. They were disobedient and because of that, the Israelites were exiled. Nehemiah recognizes that, but surprisingly, he repents of his own sin as well. Nehemiah was not alive when the Jews were exiled. He wasn’t directly a part of the reason for the exile, but he counted the sin of the people at the time as his own sin. Frequently, we don’t want to accept the blame for something that we had no hand in. We want to pass the buck to the people directly involved, but Nehemiah doesn’t do that.

Instead, he makes their sin his own and repents for it. If my kids make a mess and I ask them to clean it up, they only want to clean up the parts that they did and not a bit more. If they didn’t do it, then they don’t want to help. Nehemiah wasn’t like that. He was humble enough to stand before God and lump his own sin with those of his brethren. There are a number of people who profess to be Christian, but their lives don’t reflect our beliefs. Their lives are filled with hatred, pride, and self-righteousness. They think that they are better than others and we can want to disassociate ourselves with them, saying that they are not true Christians. The world sees us when we do that, and they scoff because those “Christians” say the same thing about others. Nehemiah doesn’t hold himself higher but acknowledges his own sin before God realizing that he is not that different from those who went astray and caused the exile. We must be humble and acknowledge our sin before God. We have the same sinful tendencies of those who are filled with hate and vitriol. It’s like when your kids do something embarrassing out in public and you just want to leave them there, but you have to bring them back home with you. We must be humble to accept the sins of our fellow Christians. We are not perfect either and we fall short in so many other ways.

In light of this, Nehemiah prays in God’s own words, “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.’” (8-9) This part of the prayer is a summary from Deuteronomy 4, where the Lord lays out his rules for faithfulness. The Lord speaks of his people’s unfaithfulness and that he would scatter them if they were to become so unfaithful. However, in those passages, they people were never to be abandoned. There is hope that if they turn back to him, he will gather them back together and restore them to the place he has chosen to dwell with them. This wasn’t just a physical place, but a place where God would be. He would be among his people, once again. God would dwell with his people.

Nehemiah’s prayer is done with God’s word and vision in mind. His prayer for the Israel to rebuild is not done in a vacuum. It is not something that Nehemiah conjured up during prayer, but it is based on God’s own word to his people. God had said what would happen if they returned to him, so Nehemiah prayed based on that word. We have been praying for rebuilding our ministry because we became isolated during the pandemic. We needed to be separate for everyone’s safety, but it led to us not being unified. We have struggled to return to a place where we once were. Not only in terms of worshipping together, but really having a community together. Something feels like it is lacking. I like how last week’s message from Joshua Hong and this one work together. I am reminded that last week we were encouraged to pray bigger, to not only pray for blessing, but to pray for God’s presence to come. We need to pray with God’s vision for not just our ministry, city, nation, and the world, but also for every individual person.

The church is made of people. Each person is a part of a greater body. We are like bricks in a wall. We are not separate, but there is mortar that holds the brick together. That mortar isn’t supposed to keep the brick separate, to space them out. The mortar is what holds the whole structure together. Also the bricks are not simply stacked in columns but interlocked. This interlocking provides more strength to the wall. We are all bricks in God’s building and we have to be together, united to be a church. Unfortunately, all too often, we can feel isolated. We are not interlocked. To be interlocked means to be in each other’s lives, but we don’t really know each other. We might share each other’s victories and even greatest struggles, but each of us have relatively minor struggles that we still need help with. We might pray to God for help, but he sends his people to help. We need to be honest about the great and the small things that we are dealing with. All too often, we want to put on a brave face and try to keep people out of our lives. It is a shame to deal with some of the things that we deal with, but to rebuild a church, we have to rebuild that lives that make it up.

On Friday, I attended the funeral for my cousin Jay. He died due to complications from cancer and chemotherapy. He was 53 years old and was only diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of June. In about a month, he was gone, but he has a 14-year-old daughter and I can’t help but wonder what is going on in her heart and mind. At the funeral, she seemed to be putting on a brave face, but I wonder if it is all just a façade. After a death in the family, it can be hard to rebuild your own life. The entire dynamic has to change, and it can be very hard to pick up the pieces, but you are not alone. We are a community that should support each other to help rebuild a life. But people have to know that you need help. We are all people who are in need. We struggle with loss, anger, depression, and addiction. We struggle with self-worth and with financial issues. We struggle with so much, but we are not alone in these struggles. We have to rebuild by rebuilding people. We have to build others up through encouragement and providing hope, especially through the gospel. Nehemiah wanted to provide hope for his people, so he started with prayer based on God’s word. He had a vision of God’s presence returning to his people.

We need to start with humility, honesty, and sincerity. Nehemiah was honest and humble in his prayer. He repented and lumped himself in with the problem and asked that the Lord be the solution. The Lord would be the one to gather the people back from wherever they were. No matter what condition they would be in, the Lord knows where they are and can bring them back. He has promised to do so, and he redeems through the blood of Christ. Jesus died to bring us back to him. Because of Jesus, there is no sin that is too great that it cannot be forgiven. There is no trouble that is too great for our Lord. If there was, he is not the Lord. However, he is the creator of all things and there is nothing too great for him. This week, NASA revealed some of the first images from the James Webb telescope. It is out there in deep space peering into things we have never seen before. Here is an image taken of the Carina Nebula. All the lights with the starburst are stars, but the dots are galaxies. The telescope is receiving light from over 13 billion light years away, meaning we are seeing the light that was sent over 13 billion years ago. Images like this show the vastness of the universe, but they are small when compared to God. He created all that. There is nothing that our God cannot do.

Nehemiah continued, ““They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (10-11) Nehemiah recognizes that it is the Lord that saves. It is the Lord that redeems and only he can do so. Only God can rebuild, but he uses us to do so. At this point in time, Nehemiah knew that his time of prayer was over, and it was now a time to act. Nehemiah needed to speak to the king about this, but that was dangerous. It was Artaxerxes that issued the decree to stop rebuilding Jerusalem. If Nehemiah were to say something about it, the king could take it at an insult and Nehemiah could be killed for his words. Nehemiah essentially wants the king to admit he was wrong and to allow the city to be rebuilt. It was a dangerous game, but Nehemiah prayed for God’s favor and called the king “this man”. Even though, Artaxerxes was king, he was just a man who was under the Lord’s rule. Ultimately, the Lord was in charge and not Artaxerxes.

Likewise, the task before us to rebuild can seem daunting, but we must pray for God’s favor on us and be bold to pray for his presence to return and be among us. We must pray for God to dwell among us once again, not just corporately, but in each of our lives. We will be a stronger church when we are in each other’s lives. Now, I don’t mean like the busybodies of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, but with sincerity and humility. We have to have a heart for each other. We need to celebrate each other’s victories and mourn each other’s losses. Your struggles should be my struggles and mine should be yours. I feel so overwhelmed at times because there is so much to do, but I am tired and can only do so much. It affects my mood and my relationships. I get mean and snappy, but I don’t want to be that way. I get caught up in what needs to be done, and there is so much of it, that everything else falls to the wayside. It is not a huge thing, it is not a death or a tremendous loss, but I struggle with it. We each have a struggle that we deal with. It might not be major, but it is still there. In order to rebuild, we need to acknowledge those struggles and help each other through them. We have to be honest about our struggles. We need to be there for each other. We need to pray for God’s presence in each of our lives, to give us strength and peace through the hard times. We need to repent of our sins and stand before our Lord with a sincere desire to come together to serve him and love him. It is not about us but about each other. We are called to love God and love each other. We have to do both, only then can there be rebuilding.

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