2020 was a hard year in many ways, and 2021 thus far has brought its own difficulties. Even our church has not been unaffected. How do we begin rebuilding? Nehemiah shows us that rebuilding begins with prayer.

Citylight Center City | January 10, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.


Nehemiah 1

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Charles Fensham

Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner

Sermon Transcript

We’re starting a new series of sermons through the book of Nehemiah this morning. Nehemiah is a book about rebuilding after hardship. We mentioned already the ways in this past week that we went through more hardship as a nation, and 2020 had plenty of its own. Even our life together as a church has been hard as the ordinary means of grace and fellowship have been disrupted and altered. How do we rebuild after hardship? Nehemiah will address this.


He was part of the nation of Israel, the people to whom God chose to reveal Himself before the coming of Christ. They had been attacked and taken into exile in Babylon, which was then been conquered by Persia. Under Persia, however, God worked in the king to start sending the Israelite people back to their former capital in Jerusalem. Nehemiah remained in Persia as cupbearer to the king, and our passage today begins with a report he gets from those who had returned to Jerusalem, only the report wasn’t so good. That’s where verse 3 comes in: He hears that the people back in Jerusalem were in great trouble and shame, and the wall of Jerusalem broken down, its gates destroyed by fire. For an ancient city, to have no wall meant that you practically weren’t a city. You were a sitting duck for surrounding nations to conquer you.


So when Nehemiah hears this, in verse 4 we read that he was distraught. He didn’t just pretend everything was ok, and neither do you have to pretend everything is ok if it isn’t. But Nehemiah had somewhere to go with his pain. Verse 4 continues: I continued fasting and praying…where? Before the God of heaven. We’re learning here, then, that Rebuilding begins with prayer, and we learn three things in this passage about how to begin rebuilding with prayer: Praise the God of the covenant, confess our unfaithfulness to the covenant, and ask God to be faithful to the covenant.


Praise the God of the covenant


Now this is interesting: We read in verse 4 that Nehemiah is weeping and mourning. Then in verse 5, the first words of his prayer are: 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. He doesn’t start with his needs; he starts with praise. That’s not an iron-clad law or something in Scripture, but it is the typical pattern of biblical prayers: Start with praise. When Jesus taught us to pray, the first thing He taught us to pray was: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. There are a few discernible reasons for this: First, when we come to prayer, we often come with a sense of our need, and that’s right and good. However, when you’re feeling your needs, especially when going through hardship, it’s easy to adopt a narrative of your life where your needs and hardship are not only true, but the only truths. The whole story is this: My life sucks.


I get it; it really can feel that way, but here’s the fact: That is never the whole story. Nehemiah heard an awful part of the story in verse 3, and he doesn’t ignore it; he grieves it. But when he turns to pray, he starts by acknowledging another part of the story. There really is a God in heaven! He really is great and awesome and keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, and it’s important for us to say such things to Him, perhaps especially when we don’t feel them, so that we don’t slip into believing the lie that our needs are the whole story. So that’s one reason to start with praise.


Another is because any time you are talking to someone, it is worth remembering to whom you are talking. Sometimes I find myself speaking unkindly toward someone else, and I have to remind myself: This person is an image of God, a brother in Christ, a partner in ministry, and so on; how much more so with God. If you jump right into needs, you are prone to forget to whom it is you are praying. It’s a simple truth, but it needs to be said: God doesn’t exist for us; we exist for Him. He is not just the supplier of our needs; He is the object of our praise. And in fact, it’s as we embrace Him in this way that we get the boldness and confidence to ask Him to meet our needs.


When we praise Him as the great and awesome God, we realize He actually has the power to do great and awesome things! When we realize He’s not just another buddy of ours that we call up to lend a hand occasionally, we’ll ask Him to do things no buddy could ever do. If your prayers feel kinda lame and perfunctory at times, could it be because you have a lame view of God in your mind? Lame god, lame prayers. But a great and awesome God? That’s a God of whom we can ask great and awesome things.


And not only is He a great and awesome God; Nehemiah addresses Him as the great and awesome God who keeps covenant. The power of God to act is of no help to us unless He has committed Himself to use His power for our good, and that’s just what God does for those with whom He is in a covenant. The concept of covenant is very important to this passage, the book of Nehemiah, and really the whole Bible. God relates to humanity by way of covenant. In a covenant, the two parties commit themselves to one another, with certain commitments specified. When God initiates a covenant with people, He is the Lord of that covenant: He sets the terms, He places the demands, and He offers a curse for disobedience, and a blessing for obedience. But at the heart of God’s covenant is this promise: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” And God is a God, as Nehemiah says, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, covenant, committed love. So Nehemiah has hope that this great and awesome God might actually help him and his people, and we will see him appeal to that later in the prayer. So rebuilding starts with prayer, and prayer starts with praise. Start your prayers with praise. Then, confess our unfaithfulness to the covenant.


Confess our unfaithfulness to the covenant


Confession is where Nehemiah goes next, and it makes sense given what he says at the end of verse 5 as he’s praising God. He says that God is a God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments. A covenant is a two-way relationship, and covenant with God is no less. It’s one in which God initiates and takes responsibility to fulfill it, but it is one that still places demands on us, to love Him and keep His commandments. And so immediately Nehemiah thinks of all the ways he and his people have not done that.


If the Holy Spirit lives in you, that’s the normal reaction. If when you hear that God keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, your heart sinks a bit, and you think, “Dang, but I don’t really do that,” you are in good company; the same thing happened to Nehemiah. It’s those who hear that and say, “Oh good, of course I love God and keep his commandments” who are in spiritually dangerous territory. So what do you do when you realize that in many ways you don’t love God and keep his commandments? You do something similar to what you do when you hear the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire: You don’t deny it, ignore it, minimize it, or rationalize it: You acknowledge it to God. We call that confession, and it’s what Nehemiah does in verses 6 and 7.


Notice the pronouns in his confession: We, I, and my. Notice also the pronouns that do not appear: You, they, he, she. Sometimes it’s important to say to someone, “You’ve done wrong” and sometimes it’s important to say, “What they did is not ok,” and sometimes it may require a lot of courage to say such things, but there’s also a danger in it. The danger is what Jesus described as judging the speck in another’s eye while not removing the log in our own. Confessing their sins can be a way of avoiding the confession of my own. We’re very good at that in America today: The culture is sexually immoral, the culture is systemically racist, people who won’t get the vaccine or wear masks are selfish, people who want the vaccine and wear masks are gullible, “those people” who stormed the capitol are terrorists. True as some of those things may be, if we say them in such a way as to exclude ourselves from the community of sinners, we’ve forgotten who we are.


Nehemiah doesn’t do that. He does confess corporate sin, but he includes himself in the corporation. He says “we.” Sometimes we do need to use the pronoun “we” when confessing sins. A sin is something “we” do if it’s something we literally did together: In the Bible, for example, there’s a man named Joseph whose 11 brothers sell him into slavery. When they repent, they say, “we” did that. “We” is also the appropriate pronoun when not all of us are personally guilty of a particular sin, but when one or a group within us has sinned, and we have accepted it. To give another biblical example, in the Corinthian church there was one man having sex with his father’s wife, but the whole church was complicit because they did not exercise church discipline on him for it. In such a case, another Corinthian church member could rightly pray, “We have committed adultery.”


So also, when you confess, you should think of the groups of which you are a part. In what ways have we not kept the commandments, statutes, and rules God commanded us? I’m a citizen of the United States, so it’s appropriate for me to confess that we have taken God’s name in vain by associating it with political causes that have nothing to do with Him and/or are actually contrary to His cause. We have exalted ourselves as a nation in pride. We have treated white Americans with partiality. We have not only tolerated, but celebrated, sexual immorality. We have worshipped money and possessions. I’ve been part of all that. I’m part of a church also; in Nehemiah’s case, the church and state were combined; today that’s different. At the beginning of last year, we realized as a church that we had not been faithfully carrying out church discipline as God commands in Scripture and began doing so. As a result, I think there are fewer sins among us that are simply being accepted, that “we” are guilty of, though each one us are still sinners. Nonetheless, as I’ve meditated on God’s commandments this week and examined our church, I think it’s fair to say that we have been worldly, with hearts set on our private interests: Our finances, our safety, our vacations, our needs, and that’s made us indifferent at times to the glory of God, and it’s made it hard for us to really lay to heart the miseries of others. We’ve also given in to fear and not been open about our allegiance to Christ with people around us. I’ve been part of all that. And we could continue such confession with other groups of which we are a part. For some, this may be the hardest type of confession to do if you take great pride in your group identity.


For others, the next sort of confession we see from Nehemiah will be the hardest: The “I” confession. I and my father’s house have sinned, Nehemiah says. For me personally, 2020 showed me how weak my love is. Under social distancing, I realized I could actually be quite content stuck at home, unengaged in the lives and needs of others, as long as my needs were taken care of. There were people I should have called earlier, and I didn’t. After the increased visibility of racial injustice, I realized how easily the needs and pain of other people slides off my radar as long as I’m not personally in need or in pain. Throughout the year, I saw how covetousness of the success of other churches and pastors I am as I saw all the things their churches were doing. I saw how little I trust the Lord with my own future and the future of this church. I saw how much I still fear people.


I have sinned. We have sinned. It’s scary to admit, right? But it is essential to rebuilding. Richard Baxter was a pastor in the 1600s, and one of the groups to which he belonged was a group of other pastors. He wrote a book called the Reformed Pastor, in which he lays out a vision for reforming the ministry from its prior corruptions. However, before pressing right on to what they need to do different, he gives significant space to confessing their past unfaithfulness. In explaining why he did this, Baxter said, “If God will help us in our future duty, he will first humble us for our past sin. He that hath not so much sense of his faults as unfeignedly to lament them, will hardly have so much more as to move him to reform them.” In other words, if you don’t feel your faults enough to confess them plainly to God, you certainly won’t feel them enough to reform them. Or as a psychologist today might put it, the only faults that can really hurt you are the ones you can’t admit. You can’t rebuild if you can’t confess. It’s another important part of the narrative: Not only have we suffered hardship, not only do we have needs, but God is great, awesome, and a covenant keeping God, and we have been unfaithful to His covenant. I have been unfaithful to His covenant.


It’s scary to admit, but Nehemiah shows us it’s possible. What enabled him to do it? What will enable us? He knew something about God that gave him hope, even as a sinner, and that can give us hope too. He knew that God’s covenant was a gracious covenant, and that within it there was provision for forgiveness of sin. So the next thing he does, is he asks God to be faithful to the covenant.


Ask God to be faithful to the covenant


The promise that Nehemiah asks God to remember is in verses 8-9: There was the promise that if they were unfaithful, God would scatter them, which He did, but then He adds this: If you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there. Nehemiah sees in this promise something greater than their present experience: That the people will not simply be in the land, but that they will dwell securely there, and serve the LORD without fear. He reminds God in verse 10 that however unfaithful his people are, they are His people. He brought them out of slavery in Egypt; He brought them now out of exile with His great power and strong hand. Therefore, he asks God to be attentive to their prayers, and specifically to give him favor with the king of Persia, who we’ll see him talk with in the next chapter, so that Nehemiah can be an instrument of rebuilding the walls in Jerusalem.


In other words, though Nehemiah has just admitted the unfaithfulness of his people and of himself, he has the boldness to ask God to hear his prayers, because though they are unfaithful, God is faithful! We appeal to God on the basis of His covenant promises, and we ask Him to be faithful to those. Nehemiah says: God, you have promised that if we turn from our sins to you, which is called “repentance,” that you will gather your people and bring them to the place you have chosen. Now here I am Lord, and though I have been unfaithful, I am turning to you, and there are others with me who fear you, and they are turning to you. Hear our prayers, give me favor with this king, bring us together once again in Jerusalem to worship you there, where you have appointed.


And do you know that we as Christians have even better reasons to pray like this, because we have a better covenant, enacted on better promises. Nehemiah ministered under the Mosaic covenant, named after Moses, whose law Nehemiah specifically mentions in verse 7. It promised that if God’s people turned to him, kept his commandments, and did them, that God would gather them again, but it always kept a threat that if they disobeyed God, they would fall under His curse again. It could not deliver assurance. Here Nehemiah says in effect, “I am turning to you,” but only Jesus Christ, born under this same covenant, could ultimately say, “I have kept your commandments, and I have done them.” He kept the commandments, statutes, and rules that God commanded His servant Moses, but on the cross, He went through great trouble and shame for us. He was broken down and destroyed, but God rebuilt Him when He rose Him from the dead and began a new covenant with His people. The promise of the new covenant is not only that He will gather us if we turn, but that He will keep us faithful to the end, where we will be gathered in a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth, and will worship Him forever without fear, never to be troubled and ashamed again. Under the New Covenant we have assurance of our inheritance through Christ. As you already sang today, He will hold us fast.


Given the events of this past week, let me just parenthetically mention that our inheritance, the place to which God will ultimately gather us is a new heavens and a new earth, not a new United States of America. We’ve been talking about covenant a lot, and it’s important to realize the United States is not a nation in covenant with God like Israel was. God’s covenant people is His church, made up of people from every nation on earth. That’s what’s so deceptive and idolatrous about Christian Nationalism, appending Jesus’ name to the cause of American nationalism, which was apparently taking place at the rally that stormed the capitol this past Wednesday. The United States, like every other nation, will one day be judged along with all the other nations, and only the kingdom of Christ will remain.


So turn to Him today and obey His commandments, because Jesus already obeyed them for you. He did them, and He died for the unfaithfulness of all who would turn. Praise Him not only as the God of power and covenant love to those who love Him and keep His commandments, but as the one who sent His Son to keep the commandments on our behalf. Confess your sins now not with a mere hope of forgiveness, but with an assurance of forgiveness, a forgiveness already accomplished on the cross. Ask God to be faithful to this covenant. Ask Him to gather His people now by saving those in this city and in the world who are lost. Ask Him to sustain and even strengthen our unity in a time when we are still scattered in many ways here on earth even as we seek to regather in a restricted manner. Ask Him to keep and increase our faithfulness, to protect us from false teaching, worldliness, and the lies of Satan, so that we persevere until the end, blameless in holiness before Him when Jesus comes with all His saints. He has promised to do this; remind Him of it. Ask Him to do it among us, and as Nehemiah did, offer yourself as an instrument in that process. Ask Him how He wants to use you to gather His people from all the earth, and then ask Him to empower you to do it. Let me pray now in this fashion.