What would you do if you were inside a shopping mall, and the five story building collapsed around you? Hovering in the upper 80’s at the beginning of November 2012, most of citizens of Accra, a city on the coast of Ghana, were trying stay reasonably cool at the end of their hot and dry season. The coastal breezes can be felt in some parts of the town on the more balmy days, but the dry season is always tough on urban African society – and that November day was no different. Early that Wednesday morning, dozens of workers filed into the nine month old mall building to begin another long day of work. Shops were just opening on some levels, but the large home center was already up and running. Witnesses say there were a few creaks in the building, and some loud popping sounds, just before the whole mall tumbled down around them. Nine people were killed instantly – crushed under the weight of reinforcing bar, steel beams and concret. Dozens more were trapped for days – all because of a faulty foundation.
At the bottom of every building you enter is the foundation. If your house was built properly, you won’t see much of it – but that doesn’t make it an unimportant part of your house. In fact, few parts are less desirable to look at, but nothing can claim greater importance. A proper foundation is critical to a healthy building. The more substantial the building, the deeper and more elaborate the foundation that must be laid beneath it. I mention this architectural truth for a purpose…
For many of us, we will live throughout our lives in buildings built by others, and inhabited both before and after us by others. No building will carry our name for very long. No one will pass some structure and recall us within a few years after our passing. “Our home” will become the home of another family – and life will go on. Yet, we have the opportunity to build something that lasts – even if it is not like the structure of a home or mall. We each have the opportunity to build and intentional legacy – a ”life statement” about what we believe is important – and leave that behind, long after we are gone. In the negative sense, our national debt is doing leaving a legacy. We are letting our children know – long after we are gone – that we valued our comforts and advances more than their financial soundness. That is one aspect of bequest – but what I want address is much more the positive side of legacy in the next few moments…
Today, we are going to begin our journey through a book about building. Nehemiah, the author from which the book gets its title, is well known for building the walls around Jerusalem during a time when the vulnerability of his people was acutely felt – but that accomplishment wasn’t what his ancient journal was primarily about. The book was actually more a testament to building an enduring legacy while facing conflicts in every direction. The unsurprising part of the book is the first lesson – which is about the FOUNDATION of an enduring legacy. Where do you start to build? You start by laying a foundation – and it cannot and must not be haphazard. If we look closely, we will see an important truth…
Key Principle: The foundation of an enduring legacy is a God-placed burden to which we appropriately respond.
Let me start with a presupposition: the work of regaining the lost world belongs to God – not simply His church. The battle of the ages belongs to the Lord. Every step in that battle was planned by Him, and He calls His people, NOT TO MAKE THE PLAN, but to follow His designated path to accomplish His work. God alone knows the specific accomplishments to which we have been called – and He alone provided the talents, abilities, gifts and instruction to His called ones. The work is the Lord’s – not ours. Our lives are to follow His leading – or they will not produce what their potential.
Let’s drop our eyes into a story. It began hundreds of years before the place we enter it. It began with a single king that was told to follow God. That king passed the scepter in death to another, and another and another – but the kings lived the part of the rebel. God sent them prophets to warn them to return to Him – but they ignored them. Such is the norm in a rebellious world. One day, God directed a pagan power to take away the kingdom of His people, and even allowed that power to reduce the city where He set His name for all generations to ruin. His temple lay dormant and broken down.
A generation passed, and then a second – as God directed the powerful players of the earth and began a return and restoration of His city, and a slow recovery of His Temple. The people were easily distracted and began attending to their individual desires instead of their collective duties – something else that has been common since the Garden of Eden’s plague was released. Nearly a century after the first wave of the return, God again began stirring in the heart of a worker. This is his story…
Nehemiah 1:1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, [in] the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped [and] had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.”
Can you see it? God began the stir from Heaven’s throne, and it churned up Nehemiah’s heart. It is true that discontent is the first step toward change. It is also true that most of God’s greatest movements started in the heart of a simple servant who had no idea of where the churning inside would lead them.
Let me ask a question of every believer willing to listen: “How do you know if God is calling you to do something for Him?”
Let me suggest from my study of His Word that sometimes God placed a burden in the heart of a believer to press them to seek Him about the “next step”. They weren’t supposed to see the outcome – only take the next step of obedience. Let me back up for a second, because we can easily get ahead of ourselves. Before we do, let’s look at some of the conditions that we must recognize before we identify a burden from God:
Discerning a God-placed burden
There are three marks in Nehemiah 1 that we should not overlook on our way to identifying the nudging of God to action in the life of Nehemiah:
1: Recognize that some of your burden became yours before you were aware of it.
The notes simply begin like this: “Nehemiah’s journal”: Nehemiah 1:1 “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.”
Unlike our modern world, where we choose names for our children based on either our family history of what sounds neat to us at the time – Hebrew history as recorded in the Bible often showed character statements and memory markers to the story based on the name left behind in the narrative.
• Who could mistake the term “Re-ut” as friend in the derivation of the story of Ruth?
• Who cannot see the slight of hand character involved in Jacob, whose very name meant “heel-catcher or trickster”?
• Who is unable to see God’s recognition of calling Abram (exalted father) to an even greater promise as he was renamed Abraham (Father of nations)?
Sometimes the story is telegraphed in the names – and we shouldn’t skip that clue. Nehemiah means “God is my consolation or Yahweh comforts”, cp. Moses in Ps. 90:1. Hachaliah means “God is hidden or wait for Yahweh”. By names, we could posit the idea the narrative is already suggesting that a hidden “new work” by God was about to break forth and give comfort to God’s people – and because we have the rest of the thirteen chapters, we know that is true!
Let’s remember that God stages the timing of His revelation. Though fathers may not see how God will work, they may be raising the son that will become the leader that will follow God and be the answer. Wise leaders get their consolation from God’s Sovereign plan – even when the plan is currently hidden. (1:1a).
This is the reason some of the greatest fears of the future should be met by determination to raise a better generation ahead. If we are truly concerned about what our country is becoming, we must stop grousing and start training. We must INVOLVE OURSELVES not simply in aggravated protest over the state of moral decline – but rather in the Sunday School classroom. We will get what we raise. If we are busy indulging ourselves at the expense of the coming generation, we must silence our surprise when they don’t follow our beliefs. We will reap what we sow, just as we already are – and that is part of the problem.
Here is the truth: You are part of God’s plan. If you know Jesus, you are part of the team that must commit to following God’s direction – and sometimes that starts with a stirring inside. If you are churned up about the future generation – do something about it. Remember, God is at work in you to will and to do of His good pleasure (cp. Phil. 2). Are you stirred because God is directing you to pray and work toward the solution? It may have begun before you even knew what it was, and you may be called to do more than you can even imagine!
2: Prepare your heart for a time when opportunity knocks:
There is a second condition we should also recognize if we are to discern God’s tugging on our heart. Remember, Nehemiah didn’t know ahead of time the opportunity would present itself to be any part of the solution. Nehemiah wasn’t even sure what the problem was– but when the time came he showed where his heart was – first, with his people and then, with God’s city.
The questioning showed what Nehemiah was concerned about before the men arrived.
Nehemiah 1:1b “…Now it happened in the month Chislev, [in] the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped [and] had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem.
Don’t reverse the order here, and don’t ignore it either. Some of us are deeply worried about the work of God in our nation. That is not wrong, and it is something we are constantly invited to pray concerning. At the same time, we cannot be worried about the NATION before we are worried about PEOPLE. In the case of Nehemiah, he asked about the Jewish people that were not a part of his view – he had never seen them before. Stuck in Babylon serving a pagan king, he had no real knowledge of the plight of those in the land allotted to Israel by God.
Don’t get lost in the detail. Remember that Nehemiah had a heart for people before he expressed a heart for buildings. He was remembered, after these thirteen chapters were embedded into the Bible’s record, as a builder of WALLS – but that wasn’t at the center of his heart – people were first – and they should be with us as well!
Nehemiah got a burden from God because he had a right heart toward God, and a right priority for people BEFORE he knew anything specific about the call that came with his burden – and that cannot be overlooked. Are you and I working at keeping our hearts rooted in God’s love for people? If not, outreach will not be about their need of a Savior, but about our need for validation. If we aren’t growing sensitivity to the things of God’s Spirit, we won’t know if a burden is truly from His direction.
When Charles Dickens wrote of Jacob Marley’s ghost visiting stingy old mister Scrooge, the specter asked Scrooge why he didn’t believe his own senses as to the truth of the encounter. Marley’s ghost asked, “Why do you doubt your senses?” Scrooge scoffed:”…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Believers that don’t prepare their heart to encounter God are like Scrooge before Marley – unsure when they begin to sense a burden if it is anything more than bad digestion!
3: Be ready for the burden to break your heart (so that God can invite you into the problem):
Nobody wants a heart break, but many of us need the calloused cover severed on our heart to be able to feel God’s nudge to action. The journal continued:
Nehemiah 1:3 They said to me, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” 4 When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
God delivered to Nehemiah’s ears the piercing sounds of distress and shame. Who can mistake them? The great people of God were being trampled underfoot of pagans, and living in squalor. Listen to the words: “great distress”, “reproach”, “broken down”, “burned with fire”. Nehemiah was a victim of his own question.
He sat horrified by the late night pictures of the distended stomachs of listless children and flies swarming in filthy streets that one can see if they stay up after midnight and watch infomercials about the poor nations.
Nehemiah felt attached to the problem as soon as he heard about the people. He heard because he ASKED to hear about them. Direction comes from engaging the problems of life, not from retreat. People with a heart to do God’s work don’t RUN from the world, afraid to be stained by it. They gain strength and readiness, and wait for God to signal their role.
Here is a truth: You cannot fight what you cannot identify. At the same time, if Nehemiah hadn’t set a pattern of life that took the pain to the Lord – he would have been VICTIMIZED by the troubles he heard. Don’t miss that, because it seems to be lacking in our current day – even among believers. We are not called to ignore our times. We are not supposed to hide from the reality of the slide going on around us. We are not to pretend it doesn’t affect our families and our lives. We are called to be WOUNDED – but we must know where we can take the wound when it overwhelms us with pain.
We are called to isolate the issues and take all of them to God! If we search for a way to present the problem to the Lord, God may give an answer to us – or even more – He may choose to being to answer the problem through us! It is great to get an answer to prayer. It is even greater to BE the answer to that prayer – when God is directing it!
Responses to a God-placed burden
If God directs, if He burdens, if I feel His Divine tug about some need or issue – what am I supposed to DO about that? Look at verse 5-11, because that is the rest of this lesson! God made clear the conditions of RECEIVING a burden from Him, but He gave the BULK of the lesson to the RESPONSE to receiving such a burden.
Before we explore our correct response, let’s make sure we are all defining the burden in the same way. “A burden from God is a deep piercing of our spirit over a need that we feel personally attached to.” We may not know at the time WHY we feel as we do, but we will surely feel it.
Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven..” This wasn’t the momentary brush of a sad story. It wasn’t the end of some sad Saturday afternoon matinee. This was a profound state of pain – a mixture of conviction, shame, guilt, sadness and sorrow.
Don’t worry, I am not going all emotionally “SPOOKY” ON YOU. Feelings were made by God, and if kept in check and emotions are held in the grasp of our control – they can be an ally in our journey. Like our taste buds – our emotional structure was given to us as part of the JOY of life. God didn’t just give us food, He gave us TASTE. Taste buds are PROOF that God didn’t only want us to survive, but to enjoy the journey! We have preferences, and that is fine. At the same time, we must discipline our body and our emotions. Paul made that clear in 1 Corinthians 9:27 when he wrote: “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” While in the grasp of your control, you must not ignore what your emotional life – because sometimes God uses it to pull you along.
Responses from my knees
Nehemiah heard of the plight of Jerusalem’s Jews, and it was time to take action. Don’t make the subtle mental mistake that the action began in chapter two with seeking an audience before the king – that isn’t true. Our modern mindset rushes to the political, the economic and the physical answer of all the symptoms of the plight of any broken people. That is good social science, but not Biblical thinking. That simply isn’t the place to begin – an audience with the king’s King is! Before seeking a physical solution to the broken Jews of Israel, Nehemiah had to seek a spiritual place to put his pain, his wearied heart, and his emerging desire to participate in God’s plan. This is a missing step in far too many ministry ventures. The prayer isn’t the preamble to action – the prayer is the necessary beginning of action. Without it, Nehemiah wasn’t ready for God’s next move in his life – and we aren’t either.
First, we need to seek God – not just an answer!
Nehemiah 1:5 I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, …
Just as Jesus in the Disciple’s Prayer – where He taught His men to seek God’s face (as in: “Our Father Who art in Heaven”) – so Nehemiah began by acknowledging God’s Person and Place. Prayer isn’t just about the problem, and it isn’t just about the solution – it is about honoring the Master of the plan. God knows what is happening, and God burdened Nehemiah so that he knew what was happening. What God wanted, and what He always wants, is for us to place ourselves in His care and under His control. Make no mistake, we are not His equal, and we will not change the outcome of the plan – but we will withdraw ourselves from the blessing of participation in it.
I frankly have been wearied in recent days by the passive comments of believing friends. It is not God’s job to make me walk past the buffet table and discipline my intake. He may convict, but I must respond. It is not the job of the Spirit to keep me acting rightly – that is my job, and your job in your own life. We must recognize and cherish the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit without for a moment placing our responsibilities on Him. Prayer is RIGHT, not because you will get what you ask for, but because you will immediately get WHAT YOU NEED – an absolute reminder that we are not in charge – God is.
I have loved the phrase in Scripture used of Samuel the Prophet and Zecharias in Luke, as well as many others… “He ministered to the Lord..” This is not a “did his due diligence in prayer” phrase – but a warm phrase of rich companionship, an expression of deliberately bringing God certain delight and joy! Can we view prayer that way today? We can if we will seek HIS FACE more than OUR ANSWER. The prize for the prayer warrior is the compassionate gaze of the Master – not the lightened burden. He is the greatest prize of all – everything else is less. May we seek the Father before we seek the answer.
Second, we must place our confidence in God’s ability to meet any need.
Nehemiah 1:5b “…the great and awesome God…”
Jesus told His followers that AFTER the opened their prayer with the Person and place of God, they needed to acknowledge the PERFECTION of God (as in “Hallowed be thy name”). The idea was the same – God is unlike anyone we have ever known. There is no problem too great for Him to handle. There is no pain too sore for Him to soothe. There is no panic to the Author of all Creation! He is God, the Master, the One in Whom all things consist.
God will not be comprehended by the minds of men – for He cannot be reduced to the simplicity of our greatest and most intricate thought. We must recognize that in the mighty battle for CONTROL of all things – there is no mind we have ever heard from, no pundit with expertise so capable that is able to challenge God’s hold on the plan of all things. As Nehemiah declared long ago: “We serve a great and awesome God!”
It is time for the people of God to take the power of God seriously. We moan about so much it probably makes the angels of Heaven blush. We must recognize that this is a war, and our God is tolerating His enemy until He decides to finish him. We must stop posing for pictures in our uniforms and drop to our knees to get into the battle.
Study the history of military men, and contrast the successful from the defeated… General Custer dressed to impress, while General Grant dressed for work. General Custer wanted to be noticed. General Grant wanted to win. I wonder when we got the idea that this battle wasn’t going to produce serious and painful casualties? Where ever that teaching comes from, the sun is setting on such silliness. God grant that is comes swiftly.
Yet, while we soberly engage on our knees, let us not do so with some dualist mind that the problems are equal to God – they simply are NOT. This is over when the Father says it is over – not before and not after.
Third, we need to rehearse aloud God’s Program
Do you recall what Jesus told His Disciples? He moved from God’s perfections to the simple phrase “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”. Jesus told His followers that they should acknowledge their hunger for God’s program to unfold. Nehemiah said it this way:
Nehemiah 1:5b “…who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments,
What was Nehemiah referring to? He was referring to the Torah description by Moses of God Himself. He was making clear that God pre-stated His plan and program for His people. He would not overlook sin, but He would also not overlook obedience. He would bless them if they humbled themselves… and this Nehemiah said with tears in his eyes, palms up and knees down. Arrogance before God gets nothing from His hand. Pride warrants only the delivery of destruction. Take heed to the arrogant voices, even among brothers today. Drop to your knees and ask God what HIS PROGRAM is for our town, our county, our nation – and then rise with the understanding that the plan is not mine to make, but the revealed path is mine to follow.
• If God wants to bring about a revival in this land, evil has not grown to such a portion that He should be unable to do it.
• If God desires to win the angriest agnostic heart, and woo that one close to the Savior, they are not beyond His powerful reach.
The issue isn’t whether God is able – it is whether it is God’s program to do so. If it is, we celebrate the revival. If it is not, we celebrate the Master of the perfect plan.
Fourth, we need to present our actual petition.
Jesus applied this in His prayer lesson by the simple phrase: “Give us this day our daily bread”. Nehemiah presented it this way:
Nehemiah 1:6 “…let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You.”
Don’t be afraid to ASK GOD for something. Humility doesn’t require becoming mute. We have what we perceive to be real needs. Our Father knows what we have need of – because Jesus said that. At the same time, He wants to hear our petition. He likes our voices – but it is more than that – He knows it is GOOD for us to form them and understand what we are asking for. In His earth ministry, Jesus said in places like Mark 10:51 (Jesus to Bartimeus): “What do you want me to do?”).
When we ask God to do something, we reveal out loud that we are invested in the issue. If you doubt me – put this to the test. Take a person that grates on your nerves at work. Begin to pray for them every morning before work by name. Ask God to give you a heart for them, and watch what happens. You will change – I know you will!
Don’t forget that Nehemiah’s prayer wasn’t a momentary JAB at God… it was continuous prayer – “day and night”. Look through the Word and compare that to other places like Mark 11:24, where is reminds that Jesus was passing the fig tree that was withered, Jesus said, “As you continually pray for things, keep on believing they will be..”). Most of the time, effective prayer isn’t a punch, it is a twelve round bout.
Fifth, don’t forget our constant need to request pardon.
Jesus taught the Disciples to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:9). Nehemiah sought pardon this way:
Nehemiah 1:6b”…I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 “We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.
Nehemiah dropped to his knees and humbly acknowledged the sin of his people. Requesting pardon for my nation reminds me that I am one of them. I may not make every wrong decision another does, but I have honestly been given much more than most ever were.
This is a beautiful part of God’s call to pray in a burden. Here is where I get cut down to proper size. Here is where I recall that I am a sinner with the rest of my tribe. How quickly I can sound like I am not! How subtly the pride swells from making choices that offer blessing and then sliding into the false belief that I earned their reward! Maybe no other believer feels this, but I say openly and honestly that I am prone to believe that I have earned much when I have, in fact, hindered more than I have helped, and insulted more than I have loved. May God show truth through such flawed vessels! May He not give me what I deserve in any area of my life, but rather continue His kindness and grant mercy!
Sixth, I have the privilege as a son to remind God of His Promises.
The position of humility must be thorough, but it also must not cause me to think that I am called to constantly grovel before my Father. That is not the case at all. God has made promises to us, and He will stand up to the test of delivery on each one!
Jesus asked of the Father to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. Nehemiah turned the focus of the prayer back to the declared Word of God:
Nehemiah 1:8 “Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but [if] you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ 10 “They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.
Notice that Nehemiah was NOT asking God to send people back to Israel – they were already there for more than two generations. He was asking God to show His glory again in His people, and to restore their central consciousness and worship.
The sad state of the people weighed on his heart, and he was certain that even those within the land were not experiencing the restoration that was envisioned by the decree of Cyrus long before. His intent wasn’t to kick against God, but rather to speak God’s Word out loud and allow God to show the truth of that Word.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever said to the Lord something like: “Lord, I am not asking for something you did not promise. I am asking you for this because it is exactly what your Word says you desire?” I have done this many times with those who were under conviction to receive the Savior. I will submit their names to the Father, and ask for the Spirit to stand in their path. There are several youths that grew up in our midst that have filed out these doors countless times – a few that are living open lives of rebellion. I regularly ask God to keep people in their lives that will echo the Words they know deep inside are true. I pray God will make them constantly uncomfortable with ungodly choices, and pull their lives apart – but I also ask for mercy and gentleness.
Finally, we must relinquish ourselves to His purpose.
Jesus ended His lesson on prayer with “for Thine is the Kingdom and the power and glory forever”. Nehemiah ended his with a more specific request that God use his life as He recognized the leading hand of the Almighty:
Nehemiah 1:11 “O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.” Now I was the cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah presented himself before God before he presented himself to the king. He stuck to his prayer and didn’t give up. The prayer forced him to wait on the Lord. It helped him clarify the request. It helped him gain confidence and quieted his heart. It pricked his conscience and humbled him, as this prayer reminds:
When George Washington was about 20 years old he wrote this in his prayer journal: “O most Glorious God, in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving father, I acknowledge and confess my guilt, in the weak and imperfect performance of the duties of this day. I have called on thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sin and stand in need of pardon. I have heard thy holy word, but with such deadness of spirit that I have been an unprofitable and forgetful hearer, so that, O Lord, tho’ I have done thy work, yet it hath been so negligently that I may rather expect a curse than a blessing from thee.” [George Washington’s Prayer Journal From William J. Johnson George Washington, the Christian (New York: The Abingdon Press, New York & Cincinnati, 1919), pp. 24-35. From a sermon by David Scudder, Prayer is Seeking Our Father, 9/11/2011]
I suspect that some of you are wondering why God puts His people in the soup and turns on the heat, if He truly loves them. It is a fair question. The truth is that we don’t really believe we need Him all that much when things go well. Let me close with an illustration:
“Three ministers were talking about prayer in general and the appropriate and effective positions for prayer. As they were talking, a telephone repairman was working on the phone system in the background. One minister shared that he felt the key was in the hands. He always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of symbolic worship. The second suggested that real prayer was conducted on your knees. The third suggested that they both had it wrong–the only position worth its salt was to pray while stretched out flat on your face. By this time the phone man couldn’t stay out of the conversation any longer. He interjected, “I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground.“ (Pastor David Yarborough).
Our needs remind us that we are not in charge – but we know Who is. God grants us pain, burden and trouble to help us become what we must…and in our weakness He lays a foundation for our lives…