That moment, on Sept 11, 2001, has been indelibly etched in our memories, and you have probably seen those pictures of destruction many, many times. This is what that same view looks like today almost 14 years later. This is the new World Trade Center, built right beside the site of the original twin towers, it’s now the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. You may have seen in the news, that the new observation deck, 100 stories above the ground, just opened to the public about a week ago. And as I look at these pictures, it makes me think of another great reconstruction project, which takes place in the book we are starting to read this morning:
Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by an invading enemy many years earlier. Besides being the story of an ambitious building project, I think the book of Nehemiah serves us kind of a metaphor for what God wants to do in our lives as well. Because as we walk through the journey of life, through all of the experiences, the pain & the heartache that we go through, eventually we are going to discover that there are some broken walls, some broken places of hurt, disappointment, and grief in our lives. Sometimes those broken places are a result of broken relationships. Maybe we have felt rejection or estrangement from our parents, our children, our spouses. Maybe we have felt that we never quite measured up or were good enough. Maybe we have made mistakes in our lives that we still feel like we’re paying for years later. Whatever the reason, I think it would be fair to say that we all have broken places inside of us that are in need of healing and repair. And that’s what God wants to do, he wants to heal the broken places of our lives. That’s why we’re entitling this series: “Rebuilding the Broken places.”
Even though Nehemiah is a relatively short book, I think it has some important things to teach us:1. It is the story of a remarkable man of faith, who, in response to the call of God in his life, faced the challenge of a task, that humanly speaking was next to impossible. Yet Nehemiah, thru faith & prayer & determination, rose to that challenge, & saw God do an amazing work. Here in this book we find laid out for us some important principles of faith & leadership that are instructive for all of us, no matter what it is that God is calling us to do.2. But it is also the story of a broken nation, a people who had gone through a time of heartbreaking failure and disaster, & yet were given a second chance from God. We see in this book, how God brought the nation of Israel back from exile & disgrace, & even more importantly, led them into a time of great revival & spiritual reawakening. And this is certainly very relevant to us today, when we also live in a country that is in great need of just that kind of spiritual revival.
But before we begin the actual story of Nehemiah, perhaps it would be helpful to give you some of the background leading up to this book. The high point of Israel's history of course, had been during the reign of King David & his son, Solomon, who built Israel into a great empire. That glory, however, was very short-lived because immediately after Solomon's death, the nation of Israel was split up into the Northern & Southern kingdoms. Under a whole succession of corrupt & immoral kings, Israel began to self-destruct as the people moved further & further away from God. The last few weeks in my own personal Bible reading, I have been revisiting that part of Israel’s history that we find in 1 & 2 Kings. And let me tell you it’s a very depressing story. We see how the country was overrun by a series of invading armies. First, the Assyrians obliterated the Northern kingdom in 722 BC. The southern kingdom of Judah managed to hang on for another 100 yrs or so, but eventually they too were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonian Empire, & he took many of the Israelites captive, & carried them off into exile to Babylon for a period of 70 years. But during that time, Babylon in turn was defeated by Cyrus, the king of Persia, & eventually Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Israelites living in Babylon to go back home to Jerusalem. When the first group of them returned, however, they found that their beloved city was lying in ruins, & they had to rebuild their homes, & the temple which had also been destroyed. (This is the theme of the book of Ezra, which comes just before Nehemiah) And when we finally get to the book of Nehemiah, it is the year 446 BC, almost a hundred years after the people had begun to return back to Jerusalem. This is really the final chapter of Israel’s history that we find recorded for us in the OT.
Now as the book opens, Nehemiah is living in the city of Susa, the capital of the Persian empire, & he is the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. This may not sound like that big a deal, but in the ancient world, the king's cupbearer often held a position of great influence. He was responsible for tasting all of the king's food & drink, to make sure no one was trying to poison him. He had to be someone that the king trusted implicitly. Having this kind of access to the court, it was not unusual for the cupbearer to become a close confidant, & counsellor to the king. And we see as we read on, that Nehemiah had just this kind of rel'ship to King Artaxerxes, which will be instrumental in the events that are about to unfold. What sets things in motion here is that Nehemiah receives a visit from his brother & some other men who were living in Jerusalem at the time. Nehemiah, naturally, is anxious to know what is happening back in his homeland. But he gets some bad news: They tell him that the people who had come back to Judah are going through a very tough time. Primarily because the walls around the city are still in ruins. "The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire." Now in our modern urban world, we're not used to living inside of walled cities, but in those days the wall around a city was vital for the defense & protection of the people. Without that wall, the people of Jerusalem were very vulnerable to looting raids & attacks from their surrounding neighbours, who, not surprisingly, were pretty hostile to these Jews, who now have returned to reclaim their homeland.
So what was Nehemiah's response to this news? Well, v4 says it all: "When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven." When you think about it, this brief statement tells us a great deal about Nehemiah both as a man & a leader1. He had a heart of love & concern for his people. Being in a position of considerable power & wealth, Nehemiah could have easily forgotten all about his brothers & sisters back in Jerusalem. He could have said to himself: "Here I am serving the king himself in the capital of the world! I've got an important position here! I'm too busy to be concerned about people a 1000 miles away in Jerusalem." Or he could have thought to himself: "What's the matter with these people! Why can't they get their act together! They've been back in Jerusalem for almost a 100 years now. They need to solve their own problems. Why can't they fix the wall themselves!" But that wasn't Nehemiah's reaction. Instead, it says, he sat down & he wept for the plight of his people.
Let's stop & ask ourselves a personal question this morning: When was the last time you & I looked at the plight of our neighbours, our city, our country, our young people & wept with compassion & concern for them? When we see all of the broken lives, the broken homes, the people around us who are hurting, do we sit down & weep for them, or maybe do we think inside: "Why can't they get their act together?" And it's easy for us to become hardened sometimes to the needs we see around us. But I think of Jesus, as he approached Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, & when he saw the city, he wept over it, because he knew that one day it would be destroyed because the people had refused to accept him.
But Nehemiah did more than just weep for his brothers & sisters in Jerusalem. He writes: "For some days, I mourned & fasted & prayed before the God of heaven" And here we see that Nehemiah not only had a heart for the people, but he also had a real heart for God. When you put those two things together, you have a man or woman who can be used by God. When we encounter a problem or an obstacle in our lives, often our first reaction is to want to get in there and get busy to try to remedy the situation. As we discover later, Nehemiah is a very take-charge kind of person. He already had considerable influence, & he might easily have wanted to start to put things into motion, to implement a plan to deal with the problem. And eventually that's exactly what he will do. But that wasn't where he started. The first thing he did was to fast & pray day & night for a considerable period of time. Rather than trying to figure it out himself, he took the situation to God on his knees in prayer. And we will find that this is a pattern that Nehemiah follows all thru this book
Next Sunday we’re going to look in more detail at how Nehemiah prayed about this situation, but this morning, I want to begin by asking you this question: “Where are the broken places in your life right now?” Maybe there are parts of your life that lie in ruins, because of neglect, or because of tragedy or misfortune, or maybe even because of sin in your life. If that is the case, I can assure you that God wants to help you begin to put the broken pieces of your life back together But to do that you need to begin where Nehemiah began. By coming to the Lord in prayer. Saying “Lord, I know that there are broken places in my life. I need you to come into my life and begin the process of healing and restoration and rebuilding” Maybe that seems impossible to you right now. But I want you to know that you are coming to a God who specializes in doing the impossible. And so as we go to our communion time this morning, why not use this moment, as an opportunity to bring those broken places in your life to the Lord. That he would begin a process of healing and rebuilding and restoration in your life.