I know I am dating myself when I say this, but like some of you here this morning, I grew up way back in the 60's! (For you younger people, I know that must sound like ancient history, somewhere back in the last century!) In those days, many young people were convinced that our generation was going to change the world! We were going to usher in a new society, where there would be no more wars, no more racism, no more poverty. Well, 50 years later, most of us I think have pretty much given up on that dream. When we look around us, it's painfully apparent that all of the evils of society, that we hoped would be eradicated are still with us, & for many, that youthful idealism has changed into a cynicism, that says nothing will ever really change.
But I want to say to you this morning, that I believe that we can still change the world we live in. Not in the way we thought a generation or two ago, by tearing down the system or by transforming society. But rather through what I believe is the greatest force for change that we have at our disposal: the power of prayer. Jesus tells us that what is impossible with man, is possible thru the power of God, unleashed thru prayer. John Wesley once said "God does nothing on the earth save in answer to believing prayer"
And in our scripture reading, it is apparent that Nehemiah believes in the power of prayer as well. As we saw last Sunday, this story begins as Nehemiah receives a report from his brother, about the plight of the people back in his home town of Jerusalem. His fellow countrymen there were suffering because the wall around the city had been destroyed, and they were defenseless against the attacks of the surrounding nations. So what was Nehemiah's response to this news? "When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven."
I don't have to tell you that today, we are living in a world that is in very desperate trouble. As we look around & see the fabric of our society unraveling: marriages disintegrating, families breaking apart, young people who have lost a sense of hope & purpose, we wonder to ourselves, what can we do to turn things around? If we want to change the world, if we want to see God bring healing to our families, to our communities, to our nation, then I believe it is imperative that we begin to take prayer more seriously than we ever have before. There is nothing that will be more effective in solving the problems that we face than concerted believing prayer.
Now I realize even as I say that, that some of you may be sitting there saying: "You've got to be kidding?" How can prayer make any real difference? Sure, it may help you to feel better, but does it really have any impact on events in the real world? Sometimes we wonder if our prayers really have any effect, if God really is listening? And we are aware that there's a mystery to prayer that none of us will ever completely grasp. And here in the text we read, we have a detailed record of just how Nehemiah prayed when he was faced with a dire situation. I believe this can serve as a good model for us as we pray for the world around us
1. Neh begins by approaching God in a time of Praise & Adoration. He prays: "Lord, you are the God of heaven, you are the great & awesome God, who keeps his cov't of love with those who love him & obey his commands" What is Nehemiah doing here? He is 1st acknowledging & praising God for who he is. As we have seen, Nehemiah had a very pressing need, a heavy burden on his heart. But he doesn't start with his need. He begins by focusing on God- on his greatness, his power, his love. That's what we did this morning, as we began our service with a time of worship & praise to God. As we sang “ And that's where we should always begin, whenever we come to God, first in worship and adoration and praise.
2. Then Nehemiah continues with a time of Confession. He acknowledges quite openly that the reason that his people are in the mess they are in, is because they have disobeyed God. But notice how he includes himself in this: "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you." When we find ourselves in a bad situation, often the 1st thing we do is try to pin the blame on someone else. Usually we can quite easily think of 3 or 4 reasons why it's not our fault that we have this problem. We blame our parents, we blame our boss, or our teachers, or society in general. It’s interesting that that's even what Adam did back in the garden, after he had sinned against God. He tries to blame Eve, his wife: "This woman that you put here with me- she's the one that gave me the apple to eat" Eve's excuse is a classic: "The serpent deceived me" (The devil made me do it!) But Nehemiah was willing to own up to his personal responsibility here. He says "Lord, not only do I want to part of the solution here. I also confess that I am part of the problem." And we must be willing to do the same thing.
And 3rdly, in his prayer, Nehemiah remembers God's promises, his faithfulness to his people in the past. When God had first brought Israel as a nation out of slavery in Egypt, he established a covenant or an agreement with them. It basically went like this: If you are faithful to me, I will bless you & prosper you as a nation. But if you refuse to obey me, then I will remove that blessing & you will be scattered to the 4 winds. And that’s exactly what happened. But, God also promised Israel, that even if they were disobedient & sent off to a foreign land, if then they repented & returned to God, He would restore them & bring them back to their homeland. God had in fact already begun to do just that, in bringing the people back to Jerusalem. But now, as Nehemiah comes to God in prayer, he remembers once again his promise, and pleads on behalf of his people, that now God would bring this promise to fulfillment, by helping the people rebuld their city.
Nehemiah understood that what needed to be done was, humanly speaking, almost impossible. Rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem would be an enormous task, one that would require incredible manpower & resources. It would have to be accomplished by a people who were living in poverty, & surrounded by hostile enemies. And here was Nehemiah, over a 1000 miles away, wondering how he could possibly begin to address this problem?
But Nehemiah began by doing the only thing he knew to do at that point. He got alone with God & he prayed. He prayed & fasted & wrestled with God for many days. And as he prayed, God began to do something amazing in Nehemiah's heart.
1st of all, He gave him a vision of the greatness & power of the God he was praying to. He saw that with God nothing is impossible. And then God began to give him a plan of how Nehemiah himself could help to make this vision a reality. We'll find out next week what that plan was. But this morning we see how it all began with Nehemiah on his knees before God in prayer.
In 2 Kings, we read how 150 years before this, the commander of the Babylonian army had come in and destroyed the city of Israel. “He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side.” (2 Kings 25:9-10) Basically the entire city was decimated. But even more tragic are the words that the prophet Ezekiel, at around the same time, spoke against the people of Jerusalem: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none." Ezek 22:30
As Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians, much of the wall around the city was destroyed & the people were left defenseless. And God uses this picture as a metaphor for the spiritual degeneration & moral decay taking place there. And in the midst of this, God looked desperately for one person who could rebuild the walls. Who would stand in the breach before God & intercede on behalf of their nation. But we hear God saying, with great sorrow & disappointment: "I found no one" If we think about it, the implications of this verse are staggering. Although God was bringing judgment on Israel, he longed to show them mercy. He says "If I could have found one person who was willing to humble themselves & plead with me to spare the people, I would have done so. It would have allowed me to show mercy. But because I found no one, I had to destroy them"
I think the application to us today is fairly obvious. If Israel was deserving of God's judgment, surely our nation is today as well. God is incredibly patient, but at some point he can no longer simply overlook rampant immorality & rebellion against him. At some point, known only to him, his judgment must & will come. But at the same time, God longs to show us his mercy & forgiveness. He longs to pour out his grace into the lives of people. He longs to awaken the hearts of people who are spiritually lost, so that they will turn back to him in repentance & faith But if these verses from Ezekiel tell us anything, they are saying that what must happen, before God will release his grace & mercy into peoples' lives, what must happen is that we too must be willing to “stand in the gap” – we must get on our knees, & intercede in prayer on behalf of our families, our neighbours, our nation, & our world. We must come before our heavenly Father, & plead with him to have mercy on those around us. Just as Abraham pleaded with God on behalf of the people of Sodom & Gomorrah. Just as Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on the people of Israel, when they rebelled against him in the wilderness. Just as Nehemiah prayed for the people of Jerusalem, we need to humbly intercede on behalf of the people of Fort Erie, the people of Canada.
So what should we be praying for when we intercede on behalf of those around us? There is no magic formula when it comes to Intercessory prayer. But let me suggest some ways that we can pray for our neighbours, our community, even our nation.
1. We can pray for Reconciliation- 2 Cor 5:18- "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation." Many of the problems that people encounter stem from relational conflicts in their lives. Whether people are estranged from God or from one another, their need is to be reconciled- back to God and to other people. We can pray that God would bring reconciliation into peoples' lives, healing in their rel'ships
2. Pray for Restoration- Psalm 147:3 "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" We can ask God to bring physical healing to those who are battling physical illness. We can also pray that God would restore to wholeness those who have been wounded emotionally, and those who are struggling with their rel’ship to God.
3. Pray for Revival. Psalm 85:6 "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?" We can pray that God will bring spiritual awakening & revival to people in our community, & in our nation. That a new hunger for God would be awakened in peoples hearts, & that many would turn in repentance & faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In it's simplest sense, intercessory prayer is really partnering with God, asking him to do what he already wants to do. It's agreeing with him, that his will might be done here on earth, even as it is in heaven. We can all come before the throne of grace, and plead for God's mercy & blessing to be poured out into the lives of people around us, people all around the world. I would encourage each of us to devote some time this week specifically to intercede on behalf of those God has laid on your heart. Believe me, it will be time well spent. As you pray, you will be amazed at what God will do, not only in their lives, but in your heart as well.