For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that who ever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life
Let us pray:
Hide me behind your cross, Lord Jesus. Articulate the Father’s heart through my voice and let the Holy Spirit breathe new life to us, opening our ears to hear the message of God. Amen
When I was eight years old, I attempted to write in a diary every day. I got the diary for Christmas, in my stocking. I LOVED it. And for the first two weeks, every day I wrote something – Dear Diary, today was great! Love, Jennifer. And then one day, I got busy and I stopped writing. To this day, every time I have tried to journal, I can only do it for a season and then I stop.
The reason I have always wanted to journal faithfully is because when I read the Diary of Anne Frank in 3rd grade, I wanted to do what she did – leave what I was thinking and feeling for those who might want to understand my experience later.
The book of Nehemiah is an example of that kind of writing in scripture. The book is essentially his journal of being in exile, finding out that his home country was in shambles and needed help, and then going, by God’s help to take care of those things.
In Nehemiah’s journal we see over and over the same thing that we read here in the first chapter – everything that occurs happens in this same sequence: a situation, Nehemiah prays, Nehemiah acts.
Here he fasts and prays, next the king notices him and before he speaks to the king, he prays. Then he travels to Jerusalem and prays before he talks to the people there. He faces opposition – he prays. He gets offers of support – he prays. People are in need – Nehemiah prays. Throughout Nehemiah’s journal, what we call the book of Nehemiah, the same order – something happens, Nehemiah prays about it, and then Nehemiah acts.
The reactions that Nehemiah has throughout the book are set up through this very first moment – when Nehemiah hears of Jerusalem’s issues, he weeps, then he mourns, fasts, and prays. He is seeking God’s face before he does anything else. He is waiting to hear from heaven before he moves forward. He starts by fasting – taking attention from his very needs to turn everything he has to God. Then he prays, and if we take the prayer he has written in his journal as a template, his order of praying is pretty helpful, even to us:
He starts with praise. I was at a conference this past week for several days and the host lead every morning with a devotional. His premise was gratitude. He talked about finding ways, every single day, to be grateful to God for something. Even when things look bad. Even when things are hard. Even when it seems as though nothing can or will work out the way it needs to or should. Nehemiah is heartbroken and sees no way to fix the situation – but he praises God for who God is and for God’s faithfulness:
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
What if we expressed gratitude even in the hardest moments? What if we remembered God’s faithfulness even when it seemed as though God wasn’t being faithful? When we express our gratitude even in our misery, it changes us. We begin to see even a little bit of hope, because we can find all of God in grateful expression.
Next, Nehemiah moves to confession. Nehemiah recognizes that the gulf between what is happening and what he would like to see happen has opened because of the faithlessness of the follower. The sins of the people have made it impossible for them to hear God’s voice, to follow God’s way, and to be faithful to the covenant that God set up to protect them. Nehemiah confesses that to God and admits that whatever sins they have done, have all been sins against God first and foremost. Nehemiah seems like a pretty good guy. He’s committed to God. He’s faithful in prayer. But he recognizes his own limitations and weaknesses and calls them out to God as a confession of his own human vulnerability.
God asks us to recognize our sinfulness in the same way. We are asked to confess and repent when we miss the mark that God has set up for us. We are blessed, as Christians, to have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us recognize our sinfulness and to desire more than to live in our sins. But every week as part of our prayer for communion, we confess our inability to do what God has called us to and our lapses in that place. We confess that we do not love God enough or our neighbors enough. It is when we confess that we become vulnerable. That we recognize our limits and God’s limitlessness and the ways in which we cannot measure up – short of the grace of God that pours out on us through confession and repentance. God’s grace is made perfect in our weaknesses, the scripture tells us. And it is through our confession that we recognize God’s perfect grace as the power we need.
The last thing Nehemiah does in his prayer is petition. He asks God to give him favor in the presence of the king he serves. He recognizes God’s power in the situation and even though he is not sure what God will do – he asks God to give him success and favor. Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the king, so he is in the king’s presence on a regular basis, but he is not at liberty to simply speak his mind or ask for things from the king of Persia. (quick aside: we too would not be able to simply ask for things from God if God hadn’t made a way for us to approach the throne through Jesus. We still approach the throne of God with awe and humility, but we also go with boldness because Jesus made that possible for us) God acts on Nehemiah’s behalf and the king notices Nehemiah’s disposition. Nehemiah breathes a quick prayer when the king notices him and then tells the king what he wants.
And in the rest of Nehemiah’s journal we read how God answered Nehemiah’s prayers over and over. He gave Nehemiah wisdom, he gave him strength, he gave him helpers – God worked in the hearts and minds of those around Nehemiah over and over. God didn’t just set it up so Nehemiah’s petition to the king was granted, God worked through that request and Nehemiah’s faithfulness to finalize the work Nehemiah had wanted to do.
Much of what Nehemiah experienced and wrote about seems so far from what we need today: temples are no longer a central part of our worship; we don’t build walls around our towns. But we DO face opposition from those around us sometimes. We DO face challenges in doing the work of the Kingdom. We DO face challenges in our families and homes and hearts. And we, like, Nehemiah can put those things before God and trust God’s faithfulness to be at work. God expects us to ask for these things, even though God knows them and sees them. God wants us to seek him as Nehemiah did: with gratitude and confession BEFORE our petition – our hearts and minds and attitudes need to be in the right place so that what we are asking is no longer about what we WANT but what we NEED. So often we confuse wants and needs, but when we put ourselves in the posture of gratitude and confession, things begin to be clearer and we see what God can do to address our need, but not necessarily in our want.
God may move you when you want to stay somewhere, because you need to move. God may keep you somewhere when you want to move, because you need to stay. God may expect you to act where you want to be still or God may expect you to be still where you want to act.
In all of those things, if we are obedient to God’s work on us and in us, God will move. God will be faithful. God will build the Kingdom, God will walk with us through challenge and heart ache and hardships.
As we have been doing every week in this series, I will remind you of what it looks like to say that the love of God is found in every page of Scripture:
What does it mean to say God loves?
God loved us enough to create us, to form us from the dust.
God loved us enough to let us fail, to let us choose our own way over God’s – to let us chain ourselves to sin and defeat and heartbreak and sorrow and death.
God loved us enough to provide a rescue, a way back: through wanderers, murderers, adulterers, defaulters, promise-breakers, foreigners, strangers, and lovers.
God loved us enough to show us mothers, judges, kings, and prophets who loved and spoke for God and kept reminding us of the promise of redemption
God loved us enough to show us how evil and wrong continually mess things up and how obedience to God fosters holiness and bestows blessing
God loved us enough to send us Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, to preach and live peace, grace, hope, joy, and love.
God loved us enough to see Jesus rejected, to see him die, to see him buried.
God loved us enough to raise Jesus from the dead and send the Holy Spirit to remind us of all we have in him and empower us to live like him.
God loved us enough to want us to live like Jesus – an abundant life infused with all the fruit of the Spirit, redeemed, free, loved.
God loved us enough to still let us choose our destiny.
God loved us enough to promise the hope of forever, of resurrection from the dead, and judgement.
God loved us enough, God loves us enough, God will always love us enough.
For God so loved the world…
God loves you.
God wants you to know it. God wants you to live in it.
God wants you to be able to love others because you know you are loved.
God’s love is expressed to us every week, most tangibly, as we gather at this table: The Son who died and yet lives, gave everything so we could know the depth of God’s love.
So, Come. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Know you ARE loved.
God loves you. Go, love the world with him.