Nehemiah 1:1-11 - "God’s Choice"
Image by James Best, (C) 2020,https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020
Today we recognize and celebrate the “rank and file” workers in the Church. We call it “Lay Ministry” Sunday. What is “Lay Ministry?” It is volunteer work for the Lord in the Church and para-church organizations.
If you are or have been a Sunday School teacher, visited prisoners in prison, worked in the nursery, helped at the Furniture Mission, Union Gospel Mission, or the Banquet, you are a “Lay Minister.” If you have prepared lunches with Lunch is Served, if you have participated in Iron Men or Women of Emmanuel, if you have served as an usher or greeter, you have done “Lay Ministry.”
You are not ordained and you don’t get paid, so that’s the “lay” part. You are active for the Savior, so that’s the “ministry” part.
We observe this day to thank everyone for their service, to encourage everyone to serve, and to learn more about ministering for Jesus. Whether you find a place of service in an existing ministry or we build one to employ your Gifts and talents, lay ministry is essential to your spiritual maturity and to our growth as a church.
Today we want to hold up an exemplary lay minister: Nehemiah. He did not work in the temple; he was not a prophet. Nehemiah had a government position, of all things! He was a man used by God to do mighty good things.
God chooses whom He uses: there are ways to make yourself a better choice.
1. God chooses people He can trust. (11)
Nehemiah’s job: CUPBEARER to the king. This doesn’t sound like an important job. It sounds a little like “waiter” or “dishwasher.” However, the cupbearer was often the servant closest to the king. A kind of friendship and familiarity could exist between a king and his cupbearer.
More importantly, the job of cupbearer required trustworthiness. The cupbearer’s job was to test and monitor what the king ate and drank, to protect him from being poisoned. A cupbearer’s duties were broader than just testing for poisons. A cupbearer was expected to know court etiquette, have all the skills of a sommelier (wine steward), be a companion to the king, function as a courtier, and administrate as the king’s household staff manager. All that often meant that the cupbearer was second in authority, just behind the king.
Clearly, Nehemiah enjoyed the trust of his king and God. King Artaxerxes’ trust in Nehemiah is indicated in 2:1-10, where he notes his sadness, and upon hearing Nehemiah’s explanation, agrees to allow him to go to Judah. The king even gave him letters to the local governors to verify Nehemiah’s identity and mission.
God’s trust in Nehemiah is indicated in the success of his mission, rebuilding the walls and gates of the city of Jerusalem. God blessed his efforts.
2. God chooses compassionate people. (3-4)
Nehemiah’s tears and prayers indicate his compassion. The situation was complex. As God had repeatedly warned them would happen the disobedience of the people of Judah resulting in their being conquered by the Babylonians. The Babylonians took some of the Jews captive but left some of them behind. The reference here in Nehemiah to those who SURVIVED THE EXILE refers to a portion of the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem at the end of the 70 years of their captivity. But it’s clear that not all the Jews returned at once; some, like Nehemiah returned later (and he only came back long enough to complete the building project). Some, like the prophet Daniel, never returned at all.
It’s believed that when Nehemiah received this upsetting news, another 80 years had passed, and still the city was in ruins! In 1:3 Hananai called the situation a DISGRACE and in 2:17 Nehemiah agreed with that assessment after he’d seen the ruins for himself.
Actually, it was worse than a DISGRACE. In ancient times not having a wall meant you didn’t have a city; you had no means of defense and were prey for raiders of any sort.
Nehemiah’s reaction to this news is grave disappointment. He not only wept, but spent SOME DAYS in mourning, fasting, and prayer. The text of his prayer shows great faith and passion.
This was actually a dangerous time for Nehemiah as a person was not allowed to show sadness in the presence of the king. It didn’t matter how you actually felt, the king saw only your happy face or else!
Compassion sees the needs of others and acts to meet them. The exiles who’d returned to Judah needed direction. They had fallen into self-interest; they were more concerned about protecting the little they had than about rebuilding Jerusalem.
Nehemiah provided leader-ship. He met the opposition and used his influence with the king to overcome the opposition and kept the people working together on rebuilding the wall.
3. God chooses people committed to prayer. (4-11)
In his prayer in this chapter Nehemiah used a form of the “ACTS” prayer, a format we often use at our weekly prayer meeting called the “Nehemiah Prayer Group.” His prayer is the reason we adopted this name for our group!)
“A” = Adoration. (5) He began with a focus on God and His greatness. This is putting God in His place: first place.
“C” = Confession. (6-7) Nehemiah prayed, “I CONFESS THE SINS WE ISRAELITES, INCLUDING MYSELF AND MY FATHER’S HOUSE, HAVE COMMITTED AGAINST YOU.” He took personal responsibility and national responsibility. It was their sin that got them in this mess.
“T” = Thanksgiving. (8-10) Nehemiah was thankful for God’s faithfulness to His people.
“S” = Supplication. (11) He asked God to be attentive to his prayers and the prayers of all Jews so that he would find favor in the eyes of the king.
We have other, more brief, examples of Nehemiah’s prayers. Read Nehemiah 5:19; 13:14, 22, 29. You will see they are all prayers for God to show favor on him even as God had granted Nehemiah favor in the eyes of the King. I do not believe these prayers have any selfish purpose. Instead, Nehemiah’s concern here is for the ongoing survival and success of his people and the rebuilding of the city.
4. God chooses people who are ready to take action. (11)
In the short term Nehemiah ask God FAVOR with the king. (God said “Yes.”) In the long term he asked for SUCCESS in rebuilding the wall. (God said “Yes.”) There’s nothing selfish here; Nehemiah’s prayers and plans are focused on taking care of God’s city and God’s people.
I like the fact that he took action after prayer. We’re more likely to do the opposite: act, and then pray for help to get out of the mess we’ve created.
An immense task lay before Nehemiah, but a greater God was with him. Here are some of the challenges Nehemiah and the Jews had to overcome:
- 1:3; 2:14, 17 = The walls of the city were broken down and its gates were burned up. The city was defenseless. Nehemiah had to first clear away the rubble before reconstruction could begin. This was more work than starting from scratch (4:10)!
- 2:10, 19; 4:1-23; 6:1-14 = The local pagan governors were opposed to the project. Their opposition took the form of letters to the king, harassment, and violence against workers.
- 5:1-19 = Some of the Jews were charging their fellow Jews a high rate of interest, causing poverty & divisions among the people.
- 13:1-31 = Even after the walls were rebuilt, Nehemiah had to deal with problems of misuse of the temple and intermarriage of Jews and their pagan neighbors.
Here are signs of Nehemiah’s faith and leadership:
- 2:12-16 = Upon arrival, he rode around the ruins to get an overall sense of the situation.
- 2:18 = He told the Jews how THE GRACIOUS HAND OF GOD was on them and they enjoyed the favor of the king.
- 3:1-32 = He assigned different gates and sections of the wall to different groups. This made use of “friendly competition” to get more done.
- 4:16-23 = In response to the threats of violence, he paired a worker and an armed watcher, and posted guards.
- 6:15 = After laying in ruins for about a century and a half, Nehemiah had the wall rebuilt in FIFTY-TWO DAYS! Nehemiah gave credit where it was due: THIS WORK HAD BEEN DONE WITH THE HELP OF OUR GOD.
God chooses whom He uses: there are ways to make yourself a better choice.
What we’ve observed here is that Nehemiah cared. He had compassion on his people and the city of Jerusalem.
That compassion and his trust in God drove him to his knees. Nehemiah spent time in prayer before he made any plans or did anything. That’s better than our usual “Ready…Fire…Aim” strategy.
From the prayer a plan of action was formed and pursued. God blessed and caused all Nehemiah’s plans to succeed in spite of challenges and opposition.
We are all ministers. Some of us are part-time, some full-time. Some of us are volunteers, some of us are paid. Some are ordained, others licensed, some are lay ministers. We hold up the shining example of Nehemiah who was a lay minister, a man of God who demonstrated exceptional faith and ability. With God’s help may we follow Nehemiah’s example and be blessed with Nehemiah’s success.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, #4, Edwin Yamauchi