by: Denise Robinson
Life Lessons: Nehemiah
“For Love of Country”
In our look last week at the book of Esther, we were surprised to find God seemingly absent. There are no prayers, no prophets, no apparent presence of God in the lives of Esther or Mordecai; and yet, in the absence we see a pattern of God’s continual movement in the lives of God’s people. In contrast, however, from the very beginning of the book of Nehemiah God explodes from its pages. Esther was a Jew living a secret identity in the Persian capital city of Susa at the time of King Xerxes I. Many of the events in the book of Esther took place between 485 and 481 BC. Now it’s 40 years later. Another Jew, Nehemiah, is living in the same city, Susa, and Artaxerxes I is now king. Thanks to Esther and Mordecai, Nehemiah is able to live openly as a Jew in Persia but, as we will see, he never forgets his home country.
Before we look at Nehemiah, what happened in the 40 years between Esther and his time? Before them both, after Persia had overthrown the Babylonian Empire, the Jewish people who had been forcibly removed from Israel to return home as long as they continued to pay tribute to Persia. The Persian king Cyrus even authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and in 516 BC the Temple was reopened with a dedication ceremony. Thirty years later we get to the events of Esther and forty years later we meet Nehemiah. The truth is that while Cyrus and his successor, Darius, allowed Jews to return to Israel and to Jerusalem, many of them chose to remain in Persia. When we think about all the years that had passed, it makes sense. The vast majority of the Jews living in Persia had never lived in Israel – in fact, neither had their parents or even their grandparents. They had lived under Babylonian exile for 100 years; all they knew of Israel were stories handed down from parent to child. They had carved out a comfortable existence in Persia, built lives, families, homes, careers, and friendships. Returning to Israel meant rebuilding homes and cities, returning to a mostly farming way of life, and struggling to even survive.
When we meet Nehemiah, we are told that he works in the palace where he is the cupbearer to the king. Cupbearer doesn’t sound like much, but it was a highly coveted and trusted position. A cupbearer did more than just taste the king’s food to make sure it was safe; they watched over the preparation of all meals, sat near the king at state functions, and in the process had daily access to the king. This type of access meant that the cupbearer was trusted totally by the king and was often privy to private conversations. A cupbearer’s power was not obvious, but it was very much present.
Nehemiah is living 1,000 miles from Jerusalem, a place he’s never been. At best, his grandparents or great-parents lived there. And yet, the beginning of Nehemiah tells us that when men came to the palace from Judah, from Jerusalem, he immediately drew them aside and asked about his homeland and the people living there. He is told that the people are suffering and the city is crumbling. Nehemiah could easily have said, “That’s too bad” or “Sorry to hear such bad news” or maybe even “Thoughts and prayers!” But choosing the right words to say was not his immediate response. Nehemiah, we are told, first wept for his homeland and his people. Then he prayed. Nehemiah 1 is one of the great prayers of the Bible. In his prayer, he worships God, asks God to hear his prayer, confesses his sin, and reminds God of God’s promises to the people. In his confession of sin, he acknowledges that the people of Israel have sinned, that his family has sinned, and that he has sinned. Their sin is their failure to keep the commandments which has offended God deeply. The people deserve their fate, but, as Nehemiah remembers in prayer, God has promised to be faithful if the people return in worship.
Nehemiah, however, doesn’t stop with prayer. While with the king one day, he shows his true emotions – shows his sadness – to the point where the king asks him about the cause of his sorrow. Nehemiah admits that he is greatly afraid to be that honest with the king, but he finds himself telling the king that he wants to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. The king might have responded in anger (how dare Nehemiah want to leave his honored position in the palace) or with laughter (Nehemiah was not an architect, what did he know about rebuilding a city), but he doesn’t. He not only grants Nehemiah’s wish, but writes letters for Nehemiah to carry with him that authorize him to act in the king’s name.
The book of Nehemiah describes his success in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. But more than that, it’s a book of worship, prayer, and repentance. The first verses of Ch. 9 describe how the people gathered together, confessed their sins, read from Scripture, prayed, and worshipped. Ch. 9 is known as the great prayer of repentance. Their confession of sin went hundreds and hundreds of years back to the time of Moses when the Jewish people sinned in the wilderness by disobeying God. Their confession continued over the centuries – through the time of Joshua and the kings and the prophets – to the overthrow of the nation by Assyria and Babylon. The people confessed their sins through the generations into the present time. “Because of our sins,” Nehemiah and the people say, “we are in great distress.” Then, in Ch. 10, the people promise to keep the law, they lift their hands to God, they sing, and they rejoice.
Ch. 13 is the last chapter of the book of Nehemiah. It opened with prayer and it closes with prayer. “Remember me, O my God, and do not wipe out the good deeds I have done … Remember me, O my God, and show mercy on me according to your great love … Remember me with favor, O my God … Remember me, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love … Remember me, O my God, for what good I have done.”
So, what does Nehemiah teach us, especially given that today is July 4? I titled this sermon, For Love of Country. How do we, as Christians, love America? Can we love America? It seems, if you listen to or look at news feeds or social media today that it’s popular to be anti-American. We know as Christ-followers that we are citizens first and foremost of God’s kingdom, not any earthly kingdom. And yet, Nehemiah just maybe gives us another point of view.
Nehemiah worships God, prays to God, loves God – and also deeply loves his country. From 1000 miles away he asks about his homeland, cries about it, prays for it, and acts to save it. He leaves the comforts of the palace to go to a harsh, desert-like place he’s only heard stories about to take on a task he’s ill-equipped to do. He knows his nation isn’t perfect. He accepts that they’ve brought on their own problems because of sin. He knows they can’t ask for God’s blessing until they repent.
So much of the same could be said about us, in our time, and about our country. Our Declaration and our Constitution contain lofty words of liberty and equality and pursuit of happiness. All great words unless you happened to be African-American or native American or Asian or a woman or any other kind of minority. Today we are reaping the repercussions of 250 years of hypocrisy – and sin.
What is Nehemiah’s advice not just for America, but for our world? First, remember that we are all connected, all children of God, all made in God’s image, and all loved by God. Second, be willing to weep over the world and our nation and the people who are suffering. Third, pray. Pray that the kingdom of God overcome the evil forces of this world. Pray for the welfare of all people, particularly those who are suffering from the past and in the present. Pray and keep praying. Fourth, repent and ask for forgiveness. Nehemiah wasn’t in the wilderness with Moses, he never killed a prophet, he didn’t disobey God in the days of the kings and the prophets – but as a Jew he acknowledged the sin of his people and prayed for forgiveness. Moses lived over 1000 years before Nehemiah and yet Nehemiah’s prayer for forgiveness went back that far. Finally, remember that Nehemiah was well aware that God’s blessing on his nation was tied to the faithfulness of its people.
On July 4, Nehemiah reminds us that we can love our nation and pray for the welfare of our nation, as long as we’re honest with ourselves, ask forgiveness for national sin, and always and everywhere put God first. As 2 Chron. 7:14 reminds us: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and heal their land.”
Let’s pray. God, we worship you. We thank you for all you have given us. We acknowledge that our deeds and our actions have not been true to our ideals and our words. We repent of our sin and ask for forgiveness. Help us to be faithful to your word and your will. God bless America. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. Amen.