Summary: How do you respond when you’re hit with distressing news? Do you respond in anger? Do you respond in fear? Do you respond by immediately jumping up and trying to fix the problem? None of those responses were Nehemiah’s first response.
A few years ago, I remember sitting in my office in Asheville, NC, one quiet Tuesday morning. Of course I was in uniform. As an Air Force recruiter, I spent most of my time in uniform. But as my office partner and I sat there that morning taking care of some paperwork, it seemed like everything started to happen at once. Emails started pouring in. I started getting instant message after instant message. Our fax machine started pouring out papers. All of our phone lines and both of our cell phones started ringing off the hook. You see, just a few minutes before, at 8:46, a group of al-Qaida terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Of course we all know what happened from there. My office partner and I immediately turned on the radio to try to catch some of the news as we were fielding calls and trying to respond to emails and such. Try to remember back to when it first happened. Nobody really knew what was going on. Nobody really knew the extent of it. It was chaos. But in the midst of the chaos, people began responding. Fully armed F-15s were scrambled over the capital for the first time ever. The military was put on high alert. We had to lock our doors and perform patrols and bomb checks. And then within a day, others were responding in different ways. On the one hand some churches were calling impromptu prayer meetings. On the other hand, Palestinians and other Arabs were celebrating in the streets of the Middle East. But even the response within our own country wasn’t universal. Federal buildings all over the country were receiving bomb threats. Where I was, on September 12, hundreds of people gathered around the fountain in the middle of downtown Asheville—to protest America. The point is, everybody responded to the attacks on 9/11. What happened was so brazen and violent that it had to evoke a response. But different people responded differently. Some responded courageously. Some responded cowardly. Some even responded humbly and repentantly. All events in life are that way. Especially tragic events. They don’t have to be on the scale of 9/11, but every event we experience in life prompts a response. Sometimes we respond the right way. Sometimes we respond the wrong way. Sometimes we respond by lashing out in anger. Sometimes we respond by crying out in pain. Sometimes we respond by turning to God. That’s what Nehemiah did in our passage tonight. He had just received the report back from his brother and the team he had sent to Jerusalem. And the report wasn’t good. The news was devastating to him. So he responded. His response was immediate. It was decisive. It was bold. So what did he do? Did he start working on a rebuilding plan? Did start recruiting a team to help him fix the problem? Did he start gathering materials and money? No—he didn’t actually DO anything. Instead, verse 4 says, he sat down and wept and mourned for days. And then he did something that was the best response he could have possibly had. He fasted. And he prayed. Nehemiah’s first response wasn’t like my typical first response. In my flesh, my typical first response is to figure out how to fix it. But not Nehemiah. He fasted. And he prayed. And the summary content of his prayer is recorded for us here. I say it’s a summary, because verse 4 says that he mourned and fasted and prayed for days. We don’t have all the words of his prayer recorded here. But we do have a summary of the content. And what rich content it is. Because in these verses, we see how we should respond. We see how, when bad news hits us… whether it’s something as big as 9/11 or something a whole lot smaller… before we jump up to do something in response… we need to respond like Nehemiah did. These verses show us how he did it. They show us a five-fold response to bad news. The first response is recognizing prayer. Look at verse 5:
The first response to distressing news is recognizing prayer. One of the hardest things to do in life is get our mind off of ourselves. Especially when something bad happens. If something bad happens in the world around us, the first thing we think is, “How’s this going to impact me?” When something bad happens a little bit closer to home, many times we think, “Why me?” But either way, we’re thinking about me. Sometimes we get beyond that. Sometimes, we get really selfless and start thinking about other people. How’s this going to impact my family? How’s this going to impact my friends or neighbors or my community? But that’s not what Nehemiah did. He didn’t start worrying about himself as a Jew. Being so far away, that probably wouldn’t have been what most people would have done anyway. But here’s what most of us would have done in his situation. Most of us would have been thinking about all of our kinfolk who were down in Jerusalem. They would have been the first ones on our mind. What were they going to do? How were they going to live? Were they safe? How would they protect themselves with no wall? But the people weren’t the first ones on Nehemiah’s mind. The first One on Nehemiah’s mind was God. The first thing on his mind when he hit his knees in prayer was God and His glory. Instead of focusing on the problem, he focused on the God who holds the problem in His hands. He focused on the nature of the all-powerful God He was praying to. And this wasn’t some cheesy God-is-my-boyfriend kind of praise song he was lifting up. He called on the God of heaven. And he called Him the great and terrible God. The word for terrible is translated in modern translations as awesome. That’s good, in the truest sense of the word. But we’ve lost the sense of what awesome really means. It doesn’t mean that God is terrible in the evil sense of the word. It means that He is frightening—even terrifying. As a matter of fact, that’s what the world is closest to in meaning. It’s the same sense in which the writer of Hebrews says in 10:31, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” But at the same time Nehemiah recognizes God’s terrifying awesomeness, he recognizes God’s faithfulness and His mercy. He recognizes that God makes promises and keeps them. He recognizes that God is merciful and He shows mercy on people who don’t deserve it. That’s why we can say that God is a good God even at the same time we recognize that He is a terrifying God. He is good because He has made certain promises. And we know that He will keep His promises. And because of that, when we are covered by His promises, we have nothing to fear from Him. Only praise. Nehemiah recognized that in his prayer. His response to distressing news was recognizing prayer. It was also relentless prayer. Look at the first part of verse 6: