Summary: Nehemiah’s strong faith in God prompts him to take the steps needed to make the Jerusalem re-building project a reality. This sermon explores the significance of faith when facing a difficult mission.
How strong is your faith? Is it firm enough to resist hardship? Is it robust enough to overcome fear? Will it stand up to the tests of doubt? Last week, we saw that Nehemiah was a man of great faith: the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, the King of Persia, he was devastated by the news that Jerusalem was still in a state of ruin and its people were in a poor state; but, in response, he mourned, fasted and prayed, interceding for his home country, which he himself had probably never seen, as he’d been born in exile.
This week, we see Nehemiah, the man of faith, take the next step in his God-given mission; and the first thing that is clear is that ...
>> FAITH PROMPTS PATIENCE
In chapter 1, Nehemiah prays, "Listen now to my prayer and to the prayers of all your other servants who want to honour you. Give me success today and make the emperor merciful to me." And, then, chapter 2 begins, "One day four months later..." — Nehemiah has prayed that same "Give me success today" prayer every day for four months! That’s over 100 days! As I said last week, Nehemiah was committed to prayer, and it’s clear he was also committed to God’s response – I get the impression that Nehemiah was a man of action and was really itching to go to Jerusalem to get started on rebuilding the city walls, but he knew that he would have to wait for the right opportunity to speak to the king. If he brought up the subject at the wrong time, Artaxerxes would refuse his request, and possibly even have him executed for his impertinence. Nehemiah had faith that God would provide the perfect opportunity, if he would patiently wait for it.
After so many days without an opportunity, Nehemiah must have felt a little frustrated, but the enforced wait would have at least allowed him to work out what he would say to the king when he could speak with him, and his time spent in prayer would have strengthened him. We ourselves may feel a deep sense of frustration when things don’t happen as quickly as we would like them to, especially when we have been praying long and hard for something; but we, too, need to accept that "behind life’s frustrations lies a divine purpose; [that] something can be learnt from our most difficult experiences" [Raymond Brown, ’The Message of Nehemiah’, p.44]. Just remember William Carey’s experience in India: for seven years he preached sermons and cultivated friendships with the local people before anyone gave their life to Christ; but he never regretted the wait, because, during that time, he and his colleagues had managed to produce the New Testament in Bengali and to set up both a boarding-school and a free school.
And, just as Carey’s faith was finally rewarded, Nehemiah’s opportunity presented itself at last. It has been suggested that this particular day, which was at the beginning of the new year, may well have been Artaxerxes’ birthday, an occasion when the Persian king would grant special favours. Whether this is true, or not, it is clear that Nehemiah, like William Carey, had a faith which prompted patience in the most frustrating of situations – may our faith be strong enough to do likewise.
The next thing we observe is that ...
>> FAITH PROMPTS PLUCK
Pluck may be a word we don’t use too often these days, but we do still sometimes describe people as being "plucky" when they are courageous and spirited. One thing is certain: Nehemiah showed great pluck when he opened his mouth to tell Artaxerxes what was making him so sad.
Nehemiah no longer hid his unhappiness – Jerusalem was still in ruins and God was still dishonoured by it – but this, in itself, was a dangerous thing. If, indeed, it was the king’s birthday, everybody would have been expected to walk round with an unshifting smile upon their face – Nehemiah’s miserable mug must have stood out a mile! Anyway, we’re told that the king had never seen Nehemiah look sad before, so he asks him why it is. We’re told that Nehemiah was "startled" – the Hebrew literally says, "a terrible fear came over me". Was it fear for his life? Or, was it fear of rejection? We don’t really know the exact reason why he was so afraid, but we do know that Nehemiah spoke up in spite of his fear – his faith in God gave him the courage, the pluck, to tell the king what was on his heart.
And the king is touched when Nehemiah speaks of the state of "the city where [his] ancestors are buried", because the Persians revered their own ancestors and were anxious to ensure that their graves were honouring to them. So, Nehemiah’s pluckiness is rewarded, when Artaxerxes asks him what is his request.