Our Glorious Ruins, Nehemiah 1-2, 11/16/14

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Nov 162014

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

1The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 2 one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”  4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…

11At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.

1In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” 6 The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. 7 Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.  (Nehemiah 1:1-4, 11b, 2:1-8, NRSV)




In 587 B.C. the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, killed the Jewish leaders, plundered the temple before burning it to the ground, destroyed most of the city and its walls, and carted off Jerusalem’s best and brightest to Babylon where they remained in exile for decades until Babylon itself was eventually overthrown by Persia in 539 B.C.  At that time a decree was made that the Jews could return home to Jerusalem.  Many did.


100 years go by.  Some of the Jews who had remained back in Persia found their way into Persian life and culture.  Last week we told the story of Esther, a descendant of those Jews who stayed behind and eventually became Queen of Persia.  Another descendant was a Jew named Nehemiah.  In the middle of the 5th century B.C. he was a young man serving in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes.  He’s a Jew, but a Jew who has never set foot in Jerusalem.


We pick up his story when one day Nehemiah comes into contact with some men who have just come from Jerusalem and bring news of the city.  The news is not good.  Even though 150 years have gone by since it was destroyed, and 100 years since it was reinhabited by the returned exiles, the city is still a disaster.  Most notably, the wall around the city is still torn down; it’s nothing but ashes and broken stones.  There had been numerous attempts to rebuild the wall but enemies of the Jews had convinced King Artaxerxes that a reestablished Jerusalem would be a threat to the whole region so he put a stop to the rebuilding effort.[1]


Now to us, a wall may seem like a trivial thing.  After all, our city thrives without a wall around it.  That was not the case, however, in the ancient world.  The most common Hebrew word for city, the word ‘iyr, was a word that literally meant any human settlement surrounded by some fortification or wall.  If you didn’t have a wall, you didn’t have a city.  For one, the wall provided security and defense from hostile neighbors.  In Jerusalem, the lack of a wall was even more serious because there existed at that time a whole system of terraces down the eastern slope of the city, terraces used for agriculture and dwellings, which all depended upon this solid city wall at the base of the slope which supported the whole terrace structure.[2]  With no secure wall around Jerusalem, the city would continue to remain in ruins.


Well, when Nehemiah hears this news he is devastated.  In fact, we’re told that upon hearing these words he sat down and wept for days.[3]  Think about that for a minute.  Nehemiah has never been to Jerusalem.  It’s likely that none of his close family has ever been to Jerusalem.  He has no plans to go to Jerusalem.  It is the city of his ancestors, but at this point in his life it’s a place from which he is so far removed as he lives in comfort in the courts of the most powerful king of his time.  And yet, when he hears of the suffering of this far off city he is overwhelmed with grief and compassion.  Their pain becomes his pain.  Later on in the story he says that he can be nothing but sad as long as the city of his ancestor’s lies in waste.


Let me pause at this point and ask the unavoidable question.  Have we ever had this level of compassion for any city in our day, even our own city?  We live in a wonderful city and yet there are many within the city limits of Sacramento who face great hardship today.  Most of us, like Nehemiah, live in comfort at a distance from the brokenness of the city.  Even so, as we consider our city, has compassion for our neighbors brought us to tears?  If so, for whom do we weep?  Do we weep for those who spend night after night on the streets?  Do we weep for those who have been pushed to the margins of acceptance and respectability?  Do we weep for neighborhoods overrun by neglect and crime?  Do we weep over lives and families torn apart by violence or addiction?  Do we weep over the ways race and culture continue to divide?  Do we weep when we see how so many who have the power and influence needed to make great change only use what they have been given for selfish ends?


I’ll be honest with you; I don’t much like these questions.  I don’t like the answers they lead me to.  I don’t like the fact that they expose how little I really do weep for my city.  And I live in my city!  Nehemiah had never even visited his.  And even when we do weep for our city we often weep in despair because, really, what can we do in the face of problems so overwhelming?


For what it’s worth, the task was too overwhelming for Nehemiah as well.  That’s why he prays.  His heart is broken by the things that break the heart of God and so he turns to God for help.  We skipped over his prayer in the reading this morning, so let me just summarize it for you now.  His prayer for the city has three parts and each part is a model for us of how we can also pray for our city.


First, Nehemiah offers a confession.  “Both I and my family have sinned,” he prays.  “We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments.”[4]  When we see brokenness in our world around us our first instinct is to point fingers at others.  Nehemiah challenges us, however, to first consider what part we may have played in contributing to the brokenness.  Have my actions, or my inaction, in some way made things worse rather than better.  If I’m honest, I also have much to confess.


Second, Nehemiah asks God to remember his people.  “They are your servants and your people,” Nehemiah prays, “whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand.”[5]  Now, does God really need to be reminded of the covenant he made with his people?  Probably not.  God’s memory is quite good actually.  So maybe the reminder is for Nehemiah’s sake.  And maybe we also need to remind ourselves in prayer that God will not forget our city either.  When we praise God for his faithfulness we are encouraged as we then remember God’s faithfulness.


Lastly, in his prayer Nehemiah asks for help in what he is about to do for the sake of the city.  “Give success to your servant today,” he prays.[6]  He knows that without God’s hand, the city will never be restored.  And what was true of Jerusalem is also true of our city.  In the end, if God does not intervene, it doesn’t really matter who we elect to office, what sorts of laws we pass, what kinds of programs and ministries we begin, the brokenness all around us is simply too extensive for us to repair on our own.


After Nehemiah prays he then gives us one small detail about his situation in life.  “At the time,” he writes, “I was a cupbearer to the king.”  This was Nehemiah’s job.  His main duty was to choose and taste the king’s wine to make sure it was not only of high quality but also free of poison.  This meant, of course, that Nehemiah must have enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the king.  It’s also likely that since he was in the regular presence of the king, he would have been trained to always be courteous and friendly.


In addition to all this, the fact that Nehemiah was a cupbearer meant that he was, in his day, nothing all that special.  It was a good job, but not an especially prestigious job.  This was no person of great influence or expertise.  He wasn’t a priest or a scholar or a politician.  He was merely a household servant.  And that’s important to note because sometimes we get the silly idea into our heads that God only chooses to use the extraordinary among us to do extraordinary things.  Nehemiah, along with plenty of other examples in scripture, teaches us that God often uses, even prefers to use, ordinary people to do extraordinary things in this world.  That’s good news for people like me and you who, at times in life, may feel quite ordinary.


So four months go by.  All along Nehemiah is just biding his time.  He can’t do a thing for Jerusalem unless he first gets permission from his master, the king.  And remember, he’s just a cupbearer.  He’s in the court of the king every day but that doesn’t mean he can just waltz right up to the throne and make small talk.  You might remember from the story of Esther last week how nobody dared even approach the king, much less speak to the king, unless first given permission to do so by the king.  So Nehemiah waits and prays and watches for his opportunity.


The opportunity finally came when one day he’s serving the king his wine but doing a lousy job putting on his game face.  This was a huge risk he was taking because coming before the king without making sure his countenance was pleasant could have literally cost him his life.  But Nehemiah can’t help it.  The grief for the city weighs so heavy on his heart that he wears it on his face.  The king notices.  He’s even insightful enough to see that this is no physical illness that has Nehemiah down, but a deep sadness of the heart.  So the king questions Nehemiah about his mood.  And all at once, Nehemiah is afraid.  He knows the stakes are high.  He’s already put his life at risk by letting his emotions show before the throne.  Now, if he presses the king for this extraordinary favor, the very king, remember, who was responsible for keeping Jerusalem in such a state of ruins in the first place, who knows what his fate will be.  Nehemiah decides to ask anyway.  He decides he is willing to sacrifice his own position of comfort, perhaps even his very life, for the sake of those who suffer in the city.


And all this leads me to ask yet another unavoidable question at this point.  Are we willing to do the same?  Have we ever been willing to do the same?  Where in our lives are we sacrificing even just some degree of our own prosperity and comfort for the sake of those in our world who are not experiencing anything close to prosperity and comfort?  Of course, there are many people in this room who are.  I’ve heard your stories.  I’ve watched you and admired many of you over the years as you have given generously of your time, your energy, your money, your training, your very hearts for the sake of others in this world who are in hard places and for whom your hearts break.  Others of us, however, may realize that to this point we have made few if any real sacrifices in this way.  And for us, Nehemiah’s example is convicting.


I have a friend in this church who these days is always thinking in terms of cows.  Along with many of us here at Faith, she’s got a heart for the people of Abaya, Ethiopia, where our church sponsors children and their families who are in the midst of desperate poverty.  Well, some time ago my friend learned that for $100 or so you can buy a cow for your sponsored child’s family.  I don’t know what a cow costs here, but I do know that $100 here isn’t going to get you much more than several pounds of choice prime rib.  I wouldn’t know what to do with a cow anyway, even if you gave me one.  They know what to do with one in Ethiopia.  In fact, only one cow, which not only provides milk but a means to plow the fields, can be the difference for a family between starvation and health.  Think about that. One cow for $100.  I give up what some people give to Starbucks in a month, or I decide to watch one game on television instead of paying to see it live, or I bypass the new model and stick with the old model that works just fine, and a desperate family’s whole world is changed.  Everywhere my friend looks these days, she’s always looking for small sacrifices we might make and counting just how many cows it all adds up to.


Of course, I know, and my friend also knows, that it isn’t always so simple.  Solutions to poverty, either in East Africa or in South Sacramento, are never easy.  Still, I love the way she’s thinking about how we might make sacrifices to our own comfort or convenience that will in turn some way benefit those in our world and in our city who struggle and suffer.   This is the way Nehemiah was thinking, even to the extent of risking it all for the sake of others.  And when given the opportunity he takes it.  In spite of his fear he boldly petitions the king, “May the king live forever!  Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies in waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”


It’s a tense moment.  Nobody would have been surprised if the king, in that instant, ordered Nehemiah’s immediate execution for making such a statement.  Instead, however, the king wants to know more.  “What do you request?” he asks Nehemiah.  And the text tells us that immediately, before saying another word, Nehemiah prays.  Some people have called this the most beautiful example of spontaneous prayer in the entire Bible.  Here is Nehemiah, standing in the presence of the greatest, most powerful man in the kingdom, maybe the world, and yet he is also aware that he is simultaneously standing in the presence of One far greater and far more powerful.  As he prays, Nehemiah reveals his ultimate loyalty.


After seeking God’s help, Nehemiah then reveals his plan to the king, a vision for how he would go, if given permission, to restore the city of his people.  It’s a God-sized vision.  He’s not proposing a weekend mission trip to pick up some trash and paint a few buildings.  He’s proposing a massive life-long effort to bring about the complete and total restoration of the city of Jerusalem, a city which now lies in complete ruins.  No wonder he prays!


You see, even though Nehemiah had never even been there, he still had a clear vision of the kind of city Jerusalem was meant to be.  It was a city made for glory.  It was a place where people were meant to live secure, and well-fed, and in their own homes, and free from war.  It was meant to be a city where people were able to enjoy opportunities to do good work, and to rest, and to enjoy creation, and to worship, and to play, and to love.  In the end, Nehemiah’s vision for his city is probably very close to the vision we have for our own city because it is the vision that God, in fact, has for all cities.


Remember, when God created humans he created them in his image.  Nothing else in all of creation is made in God’s image.  Only people.  And yet, because we have rebelled against God, because we have loved God’s stuff more than we have loved God, because we have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator, that image within us has been severely tainted.  A theologian named Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “We are glorious because we were created by God for the noble purpose of being His image bearers; yet we are ruins because sin has marred the divine image we were designed to display, at times seemingly beyond recognition.”  Glorious ruins, that is what we are.


What this means is that cities are merely heavy concentrations of such glorious ruin, for as writer Tim Keller puts it, “Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth.”  This is why we often see the absolute best and worst of humanity in cities.  Where can you find the most glorious expressions of human culture?  Often in cities.  If you want to hear the most captivating music, or see the most beautiful art, or stand in awe of the most stunning architecture, you go to San Francisco, or New York, or Vienna, or Rome.  At the same time, where are some of the most heinous acts of crime and violence carried out?  Sure, you can find crime in small-town America, but it’s often ugliest, and certainly most concentrated, in our big cities.


Here’s my point.  Of course God cares for people who live in small towns and in the countryside.  God loves us all.  But God’s heart breaks in a special way for cities because there are so many of his children who live there, so many of his children made for glory but living in ruins.  And so if we care about the same things God cares about, we, like Nehemiah, will be moved as well to care for our city.


You might remember the moment in the Gospel accounts when Jesus is heading into Jerusalem for the last time.  He goes there knowing that within days he will be crucified.  As he approaches the city we read this in Luke 19:41, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, only recognized this day the things that make for peace!’”  Jesus’ heart breaks for the city because all who lived there had been made for glory but had settled for ruins.  And yet, his broken heart does not lead him away from but directly into the very heart of the city, where he sacrifices everything, his very life, that one day glory would rise again from among the ruins.


Listen to me.  This is God’s vision, a city restored to its intended glory.  In fact, did you know that when God gives us in scripture a picture of heaven, a vision of the day when Christ will return and make all things right again, the vision God gives us is the vision of a city.  As I read from Revelation 21, the second to last chapter in the Bible, listen to the vision God gives of the earth and its people after all has been restored.


Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.[7]


The Apostle John, who wrote Revelation, tells us then that in this city people will live face to face with God and that there will never again be any more death, or mourning, or crying or pain.  He goes on, then, to describe the city itself.


It has a great, high wall with twelve gates…and the wall of the city has twelve foundations…The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass…The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light…It’s gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there…The river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flows through the middle of the street of the city…Nothing accursed will be found there any more.[8]


You know what’s most amazing about this heavenly city which will be built on earth?  Scripture makes clear that it will not have been built by scratch.  It will be cultivated.  This city is, literally, Jerusalem as God always intended Jerusalem and as God is even now making Jerusalem to be.  It’s also Rome, and Bejing, and New York, and Sacramento, each finally displayed in all their long-intended glory and free, completely and forever, from ruin.  You see, it has never been God’s intention to ultimately destroy the cities of this world.  In fact, it’s never God’s intention to destroy any of his creation.  God’s intention, rather, has always been to renew creation.  When the dead body of Jesus was, on the third day, raised to life and restored in resurrection to its full and permanent glory, God signaled that this was what he intended to do with all creation.  The resurrected Christ is, in fact, the firstfruits of all who trust in him.[9]  What God did for Jesus God wants to do for the city.


I believe that God is even now working, and has long been at work, to bring the city, even our city, out of ruins and back towards glory.  Such ultimate glory will not be revealed until the end of time, but that does not mean that we cannot see stunning glimpses of it even now.  And if we share God’s heart as Nehemiah shared God’s heart, we can follow God’s leading into the city, into our very neighborhoods, so that we can join God in this eternal work.  Brick by brick, sacred and beloved human soul by sacred and beloved human soul.


Of course, if you know the rest of Nehemiah’s story you know that things did not come easy for him.  He did, in fact, go to Jerusalem and begin to build the wall.  God used this ordinary cupbearer to do extraordinary things in that city at that time.  It did not come easy, however.  It never does.  If you’ve read the story you know that there were plenty of challenges and set backs along the way.  But Nehemiah did not give up on the city for God does not give up on the city.  Nehemiah knew, as I pray that we also know, that God has in store for the city, even for our city, a glorious future.







The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Re-read the passage from Nehemiah.  What do you notice here?


Why do you think Nehemiah cared so much for a city he had never even visited?


When Nehemiah heard how his city was in ruins he wept for many days.  Have you ever had a similar reaction after hearing of the state of things in your own city?


Nehemiah made great personal sacrifices for the sake of others who were suffering.  Who is somebody you know today who is doing something similar in our time and for our city?


What is one thing you think Jesus is telling you to do to for the sake of those in our city who struggle and/or suffer?  What is one way you might this week begin making a sacrifice of your comfort or convenience of these others?


There is a group in our church praying about and dreaming about how we might use our new building to serve our city.  Do you have any ideas?  (If so, we’d love to hear them!)


Others have said that we, as humans, are “glorious ruins”, which means that our cities, as masses of humanity, are high concentrations of “glorious ruins”.  What do you think of this image?


What do you think of the fact that heaven is pictured in the Bible as a city come down from heaven and established in glory on earth?  (See Revelation 21)  Is this how you have always pictured heaven?




[1] You can read about this in Ezra 4.

[2] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 4, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 681.

[3] Sitting was a customary position of mourning in those days, as was fasting.  Think about it, when you have been grief stricken in your life usually the last thing you want to do is eat, which is interesting because when people lose a loved one the thing we always want to bring them is probably the last thing they want, food.

[4] Nehemiah 1:6-7.

[5] Nehemiah 1:10.

[6] Nehemiah 1:11.

[7] Revelation 21:1-2.

[8] Revelation 21-22, selected verses.

[9] See I Corinthians 15:20-23.