Monday, January 03, 2011

Nehemiah 1:4-11a - “Nehemiah’s Prayer: Stakes into the Ground”

New Year’s Eve (Readings for Service of Prayer)
Friday, December 31, 2010

Nehemiah was a Jew serving in the royal court of the king of Persia. Nehemiah was one of the many Jews living in Persia because of the exile that had begun over 40 years earlier.

Now the previous Persian king had let some of the Jews go back to Israel, go back to live there, and they went back and started rebuilding the temple.

But the thing is, even though they rebuilt the temple, they hadn’t been able to rebuild the walls around the city.

When Nehemiah heard that the city walls were still broken, that parts of Jerusalem still were in ruins, that’s what causes him to weep and fast and pray, which is where we find him at the beginning of the reading for tonight. We find Nehemiah for many days is mourning and praying, and the rest of the text shows us his prayer.

In that prayer, Nehemiah asks God for three things. He asks God to forgive their sins, restore Israel, and give him success when he goes before the Persian king. Nehemiah confesses the sins of the people and his own sins, asking God for forgiveness and mercy. Then Nehemiah pleas with God for Israel to be restored, rebuilt, renewed, to become the place of God’s people once again. Finally, Nehemiah prays that he’ll have success in going before the Persian king, because he has it in mind to go and ask the king for permission to go back and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

Those are Nehemiah’s requests in prayer, but what I really want us to see tonight is how Nehemiah builds his prayer, how Nehemiah puts his prayer together, because Nehemiah’s prayer is built on his knowledge of God, the things he knows about God, the things he believes about the Lord. That’s where our own prayers can begin, that’s how we can build our prayers, build on who God is, what kind of God He is, what He has already done, the God He has revealed Himself to be.

Look at the prayer with me in the bulletin. Look and see the ways in which Nehemiah appeals to who God is, His characteristics.

Essentially there are five things that Nehemiah appeals to as he makes his requests. He starts by addressing God as the God of heaven—appealing to God’s role in the world, the Creator and ruler of all things.

Then Nehemiah declares God to be great and awesome—meaning tremendously powerful, tremendously greater than anything we can imagine.

Next Nehemiah states that God is One who keeps His covenant of love. Nehemiah is appealing to the fact that God has kept His promise to love His people in the past, has made a covenant with the people, a promise to watch over His people.

Then a little later in the prayer Nehemiah reminds God that God had promised to gather His people from exile, to bring His people back to the land.

Finally, Nehemiah appeals to the fact that the people are His people and He has redeemed them, bought them with His great strength and mighty hand.

We call these things the grounds of the prayer, the grounds on which Nehemiah is making his request, the grounds, the foundation, the basis for his prayer. The grounds are the reason for believing that God will listen, is able to answer the prayer, will answer the prayer.

So essentially, there are five grounds in this prayer: God is the God of heaven, He is Great and awesome, He keeps His covenant of love, He promised to gather people from exile, and the people are His people whom He redeemed with great strength.

Five grounds, five reasons that God should listen, five reasons to believe that God can answer this prayer, five foundations for believing in the power of this prayer.
How many of you have ever slept in a tent?

(holding up some tent stakes) Can you see these out there? These are some tent stakes, and while this seems to be the wrong time of year, I want you to think about camping with me for a moment. If you’ve never slept in a tent, I trust you still realize that tent stakes hold a tent in place.

Now whether it was on one of my canoe trips or one of the backpacking trips that Susan and I did, whenever we pushed those stakes in the ground, there was always a little prayer that the stakes would hold through whatever kind of weather we experienced, that the stakes would hold through wind and rain and keep that tent standing. We pushed those stakes into the ground, trusting that the dirt and rocks would hold the stakes in place, trusting that our tent would stay put, trusting that our tent would provide good shelter.

Well, that’s the picture of what it means to ground your prayers. You press the stake into the ground, you trust the ground to hold that stake, you put your trust in that ground to keep you safe and secure.

So, too, in prayer we put our stake in the ground, we put our trust in the grounds we recognize in God, we trust in God’s characteristics, trust in who God is, trust in that ground, trust in that ground to keep us safe and secure.

Nehemiah was overwhelmed by sadness over the fact that Jerusalem was still left unsecure, overwhelmed by sadness for the city of God, and so he goes before God in prayer, goes before God to plea for God’s intervention, and Nehemiah puts a stake in the ground. Nehemiah trusts that ground to hold secure, trusts that ground to keep the people safe and secure.

(Motioning with stake for each ground). Nehemiah trusts that God is the God of heaven, ruler of heaven and Earth.

Nehemiah trusts that God is great and awesome, all-powerful, able to do mighty things.

Nehemiah trusts that God will keep His covenant of love, will maintain His end of the bargain, will keep up His promise to take the people to be His people.

Nehemiah trusts that God will keep His promise to gather the people from exile, to bring the people back to Jerusalem and the land.

Finally, Nehemiah trusts that the people are God’s people, that He has redeemed them with great strength and a mighty hand, that God has bought His people back from slavery.

It’s a tent with five stakes. It’s a prayer with five grounds. It’s a prayer grounded in who God is, in the kind of God that we have.

And it’s a reminder to us of the many, many grounds we have for believing that God will answer our prayers. Nehemiah lists five grounds for His prayer, but that’s just the beginning. Think of how many different stakes we can put in the ground, how many different characteristics we can list about God to know that He will hear us and love us and answer us.

I mean, God may not always answer our prayers in the way we expect Him to. He answers our prayers in His own way, but still whether the answer is yes or no or maybe, still God answers our prayers. He hears us, love us, watches over us, listens to us, and answers our prayers according to His will.

And if we should start to doubt, if we should start to wonder if God will hear us, if we are worried that God might not care for us, well, that’s where the grounds for our prayer come in, that’s why we put stakes in the ground.

Think about it with Nehemiah. He was about to approach the Persian king for permission to go back and fortify Jerusalem, to make Jerusalem a strong city again, to rebuild a conquered city within the Persian Empire. This wasn’t a small request. This was a great request, one with potentially deadly consequences if the king didn’t like what Nehemiah was suggesting. If the king didn’t like the request, he could’ve had Nehemiah kicked out of his court, arrested, and tried for treason. So Nehemiah is making a huge request before God. Nehemiah is standing there before God, and I’ve got to believe that there was shaking and trembling and fear involved.

But that’s why Nehemiah put those stakes in the ground, that’s why Nehemiah’s prayer is grounded in who God is. When Nehemiah grew afraid, when it was immediately clear how God was going to answer the prayer, well, Nehemiah could still look around and see those five stakes in the ground, still see that the prayer was based on who God is, was based on these incredible truths about God. Nehemiah could look at those five stakes in the ground and trust that the ground was going to hold fast, was going to keep him and the people safe and secure.

Later in the prayers tonight we’ll name some grounds, some reasons to believe that God hears our prayers, some foundations for our prayers. We’ll say that we are the apple of His eye—believing that we are His people. We’ll ask to be in the protection of His wings—essentially saying that we are safe and secure if we are with God. We’ll declare that His presence will give us joy—being with God is a joyful thing. We’ll call God a merciful God—He shows mercy, He holds back the punishment we deserve and shows us love instead. We’ll ask to find our rest in God—knowing that God gives us true rest, true relief from the anxieties of life, true rest for eternity.

Through all of that we’re putting stakes in the ground, we’re asking God to hear our prayers and in the process reminding ourselves of the kind of God we have. When we walk away tonight, we’ll be able to look around and see the stakes holding this tent in place, holding us in place, holding us in faith and watching over us from day to day.

As you go into 2011, realize the God that you have, pray with confidence in the God that you have, put those stakes in the ground, see those stakes in the ground, see the ground, see God for who He is—a God who hears your prayers, will keep you safe and secure, will watch over you in all times and in all places.

And when you pray, put a stake in the ground. Remind yourself of the kind of God you have.

When you’re praying for God to intervene in your life, remember that He is the God of heaven, ruler of heaven and Earth, and is able to intervene in your life.

When you’re praying for God to use His power in your life, remember that He is great and awesome, that He has power over sin, death, and the devil.

When you’re praying for God to forgive your sins, remember that He has already declared you to be His people, to be His child through baptism, to be His possession through Christ. He has promised that you are His, so your sins will not separate you from Him.

When you’re praying that God will strengthen your faith, remember that God has promised to gather His people from exile, that He has promised to bring us back to Himself, has promised to give us eternal life through Christ.

Finally, when you’re praying that God will be with you in the difficult times in your life, remember that you have been redeemed by Him, that He has bought you with the price of His own Son, that You are His and He will not forsake you, He will not abandon you.

There you go, five stakes in the ground for 2011, the five stakes of Nehemiah’s prayer, five stakes for your life, five stakes for your prayers, five stakes in ground that will keep you safe and secure, ground that will keep your tent in place, ground that will keep you in the faith and bring you to the morning of everlasting life.

Trust in the ground. Because God hears your prayers, loves you, and will answer your prayers.