Over the next few weeks our Bible readings and sermons at St John’s will be based on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.
The central character of this book is a man called Nehemiah. A man who faced hardship and opposition – and who oversaw a major building project. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who lived in Persia in the 5th century BC. One hundred years earlier many Jews had returned to Jerusalem when they were relased from exile in Babylon. But Nehemiah’s family had stayed behind, and Nehemiah himself now served as a cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes.
As the book unfolds, we shall see that God had placed Nehemiah in this influential position so he could help his people back home in Palestine. Nehemiah was God’s man in the right place at the right time!
Nehemiah seems to be an ideal book for us to study together at St John’s at this time – like Nehemiah, we all face hardships and challenges caused by coronavirus. And like Nehemiah, as a church we are in the midst of a significant building project.
As we look at Nehemiah, I hope we will all be inspired and guided by this great man of God. A man of faith who trusted the Lord, a man who got through tough times, a man who achieved great things for God.
What’s your COVID-19 coping strategy?
As we enter our sixth week of national lockdown, I wonder what “coping strategies” you have adopted? What new habits have you formed to survive self-isolation and social distancing?
Here in the Weston household we have made sure we’ve gone for a daily walk around the village, we’ve binge-watched TV together, we’ve played badminton in our back garden and we’ve spent lots of time chasing baby Emma around the house now that she’s learnt to crawl!
In our opening passage from Nehemiah this morning, we discover the coping strategies that he adopted when confronted with bad news. We see three wise ways Nehemiah responded to some troubling reports from his homeland.
Verse 3 this morning tells us the bad news that Nehemiah received. His brother Hanani comes to him and says “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
Over one hundred years earlier the Babylonian army had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem when they ransacked the city and took its population into exile. The Jewish people had since returned home, but the city’s walls remained in ruin.
This was more than just a security risk to the city – it was a spiritual crisis as well. You see, Jerusalem was supposed to be the city of God. It was where God’s Temple sat. It was supposed to be the place on the planet where Heaven came closest to Earth. For the walls of Jerusalem to lie in ruin was a security risk to its population and brought shame on God’s name. No foreigner would believe the God of Israel was the one true God whilst his city walls lay waste.
Nehemiah responds to this dreadful news with mourning, with prayer and with action. Three responses we can and should make during our coronavirus crisis today.
A time to MOURN
Firstly, Nehemiah mourns. In verse 4 tells us that when he heard these things, he “sat down and wept. For some days [he] mourned and fasted”. There are times in life when it is right to mourn. When faced with the loss of a loved one, for example, it is entirely right and proper to be deeply, deeply sad. The Bible uses the word “lament”, to refer to those times in life when we mourn and grieve the loss of good people and good things. Even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, didn’t he?
• As Christians today, we should be mourning the loss of those who have succumbed to COVID-19.
• It is also right for us to lament the fact that we cannot meet up with friends and family during this lockdown.
• We should be sad too that we cannot gather physically as a Church fellowship for the time being.
• And we can grieve that our own buidling project has come to a standstill.
It is right and proper to lament such sad things – just as Nehemiah mourned over the state of Jersualem.
A time to PRAY
But mourning isn’t the only appropriate reaction to sad circumstnces. As Christians we can and should turn to prayer.
Prayer was certainly part of Nehemiah’s coping strategy, wasn’t it? In verses 5 to 11 we get to listen in to a long prayer that Nehemiah utters before God. Nehemiah comes before the Lord of Heaven and Earth, “the great and awesome God”, and asks him to restore his city and its walls.
If we had time to dissect this prayer, we would see that Nehemiah also asks forgiveness for his own and his people’s sins – sins that had caused the destruction of Jerusalem in the first place. And he asks God to draw people back to himself from “the farthest horizon” – from the four corners of the earth.
So what should we be praying during the present pandemic? Here’s a few quick suggestions:
A time to ACT
The third and final element of Nehemiah’s coping strategy is action. We heard about this in chapter 2 today, didn’t we? Nehemiah used his influential position to ask the Persian king for the time and resources he would need to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
By God’s grace, the king agreed to Nehemiah’s requests, and granted him safe passage to Jerusalem. You see, Nehemiah was a man of action, as well as a man of prayer.
Next week we shall see what happened when Nehemiah got to work on the wall of Jerusalem. But what actions can we take today? How can we advance the kingdom of God in a time of social distancing? Well again, here are a few suggestions:
Confronted with bad news, Nehemiah responded with rightful mourning, with prayer and with action. May we respond to our current crisis in the same good and godly way!
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