A Leader from the Knees Up

Series: Preacher: Date: May 3, 2015 Scripture Reference: Nehemiah 1:1-11

One of the most popular min-series ever produced is HBO’s Band of Brothers which tells the story of EASY COMPANY—the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne—perhaps the best known unit in WW2. If you’ve seen the series or read Stephen Ambrose’s non-fiction book of the same title, then you know there were lots of memorable characters in the 506th—Compton, Lipton, Malarky, Boyle, etc. but the one that stands out is a young officer named Richard Winters—and the reason he stands out is the fact that he was such a great leader. Winters was not just brave and selfless—he was also wise in that he seemed to always instinctively know what to do even in the heat of battle—and it didn’t take his men long to realize how blessed they were to have him at the helm. They knew from experience that regular soldiers pay a high price when a commanding officer doesn’t know how to lead. So when they recognized Winters’ skill they followed him wherever he took them—and that meant they fought in most of the major battles of WW2 beginning with D-Day, through the Battle of the Bulge and beyond.

I bring this up because today we are beginning a study of one of the greatest leaders of all time—someone I’m fairly certain Winters knew about and respected. This man not only possessed an exceptional personal philosophy of leadership, but he LIVED IT OUT as well. Like Winters, in his lifetime he rose from total obscurity to national recognition. His book bears his name: Nehemiah—and it’s not only the FIRST book on leadership ever written—I would say it’s the GREATEST as well.

We’re going to spend the next several weeks studying this book because our world—our church needs leaders. In fact, this NEED is part of the vision for this year. True—we have some great leaders in place—but we need more. One reason this is true is our older—more mature—corps of leaders are aging.  We need more of the younger generation to step in. We need individuals to step in to vital leadership roles in fellowship, ushering, and starting and teaching SS classes. Plus—regardless of the age issue, the more leaders we have the more we can do for our Lord.  So as we go through this study I challenge each of you to prayerfully seek the answer to this question: “Is God calling me to a leadership role?”

Now—what do we mean when we use the word “leadership?”  If I were asked to define it in one single word, the word would be “influence”—because you lead someone to the measure by which you influence them. President Harry Truman must have agreed to this definition because he often referred to leaders as people who can get others to do what they don’t want to do—and make them love doing it.

Okay—before we get into our text for today let’s take a look at the setting—the background—and to do that we need to go way back—to the beginning of Jewish history. You should remember from our study of The Story a couple years back that Jewish history started with Abraham. But it was not until a thousand years later that Israel took on world significance under the leadership of three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon—especially David. During his 42-year reign Israel’s flag flew proudly over the nation—and it was finally recognized by other nations as a major military power. As his death was nearing, David turned his throne over to his son Solomon. And, if you know THIS part of THE STORY, you know that in the last part of his reign Solomon had compromised so obviously with the world that God judged him. He didn’t do it during his lifetime for the sake of his father David but when Solomon died there was a split. Israel became a divided kingdom. There were ten tribes in the north based in Samaria and the other two were in the south—in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. During this two-kingdom period the north was called Israel and the south Judah.

Both nations reached their darkest hour—NOT when they were attacked from WITHOUT but when they were attacked from WITHIN as the walls of their spiritual heritage began to crumble. This “crumbling” happened to Israel first—and God judged them for this by allowing Assyria to invade in 722B.C. From that date on, the northern ten tribes disappeared from history. They were absorbed into the fallen culture around them and never heard from again. We refer to them as the ten lost tribes. The southern kingdom of Judah held on a little longer—but in 586BC they were judged as well—as Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon invaded. When he did the capital, Jerusalem, was totally destroyed. To help you comprehend the destruction—think of pictures I’m sure you’ve seen of Berlin or Tokyo at the end of WW2.  I mean, after the Babylonian takeover, Jerusalem was in similar shape. It was totally leveled. The magnificent city where God’s glory was once so prominently displayed was destroyed. The wall around the city lay in ruins and wild dogs began to roam the streets as the conquering armies of Babylon marched back home with all the treasures of Judah. The survivors were bound together with chains and taken along as well. They walked more than 800 miles to their new “home.” Sadly, tragically, under Nebuchadnezzar and his wicked son, the Jews lived as they had centuries before in Egypt, as slaves to a foreign power.

But God didn’t forget them. He had a purpose and a plan and here’s how it unfolded.  In 539BC the Medes and the Persians invaded Babylon and overthrew it and a King named Cyrus took over. They set up their capital in the city of Susa.  2nd Chronicles 36:22 says, “Now in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, in order to fulfill the Word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah—the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia.” Cyrus sent out a proclamation that said, “The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him and let him go up!”

So—God used Cyrus to begin sending the Hebrew captives back to Jerusalem—the city that was destroyed so long ago. Some Bible historians call this “The Second Exodus” and during this exodus the Jews returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of three men. “Company A” left first with Zerubbabel as their commanding officer. About 80 years later another group—let’s call them “Company B” left Babylon with Ezra as commander. By now of course, “Cyrus” had died by this time and the nation was led by a king named Artaxerxes. During his reign—thirteen years after Ezra’s group returned—Nehemiah, led “Company C” back to the destroyed city. Zerubbabel and Ezra’s focus was on rebuilding the temple. Nehemiah’s focus was on rebuilding the walls around the city that had been destroyed 141 years earlier—because of course without the walls the temple and the city had no protection.

That’s a quick review of the history to this point—but let me challenge you to a more thorough study of the background by reading a trilogy of Old Testament books—Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah. If you read this Old Testament trilogy you’ll see that, like Esther, Nehemiah was in the right place at the right time. God didn’t have him return with a prior group because He needed him in Susa until the time was right—when he was given a very important job in the Persian government. You see, in the years after the 2nd group left Nehemiah rose to a very lofty position. He became the official Cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. Now I know that doesn’t sound very impressive. It sounds more like a dishwasher or at best a butler or a waiter. But the cupbearer was a VERY important position.  He tasted the wine before the king drank it and he tasted the food before the king ate it. This was to prevent the king from being poisoned—And I admit it doesn’t have a very high skill set—drink and if it’s not poisoned you keep your job.  But laying your life on the line like that day after day for the monarch helped develop a deep friendship between the two. In fact, it has been suggested that the cupbearer had more influence on the monarch than anyone else—except his wife. Think of him as a cabinet minister or chief of staff—and you get the idea.

Many cupbearers made money on the side by agreeing to put in a good word with the king for someone who wanted VIP treatment—or who wanted a military contract. Well, Nehemiah used his friendship for himself because he had a burden of his own. He had heard how bad the conditions were in Jerusalem with no walls of protection—and he knew that Artaxerxes could help.

Okay, take your Bibles and turn to Nehemiah. Follow along as we read chapter 1 verses 1-11.

1 – The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislevin the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa,

2 – Hanani,one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

3 – They said to me, “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.”

4 – When I heard these things, I sat down and wept.For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of Heaven.

5 – Then I said: “Lord, the God of Heaven, the great and awesome God,Who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments,

6 – let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night for Your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against You.

7 – We have acted very wickedly toward You. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws You gave Your servant Moses.

8 – “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations,

9 – but if you return to Me and obey My commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for My Name.’

10 – “They are Your servants and Your people, whom You redeemed by Your great strength and Your mighty hand.

11- Lord, let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of this Your servant and to the prayer of Your servants who delight in revering Your name. Give Your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” I was cupbearer to the king.”

Now when we face problems—when lives lie in ruin—when like the city of Jerusalem it’s obvious that rebuilding is needed—the first question that comes to mind is WHERE DO WE BEGIN?  I mean, when it’s obvious that something needs rebuilding usually the hardest part is getting started. I’m thinking about “wall-shattering times” like:

  • When someone gets a devastating diagnosis that will change their life
  • When a spouse leaves saying he or she doesn’t want to be married any more
  • When someone loses their job
  • When a loved one dies
  • When a city like Baltimore lies in ruin

In times like these when the walls fall down we all ask, “What are we supposed to do now? What is the first step to rebuilding?’ Nehemiah’s leadership style teaches us that the best place to begin is on our knees. No matter how extensive the “destruction” we must always begin with prayer. The fact is PRAYER is one of the overriding themes of this book and the secret to Nehemiah’s success. The prayer we just read is the first of 12 different prayers recorded in his book so it’s obvious that prayer gave Nehemiah the perspective he needed to be an effective leader.  Prayer widened his horizons, sharpened his vision and dwarfed his anxieties.

Nehemiah’s public life was the outflow of his personal life—a life that was steeped in and shaped by a lifestyle of prayer. In fact you could look at this little book as Nehemiah’s prayer journal. Well, in this—the first prayer Nehemiah recorded we see the process prayer must take for all leaders—for all who would rebuild a “wall.” I am indebted to Brian Bill for my alliterative outline today.

(1) The first step is CONCERN.

You see, in order to be motivated to pray—we must feel concern for what has happened.

Nehemiah tells us that a brother—a close friend—named Hanani came from Judah and Nehemiah sought him out and questioned him about the people who had returned—and about the capital city of Jerusalem. The Hebrew word for “questioned” means “to DEMAND” an answer.  It tells us Nehemiah was GREATLY concerned about what was happening in Jerusalem. Now—with his cushy job he could have insulated himself from the problems of the people in Jerusalem be he didn’t. He found Hanani and asked for a first hand report. You see, even though Nehemiah had never been to Jerusalem he was a Jew who knew the history of his people and he was concerned.  In this attitude he was obeying the instruction for exiles found in Jeremiah 51:50 where it says: “Remember the Lord in a distant land and think on Jerusalem.”

Well, Hanani reported, “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.”

The Hebrew word that we translate as “great trouble” literally means “misery” or “calamity.” In other words, Hanani was saying that the people who had returned were in a vulnerable position and were suffering for it. In fact, he said they were “in disgrace” and that’s a Hebrew word that means “sharp” or “cutting” “penetrating” or “piercing.” The idea is one of bearing the brunt of cutting words—which tells us the Jews were being criticized and slandered by people who were the enemies of the faith.

All this news broke Nehemiah’s heart.  When he heard this report he hit the ground and began to weep.  Much like Jesus would do hundreds of years later as HE looked out over Jerusalem—Nehemiah wept. He also fasted and prayed for four months. These are signs of deep concern for the problem.

You know, many times we don’t want to face the facts about the problems of others.  But we must face the truth because awareness creates desperation and desperation stirs our passion for prayer. I’m thinking about what happened in Baltimore this past week.  Many people don’t want to hear the problems that led up to all the violence. They just want to stay removed and judge the behavior of others.  Sadly, many of us are like that when it comes to “fallen-wall-caliber problems.” We’d prefer to be ignorant. We think “TMI — not my concern.”

  • We don’t want to know about racial problems.
  • We don’t want to know about world hunger.
  • We don’t want to hear about Christians being persecuted and killed in a foreign land.

But if we KNEW the facts we would pray because awareness creates the desperation that leads to prayer.

Kyle Idleman tells of a time he took a group from his church in Louisville to visit the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. When they arrived the pastor, Jim Cymbala met them and took them to a prayer service filled with 4000 church members. All they did for four hours was pray—pray passionately. Idleman asked him, “How do you get 4000 people to come and do nothing but pray?” Cymbala replied, “You have to create an APPETITE for prayer. This appetite grows when we are DESPERATE. It’s probably easier for us to do here in downtown Brooklyn than it is in Louisville. You see, the fact is we ARE desperate here in NYC. Our people are unemployed. Many are addicted to drugs or have family members who are enslaved to that stuff.  Many come from abuse backgrounds. Our people ARE desperate. They know how much they need God. That’s why they come in such numbers to pray.”

Listen Redland—our world is full of “fallen wall situations” so it needs us to pray.  This means we need to watch the news. We need to hear about hungry children. We need to read about earthquakes and Ebola outbreaks. We need to seek out reports like Nehemiah did because if we don’t KNOW we won’t be DESPERATE and if we are not desperate we will not be a PRAYING church—a church that goes to GOD for help in times like these.

Nehemiah’s prayer journal shows us that prayers tend to spike in times of desperation—times when we acknowledge the fact that we can’t make it on our own—times we realize just how much we need God. I remember just such a spike back when my dad was alive.  We had driven over to Dover for a visit one Friday.  I showed my dad the new laptop Redland had just purchased for me to use. Dad never had a laptop as a pastor. He used a typewriter.  For you young people here is what a typewriter looks like. My dad wore out a typewriter about every three years. And he was fascinated at how I could use my laptop to cut and paste my sermon before printing it out.  I pulled up my sermon for the following Sunday and let him mess with it a bit—trying out things like that cut and paste feature and how instantly change the font size, etc.

Well, I led dad play a bit and stepped away to talk to mom for a moment. Then I heard my dad cry out so I went to check on him. His face was white as a sheet and he apologized and said, “Mark—I am so sorry—but I seem to have deleted your sermon. I don’t know what I did wrong. I know how this must make you feel. I’m sure you’re panicking right now. I’m so sorry!”

I checked and he was right. The sermon was gone. I told dad not to worry—even though I was VERY worried. I found a quiet place in the house and started to re-do my sermon using some hand-written notes I had with me. And let me tell you. I prayed when I wrote the sermon the first time. But the SECOND time—the time I re-wrote it that Friday night—I prayed MORE because I was desperate.  I REALLY prayed because I really needed GOD’s help to remember what I had written over the past week.

That’s the way it is with crisis—when we feel desperate we see the need to pray more clearly than at any other time. And as Nehemiah’s heart broke over the report from Hanani—his concern for the people of Jerusalem grew and he felt the desperate need to pray—asking for God’s help.

(2) The second step in the prayer process is CONVICTION.

In other words we pray—we go to God in our desperation—because we BELIEVE He loves us and cares about our problems. We pray because of our CONVICTION that God is both willing to help and powerful enough to do so. I guess you could say we go from being DESPERATE to being DEPENDENT on God. We see this in Nehemiah’s prayer where he talks about God’s character. Look at verses 5 and 6. “Lord, the God of Heaven, the great and awesome God,Who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear be attentive— and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night for Your servants, the people of Israel.”  Nehemiah called God “Lord” because he knew—he believed—it was his CONVICTION—that God was above all and over ALL.  I mean Nehemiah knew that his boss, Artaxerxes, was the greatest and mightiest on earth but compared to God Artaxerxes was nothing.

Well we go to our KNEES for the same reason. We know WHO God is—and this knowledge puts all things into proper perspective. We see our problems through the filter of His power and love.  So—in this process of our prayer—like Nehemiah—we don’t start with petition—we don’t START with asking God for help. No—we begin by ADORING GOD—praising Him for Who He is.

And, the fact is, we don’t need any training for petition—asking God for things. That comes natural for us. I was reminded of this fact this past week as we watched our grandchildren for five days while Daniel and Ashley were in California. Lydia and Joel had no problem asking me for cookies or ice cream or for cinnamon rolls for breakfast or to watch their favorite movie. They say, “Grandad, can I have this—or can I do that? Grandad would you play with me? Grandad would you read me a book? Grandad would you get me a drink of water?” Now—I love answering their petitions. I love getting them things. But Lydia and Joel never start by saying, “Grandad—you are the greatest—the most wise—the most loving grandad in the world—can I have a drink of water?” Of course not—that’s the way all children are—and it’s also the way we adults are as God’s children. We almost always begin our prayers with petition. “God help me with this. God give me a job. God heal me of my illness. God fix the problem.” And of course God hears those prayers but we should begin as Nehemiah did with times of praise and adoration—things that remind us how BIG God is.

I’m saying we are more effective pray-ers as we learn to pray according to God’s character and power. And Nehemiah is a great example of this for he prayed according to God’s faithfulness to keep His PROMISES. Look at verses 8ff where he prays, “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to Me and obey My commands—then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for My Name.’

Someone has calculated that there are over 7,000 promises in the Bible.  The better we know the Word of God, the better we will be able to pray confidently in accordance with those promises. Effective pray-ers are Christians who know what God has promised to do. They acknowledge this aspect of God’s character—HIS GREAT FAITHFULNESS—and pray accordingly. They say things like, “God You promised to deliver us from temptation. Please deliver me now.” Or “Father God, You promised to work in all things for my good—help me to see the good that can come from this hardship I’m facing.” Or “God you promised to be with me always. I feel so alone and afraid. Be with me now.” Nehemiah’s example teaches us that our prayers must be bathed in the conviction of Who God is.

(3) The third step is CONFESSION.

In our prayer we must admit to God our part in the problem—the part we played that led to the “walls coming down.” Nehemiah did this. After becoming concerned about the problem and expressing his conviction about God’s character, Nehemiah is now moved to admit his sin and the sins of his people. Look at verse 7. “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against You. We have acted very wickedlytoward You. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws You gave Your servant Moses.” You see, it’s one thing to be concerned and to even have a firm conviction of Who God is. It’s another thing to actually confess that it wasn’t God’s fault all this happened.

Let’s face it. Many of us never get this far.  We might feel bad about our sins or be concerned about how things are going but we never humble ourselves and admit this to God. And this is the reason our prayer life is not more effective because many times—most of the time—our sin is the reason for our problems. We are the reason walls have come down. Confession is an essential part of prayer “wall-RE-building prayer.” I think part of rebuilding Baltimore—part of healing the racial divide in our nation—is going to be white Christians admitting that racism existed in prior generations—and still exists today.  That kind of confession will break down the walls of defensiveness and help healing to begin.

In fact, both sides need to do that—we must be leaders like Nehemiah who humble themselves before God and each other and confess our part in the problem. This must always happen before walls can be rebuilt.

This week I read about attorney named “A.M. Marty Stroud III,” of Shreveport, Louisiana who was the lead prosecutor in the December 1984 first-degree murder trial of Glenn Ford. Ford was sentenced to death for the death of a Shreveport jeweler.  Ford was released from prison March 11, 2014, after the state admitted new evidence proving Ford was not the killer. A year later (March 2015), Stroud wrote a brutally honest apology for  The Shreveport Times. He said, “In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.  To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie And Justice for All, ‘Winning became everything.’[As a result], Mr. Ford spent 30 years of his life in a small, dingy cell. Lighting was poor, heating and cooling were almost non-existent, food bordered on the uneatable. After the death verdict [was handed down], I went out with others and celebrated with a few rounds of drinks. That’s sick. I had been entrusted with the duty to seek the death of a fellow human being, a very solemn task that certainly did not warrant any ‘celebration.’ In my rebuttal argument during the penalty phase of the trial, I mocked Mr. Ford, stating that this man wanted to stay alive so he could be given the opportunity to prove his innocence. How totally wrong I was!  I apologize to Glenn Ford for all the misery I have caused him and his family. I apologize to the [victim’s family] for giving them the false hope of some closure. I apologize to the members of the jury for not having all of the story that should have been disclosed to them.  I apologize to the court in not having been more diligent in my duty.”

Stroud and Nehemiah set good examples for us to follow because confession is an essential part of healing—rebuilding.

(4) The final step is COMMITMENT.

We see this in verse 11 where Nehemiah pledges to go to Artaxerxes to ask for help. He says,

“Lord, let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of this Your servant and to the prayer of Your servants who delight in revering Your name. Give Your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” Nehemiah wasn’t just going to pray. He was committed to getting off his knees and doing something about the problem. It has been said that “prayer is not getting man’s will done in Heaven but getting God’s will done on earth.” And I like that—because prayer is not just supplication—it’s submission. It’s saying, “God I’m submitting myself to You. Use me according to Your will to help.”And that’s what Nehemiah did. He didn’t pray for God to send someone else. He simply said, “God here am I use me.” He knew he would have to approach the king and request a three-year leave of absence so he asked God for success—and pardon the additional Hebrew study—but this word we translate as “success” meant “to break out or push forward.”  Nehemiah wanted to see God break out on his behalf when we went in front of the king to make his request. He was claiming yet another promise of God from Proverbs 22:1 where it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord. He directs it like a watercourse where He pleases.”

Someone has said that the key word in this book is the word “so,” which occurs 32 different times.  Again and again Nehemiah assesses the situation, is moved to concern, and “so” is compelled to action. The true measure of our concern is whether or not we are willing to make a commitment to get involved.  Martin Luther put it this way,  “Pray as if everything depends on God, then work as if everything depends on you.”

About 50 years ago David Wilkerson was a pastor in rural Pennsylvania.  One night he came across an article in TIME magazine about some teen-aged gang members on trial for murder in NYC. As he looked at sketches made by the courtroom, he was overwhelmed by the hate in these young men’s eyes. He couldn’t ignore it. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. It broke his heart. David Wilkerson was a nobody. He was just a country preacher from a tiny church, living in a roach infested parsonage. He had no influence, no resources at his disposal.  He didn’t even have a decent car. But he couldn’t stop thinking about those kids. His heart was broken for them. You probably know what happened. David Wilkerson cared enough to commit himself to help. He went to New York to share the Gospel with those young men.  What eventually happened was that he developed TEEN CHALLENGE, which later became World Challenge which is devoted to reaching kids-at-risk around the globe. He also founded Times Square Church in NYC where more than 8,000 people worship each week. It started because his heart was broken over the broken lives of some kids living in a ghetto in another city, in another state. His concern and his understanding of God’s character let him to commit to do something.

This morning I want us to do our time of commitment a bit differently. I want to call us as a church to a time of prayer. I want to challenge us to get on our knees before God. You can do this at your seats or in the aisles.  Or—you can come forward and pray. We have our kneeling benches out if you’d like to use them or you can just come to the front and kneel. You can pray by yourself or ask me or Bobby or Kevin to pray with you. You can pray for the city of Baltimore or the people in Tibet. You can pray for your self—a situation in your life where rebuilding is needed. As you pray I would remind you that Jesus is our Nehemiah. We are the city that is broken and destroyed.  Our lives are broken and He longs for us to hand Him the broken pieces so He can rebuild. So let’s PRAY and ask Him to do that. Of course if you have other decisions to make—such as professing your faith in Jesus or asking to join our church, come.

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