This sermon was given by Reverend Jason Carle, Pastor of Overland Park Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kansas on October 21, 2018. The following is a transcript of the scripture lessons and sermon.
Old Testament Lesson
The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 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. 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.”
When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!”
At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Prayer is a feature in jokes sometimes. This is an old joke–I’m sure I told you before–but I’m only going to tell you the beginning of it. So there was a man, and there was a hurricane coming. And he said to himself “I’m gonna stay here. The Lord will save me.” And then the flood waters started to come. The floods started to rise up to the base of his house and a boat came by. Those in the boat saw the man sit on the front porch, and they yelled at the man to come with them. The man said, “No no. God’s gonna save me.”
We know how this joke. The waters rise, he climbs higher. The waters rise, he climbs higher. One of the things that I think about when I hear this prayer is that it reminds me of what faith is about. It reminds me that what we pray is what we actually believe. What we pray is what we actually believe. So, for instance, in this man’s case, he believed that God would come down out of heaven and personally save him from the flood.
Let’s skip ahead to the ending: the man drowns. He goes to heaven and says, “Lord why didn’t you save me?” The Lord replies, “I sent two boats and a helicopter and you didn’t get on.” But, the man believed that there was only one way that the prayer could be fulfilled and he lived into it. Because prayer, whether it is good or bad, it betrays or enlightens what we really believe about who God is and how God works in the world. In church history, it’s the phrase Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. “What I pray is what I believe.”
Today in scripture, we hear the beginning about a story about Nehemiah. What we read today was a prayer of deep need. To understand why this need is there, we need to back up and remember how Jerusalem got to where it was. The Babylonians came and sacked the city. Then, seventy years passed, and the exiles from Jerusalem lived in Babylon. A man named Cyrus the Persian comes down, conquers Babylon, and tells everybody to go home. And so they do. Now, I say ‘home’ loosely, because they of course hadn’t been there 70 years. For those of you younger than 70 years, imagine your parents and grandparents telling you to pack to go home. What would your reaction be? Mine would be, “Home? I don’t want to go home! Home is right here!”
And yet this is who prophet Isaiah is preaching to, especially towards the end of the book of Isaiah. They managed to convince a lot of people to go home. But when they get there, it’s a mess. The walls had been torn down and there was no protection. It was not the place of civilization or worship they had hoped for. So they started rebuilding the temple and as soon as they did that the people who had been living there along said “No, this is not a good idea.” Because what do people hate? Change. For 70 years there had been no temple and there had their own way of doing things. Because Persia had a very big bureaucracy, that meant that there were lots of ways to slow down the building of anything.
This is the word Nehemiah had been receiving. He is a cupbearer to the king of Persia. And he hears the story and he hears the cry. What is a city without a wall? Now, this is a foreign concept to us in modern day language. We have much better armaments and walls serve no purpose. Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is this: what is a city with no highway? What is a city with no downtown? What is a city that has no identity?
For Nehemiah and for the Jewish people of his time, this was the call of Nehemiah’s heart. As long as there was no wall, the people of Jerusalem would be vulnerable to attacks. Because we know that security is important. Now, I am not making any sort of political connection between then and our climate now. What I do want to point out, though, is that Nehemiah feels this need, that the people that he loves have nothing to protect them. And he also views it as a symbol of shame against God’s power. And so he prays.
There are two parts of his prayer. He establishes identity of who he is and who his people are. He says, “Lord, you gave us commandments. You are awesome and merciful, and we broke them all. It’s why we were driven out of Babylon. Lord, that’s who we are.” He’s not terribly proud of himself, of his people. He knows they have failed. But then he also turns this and gives another piece of identity and he says, “Lord, you are merciful. Lord, this is who you are. You are merciful.”
It will come as no surprise that Nehemiah manages to get the wall built. But the focus I have today on the prayer and also the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. There are a few things Jesus says that are important. Something that I try to adhere to but do not succeed with is when he says “do not use a lot of words for your father already knows what you need.” The second is that Jesus outlines what his needs are in the same way that Nehemiah does. For Jesus, he says for us to tell God what we need.
Our father, who art in heaven; we know where God is. Holy is your name; your name is sacred and needs to be revered. Thy kingdom come; we hope God’s kingdom will come not because we want the end of the world but because that will be the beginning of a new creation. Your will be done; we want God’s will to be done in all of our lives. On earth as it is in heaven.
And there is this bit–Give us this day our daily bread. That is not a polite request. That is the same verb tense that I use when I tell my children to pick up their room. DO this. Give us this day our daily bread. Deliver us from evil. These are things that we are saying this is what we need.
The thing about Nehemiah’s prayer and the prayer that Christ teaches us is that what God asks of us is to be honest with where we are and what we need. If we are a broken people who yearn for healing, if we are a church that longs to grow and we are not praying for it, then we don’t actually believe it. If we are a church that longs to be a part of a community then we have to pray for the benefit of that community. We have to be like Nehemiah and say “this cannot stand.”
What we pray for is what we believe. So I invite you to reflect and think: what do you pray for? What do you believe? May God’s kingdom done. May God’s will be done. Amen.