I am an avid reader. I particularly enjoy reading stories about how the human spirit can overcome magnificent odds, such as Will Steger’s book, North to the Pole; Richard Bass’ book, Seven Summits, about climbing the highest mountains on the planet; Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place; and Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer about the perseverance of Dietrick Bonhoeffer facing the Nazi regime. I am presently reading a new Metaxas book, Seven Men and Secrets of Their Greatness.
We have an inspirational story in today’s text. It’s about Nehemiah, who was an ordinary, but highly motivated person. Nehemiah persevered against insurmountable odds of his day to accomplish an amazing goal.
Nehemiah was a second generation Jew. His family had been dragged from Jerusalem to live in a foreign land under the Babylonians. Now the Persians were in power, and Nehemiah, who had gifts of leadership, had worked his way up to the position of the king’s cup bearer. His job was to taste the king’s food and wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.
Nehemiah’s heart broke when, in the year 425 B.C., he heard a report that the walls of Jerusalem were being torn down and the town was being overrun by enemies. In fact, the Bible says Nehemiah sat down and wept. Eventually he gathered up the courage to ask the king of Persia for permission to rebuild the wall. The king agreed to let him go and gave him authority to purchase supplies to put the wall up. So Nehemiah traveled on a donkey to Jerusalem, which was 800 miles away.
When Nehemiah arrived, he found the city to be every bit as bad as what he had heard. One evening he went out to personally assess the damage. The next day he called a meeting with some of the locals and explained what God had put upon his heart to accomplish. So the people agreed to go to work.
Rebuilding the city wall was not like putting up a gate or a wall around somebody’s garden. It was a huge project, almost impossible. Many of the people laughed at Nehemiah and his workers Ð folks like Tobiah and Sanballat, enemies of the Jews who saw this as a threat to their positioning in the territory. They ridiculed and laughed at them and tried to discourage them. But their ridicule didn’t stop the workers, and as they continued to work on this wall, the ridicule soon turned to concern, hatred, and scorn. Then they began to organize armies and threaten to march against Nehemiah and his people. Nehemiah ended up organizing his own army of people who worked with one hand on the sword and the other holding a brick. The opposition spread rumors and threats and tried to get them into trouble with authorities in Persia. They even tried to kidnap or assassinate Nehemiah.
Not only were there problems to overcome on the outside, but problems also existed on the inside amongst the people themselves. Rich people were taking advantage of the poorer people and were at odds over the injustices taking place. People were starving because they couldn’t afford to pay the cost of that wall. Each time, Nehemiah would step in and keep the project going. In the end, the wall was built and dedicated in 52 days. It was an amazing accomplishment.
The tendency in a story like this is to look at Nehemiah and wish one could be more like him. God gave him a vision, and he developed a plan and put it into action. He was courageous and spoke his mind, a great leader and organizer. He treated his workers with compassion and was a real example of perseverance. But Nehemiah himself would say the glory belongs to God. “When all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
This amazing accomplishment is a testimony to the power of God at work in his praying people. He empowered Nehemiah as a leader to carry out his purposes. God is the real hero who poured out his strength, his wisdom, and his perseverance into an open heart as it turned to him in prayer. And amazing things happened. God gave him the vision and a call. When Nehemiah heard about the destruction in Jerusalem, he fasted and prayed in the presence of God. Then he consecrated himself to the task at hand as he confessed his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his own people. God gave him a call. When he approached the king weeks later, he knew he was backed by the power of prayer. He was not alone, for God was beside him. When the king asked what he wanted, Nehemiah prayed to the Lord about the words to use before the king. The king listened to him and gave permission for him to go tackle the project.
Then, when Nehemiah reached Jerusalem, he handled each obstacle with the power of prayer. God gave the strength and was faithful in every challenge. And the finished product was a huge wall erected after only 52 days. This is a story of the hand of God working through a praying, willing servant.
This story serves to awaken us to the faithfulness of God when his people catch a vision or a passion for the kingdom, then entrust themselves to God’s leading in prayer. Nehemiah’s heart was broken by a demolished wall, so he turned to the Lord for help. God provided everything needed: vision, opportunity, strength, and perseverance to carry it out; assurance to keep him courageous, words and wisdom to inspire others.
This story reminds me so much of Jesus. Jesus prayed to his Father for strength and wisdom to face the ministry of the day. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was on his knees asking for God for strength to carry out the mission that had been breaking God’s heart Ð to save his people from their sins.
What task has God called you to these days? Do you know someone who is broken? Do you know of a project that would honor God? Maybe a church has lost its sense of purpose and is shrinking. Maybe something in the community is destroying people’s lives, and God is tapping you on the shoulder. Perhaps it is time to get on your knees and ask God to open your eyes to a real purpose for your life. God can use anyone, even a cup bearer like Nehemiah, to do supernatural things. Perhaps all you need to do is to look up and see the brokeness all around you. If so, then ask God to use you. You will be amazed at what He can do!
Jeremiah Lanphier lived in New York City in the 1850s, days of great tension when the shadow of war loomed over America: Strikes, depressions, struggling banks, long jobless lines, and violence in the streets. It was in this setting that Lanphier accepted a calling as a full-time city evangelist. He walked the streets, knocked on doors, put up posters, and prayed constantly, but all to no visible result. As his discouragement increased, Lanphier looked for some kind of new idea, some possibility for a breakthrough. Reasoning that New York was a business town, he thought maybe the businessmen would come to a luncheon. So he nailed up his signs and called for a noon lunch in an old Dutch church on Fulton Street. When the hour came, he sat and waited for people to arrive. Finally, a single visitor arrived, then several minutes later, a couple stragglers peeked through the door. A handful of people had a nice meal that evening.
The following week, 20 men attended, then 40 came the third week. Men were getting to know each other by this time and agreed to come for food and prayer every day. Before long, the building was overflowing and the luncheon had to move. But the most intriguing element of the Fulton Street Revival, as it began to be called, was its ripple effect. Offices began closing at noon for prayer. Fulton Street was the talk of the town with men telegraphing prayer back and forth between New York City and other cities. Other godly meetings were launched in New York, and other cities started their own franchises.
The center of the meeting was prayer, and it was okay to come late or leave early as needed. Men stood and shared testimonies. These revival meetings were about working class businessmen, who wanted to share the things of God. Some historians even call the Fulton Street Revival the third great awakening because it lasted for two years and saw as many as one million decisions for Jesus Christ. It all began with one man who had a broken heart for people, for his city, and believed in the power of prayer.
It is amazing what God can do.