Over the next few months we are going to be studying the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. It is one of my favourite books in the Bible, which has much to say to us today. Nehemiah may not be as well-known as other Old Testament characters, but he was a man of deep faith and action, and I hope that as we explore this book together we will be challenged and encouraged.
To understand the book of Nehemiah, you first need to put the book in its proper context and understand something of the history of Israel.
It was only when Saul was chosen by God to be king (1020-1000BC) that the twelve tribes came together under to form the United Monarchy, which continued during the reigns of David and Solomon.
Under King David’s rule Israel flourished and grew, and David established Jerusalem as the national capital. David was succeeded by his son King Solomon. But following Solomon’s death, tensions between the northern part of Israel containing the ten northern tribes, and the southern tribes reached boiling point, and the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah split to create two kingdoms, the northern Kingdom of Israel, which had its capital in Samaria, and the Kingdom of Judah which retained Jerusalem as its capital.
Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jerusalem to be razed to the ground, the walls torn down, and the temple destroyed, and its treasurers carried off – including the Arc of the Covenant which contained the ten commandments, which has been lost ever since. The sons of Judah’s King Zedekiah were killed before him, and then Zedekiah had his eyes gouged out, and was taken into captivity to Babylon, 1000 miles away, along with many of the other inhabitants of Jerusalem, a period of history known as the Babylonian Exile or Captivity. Only a tiny remanent of people were permitted to remain in Judah. Even to this day these events continue to shape Jewish identity and understanding.
48 years later, in 538BC Cyrus II of Persia, who had conquered Babylon the previous year, decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem, as recorded in our first reading from the book of Ezra (1:1-4).
Despite the decree, only a handful chose to accept Cyrus’ offer and return to Judah; most of the exiles preferred to remain in Messoptamia, where they had settled, married, had families and established businesses. The few that did return to Jerusalem found a wasteland.
Slowly work began to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, but it was beset by problems, and wasn’t completed until 516BC.
It was not until 458BC, 80 years after the first exiles returned to Jerusalem, that another group of exiles, priests and Levites arrived under the leadership of Ezra the scribe. He was joined twelve years later by Nehemiah. The book of Nehemiah tells the story of Nehemiah’s role in helping to restore Jerusalem, and renewing the people’s faith, in the face of considerable opposition.
Nothing is known about Nehemiah’s youth or background, we first encounter him as an adult serving in the Persian royal court as the personal cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. This was an important position, Nehemiah ensured the safety and quality of the king’s food and drink, and therefore had direct access to the King, and would have been a trusted advisor, a man of importance and influence.
Although Nehemiah had remained in Persia after the exiles had been allowed to go home, he heart was for his homeland Judah. So when Hanani, a fellow Jew returned from visiting Judah, Nehemiah questioned him about how things were in Judah and Jerusalem.
What Hanani told Nehemiah, broke his heart. “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.” (Neh 1:3) The city was defenceless, the people leaderless. Before the exile, Israel had its own language, king, army and identity. Now it had none of these things.
Challenges Facing St Martin’s
So what is the relevance of this for us today? Just as Judah and Jerusalem faced huge challenges, so the church today is also facing big challenges.
Church attendance – has fallen. In 2013, there were 5.4 million church members in the UK, 10% of the adult population, a fall of 300,000 people since 2008. If current trends continue by 2025 only between 5 to 4% of the adult population will attend church.
But when it comes to children and young people the statistics are even more alarming. According to Christian Research, the Church in the UK will lose an estimated 1.1 million children between 1990 and 2020 if nothing is done to try and stop the exodus of children from church. They predict that in the year 2020, 183,700 children aged under-15 will attend church compared to 375,300 in 2010.
That’s the bad news. The good news is however that there are signs that the rate of this decline is reducing and some churches seeing growth.
Here at St Martin’s the next 5 to 10 years will be a critical time. Over one third of our church membership are aged over 70. Ultimately if we do not grow as a church, by attracting new members, in fifteen to 20 years time the church will be unsustainable. And if we look at St Martin’s, the age range that is most underrepresented are teenagers through to people in their 40s.
There are other challenges facing the church. Society has changed. Sunday for many people is a working day, and a day on which they do sporting activities. So even if people want to come to church, it is much harder than it used to be. Family life has also changed, which all has an impact.
There are other challenges, for example there are going to be fewer clergy, the days of one vicar one church are now almost at an end.
All these challenges mean that we need to re-imagine what it means to be the church, and how as a church we can grow God’s kingdom.
It is for this reason that the home groups have been asked to look at the Leading Your Church Into Growth course.
The challenge we face is how do we grow God’s church?
To help us think about this, let’s turn back to Nehemiah.
When Nehemiah heard about Jerusalem’s plight his first response was to weep and mourn, and then he PRAYED. And when he prayed, he really prayed. ‘For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.’ (Neh 1:4)
Before Nehemiah did anything else, he prays. For Nehemiah prayer was natural, immediate and spontaneous. He was also persistent in prayer, day and night he prays. Notice how he begins his prayer, “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.” Nehemiah is realistic about the challenges facing Jerusalem, but his starting point is PRAISE. It’s the same response as Job, when he loses everything, he says “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
Whenever we face a challenge whether personally or as a church, our first response before we do anything else should be to pray. And when we pray, no matter what the situation may be, we need to praise God.
Nehemiah was also confident in prayer. Although Jerusalem’s needs were great, the city’s problem is soon dwarfed by an awesome sense of God’s majestic glory. When we pray, we need to remember who it is we’re praying to, and that whatever challenges we may be facing, God is so much greater and bigger.
Nehemiah is also honest with God. “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.” Nehemiah realises that it was because of people’s disobedience against God, that Jerusalem and Judah was in the state it was. There is real intensity, honesty, realism and urgency in Nehemiah’s confession. He makes no attempt to excuse the Israelite people, or himself for past misdeeds. He recognised that he was as much responsible as anyone else, for what had befallen Israel. When we pray, we need to be honest with God, and ourselves. To recognise when we have failed God, and not just because of the things we have done, but also the things we have not done. As the prayer of confession puts it, We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those things that we ought not to have done.
When he prays he also looks back with gratitude for what God has said (1:8-9) and what God has done (1:10) And because of God’s words and deeds in the past, it gives him confidence looking ahead to the future. “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.” (1:11)
We need to be realistic about the challenges facing us as a church, they are considerable. But, we worship an even greater, bigger God, and if like Nehemiah, we put God first, and earnestly seek him in prayer and praise, I believe we will see great things here at St Martin’s. I believe that we will see a church that is growing in numbers, a church where people are growing in faith, and a church that is growing in service to our local community. I am excited about the future, and I hope you are as well.
And starting today, I want us every Sunday to use this prayer.
God of Mission,
Who alone brings growth to your Church,
Send your Holy Spirit to give
Vision to our planning,
Wisdom to our actions,
And power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
In spiritual commitment to you,
And in service to our local community.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.