A Prayer for a Solution
March 7, 2021
A Prayer for a Solution, Neh 1
“Houston, we have a problem.” I know you’ve heard that statement before. This statement has become a cultural touchstone. Sportscasters say it. Politicians say it. In books, movies, plays and music, it’s shorthand for saying something has gone awry, sometimes terribly. Even preachers use it.
It is thought to have originated during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. The Apollo 13 mission to the moon was rocked by an onboard explosion. The command module went dark. Earth was 200,000 miles away. An astronaut radioed mission control: “Houston, we have a problem.”
If you watch the “Apollo 13” movie with Tom Hanks, the movie is a bit old (came out in 1995), Tom Hanks says this during the movie. It seems that since Tom Hanks said this this phrase caught cultural fire and spread like wildfire. As it turns out, the phrase didn’t actually originate during the Apollo 13 mission. It occurred earlier than that. If you want to spend some mindless time on the internet, you can read a number of articles about the phrases’ popularity and it’s history in the America imagination.
It doesn’t really matter where it came from. The statement summarizes an important element of life. Life is riffled with problems. In life we face problems. In life, we face problems every day. Some are bigger than others. Nonetheless, problems are everywhere. Life might seem for you at this point like you’re simply going from one problem to another. Life is a struggle, dear friend. In this life, you will have problems.
In my life, Kathryn and I ran into this type of problem right before we moved to Pierre. About 6 months before Kathryn and I moved to Pierre, our boss at our apartment complex told us that the building was being sold and they were do away with the position we had. Kathryn and I worked as night managers at our apartment. New management was coming in, and they didn’t want night managers anymore. So our boss told us we had three months to find a place. I was talking with CBC at that time, but our timetables didn’t line up. So planning that we would get this job, Kathryn and I were going to have to find a place in Dallas to stay for one to three months, depending on how fast the search process went with CBC. Renting month-to-month is very expensive in Dallas. We would have had to pay an arm and a leg for a place to stay. Further, we would have to pack up all our stuff, only to have to pack it back up in a month. Would we unbox? Or just live out of suitcases for a little bit? Also, we had to move out on December 20th, five days before Christmas. It would ruin the Christmas for the kids. It was a really difficult situation.
God cares. God cares about the problems you have. Just as a good, loving earthly father cares about his children when they go through difficult life circumstances, so also our heavenly cares for us with an infinite love when we struggle with the problems of life. God has provided a wonderful resource for us to deal with the difficult situations of life. That resource is prayer. Prayer is our way of receiving the help from God that we need to receive for life’s problems. When we have problems in life, God wants us to come to him in prayer. Prayer, dear friend, is our tool to fight the difficulties of life, the problems of life.
Let us go ahead and open up to our passage this morning. It is Neh 1:4–11. I won’t read the passage again, as I’ve already done that during our Scripture reading time. I will cover each part of the prayer as we go through the passage this morning.
What we are going to see with Nehemiah is that he provides us with a paradigm for how to pray when we run into the many problems of life. Nehemiah is our example of how to come to God when we need a solution to our problems.
Before we jump into the sermon, I need to explain the context of Nehemiah a bit. The book of Nehemiah recounts when some Jews, who had been in exile in Babylon, returned to their homeland, Israel. The Babylonian Exile, the time when Babylon invaded Israel and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC. This story is foretold in Jeremiah and spoken of in Lamentations. The Jews are taken from their land and go into exile in Babylon. This exile does not last forever. Nothing can thwart God’s purposes of redemption. The Jews return when Persia overtakes Babylon. The King of Cyrus allows Jews to return to Israel. As they return, they find the temple dilapidated and the walls of the city town down. Ezra deals with the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile. Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. The wall fortified the city, provided protection.
Look with me at Neh 1:1–2. Nehemiah recounts asking a Jew who has returned from Judah how everything is going in Jerusalem. Nehemiah is located at this point in the story in Persia, which is north of Jerusalem. This man, Hanani, responds in v. 3, “Things look bad. It is not a good situation.” In other words, there’s a problem. The story starts out with a problem. The whole book of Nehemiah is about Nehemiah addressing this problem. That’s the context. Now let’s look at Nehemiah’s prayer that begins the book. What we are going to see together this morning is five different points of application that we need to do when we have problems in life.
Don’t Be Passive
Our first takeaway from Nehemiah’s example is this: Don’t be passive. When problems arise in our lives, we cannot be passive. We must act. We must pray. We must do something about it. Specifically, we must pray. Look with me at how Nehemiah responds to the problem.
Nehemiah’s response to this problem is distress and difficulty. Look with me in v. 4.
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said,
This problem pains Nehemiah greatly. His response includes mourning, fasting, and prayer. Nehemiah is greatly bothered, distressed, and upset. It’s helpful to see how Nehemiah doesn’t respond. The text does not say that he responded with a, “Meh.” Or a, “That’s bad.” No this problem touched Nehemiah’s heart. It drove him to action. It drove him to prayer. This problem radically changed his life. It drove Nehemiah to forsake comfort and security in Persia for a life of difficult and suffering back in Jerusalem.
Taking our cue from Nehemiah, when we are faced with problems in life, how should we respond? We must not respond with passivity. Passivity can be cancer in the Christian life. Passivity I define as inaction. Just sitting back and not addressing anything. Now sometimes in the Christian life we should be passive. Sometimes we just need to wait or not do anything. That’s true. We dealt with that type of situation when we examined Ps 3. However, this context is different. Sometimes it is a sin to be passive. Sometimes it is a sin to not take action. In fact, it is always a sin to not pray. In every situation of difficulty in life, we must pray. Every problem can and should be covered with prayer. Don’t be passive in your prayer lives. Take action by prayer.
Now what is it that leads us to passivity in our prayer lives by not addressing problems in prayer? I’ll mention two reasons. The first is fear. When pray to God about a problem, we acknowledge that the problem exists. Acknowledging the problem might not be what you want to do. Sometimes it’s easier in life to just pretend there are no problems. We can do that. As Christians, we must live in reality. We must believe the truth. Believing the truth entails recognizing and confessing to God our problems.
The other reason why we might be passive in our prayer lives is apathy. We just don’t care. Oh, what a dangerous sin apathy is. I’ve heard John Macarthur, my favorite preacher, say that his greatest concerns for the church are disunity and apathy. I’d agree with that. Apathy is a cancer. Apathy is to have God tell you of your sin, his grace, and your need to turn to Jesus, and you respond, “Meh.” Apathy will lull you to hell. Apathy is cancer to the Christian life. If you have problems in your life and your passive to these, it might be because you’re apathetic. At the end of the day, you just don’t care that much.
How do we overcome our passivity—our fear and our apathy to the problems of life? How do we do this? We bring our needs to God in prayer. Dear friend, you have to pray. You have to bring your problems, your needs to God. This should be the first thing you do. Notice that the first thing Nehemiah does is he prays. Your first line of action for your problems in life must be prayer. It’s your first response and your first defense to life’s problems. Don’t be passive. Instead, pray.
Recognize God’s Sovereignty
As we pray, our prayers need to remember certain theological truths. The second application we see from Nehemiah’s prayers is that we need to recognize God’s sovereignty. When we come to God in prayer with our problems, we need to recognize the sovereignty of God.
Looking at the passage together. Look with me at vv. 5–6.
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 the people of Israel your servants
Dear friends, how does Nehemiah begin his prayer here? He begins his prayer by exalting God. Once again, drawing an observation from all of the prayers that we have covered, each of them incorporates an element of exalting God. In our prayers we must exalt God. In our problems we must exalt god in our prayers. We must remember that regardless of how difficult life becomes God is still good. God is still God. He is always that way.
Believe that this morning, dear friend. Accept this by faith. See what the Scriptures teach regarding the goodness of God in all of life and our response to him in prayer when life is tough. God is good in all of it. All the time we must exalt God in our prayers.
Nehemiah expresses the sovereignty of God, God’s control in this passage, even when God’s chosen city is in disarray. Notice how Nehemiah begins: “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.” Nehemiah is saying that, even though Jerusalem is messed up, God is still in control. God still keeps his word. God is sovereign, even in the difficulty of life.
One of the greatest encouragements I experience in life is when I hear you, the members of Community Bible Church, share with me what God is doing in your lives. If you remember the old cartoon Popeye. He was that sailor who would get really strong after eating spinach. My spinach is when you tell me of your faith in God. That greatly encourages me.
I was at the church yesterday, finishing up sermon prep, and I saw on the bulletin board out here in the foyer one of our member highlights. Roxanne has been doing these. They are a wonderful blessing to read. On one of them, one of our new members wrote this in response to the question, “What is the most important thing you think Christians need to know right now?” This was the response they gave,
Our Holy God knows exactly what He’s doing. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Dear friend, when we pray, we must remember that. Regardless of our political situation, regardless of our health, regardless of our circumstances, remember that sovereignty of God in your prayers. Praise God all the time as you seek his solutions for your problems.
The third takeaway from this passage with reference to our problems and our prayer lives. It’s this. Confess sins.
Looking with me at vv. 6 & 7. Nehemiah prays,
Confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
Spiritual Nature of Problems
What Nehemiah does here is that he locates the cause of the problem, the torn down walls in Jerusalem, he roots that problem in Israel’s sins. The problem that Nehemiah wanted to address—the torn down wall—were rooted in a spiritual problem—Israel’s sins. The exile of Israel was God’s punishment on his people for their forsaking of their covenant with him. This problem of the walls was not just a problem of construction. It was a spiritual problem rooted in the sin of Israel.
Nehemiah Confesses Israel and His Sin
Nehemiah, too, confesses his own sin, too. He’s not finger pointing here at Israel and saying to God, “God, it’s just their fault. They are the reason why the walls of Jerusalem are torn down.” No. Nehemiah includes himself in on this. Notice what Nehemiah says in v. 7. Nehemiah says, “We have acted very corruptly against you.” Notice that Nehemiah doesn’t say, “God, we’ve made some mistakes and that’s it.” Dear friend, sin is more than a mistake. We don’t just make mistakes. Sin is a mistake but sin is more than a mistake. Sin is to act corruptly against God. We need to see this here and appreciate this. Sin is more than a mistake. Nehemiah sees that and confesses that.
Confession for Others
Taking our cue from Nehemiah, when we have problems in life, we need to confess the sins of others. We can and should do this. The Lord allows us to act as a representative for other people before him. This is an aspect of interceding for other people. We can and should come to the Lord on other people’s behalf, confessing their sins and asking God to be gracious to them.
For example, take the role of a spouse. Let’s say your spouse is not who they should be in their walk with Christ. If that is the case, you need to come to God on their behalf and confess their sins to God. Tell God your spouse’s sins. Plead for your spouse to God on your spouse’s behalf. Do that. Confess their sins to God.
Confessing for Yourself
Further, confess your own sins to God, too. When it comes to relationships that need reconciliation, my approach is that there is always enough sin to go around. If you have troubles with your spouse, there is also sin in your heart that you need to deal with, that you need to confess. Sin is so deeply rooted in us that in marital relationships there is always enough sin to go around. Confess your sins, too. Be explicit. Don’t blame other people. You take responsibility. Tell God of your need for forgiveness for what others have done, and what you have done. And notice that Nehemiah spends the most time talking about his own sins. Seek God for forgiveness, dear friend. When you have problems, tell God of your wickedness.
Tell God His Word
Along with telling God your sins and the sins of others, also speak to God his word. Look with me at vv. 8–10. Nehemiah says,
Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘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 in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.
What Nehemiah does here is similar to what my kids do with me. If I commit to something to my kids, they are faithful to remind me, “Dad, you said.” With my children, my word is my bond. They trust what I say and keep me to it. Nehemiah does the same here with God. Nehemiah says to God, “God, remember what you’ve said? Remember who your people are?”
Nehemiah knows that God keeps his word. Praying God’s word to God is not for God. It’s for Nehemiah. By restating to God God’s covenant with Israel, Nehemiah expresses faith to God that God will be faithful to his word.
When you pray for your problems, pray with an open Bible. Tell God his word. Come boldly before him. This is not to remind him. He knows what he said. Instead, it’s actually for you. It shows God that you trust his word. It shows God that you have faith that he will keep his word.
Ask God to Act
Last observation from Nehemiah’s prayer: Ask God to Act. Don’t be timid or scared. God wants you to ask him to work.
Look with me at v. 11, the last verse of the prayer.
O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.
Nehemiah knows that God can help. He knows that he is willing to help. So, therefore, Nehemiah asks God to act. Specifically, Nehemiah asks God, “To give success to your servant today and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Who is the “this man?”
The “this man” is King Artaxerxes. Notice at the end of v. 11. Nehemiah says,
Now I was a cupbearer to the king.
The king is mention in 2:1. See King Artaxerxes mentioned there? That’s who Nehemiah prays for God to provide favor in the sight of.
God Answers Prayer
Now, dear friend, does God answer this prayer? In v. 11, Nehemiah asks God, “God, give success to me and grant me mercy in the sight of King Artaxerxes.” That’s my paraphrase. Does God answer that prayer request? He does.
Skip down to 2:8, the very last part. Nehemiah summarizes his interaction with the King this way:
And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon.
And the rest of the story is, as they say, history. God faithfully answer Nehemiah and recorded the prayer and the answer to that prayer to encourage you, dear friend.
I visited with Pastor Jesse this week like we always do. Pastor Jesse is such a blessing to me. You’ll always get a smile from Pastor Jesse. I love that. You need that type of pastor in your life. Jesse mentioned something to me this week about how pastors who always need to end with a point of hope. Amen to that. You have to have hope in your life. I need to give you that hope.
We see that hope with God’s faithfulness to Nehemiah. God was faithful to answer Nehemiah’s prayer. God is faithful to us, too, dear friend. We have hope that God can and will solve our problems. We don’t know how. We don’t know when. But we know that God is good. And his goodness and kindness provide us the hope that we need for our problems.
Jumping back where I began with this morning. I mentioned a particular problem KT and I experienced when we were about to leave Dallas. I didn’t mention how God orchestrated everything out. So as this problem came up, Kathryn and I prayed a lot. We had our friends and family pray, too. The days kept passing, though, and our deadline was coming fast. We looked at various options for getting another apartment in Dallas and they were all terrible. We didn’t know what to do. We prayed. One day, as I was riding my bike, it was like a lignting bolt struck my mind. I immediately had the thought of asking a specific person to help us in this situation.
I share this not to put myself on a pedal stool as the example of praying in light of problems. No. I share this story to give a personal testimony of this: God answers prayer. God answers prayer. God answers prayer, brothers and sisters. Come to him with your problems. He is faithful.