Return to Me

By on July 22, 2018

Part 12 in Sermon Series: A Region Ripe for Revival

Scripture reading from Nehemiah 1

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One Comment to “Return to Me”

  1. Donald McMahon
    July 23, 2018

    “Return to Me” (Nehemiah 1)(7.22.18)
    Nehemiah 1 (NIV84) Nehemiah’s Prayer
    1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah:
    In the month of Kislev in 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 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:
    “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 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 house, 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 O 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.
    The word of God for the people of God.
    ICEBREAKER: With the electrical problems we have been having this week, it seems like our condition is deteriorating like the Jerusalem walls and gates. No air conditioning, no water, no toilets, no computers and intermittent lights makes it seem like we have been transported back in time. One person was heard singing, “Give Me that Old Time Religion.”
    Title: Return to Me
    As Hanani informed his brother Nehemiah, I will inform you of the sad condition of our homeland. In an online article from May 31st, The Washington Post reported on Atlantic City:
    “This seaside city has been on a decades-long losing streak: shuttered casinos, a state takeover, a high poverty rate, a labor strike and a planned comeback that went bust. But hope springs eternal in a place that runs on luck, and Atlantic City is trying to reinvent itself again.”
    Yes, there are several new initiatives happening like the Stockton University’s new campus in Atlantic City and the gas company opening up new facilities. There have also been two new casino initiatives.
    At the same time, U-Haul statistics report that New Jersey is one of the worst states for losing more residents than it is gaining. The ratio of renters to home owners is also increasing. According to the report, among 217 metropolitan areas of at least 200,000 people, the Atlantic City area had the highest foreclosure rates in 2017, with almost 3 percent of housing units having a foreclosure filing. Clearly you can see this as an exile of New Jersey residents.
    High taxes across the state and high unemployment rates locally continue to make living here a challenge. You don’t have to look hard to find the empty houses. At a recent Tuesday night dinner, one of our guests shared how they have been struggling since Super Storm Sandy and with increased taxes. Her whole family has been impacted.
    It is not just economic issues that demonstrate how our region needs restoration. Like many places, we have a big problem with drug abuse. Just this week, we had the very sad tragedy of one of our VBS families dealing with the loss of their mother who died from an overdose. In another arena, two different local experts verified that human trafficking in the Atlantic City area is a serious issue. Slavery is not just a subject in history books.
    These are not issues external to us but part of the fabric of living in this community. Families are failing. Isolation, depression and anxiety are commonplace. Relationships are reeling. The people have been led astray by wolves in sheep’s clothing who call out, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
    Yes, our defenses have been broken down. And, our gates have been destroyed, allowing the enemy to infiltrate. We need to rebuild the walls. The gates of righteousness must be reconstructed. Moses quoted God; Nehemiah quoted Moses; and, I quote Nehemiah: “If you return to me (Your God) and obey my commands, I will gather you to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.”
    Nehemiah sets a great example for us. He had a great job in a very influential position as cup bearer for king Artaxerxes, ruler of the Persian Empire. He was highly trusted and he tested the king’s food and drink to make sure it was safe.
    He was heartbroken when he heard the sad news about Jerusalem and the living conditions for his fellow countrymen. Are our hearts likewise broken for those less fortunate than ourselves?
    He could have responded, “Well, that’s too bad. I sure wish there was something I could do.” He could have responded, “Hmm…I’ll have to think about this.” Or, “Maybe I can use my position here to help in the future. I’ll wait for the opportunity.” But no, Nehemiah was affected deep within. Let us examine his response.
    It is proper to have real visceral empathy for those that are suffering. Over and over again the Gospels tell us how Jesus had compassion for the people. He was constantly healing and demonstrating love for men, women, and children. We are being conditioned by our culture to be hardened to pain and suffering. It is the work of the enemy, the Prince of this dark world.
    How so? you might be wondering. We are bombarded by the news constantly through many mediums. The definition of news seems to imply BAD news. When you are constantly exposed to murder and mayhem, you have to become numb to it or you will be overwhelmed.
    On top of that, so many news stories become political tennis matches. Everyone spins, spins, spins and it is a challenge to even know what is fake and what is true. The constant strident shouting deafens us. It used to be there was a position called News Anchor and for the most part they had a secure grounding. Nowadays, every reporter seems to have an agenda.
    There is another ingredient that leads to our insensitive hearts. The entertainment industry contributes on two fronts. The first is through violence. The level of violence is ever elevating. The body count, explosions, insane chases, and total destruction must continually increase to keep our attention. The second is through horror. Chainsaws and vampires are not scary enough, we need zombies and the perpetual apocalypse of the walking dead.
    How tender is your heart? God has promised to remove our hearts of stone and give us a heart of flesh. Nehemiah sat down and wept for days. We may think his actions were pretty passive: he mourned, fasted, and prayed. There really is much more to this than meets the eye.
    The critical component is that he mourned, fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven. Nehemiah was in the presence of God. Because it was before God, it was not passive at all. It was a rendering of his heart. The mourning was a kneading and manipulation to soften it. Fasting is not eating, which is actually doing something. It is denying self and the desires of the flesh to bring ourselves into submission. Then Nehemiah was ready to communicate with the Lord Almighty. True praying was now possible. This is speaking and listening and experiencing God.
    Nehemiah shows us more important elements of effective prayer. After he has prepared himself, he starts with praising Yahweh. He calls him the God over all things; great and awesome God. He proclaims the Lord’s faithfulness to the covenant. Nehemiah characterizes the covenants as demonstrations of God’s love.
    This covenant, God’s promises, are for those that love God; but more than that, those that obey God. In fact, love and obedience to God are paired throughout scripture. Jesus proclaims this truth many times:
    John 14:15 (NIV84) “If you love me, you will obey what I command.
    John 14:21 (NIV84) Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
    John 14:23 (NIV84) Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
    John 15:10 (NIV84) If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
    The apostle John confirms this corollary:
    1 John 5:3 (NIV84) This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,
    2 John 6 (NIV84) And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
    The reason I have emphasized this so much is because it is contrary to our worldly thinking. We have many ideas about what constitutes love; so, it is very important we understand the connection between loving God and obeying God. Of course, to obey God we have to know our Bibles and be attuned to God the Holy Spirit within us.
    Obedience too is a concept that challenges us. Obedience and submission are tied together and too often we are that rebellious child that resists authority. That is why we are instructed not to quench the Holy Spirit. Disobedience is sin and sin quenches the Holy Spirit.
    Let us continue with Nehemiah’s prayer. He implores the Lord, “…let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night.” Can you hear the echo of Psalm 8:4 (NIV84)?
    4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    the son of man that you care for him?
    The only grounds we have to approach the Master of the Universe is based on his goodness and mercy.
    Then there is the intensity of Nehemiah’s prayer. He is going before God day and night; continuously he prays; fervently he prays; urgently he prays. And it is not for himself that he prays; this is intercessory prayer: Nehemiah says he is praying on behalf of “your servants, the people of Israel.”
    In six verses, this word servant is used eight times. Surely you can discern that this is significant. Nehemiah identifies himself as God’s servant; Israel as God’s servant; and, Moses as God’s servant. We are called to be servants. Even though our culture emphasizes self; servants are not self-serving but rather we serve others. The Messiah is referred to as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. And Jesus said in Matthew 20:28, “The son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
    Now, still in prayer, Nehemiah confesses. He doesn’t exclude himself from the sins of the collective people of God. Sins are committed against the Creator. Too often we fail to comprehend that ALL our sin is against the Almighty. Nehemiah explicitly states he too is a sinner. Not only that, but he comes from a lineage of sinners. Of course, this is true of every person. There is no one that is good; no not one.
    While we tend to minimize our sins when we confess, Nehemiah recognizes that not only have they sinned wickedly but very wickedly. “We have not obeyed your commands, decrees, and laws.” While we look for loopholes, God gives us guidance to cover every aspect of life.
    Of course, I have to beat this drum again. All this guidance is found in God’s word. You may be tired of hearing, “Read your Bible, read your Bible, read your Bible;” but, how else are you going to know God’s will. Is our enemy the Devil going to guide you? Is the world going to guide you? Are your bodily urges going to guide you?
    But also, it is more than that. Nehemiah prays God’s word and guidance back to the source. See verse 8: “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses.” First, Nehemiah knows what Moses wrote in our Old Testament. Second, Nehemiah is praying, is calling, is depending on God’s faithfulness to the covenant as recorded by Moses. In at least three places Moses warns the people of Israel to continue in faithfulness towards God or experience separation from God.
    Conversely, Moses records God’s promise that if the people return to me and are obedient, I the Lord will rescue them from wherever they are into his loving presence. This is the desire of God’s heart. He is always pursuing us no matter where we stray.
    This is a great hope for the human race. God’s heart is a great resting place. We cannot find a better oasis than the Lord’s love in this life’s journey.
    Let me share a personal story. My sister has had a very rough year. She is going through a nasty and expensive divorce. One of her sons, my nephew, has relapsed into drug use. I have been trying to be supportive and pray for them regularly.
    Several months ago, I asked her to recite Psalm 23 out loud every day. Every couple weeks, I encourage her to continue. This week, I asked her if she has memorized it yet. She told me that she has had it memorized since she was 12 years old. “You don’t forget something like that.”
    Although she finds it comforting, she only believes in a higher power; not the God of the Bible; not Jesus as Lord and Savior. Oh, how a sit and weep for her. Her personal walls have crumbled and there are no gates to control what is entering her life. Oh sister, turn to the Lord Jesus, for there is no other name under heaven by which you will be saved.
    We the church are God’s dwelling place. The Name of God is to be glorified. We glorify the Lord in our worship. We glorify the Lord when we feed, clothe, comfort, and commune with the least of these. The Name of God is glorified by obedience, by servanthood, by love. In this kind of glorification, we are manifesting the Lord Jesus in our lives and in the Church. Remember that it is the Lord that has brought us here. It is for Himself that we were created – to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
    As Nehemiah closes this prayer he again turns to praising God. You are mighty. You strength knows no limit. Through you, redemption is possible. Hear my prayer Lord. Hear the prayers of all your servants; the prayers of all your chosen people. Hear us because we delight in you. Hear us because we desire you with all our hearts. Hear us because we have a great reverence for you Lord.
    Only after all this does Nehemiah ask anything for himself. “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” But this is not a selfish request in any way, shape or manner. Nehemiah has placed himself completely within the will of God and a plan has taken form to restore Jerusalem, to revive the people of God. Before Nehemiah goes into the audience of the most powerful man in the then know world, he has gone into the presence of that king’s Creator.
    Nehemiah was cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. But, Nehemiah has borne a cup of grace for us. He has shown us that the prayers of a righteous man are effective. He has reminded us of the importance of God’s word and God’s faithfulness to his covenant people. Nehemiah has shown us the importance of obedience and servanthood.
    I am thankful for the many here in this congregation with a servant’s heart. This week, I started writing down the names of those that are actively involved in the ministries of this church. There were over 30 people; so, over half of our regular attenders are involved in kingdom work that I know about. This is actually a pretty high percentage compared to most churches, but God’s will is for every Jesus follower to be using their gifts for the edification of the Body of Christ. Are you?
    Henri Nouwen said, “The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either.” If we pray like Nehemiah we will surely be in God’s presence.
    Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision prayed, “May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Nehemiah’s heart was broken for his people, for the city of Jerusalem. Is your heart broken for Galloway, for the Atlantic City Region?
    God promises, “If you return to me and obey my commands, I will surely bring you back to dwell with me.” Let us return to the Lord. Let us be servants of the Most High God. Let God’s will be done.

    Amen and amen. Let us pray.


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