1. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen. The message from God’s Word today comes from Nehemiah 2:11-20 (READ TEXT). It’s entitled, “A Model Layman,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. An expert on time management spoke to a group of business students. As he stood in front of these high-powered overachievers, he said, ‘Okay, time for a quiz.’ He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table. Next, he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, ‘Is this jar full?’ “Everyone said ‘yes.’ The instructor came back: ‘Really?’ He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of sand. As he poured the sand, it filtered into the empty spaces left between the rocks. Once more he asked, ‘Is the far full?’ ‘No!’ the class shouted. Without replying, the expert grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour until the jar was filled to the brim. “He then asked, ‘What is the point of this illustration?’ One eager beaver raised his hand and said, ‘The point is no matter how full your schedule may be, if you try really hard, you can always fit more into it!’ ‘No,’ the speaker replied, ‘that’s not the point.’ Do you know the point? Take a few moments and think. The professor told his class, just like I’m telling you, the point is this: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”1 Klaus, 33.
3. The big rocks have to go into your life first, or they might not get in there in at all. Today we talk about a model layman, Nehemiah. The big rocks got into his life first by the grace of God. Unlike Ezra, Nehemiah was neither a priest nor a scribe. He wasn’t a preacher. He was a layman, a God-fearing Jewish layman, living at the heart of the Persian Empire. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins after having been destroyed by the Babylonians so many years before, he did something about it. He went to his boss, the king of the Persian Empire, and secured permission to go and rebuild those walls. In fact, Nehemiah ended up serving for 12 years as the king’s appointed governor in Jerusalem. Nehemiah turned out to be a model layman. The Holy Spirit had produced in him a concern for God, for God’s people, and for everyone else. To this day, the Spirit inspires concern for God, for God’s people, and for everyone else.
4. The first big rock in Nehemiah’s life was none other than the Lord himself, the Lord who had called and claimed Nehemiah as his own. Who knows how many times Nehemiah might have prayed, in the words of one of David’s psalms, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge” (Psalm 18:2)? Just look what happened when Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem continued to be in shambles, even though God’s people had been back in Judah for almost 100 years. Eventually he did everything I described a moment ago. But right away, in the first place, he prayed. Before Nehemiah started formulating plans, before he went to the king, and certainly before he traveled to Jerusalem, he took refuge in his Rock. He prayed.
5. How about us? When we meet with disappointing news, problems and hardships in life, what do we do first? Do we do what Nehemiah did? “He who does not call on God or pray to Him in trouble certainly does not consider Him to be God.”2 AE 14:61 A wrenching statement, but true! When we don’t turn to the Lord in our needs, it is because we are looking to something or someone else—probably ourselves—to meet them. It’s a form of idolatry. The Lord says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:15), but so often we don’t call. Sometimes we don’t even think about calling. That is not faith. It’s the very opposite. It’s the unbelief that God hates.
6. Nehemiah prayed. By the power of the Holy Spirit this man had confidence in the Lord. After all, God had done so many things for his people and given them such great promises, especially the promises of the coming Christ. When Jesus came, he never let anybody down. People depended on him to teach them, and he never let them down. People came to him for healing and with all sorts of other needs, and he never let them down. In a sense, God’s faithful people of the Old Testament era had been holding their breath, waiting for the Christ to come and do the work of redemption. At length, he did. He fulfilled all the prophecies, made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and answered all the hopes and dreams that God had laid out for his people. Jesus let no one down. He’s the Lord who died and rose again to rule, and in him our prayers come before the Father’s throne of grace.
7. God wants us to pray. It’s not a casual invitation like, “drop by whenever you are in the neighborhood.” The Lord commands us to pray. More than that, he assures us that he will hear and answer the prayers we pray in Jesus’ name, the prayers that are based upon everything our Lord has done for us. Prayer is the respiration of the believing heart. Having taken in God’s gracious Word, we repeat back to him what he has said. This was the first big rock in the jar for Nehemiah, the model layman. He prayed, and he kept on praying.
8. The second big rock was Nehemiah’s concern for God’s people. At the time Jerusalem had importance beyond the brick and mortar of the physical city, as Nehemiah was well aware. Judah and Jerusalem stood out as important in two ways. First, this place was home for many people who called on the Lord’s name and hoped in his promises. They loved God because he first loved them. As the object of the Lord’s affections, Judah and Jerusalem were important. Judah and Jerusalem were also important for another reason: God’s love for the surrounding peoples. If they were going to find out about the Lord, his will and ways, it was going to be through God’s people in Jerusalem and Judah. Through his people, God would send the Messiah into the world. So not only as an object of God’s love but also as an instrument of God’s love, Jerusalem was important. So was Judah. So is the Church today.
9. Nehemiah cared about God’s people. It should be noted that he already had a good and God-pleasing job. His position was pretty important by any standard: cupbearer to the king. In our terms, we might say he had responsibility for palace security. The Persian king obviously knew Nehemiah and respected him. If Nehemiah had remained at this post for the rest of his life, it would have been a God-pleasing thing. We need to linger over this point because every now and again people get the idea still today that only what one does at church or in the service of the Church is truly pleasing to God. Not so! What God’s faithful people do pleases him only on account of Christ and his work. Therefore, anything we do in love for God and in service to our neighbor, however marred by sin, is a God-pleasing work in Christ. It can be washing the dishes, figuring our taxes, running a computer, building a road, or kissing a child good night.
10. You don’t have to be doing something at church to be doing something good for other people and precious to God. But, when Nehemiah had the opportunity to do something directly for God’s people, he jumped at the opportunity. He took no thought for himself. Nehemiah was leaving his important job at the center of power to go to Jerusalem and assume all the headaches of governorship among people he didn’t know. He certainly wasn’t seeing to his own comfort. Upon his arrival, he investigated the walls to see what precisely needed to be done. Nehemiah wasn’t so much interested in what he wanted to do, but rather in the work that had to be done for the Lord and his people. In all this, he looks like the Christ who didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. That’s what happens: When Christ cleanses the hearts of his faithful people, he gives us a new heart that beats in sync with his. When he is taking care of us, we go ahead and take care of others. As he sacrificed himself and came back to life, he makes us into living sacrifices for him.
11. One more thing about what Nehemiah did for God’s people: he worked not only for God’s people, he also served with God’s people, side by side with them. They were in this enterprise together. He was the governor, but he built a team. He shared in the labor and the danger they faced. Whether or not any of us are leaders, all of us can work together with our fellow saints, those with whom we are one in the body of Christ.
12. There was one more big rock for Nehemiah, namely, his concern for other people besides Judah. It may seem strange to say that he had this concern, for he told such people that they had no business interfering in the rebuilding of Jerusalem. It may seem especially remarkable that he had this concern because some of the surrounding people tried to attack both Jerusalem’s wall and those building it. They attempted to assassinate Nehemiah. Nonetheless, Nehemiah cared about these people. As mentioned earlier, if they were going to hear about the Lord and his Word, it was going to be through God’s people in Jerusalem and Judah.
13. Similarly today, we might note that there are lots of agencies in the community that can give people various forms of help such as food for the hungry. The Church can do so too. But people aren’t going to hear about Christ and salvation in him from the community chest. They will hear the Word of the Lord from the Church. Therefore, Christians will always be interested in the Church and its work. With time, effort, and money we will support the confession of Christ as the Church makes it in the world. This won’t always be easy. The Gospel faces opposition in the sinful world. But God’s people confess his name even as Christ himself made the good confession before Pontius Pilate. We make it because he opens our lips.
14. Nehemiah is one of those people about whom the Bible says little or nothing negative. To be sure, he was a sinner like everyone else. As with a Joseph or a Daniel, though, the biblical account doesn’t dwell on any of Nehemiah’s sins. We can read about Nehemiah and come away guilty, reproached for our failures and sins. Therefore, we need to recall that we have the same Lord whose grace Nehemiah counted upon. This Lord is our rock of refuge too. He continues to regard his people as righteous in Christ, no matter what we have done or not done. Through us—and not only through us but also to us—he proclaims the message of sin forgiven in the One who died and rose for us. By Word and Sacrament he gives his people the pardon and the power to follow in the footsteps of Nehemiah, a model layman. Amen. Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.