And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The singing of William Blake’s poem, immortalised by Sir Hubert Parry’s music, has become a national institution. It is sung every year by tens of thousands of people on the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and simultaneously in the Proms in the Park venues around the country. Since 2004, it has also been the anthem of the England cricket team. And at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, Team England will use “Jerusalem” as the victory anthem from 2010 onwards. The Commonwealth Games Council for England conducted a poll of members of the public which decided the anthem for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The three options were “God Save The Queen”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. Jerusalem was the clear winner with 52% of the vote. It has literally become the nation’s hymn.
But what many people do not realise is that beneath this poem, in the illuminated hand written original, which appears in the preface to his epic Milton a Poem, Blake wrote a verse from the Bible: ‘”Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29). The New International translation reads, “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
Blake is saying what, while it may be speculative whether Jesus ever visited England as a child, we have spirit-anointed work to do building the kingdom of God in our generation. Whether we like it or not, the story of the rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem has become a popular, if misguided paradigm for expressing our national aspirations. We may even be critical of those who enjoy singing ‘Jerusalem’ at weddings or funerals, or in cricket stadiums or at the Last Night of the Proms, but let me ask, how many of us have such a grand and all-consuming vision? Such a vision we are willing to sing it in public at the top of our voices?
The next few years ahead are going to be exciting times at Christ Church. We will be moving forward soon with plans for a new church building, put on hold because of the recession. We will be asking Runnymede Borough Council to modify the approval they have already given us, because our previous vision was too small for the task we now perceive is ahead of us. We have some exciting events planned for the Autumn to which we hope you will invite your neighbours, family and friends. The Harvest Supper evening with Ian White in Concert, the Thursday Night Christianity Explored course, the Wentworth Bonfire, and of course our special Christmas services. Check out the Autumn programme and get the dates in your diary with the enthusiasm you would if it were the Last Night of the Proms.
Let me ask you again, do you have an all- consuming vision of God’s call in your life equivalent to the one God gave Nehemiah? Are you expecting God to do great things? Are you praying for supernatural answers that can only be of God? Is there a freshness and vigour in your outlook?
Nehemiah 1: The Priority of God’s Call
During the Autumn we are going to seek inspiration in the story of Nehemiah. I am excited about that because I believe there is no more practical book in the Bible for us to study together than Nehemiah. I invite you to read the book during the next week and get an overview of the whole story. What is Nehemiah all about? The story Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls (Nehemiah 1-6), the renewing of Jerusalem’s worship (Nehemiah 8-10), the repopulation of Jerusalem’s streets (Nehemiah 11-12), and finally the reform of Jerusalem’s faith (Nehemiah 13). Nehemiah, through God, built walls. God, through Nehemiah built saints. The rebuilding of physical Jerusalem was heavy work that demanded spiritual vision, unbounded energy and dogged perseverance. There are many spiritual lessons we can re-learn along the way. The story is about putting down foundations, keeping going when there’s hard work ahead. It is about persevering, about not being deflected by temptation or opposition and bringing a task to completion. Above all it brings a message to shatter our complacency and challenge our priorities: A message that stubbornly refuses to allow Christian service to be relegated to the level of a spare time hobby or individualistic religious exercise.
In Chapter 1, Nehemiah weeps over Israel’s predicament, intercedes on Israel’s behalf and volunteers to meet Israel’s needs (1:11). We can divide the chapter into these three themes. Israel’s Predicament 1:1-3; Nehemiah’s Prayer 1:4-11; and God’s Providence 1:11.
1. Israel’s Predicament
“The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 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.” (Nehemiah 1:1-3)
1.1 The Timing (1:1)
The year was 445 BC, almost a 140 years since Jerusalem had been captured by Nebuchadnezzer and his Babylonian army. Forty seven years later Babylon had in turn fallen to Cyrus. Russia today is much like Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Stalin, like Nebuchadnezzer followed a policy of forced migration as a way of maintaining control over his empire. He deported many Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians for example to other parts of Russia and repopulated their homes with people from other Soviet States. Cyrus was more like Gorbachov, believing he could control the empire better by allowing national groups to return to their homelands and enjoy a degree of freedom and self-determination. Putin isn’t sure whether he is a Stalin or a Gorbachov, and the peoples of Chechnya, for example, are caught in the cross fire.
1.2 The Trauma (1:2)
The Jews were now a scattered, fragmented people. Some had returned to Israel. But many stayed in Babylon content to be exiles just as many are today living in the USA or Europe. Nehemiah was one of them. Some 50.000 did return, a bedraggled, discouraged people, in a state of national shock. Every so often Nehemiah, like the other émigrés, heard news from the homeland from visiting relatives. Perhaps they organised charity functions to send relief aid, food and clothing to their friends and family back home. The Timing, the Trauma.
1.3 The Trouble (1:3)
Jerusalem was in a sorry state. They had rebuilt their temple. But 75 years later the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruin.
It is hard for us today to imagine how essential walls were to an ancient city. Walls were a symbol of national identity. A city without walls was like an army without weapons. Whenever attempts had been made to reconstruct the walls, powerful neighbouring states would threaten them, or persuade the Emperor that they were becoming disloyal. And so the work would grind to a halt once more. No wonder the people of God were demoralised. How could they survive, let alone thrive when they had no security, no walls? Israel’s Predicament.
2. Nehemiah’s Prayer
2.1 He began with the greatness of God
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “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.” (Nehemiah 1:4-5)
His contemporaries may have lamented Israel’s condition. They may have criticised their leader’s failure to rebuild the walls. But Nehemiah humbled himself before the Lord. His eyes were on God. He addresses the Lord with that characteristic blend of reverent awe before His holiness, and grateful trust in His mercy. Wall building is no problem to a sovereign Creator. That is how the Bible teaches us to love the Lord our God – not by trying to generate warm feelings, but by daily obedience. We need to feed our minds on the character of God revealed in Scripture. Sometimes we are frustrated and discouraged because our view of God is too small, and our approach too casual. Nehemiah began with the greatness of God.
2.2 He Confessed the Sin of his People
“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 ancestral family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6-7)
This is always the outcome of real waiting on God. Before Nehemiah was called to build the walls he first had to weep over the ruins. The ruins of his people’s coldness, their selfishness and defiance against God over hundreds of years before he was even born. Nehemiah had a sense of corporate responsibility which most of us lack. We seldom feel part of the Church in quite the same way Nehemiah felt part of Judah. We value our individuality, but Nehemiah identified totally with his people. Yet his confession was very personal. Nehemiah identified himself as a sinner in a long line. No excuses are offered. Instead there is the profound recognition of sin as it is – an offence against God. We cannot remind ourselves too often that confession leads to forgiveness, and that cleansing must always come before usefulness.
The more we will be brought to our knees before God, the more we will be concerned about the spiritual needs of the world, and the less we are likely to want to throw stones, or burn books. Nehemiah began with the greatness of God which led him to confess the sins of his people.
2.3 He Claimed the Covenant Promises of God
“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 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.’ (Nehemiah 1:8-9)
God in His mercy had anticipated such an event as this, and had made provision for it. God had warned very clearly in His word that exile would inevitably follow unfaithfulness, and Israel was now reaping the consequences of her actions. But God had also promised that repentance was the door to restoration and renewal. In John Bunyan’s classic, “Pilgrim’s Progress” Christian and Hopeful were once caught by Giant Despair.
They are flung into his dungeon in Doubting Castle. Their spirits were low. But then Christian suddenly remembered a key named “promises” that was in his pocket. Pulling it out he found that it opened every door leading them out of Doubting Castle. And Giant Despair died of apoplexy as he saw the pilgrims escaping. Nehemiah too knew how to use the key of promises to escape from his doubts. We are no different. We are children of God by adoption, heirs with Christ, children of the new covenant. The promises of God are our birth-right. Never forget the privileges we have, but claim them in prayer as you discover them, just like the seven rainbow promises last Sunday. Nehemiah began with the greatness of God. He confessed his people’s sins, he claimed the covenant promises.
2.4 He Committed his Next Steps to God
“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 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 favour in the presence of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:10-11)
The challenge must have looked impossible. Nehemiah did not know how God was going to work things out, but he must have realised that his strategic position in the court of Artaxerxes (pron. Artaxarces) was no coincidence. As we shall see next week Nehemiah continued to pray for that opportunity over four long months before being given his opportunity. And in God’s mercy it was the king who took the initiative. Israel’s predicament and Nehemiah’s prayer. And lastly,
3. God’s Providence
“I was cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:11). In these brief closing words of chapter one, it is as if we are taken up high above the circumstances of Israel’s predicament to see a hint of God’s redemptive plan at work. For like Joseph the slave who became Prime Minister in Egypt, and like Esther an immigrant who became Queen in Susa, God raised up Nehemiah to be cupbearer to the King – for such a time as this. The position of wine taster was equivalent to that of a royal body guard. The safety of the king and the stability of the Persian Empire depended on his integrity, his character, his sharp eyes, his initiative and knowledge of palace intrigue. It could be no coincidence that an exile from one of the provinces should rise to such an influential position of trust without the providence of God at work.
Here is the amazing thing. The project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem had waited a century to complete, rather like the channel tunnel project. While the Frenchman, Albert Mathieu-Favier is credited with the idea in 1802, the Channel Tunnel Company was founded by British engineer John Hawkshaw, in, wait for it, in 1875. Between 1882-1950 a further ten plans were rejected, mostly on the grounds of national security. The present tunnel took thirty six years to complete. Nehemiah had probably been serving the king as cup bearer for many, many years…. But within 52 days of God giving this one man Nehemiah a burden for Jerusalem, the work had begun. From the divine perspective, God in His sovereignty chose to use Nehemiah at this time. From a human perspective, Nehemiah was a man who responded to God’s initiative and became useable.
Next week we shall begin to see how undreamed of advances could be made all because one man was close to the Father heart of God. It was after Nehemiah’s weeping that he began working. It was God who turned his despair into determination. One man, that is all it took after one hundred years of waiting. And God has a similar plan for each and every one of us. Nearly two hundred years before Nehemiah, the prophet Jeremiah had been God’s mouthpiece,
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
That promise came true through individuals like Ezra & Nehemiah. Israel’s predicament was caught up in Nehemiah’s prayer, and answered in God’s providence. God’s promise to bless our future also depends upon one person’s willingness to be used by God, and that one person is you. And it begins with prayer, so lets pray.
“I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
Lord God, king of the universe, give us a vision for Christ Church. Give us a sanctified imagination, to dream dreams, and discover from you the plans you have for Christ Church. Then gives us the patience, the resources and wisdom we need to fulfil them. For your glory, In Jesus Name. Amen.
You can also listen to the sermon here
First in a series on the Dynamics of Effective Servant Leadership