The Burden of Your Heart (Ezra/Nehemiah)

During the past few weeks, during our extended stay-at-home orders, there’s a phrase that I have heard quite frequently.  I used to hear it a lot when our kids were growing up and I still hear it from a lot of children, but I’ve been hearing it more and more from adults.  The phrase is, “I’m bored.”

            I recently read an article by Seth Godin where he said, “Bored[om] is what empty space feels like, and you can use that empty space to go do something important …As soon as you’re tired of being bored at work, at home, on lockdown, wherever, you’ll go find a challenge.….I’m glad you’re feeling bored, and now we’re excited to see what you’re going to go do about it.”

            I think he’s exactly right.  During this time of lockdown, there are a lot of things that we can’t do.  But many of us also have a whole lot of extra time that we wouldn’t normally have that we can use to do something productive, and so this morning I want to encourage you to not just sit at home being bored; do something.  Specifically, do something for God.

            In our study through the books of the Bible, we come now to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  In our English Bible, these are two separate books, but in the Jewish canon, they formed one book.  The historical background to these two books is this.  As we saw in the Kings and Chronicles, there were a few good kings, but most of them were bad and they led the people of Israel and Judah further and further away from God. 

As a result, eventually the nation of Israel was destroyed.  And the people of Judah were carried away into Babylonian captivity.  The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem and completely destroyed the city, the lifestyle, the culture, the values, even the temple was destroyed, and the Babylonians took the Jewish people away into captivity.

But if you fast forward 70 years later, some of the Jewish people were finally being released out of captivity, and they were allowed to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild their nation.  As you can imagine, they went back into a demolished city, there was no economic structure, there were no jobs, there was no government, no leadership, no direction, and worst of all, it seemed like there was no hope.  But these Jews went back and they tried to rebuild.

            In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we find that there were three great leaders who led them to rebuild the nation.  First of all, there was Zerubbabel, who led the first group of Jews back and began to rebuild the temple. 

Then, Ezra the scribe led some more Jews back, and his goal was to restore the people.  Ezra 7:10 tells us that, Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” 

And then, thirdly, Nehemiah led a group back and his goal was to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  This morning, Nehemiah is the one we want to take a closer look at.  Nehemiah was serving in Persia as a cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, when he heard from some men who had just arrived from Jerusalem. 

Nehemiah inquired about the condition of the city and the people. They responded, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)

Nehemiah already knew that the wall and gates had been destroyed over 140 years earlier, but when he heard this graphic firsthand description of the scene, it devastated Nehemiah.  As a result, he wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed for days, asking God to do something about this terrible situation.  And God responded by doing something — he used Nehemiah! 

I want to begin my lesson by making an assumption that I hope is true of everyone here — that you want to be used by God.  But there’s much more to serving God than just talking about it.  God wants to use each one of us, but he also wants to develop us into people who are more usable to him.

I’m guessing that, for many of you, there’s something that bothers you when you see it in the world, some injustice, something that weighs on you, perhaps on the behalf of others.  It might be a need that you see, that you think somebody should be meeting.  It might be a group of people that are hurting, maybe those who have been abused.  Maybe someone who’s been neglected and you know that as we try to live like Christ, we should be involved to help meet those needs.

For some of you, there’s what we might call a “divine burden,” something that disturbs you, something that upsets you on behalf of God, something that moves you in a significant way.  Craig Groeshel has said, “The burden you bear often reveals the calling you’ll embrace.”  In other words, the thing that tends to upset you will often drive you or compel you into a ministry to make a difference in the lives of somebody else.

            And that’s where Nehemiah was.  He saw this need in Jerusalem, and it weighed so much on his mind that it was all he could think about.  What can I do to help those people out?  And it’s important for you to notice that Nehemiah was not a priest, he was not a prophet.  In terms of the Jewish leadership, he was a nobody.  He was just an ordinary servant, a cupbearer to the king.

But although Nehemiah didn’t have any formal or appointed position, he did have a God-ordained passion. There are some of you that are listening right now and you’re not an elder, you’re not a preacher.   You’ve just got a normal secular job.  But what you do have is a passion from God about something that matters, and that qualifies you to make a difference.

I’m sure there were some other Jews in Babylon who probably heard about those conditions in Jerusalem, and all they did was just shake their heads and said, “Isn’t that a shame?” and then went back to their work in Babylon thinking, “What a tragedy!”  But they weren’t burdened by the need of God’s people in the land.

But the man that God used to do something about it not only heard about the need. He felt their need.  He wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days about what he had heard.  He just couldn’t get it out of his mind.  God used that burden as the basis for action.

Some of you might be thinking, “The problem for me is that the needs are so many and so great!  I can’t possibly respond to them all.  How do I know which particular need God wants me to get involved with?”

Don’t let the immensity of the needs paralyze you so that you don’t do anything.  Sometimes you hear about the overwhelming needs around the world and you’re tempted to run for cover because there’s just no way to respond to them all.  Out of emotional survival, we throw up a barricade around our hearts that blocks out all of the needs from moving us.  And then, as a result, we end up consumed with our own pursuit of pleasure and we ignore all the needs of others.

But, on the other hand, don’t commit yourself impetuously to something just because the need is there. The needs truly are endless. You don’t have to respond to all of the world’s needs.  Nobody could do that.  It’s important to spend time with God in prayer until he burdens your heart with a particular need that you can do something about.

So, we need to pray continually that God would give us a heart to feel the burden of hurting people’s needs and the willingness to get involved where we can offer some help.

When Nehemiah saw how bad things were in Jerusalem, his heart broke.  And he felt the burden in his heart to do something about it.  He spent a lot of time in prayer until he finally stood up and said, “Somebody’s got to do something about this.  It might as well be me.”

  If you have that kind of a burden on your heart, what do you do with it?  I want to suggest four things to you this morning, based on what Nehemiah did.  The first is this…

  1. Pray, Pray, Pray

Time and again, we see Nehemiah going before God praying and praying and praying again.  He knelt down to pray twelve different times in the book of Nehemiah.  If you read in the text, you’ll see in the first verse of the first chapter that Nehemiah heard the news about his people in the month of Chislev, which is around November/December.  He starts praying and he prays until the first verse of chapter 2, the month of Nissan.  

Since I doubt if any of you know all the Jewish months, this won’t be obvious to you, but Nisan was four months after Chislev. Four months.  I want you to notice that for four months, Nehemiah is fasting, he’s hurting, he’s praying, he’s seeking the God of heaven.

If there is a burden that God has laid on your heart, I hope that you’ll first spend lots of time in prayer.  God, help me!  God, give me the words!  God, give me wisdom!  God, direct my steps. God, show me what to do.  God, show me what to say.

I love what happens in chapter 2.  The king notices that something is on Nehemiah’s mind because he seems to be sad all the time.  And so, Nehemiah tells him that he’s sad because of the condition of Jerusalem.  And then the king says, “What do you need?”  

Notice this.  In verse 4, the king says to Nehemiah, “What are you requesting?”  And so, the next thing you would expect to read is Nehemiah’s answer.   But it’s not.  “Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’  So I prayed to the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 2:4).  And then, Nehemiah answered the king.

Pray, pray, pray.  Don’t ever forget that there is nothing too big for God in prayer, there’s nothing too big for God’s power, and there’s nothing too small for God’s heart.  He cares about all of it.  If it’s a burden to you, take it to God.

Somebody here may have a heart for something.  You may have a vision for something.  If prayer isn’t necessary for you to accomplish your vision, then you aren’t thinking big enough.  You want something so big, so full of faith that you need the power of God to come through for you.

What do you do with this burden that’s on your heart?  The first thing you do is pray to God.

  • Define Your Vision Clearly

The second thing you do is you define your vision clearly.  You need to understand that for most people, it’s not a lack of caring that’s the problem, it’s a lack of clarity.  It’s an inability to state specifically and clearly what it is that you want to do.  I want you to see the crystal-clear clarity of Nehemiah.   Watch what he says.  The king asks Nehemiah, “Nehemiah, I see you’re upset, “what do you want me to do?”

And so, Nehemiah says in verse 5, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:5).  One sentence.  Absolute clarity.  Please send me to Judah so that I can rebuild the walls.  After you have prayed to God, you need to define your vision clearly.

For most of you, it’s not caring that’s your problem, it’s the lack of clarity. What is it that you want to do?  What is God calling you to do?  Some of you may say, “I want to help children.”  Okay, which children?  Those that don’t have their basic needs met?  Those that can’t read?  Those who have been abused?  Those that don’t have homes?  Those who need medical care?  Where?  In your city?  In your state?  In your nation?  In some other country in this world?  What is it very specifically that you feel that God is calling you to do?

The bottom line is, if you can’t define it, you can’t do it.  If God is calling you to do it, then you need to define it clearly.  When the king says to Nehemiah, “What do you want to do?”, Nehemiah is ready with an answer.  “Please send me to Judah so that I can rebuild the walls.”

In one sentence, what is it that God is leading you to do?  You might say, God is leading me to help provide food to low-income families in Spring Lake.  That’s clear.  That’s definable.  And it’s doable.

You might say, God is leading me to help veterans in the Fayetteville area who are struggling with depression.  That’s clear.  That’s definable.  And it’s doable.

You might say, God is leading me to help provide water to communities in Madagascar that don’t have enough clean water.  That’s clear.  That’s definable.  And it’s doable.

In one sentence, what is God calling you to do?  After you pray to God, you need to define your vision clearly.

  • Make a Plan

Number three, you make to make a plan.  Someone has said that a goal without a plan is just a wish.  Some of you, you’re just wishing.  Make a plan.  Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get organized.

I want you to notice how specifically clear Nehemiah is about his plans.  In chapter 2, verse 6, it says this: “Then the king said to [Nehemiah] (the queen also sitting beside him), ‘How long will your journey be? And when will you return?’”  Notice that Nehemiah didn’t respond by saying, “Well, I don’t really know, I haven’t thought about that yet.” 

No, what he says is, “It pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time.” (Nehemiah 2:6).   Whatever that time was, Nehemiah was very specific with the king and he told him exactly how much time he needed.

Then he went on to say, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah.” (Nehemiah 2:7).  In other words, I’m going to need some protection, and here’s my plan for you to give that to me.  Please send some letters and make that happen.

And then he goes on to say, “and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy.” (Nehemiah 2:8)

Nehemiah has really thought this thing out.  He knows he’s going to need some wood to build the wall with.  And he’s also got to live somewhere while he’s doing the building, so he’s going to need some wood for his house.  Nehemiah is very, very clear.  He says, I need protection to travel and I need provisions to build. He created a plan and he told the king this is how I plan to accomplish my goal.

It is essential that you have a plan for what it is you want to accomplish.  You may want to provide water to communities in Madagascar that don’t have enough clean water, but if you don’t have a plan, then, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s never going to happen.

Someone may say, I want to create a plan but I don’t really know how to have a perfect plan. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect.  I would rather execute a good plan today with passion than a perfect plan months from now without passion.  You just need to have a plan to get things started.  And then, once you get started, you take it step by step.  You learn as you go.  That plan may change over time.  In fact, it most likely will.  But there has to be a plan to get things going.

So, you have a burden that’s weighing on your heart.  You’ve prayed about.  You’re able to define your vision clearly.  You want to start a ministry and you’re ready to take the next step, but you’re not quite sure what to do.  Have a meeting with someone else who is doing what you want to be doing.  Do the research, ask a lot of questions.  Find a mentor.  And then make a plan.

You pray to God, you define your vision clearly, and then you make a plan.

  • Inspire Others to Follow

And number four, you inspire others to follow.  Nehemiah wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he could never have done that by himself.  And so, once Nehemiah gets to Jerusalem and he sees exactly what needs to be done, he goes to the Jews and he says, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” (Nehemiah 2:17). 

And he’s able to get the people motivated, so that they said in verse 18, “Let us rise up to build.” (Nehemiah 2:18).  But this motivation wasn’t just a one-time thing.  What we find in the story of Nehemiah is that the work was challenging.  There was a lot of opposition, and people got discouraged.

When we do God’s work, we’re going to have to deal with discouraged people that may feel like we’re failing, we’re not getting it done, we could never ever accomplish this.  These Jews were distracted, they’re exhausted, they feel like failures. 

But over and over, Nehemiah steps up to encourage them.  He lets them know, “Yes things are difficult.  Yes, the work is hard.  But God is with us, and God is going to help us to accomplish this goal.”  Verse 18 is significant.  Nehemiah said, “And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me.” (Nehemiah 2:18)

There are very few burdens that God will lay on your heart that you are able to accomplish all by yourself.  You’re going to need to encourage others to help you, and let them know that God is with us. God is doing some great things.  He’ll never leave us, He’ll never forsake us, He’s empowering us, He’s going before us, He’s opening doors that we don’t have the power to open. He’s giving us favor with the hearts of people, our God is with us.

I like what John Wesley once said.  He said, “Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”

Let me make this very personal before I close.  One of the things that the elders at Cruciform have tried to communicate to all of the members is that we want you to find your passion.  Find what it is that burdens your heart for the Lord.  Define your vision clearly.  Make a plan.  And we promise to do everything we can to help make your plan a reality.

Several months ago, Teri Kane came to the elders and she said, “I feel a real burden to do something about the problem of human trafficking.  I want us to do something to make a difference to those affected by human trafficking in the Fayetteville/Spring Lake area.”  The elders met with Terri and the first thing we did was to begin praying.  After that, we communicated with and met with some of the people and agencies that are currently working to help people affected by human trafficking.  And we are currently working on a specific plan with specific things that we can do as a church.  Very soon, we expect to share some of that information with you and see if there is anyone else in the church who has a burden to help with this need.  But it all started with one person who had a burden on her heart for one particular need.

So, what do you do if you feel a burden, a passion, to accomplish something for God?  You start by praying, and then pray some more and then pray some more.  Then you define your vision clearly.  Express what it is you want to accomplish in just a sentence or two.  Then, make a plan.  Lay out the steps that need to be taken in order to accomplish our goal.  And then, you inspire others to work along with you.  And you step out and you do what you can do and you watch God do more through your step of faith than you ever imagined.  If the elders can help any of you to work through these steps, we are available and ready to do so.

Whatever you do, don’t sit at home, saying, “I’m bored.”  Find something that you’re passionate about and make a difference in this world.

The next song that we’re going to sing is “Build Your Kingdom Here”.  Because we’re not building walls, we’re not even building a church building.  We’re helping God to build his kingdom here on this earth.  God, set our hearts on fire.

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