Prayer. What a gift and yet so many of us struggle with prayer. I’ve heard story after story of those who prayed, earnestly prayed, pleaded with God, and they didn’t get what they asked for so they stopped praying, some even stopped believing. I’ve prayed many prayers that didn’t get answered in the way I had hoped God would answer them. I hurt for those who have felt the sting of what they believe were unanswered prayer and yet I don’t believe that God fails to answer our prayers. I do believe that God oftentimes doesn’t answer in the way we would like.
Every parent knows that you love being able to say, “Yes!” to your child. Sometimes you just can’t give your child what he or she is asking for at the time. There may be a time when you’ll be able to say, “Yes!,” but not at that moment. There are other times that you as a parent have to stand your ground, no matter how persuasive, manipulative, and conniving your child can be, and say, “No!” We as parents don’t say “No” because we want to be mean, but because we are convinced that to say “Yes” would harm our child. This has helped me in understanding why sometimes God doesn’t give me what I’m asking for in life.
There was a time in Jesus’ life when He prayed, it was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and what He asked for was not possible. Turn with me to the Gospel of Luke and let me show you what happened.
41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:41-42 NIVO)
What a great model for you and me! Jesus asked, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…” What Jesus was asking was, “Father, if there is any way other than the suffering of the cross, then please.” Did you notice though, Jesus didn’t stop at that point. He finished His prayer with, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” It is a good thing for us to pray, “Lord, I know what I want, but what I want isn’t as important as what you want. Lord, give me peace with your will, whatever your will is for my life, for the lives of those I love and care for.”
The last time we were with Nehemiah he was praying. He had heard the bad news about Jerusalem and immediately he sat down and wept. Then he tells us, in Nehemiah 1:4, “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:4 NIVO) Just two verses later, in the middle of his prayer, Nehemiah asked God to hear the prayer “your servant is praying before you day and night.” And then, in verse 11, at the end of Nehemiah’s prayer, he prayed, “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:11 NIVO) This sets the scene for us as we roll into Nehemiah 2. Let’s read together from Nehemiah 2:1-10.
1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” 6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. 7 I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. 9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites. (Nehemiah 2:1-10 NIVO)
I’m so glad Nehemiah dated the exchange with King Artaxerxes that we just read. Did you notice it? It took place in the month of Nisan, which is equivalent to our March/April. Do you remember when Nehemiah first got word of the dire condition of Jerusalem and God’s people living there? He told us, in the opening verses of chapter 1, that Hanani and some of the men came from Jerusalem and gave him the news in the month of Chislev, that’s our November/December. It’s important for us to understand that Nehemiah prayed in the morning and in the evening, day-after-day, for four months or so for the Lord to answer his prayer. We read Nehemiah’s prayer last week. Probably what Nehemiah has given us is a summary of the content of the prayers he was praying day-after-day, but what I want you to notice is the last sentence of Nehemiah’s prayer. Take a look at verse 11.
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. (Nehemiah 1:11 NIVO)
There’s a word there I want us to notice, we can’t miss it, it is so important. Nehemiah prayed that God would give him success “today.” There’s no doubt in my mind that Nehemiah prayed that God would give him success “today” each and every day, but day-after-day there was no answer, not for four months. Four months. I would dare say that most of us would have been disappointed in God for not answering our prayer long before the four months were up. Yet, Nehemiah kept praying for God to do something “today.”
When you stop to think about it, Nehemiah’s four months of praying is a short span of time compared to some of the others we read about in the Bible. Abraham waited twenty-five years before he held Isaac in his arms. Moses spent forty years in the desert before God raised him up to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. David was probably still a teenager when Samuel anointed him to be king over Israel, but he would spend the better part of his twenties on the run from King Saul who wanted to kill him. Saul, whom we know as Paul, after having his eyes opened to the grace of Jesus, spent three years in Arabia, before going to Jerusalem and beginning his ministry. Those who want to be used by God must learn to wait on Him. Andy Cook wrote,
The value of prayer can’t be overstated. Being alone, being alone with God, reflecting on scripture, and waiting on God is just priceless. Clarity comes in such times. Understanding comes in such times. And we should not expect such priceless gifts like clarity and understanding to come cheaply. (Cook, Andy. The Road Trip That Changed a Nation.)
Clarity does come through prayer, understanding does come through prayer, but we have no idea when God will grant clarity and understanding so we must continue to pray. For how long? Until clarity and understanding comes. Here’s the other part of the equation. Clarity and understanding are not necessarily clarity and understanding about the situation we are facing in life. Let me explain what I mean. I heard this past week from someone who was molested repeatedly as a child. The man’s childhood was stolen, he suffered much during the long years of betrayal. He has gone to counseling and it has helped, but then he spoke of what has helped him the most. Jesus found him in his pain and brought comfort and healing like he had never known before. He has no idea how to answer the “why” question, but he has learned that the One who suffered on his behalf is the comforting salve for his broken life and heart. I know many of you who have experienced painful situations in life, you’ve endured great loss, suffered injustice, and some are right now agonizing in the crucible of trouble. Take that sorrow to Him in prayer, cling to Him in prayer, refuse to turn away from Him because He will never turn away from you.
Nehemiah took his sorrow to the Lord in prayer, but he also prayed for God to do something about the broken down walls and desperate situation of the people. I seriously doubt that when Nehemiah first started praying that he recognized that he was the one who would rebuild the walls. He had no experience in construction. He wasn’t an engineer. He had probably never dug a footing, driven even a single nail, or quarried stones. He was a cupbearer. He didn’t have calluses, he carried cups. Somewhere along the way, was it the first week, the first month, or some time later–Nehemiah’s eyes were opened and he knew God was calling him to go to Jerusalem. How do I know that? Well, take a look at his conversation with King Artaxerxes.
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:4-5 NIVO)
When the king learned about the source of Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked him, “What is it you want?” Nehemiah prayed a quick prayer in the middle of the conversation and answered the king. Here’s my point: There are some things that God will make known to us only through long seasons of prayer. Here’s the other thing we need to notice: While Nehemiah was praying, he was also planning. How do I know that? Well, let’s go back to his conversation with King Artaxerxes once again. Take a look at Nehemiah 2:6-8 with me.
6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. 7 I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. (Nehemiah 2:6-8 NIVO)
Look at how Nehemiah answered the king. The king asked, “How long will you be gone?” Nehemiah “set a time.” Then Nehemiah asked the king for “letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates,” he’ll need those. He asked for a letter to Asaph, the head of the lumber yard so he could acquire the materials he would need to “make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence” he would live in. Let me clue you in. It is pretty evident to me that God didn’t simply reveal these necessities to Nehemiah on the spot, as he stood before King Artaxerxes, but God did give Nehemiah insight into all of these things during those four long months of praying. Nehemiah might have thought God wasn’t answering his prayers during those four months, but now you can see, God was more than answering Nehemiah’s prayers, He was preparing him for the answer that would come one day when he stood before the king. Nehemiah was praying and planning and so should we.
Let me caution you, even though we should follow Nehemiah’s model of praying and planning, we need to recognize that our plans, even made in prayer, are to be held onto loosely. They may be from the Lord, but then again they may not. Let me give you a couple of examples. In 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17, we read where David made plans to build the temple. David gathered the materials, he had the vision, but God said David was not the man who would build the temple, but Solomon his son, would build it. David adjusted. He didn’t pout or moan or turn away from God, David adjusted.
In the New Testament we can find another story about how Paul made plans, but God had other plans for his life. In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells the brothers and sisters in Christ how he has longed to see them, to encourage them in their faith. Take a look at Romans 1:11-13 with me.
11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. (Romans 1:11-13 NIVO)
This wasn’t the only time that Paul had made plans, but God had stepped in to change his plans. Turn with me to Acts 16:6-8 and I’ll give you another example.
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. (Acts 16:6-8 NIVO)
There’s no question that Paul was a man of prayer. In every letter he’s written he tells the people how he has prayed for them, he asks them for their prayers concerning his situation, and he’s seeing God answer his prayers. There’s no question that Paul was planning as he was praying. He tells us about his plans in his letters. While these things are true, it is also true that his plans didn’t always work out–God had other plans. Like David, Paul didn’t moan, complain, or walk away from God because he didn’t get his way, Paul adjusted. This is so important for you and me to remember in the days and months ahead. It is good to pray and plan, but always be willing to adjust when God’s plan is different than our own.
Nehemiah prayed for four months and during those four months God gave him insight that never entered his mind when he first heard the news, sat down, wept, fasted, and began to pray. When the time was right, when the Lord opened a door for Nehemiah to speak to the king, God moved the king to give Nehemiah everything he needed. How do you explain that? How do you explain the king who ordered the building taking place in Jerusalem to stop, back in Ezra 4, to now reverse his order, allow his cupbearer to leave his service, and supply him with everything he needed to accomplish what God had put on his heart? Well, we could say that Nehemiah used his powers of persuasion, he was well-prepared when he walked into the meeting, and he crushed the presentation. When Nehemiah walked away from the meeting with King Artaxerxes he could have been filled with pride, he could have been patting himself on the back until he got cramps in his arm, but that’s not the way Nehemiah saw things. Look at the last sentence of Nehemiah 2:8 with me.
And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. (Nehemiah 2:8 NIVO)
Nehemiah, how did you pull it off? It was the gracious hand of my God. Let me fast forward the story a little. Let’s travel forward in the story to the day when Nehemiah gathered with some of the leaders of Jerusalem and told them the story. Turn with me to Nehemiah 2:18 and let’s read together.
18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. (Nehemiah 2:18 NIVO)
It is all of God. Oh, let’s not forget, Nehemiah had prayed for four months, multiple times a day. Nehemiah had made plans. He had come to the realization that God was calling him to go to Jerusalem. He thought about what he would need to get to Jerusalem and what he would need once he arrived in Jerusalem, but Nehemiah knew that none of that would be possible if God didn’t act. In Mark Throntveit’s wonderful commentary on Nehemiah, he writes,
It is clearly stated that Artaxerxes granted Nehemiah all that he requested, and Nehemiah had obviously devoted many long hours in careful preparation and prayer; yet the reason for the granting of the requests is neither royal favor nor faithful preparation. In a phrase reminiscent of Ezra’s mission Nehemiah ascribes the success of his conversations with Artaxerxes to the gracious power of God. (Throntveit, Mark. Ezra-Nehemiah. pg. 69)
I just love that! The king might have granted Nehemiah’s request, but God was the One who moved the king. Nehemiah might have prayed and planned, but God was the One who brought the plans to fruition. This is the same mindset that Ezra had as he watched God move in his own life. Ezra praised God in Ezra 7 for the way He had worked to clear the way for him to make his journey to Jerusalem. Turn to Ezra 7:27-28 with me and let’s read together.
27 Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way 28 and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me. (Ezra 7:27-28 NIVO)
The truth of the matter is, this is your story and my story as well. I want to invite you to look back over your life and see the many ways the gracious hand of our God has been upon you. Don’t just look for the wonderful, mountain top times of your life. Oh, there’s no doubt you’ll recognize His gracious hand upon you in those times. I also want you to stop, be still, be patient, wait on Him to reveal to you His gracious hand that has been upon you…even in the most painful, turbulent, troubling times of life. He can and does bring beauty from ashes my friend. Oh, if it were not for the gracious hand of our God upon us where would any of us be?
I know there are some here this morning who have never surrendered your life to Jesus and asked Him to come into your heart and be your Lord and Savior. There may be things that have stopped you from taking that step. Questions that bother you. Pain that still stings and you’ve somehow blamed God for it all. Or maybe it’s just that you are hard-headed. You don’t want anyone telling you what to do with your life. I want to encourage you to consider something: There’s no one that knows better what’s best for your life than the One who gave you life. Won’t you come to Him this morning? With your questions, come. With your pain and sorrow, come. Won’t you come?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 23, 2020