1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
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 had 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:
“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, 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 family, 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 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 events chronicled in the book of Nehemiah took place during a period of time known as the Babylonian exile, and about 140 years after the Persian king Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem and deported huge numbers of Israel’s population to other Persian provinces. Just before Nehemiah’s story begins, we find that some previously exiled families had begun to return to Judah, and that Ezra had led the people to begin rebuilding the Temple there. The Israelites met with all sorts of opposition to their building plans, and eventually two Persian dignitaries named Rehum and Shimshai sent a letter to king Artaxerxes, warning him that Jerusalem had always been a troublesome city, and that they should not be allowed to complete the Temple, because it would lead them to rebellion. Artaxerxes was already dealing with a revolt from one of his former commanders, so he agreed with Rehum and Shimshai and ordered them to stop the rebuilding efforts in Jerusalem by force.
When we catch up with Nehemiah just a short time later, we find that he is living in Susa, which is once of the ruling cities where the kings of Persia went to live during the winter. He is an Israelite, who is serving in a privileged position in the king’s household as the royal cupbearer. If you remember, Daniel served in similar way when he and his friends were taken from Israel by force. Because of his position, we know he was close to the king and was a trusted servant.
Though the Babylonians had deported a large part of the population from Judah, the people did not primarily live as slaves, like they had in Egypt. Evidence suggests that they lived normal lives as part of Babylonian society. They participated in the economy, they married foreign spouses, and they raised their families in their new homes away from home. So it is no surprise that Nehemiah was able to talk freely with Hanani and his fellow travelers on their arrival from Judah.
Now, you might be asking yourself why I am giving you this short history lesson? The answer is this: sometimes it is easy to overlook something significant in the Bible, when we aren’t aware of its context. Without understanding what was going on with Ezra, who was living at the same time as Nehemiah, and the failed efforts to rebuild the Temple, Nehemiah’s strong reaction to Hanani’s news about the state of Jerusalem and the fact that its walls were still in tatters and its gates still burned doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, why would Nehemiah be so distraught over this news, when the city had been destroyed 140 years ago by a previous king, long before he was even born?
When we realize that Nehemiah was probably expecting to hear good news about Ezra’s efforts to rebuild the Temple, which would have led to other restoration efforts in Jerusalem, his anguish begins to make more sense. You see, a report that those who had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild it were in trouble, and the city itself was still in tatters was a clear indication to Nehemiah that the Temple project had been a failure and that his people would continue in their struggle to return to the right worship of God. In other words, their exile in Babylon would continue.
Nehemiah’s response to this news shows that he was utterly heartbroken, and he was moved deeply to grieve for Israel. Even though the exile had occurred long before his birth, and though he had always lived in a foreign land, his ties to his people and his faithfulness to God were so strong that he couldn’t help but share in the grief of God’s people at their ongoing troubles. Even though he was not personally involved with the rebuilding project, Nehemiah experienced personal loss at its interruption.
Have you ever shared someone else’s grief in this way? Have you ever identified so deeply with the heartache of others that it became your heartache as well?
II. Shared Grief
Like most people, I have experienced moments in this life that have led me to grieve deeply. Some of these events have been very personal, but others have been moments of sorrow shared with family and friends. Many of you will remember that in our first month here Sarah and I briefly returned to Kentucky in the wake of a tragedy involving a family close to us from our church there. This young couple had been married only a few years and had finished the process of adopting their infant son only weeks before she received the diagnosis that her cancer was back. He was serving as the youth pastor of our church, and we prayed daily as a community for her healing. As the months went along, though, the treatments ceased to work, and her cancer grew.
Shortly after we moved to Brazil, and less than a year from her diagnosis, God welcomed our friend into paradise. On the morning I shared our request for prayer for her family and broke down on this stage, my grief was raw and real. But truth be told, the grieving process had started long before the end was in sight. You see, we don’t only experience grief at a loss, we also experience sorrow when we witness others we love in distress.
This is especially true when someone in our church family is experiencing grief. Our community has witness several great losses and tragedies in the past few months, and I know that some of us here are still struggling with shared sorrow in the light of these events. I suspect that this is not the first time you have experienced such sadness, and I am sure it will not be the last. God doesn’t promise us the absence of trouble in this life, but he does promise that he will give us his peace in the midst of our troubles. And the Bible also assures us that we do not suffer alone. In 1 Corinthians 12:16 Paul says, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” When we belong to the body of Christ, we commit ourselves to sharing in the joys, the defeats, the praises, and yes, even the grief of our fellow Christians.
I suspect this is why the news of Jerusalem’s troubles hit Nehemiah so hard. He wasn’t grieving for himself only, but for a whole nation of God’s people, who were desperate for rescue from exile, for a sense of purpose in a world that had turned against them, and for the restoration of the center of their identity as a people – the Temple and its holy city.
When Nehemiah received news about Jerusalem’s desolation, the Bible says that he sat down and wept, and for days he fasted and prayed. Have you ever been so upset by something that you couldn’t eat, and all you could do was weep and cry out to God over and over to make things better? If so, then you know that Nehemiah’s actions were the response of a man who has been crushed by terrible news. He had been so personally affected by what he heard, that he could no longer function normally.
III. What is Good about Grief?
Grief is the expression of a broken heart, whether it is personal or shared with others. It is the deeply felt acknowledgment that something has gone very, very wrong. But the Bible promises us in Romans 8:38 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In other words, God is always working on our behalf, even in the midst of great trials. God is a God who can turn our sorrow into laughter, and change our distress into peace. If this is true, as I believe it must be, then it begs a question that I would like us to briefly consider this morning. How does God make something good out of our grief? Or to put it more simply, when is grief good?
First, I believe God is able to use our grief for something good when it drives us toward him in faith. When we are in the midst of trials in this life, it is so easy to turn inward, to close ourselves off from everyone and everything around us, and to blame God for our situation. But that road only leads to darkness and greater despair. God calls us instead to keep out eyes focused on him, when we are at our worst, and to seek his help in our greatest moments of need. God has been slowly teaching me this lesson, and last year, when things seemed to be going downhill for our friends in Kentucky, God spoke hope and comfort to my soul. As I wrestled with my sorrow, God gave me a glimpse of his goodness and the faith to write the following words.
“As I continue to think about and pray for our friends, I am reminded of Psalm 121. This psalm is far from a lament, because apart from the desperation of overwhelming circumstances it sees the hope of God. And it sees this hope as something more than a future promise. In the midst of tremendous need, this psalm proclaims that hope has already broken in to the present reality; that light is actively piercing the darkness and life is overcoming death.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
“It is sometimes difficult to balance hope with our present reality. It is hard to see a silver lining when the sky is filled with thunderclouds. So what do we do, when we stand on the outside of suffering, looking in with helpless despair? The temptation is to give up, to settle for apathy. For many of us, the default mode is to offer trite words of comfort, because we don’t know what else to do. But what if we take seriously what the Psalmist says? What if we live fully into the promises of God that he has our best interests at heart?
“What if our cries of lament were to become a chorus of praise? Not praise of life’s terrible circumstances, but praise of the One who created us, who loves us, who sustains us, and who sent his Son so that we might become his children. What would that look like? What sort of hope would that offer to those without hope?
“I am praying daily that God will heal our friend. I believe he can do so. And in my despair, I am choosing to give praise to God, because this situation does not change who he is, nor who we are in his eyes. I know that he loves our friend and that she belongs to Jesus. I know that he sees her hurting. I know that he cares and is walking with her in the midst of her suffering, holding the darkness at bay, because he is the only one who can.”
Those words arose out of a deep conviction that God is in control, that God is good, and that God loves his children. And I believe that God is able to take our grief and turn it into joy when we turn to him in faith, surrendering all we are to Jesus and trusting him to carry our burdens. Jesus alone can turn the sorrow of this life into happiness, and we know this is true because in John 16:33 he said to his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Second, I believe God is able to use our grief for something good when we learn to grieve over the things that grieve the heart of God. Once we have accepted God’s gift of grace through faith in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit in our lives God begins to transform us from the inside out until we learn to love as Jesus loves us. And when we love as Jesus loves, we begin to grieve the things that grieve him. We begin to view the world through his eyes, and we find that God invites us to extend his grace into those dark places that still remain in the world.
I believe there are three things, in particular, that grieve the heart of God. The first is people who are living far away from him. The Bible tells us in John 3:16-17 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God is not content that people should live separated from him, and the whole scope of salvation history is the story of God seeking out his lost children to return them safely home.
The second thing that I believe grieves the heart of God is disunity in his church. 1 Peter 2 says that the church is the special possession of God, rejected by humans but precious to him. When our unity becomes shaken by disagreements or selfish desires or a loss of common vision, we threaten to separate the body of Christ, purchased by his blood. It is for this reason that Paul continually calls for unity in the church, as he did in Philippians 2 when he said, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
The third thing that I believe grieves the heart of God is sin among the faithful. The church is the bride of Christ, and we are called to remain pure and blameless until his return in glory (1 Thess. 5:23). Once we have received God’s gift of grace through faith in Jesus, he justifies us, washing us clean of our guilt, and we are born again in the Spirit, giving us freedom from sin’s power in our lives. So when we continue to live as though sin reigns in our lives we grieve the heart of God. Paul explained this well in Romans 6.
“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”
When we learn turn to God in our despair and when we begin to grieve over the things that grieve the heart of God, he is able to take our sorrow and produce something good out of it. He is able to move us to act in redemptive ways to bring lost people back into relationship with God, to seek unity in the body of Christ, and to pursue lives of holiness that please God. In other words, he is able to generate in us a faith that works by love (Galatians 5:6).
III. How Should We Respond in Our Grief?
Nehemiah was broken, distraught, even out of control in his grief. But, though he was experiencing tremendous distress, he didn’t allow himself to remain there for long, but instead turned to God for his relief. In doing so, he offers us an example of how we should respond in both our personal and our shared grief, and of what faith working by love looks like. Here is how Nehemiah responded to his grief:
First, he allowed himself to mourn. Verse 4 says that he sat down and wept, and then mourned and fasted for several days. He didn’t try to pretend that nothing had happened, and he didn’t try to avoid his heartache. Instead, he acknowledged it and allowed himself time to grieve.
After he took some time to admit his sorrow, Nehemiah praised God for who God is and what God does for those who call upon his name. In verse 5 he began to pray, and the first thing he did was acknowledge that God is a great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love and obey him. By doing this, Nehemiah acknowledged that he couldn’t see the whole picture of what God was doing, and that he understood God was in control and acting in the best interests of those who love him.
This recognition of God’s goodness and greatness immediately drove Nehemiah to confess his sin in verses 6-7. He recognized that human tragedy was not part of God’s good design for creation, but was introduced into the world because of Adam’s sin. Just as he shared in Israel’s grief, he also shared in Israel’s sin, so his confession was not just for his own sin, but for Israel’s sin as well. Through confession and recognition of his own guilt, Nehemiah avoided the trap of blaming God for Israel’s troubles.
And finally, Nehemiah asked God to empower him to act in verse 11. He asked God for his blessing to do something about his grief by putting his faith to work. And, as we will see in the coming weeks, God answered his prayer.
Some of you have come here this morning bearing the weight of a personal or shared grief. Maybe you lost a loved one recently and the pain of that loss is still fresh in your heart. Or maybe you have friends or family members who are hurting and can’t seem to find the hope to move on, and you are sharing in their grief. Maybe you have experienced some sort of upheaval in your life and you are struggling to find meaning or purpose in your everyday. My guess is that some of you are holding onto grief from events long past that continues to produce sorrow and regret in your present.
You can have freedom from all of these things today, if you’ll trust in Jesus to carry your burdens for you. Only he can turn your sorrows into joy. Only he can make something good out of your grief. But you have to release it to him, before he will be able to do anything with it.
In order to do that, some of you need to allow yourself the time and space to mourn. Maybe you have experienced tremendous heartache, and you are overflowing with grief, but you haven’t given yourself permission to mourn yet. Maybe you think it shows weakness, or you don’t think you should give in to your sadness, or maybe you just don’t want to feel the pain and you’ve constructed walls to protect yourself. Jesus experienced every part of what it means to be human. He knows what you are going through, and he will carry you through the tough times, but you have to give yourself a chance to grieve, if you ever hope to let Jesus help you heal.
Some of you have been letting grief take control in your life for too long already, and what you need to do is look to God and acknowledge that he is awesome and powerful and good. You need to trust him to help you deal with your sorrow.
Some of you need to confess your sin. Let’s be brutally honest here. Some of you are experiencing grief right now because you are continuing to let sin reign in your life. It’s time to cast off the old self and start living the new life that God has given you through Jesus. And if you haven’t ever experienced the beginning of that new life, maybe its time for you to receive Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior, and stop trying to make it on your own. You can do that today if you will confess your sin to God and ask Jesus to come into your life.
As we close today, we have the opportunity to walk out of this place with the weight of our grief lifted off our shoulders and placed squarely on the cross. Don’t let this opportunity pass. You can cast your burdens on Jesus, and he will be faithful to carry them and you into a future filled with hope. Why don’t you make today the day when you ask Jesus to give you the grace to act in faith?
V. Closing Prayer
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you today that you are a great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who trust in you by your grace. We thank you that you sent your Son Jesus to die on the cross, so that we might be freed from the burden of sin and shame. And we thank you that you are willing and able to turn our grief into something good, when we turn to you in faith.
Would you take away our sorrow today, and replace it with joy. And would you teach us to grieve over the things that grieve your heart, so that we might be moved to act in ways that bear witness to your love and grace at work in the world. We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.