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Back to the Future | The Story We’re In

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.’

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, 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. We have acted very wickedly towards you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

‘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.”

‘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.’

I was cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah 1:3–11

Nehemiah, a Jew exiled in Persia, hears about the terrible state of his home city, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the capital city of the nation through whom all other nations were to be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). Jerusalem, the centre point of a nation upon whom all other nations should gaze and marvel (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Jerusalem, the home of the temple to which the foreigner could pray to the Lord and receive his blessing (1 Kings 8:41-43). Jerusalem was supposed to be the white-hot centre of God’s missional flame, yet now it resembled nothing more than scattered embers, lying in the dust.

This disconnect between how things should be and how things are jolts Nehemiah from his slumber. His understanding of the big story, of who the Great Author is, and who his people should be pulls Nehemiah’s face towards the earth in weeping prayer. With his body weak from days of fasting, his collar soaked in tears of repentance, he confesses how he and his people have failed to live according to God’s covenant. He admits where following their own narrative has led: exile. He sees where reconnecting with God and his great plan could lead: return. Restoration. Jerusalem could once again be what it was supposed to be, and Nehemiah would have a big hand to play in that. He arose to his feet, and history happened.

As we emerge from restrictions, we too may look around us and recognise that our world is not as it should be. We may look at ourselves, as the people of God, and see we are not what we should be. There is rebuilding to be done. But it’s only in recognising the big story we are part of, and it’s only in seeing who God is and who we are, that we are inspired and empowered to rebuild faithfully. As Lesslie Newbigin so helpfully reminds us, ‘The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the reign of God’. That’s us!

When we become alive to the reality that God calls us to play our part in this great story, it opens our eyes. It fires our imaginations. What do you see in your neighbourhood, your workplace, your generation that jolts you from slumber? What might pull your face to the ground in prayer? And when you rise to your feet, what part in his great story might God be calling you to play?

 

Joe Warton
Church Team – Research & Development

Are there areas in your life where you’re disconnected from God? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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