Hopelessness is always a reaction to what’s on the surface, but our desire for restoration goes all the way to the bone.
If you’re an avid TV watcher, you’ve probably encountered one of a dozen reality shows like American Restoration, where a team of professionals take something old and restore it to its original beauty—or as close as they can get it. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Fritz Kling describes an encounter he had with a young woman who had just moved to the city of Richmond. The young woman loved the slow process of restoring her old home, but caught herself slightly embarrassed by her city’s reputation that lingered from the segregation and oppression during the Civil War. Kling confronted her with a piercing question:
“Is it possible that, just like you expect your house’s defects and quirks will eventually make it a more interesting and beautiful home, couldn’t we…expect that our city’s complications and baggage make it a more beautiful future city? Just as old houses are sometimes advertised as a ‘carpenter’s dream,’ couldn’t we view [our city] as a ‘Christian dream?’”
What if Hagerstown was a Christian’s dream come true? What would happen if we started seeing ourselves as being here with a purpose?
NEHEMIAH BEFORE THE KING (NEHEMIAH 2:1-8)
As we return to Nehemiah’s story, we see that roughly four months pass. During that time we can imagine Nehemiah as routinely praying before the God of heaven that he would use Nehemiah to fix the walls of the city.
The scene now changes from a conversation between Nehemiah and God to a conversation between Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes. In chapter 2 we read:
In the month of Nisan [around March], in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. (Nehemiah 2:1-2)
Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid. In the ancient world, discontent in the king’s presence was often considered an offense against the king. The punishment could well be swift and severe. Nevertheless, Nehemiah, his life changed and shaped by prayer has a new confidence, and so he speaks to the king of the fate of his city. Look at verse 3:
3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 2:3-4)
Don’t overlook that. Nehemiah prayed—he prayed, right there before the king. He had trained his mind so well through months of diligent prayer that in an instant, he was able to direct his thoughts to God and find strength to make a specific request.
5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” 6 And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. 7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. (Nehemiah 2:5-8)
Nehemiah was the ultimate politician: he built a wall and got the Persians to pay for it. It could be that Artaxerxes sees this as an opportunity to further his political reach, but God would ironically use this as an opportunity to demonstrate a power all his own. As for Nehemiah, his life reveals a greater, spiritual truth: The gospel helps us find our voice when others lose all hope.
Nehemiah became a part of God’s eternal plan to restore his community. And with God’s help, so too can we attend to the needs of our city today.
THE TRUE AND BETTER NEHEMIAH
Now, Hagerstown is not Jerusalem. God’s promises to Israel cannot be applied elsewhere. But the person of Jesus reveals a greater vision for God’s unfolding Kingdom. Jesus is the true and better Nehemiah. Like Nehemiah, Jesus leaves a throneroom and a place of privilege to enter the broken city of man. In Luke’s biography of Jesus he tells us that like Nehemiah, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem as he rides in on the back of a donkey. On the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness for our past. Through his resurrection, he offers a vision for our future. Christians await the day when Jesus returns to put all of creation back to perfection and beauty. In Revelation 21 we read John’s vision of God’s glorious future: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Following Jesus is more than “waiting to go to heaven when I die;” it’s about longing for the marriage of heaven and earth. It’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” In a word, the Christian life vision is one of hope. Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus undoes the curse of Adam. In the beginning—the very beginning—one man’s disobedience turned God’s garden into a graveyard. In the resurrection, the graveyard becomes a garden. In Jeremiah’s day God called his people in the midst of exile to “seek the good of the city.” Our prayer this morning is that we might do the same for our city—that we might stand amidst the ruin and declare the radiance of possibility.
TROUBLE BREWING (NEHEMIAH 2:9-10)
Though he had the king’s support (support that extended to other regional governors as well), Nehemiah was not without his opponents:
9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel. (Nehemiah 2:9-10)
We addressed the division they stirred in Sunday’s sermon. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed a historic reality, then so is our future hope in him. There can be no opposition to God’s unfolding plan.
The gospel therefore transforms us into men and women who are relentlessly committed to his eternal purposes and conformed to his eternal promises.
 Fritz Kling, “This Old City: A Christian’s Dream of Renovating Richmond,” ChristianityToday.com. March 29, 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/thisisourcity/richmond/thisoldcity.html