Sometimes, broken things have to be broken even more before they can be rebuilt. But an eye for what things can be shows the beauty in the broken.
In The Six Million Dollar Man, the astronaut Steve Austin is nearly killed in a crash. Fans of the show will remember that the narrator acknowledges that he is barely alive, while another character states: “we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.” Of course, Austin goes on to be a one-man justice squad, a defender of the weak and a protector of the defenseless. But he doesn’t become the “six million dollar man” without the crash first.
Are you broken? Do you recognize things about yourself or your situation that you want to change? Do you recognize attitudes or circumstances that leave you shaking your head, wishing that there was something more? Are you moved by the struggles of others to recognize their need for healing so that you become part of their healing process?
Nehemiah knows what it’s like to have a heart broken for someone else’s situation. He’s a slave in a strange land, but he has the king’s attention. It’s his job to drink whatever is served to the king to drink, so that if someone has poisoned the king, Nehemiah will die and the king will not drink. He’s like the canary sent into the mine shafts with the miners to check for oxygen levels. He’s treated pretty well, fed well, and given nice clothes, but he is expendable. And yet, when his brother brings news of their ancestral home, it’s Nehemiah the cupbearer who sets in motion the actions that cause real change.
Nehemiah’s brother tells them that their home city, Jerusalem, has been destroyed, that the walls that kept their enemies and wild animals out have been broken, that the gates have been burned. The people who still live there are humiliated but they also fear for their lives.
I don’t know what you do when bad news comes, but it says in Nehemiah 1:4 that the cupbearer to the king, who would one day be one of Israel’s great prophets, did five things.
One, Nehemiah sat down: he stopped doing what he was doing before. I’ll admit, when I receive bad news or even ‘sorta-kinda-maybe-not-great-news,’ I tend to make myself busier. When I’m concerned about something, there is no dirty laundry in the house, because I wash it all (but unfortunately, I don’t always have the energy to put it all away!) But Nehemiah basically stops doing all of the unnecessary present things and focuses on the problem itself: his city of Jerusalem is in ruins.
Two, Nehemiah cried. Too often, when trouble strikes, when sadness happens, we try to cover it all up, tuck it away, and we fail to engage the pain we’re feeling. We don’t let ourselves process what is really going on! But here, Nehemiah doesn’t “fake it until he makes it,” he doesn’t ignore the pain that is tearing up his heart to bubble out of his eyes and mouth.
Three, Nehemiah mourned. Now, mourning is deeper, reflecting over what has been lost. (I initially put crying and mourning into the same action, but the truth is, mourning is deeper!) We cry when we stub our toe, or break a bone, or see our pennant-starved team when the World Series, but we mourn when we lose a loved one. It’s not just a momentary pain but a lasting loss. And while pain may cause momentary change in action, what or who we mourn can lead to life-altering change!
Four, Nehemiah fasted. We tend to not place as much emphasis on this spiritual discipline, but it’s understood that a person fasting will be focused absolutely. The hunger forces them to concentrate absolutely on what is most important and in front of them. It’s a sacrifice that the church has employed as a way of making oneself available to God for God’s voice to have the floor unilaterally.
And finally, five, Nehemiah prayed. Now, the prayer comes mixed in with the mourning and the fasting. It doesn’t come in isolation, or in deep space, or disconnected from real life. It’s not saccharine, or white-washed, or purified. It’s the cry of Nehemiah’s heart. All of the things before, the sitting, the crying, the mourning, and the fasting, all of them are before God, and washed over with prayer.
Nehemiah’s prayer covers the basics of prayer. He remembers the good things God has done in the past; he confesses his sins and the sin of his people in not obeying God. He puts before God his promised redemption: “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.” He lifts up the people of Jerusalem as God’s people in intercessory prayer. And he asks that God would give him success in Nehemiah’s approach to the king.
As many times as I’ve read that, I don’t see that Nehemiah ever asked for anything specific in what would happen with the king when they talked. Nehemiah simply asked God for success in that conversation. He approached God, the creator of the universe, and asked God’s blessing in approaching the king, the king of the known world. He knew that if God ordained it, then the king would get it. He knew if God was with him in spirit and purpose, then the king would be, too.
Nehemiah prayed all of this out of the brokenness of his heart for the people and city of Jerusalem. He worked it out with God in a painful, true, and unapologetic way. But he constantly focused on the fact that God was God and he wasn’t. It wasn’t his will that he was passionate about, but God’s.
Let’s be clear: Nehemiah was a nobody. He was a disposable cupbearer to the enemy king. He had no status. He had no power. He was replaceable.
But when his heart was broken, he knew to turn to God. He knew that God had promised a plan for his people and that God would faithfully see it through. The prophet Jeremiah would later say that God knew the plans he had for his people, to prosper them and not to harm them, to give them hope and a future. But Jeremiah understood that God’s people don’t always stay on the straight and narrow, they don’t always seek after God. God’s plan for good, for joy, for hope, for love, for purpose would be found when God’s people sought him with their whole heart.
A nobody in the world’s eyes, in the hierarchy of a whole kingdom, was the person whose heart was broken, was the person who God would use to rebuild God’s kingdom. Do you think that you’re a nobody? Do you think that your position, or lack of authority, mean that God can’t use you? Do you recognize that because Nehemiah was willing to seek God’s heart that God was able to use him regardless of what anyone else thought?
In the feature film follow-up to Bruce Almighty, Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) asks God to help him change the world. He sees something that needs doing, and he sets out to do it, even if he doesn’t know how. But when he prays, it’s not just that God taps him with a magic wand or zaps the problem he’s recognizing, he expects actual participation by Evan to make the change in the world that he wants to see. Evan doesn’t know where to begin, but God tells him to get started with one act of random kindness at a time; his wife actually struggles with where to begin in regard to bringing her family closer together, and God says to start with the little opportunities.
Are you broken for something that matters? Are you seeing the homeless, or the malnourished, the lonely, the ostracized and wishing God or someone would do something about it? What if you are the person? What if your broken heart is the wall of Jerusalem and your prayer will be the thing that will build a relationship back up?
We need to admit that we’re broken. We don’t always get it right. We fall down, we sin. We see issues in the world that we want to fix and it tears us apart. But we have the power of the risen Christ, we have Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross that shows us that God will rebuild what is broken by any means possible. Whether it’s your relationship with God or someone else, or your desire to make an injustice right, you have the tools before you to call on the King of Kings, the maker of all things, and to say, “you promised to watch over us, to bring us back, and we need you now.”
Joseph Campbell wrote that “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Campbell also wrote that, “if you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
It seems that too often we have an expectation of what life will look like that never plays out, and we are set back by our own sense of failure and dissatisfaction. Admittedly, it’s good to set goals, to have dreams, to push toward something. But whose dreams are they? Where do our dreams come in? How do we recognize when we’re being called, or pulled, in a different direction that should have our full attention?
Are you prepared to be “all in” for God’s plan? Are you willing to admit you’re broken to be rebuilt, piece by piece? I hope today that you can recognize that God’s plan is better than what you expected! For Nehemiah, the life of the city builder was intimidating (and dangerous), but it was a significant improvement on cupbearer, right? God knew Nehemiah had gifts that were underused and underappreciated as a taste taster for poison, but that would be maximized as a leader of the new city God was rebuilding.
Nehemiah was meant to live for something more. We’re meant to live for something so much more. But are we recognizing our passions, the things God is breaking our heart about, and then doing something about it?
Switchfoot puts it like this in “Meant to Live”:
Fumbling his confidence
And wondering why the world has passed him by
Hoping that he’s bent for more than arguments
And failed attempts to fly, fly
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside
Somewhere we live inside
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside
Dreaming about Providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we’ve been livin with our eyes half open
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken.
Are you seeing the world around you as a mission field, full of people who need help and situations that require healing and compassion? Are you troubled by human trafficking, or challenged by something immediate, like hungry families in your neighborhood? Are you recklessly searching for God in others, or longing to know how to show them that Jesus loves them? Can you see that you are meant for something so much more?
May God see your brokenness and show you the beauty of a new plan, a new dream, a new vision. Call on God now.
This sermon is for the 9 a.m. service for the Stand worship at Blandford United Methodist Church in Prince George, Va.