Today’s Old Testament lesson (Nehemiah 2:1-20) finds us in the story of Nehemiah. In the opening scene, Nehemiah had learned about the difficult circumstances that still existed for the residents of Jerusalem following the city’s destruction by the armies of Babylon. Now, he’s preparing to speak to “the new king in town” — Artaxerxes — in the hope that he’ll be given permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. But this is a conversation fraught with danger. Nehemiah knows that if he displeases the king in any way, he’s likely to be executed. And so, when the king notices that there seems to be something on Nehemiah’s mind, and he asks Nehemiah, “What is it you want?” we’d do well to notice the priorities that are revealed in Nehemiah’s response: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” (Nehemiah 2:4-5)
Under the circumstances, of course, this doesn’t mean that Nehemiah dropped to his knees, or bowed his head, or offered any other external evidence that prayer was the focus of his activity. Quite the opposite! The situation practically demanded that his prayer remain unseen. And yet, Nehemiah’s heart was such that he recognized his need for God…he trusted that God was listening to hear his prayer…and he made it a priority to seek God before he took action. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same?
And this, I think, is precisely where Nehemiah’s story has much to teach us. A heart that’s eager and ready to seek God in a moment of need doesn’t just happen. It gets cultivated over time through a “practice of prayer” that deepens and strengthens the connection upon which prayer relies. That’s why — if you go back and read chapter 1 of Nehemiah — it’s worth noting that when Nehemiah first learns about the plight of Jerusalem, he says: “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4), and then we’re offered a sample of his “practice of prayer” that’s rich in praise, in confession, and in requests that are focused not on personal enrichment but on God’s glory.
There is so much about prayer that I don’t understand — and so much about my “practice of prayer” that I wish I could improve. But it encourages me to know that there’s a God in heaven who’s willing to hear and to respond at a moment’s notice. But not only that. There’s a God in heaven who invites me to cultivate the deep rooted relationship that will make me ready for those moments, whenever they happen to arrive.
Today, let’s recognize our need for God..; let’s trust in God’s attentiveness; and let’s cultivate our “practice of prayer”; so that in all of life’s moments, we can know His faithful presence.