Sunday, 14 February 2016

Praying in an emergency

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king… Nehemiah 2:4

Have you ever had one of those “it’s now or never” moments? You find yourself in a situation where you know that if you don’t act now, the chance will be gone for ever. Either you “bottle out” and spend the rest of your life wondering what might have been. Or you take a deep breath and plunge in head first.

Well, it was like that for Nehemiah in this encounter with Artaxerxes, King of Persia.

A bit of background…

It’s about 450 years before Christ, and the people of Israel are subject to the Persian empire. All the supposedly important people have been taken away into exile, and their constant longing is to get back to their homeland and especially their great city of Jerusalem. But some of them, though in effect slaves in a strange land, have risen to positions of importance.

Nehemiah is an example: “I was cupbearer to the king”, he tells us in the last verse of the first chapter. This was an important and prestigious position – we aren’t told how Nehemiah rose to this height.

From chapter one we also learn that Nehemiah has been talking to some of his fellow-Israelites who have made the journey – several hundred miles – from Jerusalem. He asks them how things are back home, and the answer he gets is depressing indeed: “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” (1:3).

Nehemiah’s response is to “sit down and weep”. For several weeks he “mourns and fasts and prays before the God of heaven” (1:4). And then the day comes – that “now or never” day – when he makes up his mind to ask the king for permission to go to Jerusalem himself and set about the task of restoring Jerusalem’s glory.

He can’t ask the king point-blank, so he somehow makes a show of his misery. When the king queries what is wrong he explains the reason, knowing that if the king isn’t happy with his request he will have blown it once and for all.

And that is when we read the words above: “The king said to me ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven and I answered…”

There’s a lot we can learn from these opening chapters of the Book of Nehemiah. But I want to focus on just one tiny point, one that it’s easy to miss, but which is very important.

Nehemiah tells us that he “prayed to the God of heaven” between the king asking what was wrong and him replying.

And you find yourself thinking (if you’re like me, anyway), “Hang on! There simply wasn’t time for Nehemiah to pray in that spit-second gap!” But Nehemiah says it’s so, and who are we to doubt him?

A couple of things strike me.

First, the length of a prayer is the thing about it that matters least. Presumably when Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah what he wanted, Nehemiah breathed a quick, silent prayer: “Lord, this is it!” or simply “Lord, help!” And God heard.

We make a big mistake if we imagine that we must clock up so much time in our prayers – as if God is sitting in heaven with a clip-board and a stop-watch. Of course not! A single word – a groan of pain – a flow of tears – things like these might constitute a more powerful prayer than an avalanche of words.

Have you ever counted the number of words in the Lord’s Prayer? Probably not – why should you? But, in the version we have in Matthew 6, it’s about fifty. Even prayed quite slowly, it takes a mere thirty seconds. All right, a bit longer than Nehemiah’s prayer! – but not exactly a prayer marathon.

But second, Nehemiah did know quite a bit about long and agonised prayers. We saw how, in chapter one, he fasted and prayed for several weeks. And we are even given an account of one of his prayers (verses 5-11). His now-or-never prayer – his “arrow” prayer, or “emergency” prayer, whatever you like to call it – was just one part of a long-standing habit and discipline of prayer.

Nehemiah, whatever else he was, was a man of prayer – and sometimes it came out one way, sometimes another. All that matters is that… he prayed.

I hope his example challenges us to do just the same, always keeping in mind that the “right” length for any prayer is, well, as long, or as short, as it takes.

Lord God, teach me how to pray! Amen.

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