Earlier this week I had the opportunity to make a blood donation. The process is the same for each person. You begin with a stranger asking you series of questions about your travels to other countries, the medications you take, illnesses you may have had, the amount of time you may have spent in prison, and your sex life. After completing the questions, the stranger then pokes your finger to gather some blood, takes your temperature, checks your pulse, and your blood pressure. With questions and examinations from outside your body, the stranger is trying to look inside of you. They want to answer two questions: First, “Are you healthy enough to give blood?” Second, “Is your blood healthy enough to give to someone else?”
In a general sense, this is the process used throughout our life by strangers – they try to know us be examining us from the outside to the inside. We see this examination process used throughout Scriptures. When Israel wanted a king, the elders looked at a man named Saul. Scripture said that Saul was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” The people desired Saul because of his youth, is good looks, and his height. Saul was a disaster as a king. When God charged the prophet Samuel to find someone to replace Saul, Samuel, a prophet of God, saw a young man Eliab. Samuel looked at this young man and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God does not care what you or I look like. Our height, weight, skin color, hair color, or any other visible characteristic is unimportant to God. Unlike man, God looks from the inside to the outside. The Lord looks at your heart and mine.
The heart in the Bible is not simply the organ that sits in the middle of our chest to pump blood. The heart in Scripture means the inner self that thinks, feels, and decides. In the Bible, the heart experiences all emotions; love, hate, fear, sorrow, peace, and bitterness. In the Bible, the heart thinks, it imagines, it remembers, it speaks to itself and it makes decisions. In the Bible, the heart reflects someone’s personality, sincerity, hardness, maturity, and rebelliousness. The Lord looks at your heart and mine because He is not a stranger who can only look at the outside. God is always looking at the inner person. We read these words about God’s relationship to each person here from Psalm 139: God…For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body.” God knows you and me from the inside. He knows what we do before we do it. God knows what we will say before we say it. Note, however, God does not keep us from doing or saying things that displease Him even though He knows what we are going to do or say. This is one of the mysteries of faith. If God knows that someone is going to say something hurtful or do something that is evil, why then does it not silence that person or stop them? If I am about to do or say something harmful, why doesn’t God just stop me? Why does he let me choose? The answer is fairly simple. If God stopped us from speaking or acting, then our actions would no longer be free and voluntary. If God forced me to speak and act in only one way and against my will, then I would not be free. If God took away my freedom, then I could never experience love. God understands that love cannot be forced; it must always be free and voluntary otherwise it is not love. Love compels God to grant us freedom to love, the choice to love Him, and to love others through our words and actions. Yet that freedom also gives us the choice to harm others through our words and actions. God is always working within our hearts to move toward love.
What is within our hearts is the focus of our Scripture readings today. I would like us to explore for a few minutes our Old Testament reading from the Book of Nehemiah. We read from Chapter 2, but I would like to begin briefly with a couple of verses from Chapter 1.
The setting of these words is about the year 445 B.C. The political superpower of the day was King Artaxerxes of Persia; modern day Iran. In the first chapter, we learn that Nehemiah, a Jewish man, is in Persia where he meets some men who recently came from Jerusalem. There had been war in Jerusalem. Nehemiah asks, “How are the Jewish people doing in Jerusalem?” We pick up the response in Chapter 1, verse 3. “They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’” Nehemiah wrote, “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
The conditions described by these men rested in the heart of Nehemiah. The heart that sensing part of our humanness that contemplates, sifts, reflects, thinks, and reacts. Nehemiah’s heart broke at this news and he wept. He saw in the broken wall a people no longer able to defend themselves. Other people, stronger people, could come and go from the city and do as they willed to these people. The Jews of Jerusalem would not only lose their identity but also their freedom to worship God in the Temple. Nehemiah’s first response when this news came into his heart was to go to God. He gave up eating for a time and just prayed that God would redeem the people of Jerusalem. When I read this passage, I began to ask myself, “When I hear news that distresses me or causes my heart to break, is my natural reaction to fast and pray?” Honestly, my answer was “No.” I am still far too prone to try to fix things in my own strength, on my own schedule, and in my own way more than I am prone to pause, to sit down, to weep, to fast, and to pray. Taking the time to pause, sit, weep, fast, and pray allows God the time to work within us and become the central part of the answer. Taking the time also reminds us of who we are in relationship to the problem. Note in the final verse of Chapter 1, Nehemiah wrote, “At the time, I was the cupbearer to the king.” Nehemiah’s job as cupbearer was to taste and serve wine to the king. If Nehemiah lived or did not get sick then the king drank the wine. Nehemiah, in his time of reflection before God, recognized the conditions in Jerusalem that broke his heart were far bigger than he as cupbearer to the king could fix. In his own strength, on his own schedule, and in his own way, Nehemiah was not capable of healing the pain that broke his heart or helping the people of Jerusalem. Only God could change both situations. This is an important lesson because too often we face heart breaking circumstances and conclude we cannot fix such a large problem so we do nothing about it. We are right in the respect we cannot fix it on our own but we are wrong in the respect to do nothing. Nehemiah understood he could not fix the problem but he knew in his heart that he could be an instrument of God to help.
In our reading today from Chapter 2 we see the heart of Nehemiah exposed as he was serving wine to King Artaxerxes. At the end of verse 1 Nehemiah wrote, “Now, I had never been sad in his [the king’s] presence before. So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’” Nehemiah could not shake the distress of his heart. He could not let go of a burning desire within him that the situation in Jerusalem needed correction; God’s people were in danger. This situation was so pressing on Nehemiah that the concern of his heart was now clear on his face.
“4 Then the king said to me [Nehemiah], ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven.” Here again we see that when Nehemiah needed understanding and direction for his life, his first thought was to pray to God for wisdom. Nehemiah was willing to let God lead him. Nehemiah prayed to God so that God could guide Nehemiah’s thoughts and so that God could work on the heart of the king. I cannot say I ever recall having my boss ask me, “What is bother you today?” and me to at once go to prayer. Nehemiah, however, understood God needed to help answer the king’s question, “What do you request?”
We read in verses 5 through 8 that after Nehemiah prayed he asked the king to send him to Jerusalem to repair the walls and gates of the city. He asked the king to give him letters granting him safe passage and letters for the timber he would need for the gates. In turning over this situation to God, Nehemiah came to understand the beginning of God’s plan to fix the problem. Nehemiah needed time off from work. He needed permission to go to work on the problem. He needed resources for the project. He needed the authority of the king. And then we read at the end of verse 8, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.” God graciously intruded into the life of Nehemiah because Nehemiah chose to invite God. God gave the initial call on Nehemiah’s heart but Nehemiah chose to ask God into his life even further. God moved Nehemiah to tears for the people of Jerusalem. God caused Nehemiah to be willing to forgo the comfort of his life in the palace of the king to live and work in city that lay in ruin from war. Nehemiah understood the brokenness he felt in his own heart was God’s compassion for the people in Jerusalem.
What breaks your heart? What is that God has laid on your heart that concerns you even to the point of tears? In stillness and quiet, where has God said to you, “Do you see what is happening there? Do you see that person who is in trouble over here? Are you listening to what is happening in your own family? Do you see those people who have no hope? They are people I love; I want you show them My love.” What breaks your heart?
Your heart and my heart, the place of compassion, care, and ministry is what Jesus came to reshape. In our New Testament reading today, we read for the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said to all those who would listen, 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Jesus knew that our human desires would conflict with those God gives us. Jesus encouraged us to examine carefully what we treasured. When Nehemiah was confronted with the news about the situation in Jerusalem, he at once went to prayer with God. Nehemiah lived a comfortable life. He lived in the palace. He drank the wines meant for the king. The king and queen knew him personally; he lived among the treasurers of the earth. Yet he was willing to give those things that rust and moths destroy for the work and will of God. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Where is your heart this morning? Is there a conflict between your earthly treasurers of such things as money, comfort, peace and quiet and the treasurers of heaven – a close relationship with God, the ability to forgive, compassion to heal, hope in the future, wisdom for living, and salvation for your soul? Jesus’ words call us to sort through those two types of treasure. He calls us to see where our heart rests. Nehemiah understood the need to sort through our heart but he knew that we must do that with God. Nehemiah repeatedly prayed for God to make clear the better choice. Then God being God, allowed Nehemiah the freedom to choose whether to follow God’s desires or his own desires.
We have the same freedom and the same calls placed upon our hearts today. Nehemiah chose God and began to serve those in need as God wanted. We will talk about what happened next to Nehemiah because even though he decided to follow God not everyone was happy with his decision. Verse 10, Nehemiah wrote, “When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.” We can always expect when we follow God, even when we are reaching out to those in need, some people will be unhappy with us. We will talk more about that another time.
For today, it is enough for us to ask ourselves, “What breaks my heart? Who is God pointing out to me asking – Will you show them My love?” We should do as Nehemiah; sit and pray for God’s guidance. Let’s do that now as we pray together.