by Chris Ritter
Have you seen the price of lumber? A simple 2X4 will cost you three or four times what it did just a few months ago. That tells me a lot of people are undertaking projects. I have friends who this year gutted their kitchen and undertook a complete remodel. Another friend got really ambitious and stripped the entire interior of his house down to the studs… while he was living in it!
For all who love building projects, Nehemiah is for you.
There are projects, big projects, and then there are “great projects.” In Chapter Six, Nehemiah calls rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem a “great project…” something bigger than our abilities, but to which we know God has called us. Great projects require miracles to complete. Our church family has undertaken a few of these over the years. But the biggest “great project” we have is the Great Commission of Jesus. He calls us to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. That is a big project! But he promises to meet us out there as we do ministry in his name.
When God initiates a great project, Satan throws everything… including the kitchen sink… to try to stop it.
The Challenge of Focus
During a big project, it is not unusual to lose focus. Sometimes you even hit a point of despair.
I saw a sign oncee that outlined “The Six Phases of Every Project”:
1) Initial enthusiasm.
4) Search for the guilty.
5) Punishment of the innocent.
6) Praise and honors for the non-participants.
I don’t know that I have ever been in a project that bad, but I have said to myself many times, “Lord, why did I ever start this?”
Near the end of his life, an aged John Wesley wrote to the young William Wilberforce about his great project of eliminating slavery from the British Empire. Wilberforce suffered from ill health (something like ulcerative colitis) and was often discouraged on his uphill climb against powerful economic interests. Wesley wrote:
Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant,
In Nehemiah 6, the opposition to the project of rebuilding the walls of Jersualem becomes personal. Nehemiah will need to stand up under their weight of many distractions.
1 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”Nehemiah 6:1-13
But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.
5 Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6 in which was written:
“It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”
8 I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”
But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
10 One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you—by night they are coming to kill you.”
11 But I said, “Should a man like me run away? Or should someone like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” 12 I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.
Chapter Six opens with the news that the dedication and hard work of the people were paying off. The walls were rebuilt to their required height. Only the gates needed to be hung. This was an important milestone, but also a point of danger. The gates required a different skill set than the rest of the wall. What got them this far would not get them to the finish line. It was going to take persistence.
When I set out to get my doctorate in evangelism from Perkins School of Theology, I spoke to a lot of colleagues who had enrolled in similar programs. I ran across a common phrase: “I am A.B.D.” What is ABD? “All but dissertation.” It seemed like everyone I spoke with was ABD… another word for incomplete. I later came to understand why. The course work for a doctorate is not dissimilar from other college work. You read books, attend lectures, and write a lot of ten-page papers. The dissertation, however, is a different skill set. It is a 200-page paper that requires self-directed research, team-building, project design, and analysis. I realized I was going to have to push through this wall if I was going to avoid being ABD. And the biggest enemy was distraction.
The whole book of Nehemiah is a story of opposition. But the opposition changes and intensifies in Chapter Six. It gets more personal. The enemies of the project seem to realize that Nehemiah is the difference-maker. They wants to pull him away from Jerusalem at any cost.
Nehemiah’s enemies sent him an invitation to a summit on the Planes of Ono. It was to be a high-level meeting of governors. They wrapped the invitation in a cloak of respect. But Nehemiah knew it was a decapitation strike against his leadership. He was being tempted by a distraction.
Disruptions vs. Distractions
There is a difference between a disruption and a distraction. Disruptions are part of life. Every leader needs to be prepared to adapt. Sometimes disruptions are a blessing. God can use them for his purposes. I sometimes remind our church staff that wonderful ministry happens in the interruptions. Always be ready for that thing that is not on your calendar, but it is on God’s calendar for you. These divine appointments, although unexpected, can be doorways to great blessings.
But distractions are different. The word “distract” literally means to drag away. Distractions get our eyes off what God has called us to do and puts our attention elsewhere. Like a master illusionist, Satan loves to misdirect our gaze so we miss what is really happening.
The Bibles gives us several examples of distracted leaders:
- Adam and Eve got their eyes off the many blessings of Eden and turned their attention to the one thing they were forbidden.
- Sampson was born strong because God called him to deliver God’s people from the Philistines. Nehemiah wasted his strength chasing pleasures of the flesh.
- At the time when kings to out to war (2 Sam. 11), David stayed back in the palace and directed his gaze toward another man’s wife.
- In the New Testament, Jesus told his friend, “Martha, Martha… you are distracted by many things. But only one thing is needful. (Luke 10). Martha was so busy working for Jesus that she missed the greater opportunity of being with Jesus.
Distractions are often things that look good to us, but they are not thing God has for us at the moment. We can be distracted from our mission, from our calling, and our identity in Christ. We are constantly being offered cheap substitutes to the real blessings God has for us.
Congregations are often tempted with distractions. We love to do good in our community. But we must never make this our mission. Our mission is to make disciples. As we like to say it: “Draw people to Jesus, develop people in Jesus, and deploy people for Jesus.” We will do A LOT of good in the process. But we must never make good-doing our mission. If we do, we will ultimate omit our high call to make disciples.
Say “No” to Ono
Fortunately, Nehemiah has the gift of discernment. He sees the invitation for what it is. He says, “No” to the meeting in Ono. My friend, Ted, reminded me recently that “No” is a complete sentence. We don’t have to be overly creative in addressing distractions. We just need to say no.
Nehemiah’s enemies, however, are persistent. They send four invitations and Nehemiah replies with four identical responses. They they up and ante. The fifth letter arrives as an “open letter” charging him with planning rebellion against the king of Persia.
“It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”Nehemiah 6:6-7
“Open Letters” are written to a wider audience. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, is in deep divisions these days and there are many, many “open letters” floating around. These are a way to level charges and change the power dynamic. The open letter to Nehemiah accuses him to trying to become a king in rebellion against the Persians. The hope was to bring Nehemiah out in a rush to defend himself and dispel these dangerous rumors.
Nehemiah doesn’t take the bait. He names the lie. He trusts his good relationship with the king to win the day. He realizes that this letter was intended to weaken him. But he prays for strength: “Lord, strengthen my hands.”
Nehemiah is full of these punchy prayers. He uses prayer to keep himself focused. He doesn’t pray for his enemies to be killed. He prays for greater strength to stand up against these attacks. This reminds me of Acts 5 where the apostles were beaten and warned not to speak any longer in the name of Jesus. They gathered the church and prayed.. not for the elimination of opposition, but for greater boldness. God honored their prayers with a second Pentecost in which they were filled with the Holy Spirit and courage.
But the threats continue to intensify. Nehemiah visits the home of a prophet named Shemaiah. He warns Nehemiah of an imminent threat on his life and advises him to lock himself in the temple to avoid these assassins. We see examples in scripture of desperate men running to the temple to save their own lives. One example is Adonijah, the brother of Solomon. He tried to declare himself king in a failed coup. When he realized he failed, he feared his brother’s wrath. He ran to the temple and locked him arms around the horns of the altar. The idea was that no one would dare spill human blood in the temple. This would provide time to negotiate for your life.
But Shemaiah, a supposed prophet, had been paid off by Sanballat. They wanted Nehemiah to run scared. Nehemiah realized that running to the temple would make him look weak and self-serving in front of the people he had called to courage. It would also be a sin. Only priests were to enter the holy place. This was another trick of the enemy.
When faced with conflict, don’t consult your fears. Consult your faith. Nehemiah knew that if he was to be killed, he should die doing the work that God called him to do. Fear causes us to make bad decision. Faith causes us to stand strong.
Keep the Main Thing
The answer to distraction is focus. To remain focused, we need to know who God has called us to be and what God has called us to do. I spoke earlier about David on a bad day. Psalm 27 gives us a glimpse of David on a good day:
One thing I ask from the Lord,Psalm 27:4
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
Being king was David’s job. Being a worshipper was David’s identity. Here he prays for his deepest goal… seeking God’s presence and living for Him. David knew that keeping his eyes on the Lord was the best way to avoid distractions.
Paul knew this secret, as well.
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:13-14
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul was constantly surrounded on multiple fronts. He started fledgling churches that were always in conflict and stress. He owned a tent-making business. He was often in trouble with the law. But in the midst of all these swirling distractions, Paul kept a singular aim: Knowing Christ.
We live in the most distracted time in human history. That means we need to be the most focused Christians that have ever lived. Let’s consult our faith, not our fears. Let’s press into the work God has for us, even when it is difficult. Let’s continue to build for the glory of God.