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Engaged in a Great Work

Today we continue looking at the story of Nehemiah – and if you’ve been tracking with us for these past several weeks, I imagine you’re really starting to appreciate what an effective leader Nehemiah really was.

And you might not expect that from your average cup-bearer. It’s easy to forget that less than a year  previous to all this, Nehemiah was spending his time hanging out with the king in the comforts of the palace – sipping wine and eating snacks. As the cupbearer – that was his job – tasting food and wine before it was served to the king. It was a pretty good gig – but not really the kind of job you’d expect to springboard you into such a position of leadership.

And yet, here he is, heading up this huge project in Jerusalem – facing all kinds of opposition from the enemies around him, dealing with one crisis after another. And so far, he seems to be doing a pretty fantastic job.

It’s always interesting how God throws these little curveballs into our lives. He takes us from our comfortable, predicable life, and he leads us into the wild unknown. And most of the time, we feel completely under-qualified to do whatever it is that God’s called us to do. We should be the last one God chooses to do this – and yet God chooses us anyway.

I imagine that Nehemiah felt that way quite often – completely under-qualified to be the guy in charge of this huge project. Perhaps that’s why he spent 4 months in prayer before even bring up the idea to the king – perhaps he was wrestling with God – “Why me, God? I’m just a cup-bearer. Isn’t there someone else more qualified for this job?”

But, as we’ve seen so far, God knew what He was doing in choosing Nehemiah. Even though he wasn’t an engineer – the wall and the gates were quickly being repaired. Even through he wasn’t an army general – the people were safe from the attacks of the enemy. Even though he wasn’t an economics expert, he averted a major financial crisis.

It is clear that Nehemiah was the exact right person for the job that God called him to do. And I hope thats an encouragement to you this morning. God doesn’t make mistakes.

When God throws you a curve ball and you feel completely under-qualified for the task that lies ahead, know that you are the exact right person for the job that God has called you to do. You might not realize it, but He’s prepared you for this through all the things that you’ve experienced already – and He’s promised to stick right beside you as you go through this new challenge.

It’s ok for us to be under-qualified to do whatever God’s called us to do – because God is completely over-qualified to do it. He doesn’t even need us – but he chooses to work through us – giving us purpose and fulfillment and bringing glory to Himself.

And that’s what we’ve seen so far in this story. Nehemiah may not be the most qualified, but God is definitely working through Him to accomplish great things for God’s glory. In fact, today we find out that the project is nearly complete. The people have been working hard and with enthusiasm – their enemies haven’t been able to slow them down or discourage them – and now the walls have been repaired and all that’s left to do is to setup all the gates.

Now of course, their enemies haven’t given up either. It seems that everyone in this story is pretty persistent – good guys and bad guys alike. They’ve not yet run out of creative ways to hinder the work, and so we’re going to see a few more attempts in this chapter. So let’s take a look. Here’s what it says in Nehemiah chapter 6 – starting at verse 1.

Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet set up the doors in the gates. 2 So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono. Nehemiah 6:1-2a

Now at first glance, this doesn’t seem to be all that threatening. In fact, this could be seen as a gesture of goodwill. The plain of Ono was located northeast of Jerusalem – kinda half-way between Jerusalem and Samaria. And as such, it would be like the neutral zone between these two disagreeing parties. It was like these guys were inviting Nehemiah to come and meet them for peace talks in this neutral territory. We see that sort of thing today when all the world leaders meet in some neutral country to discuss peace treaties and trades disputes and all that other good stuff.

In fact, if this story were to happen today, we would read something like “So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the ski resorts in Swiss Alps.”

That’s kinda the idea here. But of course, all was not as it appeared.

But I realized they were plotting to harm me, 3 so I replied by sending this message to them: “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?”

Nehemiah 6:2b-3

Wisely, Nehemiah discerned that these people were not interested in negotiating a peace treaty – rather, they just wanted to lure him away from Jerusalem to harm him and to stop the work.

And I just want to point out a couple things: Notice first of all how Sanballat and Geshem have changed tactics. Previous to this, they had focused their efforts and their attacks on the people of Jerusalem – mocking them, discouraging them, threatening them, physically attacking them – but since none of that seemed to work – now they’ve turned their attention on Nehemiah himself. They know that if they can somehow get Nehemiah out of the picture – if he’s no longer there to encourage the people, spur them on, keep them organized, keep them safe, keep them focused – without Nehemiah around to do all that, the work on the wall will be much easier to stop.

And so they send Nehemiah this cordial invitation to come and meet with them – “Let’s see if we can work this out….”

And I love how Nehemiah responds: “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?”

Nehemiah realizes that this little trip to Ono is just a distraction get him out of the picture. I mean, sure, a nice little trip to the countryside in the beauty valley of Ono might be lovely – but Nehemiah will not be distracted from the great work that God has called him to do. He has a focused determination that he is going to build this wall and there is nothing that can distract him from that purpose.

I think we would be wise to learn a lesson from Nehemiah. I don’t know about you, but I am so easily distracted. For example, in writing just that last paragraph of my message, I got up twice to go find some beef jerky and a coke, had an email notification pop up so I had to check that, I spent a few moments fiddling with the staple remover on my desk – and the phone rang twice. All while trying to write this one paragraph! That’s pretty bad, isn’t it?

We live in a world full of distractions – with a thousand things all competing for our time and our attention. And it’s very easy to allow the urgent things or the interesting things or the most fun things distract us from the most important things.

Like Nehemiah, we need to understand that we are engaged in a great work – and we cannot afford to be distracted. Everyone of us has kingdom work to do. That is, we have been called and equipped by God to accomplish certain things for the glory and the kingdom of God.

    • Things like training our kids to know and love Jesus.
    • Things like loving our neighbour as our selves.
    • Things like knowing God’s Word and teaching it to others.
    • Things like sharing the love of Jesus with the people we meet.

Those are the kinds of things that really matter in life. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus talks about how foolish it is for us to focus our energy and attention on the temporal things of life – and he talks about things like accumulating wealth or doing things for the approval and praise of people – he even mentions worrying about food and drink and clothes. Jesus says not to worry about any of that stuff. God knows what you need to live and he’s going to take good care of you. Our concern and our focus needs to be doing the things that have eternal impact for the kingdom of God.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:33 in the old King James Version…

33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Matthew 6:33 KJV

Or as NT Wright translates that in his Kingdom New Testament:

“Instead, make your top priority God’s kingdom and his way of life, and all these things will be given to you as well.” ~ NT Wright: Kingdom New Testament

There are a lot of good things we can do in this life. It’s not wrong to play sports or see movies or go golfing or make money. It’s not even bad to browse facebook or play wii u. But those things can very easily distract us and consume our limited time so that we miss out doing the important things in life.

Likewise, there are a lot of urgent things that come in life. Appointments, meetings, paying bills, fixing the car, feeding the kids, buying groceries – it seems there’s always an endless list of things that must get done. But again, if we’re always doing the urgent, often we’ll miss out on doing the important.

Let me give you an example. Near the beginning of the week, Heather & I noticed that our kids were getting a bit out of sorts – I think it maybe was a combo of growing weary with school and being stuck indoors all the time after a long winter and stuff like that. So we decided that we really wanted to do something special with them – spend some time together as a family – and so we planned to take them on a little outing on Friday night.

However, this week didn’t go quite as I expected. I had a lot of things pop up that I hadn’t planned on doing and because of those things, I was running quite a bit behind on my sermon preparation. So I was working away on my message on Friday afternoon, and it came time to take the kids on that little outing.

Now I’ll remind you that writing sermons is good thing. And with Sunday just around the corner, it was rapidly becoming an urgent thing as well. I had to get this good thing done. Sermons don’t always come out easily and I kinda had gotten on a roll at that point, so I didn’t really want to stop working on it. But I had just gotten to the part where I wrote “ if we’re always doing the urgent, often we’ll miss out on doing the important.”

And that’s exactly what I as being tempted to do. That was my invitation to the plain of Ono – Keep working in your office. Let’s put put together a great sermon for all the people on Sunday.

So I had to reply like Nehemiah – “I am engaged in a great work – being a dad to my kids – showing them what their heavenly Father is like – so I can’t go to Ono.”

I had to put my good and urgent task of writing this message on pause so I could go and spend some time with my family.

And I don’t say that to toot my own horn – because far too often I do end up in Ono – neglecting the important for the urgent or the fun or the interesting or whatever. This is an area that I need to work on – so I was glad to have this reminder this week.

We really only have this one life to live – and we don’t even know when that will come to an end – so we need to make sure that we take care of the important, eternal things in life. First and foremost, we need to make sure that we’ve made things right between us and God – and we can do that by putting our faith and trust in His Son Jesus Christ – who died and rose again so that we could have forgiveness & life.

Then, once you’ve done that, remember that as a child of God, you’re engaged in a great work – kingdom work! And we all have our different gifts and abilities and callings and responsibilities – different ways for us to be involved in furthering the kingdom of God. So don’t neglect that important work to spend time in Ono.

Nehemiah certainly didn’t – though he lots of opportunity. Verse 4 says that…

4 Four times they sent the same message, and each time I gave the same reply. Nehemiah 6:4

What did I tell you about these guys being persistent – both the good guys and the bad guys? Well, finally, after the same message was relayed back and forth four different times – Sanballat changed tactics once again.

5 The fifth time, Sanballat’s servant came with an open letter in his hand, 6 and this is what it said:

“There is a rumor among the surrounding nations, and Geshem tells me it is true, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel and that is why you are building the wall. According to his reports, you plan to be their king. 7 He also reports that you have appointed prophets in Jerusalem to proclaim about you, ‘Look! There is a king in Judah!’

“You can be very sure that this report will get back to the king, so I suggest that you come and talk it over with me.” Nehemiah 6:5-7

It seems that if they couldn’t lure Nehemiah to Ono – perhaps they could intimidate him into coming to meet with them. And so basically they threaten to spread false rumours and paint Nehemiah as a rebel against the king. Of course, they knew it was false and Nehemiah knew that was false – but you know how rumours go – and the spread of this rumour might just be enough to derail the work of finishing the walls.

But I love how Nehemiah responds. He’s such a no-nonsense kind of guy. In verse 8…

I replied, “There is no truth in any part of your story. You are making up the whole thing.” Nehemiah 6:8

And that was it. That’s how Nehemiah dealt with. This is a lie – you’re making it all up. Time to move on. Nehemiah didn’t have to waste any time trying to deal with these potential rumours because he knew the truth. And what’s more, he was such a man of integrity, that everyone else knew the truth as well. And that’s really benefit of integrity.

You don’t have to live in fear that someone will find out you and discover your dark secrets. You don’t have to worry even when the rumours are flying all around. If you’re a person of integrity – you don’t have to worry about any of that.

I think of Daniel when the King of Persia appointed him as a sort of prime minister above all the other 120 governors of all the provinces of Babylon. Those 120 governors didn’t like Daniel and so they tried to figure out how to get him out of office. And as we’ve so often seen, one of the best ways to get someone out of political office is to dig up the dirt on him. But Daniel didn’t have any dirt! It says in Daniel 6:4.

4 Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn’t find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy. Daniel 6:4

Daniel – like Nehemiah – was a man of integrity. And because of that, they had nothing on them. Both of them could live open, honest lives without fear of accusations or rumours or any of that stuff. It’s like Proverbs 10:9 says…

People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will be exposed. Proverbs 10:9

It’s a good reminder to us to make sure that our walk lines up with our talk. If we claim to be followers of Jesus – and that Jesus has transformed our lives and made us into new Creations – then our lives had better back that up – both our public lives and our private lives. It’s easy to look the part on Sunday morning – it’s another thing on Monday morning. Following Jesus is a full-time gig – and it needs to look the same at church and at work and at home.

And please don’t hear me saying that I expect everyone of us to always be sinless! That’s not what I’m saying. As Christians we should always try to sin less, for sure! – but when we sin, we immediately confess, we repent, and we make it right. That’s integrity. It’s not hiding our mistakes or pretending we’re perfect. It’s being honest about who we are. Taking responsibility for our actions.

Nehemiah and Daniel weren’t perfect people – but they were people of integrity and as such – their enemies couldn’t touch them. That’s why Nehemiah could say in verse 8.

8 I replied, “There is no truth in any part of your story. You are making up the whole thing.”

9 They were just trying to intimidate us, imagining that they could discourage us and stop the work. So I continued the work with even greater determination.

Nehemiah 6:8-9

I love this Nehemiah guy – nothing stops him or slows him down. In fact, attacking him seems to only make him work harder. They try to discourage him and he works with even greater determination.

Well, Nehemiah’s enemies had one more play. verse 10.

10 Later I went to visit Shemaiah son of Delaiah and grandson of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home. He said, “Let us meet together inside the Temple of God and bolt the doors shut. Your enemies are coming to kill you tonight.” Nehemiah 6:10

Now there are a few bits of explanation that are needed here. First of all, this Shemaiah fellow is likely a priest or the son of a priest and what he says to Nehemiah comes across as a message from God. Actually a few verses later its referred to as a prophecy. So the idea here is that Shemaiah is saying to Nehemiah – “God has sent me to tell you that your enemies are coming to kill you tonight – Come, let’s hide out in the temple to keep you safe.”

But look at how Nehemiah replies:

11 But I replied, “Should someone in my position run from danger? Should someone in my position enter the Temple to save his life? No, I won’t do it!” Nehemiah 6:11

Nehemiah has two objections to Shemaiah’s proposal. First of all, he says, “Should someone in my position run from danger?” All throughout this project, Nehemiah has been the one to rally the people, encourage the people, telling the people not to fear and to stand strong…. How would it look now for Nehemiah to go run and hide? How would that effect all the people he was trying to lead? It wasn’t that long ago that Nehemiah was the one saying…

“Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awesome Lord, and fight on behalf of your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your families!” Nehemiah 4:14

If Nehemiah ran and hid when his own life was in danger, he’d have no leg to stand on to say stuff like “Don’t be afraid. Remember the Lord.” It’s that integrity thing again – you can’t tell the people to do one thing – and then do the opposite yourself. That destroys all your credibility.

And Nehemiah’s second objection was “Should someone in my position enter the Temple to save his life?”

When Shemaiah suggests that they meet inside the Temple of God – he’s talking about the area of the temple called the Holy place. And the Holy place was off limits to anyone but the priests. God had laid out those instruction way back in the time of Moses. So for Nehemiah (who was not a priest) to enter and hide out in the the Holy Place would be a direct violation of God’s commands.

So it seems really odd to me that a priest like Shemaiah would share this prophecy supposedly from God that would cause Nehemiah to compromise his integrity and violate the direct commands of Scripture.

Nehemiah found this odd as well and so we read in verse 12.

12 I realized that God had not spoken to him, but that he had uttered this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 They were hoping to intimidate me and make me sin. Then they would be able to accuse and discredit me. 14 Remember, O my God, all the evil things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done. And remember Noadiah the prophet and all the prophets like her who have tried to intimidate me. Nehemiah 6:12-14

And this just underlines for me the importance of testing everything against the truth of Scripture. That’s why I’ve said several times in the last few weeks as we’ve talked about church leadership and as we’ve gone through our statement of faith – that the Word of God is the final authority in all things. Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take the word of the tv preachers or respected Christian authors or popular youtube channels. Test everything against the Word of God.

Nehemiah was able to test this “prophecy” from Shemaiah as well as from Noadiah and these other so-called prophets that he mentions – Nehemiah was able to test all of those against the truth of what God had already said in His Word. And if the prophecy didn’t line up with Scripture – then Nehemiah knew the prophecy wasn’t from God.

This is the same thing that the Bereans did when Paul & Silas first brought them the good news of Jesus. It says in Acts 17:11…

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. Acts 17:11

That is such a great example for us. In our age of constant information, we really have to be careful, because there is a lot of wrong, mis-leading information out there. Much of it sounds really good. And in many cases, the majority of the people around us may have bought into it. But we need to be like these Bereans and like Nehemiah and search the Scriptures day after day to see if what we are being taught is actually the truth. That’s so important.

And then we get to verse 15 – and it’s almost anti-climatical. After all this opposition and all the issues that Nehemiah had to deal with – finally, the wall was complete.

15 So on October 2 the wall was finished—just fifty-two days after we had begun.16 When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it, they were frightened and humiliated. They realized this work had been done with the help of our God.

Nehemiah 6:15-16

It was certainly a pretty incredible feat! Despite Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem’s constant efforts to discourage, distract, and derail this project – the walls were completely restored in just 52 days! Absolutely incredible! It was obvious to everyone that this was God’s doing.

And you know, we started today talking about how God throws us curve balls and he leads us to go through challenges and take on tasks that we feel totally under-qualified to do. But I think this verse here reminds us why he does that. He does that, because when we do make it through and we complete the task – not in our own strength or in our own abilities, but completely relying on God – it becomes obvious to everyone that “this work had been done with the help of our God.”

It’s ok for us to be under-qualified to do whatever God’s called us to do – because God is completely over-qualified.

Whether we’re trying to raise kids who know and love God, whether we’re trying to break those habits of sin so that we can live lives of integrity, whether we’re faithfully trying to be a Christian witness to our family or our neighbours or our work-mates, or whatever the task is that God has given you to do at this stage in your life…

When we refuse to be distracted by the good and the urgent things of life – and we instead remain focused on the important kingdom work that God has given us to do, God will work through us in incredible ways and so that we can give Him all the glory.

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