Lay Reader = Nehemiah 6:10-16
10One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his house, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you.” 11But I said, “Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!” 12Then I perceived and saw that God had not sent him at all, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13He was hired for this purpose, to intimidate me and make me sin by acting in this way, and so they could give me a bad name, in order to taunt me. 14Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.
15So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. 16And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
This is our final look at the story of Nehemiah, who was able to envision a better future for his people and rally the support he needed to make it happen. We heard in our first text today that Nehemiah got the people to do a sprint finish, and in 52 days the remaining holes in the wall were patched up.
That’s pretty impressive, by the way. The wall was about 40 feet tall and 8 feet thick, so this wasn’t exactly a chicken wire fence from Home Depot. In the 1500’s, the Ottoman Empire rebuilt the same wall and it took about four years to do what Nehemiah and the Jewish people did in 52 days. That’s some serious productivity!
But the book of Nehemiah doesn’t end there. I’ve been saying this whole series that Nehemiah isn’t really about rebuilding a wall, and here’s my evidence. The wall is finished in chapter 6, but there are still six more chapters in the book.
Nehemiah was committed to the completion of his task. Restoration of the city walls he hoped would lead to restoration of the city, which he hoped would lead to restoration of people’s hearts and souls, which he hoped would lead to restoration of the people’s faith in God.
You can think of it like this. Suppose you’re married, and things aren’t going well. Your marriage isn’t in summer, it isn’t in spring, it’s not even in fall – it’s wintertime for your marriage. Divorce is on the table. And then suppose that you and your spouse manage to narrowly avoid getting divorced. Is your task completed? Of course not! You have to figure out a way to improve and restore your relationship, get it back to spring or summertime, not just narrowly avoid divorce! Your end goal should be having a fulfilling marriage, not barely staying together. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or even always possible, but the task is bigger than avoiding divorce.
In the same way, Nehemiah’s task was bigger than providing physical protection to the city. We fast forward a couple of chapters to see what was really important to Nehemiah after the wall was finished.
1all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood (the leaders of the people). 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also (the priests and) the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
No Short Cuts
I have something miraculous to tell you! It’s true! I have discovered a fool-proof method of gaining fitness and losing weight. Just three simple steps. Guaranteed to work! Are you ready? You might not care about the Nehemiah stuff, but you probably want to write this down. Three steps to guaranteed results.
Step one: consumer fewer calories. Step two: make the calories you do eat more balanced and nutritious. Step three: do more cardiovascular exercise. Ground-breaking, right?
Given that we all pretty much know that three-step plan is going to work for almost everyone, why are there so many diet plans and special exercise machines and as-seen-on-TV schemes to lose weight and gain fitness?
Because we want a shortcut. We want a diet pill. Oh wait, we have those! I looked up some of them on WebMD, and you know what is listed at the top of all of them? I quote, “You’ll still need to focus on diet and exercise while taking these drugs.” What a letdown!
And if you do a special dieting fad and successfully lose weight? The majority of people regain all the weight within five years, and 41% of them are heavier than when they started. What a bummer!
Turns out there just isn’t a shortcut that works. To have a different long-term health profile you have to have a different long-term life profile as well. No short cuts.
If you want a better marriage, one lovely Caribbean cruise isn’t going to do it. If you want deeper faith, doing one Advent devotional won’t get you there. If you want friends in your neighborhood, hosting one dinner party isn’t going to be enough. Almost everything that matters in life takes time, repetition, investment, commitment. No short cuts.
When we were in Austin, Becca was running a marathon – which just seems like a bad idea, if you ask me. But I digress. The race course came right by my seminary apartment around mile 20. So I went down to cheer for her as she ran past. In fact, I jumped in and ran with her for the next six miles to give her encouragement. So here I am, in my gym shorts and cotton shirt, and this kid from the side yells out to his dad, “Look dad! That guy’s barely even sweating!”
And that was the same observation people made about Rosie Ruiz after she won the Boston Marathon in 1980 in near-record time. She had only started training 18 months prior, and here she had defeated all these life-long runners and world-class athletes. And all it took was one sure-fire shortcut strategy – just run the last mile. She jumped onto the course at mile 25 – she didn’t even have the grace to run the last six miles like me! Talk about a short cut. But it didn’t work because people saw she wasn’t sweating.
And that shortcut mentality didn’t serve Ms. Ruiz in other aspects of her life, either. She tried to take a shortcut to solving her financial problems, and she wound up being convicted for embezzling $60,000. Unable to trick her way to a racing prize, and unable to steal money any more, she finally turned to earning money by working. By selling drugs. That didn’t work out for her, either.
Shortcuts don’t work with dieting. Shortcuts don’t work with fitness. Shortcuts don’t work with money. Shortcuts don’t work in life.
So what’s your big task in life? What’s your big vision? What’s your mountain to climb, your burden to carry, your wall to rebuild, your purpose right now? Don’t try to take a shortcut. It won’t work. And it’ll probably make things worse.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7, “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do.”
Committed to Completion
At the Olympic Games in 1968, John Stephem Akwhari of Tanzania was running the marathon when he suffered serious leg injuries. He collapses with about 7.5 miles to go. The race officials try to get him to retire and accept medical treatment, but he refuses. He wraps his knee in a bandage, picks himself up off the ground, and hobbles the rest of the way. An hour after the winner, with almost no one left in the stadium, Akwhari finally crosses the finish line. A reporter seeks him out to ask why he didn’t just drop out. Akwhari replies, “My country did not send me to start the race. They sent me to finish.”
Once you decide there won’t be any shortcuts, the next challenge is deciding not to quit. To remain committed to completion. To finish.
In our text today, Nehemiah sticks to his ultimate task. He’s already done with the wall. Now the hard part starts. He gets Ezra and the other priests to unroll the old scrolls from Moses. He tells Ezra to read the scrolls to all the people. But the text says they don’t quit until the people understood the law, until they understood the reading. So today I’m preaching until you understand it! Just kidding – I wanted to see if you were actually listening.
But the people got it – in fact they realized how far they were from where God wanted them to be spiritually, so they started weeping. But Ezra and the priests still weren’t done. They had the people stop weeping, pull themselves together, and focus on God and their thankfulness for God sticking with them over all these years. It was kind of like a Jewish thanksgiving day.
So Nehemiah wasn’t done when the wall was finished. Nehemiah wasn’t done when he made sure the people had heard the law of Moses. Nehemiah wasn’t done when the people understood their failings relative to the law of Moses. Nehemiah was only done once the people also praised God for his patience and loving embrace despite their failings. That’s commitment. Nehemiah didn’t just start that race. He finished it.
If you think about what God has placed on your heart, not only do you have to decide “no shortcuts.” You also have to decide “no quitting.” What’s the finish line in God’s eyes? Like Akwhari in the marathon, God isn’t sending us to start the race. God is sending us to finish.
Whenever I start organizing and cleaning things out on my desk or at home, I always start by separating things into related piles. Trash pile. Recycling pile. “To do later” pile. Put in a box and forget for three years pile. Do you do that? What would happen if I stopped in the middle of my clean out? Instead of having one messy pile on my desk, I would have five messy piles on the floor. Progress?!? Be committed to completion. No quitting on what God wants you to do.
Helping Another Run
In a more recent Olympics – 1992 – British sprinter Derek Redmond was one of the favorites for the gold medal. He had trained all his life for this moment. Halfway through the race, Redmond was in the lead! His training had avoided shortcuts. He stayed committed to completion. His dreams were within his grasp.
Until they weren’t. His hamstring tore right at the midpoint of the race. I remember damaging my hamstring once during a football game, and I can tell you it’s painful to walk, let alone sprint. The medical staff rushed over to him, but he waved them off. With tears streaming down his face in physical and emotional agony, he started to hop down the track on his good leg, but even that wasn’t going well.
An older man ran onto the track, pushing away the race officials who tried to stop him. As he reached Derek, he told him, “You don’t have to do this, son.” It was his father. But Derek replied, “Yes, I do.” So his dad said, “Then we’ll finish this race together.”
Arm in arm, the two of them slowly made their way around the track. When the race officials came up, this time it was Derek’s father who waved them off. They were going to finish this race together. That became the defining moment of the Barcelona Olympics. Not the winner of the race. Quincy Watts, an American, set the Olympic record. But Derek Redmond and his father were the story.
Here’s what I find fascinating about that. Derek’s father couldn’t have run that race on his own. He wasn’t fast enough. Derek couldn’t finish the race on his own because he was injured. But together they made history.
Hebrews 12 says, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Like Derek Redmond, we are only able to finish the race that Jesus has set before us because we are surrounded by helpers. A great cloud of witnesses.
We’ve been tracking Nehemiah for a couple of months now. Did Nehemiah rebuild the wall himself, brick by brick? No! He inspired others.
In our text today, did it just take a single amazing priest, Ezra, to transform the people’s hearts with the Law of Moses? No! The other priests and the entire tribe of Levi pitched in.
Did Jesus do everything himself? No! He trained up twelve disciples. And beyond them the Gospel of Luke says Jesus had about seventy followers whom he equipped and sent out to minister in his name.
So maybe God isn’t calling you to do some heroic solitary deed. Maybe God is calling you to be like Derek Redmond’s father and help someone finish their race. Even Jesus didn’t do everything on his own. Maybe we can accept a helping hand, or pitch in a helping hand, too.
No shortcuts. No quitting. And no solo acts. Jesus sent those followers out in pairs. No one was alone. Do you remember how things start in the Garden of Eden in Genesis? It is not good for man to be alone. Remember that? Or maybe you’ve been to a wedding recently and heard Ecclesiastes 4: one can fall, two may be overcome, but a threefold cord is not quickly broken? Heard of that?
In whatever God is calling you to do, avoid shortcuts. Stay committed to completion. And accept or even seek help along the way. Or if you don’t know what God is calling you to do, how can you help someone else finish their race?
Mount Everest is often a metaphor for “the difficult task ahead of us.” But for some people, Mount Everest was the literal task ahead of them. George Mallory was obsessed with scaling the world’s tallest mountain. He was stopped twice, and on his third attempt in 1924 he never came back down. His surviving climbing team returned to England and held a memorial banquet for him. One of them turned to look at Mallory’s picture and said, “I speak to you, Mt. Everest, in the name of all brave men living and those yet unborn. Mt. Everest, you defeated us once; you defeated us twice; you defeated us three times. But Mt. Everest, we shall someday defeat you, because you can’t get any bigger but we can.”
Thirty years later, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay finally reached the top.
When we say no to shortcuts, when we say no to quitting, when we say no to being a solo act, we can grow bigger than the mountains facing us. Where is Jesus calling you to grow bigger than the mountain ahead of you? Amen.