In this second part of our series, After Christmas, I answer the question I left hanging last week: How do we keep following Jesus no matter what? The answer is found in an episode from out of the life of Nehemiah. Nehemiah accomplished some great things in a fairly short amount of time. His secret is one we can use in our own life to make sure our after Christmas times aren’t the letdowns they so often are. Keep reading to find out what this is and how to implement it in your life.
Have you ever been distracted?
So, just the other day I was looking at the NFL schedules for next year. Guess who faces off at some point in the season? The Chief and the Panthers. In Kansas City. Boom. We’ll have to have a watching party.
In any event, have you ever been distracted?
Many of you know I enjoy building little metal models. I got some for Christmas this year about which I am most excited. One is this really cool looking blue dragon. They also make a red version. There’s also a grand Chinese gate. There is also a new design line that is various suits of armor. Those are next on my list.
As I was saying, though, have you ever been distracted?
Have I mentioned how excited I am for Celebrate Sunday next week? It is going to be a party. God has done many, many great things around here in the last year and we are going to celebrate them in grand fashion.
But what I really wanted to ask you this morning was if you’ve ever been distracted? Personally, my own focus is like a laser. Do you believe me? It focuses directly and steadily on whatever it happens to be pointed at in a given moment. Did I mention that this laser is actually a laser pointer residing in the hands of a two-year-old? Yessir, my focus is just like a laser…pointer…in the hands of a sugared-up two-year-old…who’s entertaining himself by tormenting a cat. Squirrel! What were we talking about again?
It’s tough to stay focused, isn’t it? It’s tough on a good day when we don’t have anything else happening around us. Trying to maintain our focus…on anything…in a culture filled to the brim and beyond with as many distractions as we have makes it even more of a challenge. The kick is, while there are some activities that don’t require a ton of attention, there are others that do. Sometimes it feels like the number of tasks requiring lots of attention outnumber the ones requiring just a little attention…and they all seem to come at us at the same time.
What is true of individual tasks is true of our lives more generally. There are seasons in our lives when our absolute, undivided attention is critical for making it through whatever we happen to be facing. Exactly which seasons these are vary from person to person. It could be when your kids are young. It could be when an elderly parent is struggling through some illness. It could be a period of employment transition. It could be a lot of things, but these seasons come. Living in a world of distraction makes these seasons far more difficult than they would otherwise be.
And what is true for individual tasks and entire seasons of life is even more true of our relationship with Jesus. If you are someone who would characterize yourself as a follower of Jesus, you know just how much attention it takes to stay on track with that relationship. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot.) And when we come through seasons in which our focus tends to be a bit sharper than normal, it’s easy to experience a letdown of sorts on the back side of that. In a best-case type scenario this results in our taking a couple of weeks off from God and just doing life solo for a bit. At worst—and the best-case scenario can morph into a worst-case scenario all too quickly—we wind up in the grip of some sin struggle that threatens to undo a whole lot of good work. How do we keep that from happening?
This is the question we are in the middle of trying to answer together. Last week we kicked off a brand-new series called, After Christmas. Over the course of last week and this morning, we are talking about how we can avoid the emotional letdown that often happens after Christmas or any other significant spiritual or personal event. In the days leading up to a season like we have just been through, there is often an emotional and spiritual swell that feels great. But once things are over, many of us hit a low point. We have to go back to reality, so to speak, and even though we might pine for the normalcy of reality after a hectic few weeks, we only sort of mean that. We like the high emotions and nostalgia that Christmas is for many of us, and even though we are perhaps loathe to admit it, we don’t really want them to end.
Last week, we got this little journey started by taking a look at the story of the journey of the wise men. From Matthew’s telling of this incredible little story, we were able to conclude something pretty powerful: When we stick with our journeys after Jesus no matter what comes our way, we will find the thing—the person—for which we are searching. The question we are left to answer this morning, then, is how we are to do that.
Well, I told you that this journey was going to comprise a story that is familiar and one that is perhaps less familiar to you. Last week was the familiar story of the coming of the wise men. This morning we are going to look at the less familiar of the two stories. This one is about a man who needed to stay incredibly focused in spite of a myriad of distractions. And this one doesn’t come to us out of a particular document in the Scriptures, it comprises the whole thing. This morning, I want to look with you at the story of Nehemiah.
Now, I suspect at least a few folks in the room know something about Nehemiah’s story. His story is part of a trio of shorter documents tucked in Old Testament right in between the major history books and the poetry books. The trio includes Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. These three documents tell us about the Jews who returned to Israel after the exile was over as well as about those who remained in Persia. Ezra was a priest who led several groups of returnees back to Jerusalem and was instrumental in rebuilding the Jewish religion from out of the ashes of what remained. Esther is the famously beautiful wife of the Persian King Xerxes who courageously used her position and power to thwart an evil plot to exterminate Jews across the Persian Empire. Nehemiah straddled both sides of the line. He served in the palace of Artaxerxes (Esther’s father-in-law) after the Jews were allowed to return to Israel, but eventually led a group of workers back to Jerusalem with a mission in mind.
His story starts when a close friend returns to Susa from Jerusalem and reports to Nehemiah on how things were going back home. It wasn’t a pretty picture. When Babylon conquered Israel, they didn’t take everyone away into captivity. They just took the best and the brightest. They left everyone else behind to fend for themselves. This group hadn’t done very well. Although the first group of returnees had rebuilt the temple, the rest of the city and, importantly, the walls of the city, were in ruins. The news about the walls still being in shambles really upset Nehemiah.
In the ancient world every city that was even remotely significant had walls around it. These gave city leaders a measure of control of who was in town. In a day when roving bands of raiders and quick strike forces from neighboring cities were a very real threat, tall, strong walls gave the city a measure of protection. There’s a reason the Israelites conquering Jericho as their first stop into the Promised Land was so significant. Jericho’s walls were famously impenetrable. If the Israelites’ God could topple walls like that and give them victory, nobody else stood a chance against them. In this same vein, a city’s walls were an important source of civic and even national pride. Jerusalem’s walls lying still in ruins was essentially a broadcast message both at home and in the neighborhood that its people were nobodies and their God was nothing. For Nehemiah, a man fiercely devoted to his God and fiercely proud of his heritage, this was a bridge too far. He had to do something.
So, after spending some serious time in prayer, he began to put a plan into action. Now, as it turns out, Nehemiah was in a place to be able to actually do something about his concerns. At the tail end of chapter 1, we learn that Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer. More than simply someone who brought the king his cup when he was thirsty, the cupbearer was a high-ranking court position. He was the guy who ate the food the king ate before he ate it to make sure no one had tried to poison him. As you can perhaps imagine, the king didn’t just put anyone in this position. This was someone whom he had absolute confidence he could trust explicitly. This person often became one of the king’s most trusted and treasured advisors. More importantly, if the cupbearer ever looked like something was bothering him, the king immediately took notice. Thus the beginning of chapter 2: “During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was set before him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence, so the king said to me, ‘Why are you sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.’”
This opened the door for Nehemiah to share his concerns with the king as well as make a request (at the king’s own invitation) to lead a group back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. Nehemiah has done his homework and sets a plan before the king that is detailed, thorough, and finite. He tells the king everything he’ll need to get the job done and the king says yes. The next three chapters, then, are all about what Nehemiah does when he gets to Jerusalem. He starts by getting a sense of exactly the work that needs to be done, and then sets the leaders of the city about getting it done.
Along the way, he has to deal with distractions both internal and external. The internal distractions were some social justice issues resulting from the poor leadership and behavior patterns of the leaders who preceded him. Those were fairly easy to manage. The real challenge turned out to be the external distractions. These came in the form of three local tribal leaders who had a vested interest in seeing Jerusalem remain a shell of its former self. These were Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab. These three men did everything they could to make Nehemiah’s life and plans more difficult. They mocked the efforts at first. When this didn’t work, they got more aggressive, promising violence against the workers. Finally, they turned to deception.
Nehemiah actually records for us his response to these various attempts to distract him from the task the Lord had given him. I’d like to draw your attention to one of these responses in particular because I think there is something profound for us to get our hearts and minds around if we are going to find any success in our efforts to keep following Jesus amid the various distractions of life that threaten to pull us down in the dumps after Christmas.
If you haven’t already turned to Nehemiah in your own Bible, please do that now and join me in chapter 6. Let me set this part of the story before you in a bit more detail. Listen to this starting right at the beginning of the chapter: “When Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall and that no gap was left in it—though at the time I had not installed the doors in the city gates—Sanballat and Geshem sent me a message: ‘Come, let’s meet together in the villages of the Ono Valley.’ They were planning to harm me.” Are you with me so far?
They’ve tried everything they can to get the work to stop. They’ve mocked. They’ve threatened the workers. They’ve tried to undermine him by starting rumors that the people were planning on rebelling against the empire. They’ve tried to call in favors owed them by Jerusalem officials. They’ve hired a prophet to appeal to Nehemiah’s religiosity. Finally, they decide they’ll try and lure Nehemiah away under the guise of a diplomatic meeting and assassinate him there. Ultimately this fails too. Jump down to v. 15 with me: “The wall was completed in fifty-two days, on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul [that’s early October]. When all our enemies heard this, all the surrounding nations were intimated and lost their confidence, for they realized that this task had been accomplished by our God.” There’s that national confidence and projection of strength we talked about earlier.
But think about what he wrote here. They completely rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem from rubble to strong and tall in 52 days. That’s less than two months. There’s a house up the road from our neighborhood that they’ve been working on building since before we moved into our place almost two years ago. That’s one house. This was an entire city’s walls. In fifty-two days. How does something like that happen; particularly with all the aggressive efforts to prevent it?
Come back to v. 3 with me because the answer’s right there: “So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing important work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same proposal, and I gave them the same reply.” What’s Nehemiah do here? He stays focused. He acknowledges the distraction, sets it gently, but firmly, aside, and keeps his attention trained on the work he is doing. If we want to stay on track with following Jesus, we’ve got to follow Nehemiah’s example.
If you would identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, the journey stretching out before you is not a short term affair. Your heavenly Father is going to spend the rest of your life here getting you ready for the wonder of Heaven. Reaching the goal of perfection in the image of Christ is going to be a full-time affair. It will take all the attention you can give to it and then some. Until you can master your focus and develop the ability to maintain it amid a world of distractions, you’ll never be able to experience the full wonder of what God has for you. But listen: Even if you would not claim the mantle “Christian,” your best life is going to come when you are the most focused on the work you need to be doing and not drawn away by the world of distractions around you vying for your attention. If we want to accomplish anything meaningful, it will come with developing the discipline of focus; for Christians of focusing in on Jesus. Jesus Himself said that if we want to do anything significant in our lives it will take abiding in Him, which essentially means getting stuck on Him and sticking with Him no matter what. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else.
Okay, but how do we do that? I’m glad you asked. I’m going to give you four things you can do—four questions you can ask—to help you in this effort. Then, after we’ve talked through those, I’m going to set one more truth before you to give a bit of perspective on this whole challenge. Sound good? The first question you can ask is the very question Nehemiah asks the messengers from Sanballat and Geshem: “Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” You see, every single distraction we face is calling us someplace other than we currently are. We may only leave our post mentally, but distractions in life are calling us down to where they are. When we are faced with a distraction away from the work God has set before us, we need to ask this question. Why should we leave this work to do something else?
This is actually a question we can answer in general before we even begin the task to which we’ve been called. Before you get started on something, go ahead and clarify in your mind the kinds of distractions you are going to allow to gain your attention. Then, when life inevitably starts calling you down, if the thing doesn’t make the list, you’ve already said no ahead of time. You can simply ignore it and keep going. Still, the sheer number of possible distractions we might face means we’re not going to account for all of them. When an unexpected distraction arises, stop and ask this question. The odds are good that the few moments you spend reasoning through whether it is really worth stopping the work you’re doing are not will lose you less time than if you stop and do whatever it is. But keep in mind something the prophet Jeremiah said: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” You will be able to sell yourself on the reasonableness of any distraction if you want to do it badly enough. Keep that in mind and develop the discipline of saying no to yourself. A lot. Nothing less than abiding in Christ is at stake here. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else.
Now, that question dealt with specific, in-the-moment distractions. These next three will help you declutter your life more generally so that you can remain focused on Jesus. First, what are some things you need to stop doing that aren’t good? What are some bad habits you have in place in your life right now that are keeping you from giving your Savior the attention He deserves? I can tell you three of mine: My phone, my email, and my candy drawer. In the middle of sermon or teaching preparation, all three of those vie for my attention on a regular basis. I need to get out of the habit of pausing to turn to those. But, while those are distracting to be sure, they aren’t necessarily morally wrong. It may be that you’ve got a habit or two that does cross that line. Sinful habits will derail your efforts to abide in Christ and stay focused on the work He’s given you to do more surely than anything else. What are some things you can do to root these out of your life? It may be that a simple decision of the will can get you there, but it may be that you need to enlist the help of an accountability partner. I can tell you there are few things scarier than opening your life to such intrusion by another person, but if you do it right, there are few things more helpful in keeping your focus stuck on Jesus. Indeed, you’ll stick with Jesus when you stay focused on Him and nothing else.
This second question is good for addressing distractions that seem to come back again and again: Is this thing a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed? Some sources of distraction are things over which you have a measure of control, but some of them aren’t. Distractions over which you have some control are often problems that can be solved. You can make a change in your life that will eliminate whatever it is for good. You’ve simply got to do it. Other distractions, though, are things you can’t touch. These are tensions that you’re going to have to learn to manage. These are thorns in the flesh like Paul faced through which your good and wise heavenly Father is giving you the opportunity to deepen your dependence on Him. Lean into His help and let Him give you the strength to keep moving forward with your eyes on the kingdom in spite of whatever it is. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else.
This third question, now, is where things can get a bit more difficult. This is where we start to cut some bigger branches so that fresh growth is not impaired. Are you ready? What are some good things that need to be set aside for the best things? In our lives, the biggest enemy of the great is not usually the bad. The biggest enemy of the great is the good. When God has set some task before you, the distractions that will often be the most potent will be the various calls you get to stop doing whatever it is God has called you to do in order to go and help do something good, something that advances the kingdom of God in another direction. There’s nothing wrong with the thing in itself. The problem is that this good thing is keeping you from the better thing that you have been specifically called by God to do. The danger here is that we can get so caught up in doing good things that we don’t ever get around to doing the best ones, the ones only we can do. So, is the thing calling for your attention something that is fully in line and on board with the work Jesus has given you to do, or is it simply a good thing that someone else can—and by gift and calling should—be doing? Be honest because many a good thing has kept an otherwise willing servant away from Jesus. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else.
And here’s the thing about staying focused on Jesus: At some point, we’ve just got to do it. At some point we decide I want Jesus more than I want these other things. With the situational exception of issues of addiction, the things we actually do are consistently the things we most want to do. If there is something that is a constant distraction for you, at some point you need to acknowledge that you want to be distracted by it. You enjoy whatever it is more than you enjoy pursuing what God has set before you. Then, you can address the point of ignorance or wrong belief or mere confusion that has led you to conclude there is anything more truly enjoyable than pursuing the work of Christ.
That’s the challenge. Here’s the good news: You can’t do this. But Jesus can. And when you abide in Him, the possibilities are simply endless. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else. We’ll enjoy the abundant blessings of the eternal life He came to give us when we make Him the lens through which we see and engage with every part of our world. At that point, whether we are after Christmas or at any other time of the year, we’ll be able with the Spirit’s help to keep riding high on the joy, the hope, the peace, the love, and the life that are found only in Him. We’ll stick with Jesus when we stay focused on Him and nothing else. So stay focused; the best stuff is waiting for you to arrive.