I had a roommate in college named Jimmy Carter – no not that Jimmy Carter – and we didn’t call him Jimmy. Jim was in a program where to get his degree he had to write a major paper. He had done all the research and had lined up all the quotes he was using and the books he was citing. He had done everything except to sit down and write the paper. The due date was a few weeks away and each day that went by, Jim got distracted. What distracted him was how he was going to write his paper.
He first decided to write down all his quotes on note cards and then write the paper by going from card to card. I said, great – you should do that, get started. Then a few days later he changed his mind and decided he would dictate his paper into a recorder and then transcribe what he said because he told me that he knew what he wanted to say and that this process would be easier. I said, great – you should do that, now you really should get started. Then a few days later he decided that it wasn’t a good idea and he would write the paper in sections and then pull all the sections together at the end. And I said – Jim, the paper is due in 2 days, why don’t you just sit down and write it.
The closer the deadline got – the more distracted Jim got. I think it was the day before the paper was due that he finally sat down and started to write. He wrote non-stop through the night and only stopped to go and ask the professor for an extension, which he got. He then came home and kept writing until he had to go and ask for a second extension, which he got, and when he finally finished the paper. I had to laugh at Jim’s constantly changing ideas as the deadline got closer and closer.
Maybe you have been there. The closer the deadline comes – the more distracted we get. The longer the project goes on – the easier it is to get pulled away into other things and maybe never finish it. How many of you have half-read books on your shelf? I’ll be honest, when I looked at my bookshelf this week, I realized most of my books are half-read. Not novels, I finish those, these are books on theology, leadership, and church administration. I like to think that they are half-read because the author puts all the good stuff in the first few chapters, but more likely, it’s that the longer I read – the more distracted I get.
The longer the project goes on – the easier it is for us to think about moving in a different direction. It’s true with almost all activity and so today we want to talk about how to finish strong so that when we set out to change the world, or do what God has called us to do, we will be able to actually do it and not only cross the finish line but finish strong.
If you haven’t been with us this month, we have been using the story of Nehemiah to talk about how God uses ordinary people to change the world. Nehemiah was an ordinary man who worked as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was Jewish, but had been born in Persia because 140 years earlier the people of Israel, his people, had been defeated and led into captivity. Nehemiah’s brothers had traveled to Jerusalem and when they returned he asked them how things were going in the city and their response broke Nehemiah’s heart.
They told Nehemiah that the walls of the city still lay in ruins and that the conditions were really disgraceful. Walls meant security, protection, and identity and the people of God had none of that. All of this burdened Nehemiah’s heart. This is the first step in ordinary people changing the world. We have to be burdened by something. What problem do we see that no one else sees? What burdens us so deeply that we say, something has to be done. There are countless things in our world that break the heart of God and if we allow our hearts to be broken by these things, God might just use us to change that situation, and change the world.
Nehemiah was burdened by the situation in Jerusalem so he sat down to cry, then he knelt down to pray and ask God for wisdom and direction, and then he stood up to act. Nehemiah asked the king to send him to Jerusalem so he could rebuild the walls, and the king said yes. Nehemiah went to the city with a clearly defined mission, he did some careful planning, and then he inspired the people passionately to join him in the work.
The work began, but with all good work, there were obstacles. Nehemiah and the people faced discouragement both externally and internally. He had to face the taunts and ridicule of people on the outside and then the discouragement of his own people who got tired and talked about giving up on the inside. Nehemiah overcame it all by doing two things, he prayed and he got back to work. He remembered the Lord his God who is great and awesome, and he got back to work. And the work continued, and now today we find Nehemiah just about finished. The end is in sight.
Nehemiah is almost done. The stone walls are built and the wooden doors have been made but the doors have not yet been set into the gates. Nehemiah is nearing the finish line – he can see the end in sight, and just as he is getting ready to complete the walls, the enemy comes and tries to distract Nehemiah and the work. Hey Nehemiah, why don’t you stop the work and come meet us at the plain in Ono. A good rule of thumb is to never meet your enemy in a place called Ono. (Ono was about a 2-day journey from Jerusalem, which meant at least 5 days of not working – and was in dangerous territory.)
What this really is for Nehemiah, is a distraction. We know that Sanballat and Tobiah are enemies of Nehemiah. We know that they have ridiculed him, made fun of the work, and the workers, and have done everything they can to try and stop the walls from getting built. Now their plan is delay Nehemiah, and maybe injure him, to delay the project even more. We will distract him, they think. Stop the work and come meet with us.
One of the greatest threats to finishing strong isn’t a major failure but a series of minor distractions. Just as a project at work is about to be completed, we are pulled away to handle an issue that could be dealt with by someone else. Just as we are about to finish reading that book for a class, or to better our faith, life, or leadership, we turn on the tv to check the score of the game – but then get sucked into watching the end of the game, and overtime, and then the news conference after the game. We are ready to spend quality time with our family, but first, we will check Facebook quickly just to see what others are doing and before we know it, quality time is gone.
During the Advent Season, David talked about how we need to diminish distractions because, he said, the devil doesn’t need to destroy you if he can distract you. Because once you’re distracted, you’ll destroy yourself. Sanballat, Tobaih, and now Geshem (notice that the enemy is growing) simply try to distract Nehemiah from finishing the work. Going to a meeting at Ono, maybe being attacked there or on the way back, would have been a distraction that had the potential to destroy the work.
Distractions keep us from finishing strong. Distractions in and of themselves are not bad: sports, entertainment, chores at home, and even social media are not bad in and of themselves, but they do have the potential to distract us from what God wants us to do and those things that we want to complete. Overcoming distractions calls for us to have the courage to stay focused and say what Nehemiah said, Nehemiah 6:3-4.
And when we get distracted, that is what we need to say. I am carrying on a great project and I can not go down. God is doing something wonderful in my life and I can not stop. I am nearing the finish line and I’m going to keep going. With a laser-like focus we need to not get distracted but set our eyes on the great work God has called us to and keep going.
Jesus was relentless in his mission to change the world. 3 times the enemy tried to distract Jesus in the wilderness before he even started his ministry. Satan tempted Jesus with wealth and glory and power, and each time Jesus said, I am carrying on a great project and I can not listen to you.
When his ability to heal the sick and cast out demons made crowds flock to Jesus for help, he went off to pray and then came back and said, I am carrying on a great project and have to go to other towns to preach and teach.
When Peter told Jesus that he would not allow him to die in Jerusalem, Jesus said, get behind me Satan because I am carrying on a great project and you can not stop me.
Even in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was betrayed by Judas and the soldiers arrested him, some of his disciples wanted to fight, but Jesus said, put away your swords because I am doing a great work and I will see it through to the end.
Jesus consistently said no to many things that often appeared good. He said no so that he would not get distracted from doing what God wanted him to do, and there are times when Jesus calls us to have that same laser-like focus. In Luke 9 we find some of the most difficult words of Jesus. People were coming to Jesus and asking if they could follow him, and what Jesus said was that to follow him required them to set aside all distractions and commit to doing God’s work. Luke 9:59-62.
This is a difficult teaching because caring for our family is a good thing, and that’s one of the challenges of distractions – many times they are good. Author Jim Collins writes, Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have a great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life. We don’t change the world because our lives are good and we are doing good things and we settle for what is good instead of saying I am carrying on a great project and I can not go down.
It takes courage and a lot of intentional prayer for us to say no to what is good so that we can focus on what is great, and then give ourselves to that goal. To finish strong we have to have the courage to say, I am not coming down because I am doing something great.
The enemy tried to stop Nehemiah through discouragement and ridicule and Nehemiah remembered God who was great, and he got back to work. The enemy tried to stop Nehemiah by distractions and Nehemiah remembered the great work God had given him to do, and he kept on working. So the enemy tries one last time to stop Nehemiah, this time he seeks to discredit him. When all else fails, the enemy just lies. Nehemiah 6:6-8.
Nothing that the letter said, and Geshem affirms, was true. In fact, Nehemiah humbled himself before the people, assisted those who were poor and in need, and never tried to make himself the king. But when all else fails, the enemy is willing to simply lie in order to stop the work. When great work started to change the church I served in Altoona, and a vital after school program was running, rumors started that I was having an affair. I loved what one of my leaders when they said something to her about it. She grabbed their hand and said, let’s go talk to Andy right now. The rumor stopped that day.
In Lewisburg, as we started to reach college students and change the focus of our congregation, all kinds of false rumors started about how we were spending money and what we included in worship. The best lie came to me one day when I was accused of taking the cross out of the sanctuary. I said, what?? How can I take the cross out of the sanctuary – it’s hanging from the ceiling.
So they lied again and said, no not that cross, the one on the altar. So I went back and got all the pictures we had of the sanctuary from before I was a pastor and I asked people to show me which cross I removed. It was pretty quiet because there was no cross on the altar. There never had been since they hung the one from the ceiling.
When the enemy can’t stop the work through outside or inside discouragement, or last-minute distractions, get ready to be discredited in some way, because if God wants to change the world there will be forces trying to keep that from happening. When those forces come at us, here is what we do if we want to finish strong. One final time, we need to pray.
Nehemiah 6:9b – now strengthen my hands.
God strengthens us. Keep us focused. Keep us committed. Keep us working. Don’t let us give in. Don’t let us give up. When we near the finish line and come close to seeing our goals completed, the power to stop us grows stronger, so our resolve to keep going must become greater. We have to set aside the distractions, not give in to the lies, pray, and keep going. The apostle Paul said,
With prayer, faith, and courage, Nehemiah pressed on and finished what God had called him to do. He changed the world and everyone knew it was the work of God because he did it all in 52 days. Nehemiah 6:15-16
Nehemiah shows us that God uses ordinary people to change the world and we can when we turn our burdens into prayers,
our prayers into plans, and our plans into actions.
We can change the world when we pray for strength to overcome the enemies plans to discourage, distract, and discredit us.
We change the world when we ask God for the strength to finish strong -
We do all this and we can accomplish all that God asks of us. We do this and God can use us to change the world.
1. What distracts you the most in life?
- Sports, entertainment, social media, hobbies, work.
- What is one way you can diminish the distractions this week?
2. What good things are keeping you from the great work God has for you?
- How has good been the enemy of great in your life?
3. Where, and to whom, do you need to say, I am doing a great work and I can not go down!
- Who can stand with you and help you keep saying this as you move forward?
4. How has God called you to change the world? Where are you in this world-changing journey?
- I am asking God, break my heart by what breaks yours.
- I am praying for direction.
- I am developing a clear vision of what God wants me to do.
- I am making plans and asking, what’s the next step?
- I am fighting discouragement through prayer.
- I am gaining strength by remembering God who is great and awesome.
- I am diminishing distractions and staying focused.
- I am pressing on toward the finish line, the prize, and the goal!
5. Share your world-changing call and journey with your small group, Sunday School class, family, or friends.
- Ask them to help you keep going.
- Pray for strength so that you do not give up.