This week I did some reading concerning the world record when it comes to fires that have burned the longest down through history—and I discovered several long-burning blazes.
For example in 2013 there was a compost fire at a recycling center in Berkshire, England that burned for seven months before it was finally extinguished. That’s a lot of smoldering leaves!
And then—here in the U.S. back in 1884 coal miners who were on strike started a fire in a mine in Stratitsville, Ohio. The strike ended long ago but the fire is still burning—131 years later. Back in the 1930’s the government intervened because the Stratistsville fire was beginning to spread underneath parts of the town causing buildings to crumble and burn. Residents were evacuated. Many families lost their homes. A barricade was built around the town to try and stop the fire from spreading. The old mine works were dug out and back-filled with clay. That should have done the trick but it didn’t. In the 1970’s a highway had to be moved because it kept sinking as the coal-saturated ground beneath it continued to burn away and collapse. Since then this Ohio fire has actually attracted tourists. People come to Stratitsville from all over just to see the smoke billowing up from all the fire holes. These holes are still so hot that residents have been known to brew coffee or even fry eggs over these vents. And they will be able to do that for some time. It is estimated that this fire will burn another 100 years or so. That’s how long it will take for the coal in that area to be consumed.
But neither the fire in England nor the one in Ohio come close to the record. The world’s LONGEST burning fire is believed to have started 5,000 years ago in a coal seam beneath Mount Wingen in New South Wales Australia. Apparently about 3,000B.C., lightning struck the coal seam where it reached the surface and it’s still smoldering about 100 feet below ground ever since.
Now lest you worry that I have pyro-tendencies I’ll tell you that the thing that got me thinking about FIRES this week was my study of the last chapter of the book of Nehemiah—because in these final verses we learn the sad fact that the fires of revival that started in chapter 8 only lasted a few years. They had burned out by chapter 13. Take your Bibles and turn to that last chapter of Nehemiah’s book and follow along on the screens as I read excerpts of this sad story. We’ll start with verse 4.
4 – Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah,
5 – and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.
6 – But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission,
7 – and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God.
8 – I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.
9 – I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.
10 – I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.
11 – So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.
15 – In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day.
19 – When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day.
23 – Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.
24 – Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.
25 – I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for you sons or for yourselves.
31 – I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times and for firstfruits. Remember me with favor, O my God.
Okay—before we proceed in our study of this fire of spiritual renewal that only burned a few years—lets’ do a little review. When we began our study of this book a couple months ago we learned that when he was a young man Nehemiah had landed a great job in the Persian White House. He was the wine taster for King Artaxerxes himself and had done that job well for several years. But, sensing God’s clear leading, Nehemiah requested and received permission to lead a team of builders to reconstruct the walls surrounding Jerusalem. He made the journey, dealt with enemies, organized the people, rebuilt the wall, set up the infrastructure for the repopulated city and led a great celebration of dedication. But the best part is the fact that the people experienced a time of revival and spiritual renewal as they stood within the completed walls and listened as Ezra the priest read from God’s law.
Last week Kevin showed us that they even signed a covenant in which they promised to do four things:
- They vowed to live separate from the world—so as to remain uninfluenced by the fallen cultures around them.
- They vowed to submit to God’s Word—to obey God’s loving law.
- They promised to keep the Sabbath—and finally—
- They agreed to support God’s work by tithing and making sure the priests in the temple had all they needed to do their job.
Nehemiah tells us that the rejoicing at the service in which they made this covenant could be heard from far away. The people celebrated both the completed wall and their own moral victory against secularism and worldliness. In essence they covenanted to let God rebuild them in the same way He had empowered them to rebuild the wall. Nehemiah was appointed governor of Jerusalem and served for twelve years in that position. Then with things looking good in Jerusalem—Nehemiah returned to Persia and served as senior advisor to the king.
We don’t know how long but it was probably as much as eight or nine years. Then it appears that he retired from government work and came back to Jerusalem—to enjoy his golden years and eventually be buried in the city of his fathers. But, sadly, things did not go well while Nehemiah was finishing out his government career. You could say that “while the cat was away the mice—and several rats—played.” Chapter 13 tells us that when Nehemiah returned he discovered that the fires of spiritual renewal or revival were no longer burning in Jerusalem. The “hearth” of their hearts had grown cold. The people had broken each of the promises they made to God. Imagine how Nehemiah felt! It was as if his life’s work had gone up in smoke.
General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, once said, “You must always bear in mind that it is the nature of a fire to go out. You must keep it stirred and fed and the ashes removed.” Well, Nehemiah discovered that the same is true of the fires of spiritual renewal. If left unattended these fires will go out as well. This is because it is human nature to let this happen. As Isaiah puts it, “All we like sheep have gone astray. Each has turned to his own way.” Unless we make a conscious effort, this is what happens to each of us—we go astray—we ignore God and His loving laws and we see several example of this “spiritual straying” in the Bible. For example, Moses left the people of Israel for only a few weeks and they went back to idolatry. Paul would establish a church and then leave it only to have trouble begin soon after his departure.
The question I want us to seek an answer to this morning is how do we prevent this “spiritual burn out” from happening? How do you keep the “flames” of revival going? In this last chapter of Nehemiah’s book I see four things.
(1) First we must keep WORSHIPING.
After Nehemiah left I’m sure that Sabbath worship continued—perhaps even for a few years—but eventually attendance began to wane. Gradually they ceased observing one part of the Sabbath laws and then another—and soon they stopped obeying this tender commandment of God all together. The rebuilt temple was ignored and gathered dust as that day set aside for rest and worship became just like any other day. When Nehemiah arrived he found the people not only doing their daily work on the Sabbath but also doing business on God’s day. I mean, the Jewish merchants had decided they didn’t want to lose the opportunity to make money from the Gentiles and the Gentiles felt the same way about their Jewish neighbors. Verse 16 tells us that men from Tyre had actually moved into Jerusalem and set up their own shops. The Jewish leaders allowed them to operate seven days a week. It’s like the Jewish version of the blue laws just went away.
I remember when we were in Israel a couple years ago and one day we were scooting down an interstate when our tour guide pointed out a new mall—a mall that “liberal Jews” were keeping open on the Sabbath. He said—with more than a little greedy admiration in his voice, “They are making a ton of money!” Now—of course most Christians like you and me don’t worship on Saturday—Sunday is our Sabbath but here in the good ole U.S.A. the same thing Nehemiah faced has happened here. Sunday has become just like any other day. And I don’t blame the non-believers. They don’t know any better but we do. In my mind, Christians are at fault. I mean, if Christ-followers didn’t frequent these businesses—I don’t think this would have happened.
The French Agnostic, Voltaire once said, “If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday.” That may be a bit extreme but the fact is many Christians have lost their joy—their witness—and their spiritual power by not worshiping with others on the first day of the week. We need regular time with God and with other Christians to keep growing—keep the fires of spiritual renewal aflame.
This week I learned that here in the U.S. we spend a fortune to keep ourselves physically fit.
- 58 million Americans have a gym membership.
- Health clubs rake in $21.8 billion per year in revenues.
- The average cost per person for a membership is $58 per month.
- Among gym users, 13.5 percent use personal trainers, the average price per session is $65.
- Americans also spend upwards of $30 billion a year on athletic apparel.
I’m not knocking this—I like athletic apparel even though it doesn’t make me look athletic—and I’m a member of Planet Fitness myself—but it’s sad that so much money and effort is made at keeping our BODIES in shape—bodies that will wear out no matter how much we exercise. It’s sad we focus so much on physical health while at the same time neglecting our spiritual fitness by ignoring time we need in God’s House worshiping Him and studying His Word.
Once upon a time there was an old well that stood outside the front door of a family farmhouse in New Hampshire. The water from the well was remarkably pure and cold. No matter how hot the summer or how severe the drought, the well was always a source of refreshment and joy. The faithful old well stood for years until eventually the farmhouse was modernized. Wiring brought electric lights, and indoor plumbing brought hot and cold running water. The old well was no longer needed, so it was sealed for use in possible future emergencies. But one day, years later, the farmer had a hankering for the cold, pure water of that familiar old well. So he unsealed the well and lowered a bucket for a nostalgic taste of the delightful refreshment he remembered from his youth. He was shocked to discover that the well that once had survived the severest droughts was bone dry! Perplexed, he began to ask some of the older folks who knew about these kind of things. He learned that wells of that sort were fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets which seep a steady flow of water. As long as the water is drawn out of the well, new water will flow in through the rivulets, keeping them open for more to flow. But when they stopped using the well, the rivulets eventually clogged with mud and closed up. So, the well dried up not because it was used too much, but because it wasn’t used enough. Our souls are like that well. If we do not draw on the living water that Jesus promised would well up in us like a spring, our hearts close and dry up. Ironically, for the FIRES of spiritual renewal to continue to burn—we need to continue to draw on the living WATER that we find in corporate worship.
(2)The second thing we must do is—keep OBEYING.
You see, in addition to God’s laws concerning the Sabbath, the Jews had stopped obeying God’s law about intermarriage. This caused a pagan influence that eventually led these religiously-blended families to ignore the rest of God’s loving laws. As Nehemiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem that day he saw that the men of Judah had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. He also heard their children speaking foreign languages—which meant that they would not know how to read the Law of God much less participate in temple services. Remember, when we began this study we learned that only a few years earlier as God’s people were repairing the walls (4:7-8)—the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod had plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem. Now yesterday’s enemies had become today’s marriage partners. And this kind of infiltration on the part of these particular pagan people was nothing new.
Here’s a little history to show you why I say this. The nations of Ammon and Moab were born from the incestuous union of Lot and two of his daughters. Their descendants were avowed enemies of the Jews. They had infiltrated the Jewish people through marriage in the past—leading their spouses to sin. You may remember the king of Moab hired Balaam to call down a curse on the Hebrews. When his curses didn’t work—Balaam came up with a scheme to defeat Israel. He encouraged the Moabites to be “neighborly” and invite the Jews to share in their pagan religious feasts which involved sexual immorality. Balaam knew the power of sexual temptation—he knew that human nature would respond to the opportunity for sin and the Jews would disobey God—which they did. As a result of their sexual sin with the Moabites, Israel was disciplined by God and 24,000 people died.
Now—in case you’ve missed my point—to be clear—the issue was not interracial marriage. It was unequal yoke marriage—marriage between a Jew who worshiped the one true God and a pagan who worshiped false gods. Ironically it was this very sin that was the reason the Jews had been taken into Babylonian captivity in the first place. It is no wonder that Nehemiah was so upset.
Nehemiah knew that pagan women had led even their wisest king into sin. In fact Nehemiah himself had personally experienced the results of “wise” King Solomon’s sin in this area. I mean, this is why Nehemiah’s grandparents had been carried off to Babylon. That’s why he spent much of his life tasting potentially poisoned wine for King Artaxerxes.
We must take from all this the truth that being unequally yoked is not a good idea. True—sometimes the Christian will have a positive witness on his or her spouse—but most of the time the reverse is true. But, the main principle I want you to take from this is that we must guard against the negative influence of our fallen culture. Yes—we must cultivate friendships with lost people—but we must take care not to let those friendships draw us away from God. The old Youth for Christ slogan is still true. “We must be GEARED to the times—and ANCHORED to the Rock.”
In my opinion this has been the problem with the emergent church movement. In their sincere desire to make the lost feel comfortable many emergent pastors and churches have tried so much to be like the world—that they have become worldly—they have lost their grip on the ROCK and have abandoned key Christian doctrines. As someone once put it, “They have cared more about being cool than about being Biblically correct.”
We must take care not to be conformed by the world around us. Years ago Oswald Chambers wisely said, “Today the world has taken so many things out of the church, and the church has taken so many things out of the world that it is difficult to know where you are.” Vance Havner put it this way, “Satan is not fighting churches—he is joining them.” Listen—we must keep our grip on the teachings of God’s Book. It is the ANCHOR we need in life. In order to continue to grow we need to sink our roots deep into its truth. And, remember—God’s written laws are for our good. We don’t so much break them—as break ourselves upon them—so we must keep obeying God’s loving laws.
If you know your WWI history then you remember that on May 7, 1915, the R.M.S Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine. The ship sank in a matter of minutes, killing nearly 1200 people. In her book, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, author Diana Preston recorded the observations of one of the surviving passengers—Charles Lauriat: “As the ship was sinking and as Lauriat looked around to see who needed life jackets, he noticed that among the crowds now pouring on deck—nearly everyone who passed by him that was wearing a life jacket had it on incorrectly. In his panic, one man had thrust one arm through an armhole and his head through the other. Others rushed past wearing them upside down. No one had read the signs around the ship telling people how to put them on. Lauriat tried to help, but some thought he was trying to take their life jackets from them and fled in terror.” Preston continues: “Dead and drowning people were dotting the sea like seagulls. Many bodies were floating upside down because people had put their life jackets on the wrong way up so that their heads were pushed under the water.” Ironically, their LIFE jackets caused their DEATH—because in their panic they ignored the rules for putting them on.
This illustrates the fact that to keep ourselves spiritually alive—we need to KEEP OBEYING God’s loving laws. This leads to a third secret to the fires of revival.
(3) We must keep GIVING.
Nehemiah discovered the people had stopped giving their tithes and offerings—which is one reason the rooms given to Tobiah were empty. There was nothing being given to store there.
This is an indication that their spiritual growth had indeed come to a halt. The same is true of you and me for the more we faithfully give—the more we have to trust God to provide—the more He does provide and the more our faith relationship with Him continues to deepen.
But back to our story—the people had committed—signed a pledge—not to neglect the House of God but in a few years they went back on that commitment. In fact it was so bad—the ministry of the temple had been hampered so much—that the Levites and singers had to take jobs in the fields in order to survive. Listen—hear me on this! When God’s people start to go flat spiritually—when the fires of renewal start to wane—one of the first places it shows up is in our giving. Jesus put it this way, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) The believer who is happy in the Lord and walking in His will has a generous heart and wants to give their tithes. He or she wants to share with others. I’m saying that giving is both the “thermostat” and the “thermometer” of the Christian life: It measures our spiritual “temperature” and also helps set it at the right level.
Someone once asked Phillips Brooks what he would do to resurrect a dead church and he replied, “I would gather the people and take up a missionary offering. Giving to others is one secret of staying alive and fresh in the Christian life.” If all we do is receive then we become like stagnant reservoirs. But if we both receive AND give then we become like channels because in giving—in blessing others we bless ourselves. American psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger said, “Money-giving is a good criterion of a person’s mental health. Generous people are rarely mentally ill people.” Someone once wrote in Modern Maturity magazine, “The world is full of two kinds of people: the givers and the takers. The takers eat well but the givers sleep well.”
I loved hearing the commencement speech that Denzell Washington gave this spring at Dillard University. Mr. Washington urged graduates to put God first and thank Him constantly: He said “Put God first in everything you do. I do this because I always remember that everything I have is by the grace of God. The same is true of you. Understand that. It’s all a gift. So get on your knees and thank God. Thank Him for grace; thank Him for His mercy; thank Him for understanding; thank Him for wisdom; thank Him for your parents; thank Him for love—thank Him for kindness; thank Him for humility; thank Him for peace; thank Him for prosperity. Then as you understand God’s faithfulness to give—give back. Reach down and pull someone else up.”
I didn’t know this until recently but like me Denzell Washington is a P.K. —a “preacher’s kid.” And this Oscar winning actor has been a regular attender at a church in L. A. for over 35 years. He’s a tither—and has donated a reported $2.5 million to that church’s building project. He is a Christian who knows the importance of obeying God’s law. He is someone who knows the importance of GIVING. How are you doing in this particular secret of spiritual renewal? I mean, if you were to compile a list of things that make up your expenditures where would the Lord’s part be? Would it be toward the bottom or the top? A grateful—growing Christian—an “on fire for the Lord Christian”—is a giving Christian.
So to keep the fires of spiritual renewal burning we need to keep worshiping. We must keep obeying. We must keep giving—and then we must also,
(4) Keep LEADING.
Effective leaders constantly rely on God. That spurs their spiritual growth in amazing ways as they learn to lead on Him for strength and guidance and especially patience. You need patience because, one thing any leader must learn is that they have to keep leading—a leader’s job is never really done. You constantly have to remind the people you lead to do what they are called to do. There is a lot of REPETITION in leadership. This is why when he returned Nehemiah had to remind the people to keep obeying the Sabbath Laws, keep giving their tithes, keep worshiping, etc. In essence Nehemiah came to Jerusalem expecting to retire and take it easy—but he had to come back out of retirement to get things back on track. And he did. With God’s help he changed from retiree to leader almost as soon as he entered the gates of the city. For example, when he saw that Tobiah—the man who had opposed the rebuilding and even plotted to kill him—when Nehemiah saw Tobiah had been given a suite of rooms in the temple—he immediately gave orders to have Tobiah’s stuff put on the street and the rooms purified—or fumigated—and the temple vessels that were supposed to be stored there returned. As a leader Nehemiah was once again reminding the people that the temple was God’s house. In essence Nehemiah cleansed the Temple—as Jesus would four centuries later.
Another example of Nehemiah continuing to lead was his reminding the people of the importance of keeping the Sabbath—something he had done over and over again for 12 years. He closed the gates to the city on that day so commerce would cease. When he looked outside of the gates and saw that merchants from Tyre were camping there to wait for the gates to open—He threatened them with forceful action if they did not move on. Nehemiah didn’t even want temptation to be hanging around the perimeter of the Jewish city on the Sabbath. And then when Nehemiah saw that many Hebrew men had taken pagan wives—and that their children were not even able to speak Hebrew—Nehemiah kind of lost it. He began to act more like a professional wrestler than a leader. He grabbed these men and called curses down on them and kicked some posteriors and pulled out some of their hair. And before we criticize Nehemiah for this forceful behavior—we must understand that there is a time for leaders to be authoritative. There’s a time to be angry.
I remember reading about Mike Ditka losing his temper because the Bears had fumbled the ball late in a game. The Bears were way ahead but Ditka was still upset—because he was thinking about more than just that game. He was looking at the big picture and he couldn’t ignore mistakes just because they weren’t painful right then. He knew the tendency to fumble the ball could come back to haunt them later during a crucial moment of a close game. In his anger—he was repeating an important leadership lesson.
Perhaps Nehemiah pulled out some hair because that’s what needed doing. He may have been looking back to when Ezra pulled out his own beard as a way of grieving over sin. Perhaps as Nehemiah yanked he said, “If you won’t grieve for your sin—I’ll help you do so!”
You know, sometimes leaders are too careful—too diplomatic—too tactful. Sometimes we are afraid to raise our voices—afraid to confront. And many times this timidity leads to compromise. Leaders have to realize that sometimes passivity is our greatest enemy. My point here it that a leader’s work is indeed never done—and perhaps it is here that we see a flaw in Nehemiah. You see, leaders need to always be developing/training other leaders so that when they retire—leadership continues to happen. The main reason the people failed to keep all their commitments—the primary factor behind the fires of revival dying out in Jerusalem—is the fact that apparently Nehemiah had not left leaders in place when he returned to Persia to finish out his career in the Persian White House.
Let me put it this way. Nehemiah’s greatest strength was his people’s greatest weakness. He was a larger than life leader. He wasn’t a dictator. He did the right things as a leader. But everything was focused on his leadership. If something was going to be done, Nehemiah was going to have to organize it and lead it. And when that is the case, do you know what happens? Larger than life leaders create good followers. But they never create good leaders. Then, when a larger than life leader leaves the scene for whatever reason, the followers don’t have anyone to turn to for leadership. And, as Jim Drake points out, when followers have no one to turn to for leadership, they will turn to anyone for leadership—even evil conniving people like Tobiah.
I can think of several famous growing churches that have been wrecked because their leaders—their pastors—apparently had the same leadership flaw that Nehemiah had. For example, when the Adrian Rogers died his church, Belleview Baptist, was in chaos for years. When W. A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, died the people brought in an immoral pastor who almost completely destroyed that historic church. When D. James Kennedy died Coral Ridge Presbyterian split right down the middle. Now how could those things happen? Adrian Rogers, W.A. Criswell and D. James Kennedy were all good, Godly pastors. They faithfully preached the Word and led their congregations with integrity. So what was the problem? They apparently didn’t develop a mature leadership base. Everything was built on them—so when they left everything fell apart.
As I close I want to give you one more quick point and it’s not in your outline. To keep the fires of renewal growing—we must keep worshiping—keep obeying—keep giving—keep leading—and then we must also keep relying on God’s grace. Did you notice that Nehemiah uses the word “remember” three times in this passage? Each time, he does it’s right after he has just harshly corrected the people for their waywardness. Some people have said that Nehemiah was asking God to remember the good that he had done by correcting the people in this chapter. I don’t think so. I mean, think about how he must have felt when he came back to Jerusalem after having been gone for those years. He knew that when he left town, everything was going well. And when he got back, he saw this mess. So, I think that each time he forcefully corrected the situation, he was asking God for forgiveness. He was saying, “Lord, don’t remember me for what these things have become. Lord, instead, remember the good things that I did. Don’t remember my faults as these people’s leader. And Lord, please don’t remember the people’s failure. Instead, remember the good.” How did Nehemiah ask God to do that? Did he ask Him to remember the good because all of his good things surely outweighed the bad? No, look back at the last part of verse 22. Nehemiah asked God to remember him and to spare him—not because he somehow deserved it—but because of the greatness of God’s mercy.
We all sin—we all mess up—we all fail to fan in to flame the gift that is in us—so to keep that spark alive in us we need to remember to keep relying on God’s grace. We need to remember that as 1st John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
LET US PRAY