This morning I want us to begin with a little Washington Redskins history. Some of you are old enough to remember when this guy—Hall of Famer George Allen—became coach of the Redskins back in 1971. As he began his coaching stint he basically promised Skins fans the moon. Allen told them in just a few seasons he would develop the Redskins into a championship ball team. In fact, he promised he would take them to the Superbowl by his second season as couch.
And—at first it looked like Allen might be able to keep his promises. I mean, the team had a brilliant preseason his first year as coach. Then in the regular season, they won several amazing victories. At this point it appeared the Redskins were to be lifted from their common role of loser to the uncommon role of winner.
But as time passed the inevitable occurred. They began to lose and lose and lose. Sound familiar? The blame fell, at least in part, not on Coach George Allen—and not on the owner—but this guy—their quarterback, Sonny Jurgenson, one of the most gifted and effective quarterbacks to ever play the game. And—Jurgenson wasn’t just a great athlete—he was also a great LEADER because he was SECURE in himself. I mean, it seemed as though no one could intimidate Sonny Jurgenson.
One day after yet another defeat, Sonny was getting ready to take a shower and head home. A sportswriter cornered him in the locker room and said, “Say, Sonny, be honest now. Don’t’ all these off-the-wall remarks we write and all this public flack you’re getting disturb you? Doesn’t it make you want to QUIT when people throw things at you from the stands and when you get those angry letters from fans?” Sonny just leaned back, gave a big toothless grin, and sighed, “No, not really. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t want to quit. You see, I’ve been in this game long enough to know that every quarterback, every week of the season, spends his time either in the PENTHOUSE or in the OUTHOUSE.”
Sonny’s comment points out an important fact. If you are a leader, you spend most of your time either on the top or the bottom. You seldom know what it’s like to be in between. People refer to you as either the hero or the villain. You are respected or you are virtually hated. And people who are in leadership must get used to this kind of thing. They have to get used to living in the yo-yo of public opinion, under the gun of verbal jabs as well as on the crest of great admiration.
By the way, it’s when a leader is on the bottom—when they are in “the outhouse” —it’s when they are under personal attack of the intimidating public that they show their true colors.
I share all this because as we enter this sixth chapter of the book that bears his name, Nehemiah is the target of repeated personal attacks. To give you the setting—the wall around Jerusalem is 90% done. All that’s left to do is to install all the gates. The end is in sight. In fact, they’re already making plans for the dedication service. Well, it is at this point in our progress that the enemy usually comes at us with one last ditch effort to knock us off course—which is what happens here. And—this last minute attack deal is one reason Paul warns the proud person to “…take heed lest he fall.” (2nd Corinthians 10:12). You see, usually it isn’t the person who has ALMOST fallen who is vulnerable. It’s the person who is almost DONE and thinks he will NEVER fall.
We see this kind of thing in the Bible time and time again. For example, when did Bathsheba cross the gaze of David—it was at a time when, as king, David had not known defeat—politically, militarily or personally. When did Joseph receive the temptation from Mrs. Potiphar? Soon after he had been promoted to run Mr. Potiphar’s entire estate. In the times when victory seems assured—times we think we can coast the rest of the way—it is in these times that we need to remain humble and watchful—for this is when the adversary loves to attack. He loves to do so because the higher up we are—the more successful we are—the greater the negative impact it has when we fall. Let me put it this way. When an unknown person messes up nobody cares. But when a successful Christian falls—when he or she commits a heinous sin—it’s all over the news. And Satan loves to make the headlines!
Well, as I said, this is the strategy the adversary takes here. Just as the job is almost done Nehemiah’s nemeses from prior chapters, Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem and the gang take one more stab at putting Nehemiah out of business. But, this time they aren’t criticizing the Jews or even the wall itself—no this time it’s personal. Their attacks are aimed at Nehemiah. Take your Bibles and turn to Nehemiah 6 and follow along as I read.
1 – Now when it was reported to Sanballat, Tobiah, to Geshem the Arab and to the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall, and that no breach remained in it,although at that time I had not set up the doors in the gates,
2 – then Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together at Chephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they were planning to harm me.
3 – So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?”
4 – They sent messages to me four times in this manner, and I answered them in the same way.
5 – Then Sanballat sent his servant to me in the same manner a fifth time with an open letter in his hand.
6 – In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Gashmu says, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel; therefore you are rebuilding the wall. And you are to be their king, according to these reports.
7 – You have also appointed prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, ‘A king is in Judah!’ And now it will be reported to the king according to these reports. So come now, let us take counsel together.”
8 – Then I sent a message to him saying, “Such things as you are saying have not been done, but you are inventing them in your own mind.”
9 – For all of them were trying to frighten us, thinking, “They will become discouraged with the work and it will not be done.” But now,O God, strengthen my hands.
10 – When I entered the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel,who was confined at home, 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, and they are coming to kill you at night.”
11 – But I said, “Should a man like me flee? And could one such as I go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.”
12 – Then I perceived that surely God had not sent him, but he uttered his prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.
13 – He was hired for this reason,that I might become frightened and act accordingly and sin, so that they might have an evil report in order that they could reproach me.
14 – Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me.
15 – So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of the month Elul, in fifty-two days.
16 – When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations surrounding us saw it, they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
17 – Also in those days many letters went from the nobles of Judah to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them.
18 – For many in Judah were bound by oath to him because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah.
19 – Moreover, they were speaking about his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. Then Tobiah sent letters to frighten me.
Okay—as you just heard—in today’s text Nehemiah’s enemies leveled personal attacks against him in three ways. Let’s take a close look at how Nehemiah responded—because they are the same kinds of attacks we endure from our adversary.
(1) First there was what I refer to as an attack of INSINCERITY.
Up until this point in the building program, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem opposed everything that the Jews did but now they offered to cooperate and HELP the Jews finish building the wall.
Four times they sent letters asking to meet Nehemiah in a village hallway between Jerusalem and Samaria—a perfect place for a summit meeting where they could make plans on how to work together. Their offer of a meeting SOUNDED SINCERE—it sounded like they were ready to give some sort of political concession speech—sounded like they wanted to cut their losses saying, “You won Nehemiah. We didn’t think you could do it. But you have rebuilt that wall. We had to admit—GREAT JOB! Now let’s join teams. Let’s work together for the people of this region.” Well Nehemiah knew better. He saw through their fake sincerity. He knew their strategy was “If you can’t whip ‘em, join ‘em — and then take over.”
And—don’t misunderstand me here—loving compromise and cooperation can be a good and useful thing if there are no moral or spiritual issues involved. Healthy compromise can invigorate a marriage. It can strengthen a ministry. Compromise is a good thing when it is among people who love each other and have the same purposes in mind. But—when you invite servants of the adversary to join your team—when you compromise your Biblical convictions—be forewarned! You are about to fall. Defeat is just around the corner.
Now—Ono was located on the seacoast. It was a beautiful resort area. No doubt Sanballat and his buds included a note in their letter that said something like, “Nehemiah you need to get away for a while. You’ve been laying bricks too long. Let us treat you to an all-expenses paid vacation on the Mediterranean Sea!” But Nehemiah rejected their offer. He said, “O NO” to Ono—because he knew they were the enemy. He knew their offer was not sincere—knew they were lying to him and probably wanted to kill him. Plus he was convinced of the sacredness of his work—and realized that this was a crucial time in this God-given project. He could not afford a distraction as the all-important gates where being installed. He also knew that the Jews had nothing in common with Sanballat and his crowd—so they could not work together now or in the future.
Listen—when we are involved in a God-given task we can expect the adversary to use this same strategy. There will be the temptation to compromise and it will sound nice. It may even seem sincere—but we need to remember that anything that DISTRACTS us from doing God’s good and perfect will is a bad thing.
In ancient days when the king of Siam had an enemy he wanted to torment and destroy, he would send that enemy a unique gift, a white elephant, a live, albino elephant. These animals were considered sacred in the culture of that day. So the recipient of that elephant had no choice but to accept and then care for the gift. The problem was this elephant would take an inordinate amount of the enemy’s time, resources, energy, emotions, and finances. In fact, the enemy would be so distracted with the care of this huge mammal that he would destroy himself because of the extremely burdensome process of caring for the gift. I mean, feeding an elephant can be very expensive! Keeping his stall clean is VERY time consuming.
Now—these days we don’t give and receive white elephant gifts except at Christmas—so let me give you a few more up-to-date examples of the kinds of DISTRACTIONS Satan sends our way. Let’s say you buy season tickets to [your favorite sports team], and that keeps you from serving in some area of ministry at the church. Not good. Or let’s say you buy a summer home at the beach, but now you miss most weekend worship services between the beginning of May and the end of September. You become a CEO attender. Also not good. Or let’s say you buy a spot for one of your kids on a traveling sports team, and now you’re too busy to attend worship or Bible Study—much less join in a ministry project. Not good either. I could go on and on citing examples—but the question is this: Are there white elephants in your life? Are you spending time or money on things that take your time away from God—time away from pursuing Christlikeness—time away from furthering God’s kingdom? And please understand. The money to do all these things isn’t the problem; the activities aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is a white elephant “gift” has pulled you away from God-honoring pursuits.
And—as a church we need to follow Nehemiah’s example here. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted from our task—the great commission Jesus has given us. We have to keep the main thing the main thing. Our main job—the reason God keeps us here on this fallen planet instead of bringing us home to Heaven—is to lead all the people we can to Jesus in every way we can.
- It’s not our job to get certain people elected.
- It’s not our job to fix our fallen culture. I hate to shock you but our culture will ALWAYS be fallen.
No—our main job has very little to do with THIS world. Our job is to make disciples. Our job is to prepare people for the NEXT world—prepare them for eternity. We must allow nothing—no matter how sincerely good it sounds—to distract us from that.
(2) The second personal attack came in the form of INNUENDO.
You see, when the first four sealed letters failed to be effective Sanballat and his buds took a different approach. You could say they moved from “political softball” to “political hardball.” This time instead of SEALED letters they sent an OPEN letter—one that anyone could read. To me it sounds like a newspaper of sorts that had been distributed—probably to anyone in the area who was in leadership—the nobles. And the problem was that it was a newsletter that was filled with gossip, rumor—innuendo suggesting Nehemiah planned to lead the Jews to rebel against Artaxerxes and set himself up as king. Sanballat didn’t say they were necessarily AGAINST this rebellion deal—but rather that with all this in mind Nehemiah REALLY needed to meet with them and make plans.
By the way, have you ever noticed that rumors like this tend to cite people of distinction as sources? That’s what happened here. In verse 6 Sanballat reports, “and Gashmu says it’s true.” I guess they expected Nehemiah to say, “Well, if people hear Gashmu has said this is true they will certainly believe it. I really do need to say ‘YES’ to ONO.” And this particular open letter wasn’t the ONLY source of gossip and innuendo. The nobles of Jerusalem sent Tobiah other gossip-filled letters and Tobiah sent similar letters to Nehemiah. You see, Tobiah was tied to the tribe of Judah through marriage so he had an “in” to the leadership in Jerusalem—a channel that he took advantage of. He was a big source of innuendo back and forth.
Listen. Gossip is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s very easy to spread. It spreads very quickly and is almost impossible to stop. By the way, those of you who are old enough to remember the days when Sonny Jurgenson played for the Redskins—may also remember that for most Americans, 1973 was marred by shortages. After the stock market crashed that year and lost 45 percent of its value, there were shortages of oil, gasoline, electricity, and even onions. I didn’t care about the onion shortage that much but I remember only being able to buy $3 of gas at a time. I had to drive to about three stations in order to fill my tank. Well, that year the U.S. spiraled into a period of economic stagnation and a “shortage psychology.” Then, right in the midst of this economic turmoil, a toilet paper scare ignited a communal panic attack. It all started with unsubstantiated rumors—gossip. In November of 1973, news agencies reported a TP shortage in Japan. Then a U.S. Congressman issued a press release stating, “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months—a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.” The media ran wild and sensationalized the story. Then Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show at the time, joked in his monologue, “You know we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days. But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s a shortage of toilet paper!” Millions of Americans swarmed grocery outlets and hoarded all the toilet paper they could get. People told their friends to bring their own toilet paper when they came to visit in their homes. Merchandisers struggled to re-stock supplies. For four months, toilet paper was a rare commodity. It was bartered and traded, and a black market even emerged. Slowly—eventually—Americans realized that there had never been a shortage. It had been artificially created by gossip, rumors, and a cultural frenzy. But the damage was done nonetheless. That’s the power of gossip—rumor—innuendo!
Well, Nehemiah responded this attack in three different ways.
- He denied the rumor.
- He prayed to God for strength.
- Then he ignored the rumors and he went back to work.
Look at verse 8 where he says, “I sent him this reply; ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” That’s the best way to respond to a charge like this—just a flat denial. I mean, if Nehemiah had gone up to Ono at this point it would be the same as him saying, “I’m afraid to let the truth be known. I’ve got to try and squelch this rumor.” As I said Nehemiah also did what he did best. He prayed. He uttered one of his popcorn prayers, “God strengthen my hands.” Sanballat’s tactic was to get the people to think that Nehemiah had some hidden motive—his own glory—for rebuilding the wall—hoping that the workers would thus become discouraged and quit before the gates could be hung. Nehemiah simply prays, “Lord, do not let that happen. Strengthen me to work all the harder.”
In short, he took care of his character and trusted God to take care of his reputation. We would do wise to respond in the same way when we are the target of innuendo. Pray then ignore the gossip and get back to the work God has given you to do.
(3) Well, when intrigue and innuendo failed to work Sanballat and the guys attacked in one final way: INTIMIDATION.
The dictionary defines “intimidation” as “to compel or deter by threat” and that’s what we see happening here. Nehemiah’s relentless adversaries hired a “prophet” named Shemaiah to tell Nehemiah he had heard that there was a murder plot that had been set in motion. They also hired other prophets including a prophetess named Nodiah. They all said Nehemiah was going to be murdered at night. In fact Shemaiah seemed to be in hiding—fearing assassination. He had confined himself to his home and took the “super-pious approach” by saying, “Look we’re both in trouble for doing God’s work. Let’s meet in the temple to pray about this.” But Nehemiah knew God’s Word too well to be tricked in this way. Nehemiah knew God had forbidden a layman like himself to go beyond the altar of burnt offering at the temple—which is where Shemaiah said they should meet. He knew that Numbers 18:7 says, “The outsider—the non-Jew—who comes near shall be put to death.” He remembered that when King Uzziah tried to invade this part of the temple he was stricken with leprosy. So—the fact that Nehemiah knew God’s Word—helped him to see that this Shemaiah was a false prophet. Cyril Barber says, “Nehemiah triumphed not by BREAKING God’s law to escape assassination but by KEEPING it.”
You know—more than ever before it is imperative that we know God’s loving laws—the Bible. This Book of books—the infallible, unchangeable Word of God— is our source of authority. Without it as our anchor of written truth—we will be swept along with the crumbling morals of our culture. We’ll embrace behaviors that God says are wrong—things that hurt us and grieve Him. So, we must know the Bible. We must live the Bible. We must teach it to our children.
By the way, Nehemiah knew that even if he weren’t stricken dead—the fact that he disobeyed God’s Word on this would ruin his reputation as a leader. So for these reasons he refused to give in to intimidation and fear. He kept his focus—bravely kept doing what God had called him to do. Nehemiah could have said, “Let someone else finish this job. I’m not willing to die for a wall.” But he didn’t. He knew this construction project was about much more than a wall. It was about God’s people getting back on track to be His chosen people—who would eventually welcome the Messiah and share then news of God’s great love with the world.
Listen, we are all faced with times when fear makes quitting the easy way out. In these times we need to decide if are we willing to die on “this wall.” So let me ask: Are you willing to lovingly stand up for your Christian convictions—no matter what the cost? Are you willing to be compassionately courageous in living by the Bible’s clear teachings? Are you willing to do your part as God’s chosen people—sharing the Gospel message every chance you get? Believe it or not—our world NEEDS us to do all these things. Their fallen behavior shows that they are thirsty for God but they are drinking at the wrong wells.
In his new book Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey writes, “I have interviewed [faithful followers of Christ] in places like Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Albania, and Romania—people who lived their before the fall of the Iron Curtain. ‘Why did you take such a risk?’ I ask. ‘Why did you choose to follow Jesus when your government your teachers, and perhaps even your family insisted it was all a lie?’ Why did you do so when it could cost you your life? Again and again I have heard a two-pronged answer. They speak of their spiritual thirst, an inner longing that no amount of noisy propaganda could silence.
One of the faithful, the Soviet Union’s most renowned sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny who had designed Nikita Khrushchev’s tombstone, eventually went into forced exile in Switzerland. Here’s how it came about. He was hired to create a sculpture that would cover the wall of a Communist Party building in Ashkabat. Neizvestny constructed a huge sculpture some fifty feet high and fifty feet wide and it covered the entire facade. He submitted the design in sections, each of which was approved by Party officials. Only at the unveiling did they see it as a whole—and gasped in horror for as you can see a huge cross covered the front of the Communist headquarters. Neizvestny tried to convince the communist leaders it was a face but they saw through that.” Here’s another of his sculptures—this one dedicated to the victims of Stalinism—and you can see the cross is a theme for him.“Knowing his Christian beliefs, authorities expelled him from the country. The cross stayed in place. The state that opposed it did not.”
Neizvestny was bravely willing to risk all to lift high the cross. He was literally willing to die on a wall because he knew it was about more than a wall. It was about the Gospel message that all people need to hear. He knew that only by looking to the cross of Christ can people be healed from their sin.
Well, the result of Nehemiah’s brave responses to the attacks we’ve talked about are seen in verses 15 and 16: “The wall was completed on the twenty-fifth ofthe monthElul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heardof it, and all the nations surrounding us sawit, they lost their confidence—forthey recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
And—I love that statement! Would that more Christians would be that faithful—such that it was obvious to all that the thing they had accomplished was done with the help of God.
Let us pray.