Starting is important, but not nearly as important as finishing. How many projects have been started and abandoned before they were finished? How many runners were inspired to run a marathon, but when the going got tough they bailed? How many marriages were entered into with joy and expectation only to end in disappointment and divorce? How many times have we found a cause we really believed in, were passionate about, but as time rocked along, the passion waned, and we threw in the towel? How many times…
It is not those who explode out of the starting blocks at the sound of the starter’s gun that are remembered, but it is those who persevere and cross the finish line. History has long forgotten those who started, but failed to finish. We remember those who endured setbacks, those who faced struggle after struggle, those who felt like giving up, but refused to fall back in the face of adversity.
Many recognize Winston Churchill as a great leader, but did you know he had to repeat a grade during elementary school. When he transitioned to Harrow School, Winston was placed in the lowest class of students on campus. Later he would fail the entrance exam to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, not once but twice. He was defeated in his first attempt to serve in Parliament. He faced setback after setback, but he persevered and became the Prime Minister in 1940 and then was forced to resign in 1945. Instead of giving up, he pressed on and became the Prime Minister for a second time in 1951. As an old man Churchill was invited back to speak to the teenage students at his old school, Harrow School. He told them, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never, Never, Never, Never give up.” (Winston Churchill)
Isabella Bomfree was born a slave in Ulster County, New York in 1797. She was bought and sold four times before she ran away in 1827, one year before New York passed a law freeing slaves. She moved to New York City in 1828 and began working for a local pastor. Isabella had believed in God for many years, but in 1843 God stirred something within Isabella that would change the rest of her life. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and everything she did from that day forward was driven by her new identity, the new purpose she found in Jesus Christ. She said, “When I preach I have just one text and it is, ‘When I found Jesus!’” Sojourner Truth ran into roadblock after roadblock, there were adversaries and enemies who wanted to silence her at every turn, but she never backed down, never gave up as she fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights for the rest of her life.
It’s important to begin. To finish anything, you have to start somewhere. Making the decision to begin, to get involved, to give it a try, to lay your hand to the plow, put your nose to the grindstone…that’s important, but more important is to finish.
We’ve been following Nehemiah’s journey from Susa, where he was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, along a 900 mile route to Jerusalem, the desperate, broken home of his ancestors. We’ve read his memoirs as he has detailed for us his singular purpose in coming to Jerusalem–he came to rebuild the wall around the city so that the holy city of Jerusalem might be revitalized and so that the people might once again flourish. After these many weeks, we are now more than familiar with those who tried every conceivable means to distract, discourage, and dissuade Nehemiah from accomplishing his goal. Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, and the surrounding nations tried to intimidate Nehemiah, discredit Nehemiah, slander Nehemiah’s name, and undermine Nehemiah’s authority, but none of it worked. Nehemiah’s problems weren’t only outside of the city walls, they were inside as well, among his own people who were willing to financially crush their neighbors for their own benefit. Through it all Nehemiah persevered, he pressed on. The wall was rebuilt, the gates were hung in place, and in verse 15 we read,
15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. (Nehemiah 6:15 NIV)
James Montgomery Boice calls verse 15, “a superb understatement.” The wall around Jerusalem had been broken for more than 100 years and yet we read that Nehemiah and the workers rebuilt it in 52 days. It had been nine months since the first report had come to Nehemiah about the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem while he was still in Susa. God had heard Nehemiah’s prayers. God had opened door after door for Nehemiah. There had been lots of praying, planning, and preparing before the work ever began, but once the work began it was 52 days later when the last gate was hung and the people rejoiced. What an amazing accomplishment! Cyril Barber says,
His was the faith that moves mountains. His confidence in God gave him the courage to plod on in spite of the clouds of opposition that gathered around him. He boldly championed the cause of right and scorned the things that would inspire fear. Nehemiah’s courage helped him attain new heights of achievement. Armed with his fortitude, he turned obstacles into opportunities, and outward trials into personal triumphs. (Barber, Cyril. Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership. pg. 111)
We know how all good movies end so we might assume that at the end of Nehemiah 6 we will read, “…And they all lived happily ever after.” This is no movie, this is real life, so we better not assume anything and let Nehemiah speak for himself. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today and then we’ll see what we can learn.
15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6:15-16 NIV)
There are a couple of things I want us to notice about this Scripture. First of all, did you notice how the tables were turned when the wall was completed? Over and over again, in the first six chapters, we’ve read about how the enemies of Nehemiah were trying to intimidate Nehemiah and the workers. Their goal was to make them so afraid that they would stop their work. In Nehemiah 4, after the people had heard Sanballat and his men were planning on killing them, Nehemiah told his people,
“Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14 NIV)
In Nehemiah 6, after Nehemiah learned of the made-up rumors going around about him, he said, “They were all trying to frighten us…but I prayed, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’” (Nehemiah 6:9) Just a few verses later we read that a man named Shemaiah tried to lure Nehemiah into meeting him at the temple. Nehemiah figured it out. He said, “He had been hired to intimidate me…” Over and over again, by any means necessary, the enemies of God’s people did their best to scare them to death so they would stop the work. It didn’t work because Nehemiah feared God more than he feared any man. Now there’s something we need to talk about.
You might remember, last week we discussed the problem of trying to please people, but trying to please people is far different than doing things because we fear people. Last Sunday in Bible study we began a new study on the book of Proverbs. We read in Proverbs 1:7,
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7 NIV)
If we fail to define the word “fear,” in relation to God, then more times than not we will develop some really twisted beliefs about God. To “fear the Lord” means that we have the utmost respect, overwhelming reverence, and humility towards God. If I revere and respect God above all others then I am going to listen with intent to everything God says to me in His Word and I am going to do what God wants me to do. When what God wants me to do comes into conflict with what people want me to do, the decision is already made. I don’t need to weigh out the costs and benefits of choosing one over the other. I must obey God and let the chips fall where they may. Those who “feared” God, worshiped God, revered God above all others have done this time and time again throughout history.
Pharaoh told two Hebrew labor and delivery nurses, Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping those Hebrew women deliver their babies, if it is a boy, kill him, but if the baby is a girl then you can let her live.” Now, Pharaoh was the most powerful man in the land, he could end Shiphrah and Puah’s lives with nothing more than a word, but we read,
17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-17 NIV)
Because the Hebrew midwives feared God more than they feared Pharaoh, the decision had already been made as soon as Pharaoh spoke and told them to kill the Hebrew baby boys. I could show you example after example and not just in the pages of God’s Word. Throughout history men and women have been emboldened and empowered to risk it all because of their reverence for God and His Word.
Nehemiah and the workers were strengthened by God time and time again when they could have given into fear. The job was finished because the mandate from God to rebuild the wall was far greater than their fear of their enemies. But notice how the tables were turned when the job was completed.
16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6:16 NIV)
The path to the finish line is long. It will always be filled with challenges. Your fear may not be coming from others who are opposing you. Your fear, your hesitation, may be coming from your own fears of the unknown, your feelings of inadequacy, or from your fear of possibly failing. There are others among us who are more than aware of the Sanballats and Tobiahs in their lives who do not want you to succeed. They may be reminding you of what it might cost you if you continue on the path you are on. They might even threaten you to try and get you to turn around, to stop what you are doing. Let me encourage you this morning: If God has called you, if He has given you the assignment, you must press on. You must press on! If we will refuse to flinch in the face of fear and be faithful to God’s call, others will take notice. Nehemiah recognized that those who once wanted nothing more than to frighten him and his team of workers were now frightened themselves.
We have to ask the question, “What was it that struck fear in the hearts of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem?” We don’t have to wonder how it happened, Nehemiah told us in verse 16, “…because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” (Nehemiah 6:16 NIV) They realized the completion of the wall came about for reasons far more significant than Nehemiah’s leadership skills or the work ethic of the men and women who were working on the wall. It was God’s wall, God’s work, and God’s Sovereign Hand that accomplished this great feat.
The second lesson I want us to recognize in this section of Nehemiah is this: When God’s people remain humble, God receives the praise. It was God’s work on God’s wall. Now, please don’t mistake what I’m saying. God used Nehemiah and all of the workers didn’t He? Of course He did! Most often, God uses people to accomplish His will in this world, but oftentimes God doesn’t use the kind of people that we would use. If we were going to build a wall around our city we would find the best, the most qualified architects, engineers, and skilled workers. God used a cupbearer as the Superintendent of the project. He brought in perfumers, goldsmiths, preachers, and merchants to build the wall. Why would God do such a thing? Didn’t God know He needed skilled laborers? Didn’t God know He needed someone who graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Jerusalem School of Engineering to lead the charges? I dare say that if God would have done that…people would have been in awe of Nehemiah and the workers and not God. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he reminded them what God said through the prophet Isaiah,
19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:19 NIV)
You’ve heard me say it before and I’ll keep saying it, “God hits home runs with crooked sticks!” God chooses the most unworthy. He uses the most unlikely. And when He does this…He gets all of the glory! The world looks at how God does things and hands down their verdict. “It’s foolish, utter foolishness!” Paul used what God said through Isaiah and then put an exclamation point on it when he said,
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:25-29 NIV)
God’s work done God’s way leads to God’s glory. When we recognize that it all comes from God: Every opportunity, every challenge, every blessing, every setback, every accomplishment, every victory, every trial–then we know beyond a shadow of doubt that boasting and bragging are the furthest thing from the truth of the matter. The only adequate response is to praise God in humility. I say it’s the only adequate response. It’s certainly not the only response.
Do you remember King Nebuchadnezzar? He was a Babylonian king who reigned about 150 years before Nehemiah was born. He built the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. Sources outside of the Bible give us even more details about Nebuchadnezzar’s fame. He built the beautiful Ishtar Gate as an entrance into the city. Nebuchadnezzar’s “Hanging Gardens” were one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” Babylon was filled with opulence and splendor and it was because of Nebuchadnezzar’s many building projects. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to take credit for it all, but Daniel warned the king about his future if he did not change his ways. We can read about what happened after their meeting by turning to Daniel 4:29-30. Read it with me.
29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:29-30 NIV)
Nebuchadnezzar didn’t learn did he? He was not humble like Nehemiah. He was arrogant, until God humbled Him. After he was humbled, Nebuchadnezzar said,
37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:37 NIV)
I’m so grateful for the example Nehemiah set for you and me. Nehemiah was humble when he could have seized the moment and claimed the glory for himself. It is so important for you and me to stay at it, stay at the work God has given us until we finish, but never forget that it is His work. Paul wrote to the people in Philippi and told them that he was confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6 NIV) We must never forget that it was God who started the work and He alone can carry it to completion.
Well, we are about out of time, but before we go let me leave you with something to think about. I know we all want to finish strong, to be faithful to the Lord until our last breath. There’s no doubt in my mind you want to finish faithful and I know I greatly desire to finish this race faithfully. We must be acutely aware that to finish well we must stay focused–it is a long race my friends.
Did you know that after Israel divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south, Israel had 19 kings and not one of them finished faithfully? And how about Judah? Judah had 20 kings and only 8 finished faithfully serving God. That’s eye-opening isn’t it? What happened? Let me close with just one of their stories. Turn with me to 2 Chronicles 24:1-2 and let’s read together.
1 Joash was seven years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother’s name was Zibiah; she was from Beersheba. 2 Joash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest. (2 Chronicles 24:1-2 NIV)
Joash had a friend, a mentor, in Jehoiada the priest. Jehoiada spoke God’s Word to Joash, he led him in the ways of the Lord, and Joash, even though he was the king, he was humble enough to listen. Once Jehoiada died there were other voices that drew near to King Joash. Let me show you what I’m talking about. Turn to 2 Chronicles 24:17-19 and let’s read together.
17 After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them. 18 They abandoned the temple of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols. Because of their guilt, God’s anger came on Judah and Jerusalem. 19 Although the LORD sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not listen. (2 Chronicles 24:17-19 NIV)
Joash began to listen to those who had no interest in serving the Lord, no reverence for His Word, and as a result Joash went the way of all the other kings who failed to finish faithfully serving God. Let’s not make the mistake of Joash. Let’s stay rooted in God’s Word, listen intently to every word with humility, and passionately run this race of life that He has set before us. Let’s finish, faithfully finish.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
June 14, 2020