This past Sunday was a special one for us to celebrate our great men and the work they are doing to advance God’s kingdom. With this in mind, here is a special reflection on how we can stay focused on the mission God has given us to accomplish. This reflection comes from the life of Nehemiah. Enjoy.
I want to try something with you this morning. I want for us to do a little prayer exercise together. It’s going to require that we all be really quiet and focus our attention entirely in one direction for a few moments. Think we can do it? It’s at least worth a try, right? Okay, let’s see if we can do this for one minute. I’ll keep tabs on the time for us. For one minute I want all of us to pray together, and seek what God has to share with us this morning. Are you ready? Let’s go.
Oh, did I mention we should add seeking God’s blessings on our various activities in the coming days? We should probably add that in there too. Okay, we’ll just pick up where we left off. And…go.
And now my phone is ringing. Well, that’s really embarrassing.
The moment’s kind of gone now, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but it’s tough to stay focused for any amount of time these days. It seems like every time we get started off down some path to getting something important done, there are a whole litany of distractions waiting to rise up and steer us off course. If we’re honest, most of these for most of us take the form of our cell phone. Whether our purposes are explicitly noble, or just productive, our phones provide a near constant source of opportunities to break our concentration and give it to something else. Our distractions, though, are not by any means limited to our phones. We run toward distractions of all kinds like a dog to a squirrel. And sometimes, the more righteous and noble our activity is (like having a moment of prayer together, for instance), the more likely we are to be distracted by something. It may be only a momentary distraction, but with our concentration broken, we usually can’t pick back up right where we left off. We have to get a bit of a running start which usually means rehashing something we’ve already done once. In the end, we find ourselves working twice as hard to go half as far as we’d like to go.
Distractions that come from the depths of our own hearts and minds are bad enough. Those aren’t the only distractions we face. The world around us is always ready to pick up the slack when we start running out of them ourselves. I was writing this message while sitting at the desk in our guest room this week, watching out the window to keep an eye on the boys who were playing with the neighbors. In the time it took me to write this sentence, I think I saw 27 cars, 3 leaves, and an entire game of what looked like Horse take place outside.
On most days and for many of the things we do, a few distractions along the way aren’t such a big deal. Especially when they are short. But some of the distractions that come our way aren’t short. They are invitations to jump from the path we are on over to an entirely new path that is going to take us off into a different direction than we were going before. These kinds of distractions tend to come when we are gearing up to start really doing some good work for God’s kingdom—much like you’ve heard about the men of this church pursuing together this morning. This is true for us as individuals. It is true for whole churches as well.
The question I want to wrestle over with you this morning is simple: How do we keep ourselves on track? How do we put off these distractions and keep our attention on the greater prize of God’s kingdom?
Fortunately, the issue of being distracted from the work of God is not a new one. People setting out on a path to do what God has called them to do have been dealing with it for a long time. One particular character in the Old Testament was faced with not only more distractions, but more vigorous and intentional distractions than just about anyone else. He managed to stay on track, though, and in so doing, offers us a pretty good picture of how we can do the same thing in our own lives and efforts to expand God’s kingdom together. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you in some form this morning, find your way to the story of Nehemiah.
Now, Nehemiah can be a little tricky to find if you’re using an analog copy of the Scriptures. If you open just a bit to the left of the middle, you’re probably going to land in Psalms. Just before that is Job. Just before Job is Esther, and Nehemiah is just before that. Nehemiah was a leadership guru. Actually, that’s not really true, but there have been plenty of leadership books written over the years rooted in principles developed from a careful study of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was originally the cupbearer to the King of the Persian Empire. Today the idea of a cupbearer sounds pretty much like a servant, and it was, but it was also more than that. The cupbearer was the last person to drink out of the king’s cup before he drank out of it himself. In other words, if someone tried to slip some poison in the king’s drink, the cupbearer was the last line of defense. Because of this, the cupbearer was not just any servant. You didn’t want the person most responsible for making sure no one slipped poison in your drink to be a random Joe from off the street. The cupbearer was one of the king’s closest companions and confidantes. He was someone the king trusted explicitly and who had more leeway to speak his mind to the king than just about anyone else in the kingdom. Not even the queen held such power. That a faithful Jew was serving in this kind of a position was a mark of just how thoroughly the Jewish people had taken Jeremiah’s counsel to heart to become a part of their new homeland in exile.
For all his power and position and allegiance to the Persian King, though, Nehemiah was a faithful and committed Jew. He was passionate about his homeland—even though he had certainly never actually lived there himself. Still, by national identity, he had a vested interest in seeing it grow and thrive once again now that the much more benign Persian Empire had conquered Babylon and started the wheels turning for Jerusalem’s restoration. Because of this, when he got word from a cousin who had been to Jerusalem and returned to Babylon that things were not going well at all for the returnees, he was dismayed. Well, when you’re the king and your cupbearer looks upset, you want to know why. The king asks, Nehemiah tells him, the king asks what can be done about this, and Nehemiah tells him that too. Had this been anyone else, nothing would have come of it. Because of Nehemiah’s position, though, the king gives him everything he asks for and more, and Nehemiah sets out with a crew to help get Jerusalem and its inhabitants back on the right track to success.
The trouble here, though, is that Jerusalem’s neighbors didn’t want to see the city restored. They had both an economic and a personal interest in seeing it remain a veritable dump. The economic interest was that as long as Jerusalem lay in ruins, their lands and cities reaped the business windfall. The personal interest lay in the fact that their ancestors hated the Jews and so they did too. As a result of this, Nehemiah began receiving pushback on his plans to restore Jerusalem by rebuilding its walls almost immediately. This took a whole manner of different forms from false flattery and promises to be nice if he left the city alone to promises to tattle on him to the king to direct military intimidation. They tried multiple times to get Nehemiah by himself so they could assassinate him. They did everything they could think of to distract them from their path, but Nehemiah led the people in staying focused until the job was done.
In one particular episode, Nehemiah responded to their efforts with something that has the potential to be a pretty powerful tool to keep us on track in our own lives when we are striving to do the work God has called us to do amid a whirlwind of distractions. Look at this exchange with me in Nehemiah 6. “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 that 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.”
Nehemiah wasn’t stupid. He knew what they were trying to do. Under the guise of diplomacy, they were planning on taking him out so they could derail Jerusalem’s restoration plans permanently. Now, he could have responded to this in a whole number of different ways. He could have taken a contingent of soldiers and gone to the meeting in a show of force. He could have been ugly. He could have called them down. He could have tried to simply ignore them. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, look at what he says: “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.” Nehemiah’s enemies tried one more intimidation tactic which also failed, and not long after, the wall was completed. “The wall was completed in fifty-two days, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul. When all our enemies heard this, all the surrounding nations were intimidated and lost their confidence, for they realized that this task had been accomplished by our God.”
So then, what is this? Why is this response such a big deal? Well, for starters, it kept Nehemiah on track. But what you want to know is why it kept him on track. Why was there such power in this response? I think there are four things here worthy of our attention and practice.
The first is that Nehemiah’s response here was focused. Nehemiah responded to this attempt to distract him from the work he was doing without taking his eyes off the ball. One of the first and most important ways to avoid the trap of distraction is to not take the bait in the first place. If we don’t ever go near the trap, it’s not going to spring on us. He could have stopped to offer a litany of reasons why he wasn’t going to take their invitation off the path he was walking, but then, even if he didn’t ultimately go with them, they would have succeeded in getting him to stop his work to engage with them from afar.
When you have set out on a task, to the extent you are able, cut yourself off from potential distractions before you even start off down the road. If you are working on something online, close all your other tabs except the one you’re working on. If you are doing something that requires a bit of attention, put your phone into Do Not Disturb mode before you get started. If your challenge is stray thoughts that invite you down an endless parade of rabbit trails, keep a pad of paper nearby. When a stray thought comes to mind, jot down enough information that will allow you to come back to it later and leave it there for the time being. If you need to, set yourself a focus timer. Give yourself the task of staying completely focused on the task at hand for the next 20-30 minutes. Sometimes, knowing you’re going to have a break allows you to give yourself more fully to a single task. The big point here, though, is that if you want to avoid distractions, then build your focus and respond from out of that focus.
The second thing worth emulating in Nehemiah’s response to his enemies here was that it was non-combative. Nehemiah didn’t get angry. He didn’t throw a fit. He didn’t lose his mind while shouting about why he wasn’t going to go with them. He wasn’t ugly to the messenger. None of those things happened. His response was focused and calm. One of the irritating facts of life in this world is that distractions are going to come. They are. We have some power over that, but only a limited amount of it. Sometimes distractions will come that we don’t have any means of controlling. When this happens, we always have a choice in how we respond. If we respond by getting all upset, what is that going to accomplish? The distraction itself may not have worked, but in our anger, we’re not going to be nearly as productive at whatever task we were pursuing before, so in a way it did work. What’s more, in our anger, we might serve as a distraction to someone else. Now we’ve taken part in a growing cascade of distraction that puts a stop to all kinds of good work.
When distractions come, don’t get upset. They are part of life. Respond with grace and gentleness, understanding that gentleness is using a strength appropriate to the situation we are in. Some distractions require a little more strength than others to set aside. Either way, we aren’t fighting against the distractions themselves (much less the person responsible for them if it’s not us). We are fighting against the thing in us that is willing to buy into the distractions in the first place. We are fighting against our own lack of understanding or else acceptance of the worth of the task we are pursuing to advance the kingdom of God. When distractions come, stay calm and keep moving forward.
Nehemiah’s response does something else in the way that it is constructed. His response contains a reminder. The words are directed to the messenger, but they are also for him. “I am doing important work.” The work he was doing was worthwhile and important work. Now, there are a couple of things to see here. First, from a technical standpoint, Nehemiah was just doing some masonry work. He was being invited into a bit of international diplomacy that had the potential to impact the state of his own nation. How could masonry work ever be more important than international diplomacy with the goal in mind of avoiding further and future conflicts? Simple: this was the work to which God had called him, and the other thing wasn’t.
Sometimes the distractions we face will not be to things that are merely mindless wastes of our precious time. They will be invitations to things that seem good and important in the moment. It takes a great deal of confidence and trust in God’s call to keep doing the work to which He has called us in the face of invitations to things that seem on their face to be more important. We have to listen carefully to what He has said and do it faithfully. Then, we have to remind ourselves of its worth as often as we need. I am doing important work. I am doing important work, and I need to keep doing it.
One last thing about Nehemiah’s response. It was consistent. Did you catch that? Sometimes when distractions come our way, they don’t just come once and then leave us alone when we successfully resist them. They come back. Then they come back again. And again. And again. And eventually we give in because we’re just tired of fighting. Staying on track requires consistency. Nehemiah was consistent. “Four times they sent me the same proposal, and I gave them the same reply.” When you have successfully turned aside a call to leave the path God has set you on, be proud of that. Celebrate it. And then, prepare to do it again. Because you’ll need to and probably sooner than you wish.
Those four principles—staying focused, not getting upset, reminding ourselves of the importance of our work, and staying consistent—are great tools for dealing with distractions. When you have set out to do the work God has called you to, you are doing important work; keep it up. But what on earth does this have with us as a church, and especially on Baptist Men’s Sunday? It is this: We are doing important work. We need to keep it up.
We often think of distractions in only personal terms. But as a church this is a dangerous error to make. Churches can be distracted just as individuals can. Yes, the distractions are different, but they are no less perilous to our mission. Church distractions aren’t the typical “Squirrel!” distractions we deal with in our personal lives. Think for a minute about the church’s mission. Actually, let’s be more specific than that. What is our mission as a church? It is to both create, but also to be a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Our primary task from God as a church is to see people connect here who are made into committed disciples of Jesus who themselves connect more people to make more disciples. Our distractions will be anything that takes our attention away from that mission. Our distractions will be anything that slows down our efforts to become more fully the church Jesus designed us to be. We are doing important work; let’s keep it up.
We do this by keeping our focus outward—just like you have heard the men of this church are endeavoring to do this morning, and you will hear the women of the church are similarly aiming in a few weeks—in serving and connecting with our community. We do this by committing ourselves to growing as disciples ourselves, but not just for ourselves. We aim to grow so that we can help others grow. We do this by continuing to avoid the kind of drama and tension over things other than the Gospel itself that can so easily draw churches into crippling fights. We do this by choosing to be sacrificial with our lives—with our time, talents, and treasure—because expanding God’s kingdom takes resources of every kind and we’ve got some exciting expanding to do in the days ahead of us. We do this by staying consistent in living the life of Christ together. We are doing important work; let’s keep it up.
So, whether you are taking inventory of your own life, or we are talking about our collective efforts to advance God’s kingdom in this community and beyond, Nehemiah invites us to a life that is not pulled aside by distractions no matter what form they take. We are doing important work; let’s keep it up. Let’s keep it up and make this our response to each and every one: “I am doing important work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” Would you say that with me? I am doing important work and cannot come down. I am doing important work and cannot come down. We are doing important work and cannot come down. We are doing important work; let’s keep it up, and see God’s kingdom expand together.