Third in the “As the Wall Turns” series,
Delivered February 17, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Being pulled away from God’s call and will.

In the series, “As the Wall Turns” we look at the obstacles Nehemiah faced as he sought to carry out his mission.

Sermon Text:
Nehemiah 6:1-4
and I Cor 9:19-27

What distracts you? There has been a lot in the news lately about distractions by virtue of legislation banning cell phones while driving. I heard one caller call in to one of the talk shows and say, “Well you better ban lipstick; I have seen some unbelievable things going on as women do their makeup in the rear view mirror, and you better ban hot coffee and on and on it goes.”

I remember 20 years ago I picked up my son from kindergarten and we were driving along and a bee had gotten in to the car, and he was terrified of the bees and so I am swatting away trying to get the bee out the window and after a little bit of this my car ran up on the side of the curb and then ran off the side of the curb, there was like a curve in the road, and I blew out my front tire, my left front and my left rear tire because I was distracted. So the lesson that taught me was — distraction costs.

Now we are in the third of a five-week series called, “As The Wall Turns”. We are looking at how Nehemiah’s experience instructs us how to build for God, whether that be individually or collectively as a congregation, so that we might be more effective in ministry. We have been looking at five impediments to growth in Christ starting with the letter “D”. Now if this is the first week that you have been with us, let me catch you up very briefly. Two weeks ago we looked at the “D” of discouragement and we learned that discouragement is a loss of perspective regarding God’s power and concern. Last week we looked at the “D” of dissension and learned that dissension is caused by a demanding self interest that is placed above the concern of all the people of God. And today we come to a third pitfall or obstacle that would keep us from reaching our Godly goals. It’s a shorter text today and so if you will join me in looking at it, it can be found in Nehemiah, Chapter 6, Verses 1-4. Listen to the word of God.

“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it, though up to that time I had not set the doors and the gates, Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message. Come let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono, but they were scheming to harm me. So I sent messengers to them with this reply. I am carrying on a great project and can not come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you? Four times they sent me the same message and each time I gave them the same answer.”

The third impediment to spiritual growth, to reaching our goals in Christ is the impediment of distraction or maybe even a better word, a stronger word is diversion. That’s what Nehemiah’s enemies were doing. They were seeking to divert him from doing God’s will. Another way of describing this pitfall is to identify it as a problem of shifting priorities. Sanballat and the gang were trying to get Nehemiah to shift his priority by responding to an urgent demand. Do you remember the booklet printed many years ago called The Tyranny of the Urgent? The title says it all. You don’t even have to read the booklet. The Tyranny of the Urgent. Distraction and diversion appear urgent. The ringing phone, the pressing request for our attention, the drop everything urge to put out one fire after another. We can get so distracted that we lose our effectiveness for God. The urgent, tyrannizing us away from the important. Now as I look at these verses from the text, I note at least three characteristics of distracting, urgent, diverting items. And this could have been my whole sermon, but I am just going to rip right through these three because I have more to say. But I want you to carefully note something. I see from verse 1, that diversion happens at critical moments. It says the gaps were closed everywhere around the city, but the gates were still not hung. So diversion or distraction happens at critical times, when the project could still be lost or might be won. They come at watershed moments.

Secondly I see from verse 2, that distraction or diversion appear harmless at first. They present themselves in a way that seems harmless. Come on Nehemiah, let’s have lunch together. Let’s do lunch. I know a great place in the village near Ono. Now that’s an appropriate town. You ought to remember the name of that town, because when distractions come you ought to say, “oh no.” You know this happens in our adolescence and even beyond when friends say, “come on just do this thing. It’s no big deal. Just try a little bit of marijuana, it won’t hurt you. Try these drugs, hey what’s the big deal.” Or your driving along the road, “hey can you see if you can get this car to go 100 mph. You’re already 70% of the way, what’s the big deal?” You see it always looks and sounds harmless at first. It’s what a hooked worm looks like to a fish.

And then thirdly I see from verse 4 that distractions keep happening. It says, four times he came to me and tried to get me away from my task and four times I answered the same thing. So it happens at critical moments, it looks harmless and they keep happening. It’s not once and done with diversion from the will of God. It’s constant. It doesn’t have to be just bad things, a lot of good things can be a distraction or a diversion from doing the thing that God wants us to do. I have just made up a list of good things. Children, mate, house, lawn, antiques, cars, sports, education, retirement. Don’t get me wrong, these in themselves are not bad, but the question is do they divert us from God’s goals for our life?

Look at what Nehemiah did and how he responded to this distraction. He didn’t go in to a firefighting mode. You know when it came to discouragement he said, “stand up, grab your swords and fight.” With this diversion, he ignored it. He ignored it. Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and fight and sometimes you just have to ignore as a way of growing spiritually. Look, at a crucial moment he sent messengers. He didn’t go himself. He realized that he was in a critical moment, so he sent messengers. Secondly, he perceived the request wasn’t harmless at all. The plain of Ono is a whole day’s journey from Jerusalem and it is bordered by hostile territory and so Nehemiah suspected something. Something didn’t smell right to him. He knew it was a trap. And then thirdly in response to the repetitive nature of the demand, each time he gave the same answer. The broken record method, “I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry I can’t.”

Lyle Shaller is a well-known church sociologist. He said there are three things that you need if you are going to survive in ministry. One, you have to get plenty of sleep every night. Two, you have to have a clear sense of self-identity. And three, you have to ignore trifling diversions. Pastors, elders, what color do you think this room ought to be? What name should we give …? Things that have nothing to do with building disciples for Jesus Christ can divert us and can make us very busy, even in the church. How many churches have gotten distracted from the task that God calls them to by trifling diversions?

So what was Nehemiah’s secret? Why could he respond to this diversion in such a healthy way? I think it is simply this. That Nehemiah was single-mindedly focused on God’s call. He had an overwhelming appreciation for his God ordained task of bringing security to people who felt insecure, whose walls had been broken down. He was focused on what would count forever, for eternity. Now let me ask. What is our task as believers? What is our task as a church? We know from the Westminster catechism the well-known question one answer: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “I always do the things that please the Father.” Central’s answer, “We desire to glorify and please God by moving people toward Christ.” Central’s answer today, what is our task? “We desire to glorify and please God by moving people towards Christ by dedicating ourselves to a new way of releasing everyone to serve God according to their passions, their gifts, and their style, according to their spiritual design.” We’re committed to it and we want to change whatever gets in the way of making that happen. Nehemiah lived a life harnessed to the will of God. And Central Church is saying we want to move people toward harnessing or yoking with Christ in their own unique way. The way that will best glorify and praise him. A distraction or a diversion is anything that keeps us from focusing on the target and the goals that God gives us, or keeps us from even seeing the right target.

A pedestrian was walking by a work site and he asked the same question of three different people who were working there. He said to the first, “what are you doing?” The first one said, “I am earning my wages.” He came to the second and he said, “what are you doing?” The second said, “I am laying bricks.” He came to the third and he asked the same question again, “what you are doing?” The third man said, “I am building a cathedral.” Three different people, all are doing the same thing, all having a different sense of what they were doing. The third had an understanding of the greatness of his task. Do you know that the greatest thing that you can do in life is to yoke with Jesus Christ and to be as the scripture says, “a co-laborer” with God. I have asked this question before, I will ask it again. Are you a business person, a lawyer or a doctor who happens to be a Christian? Or are you a Christian who happens to be a business person, a lawyer or a doctor or any other job or profession that we have? Only a deep appreciation for the single-minded task of bringing glory to God will keep us from being distracted and diverted by anything less. You know Jesus experienced this all the time. We see it from the gospel accounts. People come to him and they say, “Lord please do this” “Lord please do that”. Sometimes he complied. Many times he complied with their request, but often he would say, “No, I am sorry. My hour has not yet come. I can’t do this or that.” Or they would say, “Lord please stay with us for just another couple of days.” “No, I am sorry. I have to go to other places and preach the gospel there also. I can’t stay.” Jesus was distracted and diverted, but it says that he “set his face like a flint toward Jerusalem”.

In Nehemiah, Chapter 6, verse 3, Nehemiah says, “I am carrying on a great project and I can not go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” It reminds me of a text from Matthew’s gospel. “Those who passed by the cross hurled insults at him, shook their heads and said, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build in three days save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.” In the same way the chief priest and teachers mocked him: “He saved others. He can’t save himself. If he’s the King of Israel, let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him.” I wonder if the words of Nehemiah 6:3 were going through the Lords mind at that time. I am doing a great work. I can not come down. I will not be diverted from the thing that God has called me to do because it’s so important.

I want to ask today, is something diverting you from God’s call, from God’s will? If so, it’s not really anything to be ashamed of. It happens all the time. But is it threatening to dilute your witness? Is it coaxing you to turn away from the all-important task of glorifying God through your life? If you can say “no, I think I am focused right on the target” then that is tremendous, but be prepared because distractions and diversions are legion, they are many.

I want to conclude by talking mainly to men about a great disqualifier, not of salvation but a fulfilled, fruitful and meaningful life. You know it says in this text that the gates were still not hung. There was still the ability for people to just come and go as they would, there still wasn’t full protection. And I am speaking to everybody, but men in particular about the gateways of the mind that are not closed and allow things to divert our attention, allow a lack of discipline to come in to our thought life because our eyes get diverted. I was talking with an elder of another congregation about church challenges. We were talking about organizational stuff and programming and just out of the blue he said, “you know what’s killing us?” I said, “what?” He said, “pornography.” He said men and boys in our church are being inundated and they are losing the battle. It’s destroying lives, marriages, and communities. He said, “you know the crazy thing about it, it doesn’t just get to you when you’re into it, it stays in your mind and you’re always feeling guilty and distracted by it all the time, even in church.” I thought to myself, you know that’s true. It’s a battle that’s all around us. It’s a very difficult battle to win and it made me think of the Psalmist words in Psalm 119:11. Listen again to this text as we think about how to win battles of mental distraction.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.”

Now listen to Verse 10:

“I seek you with all my heart” listen to the tension of this next line, “Do not let me stray from your commands.”

You see the Psalmist knew, even though he was seeking the Lord with his whole heart that there would be a possibility that he would be diverted to stray from God’s commands and. Then lastly, and you probably know this verse, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

You know one time I heard a speaker talk about how to keep a glass really clean. He said, it’s not enough just to use the glass, it gets dirty and then you wash it. Then it gets dirty and you wash it and so on. He said just imagine the glass in the sink and water constantly flowing through it. He said it would always be clean, wouldn’t it? And that’s what the Psalmist is saying. That the word of God has to constantly flow through our minds, memory, reading, whatever and that’s the way of cleanliness of the mind. You see, we always turn to our addictions in our stressful times. Yet if we turn in our stressful times to God and to prayer and to scripture and the accountability of the community, that’s a better way. Whichever way we keep turning reveals what is really going on in our heart and it is that simple. But you know the great news is this. The Lord can save. The Lord can deliver. The Lord can redeem and heal. If I am speaking to anybody and the arrow is hitting the mark, then how about letting him clean out the temple of your mind. And remember that it’s not a once and done thing, it’s always a distraction. Ask him to help you put on the full armor of God so that you might be able to stand, put him at the center again. Single-mindedly rekindle that devotion that you once had and tear down any idles of distraction that keep you from doing what God wants. You know we can start that building right now.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord we do bless you and do thank you that you alone are able to make us stand. Lord we have confessed our sins, but we confess again that there are many ways in which we stray like lost sheep, but we know that you are the Good Shepherd and so we pray send your Holy Spirit to us once again, take our lives and mold them and shape them and cause them to be consecrated Lord to you. Lord help free anybody burdened by any distraction or diversion today. Lighten their load, take away their pain and guilt and help them to walk in the freedom and strength of your might. For we pray it in Christ’s Holy name. Amen.