An Enduring Legacy: “The Restart Button” – Nehemiah 7

restart-windowsThe problem with home repairs is that, though I enjoy doing them, it is often a long time between when I begin a project, and when I can complete it. Sometimes that causes me trouble. I am nearing the completion of an upstairs bathroom at my house. I tore it out a long time ago, because it was hideously ugly, and my wife wanted something new. I only get a few hours a week, on a good week, to work on it, and the project has dragged on much longer than I wanted it to – but that is just the way it is. Since it has been out of the way, we were able to manage the mess and keep the project going, and now it is nearing its finish. There is a problem… I have to restart the work to finish the wiring in the attic, and I cannot remember what my careful markings on the wires all mean. I had a code… but now I don’t remember what it was…It is going to take some work.

Did you ever put together something complicated? Have you ever found yourself walking away from the mess because you are lost between step 412 and 413, and can’t figure out how the dumb thing fits together? I have often said: “There is very little dogged determination cannot overcome.” It is true. The issue is we have to overcome the defeat in our MIND before we overcome the defeat in the PROBLEM. Let me show you an illustration of how to get to the heart of a project for God, and get beyond being befuddled by the complexity of our problems…It begins by recognizing a truth about any work God places in our heart to accomplish for Him:

Key Principle: The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

Before we can explain, let’s look at the people we are talking about in the story…We have been following the ancient journal of a wine steward of Persia, as he followed God’s burden and secured his king’s permission to go back and rebuild and re-secure his home town, and the capitol of his people, Jerusalem. He was not the first to arrive to do this project. In fact, two other groups over the last century had returned to face this challenge, but no one had completed the tasks until Nehemiah got there in the middle 440’s BCE. When he arrived, Nehemiah inherited leadership over three distinct groups of returnees to the land:

• The returnees from 536-516 BCE, who lived and worked under Zerubbabel the governor, and were chastised by Haggai the prophet to get the work finished.

• The returnees from 458 BCE, who came to the land from Babylon with Ezra, the revivalist.

• The returnees that arrived in about 448 BCE with Nehemiah, the group most invested in following the leader of our story.

Add to that, each group of returnees found some Judeans who did not leave in the exile, as well as facing a number of men of other ethnicities that had no vested interested in seeing Jerusalem become strong and vital again – and the contest began.

Let me say it clearer: Nehemiah had a team, but more were against him that were for him. That didn’t stop him, because God called him, and God enabled him. That shouldn’t imply that it was EASY or UNHASSLED – it clearly was NOT – based on the record he left us. In fact, Nehemiah (like many who do a work for God) faced more days of TROUBLE, than he did of VICTORY. He faced deliberately set traps and contests by other locals.

The truth is that any time we attempt to do what God has laid on our heart, we face the testing of fire by God’s enemy, as he stirs opposition. Part of the purpose of this journal, preserved in the archives of God’s Word, was to let every believer KNOW THIS – we have a spiritual foe that is set to stir up trouble. Look at his methods, you will need to be able to recognize them. He began with criticism of the work by men who were positioned to offer discouragement – but that didn’t stop the work. The criticism morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers – but that test was overcome by a direct answer of the leader. Nehemiah was then challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of mishandled people involved in the work, and even faced personal temptation in the lure of gain as his spiritual enemy dangled benefits in his face. By the time we opened the story in chapter six, Nehemiah faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats all meant to produce FEAR in the leader and get him to make mistakes from which he could not recover. In the end – the wall got completed in fifty-two days. The leader, and the people he oversaw could celebrate the completion, and God’s protection.

For some that is the most memorable part of the journal, but it is good to recognize there are still chapters seven through thirteen to navigate – and they offer a window into a different set of leadership problems. Let me use the words of another Pastor that explain:

Pastor Jerry Shirley wrote: “Nehemiah is all about building a wall around Jerusalem right? No, only chapters 1-6 are about that. The people existed for the wall in those first few chapters. They gave their time, talents, and treasures to make it happen. But the remaining chapters show the wall existing for the people. It’s not about the wall, but about what goes on inside the wall. The city was in ruins. They had a wall to prevent invasion, but inside was rubble, and they were supposed to live and worship there. But they had a grand vision of what it could be once again for the glory of God!” (sermon central illustrations).

Remember: The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

Assets make things possible, but people make ministry happen. We may meet comfortably in a building, but the building is not the work – only the place the work is designed to be planned, and some of the work is executed. Look at how the real work began…

Passing the command: A leader focused on setting key players to move forward (7:1).

Nehemiah 7:1 After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the Levites were appointed.

The point of organizing the work isn’t for THE LEADER to be the “end all and be all of the work” – but to train others to assume duties as God has gifted them. Note the leader was installed after the crowning purpose of the work became functional – the worship at God’s Temple. The purpose of the work was never the walls, it was WORSHIP at Jerusalem, and this is nowhere clearer than in this verse. Nehemiah STARTED with Temple assignments, because the heart of the city was to restart the worship pattern and replant the high calling of following God!

Until a man or woman recognizes the place of WORSHIP in their life, they struggle to pull the priorities of God in line. Most of us begin our lives as toddlers, patterned by our parents and family. We move to the school phase, and unless we are a part of a vibrant Christian family, we won’t be challenged to place WORSHIP at the center of our life. School won’t teach us that in these United States. We graduate, and even the Christian’s around us will seem to say more to us about furthering our education and our career, than anyone will mention our walk with God. Marriage is often next, and many young people focus on that after school and first career steps. What I am saying is this: Many of our very own Christian kids don’t get challenged to think about how their walk with God informs their other choices until they are married and perhaps on their first or second child. Sadly, half of life has passed before many place WORSHIP in the center of their life. If my life was given BY GOD to SERVE GOD through my other choices, doesn’t that pattern seem wrong?

Nehemiah STARTED by appointing those who were Divinely enabled to carry out the worship at the Temple. Levites were enabled and appointed based on birth. Musicians were enabled by skills and then augmented by endless hours of practice. Gatekeepers were trusted men of known integrity who were given the keys to the city, and the charge to keep everyone safe against the long list of enemies we have seen grow in the last six chapters. Say it this way: Safety and Security Personnel, Sound people and singer to lead public worship and Servants to provide the services of worship – each were appointed as the restart began.

Placing the pattern: A leader installed long term leaders and recognized them (7:2).

Nehemaih 7:2 I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do.

In my tenure at the church where I serve we must have echoed one thousand times these words: “Everything rises or falls on leadership!” Nehemiah lived this truth, and he passed this truth to the long term inhabitants of Jerusalem. No work of God is done by the headless. Look at how he evaluated the potential of men in choosing the leaders of the people… He chose a BROTHER – someone he knew intimately well in life, and he chose a man he observed over time to be God-fearing and an authentic example of integrity. He chose men who were properly fearful and enduringly faithful.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the grave of John Knox (reformer of the C16th century), you will notice the inscription of the man who stared down his queen (known as “Bloody Mary”) with a message he held in his heart from God. The simple inscription says it all: “He feared man so little because he feared God so much.”

Men and women: fear is a part of our lives. As we grow wiser, we know that no matter how strong we are – there is one stronger who can hurt us. No matter how capable we are – there are others much more clever that can hoodwink us. No matter how much we have prepared – there are always emergencies that can take more from us than we could ever prepare for…and so we learn to FEAR. We dread that we cannot control life much at all. We dread, but we are not wrong. Solomon made clear that as age increases, so do our fears.

David Harrell wrote a book telling the story of his father, Edgar Harrell. Edgar was one of the 300 survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the last US ship sunk by enemy contact in WW2. 600 of the 900 men who survived the ship’s sinking were stranded in the water for five days – many with only a life vest – all facing thirst, hunger, injuries, dehydration and sharks. They all came face to face with fear and their own mortality. Edgar testifies of those days alone in the ocean, “Clearly there were no atheists in the water that day. Gone was that damnable attitude of pride that deceives men into thinking that there is no God, or if there is, they don’t need Him. When a man is confronted with death, it is the face of Almighty God he sees, not his own. We were all acutely aware of our Creator during those days and nights.” (David Harrell, “Out of the Depths,” Xulon Press, 2005, 112-113).

Let me be clear: Atheists in university armchairs don’t impress me – atheists in foxholes do. It is easy to treat life in the theoretical when your life is full, and your strength is fill and health is fine. Walk the cancer ward and look for the atheist evangelists… you won’t find them. That wouldn’t be a place they would find a following. When men and women graphically face their mortality, they yearn for more than the days they have left, because, as Solomon reminds: “God set eternity in their hearts”.

I am again impressed that Nehemiah chose men with deeply reverent character – for a leader who is seeking God is powerful and purposeful. The heart of the work is the leader, and the heart of the leader must be GOD’S – for the work to be all it was meant to become. Nehemiah was the leader to get the wall built, but not the leader to carry the work long term – that was left to another. Isn’t it interesting that in all of Nehemiah’s labors, he never forgot the success of the mission was not ultimately judged by what HE could accomplish, but by how much he depended upon God, and how competent he left the generation to follow him! He was a man who knew the two secrets of long term success: DEPENDENCE and DISCIPLE MAKING.

Protection of the city: A leader set procedures that protected the people (7:3).

After turning his attention from worship and leadership, he focused on policies that would offer the basic protections necessary to get the people to thrive in the city. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:3 I said to them, “The gates of Jerusalem are not to be opened until the sun is hot. While the gatekeepers are still on duty, have them shut the doors and bar them. Also appoint residents of Jerusalem as guards, some at their posts and some near their own houses.

We all have gifts and personalities. Personally, I like to create, but I don’t like to maintain. I am not a technocrat, nor a train conductor. Pastor Matt keeps the clocks wound and the chairs set in this ministry – that is NOT something I would be particularly good at. I prefer designing the train, not keeping it running it on a schedule. For me, policies would not be as fun to put together as the physical component of the walls, yet they were every bit as essential to the success of the venture!

One of the works of a leader must be to address policy development, and give time to making the expectations and rules known and clear. Note the care with which Nehemiah made sure the specific people who were responsible were instructed in specific work – gatekeepers bar doors before they leave their post. Further, he made sure the security forces were increased in size to take on the task of guarding the city properly.

There are all kinds of issues in a work created from God’s burden and built amidst the enemy’s opposition – not the least of which is securing the work long term. In a church, that includes making clear who is responsible for what area of ministry, and placing careful parameters on the instructors and instruction of God’s Word. Some will want to be approved as teachers that simply should not be, and some will insert teachings in their respective groups that should not be there. That is why we have a statement of faith around which we gather. We are not trying to say that everyone in the world need agree with our view – but rather that we have honestly come to some conclusions about what God’s Word teaches in some areas – and we have made them clear to keep parameters around our work. That isn’t legalism – it is the proper work of policy making. Though our list of teachings isn’t infallible – since we aren’t and we made it – it does reflect our best current understanding of many things from the Word.

In the case of Nehemiah, it was right and proper for him to establish the WHO, the WHAT and the HOW of protection – in order to get the restart of the city secured.

Problem of the city: A leader renewed evaluation of the difficulties ahead (7:4).

Facing the problems that come with the task are part of the leader’s lot. He had to take a serious look at what he had to work with. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:4 Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.

It occurs to me that each phase of the work’s growth required a new evaluation of problems and challenges to help plan the next step. Flexible planning and careful evaluation are essential leadership tools! In his case, the city lacked the number of people for it to regain strength and become vital to the Jewish people yet again. For every leader that can decide to build the broken walls, we need ten who can be flexible enough to re-evaluate periodically and make decisions based on new priorities.

It is worth noting that Nehemiah recognized the need for the community to be vibrant in order for his mission to rebuild the city to be maintained. Hermits may live out purity, but they don’t produce a believing community until they embrace others. Caves of solitude don’t engender community and strength. God works through interconnected relationships. He described His work in our day as through a BODY that was joined together. Building a wall got Nehemiah a fortress; building a community would get his people a future.

Plan of the new settlement: A leader didn’t just note problems – he plotted solutions (7:5-6).

Once again we see a familiar phrase in the journal…

Nehemiah 7:5 So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there: 6 These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town,

Look at the components of the plan of Nehemiah. First, he felt God moving him toward the assembly of people and a new census to ascertain facts about WHERE THEY TRULY WERE. Next, he searched to find a record of the past groups of returnees, so that he would have FACTS about who owned what – and not be led by emotions and manipulations. While is it clear that God’s Spirit continued to lead the project, it is also true that God’s leader accumulated the relevant FACTS to lead. Emotions aren’t the basis of good decision making – facts and documentation are. Since the basis for participation in the Temple and even living in Jerusalem was the purity of the bloodline (as Scripture would have it), he needed to determine by the records what met the standard of the Word of God! The strong standard of purity cannot simply be left to the compassionate feelings of the leaders, it must square with the Word. Failure to take a strong stand in relation to those who were allowed by God to locate their families in the city would lead to the work’s destruction. Nehemiah could not OUT OF LOVE OR TOLERANCE change God’s Word and then expect God’s blessings – and he knew that. The solution lay first in the documented facts, and then comparing them to the Scripture.

People under restriction: A leader couldn’t make those who didn’t fit the parameters happy at the expense of the work (7:7-65).

Scripture taught that the inhabitants of the city and the workers of the Temple had to have a certain pedigree. It wasn’t Nehemiah’s job to convince God that His Word wasn’t fair, but rather to fit into what God wrote. His journal recorded the careful procedures of gathering and gaining a census of the people:

Nehemiah 7:7 in company with Zerubbabel, Joshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum and Baanah): The list of the men of Israel: 8 the descendants of …26 the men of Bethlehem and Netophah…39 The priests… 43 The Levites…44 The musicians:..45 The gatekeepers…46 The temple servants…57 The descendants of the servants of Solomon…60 The temple servants and the descendants of the servants of Solomon…61 The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel…63 And from among the priests: the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai (a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name). 64 These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. 65 The governor, therefore, ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there should be a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.

Nehemiah followed the form that showed a knowledge of the earlier record. The people were listed (as in Ezra 2 from generations before) as follows: Leaders (7); By families (8-24); By cities (25-38); By priests (39-42); Levites (43); Singers (44); Porters (45); Temple servants (46-56); Solomonic servants (57-60); Returnees without pure descent records (61-65).

In order to help focus the group on the future, it is important for them to carefully review the past, and link their next steps with what God had already done with them. The path forward is a continuation of something begun before them, and something that is bigger than them. People need a compelling reminder of the past and their linkage to it to see the broader scope of decisions. Would the people see their present and future challenges in light of their heritage? That was the main burden of the rest of the book of Nehemiah!

We live in a generation so purely interested in their own happiness, they deficit spend wildly out of their children’s pockets. We seem to have little negative reaction to the notion that our radical social experiments that depart from centuries of societal convention in areas of marriage and family may have devastating effects on our children. Our society doesn’t care. We want constant entertainment, constant prosperity and a never ending indulgence of self – children be damned. I don’t think that is too harsh – I think it fits the facts of what we are doing as a society. Here is my question: Is sufficient study being presented to show that our new definitions will not terribly disrupt the lives of our children?

Let me say it another way. If we could prove that NO FAULT DIVORCE led to easy ways to walk away from commitments, and we could PROVE that a generation of children were badly wounded by that, would America be ready to return to a legally binding and arduous form of divorce? I don’t think so. We want what we want – even if it kills our future.

Why am I taking the time to say that? Because that is EXACTLY what leaders do. They don’t go with the flow of the popular if the popular will destroy the future. They plot a course that is healthy and survivable. Let me offer one. As believers and followers of Jesus – reject the world’s definition of marriage as a civil contract. Look at it Biblically, as a sacred covenant made before God. Grab the hand of your spouse, look into their eyes and tell them that you will be there until you die – not because they are so cute – but because God wrote your names together in His book above. You cannot keep the other person in the marriage if they choose to act like the world – but you can choose not to act like the world in front of your spouse during your marriage. If enough believers do this – the world will see a difference in what we mean by MARRIAGE. That is a practical solution that considers the Biblical definition – and we should do no less.

Precision of Records: A leader keeps a proper account (7:66-69).

All through this journal, you have to admire the care with which Nehemiah kept track of things. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:66 The whole company numbered 42,360, 67 besides their 7,337 male and female slaves; and they also had 245 male and female singers. 68 There were 736 horses, 245 mules,a 69435 camels and 6,720 donkeys.

His record revealed three important components of the work:

• Number of core group: 42,360 people
• Number of servants: 7,337; choir: 245
• Number of livestock- horses: 736; mules: 245; camels: 435; asses: 6,720

I am not completely sure why it is, but I have discovered in ministry that some individuals and even churches fear records. Of course, records can reflect a lack of growth or an uncomfortable decline at times. At the same time, I agree with Carl Rogers famous quote: “The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.” Good leaders have mechanisms to “keep track” and they pay attention to what they are tracking.

No work will ever be properly organized without an accounting of people and assets – that is just common sense. At the same time – numbers aren’t the whole story. God started the church with some grand scale of conversions, from Acts two and the three thousand. At the same time, only a handful of people went out to start the majority of the churches across Asia Minor, Bithynia, Pontus, Macedonia, Achaia, etc. Numbers help give us a sense of support, but they don’t make the work progress. A few with a passion to participate will quickly exceed the work of a stadium of spectators. Don’t forget that a small group of highly committed people was the beginning point for most every great work in human history!

Price of the new settlement (7:70-73)

How is it that the people involved in the work, after hours and hours of labor, would now be called upon to GIVE to the support of the work? The answer is SIMPLE- they knew they had what they had because GOD GAVE IT TO THEM. Look at the journal:

Nehemiah 7:70 Some of the heads of the families contributed to the work. The governor gave to the treasury 1,000 darics of gold, 50 bowls and 530 garments for priests. 71 Some of the heads of the families gave to the treasury for the work 20,000 darics of gold and 2,200 minas of silver. 72 The total given by the rest of the people was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver and 67 garments for priests. 73 The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns.

Three things you will notice right away:

• The governor got out front: good leaders give first!
• The chiefs of families got on board: Key families signaled acceptance!
• The rest of people got involved – because no one felt exempt.

The key to enthusiastic stewardship is thankful recognition that God has blessed us! Great leaders have a great capacity to show thankfulness:

In a speech made in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

He wasn’t the only leader like they that we have had. When George Washington was about 20 years old he wrote this in his prayer journal:

O most Glorious God, in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving father, I acknowledge and confess my guilt, in the weak and imperfect performance of the duties of this day. I have called on thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sin and stand in need of pardon. I have heard thy holy word, but with such deadness of spirit that I have been an unprofitable and forgetful hearer, so that, O Lord, tho’ I have done thy work, yet it hath been so negligently that I may rather expect a curse than a blessing from thee.” [George Washington’s Prayer Journal From William J. Johnson George Washington, the Christian (New York: The Abingdon Press, New York & Cincinnati, 1919), pp. 24-35. From a sermon by David Scudder, Prayer is Seeking Our Father, 9/11/2011]

Great leaders get that way because they understand WHO they work for – God and His people. The work isn’t just about the accomplishment followed by the accolades – but about the people themselves.

The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

The churches of our day cannot simply content themselves with full buildings and nice things…we are in the invitation to transformation by God business –and our self-evaluations must be based on how effectively THAT OBJECTIVE is being met.