Nehemiah 13 - Fighting the Currents of Complacency Pt. 2
Topic: Christian Living Passage: Nehemiah 13:1–13:31
Fighting the Currents of Complacency Pt 2
This morning we’re going to be finishing up our series in the book of Nehemiah and just to give you a heads up next week we’ll be starting a three week series on the Goodness of God. We look forward to parking our hearts on the subject of God’s goodness and all that means for us and how it plays out in our lives.
Nehemiah 13: 1-12, 15-21, 23-31
My father and I lived on a 24 foot sailboat in the 70’s and spent a summer sailing around the eastern end of Long Island. One night we anchored in Three Mile Harbor in Southampton, but it was a windy night and around dinner time we noticed that the anchor wasn’t holding us and we were slowly drifting towards another anchored boat. We reset the anchor and then had to wake up every hour through the night to make sure we didn’t drift into something and occasionally we had to start up the engine and move the boat to a safer place and reset the anchor. When the morning came we saw that even with our precautions, the boat had drifted seriously close to the shore.
Last week we talked about the topic of spiritual drift – where little by little we drift away from the Lord. If you’ve been a believer for any time at all, you have encountered spiritual drift to some degree. We start out here and before we know it we end up there. We have powerful experiences with God, only to find that over time, the power of that encounter begins to fade in our memory. God might use a message or a scripture or a person or even a trial to stir the embers of our hearts and our love for Jesus burns brightly again, only to see that little by little that fire begins to cool. Most believers don’t consciously say, “I think I’m gonna leave my first love” – we drift away from it a little bit at a time often without knowing it. We live in a world, and we live with a heart, where relentless currents are always pushing or pulling us away from God. Spiritual drift isn’t something we overcome once and for all – even though we are anchored in Christ, like my father and I on the sailboat, we need to be awake and alert and occasionally reset our position. Spiritual drift is something we will have to face – and fight – for as long as we live on this earth.
Chapter 10 in Nehemiah is the story of serious commitment. The people of Jerusalem, led by Nehemiah and all their leaders, sign an oath to observe and do all that God’s word commands, and calls down curses on their heads if they fail to obey God’s word. Chapter 13 is the story of serious compromise: when Nehemiah returns from being away for several years, he finds they have drifted far from the fervent commitment they had made to God and are breaking every vow they made!
But there are valuable principles we can learn from this chapter about fighting spiritual drift and last week we started looking at the first two of four lessons from this chapter to help us in our fight against spiritual drift. The first is that we can’t fight the currents of complacency through commitment alone – we need Jesus. You say, how do you get that from this chapter? When we set the failure and disobedience of the Jews in chapter 13 into the broader context of the Jewish history of failing and breaking covenant and sinning and idolatry throughout the OT, the lesson we learn isn’t they failed, but we need to try harder and do better. Their inability to keep the commandments of God wasn’t meant to steel their resolve to be all the more committed and get it right. It was meant to reveal their need for a Savior and drive them to Jesus – and it needs to do that for us too. Commitment is a good thing, but by itself it can never be enough to fight the currents of spiritual drift in our lives. We need to depend daily on Jesus to help us fight spiritual drift. As the hymn says, Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above
The second lesson we learned is that we need constant and consistent engagement with God’s word to fight spiritual drift. When the Jews stopped paying the tithes to the temple, the unintended consequence of it was that the Levites who were responsible for the teaching and instruction of God’s word had to leave the town and flee to their lands in order to survive. Because they weren’t there to teach there was a famine of instruction in God’s word and it was inevitable that the Jewish community would eventually drift from God’s commands. God’s word is the primary means He uses to call us back when we begin to drift and we need to be consistently engaged with God’s word, through our personal devotions, meditation, study, and the preaching of God’s word, in order to fight the currents of complacency that would push us far from God.
The first two principles are derived primarily from the failures of the Jewish community. The third and fourth principles are lessons we learn from Nehemiah’s actions.
We need each other in our fight against the currents of complacency
When Nehemiah walks through the city he sees a people that have drifted into serious complacency about God and His commands – everyone knows what’s going on, but they’re turning a blind eye to it. But that’s not how Nehemiah rolls – when he sees how far they’ve drifted in such a short time he gets really angry, and he confronts the Jews about their flagrant disregard for God’s commands. If you had to pick one word to describe Nehemiah’s response, the word confront would probably be the word. Nehemiah is a great leader – I haven’t focused on his leadership all that much in this series but he is a really strong leader, and in this moment his leadership shines through his courage to confront what’s wrong. Sometimes that confrontation took the form of strong measures.
The first thing he does is throw Tobiah out of the temple and has the room fumigated. His zeal to purify evil from the temple foreshadows a later time when Jesus will throw the merchants out of the temple. When Nehemiah sees that the Jews aren’t tithing and the Levites have left, verse 11 tells us he confronted the officials and asked, why is the house of God forsaken?” When he sees the Sabbath broken, verse 17 tells us what he did: Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath Day?” Then he shut and guarded the gates from sundown before the Sabbath until after the Sabbath ended. That didn’t stop some Phoenician merchants who set up their booths outside the city hoping that the Jews would be enticed to do business with them on the Sabbath, Nehemiah went out and in modern day vernacular threatened to bang some heads together if they were there the next day. They never set up shop there on a Sabbath again.
Then Nehemiah sees Jewish men married to foreign women their kids are being brought up with no knowledge of God and they aren’t even being taught Hebrew so they can’t read the Jewish scriptures. An entire generation is in danger of being lost and verse 25 tells us Nehemiah confronted them by cursing and beating them and even pulling out their hair. Finally, he finds out that one of Eiashib’s grandsons is the son in law of Sanballat, the primary enemy of the Jews, and Nehemiah chases him out of the city.
This all might seem extreme and even harsh to us, but the bottom line is that the Jews were drifting far from God and Nehemiah had the courage to confront them with their need to change. Just like the Jews really needed Nehemiah to see how far they had drifted, we need each other in the fight against the currents of complacency.
a. God knits us in a church family because we need each other – and sometimes that even means confronting each other
Confronting each other is a subject we need to be careful with because it’s easy for churches to go to the other extreme and become “hyper-confronters”. I’ve seen and heard stories about the imbalanced ways that some people and churches go overboard with confronting each other and it can be very hurtful. The last thing we need is to be confronting each other over every difference of opinion or perspective or preference or even over every little infraction. That kind of atmosphere becomes stifling pretty quickly. The bottom line is, we aren’t the Holy Spirit in each other’s lives and God doesn’t mean for us to be.
So I could easily take rest of the message qualifying what I don’t mean by confronting each other, but I don’t want to take the rest of the message to qualify what I don’t mean; I want to spend the message on what I do mean. So if you are the kind of person whose eyes light up at the thought of confronting other people every chance you can get, please don’t go there. This message isn’t the green light you’ve been waiting for and if you take it that way and start confronting people all over the place, I just may have to do something drastic, like pull your hair out. And if you don’t have hair, well, I’m just going to assume someone got to you before I could! So here’s what I mean:
b. The church needs to be a place where we care about each other
We don’t want to overdo confrontation, but listen, on the other hand, can we really believe that it’s possible to have true and caring relationships if we aren’t willing to confront or be confronted when there is significant spiritual drift? Don’t lose sight of this fact, while Nehemiah is banging heads and pulling hair and kicking posterior ends, he’s the only one who really cares enough to do something. Cares about God’s name being honored. Cares about God’s people living in the blessing of God. Cares about the disaster they are headed for. When we stray, when we drift, when we disobey God’s clear directive, we need people in our lives who love us enough to take the risk to get in our face and confront us. We need Nehemiah’s, not Tobiah’s, in our living room, confronting us with our sin and disobedience.
The reality is that we live in a world, and with hearts that are working to pull us away from God, and God uses people in our lives who care enough to be honest with us when they see us drifting. We don’t like to hear it. We don’t want to hear it. The Jews probably didn’t like Nehemiah very much at this point either, but they needed to be confronted. If we’re doing things that violate clear biblical commands – maybe unethical practices with work, or ungodly speech, or immorality, we need someone who will care enough to confront us. When we’re not being good husbands, men we need to hear it. When we’re not loving our wives or leading our families and it becomes clear that we’re being negligent, we need a faithful friend to confront us on that. Wives, same thing for you. If you’re a single person and have a tendency to drift in and out of your walk with God – you need someone who cares enough to confront you with truth. Not with judgment or condemnation, but with a loving appeal and a hope-filled call back to God.
I don’t always want to hear it when I’m messing up. You probably don’t either. In those times, isolation feels better. But while we don’t want to swing to the extreme of hyper-confrontation, we don’t want to swing to the extreme of polite uninvolvement in each other’s lives either, because God calls us to care and to be interdependent. Not co-dependent. Not enmeshed. But a healthy interdependence.
Most of our interactions won’t be confrontational – and shouldn’t! But as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as we cultivate friendships that go deeper than acquaintances, we want to be honest and engaged with each other’s lives. Sometimes it’s just asking questions to draw out someone’s perspective, or sharing a different opinion without weighting it with “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Sometimes we can just honestly see things differently, but if our friendships are genuine we should be free to share what we’re really thinking. We should cultivate gracious words and humble hearts so we’re not hitting people with prideful attitudes and uncharitable words.
Prov. 12:18 says, the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. We want our words to bring healing, not wounding. But Proverbs also says, faithful are the wounds of a friend (27:6). There is a kind of loving wound that hurts in the short term, but heals in the long run.
c. Confrontation should only be as strong as the biblical issues are clear
Nehemiah didn’t call them back to his opinions of how things should be; he called them back to God’s word. When God’s word is clear, we can be clear. When God’s word is strong, we can be strong. When it’s unclear or ambiguous we have no grounds to confront strongly.
Nehemiah called them back to purifying the temple of the evil of having a Jew-hating Ammonite living in the temple. God’s word, as it says in verse 1 forbade Ammonites from being in the assembly of God, much less living in the house of God. Nehemiah called them back to tithe which God’s word clearly instructed them to do. Same with refraining from work and commerce on the Sabbath. Nehemiah reminds them that their fathers profaned the Sabbath and suffered God’s wrath because of it. It is a strong warning from the Bible.
And after pulling the guy’s hair out, he reminded them of the lessons God’s word contained in the life of Solomon who loved the Lord and was loved by God, but foreign women pulled his heart away. It was scripture, not his traditions, opinions, convictions, or preferences, that Nehemiah called them to. We need to be careful to do the same. We need each other to help fight the currents of complacency in our lives – God puts us in a loving church family to help anchor us against spiritual drift.
We need to be tethered to God through prayer if we are to fight the currents of complacency
Nehemiah closes the book with a very personal prayer: remember me, O my God, for good. It’s appropriate because as we go through the book of Nehemiah we see that he is a man of prayer.
In chapter one, when he hears about the distress of Jerusalem, he prays.
In chapter two, when he is about to ask the king for permission to go to Jerusalem and help his people the Jews, he prays a silent prayer
In chapter four when they are mocked by Tobiah and Sanballat, Nehemiah prays that God would turn their taunts back on themselves
In chapter five, after addressing the oppression of the nobles and leaders, Nehemiah asks God to remember for good what he has done for the Jews
In chapter six when his enemies spread a false rumor about him, Nehemiah asks God to strengthen his hands
Chapters 8-12 are about a spiritual renewal that sweeps through the Jewish community and many corporate prayers of thanksgiving and dedication and repentance are lifted to God
In chapter 13, when Nehemiah addressed the Sabbath being violated, he again prays this prayer: remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
What kept Nehemiah on target when everyone else drifted off course? I don’t think we can doubt that his commitment to prayer was a big part of what kept him tethered to the Lord and gave him the strength to lead against the flow of the crowd, to do what was right rather than do what was popular.
Prayer kept Nehemiah’s heart tethered to the good of God’s promises even when things looked dark and difficult. When a person comes to Christ in faith and receives Jesus into their heart as Lord and Savior, they are tethering their life to His life, their future to His future, their resurrection to His resurrection, their salvation to His saving work on the cross. Prayer is our lifeline to our Savior and it is necessary in our fight against spiritual drift. In prayer we connect with our heavenly Father, and our souls are strengthened to stay close to Him.
Four principles to help us fight against spiritual drift in our lives:
It takes more than just commitment alone to fight the currents of complacency, we need Jesus
We need constant and consistent engagement with God’s word to fight the currents of complacency
We need each other in our fight against the currents of complacency
We need to be tethered to God through prayer if we are to fight the currents of complacency
As we close Nehemiah, let’s ask the Lord to draw us close to Him.
If spiritual drift is where you are, confess that to the Lord and ask Him to help you take the actions needed to reposition close to Him.
More in Re:building
November 3, 2013Nehemiah 13 - Fighting the Currents of Complacency Pt. 1
October 27, 2013Nehemiah 10 (11/12) - Commitment is a Four Letter Word (text)
October 20, 2013Nehemiah 9 - True Confessions