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Two of the most respected men in the evangelical world during our lifetime have been Billy Graham and Chuck Colson. Billy Graham is a man whose entire life has been identified with integrity and character. After over half a century in the public eye, he has never gotten off on a side street or on the sideline. On the other hand, Chuck Colson was a man whose walls came crashing down. Here was a man who wandered off onto some side streets, and for a while was put on the sideline in prison. However, he was a man who came back and rebuilt his broken life. What do Billy Graham and Chuck Colson have in common? Finishing strong. As Nehemiah has walked us through the principles of rebuilding, we now finally see that rebuilders are those who finish strong.
We have all heard of Billy Graham. He started his ministry in the mid-1940’s, and at the age of 27 began to gather crowds in his preaching services. However, has anyone heard of Chuck Templeton or Bron Clifford? In William Martin’s biography of Billy Graham, he says that Chuck Templeton was “the most gifted and talented young preacher of his era.” Billy Graham, Chuck Templeton, and Bron Clifford were all young preachers of renown in the mid-1940’s. Many authors have recounted their stories, but none better than my friend Steve Farrar in his volume entitled Finishing Strong. In 1946, the National Association of Evangelicals published an article entitled, The Best Used Men of God. The article highlighted Chuck Templeton and made no mention of Billy Graham. When Bron Clifford was 25 years of age, he was preaching to thousands of people. Everywhere he went there were overflow crowds. It is reported that by the age of 25, he had touched more lives and set more attendance records than any clergyman in American history. He was tall and handsome, intelligent and eloquent. In fact, he had opportunities from Hollywood producers to play significant parts in many of the Biblical movies that emerged in the late 40’s and early 50’s.
Yes, we have heard of Billy Graham, but whatever became of Chuck Templeton and Bron Clifford? Chuck Templeton left the ministry to pursue a journalistic career and by 1950 was reported to no longer believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in what one might call the orthodox sense. In 1954, Bron Clifford lost his health and family, and became an alcoholic. At the age of 35, this great preacher died in a rundown hotel room on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Rebuilders finish strong. Chuck Colson was a rebuilder. His walls fell down. His gates were burned. He crashed in the Watergate fiasco. He got on a side street, and was put on a sideline. However, he came out of prison and began to rebuild his life. He got started right. He built a team spirit. He let go without letting up in prison ministries all over the world. He overcame his obstacles. He never cut what he could untie. He finished strong.
As we open our Bibles to Nehemiah chapter six, it is important that we remember we are talking about the rebuilding process. Many are rebuilding that which has been broken. In chapter six, it was a long way from that day in Persia when he heard the first report of the broken walls and burned gates. It has been a long way from that midnight ride he took in chapter two when he reviewed the ruins by himself in the middle of the darkness of the night. We passed the halfway mark in Nehemiah 4:6 when the walls were half completed. We are headed down the back stretch. We can see the finish line. The walls are up. All that’s left to do is hang the gates (Neh. 6:1). We find Nehemiah here on the last lap of his race, and he’s reminding us that rebuilders finish strong. They sprint the last lap. He encourages us today to keep running so that we might make it to Nehemiah 6:15: “So the wall was finished in fifty-two days.” There is so much behind those words in this verse. We would never have arrived here with Nehemiah had he not stopped in chapter one to show us that rebuilders get started right. He made an honest evaluation. He identified with the need. He took personal responsibility. And he moved out of his comfort zone.
We may never have gotten to Nehemiah 6:15 where the walls were finished had Nehemiah not stopped in chapter two to show us the importance of building a team spirit. He started with his goal in mind. He seized his opportunities. He made a careful analysis of his situation. He motivated his people to get off dead center. And he stayed on track.
We may have never made it to Nehemiah 6:15 had Nehemiah not stopped in chapter three to remind us that rebuilders let go without letting up. They know it’s more important to delegate than to dictate or abdicate. He set clear objectives with specific tasks. He picked the right person for the right job. He was an example himself. He held his people accountable, and he gave a genuine pat on the back. We may never have made it to Nehemiah 6:15 had Nehemiah not stopped for a moment in chapter four to remind us that in rebuilding it is the “YAC” that matters most. He overcame his obstacles. He knew it was the “yards after contact” that really mattered. He dealt with conflict head-on. He made proper adjustments. He kept doing what was right, and he rallied his troops.
Finally, we might never have gotten to Nehemiah 6:15 had we not learned the important lesson in chapter five that rebuilders never cut what they can untie. They resolve their conflicts. How? They know there is a time to back off. There is a time to stand up. There is a time to give in. And there is a time to reach out.
Now, after all this, Nehemiah heads down the back stretch. His goal is in sight. The finish line. Mission accomplished. Nehemiah 6:15 – “The walls were completed!” Some of us are at this point of rebuilding in our own personal journeys. Nehemiah is shouting to us today that rebuilders finish strong.
The last lap is often the most dangerous time of the whole rebuilding process. I know men and women who have gone through all the principles we have seen outlined in five chapters, yet quit when the goal was in sight. The enemy comes along and makes one final ditch attempt to keep Nehemiah from the finish line. The enemy sought to get him on the side street and when that didn’t work, they tried to get him on the sideline. Nehemiah asked two questions in chapter six that formed the basis of his successful finish. When tempted to get on the side streets, he kept focused and asked, “Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3). When he was tempted to get on the sideline, he kept faithful and asked, “Should such a man as I flee?” (Neh. 6:11). These are the two questions each of us must ask as we too finish our own particular race. Of all the wonderful things that can be said and written about Nehemiah, this is at the top of the list. He teaches us how to finish strong. After all, isn’t that what is important? It’s not so much how long our race may be, or even how difficult, but how we finish.
Nehemiah’s goal was in sight. The walls were rebuilt. All that was left to do was hang the gates. He was on the last lap of a long and difficult race, over all types of hills and valleys. He was the original triathlete. Now he can see the finish line ahead. As he sprints for the tape, he shouts two very important principles to us that seem to keep echoing down through the corridors of the centuries. Can you hear him? “Stay off the side streets – keep focused!” “Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful!” Nehemiah’s concern for you and me is that it also might be said of us that “our walls were completed.” Yes, it’s never too late for a new beginning.
I. Stay off the side streets — keep focused
The story unfolds with Nehemiah’s old nemesis, Sanballat, and his deceitful friends, hearing that Nehemiah had rebuilt the wall and all that was left to do was hang the gates. They made one final attempt to derail him. “Come, let us meet on the plain of Ono,” they requested. They wanted Nehemiah to meet them halfway. They tried to trick Nehemiah with his own game. He had just been talking about the importance of conflict resolution. Now they are saying, “Let’s sit down.” “Let’s come down to the plain of Ono.” “Come on, Nehemiah, give in and reach out.” Nehemiah was wise enough to know this was not the time to give in or reach out, but the time to stand up and finish the wall.
Often, when our own wall is virtually completed, and our task is almost done, we think we are home free. We are tempted to let up, and then some Sanballat comes along, enticing us to get on a side street, to come down to the plain of Ono. Nehemiah responded with the first of two questions in chapter six – “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3). But, they persisted. “They sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner” (Neh. 6:4). Nehemiah kept the answer “in the same manner,” and continued to reply that he was doing a great work, and he would not come down.
A fifth time they sent “an open letter.” They said, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their King” (Neh. 6:6). “It is reported.” That is, “they” say. Who is “they?” Rumors have two distinguishing characteristics. Rumors are nameless. Have you ever noticed how the source of a rumor is never quoted? Why? There is not one! Rumors are not only nameless; they are shameless and often exaggerated. In this case, they were exaggerating the rumor to say that Nehemiah wanted to be the king of Judah. All this was an attempt to get Nehemiah on a side street before the walls were completed. They were attempting to get him to leave the building to come down to the plain of Ono and get on a side street. Note that Nehemiah stayed off the side streets by keeping focused.
What should be your response when confronted with nameless, shameless rumors? Have you ever been the brunt of a rumor? Think about it. It was nameless and shameless. Nehemiah teaches us what to do with rumors. Note his reply, “No such things as you say are being done, ut you invent them in your own heart…Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands” (Neh. 6:8-9). Nehemiah dealt with the rumor in three distinct ways. He refuted it; he rebuked it; he referred it. What should we do with rumors? First, refute it.
Nehemiah said, “No such things as you say are being done.” (Neh. 6:8). Next, rebuke it. He went on to say, “You invent them in your own heart.” (Neh. 6:8). Then, refer it. Nehemiah simply referred it to the Lord and went on about his business, keeping focused. He said, “Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands” (Neh. 6:9). That’s good advice for any of us who are the brunt of rumors. Refute it. Rebuke it. Refer it to the Lord, and go on. Rebuilders stay off the side streets. They keep focused.
What is Ono? It is a side street. There is nothing necessarily wrong with it. We have all been down side streets at one time or another in our lives. When our children were small, we made investments of our time and resources by buying them memories on family vacations. One summer, we took a car trip from Fort Lauderdale to the nation’s capital. It took us more than a day to simply get out of Florida. The Fort Lauderdale/Miami area is hundreds of miles from the Florida/Georgia border! On the second day, we were winding our way through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Having stopped for gasoline, I saw on the map a road that looked like a wonderful shortcut that would cut off scores of miles to our destination. I took that side street. What I didn’t know was that most of it was a two-lane road, up and over, and around and through some of the most rugged mountains I have ever seen. What I thought was a shortcut ended up adding several hours to our trip, not to mention a lot of conversation along the way. Side streets!
I pastored in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for 15 years. This city is called the “Venice of America”, as there are over 200 miles of waterways inside the city limits. There are hundreds of homes on the canals; water taxis are the way of transportation. Street after street ends at a canal. It took me awhile to learn that if I was ever going to get anywhere I had to stay on the main streets. Every time I would try to beat the traffic by getting on a side street, I would end up at a dead end, a cul-de-sac, a circle, or a canal. If you and I are going to rebuild, we have to learn the lessons of staying off the side streets and keeping focused. Ono may be good, but good is the enemy of the best.
What can keep us off the side street? Focus. It is possible to do everything else right, then get on a side street before our task is completed. I have seen this happen in marriages, in relationships, in churches, and in businesses. Have you ever been on a side street? When you are in the process of rebuilding a marriage, some Sanballat or Tobiah can come along and get you on a side street. There are those who will try anything to get you off the main road of rebuilding. Some who are rebuilding relationships get off on side streets. Some who are seeking to rebuild their vocational life are prone to take side streets. Rebuilders finish strong. How? They stay off the side streets and remain focused on what they are to do.
Nehemiah was focused. Listen to his response. “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3). He saw what he was doing as a “great work.” Lack of focus is often the problem in rebuilding. This is especially true when we are nearing the finish line. We live in a day when some moms and dads do not see that raising children is a “great work.” So often in the process of rebuilding we take a little side trip to Ono, get on a side street, and lose our focus.
Is anyone reading these words today with the rebuilding project almost finished? Your walls are up, and all that’s left to do is hang the gates. Perhaps a marriage, a relationship, the rebuilding of self-confidence, finds your walls almost completed. This is one of the most dangerous times in ll the rebuilding process. Nehemiah shouts a warning to all of us today. Stay off the side streets – keep focused. Join him in seeing that what you are doing is a great work and you cannot come down. Rebuilders finish strong because they know…it’s never too late for a new beginning.
II. Stay off the sidelines — keep faithful
Anyone who has ever played on an athletic team does not like to be on the sidelines. I was on the sidelines with my friend, Mike Ditka, in December of 1998, as he coached the New Orleans Saints to that memorable 22-3 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. As I rubbed shoulders that day with those massive athletes, the thing that interested me the most was how much those who were on the sidelines wanted to be in the game. Anyone who has ever aspired to be an actor or an actress doesn’t like to be “in the wings or on the sidelines” when the action is on center stage. Rebuilders finish strong because they stay off the sidelines and keep faithful.
The apex of my own athletic career occurred decades ago in the East Side Little League in Fort Worth, Texas. We played our games at the old Del Murray Field, and I played for the Rox-ex Exterminating Company Tigers. I can still feel those old gray flannel uniforms with the orange trim. My little league coach was a man by the name of Jerry Peden. He was a big guy. I was 10 years of age, and most of my teammates were 11 and 12. At every practice, Mr. Peden would drill into our minds these words, “Don’t get called out on strikes.” He wanted us to know that if we were going to strike out that he wanted us to go down swinging. In others words, he did not want us to stand there with the bat on our shoulder and watch the third strike go by without swinging at it. Whenever I would be at bat and get two strikes, I would look down the third base line where Mr. Peden was in the coaching box. He would lock his eyes on me, cup his hands around his mouth, and shout those words to me, “Don’t get called out on strikes!” Even as I type these words on my computer, I can still feel the fear I used to know in hearing Mr. Peden say those words.
By the time Nehemiah gets to chapter six, he has overcome all sorts of obstacles. There was opposition from without – strike one. There was opposition from within – strike two. Just before he hits his homerun in Nehemiah 6:15 when the walls are completed, the enemy throws him a curve ball. His adversaries say, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple” (Neh. 6:10). Had he done so, it would have put Nehemiah on the sidelines for the rest of his life, but he was too wise to get called out on strikes. He was focused. He was faithful.
The enemy sought to entice Nehemiah to meet with them “within the temple.” This adversary was not simply trying to get him on a side street, but completely on the sidelines. He called Nehemiah to meet not just at the temple, but “within” the temple, that is, the Holy Place. The same word is used here that is used in I Samuel 6:1 to describe how Isaiah’s vision of God saw His robe filling the temple. In Ezekiel 41:4, this is the same word that describes “The Most Holy Place.” In II Chronicles 26, Uzziah went into the temple. Remember, only the priests were allowed to go there. Even King Uzziah had been warned not to do so. Do you remember the result when he entered the temple? He was fortunate to escape with his life, but he contracted leprosy. Nehemiah was a layman. This was nothing more than a blatant attempt to put Nehemiah on the sidelines just before the walls were completed and the gates were hung. It was an enticement to do that which was contrary to the plain teaching of the Word so that the judgment of God would come down upon him.
What do we see here? We see a man who lived his life under the authority of the Word of God. He knew the Bible said he was not to go within the temple, and thus he submitted to the Word of God and the God of the Word. He says to us today, “Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful.”
Once again, Nehemiah responded with a question, “And I said, ‘Should such a man as I flee?’” (Neh. 6:11). If Ono was a side street, going within the temple was the sideline. I know a lot of men and women who have gotten started right, yet when they came to the last lap they were put on the sideline because they tried to finish the job without keeping faithful. I know a lot of my own peers in ministry who lost focus and got off on a side street somewhere. It was not long before they had lost their faithfulness and were put on the sidelines.
Listen to Nehemiah, “Should such a man as I flee?” We live in a day where we find a lot of fleeing people who simply run out on life and on their opportunities. There are many people who take side streets that lead to the sidelines. Escapism takes all kinds of forms. Some who are rebuilding relationships often find it easier to simply flee before they finish the job. They just leave. More and more of those who Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful are building walls in ministry get on the side streets, and end up fleeing. Some who are in the process of rebuilding their marriages invest years and years of their lives building a wall, only to flee when the task is almost completed.
The Psalmist felt this. He said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (Ps. 55:6). Some of us identify with this. Perhaps someone is reading these words who is saying, “Oh that I had the wings of a dove and then I would fly off and be at rest.” Guess what? You don’t have any wings! You can’t fly off. You can’t run out on life every time things don’t go your way. You can’t flee. You can’t quit. “Should such a man as I flee?”
This is exactly what our Lord was getting at when He said, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). More and more young couples are approaching the wedding altar today saying that if things don’t meet their expectations they’ll just quit. No. Marriage is a life commitment.
Is anyone reading these words that is about to quit, about to flee? You have worked so hard to get the wall up; you have seen so much accomplished, and yet you are tempted to flee. Listen, you must join Nehemiah in saying, “Should such a man as I flee?” Stay off the side streets – keep focused. Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful.
In rebuilding, it’s how we finish that’s important. Nehemiah had his Sanballat and Tobiah. The Lord Jesus had His Judas. We all have someone who may try to get us on a side street or even on a sideline. Nehemiah is not speaking softly here. He is shouting to those of us who are approaching the finish line, “Stay off the side streets – keep focused. Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful.”
“So the wall was finished” (Neh. 6:15). That may be the biggest understatement in the book. Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem with a single focused objective, to rebuild the walls. He began with a goal in mind. He stayed off the side streets – he kept focused. He stayed off the sidelines – he kept faithful. And thus we read, “So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days” (Neh. 6:15). We may have never read these words had Nehemiah not run the race as he did. Now, he’s showing us the importance of finishing what we started. Like the shepherd who kept focused “until he found the lost sheep,” Nehemiah keeps moving toward his goal. What is it that you have started to rebuild? Is it a marriage? Are you rebuilding after divorce? Are you rebuilding after the death of a loved one? Are you rebuilding a relationship? Are you rebuilding self-confidence? Are you rebuilding a church? Finish it. Finish it. “Should such a man as I flee?”
And what was the result when we read that the walls were completed? “And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.” (Neh. 6:16). Nehemiah gave glory to God. God did it! Some of us who pray and trust Him while climbing up the ladder forget Him when we get to the top. Not Nehemiah! He gave glory to God.
Rebuilders finish strong. Think about it. Who generally wins the professional golf tournament? The one who finishes the strongest. The one who plays the final two or three holes with intensity, and passion, and skill. Even though the tournament consists of 72 holes, it’s the last few that seem the most critical. Even if you hit the ball out of bounds back on hole number eight, you can still finish strong!
One of the great spectator sports is the Final Four of the college basketball playoffs. Who generally wins the NCAA tournament? The team that plays best in the final two minutes. It is the team that finishes strong who wins. Maybe you fouled out at a previous game. Get up. Get off the sidelines. Get back in the game. Stay off the side streets – keep focused. Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful. There is still time for you to see “the wall finished.”
In the Olympics, the mile run is always a high-interest event. Even though the runners have been at it for the course of a mile, it generally comes down to the last 50 yards of the race. It is the one who finishes the strongest that generally wins. Perhaps you tripped and fell on an earlier lap around the track. Get up. Finish strong. Sprint the last lap. Keep focused, and keep faithful, so that your wall may be completed.
In the courtroom, who usually comes out on top? The opening arguments are important to set the direction. The examination and cross-examination of witnesses is vitally important. Jury selection is more and more vital in our present day, but often it is that final argument that leaves the most lasting impression with the jury. The attorney who finishes strongest is often the one who has the advantage.
And so it is in the rebuilding process in life. Whether we are rebuilding a home or a relationship, a marriage or a vocation, a church or a business, those who complete the job of rebuilding have a common characteristic. They finish strong. They sprint the last lap.
It is strange that if we get on a sideline, no matter how much good we might have done, we are generally remembered as one who did not finish strong. I have a lot of admiration for men and women in life who, for a while, might have lost focus or even faithfulness. For a while they might have gotten on a side street, or even off on the sideline, yet got back up and in the race. Because of certain circumstances or situations, some might even run with a slight limp while seeking to finish strong. We can all do this!
Perhaps someone is reading this who in a weak moment went down to the plain of Ono and met the enemy halfway. Perhaps you wish you could change the fact that you “ran into the temple.” Perhaps you did that which was contrary to the Word of God. It’s never too late for a new beginning. It’s never too late to get back in the race. It’s never too late to stay off the side streets and keep focused, to stay off the side streets and keep faithful.
What really matters is seeing “the wall completed.” I think of John Mark in the Book of Acts. He finished strong! In fact, he gave us the gospel of Mark in our New Testament. But before he finished strong, he quit. He fled. He left Paul in a lurch on the first missionary journey. He got on a side street and eventually on the sideline for a while. However, he was encouraged by Barnabas. He got up, rejoined the race, and finished strong. I want to be a Barnabas, an encourager. Every time I read the Book of Mark, I am reminded that it’s never too late for a new beginning.
Perhaps some that are reading these words have fallen down on the track as you have run the race. Maybe you hit the ball out of bounds. Maybe you have gotten off main street onto a side street, but you are rebuilding! You can get up and get back in the race. What really matters now is how you finish the race. Don’t get called out on strikes! Keep focused, and keep faithful, so that it might be said of you, “So the wall was finished.” (Neh. 6:15) Nehemiah’s two questions are pertinent Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful and poignant for us today. “Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” Stay off the side streets – keep focused. “Should such a man as I flee?” Stay off the sidelines – keep faithful.
No one ever finished stronger than our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the epitome of One who got started right, who built a team spirit, who let go without letting up, who realized that “YAC” was what really mattered, and who never cut what He could untie. When His own finish line was in sight, He prayed, “I finished the work You gave Me to do” (John 17:4). The enemy tried to get Him on the side street. He took Him to a high mountain and tried to get Him to bow down. He took Him to the pinnacle of the temple and invited Him to jump off so that people would see Him for who He was. But He kept focused! Then, near the finish line, the enemy tried to get Him on the sidelines. The crowds jeered. They mocked. They spit. They screamed, “Come down if you are the Son of God.” He could have called legions of angels to destroy the world and set Him free. Then, we hear Him echoing Nehemiah’s own words, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3).
The Lord Jesus Christ kept focused and He kept faithful. He finished strong. And in the end, on the cross, He shouted, “It is finished!” To prove it, three days later He arose from the grave, the Living Lord and Savior.
I don’t know about you, but I want to finish strong. I want to stay off the side streets, and keep focused. I want to stay off the sidelines, and keep faithful. Our Lord is standing at the finish line with arms outstretched. He is more interested in your rebuilding process than you are. He believes in you; do you believe in Him? Rebuilders finish strong because they know…it’s never too late for a new beginning.
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders finish strong - Part 6
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders never cut what they can untie - Part 5
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders understand "YAC" is what really matters - Part 4
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders let go without letting up - Part 3
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders build a team spirit - Part 2
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders get started right - Part 1