Strength for the Journey - Ezra
Summer is almost here! How many of you have some sort of travel plans for this summer? Is anyone planning to join about 3,000 people for a 900 mile hike? That’s what we read about in the Book of Ezra. That would be like walking from San Antonio to Phoenix. (I’ve driven that many times --- It’s bad enough to drive; I wouldn’t want to walk it!) For Ezra it was hiking from Babylon to Jerusalem --- They were retracing the steps they had taken 70 years before when the Jews went into exile.
Ezra wrote the book that is named after him, but the first time we hear about him is in the 7th chapter. Between chapter 1 and 7 almost 60 years had gone by. In chapter 1, King Cyrus issued a decree that allowed Zerubbabel and 50,000 Jewish refugees to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was built, but the Jews in Jerusalem were having hard times.
In chapter 7, King Artexerxes, the new King of Persia, issues a similar decree. This time, a Jewish priest named Ezra would lead a 2nd group of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem. Their purpose was to establish a settlement in Jerusalem and … even more important … to bring true worship back into the Temple of God.
Ezra was the perfect candidate for the job. Ezra 7:6 This Ezra was a scribe who was well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given to the people of Israel. He came up to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the king gave him everything he asked for, because the gracious hand of the Lord his God was on him.
That phrase, “the gracious hand of the Lord his God was on him” is repeated 3 times in Chapter 7. Everything Ezra was able to accomplish was based on the fact that he received God’s Grace!
1. Receive God’s Grace
The grace of God is the only explanation for this obscure Jewish exile to be able to lead an amazing spiritual revival in Jerusalem. During the 70 terrible years of exile in Babylon, the Jewish people had NO reason to hope they would EVER return home again … no reason except one – God’s promise.
Jeremiah 29 records: This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to … the place from which I carried you into exile. Jeremiah 29: 10, 14
That’s exactly what happened. The gracious hand of God came upon Ezra and he led 3,000 exiles back across the exact same road they had traveled into Babylon 70 years before. What God accomplished in Ezra’s life is amazing… but it’s not unique.
God puts His hand on all kinds of people. It’s only when the gracious hand of God is upon us that we are able to live successful, meaningful lives. In fact, if the gracious hand of God is NOT on you, then nothing of lasting value can come from your life!
Ezra 7:9-10 says that He had arranged to leave Babylon on April 8, the first day of the New Year, and he arrived at Jerusalem on August 4, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. This was because Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the Lord and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel.
Where did Ezra get the strength for this 900 mile journey? Strength for the journey comes to those who study and obey the Law of the Lord.
2. Study God’s Word
Ezra grew up in the great city of Babylon where he had the opportunity to study any number of things: science, medicine, mathematics, astrology, magic arts, history, myths and legends. Out of all the thousands of books available to him, he chose to study the Old Testament scrolls which and been brought to Babylon over 100 years earlier. He set his heart to study the Law of the Lord.
We have a similar choice to make. All kinds of things are available for us to learn. Have you set your heart to study God’s Word? Maybe you aren’t attending a school that teaches God’s word, but you can study the Bible at church and at home.
I can remember the verses I memorized before I was 18 much better than I remember verses I memorized later. If you are a parent, don’t miss the opportunity to teach your children God’s Word now … while their brains are developing. It’s worth the trouble to bring children to church and AWANAS and Camp and VBS.
And speaking of that, I want to say thank you to all the dedicated teachers we have here at CHCC. I still remember the people who taught me in church when I was young. I grew up in a family that went to church 2 or 3 times a week. Besides that, I was a camper or worker in church camp each summer. Then I ended up going to Bible College for 4 years and several more years of graduate work after that.
In other words, I’ve read and studied the Bible almost every day of my life since I was a boy until now (which is a LONG time … never mind how long!) But the truth is, I’ve barely scratched the surface of God’s wisdom! If you set your heart on studying God’s Word, you will find a never-ending supply of insight and truth.
This is what turned Ezra into a great leader in Israel. When Ezra led God’s people back to Jerusalem, the Temple had already been rebuilt. Ezra came to re-establish temple worship. But then he discovered a problem that could absolutely ruin the whole project. The people were safely back home. They had rebuilt the Temple. But they were NOT obeying God’s Laws.
3. Obey God’s Laws
Ezra 9:3 describes how Ezra reacted: When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat down appalled…
Now that was one upset guy! What exactly did Ezra hear? The report was that some of the Jewish men … including the leaders and officials … had married women from the pagan families around them. You may remember that this was the same sin that brought Solomon down and led to the fall of Israel in the first place. Once again, God’s people were trying to fit in with the culture around them.
Here’s how Ezra responded to the sin of compromise: “I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Ezra 9:6
What happened next strikes me as humorous. Ezra called all the people together and gave a LONG confession… with an emphasis on LONG. (Evidently he was one of those guys who could go on and on.) And while he was talking, it started raining. Here’s what the people said. The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right! We must do as you say. But there are many people here and it is the rainy season; so we cannot stand outside. Besides, this matter cannot be taken care of in a day or two, because we have sinned greatly in this thing.” Ezra 10:12-13
They were sorry for their sin, but they were also sorry they were getting soaked! Besides that, even though they repented, the sin had already created an ugly, tangled mess … and it was going to take more than a few days to straighten things out.
Their sin had to do with marriage, and there were children involved. So, even though they had repented, they couldn’t undo what had already been done … and there would be trouble to pay. That’s always the way it is with sin. God forgives, but the consequences remain … especially when the sin involves family and relationships.
Christians live under grace, not law. But that doesn’t mean we are lawless.
In the book of Acts we read about how the first Christians lived. About 10 years after the church started, Peter convened a Council in Jerusalem to address this question: “Which of the Laws of God are essential for the Church?”
After discussion and prayer, this is what the apostles decided: Acts 15:19-20 “Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood.”
Out of all the hundreds of Jewish Laws, the apostles named only three … stay away from things offered to idols and from eating or drinking blood … and from all sexual immorality. This meant the early Christians would miss out on a lot of parties … because social life in pagan culture revolved around idol worship. When it came to eating food offered to idols, drinking blood, and immorality … everybody was doing it.
Christians who abstained would definitely stand out from the folks that lived around them. Now-a-days, no one thinks we’re strange if we abstain from worshiping idols or drinking blood.
But the command to abstain from sexual immorality will make us stand apart as much today as it did in the first century.
The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is sometimes translated “fornication.” It is defined this way: consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other. That has become so common today that someone … like Tim Tebow … who holds to the Biblical standard ... is looked on as weird.
It wasn’t always that way. I lived through the 60’s when attitudes about morality took a big shift. I was a teenager when people came out with the “new morality” which was really the “old immorality.” Hippies were making peace signs and talking about “free love.” It turns out that there’s no more free love than there is a free lunch! There’s a big price to pay for sin … no matter how it’s packaged.
Romans 12:2 says Do not conform to the pattern of this world… What are the patterns of our world in 21st century America? Here are some recent findings from a new book by Mark Driscoll: “Sex outside of marriage is now the norm, a huge change from just a century ago. Today, over 5 million couples cohabitate outside of marriage. This is up from 1 million in 1978. And this number doesn’t take into account the number of couples who don’t live together but who still stay over at each other’s places enough to be classified as cohabitators.” Dating, Relating, and Fornicating
No matter what “everyone else is doing,” Acts 15:20 is still in the Bible telling followers of Jesus to abstain from sexual immorality.
1 Corinthians 6:18 still says, Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.
Do you want to have the abundant life Jesus promised? Do you want to pass on a great heritage for your children? Sexual purity is not a side issue. It has a huge effect on your relationship with God. And sexual purity is the foundation of a life that blesses the people who love and depend on you.
And Ephesians 5:3 still tells the church, Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.
How can the Church have any kind of witness to the faithfulness of God if Christians just do whatever the dysfunctional, non-believing culture around us is doing? Satan’s greatest desire is to get God’s people to misuse and pervert the gifts God has given us. That’s what happens when we disobey the guidelines God has clearly given us for sexual purity. Obedience is hard, but God would not command anything impossible. He will give the ability to obey.
The question for Christians … whether they live in the first century or the twenty-first … is the same. Will you conform to the pattern of this world, or will you follow Jesus? Just imagine how much trouble and pain could be avoided if Christians held to Biblical standards of purity.
The good news is that … in EVERY area of life … obedience brings wonderful blessings. In fact, radical obedience brings radical blessings!
It may not be easy to obey God’s Word … but when it comes right down to it, there is something harder than obedience … that’s living with the consequences when we break God’s commands. You don’t have to look far to see the terrible consequences … in families and individuals and in our nation … because we’ve thrown out God’s law.
We are no different from ancient Israel in that respect. Like the people of Ezra’s day, we have a choice. We can rationalize and try to say that somehow God’s law doesn’t apply to us. Or we can decide to change our ways and obey God as Lord and Savior.
Ezra successfully led God’s people on a journey from bondage in Babylon to freedom in the Promised Land. If we’re going to have strength for OUR journey, we need what Ezra had.
• The gracious hand of God upon us
• The wisdom of God’s Word in our hearts
• And Obeying God’s laws in our daily lives
Obedience is not a side issue for Christians. And we can’t pick and choose which commands we want to obey and which one’s we’d rather ignore.
The question is, will we conform to the world or will we follow Jesus? It’s as simple as that.