Bloom Where You Are Planted

On a Christian forum website I regularly read, one of the Christians had posted some sad news. He had participated regularly with a Christian Missionary organization called Honduras Outreach. This week in a remote mountain village in Honduras, their vehicle was in an accident in rugged terrain. There were 28 adults from four church groups from Georgia. Ten people suffered various injuries from head injuries to a broken femur; three people died. They were in Mal Pais, Honduras to bring fresh water to villages, build chimneys in homes to reduce lung inflammations, lay concrete floors, and build latrines. I found the press release and made copies for everyone; it includes the names of these heroes and links to their individual churches. Pray for their families this week and this organization that is doing so much to help people and spread the love of Christ.

The Christians that participate in this forum I read were supportive and offered prayers and condolences; the original poster was concerned that people might be afraid to serve with Honduras Outreach that does so much good for some of the poorest people on the planet. That if people realized how dangerous this missionary work is, people would not sign up for it. There are a lot of non-Christians and even atheists that participate on that forum – God bless them, I’m learning a lot about what the world teaches people and it’s often not pretty. One post from an atheist begins, “Do you really believe any of this stuff yourself? Or is Christianity just one big social club?” The atheist asked, “”God works in mysterious ways” is usually a good one for you — but it solves nothing. For example, why didn’t God just keep his eye on his good missionaries in South America and save them from being killed in the first place? Do you suppose he wasn’t pleased with their ‘work’? Do you suppose he just wanted to ‘call them home’?”

Yes, God works in mysterious ways, but the more one studies God and learns these mysterious ways, the clearer answers to questions like these becomes. Many Christians – and non-Christians – believe that God’s primary function is to protect us, preserve us, prosper us. An omnipotent Santa Clause where we line up, confess Jesus as our Lord, and then hold a big bag open for God to pour in His blessings. A belief in a God like this cannot understand why God would lead people someplace where they would be uncomfortable or be in some sort of danger. Why God would send missionaries to Honduras and then not use His big supernatural hand to keep their bus from tipping over. Scripture confirms and comforts us that God loves us and He cares for His children. We can take great comfort in knowing the almighty Lord is in control. But God’s primary purpose is not to pamper us. God’s will is not what we will it to be, and rather than trying to find out why God isn’t doing our will, we can study our entire lives to find out what God’s will is. It took Moses 40 years of study before he was able to know the will of God. We only have about 30 minutes today, not nearly enough time to learn all about God. We’re going to see today that God’s primary purpose is accomplishing His will through His people. Those purposes are not always comfortable, not always safe. Sometimes it will require sacrifice; sometimes it will require great personal risk. The Lord expects His people to exercise faith in obedience to His will in whatever situation the Lord leads.

We’re continuing the book of Esther this week, chapter 3 and 4. Last week, Fred introduced us to Esther who was a poor Jewish orphan girl. Through a series of “coincidences,” she was elevated to a very high status, the Queen of Persia. How did she arrive there? Through submission to her faith, submission to her cousin who was her acting father, her inner and external beauty. This beauty is a gift from God, and like all gifts, we are entrusted by God to use it wisely, for His glory alone, in obedience to Him. The old Queen Anna Nicole Smith, er, I mean Queen Vashti, we’re told, was very beautiful on the outside. But she was not going to use her God-given beauty to further God’s purposes, so she was removed, and Esther became queen. Esther also had external beauty, but also internal beauty.

In Chapter 3 of Esther, the plot thickens, mwahaha. Enter the villain of our lesson, Haman. In Esther 3:1-2,

After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

This is ominous. Haman’s father was Hammedatha the Agagite, which means he was a descendant of Agag the king of the Amalekites. The Amalekites were a tribe from Canaan who had constantly opposed the Israelites throughout history, from the Exodus out of Egypt throughout the reign of David. In Exodus 17:8-16, around 1440 B.C, just after Moses struck the rock and the water flowed, the Amalekites attacked the Israelites. Joshua led the battle against the Amalekites, and Moses stood on top of a hill with his arms raised in glory to the Lord while Aaron and Hur held his arms up. When the Amalekite army fled, Exodus 17:14-16 says,

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”

Then, 400 years later around 1040 B.C, the book of 1 Samuel chapter 15, Saul is commanded by the Lord. 1 Samuel 15:1-3, it says,

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

And of course the Israelites were obedient, right? But nooooo… Saul gets this idea to spare King Agag of the Amalekites and keep the sheep and cattle and fat calves and lambs. The next morning, Saul tells Samuel, “I did it, I followed the Lord’s instructions!” And Samuel is like, “Do I hear sheep?” And Saul says, “Ah, the sheep. Well, um, well we saved Agag and the sheep and cattle, but, um, other than that we followed the Lord’s instructions.” The Lord kept trying to protect Israel by ordering Israel to destroy the Amalekites, and the Amalekites kept coming back and attacking Israel.

Now, another 500 years later, around 500 B.C., we find Haman, an Amalekite and descendent of Agag, has been elevated to a position of power in the kingdom or Persia where the Israelites live as subject to the king of Persia. This is really bad news for the Jews like Mordecai and Esther living there.

King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) of Persia does orders all the royal officials to bow down and pay honor to Haman. It’s not clear what Haman did to deserve this promotion, or exactly what his new position is. From some of the other verses in Esther, it seems that King Xerxes and Haman were drinking buddies. But Haman gets a new lofty title, like… Darth Vader, and everybody is supposed to bow down and give homage to him.

Mordecai refuses to bow down. Now, it’s not against Jewish law to bow down and give respect. The Jews bowed down before their own kings in other books of the bible, like 1st and 2nd Samuel and in 1st Kings. And Mordecai also almost certainly bowed down to King Xerxes or he wouldn’t be alive.

Some scholars believe that one reason Mordecai would not bow may be that as a descendent of Agag, Haman would believe he was devine or semi-devine, a god. Mordecai would certainly not bow down before another god. Other scholars believe it was simply because Mordecai would not bow down before an enemy of God, an Amalekite who hated Jews.

Whichever one it was, Haman certainly noticed the one man standing while everybody else at the king’s gate bowed down to him. The other royal officials tried to pressure Mordecai to comply, but Mordecai refused, obeying his faith.

Haman was enraged that this one man would not pay homage to him, and when Haman found out Mordecai was a Jew, he wasn’t satisfied with just killing Mordecai. No, Haman decided this would be his chance to destroy all the Jews. A religious, ethnic cleansing.

Esther 3:8-9,

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.”

Haman could not come right out and tell King Xerxes he wanted to kill all the Jews. Xerxes would know that the Jews were loyal subjects; Mordecai had himself saved King Xerxes life in the second book of Esther. So Haman mixes in half-truths… a “certain” people. They’re… “different.” They don’t… “obey.” You shouldn’t have to “tolerate” them. By laying out an incomplete picture with half-truths, Haman was able to convince the King that these “certain people” should be killed.

As Christians, we’re still at war with the Amalekites. Dagnabbit Saul, why didn’t you do as you were told? The Amalekites in positions of power today still sit at the king’s gate, and we’re still not bowing down. The Amalekites sit at the gate of information. They taint Christians with half-truths:

– Control freaks. Instead of focusing on attempts to save the lives of unborn children, they paint us as trying to control what women do with their own bodies.
– Hate-mongerers because we encourage people to turn from sinful ways.
– Uptight people that do not want to have fun, or let anybody else have fun.

The Amalekites sit at the gate of entertainment:
– Movies and television that portray Christians as uptight people, like Ned Flanders of the Simpsons
– The NBC show “The Book of Daniel” that portrayed Christians as hallucinogenic, influenced by drugs and dysfunctional.

The Amalekites sit at the gate of Academia:
– No recognition of God in our schools. No Christmas, no Easter.
– We control our own destiny, evolution happens all by itself without any influence by our grand designer.
– That case in California, near Oakland, where schools used role-playing to teach seventh graders about Islamic history by making them wear nametags with Islamic imagery, memorize Islamic religious teachings as “fact”, wear Islamic clothing, recite phrases from the Koran and mimic the fasting of Ramadan. This was in 2002, after 9/11.

The Amalekites sit at the gate of the political establishment:
– The Oakland case on teaching Islam was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
– People believe the U.S. Constitution mandates a “separation of church and state.”
– “Under God” removed from Pledge of Allegiance (which is still being fought in the courts).

So with half-truths and innuendos, Haman convinced Xerxes to sign the death warrant for the Jews.

Persia was a big empire, and this ethnic cleansing could not happen immediately. Haman cast lots (v7) and decided the annihilation would occur in the twelfth month of Adar, about a year away. All the royal secretaries were summoned (v12), and the decree was written in every language of Persia and then distributed to all the satraps, governors, in all the provinces. This took a lot of time since they didn’t have email or FoxNews. In Esther 3:13-14,

Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews — young and old, women and little children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.

The Jews would have an entire year to fear their fate. Apparently this was met with a lot of confusion in the city of Susa. In verse 15, King Xerxes and Haman sit down to drink a toast to the destruction of the Jews, but the city itself was bewildered. The Jews had been loyal subjects. Why had the king ordered them destroyed?

Mordecai is a little troubled by all of this, if you can understand this. By refusing to bow down before Haman, he had set in motion the destruction of all of his people within the year. Esther 4:1 –

When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.

Part of this was a public display against the orders of the king, but most of it was probably genuine grief. He’s going to die. All of his loved ones are going to die. All of the people of his faith are going to die. Esther 4:2,

But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it.

Apparently they had some sort of dress code and Mordecai was not allowed inside. Esther 4:3,

In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

All of the Jewish people are scared, mourning, praying, crying. Esther apparently is oblivious, though, because she sends the king’s eunuch that was assigned to attend her to go find out what’s up with the sackcloth.

The eunuch, Hathach, went out to Mordecai to get the scoop, and Mordecai is very prepared. Mordecai tell Hattach everything that has happened, how Haman has ordered the destruction of the Jews, and also gives him proof – look, here’s a copy of the edict. Mordecai tells Hathach to explain all this to Esther and tell Esther to beg the king for mercy for the Jews.

In verse 9, Hathach reports back to Esther and tells her everything Mordecai has said, including Mordecai’s request for Esther to go before the king. Esther’s like, uh, no, that’s a bad idea. As queen, Esther did not have a husband/wife relationship like we understand it today. Esther was still a servant of the king, and she could only appear to him when summoned. The law was strict – if you crash the king’s party, you die. There was a possibility that the king could hold out his golden scepter and your life would be spared. But whatever relationship Esther and the king had, it was not currently in the best of conditions. Esther had not been summoned by the king for 30 days. She was certain that to appear before the king would mean her death.

How do we understand God, who created us and everything we see? Do we decide who He is, and then assume God will do what we want? Or do we decide to be obedient and try to understand what God wants? Do we stay safe, keep silent, avoid taking risks? Or do we try to be obedient?

God’s will will be done, whether we obey or not. We can choose to participate, be a spectator, or deny Him altogether, but we cannot thwart God’s will. God sees history all at once, past, present and future. God creates us for a purpose and plants us right where we are. Your job, your family, your pretty face, your intelligent brain, your feelings, your money, your talents have all come together for this one instant, this one instant that will never occur again. In another minute, in another hour, this moment will have passed.

In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul explains this concept to new Christians. It says,

Nevertheless, each of you should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to you, just as God has called you. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each of you should remain in the situation you were in when God called you. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For those who were slaves when called to faith in the Lord are the Lord’s freed people; similarly, those who were free when called are Christ’s slaves. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, all of you, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation in which God called you.

In other words, Paul tells us as Christians we are to bloom where we are planted. How? It says, right in the middle of those verses, “keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Not the legalistic old testament stuff, but the attitude and love of Christ Jesus, with all your words and all your actions.

Sometimes we feel stuck in a rut and can’t bloom. I read a story about a woman who was complaining about working with heathens. The boss was mean, her coworkers poked fun at her faith, and out of a hundred employees, she was the only Christian. Her pastor complimented her and told her God must think a lot of her to trust her with 100 people. If she quit, the only light these people have would be gone. Maybe she wasn’t stuck. Maybe she was just planted.

And don’t fall for that “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” philosophy. The only reason grass is green is because it’s watered and cared for. If you want your grass to be green, bloom where you are planted.

Mordecai knows all this. Esther is exactly where God put her. God removed Vashti and placed Esther as queen. She had every resource she needed to do God’s will. But will she do it? Will she risk everything given to her to do what God wants her to do? God had given Esther so much. God gave her external beauty, and it was her beauty that gave her and her alone access to the king. Would she put her beauty on the line and risk death? God gave her position – she was queen and had access like nobody else. Would she put her position as queen on the line and risk death? Esther also had her inner beauty and love for her people. Most important, Esther had the entire kingdom of heaven behind her. She had everything she needed, but would she risk it, or would fear hold her back?

Mordecai delivers at this point one of the most memorable lines of the bible. He tells Esther that God will accomplish His purpose, nothing she does or does not do will change that fact. If Esther will not do it, the God will save His chosen people another way. Esther’s choice is whether she is going to participate in God’s plan and realize that her entire being, her beauty and position, was orchestrated by God, and God will accomplish His will through His obedient people. Mordecai also tells her that if she’s trying to save her own skin, she’s probably going to lose that, too. She’s a Jew – if the Jews are eliminated, that includes her. She cannot save her own life. All she can do is choose to be obedient, or not.

Mordecai says in Esther 4:13-14,

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

The entire purpose of Esther’s life had come to a point of decision. Her entire existence had a purpose. What was more important, being queen, or being the liberator of the Jews? God will not fail to keep His promises or fall short of His purposes, therefore, the deliverance of the Jews was certain. God had made Esther queen so that she could deliver His people. God places people exactly where they can serve Him.

Our beautiful Esther, spurred by her cousin of faith, chose to do God’s will, and fully aware of the consequences. Esther 4:15-16,

Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

And if I perish, I perish. God’s will be done. Esther did the right thing, obeying God, even though it was against the law and at risk to her life. This is a key to understanding all you are. You are God’s child and entrusted with your life to serve him. If I perish, I perish.

While Christians in other nations like Sudan are risking their lives, in America the risk to life is pretty small. In fact, we mostly just risk our own comfort. Afraid to defend the words of Jesus because we don’t want to look silly. Afraid to tithe because if we just had a few more dollars we could afford that Lexus. Afraid to serve because we might miss out on an episode of American Idol.

What are you doing with the resources God has given you? Are you using your talents, your money, your looks, your heart, in a way that is pleasing to God? Are you taking risks in service to Him who created you? Or are you afraid?

Dr. Young and Wallace Henley of the West Campus sent the following that I thought wrapped up today’s lesson well. It says,

79 years ago God brought us together as the family that would be known as Second Baptist Church. On that founding Sunday, the first pastor preached the first sermon in the life of this church. His text was Esther 4, the very passage we study today.

That pastor said to the congregation assembled in 1927—“Who knows but what God has brought us as a body of Christ to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

History has proven him right. The generations who followed caught the vision, and because of that tens of thousands of people have been transformed by Jesus Christ. They’ve impacted families, educational institutions, politics and government, businesses and the marketplace with the vision, values and worldview of God’s Kingdom.

They sacrificed, many giving sacrificially so the great ministry of this church could be carried out. They did so because they understood God’s providence and that He had a plan for them individually, and their resources.

Now the question is before us—Will there be a generation a century from now who will still be standing like Mordecai, still be using the best of the themselves and their resources, like Esther, for God’s Kingdom?

That answer is in our willingness to say of our personal lives and resources, “If I perish, I perish…”

Examine yourself and where you are in this world. God placed you right here for a reason. Our talents, our money, our selves should be used for God’s purposes, every minute of the day. Take a risk at being uncomfortable for God. Bloom where you are planted.

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Rededicating Lives

Read. Study. Mourn. Celebrate. Repent. Promise.

The bible is full of interesting, life-changing information. For instance, we know that Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. Adam gave Eve a rib; Eve gave Adam an apple, then made a wonderful marinated BBQ ribs out of apple sauce. This is found in the book of Guinness.

After the book of Guiness comes the book of Exodus. The Israelites became upset with the Egyptians because the Pharaoh made them make their beds without straw. Then Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Later, Moses went up Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Amendments which were also known as manners from heaven. Sadly, Moses died before ever reaching Canada, which Joshua conquered during the battle of Geritol.

After the book of Exodus is the book of Laxatives which tells us what we can and cannot eat. Lunch today is at Thai Spice Buffett, by the way.

I know this was silly but the reason it’s silly is because, at least in these examples, we know what the bible really says. But the bible is a big book. Do you know what it really says?

God shows his glory in many ways, through the wonders of the heavens to the tiny miracle in a simple leaf of grass. The wonders we see tell us there is a God – but a leaf of grass cannot tell us “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” or “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” God speaks to us through his Word, God-breathed through men as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

If you don’t know the Word yourself, then you can be easily misled. Let me ask you some questions and see how you do. Let’s take a little quiz –

Question 1: House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a good wife comes from
a) patience
b) God
c) man’s labor.
(Answer: Proverbs 19:14, Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a good wife comes from the Lord.)

Question 2: Christians are persecuted but not
a) depressed
b) suffering
c) abandoned.
(Answer: 2 Corinthians 4:9, Persecuted but not abandoned).

Question 3: Which phrase originated in the bible?
a) Make hay while the sun shines
b) Eat, drink, and be merry
c) In the nick of time.
(Answer: Luke 12:19, Eat drink and be merry. Taken out of context, by the way.)

Question 4: Which expression originated in the bible?
a) fly in the ointment
b) rule of thumb
c) dyed in the wool.
(Answer: Ecclesiastes 10:1, fly in the ointment.)

Question 5: Which expression is *not* in the bible?
a) Money is the root of all evil
b) God helps those who help themselves
c) without rhyme or reason.
(A: Actually none of those are in the bible.)

If you don’t know what’s in the bible, how do you know what God says? How do you know if a preacher is telling the truth? If a preacher tells you to turn to Matthew 27:5, “Judas went and hanged himself,” then tells you to turn to Luke 10:37, “Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” will you follow the scripture as told to you by man?

I like Dr. Young; he teaches from the bible, relies heavily on scripture. He preaches on joy, responsibility, peace, promises from God. How many of you have ever read of Fred Phelps? If you have a weak constitution, don’t google him. He, too, preaches from the bible, but a completely different message. Fred Phelps says Jesus only died for those who believe. John 3:16, “”For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” He says that “God loves everyone” is the greatest lie ever told and backs it up with scripture about they type of people God hates. He and his church of about 100 people protest at the funerals of soldiers, saying it is their duty to warn others of God’s anger. President Bush recently signed “the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” which prevent protest within 300 feet of cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral because of Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps runs a website targeting homosexuals as the worthy of God’s wrath and that the world is doomed because of them. He and his church have been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Who is right, Dr. Young or Fred Phelps? And how do you know since they both quote scripture? When I first became a Christian, I read a lot of Max Lucado books. I found his books inspiring and comforting. But I realized I wasn’t relying on God’s Word – I was relying on what somebody else said God was saying. Why would I think Max is a better source for what God says than God Himself is? The only way to discern between truth and lies is to go directly to God for the answers.

In the book of Nehemiah – oh, yes, we’re studying the book of Nehemiah today. Last week Fred located our place in history – after the relocation from Babylon, after laying the foundation of the temple, and brought us up to rebuilding the walls for protection and how stressed out that made Nehemiah. And now it’s the next day.

The Israelites have had some tough times. They have repeatedly over the last few hundred years demonstrated disobedience to God, and God’s wrath brings them back to righteousness. The destruction of Jerusalem had taught them the importance of obeying God, and the struggles of rebuilding the walls of the city had reinforced this lesson. God’s people were learning the importance of God’s Word.

Now, the Old Testament was not yet complete in Nehemiah’s time. The first 5 books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were the only books recognized at the time as divine revelation. To the Israelites, the heart of the events in these 5 books were God’s description of Himself, such as Exodus 34:6-7, “And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” God’s judgment, wrath, redemption, and laws all flow naturally from God’s own character. The Hebrew word for “law” is torah, and it comes from a verb that means “to throw or shoot.” The idea is that the torah comes from a higher authority, a memo from the boss like “Please note our business hours are from 8am to 5pm. Be at your desk and ready to work by 8:00am or you’re fired.” That sort of torah. The torah can be used for teaching, for instruction, or decisions, from raising children to how to get along with your neighbor. Some of these legal codes were very general in nature, like the Ten Commandments. They are very broad, apply to everyone, and no specific penalty or consequence is attached. Some are very specific, like jaywalking, and applied the Ten Commandments to a specific case and the penalty that goes with it.

In the eight chapter of Nehemiah, Israelites were concerned they would repeat the mistakes of their ancestors, and consequently God’s written Word had become quite important. Without knowing God’s word, they were doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. In our time, the bible is the best selling book ever, every year. At least 20 million bibles are sold every year in the US alone. Worldwide sales of the top 8 best selling bibles sell well over 100 million bibles a year. Then add the bible distributed freely and for missions – the Gideons distribute 70 million bibles every year, and the Bible Society, biblesociety.org, distributes nearly 400 million bibles or portions of the bible every year.

But in Nehemiah’s time, there was no way to mass produce the torah. No neighborhood Kinko’s. Scripture was copied by hand onto expensive parchment scrolls and took years to produce a single copy. So how do you get the word out to all of God’s people?

Nehemiah 8:1, I almost got distracted from the lesson when I was working on Nehemiah 8:1. This book starts in the middle of a sentence. The first half of the sentence ends at the bottom of Nehemiah 7. Must be an English translation thing. Let’s read Nehemiah 8:1-3

all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Notice that it was the people asking Ezra to read the scripture. They had been in captivity for 70 years and public speaking of the Word was probably prohibited. They were eager to hear what God had to say. “All the people assembled as one man” shows the unity and reverence of the people for the law. This was important stuff! If you don’t want a smiting from the Lord again, better find out why the Lord has been smiting! Ezra brought the Law of Moses out to the people and conducted a great bible reading from sunup to noon, at least 5 hours straight, and all the people, those who were able to understand, listened attentively.

Can you imagine standing and listening to the bible for 5 hours straight? I could teach for 5 hours straight, I think, and the miracle is that all of you will live forever. Or at least it’ll seem that way to you.

The value of listening to the Word of God for 5 hours straight is enormous. I demonstrated earlier how scripture can be extracted piecemeal to prove almost any point you want, but when the scripture is read continuously in a long session, the biblical context is clear. We are untainted by somebody else’s vision, we hear God’s word directly, we can get a better understanding of why a particular sentence exists, and we have a better understanding of how to apply it to our lives. This is powerful. Hebrews 4:12 says the word of God is active, sharper than a two edged sword. It opens our heart and lays bare our soul before God. It exposes our sin to the Lord, it convicts us. We cannot make excuses to the Lord for a selfish sin we want to keep when we read God’s word directly into our hearts. We begin to see our own sinful actions laid bare next to God’s perfect Word. Do we justify lust to ourselves? Is it ok for us men to ogle other women, is it harmless? Is a little flirting with the opposite sex ok as long as nothing comes of it? Is it ok for a woman to explain to her husband what he’s doing wrong, to criticize him, to use her tongue as a whip, after all, she’s just trying to make her husband a better person. The answer to both of these questions is in here, the bible. We can justify it to ourselves that we’re good decent people, we cannot justify it God. He does not entertain our excuses; He judges and He convicts in His loving and perfect way.

The people gathered near the Water Gate which was on the southeastern side of Jerusalem, between the temple mount and the Gihon spring. If the reading of the Word was held in the temple, Mosaic Law limited entrance to the inner court to men. The people gathered outside so men, women, and the older children could hear and understand. Previously, worship consisted almost entirely of sacrificial worship to the Lord, but during the rebuilding of the temple, a new form of worship began that consisted of public reading and teaching of scripture. The location outside the temple emphasizes that the people needed to understand that faithful obedience in daily life was far more important than mere attendance at temple services and offering sacrifices. Sacrificial worship, of course, still took place, but the addition of reading and teaching enabled people to realize the true nature of scripture. Scripture originates with God, not man. The people referred to the first five books as the Law of Moses, but they believed God had given them to Israel. 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 says the bible is God-breathed, inspired by God, and did not come about because of man’s will. Through scripture, God speaks to humanity and reveals Himself to us. This was true in Nehemiah’s time and it’s true today.

Nehemiah 8:4-5 describes the scene and the amount of preparation they put into it. A high wooden platform was built specially for the occasion, and Ezra the scribe stood on it surrounded by 13 men. This allowed Ezra’s voice to project farther and clearer. Ezra opens the torah parchment in full view of all the people, and all the people stood up in reverence. Before reading, Ezra praises God, our Father, the Lord Almighty, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then the people bowed down with their faces to the ground and worshipped the Lord.

In preparation for hearing the Word, the people first lifted their hands. The lifting of the hands was symbolic during prayer; in Ezra and Psalms 28:2, lifting of the hands symbolized their dependence on God to supply all their needs.

Second, the worshippers said a double “amen.” Sometimes I hear preachers use “amen” like a question. “We’re all going to attend Wednesday night service, amen?” That irritates me; “amen” has a particular meaning that the preacher is misusing. And if he’s misusing a single word, is he misusing the rest of the bible? The Greek Old Testament usually translates “amen” to mean, “So be it” or “truly.” The Jews are taught that “Amen” means “God who is trustworthy.” It’s a statement that this is perfect truth. Jesus refers to Himself in Revelation as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness.” Amen is not a word to be taken lightly. The worshippers said a double amen because they recognized they were going to hear the truth of the Lord firsthand, and they were acknowledging their responsibility to obey the Word they were about to hear.

Thirdly, they bowed down and worshipped with their face toward the ground. People bowed before rules, before kings, to show their submission to one in authority. They recognized God’s authority over them.

In verse 7 & 8, the people are ready to receive God’s Word. Ezra is up high on the platform where everybody can see. The Levitical priests are among the crowd, and as Ezra reads the Word, the priests repeat the Word, then help make the Word clear to the people. “Do you understand?” Sort of like in Acts 8 where the apostle Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

After hearing the Word, let’s look at verse 9,

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Q: Why do you suppose the people were weeping after hearing the Law read to them?

The people, upon hearing the Word, realize that they have been disobedient to God. The light of the Word does that, it shines on our sin, revealing it. Once it is revealed, we can repent. Too often we try to do it the other way around – we try to repent first, and then come to God. But we need to see our sin as God sees our sin, not as we would like to see our own sin. We sort of scrub ourselves up a little and think we’re clean, but we can still grow potatoes behind our ears. The Word of God shines into places in our soul we can’t reach on our own.

You know that song they sing at 11:11, “Come Just As You Are?” That’s the way God wants us to come, dirty sins and all. You can’t clean yourself up good enough to get to heaven. Bring your sins to God, confess them, and God will give you the strength and wisdom to clean you. God will do a much better job of cleaning your soul than you can do on your own.

God has a plan for each and every one of us. The plan God has for you is unique; the plan God has for me is unique. To find the unique plan God has for you, you have to read and ask your own tough questions. And when you read God’s plan for you, you cannot help but realize that you’re not quite measuring up to God’s standard. In fact, we’re downright disobedient sometimes. When questioned, we’re all quick to say, “Oh, I’m not perfect.” We’re dismissive of it, it’s no big deal. Well, ok, so how, precisely, are you imperfect? How are you being disobedient, how are you missing the mark God has planned for you? What is your sin? Don’t trivialize it. Recognize it. No matter how small the sin is, it offends God. If you’re not sure what sin you have, as Dr. Young says, just guess. You’ll probably get it right the first time.

So Nehemiah’s people are upset, crying, weeping, as they realize how far short of God’s will they had fallen. But let’s look back at verse 2 for a second. What day is this? It’s the first day of the seventh month. Let’s hop over to Leviticus 23:23-25, which describes the Feast of Trumpets:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present an offering made to the LORD by fire.’ “

First they were weeping because they were convicted of their sin; now they find out even the weeping on this particular day is a sin. Talk about opening the floodgates. This is a holy day, a Sabbath day. A day made for rest, a day made for feasting. It’s a day for celebration. Sort of like crying on Christmas, it’s just not right.

I think this is reflective of how we should live as Christians. We should read the bible to be convicted of our sin – but why should this conviction lead to misery? Why should it a bad things to discover something in ourselves that doesn’t meet God’s standards? We know already that we are not perfect, so why should imperfection make us weep?

Question: What is the value in confessing our sins? Why does God think confessing our sins is important?

Instead, it should be an opportunity. Celebrate! With the Lord’s guidance, our sin has been revealed to us. If we repent of our sin, hurray! That’s a step towards righteousness, a better person for the Lord. Instead of being upset that we’re not perfect, praise the Lord that He has revealed our iniquities. That’s just what the Israelites did – they celebrated. Look at verse 12, “Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.” So rejoice at the Word of God that shows us our imperfections. Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.” 1 John 1:4, “And these things we write unto you, that your joy may be full.” God doesn’t want you to have a little fun, He wants you to have a whole lot of fun reading and studying His word. If you’re not having fun when you read the bible, something isn’t quite right. Ask the Lord to help. Go to Him in prayer and ask Him. Say, “Lord, I want your Word to bring joy to my life. Show me why I am not joyful, remove whatever keeps me from joy when I study your word.” God will answer that prayer when you are honestly praying to God for His will in your life.

In Nehemiah 9, two and a half weeks later, the people returned to assemble together. They spent the day fasting to help them become attuned to God speaking to them. They wore sackcloth as a sign of humility, like wearing uncomfortable burlap against your bare skin. They put dust on their heads, which was a sign of mourning, they way we wear black at funerals. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They did not blame their fathers for their trouble, but acknowledging that sins are passed from one generation to another. The children duplicate the sins their fathers taught them, and it’s passed from generation to generation until either repentance or judgment comes.

The people were serious about their study. This wasn’t a half hour bible study that has to last us for a week. They read from the bible for three hours, then spent the next 3 hours confessing their sins and worshipping the Lord. “Blessed be your glorious name,” they praised Him.

Now starting in Nehemiah 9, verse 6, they recap the entire bible. You want the Cliff Notes version of the Old Testament, here it is. From creation to Abraham to the exodus out of Egypt and the miracles against the Pharoah, just read Nehemiah 9, you get all the headlines. And then to summarize, they give praise to God for His mercy and judgment. In verse 38, they make a binding agreement and put it in writing, and all the leaders signed it; they’re all listed in Nehemiah 10. I’m not going to read these names, but they’re impressive. Perhaps if you or a relative is going to have a baby, I could recommend one of these names, like Meshullam or Shebeniah. In Nehemiah 10:28, the rest of the people signed a binding agreement:

“The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand- all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.”

My, all of this from reading the bible. These were God’s chosen people, but they realized how far short of the mark they had fallen.

Question: Why is rededication to God sometimes necessary?

Ponder something for a moment: what sort of covenant do you have with God? If you sat down and penned a letter to God with the promises you make to the almighty Creator, what sort of things would you promise to do? What sort of things would you promise not to do? Would you be willing to write it down on a piece of paper? “Dear Lord, I promise to… Dear Lord, I promise not to… “. And then sign your name to it? People sign up for a lot of things – a lease on their apartment, a loan on a car – and then they sign their name to it. What sort of changes do you need to make in your life to align your life with God’s will? What sort of promise are you willing to make to God?

The Israelites read the bible and were filled with the Word of God. They realized they were hypocrites, claiming to be good people while sinning against the Lord. They wept and mourned and were convinced of their sin. They rejoiced and celebrated that the Lord was with them and He was merciful to them in their sin. They praised God, they studied some more, and they made a personal promise to God to obey the Lord, all the commands and decrees. And then they signed their name to it, Amen. Consider this week doing the same. Read. Study. Mourn. Celebrate. Repent. Promise. Then, write a letter to the Lord and sign your name to it. I recommend placing this letter in your bible, right here in Nehemiah 10, where you’ll eventually read it again. See how the Lord will work in your life.

Hand of God

I have some good news for me this week; I’m done traveling for a while, I hope. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home. I had some difficulty on this trip; there were last minute changes to the agenda by the client who scheduled me for 8:00am meetings that he couldn’t make, and at the last moment he tried to send me two days early. I came into the office early to take care of some last minute items and a queue formed at my door for brand new issues. When I finally escaped to have lunch with my wife on the way out of town, all packed and dressed to go, I spilled some oriental sauce down the front of my shirt. I went home to change, and good thing I did because I had forgotten to put on a belt earlier and didn’t even know it. When I got to the airport lounge, they didn’t have an internet connection so I couldn’t take my email to go. And then my watch stopped.

Travel can be difficult. I don’t know how many times as a kid I’d hear, “We can turn this car around right now!” Today we’re going to study someone who traveled but with more planning and a whole lot more protection. Let’s turn to Ezra chapter 7, where Ezra finally makes his appearance in the book named after him.

We’re going to cover 4 chapters of Ezra today so we won’t be able to study them verse by verse and get out of class before lunch or even Christmas, so we’re going to study just some key verses. Fred did a terrific job last week summarizing the history and putting the book of Ezra in perspective; this is the second journey from Babylon to Jerusalem which Ezra will lead. It wasn’t as large as the first group but it was a fine selection of leaders and priests. Let’s meet Ezra; the first 5 verses introduce the lineage of Ezra, and if you’ll remember from our study of Hebrews before Jesus became our priest in the order of Melchizadek, priests were required by Mosaic law to be descended from Aaron the Levite, so if you’ll look at the last name of verse 5, whose name is listed there? Aaron. Ezra was a Levitical priest, and if we continue to verse 10 we also see that Ezra also devoted himself to the study, the practice, and the teaching of the Mosaic laws. Dr. Ezra Young, maybe.

Ezra uses the phrase “the hand of God” several times as he describes his journey, and it summarized the faith that Ezra placed in the Lord. Ezra used the phrase frequently to show that Ezra was following God and any credit for success would also go to God. What sort of person was Ezra that the hand of God should be upon him? The answers are in a very short verse:

Ezra 7:10
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

Let’s pick this verse apart like the last pieces of white meat off that Thanksgiving turkey.

“For Ezra had devoted himself.” Ezra had a cause for the Lord that drove his life. Ezra was committed to serving the Lord and had made a decision that drove all other decisions; any decision or action in the future had to be in line with Ezra’s devotion and dedication.

“to the study.” Ezra wanted to know what God says and devoted himself to the study of the scriptures. Acts 17:11 says,

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Studying the law with great eagerness and examining the scriptures to find the truth. If you want to know what the Lord wants for you, you have to study.

“and observance of the Law of the LORD” Luke 6:46, Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” It is not enough to study the Word, but you must obey. Otherwise, is Jesus really the Lord in your life?

“and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Notice that Ezra devoted himself, studied for himself, and applied the law to himself first. The next step is to share it with others. Ezra taught the law, he was putting into practice the spiritual gift the Lord had provided. What is your gift? Mercy? Hospitality? Giving? Praying? Evangelism? Your gift is not for you alone, but for you to share with others.

When you are knowledgeable about God’s will, devoted to study, practice, and sharing God’s word as Ezra was, then the Hand of God will be upon you.

Verse 11 through 26 of Ezra 7 is a letter from King Artaxerxes not only giving Ezra permission to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, but offering Ezra assistance and authority. The king gives Ezra silver and gold for Ezra to use for sacrifices and for whatever other purpose Ezra so desires, and if Ezra needs anything else, he may help himself from the royal treasury. And if that’s not enough, when Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, the local treasurers are supposed to provide him even more stuff – silver, wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt without limit. Ezra was not only a very learned man, but very trusted by the king. Why did the king do this? Let’s look at the second half of

Ezra 7:6
“The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.”

From this one sentence, “The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him,” what does the Hand of God provide? (Giving, blessings, everything you need).

This phrase shows up again 4 verses later in Ezra 7:9 when Ezra’s journey is completed successfully.

Ezra 7:9
He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Besides the blessings from the hand of God, when you are in the hand of God, God is … gracious. God granted Ezra a successful journey, and God receives the glory.

Let’s go to the end of the king’s letter, to Ezra 7:25. The king charges Ezra to keep the law of God and king.

Ezra 7:25-26
And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.

Ezra was charged to uphold the laws of God and to teach those who did not know the law. Punishment could be severe for those who would not obey.

At this point in the book of Ezra, he switches to first person.

Ezra 7:27-28
Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.

Ezra recognized that the Lord was in charge and Dr. Ezra Young was fully learned in what God will was. Ezra was doing the Lord’s will, and so he knew the Lord’s hand was upon him. What did the hand of the Lord provide Ezra? Ok, that was a gimme. Courage. What makes a king out of a slave? Courage. What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage. What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.

Let’s have the courage, then, to move forward. In Chapter 8, Ezra tells us details about his journey, who the family members were, and then in verse 15, Ezra discovers there are no Levites among the travelers. Levites were necessary because the Mosaic law said that only Levites could carry temple items used in worship, and they had all these temple items. They needed some Levites to accompany them, so they sent word that they needed help.

Ezra 8:18
Since the gracious hand of our God was on us, they sent us a man named Sherebiah, along with eighteen of his sons and brothers. He was a very astute man and a descendant of Mahli, who was a descendant of Levi son of Israel.

We can’t use “gracious” since we already did that, so let’s focus on what God provided. He provided an astute man, a man of insight; some versions use “capable.” What did the gracious hand of God provide? (Wisdom, guidance, … ) and then in verse 21,

Ezra 8:21-23
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

The gracious hand of God provided … protection. Ezra was quite concerned about the success of this journey, it was roughly 800 miles and they would be carrying a significant amount of gold and silver and relics. And they had already boasted to the king how great God is. Ezra was ashamed to ask for protection. I’m not so sure this was the wisest move – God certainly expects us to depend on each other, and Ezra had already accepted help from the king in a financial way, but no doubt Ezra as a Levitical priest who studied and taught every day and has a book in the bible named after him might have a better understanding of God than I do. So the hand of Lord on Ezra brought him safely to Jerusalem with all the temple articles intact.

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they counted and weighed all the silver and gold and found it was all present and accounted for, so they sacrificed burnt offerings to the Lord, and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, at least until Book 9.

In Book 9 of Ezra, Ezra discovers the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the Lord. Before I cover this part of Ezra, remember what Dr. Young – Ed Young, not Ezra Young – taught this past autumn about claiming God’s promises? When you study the Word of God, you must be careful to see if the Word applies to you, to a particular person, to a particular time. Sometimes the bible teaches us about God through scripture that applies to a specific place and time. When God told Moses to use his staff to part the waters of the Red Sea and then lead Israel does not mean that you should get a staff and part the waters of Lake Conroe and then the greater Houston area will follow you. The scripture applied to a particular place and time. We can learn from such scripture – in the case of Moses, we can learn about obedience, faith, fear, and so on, but not necessarily about flood control.

In Book 9, Ezra is approached by the leaders of Jerusalem with bad news.

Ezra 9:1-2
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

Israel is special to the Lord. Israel is the Lord’s holy people. And the accusation here is very specific – the men and priests and Levites had not separated themselves and kept their nation holy as God had commanded. The problem here is not one of marriage – while Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 prohibited foreign marriages, Joseph and Moses married foreign wives and God did not condemn them. Rahab and Ruth were not only foreign wives that God praised, they’re also listed in the genealogy of Jesus. Clearly it is not the fact that the women were foreign.

No, the problem here is who they married. There are eight neighboring people listed here that had what? Detestable practices. The Hebrew word for doing these “detestable practices” is “tow’ebah” (to-ay-baw’) which means a disgusting, wicked ritual abomination. The Lord God was thoroughly repulsed that His chosen people were marrying pagan women, and the husbands were casually accepting and tolerating the worship of false Gods in their homes. When God says “Thou shalt have no other God before me,” it’s not a polite request, it’s a commandment.

What’s worse, it wasn’t just the men of Israel marrying women who were religiously unclean, but it was the priests and Levites marrying them, too. These were the men responsible for maintaining the holiness of Israel, and instead they were leading the abominations. Instead of remaining holy, Israel was becoming indistinguishable from its pagan neighbors.

The word holy means “set apart”. The church sanctuary is holy; it is set apart for the use of God. My car, even though I drive it to church, is not holy since I drive it to work and the movies and so forth. Marriage is holy matrimony; the relationship we have with our spouses are unique. I have a relationship with Diane that is blessed by God; it is unique and set apart.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:22

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

Wives, think about just the last week. How did you treat your husband? What words have you said to him? Did you treat your husband the way the Lord should be treated? Your marriage is holy. Do you seek the Lord’s will daily through study and prayer and treat your husband the way the Lord requires? Let’s pause just a moment to think about that.

Husbands, your turn. Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-27,

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Husbands, do you give yourself up for your wife? Christ loved the church so much He died on the cross for us. What do you give up for your wife? Do you have selfish needs or habits that annoy your wife? Or do you cleanse her with the word of God? Do you forgive her daily the way Christ forgives you? When you look at her, is she without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish? Do you see her as holy and blameless? Let’s pause for a moment to think about that, but not as long because we husbands don’t have that sort of attention span.

Holy things are set apart for the glory of God. Israel as God’s chosen people were to remain holy, yet they participated in acts abhorrent to God. If you thought of something about your holy marriage that abhorred you, you can understand Ezra’s response. The first thing Ezra did in verse 9:3 was to tear his clothes and pull out the hair from his head and beard and sit down appalled. Convicted of sin. Devastated. The Hebrew word is “shamem” (shaw-mame’) which is the same word used after a locust plague devours a field. Ezra had spent his life in devotion, study, and application of God’s word, only to find that God’s holy people had defiled themselves.

Ezra was a true man of God, though, and even in his desolation, he continued to do God’s will. Ezra was convicted of his sin. The fact that it was his people sinning and not him specifically didn’t matter; Ezra included himself in the conviction of sin. Verse 4 says “everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness.” It was a sudden realization of their sin, a realization that they had been living a lie. Telling themselves that their little sin was ok, but it grew into a big societal sin that permeated even the religious leaders. As a society, we have tolerated a little sin in each other that has grown into a much larger sin that permeates even the religious leaders of some churches, have we not? I sometimes wonder if we’ve truly learned God’s lessons 2500 years after Ezra.

Not everybody gathered around Ezra; only those that trembled at God’s word. Ungodly people do not tremble at God’s word; ungodly people do not become convicted of their sin and gather around religious leaders. They may have trembled also because if you remember, the king told Ezra that Ezra was to teach and uphold the law and execute his people that didn’t.

That evening, still with torn clothes and hair, Ezra fell on his knees and prayed. The word used implies falling not just once but repeatedly. This was the second thing Ezra did after his conviction. I wish we had time to read Ezra’s prayer slowly and dissect it. It begins with confession, “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Consider this your homework this week to read Ezra’s prayer in chapter 9 to see how a godly man with the hand of God upon him prays to his maker. First the confession, then praise and thanks, calling the Lord “gracious” for the relief from bondage and for giving them another chance to build a temple to worship Him. Ezra acknowledge specifically their sin; the command from the Lord in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Ezekial were to enter the promised land, not to even seek a friendship with their detestable neighbors, and instead they married their daughters. Then Ezra acknowledges God’s sovereignty and wisdom, that God has every right to destroy them all and not even leave a remnant this time, but also acknowledging that God’s grace has punished them less than they deserved. The third thing Ezra did was to repent of the sin.

The fourth thing that Ezra did after his conviction was to correct the error. After conviction of sin and then praying, action must follow or it is not true repentance. If the people of Israel are to be holy and set apart, then all impurities must be eliminated. This is true in your marriage, too. If your marriage is to be holy and set apart, then any impurities must be removed. In Ezra 10, the holy people of Israel realized that to be pure in God’s sight, they must send the foreign women away. They interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that a husband was to write a “divorce certificate” and place it in her hand if the there was “something improper about her.”

Now the word “divorce” is very rare in the Old Testament and it’s not used here in Ezra; the word is that the foreign wives were “sent away” with custody of their children. Now here is where we say this does not apply specifically to us. Even if your wife is pagan and worshipping idols, you don’t send her away. You are not the people of Israel and part of God’s chosen people and to be kept apart and holy. You are a Christian spouse. There was plenty of confusion about Deuteronomy’s rules; “something improper” could mean she snores too loud. In the 10th book of Mark, Jesus says it was because of Israel’s hard hearts that Moses wrote that law, but under the new covenant the rules were clarified. Paul clarified it some more in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; the unbelieving wife or husband is sanctified through his or her spouse. So if your husband leaves the socks on the floor yet again, sending him back to Egypt is not an option, ok? Just want to be clear on that.

Ezra 10:12 says the whole assembly responded in a loud voice, “You are right, but not now, it’s raining!” They realized that unraveling the sin was going to take both time and accountability, so they spent several days appointing leaders for accountability and to investigate all the marriages in Jerusalem and to make proper arrangements to send the foreign women back to their pagan societies. And all of those guilty had their names written down here in Ezra 10:18 for us to see 2500 years later. Each of the men listed repented of their sin and offered sacrifices for their guilt. OK, now they all lived happily ever after, at least until we turn to the book of Nehemiah next month.

So let’s summarize what we’ve learned today. This is the type of person that God will put his hand on:

• One who is devoted to the Lord;
• One who studies the Word;
• One who obeys the Word;
• One who applies the Word in service to others.

This is what the hand of the Lord provides;
• Blessings
• Grace
• Success
• Courage
• Wisdom, guidance
• Protection

When sin is in our lives, we
• Are convicted
• Repent
• Pray
• Act

Seizing New Opportunities

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews and we’ll be moving on to new scripture to study. The bad news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews. There was a lot of good information in there, wasn’t there? I learned a lot about angels, Jesus, and good solid Christian character. I’m going to miss Hebrews.

For the next month we’ll be studying Ezra, then in January we’ll move on to Nehemiah, then by February we’ll be in the book of Esther. There will be a brief intermission around Christmas when we study Psalm 139.

God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? As some of you know, I got called away on business this week. I’ve added it up; I was home 9 days in November, and I was supposed to be home this last week and was sent out of town again. I prayed to God; His promise is that if you are doing His work, He will provide all you need, but I was wondering where I was going to find the time to study and prepare. I left Sunday evening with all my study materials, and the plan was to return Thursday and prepare for this lesson on Saturday. Then, after I got there, I found out I had to stay longer than expected; I’d be arriving Saturday evening, last night. I continued to pray; my faith is that the Lord God’s will is always done. I boarded the plane only 20% finished with preparation and a plane flight that was too short to finish preparing.

Be careful what you pray for, God will answer you in ways you do not expect. I’m sitting on the plane, waiting for takeoff. And waiting and waiting… and it dawned on me that I’m wondering where I’m going to find the time to finish preparing, and here the plane is delayed, giving me even more time. I whipped out the laptop and got to work. I’m still not sure I’m 100% ready today, but God gave me ample time. All the credit goes to God, all the rambling incoherency goes to me. And if I start to ramble too bad, I’m going to fake some sort of jet lag induced seizure to distract you.

And have you ever prayed for patience? What happens, how does God answer a prayer like that? That’s right, he tries you with so many activities and events and crisis at once. How are you going to learn patience unless you have emergencies going on all simultaneously?

About a year ago, Diane & I were considering going on a mission trip to Kenya. God had moved her heart to go, and eventually my stubborn heart got out of the way and God moved mine, too. Diane tells the story so much better than me, so I’m going to ask Diane to tell you all about it. No, I’m just kidding, I’ve been traveling so much, I haven’t had much chance to tease my sweetheart. We prayed for the funds to go, and for a while we weren’t sure we were going. I think Diane gave up for a while. We kept praying, and eventually we relied on faith. We just planned on going as though God had already provided. And then all at once, just before we were to leave, God provided everything we needed.

I know some of you have been Christians for a lot longer than me; in fact, before I started studying the last few weeks, I wasn’t sure who Ezra was. Some jazz singer, maybe. It’s only been 8 years since I’ve given my life to Christ, but God has answered so many prayers in the last 8 years. The most amazing is when God repaired our marriage; that was an absolute miracle and completely unexpected that He could repair a marriage that had broken and divorced. Your marriage is a miracle, too, don’t ever take it for granted. Before you were married, did you expect your spouse would be like he or she is? Of course not, God answers prayers in expected ways. Sometimes really unexpected.

I just realized this week another miracle – before I gave my life to Christ, I used to get depressed at Christmas. I even knew why – nostalgia for happy Christmases past, the whole family under the tree opening presents. Then I grew up, and my parents divorce and then my own shattered Christmas for me, and I knew it was never going to be the same. What I realized this last week is that since I gave my life to Christ, I have not been down at Christmas. In fact, this year I’m almost downright giddy. I realized that getting down was my selfish state of mind, it’s all about me sort of thing. It never was about me. It’s all about Him. He is the reason to celebrate.

Yes, God answers prayers and fulfills His promises, and that’s what we’re going to study. So today we’re going to study the book of Ezra, so let’s turn to the book of Jeremiah. Bear with me, we have to get the history.

Jeremiah 29:10

During the time of Jeremiah, the Israelites were in rebellion to the Lord. For centuries, the Lord’s people refused to live up to the terms of the covenant with the Lord. First God unleashed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom Israel, and still the southern people of Judah continued their defiance. God then unleashed the Babylonians against them. Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians (modern day Iraq) against Jerusalem and the soldiers destroyed the city, slaughtered many of the Jews, and looted the temple. The survivors either fled to Egypt or were hauled off to Babylon as slaves.

The prophet Jeremiah told the Jews that this period of captivity will last 70 years, and during this 70 years the Jews formed unhappy communities there and put down their roots. They were very bitter about their slavery, even though Jeremiah had warned them this captivity was due to their disobedience. They had no temple and they were unable to offer the sacrifices in the law of Moses.

So what happened after the seventy years? Now we have to back up to the prophet Isaiah to see the Lord’s prophecy fulfilled.

Isaiah 44:24-28 (shortened), “This is what the Lord says – your redeemer, who formed you in the womb. I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, … who says to Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited’, of the towns of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt,” and of their ruins, “I will restore them,” … who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”

And the people were like, “Cyrus? Who is Cyrus? Billie Ray Cyrus? Don’t Break My Heart, Achy Breaky Heart Cyrus?” And they continued to wonder this until the 70 years of captivity were up

Meanwhile, in a land far, far away, the king of Anshan was getting ambitious. He built a mighty army and attacked his grandfather in Persia which is now modern day Iran. The king then conquered Sardis in Lydia (which is now Turkey), and then turned his attention to Babylonia. In 539 B.C., Babylonia fell to the king of Ashan and became the new ruler of the captive Jews living there. This king’s name was… that’s right, Cyrus. Amazing. Coincidence? I think not.

*Now* we can begin the book of Ezra.

Ezra 1:1
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

The Jews were not free; instead of the Babylonians, the king was now Cyrus. But while the Babylonians ruled by intimidation and fear, Cyrus chose a different method. Give the people what they want, and the people will be loyal to you. Sort of like the Democrats.

Ezra 1:2-4
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
” ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’ “

Was King Cyrus a believer in the Lord God of heaven? Nope, he’s just lying through his teeth and I’m not going to draw any more parallels to any particular political party. Cyrus created a new policy to honor the customs and religion of the people he governed. An historical clay cylinder called the Cyprus Cylinder contains a letter to the local Babylonians where Cyrus also claims to be an instrument of the Babylonian god Marduk and asking for their blessings. You know, just giving the people what they want and pretending to be one of them. Dang politicians.

So how is it that the Lord God put this in Cyrus heart? Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Yes, God in in charge of all authority on earth, whether that authority knows it or not. God is in charge. And Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” The Lord’s will be done, whether you’re a believer or not. As a politician, Cyrus ends up doing the will of the Lord, for the Lord God can use anybody and anything He wishes. Cyrus thinks he’s building his own kingdom, but God is using Cyrus for a far greater purpose.

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

Notice that the proclamation provided a choice. The people did not have to go back to Jerusalem. The younger men who were physically able to reconstruct the temple had been born sometime during the last 70 years in Babylon. They had never been to Jerusalem, never seen a sacrifice offered, never offered one of their own. Now they were being given a chance to leave a place they had known all their lives and go to a place they had only heard about. They would be giving up comfort of their old home they had grown up in to go to someplace unknown. Would they be sent unprepared? Cyrus’ proclamation instructed their the neighbors to help support them financially and materially with their venture in Jerusalem. God takes care of everything! A freewill offering means the neighbors were not forced to give, but asked out of the goodness of their hearts. Something similar happene when God told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and the Egyptians provided them with gifts of gold and silver and clothing. When God leads, He also provides.

Only a small number of Jews returned to Judah. It says “everyone whose heart God had moved”. Were the ones who stayed behind outside of God’s will? I don’t know. What we do know, however, comes later on in the book of Esther – those that stayed behind were the Jews that Hayman almost had exterminated until Esther spoke up. Anybody see One Night with the King? Beautiful movie of the story of the life of Esther and what happened to these Jews. We also know that there were no ill feelings between those Jews that returned to Jerusalem and those that stayed in Babylonia because of the amount of gifts provided.

I think back to the mission trip Diane and I went on. Not everybody is called to be a foreign missionary; that takes a very special spiritual gift to spread the word of God that way. I don’t think I was effective; I served cheerfully to the best of my ability; providing medical care and services and monetary help was very rewarding, but door to door evangelism to people that don’t speak the same language as me isn’t my calling. I guess I’m saying I probably identified more with the Jews that stayed behind.

Just because God doesn’t call us to be a missionary doesn’t mean He doesn’t call us to help. If our means allows, we should support those in the field, and back them up with prayers and encouragement. For every missionary out in the field, it can take ten or more people supporting them with money, food, clothing, medical care, bibles.

Verse 7 of Ezra also says “Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.”

Where did Cyrus get these vessels of the Lord’s house? In the book of Daniel, he records what happened that night Cyrus appeared in Babylon. The Babylon ruler Belshazzar was having a drunken feast: “Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, and his wives and his concubines drank in them. They drank wine and praised the god of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood and stone. That very night the city of Babylon was captured.

When we get to verse 9, we see what Cyrus returned to Jerusalem:

This was the inventory:
gold dishes 30
silver dishes 1,000
silver pans [b] 29
gold bowls 30
matching silver bowls 410
other articles 1,000
In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver.

Ezra Chapter 2 gives us a list of people with unpronounceable names returning to Jerusalem. Would somebody like to volunteer to read them all? I thought not. I want to look at a couple of the names on the list though – verse 2 shows a Nehemiah, but this is not the same Nehemiah we’ll be studying next month. There’s also a Mordecai listed, but this also isn’t the Mordecai from the book of Esther.

Verse 7 is Elam. Verse 31 is… the other Elam. How would you like to be known through history as “the other Elam?” Hi, I’m Elam, but not *that* Elam. I’m the other Elam. Nice to meet you, I’m the other Nehemiah. And I’m the other Mordecai.

Look down at v23, there were 128 men of Anathoth. When Jeremiah made that prophecy that God would restore Judah after 70 years of captivity, God also had Jeremiah in Jeremiah 32 to buy a piece of land as a sign that Judah would be restored. Jeremiah’s act was one of faith. God promised He would return them to their land and He did. There’s a little town called Anathoth to this day where Jeremiah purchased the land. When the men of Anathoth returned, they had a lawful claim to the land Jeremiah had purchased.

I find all the people listed in Ezra 2 intriguing – just like the body of Christ has many parts – a hand, a foot, I’m a big toe – we see here that God uses the Jews in many roles. Some to rebuild the temple, some to give out the Word of God, some going as missionaries and others supporting the missionaries. Someday, we will receive rewards in heaven for the work we do; all of our work will be inspected and judged and the worthless work will be burned away by fire and only the precious work of the Lord remains. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” The work we do is what God calls us to do, and each part of the body needs each other part.

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.

About 50,000 Israelites had returned and settled in and around Jerusalem with the money and materials that were brought to begin the work on the temple. The first priority was the rebuilding of the altar, which of course the rebellious people didn’t do right away. We find out elsewhere in the book of Haggai the first thing they did was build homes and Haggai had to rebuke them for putting their selfish needs before the Lord.

So after a good rebuking, they got down to work building the temple. Under the law of Moses, Jews had a sacrificial system of atonement we studied in Hebrews. The phrase ‘the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem’ showed their solidarity and unity of purpose. The two men who lead the rebuilding were Jeshua, a priest and descendant of Aaron and Zarubbabel, a descendant of David. Both the priestly and royal branches of Jews worked together to reestablish the Mosaic covenant. Then is ways they built the alter despite their fear and in accordance with the Law of Moses. It sounds like such a simple formula – read the scriptures and work together as one without fear. Now there’s a goal for a church.

I think fear is still common – I think about the Christians that may be working at Best Buy or Home Depot or Kroger where they are discouraged from saying “Merry Christmas” and told to say “Happy Holidays” instead. I tell people that I don’t celebrate “Winter Holiday” because it’s pagan. I celebrate Christmas!

Working together as one has a more positive example just this week. I got a few emails this week telling me about Angels of Light I missed this week – that is such a wonderful service and it is so rewarding to see so many people working together as one.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD :
“He is good;
his love to Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.

The foundation for the alter was finally complete, and the Jews couldn’t wait to celebrate. The Mosaic covenant was being followed exactly as described by Moses. This same order was followed when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 16:5-6, and when the ark was brought to the temple in 2 Chronicles 5:12-13. The priests wore their ceremonial robes, the descendants of Asaph and the priest performing sacrifices and others playing cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. The Jews knew this time the Lord was making this temple possible and wanted to give praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for His love for them. The temple worship has been restored after 70 years, just as prophesied.

When we receive gifts, most of us remember to say thank you. Sometimes we forget what gifts we have, though, and don’t thank our Lord for them. The privilege of worshiping Him is a gift that the Jews didn’t have, and we’re losing, too, in part of the world and in this country, too. Fifty years ago it was unthinkable, but now our government compels children to attend purely secular public schools where the pagan “Winter Holiday” is celebrated instead of Christmas, and instead of being taught that sex is a gift reserved for married couples, the children are taught sexual activities with cucumbers. We’re losing monuments and crosses that reflect the Judeo-Christian ideals this country was founded on, and “Merry Christmas” is considered unwelcome. Let’s give thanks we’re not yet like the Jews in Babylonia and can worship our maker freely. Count every blessing, name them one by one and Praise God for all that He hath done. When the Jews realized what they had lost during captivity, they praised God for His sovereignty, faithfulness, forgiveness and restoration. Let’s not take that for granted.

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

There were two types of people present during the dedication of the temple. On one hand were the younger generation that had never seen the original temple built by Solomon. To these younger people, this was a wonderful time. A new temple, new opportunities to worship and serve the Lord. The other group were the old-timers who remembered the old temple and were making comparisons. “Why this old temple is nothing compared to the one in my day. Why, our temple would eat this temple for lunch. It was worth making the journey, and we didn’t mind all the walking to get here. We’d walk uphill to get here. Both ways. We gave everything we had, even the shoes off our feet. The walk back was uphill, too, but now we were barefoot. And on cold, icy days, we’d have to strap barb-wire to our feet to keep from slipping.”

The old group wasn’t exactly encouraging to the younger group, were they? Being critical of something is really easy; being encouraging is much harder. I was recently reminded of this while I was out of town yet again, griping about… well, let’s just say I thought this trip was much ado about nothing, mountains made from molehills. Reading some scripture in the middle of the week about encouraging one another as long as it is called Today cut me to the heart about my disobedience. I had developed some old person “the old way is the right way to do this” philosophy. Younger hearts are what we all need.

As we close the first three chapters of Ezra, let’s remember that God’s will be done. He can use the unbelievers for his will in order to faithfully fulfill His promise and He sometimes answer prayers in unexpected ways. Let’s remember that sometimes God calls us to take action, and sometimes God calls us to be the supporting people. Let’s remember that when we are in accordance with the scripture, we become like one body in unity in purpose. And let’s remember to give thanks and praise for our almighty Father in Heaven from whom all blessings flow.