All of Life is Repentance (Ezra 9-10)

Today we're coming to a different kind of service. Our church has recently been through a consultation process. The report at the end of the process gave us a list of seven strengths, five obstacles we face, and five prescriptions for health growth. One of the obstacles in the report is "a primarily Inward Focus of Attention with no clear compelling Vision and Strategy for local church mission." They also mentioned a disabling focus on the past among some. So the first prescription we received is:

That Richview Baptist Church Cry out to God in repentance and prayer regarding a lack of obedience to the Great Commission by focusing with a renewed vision implementation plan to reach lost people in the community to become a church of 400 in the next five years.

Hold a Sacred Assembly to Repent and Cry Out to God for a renewed vision of Mission for the Church.

So today I'd like to look at a passage that I think is going to help us. It's found at the end of the book of Ezra. Ezra's a book about the completion of the second Temple and the return of God's people to Jerusalem after the exile, at the lowest point of their history. You can summarize the theme of Ezra in one word: restoration. It's a book that helps us think about our own restoration so that we become who God is calling us to be.

Today we come to the end. The end of a book is when we usually expect that the crisis has been resolved and things are looking up. In this case, the crisis of the exile and the destruction of the Temple has been resolved, but there's a fresh crisis.

The fact that Judah faces this crisis after all that God has done to restore them teaches us something. We never arrive, at least not in this life. The crisis they faced is a crisis that we continually face.

I don't want to preach this passage today so much as walk us through it in three stages. I'd first like to look at the problem, then I'd like to look at confession, and finally I'd like to look at the resolution to the problem. The problem, the confession, and the resolution. In between each of these sections, I'd like to give us some time to reflect and even to respond to what we're going to read.

The Problem

Ezra 9:1-2 says:

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."

Here's the problem. "The people...have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices." They have intermarried with the neighboring peoples. The prophet Malachi, who lived at this time, even hints that people had broken their marriages to marry daughters of foreign gods.

Let's be clear about what the problem was not. The problem was not interracial marriage. That's a good thing for us since one of the things that makes Richview unique are the number of interracial marriages we have, which is a great thing. The concern with marrying outside of Judah was not racial; it was religious. Verse 1 mentions "detestable practices." Deuteronomy 7 says:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations...and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

The problem wasn't racial; it was religious. The problem in this case is that they were not distinct from the practices of other nations, and their worship was compromised. They were expressing their devotion to pagan gods as well as to YHWH. A Jewish settlement at Egypt at this very same time went through the same problem, and was gradually assimilated and disappeared. When God's people lose their distinctiveness and compromise on the worship of YHWH, they eventually become assimilated and disappear. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Matthew 5:13). When we lose our distinctiveness, we lose our relationship with God and we lose our usefulness.

Notice the end of verse 2. "And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness." Not all of the leaders, of course - it was leaders who raised the concern in verse 1. But there is a danger that the very people who are supposed to be spiritual leaders are instead leading the way toward disobedience. That's one reason, by the way, that you need to pray for those in leadership. The Bible tells us that they're going to have to give account for your souls, and those who teach are especially going to be held to a higher standard. When they go off track, they can lead the way toward unfaithfulness.

So let me pause right here. The problem is unfaithfulness. The problem is that God's people don't always act as God's people. They aren't distinct from the ways of the world. What's our problem?

What is our problem? In what ways are we being unfaithful as the church at Richview? In a nutshell, I believe that we need to repent because we have not had God's heart for our local community. We have not been faithful to obey God's call to be salt and light. We've been primarily inward-focused. We're going to spend some time praying for some areas that we need to confess in just a few minutes.

What I'm talking about here is conviction. Now listen, there's a good and a bad way to go about this. I'm not asking you to wallow in guilt or to beat ourselves up this morning. Instead I'm asking for us to pray with the psalmist: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

And we can do this without feeling insecure. Tim Keller says:

The gospel gives you psychological freedom to handle the wrong things that you will do. You won't have to deny, spin, or repress the truth about yourself. These things don't make it impossible to know who you are. Only with the support of hearing Jesus say, "You are capable of terrible things, but I am absolutely, unconditionally committed to you," will you be able to be honest with yourself.

I'm going to invite you to spend a few minutes praying, in a few minutes, especially in the context of our whole church but maybe also personally, the words of the psalmist. "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

Confession

When Ezra heard about the problem, his response was extreme. Ezra 9:3-4 says:

When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.

Then after hours of this, he prayed a prayer of confession. Some call Ezra's prayer the "theological high point of the book." It is a magnificent prayer.

I want to notice a few things. Ezra prays as if the problem is his. Ezra identifies with the people in their sin and sees the sin as a collective one, even though he personally wasn't guilty. I've noticed a huge difference in churches between the people who say, "They have a problem" as they point a finger, and those who say, "We have a problem." When we're part of a church, the community of God's people, we confess our corporate sins together, even though we personally may not be guilty ourselves. This is an important point. This morning we are not coming to God and pointing the finger at others. This morning we are coming to God in humility ourselves instead of pointing the finger at others.

Ezra begins his prayer with a general 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" (Ezra 9:6). He then remembers the sins of previous times (verse 7), recites God's mercy and goodness (verses 8-9), further confesses Israel's sins (verses 10-12), and then appeals to God (verses 13-15). Listen to how he ends his prayer: "Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence" (Ezra 9:15). In a way there is no resolution, no solution. Ezra just throws himself on behalf of the people on God's mercy and confesses his sin before God.

A denominational leader recently talked about the churches that had turned around within his region. He said none of the churches turned around until the people got serious about prayer. He said:

In our churches, often the turnaround began when we said to the church, 'Call a day of prayer.' And here's how the day of prayer started. We had the pastor and board stand and lead in prayers of confession, asking God to forgive them for being a disobedient congregation and not taking seriously the great commission to make disciples.

A pastor friend of mine started a church in Portland. They only ever grew to about forty or fifty people for the first few years, all of them Christian. One day the pastor, Rick, realized that he only hung around people who were like him, who shared the same views, held the same belief. He read every how-to book on how to reach people, and began to realize that the problem wasn't really a how-to problem. It was a want-to problem. He didn't want to reach out to those who were unlike him. He really didn't care.

He decided to call for a weekly meeting, every Wednesday night, to repent - something, he says, that was pretty hard to market. They began to meet and to repent of the fact that they didn't care, that some of them hated their neighbors. They continued to pray this way for nine months. They confessed, just like Ezra confessed. And it eventually led them to change their hearts.

When God really begins to move in a group, it often begins with corporate confession. When we confess, we reach new levels of honesty. "For him who confesses, shams are over, and realities have begun" (William James). Confession prepares us for what God is going to do among us. Max Lucado writes:

Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field. Before the farmer sows the seed, he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps. He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared. Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts.

David wrote:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord."
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:3-5)

We've already asked God to reveal areas we need to deal with. We're going to spend some time in confession in just a few minutes.

Resolution

Ezra concludes with a chapter that can only be called disturbing. Someone has said that it's the most distasteful chapter in Ezra, and ranks among the most distasteful in the whole of Scripture.

At the end of chapter 9, Ezra has prayed, but there's really no solution offered. Everyone is still overwhelmed with guilt and there's no suggestion of what to do. It's looking hopeless.

Then somebody comes up with an idea. Ezra 10:3-4 says:

Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it."

And this is exactly what they did. We learn in this chapter that 110 had taken foreign wives, and some of them had children.

The problem is that this seems unusually harsh. It seems extreme to require these marriages to be dissolved. We have no idea what provisions, if any, were made for them. There are even debates about whether or not they chose to do the right thing.

If you want to see something ugly, the effects of sin are always ugly. Justice here looks incredibly harsh, and it conflicts with our sense of the loving thing to do to these foreign wives and children.

But then we see, in the middle of the ugliness, some hope. Verse 19 says of some of those who were guilty, "They all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering." They put away their wives, but then they availed themselves of the provision that God had made for sin in a sacrifice.

It was a sacrifice, of course, that anticipated the sacrifice that Jesus would one day make. Why could God forgive these people's sins? We know that sin has a cost. Somebody has to pay it. We know this instinctively. Whenever we do something wrong, it comes with a price - a price that's too steep for us to pay. Many of you have paid a part of the cost of the sins committed by others. It's why you have scars, why you've been hurt. Sin always has a cost, and someone has to pay it.

But the one who paid the ultimate cost was not the wives or children in Ezra's day. The one who paid the ultimate cost for their sins was Jesus. "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood," Paul writes (Romans 3:25). "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, his first thesis said, "All of life is repentance." If there's one thing Ezra teaches us, it's that the work of restoration is never done. Just when you think we're restored, another issue comes up that needs dealing with.

But when we see how accepted and loved we are because of Jesus, the more often we'll repent. And the more we see our own flaws and sins, the more electrifying and precious God's grace will appear to us. God's grace will drive us to confess our sins, and our sins will drive us back to the beauty of God's grace found in Jesus Christ.

Sin and its consequences are ugly, and the only cure for the depth of the ugliness of sin is the beauty of the cross. That's where I want to live. Let's pray.

We thank you this morning for the cross.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
And grant to me Thy grace.

Thank you, Lord, for the cross. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.

All of Life is Repentance (Ezra 9-10)

We're coming to the end of the book of Ezra today. Ezra's a book about the completion of the second Temple and the return of God's people to Jerusalem after the exile, at the lowest point of their history. You can summarize the theme of Ezra in one word: restoration. And so we've been talking about what we can learn about restoration in our own lives.

Today we come to the end. The end of a book is when we usually expect that the crisis has been resolved and things are looking up. In this case, the crisis of the exile and the destruction of the Temple has been resolved, but there's a fresh crisis.

The fact that Judah faces this crisis after all that God has done to restore them teaches us something. We never arrive, at least not in this life. The crisis they faced is a crisis that we continually face.

I don't want to preach this passage today so much as walk us through it in three stages. I'd first like to look at the problem, then I'd like to look at confession, and finally I'd like to look at the resolution to the problem. The problem, the confession, and the resolution. In between each of these sections, I'd like to give us some time to reflect and even to respond to what we're going to read.

The Problem

Ezra 9:1-2 says:

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."

Here's the problem. "The people...have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices." They have intermarried with the neighboring peoples. The prophet Malachi, who lived at this time, even hints that people had broken their marriages to marry daughters of foreign gods.

Let's be clear about what the problem was not. The problem was not interracial marriage. That's a good thing for us since one of the things that makes Richview unique are the number of interracial marriages we have, which is a great thing. The concern with marrying outside of Judah was not racial; it was religious. Verse 1 mentions "detestable practices." Deuteronomy 7 says:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations...and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

The problem wasn't racial; it was religious. The problem is that they were not distinct from the practices of other nations, and their worship was compromised. They were expressing their devotion to pagan gods as well as to YHWH. A Jewish settlement at Egypt at this very same time went through the same problem, and was gradually assimilated and disappeared. When God's people lose their distinctiveness and compromise on the worship of YHWH, they eventually become assimilated and disappear. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Matthew 5:13). When we lose our distinctiveness, we lose our relationship with God and we lose our usefulness.

Notice the end of verse 2. "And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness." Not all of the leaders, of course - it was leaders who raised the concern in verse 1. But there is a danger that the very people who are supposed to be spiritual leaders are instead leading the way toward disobedience. That's one reason, by the way, that you need to pray for those in leadership. The Bible tells us that they're going to have to give account for your souls, and those who teach are especially going to be held to a higher standard. When they go off track, they can lead the way toward unfaithfulness.

So let me pause right here. The problem is unfaithfulness. The problem is that God's people don't always act as God's people. They aren't distinct from the ways of the world. What's our problem?

Ron Sider wrote a book recently with the subtitle Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? He suggests that we have the same problem that the people in Ezra's day did. We are the same as our non-Christian neighbors in rates of divorce, premarital sex, domestic violence and use of pornography, and are actually more likely to hold racist views than other people. We suffer from materialism, individually and even as churches. Our charitable giving has decreased even while our income has risen. Although today's North American Christians are collectively the wealthiest Christians in the history of the world, we don't take care of the poor, he says. And on it goes.

What is our problem? In what ways are we being unfaithful as the church at Richview? What I'm talking about here is conviction. Now listen, there's a good and a bad way to go about this. I'm not asking you to wallow in guilt or to beat ourselves up this morning. Instead I'm asking for us to pray with the psalmist: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

And we can do this without feeling insecure. Tim Keller says:

The gospel gives you psychological freedom to handle the wrong things that you will do. You won't have to deny, spin, or repress the truth about yourself. These things don't make it impossible to know who you are. Only with the support of hearing Jesus say, "You are capable of terrible things, but I am absolutely, unconditionally committed to you," will you be able to be honest with yourself.

I'm going to invite you to spend a few minutes praying, especially in the context of our whole church but maybe also personally, the words of the psalmist on the screen. "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

Confession

When Ezra heard about the problem, his response was extreme. Ezra 9:3-4 says:

When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.

Then after hours of this, he prayed a prayer of confession. Some call Ezra's prayer the "theological high point of the book." It is a magnificent prayer.

I want to notice a few things. Ezra prays as if the problem is his. Ezra identifies with the people in their sin and sees the sin as a collective one, even though he personally wasn't guilty. I've noticed a huge difference in churches between the people who say, "They have a problem" as they point a finger, and those who say, "We have a problem." When we're part of a church, the community of God's people, we confess our corporate sins together, even though we personally may not be guilty ourselves.

Ezra begins his prayer with a general 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" (Ezra 9:6). He then remembers the sins of previous times (verse 7), recites God's mercy and goodness (verses 8-9), further confesses Israel's sins (verses 10-12), and then appeals to God (verses 13-15). Listen to how he ends his prayer: "Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence" (Ezra 9:15). In a way there is no resolution, no solution. Ezra just throws himself on behalf of the people on God's mercy and confesses his sin before God.

A denominational leader recently talked about the churches that had turned around within his region. He said none of the churches turned around until the people got serious about prayer. He said:

In our churches, often the turnaround began when we said to the church, "Call a day of prayer." And here's how the day of prayer started. We had the pastor and board stand and lead in prayers of confession, asking God to forgive them for being a disobedient congregation and not taking seriously the great commission to make disciples.

A pastor friend of mine started a church in Portland. They only ever grew to about forty or fifty people for the first few years, all of them Christian. One day the pastor, Rick, realized that he only hung around people who were like him, who shared the same views, held the same belief. He read every how-to book on how to reach people, and began to realize that the problem wasn't really a how-to problem. It was a want-to problem. He didn't want to reach out to those who were unlike him. He really didn't care.

He decided to call for a weekly meeting, every Wednesday night, to repent - something, he says, that was pretty hard to market. They began to meet and to repent of the fact that they didn't care, that some of them hated their neighbors. They continued to pray this way for nine months. They confessed, just like Ezra confessed. And it eventually led them to change their hearts.

When God really begins to move in a group, it often begins with corporate confession. When we confess, we reach new levels of honesty. "For him who confesses, shams are over, and realities have begun" (William James). Confession prepares us for what God is going to do among us. Max Lucado writes:

Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field. Before the farmer sows the seed, he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps. He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared. Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts.

David wrote:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord."
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:3-5)

We've already asked God to reveal areas we need to deal with. Let's spend some time confessing them before the Lord.

[silent prayer]

Prayer of Confession:

Merciful Lord, we confess that with us there is an abundance of sin, but in you there is the fullness of righteousness and abundance of mercy. We are spiritually poor, but you are rich and in Jesus Christ came to be merciful to the poor. Strengthen our faith and trust in you. We are empty vessels that need to be filled; fill us. We are weak in faith; strengthen us. We are cold in love; warm us, and make our hearts fervent for you that our love may go out to one another and to our neighbors. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Resolution

Ezra concludes with a chapter that can only be called disturbing. Someone has said that it's the most distasteful chapter in Ezra, and ranks among the most distasteful in the whole of Scripture.

At the end of chapter 9, Ezra has prayed, but there's really no solution offered. Everyone is still overwhelmed with guilt and there's no suggestion of what to do. It's looking hopeless.

Then somebody comes up with an idea. Ezra 10:3-4 says:

Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it."

And this is exactly what they did. We learn in this chapter that 110 had taken foreign wives, and some of them had children.

The problem is that this seems unusually harsh. It seems extreme to require these marriages to be dissolved. We have no idea what provisions, if any, were made for them. There are even debates about whether or not they chose to do the right thing.

If you want to see something ugly, the effects of sin are always ugly. Justice here looks incredibly harsh, and it conflicts with our sense of the loving thing to do to these foreign wives and children.

But then we see, in the middle of the ugliness, some hope. Verse 19 says of some of those who were guilty, "They all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering." They put away their wives, but then they availed themselves of the provision that God had made for sin in a sacrifice.

It was a sacrifice, of course, that anticipated the sacrifice that Jesus would one day make. Why could God forgive these people's sins? We know that sin has a cost. Somebody has to pay it. We know this instinctively. Whenever we do something wrong, it comes with a price - a price that's too steep for us to pay. Many of you have paid a part of the cost of the sins committed by others. It's why you have scars, why you've been hurt. Sin always has a cost, and someone has to pay it.

But the one who paid the ultimate cost was not the wives or children in Ezra's day. The one who paid the ultimate cost for their sins was Jesus. "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood," Paul writes (Romans 3:25). "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, his first thesis said, "All of life is repentance." If there's one thing Ezra teaches us, it's that the work of restoration is never done. Just when you think we're restored, another issue comes up that needs dealing with.

But when we see how accepted and loved we are because of Jesus, the more often we'll repent. And the more we see our own flaws and sins, the more electrifying and precious God's grace will appear to us. God's grace will drive us to confess our sins, and our sins will drive us back to the beauty of God's grace found in Jesus Christ.

Sin and its consequences are ugly, and the only cure for the depth of the ugliness of sin is the beauty of the cross. That's where I want to live. Let's pray.

We thank you this morning for the cross.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
And grant to me Thy grace.

Thank you, Lord, for the cross. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.

God's Role and Ours (Ezra 7-8)

We've been looking at the book of Ezra for the past few weeks. Ezra is all about restoration. When Judah was at their lowest point, in exile in Babylon 400 miles away from home, with Jerusalem completely destroyed, God graciously stepped in and restored his people. We've been looking at how this happened in unexpected ways as they faced all kinds of obstacles.

This isn't just a story about what God did long ago and far away. It was written later to encourage God's people later that God still watches over and restores his people, even when things hopeless.

Today we're in chapters 7 and 8 of Ezra, and guess what? For the first time we meet Ezra, the person this book is named after. By the time we meet Ezra in Ezra 7:1, 80 years have passed since the start of the book. The Temple has been rebuilt under a man named Zerubbabel, who then just disappears from the book. Then we meet Ezra. We're introduced to him by way of genealogy in verses 1-5, which establishes that Ezra is from the priestly line and in fact is the descendant of the high priest before the Babylonian captivity.

Then we read a little bit about Ezra's return to Jerusalem, as well as what he was like, in verses 8 to 11:

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. 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. 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.

This is a copy of the letter King Artaxerxes had given to Ezra the priest, a teacher of the Law, a man learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the Lord for Israel...

So here's what we know: Ezra was a priest. He had " devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." And he was a man " learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the Lord for Israel..."

And he was evidently highly regarded, enough that the king at the time essentially wrote him a blank check in the rest of chapter 7. He may have held a high position in the royal court of King Artaxerxes. He was given tremendous power. "And anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply," the king wrote in verse 20, "you may provide from the royal treasury." And in verse 26: "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." So obviously Ezra was granted extraordinary power.

Ezra's influence was huge. Under his leadership, we read in chapter 8 that many people returned. Estimates put the number at 5,000. He seems to have played a big role in organizing the affairs of the nation as they returned. Some fourteen years later, Ezra led in a service of dedication of the wall in Jerusalem in Nehemiah's time, and the service led to a great religious awakening - what we would call a revival today.

According to some, Ezra played a another role. He may have compiled parts of what we now call the Hebrew Bible. He may have also written this book, the Book of Ezra, as well as 1 Chronicles. He was so highly regarded later on that some said that if Moses had never existed, then God would have given his law to Ezra instead.

One of the most striking things about Ezra in chapters 7 and 8 is a decision that Ezra made. Ezra returned to Jerusalem with millions of dollars of gold and silver. They were traveling 400 miles, a journey that would take them four months. They would be easy targets. When Nehemiah made this trip a few years later, he made it under armed escort. But listen to how Ezra handled the challenge of making this trip with millions of dollars worth of valuables. It's found in 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.

It's hard not to like this guy. He was powerful. He was righteous. He acted with integrity. He depended on God even when it was risky, even when it would have made sense to do otherwise. He had a lasting influence on God's people, and we're still talking about him even today.

But do you also feel a bit of a tension? It's a tension that kind of lies under the surface as you read these chapters, but it really came to the fore as I read about Ezra's decision to travel without an escort.

On one hand, I want to get up here and preach a sermon on how we can have influence like Ezra. It would preach, too! I could talk about the importance of gaining positions of influence in government, business, and the arts so that you are in a position of power. I could preach on being a person of trust, so that others feel like they can write you a blank check which you can then invest for kingdom purposes because you are a trustworthy person. I could talk about being a person of the Word of God, as Ezra was. I could even talk about trusting God and not relying on human protection because you are instead relying on God. All of that would preach!

But the problem with this is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It makes Ezra the hero of the text, and I'm not so sure that's why Ezra was written. "Look at me! This is how you should be too." Somebody's said:

God is the hero of every text. This does not mean that biblical characters have no exemplary qualities for us to emulate, but we must understand that when these positive qualities appear—in their lives or ours—grace is the cause...The first thing to notice about biblical characters is that they are incorporated into the biblical text not for their own sake but to show what God is doing through, in and for them—to show how God advances his kingdom through the efforts of human beings and sometimes in spite of them. (Bryan Chapell)

You see, the Bible almost goes out of its way to encourage us not to treat its characters as heros. Almost every character is presented as flawed and unable to do what needs to be done on their own. Do you ever read the Bible and shake your head at how badly the main characters behave? They mess up at every turn. The point of the Bible can't be to imitate all of their good qualities. One preacher puts it his way:

[Some people say] "Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! These are supposed to be moral exemplars, aren't they? What kind of people are these? I don't want to read about this!"

If you ever feel that way about reading the Bible, it shows that you don't understand the message of the Bible. You're imposing your understanding of the message on the Bible. You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it. (Tim Keller)

By the way, this isn't just an academic debate. It's important. We'll read the Bible completely differently if we read it like Aesop's fables, teaching us moral lessons, compared to if we see it as a book about God saving and using people who couldn't save themselves. Those are two completely different messages. One will crush and defeat us; the other will save us.

So I don't want to preach the message I could preach today and tell you all the ways that you can be like Ezra. I want to draw our attention instead to two themes. If you get only one theme, then you'll completely miss the point of not only this passage, but of all of Scripture. The first theme is this:

It's all about God's grace.

Note with me whose fingerprints are all over this passage. It's God. Ezra 7:6 says, "The hand of the LORD his God was on him." Verse 8: "The gracious hand of his God was on him." Verses 27 and 28:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, 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 leaders from Israel to go up with me.

Chapter 8:18: "Because the gracious hand of our God was on us..." Verse 23: "So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer." Verse 31: "The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way."

God's fingerprints are everywhere. You could say that the theme of these two chapters is, "The gracious hand of God was on us." It's a phrase that continues in the next book, Nehemiah, about God's gracious blessing at strategic points in Ezra's life and over all the people.

This reminds us of the true hero of this text: it's all about God. It also reminds us of an important Biblical principle that continues even today: the sovereignty of God and our inability to save ourselves. It's all about God and his saving acts.

What difference does this make? It makes all the difference in the world. Larry Crabb puts it this way in a book called The Pressure's Off: There's a New Way to Live.

Right now, at this very moment, you're walking one of two paths through life.

Either you've decided that what you most want out of life is within your reach, and you're doing whatever it takes to get it

or

you've realized that what you most want is beyond your reach, and you're trusting God for the satisfaction you want. You want Him. Nothing less, not even His blessings, will do.

If you're walking the first path, your life is filled with pressure. Inside, where no one sees, your soul is weary. You see no way to step off the treadmill. Or life is going well, and you're satisfied. But you sense something's wrong, something's missing. The pressure's still there.

If you're walking the second path [trusting God], you have hope. Your soul may be weary, your interior world may be filled with struggles no one sees, but you have hope. At times you rest. Something alive is within you; the desire of your heart is not smothered. You can taste freedom. And the taste brings joy.

Most people - even most Christians, he says - are living the old way. They're relying on themselves to make life work.

But there's another way to live, and it's the way of grace. It's believing that God has graciously provided everything that we need, and that he is the one who does anything that's good. Our job is to learn complete dependence on him.

The evangelist Luis Palau describes how this became real to him:

During my first semester at Multnomah School of the Bible, Torchbearers founder Major Ian Thomas spoke at our chapel service. He talked about how it took Moses 40 years in the wilderness to learn that he was nothing. Then one day Moses was confronted with a burning bush—likely a dry bunch of ugly sticks—yet Moses had to take off his sandals. Why? Because God was in the bush!

Major Thomas said, "God was telling Moses, 'I don't need a pretty bush or an educated bush or an eloquent bush. Any old bush will do as long as I'm in the bush. If I'm going to use you, it won't be you doing something for me, but me doing something through you.'"

I was that kind of bush: a useless bunch of dried up sticks. I could do nothing for God. All my reading and studying and modeling myself after others was worthless unless God was in the bush. Only he could make something happen.

When Thomas closed his message, I ran back to my room and in tears prayed in my native Spanish. My spiritual struggle was finally over! I'd let God be God and let Luis be dependent on him.

The most powerful people in this world are the ones who, like Ezra, see God's hand in everything. They have come to understand the gospel, which is that God has provided for us what we couldn't provide for ourselves. We're right with God not because of what we have done but because of what Jesus has done for us.

The most powerful churches are those that understand the power doesn't lie with us, but with God. We can do all things through Christ. Without Christ, we are nothing. It's all of grace. We can't take any credit.

But as we leave this morning, I need to give you the second theme, the flip side. It's this:

God's grace and human effort go hand in hand.

Do you notice in this passage that relying on God's grace didn't make Ezra passive? Ezra was completely dependent on God, but he dependence and passivity are not the same thing. He recruited, he organized, he led. It's all up to God, but God has chosen to operate through human channels - people like Ezra, people like us.

This is the theme of the Bible: that God moves to save us when we were completely without hope, when we couldn't save ourselves, when we had absolutely nothing to offer. Salvation often comes from God. But God chooses to work through people. Even when God moved to deliver us from our sins, he did it by sending his Son as a human. God loves to work through people. Or, as someone put it, "God's grace wears a human face."

One of the biggest mistakes we could ever make is trusting in human strength. It's never enough. We don't have a hope unless that hope is found in God. We should never trust in human strength in our lives, our families, and our churches.

But an equally big mistake is to forget that God operates in his strength through human channels and resources, not despite them and not in contrast to them. God chooses to work through people just like you, just like me. Not because of our strength; simply because of sheer grace. "But we have this treasure in jars of clay," Paul said, "to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Father, thank you for the gospel. Thank you that that we've been saved and that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

But thank you as well that "we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Thank you that you use people like us, even though we're weak, to get your work done.

Now may we find our strength not in ourselves but in you. And may we in our lives and in our church show that the all-surpassing power of the gospel is all from God and not from us. In his name we pray, Amen.

Opposition (Ezra 4-6)

We've been looking at the book of Ezra the past couple of weeks. Ezra is a book in the Hebrew Scriptures that describes how God moved to restore his people at the lowest point in their history. When they were in exile 900 miles from home, and Jerusalem was destroyed, God stepped in to restore them as a people. We've been looking at how God continues to restore his people even today.

But today we face a problem. The first few chapters of Ezra are all good news. God raises up a king who allows Judah to go back and rebuild the Temple. They return with gold and silver, livestock, gifts, and valuable offerings. They begin to rebuild the altar and the foundation of the Temple, and begin worshiping God again. Everything is going well. You get the sense that God's hand is on these people, and that he is changing the hearts of kings and arranging all things so that restoration can take place.

But then you get to chapter 4. In chapters 4 and 5 it's almost all bad news. In Ezra 4, the author lists a mishmash of opposition that takes place during the reigns of three kings. They start to rebuild but they soon face massive opposition that puts a stop to all the work. For sixteen years, nothing happens.

The opposition they faced was varied. In verses 1 to 5 of chapter 4, enemies of Judah used intimidation and bribery to frustrate their work. In verse 6, in the time of Esther, they lodge a complaint. Then he fast-forwards years later to opposition that took place during the rebuilding of the walls, many years after the completion of the Temple building project. Chapter 4 lists all kinds of opposition at various times to show how difficult the work really was.

The opposition was also very serious. In those days, kings had to be concerned about insurrection. Rebellions often took place, and in order to survive kings went in and completely decimated the towns and annihilated the inhabitants, and cursed any future king who tried to resettle the ruins. So when Judah's enemies write to King Artaxerxes and say of Jerusalem:

...we are sending this message to inform the king, so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. (Ezra 4:14-15)

When they write this, they aren't just being a nuisance. They're coming close to provoking a holocaust.

The end result of all of this opposition is found in Ezra 4:24: "Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." Chapters 5 and 6 unfold how things finally got back on track during the reign of Darius, who found the decree of King Cyrus in his archives, and who decreed once again that they could rebuild. In the end of chapter 6 they finally complete the Temple, although it's not nearly as impressive as it used to be and is now missing the Ark of the Covenant.

Here's the problem we face. Did God bring them back and allow them to rebuild the Temple or not? And if he did, why all the difficulty? Why does God restore them, and then they face problem after problem, so that nothing gets done for some 16 years? It doesn't make any sense.

You see, the point of this story in Ezra is really God's providential care of his people. So if God is providentially caring for his people, why all the opposition? Why all the false accusations? Why can't God's people catch a break? Either God is not all-powerful, or he is all-powerful but incompetent, or there is something else going on that we need to understand as well.

It's a question, by the way, that we face today. Suffering and tragedy are just part of life. Scott Peck began a book once with three famous words, "Life is difficult." He goes on to explain:

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. Once we truly know that life is difficult - once we truly understand and accept it - then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Life is a series of problems.

But for those of us who are Christians, how do you explain this? If God really is in control, and we really do give ourselves completely to him, why doesn't life go smoothly? Why do we continue to deal with problems like infertility, Alzheimer's, cancer, unemployment, false accusations, and mistreatment?

The same goes for a church. A friend of mine just announced that he's leaving his church and going to another. A lot of people really appreciate my pastor friend's ministry, and they're asking, "If we are really seeking God and serving him, why are we losing a good man like this?"

The problem is, if God is truly sovereign, and he really does care for his people, and he really is involved with the intimate details of our lives, why all the junk? Why does Judah go through so many years of opposition and defeat in the middle of restoration? Why does all this stuff happen in our lives as well?

Before we go on, let's take a minute and talk about this. In groups around you, why do you think God restored Judah but then let them go through all kinds of opposition and delay? How do you account for God's providential care in one hand, and all the nasty things that happen on the other hand?

[group discussion]

I think I have an answer, and it's a really profound one. Do you want to hear it?

We don't know.

The question is how you resolve the providential care of God with the delays and the problems we face. Ezra affirms both of these.

So Ezra says that God was providentially caring for every detail of Judah's life.

Did God have a hand in their exile to Babylon? Absolutely. In Ezra 5:12, the letter they sent to King Darius said, "Because our ancestors angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, king of Babylon, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon." Judah didn't go into exile because of political or military events. Behind those events was God's sovereign hand.

Did God have a hand in bringing Judah back from exile? Absolutely. Ezra 1:1 says, "the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia.."

Did God arrange for Judah to eventually succeed in rebuilding the Temple? Yes. In chapter 6, not only does Darius allow them to proceed, but he pays for all of their expenses right out of the royal treasury and orders that anyone who tries to stop them be impaled with a beam from their own house before their house is torn down. At the end of Ezra 6, the author says, "The Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel" (Ezra 6:22).

So how do you explain the 16-year delay and all of the opposition? In short, we don't know. We get the sense that God was in charge and he had some purpose, but we don't always understand why things unfold a certain way, or why we face opposition and delays. We don't understand it, but we know all the while that God is present even in the middle of what we can't explain.

I don't think anyone helps us understand this more than Elisabeth Elliott. Elisabeth Elliott is a missionary who spent some years among the Huaorani people in Ecuador. Her husband was one of five men who were killed by the Huaorani people. Years later, she married a professor of theology from Gordon-Conwell, but he too died after they had been married only a few years. She knew what it meant to serve God and yet live with unexpected loss.

She published a novel, her only work of fiction, called No Graven Image. The novel was about a missionary woman who mortgages everything, puts her whole life on the line, to go to a remote tribe and try to translate the Bible. She finally finds that the only person in the world who knows both her language and the language of the tribe. He gets sick, and she accidentally kills him by giving him a shot in the wrong way. The tribe then believe that she caused the death, and they throw all of her work into the water, and that's the way the book ends. Everything falls apart.

At the very end, Elisabeth Elliott says that if we had created God, he would do everything the way that we would like and we would always understand him. But if he is God, he has the right to do with me as he wants. We don't always understand him, but he can do whatever he wants.

Harold Ockenga, the editor of Christianity Today, told Elisabeth Elliott that he personally kept that novel off Christianity Today's list of the best books of the year. She got all kinds of letters from people saying they hated the book, saying, "God would never treat a dedicated Christian this way." But in a sense, her novel was biographical. It was fictional but it had some similarities to her own life.

The reason she wrote the book was to tell us that if we have a God who does everything the way we want him to, and a God that we always understand, then we have created a graven image for ourselves. But we don't have a God like this. We have a God who does allow his people to suffer, who does surprise us. We don't always understand him. God is God and he can do whatever he likes.

Elisabeth Elliott told another story. She used to go visit a couple of friends of hers in northern Wales who had a farm with sheep. She was there one time at the time of the year in which the shepherd has to do something awful to the sheep. At one point of the year, the shepherd has to take his sheep to a huge vat of antiseptic and completely submerge the sheep in that antiseptic. If they don't go through that, they will literally die from being eaten by insects and parasites.

So what they have to do is take the sheep and not only throw them in the vat so they can swim, but actually submerge them and hold them under. She says:

One by one John seized the animals. They would struggle to climb out the side and Mack the sheep dog would snarl and snap at their faces to force them back under. When they tried to climb up the ramp in a panicky way at the far end, John the farmer would catch them, spin them around, force them under again, holding them ears, eyes and nose submerged for a few seconds.

And as their lord and master was pushing their head under, drowning them at least as far as they could tell, their panicky little eyes would look up over the edge of the vat, and it was easy to see what they were thinking. What is god doing?

Now listen to what Elisabeth Elliott said:

I've had some experiences in my life which have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor sheep. There are times I couldn't figure out any reason for the treatment I was getting from my great shepherd whom I trusted. And like these sheep I didn't have a hint of an explanation.

The shepherd has to do that to the sheep, but there's no way the sheep can understand. There are really only two options. They can not get the antiseptic treatment and die, or they can trust the shepherd without explanation. Those are the only two options.

The whole problem is that there is a gap between the intelligence of the shepherd and the sheep. Because there is no way to explain, the sheep have to go through the experience without explanation or else die.

And those are the same two choices that we have. There is a bigger gap between us and our great Shepherd in heaven. We may never understand what we're going through. We may never know. We're not smart enough to know what God knows.

I'll tell you what can happen though. Do you want to know one of the reasons that the book of Ezra was written? Hundreds of years later, God's people still struggled with the question, "Can we live as God's people while we're still under foreign oppression, and when we still don't understand everything we're going through? Can we live as God's people even though our circumstances have changed and even though we don't have everything that we had hoped for?

And the book of Ezra's answer is, without a question, yes. We may not be able to understand everything that's going on, but we know he cares for me.

And we can know that we can trust the Great Shepherd because he is not just a dispassionate God who dispassionately issues decrees from above. He is the Great Shepherd who actually gave his life for his sheep. We can trust him because he said,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep...I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11, 14-15)

Let's pray.

Father, many of us don't have the answers. Like Elisabeth Elliott, we've lived through experiences that make us feel very sympathetic to these sheep. We believe that you providentially care for us, and we don't know exactly how to reconcile this with all that happens in this life.

But we believe that we can trust you, because our Great Shepherd is the one who lay down his life for the sheep.

Teach us to trust you we pray, even when we don't understand. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Restoring Worship (Ezra 3)

Last week we started looking at the book of Ezra in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ezra is about the restoration of God's people after a long exile.

In 587 BC, the Babylonians completely destroyed Jerusalem after a 30-month siege. They razed Jerusalem to the ground, destroyed the Temple, and took the upper crust of the population to exile hundreds of miles away. This is the low point in all of the Old Testament. It was as if God had turned his back on his people.

But then we get to the book of Ezra. We read that a new king took power, and this king allowed the Jews to return home. More than 40,000 did go home. They walked for four months and finally stood in the rubble of Jerusalem.

What is the first thing you would do?

For three months, they did nothing. They just got their bearings. But after three months, on the holiest month of the year, they came together and stood in the rubble of Jerusalem where the Temple once stood, and they worshiped. Read with me what happened. It's found in Ezra 3:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled with one accord in Jerusalem. Then Joshua 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. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord's temple had not yet been laid.

The rest of the chapter describes what happened later as they re-instituted worship and laid the foundation for the Temple once again.

Let me ask you a question: if you returned home in those circumstances, why would you make the first thing that you did to worship? Is it just that they were primitive and superstitious people who didn't understand, or is there something deeper here that we need to know? Why would they do this? With everything around them lying in rubbles, why would they devote so much energy to restoring corporate worship?

There's a reason, and the reason is this. We're going to worship something, and it's either going to be an idol or God. That's why they moved so quickly to worship God, because they understood that if they didn't that they would end up worshiping idols instead.

We look at that and think, "How primitive!" And it is primitive. For years in exile, Judah was surrounded by hundreds of idols. Everywhere they turned they were confronted with every kind of idol. They saw the only two choices as worship idols, or worship God. It's binary; it's simple.

Today we believe that we are a little more sophisticated, but today I want you to consider that we really aren't all that different. There was a book review in the New York Times in April about a memoir called Easter Everywhere. It's about the spiritual journey of a woman named Darcey Steinke who lives in Brooklyn. The book describes some of the deep longings of her life.

The reviewer captures in his review the heart of the book, the aha! moment for this woman:

But she nails the central question — of her memoir and perhaps of her life — with an extraordinary quote from Simone Weil. "One has only the choice between God and idolatry," Weil wrote. "If one denies God ... one is worshiping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them."

What that quote is saying is that we are wired to find eternal significance in something. We will give every fiber of our being to someone or something, and whatever that thing is we will worship. We will worship, there is no question about this. The only question is whether we will worship God or an idol.

What is an idol? Here's one definition:

An idol is anything we believe we need, apart from Jesus, to make us happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. An idol arises when we desire something more than we desire Jesus; when we fear things rather than God; when we worship ourselves rather than Christ; when we put our trust in anything other than God; when we serve anything other than Jesus....The things we desire are often good in themselves...If if [a good desire] becomes an inordinate desire, it has become a false god. Even good things become idols when they start to rule our lives. (Gospel Transformation)

What can function as idols in our own lives? Richard Keyes wrote:

An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them...idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God's existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good...An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero - anything that can substitute for God.

John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Whenever we value something more than God, we are committing the sin of idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God. It is anyone or anything you love or serve in place of God. That means that you can think you're a Christian and believe everything that the Bible says, and still be an idolator. As a Christian it is possible to sincerely profess a love for the true and living God while functionally serving a false God.

Martin Luther said something interesting. He talked about sin. We lie, we stretch the truth, we covet, we lust, we fight. Those are all sins, and we focus a lot of attention on these sins. But Martin Luther suggested that there's a sin beneath the sin. He says that all the ten commandments, when you boil them down, are different expressions of the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." Whenever you sin, it's because you have taken something and made it an idol and put it in God's place. All sins are basically sins of having other gods before God, of worshiping something or someone else than God.

A little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, was in a coffee shop feasting on one of those huge lollipops. The father got into one of these conversations with her. "Which do you love more, this dollar or the lollipop?" "The lollipop." He went through a whole list of things. "Which do you love more, the dog or the lollipop?" "Which do you love more, mommy or the lollipop?" "The lollipop!" She didn't even hesitate.

She knew that her mother was the one who really loved her. The lollipop could not feed her, change her, put her to bed. But the beauty of the lollipop was greater than the beauty of her mother at that moment.

We're probably the same. All of us know that God is better than any person in our lives, any relationship, any possession, any achievement. But the beauty of all that surrounds us is greater than the beauty of God at that moment. Without knowing it, we become worshipers of other things besides God. It's dangerous because you can be a "good Christian" and go to church every week and still be an idolator.

The bottom line is that we are all worshipers. We are all either worshiping God or worshiping something or someone else. And whatever we worship defines us. You can worship almost anything - a clean house, a promotion at work, a comfortable life, recognition in our careers, a relationship, a bigger house, more kids, sleep, happiness, gadgets, parents, kids, an iPod, a degree. But ultimately we'll be defined by whatever we worship. If I worship success in a career, I will get all of my identity from my work. If my job goes well, I'll be happy. If I lose my job, I'll lose my identity and be absolutely crushed. If I get my identity from my kids, I'll be happy as long as my kids think I'm a good dad. But the minute my kids don't like one of my decisions, I'll be crushed and defeated. I'll have to find my identity somewhere else instead.

So what do we do about this? We do exactly what they did. We worship. Let me explain.

Tim Keller tells the story of a woman who always had to have a man in her life. She was devastated whenever she didn't have a man, and she was just fine when she had a man.

Eventually she realized that she was making an idol out of men. She began to deal with this, and she went for counseling which did help her. But the counselor suggested that she get a job and build a career for herself. The woman agreed, she needed a job. She didn't argue with that for a minute. But she said, "I think the counselor is getting it wrong. She is asking me to give up men as my idol and instead take up work as my idol. I don't need either men or work as my idol. I need God."

What she realized is that if she was going to have freedom from her need for men to be in her life, giving her approval, she would have to get her identity somewhere else. And it's no use exchanging one type of idolatry for another. The only true place to get our identity is from God. It's only when we truly value God over all other things that we find the freedom that we've been looking for.

Dallas Willard writes, "There is no substitute for simple satisfaction in the Word of God, in the presence of God. That affects all of your actions....The surest guarantee against failure [sin] is to be so at peace and satisfied with God that when wrongdoing presents itself it isn't even interesting. That is how we stay out of temptation."

The only way for the people of Jerusalem to change from serving the idols of the gods around them was to be caught up in true worship of Yahweh and be satisfied in him. The only way for us to be freed from the idols all around us - idols of relationships, achievements, possessions, pleasures - is to be so satisfied in God in our worship that we wouldn't think of finding our satisfaction anywhere else.

That's why Jonathan Wilson is exactly right when he says, "The activity of worship - glorifying and enjoying God - is the central practice of the church...It is this practice that most clearly sets the church apart, that most clearly displays our calling and constitutes the church as a community."

The only antidote to idolatry is worship of the one true God.

And that's why we're coming to the Table this morning. Because we can't do this on our own. The only way we can worship like this is if we get our identity from the one who died for us. It comes from recognizing that we have been saved by sheer grace. We didn't earn it.

And therefore even though we have many good things in our lives, we don't worship them. None of these good things are ultimate things. Instead, we worship the one who loved us while we were still sinners, and has restored us and given us everything including a love that can't be taken away. When we really understand what Jesus has done for us, we'll understand who we are in him and we'll never get our sense of identity from anything else.

So do you want to be restored? Here's the way back. It's not through trying harder or being more moral or religious. It's none of that. You and I will be changed as we turn away from idols and worship the one who gave his life for us. When we worship him we'll be set free from everything that enslaves us and we'll get our identity from the only thing that can never be taken away from us - what Christ has done for us through the gospel.

Let's pray.

Lord, we want so desperately to be restored. We really do. We often think that the way to be restored is to try harder or to be more religious or whatever. But thank you that it's none of that.

The way to be changed is to flee from idolatry, and instead to worship the only one who can give us the self-worth and identity we've always longed for. We come to worship you because in you we find everything that we need.

So I pray that you would restore worship of the true God within our hearts. Help us to identify, really identify our idols. We're all worshipers. May we worship you, and you alone. In the name of the one who calls us his own we pray. Amen.

Restoration (Ezra 1:1-4)

We're beginning a brief series today on Ezra. Ezra is a book of hope that comes during one of the darkest periods in Judah's history. Judah, by the way, was the southern kingdom of what used to be the united nation of Israel before it split in two. The book of Ezra provides some hope at one of the darkest periods of Judah's history, and I think it will provide some hope for us too.

Today's message is for those of us who know that we're not where we ought to be, who are going through a hard time in part of our lives. Maybe it's a marriage that's disappointing. It could be feeling like we're trapped in a dead-end job, or that there's a really tough situation in our family that we can't fix. Maybe it's that feeling of helplessness - we can't overcome a bad habit or a besetting sin.

I think everyone here knows what it's like to be going through a low period and to feel helpless to do anything about it. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic either. It can just be that sense that things aren't all that we'd hoped they'd be. We wanted more.

So what I want to ask you this morning is where in your life you are dissatisfied. It could be a relationship, or your spiritual life, your job, your family, the church. Where do you really feel like you're at a low point, somewhere in your life where you really need to be restored? I'll give you a minute to think about this.

[Pause]

Before we look at a message of hope that comes in the middle of a dark period, let's begin by reviewing the background of how Judah got into the mess.

God had rescued a group of people from slavery in Egypt and had promised to make them a nation - Israel - and give them land. When he rescued them out of Egypt he promised them:

The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deuteronomy 28:9-11)

God had promised to make them a great nation, that all of their enemies would be defeated, and they would know nothing but prosperity if they followed the God who had rescued them out of Egypt. That's how it was supposed to be.

But things hadn't worked out very well. If you read the Hebrew Scriptures, you find out that they never lived up to their end of the deal, and they had never experienced everything that God had promised. But things were never lower than right before the events described in the book of Ezra.

In 587 BC, after a two and a half year siege, Jerusalem was conquered. The Temple - the center of worship - was destroyed. The king's sons were killed right before his eyes, and it was the last thing that he ever saw because they then put his eyes out. The Davidic monarchy - the line of succession from the greatest king of Israel, King David - had fallen apart. Israel had ceased to be an independent nation. And the best of the population had been sent to exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles away. Everything had fallen apart.

They were at the lowest point in their history. What do you do when your hopes have been dashed, and you're ready to give up hope in some area of your life?

Ezra brings a message of hope in one word: restoration. The passage we're going to look at tells us two things that we need to know when we're at our lowest. The two things that we need to know who's in charge of restoration, and what confidence can we have that restoration will happen?

First, who causes restoration? Who is in charge of restoration?

Look with me at Ezra 1:1-4. It says:

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 also to put it in writing:

"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. Any of his people among you—may their God be with them, and let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'"

So Judah is in exile and really has no hope of seeing things change. Jerusalem is decimated. There's nothing they can do to go back.

But then something happens. This king comes to power named Cyrus. Cyrus started out as a nobody. Over time, he rose from a virtual nobody to kingship over what was Babylon. He founded the Persian Empire, which superseded the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus says in verse 2, "The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth." He wasn't exaggerating. According to one inscription, Cyrus ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen.

In the first year of his reign, he completely reverses Oriental policy. He decides it would be a good idea to restore the captives, and not only restore them but provide them with all the gold and sliver that had been taken from the Temple. Suddenly, out of nowhere, they're restored.

Question: what is the cause of this restoration? Why was Judah restored when they were at their lowest point, and they couldn't help themselves? At the human level, it just looks like the arbitrary decision of a new king. It looks like a coincidence or that it's just a random thing.

But Ezra gives us the reason why they were restored. In verse 1 he says, "The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus." God, who raised up nations to chastise his people, now raised up a ruler to restore his people. It was all in God's hands.

Do you know what Ezra is saying? He's saying that restoration is God's work. Judah didn't do anything to restore itself. It was a sovereign act of God in which God moved the heart of a king to accomplish his purposes. Restoration is God's work.

The question for us is: Is restoration still God's work today? Does God still restore lives and marriages and churches and relationships, or is it all up to us? There's a whole school of thought that says it's up to us to restore ourselves. Many people think that the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves."

I was thinking about this the other day when I heard about Lindsay Lohan, the actress and singer, in the news. Her estranged father's said that she's unfortunately addicted to alcohol and painkillers. Her father's said, ""First she needs to get clean, then she needs to let God in her life."

It got me thinking. A lot of us try to get clean and then let God into our lives. We try to deal with our problems in our own strength and then turn to God. We try to restore our lives and marriages.

But fixing ourselves never works. It just doesn't. The Denver Business Journal reports that self-help is a $6 billion dollar a year industry, but despite all of the books and seminars, "the goals go unmet - the 20 pounds always stays on, the pocketbook is always empty and life's desires remain unfulfilled." Even if it did work, it would lead to moralism and pride. We become boastful, proud of our own efforts.

But here's the message of Ezra - actually, the message of the whole Bible. It's not our job to restore ourselves. Restoration is God's work. God doesn't help those who help themselves. He actually helps those who are completely helpless, who don't have a chance of restoring themselves. "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6).

This takes huge pressure off of us. We don't have to fix our own lives. We don't have to fix our churches and our marriages. We don't have to be our own savior, because God has provided a better Savior for us than we could ever be.

Let me put it this way. Is the Bible good advice or is it good news? How you answer that question makes all the difference in the world. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that advice is counsel about something to do that hasn't happened yet, but you can do it. If the Bible is good advice, then the pressure's on us to follow that advice. But it will crush us, because no ordinary person has ever been able to follow the advice in Scripture. Nobody has ever been able to do what God commanded.

But what if the Bible is good news? What if the Bible is about a God who did what we couldn't do for ourselves, who stood as our representative and obeyed on our behalf, who took our sin so that we could be sinless, who forgave us and reconciled to God and at this very moment is interceding for us at the right hand of God? What if the Bible is good news not about what we have to do but what Christ has done on our behalf? And what if we let that good news transform us in every area of our lives - our work lives, our marriages, our churches?

And what if we see this good news as not only what saves us, but which gives us everything we need to live the Christian life? Some of us who were saved by the gospel are trying to live by our own power. But ongoing restoration is God's work too. Listen to this:

"The gospel" is not just a way to be saved from the penalty of sin, but [it] is the fundamental dynamic for living the whole Christian life - individually and corporately, privately and publicly. In other words, the gospel is not just for non-Christians, but also for Christians. This means the gospel is not just the A-B-C's but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not accurate to think "the gospel" is what saves non-Christians and then what matures Christians is trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart, and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on. (Tim Keller)

I don't know where in your life, or in the life of this church, you need restoration. But I will tell you this. The answer is not found in trying harder or trying to fix yourselves. The answer is the gospel. God is still the one who restores, just as he did in the time of Ezra. It makes all the difference in the world whether you are trying to save yourself, or if you are trusting what God has already done in Christ and allowing him to transform you. Restoration is always God's work.

Whose job is restoration? It's God's job. I want to look at one more question from this passage.

What confidence can we have that restoration will take place?

Restoration is God's work, we've discovered. But the second question is what confidence can we have that restoration will take place?

To answer this question, we need to look at some of the background of the restoration in Ezra's day. Notice verse 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..." What does he mean when he refers to "the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah"?

In Jeremiah 29:10-14, the prophet wrote:

This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."

This must have seemed impossible. "When seventy years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place." The deportation to Babylon started in 605 BC. That would make the 70th year 538 BC. Cyrus began his reign over Babylon that very year. God got the work done. He did what he had promised and arranged the timing just as he had said. God gets the work done. We can trust God's timing even when it doesn't make sense to us, even when it doesn't look like he'll get the work done.

But there's more. This is going to be so hard for you to believe that you'll be tempted to look for some other explanation for how this happened. 150 years before Cyrus came to power, the prophet Isaiah said this in Isaiah 44:24 and 28:

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 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.'"

A few chapters before in Isaiah 41, Isaiah reported God's words:

Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment.

Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service?

You know who he's talking about there? Cyrus. Not only did God get his work done, but God gave the exact timeline and fulfilled it just in time. He even gave the name of the king that he would raise up 150 years before this king came to power.

You're either going to dismiss this all as a fabrication after the fact - or you'll bow down in worship to the God who reigns over history. "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes" (Daniel 4:25).

His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?" (Daniel 4:34-35)

If you find this hard to believe this morning, I don't blame you. But the Bible teaches us that God does what he says he will do. Restoration is God's work, and because he is faithful, he always gets the job of restoration done.

Paul writes in Philippians 1:6: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Even when it looks like nothing's happening, even when things look hopeless, God is carrying on his work in you, and he will complete it. He will use people you won't expect, but he will get his work done. He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion. You can bank on it.

And if you need restoration in your life, and who doesn't, know this: God keeps his promises, restores his people, is in control of history, and one day will ultimately restore all things. We don't have to fix ourselves. We don't have to fix our marriages. The Bible, the gospel, is the good news of God acting to restore everything - all creation - through Jesus Christ. We can be transformed, not by what we do, but by what God has done for us through Christ. That's where the real power is. Restoration is God's work. He, not us, will get it done.

Father, we need restoration. Our lives do. Our marriages do. Our hearts need restoration. And so does our church.

Thank you that you are the God who has taken on the work of restoring and renewing all things. What we could not do for ourselves, you do through history, and most powerfully through the death and the life of Jesus Christ.

May we today stop trying to act as our own savior, and instead trust in the one who restores all things. It's in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.