Tuesday, July 31, 2012

leading by repentance

While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.
Ezra 10:1

Leading people to spiritual renewal is hard work. It must begin with repentance and confession of sin. Ezra was not guilty of breaking the covenant by intermarriage with gentiles. He was innocent of the sin. But he saw this as a national problem that was disobeying God, hindering His blessing, and disregarding God's Law. So he went into a time of repentance filled, mourning confession for the sake of the nation. He led in example by repenting of this practice.

Ezra's actions stirred up a repentant spirit in the people. A vast throng of people gathered even in the cold pouring rain of a storm to confess and forsake sin. Ezra's seriousness led to the serious spiritual renewal of God's people.

A leader's example in humble repentance and respect for the Lord can do much to influence others to do the right thing. Ezra did not need to issue a government crackdown to deal with Israel's sin. Instead he chose to show humble brokenness over sin. And God honored that. This is refreshing to see in scripture. The courage it took for Ezra to do this was great. But it was because his heart yearned to love God and respect His law first. And that changed the hearts of a disobedient nation of people. Ezra led by repentance and thus led his people to repentance.

Friday, July 27, 2012

mercy & grace in the old testament

And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this...
Ezra 9:13

People who insist that God's mercy and grace are not featured in the Old Testament are either ignorant or uninformed... or maybe they are intentionally stacking the facts and hiding the truth. It seems they have not read the Old Testament. Here is just such an episode of clear recognition of God's mercy and grace found in the theological reflection in Ezra's prayer of confession.

The situation is unique to ancient Israel. God had warned them not to intermarry with the Gentile nations around them. He knew this would lead to a polluting religious plurality and idolatry. It was one reason that the nation abandoned God and that eventually led to the brutal exile judgment in the first place. And now among the generation of rebuilders in Jerusalem who had returned from that exile, this sin had taken place again on a large scale. Ezra grieves over it in confession. And in that confession he finds a merciful and gracious God.

God's mercy is found in the reality that Israel was not treated as fully punished and forgotten. Ezra says they were punished less than their iniquities deserved. That is mercy. God is not a capricious wrath-filled hard core enforcer of punishment. His wrath always comes with mercy. He is merciful and the Jews certainly recognized this.

God's grace is found in His work to secure a remnant and bring them back home to Jerusalem. This was the work of grace that Ezra quickly recognized. God was choosing to bless a people for His great name's sake. He was causing them to grow and to thrive. He was restoring their lives. And it was mercy and grace that led Ezra to confess and forsake sin out of love for all that God had done.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

bold faith & reckless trust

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, "The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him." So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Ezra 8:21-23

This was brave faith put into action. I am impressed that Ezra would let his faith in God overshadow and guide even a political and personally invested decision such as this. Basically Ezra wanted to put the truth of God's Word to the test in real life. He had already told the king that God protected His people. To ask for a military escort to protect them and their valuables going back to Jerusalem would have seemed a betrayal of that faith. So instead, a solemn time of prayer and fasting is called to ask for God's caring protection.

I don't know that I have Ezra's kind of faith. I probably would have borrowed an armored car and a dozen cops, at least! But Ezra's bold faith was exactly what was needed. The Lord wanted to bless that faith. And He did. He protected everyone and everything as Ezra's contingent arrived in Jerusalem fully intact.

The reward for bold faith and obedient practice is answered prayer. God will honor those who honor Him by putting His Word above their own fears and failures. He will deliver His own. And Ezra's cautious confidence in God is exactly the kind of faith I need to study. Lord, give me insight into that kind of bold belief!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Set My Heart On You

For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
Ezra 7:10

My heart is a flickering, dying flame
and falls faint and dim.
Grant me the power by Your name
to understand what it is to live.

Passion grows stronger as I see
that You are all my heart craves.
Help me to be, Lord, what I should be
and know what it is that Your hand saves.

I am weak
You are strong...
I set my heart on You.
Set me right
when I am wrong...
I set my heart on You.

Direction comes from Your Word
and life makes sense within its pages.
Confirm my heart in truth, Dear Lord
and let its wisdom be my sages.

Steadfast conviction and honest change
are what my heart now needs.
Keep me from what's wrong and strange
as I follow where Your Spirit leads.

I am weak
You are strong...
I set my heart on You.
Set me right
when I am wrong...
I set my heart on You.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The unique joy of a difficult ministry

And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.
Ezra 6:16

When the last of the obstacles to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem was lifted by royal decree, the returned re-settlers went to the work with all diligence. The temple was rebuilt. And they wasted no time in celebrating what God had done. They held a massive worship celebration to dedicate the temple of the Lord in worship of the Lord.

The profound emotion leading those who lent themselves to this tremendous task was joy. They were thrilled to be doing this great work and to have it done. It meant so much to them all. And worshipping God was not a duty, but rather a delight. So much had been overcome so that this could be done. God had shown Himself sustaining during the difficulties through the encouragements of the prophets. He brought His people home to do the work. He sent His Word through His prophets to confirm the work. And now He would be celebrated at the completion of the work.

Joy comes in the service of the Lord. We delight ourselves in God and He will bring us great joy. That is one thing very apparent from Ezra's account of the temple re-building project. It took years to do. It was extensive. It was met with significant and continued opposition. God's people struggled to stay faithful to the task. It even looked like it might get shut down permanently. But by persevering, joy came as the work was done. So I see that delighting in the Lord and doing His work, though very often hard and dangerous, brings unspeakable joy and amazing peace. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

Friday, July 20, 2012

courage to counter the culture

Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.
Ezra 5:2

Courage rose up when the Word of God confronted the temple-rebuilding generation. Technically, these leaders were disobeying the law of the land by engaging in the rebuilding project at the temple site. But they were in possession of two greater edicts than the one that stopped the work. The first one came from Cyrus commissioning them by royal command to rebuild the temple. But the greatest edict came from God. The prophets encouraged the leaders to continue this work. Obedience to God outweighed the current political pressure.

This was a moment of leadership action. It came bravely from a sense of moral duty. It was obedience to God instead of the king. And it was the stand up moment for the exiles who returned to rebuild the temple. From this point on their faith, joined with courage, led to definitive and visible action. And it was exactly what God wanted them to do.

There are some stirring themes here about spiritual motivation. We have faith to trust God. It combines with courage that confronts the culture. It leads to action that is visible. The culture is happy when God's people have a "private" faith that stays invisible in our hearts. But when we go public with it and begin to build and take visible action that counters the cultural norms, we get noticed as we make a difference.

And that is exactly what happened in this context. The opposition took down names and fired off a letter to king Darius asking the Babylonian bureaucracy to render a final decision on this matter. The courage, faith, determination, and obedience of the Jews did not end the opposition, it actually increased it, but they worked on despite this! And this was exactly what needed to happen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

good work is going to be opposed

Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
Ezra 4:24

Those involved in advancing God's greatness among human institutions will face opposition. In the case of the Jews who came from Persia to rebuild Jerusalem, it came in the form of official political maneuvering. The faction of people who were opposed to the work petitioned the king. They made false accusations insinuating that the reason for reconstruction was rebellion.

The result was that the king moved to shut down the work. Politics succeeded in halting all construction an an edict from the king stopped all building projects in Jerusalem. Those involved in rebuilding the temple had to stop. The opposition won a victory. The good work was cast in a bad light and there was little the returned exiles could do about it for the time being.

Those who want to labor for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom will face opposition from within and without. The opposition in this story began with unexiled Jews who had stayed in the land after the captivity. These Jews complained about the work begun by the returning exiles. And the opposition they made gained political momentum. It became a kind of political persecution. The strongest human forces moved against those who wanted to build. And I think those same principles work against God's projects and Christ's kingdom today. The church will inevitably work against itself with doctrinal disputes and ugly displays to the world from time to time. And secularism and societal pressure will work against the spread of the gospel as well. Good work will face opposition. But, ironically, this is a good sign... It may be be good work if it does not get opposed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Morning & Evening

They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening.
Ezra 3:3

Early and late I seek You
bringing my praise to You
bringing my prayers to You
that's how I worship You
and You hear my prayer.

Dawn and dusk... the quiet of day
I come to You and pray
knowing You always know the way
and I hear what You say
as I find You there.

Morning and evening in your light
give me a greater appetite
to do what is right
as You frame each day and night
with Your sustaining grace.

Sunrise to sunset with my Lord
I am always blessed from Your word
and honored to do what I have heard
...daily sacrifice that I can afford
as I see the love in Your face.

Monday, July 16, 2012

kingdom needs

Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests' garments.
Ezra 2:68-69

The long work of rebuilding the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem began with a listing of the people who volunteered for the project. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, some of them of their own free will gave funds to immediately procure the supplies and begin the work. This was spontaneous generosity. And it helped get the project off and running with good, uptempo energy.

God used the generous gifts of His people, along with the revenue coming from king Cyrus himself to provide the means for the temple to be rebuilt. But God would use the generation of re-settlers to do the work. There was means, there was money, and there was manpower. Now they just needed to procure the material to begin the work.

Those four things define the hard work of ministry even today. Without MEANS, there can be no ministry. There are always things to be done and projects to complete in the service to the glory of God. And often the major physical need is MONEY. Funds help to provide for all the physical facets of spiritual service. But ministry is foremost about people... whether it is worship or spreading the good news, the gospel advances on the lips, hands, and feet of people who provide the MANPOWER. And of course there are things needed, MATERIAL, so that those people, with certain things in hand, places to stay, food to eat, bricks to build with, etc., can do the work of advancing the kingdom of God. That is why generous love for God's gracious love compels Christians to graciously and generously give.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

the God Who moves empires

Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel-he is the God who is in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:3

The time had come to rebuild. The Jews had been slowly trickling back to their homeland. The ancient city of Jerusalem, rubble-strewn as it was, was slowly starting to re-populate. But the city was in ruins and the temple of God was destroyed. God in His foreknowledge had told His people that one day a king named Cyrus would set the people free to return to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 25:11-14; 32:36-38). And it is Cyrus who issues the command for able-bodied Jews to return to the city and rebuild the temple of the Lord.

God weaves the historical details together in such a way that it is clear this is His doing. And with a sovereign move of God upon the command of an absolute emperor, the Jews filter back to Jerusalem with the necessary supplies coming from their captors to rebuild the temple of the Lord. All is in place. God used a pagan king and a foreign government to provide all the people, the power, and the provisions to start the rebuilding work.

God is in control. He brings all ends to His glory. And His sovereignty extends to using the means to those ends. In rare occurrences we get clear revelation of that extent of God's sovereignty. The decree of Cyrus is just such a moment. It makes me marvel at the greatness of God. But it also challenges my faith. In most life circumstances I do not get to see God's sovereign work in me revealed with absolute clarity to me. It comes slowly over time in a view that makes sense of the past. That takes a very courageous faith to trust in God. But I can do so. He knows what He is doing. He will move everything or anything or anyone He chooses to accomplish His purposes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

gospel-centered prayer

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.
2 Thessalonians 3:1-2

How I wish my prayer requests could be as focused as these requests from Paul. Paul had two things he asked the Thessalonian church to pray for concerning him. The first was that the gospel would speedily advance unhindered. He had set the work in Thessalonica as a model for gospel preaching and church planting. And he asked that the same rapid success the gospel found with them might continue in all of his ministry. Paul was a man with a gospel lifestyle. And he wanted Christ's saving life to move forward.

The closest we have to a "personal" prayer request in this passage is the second thing Paul asks for them to bring before God. Paul asked that he and his companions be delivered from evil opposition to the gospel. Paul had been imprisoned for preaching the gospel multiple times. Fierce opposition was not new to him. His ministry was marked by it. But he still asked God to protect and deliver him from it so that he could continue preaching the good news. And he wanted others praying the same thing. Why? Because if he was kept from evil opposition, the first request of having the Word of God "speed forward" could be accomplished.

I want to keep my prayers gospel-focused. How different the church would be if we all prayed primarily in this way, instead of being focused on personal health and wealth. I suppose though it should start with me. After all, I am the one who can change the way I pray first. So today, I am going to think through what it means to go to God with my prayers being gospel-focused first.

Monday, July 9, 2012

chosen, saved, and sanctified

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
2 Thessalonians 2:13

Christian reality
in which our souls reside
is the factual trinity
of being chosen, saved, and sanctified.

We are chosen in Christ
to be heirs together
and are satisfied
with family life there.

We are saved by faith
in Jesus' work that rescues
and live every day
in a life that is new.

We are made holy in Him
and called to live differently
so that God can be seen
in our words and our deeds.

Our lives are in Christ
and in Him we abide
as a world we change by life
...we are chosen, saved, and sanctified.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

of faith and love

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.
2 Thessalonians 1:3

Paul remarks on two visible attributes of Christian community that were the distinguishing traits of the church in Thessalonica. The first of these is faith. And really, it is the first character quality of a Christian. In order to trust in Christ for eternal salvation and real life perspective, you gotta' have faith! Faith is not just a mystical belief in the irrational. I see it instead as the core ability to trust God at His Word.

Faith attends the facts of the gospel. And it is a choice. And you have faith in something. Everyone does. For the Thessalonian culture the choice was between faith in Christ rather than a faith in pagan idolatry. In our culture right now, it is a choice between faith in Christ against a pagan naturalism. In other cultures it might be a choice between Christ and the State. Any form of personal philosophy REQUIRES an exercise of faith.

The second character trait in the text is love. This is the most accessible aspect of Christianity. Faith may be personal, but love is personable. It is known as it is seen in action in the Church. It brings together the Body of Christ. It is the experience that creates unity around the love Christ has for us as know it in the gospel. And that love is what can ultimately show that our faith is real.

What a true delight it is to live in faith and in love. And to know all of that within the church is an amazing experience. It is personally transforming and empowering. I have lived my life here and have only great joys (even in the hardships) to show for it in my heart. Faith grows and love increases! And that is what my heart always prays to know.

Monday, July 2, 2012

don't despise God

The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.
2 Chronicles 36:15-16

Judah saw the end of God's longsuffering patience. After a long history of turning away from the covenant and loving idolatry, Judah was warned by God. He sent His word to them via His prophets. But the nation rejected their message and scoffed at the prophets themselves. The people rebelled against everything God did with a mocking rejection. God had no other recourse than in His wrath against sin to enact all the curses of the covenant.

What is amazing is just how long God was patient with His people. He spoke to them for generations, warning them of the consequences of their rejection and their idolatry. He pleaded with them through His prophets. But they did not care. They laughed at God and went on in their sinful choices.

God is slow to anger as is seen clearly in 2 Chronicles. But He is not a God Who looks the other way when we sin. He will discipline His people out of love and a desire to bring them to repentance. When Judah finally rejected God, He brought the nation to Babylon in chains. There, for seven decades they lived in captivity. Eventually in His mercy He brought them home with their thoughts fixed again upon Him and keeping covenant. Never again would idolatry mark the Jewish people. His discipline accomplished their renewal in ways God knew that it would.