Category Archives: Ezra and Nehemiah

Introduction to Ezra and Nehemiah

From Genesis onwards the historical books have traced the rise and fall of the nation of Israel. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah bring the story to an end. (The rest of the Old Testament contains ‘Wisdom Literature’-books like Job, Psalms and Proverbs-and the words of the prophets, like Joel, Amos and Isaiah.)

At the conclusion of 2 Kings/ 2 Chronicles, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in a state of misery and desolation. Their ingratitude to God, and their constant backsliding and rebellion at last resulted in their defeat and captivity; northern Israel to Assyria, southern Judah to Babylon.

Israel never returned.

In mercy to the faithful remnant of Judah, God had promised (Jer 25:11-12), that after seventy years he would restore them to their own country. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell that story.

Although they were possibly originally two separate documents (see Neh 1:1), Ezra and Nehemiah were combined as one in the earliest Hebrew manuscripts. The oldest manuscripts of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) also treat Ezra and Nehemiah as one book.

The Literary Style

Both books consist of various documents that have been assembled from a variety of sources. There are numerous lists obtained from official sources;

1.   lists of temple articles,

2.   the returned exiles,

3.   the genealogy of Ezra,

4.   the heads of the clans,

5.   those involved in mixed marriages,

6.   those who helped rebuild the wall

7.   those who sealed the covenant

8.   residents of Jerusalem and other towns

9.   priests and levites

There are also other official documents, all (but the first) of which are in Aramaic – the official trading language of the time;

1.   the decree of Cyrus

2.   the accusation of Rehum and others against the Jews

3.   the reply of Artaxerxes

4.   the report from Tattenai

5.   the memorandum of Cyrus’ decree

6.   Darius’ reply to Tattenai

7.   the authorization given by Artaxerxes

Nehemiah 10-13: A Real Resolution!

If you’ve ever been in the market to buy a house. You’ll have come across REAL ESTATE DOUBLE-SPEAK. The phrases real estate agents use that SAY / ONE thing, but MEAN something ELSE.

They’re experts at GILDING THE LILY. Disguising the truth. Focussing on THE GOOD BITS.

But I think most of us are pretty cluey when it comes to their code. For example, what do you expect to see when a house is advertised as CLOSE TO TRANSPORT? It’s either on a major highway, where you take your life into your hands crossing the road. Or it’s next to the railway line, and the windows shake when a train thunders past.

  • Or what about… COSY? Obviously it’s so small, there’s no room to swing a cat.
  • Or “compact garden”. No backyard
  • “Rustic” means there’s no electricity, and there’s an outside toilet.
  • “Water glimpses” means if you stand on one leg on the top of the verandah railing, you can see the neighbours BIRDBATH.
  • Or the old favourite “Renovator’s delight”. Which means it’s a death trap, and watch your step or you’ll fall through the floorboards.

Real estate agents are EXPERTS at making the MOST out of a property’s assets. Of painting the ROSIEST PICTURE POSSIBLE/ out of the thinnest of evidence.

If you JUST LOOK AT A FEW HIGH POINTS/ OUT OF CONTEXT, you can easily get the wrong idea. You can easily mix up a good house with a bad one. A purchase worth making/ from one to run a mile from.

And it’s only when you see the WHOLE THING that you really get the message. When you see the REALITY/ that you know for sure.

Which is exactly how it works with the book of Nehemiah. We need to look AT THE WHOLE THING to get an accurate picture of its message.

It’s a funny thing, over the years there’s been a tradition. A tradition that’s only looked at the HIGH POINTS of the book of Nehemiah. The good bits.

The construction of the TEMPLE. The building of the walls. And you say, “Look how they BUILT THE GREAT WALL. That’s how WE SHOULD BUILD.”

The great spiritual revival of Israel. And you say, “Look at the great spiritual revival. That’s how WE SHOULD HAVE REVIVALS.”

The great leadership of Nehemiah. And you say, “Look at the great leadership of Nehemiah. That’s how OUR LEADERS SHOULD LEAD.”

Not noticing for a minute that when you read THE WHOLE STORY, that’s not what’s there at all. Because in the end, Nehemiah is a book about FAILURE. Nehemiah is the story of A TRAGEDY.

Nehemiah’s NOT a leadership manual. Or a HOW TO book on re-building a city, or a nation.

It’s a story of DISASTROUS FAILURE. That says to us, if you think BUILDING THINGS is important, there’s something MORE IMPORTANT. And that’s the SORT OF PEOPLE you put INSIDE your building.

And Nehemiah’s a story that says to us, if you think LEADERSHIP is important, leaders like Nehemiah just haven’t got what it takes. And for the people of Israel, ultimately – they need a leader like JESUS.

Well, after that cheery introduction. Let’s turn to these last chapters of Nehemiah.

Real Repentance?

We’ve seen how the people have come back. God’s given them a chance to make a NEW START… which according to God, has to start from the HEART. If they TURN BACK TO HIM FOR REAL – they’ll be blessed like never before.

And so we’ve watched while they’ve REBUILT THE CITY WALLS. Stone by stone. A wall that’s going to draw the line between THE PEOPLE OF GOD… and everyone else.

But there’s still the big question; and that is, what’s in their HEARTS? Have they REALLY REPENTED?

Sure, they feel bad. They feel sorry for their sins. And they’ve confessed… But is it repentance that goes all the way to the HEART… and then works its way outward in a CHANGED WAY OF LIVING.

When you come to chapter 10, and this is where we pick up the story today, it’s obvious they’re FULL OF GOOD INTENTIONS. But good intentions aren’t enough.

It’s a bit like new year’s resolutions. Every year I decide I’m going to keep my desk tidy; no more piles of papers and disks and coffee cups. And I decide that THIS YEAR I’m going to get more regular exercise.

Full of good intentions. That last til the second of January.

Is it like that with Israel? Have a look at THEIR good resolutions. At the end of chapter 9. Verse 38. They’ve confessed their sins. And now they’re making a fresh start.

And they say in verse 38,

38 “In view of all this, we are making A BINDING AGREEMENT, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” NIV

These guys mean business. A legal document. Witnessed by everyone. They’re so confident they’re putting it in writing. And there’s a list of the names of the people who sign.

And the rest of chapter 10 goes on in detail to spell out THREE SPECIAL AREAS where they’re going to be DISTINCTIVE. Three New Year’s Resolutions. Where they’re going to stand out as the special people of God that they’re meant to be.

1. Intermarriage (10:30)

And here’s the first one. Ch 10 v30. It’s in the area of INTERMARRIAGE. Of their sons and daughters marrying into the surrounding nations.

Because the fact is, God always told the Israelites to be separate. And for that to happen, Israelites have got to marry Israelites. And not just mix and blend and blur with the all the other nations around them as if there wasn’t any difference.

Because that’s the point. God said if you start marrying into other nations, the next thing you know you’ll be following their gods. And leaving me behind. Marrying the outsider means marrying their god.

And in case you thought that was just an OT issue, you’re wrong. It’s just as clear in the NT. God’s people should only marry God’s people. A Christian shouldn’t marry a non-Christian. 2 Cor 6:14. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”.

If your faith in Jesus is a fundamental part of your life, what happens when you marry an unbeliever? Straight away there’s a tension. Straight away there’s a pressure.

And you say, oh, yeah, but it’s okay, I’m going to CONVERT them. But more often than not it works exactly the opposite way.

And it’s not just MARRIAGE either. For you TEENAGERS, it’s about who you go out with. Don’t go out with non-Christians. Fair enough, you’re not even THINKING about marriage. …YET.

But I know plenty of Christians who start going out with a non-Christian, not thinking it’s serious. And then it becomes serious. And they fall in love. And it becomes too hard to break up then.

And they start making all kinds of excuses to themselves. About why it’s alright to marry a non-Christian. About how it’s not too bad really. Or how they convert them. Missionary dating.

And sometimes that DOES happen. But often it’s a mess.

The point is, we’re not just talking minor issues here, it’s not just like marrying someone who supports a different football team, is it? We’re talking about a WHOLE LIFE ORIENTATION. The whole direction you’re going in. Which means that marrying someone who doesn’t SHARE that is always going to be hard work.

It’s never going to have the complete one-ness and intimacy God designed marriage to be. God wants your BEST, – believe it! So only marriage Christians.

And so in verse 30 of chapter 10 the people promise. Promise number 1. “We PROMISE not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us, or to take their daughters for our sons.” Because we won’t let anything drag us away from following God.

They sign it, they seal it. It’s a promise. How long’s it going to last? Keep watching.

2 – SABBATH REST (10:31)

Next. Promise number 2. Ch 10 v31. And it’s all got to do with the SABBATH.

You know, one of the things that really marked Israel out as being different was their Sabbath. Different from everyone else around them. The way that on the Seventh day, everything stopped. Sunset Friday, down tools, turn everything off, lock the cash register; and sit back and relax. While they remember the God who made them. And who gave them their land. No buying. No selling. Just resting.

Well, that’s how it was meant to be, anyway. Trouble is, since they’d been back in the land their GREED made them totally ignore it. If there was a buck to be made on the Sabbath, they’d make it.

But have a look at promise number 2. Because now, they say, it’s going to be different. Verse 31. Still in chapter 10. When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath, or any holy day.

Once again, a written guarantee. WE PROMISE. No matter how good a deal turns up at the gates.

3. The temple (10:32)

Now there’s one more promise. And it starts in verse 32. The life of Israel was focussed on the Temple. Because the life of Israel focussed on GOD.

And in promise number 3, they say, look, we know in the old days we IGNORED the temple a bit. We didn’t quite get around to bringing in our offerings. Let things run down a bit.

BUT NEVER AGAIN. We’re going to bring our offerings. We’re going to support the priests and the Levites; we’re going to fill up the store rooms. A whole new attitude. And it’s summarised in the last verse of the chapter. Those simple words right at the end of verse 39. Promise number 3. “We will not NEGLECT the house of our God.”

It’s all there in writing. Three promises, as a mark of their REPENTANCE. Signed and sealed.

What HAPPENS?

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. But the big question is, what happens? They’ve made their new years resolutions. The question is, can they keep them?

Run your eye through chapter 11, you can see the details of how they bring people in from the Israelite towns to resettle Jerusalem.

Chapter 12. Details of all the Priests and the Levites. And the great Dedication Service for the new walls of Jerusalem. It’s a huge celebration, with two choirs marching around the walls singing songs. And everything’s terrific.

So far, it’s one big, long, happy story. Everything’s looking rosy. They’ve got plenty to celebrate.

And the first few verses of Ch 13 give a nice summary. A nice place to wrap up the story. The Book of Moses is read aloud. The people HEAR it and OBEY it. And in v3, they SEPARATE themselves as a holy people.

Which would be a great place to finish. A great RESOLUTION.

Remember a the start of Ezra we talked about NARRATIVES. How all good narratives have an ORIENTATION, a COMPLICATION, and a RESOLUTION. We all love a happy ending. And this would be a GREAT resolution. A perfect “and they all lived happily ever after”.

There’s only one problem. The story DOESN’T finish here.

At the time, Nehemiah HOPED that would be the ending. He gets to this point, and heaves a huge sigh of relief. Cause the job he came to do is done.

So, chapter 13, v6, he heads back to Babylon for a well-earned holiday. To report to back the King. He’s been in Jerusalem 12 years, it’s the thirty second year of the reign of Artaxerxes.

So Nehemiah, with everything shipshape, heads North.

UNHAPPY HOMECOMING

Now they say the sign of a good leader is what happens when he’s NOT around. Which is why, at this point, you have to wonder why so many American Christian leadership books want to use Nehemiah as THEIR NUMBER 1 CASE STUDY.

Because what do you reckon happens as soon as Nehemiah’s tail-lights are out of sight around the first corner?

Remember the three-part promise?

  1. We’re not going to intermarry.
  2. We’re not going to trade on the Sabbath.
  3. And we’re not going to neglect the house of God.

Well, Nehemiah gets back from his little holiday in Babylon. And what’s he find? For starters, there’s Eliashib the priest. He’s in charge of the temple storerooms. The storerooms that were meant to be full to overflowing with the Israelites offerings they promised in promise number 3.

Last promise made. First promise broken.

The storerooms are empty. So Eliashib rents them out. And you won’t believe this, he’s renting them out to TOBIAH the AMMONITE; the guy who used to stand outside the walls yelling and making threats. The guy who’s been in Nehemiah’s face right from chapter 2. The guy who’s nationality Israel was to have NOTHING TO DO WITH.

Well, when he finds out, Nehemiah’s furious. And the first thing he does is throw all Tobiah’s stuff out of the room, like that ad you seen on TV with that girl who throws out her boyfriend. Yellow Pages lands on his head. Chapter 13 verse 8.

And in verse 9, he gives orders to purify the rooms and set them up again with the grain offerings and the incense. And he rebukes the officials in verse 11. And the words are exactly the same as the words they wrote down in their promise back in chapter 10. WHY IS THE HOUSE OF GOD NEGLECTED?

‘Cause they promised in black and white. And they’ve blown it already. Three promises. One down. Two to go.

And Nehemiah adds the first of three prayers. V14. “Remember me for this, O my God”.

It’s the sort of comment that we react to. That we think sounds a bit egotistical and self-centred.

Perhaps the first thing to remember is that we’re probably reading over the shoulder of his diary. And it probably fits THAT sort of setting pretty well. “God, I’m doing my best with these people. Keep that in mind when I’m called to account.”

But at the same time I think there’s a bit of despair and resignation to the prayer as well. He started off in Ch 1 praying for the whole nation. But now, He’s done all he can. And nothing’s really changed. And so all that’s left is himself. The only one who’s doing his bit. One lone Israelite. A bit sad really.

What about broken promise number 2. Verse 15. In those days, says Nehemiah, I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in corn and loading it on donkeys together with wine grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. And verse 16, men from Tyre are bringing stuff on the Sabbath as well, and they’re selling it.

And Nehemiah’s FURIOUS. He has to station his men at the gate to stop them doing what they PROMISED not to do.

And once again, at the end of v22. Another prayer from Nehemiah. “Remember me for this also, O my God”

It’s like a count down, isn’t it. Three promises. Two down. And one to go.

And here it is. V23. Remember promise number 1. No intermarriage. It’s the first one promised, and the last one to fall.

Moreover, he says, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and didn’t know how to speak the language of Judah.”

And Nehemiah just about explodes. Verse 26. Look what he says.

“Wasn’t it because of marriages like this that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel – but even HE was lead into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that YOU TOO are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?

And the ultimate insult. Verse 28. One of the sons of Joiadad son of Eliashib the high priest… was son in law to … SANBALLAT THE HORONITE.

Sanballat and Tobiah, the two greatest enemies of Israel. Tobiah’s renting the store-room at the temple. Sanballat is FATHER IN LAW of the high priest’s son.

These guys threatened. They tried trickery. They bribed. They sent armies. And Nehemiah fought them off every time. And as soon as he turns his back, they’re invited in the main gate. Given the red carpet treatment. Tragic!

These are the people who said they’d repented. These are the people who promised. Promised to be faithful to God. And distinctive. And different.

It’s an absolute FARCE. And from Nehemiah’s point of view, it’s a tragedy. Because the fact is, it’s the story of a huge failure.

And so Nehemiah, who at the start of the book prayed a prayer for ALL OF ISRAEL, all he can do at the end is pray for HIMSELF. That God will at least forgive HIM. And remember him with favour. All Nehemiah can do is pray and say, “God, remember me. Cause I did my best.”

CONCLUSION

Narratives need RESOLUTIONS. And there doesn’t seem to be one here.

In fact, you can’t even turn anywhere else in the rest of the Old Testament to FIND the happy ending. Because Nehemiah marks the end of the HISTORY section of the Old Testament. That runs all the way from GENESIS. What you get from here on is things like the Psalms. And the prophets. But the HISTORY LESSON stops here.

And it’s not a happy ending. It’s an ending that’s crying out for a new beginning. For a RESOLUTION. It’s an ending that leaves you with QUESTIONS. But not answers.

Like, if Israel failed, what happens now? Like, where are you going to get an Israel that REALLY REPENTS FROM THE HEART? Like, is there any possibility of the sort of LEADER who can do what Nehemiah FAILED TO DO.

All of which are answered, aren’t they, in JESUS. Who comes to Israel and says REPENT. Like you should have before.

And more than that, who lives PERFECTLY. And DIES SACRIFICIALLY. Who deals with the DEBTS OF THE PAST.

And more than that, who baptises us with his Holy Spirit. Who actually GIVES PEOPLE the ABILITY to repent. And to obey.

Jesus is the resolution to Nehemiah’s story. He’s the resolution to ISRAEL’S story.

The book of Hebrews spends a lot of space dealing with this very question. How Israel was INCOMPLETE. UNFINISHED. Until Jesus came.

Ch 4 of Hebrews. He gives REST like Israel never had.

Chapters 5-8. Jesus is a HIGH PRIEST like Israel never had. Who enters a HOLY PLACE like Israel never had. And who presents A SACRIFICE like Israel never had.

The sacrifice of himself. The sacrifice which cleanses us ONCE AND FOR ALL. The sacrifice which enables us to ACTUALLY, and TRULY, serve the God whose plan it was from the beginning.

Nehemiah is a great book for us. Not because it provides us with all the answers. But because it asks all the right QUESTIONS. It poses the problems. It sets up the complications. It leaves us hanging. Hanging out for Jesus.

Heb 9:11.

11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are OUTWARDLY clean. 14 HOW MUCH MORE, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, SO THAT WE MAY SERVE THE LIVING GOD! Heb 9:13-14

Nehemiah 8-9: Real Repentance

I was talking to a lady yesterday at Blacktown Festival. She was 84, and she was telling me how she’d seen Blacktown change over her lifetime. She’d lived around here most of her life

–except for a few years after her husband retired. When they bought some land out west, and moved there. They thought it would be nice to move out of the city. And to slow down a bit.

But it didn’t take long before her husband wanted to move back. He was BORED. Things were too slow.

He longed for things to be different. But it didn’t turn out quite the way he’d thought.

Do you long for things to be DIFFERENT? Are you sick of the rat-race? Tired of the grind? The hustle, the hassle, the futility of doing the same things week after week. And nothing seems to get any better.

Perhaps you’ve thought this way last time you were on HOLIDAYS. And life just seems to be PERFECT. Your family actually GETS ON with each other. There’s time to talk, and eat together. You SLEEP better. You get to read those books, and watch those videos you never get time for during the year.

You’re in a beautiful spot. Great scenery. You walk around and just ENJOY what God’s made.

But holidays always come to an end. And you come back to reality. And before long, you’re longing for things to be DIFFERENT?

It’s certainly an experience for THOUSANDS of people. Our generation is the generation of the SEA CHANGE. Sell-up in the big smoke. Move to the coast.

(Or if you like the bush, you have a TREE-CHANGE).

But the principle is the same. Down-size. Enjoy living on less. Enjoy LIFE MORE.

That’s the DREAM.

But the reality is often about under-employment, or unemployment. Of loneliness, and boredom. Of not being accepted by the locals. Of not having the services and comforts you’re used to. Of things not really being the PARADISE they thought.

Longing for something BETTER.

That desire for something better – it’s really a human CONDITION. And it’s often about GREED, or LAZINESS. But not always.

Let me suggest that there’s something GOOD about longing for something better. Can I suggest, that rightly understood, it’s a GODLY DESIRE. At its best, It’s a hunger for perfection. A longing for the ULTIMATE life. ABUNDANT life.

That longing we feel is THE SHADOW THAT ETERNITY CASTS ON US. The result of being made in the image of an eternal God. Made to be in a relationship with him.

God WANTS us to be longing for something better. It’s a thirst we can PARTLY satisfy through the Spirit-filled life of the Christian. Walking with Jesus.

But it’s a thirst that will only be FULLY satisfied in the new creation. But we’ll come to that a little later.

Longing for something different. For things to be better. That’s what Israel is up to. We’re up to the end of Ch 7 of Nehemiah. And things are looking pretty good.

We’ve come to crunch time. Where the rubber will meet the road. Because all the ducks are lined up. The people have returned, the temple’s finished, the city walls are complete. The people have been settled in their right towns. And the non-Israelites have been expelled.

All the parts are in place for a GENUINE NEW BEGINNING. A fresh start. Ready for TRUE REPENTANCE.

Because that’s got to be the first step in this FRESH START. Real repentance. Everything depends on THAT.

And, just like WE do with New Years Resolutions, the Jews pick THEIR New Years Day to make a fresh start. First day of the seventh month. Rosh Hashanah.

It’s an extraordinary picture that’s painted. Everyone’s assembled back in Jerusalem. There’s a huge gathering in the main square.

Now a lot of people these days reckon church services are too long and too boring if they go over 59 and a half minutes. But get a load of this. Here’s a church service that starts at daybreak. And it’s still going at noon.

And can you see, there’s a real sense of UNITY. Chapter 8 verse 1 says the people assembled AS ONE MAN. And as you read through the passage, you see the same phrase over and over again. ALL THE PEOPLE. All the people. And they’re here for one reason. United. To hear the Word of God.

Ezra the Scribe brings out the book of the Law of Moses, and he stands up on this huge wooden stage at daybreak, and he starts reading.

The book of Genesis. The book of Exodus. The book of Leviticus. The book of Numbers. It’s half past nine. The book of Deuteronomy. It’s eleven o’clock. Must be time for a coffee break.

But no. The book of Joshua. And on he goes. The LAW THEY WERE GIVEN BEFORE THEY CAME INTO THE LAND. The blessing if they kept it. The curse if they didn’t.

And it says in verse 6, Ezra PRAISED THE LORD, the great God; and ALL THE PEOPLE lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the lord with their faces to the ground.”

And then there’s more. The Levites – and you can see their names recorded in verse 7 – they start INSTRUCTING people in the law, spelling it out, explaining it so all the people can understand it.

Verse 8 says “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it CLEAR, and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”

And it all sinks in. God’s Word has shown the people EXACTLY what they’re like. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I saw a tragic home video on Australia’s Funniest Home videos a while ago. Someone behind the counter in a newsagent had filmed a customer browsing the magazines. The problem was she must have recently visited the bathroom/ because her dress was tucked into the top of her undies. Very embarrassing.

But instead of telling the lady, this person had videotaped it!

Now it would surely have been embarrassing for the lady to be told. But how much worse NOT to be told. Much better to be TOLD what you look like.

If she’d known/ she could have straightened herself up, and not had to put up with her most embarrassing moment being broadcast on national television.

If only she’d had A MIRROR.

And a mirror is exactly what God’s given us when it comes to OUR embarrassing bits. But I’m not talking about our personal hygiene. I’m talking about our SIN.

And that mirror is God’s Word. It’s a mirror that shows us what we’re REALLY like. Shows us the way GOD sees us. And for sinful people / that’s not A PLEASANT THING.

It certainly wasn’t for the Israelites. You can see in verse 9 that when they understand it, the people are cut to the heart. And they mourn and weep. Because they know how far they’ve strayed.

When was the last time YOU wept because you caught a glimpse of the AWFULNESS of your sin? Or the WONDER of God’s grace?

For me, it was last Thursday. A High School Scripture seminar on CONFIDENCE. Confidence in the FLESH vs confidence in God. And I was reading out Paul’s testimony in Phil 3 to the other teachers before we started. And as I did, I realised they wer MY words. And I realised what a TREASURE I had to be FORGIVEN.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.  NIV

That was ME. And it was the same with Israel. The people HEAR the Law. They UNDERSTAND it. It’s RELEVANCE. It’s IMPLICATIONS. And they WEEP AND MOURN.

And it looks like a case of GENUINE REMORSE. But IS IT?

Here’s a whole nation that’s gone off the rails. And the time has come to put things right. And REPENT. And we’re going to see them doing it.

But all the time we need to keep asking the question, is there going to be a REAL CHANGE OF BEHAVIOUR? Or is it all just EMPTY WORDS?

But at this point, Nehemiah stops them. The words have been said. And the tears have been spilled.

Because it’s the first of July, and according to the law they’ve been reading, the first of July’s A VERY SPECIAL DAY. The day they celebrate the way God first brought them out of captivity in Egypt all those hundreds of years ago. The day they celebrate the way Moses stood up to Pharoah. And led them out through the Red Sea. And they camped in the wilderness in little huts.

Now at Easter, we have Easter Eggs. And at Christmas, we have Christmas trees. But to celebrate the Festival of Booths, the book of Leviticus says the Israelites had to go out and get tree branches. And bring them back, and make little lean-to cubby houses. And camp in them. As a reminder of those days in the wilderness.

And so you can see in verse 16, that’s exactly what they do.

“So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God, and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the gate of Ephraim.”

Try to imagine the scene. These little leafy huts scattered all round Jerusalem. And people camping in them. Celebrating with good food and good drinks. And it says in verse 17, the whole company who’d come back from the exile built the booths and lived in them.

And there’d never been anything like it since the days of Joshua. Those hundreds of years before. Because it’s like the same thing all over again. God’s brought them BACK to the promised land. They’d been exiled. AND NOW THEY’RE BACK AGAIN. Back to square one. Ready for a fresh start.

And, in v18, we see that the party went on for a whole week!

CHAPTER 9 – LEARNING FROM HISTORY

Jump forward to Chapter 9. There’s another great gathering. It’s three weeks later. And you can see in verse 1 they’re fasting and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Signs of REPENTANCE. Signs of REMORSE.

They’ve separated themselves from foreigners, it says in verse 2, and they’re ready to get serious about being the people of God. It says “They STOOD IN THEIR PLACES AND CONFESSED THEIR SINS and the wickedness of their fathers.”

You know, there’s an old saying. If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps the people are finally ready to learn the lessons of history.

Because they’ve heard the Words of God’s law read to them. And they know they’ve blown it. And from verse 6 onwards, you hear what they’ve learned. It’s like a summary of the history of Israel. A summary of the Bible so far.

And it’s all part of one very long prayer of confession to God that lists all the great things God has done for them. And the way they responded. By spitting in God’s face.

It’s one big to-and-fro. Down through history. First God BLESSES them. Then they turn away and show they don’t DESERVE it. Then God FORGIVES them, and blesses them. Even though they don’t deserve it. Then they SIN AGAIN. Then God forgives them AGAIN.

And so on, and so on.

Look from v7. God chose Abram. Made a covenant with him. And KEPT his promise (v8) because he’s RIGHTEOUS.

Then He brought his people out of Egypt. Brought them to Mt Sinai (v13), and gave them just and right laws and decrees and commands. He gave them manna and water.

But verse 16. “they, our forefathers became arrogant and stiff necked.” And they didn’t obey your commands.”

That’s what the Israelites were like. Chosen by God to be Holy. Given God’s law, like no other nation on earth. And they respond with DISOBEDIENCE. Time after time.

And STILL God didn’t give up on them. V17 “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,

Or v19 “Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

And the blessings just keep pouring out. V20 all the way to the end of v25. And the people are in the land, enjoying its abundance. Living in peace.

But v26. They’d learned NOTHING. They were disobedient and rebellious.

And when God handed them over to their enemies as punishment, and they cried out to him. V27 He forgave them. Again. And rescued them.

And the cycle repeats in v28.

And v30.

Neh 9:30-31: For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples. 31 But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.  NIV

And finally, down in v33. The lesson learned from history. Summing the whole thing up.

Neh 9:33-34: In all that has happened to us, you have been JUST; YOU have acted FAITHFULLY, while WE did WRONG.  NIV

That’s their prayer. I guess it’s a prayer of repentance. And behind it all, I guess they’re saying, THAT WAS OUR ANCESTORS. But WE… we’re going to be different.

We’ve learned our lesson from history. This time, we’re going to get it right. This time we’re going to be OBEDIENT.

And you can see the POINT of the prayer from v32. All the way through, the emphasis has been on God keeping his promise. Promises that’d focussed on THE PROMISED LAND.

V8. Giving Abram THE LAND.

V15. THE LAND you’d sworn with uplifted hand to give the.

V22. “You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers.

V24. You subdued before them the Canaanites, who lived in the land; you handed the Canaanites over to them, along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with them as they pleased. 25 They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.

And now, the tragic IRONY of it all, is that, as the people pray, they’re IN the Promised Land. But they’re SLAVES. And that wasn’t part of the bargain. As Super nanny would say , THAT’S NOT ACCEPTABLE.

And their prayer is for God to do something about it. They’re LONGING FOR SOMETHING BETTER. Look at v32.

“Now therefore, O our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love, DO NOT LET ALL THIS HARDSHIP SEEM TRIFLING IN YOUR EYES-the hardship that has come upon us, upon our kings and leaders, upon our priests and prophets, upon our fathers and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today.  NIV

And v34.

Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. 35 EVEN WHILE THEY WERE IN THEIR KINGDOM, ENJOYING YOUR GREAT GOODNESS to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.

36 “But see, we are slaves today, SLAVES IN THE LAND YOU GAVE OUR FOREFATHERS so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, ITS ABUNDANT HARVEST GOES TO THE KINGS YOU HAVE PLACED OVER US. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.

They’re in the land, but they’re SLAVES. It’s not really FREEDOM at ALL. They’re in great distress. And they long for God to DO SOMETHING.

And they recognise that it all begins with REPENTANCE. We’ll see next week whether their repentance is real, or whether it’s just words.

Longing for something different

But the thing I want us to think about/ is their LONGING FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Their longing for freedom.

1. They trusted God’s faithfulness

The first thing to say is that they were RIGHT to trust the faithfulness of God. TO THROW themselves on his MERCY. Because he DID promise them the land. A land where they’d be free. A land where he would be their God. And they would be his people. A land of FREEDOM. Of PEACE.

And so, to come to God in REPENTANCE, trusting his promises is exactly the RIGHT thing to be doing.

2. Longing for a HEAVENLY country

But where they went wrong was the OBJECT of their longing.

We might long for life to be one long beachside holiday. For the sea-change. The down-size. But that’s not realistic. And it’s so temporary. Idealistic.

And Israel longed for a promised land where they’d be masters of their own destiny. Ruled by their own king. Working for their own prosperity.

Which might have SOUNDED nice. But it was just as unrealistic. Because you’ve only got to look at their PRAYER to realise that just being in the land, and having your own king ISN’T ENOUGH. Sinful people will always mess up paradise. That’s the lesson of history.

And for another 400 years, the pleading of Israel continued. Reminding God of his faithfulness and righteousness. Reminding him of HIS PROMISES. To bless them, and be their God. And bring them into the land.

And about this time THE PHARISEES started to develop. And their big thing was that if they could JUST BE HOLY ENOUGH. If they could just OBEY GOD’S LAW CLOSELY ENOUGH. Then God would finally deliver them. And bring in his kingdom.

And the LONGING continued through the reign of Alexander the Great, and into the rule of the Romans. And still no sign of God keeping his promise.

400 years. It must have seemed like an eternity.

But God hadn’t forgotten. When the time was right, he sent Jesus. His chosen King. The one who would answer YES to all God’s promises.

And the FREEDOM he would bring. And the KINGDOM he would begin. Wasn’t quite what Israel had been longing for.

But it’s the kingdom that WE long for. It’s God’s ETERNAL kingdom. A kingdom that stretches WAY BEYOND the physical boundaries of earthly Israel.

And the ironic thing is/ the kingdom which Jesus began. The kingdom WE long for. Is the very kingdom that TRUE ISRAEL longed for. That those who TRULY REPENTED hoped for.

Listen to what the letter to the Hebrews says, talking about the Jews. Heb Ch 11 v13

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …16 Instead, they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.  NIV

And down to v39.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  :  NIV

God had something MUCH BETTER planned for Israel. For his people. Much better than an EARTHLY king. Much better than an EARTHLY kingdom.

And it was all about his Son Jesus. Hebrews continues into Ch 12.

Heb 12:1-3: 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  NIV

That’s the future we need to be longing for. Forget the sea change. Or the overseas holiday. Forget the bigger house. Forget the new job.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. The one who BEGAN your faith. Who completed it. And who’s sitting at the right hand of God. Waiting for you. Waiting for you to begin an eternity spent with him.

That’s something better that’s WORTH longing for. That’s worth LIVING NOW for. Run the race with perseverance, with your eyes fixed on Jesus.

Live NOW with Jesus as your king, so that your future would be spent with Jesus as your king.

That’s a future WORTH longing for!

Nehemiah 5-7: Who’s a True Blue Jew?

I’m a bit of a sucker for a BARGAIN. Some of you know I love EBAY. The Internet auction site.

And sometimes you get a GREAT bargain! Last week I bought a Mistral sailboard for $58 – complete with a two-piece mast, two near-new sails, and a boom. All those EXTRAS would cost about $600 if I wanted to buy them separately. I was almost embarrassed to pay that LITTLE.

But there’s also the other side. There’s a couple of sayings that can ring true when it comes to Ebay “You shouldn’t JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.” And “IF IT SEEMS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE… IT PROBABLY IS!”

Early on, I made the mistake of buying a second hand laser printer. It was reasonably cheap, but it was OLD. And when it needed a new drum, I was quoted about $500 to replace it. I knew I’d made a mistake.

It looked fine ON THE OUTSIDE, but things weren’t good ON THE INSIDE. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

See, it’s no good just LOOKING the part, is it. The reality’s got to go further. It’s no good just looking good ON THE OUTSIDE if it doesn’t go any further than skin deep.

And that’s the issue Nehemiah’s up against with the Israelites in the passage we’re looking at today. The question is, what does it mean to be the people of God? What does it mean to be an Israelite? What does it take to be a TRUE BLUE JEW?

And the answer is, it’s got to be something that goes a lot further than SKIN DEEP.

They’ve arrived back in the land. And they’re well and truly settled. For most of them, Babylon is a distant memory.

First the altar was rebuilt. Then a while later, the temple gets finished. But then things STALL for nearly seventy years. Nothing much seems to happen. The TEMPLE’s fine, but the REST of Jerusalem resembles a RUBBISH DUMP.

It’s in the same sort of shape as BAGHDAD is today.

1. Enemies On The Inside

And so, as Nehemiah takes up the reins, they’ve started rebuilding. Most importantly, THE WALL.

And here they are. By chapter 4, where we left things last week, the wall’s up to half its height.

And all in spite of the mocking of their enemies. They keep at it. Because they’re trusting in the promises of God. The promise that if they TRULY repent, if they turn back to God with all their hearts, he’d bring them back to the land he promised Abraham. He’d RESTORE them. And BLESS them.

But that plan comes to a couple of hiccups this week. Two spanners thrown into the works.

There’s something worse than the taunts and insults of the enemies. Even worse than the planned attack. And you see it in chapter 5. It’s ONE thing to have enemies on the OUTSIDE. But it’s FAR WORSE… having enemies on THE INSIDE.

And as you read chapter 5 you see the story. There’s a famine. And the RICH Jews take advantage of the poor ones. Who have to mortgage their homes to buy food. Who have to sell their sons and daughters into slavery so they can even survive. It’s a terrible situation. And all the while the rich Jews are getting RICHER. And the wall builders starve.

We’ll have a closer look at it in a few minutes. Nehemiah sorts them out.

2. Enemies on the outside

And then in chapter 6 it’s time for more trouble. Trouble from the OUTSIDE again.

And you’ll see in verse 1 of chapter 6 Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab try to set a trap. Nehemiah knows what they’re up to; have a look at verse 9. “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, says Nehemiah, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Which God does. Because, in spite of false prophets, in spite of traps, in spite of traitors, by the end of 52 days the wall’s finished. Verse 15 of chapter 6. “So the wall was completed on the 25th of Elul in fifty two days. When all our enemies heard about this and all the surrounding nations saw it, our enemies lost their self confidence, because they realised… that this work had been done with the help of our God!”

Who’s the true blue Jew?

The walls of Jerusalem are finally finished. But here’s the interesting point. City Walls are designed to keep some people in. And some people out. And the city walls of Jerusalem were meant to mark out a BOUNDARY. Between God’s people. And all the rest.

But here’s the big question. When it comes to the boundaries of the city of God, when it comes to the gates of Jerusalem, who qualifies to come IN? And who do you want to keep OUT?

Who’s the true blue Jew?

BORN into the people of God

Well, the first step, back in those days, was you had to have THE RIGHT PEDIGREE. That was important. To be BORN into the people of God.

He’s promised the land to Abraham and to Abraham’s DESCENDANTS. So if weren’t a descendant of Abraham, you didn’t count.

You can see that if you have a quick look at chapter 7. It’s a census. A list of all the families who’ve come back to Israel. It starts in verse 6. “These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon had taken captive.” And it lists them. In detail.

Now, Ch 7 reads a bit like a telephone book. Not much that’s interesting. But I want you to notice two verses in particular. Verse 61. And verse 64. Because back then, your family tree was the most important thing you could ever have. Your pedigree was sort of like your passport.

And in Verse 61 and 62, it’s the story of 642 people who didn’t have the right papers.

“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they couldn’t show that their families were descended from Israel.” Wait a minute guys. What do you think you’re DOING… I mean, just have a look at their names. It’s the family of Delaiah. The traitors back in chapter 6 who tried to make Nehemiah run away. And the family of TOBIAH. The sworn enemy of Israel. Trying to sneak in the back door.

You can’t be too careful. Slightly different in verses 63 and 64. This family of priests. It says in verse 64 that they searched for their family records everywhere. But they couldn’t find them.

Gee, you think it’s bad when you can’t find your car keys. These guys can’t find THEIR FAMILY PAPERS, so they’re excluded from the priesthood, it says, as unclean.

To be fair dinkum Jews, you had to have the RIGHT FAMILY TREE. Descendants of Abraham. The true inheritors of the promises of God.

LIVING LIKE THE PEOPLE OF GOD – Chapter 5

But that’s not all. Because in the end, being a true Jew means more than just being one ON THE OUTSIDE. It means more than just having the right sort of ancestors. That was important. But there’s something else that has to go with it.

And that’s the REAL issue that was facing Nehemiah back in chapter 5. It’s not just an ON THE SURFACE sort of problem. The real problem, what happens if these people of God WON’T LIVE LIKE THE PEOPLE OF GOD?

And it’s not just something RECENT. It’d been going on for DECADES. Back before the temple was built. Nearly a hundred years earlier. The prophet Zechariah warned the people against this sort of EXTERNAL focus. About keeping up APPEARANCES.

Zech 7. The people want to know whether to keep celebrating the feasts and fasts. The religious festivals. And listen to what God said, through Zechariah.

5 “Ask all the people …, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really FOR ME that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting FOR YOURSELVES? …9 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’ NIV

A true change on THE INSIDE should be seen in a consistent, regular, godly lifestyle. Not just in ticking the religious boxes. Justice and compassion are more important than sacrifices and fasting.

It was a lesson they’d forgotten by Nehemiah’s time. Or perhaps they’d NEVER learned it. Turn back to chapter 5 and have a closer look. And you’ll see what’s happening. Like we saw before, there’s a famine. And the rich Jewish nobles and officials are ripping off the workers.

There’s a huge outcry, and Nehemiah’s furious with them. And you can see what Nehemiah says to them in verse 7. He says, “I pondered them in my mind, then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are exacting Usury from your own countrymen.”

Usury is UNFAIR INTEREST. Usury is taking advantage of someone else’s situation. And profiting from it. And most important of all, if you have a look back at God’s covenant, the rules the people of Israel were meant to be living by, the rules that made them DIFFERENT to everyone else, guess what you find. Exodus Chapter 22. USURY is absolutely forbidden. Absolutely clear in black and white. And here are these Jewish leaders who are doing it anyway. Carried away by their own greed.

And Nehemiah can’t get over it. I mean, they’re struggling to get re-established after 70 years as slaves to the gentile Babylonians. And now their doing the same thing to one another. He says “We’ve just bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. And now you’re selling them all over again.”

And they’re speechless.

So he goes on. Verse 9. “What you’re doing is not right! Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our gentile enemies?”

I mean, it’s a matter of respecting GOD. Because they’re doing exactly what God said NOT to. And not only that, they’re wide open for reproach from the gentiles. Because they can see the way the so-called people of God are ripping one another off.

And even WORSE THAN THAT. Remember what we saw last week. There’s the question hanging right through the book of Nehemiah… because God said, coming home, the whole deal… it hinged on whether the people of Israel were going to REALLY REPENT. From the heart.

So Nehemiah goes on to set things right. And he makes them promise to give everything back, and cancel the interest. Which they do.

And have a look at what he says in verse 13. They’ve taken an oath. And Nehemiah says this. He shakes out the folds of his robe. And he says, “In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied.”

He says, there’s NO ROOM HERE for people who are going to ignore the covenant with God. There’s no room here for people who are going to treat their brothers like YOU’VE been doing. He says, you’re acting worse than the gentiles. And it’s got to stop.

And not only that, but he SETS AN EXAMPLE. By lending his corn without any interest. By making a point of not profiting from the situation himself. And he doesn’t even take his salary as governor. Because, he says, the demands on the people were heavy enough already.

The point is/ having Jewish blood in your veins isn’t enough. The people of God have got to LIVE like the people of God.

And yet too often it’s the same with us, isn’t it? Christians by NAME, but their BEHAVIOUR doesn’t back it up. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

Like Ross Cameron, ex-federal MP for Parramatta. He campaigned as a professing Christian on a platform of family values. Until he was forced to admit his affair with a Canberra solicitor.

I wonder if the media would even have bothered running the story if he hadn’t been a high profile Christian.

We have to LIVE as the people of God. We need to remember; everything we do, it’s got the potential to either bring honour to God. Or reproach. ’Cause people are just waiting to say, “Ah, those Christians, they’re just hypocrites. There’s nothing in it. It’s all just a sham.”

People are WATCHING the way you live. So let them see the fruit of the spirit. Compassion. And generosity. And integrity. Instead of selfishness. And greed.

That’s the point, isn’t it? And it’s the point Nehemiah wants to make as well. He calls it FEARING GOD. Respecting God enough to actually LIVE LIKE IT. Holding God in AWE, so you think about what HE’S GOING TO THINK/ about what you’re doing.

It’s a term he uses in verse 9; because that’s their problem. You can’t be the PEOPLE OF GOD unless you FEAR GOD. And that’s what he says; “Shouldn’t you walk in the FEAR OF GOD.” And take notice of what he says?

And the same thing down in verse 15. Other rulers throw their weight around. Other rulers lived it up and lorded it over the people. But what’s Nehemiah say in verse 15? He says, “OUT OF REVERENCE FOR GOD, I didn’t act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to work on the wall.”

And it’s the same when you turn over to the start of chapter 7. The walls are finished. And Nehemiah’s looking for someone to guard the gates. And who does he choose? Verse 2. I put in charge my brother Hanani; we met him right back in chapter 1; along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, BECAUSE HE WAS A MAN OF INTEGRITY AND FEARED GOD MORE THAN MOST MEN DO.”

We’re not talking about a QUIVERING sort of fear here. Not trembling in terror. When the bible talks about the FEAR OF GOD, it’s talking about the sort of RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS that leads you to a life of INTEGRITY.

What difference does A RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS make in YOUR life? What PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS are there that you FEAR God? How is your THOUGHT life affected? Your ethical decisions? Your interests – the books you read? The TV you watch? How you bring up your family? The words that come out of your mouth?

Is your life at HOME the same as your PUBLIC life to outsiders?

Is your SUNDAY behaviour the same as your MONDAY TO FRIDAY behavour?

Is YOUR LIFE marked by a consistency and an integrity that reflect your FEAR OF GOD?

RESPECT FOR GOD’S HOLINESS that leads to a life of INTEGRITY. And that’s Hananiah. The perfect man for the job.

And, you’ll notice, among the Israelites he’s A RARE BREED.

And that’s the whole problem. Nehemiah’s finished his wall. But the trouble is, the enemy’s just as much INSIDE as OUTSIDE. The problem isn’t just the guys like Sanballat and Tobiah who are cursing and plotting on the outside. It’s the Jews who look Jewish when you check out the family tree; but they’re not interested in honouring God.

And like I said, eventually, that’s what spells the END for the Israelites. And the start of something new.

Jump forward in time. John the Baptist, hundreds of years later; face to face with the LEADERS of the Jews. The religious experts. The Pharisees and the Sadducees. And as he calls Israel TO REALLY REPENT, hear what he says… it’s in Matthew chapter 3. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE. 9 And don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit… and with fire.”

See, the trouble with the true blue Jews was that there were far too few. So it was time for something new. They had their law. But they wouldn’t keep it. They did their repenting. But it was only PRETEND.

And so God sent Jesus; who deals with our sinful rebellion by DYING FOR IT. In a much bigger version of the sort of sacrifice Nehemiah made… on behalf of his people. And then BAPTISES WITH HIS SPIRIT. Changes our hearts. So that whether you’re born Jewish or not, doesn’t matter any more.

And your righteousness, it won’t come from taking on the Old Testament law; but through faith in Jesus Christ… to ALL WHO BELIEVE.

Nothing to do with building walls any more. But there’s still one thing that’s exactly the same. And that is, THE SORT OF PEOPLE GOD’S LOOKING FOR TO MAKE UP HIS KINGDOM. Not religious people with a good pedigree. He can make those out of rocks. They’re a dime a dozen.

And yet there are still people who reckon that’s all they need. Like being brought up Presbyterian. Being baptised when you’re a baby. Going to church. Giving money to the church. Ticking the boxes.

Which isn’t what it’s about. God wants a people who are RIGHTEOUS RIGHT TO THE HEART. Who honour Him in the way they live. And the way to that righteousness is to TRUST JESUS WITH ALL YOUR HEART. And let him CHANGE you from the inside. Baptised by the Spirit. Which was always the promise.

So that there’s actually a CHANGE in the way we TREAT ONE ANOTHER as Christians. The way you treat your HUSBAND or your WIFE or your FAMILY. The way we resist the sort of temptations that pop up in front of us. Justice and mercy. Consistency and integrity.

Because people are watching. To see what the REAL people of God look like.

Can you do that? You want to say, it’s too hard. But what Jesus says, is with MY SPIRIT AT WORK, it’s NOT TOO HARD AT ALL. So surprise people with your honesty. With your concern. With your love.

Don’t be like that laser printer I bought on Ebay – okay on the OUTSIDE, but crook on the inside. We’re meant to be different ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Because that’s the sort of people the people of God were always meant to be.

Nehemiah 1-4: Real Progress

People often asks me how the GLENWOOD church plant is going. And I never really know what to say.

How do you measure how well a group of God’s people is GOING? Is it about HEALTH? Or GODLINESS? Or how full the calendar is?

I suspect what MOST people are interested in/ is PROGRESS. We LONG to be encouraged by evidence that GOD IS AT WORK. That he’s BUILDING his kingdom.

But then there’s ANOTHER question – what does PROGRESS look like? Is it about how many people attend church? Or are in Bible Study groups? Or how many people have been converted? Or about how many kids are in the Kids Church?

Is progress about how many babies there are? If THAT’S the measure, then Glenwood’s going GANG-BUSTERS!

Or is it about FINANCES? Collections? What’s their weekly income? On THAT measure, they’re catching up to us pretty quickly!

Occasionally I get asked whether Glenwood will look to purchase A BUILDING to meet in. Is THAT a measure of progress? Whether you own property or not!

We all have a fascination for seeing things GROW. There’s a satisfaction with seeing PROGRESS. DEVELOPMENT. HEALTHY GROWTH.

And it’s the same situation Nehemiah was in. A Jew in a foreign land. Wanting to know about the PROGRESS of his people. How things were going back home. And just like us, he was LONGING for evidence that God was at work. Building his kingdom.

It’s about 445 BC – about 70 years after the temple was re-built. – 13 years after Ezra arrived back in Jerusalem. So there’s about 12 years between the end of Ezra and the start of Nehemiah.

You’ll see it the first few verses of chapter 1. In this Old Testament book that’s really a DIARY. A diary set in the final stages of Old Testament history. A time when THE WORST had happened. Israel had BEEN CRUSHED. The people, scattered. The temple of Solomon – a heap of rubble. And the walls of Jerusalem – just scattered stones.

But in the last 90 odd years before Nehemiah’s time, there’d been a flicker of life. A tiny spark of hope. A remnant had gone back. Pioneers. A church plant.

And first the altar had been rebuilt. Then finally the temple.

But the Jews back in Babylon hadn’t heard much on the last few years. Had there been PROGRESS? Or was it more like SURVIVAL?

And so here’s Nehemiah, expatriate Jew; working for a King in a far off country. Opens his diary to a blank page in the Month of Kislev, and starts writing these words.

“… while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I QUESTIONED THEM ABOUT THE JEWISH REMNANT THAT SURVIVED THE EXILE, and ALSO ABOUT JERUSALEM.”

Nehemiah’s an exile in a far off land. He’s worked his way up the ladder til he’s in a top job. Personally, things are going well. But his heart lies somewhere else. His heart lies in his homeland. In JERUSALEM. A city in ruins.

So when Hanani and his friends get back from a tour of Judah, Nehemiah can’t wait to ask him. How’s it going? How’s progress?

Well, you can see the answer, can’t you? And the news is all bad. Look what they say. Verse 3.

“Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. THE WALL OF JERUSALEM IS BROKEN DOWN, and it’s gates have been burned with fire.”

Jerusalem’s a mess. The Israelites who are back there already/ are being laughed at. Because it’s all so pathetic. It’s heart-breaking news! Like if Pete came back, and said that Glenwood church would have to close, because everyone had left.

And so, Nehemiah sits down and weeps. And mourns for his city. And he fasts. And then he prays. And you can see what he prays in the rest of chapter 1. A prayer on behalf of the PEOPLE OF ISRAEL. Who’ve suffered for their sins. And learned their lesson. Or so you’d hope.

Will you notice, in the midst of everything else, it’s a CONFIDENT prayer. A prayer that’s based on one very simple fact. That God is a God who KEEPS HIS WORD. And you can see that if you look at the first words of Nehemiah’s prayer in verse 5.

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God WHO KEEPS HIS COVENANT OF LOVE with those who love him and obey his commands…”

God’s a God who keeps his COVENANT. And it’s the same confidence WE have when we pray. That God will keep his promises. There’s much that’s different between Nehemiah’s time, and ours. But one thing’s the same. The God we pray to. And he KEEPS HIS PROMISES. Just to remind you of some of the things God has promised. I’ve reprinted something I gave out a couple of years ago. Some of God’s promises.

If you’re a Christian, write your name in the space at the top. All these promises are TO YOU. And you can be CONFIDENT in them, because God’s a god who sticks to his Covenant promises like GLUE.

Only trouble is, the Israelites didn’t. And you can see Nehemiah admits that in his prayer. The reason the Israelites were kicked out of Jerusalem, the reason everything’s in ruins, it all comes down to one word. UNFAITHFULNESS. Because God warned them right from the start. Right back in the book of Deuteronomy when they were about to come into the promised land. God said, if you’re unfaithful to me, YOU’RE OUT. Evicted.

And if you keep reading from the middle of verse 6, you can see that’s exactly what Nehemiah says. He says “We’ve blown it. He says “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. WE have acted very wickedly towards you. WE have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” You told us what to do, and we didn’t do it.

And it’s true. The Old Testament’s full of the stories of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. And the fact they simply refused to be different. Refused to stick with God, and be his people. And so here they are, in exile. Scattered around the nations. Here’s Nehemiah the Israelite. Cupbearer to the King. IN BABYLON. Because God said, way back at the start, if you won’t be my people, you’re OUT.

Out until… you have a GENUINE CHANGE OF HEART. And here’s the point of the prayer. You can see it in verse 8. Nehemiah knows God’s a god who keeps his word. And he knows what God said. It’s back in Deuteronomy 30. That the EXILE WASN’T THE END. That if there came a time that the Israelites turned back to him, if there came a time that the Israelites wanted to repent and start again, then he was WAITING TO FORGIVE.

And no matter WHERE THEY WERE, God would bring blessing again. And go even further. He’d CHANGE THEIR HEARTS.

Take a minute to turn back there and see the promise. Way back to Deuteronomy 30. Because this is EXACTLY THE SITUATION Nehemiah and the people of Israel are facing. Dispersed among the nations. Here’s the promise Nehemiah REMEMBERS. Deuteronomy 30 from verse 1.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 THEN THE LORD YOUR GOD WILL RESTORE YOUR FORTUNES AND HAVE COMPASSION ON YOU AND GATHER YOU AGAIN FROM ALL THE NATIONS WHERE HE SCATTERED YOU. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 THE LORD YOUR GOD WILL CIRCUMCISE YOUR HEARTS AND THE HEARTS OF YOUR DESCENDANTS, SO THAT YOU MAY LOVE HIM WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND LIVE.

WHEN YOU ISRAELITES RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD. And obey him with all your heart. When you REALLY REPENT FROM THE HEART… then God will turn things around.

It’s like you say to your kids. GO TO YOUR ROOM… until you’re REALLY SORRY. And don’t come back til you are.

And Nehemiah knows they’re right at that point in history. And that’s what he’s counting on. That God will come good on his part of the agreement, if Israel comes good on THEIRS.

And it raises a question, doesn’t it? ARE THEY? Are these people of Israel ready… to RETURN TO THE LORD with all their hearts? To TRULY REPENT? I mean, Nehemiah’s PRAYING THE PRAYER FOR THEM… but what’s in their hearts? That’s what we’re going to find out. Look at his prayer again. Verse 6 and 7. I CONFESS THE SINS WE ISRAELITES, including myself and my father’s house have committed. We’ve acted WICKEDLY. We’re ready to be blessed again.

But the question is, Nehemiah prays it – but are the people of Israel going to LIVE IT? And really REPENT? That’s the question to keep in mind as you read right through NEHEMIAH. ARE THEY READY?

But let’s keep going. Flip his diary to the next page. Month of NISAN. We’ve got it as chapter 2. Nehemiah’s carrying the drink tray, wine waiter to the king. And King Artaxerxes can see Nehemiah’s face is a mile long. And the start of chapter 2, the king asks him. Nehemiah, why do you look so sad. You’re not SICK. What’s the TROUBLE?

And Nehemiah tells him. Verse 3. “Why shouldn’t I look sad,” he says, “when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

So the King – he must be having a good day – he says, WHAT DO YOU WANT? Ask me.

And Nehemiah shoots up a quick prayer to God, and then he starts talking. He spells it out. Verse 5, I want you to send me back home to Judah, to Jerusalem … so I can rebuild it. And when the king says yes, Nehemiah pushes his luck even further. Can you give me letters to the local governors over there so they’ll do what I say. And how about some timber for the gates and for a house.

And what do you know, the king grants it. Just like that. Because, Nehemiah says, – end of verse 8 – the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the King granted my requests.

So off he goes. Calls on the governors on the way and drops in the King’s letters. He’s on OFFICIAL BUSINESS. With the King’s blessing. To rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Ready for the NEW PEOPLE with NEW REPENTANT HEARTS.

Just one small hitch in verse 10. These guys Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. Not pleased at all. That someone’s come to take up the cause of the Israelites.

Keep an eye on these guys – because they keep popping up right through the story. They’re the bad guys. And they’ll do whatever they can to get in the way.

But for now, let’s follow Nehemiah. Verse 11 he’s arriving in Jerusalem, and the first thing he does is take a look around in the middle of the night. A tour of inspection. Nehemiah on a horse, verse 12, a small group of men with him. In the darkness. With Nehemiah mulling over the GREAT PLANS he’s got. For Israel’s NEW START.

Out through the valley gate in verse 13; except it’s just the blackened STUMPS of a gate. Towards the Jackal well and the DUNG GATE. Poo corner. Where there’s always the bad smell. And bit by bit, he says he examines the walls that’ve been broken down. Along to the fountain gate in verse 14, all the way to the kings pool. And finally, when he can’t get any further because of the rubble, back again. Still in darkness.

And so far, Nehemiah hasn’t said anything to anyone.

When he’s checked it out, he gets the people together. And in verse 17, he hits them with a real PEP TALK. He says LOOK AROUND. He says, Can’t you see the trouble we’re in? Jerusalem’s in ruins, the gates have been burned to a crisp. “Come on,” he says, “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we’ll no longer be in disgrace.”

Cause it’s a fact. The Israelites were the laughing-stock of the middle east. In disgrace. Jerusalem, the city without a wall. Raiders could come and go as they pleased. Take whatever they wanted. If there was anything left to TAKE. And all in all, it painted a sorry picture of what it meant to be the people of God.

So they start building. And then, v19, there they are again. Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arab is with them as well – Nehemiah says they MOCKED AND RIDICULED US. “What’s this you’re doing,” they asked, “are you rebelling against the King?”

But he’s not. The King’s already given the go ahead. And more than that, GOD’S behind it. Nehemiah says in verse 20,

“The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, BUT AS FOR YOU… you have no share in Jerusalem, or any claim or historic right to it.”

This is the CITY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD. This is our NEW START. And things are going to be different.

Now at this point, most preachers start saying, (especially if their church is about to start a building program) What a FINE LEADER this Nehemiah is. Great MOTIVATOR. And if you want to learn the 21 great laws of leadership, then WATCH NEHEMIAH. The man of FAITH. Let’s follow Nehemiah, and we can get ANYTHING built. NOTHING’S TOO HARD. We can do it.

Can I say to you, don’t go down that track too soon. Because there’s still a question… and it lasts all the way through to the very end of the book before it’s answered. It’s ONE THING TO REBUILD A WALL. But how do you REBUILD A PEOPLE? It’s one thing to lay some bricks. But what if your HEARTS AREN’T RIGHT? Nehemiah can organise the shovels and the picks alright. But ultimate success is MORE THAN A WALL. It’s new hearts. So we need to keep reading.

Chapter 3, looking good. Everyone’s doing their bit. It’s an amazing sight. Start at the sheep gate in verse 1. You’ve got Eliashib the high priest. Stripped to the waist, lugging stones. And setting in the doors. Verse 2, the men of Jericho, just out of town; come to give a hand. Verse 3. The fish gate. The sons of Hassenaah. And on it goes. A list of all the people rebuilding the city walls. You’ve got the goldsmiths giving a hand in verse 8. And Hananiah, one of the perfume makers helping on the next bit. Poor Malkijah down in verse 14 drew the short straw and has to fix the Dung Gate. And on it goes.

Huge job. Broken into bite sized bits. Everyone playing their part. And by verse 32, we’re back where we started. A round trip, and we’re back at the sheep gate. With workers hard at work all the way around.

Turn over to verse 6 of chapter 4 and you’ll see how they’re going. Nehemiah says “We rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, FOR THE PEOPLE WORKED AT IT WITH ALL THEIR HEART.” This is good stuff. It’s going up. It’s a labour of love. And everyone’s giving it everything they’ve got. And then a bit more.

And that’s in spite of opposition. And persecution. And threats. You’ve got it again at the start of chapter 4. Sanballat. And Tobiah. Getting a little bit nervous when they see what’s happening. And ANGRY. Mocking. What do you reckon you’re going to do with a pile of old burnt rocks? He says, you can’t build a WALL from a RUBBISH PILE. You’ll never make it. And Tobiah. Verse 3.”What they’re building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he’d break down their wall of stones.”

Which might have been pretty true. I mean, it mightn’t have been the best wall you’d ever seen. But the point was, THEY WERE DOING IT. And the opposition wasn’t going to stop them. Because they’re confident that GOD IS A PROMISE KEEPING GOD. Who promised that if they came back to the promised land with TRUE REPENTANCE, then he’d bless them like he had before.

And the thing they need to remember… and we need to remember as well; is that their REAL GLORY is never going to be in the quality of their wall. Or their buildings. Their REAL GLORY will be in the quality of their REPENTANCE. Of their sincerity of heart. That’s the only raw materials God needs to build just about ANYTHING.

As it is for US. The Kingdom we’re called to be part of, it starts at the very same point. REPENTANCE. A true turning to God. Doesn’t matter how fine your church buildings are, how big your budget, how many kids in kids church; the REAL ISSUE is on the inside. The REAL progress – is in the hearts of people like you and me.

Just like Nehemiah prayed back in Ch 1.

“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.  NIV

And Nehemiah’s leadership/ that so many commentaries and books want to make an example of/… well, in the end, it won’t be measured by the quality of the WORKING BEE he’s organised to fix the walls.

It’s going to be measured in whether he can bring that GENUINE CHANGE OF HEART that he prayed for. To these stiff necked people of Israel. That’s REAL progress!

We’re going to see in these next few weeks what happens. But can I say in advance, don’t be surprised if you read ahead, and find HE CAN’T. That Nehemiah is NOT THE ONE… who brings the true repentance… and circumcised hearts… that Moses talks about in Deuteronomy 30. ONLY JESUS can do that. And he has.

And over these next few weeks in Nehemiah we’re going to see I guess what true repentance looks like. And what it DOESN’T look like. We’re going to see a story of failure. Where in the end only Jesus succeeds.

And we’re going to be invited… LONG AFTER the time of Nehemiah… to NOT BE DISCOURAGED, no matter WHAT we see around us. But to celebrate the fact that we’re included… as part of the family God promised to GATHER BACK TO HIMSELF… with new hearts. And the promise of LIFE.

In the end we’re going to see it’s a matter of HEART FIRST. Something that only Jesus can bring.

Which is something we need to keep in mind as a church, isn’t it. In whatever we do. In the way we set our priorities. Because at some point even though we might do some OTHER sort of building, there’s ANOTHER sort of building that’s more important. HEART FIRST. True repentance.

You can see it there in our Core Value 3 at the bottom of the news sheet.

We value Non-Christians hearing and responding to the Gospel (both here and around the world).

And, when it comes to Glenwood- and to us here at Western Blacktown too, that’s got to be the REAL measure of success. Of PROGRESS. The real measure of whether God is BUILDING something here. Are people responding to the gospel.

It’s success that only GOD can bring. So we need to PRAY. Pray CONFIDENTLY to the God who keeps his promises. To build his church.

Matt 16:18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH , and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  NIV

That’s REAL progress!

Ezra 7-10: Rebuilding God’s People

It can be a wonderful thing to be part of A GROUP. A group can achieve extraordinary things. Two weeks ago we were at Kyckstart. 3000 young people – most of whom are keen to love and follow Jesus – can have a powerful, life-changing impact on a teenager.

But a GROUP can also be DESTRUCTIVE AND DANGEROUS. A MOB MENTALITY can cause people to do things they’d NEVER do on their own. Like the hooligans who brawled after the soccer match between the two Sydney teams. Sydney Olympic and Bonnyrigg Eagles.

And so, some people argue, you need STRONG LEADERSHIP. Tell the people what to think. Show them where to go. Don’t give them choices. Control their options. It looks like those two soccer teams will be booted out of the competition by the governing body.

Others say, NO. Strong leadership isn’t the answer.  For better or worse, a DEMOCRACY is always best. Whatever decision MOST PEOPLE MAKE is the right one.

It’s really a question of your POLITICAL LEANINGS. Are you Left Wing or Right Wing? Is power best seen in the hands of the people, or the leaders?

There are dangers on BOTH SIDES.

On the one hand. Right wing. There are the dangers of DICTATORSHIP – Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Or Adolph Hitler in Germany. Greater democracy would have helped to MODERATE what these individuals got up to.

But there’s also the flip-side. The left wing. The dangers of mob-rule. A new movie, Hotel Rwanda, describes the real-life events in Rwanda in 1994. When nearly 1 million people were massacred.

When Hutu extremists took over Rwanda, their first goal was to exterminate all the Tutsi (whom they called “cockroaches”). With the U.N. stuck in red tape, and most of the world turning a blind eye, there was little to stop the Hutus from slaughtering the Tutsis.

Perhaps a stronger government, or tighter UN control, could have helped to stop that massacre.

The individual VS the group. There are dangers at the extremes of BOTH positions.

And it’s a question for the Christian church too.

In some churches you can see the dangers of too much power resting with ONE PERSON. With no accountability structures. Leadership that ABUSES its power. Riding roughshod over people. That’s how cults begin.

Other churches show the consequences of NO LEADERSHIP. They’ve just rolled along for decades. Either doing NOTHING. Or doing the WRONG thing. Well-meaning people following the crowd, or doing what they’ve always done.

Tough decisions are needed. A direction needs to be set. But no-one has the courage to bite the bullet. And the church fades into insignificance, or death.

The Presbyterian system tries to avoid the dangers at either end. We differ from other denominations in our emphasis on ELDERS. Leadership is by GROUPS.

It’s not the minister who makes decisions, but it’s the elders – of whom the minister is just one member.

But that doesn’t mean the group is ignored. Good eldership listens to the concerns of the members.

And in the worst cases, when the elders aren’t considering the congregation, they can appeal to the PRESBYTERY. Which is ANOTHER group of ministers and elders ABOVE our Leadership Team.

They’ve got the authority to question us, to discipline us. Even to fire us. Which, unfortunately, is sometimes necessary. Often because elders DON’T lead WELL. When they DON’T do things in the best interests of the group.

I’d like to think we’ve got a good BALANCE between the individual leader, and the group.

And as we turn to the next part of our story in the book of Ezra, these questions rise to the surface. What DOES make a good leader? How much emphasis does a good leader give to THE GROUP? To their input. Their talents and energies and directions.

And how much does a good leader just power off in the direction THEY think is best/ OBLIVIOUS to what the REST of the group thinks?

As we work through these chapters, there’s a question I want you to be asking. IS EZRA A GOOD LEADER? Why, or why NOT?

The best man for the job (7:1-10)

We take up the story in Ch 7. And it begins with the words, “after these things”. If you work out the dates, we’ve actually jumped forward 58 years between end of 6 and start of 7. Two generations!

And we’re introduced for the first time to Ezra. The guy whose name is at the top of the whole book. Who probably wasn’t even BORN when the temple was completed back at the end of Ch 6.

These FIRST ten verses/ give us a THUMB-NAIL SKETCH. A summary of the whole events of Ch 7 and 8.

And what we see is that Ezra’s THE BEST MAN FOR THE JOB.

Quite a history

Look at his ancestors for example, in v1-5. It’s quite a history. From his Dad, right back to Aaron – the first chief priest. This guy’s got better bloodlines than Phar Lap.

But not just HISTORY. HE’S done pretty well for himself as well. In v6 we see he’s a “teacher well-versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given.”

This guy knew the law BACKWARDS. It wasn’t uncommon that these experts would learn the Genesis to Deuteronomy WORD FOR WORD.

Learning, keeping, and teaching God’s Law

But it’s not just KNOWLEDGE. This guy knew how TO PUT IT ALL INTO PRACTICE. Look down to v10.

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.  NIV

LEARNING, KEEPING AND TEACHING God’s Law. He knew all the THEORY. But he also PUT IT INTO PRACTICE. But that wasn’t all, he saw the importance of TEACHING IT TO OTHERS.

And that’s a great mark of someone who’s a good leader of God’s people. Someone who KNOWS, KEEPS, and TEACHES God’s Word.

A blank cheque (7:11-26)

Well, that’s Ezra – the man for the job. Let’s have a look at what the JOB/ WAS.

It seems Ezra must have approached King Artaxerxes with a pretty BOLD approach. Because v6 (the second half) tells us that the King RESPONDED BY GRANTING HIM EVERYTHING HE’D ASKED FOR.

Which is basically a blank cheque. Look at the king’s letter from v11. Skim through it with me. All the things that Ezra’s asked for.

V13 – Any Israelite who wanted to, could return to Jerusalem with Ezra.

V15 – Take the King’s gift of gold

V16 – Plus any gold and silver from the Jews in Babylon.

V17 – Then buy plenty of animals to sacrifice in the temple.

V18 – Do what you like with the change!

V19 – Make sure you put the temple articles you were given into the temple

V20 – And anything else you need, just pick it out of the royal treasury. – wheat or wine, or oil or salt.

And to top it all off, v24. I’ll just waive any taxes or duty for everyone who goes with you!

But perhaps what was DEAREST to Ezra’s heart, was what the king wrote about GOD’S LAW. Look down to v25.

Ezra 7:25: 25 And you, Ezra, in accordance with THE WISDOM OF YOUR GOD (that is, his law), which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to ADMINISTER JUSTICE to all the people of Trans-Euphrates-all who know the laws of your God. And YOU ARE TO TEACH ANY who do not know them. NIV

Ezra was given the authority to do what he wanted most– to teach the people God’s Law, and to see it change the society.

Introducing…. Ezra! (7:27)

And so, the king’s letter finishes. Another incredible example of God working through foreign kings / to rescue his people. First Cyrus, then Darius. And now Artaxerxes.

If you stop and think about it, it should make you just shake your head in amazement.

Which is just what EZRA thinks! Immediately, in v27, we’re introduced to EZRA HIMSELF. He jumps out of pages at us, as we hear his reaction FIRST HAND. In the FIRST PERSON.

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

This is great news. Perhaps more than Ezra even expected HIMSELF.

You get the impression he wasn’t the most NATURAL leader. Perhaps more comfortable in the library than the speaker’s platform.

That to approach the king with his bold request wasn’t the most natural thing Ezra ever did. They were POWERFUL officials.

See how it was only because THE HAND OF THE LORD HIS GOD WAS ON HIM that he TOOK COURAGE to gather leading men to go to Israel with him.

HE was TIMID. But at the same time, it brings a smile to his face to remember how God was working in the events that unfolded.

Timid, but rejoicing.

& Co. (8:1-20)

The first part of Ch 8 outlines the group he managed to assemble. Including an emergency call for some Levites – a NECESSITY for Ezra’s task of teaching God’s Law.

Travelling Mercies (8:21-36)

Then from v21 to the end of the Ch, we read of the TRAVELLING MERCIES. How God watched over them as they made the 1000 km journey back home.

Let me make a minor point from this section. You can see it from v21.

  1. Faith-protection

Ezra, in talking up his plan to the king, had HAPPENED to mention that his God was POWERFUL. And would WATCH OVER HIM. And so now, as Ezra planned his trip, he was embarrassed to ask the king for an armed guard. What sort of a God would need puny soldiers to watch over his treasure?! Look at it there in v22.

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.”  NIV

So Ezra figures the best thing he can do … IS PRAY. To LOOK to the one who can protect and deliver them. Which he, and everyone else, does for THREE DAYS. Prayer and fasting.

And v25 tells us that God ANSWERED his prayer.

And down in v31, it says

Ezra 8:31-32: The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way.  NIV

Does that mean WE are to do THE SAME? Ignore EARTHLY actions because we trust God to look after us?

  • Cross the road with our eyes closed?
  • Not bother with car insurance?
  • Not seek medical attention?
  • Not contribute to superannuation?

All because you decide God is protecting you!

That MIGHT be right for a particular person/ at a particular TIME. But not ALWAYS. Ezra himself seems to be struggling with the issue. As if it’s not an open and shut case.

And he takes PLENTY of OTHER precautions to make sure the treasure doesn’t get lost or stolen on the way. So it’s not like he CONSISTENTLY applies this principle.

And his successor, Nehemiah, has no problems using a king’s guard in Ch 2 of Nehemiah.

So, rather than seeing this as an EXAMPLE for us to FOLLOW. I think we need to just take it as part of the story. To help us build up our picture of what Ezra was like. To view it as evidence of the humanity of the bloke.

He was undecided on things. He wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing at times. But it was his faith in the God who had strengthened his hand, and guided his steps, which was his CRUCIAL quality.

And the same could be said for us.

Whatever the situation is. And whatever the decision you MAKE about it. Make sure you do it with FAITH that God is powerful and can work ANY outcome. And that he is WISE AND LOVING, and will always work what’s BEST for us.

Better than we deserve (9)

Back to Ezra. And so, we come to the end of Ch 8, and Ezra and the people make it back to Jerusalem. Where they rest. Where they count out all their treasure. And where they offer a huge thank offering to God for all his goodness.

Ch 9 takes up the story about four months later. Presumably, Ezra’s been going about his teaching and judging work. When a group of the leaders came with a problem. Lots of the Jews had married OTHER NEIGHBOURING PEOPLE.

Seems pretty harmless. WE marry people from other nations ALL THE TIME. Harmless, until you recognise the idolatry these other nations were involved in. The detestable practices. The wickedness.

But perhaps the SCARIEST bit/ is when you remember the warnings God had given the people against intermarriage back in Deut. Like Ch 7 v3

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.  NIV

In fact, part of the reason for God’s punishment of exile IN THE FIRST PLACE/ was Israel’s sin of intermarriage and idolatry. And here they are, doing exactly the same thing again. It’s a TERRIBLE discovery.

Notice it’s not even Ezra who points it out. It’s come from the PEOPLE. Some of the leaders.

Is that because Ezra hasn’t NOTICED? Or because he figured it was better if the INITIATIVE CAME FROM THE PEOPLE. From those who had most to LOSE by the announcement.

Either way, look at what he does next. He doesn’t rush out and start an inquisition. Action begins with his own RE-action. V3.

When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 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.  NIV

He shows his grief in a public way, in a public place. And like-minded people gather around. And towards the end of the day, when there’s a good crowd. He moves to part 2 of his plan. V5.

Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the LORD my God 6 and prayed:  NIV

Praying before all those who were grieving for the people. And he prays up a storm. One of the greatest prayers in the OT. One of my favourites.

And what I want you to notice is the way the identity of the INDIVIDUAL and the GROUP are intermingled. Ezra himself hasn’t done anything wrong. But he stands WITH the people. And bears part of the guilt. He BELONGS to the people of God, and will bear the punishment that’s coming.

“O MY God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because OUR sins are higher than our heads and OUR guilt has reached to the heavens. 7 From the days of our forefathers until now, OUR guilt has been great. Because of OUR sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.  NIV

And he goes on to remind God of his wonderful MERCY. In not punishing them as much as they deserved. How they’ve been given this glimmer of hope. To be back in THE LAND, with a TEMPLE, and a remnant of faithful PEOPLE, even a FOREIGN BENEFACTOR.

And he finishes his prayer, throwing himself, and all the people, on God’s mercy. V15.

O LORD, 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.”  NIV

Promises, promises (10)

Next, we come to part 3 of his plan. Because during the prayer, the crowd has CONTINUED to build. All gathered around him. And all of them were weeping as well.

And once again, it’s not Ezra who takes the lead. Look at v2 of Ch 10.

Then Shecaniah 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. 3 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. 4 Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”  NIV

Ezra’s made his feelings obvious. But he hasn’t set out a plan. It takes ONE OF THE CROWD to offer a suggestion. And to encourage Ezra to get the ball rolling. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it

So Ezra calls a meeting. And everyone assembles. And as they stand there in the rain, miserable, a voice of reason is heard.

“Let’s not make a hasty decision NOW. It’s too important to RUSH INTO. Appoint a group to investigate it properly. Then we’ll deal with it.”

Not the first large group to appoint a committee to investigate further! Nor will it be the last!

And Ezra is a leader who LISTENS to his people. He even records the names of the four guys who voted AGAINST the motion. Individuals matter!

And so, within a fortnight, the committee reports back. And the long list of culprits is presented. Each one had married a foreigner. And, presumably, even though we’re not told so, they DIVORCED them.

And so we come to the end of the book.

What opinion do you have of Ezra? Is he a good leader, or not?

How much has he actually DONE? And what slant do you put on that?

Is he an incompetent, ineffective, puppet? Who just stumbles along, pushed by everyone else?

Or is he a scheming Macchiavello who manipulates people into doing what he wanted all along.

Or is he just a great example of a good, godly leader? Who LOVES God’s law, lives it out, and teaches it to others? Who’s humble and reluctant to take the lead. But who knows what’s right, and will do it when he needs to.

Who trusts the Spirit of God working in the GROUP, so that he can let THEM set the running. Who has the wisdom to know that the most effective change is change that the GROUP owns.

If that’s the right way of reading Ezra – and I think it is – then God’s given us A GREAT EXAMPLE on which to model OUR leadership.

Both for those of us who are LEADERS, and for those who are part of THE GROUP – the sorts of things we should be looking for, and expecting to see, in our leaders.

But there’s another application as well. And it’s to do with this idea of the INDIVIDUAL/ and the GROUP.

YOU, AS AN INDIVIDUAL, ARE CONNECTED TO THE GROUP. You have a RESPONSIBILITY to the group. Something is missing when you aren’t here at church. Or when you arrive late. Or when you don’t contribute.

You are part of the body. You are valuable and important. And the body doesn’t work properly without you doing your part.

You’re NOT insignificant.

There’s a connection. When one suffers, all suffer. When one laughs, all laugh. When one weeps, all weep. At least, that SHOULD be the case. Are we connected like THAT with each other? Or is it that we can’t wait to run off back to our individual lives.

Ezra recognised the power of the group. And the significance of the individual within that group. Of diversity within unity.

All good leaders will do that. And all good GROUPS will DEMONSTRATE that.

Let me finish by reading how Paul put this same idea. In 1 Cor 12.

12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. … 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Ezra 1-6: Rebuilding God’s House

When it comes to DOING HOMEWORK, it’s normally ME teaching THE KIDS something.  But when Lachlan was back in about Year 2, he had something to teach US. Because that’s when Caron and I were introduced to the concept of A NARRATIVE.  Not a STORY, mind you. Don’t ever call a narrative a STORY.

But Lachlan would come home and say he had to write a NARRATIVE. Which threw us. Because when I was at school, you wrote A CREATIVE STORY.

But what we eventually worked out was that a NARRATIVE was a TECHNICAL description for a certain TYPE of LITERATURE.

It turns out that most good stories – whether nursery rhymes, movies, fables, novels, movies, classical epics, country and western songs, even limericks – can be classified as a NARRATIVE.

At its simplest, a narrative has THREE PARTS. An ORIENTATION. A COMPLICATION. And a RESOLUTION.

Let me explain what I mean.

An ORIENTATION sets the scene. Introduces you to the characters and the setting. It puts you into the story.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”

Then there’s the COMPLICATION. That’s WHAT HAPPENS in the story. The complication presents A PROBLEM TO BE FIXED, or A PUZZLE TO BE SOLVED. A SITUATION THAT NEEDS PUTTING RIGHT.

“Humpty Dumpty had a great fall”

Finally, the RESOLUTION. This outlines how the problem is solved. And so the story ends.

“All the king’s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put humpty together again”.

In THIS case, it’s not much of a resolution, because Humpty is still stuck at the bottom of the wall – a sticky, broken mess. But it’s the end of the story. And there’s resolution. Which we LOVE.

A good story has to have a resolution. We all hate those movies which end without a resolution. Amy Moore says that when she went to see the first episode of Lord of the Rings. She didn’t know it was only the first episode. And she left the cinema really FRUSTRATED that there was no real resolution.

We all LOVE resolution.

And as we skim through these first six chapters of Ezra, we can see the same classic structure of a narrative. At least on the surface. Orientation, complication, and resolution.

Follow it through with me. THE ORIENTATION is that God’s people are stuck in Babylon. And then Cyrus says they can return to rebuild the temple. They make their way back there, and start to build. Chapters 1-3.

But then there’s A COMPLICATION. Ch 4. Enemies of the Jews make enough noise for the work to be stopped. For TEN YEARS. Which is a LONG TIME! Will it ever get finished? What about God’s promises? How will things turn out?

But then comes the RESOLUTION. Ch 5. GOD COMES THROUGH. His prophets give the people a kick-start. Work begins again.

And so Ch 6 finishes with the temple completed. And the people CELEBRATING. In the words of the Tooheys New ad – IT’S ALL GOOD!

Or is it? Because we’re only half-way through the book of Ezra. And all we’ve really got is a TEMPLE. No walls. No city. No king. No real NATION.

Perhaps it’s ACTUALLY more like the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A resolution OF SORTS. But much more to the story.

If we peek ahead to the next chapters, we’ll see that this section might SEEM like a complete narrative, but it’s really only a STEP ALONG THE WAY. It’s only ONE PART of a much GREATER narrative.

And that’s really the perspective that comes from reading this part of the OT with CHRISTIAN eyes. Through the lens of THE CROSS.

Because THIS fulfilment of God’s promises was ALWAYS destined to fail. Because God had something MUCH GREATER in store. Something which would take another 500 years to begin.

So with all of that in mind, let’s turn to narrative itself. And look at it in a bit more detail.

Orientation

First, the orientation.

And the “WHEN” question gets answered in the very first phrase of Ch 1 v1. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia”

And IMMEDIATELY you stop and think, “Hang on a minute. What’s going on here? This is supposed to be ISRAEL’S history. And yet it’s PERSIA’S king who gets his name at the top of the calendar. Have we opened the wrong book by mistake?”

But as we read on, it all falls into place. Because Israel HAS no king. In fact, there IS no ISRAEL. They’ve been taken into captivity. First it was Babylon. Then Persia conquered THEM.

And they’re stuck in a strange land. With SOME FOREIGNER deciding their fate.

Or so it seems. The reality is God’s still working. He HASN’T forgotten them. And you can see THAT TOO from the first verse.

Ezra 1:1: 1:1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, IN ORDER TO FULFILL THE WORD OF THE LORD SPOKEN BY JEREMIAH, the LORD MOVED THE HEART of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation

Two distinct actions. It was THE LORD who MADE A PROMISE. And it was THE LORD who FULFILLED that promise by working in Cyrus.

Listen to what he PROMISED his people through Jeremiah years earlier. Jer Ch 29. They’d been stuck in Babylon for years. And they were getting impatient. Discontent. Wondering what God was up to. And he’s what God had to say.

Jer 29:1-2: This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  NIV

4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” NIV

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 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.”  NIV

Be content. Be patient. That’s the message.

God PROMISED it. And NOW, at the end of the seventy years, God’s begun to DELIVER on the promise.

He works in the heart of Cyrus. Who decrees that any of the Jews who WANT TO, can return home and re-build the temple. And what’s more, he’ll PAY FOR the whole process!

AND throw in the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezar had pinched.

AND tells all the Babylonian neighbours to chip in and give the Jews generous going-away presents!

It’s a miracle! A foreign king. We’re not told that he was a believer. But God still used him for his purposes. It’s probably most likely that he was covering all his bases. Like pantheists tend to do. Making sure that all the gods of all the nations he’d conquered were satisfied. Just to make sure!

God PROMISED IT. And his promises ALWAYS come true. Even if they seem like a long time coming.

And when God delivers, nothing can stand in his way. If God can soften the heart of Cyrus, then NO-ONE is too tough for God.

So keep trusting God’s promises. And trusting God’s power.

And so God works in the hearts of his people, and many of them return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Within a few months, they’re back, and they start work.

Into Ch 3. They begin with the altar. No sooner have they built it, than they offer sacrifices.

And then they start on the TEMPLE ITSELF. Ch 3 v7. And by the end of ch 3, they’ve finished the foundations. And they stop for a huge celebration.

Notice the priorities? They’re starting from the inside out. The altar, then the temple, then the city walls.

Normally you’d go the other way. Walls, temple and then altar.

But it’s GOD who’s central. And so, things have to be right with HIM FIRST. And the REST will follow.

Complication

Or so the theory goes. Because in Ch 4 we come to THE COMPLICATION. No more smooth sailing.

Because Palestine wasn’t EMPTY when the Jews arrived back. The people of the land were already living there. And they obviously didn’t take too kindly to a whole bunch of people arriving back. And taking up where they’d left off.

Perhaps if they got REALLY organised the Jews would get an army together. And drive everyone else OUT.

And so the enemies try every trick in the book. They’re SNEAKY. Offer to help, so they can sabotage things. Throw a spanner in the works. But the elders see right through that!

Then they try outright SCARE TACTICS (v4)

Then they bring in the professionals. They hire wise men, or prophets, who were paid to convince the Jews to stop.

And this went on for the ENTIRE REIGN of Cyrus, and then his successor, Darius. In fact, v6-23 describe the same sort of pressure that goes on for the NEXT HUNDRED YEARS!

And it wasn’t long before the constant pressure had an effect. Flip over to v24.

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.

And that’s the end of part TWO of our narrative. The COMPLICATION. Would that be the end? What would come of God’s plans? Or God’s promises?

Resolution

Next comes THE RESOLUTION. And once again, it’s up to God to set the agenda. Which he does through HIS PROPHETS. Ch 5 v1

Ezra 5:1-2: 5:1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.  NIV

And that’s what the books of Haggai and Zechariah are. God’s “kick-up-the-pants” to his people. Listen, for example, to what Haggai has to say.

1:1 In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.'” 3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  :”Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD.

And God’s Word had its usual powerful effect. The people start work on the temple. Again. DESPITE the opposition. Which was still there.

And when the Persian governor and his off-siders hear about it, they come around asking questions. Ch 5 v3.

Ezra 5:3-5: “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?”

Potentially, this could be a HUGE spanner in the works. The Council’s wants to slap a STOP WORK order on the construction. But look at why it ISN’T. V5.

Ezra 5:5: 5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.  NIV

God’s working all the time. And then we get a copy of the actual letter that went to Darius.

And, over into Ch 6, we get a copy of Darius’ reply. He checks the records. And finds what Cyrus had decreed. And look at what his conclusion is. Down in v6.

6 Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you, their fellow officials of that province, STAY AWAY FROM THERE. 7 DO NOT INTERFERE with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site.  NIV

And if that had been ALL that had happened. It would have been a great victory. But wait, there’s more! V8

8 MOREOVER, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: : The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. 9 Whatever is needed-young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem-must be given them daily without fail, 10 so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.  NIV

Not only is the governor to STAY OUT OF THE WAY. But he’s to PAY for the whole thing to be built. AND to provide all the sacrifices to go WITH IT.

When God brings about a resolution. He sure does a good job.

And so, before long, the temple’s finished. And from v13, there’s a description of the tremendous CELEBRATION that follows. A Passover party.

And the narrative finishes with this summary. V22.

Ezra 6:22: 22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because 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.  NIV

A classic narrative – or is it?

It’s a classic narrative. A great story. You can imagine Jewish families sitting around the table telling that story for generations to come.

Or IS it a classic narrative? What sort of resolution is it REALLY? Will it all be “happily ever after”?

Built into the narrative itself are hints that we’re to look for something more. To reserve judgment on the happy ending.

For a start, we’re only half-way through the story of Ezra. Let alone what the book of Nehemiah adds to the picture.

And if we step back from the happy scene of Ch 6, it’s not quite as rosy as it seems at first.

Because they’re still only A REMNANT. Plenty of Jews are back in Babylon. Or scattered among the nations.

And it’s only a TEMPLE. ONE BUILDING. There’s no city. No walls.

And it’s not much of a temple at that! Hardly compares to the FIRST temple. In Ch 3 v12 we read that

many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, NIV

And there’s no army and no king. And they’re still under Persian rule.

And if you know anything at all about the Israelites, you’ll know that no matter how good things are, it doesn’t take long before they mess things up. They SIN. Follow false idols, or grumble, or turn away from God and ignore his laws.

Which is the problem we’ll see surfacing in the chapters that follow.

But perhaps the greatest shadow isn’t ANY of these things. The greatest question mark to the happy ending. To this being a classic narrative with a nice, comforting resolution. Is the SHEER EXTRAVAGANCE of God’s promises.

God has promised SO MUCH. And this …well… it JUST DOESN’T COMPARE. Like, for example, what God promised through Haggai. Turn over to Hag 2 (p 663)

Hag 2:2-9: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3’Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? DOES IT NOT SEEM TO YOU LIKE NOTHING? 4 But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. 5’This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’  : 6 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘IN A LITTLE WHILE I WILL ONCE MORE SHAKE THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH, THE SEA AND THE DRY LAND. 7 I WILL SHAKE ALL NATIONS, AND THE DESIRED OF ALL NATIONS WILL COME, AND I WILL FILL THIS HOUSE WITH GLORY,’ says the LORD Almighty. 8’The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty.   9’THE GLORY OF THIS PRESENT HOUSE WILL BE GREATER THAN THE GLORY OF THE FORMER HOUSE,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”  NIV

A glorious picture of a temple even GREATER than Solomon’s. A temple which all nations will flock to. A place of PEACE. And RICHES.

And this little shed, now that it’s actually finished, hardly seems to compare. There HAS to be something more.

And it’s this sense of longing. Of expectation. Which continues for another 400 years. Until God sends Jesus. The one who will be the TRUE temple. The true presence and glory of God dwelling among his people. The true hope of the nations. The true riches and wisdom of God.

This narrative is a wonderful tale of God’s PROMISES and God’s POWER. We can TRUST them. He WILL bring his plans to pass.

And as we take a step back from these chapters. We get the same message. As we look at the Bible AS A WHOLE. Because God PROMISED so much more than this puny temple. And, in his time he DELIVERED on those promise.

We can trust God’s PROMISES and God’s POWER. He WILL bring his plans to pass.

And we need that reassurance as we look at the little insignificant group of people WE are HERE. And start to doubt. To wonder whether God knows what he’s doing.

Do we have enough PEOPLE or MONEY or LEADERS or TEACHERS or MUSICIANS to survive? Will we see people growing in maturity? Will we see people coming to know Jesus?

And we need that reassurance as we look at the state of the Christian church in Australia. At how congregations are shrinking. Failing to be outward looking. At how secularism is growing. How Christianity is being squeezed out of the public life of Australia.

And we need that reassurance as we look forward to God’s HEAVENLY Jerusalem. Which THIS TEMPLE and CITY were only a shadow. A copy. An entrée. A prototype that was always destined to fail.

GOD’S WORD AND GOD’S POWER ARE AS RELIABLE AND CERTAIN AS EVER. HE STILL HAS PLANS WHICH HE’S WORKING OUT IN HIS TIME. WILL WE TRUST HIM, AND KEEP OUR EYES FIXED ON HIM. WILL WE PRAY THAT HE WILL BE ACTIVE AND POWERFUL IN HIS CHURCH?

And even though God spoke these words to a group of people many times removed from us, they’re just as relevant today as they were then. Listen to what God says to YOU from Jer 29 v11.

Jer 29:11-12: 11 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.  NIV