Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Responding to mockery

But it so happened, when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, that he was furious and very indignant, and mocked the Jews. And he spoke before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they complete it in a day? Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish—stones that are burned?" Now Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, "Whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall." Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads, and give them as plunder to a land of captivity! Do not cover their iniquity, and do not let their sin be blotted out from before You; for they have provoked You to anger before the builders. So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. – Nehemiah 4v1-6

Nobody thought they could do it. The people of the land were angry when they saw a new work crew come in to rebuild the walls of the city. Their response was one which we see so often; they mocked them.

‘What can these weakling Jews do? Can they really fortify this city? Do you really think they can offer sacrifices again? Do they think they can build the city in a day? Can they build a wall from this rubbish? If they build a wall even a fox will be able to knock it over!’

How would we handle that kind of opposition? That kind of mockery hurts and can easily inspire a lot of self doubt. We don’t like to made fun off. Often this kind of verbal opposition is enough to put us off the work. Sometimes this is more difficult to deal with than physical opposition.

So how did these ‘feeble Jews’ respond?

‘God, these folks have despised us! Please deal with them!’ First of all they let God deal with the taunters and mockers. That in itself is pretty good advice! We don’t have to deal with that kind of stuff. We need to let God deal with it.

Then they did the right thing. I love this – ‘We built the wall…for the people had a mind to work!’

They didn’t let the pundits get to them. They didn’t let the mockery dissuade them. They had a mind to do the work and they got to it!

More opposition is on the way, but how wonderful to see an example of how we should respond when people tell us it can’t be done.

Everybody says you can’t do it? Leave them to God and get busy!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Next to them

Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors. They built as far as the Tower of the Hundred, and consecrated it, then as far as the Tower of Hananel. Next to Eliashib the men of Jericho built. And next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built. Nehemiah 3v1-2

The whole story of the wall building is really great. It would make a brilliant film and it would surely be a blockbuster. There is so much here that it is hard to try and capture even a fraction of it. Matt likes to come up with actors to take starring roles in Bible stories. I don’t know who I would like to take Ezra’s role. I would say Charlton Heston, but he is Moses! Maybe someone like Denzel Washington?

Anyway, here we have a problem. The walls need to be built, but they face the challenges of the very real work that needs to be done, along with the opposition of the people in the land.

Ezra does a great job of organising as recorded in Ezra chapter 3. The whole chapter tells how the men of the families lined up side by side all along the wall to get the job day. This guy stood by this guy. This guy did this and this guy did that. They lined up from gate to gate until the whole wall of the city was under construction.

Everybody had a role to play. Everyone had a part to do. Every single job was necessary. The old saying goes ‘many hands make light work.’ How true that is. There was no room for slackers in Jerusalem. That kind of work has the added benefit that it unifies the people.

Where is our place on the wall? Are we doing our part in God’s work? Can we afford to leave a gap in the wall?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The God of heaven will prosper us

So I answered them, and said to them, "The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem." – Nehemiah 2v20

Any work for God is going to face opposition. Even though Ezra had the backing of the king the people in the land did not like the fact that he was going to rebuild the city walls in Jerusalem. They had become might accustomed to wandering in and out among the ruins salvaging building materials and whatever else they could find, Surely they had heard from their parents what a powerful force Judah had been.

So they rose up in opposition to Ezra and his work. Ezra could easily have been afraid or daunted by the opposition, but if he was he sure doesn’t show it.

‘The God of heaven will prosper,’ Ezra said, ‘therefore we, His servants, will arise and build these walls.’ ‘You,’ he went on, ‘have no right to Jerusalem.’

‘God will prosper us’ is a motto that we need to keep in mind as we strive to serve Him today. The principle carries over to the New Testament and God’s instructions to the church. We know that our labour for Him is not in vain. We know that if we don’t quit we will reap in due time.

No matter how bad it gets. No matter how great the opposition seems. No matter how powerful the enemy is. We can take confidence in the great truth that our God WILL prosper us!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The king granted

Furthermore I said to the king,"If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, a that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, a for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy."And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me. – Nehemiah 2v7-8

The more I read scripture and study man’s interaction with government leaders the more convinced I am that we have a responsibility to walk in submission to their authority. The king had already given Nehemiah permission to return to the Jerusalem to build the city walls, but now Nehemiah presses the issue and asked for a letter promising protection and even supplies to do the work.

There seems to be a tendency amongst God’s people to see human authority as our enemy or has something that we just naturally stand up to and oppose and go against. We can think that doing God’s work can never go hand in hand with being good workers or good citizens.

The truth is that the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord. Though we cannot always understand all the ins and outs and workings God uses human authority.

Nehemiah was not only subject the king as a subject of his kingdom, the king was also his boss. So many of us might have just run off to ‘God’s work’ and forget about our ‘secular’ responsibilities. Instead, he carried on with his job and asked the king for permission to do what God wanted him to do.

I like this picture of submission and respect for human authority. Image the impact that Nehemiah had on the king as opposed to if he had just told the king, ‘I am going to so what God wanted me to do!’

Does God have the power to bless our submission to human authority?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Your servant

Your servant
O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." For I was the king's cupbearer. Nehemiah 1v11

When you read this verse you might think that Nehemiah sounds a bit over the top with his use of the words ‘servant’ and ‘servants.’ It seems like he is trying to convince someone that he really was a servant.

I don’t think that is too far from the truth. Being a servant goes against the grain. We don’t really like the concept of being a slave or a servant. Being a servant mans there is a resigning of our will to someone else’s. It means that our goals and plane are subordinate to the master. We become subject to the the master.

Nehemiah knew that his relationship to a holy God was indeed one of servant-hood. He knew that he really deserved nothing. Everything he asked from God he asked on the basis that he was the servant and God was his master.

Paul had the same concept of servant-hood. He often referred to himself as the doulos of God.; the bond-servant, the slave.

I read this in the Valley of Vision this morning - ‘ Let thy will bind our wishes.’ That sentiment clearly expresses the attitude of service that both Nehemiah and Paul spoke of. We need to remember, especially in tough times, that we are the servants and that God is the perfect, benevolent, caring and loving Master.

Indeed, may His will bind our wishes.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Making it right

Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. – Ezra 10v3

I will admit that I don’t understand this whole situation. I don’t understand the putting away of these pagan wives that the men had married. It is one of those things where I just have to trust God that He knows and does and directs rightly in every situation. But I will have to lay that aside until I get to heaven when I know it will all make sense.

Now, the key point here is clear. God had convinced the nation that they had sinned. Ezra acknowledged it and shared it with the nation. He went on and prayed on behalf of the people. He admitted the guilt and made no excuse for it.

But then they went a step further. They decided to set things right. Since marrying these pagan women was a violation of God’s instructions they decided to put them away.

Their actions manifest a real truth. True repentance is always reflected in action. Repentance that only takes place in the mind is not really repentance. How many times has God dealt with our hearts about something, we decide we have to do something about it, and then we end up doing nothing?

When that happens have we truly repented? If we don’t act do we really repent? It appears to me from the teaching of scripture that faith that produces repentance also produces works worthy of that repentance.

When Ezra and the people repented they set about making things right. They set the perfect example for us.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

We stand before You guilty

And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor? O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!" – Ezra 9v13-15

Guilty. What a hard word to hear. What dreaded words these are in a trial. ‘We find the defendant guilty.’

Ezra did not have to wait for a verdict. In prayer he stood before God and pled guilty to all the charges. He even acknowledged that God had not punished them enough for their sin. He could only go to God hat in hand and acknowledge the nations guilt and seek God’s forgiveness.

This guilt did not only apply to Judah. We read in Romans 3v19 – ‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.’

Guilty is the word that describes all men. No matter what our excuses or reasons or rationale or finger pointing we are the ones who are guilty.

There is no hope for our guilt. There is nothing mankind can do to satisfy the perfect and righteous Judge.

But the wonderful news is that Jesus Christ, the great Guiltless One, has paid the price for our guilt. Jesus stood in our place and took our guilt. He paid the penalty and took our sentence. Now, by faith in Him and His sacrifice we can stand before the Judge and hear ‘not guilty.’

No man can stand before God because of his guilty, but Jesus could and did and paid the penalty for our guilt.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Yet God did not forsake us

For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem. – Ezra 9v9

The image of a God who does not forsake His people is one of great comfort and consolation. Judah had been slaves in Egypt for their sin in ignoring the 70 sabbath years in Jerusalem. Yet, Ezra knew, God did not forsake them even in the midst of their bondage. He was there to revive them and put them back on track doing His work.

I cannot help but be reminded of Hebrews 13v5-6 where we are reminded to live lives without covetousness because God has said ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’ This is followed by quoting Psalm 27v1 where we are told not to be afraid, because if God is with us, what can man do to us?

In these desperate days we do well to remember the words of Ezra and the words of the writer of Hebrews. Though times may be tough and though we may even find ourselves in a type of financial bondage we can rest assured that our God will not forsake.

The reality is that Jesus is all we really. He promises us food and raiment and Himself. What more do we really need?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Grace for a little while

And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage. – Ezra 9v8

Ezra knew all about God’s righteousness and holiness. He also knew something of God’s amazing grace. He knew that the nation deserved nothing from God but His wrath and His judgement. He knew that apart from God’s grace there would be no hope.

But he also knew that God is a God of grace - ‘for a little while God has shown us grace.’ Why did God show His grace? ‘So that there would be an escape, that they would have a stake in God’s holy place, that God would open their eyes, and God would revive them.

I know that Ezra was speaking of a very specific time and a very peculiar circumstance, but I think there are a couple of things here that we can glean as well.

First there is the very basic truth that God shows grace. Grace is something that is given even if we don’t deserve it. Whereas in this case God gave the nation a ‘grace window’ we know live in a time when God’s grace is open to all people at any time. However, we need to be aware that one day this ‘grace window’ will close and it will be eternally to late.

God also enlightens our eyes and revives our heart in His grace. He gives us abundant life and knowledge of Himself that would otherwise be impossible.

But I skipped one. I wanted to wait to the end to get this one.

God’s grace ‘gives us a peg in His holy place.’ This is probably a picture of a tent peg which secures a dwelling place. In the American west land was often given to those who would settle it. There was a mad rush for the best plots of land. The land was secured by driving a stake in the ground to mark of the land.

This is a great picture of what this ‘peg in His holy place is.’ God’s grace, as shown in Jesus Christ gives us a stake in eternity. Our heavenly homestead is secure. Our stake has been placed only by God’s grace.

Praise God for His ‘grace for a little while.’

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Ashamed to pray

And I said: "O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day. – Ezra 9v6-7

This is an interesting passage on prayer. As Ezra began his prayer he said this – ‘I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to you.’ The reason for his contrition and embarrassment was the sins of the nation.

First of all I have to say that I respect and admire Ezra’s attitude about prayer. He knew that he was talking to the holy, perfect, righteous God. He knew something that we all should know – we are never worthy to approach our God. He did not mince his words. He acknowledged that the sins of the people with excuse or equivocation. Ezra was embarrassed. He was humiliated. He was ashamed.

But look, he still prayed. He did not cower in his shame. He also knew that God was living and kind and gracious. He knew that God cared. He knew that despite his shame and embarrassment the God of all grace would listen because he came in a spirit of sorrow, contrition, and repentance.

Sometimes it is hard to pray when we know that our lives are not pleasing to God. We too can find ourselves in situations where we feel ashamed to pray because we know what we have done.

As we raised our children we tried to encourage them to talk to us no matter that they had done. I am sure there were times when they were ashamed to talk to us and did not talk. But I look back at the times when despite their fears and shame they came to us to set things right. I praise God for those precious times.

Our God is willing to hear us when we come in the right spirit, with hearts that are truly sorry for our sin. In fact, when we are Christians we can enter God’s throne room with confidence because of what Jesus Christ has done for us (Hebrews 4).

Our sin should make us ashamed to pray – but the grace of God through Jesus Christ can give us the confidence to push through and talk to God anyway.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Who are we depending on?

Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, "The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him." So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer. - Ezra 8v21-23

This is interesting. Part of the reason that Ezra fasted and prayed is that Ezra had sort of ‘put God on the spot’ by telling everyone that God would be on their side as they dealt with the opposition. ‘I was ashamed,’ Ezra said, ‘to ask for an escort because we had told the king that our God is with those who seek Him and against those who oppose Him.’

What Ezra said was right. He knew the character of God. But when it came right down to it he at least contemplated whether it not he made the right decision. He still did not go hat in hand to the king. He did the right thing. He called for a time of fasting and prayer.

It is too easy to trust men. It is too easy to put our confidence in princes. We claim that our God can take of us, but at the moment we are faced with fear and confusion because of the financial difficulties. In Ireland we are all concerned because the ECB and IMF are in Ireland in discussions to take over the economy. Budget day is only a little over a fortnight away. What is going to happen on Budget Day we ask? Will it be another ‘day of infamy?’

Are we really that reliant on man? Does man have that much control over us? Can God really supply all our needs?

Ezra led the people to fast and pray. They fasted and entreated God. And God answered.

We are facing unknown, but surely difficult days. Are we going to depend of Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, and the EU officials? Or do we have the confidence in God and His word to fast and entreat Him? Who has the better chance of answering?

Friday, 19 November 2010

I proclaimed a fast

Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, "The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him." So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.

Ezra 8v21-23

I wonder how God’s people ever got away from fasting. Despite that the fact that it is practiced in the Old and New Testament and mentioned in the gospels, Acts, and the epistles there are vast segments of the church where fasting is rarely if ever practiced.

Sometimes desperate times required desperate measures. Ezra and the people were facing opposition to their task of a full return to Jerusalem. The people in the land had grown accustomed to the Jews being gone. Most of them were not even born when the Jews left. In their minds this was not their land.

And yet they had to go back because God told them to. It was a daunting task. The odds were against them, and the chips were down.

So how did Ezra respond?

‘Then I proclaimed a fast…that we might humble ourselves before God, to seek from Him the right way.’

Wow! I really like that. Ezra tells us what he did and why he did it. When they did not know how to deal with a situation they decided to fast.

I have done a little studying on fasting in the scripture and it seems that in a general sense, at least, fasting is for when we just don’t know what to do. When faced with a demon possessed man that they could not deal with they brought him to Jesus. Jesus’ response? ‘This kind of thing is not solved except through prayer and fasting.’

Since I have lived in Ireland and been involved with a church plant I have learned the importance of prayer and fasting when dealing with especially desperate situations. Desperate times, so to speak, do demand desperate measures.

No one can question the fact that we live in desperate days. Maybe it is time for the church as a whole to re-examine this whole concept of fasting and prayer.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

By the good hand of our God

Then, by the good hand of our God upon us, they brought us a man of understanding, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, the son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and brothers, eighteen men; - Ezra 8v18

Ezra was an organiser. He had to be. There was a lot to be done in restoring worship to the land where for decades nothing had taken place.

He was wise enough to know that he had to have the right men in place so he sent messengers all over to collect the right people to do the work that needed to be done.

When they returned the brought back the right men. Ezra might have just accepted that and taken it for granted, but he didn’t. He knew the reason and was not afraid to acknowledge the reason.

‘By the good hand of our God upon us…’ he wrote.

I really like that. I wish I had that kind of nature. Maybe it is something that I need to work more on. I like acknowledging the hand of God in our everyday lives. Sometimes we can get so used to God working that we just take it for granted, but we would have nothing if not for the good hand of God in our lives.

God is good. We really need to grasp that truth. I think we all sort of acknowledge it, but do we really get it? Is it such a part of our lives that we give Him credit for what He does? It is easy to blame God or doubt Him when things are not going well in our minds so how hard can it be to acknowledge His goodness.

It is by the good hand of God that we face another day. It is by the good hand of God what our hearts are still beating. It is by the good hand of God that the earth still spins on its axis. It is also by the good hand of God when challenges come into our lives, for His very nature is good and He always does what is right.

Let’s me sure to remember the ‘good hand of God’ today.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

When God is in it

Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it diligently be done for the house of the God of heaven. For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons? Also we inform you that it shall not be lawful to impose tax, tribute, or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God. – Ezra 7v23-24

I find great comfort in this passage especially in the light of all the bad news that we are hearing in these days. We are facing some of the greatest financial struggles the modern world has ever seen. It is easy to wonder what is going to happen.

So what do we do? Where is God in all of this?

From this section it is obvious that God is in control. He can and has intervened in history as He did here. Babylon must have thought that they were in control when they moved in and captured God’s people. Some seventy years later, despite all logic and practicality, they not only released the people but helped them go back and helped them do the work of rebuilding. This even went so far as to provide tax exemption from those involved in the work of the temple.

So how does this apply to us? The simple truth is that God is in control. He can do whatever He wants. That means that if we are going through difficulties it is because He knows that it is best for us to go through them. He knows that is best in the long run. God is good. He loves us. He knows what is best and He has the power to bring that about.

In the meantime let us trust that He will be glorified when we trust Him to do what is best.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Prepare and do and teach

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. – Ezra 7v10

These guys who lead the rebuilding the temple and the city and restoring proper worship are a blessing to me. I like the practicality of these passages. I like the fact that sometimes God’s work is ‘real’ work and involves bricks and mortar and hammer and nails.

I like Ezra as well. I like his attitude in making sure that his spiritual life was in tune with the physical labour. I like these three aspects of seeking what God wanted him to do.

Ezra prepared his heart to see the law of the Lord.

Ezra did the law of the Lord.

Ezra taught others the law of the Lord.

Prepare, do, and teach. Doesn’t that describe the way that we share the gospel and do God’s work today?

It is important that we are constantly preparing our hearts to do the work of God. Once we have prepared our hearts we need to get out and do the work. It is great to study and prepare and get ready, but that doesn’t do much good if we don’t do anything with it. Then, if it is to carry on, we much teach others as well.

Prepare and do and teach made sense for Ezra’s time as they sought to re-establish worship in Jerusalem. Pray and do and teach makes sense today as well.

Monday, 15 November 2010

They ate together

Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the LORD God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the LORD made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. – Ezra 6v21-22

There is a joke among Baptist that says that when we say ‘fellowship’ we actually mean ‘eat.’ As a long time (36 year) Baptist I have to say that there is some credence to that statement. We do love to eat and church fellowship dinners and the Southern ‘dinner on the grounds’ are indeed a part of our heritage. I realise that this idea can be carried too far, but I am not so sure that it is totally wrong.

In the setting above the nation has finished the work of the temple. Worship had been restored. They had observed Passover. And then we read, ‘the children of Israel who had returned from captivity ate together.’

The importance of sharing a meal runs not only through the Bible, but also through culture. Eating together is something of a great equaliser. Sitting around a common table brings everyone together for a common purpose.

This practice carried on to the early church. We read of the early church that they observed the Lord’s Table together, but that they also shared meals from house to house.

Eating together does not preclude true fellowship. In fact, the word of God indicates that the two go together well.

So enjoy some true fellowship and share a meal with someone today!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The prophets were with them

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them. – Ezra 5v1-2

I don’t have a lot to say this morning. I just noticed something at the very end of this passage. After the prophets had preached the word of God to the people and told them to get to work we read ‘the prophets of God were with them, helping them.’

This seemingly small comment says a lot. It tells me first of all that the prophets were also workers. They were not too good or too proud to get their hands dirty doing the work.

I also like the fact that their work was not only spiritual, but physical. These prophets, who played a role of vital spiritual leadership, were not afraid to get down and help the people pick up bricks and mortar and do the work.

I think there is a lesson here for us preachers. I know that Acts tells us that the apostles took on the deacons so that they could dedicate themselves to ‘prayer and the ministry of the word.’ That, however, does not exclude us from doing our part of the everyday work.

We, after all, call ourselves minsters. That means that we serve. These prophets ministered the word, but they also ministered by getting to work.

What does that mean for us today? It means that we are not above doing the everyday stuff. There is no reason why we should not clean the toilets and move the chairs and pick up the rubbish. There is no reason why we need to find some kind of ‘ministry stuff’ to distract us when everyone else is working.

After we minster the word, why not get busy and make sure that we are doing our part to help?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

So they rose up [again]

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them. – Ezra 5v1-2

This sounds a lot like a verse earlier in the week, doesn’t it? The great work which was started before had closed down because of the great opposition. After the supposed offer of help those who opposed the building tried to discourage the people of Judah. They ‘troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.’

The people who had started the work got discouraged and actually quit the work. For fourteen years the foundation laid untouched. Every day the people saw the work that they had started and then quit and left to go to ruin. They were afraid. Chances are that eventually they just got used to seeing the unfinished work and it no longer troubled them.

But God sent two prophets, Haggai on Zechariah. We will read their words later on in the Old Testament. God sent these men to get the people back to work. Haggai and Zechariah preached and the people responded. They rose up to do the work.

God was not finished with these people just because they had given up. He was not finished with them because they had quit. He gave them another chance to get to work.

Are there things in our life that we have left undone or only partly finished? Are we neglecting those things out of laziness or fear? Are we so ashamed at quitting that we think all hope is gone and there is no use?

That is not how God is. God doesn’t cut us done because we have blown it in the past.

If there is something we have left undone for God the answer is simple – rise up and do it! God will honour our obedience, even if it is delayed.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Let us build with you

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the LORD God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers' houses, and said to them, "Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here." - Ezra 4v1-2

How nice this must have sounded. When the enemies of Judah heard that the temple was being rebuilt they said, ‘Hey let us help you, we seek your God and we have sacrificed to Him.’

As good as it might have sounded; the leaders of Judah knew it would never work. Their response was clear – ‘You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the LORD God of Israel.’

Why would these folks not accept the help of these outsiders? Pragmatically speaking it would make sense, more money and more labourers would certainly seem to make the job easier and to get it accomplished sooner.

I think the principle is clear; God’s work is to be done by God’s people. God does not need the world to do His work. It sounds a bit mean, but we really don’t need the world’s help to do God’s work.

To many churches and too many Christians have grown accustomed to taking help from the outside, tax breaks, government refunds, and various subsidies are dangerous in that they can make us dependent on man instead of trusting in God.

I don’t think we can build a strict policy here about accepting any kind of assistance. It is not that clear. I do think we can be warned to be careful about allowing the world to ‘help’ us do God’s work.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A problem of perspective

And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel." Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. – Ezra 3v11-13

Today I want to look at the responses of the people to the laying of the foundation. The young men were excited at the laying of the foundation of the new temple. The old men were in despair because it was not what is used to be. They missed the good old days and wept because of this new pitiful excuse for a temple.

Two prophets were there at the time. We read later from Haggai and Zechariah that the old men were wrong in despising the foundation of the new temple. They were ‘despising the day of small things.’

How discouraging it must have been for these young men. Here they had come back to the land, obeyed God, and started work on the temple. The foundation was laid – surely it was time to celebrate and praise God for what had been accomplished.

Those of us who are getting to be a little older need to be careful that we don’t try to compare everything to the ‘good old days.’ The good old days had plenty of problems as well.

Let’s make sure that we are encouragers instead of discouragers.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The foundation was laid

And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel." Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. – Ezra 3v11-13

It was certainly a time of mixed emotions for the nation. They were, after all, back in the land of the ancestors. The process of reconstruction and restoration had begun. The foundation of the temple was completed.

The people gathered together to praise the Lord for the progress that had been made. Of course the naysayers were there saying through their tears, ‘This is not how it used to be.’ Some were shouting for joy and others were shouting in despair. It was really a mess that makes us wonder if things had really changed in the heart of the people.

I want to note a couple of things here, one today and one tomorrow.

There is an important point that we don’t want to miss. One thing is clear; the foundation for the temple had been laid. We know from history that this new temple will last for almost 500 years until torn down by the Romans in 70 A.D.

The Bible is chock full of example of the importance of a solid foundation. We sing the children’s song about the wise man and the foolish man, for example. The foolish man built his house upon the sand. The wise man built his house upon the rock.

As Christians we are clearly told that only one foundation will do – there is no real foundation apart from Jesus Christ. Unless we build our lives and ministries on Him we are certainly doomed to fail.

The people, no matter what the naysayers said, had built a solid foundation. Have we done the same?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Paying your way

They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia. – Ezra 3v7

This verse falls into what basically amounts to a financial ledger of the expenses to rebuild the temple. Rebuilding the temple obviously required a great deal of resources and those resources had to be acquired in some way.

This is a couple of times now when I have noticed detailed records of payments being made for good acquired or services rendered. Paying for what we need is just a part of life.

Today’s thoughts are somewhat embryonic and may be a little unclear (so what else is new J ). These are just some things bouncing around in my head after reading this passage and trying to apply what happened here.

I take a simple thought from this – we are expected to pay our way. While I have known a fair share of generous, giving, and gracious Christians I have also known a fair share of believers who are just downright selfish. We can all get in the trap of looking for a hand out or a freebie and gaining a reputation of being a taker instead of a giver.

While there is nothing wrong with being a wise steward. There is nothing with looking for a good deal. There is nothing to indicate that we should allow ourselves to get ‘ripped off’ or to pay absurd prices. That is not being a wise steward of God’s resources.

At the same time, I think we need to be known as generous people. I don’t think being stingy is a good reputation for a believer. We need to be willing to pay our own way, or even go above and beyond and be generous with what God gives us.

Monday, 8 November 2010

They arose and built, though fear came

Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren, arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening burnt offerings. . – Ezra 3v2,3

Mary and I went to Vianden Castle in nearby Luxembourg Saturday. It was fascinating to look at the images of the reconstruction of the castle. It had lain in ruins for hundreds of years, but now it is a beautiful and impressive structure.

I can’t imagine what it was like for the first workers to go in when they decided to rebuild the castle. Where do you start with this mess?

It was a similar situation when the book of Ezra opens. By chapter three the Jews returned to Jerusalem to find the city in ruins. The temple had been torn apart. Figuratively or literally not a stone remained in place. It was time to dig in and rebuild, but where do you start?

They had the right idea. The first thing to do was to rebuild the altar so that the sacrifices could resume.

But they were afraid of the people who lived there now. The nation had been gone for many years, and the new inhabitants were not going to go easily. It was a scary and daunting task.

But still, despite all that, they ‘arose and built.’

Building required courage and faith instead of cowardice and fear.

We are often faced with similar circumstances. We know that there is a work that needs to be done. But then fear paralyzes us and we don’t get started. And we all know that if we don’t get started we will never get it done.

God is not the author of fear. He is the author of faith.

Fear or faith. These folks chose rightly. Which will we choose?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Lord stirred up the king

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying…Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. - Ezra 1v1-2

One of the things that some Christians get most upset about is political leaders who are not sympathetic to, or maybe even tolerant of, the way we want to live. American Christians especially seem to have adopted the idea that one of our imperatives should be to try and conform politicians to our way of thinking. We try to use our own wisdom and strategy to get the government on our side.

I think we can forget that God holds the heart of the king in His hands.

Here we find the Jews in captivity in Babylon. Many had assimilated into the Babylonian culture. It appeared that the people’s lives had changed forever and that their fate was sealed. They were hopeless and helpless. Or were they?

We read of a new king, Cyrus, coming to the throne in Babylon. Surely the Jews had no hope in yet another king.

But no one could have reckoned with one thing – the king’s heart is in the Lord’s hands. This included King Cyrus. Decades before Isaiah had declared the word of the Lord - ‘'He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, "You shall be built," And to the temple, "Your foundation shall be laid.’

That is interesting. Had Cyrus come to know God through the testimony of Daniel and the others? It is hard to know and we are not given much information about that.

The point is that the Jews did not have to call for rallies or protest marches or demonstrations in the Babylon. God was in control. God raises leaders up and brings them down and uses them in His way.

When the Jews left Babylon they did so with the full support of the government. Can’t God still move the hands of governments today?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

To fulfil the seventy years

And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. – 2 Chronicles 36v20-21

I remember a seminar on Bible teacher with a guy I learned a lot from and who greatly influences my Bible teaching methods. It was excellent. In just a few hours we experienced a brief summary of the Bible laid out in a way that it was fun and easy to remember. I still, some thirty or so years later, use a lot of those methods.

He gave a key lesson from each historical Bible period. For the stage he called activity the theme was ‘God always gets His due’ and it was based on this passage.

As part of the law given on Sinai Israel was required to have a Sabbath year. During that year the land was allowed to lay fallow. Like so much of the law this was for the people’s good. It was another way to not wear out the land. Most farmers today use a version of this when they rotate crops from field to field.

The important thing is that they had to do it because God told them to. It was God’s law and they violated it. For 490 years since they entered Canaan they had ignored the instructions to rest the land. So, in order to let the land rest God took the people out of the land so that it could rest for those seventy years.

God gets His due. These rest years were His and if they were not going to give it to Him He was going to take it.

I think this teacher was on to something, but that I understood in a wrong context. I have always seen in that if we don’t do what God wants us to do He is going to just take it.

I don’t think that is true. He gives us free will and simply allows us to suffer the consequences of our actions. He may chasten us to work on holiness, but He does not just take ‘His due.’

However, I think there is a blessing for us. Under the Law it is obvious that God kept close accounts of sins. It is almost like God ticked off missed year after missed year until the total hit seventy, and then He took His land.

I am grateful though, that in Christ that accounting has been settled. All of my sins on that heavenly tick list have been sorted. Christ has taken that list and marked them ‘paid in full.’ Jesus has paid the debt and satisfied the requirement that God will ‘get His due.’

Praise God for the One who paid what I owed.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Till there was no remedy

Till there was no remedy

But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, till there was no remedy. – 2 Chronicles 36v16

It had gone on long enough. God had given them chance after chance after chance and still Judah went on her way.

For decades Judah had mocked the messengers of God.

They despised His word.

They scoffed at God’s prophets.

That sounds a lot like the world around us today doesn’t it? It has become acceptable to mocked Christians. God’s word is openly despised. Christian preachers and teachers are scoffed at.

For Judah there was now no remedy. God’s judgement was coming.

God is love. He is kind. He is patient. But He is also holy, righteous, and just.

Because God is holy, righteous, and just sin has a penalty. For Judah the penalty was to be carried away into seventy years of captivity as slaves in Babylon.

Sin still has a penalty. It is so serious that God sent His son to die on the cross to pay that penalty. However He has provided a remedy for the curse of sin.

The problem is that people still reject God’s remedy. After 2000 years man still thinks he can figure out a better way that admitting his sin and yielding to God.

Sadly, one day there will be no remedy. Life will come to a halt. Then it will be too late. There will be no remedy.

That means that we have friends and loved one who will one day lose their remedy for sin. When that happens they will see the God of holiness and justice.

Let’s be faithful in sharing God’s love and patience while there is still a remedy for those around us.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

God told me?

But he sent messengers to him, saying, "What have I to do with you, king of Judah? I have not come against you this day, but against the house with which I have war; for God commanded me to make haste. Refrain from meddling with God, who is with me, lest He destroy you." – 2 Chronicles 35v21

Here we have an interesting situation. Josiah had done a great job of bringing the word of God back to the nation and turning the people back to the Lord. This was purely by His grace to give people one more chance because their judgement was coming.

Here we have an encounter with Necho, king of Egypt. The epic battle of Carchemish was about to take place. Josiah went out to meet Necho and confront him for his actions. Before the met up Necho sent messengers to Josiah with to tell him that he did not intend to do battle with Judah. He was there to fight Assyria because God had told him to do so. ‘Don’t meddle with God Josiah, for God is with me.’

What is one to do in a situation like that? What do we do when someone says they are doing something because God told them to do it?

That is a tough one. What makes it tougher is reading examples like this and find out happens when we don’t believe them. Josiah went out to battle and was killed by an arrow.

So was Josiah right or wrong to ignore what Necho said? This is tough. After all Necho was a wicked, pagan king. He was from a nation which traditionally had been something of a cold war enemy.

We just don’t know. Today we have an advantage because we can check things out with the word of God. That is a great litmus test.

But that doesn’t always give us an answer. The scripture doesn’t answer everything. I tend to now trust the words ‘God told me…’ because He speaks through His word. But what about something like ‘the Lord led me…’ if the person is godly and doing something for Him?

I wish I had all the answers, but I think we can still learn something from this encounter.

It appears that Josiah did not ask God what to do, but just ran off to oppose Necho. The result was fatal.

No I get really confused. Did Josiah die because he did not ask God what to do, or did he die because God was going to spare him the tragedy of seeing Judah captured and taken into captivity?

I guess it is good to know that the things we deal with are nothing new. I also know that we can neither accept nor ignore this kind of situation. When we hear this we first examine it in the light of God’s word. Some things are obvious. If ‘God told me’ is contrary to the word of God we know it is wrong. I think we then consider the character of the person. Then we pray for wisdom and seek God’s will in how we should respond.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

They did not depart

Thus Josiah removed all the abominations from all the country that belonged to the children of Israel, and made all who were present in Israel diligently serve the LORD their God. All his days they did not depart from following the LORD God of their fathers. – 2 Chronicles 34v33

I almost hate leaving a discussion of Josiah. He was one of the few bright spots in the history of Israel and Judah. He and a couple of others had the courage to try and stem the flow of wickedness.

Though the reforms did not carry on after Josiah’s death, he did bring about reforms that stuck with the people all during his reign when they did not depart from following the Lord.

The concept of sticking with it runs all the way through the word of God. God shows grace to those who slip up, fall, and quit when they turn back to Him, but it is clearly His plan and His will that we just keep carrying on.

These people did not depart from following the Lord. Though the road may get rough, though we are going to have setbacks, and though we are tempted to quit, may it be said of each of us that we ‘did not depart from following the Lord.’

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

To perform the words

Then the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. – 2 Chronicles 34v31

As we saw earlier when Josiah became king he set about bringing great reform to the nation. They discovered the ‘book of the law’ and that indeed became the standard for the nation under Josiah.

When that happened King Josiah made a promise before God. The promise was the follow the Lord, to keep His commandments, to keep His testimonies, to keep His statutes. He promised to do it with all His heart and with all His soul.

What a great promise to make. But Josiah made another promise. He promised that the nation would also perform all the words of the covenant.

All those plans are great and noble, but unless they carry through and do it then it is really worthless.

The wonderful thing here is that Josiah and the people did all that they said, including ‘performing all the words of the covenant.’

It is vital that we are doers of the word, and not hearers only. If we are only doers of the word then we deceive our own selves. The proof of our faith and commitment is in the doing.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Then Manasseh knew

Now when he was in affliction, he implored the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. – 2 Chronicles 33v12-13

For all of Manasseh’s problems he seems to have finally got things sorted. This is a great picture of how God does not give up on people and holds out His offer for people to return to Him.

Manasseh had made a mess of things. It was so bad that the Assyrians had captured him, bound him, attached flesh hooks to him, and carried him off to Babylon.

But there was glimmer of hope in Manasseh. Maybe he remembered something from his childhood. Maybe some old teaching came to mind. Maybe it was just simple desperation. Whatever it was, when he was in affliction, he finally did something right.

He begged the Lord his God. He humbled himself greatly before the God of his father. He prayed to God.

What is truly amazing is what follows.

God accepted his plea. God heard his supplication. God brought him back to Jerusalem.

I like that. It reminds of what Micah said in Micah 7v7 during his own despair – ‘Therefore I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; My God will hear me.’

If find it amazing that the ‘God of the Old Testament’ who is often seen as being cruel and harsh and all about judgement is still willing to hear a prayer like that from Manasseh. No matter where Manasseh was at the moment, the Lord was still his God. He was still waiting and willing to hear from Manasseh.

What an amazing God we have. He is waiting to hear from us, even when we get ourselves in a mess.

When God heard Manasseh and sent him back to Jerusalem Manasseh knew that the Lord was God. May we know that without going through all the stuff he did.