Before It Happens: “Judgments of the ‘Day of the Lord’” – Joel 2

On September 25, 2015, the Business Insider web report offered a fascinating article called “Predictive Policing.” In the article, the author referred to a Tom Cruise movie from 2002 called “Minority Report.” The article described the movie as an action mystery-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg, and noted the story was set in the Washington, D.C. area in the year 2054. At that time the so-called “Pre-Crime” police unit was tasked with apprehending criminals before they committed the crime, based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “pre-cogs.” It sounded like a powerful thriller for those who like the science fiction genre. My chief interest, though, was in the information found in the article that described how police are, in fact, using stores of computer collected and analyzed data to suggest where police resources should be directed, (i.e. areas where crimes will likely occur) – as a computer “predicts” when and such help should be concentrated. I was fascinated with the notion that such “predictions” could actually one day be found a reliable aid in crime deterrence.

The fact is, though, that predicting coming trouble isn’t a new thing. God mercifully sent prophets centuries ago who did just that. In our last lesson, we began recalling some of the words of an ancient prophet in The Book of Joel.

As we look into Joel 2 in this lesson, it may be helpful if we recall that in our last lesson we made the point that it wasn’t a desire to punish that drove God to send prophets – it was a function of His grace to warn us. We made clear that these passages are sometimes cryptic, and often uncomfortable to wade through, but God was anxious that His people know what was to come. The passage begins:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming…

Does it sound like God desired to hide what was happening? Not at all! The truth is that however hard, however uncomfortable, we need the message of a coming reckoning of our lives. We need to know that God is not aloof, and our sin is not private and easily forgotten. Israel needed that message too!

Go back to the Book of Joel and you will recall that God used a graphic symbol to get the people’s attention. They saw a massive locust invasion described in vivid terms in Joel 1. The warning of God was made plain: this was to be an illustration of something larger that would devastate the children of Israel in the days ahead. The prophecy was horrid, messy and terrible… but that wasn’t the end of the story. Prophecy wasn’t designed to leave people in the “soup” of judgment. Let me explain…

Do you recall that Jesus used the scene of a woman in childbirth as His “go to” illustration concerning the prophecy of the end times of the human program? In Matthew 24, tucked into His warnings of “wars and rumors of wars” He offered these words: (Matthew 24:8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.). He said that when the time of judgment drew near, the birth pangs would begin, but that pain was just the beginning of the end. It is particularly helpful, I think, at that moment of pain to recall that the end is not in pain – but in a new life. The pain will pass.

In the same way, some prophecies are revealed in very messy terms. Some of them are not linear prophecies – neatly unfolded in chronological order like the organized closing argument of a lawyer. Rather, as God unwinds the cosmos around us and replaces it with a new Heaven and earth, there is a painful and nasty process – but it is designed to bring forth something wonderful and exciting. This isn’t the only example of such pain-ridden processes in life.

• Think about the first morning the athlete begins training for a spot on the Olympic team. It is still dark out, and they get up and head out the door in their sweat pants and t-shirt – a body is about to begin to be altered. There will be much pain ahead, but the end may find them standing on a platform with the whole world watching them receive a medal.
• Think of the confused and distressed drug addict that checks into the clinic and begins the process of stripping from within the body the harmful and powerful drugs. The process will be disgusting, but it will restore the life that was ebbing away. If they follow the given instructions, they will likely exit new and different people.
• Closer to more of us, consider the person beginning the terrible process of losing many, many pounds on a necessary but agonizing diet. The end will be greater health, but the path to get there may not be very pretty.

All of these examples are arduous and painful processes that are designed to end well. So it is with God’s eventual and dramatic end to the history of human rebellion. Time will surrender to eternity, and mutiny will be replaced by worship!

Joel’s opening vision was stark, powerful and heartbreaking – but the locust devastation provided a picture to refocus Israel on coming judgment – and encourage them with the message that it would end well.

This prophecy is more than it appears on the surface. It is a story of the world God made, and what He is going to do with it. It is the story of what God did for His people, Israel – and what He will do to bring them to full surrender to Him. Like the intricate settings and battles of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is detail and drama. We must not become quickly impatient for the revealed ending and miss the weight of the struggle – because the prophets aren’t in a hurry to skip over the painful details.

Here is why. God’s faithful character is uniquely revealed in the depths of a painful struggle. His glory is best discovered in a commanding triumph over the rebels, and His vast wisdom most clear in the rich texture of the prophetic struggle.
In detail, chapter two is probably the weightier part of the message of this prophet’s record. The chapter turns on the words: “The Day of the Lord.” This phrase was used five times in Joel beginning with Joel 1:15 (see also: 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14). You cannot begin reading the second chapter for but a few words and the phrase appears yet again.

Because the prophet did not begin with a definition, we will need to discern the meaning of the phrase FROM the text. As we seek to do so, we will see this truth emerge…

Key Principle: The “Day of the Lord is an extended period of time in which God deals with Israel’s constant rejection of Him.

It begins with their veiling from the former profound relationship with Him, and end with their restoration beyond any further judgment at Messiah’s return and judgment of His people. We will be able to discern this by looking at the best passage in the Bible on the subject – Joel 2.
When the prophets use the term “day” they don’t always seem to mean a chronological 24-hour period.

Think with me about what we see in the prophetic literature. The term “day” always appears to refer to time, but some references appear to be more than a single calendar day:

1. There is the term “Day of man’s judgment” in 1 Corinthians 4:3 referencing the current economy, when men have control over human jurisprudence- i.e. where men “run the courts.”
2. The “Day of Christ” is mentioned six times in Scripture (1 Cor. 1: 8; 5: 5; 2 Cor. 1: 14; Phil. 1: 6, 10; 2: 16) and appears to refer to a time period when Christ will come to snatch away the church (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13– 18) from the earth, bringing up the Christians of the church age to be with Him forever (Jn. 14: 1– 3).
3. Another term is the “Day of God” (cp. 2 Peter 3:12) seems to refer to the final disposition of Heaven and Earth (when they ‘pass away’) as God remakes things using devastation and fire.
4. With these, there is also the “Day or the Lord” which seems to include several profound kinds of judgment of God on His people Israel, and on the nations before, during and after the Tribulation.

Based on these uses of the term “day” in the context of judgment, the word doesn’t appear to be only used of 24-hour periods, but sometimes may be reckoned a protracted period of time.

What did the prophets mean by the “Day of the Lord” as best we can tell?

The specific phrase occurs nineteen times by name throughout the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, including once by the prophet Obadiah (1:15), five times in Joel (1:15; 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14), three times by Amos (Amos 5:18 twice and 5:20), three times by Isaiah (2:12; 13:6, 9), twice by Ezekiel (13:5; 30:3), three times by Zephaniah (1:7 and 1:14 twice), once by Zechariah (14:1), and once by Malachi (4:5). Add to that other occurrences of “that day” or “that great day” and you will pile on another seventy-five places where it was mentioned in at least a cursory way.

Rather than define the terms outright, I would like you to build with me a construct for the meaning of the “Day of the Lord” as we follow the record of Joel 2.

Our text offers descriptions of the “Day of the Lord” beginning with the call to assemble because of its impending arrival.

After Joel called the people in 2:1 to: Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, He went on to describe the event…

First, the “Day of the Lord” was swiftly approaching.

Joel 2:1b …Surely it is near.

From God’s perspective, Israel was running out of time before an event, that was part of divine judgment, would come upon them. The importance of that phrase is simple: People always think they have more time in life to straighten out their walk with God. Part of the blessing of warning is it reminds us to pull against our natural inclination to believe we have more time.

If you are honest with yourself, can you admit that you often think you can accomplish more in the day ahead than you actually can? Are you a victim of your own unrealistic expectations? If you are, you need to listen carefully when the Lord calls you to repentance and renewal – because you will tend to think you have more time.

Don’t forget, when you read “near” in the Bible, that when we talk in terms of time with God, we have to be careful, since He dwells outside of the dimension of time.

There is a Scripture connecting events of the “Day of the Lord” mentioned some time later in the words of Peter in Acts 2:16.

but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel. 17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on My bond slaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophecy 19 and I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. 21 And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

That quote from Joel was made as Peter defended the men who were speaking in tongues in Acts 2. In my view, Peter carefully noted that with the coming of the Spirit to begin indwelling the believers, the “Day of the Lord” judgments were commencing. Something at Pentecost appeared to be acting as the beginning point of the “Day of the Lord.” If my analysis of his reference is true, the “Day of the Lord” is a period of judgment beginning with the celebration of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Spirit of God fell upon the church. The effect that event had on Israel will become clear as we study.

In any case, don’t miss the point: People overestimate the amount of time they have to get their life straightened out – so we all need reminders that life is short and judgment is certain.

Second, the “Day of the Lord” would bring a darkening veil over the discerning eyes of God’s people.

Critical to the understanding of the nature of the “Day of the Lord” is the sentence that included the nature of the judgment – it was a “darkening” or “veiling.” The writer continued:

Joel 2:2 A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, So there is a great and mighty people…

The words evoke the image of the blanket of locusts that blocked out the sky. In the same way, the people of God would experience a darkening and a gloom. It may be the reference was to natural disturbances – and clearly that was part of the issue. At the same time, it appears that a veil descending over their hearts would also arrive, and it would make a clear walk with God a distant, vague, and darkened pursuit. Paul appears to have spoken of this “veiling” as a “hardening” in Romans 11:25:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion; He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.

If the “Day of the Lord” includes a judgment that placed a curtain of darkness between the Jewish people and God for a time, one form of divine judgment seems to be God placing a distance from Himself in the heart of someone that expresses (in word or deed) their desire for Him to “leave them alone.”

Don’t miss that: God may politely withdraw from you when your life message to Him is that you don’t want Him bugging you.

It is ONLY His grace that keeps needling you with embarrassing guilt. Your feeling of guilt isn’t your problem; your stubborn and rebellious spirit is! Part of God’s mercy can be seen in His uninvited conviction.

In the case of Israel, the veiling or hardening was neither total nor final, but it was part of the whole judgment.

Third, the “Day of the Lord” (though offering some resemblance of other judgments) was unique in the prophetic scheme.

This was both am exceptional and distinctive time…

Joel 2:2b …There has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations.

In the Bible, the “time of Jacob’s Trouble” (called by Jesus the “Great Tribulation”) was described in Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 exactly that way – as a time unlike any other. The description in those places are clearly of judgment so heavy on the Earth that the world would have been decimated were it not for God putting a stop to those days.

Unique judgment requires special attention. The fact that God clearly marked out a coming time that was unlike any other was an “historical highlighter” marking something very important. To God, the time of purifying His people wasn’t a WASTE of resources. The destruction of the landscape was “entirely worthwhile” as God drew people back.

It is worth remembering that even the hard times that call us and draw us back to God are precious times in His sight. In some cases, those severe moments of discipline are the moments He marks as the most important in our lives. So it was with Israel in the “Day of the Lord.”

Fourth, the “Day of the Lord” includes severe destruction of the landscape through divine judgment as a main feature.

Obviously, if you are a Bible student, the description here fits well with the later description of the Great Tribulation…

Joel 2:3 A fire consumes before them and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them but a desolate wilderness behind them, and nothing at all escapes them.

Parts of the Great Tribulation are described in those exact terms, as in Revelation 8:6

And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them. 7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, 9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.

It appears the “Day of the Lord” includes the Tribulation Period revealed most completely in Revelation 6-19, with the seven seal judgments (Rev.6), the seven trumpet judgments (Rev. 8) and the seven bowl or vial judgments (Rev. 16).

Here is the truth: when we are rebellious, it is nearly impossible to get our attention until we face catastrophic failure. Anything short of destruction of our dreams will easily be explained away and ignored. In the case of Israel, the whole earth will appear to turn against them because they won’t run to God until there isn’t anywhere else to run!

Are you really any different? Most of us can readily admit that we aren’t good at repentance, and we aren’t quick at picking up on the signs of judgment.

It will take a near decimation of the world to bring Israel to her knees. She won’t realize she needs God until there is literally no stone left unturned in her attempt to find her way without Him.

Fifth, the “Day of the Lord” includes the appearance of a massive army, just as the locusts graphically pictured.

The story of “The Great Tribulation” in Revelation 16 and 19 ends with a massive military buildup on the Earth that prepares to destroy Israel – but meets doom in the coming of Messiah and His forces from Heaven.

Note how the “Day of the Lord” in Joel 2 appears to include this time…

• It includes the movement of a swift army: Joel 2:4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like war horses, so they run.
• That massive army moved with great noise: Joel 2:5 With a noise as of chariots They leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire consuming the stubble, like a mighty people arranged for battle.
• The army that struck terror into hearts as it advanced: Joel 2:6 Before them the people are in anguish; all faces turn pale.
• It appeared as a well-trained, overwhelming force on the earth: Joel 2:7 They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like soldiers; And they each march in line, Nor do they deviate from their paths. 8 They do not crowd each other, They march everyone in his path; When they burst through the defenses, They do not break ranks. 9 They rush on the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter through the windows like a thief.
• The militia seemed unstoppable, and blocked out even the stars (dust cloud or aircraft?) above in their overwhelming power and might: Joel 2:10: Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness.
• The gathering of an army that would surely destroy them without God’s intervention was foretold in detail in Zechariah 12:12-14:5: The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. … 2 “Behold, I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah… 7 The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David… 10 “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. 11 In that day there will be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, every family by itself…14: 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. 3 Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. 4 In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east… 5 You will flee by the valley of My mountains … Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!

In the end, Israel won’t save herself. They will finally see God’s Son, their Messiah, and He will bring them rescue – just as He did for many of us.

Salvation isn’t about our ability to find God – it is about our response to Him when He stands right in front of our messed up lives and calls us to take His hand and follow Him. God isn’t interested in people “getting their lives together” so they can meet Him. We can’t do it. He is interested in us recognizing we have no one who loves us like He does.

Israel will see their long lost Son. They will recognize Him for His past sacrifice for them. They will weep – but they will reach out for His hand. That is the only thing for which God waits.

Sixth, God’s rescuing army also arrives.

Mid-way through the description of the advance of the army, the prophet appears to have changed his description from the opponents of God, to the army God sent in response:

Joel 2:11 The Lord utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, For strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it?

Isn’t this just like the description of the assembly called from Heaven for the defeat of the armies defiant against God found in Revelation 19: 17?

…Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in mid heaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army.

The “Day of the Lord” doesn’t only include the Tribulation Period, but also the end of that time with the coming of the Lord. The gathering of the nations was organized to attempt to destroy Israel and remove any memory of the God of the Bible – but then God showed up.

Never count God out in the fight… Never! When the darkness descends and you look in every direction but find no alternatives – look UP! God isn’t aloof. He knows where you are, who you are, what you’ve been doing, and where you are headed.

Many in Israel may have rejected the Messiah today, but He hasn’t rejected them. When the time is right, He will show Himself. At the same time, He is removing any doubt that there is another way for them to be reconciled to God and find peace on this planet. It isn’t until God removes the other options that we see the truth – He is all we have – but He is all we need.

Seventh, when God’s army appears, His people will again be called to repent.

A message was passed to the Jewish people to get serious with God yet again, as their time had run out. Even though God called for generations, yet He called again. Long after they had forgotten His love… His patience called them back to Him.

The message of repentance will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:12 Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.

The opening to return to God’s arms will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:13b…Now return to the Lord your God…

Is that true of YOU today? Have you been on the run trying to make it without God, but you sense Him calling you today?

Don’t ignore Him. In fact, listen to the way the prophet, the SAME GUY who described the decimation of things all over the world, described the character of God…

Joel 2:13b …For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Just as Zechariah 12:10 reminded us of the coming response of the people of Israel, so Joel cites the turning of the hearts of the people to the Lord in the face of the battle between God and the nations. The appearance of the army of God will be a new opportunity to bow before the Lord. The people will recognize the day and nothing will be more important!

In Joel 2:15 they are called to “Blow a trumpet”… to “Consecrate a fast” … 16 Gather the people… Assemble the elders

Even the long resistant spiritual leaders of Israel will call the people to repentance and recognize their own sins.

Joel 2:17 Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not make Your inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Clearly this will be a day when Israel will understand the choice they have to finally see the Lord clearly once again.

Here is the simple truth: God rescues when He is invited to do so. He saves when we recognize we need saving. As long as we think we can run our lives without Him, He lets us try.

Here is what Scripture makes plain: It won’t work for Israel, and it won’t work for you.

The “Day of the Lord” includes God’s heavy hand of judgment to get His people to stop running.

In our next lesson, we will finish the chapter with God’s wonderful rescue – but don’t leave the conviction of this moment…

The penalty for constant neglect of God and their invitation of evil while distancing themselves from God was this:

• God withdrew.
• Intimate knowledge of God became veiled.
• For dark generations the Jewish people suffered.
• Many invented marvelous things, and some achieved notoriety and wealth.

Yet, through it all they were living in turmoil under the “fog” of a spiritual life largely darkened.

The prophet explained it.

When we push away from God, He politely lets us walk in the peril of our own arrogance.

God’s judgment in His withdrawal is always palpable. They KNEW something shattered their identity. Even after the State of Israel has attempted to offer stability and identity to world Jewry, still they know the world waits for their destruction and they don’t know why. It hurts. It is lonely. It feels wrong and isn’t clear why these things are happening.

Yet, God’s promise didn’t stop at pain and rejection. There is coming an END to the pain. Significant to the narrative was this record of its end:

Joel 2:25 Then I will make up to you for the years That the swarming locust has eaten… 26 … Then My people will never be put to shame. 27 Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the Lord your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame.

Look at that.

Grab the import of a nation redeemed, lives restored.

Think about many people who have lived apart from God for much of their lives, only to find peace in the Savior late in life.

In a mobile home backed up to the church property lived a man who came to Grace Church years ago, walking in the back door and looking at the ceiling as though it might fall upon his entrance. I noticed him immediately because his skin was a pale yellow. He was apparently a sickly man with an advanced and serious illness. He decided to walk across his back yard one morning and walk into the church. At the invitation, he came forward, and we talked for a time after the service. He told me that he came to Jesus in his youth, many years before. He recounted God’s call to send him into a mission field, and how he told God “No!” in a church service, because he had things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He didn’t think God understood how hard the mission field would be for him. No one knew how much he was wrestling with God, but in a matter of weeks, he left the church, never to return until he walked in our door. Then he made the remark that I will never forget. He said, “I am old and I am very sick. My time here is short. I know what the Lord wanted for me, and what a WASTE I made of my life!” We prayed together, and he sobbed as he asked Jesus to take him back after years of wandering. I opened to Joel 2 and asked God to follow His own nature and “give back” for the years eaten away by the locusts of self-centered thinking. In the next months, I had the chance to visit the man a number of times, and each one surprised me, more and more. I would walk in, and he would be smiling, excited about his study of the Word. “I missed God through my life. I knew He was watching, but He knew I wasn’t listening! How glad I am that He restored me!” He didn’t live long, but he died happy.

You have the opportunity to ask for God’s rescue TODAY. That is God’s mercy to YOU. Won’t you respond before the locusts eat your life?

God waits to be asked.

Randy Alcorn reminds us that when we listen to the vocabulary of the Bible, it reveals something powerful with its language of God’s heart for struggling and wayward people. He noted, God often uses words like reconcile, redeem, restore, recover, return, renew, regenerate, and resurrect. God wants to put back the relationship that rebellion and mutiny is trying to keep at arm’s length. (My paraphrase from a note he made in Fifty Days in Heaven).

Before It Happens: “Preparing for Coming Days of Judgment” – Joel 1

What does your Bible look like inside? On careful inspection, if we checked the Bibles of many people who are active in the local church in America (I am speaking of those who study of God’s Word at least in their church services), we may observe a pattern others have noted before us. The text of many Jesus followers is well worn. Some parts are underlined and have scribbles in the margins. Some are filled with colored markings and symbols in an unintentional “code’ that no one but the owner and the Spirit of God may fully perceive. Yet, even in these cases, often there is a pristine portion of their Bible – a section somewhere between the books of Song of Solomon and the opening of Matthew – that appears cleaner. This section is often in near mint condition, with gilded edges still gleaming, despite the condition of the rest of the Bible in which they are found. Perhaps it is because there is so little preaching, as many pastors have openly admitted they struggle with how to bring the Hebrew prophets into the modern pulpit.

Part of the reason may be that we don’t understand the true function of the prophets and their writings. We may read their words and they strike us as vengeful or angry (with all that “God will bring fire and judgment” talk) – and that doesn’t match our understanding of God’s loving character and His general way of doing things. Some believers have made up their mind that the God of Israel was somehow transformed to a warmer and nicer version of Himself when Jesus came (as recorded in the record of the Gospels). Frankly, that is nonsense. God doesn’t change and doesn’t need to change. Perhaps the real issue is, that we haven’t taken enough time to carefully consider Who our God is, and make a true attempt to understand the truth of what the prophets provide as spokesmen of His grace. They weren’t angry – they were giving sharp warnings because people were haplessly but swiftly approaching a perilous cliff in their nation. The fact is that when you are trying to stop a tragedy, your words may often sound shrill and impatient. As we open to the beginning of the recorded words of the Prophet Joel for this lesson, I trust the Spirit of God will make clear this truth…

Key Principle: God’s prophetic warnings are a function of His grace. Those who snub warning eventually suffer judgment by their own choice.

If you are patient, that truth will show itself from our text. Before we begin to investigate the text, I want to remind you of how we got where we are in our churches regarding prophecy and its part of our Scripture diet. Honestly, there are several problems that naturally arise in the modern church when trying to preach or teach the prophets. In fact, I asked some friends who serve in pastoral roles why we don’t do more with the prophets from the pulpit, and they offered some helpful observations.

Honestly, it is hard to make the message of God’s eventual judgment all that helpful and practical to the struggling Christian. Today’s church is bent on practical life preaching and God-help strategies. I am not commenting on that truth here – just observing it. One pastor explained why he has largely skipped speaking on and teaching from the prophets. He noted (my paraphrase):
Sometimes I preach from a specific prophecy (say, concerning the coming of Messiah) and trace the promise to the eventual fulfillment in God’s story. To bring home some sort of personal application, I try to remind the congregation that prophecy shows the veracity of God’s Word and the faithfulness of God’s character.

My point is: You can trust God. He speaks; then He does exactly what He said He would do. Occasionally it is good, but it isn’t a very deep observation of the text.

He said, “I read over my notes, and if the text of my message seems dry in the study, I am sometimes honestly tempted to “spice up the story” and make it appear more relevant by offering some of my own thoughts on possible connections and even, on occasion (I admit) speculative end-times scenarios to help hearers see relevance for their lives today – because being relevant has become very prized in pulpit communication. This is a constant danger, because I want people to stay with me in the presentation and not sleep off the sermon! Because of these dangers, I spend less time preaching the prophets. When I DO, I tend to tell a story about the writer’s life and make parallels between a follower of God long ago and the hearers today. That helped me feel like I wasn’t skipping the prophets, but I mostly AM skipping them. I am not really explaining the message of the books themselves, and the congregation doesn’t appreciably grow in their knowledge of those books of the Bible.

I suspect that anyone who teaches the Bible has at least a little sympathy for what that pastor authentically shared of his own experience.

I mention the lack of time spent in these sections, and the three different natural bends of teachers of the Word to encourage you as we move forward. This study will require something of you in patience. That isn’t a veiled warning of a “boredom zone” ahead, it is rather a recognition that we are on unfamiliar ground in many circles today. You may be a student of prophecy, but most people aren’t today. We need to deliberately stretch ourselves. We need to speak the whole counsel of God’s Word. Some of the parts of Scripture have easy individual application and offer deep encouragement. Prophetic portions offer something very different. Without the words of the prophets, some of the lofty view of the Awesome Majesty of the Heavens would be barely touched, and a powerful and resounding call for us to tremble at His voice would barely be heard.

Prophets help us do more than satisfy ourselves that God knows where everything is going. They challenge us to bow before the One True Judge.

They call us to examine whether our outer practices are incongruent with our inner beliefs. They bring back a sense of the power and splendor of the God we serve.

There are examples of all the styles of preaching in the Word, if you look for them. When Paul stood on Mars Hill before philosophers, he carefully reasoned for the faith. When Jesus spoke of the Galilee hillsides, He pulled the minds of the people into the simplest imagery of daily life. When the Apostle Peter rose to defend God’s work in the men on the Day of Pentecost he launched into a full-throated support of the prophetic power of God before the crowd – and three thousand responded.
What the prophets of old offer is something more than mere learning about God. Think of the long, thin finger of Nathan the prophet stuck into the face of David as he uttered the words, “You are the man.” The value of the prophetic word is that it can be like an arrow to the heart in a way that few other portions can.

I am deliberately beginning slowly to introduce the prophets, because our next studies will have some unusual qualities as we work the text from a book of the Minor Prophets. Take a few moments with me to open our Bibles to the book of the Prophet Joel. The book is after Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and is the twenty-ninth book of thirty-nine in the common collection of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we turn for this prophet’s record, think with me about the painful process observed by a prophet of God, as they tell of the end times.

We must recognize that God made us emotional beings, and we gravitate toward positive emotion – but that isn’t the only kind we need to be able to reckon with.

We need to look at the painful parts of judgment to understand the glory of grace and rescue of redemption. As we open our reading, stand in front of a field that was stripped by the voracious appetite of locusts.

Joel offered his opening words in three parts:

• He called people to see what was happening as unique.
• He called specific kinds of people to respond to the scene.
• He called people to recognize the urgency of their time.

As you read his words, some will notice (because of their edition of the Bible) the way they are placed indented in paragraphs. The translator wanted you to know the words are lyrics. They were poetry. They were the record of a sad song written by a broken-hearted man who could barely believe what his eyes were seeing.

Look at the beginning of the three parts of his message from the first chapter…

First, he called the people to attention by telling them they have never seen anything like what was happening in front of them.

Joel 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2 Hear this, O elders, And listen, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this happened in your days Or in your fathers’ days? 3 Tell your sons about it, And let your sons tell their sons, And their sons the next generation.

If there was a word for what he was trying to say concerning the scene he was about to explain, it was: “Unbelievable!” He told the people and the elders who led them to stop moving and look at the picture God showed him. He went on to describe the scene.

Joel 1:4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.

Whether this was a vision in the realm of the spirit or an actual event on the landscape is not known. Whether the locusts were insects of a field or the imagery of an invading human army is not known. Whether this already happened or was about to take place is not known.

What is clear and certain is this: The man was overwhelmed by the scene of massive devastation – and he wanted them to see how obvious the marks of it were.

Some of us know exactly what he felt. We cannot believe that in a mere five years, our country has deliberately overhauled the most basic unit of mankind – the family. We have made perilous moves swiftly, based on the flimsiest testing of where that will lead our society. We are no longer drifting, we are swiftly moving with a furious current toward a rejection of one thing after another connected to Judeo-Christian practice. Left-over images of biblical texts on court rooms across the country are stark reminders of the violent lurching to the left.

In the Book of Joel, most scholars note that an invasion was approaching that would eventually devastate Judah – and this was a call to prepare and repent in hopes that God may withhold or reduce the judgment. Perhaps the locust invasion was a dramatic way for God to warn them of another kind of invasion just over their horizon view. Like the prophecy – the locusts were a symbolic warning given in GRACE.

Joel’s essential question was, “Have you ever known any invasion this severe?” (1:2)

That should have given them pause, instead of letting their eyes adjust to the dark setting. In fact, one of the common commands of the Law was for Israel to constantly rehearse her history before her children (cp. Dt. 4 and 6) in order to help them avoid the hand of God’s judgment.

The second part of the opening prophecy was separated into calls of specific kinds of people to face what was coming in God’s judgment.

• God’s first call was for those who were dull-minded as one would be with wine overindulgence to awaken (1:5).

Joel 1:5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.

The call came for Israel’s dullard drunkards to awake from their lulled, compromised and sinful state. They were to open their eyes to see that judgment was at hand.

One of the ways people deal with staying in a wrong state and not facing God is DIVERSION – they simply focus on something else.

There is a natural tendency in some of us when we are facing hard times to attempt to ignore the coming results or divert our attention to something that will help us cope with the pain of what we see. In fact, we have noted before the term for “turning off the mind” is called ‘AMUSEMENT’ and it has become for many a consuming passion.

This is a danger of a Christian population that focused more on how the church can meet their needs than how it can honor God’s call. We can end up with sermons that make us feel good about things when the actual call of God is to see how perilous they are becoming. ALL our teaching isn’t warning – but let’s admit that in some places the idea of warning NEVER rises to the pulpit.

• His second call was to those who were planning in ignorance of the impending doom.

Joel 1:8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.

Israel was to drape herself in the clothing of sadness and brokenness. The point was that while some could divert, amuse, or dull their minds, others made plans for celebrations and paid no attention to the impending troubles because they were unaware of them. They were the CLUELESS. When peril came, the power of judgment crushed them like the waves of mourning as their dreams were dashed against the rocks of reality.

We live in a time when people call, year after year, for every problem to be solved by their government – even when the truth is their government is up to its neck in debt. Freedoms are casually surrendered as we ask one new administrator after another to step in a help us solve some difficulty or injustice. It isn’t bad to have someone test the food in the packages we will consume or make sure the tires on the airplanes in which we travel have been made to certain specifications.

Government isn’t bad – it’s necessary. The problem is it neither CAN nor SHOULD be called on to feed, clothe and care for us in every situation. When we reward people for lack of preparation for difficulty, we discourage the next group from even trying to sacrifice and prepare.

Joel’s imagery of the bride, dressed and waiting for a groom that will not come because he has died – reminds us there is a process of mourning a severe loss that we are impatient in our culture to understand – but it has a purpose in the fallen world. We weren’t designed to face death, but God added “waves of grief” as a means of regaining equilibrium.

His point was this: Loss is most powerful in people who never truly considered it could happen to them.

The issue with the people was one of thorough forgetfulness that led them to clueless insensitivity. At one time, they knew evil, in principle, would be judged. By then, they knew their nation had plunged into evil. Yet they didn’t connect the problem with the result. They simply made plans for the next celebration and hoped for more years of good harvest – hoping against hope that things would go well.

The people hardest hit in the downturn of a market are those who have forgotten to consider the possibility.

The deepest despair comes from those who have honestly forgotten the risks of living in a broken world. In short, Israel was about to be walloped and some had never considered the possibility that God was actually going to judge as He repeatedly warned.

This is the danger of a church who has taught a generation of Christians that God’s chief interest is in their health, wealth, and happiness. They never considered the possibility the things that have happened to Iraqi or Syrian Christians could happen to them as well. Troubles, brutal martyrdom, and a tested faith are things they believe belong to another time and place.

• God’s third call was to priests and ministers (1:9) to lament the cutting off of the provisions for the spiritual life of the nation.

Joel 1:9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The field is ruined, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails.

While some were DULL and others were CLUELESS, those who oversaw the spiritual life of the nation should have been able to see without blur that things were heading in a bad direction. Joel beckoned SPIRITUAL LEADERS (those with an “elder” view” of the community) to step up and recognize the signs. A community elder is one who acts as a father or patriarch over more than his own biological family – but becomes a protector and provider for that greater community.

Let’s say it this way: When you serve God by serving His people, you think differently about the effects of sin on the society.

Those who sit in the counseling room, work at equipping of Jesus followers, and craft instruction for God’s people from His Word, are often “early adopters” of the message of the effects of bad decisions. There are some in our society who STILL don’t connect the dots between our decisions and their outcome as a people.

When we opened “no fault divorce,” we removed both legal roadblocks and public stigma to the decoupling of a marriage. Today, people are even insulted if you use terms like a “failed marriage” because they feel that is judgmental toward their situation – as if one of the natural options of people coming to the altar and declaring their commitment was an escape hatch.

Here is what I know. In the history of marriage, there have always been troubled people and difficult pairings. The profound difference in our time is that it is easy to get out of the problem without working it out – and the world around you will help you deflect any sense of responsibility for that event. Out of compassion for people in difficult marriages, we legislated our way into the mess of meaninglessness at the altar. The children torn up by these broken homes now fill our schools as a broken and bitter reminder that we made it easy on one person often by devastating another. They live together, because they don’t see the point of the commitment we call marriage, and we shouldn’t wonder why.

When our courts decided the people needed protection from the state invading their privacy so much that a woman had the unrestrained right to end the life in her womb, many didn’t connect that decision to the brutishness that has now become part of the modern American voice.

• They didn’t recognize with equal fervor the child within her to be also that of her partner – his rights were effectively muzzled in that termination of life.
• They didn’t calculate the loss of 57 million Americans in a single generation to the economy.
• They didn’t think through how human life itself, no longer sacrosanct, would diminish clarity of honored values of our society.

In a new way, motherhood was separated from fatherhood, and unborn children became throwaway dolls, removed in bags and treated like refuse. We no longer argue about if it is human life, but argue today whether we have a right to have tax dollars rid me of an inconvenient child in the womb. Politicians call for this without pausing to observe how far we have fallen from the image of tenderness that was once associated with the womb.

Some claim our pulpits shouldn’t address things like divorce, so called “same sex marriage” or abortion. They look at those social issues as merely political and judicial. They don’t get it – because they don’t understand the elder view. Those of us who know God’s Word and teach it, carry a special wound in the society for the self-mutilation that comes from our collective mutiny against God. We deal with the broken-hearted children, and we try to train those whose thinking has been so skewed that “right” and “wrong” are no longer clear.

The Bible is unequivocal and clear – morality is not a social construct.

Man didn’t crawl out of primordial ooze, invent a God, and then promptly NOT follow Him so they could invent guilt. That doesn’t make sense because it didn’t happen. Men didn’t invent God. He created us. Exacting design doesn’t flow haplessly from random happenings. You know it, and so does every observant person who isn’t bent on doing life according to their own rules.

Closer to home, we need to remember our own history in days like these as well. Our country simply wasn’t founded without a profound connection between a specific faith view of the world and human responsibility. It isn’t by happenstance that our Congress had a chaplain and our buildings were built across the land with Bible verses etched into them. The Bible men and women were sworn into office with wasn’t just a décor statement. We come from a long and detailed history of men who knew that our rights and responsibilities were based on the fact that all of us have the same Creator. They wrote carefully that none of us is more important than the other because they reckoned that we all will eventually kneel to the same God. That story may be ignored in our halls of learning, but our history is literary and stubbornly stained on parchments with ink. The only hope of those who desire to mute the voices of our fathers is to fill the heads of the young with nonsense and hope they don’t grow up and get wise by doing things like reading the documents for themselves.

• A fourth call was for farmers to recognize the shame of losing everything in an act of God’s disfavor (1:11).

Joel 1:11 Be ashamed, O farmers…

The FARMERS were presented as those who knew deep disappointment. Perhaps no one truly understands the sense of hopefulness for the crops like the farmer; conversely, no one feels the depth of the disappointment in the stripping of the land. People attached to the land become more sensitive to their impact on it. They who worked the land and saw it destroyed weren’t to be MAD, as though God has abandoned them – but ASHAMED as if THEY had abandoned God.

When we see judgment clearly, it will not be a mark against God, but a mark against us. Our modern jails aren’t a statement about our contemporary judges as much as they are statement about our growing contention to live inside the boundaries of the law.

• A fifth call was for the vinedressers to wail (1:11) for the loss of the vines, fig trees and other fruit trees. They were to see their joy withered as the trees melted away (1:12).

Joel 1:11b “…Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.

VINE DRESSERS were a subset of farmers who acted more as attendants. They didn’t plant the vines as much as tend them. They were to grapes what daycare workers are to children. People who tend and care for the fruit cultivation have a very specific “parenting” view of the vines and trees they attend.

The third (last) part of Joel’s opening urgently called people to stop acting like the time was far off and get serious with God right away.

The call starts with the clergy and warns on them to get serious before they expect the nation to get on board.

Joel 1:13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

God’s worship leaders were told to change what they are wearing, and put on the symbols of mourning so all could see them. They were told to pay attention to the provisions of God being diverted from the temple. They were called to publicly call the people to fasting, public repentance, and mourning. The warning of judgment connected to public acceptance of egregious errors started with God’s leaders. Also note that God didn’t just tell them to “get sad” and look somber before the masses. He gave them their message: God will not let what we are doing go on forever – His day is coming. He isn’t playing around, and He is right on schedule to do what He promised.

Judgment cannot be avoided by ignoring it.

Joel 1:15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

God intended the people to notice the time of judgment was getting close:

• First, they were to see their prosperity evaporating.

Joel 1:16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes…

• Second, they were to notice the sobriety of those who studied God’s Word and taught them from it.

Joel 1:16b “…Gladness and joy from the house of our God

They were to reckon the natural disruptions in the earth as part of the tremors of coming judgment.

Joel 1:17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle wander aimlessly because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.

They weren’t supposed to call for a new legislature so much as drop to their knees. They weren’t supposed to look for help from the king as much as from the King of all Kings!

Joel 1:19 To You, O Lord, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You; for the water brooks are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

It wasn’t enough for the temple to keep the schedule as usual. The people were to be awakened to the voice of the Lord concerning the days ahead. They should be clear, pronounced and deliberate. God said:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion …

Why? Were they to be depressed while the world was rejoicing? The point was they were to show the warning before the world around them connected the dots between their sinful violations and God’s coming of judgment.

God’s leaders were, and are, to make clear the hour is late and the warning is becoming more and more obvious.

God’s prophetic warnings aren’t as much a function of His judgment as they are of His grace.

He didn’t tell us what was coming because He savors judgment, but in order that we might step out individually and stand with Him against the normative trend of our day. When God called believers to be HOLY as He is HOLY – the call was to be distinct as He is not like any other.

If you blend well in the company of lost men and women – something is wrong with your distinctiveness.

If people note the difference in you and it makes them uncomfortable, you may be the warning sign they most need to turn before they plunge into the broken road ahead. Don’t forget…

Those who close their ears to the pronouncement will eventually suffer God’s judgment by their own choice.

If you took the time to read the last three chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you would surely note four powerful truths that emerge from looking closely at the final judgment scene called the “Great White Throne” Judgment. You would note:

• THE IDENTITY OF THE JUDGE: the offended Son of God
• THE ABSENCE OF AN ADVOCATE: sinners stand fearfully alone
• THE FINALITY OF THE VERDICT: no appeal is possible
• THE SEVERITY OF THE SENTENCE: Eternal separation from God into torment becomes real for countless people

Looking over the edge into that prophecy of the future, we have a responsibility to articulate the warning to those who do not know Christ as their Savior – and will only know Him as their judge. It need not happen. The peril is both clear and obvious.

The warning is a function of God’s GRACE.

• When you work hard for a day’s pay- we call that a wage.
• When you compete well for a trophy – we call that a prize.
• When you achieve recognition for a high level of service – we call that an award.

When you didn’t work for it, didn’t compete for it, didn’t accomplish it and never could even if you tried – we call that a gift of grace. Come to Him today, receive His forgiveness, and avert standing in judgment for your sin.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2)

Stand Your Ground: “A Day with the Master Artist” – Mark 4:1-5:20

In Mark 1-3 Jesus demonstrated a successful stance against the constant attacks of the enemy. I believe it won’t surprise you to know that if you keep reading the Gospel account, Jesus continued to be attacked and continues to achieve victory. Spiritual warfare is real. It is happening now just as it was then. Standing your ground is, in part, an issue of identifying the enemy’s strategy and practicing for the day he turns the darts on you. Yet, that isn’t ALL there is to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. The story continued…

In the account we call Mark’s Gospel, most of us believe we are reading the organization of the earthly work of Jesus that was originally preached by the Apostle Peter and then carefully recorded and spread to the churches by a leader in the younger generation than the Apostles, one named John Mark. He was a contemporary of Timothy, and a follower of Paul and the other original missionary groups. Mark emphasized the WORK of Jesus, and if you follow his account closely you will see how the Master accomplished His mission, and (by example) how God works in our lives to shape us to be like Jesus.

I have a confession to make as we begin: I cannot sculpt, nor can I use modeling clay to make anything anyone else would call “art” but I love to watch it being done. It is fascinating to see an artist take some lumps of refined earth and make them into something beautiful. If we can, I would like you to observe an artist making clay into the representation of a young woman.

(During video) If you watch closely, you will notice that in order to make the bust of this young woman the artist worked in three deliberate steps:

• First, she started with a rounded base approximating the head and added to that base some lumps that built up the underlying structure.

• Second, the artist pressed in or cut away any additional material that was not desired. That “extra” would have marred the face and shape – so it was taken away.

• Third, the artist carefully and gently smoothed the surface, healing any tiny breach while filling over any wrinkle. By this step the artist allowed the material to take its final shape.

This isn’t an art seminar, but I want you to consider something – this is the same way God adds to our life truth as He models us to be like Jesus. He puts us into situations where we can gain truth from Him, then scrapes across our life with troubles to remove the excess. Finally, if we allow Him to do it, He shapes us with His own artistic hand. Let me show you an example from Mark 4 and 5. Remember the underlying truth…

Key Principle: Believers are shaped by three important works from the Master: Divine instruction (adding), daily problems (scraping) and God’s dramatic re-shaping power.

The day recorded by Mark started with a sermon, brought the disciples to fear for their safety, and ended with a shocking display of raw power… It was a day to remember…

First, let’s look at the teaching of Jesus that added truth to the disciple’s lives (4:1-34).

God doesn’t just call us and then start using us to give out His message. We are like the round clay with very little shape when we come to Him. He adds truth that helps us look more like the Master, and people who know us see the change in us as the truth is put on our lives. Let me show you an example in Jesus adding to the disciples long ago…

We are using the account that Mark collected of the teachings of Jesus to set up the day’s events. Remember, Jesus didn’t only say things once, and sometimes He repeated an illustration but changed its meaning – that was the way of teaching familiar to the crowds of that time. The text opened:

Mark 4:1 He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down, and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching…

Let’s make a quick note of three things:

• First, Jesus was already well-known and popular at the time of these teachings. This wasn’t His first sermon, and people knew His style and liked it very much.

• Second, let’s stipulate this was the dry season (because the rainy season was too cold and wet for a large crowd) and that it was early morning (since you can fry an egg on a rock in that area by mid-day in the dry season).

• Third, Jesus used a teaching method called a “mashal” or parable. This brought the truth of Heaven into bite-sized earthy chunks.

Five Truths

As we get into the meat of the teaching, Jesus taught five truths to His disciples.

Truth #1: The hearer is responsible for hearing.

Here is the first, a simple parable about a man throwing seed on the ground:

Mark 4:3 “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing: Some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In this teaching, Jesus referred to agriculture on terraces. The ground on the terrace covered a slope of bedrock. The edge had (and still has) a rocky wall filled with weeds and thorny bushes whose roots hold the wall fast. There is often a path through the center of the terrace used as a walkway by those passing through. The good seed would normally be cast between olive trees and yield varying amounts, depending on where the seed fell. Keep reading for a moment:

Mark 4:10 As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.” 13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?

Note the fact that when they got alone, they quizzed Jesus on WHY He was teaching in parables instead of plain speaking.

To understand His response, you must realize one of the most basic tendencies of a disciple is to leave following Jesus and work at figuring out Jesus.

Many of us are tempted to spend time counseling Jesus on how He should be running things. This was true at the beginning as well. The disciples didn’t fully appreciate Jesus’ choices for packaging the truths He put in front of them. Perhaps they fancied crowd-pleasing tidbits and tempting promises. That wouldn’t be unusual for a large crowd of this sort… but Jesus wanted to show them the people that don’t stick aren’t entirely the problem of presenter nor of the presentation – the recipient bore some responsibility to receive the truth openly.

Don’t forget that when you communicate God’s Word to people. Some won’t receive it, and it ISN’T your fault. They have to want to hear what God said in His Word.

It is worth noting that Jesus’ primary concern wasn’t to make His preaching as easy as it could have been. He expected something from the hearer – a heart open to Him! Let’s be clear: People have to surrender and engage, not pick through the words for self-serving promises.

The truth is we will accomplish more of our mission with 100 surrendered and engaged Jesus-followers than we ever could with 10,000 disengaged spectators or 1000 mildly-engaged fair weather friends.

Jesus made clear He wanted the crowd to follow, but only if they were willing to hear what He truly had to say and engage it in their lives! Don’t forget – the soil didn’t HEAR if it DIDN’T BEAR fruit. Look at His explanation:

Mark 4:14 “The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word, which has been sown in them. 16 In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

In the lesson, Jesus observed there were different kinds of people that were listening to Him:

• Hard Hearts: There were those who were present when the Word was sown, but they did not take it in at all. They came because someone told them to be there and they were not interested enough to allow the Word to sink in.

• Troubled Temporaries: There were those who seemed to respond to the message of Jesus, but they didn’t add a life of surrender to Him. In Jesus’ explanation, when the pains and problems of life or persecution rose, they didn’t think the message was worth sacrifice– so they bailed out.

• Choked Christians: Some follow, but they get distracted by demanding work in their child-rearing age and challenging golf tournaments in their retirement. They never seem to get around to making an impact with the message. They always meant to, they just didn’t do it.

• Harvest Christians: There are those who followed, surrendered and became fruitful in life.

In the end, Jesus said, “You are responsible for listening to the truth and letting it change your behavior.”

That is convicting, and piles on truth, but that wasn’t the whole sermon. That was just Jesus’ opening illustration! Mark continued:

Mark 4:21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In essence, Jesus told them an essential truth: the real and the fake would all eventually show themselves. No one can truly hide from God. He knows who is honestly surrendered and actually following. He knows who is not!

As a form, religion allows the unrighteous to act out in ways that temporarily cover their emptiness.

Yet, here is the truth: A relationship with an all-knowing God precludes faking it to the finish line. It is a really dumb idea to think we can trick God into thinking we have surrendered our life to Him when we haven’t.

Truth #2: When you truly grasp the truth, it changes you. If you didn’t change – the truth slipped past you.

Honestly, the end goal Jesus gave us isn’t to get people into the church to hear the truth but to get the truth into the church and send changed people into the world. Our prime turf of engagement isn’t under a steeple but in the town square. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t getting the mission Jesus sent us to fulfill. Mark continued:

Mark 4:24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Truth #3: The primary assignment of a Jesus isn’t to run around trying to measure the life and faith of other people (but we will be tempted to do it!).

In most every religious group, some feel called to run around and decide the faithfulness of others and offer a grade to ones that measure up and those who do not seem to meet their standard. Jesus wanted His followers to be introspective, but not obnoxious about the inspection of others. We must remember that when we create a standard of judgment, it is only valuable if we are truly living by it ourselves! The account went on:

Mark 4:26 And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

By way of reassurance, Jesus offered a word of deep encouragement to the disciples.

Truth # 4: Followers don’t need to understand how everything God does truly works (but they will often want to and claim to!).

He told them that the Kingdom was able to grow and become effective without the need for them to really know all the progressions involved because the process was as natural as vegetation growth. What a word for any of us who have dear ones that live far away from us – God can reach them and grow in them the Word planted long ago! We don’t have to understand WHO God will use or HOW; we just need to understand He is able. Jesus continued:

Mark 4:30 And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.” 33 With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

Truth #5: God often works to meet different ends than we are watching.

While the weed that was planted in the garden appears to have been a waste, it was really successful from the standpoint of the need of the birds! We have to recognize that Kingdom growth meets God’s ends, not always ours. Therefore we need to be humble. We may not be qualified to judge well what Jesus is doing in those around us.

That was a long day of teaching! Jesus added five truths to His followers and built up the base from which they could be formed to look like Him. The additions are the only way to form us to be more like Jesus. There is something else…

Second, look at the scraping that came with the troubles Jesus took His disciples through (4:35-41).

Scraping involves shrinking. It involves painful struggle. It isn’t pleasant, but it shapes us. Mark recorded and example:

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening came, He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. 37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. 38 Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” 39 And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. 40 And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”

Great teachers give students an opportunity to learn the truth by LEARNING ACTIVITIES. In this case, Jesus placed the disciples in an awkward and needy position to move their eyes from judging the current crowds to looking beyond the small world of their ministry to a lost world that struggled all around them in the grip of the evil one. He snapped them to attention by:

• Taking them where they felt unsure

• Giving them a problem while appearing unconcerned

• Letting them draw conclusions about His love: “Master don’t you care?”

• Solving their problem and amazing them

The point of the exercise was to get the men ready! God always has a point for our suffering, though we don’t often know what it is.

Why do “bad things” happen to “good people”? I can think of five reasons without really working very hard at it:

1) Sometimes it is the result of MY SIN.

Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

2) Sometimes it is because I live with choices of other sinners.

Romans 3:10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE...”

3) Sometimes it is because I live in a fallen world.

Romans 8:19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

4) Sometimes it is so that God can test me – that I may see who I am and who I am not.

Dt. 8:2 You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.

5) Sometimes it is so that God can prepare me to comfort others.

2 Cor. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

The disciples in this story were being prepared for a great lesson – that God has work going on well outside the places they considered. God is at work in a battle against both a brutal and vicious enemy, and a fallen world that does not work the way He created it to work. It is fallen and struggles against what God intended.

If only the disciples had recalled the work of God in the Exodus, they would have understood exactly what God was doing. He was giving them the rocking boat because that is what they NEEDED to get ready for what was coming.

More often than not, troubles come into our lives to set us up for the place God wants us to be effective if we will learn from our pain. The scraping of the artist pulls the extra from our shape and makes us more like our Master’s image.

Third, the artist transforms the work by smoothing the surface, allowing us to understand His re-shaping work (5:1-20).

In the case of Mark’s account, the disciples needed to see the transforming power of the Master to understand what He was doing IN THEM. Mark wrote:

Mark 5:1 They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. 2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, 3 and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones. 6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; 7 and shouting with a loud voice, he said, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore Yo u by God, do not torment me!” 8 For He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. 12 The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” 13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. 14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the “legion”; and they became frightened. 16 Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. 17 And they began to implore Him to leave their region. 18 As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. 19 And He did not let him, but He said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

The elements of the story present the “Perfect Storm” – a nightmare from the Jewish perspective:

• They went to an unclean area filled with pagans after dark (5:1).
• They were met by a demon-empowered man who was living in the constant defilement of tombs (5:2).
• He was uncontrollable with broken chains hanging from him (5:3-4).
• He was gashed and bleeding (5:5).
• He ran abruptly toward them (5:6).
• Demons spoke from his throat (5:7-8).
• Pigs were eating along the nearby slope (5:11).
• The healed man wanted to come home with them (5:18)!

The storm on the sea prepared the men to follow Jesus into the storm on the land – a struggle against barriers of fear to fight the enemy openly. Jesus was able to defeat the enemy’s minions, and the men saw the transforming power of Jesus.

In the end, these stories returned to the fight of Jesus in spiritual warfare against His enemy.

Step back and put the three pieces together:

• Jesus taught and added truth to them.

• Trouble scraped and extracted self-assurance from them.

• Transformation showed God’s ability to re-make people.

After I have followed Jesus for a long time, it is easy to forget how powerful, magnificent and life-changing time with Him truly is! Many of us have found ourselves secretly questioning what God is doing in our lives. We don’t like pain and we don’t want trouble. We are focused on the wrong things… Remember:

Believers are shaped by three important experiences: God’s instruction, life’s problems, and God’s shaping power.

Don’t kick against any of them – they are making you into what God intends you to be!

Second Chances: “The Move to Hope” – Ezra 10

Read the magazines and blogs on ministry today, and you will get a steady dose of two ideas: First, the church has not shown enough love to the world in the way we have reflected Jesus to them; and second, the western world is increasingly offended by our reflection of absolutes in the realm of morality– so we need to navigate sharing them with more care.

The best modern writers “thread a needle” to suggest we shouldn’t “abandon” any of our core beliefs, but we need to be more nuanced about how and when we share them. On first inspection, many in the church in America seem much more concerned with sensitivity than boldness, (both of which are Biblically demanded) but they seem more concerned with subtle influence of behavior than overt zeal communicated from a life powerfully transformed. That should be a matter of some concern for those who are paying close attention. We can so easily tilt too far in one direction.

The trend to sensitivity isn’t all bad, in fact there is much wisdom in it. I need to be reminded to be tactful and careful all the time! We must be prepared to present Jesus in a way that people can hear what we are saying, to be sure. We naturally shy away from the rude and overly blunt for good reason. Yet, there are times when I honestly question if that sentiment is an accurate portrayal of Jesus and the early church at all. I study the Bible. I study it a lot. I have read Jesus’ self-statements and His methods of ministry as revealed in the Gospels. I have walked the paths of the Apostle Paul and read every word of every letter carefully. Here is what I didn’t see: neither Jesus nor Paul seemed to project a greater concern about the possible offensiveness of their presentation to men than they did about the urgency for lost men’s souls and the need to clearly present critical the truths about God. The early church seemed to celebrate zeal and boldness for Jesus in the face of rising persecution. There appears to be a “disconnect” between the Holy Record and the modern authors.

Whatever happened to the call for ZEAL and the celebration of courage?

I took some time to read more carefully several authors in an attempt to understand what they were seeing that I simply wasn’t. What I found were several lines of argument – mostly framed by the notion that egregious violations from anecdotal Christian history should make us more careful about what we say and how we say it. Their line seems to be something like this: People who claimed Jesus in the past have sometimes been unbelievably unloving in their presentation of Him. That seemed true, so I took some time to ponder that as I reflected on a passage that is very tough to read if all the is true can be found in “syrupy compassion” (Ezra 10)…and the resulting study is today’s lesson.

God’s Word teaches that we must be compassionate, but we cannot make the world’s acceptance our chief goal.

We represent God as expressed in His Word. Where that Word conflicts with our modern, ever-shifting and easily wounded sensitivities, we must still speak clearly. We cannot be driven off message by those who ask us to modify God’s Word to be less offensive to them. A message that presents men and women as broken and lost in sin was never, and will never be, truly popular.

Let us be very clear: Compromise of a believer’s call to stand for the revealed truths of God’s Word for the sake of displaying compassion to the world is wrong, for it places the world’s affirmation above loyalty to our Creator.

In the short run, it may make our faith more palatable to rebels, but it won’t please the God that called us to and for Himself. It won’t represent Him as He truly is. In fact, the lessening of the standards of God’s revealed will can never produce a people more sensitive to God – only people more sensitive to being accepted by a lost world. That isn’t our goal. An ambassador is much more concerned with accurately relating the message of the one who sent him than of being welcomed by his audience. Believers have to keep that in mind. We want to be winsome, but acceptance by the world cannot and must not be our exclusive concern. We want to connect emotionally with lost people because it is dark where they are – but we don’t want to offer them a blanket of comfort to dwell in darkness.

I mention all this because our passage is about a time when God commanded something He never did before, and has never articulated since. This is a “one off” deal, where God made clear that when His intentions were not followed, and people compromised on what He told them to do – the only right way “back” was to take drastic action. Remember our principle from the first part of this message…

Key Principle: There is a process to leading people from disobedience into a right standard.

How do we redirect people when they have done something God said MUST NEVER be done?

The scene was one of disobedient Israelites that inter-married with local tribes-people, violating God’s command to remain distinct from such a practice. They were to define marriage “for them” only inside of the tribes of Israel. It didn’t matter what the world did; that was their God-placed limitation. Ezra came to the land, and the intermarriage was shared with him. He fell on his face before God and wept for the magnitude of the violation, and the hubris of leaders who accepted it. Last time we walked through the heavy-hearted response. We ended with the “refocus” on HOPE.

First, Ezra refocused confession toward HOPE (10:1-2)

The beginning is confession of sin – clear, broken and concise…

Ezra 10:1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.

Talk about a place where “spin” wasn’t happening – I love the fact the verses show Ezra talking straight about the violation. He cried for chapter nine, but now it was time to be decisive.

Ezra attempted to start the wave of complete repentance. He was not putting on a show for the people around him, but rather deliberately falling before the Lord and asking him for much needed mercy. A contrite heart draws others toward God, while a self-centered heart deflects glory from God. Ezra did not wait for others to follow, but lived his life before the Lord, and others saw it for what it was and were moved.

While most people wept bitterly, two leaders stepped forward, spoke with promise, and hope about the future. It wouldn’t help to wallow in guilt and despair if they could not offer the earnest expectation that people can change their behavior, and experience God’s grace. The call to repentance isn’t simply a call to an end of wrong behavior, but a call to a new shower of grace and an invigorated new walk with God.

Look at the two elements of it in verse two:

• First, there is the admission of guilt: “We have been unfaithful to defining our fences where God put them!”
• Second, there is a call to hope: “God can renew us!”

These two ideas are at the heart of our message to men and women walking in error. We do not explain away the “error” in complexity and compassion – we define right and wrong with the clarion ring of the God’s command. We don’t END with the violation – but with the path to God. The path to the Holy One always leads through humble admission and a request for undeserved favor.

Second, Ezra called on the people to openly commit to difficult CHANGE (10:3-12).

Guilt leads to wallowing in pain while godly sorrow leads to deliberate life change… Without change, hope is an illusion. Things don’t get better until people walk into God’s arms admitting they have been straying…

Ezra 10:3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act.

True leaders took up the matter before the country. It was the responsibility of the leadership, but the people needed to commit to stand behind them. It is worth noting that there are times when even the leader is so impacted by the weight of the decision, that paralysis sets in. Nothing motivates the heart of a leader more than followers encouraging him or her to stand for truth — and making a statement of loyalty to God’s purposes in the process.

The leader didn’t run ahead – he brought the people with him. He made sure the commitment was to God’s Word and not simply to him. Because a godly leader is not asking people to follow them apart from the restrictions of God’s Word, the leader can be bold and direct about expecting obedience. Ezra expected the people to make an open promise to do right — and any godly mature leader can do no less. We cannot sanction wrong out of compassion, nor can we make people feel good about denying God’s Word in their lives.

Ezra 10:5 Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.

He was not content to simply address the problem before the people; he continued to be brokenhearted about it. It is the responsibility of the leader to move people past the problem, but that does not mean the leader will not suffer personally the setbacks of facing the problem. Ezra was a man, and as such he was subject to the pain and sorrow that anyone who counsels people out of sin choices in their life can recognize.

Ezra 10:6 Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.

The people needed to be led to the point of decision and change. One of the expectations on them needed to be a specific time schedule. Left open-ended, people are inclined put off making difficult commitments forever. Ezra chose a three-day time frame, based on the counsel of the leaders about him. Travel time, and other considerations were no doubt discussed.

Ezra 10:7 They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. 9 So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.

Ezra clearly defined the expectation because people cannot follow an expectation they do not understand. It was his job to make clear the application of God’s rules. The people needed to face their wrong, and take the tough medicine required to right the wrong. Thankfully, the people agreed to do the tough thing.

Ezra 10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 “Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, “That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.

It is easy to read this without emotion, since the events were recorded twenty-five hundred years ago. Think about the scene. God’s command was violated, and the fence He originally called for needed to be set anew. That wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t optional either. We don’t get to be more compassionate than God, more understanding than the Almighty, more clear that the Absolute Light. He places the boundaries and we live within them.

Third, Ezra aced the internal tension and opposition (10:13-17).

There were some practical hurdles that needed to be considered (10:13-14). Ezra needed to listen carefully to the “push back” on the command.

Once everyone agreed that action needed to be taken, specific steps needed to be outlined in the work to make the appropriate responses. The people saw the greatness of the task in front of them, and decided that they would need more time to deal with the issue. This was not an attempt to deny fixing the problem, but a mere recognition that the process of overcoming the problem would be difficult.

Two Hurdles to Overcome

This “push back” was a potential land mine for Ezra. It is easy for the leader to misinterpret any question of clarification or problem presented as rebellion. It is important to recognize that there is a vast difference between opposition of the purpose and questions related to executing the goal. It’s important for us to allow people to explain the difficulties of completing the task, without implying that they are being disloyal or disobedient.

Ezra 10:13 But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter. 14 Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us.

A second problem arose that was equally difficult and just as potentially treacherous for Ezra. Inside the practical hurdles, some will be suspicious and insist the only plan is the original plan (10:15). A mature leader must know who stands in opposition, and when it is time to adjust the plan. I think we can understand why SOME would object to appearing to “loosen the standard” to allow more time. Some did in Ezra’s case – but not all…

Ezra 10:15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them.

I think it may be informative that these men included some from the list of Nehemiah 11, showing they apparently did not object to Ezra because he was moving to separate families – but because he wasn’t doing it QUICKLY ENOUGH. They were ON BOARD with the three day plan – but any extension looked like compromise to them.

Beloved, we who have been in the church for a long time need to be especially careful about this kind of attitude. When we see an issue as essential and agree on the prescription from the Word, it doesn’t mean the wrestling is over. We may understand the gravity of the sin, and want to see immediate action taken. That all sounds good. When practical considerations were considered, some compromise of the TIMING of the correction was immediately opposed. Why? Because it is appeared to be some kind of compromise; but it was not! Here is the danger: These men adopted a GUARDIAN SPIRIT over the flock – as though they alone knew what was best. They didn’t. Ezra knew what he was doing. God wasn’t un-pleased with his response to loosen the time frame. Ezra wasn’t compromising of truth, only timing. He was wise and kind all at the same time!

If the four men: Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbethai, had considered carefully all that Ezra already said and did before this easing of time – they could have trusted his intention not to be soft on sin, or allow the Word to be overlooked. After all, there was nothing in the narrative that suggested that Ezra didn’t see the sin clearly and the remedy clearly. They needed to trust their leader – and I believe they DID when the rest agreed to wait longer.

Fourth, the leaders made a careful inspection of compliance to the rule (10:16-44).

Someone once quipped, “You can expect what you inspect!” A specific process of investigation of families was engaged in order to decide whom the order applied to, and whether they were in fact following it. Part of facing opposition is taking people’s various positions and not mischaracterizing them or improperly grouping them with other views. We cannot expect people to understand exactly what they should do simply by offering edicts and commands. It is absolutely essential that God’s leaders be clear about God’s standards, then carefully but lovingly hold people accountable for their pledge to follow God – even when it is difficult.

Ezra 10:16 But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men who were heads of fathers’ households for each of their father’s households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. 17 They finished investigating all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. 10:18 Among the sons of the priests who had married foreign wives were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. 19They pledged to put away their wives, and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their offense. .. 44 All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children.

Before we leave this book and this problem, it is worth noting the final verse – and the emotional pain it represented. How tough it must have been to divide homes and impact children in this way! How “judgy” and “uncompassionate” that must have seemed to those who did not follow God. Even God’s followers would find that hard to swallow. That kind of reasoning isn’t “new” and “modern” – it is as old as the rebellion against God itself. Men think they know more than God. They think God doesn’t know what is best. That was at the heart of the first sin of Eve, and every sin of men and women since. We know better. We get the idea that God is “out of touch” or doesn’t really understand and care for my needs. It is wrong, but it is common thinking.

Seriously! God broke up families with children? That just seems mean!

The truth is that many people think they have a reason not to obey a command of God that seems too difficult or doesn’t seem to take into account their feelings.

We can only imagine that the division of these homes would’ve caused great pain to many people. We can hear the psychologists warning of how this will hurt the children for life, and how it would scar the land with broken people. NPR would have a field day with one expert after another who knew better than God what would be the best “for all concerned.”

There is nothing more arrogant than a man or woman who looks straight at the Creator and tells Him He doesn’t have the right to set the standards and should live with the fruits of our jumped fences.

Let’s be absolutely clear.

God had no desire to cause such pain — the pain should be placed on the bearer of the sin, not the bearer of the truth.

Because these families were united in a way that was utterly inappropriate, there was no way to alleviate their pain.

A recent case illustrates this point. A homosexual couple made their way into a local church, and subsequently came to Jesus as Savior. They were lovingly guided to divide their relationship because it did not conform to biblical standards. The church was not dividing something God put together, for God had never made the slightest hint that such a union was acceptable to Him. The fact that men declared such a marriage legal did not change the fact that the Scripture has spoken on this issue clearly. “What about the adopted children?” some immediately howled.

It didn’t occur to them how flawed their thinking was. They thought that by ignoring the biblical standards clearly outlined in the Scriptures, somehow things would work out BETTER. We need to guard our hearts against such poor thinking.

Turning from sin to God’s arms is where real hope should be focused. That’s the plan. There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.

• It doesn’t include ignoring the standard – but applying it.
• It doesn’t assume we are the judge of God’s standards – but the creature for whom they were made.
• It doesn’t sound like an angry weapon – but is given from a broken heart.

Second chances with God have always been about recognizing the truth of Who He is, who we are, and what life is truly about.

Grace pours out on the broken, not the arrogant. It is clear that the Bible beckons the prodigal’s return – while the modern university calls on us to see the prodigal’s life needs as the “new normal” while we move the moral fences to accept their way. We must see clearly: that is the rebel’s path and God has consistently called men and women to make the painful and difficult choice to do right after we have done wrong and grown accustomed to it.

How many times would you let someone make up the rules in YOUR marriage? Would you let them wander in and out of your bed between trysts? One woman remembers the days after making the tough choice to draw a line… Someone clipped this for me, and I am not sure where it originated, but the author was a woman named Melodie Miller. Listen to how hard it was for her to do what she needed to do to follow God…

“…Unfortunately, my children were at a young age when their father left our home, and they had to grapple with feelings of rejection and abandonment. The first few weeks were brutal. Comforting my children was exhausting and added to my own heartbreak. I held my 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, and 2-year-old son, Elijah, for hours while they cried. Elijah was deeply saddened by his father’s absence, but he was unable to express his feelings verbally. So in the middle of the night, he would wake up screaming. Other times, Elijah wandered around my bedroom crying, not knowing what to do with himself, only to finally collapse exhausted on the floor. Minutes later, he’d despairingly rise to begin the pattern again. Sometimes I’d hold him in a big bear hug. Other times I would sit on the floor and rock him with tears pouring down my face. ‘Mama’s here,’ I’d say. ‘I’ve got you. I love you. Stop crying, baby. Elijah, please stop. You’re OK. You’re safe. Mama’s here.’ To quiet him, I began singing to my son. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’

“Finally, I cried out to the Lord, begging him to comfort Elijah’s soul with the peace only Jesus can give. Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” So, I interceded for my broken-hearted children and asked the Lord to protect them from the sins of their father. Elijah’s sobbing went on for many nights. I continued to hold him, rock him, sing hymns and pray until he fell asleep. His anguish began to diminish. Finally, he slept soundly through the night. I learned some valuable lessons about God through that difficult time. I realized that God is: My Comforter: …God cares deeply and shares in my sorrows. God sees my trouble and knows about the anguish of my soul (Psalm 31:7). Just as I shared the pain for my boy’s broken heart, my heavenly Father felt the pain of mine. I need to remember to crawl into my Daddy’s lap when I feel helplessly alone.”

I got only a small portion of her story, but it is one I have heard countless times. He plays around, and she doesn’t want to show him the door, but that day comes. She grows distant and he discovers she is in an affair with a guy at work…. Sometimes the person who draws the line in the sand feels like THEY are the one breaking things…but that isn’t so. They are calling their partner back to what God designed for marriage – not the nonsense and games some people prefer to call a life together.

Ezra stepped in and stopped wrong by drawing a line in the sand, redefining the terms back to what God made them. Nothing gets fixed while God’s standards are set aside…