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…

Second Chances: “In the Shadow of Greatness” – Ezra 7

Lincoln headThere are few icons as well known in America as the homely, etched face of the contemplating former sixteenth President of the United States. Every day, scores of Americans stand at a memorial and look carefully at the face of a man who used to poke constant fun at his own looks when he walked the streets of our country. Lincoln now sits, frozen in time. He dominates the room quietly from a large white marble chair. His gaze is never broken by the sound of school children running beside him. The traffic sounds on the street outside do not distract his furled brow, and the deep eye sockets that reveal a concerned look that sweeps his otherwise strangely gentle face. He looks weathered and worn – enveloped in exhaustion. This six foot four inch giant of a man was only fifty six when he died an untimely death – and this stone memorial captures the last days of his leadership of a broken nation…Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Not even a week later, on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. the President’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. He died in the wee hours of April 15, never able to truly enjoy the office of an undivided Presidency. His memorial reminds us of his mammoth struggle on behalf of our liberty and our Union. President Abraham Lincoln was a great man in many ways and no one walks into this memorial and fails to sense a man of dedication, conviction and yes, exhaustion.

Greatness in leadership can be measured – and as the days draw late and leaders become more necessary than ever – we need to know when we are following a good one, and how to avoid choosing bad ones – while we still have that choice. God offers models in His Word to help us with instruction, and today’s lesson is about one of them – a teacher who became a “game changer” for God’s people. Here is an essential truth of Ezra 7…

Key Principle: God has not left His people with a “blind spot”, but has revealed standards of leadership greatness.

How do we know a leader when he or she is in the making? What areas of life should we look closely at in evaluating a leader?

First, we should recognize how their past has shaped them:

In the case of our story, Ezra was a man with a known family and tracked past:

Ezra 7:1 Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, there went up Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest.

In the ancient story, people didn’t know the “new guy”, so they needed a way to identify something about him in the beginning. Your family and your experiences don’t guarantee you will be a success, but coming from a good family can offer you a great spiritual, intellectual and emotional advantage. We must never underestimate the importance of the family in shaping lives.

I mention this because there are those listening to these words who God has called to do great things in the future. I mention this because there are parents who are, right now, shaping young lives to become our leaders of tomorrow. I mention this because there are men and women who are leading families, who must understand the requirement of building a reputation so that they are able to accomplish what God has laid out before them in their lives.

Sixteen generations had passed from the great high priest Aaron until the birth of Ezra. The text indicates that he not only had a great heritage behind him, but that he came from a known family blessed by God. How does this help me if I come from a family known for disruption and dysfunction? Don’t miss the divine point here: a reputation as something that is built over time. There are many people in the Bible who had no reputation to speak of, yet God used them. Still we must not dismiss the meaning of family; nor should we ignore the meaning of identifying marks that are drawn from relationships.

Young people: the one you choose to marry, should you choose to marry — has everything to do with the possibilities God has for you in your future. Many a man or woman of God has been undone by this one critical choice.

Mom and Dad: how you raise a child, how you connect the child to their past, has much to do with the rooms God can put them in to serve him. If you come from a great and godly heritage, do not hesitate to pass that to your children. Let them know of their grandparents who walked with God. There was a time when this need not be said, but that time is past. Now is the time for parents to speak out on the heritage of our nation, the heritage of their families, and the blessing of God through the ages.

To many who are here today who cannot point to a great family, I can only say this — build one. You cannot go back to yesterday and start again, but you can start today and change the future. Now is the time for greatness in leadership. Now is the time our nation needs those who are connected to God, and those who can connect others to him.

Ezra was called to be a priest, but he did much more. The job of the priest was first and foremost to be consecrated — marked by the blood on the right ear, the right thumb, and the right big toe. Priests that will not be consecrated and walk clean are priests without a voice. Apart from being consecrated another aspect of the priesthood was to be an intercessor. They were called to stand in the gap between God and man. It is true to say today that Jesus is our intercessor. It is also true to say that many of our friends need us to lead them to Jesus. Ezra came as a consecrated intercessor — and we are called to be one as well.

Second, we must recognize that God invests people with specific skills that can be seen in their accomplishments.

Ezra 7:6 This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses,

With or without a good family, your life is very much defined by your choices. What you choose to learn about, and how you choose to develop your mind and your heart is ultimately your own responsibility before God. He can work much if we give Him much to work with.

• If we take care of our bodies, He can work through them.
• If we develop our minds, He will work through them.

All of that presupposes some important facts:

God uses an intentional Christian. My digital audio music player has a random setting — my life should not. Far too many young believers are spending far too much of their young life serving the god of pleasure rather than the God of Abraham. You have but one life, and it will pass by very quickly. You must be concerned about the use of your time, the production of your life in righteousness, and the incredible amount of time you will be tempted to spend on unused and in personal pleasure. I want deliberately to encourage you to develop your mind. You do not need as much amusement or entertainment as the world would indicate to you. You are being sucked out of the kingdom’s work — your lives are being blunted by your own choices.

God uses a yielded heart. God resists the proud, but offers undeserved favor to the one who surrenders to Him. When we surrender much and often and choose to develop our understanding of Him and His Word, He uses us for great things.

In the case of Ezra, he went up from Babylon to be used by God only after he had become a skilled scribe in the law of Moses. Before God can use you greatly, you must show a commitment to doing the work well, and to walking carefully. God graduates you from one level to another as you show that you have done in the level he gave you what you should have done. We should not anticipate beginning our ministry at the top — nor our work life. The skills we learn as we work our way up are critical to our success when we reached the pinnacle of our career. How often will we see young men who were plucked from youth and placed into professional sports far too early to develop personal aspects of their character? As a result, they make critical errors in life because they were too well-paid for their skill and to poorly taught character. We want to rise to quickly. We want to much for too little. Real skill and accomplishment comes from one who will endure patiently and develop the patterns necessary to complete a task diligently.

Third, we must learn to recognize the marks of the hand of God on a person’s life.

Look at the end of the sentence in 7:b…

Ezra 7:6b “…which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him.

There is no substitute for the work of God in you. People CAN see it, though it is often shown through a long series of circumstances that God guides you through. His time in God’s Word gave him the beginning place for God to show Himself, and it was further demonstrated by God opening the door to things that Ezra could not have done. God works IN you, then THROUGH you, then FOR you.

I believe the Lord mentioned this in the passage because it is a part of our lives that we often forget. It seems that one graduates high school, and then is thrust into either a work or collegiate life based on “making a living”. In the process of gaining information and education, we quietly communicate to the young generation that the most important aspect of learning is how it will play into their ability to make a living. That pragmatic view is unbalanced. Not everything a student learns is given to them because they can understand the ultimate application. We often mistake some aspects of learning as irrelevant because we cannot readily connect the dots between our everyday life and that particular skill set.

I frequently run into Christian parents who cannot understand why it is important for their children to study God’s Word from cover to cover. They seem to resent the idea that I would challenge the notion that a Sunday school hour, even if they only came occasionally was enough for their child, and that alone could give them enough of God’s Word to stand in college. Some seem to resent the idea that a believer should know more of the Bible than a thin number of stories that are imparted many times. Often I hear the claim “that’s for a seminary graduate” as if there are some Christians that need to understand the word and others to whom it is an option. Is that really what we believe about the Words from our Creator?

Ezra understood God’s word. As are understood that the Scriptures came from God, and that God could be found within them. Ezra understood that God showed himself clearly to one who opened himself deeply. Remember the pattern: God works IN you, then THROUGH you, then FOR you.

Fourth, we need to recognize a pattern of right priorities shown in the current choices of the potential leader.

Ezra 7:7 Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Doing the right things often involves setting aside many other things that are attractive. It may involve denial of self, changes in patterns, and taking on new involvements and new pursuits. What we become has much to do with where we “set our heart”. In Ezra’s case he wanted to do three things: study the Word, practice the Word, and then teach the Word. Even the word order seems significant – learn the specifics of the truth, live out what we learn- and only then teach others to live by that same truth. Jesus said “blessed are those who both say and DO these things.” In the Scriptures, the greater weight of responsibility falls on one that claims to be a teacher to live out the proper pattern of truth.

I want to take a moment and focus specifically on the order of the words in verse 10. I understand that not everyone needs to study deeply every aspect of Biblical truth. I am not suggesting that everyone who knows God needs to note Greek and Hebrew. I am concerned about the number of ministries that seem to be willing to lay hands very quickly on people and put them in positions of responsibility in order to develop the leader themselves. The ability to teach properly the truth of God presupposes time spent both studying that word, and living out its truth and careful practice. I am finding more and more books that are all enamored with the idea of getting that young believer out and involved in ministry as quickly as possible. Though I understand the notion that it is easy for Christians to become complacent and lazy, I am equally concerned that we are putting on the front line some who have not yet been tested in life, and a great many who are given positions beyond their ability and life learning.

Fifth, we need to recognize and respect the authority of God-appointments.

Ezra 7:11 Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel: 12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace. And now 13 I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14 “Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand, 15 and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold which you find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem; 17 with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem. 18 “Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God. 19 “Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem. 20 “The rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury.

At this point in the text we read the letter carried by Ezra and written by his king. Before Ezra could lead, he needed to learn to follow. Others respected Ezra as one marked by authority only after Ezra respected his king and walked in allegiance loyally to him. This letter marks the pedigree of authority that Ezra could show to those who would oppose him.

Look more closely at the words of Artaxerxes the king and you will see a pattern emerge.

• The letter is issued to Ezra and acknowledges his position as scribe.
• The letter underscores that the travelers were given a choice to go to Jerusalem.
• The letter states that the King and his advisers took seriously the matter of the return.
• The letter authorizes expenditures given by the government, and their specific use.
• The letter underscores trust, particularly in verse 18 with the phrase “whatever seems good to you”.
• The letter reveals that the travelers were carrying other utensils from the temple that had not previously been returned.

Looking at the private correspondence carried by Ezra, I am struck by the relationship between the king and Ezra. I am struck by the fact that the king seemed so where of the need of this scribe and his people, and the openness he had to providing for that need. One of the true marks of a great leader is that they build relationships with leaders before them. They are not distant and cold, but respectful and loyal. I emphasize the loyalty because it is a platform from which God builds great leaders.

We do not help the young generation when we handle those who are in authority without respect.

We are called to respect the position of those in authority even when we question their motives in our hearts and do not believe that they have done all things well in their jobs. We must hold the line here — we must respect even when we are repulsed by some of the ideas being shared by a so-called leaders. I have yet to meet a great leader who trashed the leaders he or she came up under. Where there is loyalty and respect, there is an understanding of the complexity of leading. I say it often: from the cheap seats everything looks easy. In a day when conservatives are more open about their opposition to government we need to be careful about respect.

Sixth, we need to recognize the impact of a carefully forged testimony.

Ezra 7:21 “I, even I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the provinces beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently, 22 even up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed. 23 “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, so that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons. 24 “We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim or servants of this house of God. 25 “You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them. 26 “Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment.

Picking up on the idea of recognizing appointed authority, I want to move forward with the notion that Ezra had built a significant testimony he for his king long before the king sent him back. Simply put, Ezra worked on his testimony long before he used the testimony to do his work. Because we are very pragmatic in the days in which we live many of us focus on the productivity of our life at the expense of the testimony. How do we do this? We take our “to do list” and rushed past the people of our lives in order to “accomplish great things”. We need to be careful here.

Verse 21 opens with “I even I” — a statement showing that there was a personal stake and personal stamp of approval by the king for the work of Ezra and his travelers. The bank account they carried was in the name of their king. How did he get such an opportunity? It can only be explained in the words of the king himself.

• The king understood that Ezra was following his God (v. 23).
• The king recognized that by his allowing Ezra’s return, he was abating the wrath of God on his own house (v. 23b).
• The king acknowledged as Rick carried the wisdom of God (25).

What a testimony he had built before his king! Artaxerxes was not a believer, but he was a respecter of the God of Abraham because of the lifestyle choices of Ezra. We use the phrase “you are the only Bible some people will ever read”. In the case of his king, Ezra was the closest thing to the God of Abraham he would ever know. From his life he saw all dedicated service and deep wisdom.

Finally, we need to recognize an emerging leader by the sound of their humble heart of praise.

Self-touting leaders are arrogant – and arrogance isn’t what God calls leaders to become.

Ezra 7:27 Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the LORD my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.

The passage ends with a prayer of praise. As are a blessed God, and recognizes that God alone changed the king’s heart! He was excited about being used to the Lord to adorn the temple at Jerusalem. If you look closely at the closing verses of the passage you will notice three important comments of Ezra.

• Ezra understood the accomplishments to be based on the lovingkindness of the Lord — God doing things behind the scenes that Ezra could not do.
• Ezra recognized that even the strength within him came from the God above him — God at work in him to produce works honoring to God.
• Ezra’s practice was to tie his life together with other believers who had the same significant vision — not to try and “go it alone”.

Ezra’s focus was not on his own abilities but on the privileges God had given him to serve at the pleasure of his Master. He neither thought he was the answer to all of the needs, nor that he could manipulate or wrangle others in power to do the bidding of God. He recognized his daily, actual need of God’s intervention in both his life and his world.

Real leaders don’t look inside, they look upward. They don’t feel complete, they feel needy for God’s strength, beginning with God’s forgiveness…

In the 14th century, Robert Bruce of Scotland was leading his men in a battle to gain independence from England. Near the end of the conflict, the English wanted to capture Bruce to keep him from the Scottish crown. So they put his own bloodhounds on his trail. When the bloodhounds got close, Bruce could hear their baying. His attendant said, “We are done for. They are on your trail, and they will reveal your hiding place.” Bruce replied, “It’s all right.” Then he headed for a stream that flowed through the forest. He plunged in and waded upstream a short distance. When he came out on the other bank, he was in the depths of the forest. Within minutes, the hounds, tracing their master’s steps, came to the bank. They went no farther. The English soldiers urged them on, but the trail was broken. The stream had carried the scent away. A short time later, the crown of Scotland rested on the head of Robert Bruce. The memory of our sins, prodded on by Satan, can be like those baying dogs–but a stream flows, red with the blood of God’s own Son. By grace through faith we are safe. No sin-hound can touch us. The trail is broken by the precious blood of Christ. “The purpose of the cross,” someone observed, “is to repair the irreparable.” – E. Lutzer, Putting Your Past Behind You, Here’s Life, 1990, p.42.

Look at the end of Ezra’s words… He recognized that he could not do what he needed to do alone — he needed a team. Real leaders build teams. There are men and women of great accomplishment in our world as “solo acts”. Though they will accomplish much they are not great leaders. Great leaders build great followers and great teams.

God has not left His people with a “blind spot”, but has revealed standards of leadership greatness.

The world is structured to evaluate things, and then throw them away. Often something that is valued little now becomes valued a great deal later. Recently, my wife and I have been watching old episodes of the “Salvage Dawgs”. It is a show about some men who re-purpose salvage in a store in Roanoke, Virginia. Here is something that I learned watching these men gut old buildings and re-purposing the items they recovered… The world doesn’t know how to really value things.

Today, your hard work, showing up in a job you don’t like, working harder than you really want to, and making less than you truly deserve for the labor you are giving may be of little value to the world – but it shows character to all of us. It provides for your family. It says you are not lazy and will not sit back and let life slide. It proves you can discipline yourself.

Tonight, when you are awakened by a crying child, you may not get much sleep. The world may not understand why your sacrifice of your own sleep to cradle a child in your arms is important. It isn’t something dramatic. No one will make movies about you walking the floor holding your limp child in your arms. You will get stiff and face tomorrow with insufficient sleep. Why do it? Because you are shaping a life, and the child needs you. Your sacrifice speaks volumes.

Here is my point: What the world values keeps changing, but that is because they don’t use long term measures. Real standards haven’t changed just because people want them to, and because they are willing to ignore the fallout from doing it. Thank God His Word stands through all the twisting winds of culture!

Second Chances: “Choose to Renew” – Ezra 6:19-22

I35W_Bridge_CollapseJust after 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, all eight lanes of the Interstate 35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing thirteen people, and injuring fifty others. A school bus returning from a Day camp field trip to a water park, nearly plunged into the Mississippi, while carrying sixty-three children – but the bus ended up perched precariously against a guardrail of the collapsed bridge, beside a burning semi-trailer. A 20-year-old staff member on the bus kicked out the rear emergency exit and led the children to safety. Another youth worker was severely injured. Some vehicles were thrown into the water, while others burst into flames on the pieces of the broken bridge hovering over the water.

What seems incredible now is the well-established fact that the collapse was entirely preventable and predictable. In 1990, the federal government gave the bridge a rating of “structurally deficient,” citing significant corrosion in its bearings. According to a 2001 study by the civil engineering department of the University of Minnesota, cracking had been previously discovered in the cross girders at the end of the approach spans. In 2005, the bridge was again rated as “structurally deficient” and in possible need of replacement, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory database. Yet another inspection carried out June 15, 2006 found problems of cracking and fatigue, and the bridge was scheduled to be replaced in 2020. At the time of its demise, some work was being done on the bridge, with some 575,000 pounds of construction supplies and equipment on the bridge. In addition to the lives and health of many people, on May 2, 2008, the state of Minnesota reached a $38 million agreement to compensate victims of the bridge collapse.

The lesson to all of us is two-fold. First, neglected infrastructure is dangerous. Second, if we wait while the cracks show, we are simply asking for disaster. Keep those two ideas in mind… for many of us are showing cracks of neglect on the infrastructure of our lives…and that is the subject of this lesson from Scripture.

Think for a moment about a church that neglected infrastructureThey started with a few people in a living room. They knew Jesus, and as their small town grew they truly desired that God would use them to start a vibrant church ministry in that place. It started well, and a few people began to work with vigor until soon the small Bible study could no longer be contained inside the home. A building program was begun as the small Bible study moved into a nearby rented space at the local library while they collected the necessary money. These were good days, filled with trans-formative messages from the Word, sweet fellowship of the few, and lots of dreams. The whole community should have felt the love of that congregation, and that was their plan! Years passed, and two Pastors later, the building was long since built. Good preaching and fine workers offered years of good programming. Many people came to Christ, though not all at once. Their church was not dramatic, but it was solid and Biblical. They were happy with it, and they felt that it represented the Lord well. Several new families came into the church, and, after years of quiet, there were some rumblings in several of the ministries. Nothing profound, but small disagreements that brought to the surface some long standing differences between the people. Division seemed to be discovered, then obvious, then irreconcilable. It snuck up on everyone. Leaders had no idea it was coming, but it did. Now the once vibrant church seemed old, and to some it smelled of stagnancy. The work became harder to pull off. Workers were tired and fewer than needed. Budgets were a struggle to meet. The once vibrant ministry was sagging and collapsing into disarray. Yet, many still loved their church. They worked hard and couldn’t understand what went wrong. Was it just a “life cycle” of the ministry? Could it be that there were some foundational issues that needed renewal? How does something once vibrant become so weakened?

Think about a marriage and its neglected infrastructureTom and Sally met in college and couldn’t believe there was another person so well matched on the planet for each of them. They loved the same things, and even their parents agreed that this was a match made in Heaven. They well thoroughly smitten with one another. They married after college and had two children, along with a house in the suburbs, a small car and the obligatory minivan, a summer vacation at the cottage in the mountains, and a happy life. The children grew quickly. Responsibilities mounted and the days passed like lightning. The sleek and youthful bodies took on the doughy and soft centered middle age look, as they worked, cared, shared and watched their children grow into adulthood. One day they looked at each other and the feeling just wasn’t the same. They were used to one another, but there was little they could call passion. Those days were for the young, and they were just too tired. A once vibrant relationship was sagging, and the deep and enduring foundations had been neglected by inattention to the effects of weathering and wearing. Time took its toll on their un-maintained relationship.

Think about the neglected spiritual life infrastructureJohn was a wild young man. He had so many problems – a bad home, bad grades and a bad attitude. He barely escaped high school intact, but decided that the Marine corps made men, and he wanted to become one. After a few fights, one with a superior officer, he was dishonorably discharged. Discouraged, alone and broken, he wandered into a church. He heard in that place a message that was like no story he ever heard before. The man up front told of Jesus, who God sent out of love to suffer viciously, and die in place of John and every other person in the place. John felt the tug of the Spirit and he went forward at an altar call. He received Christ and was welcomed into, for the first time in his life, a family. Oh the early days of his walk. God was so real to him. The Scripture was so alive and he was learning so much. Old habits fell off of him like worn out clothing, and new attitudes displaced many of the old ones that had brought such trouble to his life. John was a new man. He continued to grow and met Art, a man who offered him apprenticeship in electrical work. John worked, went to school, and got an electrical license. During that time he met Liz, a school teacher. They fell in love, were married and had an excellent marriage together. By all accounts John got his life together. As his responsibilities grew in life, he met them with character and care. Yet, slowly his spiritual vigor waned. By the time their third child was born, John struggled to be excited about studying the Word, and his church attendance at anything but Sunday morning was quite sporadic. No one knew what was happening inside. A fire that once burned bright was gone dim. He still believed, it just wasn’t the same – and he knew it. Every time he began to pray, guilt struck his heart and he found himself confessing his coldness – yet nothing changed. His once vibrant faith was sagging.

Whether it is a church, a marriage, or a personal inner spiritual walk, all relationships require renewal and maintenance to be reinforced against the weathering.

How do we do that? What steps can we take to reinforce the vibrancy of our marriages, our church, and most of all our personal walk with God?

Key Principle: Renewal comes from deliberate choices strengthened by God’s reinforcement.

The subject of the Book of Ezra, and the TIMES of Ezra were about grabbing the opportunity of a second chance for a Kingdom. It was originally destroyed by neglect that led to compromise, then compromise that seeded overt rebellion, and a rebellion that moved from darkness to normality – and finally the resultant judgment of God.

• We saw in Ezra 1 and 2 that a good government wasn’t required to bring renewal, nor was a great perspective on their current day required – but simply a deliberate dependence on the Word of God, and surrender to the person of God.

• In Ezra 3 and 4 we saw that when renewal began, the enemy showed up to derail the work with Discouragement, Deception, Distraction, and Disinformation – the typical bag of tricks, but there was a way to overcome his hindrances.

• By Ezra 5, we saw the enemy throw new tactics into the mix – Defamation and Delay. God responded by dispatching a series of prophets – Haggai and Zechariah – to get the work back on track. After a decade of delays, God opened the door for completion of the project that renewed the people’s spiritual vitality for a season. As we walked into Ezra 6, we saw God rescue the people and pull off the completion of the Temple – together with cash and prizes sent from the enemies around Judah to pay for the dedication service!

Read for a moment the short text of this lesson on renewal:

Ezra 6:19 “The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth of the first month. 20 For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were pure. Then they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, both for their brothers the priests and for themselves. 21 The sons of Israel who returned from exile and all those who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the LORD God of Israel, ate the Passover. 22 And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”

A careful read through the text will expose that their renewed vigor was based on five deliberate choices:

First, the people chose to Remember: They consciously recalled the salvation of God (6:19)

Spiritual vibrancy begins with spiritual memory. Pride and personal focus chases God away, but a thankful spirit, deeply rooted in the reality that I have been given that which is undeserved invites God to renew a work in me. Passover was to teach a very specific truth – the personal need to appropriate God’s grace. The annual celebration is coming on March 29th in the evening this year.

Take a closer look at Exodus 19 to get the idea of personal responsibility for salvation:

Exodus 12:1 Now the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. 3 “Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household. 4 ‘Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb. 5 ‘Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 ‘You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. ..21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and take for yourselves lambs according to your families, and slay the Passover lamb. 22 “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts; and none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. ..26 “And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” And the people bowed low and worshiped.

In order for the family of the Israelite to be saved from the coming hand of judgment of God, they could only be saved if they:

• Listened and took seriously the Word of God as delivered to them by Moses (Exodus 12:1-3).

• The people appropriated the substitute lamb as a sacrifice for their family and those who were near to them (Exodus 19:4). No sacrifice, no salvation. (Exodus 12:5,21)

Leviticus 17:11 ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’ (NASB)

Hebrews 9:22 “And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”(NASB)

• Personally each family followed through on applying the blood to THEIR TENT, their life, their heart, their surrender – their yielded-ness. Failure to yield was disastrous! (Exodus 12:22).

• The people recalled this night for the rest of their lives as the testimony of their salvation (Ex. 12:26-27).

This was the pattern of the Apostles regarding the Lamb of God slain for them:

Acts 4:5 On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; 6 and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. 7 When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, 9 if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. 11 “He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. 12 “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” 13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October, 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life. Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean… For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark…ten feet long. But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie’s own words, “Cherry,” that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off.” Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking…”Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food…if I could catch it.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice. You know that Captain Eddie made it. And now you also know…that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset…on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast…you could see an old man walking…white-haired, bushy-eye-browed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls…to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle…like manna in the wilderness. – “The Old Man and the Gulls” from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story by Paul Aurandt, 1977, quoted in Heaven Bound Living, Knofel Stanton, Standard, 1989, p. 79-80.

Second, the people chose to Examine Themselves: Made personal choices for purity in their lives (6:20a).

Ezra 6:20 For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were pure.

What did they do, exactly? They self-examined and then sought God about impurity. Let’s cut through all the spiritual rhetoric and get to the heart of it: They looked inside and got honest with God about their actual condition – nothing more, nothing less. Author Kent Hughes asked some helpful and penetrating questions that a man or woman of God can answer within – but they SHOULD answer them: (From: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome).

1. Are we being desensitized by the present evil world? Do things that once shocked us now pass us by with little notice? Have our sexual ethics slackened?

2. Where do our minds wander when we have no duties to perform?

3. What are we reading? Are there books or magazines or files in our libraries that we want no one else to see?

4. …How many hours do we spend watching TV? How much adultery did we watch last week? How many murders? How many did we watch with our children?

5. How many chapters of the Bible did we read last week?

Along the same line, Robert Murray McCheyne wrote to Dan Edwards after the latter’s ordination as a missionary (adapted for modern speech): “In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awesome weapon in the hand of God“. – Paul Borthwick, Leading the Way, Navpress, 1989, pp. 65.

There it is. No man suddenly becomes base. No great work suddenly collapses. No marriage suddenly fails. Consider the case for examination of our lives…

After a violent storm one night, a large tree, which over the years had become a stately giant, was found lying across the pathway in a park. Nothing but a splintered stump was left. Closer examination showed that it was rotten at the core because thousands of tiny insects had eaten away at its heart. The weakness of that tree was not brought on by the sudden storm; it began the very moment the first insect nested within its bark. With the Holy Spirit’s help, let’s be very careful to guard our purity. – Our Daily Bread.

Think back when you were more sensitive about sin in your life. Consider when you thought about how seriously God viewed your deliberate attentiveness to each action…There was a reason that God took the life of Ananias and Sapphira. God clearly desired the church to launch for that ever so brief moment on the foot of integrity and purity. Do you really believe He is satisfied with your compromises now?

Third, they chose Accountability: Made careful choices for unity (6:20b).

Keep reading, because there is more.

Ezra 6:20b “…Then they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles…”

The people made sure that everyone understood their sinfulness and God’s provided grace. They didn’t put them in comparison to one another – they set each one before God’s holy perfection. The standard wasn’t “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?” but rather “Are you holy like God?” Knowing how each of us falls short, and graphically reminding ourselves of it helps us look at one another with compassion and grace. Recognizing that none of us is whole – all of us are broken – helps us to see our need of God’s love, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness. Daniel Webster reminded us: “My greatest thought is my accountability to God.” Yet, many who know God seldom have such a thought today. We are fast becoming the generation God owes something to.

I simply argue that a room full of believers can easily overlook the responsibility to help one another in their walk with God, and their holiness… “Too often we confuse love with permissiveness. It is not love to fail to dissuade another believer from sin any more than it is love to fail to take a drink away from an alcoholic or matches away from a baby. True fellowship out of love for one another demands accountability.” (source unknown).

Across the churches of the west, there is appears to be a growing need by some in the church to “apologize to the world” for how they have felt when the church pronounced sin as exactly what it is. This seems to some like a humble and compassionate move, but it is wrong-headed. Perhaps some things were not spoken in love – and that is worthy of our deep concern and repentance. Yet, when an apology takes on the language of the world re-defining rebellion as an unfortunate action of hapless victims – the apology betrays its author. The lost world doesn’t have the right to redefine the terms of righteousness as though they have equal standing to a Holy God. As the church moves from defense of the Word and the grand solution of the Gospel provided by God, we will lose both our voice and our power.

Let me be clear: God isn’t interested in the redefinition of man that overturns His stated truths. Church Councils cannot change what God has made into terms that are more accommodating to those who openly rebel against God’s order. When God speaks, all those who oppose His revealed truths are simply making noise, until He silences the room…and He will. His patience is not impotence and His delay not externally forced upon Him.

Beloved, the truth that we are all broken should make us humble before one another. Yet, we must be very careful here. We dare not reduce a Holy and Sovereign God and His faultless Word to the ranks of those Who should apologize or be apologized for – before men and women who have the marks of unrelenting rebellion on their life. Of such is not the Kingdom, so says the Word repeatedly. I do not judge another when I bring the truth that God already has stated the terms of defiance to a rebel. If God has said what is true – the church that stands with His Word need not adopt the world’s re-branding of error, but should stand firm in truth – always with an inner humility about our own flawed and broken vessels.

Every person should anticipate their participation in the church and engaging the Scripture will bring about conviction. That isn’t because God is mean or because the church is “judgy” – it is because there is no solution found for a problem we don’t believe we truly have. God confronts man because as Creator He holds the right to define all things, inspect all things and judge the worth of every action and attitude. Men who try to deny Him that right believe they are His equal. In the end, they will discover that was foolishness. These leaders of the newly inaugurated Temple slaughtered the lambs for the sin of each one – even if the idea that all were needy sinners could have been offensive to them.

Fourth, they chose to Intercede: Mediating for those they led (6:20b)

Note the sacrifice was for the people – but it was also for the priests. They didn’t feel they were perfect; it was their job. Note the phrase:

Ezra 6:20b “…both for their brothers the priests and for themselves.

Part of the work of the believer today is that of a priest – to intercede for those who do not have the strength, or perhaps the knowledge of their real need.

Sometimes people need a stand in: David Rice Atchison — Forget what the history books say. The 12th president of the United States was David Rice Atchison, a man so obscure that Chester A. Arthur seems a household word by comparison. At exactly 12 noon on March 4, 1849, Zachary Taylor was scheduled to succeed James Polk as chief executive. But March 4 was a Sunday and Taylor, a devout old general, refused to take the oath of office on [Sunday because he thought it the] Sabbath. Thus, under the Succession Act of 1792, Missouri Senator Atchison, as President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, automatically became President. Atchison was said to have taken the responsibilities of his office very much in stride. Tongue in cheek, he appointed a number of his cronies to high cabinet positions, then had a few drinks, and went to bed to sleep out the remainder of his brief administration. On Monday at noon Taylor took over the reins, but the nation can look back fondly on the Atchison presidency as a peaceful one, untainted by even a hint of corruption. – Campus Life, February, 1980, p. 40.

As the intercessor for the younger believers and those who are unable to care for their needs by themselves, we must recall the “Commitment of the Priest” as the Levitical offering of the Millu’im demonstrated:

Leviticus 8:22 Then he presented the second ram, the ram of ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. 23 Moses slaughtered it and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 He also had Aaron’s sons come near; and Moses put some of the blood on the lobe of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand and on the big toe of their right foot. Moses then sprinkled the rest of the blood around on the altar.

Fifth, they chose to Be Distinct: Separating from the people of the world around them (6:21).

Those who were ready to be obedient to the Word joined together to seek the Lord and act (6:21). The writer reminds:

Ezra 6:21 The sons of Israel who returned from exile and all those who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the LORD God of Israel, ate the Passover.

Don’t be awkward with the notion that a preacher of the Word, full of his own flaws, would call you to be HOLY. That comes with the role. We are to be distinct from the world. Remember the words of Peter:

1 Peter 1:13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.

Peter directed his readers to understand that holiness comes from:

• The way we think (1:13a), how seriously we treat the thoughts of our heart (i.e. soberly in 1:13b).

• The way we hope (1:13b), or more properly “where we place our earnest expectation – what we really believe will happen.

• The way we obey (1:14) – refusing our former master of lust that possessed us in the days we did not know better.

• The way we imitate (1:15) – becoming a reflection of our Heavenly Father!

Holiness does not consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervors, or un-commanded austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.” – John Brown, Nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, quoted in J. Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, p. 51

With their choices clearly made, God responded:

Ezra 6:22 And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”

First, God lifted them: They rejoiced because God nudged them to do so (6:22a).

God planted rejoicing in their hearts (6:22) that yielded real worship.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was present at the Vienna Music Hall, where his oratorio called “The Creation” was being performed. Weakened by age, the great composer was confined to a wheelchair. As the majestic work moved along, the audience was caught up with tremendous emotion. When the passage “And there was light!” was reached, the chorus and orchestra burst forth in such power that the crowd could no longer restrain its enthusiasm. The vast assembly rose in spontaneous applause. Haydn struggled to stand and motioned for silence. With his hand pointed toward heaven, he said, “No, no, not from me, but from thence comes all!” Having given the glory and praise to the Creator, he fell back into his chair exhausted. – Daily Bread, September 20, 1992. Haydn understood worship of a Sovereign!

Second, God strengthened them: They saw God doing for them what they could not have accomplished (6:22b).

God drew the heart of the king to them to provide encouragement from a very unlikely source. (6:22b)

The citizens of Feldkirch, Austria, didn’t know what to do. Napoleon’s massive army was preparing to attack. Soldiers had been spotted on the heights above the little town, which was situated on the Austrian border. A council of citizens was hastily summoned to decide whether they should try to defend themselves or display the white flag of surrender. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and the people had gathered in the local church. The pastor rose and said, “Friends, we have been counting on our own strength, and apparently that has failed. As this is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, let us just ring the bells, have our services as usual, and leave the matter in His hands. We know only our weakness, and not the power of God to defend us.” The council accepted his plan and the church bells rang. The enemy, hearing the sudden peal, concluded that the Austrian army had arrived during the night to defend the town. Before the service ended, the enemy broke camp and left. – Source Unknown.

Can we not see it?

Renewal comes from deliberate choices strengthened by God’s reinforcement.

Second Chances: “In the Eye of the Storm” – Ezra 5 and 6

tornado“Stay inside!” he shouted as she emerged from the root cellar. “Pull the door closed and don’t come out until I return and tell you it is safe!” She was afraid. There was no way she could sit and wait through the long night without him. “Please let me help you save the animals!” she protested. “Go back inside and take care of the children. Do what needs to be done. Feed them and comfort them. I will do what must be done out here. You must trust me, I will be fine!” His voice trailed off as the darkness grew over the sky. The powerful storm approached, and she returned into the cellar and lit the kerosene lamps, and pulled the children close to her side. She would have to trust him, and that was difficult for her. Yet, she would do what she needed to do… she would listen, obey and wait for the outcome. What else could she do?

Anyone who has truly lived has seen a storm coming, and faced the uncertainty of it. It was dramatic when the dark clouds pressed to the ground and thundered across the Kansas prairie toward Dorothy’s farm. We watched wide-eyed and saw the whole house lifted and tossed to Oz. The truth is, most storms aren’t nearly so dramatic looking to others – but they feel like the uprooting of our lives to US. This lesson is about holding on tight through the storms – and if they haven’t come to you yet… they will come. Don’t fear! God is in the storms, and some of your best growth and most meaningful moments will be found in the storms.

We’ve been walking through the Bible’s “Book of Ezra” and looking at what happens when God offers us a second chance in our life. We noted their story was one in which God was returning Judah as a nation to their homeland from captivity, as He promised, for them to make another attempt at becoming the lighthouse for God He always intended them to be. Their story offers us a moment to contemplate a very relevant question from the many of us who came to Jesus only after they have climbed from the ashes of our own bad choices… It is a relevant question for all of us because we met Jesus after many of our attitudes and our understandings were formed badly in a lost world.

Before we look at the story, let me remind you that normally preaching is a called to action — things we can do, attitudes we can grasp, life traits we can model. Crowds respond well to the idea that they can control things by doing right. Yet the broader understanding of the truth is found as we mature in our faith, and grow to conclude that only some things are in the grasp of the believer. There are many times in our lives when we are called to act, but there are other times in our lives, where the most important thing is not our action but our firm grip of dependence upon God and our understanding that many things are beyond our control. Some of these are what we call the storms of life.

Pastor Jim Drake wrote an interesting word on this:

Several years ago, when we lived in Mississippi, we were members of a small church called Bel Aire Baptist Church. That little church was a blessing to our family. That’s where I was ordained as a deacon. That’s where our oldest daughter was baptized… Well, several years after we’d moved away, we got word that they’d called a new pastor in 2003. God blessed his ministry tremendously. The church grew to the point where they had to go to two services and were starting a huge building program. Well, just about a month ago, toward the end of February, we got word that the pastor was diagnosed with cancer. Around three weeks later on March 14th, he was in the presence of Jesus. When I saw that, the first thing I thought was, “Why God? After all the years of struggling that church went through! After spending years without a pastor, after Hurricane Katrina, after all the years of praying for growth? Why? …Then when it finally started to happen—You take their pastor? Why?” He continued: “Oh me of little faith!” Jim said. His wife writes a weekly column for the local newspaper. Listen to what she wrote when they found out about his cancer. She wrote about the big C. “The big C is not cancer, but rather: Christ, Calvary, the Cross, Crucified, Curses broken. Spirits of infirmity — Cast out, Captives freed, Covenant, Commandments. Commitment, Church, Confession, Clean. Communion, Conqueror and Crown.” The big C isn’t cancer. The big C is Christ.”

That godly woman couldn’t look to physical victory. She didn’t have an action plan to take away the cancer from her beloved husband. She couldn’t band the church together and promise them if they would pray, he would be healed. She couldn’t cling to promises of “abundant life blessing in the here and now” that some preach on the airwaves. No, that wasn’t God’s direction for her. She had two things she could do: Lean her weak spirit on Christ and believe that she was made for eternity. God hadn’t forsaken her, and she hadn’t failed. Her husband got his reward, and she gained deeper trust in the Rewarder. God didn’t need her to DO anything; He wanted her to receive something – a greater understanding of Him.

Listen to a song that “Casting Crowns” sang that drove home the point.

“I was sure by now, God, You would have reached down, and wiped our tears away. Stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining… As the thunder rolls, I barely hear Your whisper through the rain: “I’m with you”…and as Your mercy falls, I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away.

And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm.

I remember when, I stumbled in the wind, You heard my cry to you and you raised me up again. My strength is almost gone. How can I carry on if I can’t find You? …But as the thunder rolls, I barely hear You whisper through the rain: “I’m with you!” And as Your mercy falls, I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away…

And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm…”

There is a truth that hurts to proclaim, because it cannot be learned when all seems well around us. It is a truth for the mature, not the insecure in their faith. It is…

Key Principle: God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

Let me show you a STORM from the Bible. God called Sheshbazaar and Zerubbabel to take 50,000 Judahites home and rebuild the broken Temple of God. They knew He called them, and they left ready to do what He commanded. Through plot and turmoil, the people laid the foundation of the Temple and the altar was erected, but a plot set up by political hacks stopped the work. The High Priest was under the attack of the wicked one, and the people were parked in their ancient homeland with a half-finished Temple and a stalled out leadership. More than a dozen years passed – some calculate as many as eighteen years in all! Half a generation of disappointment and broken second chance dreams lay like half cut stones strewn across the still dilapidated Temple courts. Time stood still and it seemed like God’s people were moved to Judah, but unable to move forward with their assigned mission. That is where we pick up our reading…when God decided to speak again.

Note the encouragement of God’s Word:

5:1 When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them, 2 then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them supporting them.

What got a demoralized people busy? God’s Word! How did the mere words of these men do that to a people stalled out? In short, they weren’t the words of the men – they were just the mouthpieces of a Holy, Powerful, Transforming God. If you haven’t met Him, this may seem far-fetched. If you have, you know exactly what I mean when I say the Spirit “convicted them.”

If we had time, we could look at the message God gave them. Suffice it to say it was a version of this simple, timeless truth: “Wake up and do what I told you to do. You are not a victim of the King’s policies – you are an agent of free obedience to me! Do what I have said (obey) and let the results be whatever I let them be!” In short, they got busy.

Now is the time I tell you how God stopped the mouths of the lions in the lion’s den. This is the point in the story where I lift your head and tell you the heat of the fiery furnace killed evil men, but there was not so much as the smell of soot on God’s people. Isn’t this where I insert that Haman swung from the gallows and God’s people rejoiced at banqueting tables, celebrating deliverance? No. That isn’t the story. This is the story of a storm, not a Spring morning. The dark clouds haven’t passed…

Note the new attack the enemy formed:

Ezra 5:3 At that time Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues came to them and spoke to them thus, “Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?” 4 Then we told them accordingly what the names of the men were who were reconstructing this building. 5 But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report could come to Darius, and then a written reply be returned concerning it.

If you look, you can see obedience. If you can listen to their heartbeats, you will feel uncertainty. Storms are like that. You see trouble, but you don’t know how bad it will be, and what the farmyard will look like after the storm. You cannot imagine what will happen after it has passed – and you cling to hope that you can survive the emotional blow that comes with the losses. Keep reading…You will see the hacks doing their thing all over again. The chapter before they lied and falsely charged… but that didn’t keep the work from re-starting. The powerful Word of God made the people have the courage to re-new the work even though it was uncertain if God would allow their mission to finish.

Note another political ploy:

Ezra 5 unspooled the royal record of yet another letter to the King, sent by selfish politicians trying to keep power and prestige from slipping away…

Ezra 5:6 This is the copy of the letter …. 7 They sent a report … “To Darius the king, all peace. 8 Let it be known to the king that we have gone to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God, which is being built with huge stones, and beams are being laid in the walls; and this work is going on with great care and is succeeding in their hands. 9 Then we asked those elders and said to them thus, ‘Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?’ …11 Thus they answered us, saying, ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth and are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar … 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. 14 … King Cyrus took from the temple of Babylon and they were given to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor. 15 He said to him, “Take these utensils, go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem and let the house of God be rebuilt in its place.” 16 Then that Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem; and from then until now it has been under construction and it is not yet completed.’ 17 “Now if it pleases the king, let a search be conducted in the king’s treasure house, which is there in Babylon, if it be that a decree was issued by King Cyrus to rebuild this house of God at Jerusalem; and let the king send to us his decision concerning this matter.”

The simple problem was unfolded. The time that passed with the half-finished Temple made the old issue tough for those who wanted to report to the King in Babylon. Much had occurred since the work order was stopped years before. Now the people were working, and the King needed to be informed anew. Hastily, they wrote. They asked for a finding, and the king commissioned one.

Note that God used a lost politician:

Ezra 6:1 Then King Darius issued a decree, and search was made in the archives, where the treasures were stored in Babylon. 2 In Ecbatana in the fortress, which is in the province of Media, a scroll was found and there was written in it as follows: “Memorandum— 3 In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: ‘Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; 4 with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury…

Read the rest of the chapter and you will see the record specified the return of the gold and silver utensils (6:5) and the simple command of the king to the officials in the region: “Back off!” Look down to verse seven…

Ezra 6:7 Leave this work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site. 8 Moreover, I issue a decree concerning what you are to do for these elders of Judah in the rebuilding of this house of God: the full cost is to be paid to these people from the royal treasury out of the taxes of the provinces beyond the River, and that without delay.

The king also commanded they give the needed animals for sacrifice (6:9-10), and followed it with a blistering warning:

Ezra 6:11 And I issued a decree that any man who violates this edict, a timber shall be drawn from his house and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this. 12 May the God who has caused His name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who attempts to change it, so as to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, have issued this decree, let it be carried out with all diligence!”

God clearly rescued the people. If you read line by line the whole of chapter six, you will find words like:

Ezra 6:13 Then Tattenai, the governor … carried out the decree with all diligence, just as King Darius had sent. 14 And the elders of the Jews were successful in building through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. … 22 And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.

“See, Pastor! That is a great story!” you say. The people obeyed, and God delivered. Like the simple formula of a one-hour police drama – the bad guys were jailed and the good guys lived happily ever-after.

Let’s pack up and head home, because we nailed the truth.. GOOD GUYS WIN!”… Not so fast! You missed more than a DOZEN YEARS of the story! You and I press to see the victory and forget the uncertainty of the process on Sunday, and then go back to our Monday lives surrounded by uncertainty and try to connect our Bible lesson to our daily life. Slow down the reading, and think about what we just saw…

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

It is not that God’s control is limited to our belief, but rather when our understanding of His control is not recognized, we cannot celebrate Him – whatever the temporal outcome. In the process of maturing a believer, God offers us an opportunity to rest in the shelter of his arms – and His arms are the prize in the story – not the outcome.

God took the people through a test, so they could experience a deeper sense of His presence! He delivered them because He first put them in the soup of despair and uncertainty! His path to the Promised Land is always through the heat of the desert. For His deliverance, their testimony led to their testing, that opened the door to God’s triumph and their deeper trust. It is an exciting prospect!

The purpose of including the letter in Scripture was to make sure that a record of the testimony of God’s victory would be remembered – but also a careful record of HOW LONG IT TOOK AND HOW HARD IT WAS! Though this may seem obvious, it is necessary for God’s people to consistently offer testimony to the past — to remember the works of God and the victories of God for his people. Especially today, we have become a people without a history. We have forgotten the good things God has done – AND WHAT IT TOOK TO GRASP THEM AS THEY HAPPENED!

On our way to remembrance, note a few details the verses show:

First, note the difference in perspectives. (5:6-9) I was struck by how the unsaved watchers did not evaluate the work from the outside in the same way the Israelites evaluated it from you within. Older Israelites wept at the erected beginnings of the second Temple, moaning because of its smaller size. Yet the description of these enemies reveals that it was an impressive building to those who were in the world.

One of the problems we face as we mature in the Lord is that we forget what it is like to live life out in the world. We forget the harshness when we are surrounded by those who love us. We take for granted one another, and to love that is common among believers. When the church is following God, it is a warm place. It is a place of love and nurturing and care. The world has precious few places that it can describe in those terms. God instituted the family to be a place of protection. God instituted the church to be a place of growth and stability. The enemy is busy attacking both. At the same time, when people come into the midst of a growing and vibrant Bible believing community, they may meet 20 believers and become overwhelmed by the size of the commitment people have one toward another. Inside the church we may feel insignificant, but from the world’s perspective size is measured by the stability, warmth, and helpfulness of the dear ones around us.

Second, note how the people identified themselves and their past. (5:10-16) In the face of the question from the world, “Who are you?”, The people of God did not attempt to make themselves look powerful. They identified themselves as the servants of God. They made clear what their objective was in the project they were working on. They even included the story of how they both had and lost the blessing of God in the past. They explained their own sin and their own unworthiness, and how God turned his face away from them because of their own behaviors. All this led to their explanation of God’s second chance for them — the unworthy being granted good things from God.

It is easy to forget that while the administration was searching for the documents, the believers continued to work with the threat of permanent interruption over their head.

They had done what they could do. They explained their purposes, that they served the God of Abraham, and that they did not deserve the blessing that they were receiving. They offered a testimony of Divine rescue to those around them. Now all they could do was to keep going and to trust that God would take them through the test they were facing and lead them out the other side. They were listening to Haggai and Zechariah, and acknowledging that if God said BUILD, failure to continue was nothing more than defiance – and that wasn’t what the people of God were to do when God spoke.

Was there a benefit to the more than a dozen years of delays? Sure, there was!

• God used the prophets to deliver greater truth to the people about Him, and about their own need to search their hearts.

• God used the record search to explain more carefully the long-forgotten terms of the building given by Cyrus so long ago. The temple platform was to be 90′ x 90′. The building of the temple was to include a three layer Temple built at the taxpayer’s expense. Because God brought to light the letter, the believers needed no longer to fear the attacks of those around them that were shrouded in the lie that they were acting illegally.

• In 6:6-18) God did more than simply endorse the project. God offered a clear moment of rescue, when he stepped into the opposition and told adversaries to “back off”.

• Perhaps nowhere in the passage is the triumph more clear than in the closing verses of this section (6:12-18). Darius is recorded to have said that the work was being built to honor and glorify God (6:12). The governors were diligent to do exactly as they were instructed, and the Jewish people were able to complete the building of the temple by mid-March 516 B.C.E.

As the governors beyond the river no doubt were weeping, the Jewish people were sacrificing 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs and some male goats, many of which were no doubt derived from the territories beyond the river.

The people of Zerubbabel were called to:

• Move ahead with God’s stirring from His Word.
• Move forward with limited provisions to do God’s work.
• Move beyond their personal level of comfort and convenience.
• Move ahead without stalling over the enemy’s distractions.

The people were called to take God’s Word and live it – when it was both unpopular and increasingly perilous. Yes, they prevailed…but for a long time they had no idea whether God would save their skins – they only had a promise for their souls!

In 1877, Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce Indians of what is now Oregon, was a warrior. He was recalled as great by William Tecumseh Sherman, and lauded as the “Red Napolean” before he surrendered to the American Army. Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood claimed to have taken down the great chief’s words on the spot of is surrender: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead…The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say no and yes. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, Have run away to the hills And have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are- Perhaps they are freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sad and sick. From where the sun now stands – I will fight no more forever.”

Can you hear the pain when he surrendered to his enemy? His recalled later the promise he made to his father on his father’s death mat. His father said to him: “My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” How painful his surrender was! Yet he was BROKEN.

That is what happens when hope is lost and the physical world is the measure for success… but that is not how we are to see the tough challenges of our day. Remember?

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

The fact is that God is not broke and He has not finished with us. He has all the resources necessary to complete all the objectives He has called us to do.

Sometimes we take on things God didn’t tell us to do. We operate without the necessary systems to check that we are operating in accordance with God’s Word. We overextend ourselves by taking on things with no plan or mechanism to cover the difficulties. God is not honored by the half done projects that were hastily conceived and poorly planned by his people. We must be careful.

More than that, we must do more to ensure that we are in fact working in the work of God, working by the word of God, and working for the glory of God. Far too much is done for ourselves and by our own rules. When we get in a jam, we look up to God and ask for him to rescue us, and we ignore that we have not called on him, nor sought him in the whole project until we could not complete it.

It is in the storm that God shows up in a fantastic rescue. He shows us Who He is – and that is a great prize! Go back to the words of the song we heard earlier and now hear the end – because I skipped it:

“And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm…

I lift my eyes unto the hills, Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, The Maker of Heaven and Earth… I lift my eyes unto the hills, Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, The Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

The song writer understood. The storm was painful. It was unsettling. It was where his pretense fell away and his expectation was refined to the simplest component. He found God close. That was what the storm was supposed to do for him…

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

Second Chances: “Delay of Game!” – Ezra 4:5-5:1

People at Confluence ParkOur lives are lived on many levels at the same time. If I am watching you approach a little child, I can see the surface of the physical life – and try to “read” your mood or temperament. If you are walking with a certain look on your face, and striding with a certain gate to your steps, I can infer the child you are walking toward is about to get disciplined – and you are disturbed. If you are moving quickly with a look of panic, I can surmise the child is facing imminent danger, and you are running to the rescue. If you are walking steadily toward the child and the little one is paying no attention to you – but you are approaching in military uniform, I can surmise that you are coming from work at a military station. If the child can’t believe you are there and begins crying hysterically in excitement, I can surmise you have been away and the child didn’t know you were coming home from a faraway place.

Here is what I cannot see. I cannot see the true emotional life beneath any encounter of people. I can’t even fully see them physically, perhaps the way an MRI could do, or an x-ray. Even deeper, I cannot see into their spiritual life – if they have been awakened by God to life in Jesus. I can’t see the struggles they are facing to yield to Jesus some habit of damaging secret of life. There is MUCH I cannot see. The problem comes when I believe I have more perception than I truly possess. That mistaken idea may make me draw illegitimate conclusions – as it so often does.

The same problem exists when God opens the door to a second chance life for you. Lurking beneath the surface of your second chance is an enemy with an agenda. Without the tools to perceive him in your life, you will wonder at God’s goodness, and question why so many things you are trying to improve get delayed or foiled. In fact, you will meet many who are unknowingly used by him to advance his agenda. Some of them will be believers with good intentions, but a weakened spiritual walk. Paul warned Timothy that some believers were taken captive by the enemy to do his will inside the church. You can’t always tell which team people are playing on because of their jersey. The Father of Lies is good at slipping even a weakened believer into the ranks to stir the pot. More often than not, he will use someone who follows him – not God – but both are at his disposal for use. Let me offer some examples that may help you:

Tom and Sally are both young believers that met at youth group and are very attracted to each other, and they become a couple. Proper god-honoring physical boundaries in the relationship are very difficult for them, and they tend to be very unhealthy for one another when it comes to purity issues. They decide to break up because of conviction about their behaviors and a seeming inability to move into a life pleasing to Jesus, when Tom’s eyes open and he meets a spiritually strong you lady named Jill. She helps him grow in his faith, and Tom slowly becomes stronger in his walk with God over the next two years, especially as he continues to date Jill during college. He begins to sense the nudge of the Spirit that Jill is the person God desires for him to marry. He leaves for a sport’s camp for a few days and returns home, convinced it is time to buy a ring. He is tired, arriving home about ten o’clock to his house, with his mind full of dreams for his future. Sitting on the steps of his house is his old girlfriend Sally, her faced stained with tears, and the obvious smell of alcohol on her breath. She is distraught, and just wants a little physical comfort. Tom stands awkwardly at the bottom of the stairs as she begs him for a hug, and maybe a little time together.

• God called Jacob, a talented and successful young man, to become a missionary to Asia. He worked for a number of years after college in a small company and made a decent salary. He dated a few times, but never really found someone he was sure was God’s direction in his life. He felt a call to the field after spending hours with an older former missionary who served on the church mission committee. As he was filling out the paperwork to apply to the mission, Jacob was contacted by a large corporation well known in his field of work – an offered a job at nearly twice the salary he was currently making, in the city he wanted to live in his whole life. He couldn’t sleep that night as he set the application on the table next to the job offer letter and prayed. The next morning he was driving to work and spotted a car with a blown tired pulled onto the side of the road. He got out and found a young woman desperately trying to figure out how the jack went under her car. He took off the tire, added the spare donut and told her to take the car to his favored garage, and tell the man he sent her. He would give her a good deal on the tires. Off to work he went, now a few minutes behind. As he drove, he began to think about the woman. She was nice. She was funny. Her smile stuck in his mind. By lunch, he was calling her to set up a dinner together. With each step, he felt a twinge of guilt, because he knew he stopped asking God about the call he felt before.

Satan’s job is to stop God’s movement in and through us. He has many tools at his disposal. If he cannot stop the work, he will attempt to bog it down in delays, hoping those delays will discourage us from moving ahead. Today’s lesson will look at some of the enemy’s tactics, and then probe beneath the surface of them.

Yet, don’t forget. What the enemy means for evil, God can use for good…

Key Principle: Frustrating delays can be purposeful tools of God to work in us – if we listen to His prompting.

On the Surface:

We left off in the story, if you are following our series of lessons, with Judah back in the land and beginning to settle the place, while re-igniting the fires of the altar of God at the Temple. The people that controlled the land in the interim between their captivity in Babylon and their return didn’t like them getting permission to rebuild from Cyrus.

Eventually Cyrus and then his successor Darius the Mede faded from history, and a new ruler, Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE) rose to the throne. He was the son of Xerxes I of Persia and Amestris, daughter of Otanes. He was sometimes called Longimanus in Latin, allegedly because his right hand was longer than his left. He had a new approach to world power. The Persian march west to dominate and maintain the world had been thwarted by the Greeks, so military action between Greece and Persia was at a standstill. When Artaxerxes I took power, he tried to weaken the Athenians by funding their enemies in Greece. He offered asylum to Themistocles, who was the winner of the Battle of Salamis, after Themistocles was ostracized from Athens. He took a new approach – a more studied and thoughtful diplomatic approach to things.

Sensing the times, the enemies of the Judean reconstruction moved in a diplomatic letter to stop their progress, and for a while the tactic stopped the work.

The politics were a set up for the spiritual world. The Bible reveals that Satan didn’t like the Temple getting a second start up – he wanted it in ruins or pressed into service of a false god. When they couldn’t intimidate the Jewish people and disrupt the project, they used a few political hacks to trump up a letter of indictment against the Jews as they began to work out a second chance rebuilding of their lives. The letter was a tool to slow the work – and God kept the text of the letter in the record. Why? Notice several features of the letter the people sent against the Jews, because they point to how some people respond to watching a second chance God opens to our lives.

First, notice that some people do not easily let go of your past and let you start anew– even when God has freed you to have a second chance (4:11-12).

The Book recorded:

Ezra 4:11 “Now this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: “To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. 13 “Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings.”

Some people won’t want you to move on and get the chance to renew your life, because they feel they will lose something they prize, like a personally prized relationship (i.e. they liked being the “special servants of the king in that land” – 4:11) or power and control (i.e. they prized having complete discretionary control over the land in the absence of the Jews – 4:12-13). It is sometimes helpful to remember that although it seems incredibly personal – it may not be. Some people attack you, but the real problem they have is about themselves – not you at all. The attack may be more about how they feel about their own trajectory of life than how they feel about yours.

Second, some people believe they know your heart, your intentions and your future when they may have never even met you (4:13).

4:13 “Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute…

Let me ask: “How can these men know whether or not the tribute will be cut off?” They simply cannot. Often people argue about another person’s intention, but it is a mere projection of their own dark heart. That is what THEY would do. Other times, it is simply an open expression of a lack of trust. We see it all the time in the news.

The government has exercises in a certain part of the country, and the blogs buzz with a plan to place all of us in internment camps. Some people run one conspiracy after another on their social media pages, and you wonder how they function in life! The problem is, one of these time, when they truly do uncover a real conspiracy, our friend will endlessly cry “wolf” and no one will listen – including you (and you are their friend!).

A healthier response to suspicion may be to admit you don’t trust the elected officials and you have a concern about their purpose behind something – but people don’t read balanced posts at near the same level as the inflammatory. We are now discovering the way to get heard by the American populace is inflammatory and rude commentary. It isn’t a healthy moment in our discourse.

Here is the point: We must be very careful about ascribing motives to people. We don’t know why they are doing what they are doing most of the time. They may not even be fully cognizant of their own actions. Before you conclude you know, a healthier and more helpful strategy may be to question actions without concluding you already know what is within the heart of another. They usually don’t appreciate you jumping to conclusions.

Third, opponents will try to make it look as though they are being helpful when they are actually hiding other motives (4:13b-14).

The letter masks the truth of their intention. As much as that seems like I am breaking the rule and concluding that I know their motives – remember that in this case it was recorded with more detail so that I would know they were enemies of God’s plan:

Ezra 4:13b “…they will not pay tribute, custom or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings. 14 “Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king…”

Note how they will cited concerns (revenue to the King, the King’s honor) that were not at the heart of their real issue (they want to keep control over the area). This is a ploy that has the father of lies fingerprints all over them.

Recently an atheist friend was passing a petition on social media to stop the filming of a movie called “I’m Not Ashamed” about Rachel Joy Scott, a young Christian woman who died in the Columbine massacre. The petition objected the film would harm youth on the basis that it glorified violence, when his real issue was that it was a clear testimony of the girl’s faith. He hadn’t seen the movie (it isn’t out yet), and the violence portrayed in the movie (based on the clip) showed no particular glorification. I responded that was not his true objection – her faith story and testimony was. He was covering his tracks as though this film about a Christian’s testimony was going to significantly contribute to teen violence, while he had no particular objection to the raft of games and movies with gratuitous violence that do not promote Jesus Christ. His objection was a rouse.

Meanwhile, half of the Congress of the US is defending Planned Parenthood when they take tax money and give it to an organization that in turn directs money back to their campaigns. An organization that posted $157 M in excess revenues may not need my contribution to keep them going, but it is at least a conflict to be contributing to people who set the amounts of your funding. When drug companies do it, it is called a payoff. When PP does it, it is called normal political behavior. The smoke screens are becoming thinner, but we still cannot seem to get leaders to move the needle.

My point is simple: the father of lies uses half-truth to promote anything that will destroy, defame and delay the work of God on the planet. He makes the simple into intractable complexity. People end up bumfuzzled and looking like deer in the headlights when moral questions are sitting at their feet – and that is his intent.

Fourth, they will use their version of selective history to force conclusions backwards without honest context (4:15).

Ezra 4:15 “…so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste.”

People lie with history, the way liars use complex accounting schemes. If you know how to read the reports, you can often see the flaws. Not everything is a mistake. Some things are blatant distortion.

An unbelieving friend posted an interesting picture the other day. It said:The fact that we ended slavery shows that our morals come from within us and not from God. In fact, many religions endorse slavery. However we, the human race, collectively decided slavery is not moral and we ended it. No God needed. No religion needed.

My simple response is that the graphic is dishonest with the record of history. Study William Wilberforce in England and you will see a passion for Jesus Christ that gave rise to the stand in England against the slave trade. Follow actual history to the floor of churches that held in place the underground railway – because people who knew Christ knew those who argued in favor of slavery were in deep violation of God’s work. Now see if you can find in that history the great atheist movement that overturned slavery – you won’t because it didn’t. If one searches Lincoln’s reasoning to see if they can extract God and make sense of his argument – they can’t. A foundational argument was being made from Creation. Now look at the contemporary worldwide movement of Christians that are raising money and working steadily at the problem of human trafficking. Look up Passion 2013 in Atlanta, where 60,000 university students came together and took up $3M to combat human trafficking – because they believed that would honor Jesus Christ. Now show the atheist equivalent that isn’t derived from tax dollars – you can’t – because it doesn’t exist. If you feel deeply about human slavery, so do we as Christians. To dismiss our contributions and act as though it was done without God as it says above is historically disingenuous. It may not be NEEDED to be a believer to stand against this heinous behavior, but our faith has been and is a prime mover around the globe on this issue, and there is a ton of evidence for that assertion. If we extract religion and wait for the atheist engagement, I suspect you won’t get the freedom you are hoping for. History is not on the side of this argument to divorce believers from helping solve this tragedy.

Look for more of this in the future, as Americans learn less true history, and more substituted propaganda. The answer is to take the time to study what truly happened. Truth is the defense against the lie. Don’t sit back and say: “I don’t care about what they learn.” These are your children and grandchildren. These are your future Congressmen and judges. It matters what they are taught, and how they learn to challenge things that are not true.

Fifth, they draw conclusions far past what they know and state them as facts (4:16).

If the innuendo, jumped conclusions and irresponsible redaction of history hasn’t gotten to you yet, the author showed the errors and conclusions aren’t singular. They pummel the king with things they do not know as facts:

Ezra 4:16 “We inform the king that if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River.”

How exactly would they be able to know that? They don’t. They count on emotion and not logic… remember that.

Sixth, they effectively caused the desired delay and slowed the progress of God’s people doing the work God gave them to do (4:17-24).

Read what happened when the king got the pack of lies from the political hacks:

Ezra 4:17 Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River: “Peace. And now 18 the document which you sent to us has been [i]translated and read before me. 19 A decree has been [j]issued by me, and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have [k]ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom and toll were paid to them. 21 So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me. 22 Beware of being negligent in carrying out this matter; why should damage increase to the detriment of the kings?” 23 Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes’ document was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by force of arms. 24 Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

That wasn’t the whole agenda here…as I shared earlier, there was something going on beneath the surface. To show it to you, I need you to leave the text of the Book of Ezra and jump to a record of a contemporary prophet of his… Zechariah. His name means “God remembers”.

In the Spiritual World:

Behind the scene in the spiritual world, a battle was taking place that men could not see. God shared it in places like Zechariah 3 (just before the restart of the Temple in the same period of time with the same players). Zechariah was a prophet of God, and the high priest, his friend, was discouraged by the delays. That is what it looked like on the surface, but let me show you what it truly WAS:

Zechariah 3:1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. 4 He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” 5 Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the Lord was standing by. 6 And the angel of the Lord admonished Joshua, saying, 7 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here…

The Temple’s progress was stopped, and the High Priest was depressed. That seems a perfectly reasonable assessment – but it wasn’t all that was going on. Satan was tossing mud on the man and bringing up his inadequacies to keep him self-doubting and reserved. The political fight was the surface – the spiritual fight was tearing away the confidence of God’s leader in the political fight. The people of God needed an encouraging friend and champion, not a man doubting his past and troubled by his own inadequacy. Satan attacked, but men can’t see it. God pulled back the curtain and that exposed the truth.

The Believer’s Response

Don’t get lost in the story, God has a point to sharing the story of the re-establishment of the people in Judah and re-building of the Temple.. When you begin to build in your life obedient steps on the ashes of your old life – the enemy will counter you. He will use:

• Your PAST,
• PEOPLE in your life,
• Your own PERSONALITY (in particular the un-yielded parts) and even
• Direct attack of PRINCIPALITIES (powerful spiritual attacks) against you.

When the old methods don’t work, he’ll adjust them to your new successes. He may make you feel competent or even prideful over your progress! In our story he tried a different tactic. The People of God were PUT OFF and had to WAIT. The problem with waiting is WE DON’T SEE ANY PURPOSE IN IT:

Years ago on a TV show, a guest appeared that was a body builder. He entered the stage with his huge muscular body, and the crowd went crazy as the body builder began to flex his muscles and show his power. The first question asked of him was this: “What do you use all those muscles for?” Without answering, the body builder again began flexing his muscles while the crowd cheered wildly. A second time, the question was asked, “What do you do with those muscles?” Again, the body builder flexed his muscles and the crowd became almost ecstatic. After asking a third time, “What do you do with all those muscles?” the body builder just sat in silence. He had no answers. The man was all power but his power had no purpose other than to show off and bring attention to himself. For something to have meaning, it must have purpose… and a DELAY doesn’t seem to have one – but often it DOES. It is an opportunity for God to step in and show us what is below the surface!

Frustrating delays can be purposeful tools of God to work in us – if we listen to His prompting.

What should the believer do when delayed? How will God respond? What happens when the progress is shut down and you have to restart yet AGAIN?

1. Start at the beginning – with God’s Word. It was a LIE that shut down the forward movement, but it is TRUTH that get’s it going again! God sent Haggai and Zechariah to address the problem of getting the Temple priority back on track.

2. Face the real problems that God indicates through His Word. Hearing is one thing, changing is another. God doesn’t waste Words – He accomplishes with His Word: Isaiah 55:11 “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” If the Word isn’t changing you – it isn’t God that is resisting the change!

God’s Conviction – To illustrate how this ‘RESTART” happened, take a closer look, in moments when you have time in Haggai 1:1-15 and you will observe how God exposed their underlying issues and moved them to the changes to HIS AGENDA.

First, God initiated conviction through His Word to those who were attacked by the discouragement – the leaders.

Haggai 1:1 “In the second year of Darius the king, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai…” (the date was August of 520) “…to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest…

Second, God challenged their words with their true heart issues.

Haggai 1:2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘This people says, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the LORD to be rebuilt.”’” 3 Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 4 “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” 5 Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!

Third, God connected their sin with their struggles and lack of blessing.

Haggai 1:6 “You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.” 7 Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!

Fourth, God clearly and carefully spoke directly to their will, and told them what to do!

Haggai 1:8 “Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD.

Their Response – When God finished speaking, the next step was entirely on the followers. God could offer them no more to bring them into blessing if they refused Him. There was no other plan than to honor God’s Word or continue to struggle apart from Him. Wisely, the people responded:

Haggai 1:12 “Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people showed reverence (yiraw: recognized and responded to His awesomeness) for the LORD.”

God’s Comfort – the special manifestation of the presence of the Lord and the requisite power to accomplish His tasks came in the surrender and obedience!

Haggai 1:13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke by the commission of the LORD to the people saying, “ ‘I am with you,’ declares the LORD.” 14 So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

When the enemy stalls forward movement and I feel in a delayed rut – God prescribes two things – careful obedience and thoughtful reverence. It is only there you will find God’s presence and power abound.

Frustrating delays can be purposeful tools of God to work in us – if we listen to His prompting. We must learn to give God the PROCESS, not just the SOLUTIONS.

Second Chances: “Anticipating Counter Attacks” – Ezra 3:1-4:5

west point 2West Point is a demanding place – but because of the nature of what it instructs – it MUST be. The United States Military Academy is a four-year academy located on scenic grounds overlooking the Hudson River, fifty or so miles north of New York City. The campus is a national landmark with scores of historic sites, buildings, and monuments. Candidates for admission must both apply directly to the academy and receive a nomination, usually from a member of Congress. Tuition for cadets is fully funded by the Army in exchange for a service obligation upon graduation. Approximately 1,300 cadets enter the Academy each July, but only about 1,000 cadets graduate in the Spring. West Point alumni and students are collectively referred to as “The Long Gray Line” and its alumni include two former Presidents of the United States (Grant and Eisenhower – as well as the Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America), many famous American generals, as well as seventy-five Medal of Honor recipients.

Obviously, ground warfare is taught, along with general military tactical warfare. In that training, one of the harder segments involves deploying positions for counter attack. You see, hardened men fight for objectives, but sometimes are less aware and therefore less diligent about defending the ground they have already take. It is one of the great differences between well trained troops and lesser ones. In fact, it has been particularly noticed by those covering ISIS in Iraq, when reports showed that in the Spring of 2015, they lost about 25% of the territory they once conquered. They learned a strategic lesson…

Key Principle: It isn’t enough to take ground; you have to set up to defend it.

The same truth applies to spiritual things. We don’t just surrender ground and allow the Spirit to take it once; we prepare for the world, the flesh and the Devil to make a second run at the same ground. Surrender to God is an advance of God in us with our consent. But, after that, we must have a strategy for both defense and counter-attack of places of the heart once surrendered. Spiritual warfare is exactly that – it is war. It applies in a heart surrendered, but it also applies to all the hopefulness of a second chance. Expect any area of life where you spiritually advance to become a challenge again if left unguarded.

Joe married Mary at age twenty-two. They were both high school sweethearts and very much infatuated with each other. Neither knew the Lord, but both were what you would call “good young people” – the kind that you want living next door. A few years later, Joe’s wife slowly drifted away from him and Mary ended up in the arms of a guy she met in her job. Joe left hurt – or better, destroyed. Through months of tears, a co-worker of Joe led him to Jesus Christ. He surrendered his heart to the Lord and found the purpose of life, the joy of living and the fulfillment he craved. He still daily longed to have his wife back – he missed her so. He never imagined a life without her in his arms. Yet, he carefully learned to surrender all of his life to the Lord. Seeing her set on the new relationship, Joe painfully released Mary to Jesus. A year later he even went to the wedding of Mary to her new man, and quietly asked her to forgive him for being such a bad husband, right in front of her new husband. He gave the couple a gift and left with a sense that he did all he could to repair the breaches of his former life, and he moved on. About a year after that, Joe met a dear Christian young woman and they fell in love. This was Joe’s second chance at life – and he wanted to be careful about every step. He honored God in the courtship, and they married. What else should Joe do when beginning his second chance? He should anticipate being guarded in his life in the area of his surrender. In a matter of a few months, Mary started calling when she found herself unhappy. Joe wanted her to come to Christ – but Joe needed to be very careful this was not a counter-attack of the enemy to ruin his second chance. It very well could have been. If he wasn’t wise, he could lose everything, and could hurt others deeply in the process.

Let me take you to Ezra, to an ancient version of this kind of second chance story. Let’s begin with a quick review as the drama is already in progress.

The Progress of the Work: “Drawing Fire”

In Ezra 1, God made clear the exiles of Judah were not forgotten. They were in Babylon because of generations of hardness and sin – but now God was sending them home. In Ezra 2, the people had a choice to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple of God to its former place, or to help those who were going fund the journey and work -and the about fifty thousand of them returned. As the curtain opened on Ezra 3, the people were in Judah, and they were taking time to settle in their family homesteads or build a place to make their second chance re-start in Judah. Let’s pick up there…

A Time of Preparation:

Ezra 3:1 Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.

About three months passed since the people arrived from the arduous journey from Babylon. As the holy seventh month for Israel’s high holy days came, the people left their homes and gathered in Jerusalem to observe the feasts. The unity of the group was produced by allowing them time to care for their family needs first, and then join for the task through careful planning and communication that reflected sensible management of resources. Well developed plans took into account the needs of the workers, focused them on specific and measurable steps to obedience (i.e. show up on this date ready to work), and related to a pattern the workers understood (they knew why they waited until the month of Tishri). The result of such planning and communication produced both unity and harmony on the “second chance” team.

A Time for Participation:

Ezra 3:2 Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers arose and built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings on it….

The writer noted the High Priest Jeshua took charge, and Zerubbabel the governor with his family worked together with the priests to build an altar on the holy mountain in Jerusalem in place of the broken one (3:2). The underlying truth is this: People follow workers who show the priorities of the organization by the use of their hands and feet. People will much more willingly work WITH someone than FOR someone. In ministry teams, this is always the best strategy when possible.

A Time for Precision:

Ezra 3:2b :… as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God.

The leaders didn’t decide to make up the rules, but worked hard to follow the Torah (Ezra 3:2b). The people could understand the work when they could see how it tied to the Word of God. In addition, the precise following of the Word of God brought God’s additional blessings that only come with obedience – and often aren’t seen until much later. Never forget that doing right doesn’t necessarily show up in immediate results, but it will show up. Besides that, mature believers learn that doing right isn’t to get a self-pleasing result as much as it is to honor God Himself.

A Time for Persistence:

Ezra 3:3 So they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.

At the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) in the Autumn, they laid the foundation of the altar, and though they were very fearful of their neighbors and what they might do, and started the practice of the daily sacrifice anew, inaugurating the Temple’s functions (Ezra 3:3). The writer expressed that the fear and sense of vulnerability was ever on their minds as they began to build the foundation of the altar, but it did not stop them from getting started. It is always hard to begin on a venture of obedience, trusting that God has a purpose and plan for your labors. It is hard not to be paralyzed by fear of the changes – but obedience demands acting on the commands in spite of fear. Workers must persist in following without regard to the fear.

The time when the enemy will pay attention and take shots at you is when you are moving forward. It is in times of forward movement in our marriages that our children will be stirred to bring issues. It is the time when our personal disciplines are really being reigned in to serve the Lord that we will experience frustrations in all the people around us. It is the time in a church family when people are being led to Christ and discipled with greater effectiveness that some people will suddenly discover their personal unhappiness and begin to share it at every opportunity. We must expect it and be ready. We can’t belittle those who are hurting – writing them off to mere distraction of the enemy. That is both uncompassionate and hurtful. Yet, if we watch carefully, we will be able to see when lines are being breaches and boundaries are misplaced.

I was talking to a colleague in ministry that noticed that when his ministry began moving forward, he started getting calls from two different people at all hours of the night about their emotional problems. That is a sign of something else. Boundary breaches are one of the ways the wise become aware of something more than just the needy making noise. I advised him to make them aware that he could not take their calls between 10PM and 6 AM anymore and still get the rest necessary to be helpful to them. Both reacted explosively to the news, but he did the right thing. Intimidation, yelling and cursing at him didn’t get him to budge, and hopefully the people will listen to him or seek counsel elsewhere. I don’t want to sound uncompassionate, but he couldn’t think if he didn’t sleep – and that was already beginning to slow the movement forward in their ministry. Compassion must be throttled by a shrewd use of resources. You can feel compassionate and therefore empty your bank account for the needy, but that won’t help anyone tomorrow.

I love the fact that the people were afraid, but they kept working. In the end, that is what mattered. They were being obedient to God, and they were doing something that would continue in the lives of their children…

A Time for Patterning:

Ezra 3:4 They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the fixed number of burnt offerings daily, according to the ordinance, as each day required; 5 and afterward there was a continual burnt offering, also for the new moons and for all the fixed festivals of the Lord that were consecrated, and from everyone who offered a freewill offering to the Lord.

Using the Torah as a template, they celebrated Sukkot and followed the Torah very specifically, and began the schedule of daily calendar sacrifice, as well as opening the way to free will offerings for those who desired them. The Temple sacrifices began at the new year, though the Temple was not yet begun. As the sacrifices were maintained and offerings collected, they gave money from both nobles and from the King, as well as the people to get the Temple rebuilt as the King had permitted. The workers understood the pattern and knew what they should anticipate because of the consistency of it (Ezra 3:4-7). When leaders act in consistent ways, it helps people set expectations well.

A Time for Planning:

The text broadened at verse six. It shared another gathering the following Spring, as the time drew near to mark the anniversary of the inauguration of building Solomon’s Temple, when the people came together to build the Second Temple.

It isn’t obvious without further study of the Bible, but the TIME reflected specific planning – connecting it to the First Temple’s beginnings and reviving the traditions of the past. (April/May, cp. 1 Kings 6:1).

Ezra 3:6 From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, but the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not been laid. 7 Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and food, drink and oil to the Sidonians and to the Tyrians, to bring cedar wood from Lebanon to the sea at Joppa, according to the permission they had from Cyrus king of Persia.

1 Kings 6:1 Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.

The STAFFING reflected planning – They expanded the ranks of the Levitical overseers from their normal age of thirty down to the new required age of twenty. This brought greater numbers to oversight, and could be supported by the funds of the King. The organization was united with the priestly and Levitical workers along with Judah’s men overseeing all the labors.

Ezra 3:8 Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers the priests and the Levites, and all who came from the captivity to Jerusalem, began the work and appointed the Levites from twenty years and older to oversee the work of the house of the Lord. 9 Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers stood united with Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah and the sons of Henadad with their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God.

The CELEBRATION also reflected planning. Following the pattern of the First Temple, the priests sounded the trumpets when the foundation was completed as David instructed Solomon’s builders to do. Singing and percussion was also included. Responsive choirs bellowed the words: “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.”

Ezra 3:10 Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, [f]the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord according to the [g]directions of King David of Israel. 11 They sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, saying, “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.

Four Areas of Attack:

With all that good planning and progress, the enemy saw it was well past time to fight back. The four coming words (below) represent the fingerprints of his work. Where you see the damage of any or all of these four, the enemy has left his fingerprints.


Ezra 3:12 Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.

The service was stirring with jubilation over the fulfillment of God’s promise, yet some of the older men were not crying out in jubilation. They were deeply discouraged because of the decreased quality of the stone work on the foundation compared to the previous Temple. The loud emotions were mixed together, and it was hard to tell who was jubilant and who was weeping, the noise carried afar (Ezra 3:12-13). It is worth noting that this D is applied to those who have been at the work the longest, and are often the most mature. They see the progress, but do not warrant it to be equal to what they THOUGHT the progress should be. They don’t see the joy on the young faces, or they don’t believe the jubilation is warranted. They get worked up about the poor children’s behaviors, but they fail to address them. They don’t like the way the younger women care for their parenting role, but they play no active part in training them or aiding them. Older believers need to match their complaints with good ole fashioned hard work on the problem. Real maturity is shown in a helpful response, not simply sharing the verbal observations about the problem.


Ezra 4:1 Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ households, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.” 3 But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.”

As news of the Temple progress was sounded to the neighbors who were not in favor of the Jews return, some of the clans came to the governor and the council of the families of Judah and asked: “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as well – and have for generations! Zerubbabel’s reply: “You are not to build with us, we will do it together by ourselves as we were commanded by King Cyrus” (Ezra 4:1-3). It is worth noting that deception was aimed at a barely tested leadership. We must be careful to “lay hands on no man suddenly” (1 Tim.5:22). In recent years, a number of believers have reported that their churches, have installed into positions of worship teams and “up front” leaders those who had little or no evidence of a long standing real connection to Christ. This is an age old way to water down the message: make those who do not have the same heart key players in our direction in order to enhance the short term resources. We must be careful about who is leading, and how they lead.


Ezra 4:4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building,

As a result, the refused people began to distract (the word “discourage” is Hebrew “merappim”: to relax) the people from their work. This probably included fear mongering that kept them stirred up, as well as some tactic of distraction. We need to be careful when we are constantly being called off of our commission for the Lord to do other things that will pull us from our ministry objectives. Balance is the key here. Rest and retooling is not wrong, but distraction is dangerous. To rest your eyes in a rest stop is not the same thing as to rest your eyes while driving down the highway. Be careful that the reason you are not getting things done in your life is not the constant need for AMUSEMENT and RELAXATION. We live in times when it can be terribly hard to concentrate! People would likely be quite surprised when they find out how many hours we actually WASTE of each day!

Take another moment and note the fact they plotted and effectively disrupted the returnees (bawlah: trouble or frighten) from completing their tasks by making them constantly fearful (Ezra 4:4). We need to be particularly careful about how graphically fears can be evoked. We can see news about expansions of populations and hear constant rumors of wars that would make us worry. A great many news broadcasters today thrive on doomsday scenarios, and watching them for a long time can get us “worked up” with fear, while we are doing NOTHING to hasten the return of our Lord, and we exempt ourselves from involvement in sharing Christ because we are busy “staying informed”. Information that doesn’t lead to prayerful action but rather to worry is information you can live without. It is distraction, not education.


Ezra 4:5 …and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Finally, the group hired political lobbyists in Babylon to add confusion to the reports of Zerubbabel sent back to the King (Ezra 4:5). Don’t expect a fare accounting from partisan hacks in the world, they don’t play fair because they either don’t have the emotional maturity to see two sides of an argument, or they are celebrating a fallen world view in the shadow of their prince, who is a deceiver and liar. For many, that is their way – and they come by it naturally. Expect a lie, but keep a smile! In the end, the truth will be told!

How do I get ready for the enemy’s attack in these four areas?

Remember, the same preparations deliberately taken for completion of the project must be matched by deliberate preparation for the counter-offensive of the enemy:

Stop and consider something. The four words we just studied are really come down to one idea: The enemy uses lies to get you off track from completing your God assigned second chance. What is the response to a world soaked in deception? Learn the truth. Understand the truth. Tell the truth. Live the truth. Nothing turns a lie on its head like the clear grasp of the truth.

What does it take to get to the place where the truth becomes your defense?

Look again at the text we have just studied. The seeds of the answer are in the text…

First, know when to expect trouble and get ready. Note in 3:10 it said “then when they laid the foundation…people stood…to praise…11 they sang… the people shouted…” Now recall the beginning of verse twelve: 12 “Yet…” Do you see it? The time for a counter-punch of the enemy is when things are going very well. Keep your guard up and watch for the punch – it will come. The only question is IF you will be ready to block.

Temptation often comes when you are physically exhausted and left alone. Plan to go to sleep or plan to stay busy – that is using your head. Discouragement comes when you aren’t focused on a positive objective. When you feel it coming on, initiate a deliberate project that will result in another person’s encouragement. Send a card to another and tell them what they mean to you. Go look for a gift to send to a friend. When you look at others, you take the focus off yourself.

Second, remember not to keep your eyes fixed on men, but on God. In 3:12 it is noteworthy that the very men people took their cues from spiritually were those on the wrong side of the issue. The text recalls in 3:12 “…many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ [households], the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice.” Aren’t they the very people you would expect you can trust to react the right way? Remember that even for leaders it takes time to learn to follow God consistently. Even leaders cannot learn everything in an instant, so we need to learn to be patient about the process. If you happen to BE one of the leaders that people look at, let me offer the opposite position – BE CAREFUL about your reactions in front of people! If YOU use improper deportment well, others will be encouraged. If you don’t you can leave them hurt and discouraged!

Third, don’t be naïve about the work of your spiritual foe and his strategies. Ezra 4 revealed that when the enemies heard progress was made on the project God called the people to do, they found a way to confuse and divide people. They approached and offered help to Zerubbabel and he flatly refused them. He understood the point of compromise that was being offered, and he didn’t give it much time. Can you imagine what some of the other people who heard were saying? “Zerubbabel turned down those nice men without even considering all the extra resources they could bring! Can you imagine?” Here is the point: You may need to consider not only DOING the right thing, but EXPLAINING your actions. It isn’t always enough to BE RIGHT.

Finally, notice the distraction and discouragement tactic of the enemy. It can happen to anyone. Fear is a terrible motivator for godliness, but a grand motivation tool for fleshly behavior. Don’t be drawn in by fear. Look through the problem and see if you can see what it is that you and the people around you are afraid of – facing it squarely. If you make moves out of fear, or slow your calling out of fear, ask if you are doing so because God was unclear about what He told you, or because you don’t know if God can deliver on His Word. Believe what God said – act in faith.

A second chance is a new opportunity! Be wise if God gives you one, and don’t be lazy about guarding yourself.

A young employee secretly misappropriated several hundred dollars of his business firm’s money. When this action was discovered, the young man was told to report to the office of the senior partner of the firm. As he walked up the stairs toward the administrative office, the young employee was heavy-hearted. He knew without a doubt he would lose his position with the firm. He also feared the possibility of legal action taken against him. Seemingly his whole world had collapsed. Upon his arrival in the office of the senior executive the young man was questioned about the whole affair. He was asked if the allegations were true, and he answered in the affirmative. Then the executive surprisingly asked this question: “If I keep you in your present capacity, can I trust you in the future?” The young worker brightened up and said, “Yes, sir, you surely can. I’ve learned my lesson.” The executive responded, “I’m not going to press charges, and you can continue in your present responsibility.” The employer concluded the conversation with his younger employee by saying, “I think you ought to know, however, that you are the second man in this firm who succumbed to temptation and was shown leniency. I was the first. What you have done, I did. The mercy you are receiving, I received. It is only the grace of God that can keep us both.” (“Mercy” from Sermon Central illustrations).

Don’t mess up the sustained progress by under planning the counter offensive of the enemy! It isn’t enough to take ground; you have to set up to defend it.

Second Chances: “Team Play” – Ezra 2

TeamsIf you have been paying any attention to American football at all, you are likely aware that “Fantasy Football” has really caught on around the US. It is essentially a statistical game in which players “compete” against each other by managing groups of real players or position units selected from American football teams. Using the stats of players, you can calculate the advance of your “made up” team toward the post season. This “game” started in a New York hotel room during a 1962 trip by some of the partners of the Oakland Raiders. Two Raiders Public Relations men and a news reporter developed a system of organization and a rule book, which became the basis of structure of the fantasy football operations. In 1969, a restaurateur brought the game to his sports bar in Oakland, California and added another couple fantasy leagues. What began first as a trivia type contest soon began to spread across the country. Finally, with the rise of the internet the game really took off. In 1997, CBS launched the beta version of the first free fantasy football website, and the game went viral. Today there are rulebooks, websites, draft leagues and paid clubs that are involved in an elaborate game that is never actually played on a field.

The skill needed to attain a winning season is largely the insight to pick a team that will get you through the season statistically. For many, it is a statement of their loyalties – they choose players based on team loyalties and rivalries – but that is seldom a winning strategy. In other words, teams that win are normally chosen based on player’s individual abilities, not loyalties. The problem is, that isn’t really a “team” as much as a collection of highly talented individuals. A good fantasy “head hunter” must pick through statistics, game play, and health probabilities to try to assemble the team that will carry the ball to the final end zone. The choice of players is the key to the success of the team as any “owner” can attest. Bad player choices lead to losing scores. Yet, that isn’t such an unusual concept. Often in life we find the quality of the ingredients becomes the basis for a successful outcome.

What is true in construction, cooking, and even fantasy football teams is also true in setting up successful attempts at a second chance in your life, your relationships, your church, or even your nation. Assembling the right team is an essential key to getting the right result. It is also true of a remake, or a second chance. Let’s say it this way:

Key Principle: Assembling the right team is essential to set the second chance on a positive path.

Our series from Ezra is about SECOND CHANCES. In the case of the children of Judah, their sin caused them to be taken into captivity, and God brought them to the place where they would be again free – this time with a second chance to build their kingdom. Perhaps that is a bit too hard to really practically apply in your life… Let’s see if we can make it more real to you.

Pretend for a moment that you have gone to school to prepare for a specific job you thought was perfect for your nature and personality. After fulfilling your educational requirements, you sought and found several companies that hired ion your field, and you sent resumes and did interviews. After a few ‘call back’ interviews, you were offered two positions. You looked over both companies for advancement opportunities and physical locations (so you could determine the travel time to and from work, etc). In a few days, you landed the job and were on your way to building a career. You advanced nicely, and you enjoyed the work over the next two years. On a Tuesday morning, you arrived at the office at the usual time, and found the door locked and a note posted that said “closed for business”. Shocked you call you co-workers and you all meet together at a coffee shop, stunned that you are all out of jobs. You are told the comptroller of the company has stolen much of the operating budget, and the company was forced to close and prosecute those handling the finances. You are in shock! Someone else’s evil had ruined your life plan! What is next? How do you put together a “second chance” strategy. Today, let me suggest that you start with a team.

Change the scenario. You and your spouse met long before you knew Jesus at a local bar. You had some good times, decided (almost on a whim) to get married, and after two years you were living in a small apartment, raising a child with another on the way, and you found Jesus. Someone shared His love and message with you and you turned your life over to Jesus. Not even a week later, you came home early from work and found your spouse in your bed with someone else. They left, claiming the affair had been going on for months and they had no interest in continuing the marriage. What’s next? You don’t have time to curl up in a corner and cry endlessly, but that is exactly what you WANT to do. What should you do?

You get the idea. Let’s pick up the story of the second chance AFTER Judah’s leadership under a man named Sheshbazaar has gotten word they are being resourced and returned to their homeland and tasked with rebuilding God’s Temple. The people have drawn resources from all the captive Jews, and about fifty thousand of them have already decided to make the grueling trip to return to a place they have heard about, but only the oldest among them have ever seen. Drop into the story and let’s see who was placed at what positions on the team to get the second chance opportunity to be effective…

What is the next step? The key is team building! We begin with “The Setting of the Story” (Ezra 2:1)

Ezra 2:1 Now these are the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his city.

The stage had been set by God through Cyrus the Median King in chapter one, as he offered the exiles of Judah to return back to the Promised Land, and to renew the life they were supposed to have as God’s people. The exiles grew up in a darkened world, and choices made before most of them were even born caused them to be in exile. The “Promised Land” home that Scripture promised was never available to them. The blessings of a Kingdom, and homes rooted in God’s law never happened. Now they had the opportunity to go back and try again. God, in His Divine mercy opened a second chance – and they were returning home. What was required to make it work effectively? God took the time to tell us in detail for this reason: When you want to rise out of the ashes of a life of bad decisions or unfortunate situations and start anew, you will need to build a team. How? What is included? Keep reading…

Next, we move to the Process:

First, you will need to assemble leaders for the team.

You cannot pull off all that you need on your own to start again in big things. Whether you are picking up the pieces of a broken life or restarting a company, be humble enough to get help. You can too easily fall back into old ways of doing things. You need to have established people with Godly track records built into you team. The text explains:

Ezra 2:2 These came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah.

Eleven leaders are mentioned here, each by a name. Four observations may be helpful:

You need a team leader.

Sometimes, you will lead the team for a “second chance re-start” – but not always. It is interesting to note that the Book of Ezra is actually two different books from two different missions. The first book recorded the return under Zerubbabel in Ezra 1-6, the second was the return under Ezra years later as recorded in Ezra 7-10. In other words, the team leader for the second chance was Zerubbabel, and he is likely the original author of this. This was a national second chance, and he was a national leader.

In any endeavor it is necessary to establish a leader who is responsible for direction, because any venture requires that you know where to turn for answers. The visionary (Sheshbazaar) was not tasked with all the nuts and bolt – that was Zerubbabel’s job. His was the clear voice people needed to follow. Surrounded by good men, there still needed to be a singular leader’s voice at the head of the transformational journey. He did not speak dictates and was not absolute in authority, but in the end the people followed a single voice. Not everything can be run by committee. Leadership needs to be checked and accountable, but authorized to lead in your life. You need on your team someone who will help you organize the steps and follow through on them.

You need someone with expertise in your restart area.

In any second chance, you need to find experts in what you are rebuilding. If the second chance was a marriage, you would need a good marriage counselor, or perhaps a book and seminar that would help you develop skills of communication and conflict you didn’t have in the failed marriage. In this case, since the work was a Temple rebuild, the expert was a priest. Though not all of the functions of the priest could be fully realized, it was still necessary to have someone who had those skills and understood the functions of the Temple. When you choose an expert for your team – you don’t have to fully use all of their services, but you should seek someone who has a background in the area in which you are trying to gain a second chance success.

In this case, the whole council of leaders was all named.

You will likely need other counselors and helpers. They can help, but people need to know who the leadership is accountable to, and how decisions will be made. They cannot simply walk lock step after one unaccountable leader. Time and time again this method has been used, and it is dangerous. Consider these words:

Proverbs 24:5-6 says, “A wise man is strong; a man of knowledge increases strength. For by wise counsel you shall make your defense: and in multitude of counselors there is safety.” Even more tellingly, Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counselors they are established.”

It is worth noting that even the leaders were people in the midst of change.

If you examine the other name list in Nehemiah 7, some of the leader’s names are not the same, but similar. Some Study Bibles note Seraiah was also called, Azariah; Reelaiah was called Raamiah, etc. This has to do, most likely with the men being in a multi-lingual environment. As with the people, so the leadership was going through a transformation of the old lives to the new, and facing challenges. Everything wasn’t instant for the leaders and progressive for the followers. In many churches, people assume that leaders have none of the problems that they experience in life. That isn’t true – it only means that in maturity and growth, they have shown themselves to be consistently moving through the obstacles of life!

Many believers find a way to be involved in ministry, and yet sculpt a position for themselves that has no real accountability. They do the work, but only on their terms – only their way. They feel they are servants, but on closer inspection, they are serving only how, when and where they choose to serve. They don’t come under the leadership when it doesn’t suit them. They are missing an ingredient, and can easily become destructive in the rebuild.

How does that help the person who needs a new career or has just faced a dissolved marriage? Keep reading. It means start with skilled counselors, experts in your re-start area and people who agree with your vision of where you believe God is leading you. Yet, there is much more here.

Second, you will need to organize the team.

These passages can seem mind numbing unless you are a fan of genealogies and old names – but God had at least two purposes for sharing them. Look at the list:

Ezra 2:2b “The number of the men of the people of Israel: 3 the sons of Parosh, 2,172; 4 the sons of Shephatiah, 372; 5 the sons of Arah, 775; 6 the sons of Pahath-moab of the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812; 7 the sons of Elam, 1,254; 8 the sons of Zattu, 945; 9 the sons of Zaccai, 760; 10 the sons of Bani, 642; 11 the sons of Bebai, 623; 12 the sons of Azgad, 1,222; 13 the sons of Adonikam, 666; 14 the sons of Bigvai, 2,056; 15 the sons of Adin, 454; 16 the sons of Ater of Hezekiah, 98; 17 the sons of Bezai, 323; 18 the sons of Jorah, 112; 19 the sons of Hashum, 223; 20 the sons of Gibbar, 95; 21 the men of Bethlehem, 123; 22 the men of Netophah, 56; 23 the men of Anathoth, 128; 24 the sons of Azmaveth, 42; 25 the sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah and Beeroth, 743; 26 the sons of Ramah and Geba, 621; 27 the men of Michmas, 122; 28 the men of Bethel and Ai, 223; 29 the sons of Nebo, 52; 30 the sons of Magbish, 156; 31 the sons of the other Elam, 1,254; 32 the sons of Harim, 320; 33 the sons of Lod, Hadid and Ono, 725; 34 the men of Jericho, 345; 35 the sons of Senaah, 3,630.”

First, it is important to remember that these lists were essential records to Israel’s history and continuity. They became the basis of land claims and family property, along with many other ancient applications.

The question you may have is this: “Why save them for US?” Because they help us to recognize how a team works in practice or a second chance. Let me call you to observe a few things:

God kept an accurate account of the families scattered into exile, because even though life wasn’t what they knew it should be, the Lord knew them and watched over them. When you pass through severe trouble, it is essential that you remember YOU HAVE A NAME before the Lord. You neither a number nor a project – you are a person with a name, heritage and future in His story. This record reflects God’s oversight. God always keeps record – even amidst our walk in the world and disobedience. He knows WHO we are and WHERE we are. This can be such a comfort for the parent of the runaway child, or the brother or sister of one who has withdrawn from Christ. God keeps track right to the end – in the Lamb’s book of life.

Also, you may be able to tell the place of the people was diminished in the process of their troubles. Sin brought down a nation that once was sovereign among nations – and now they were a mere province of the world. Sin reduced influence and carried a substantive continued penalty – the subservience that came with bad choices. The borrower becomes the servant to the lender. The disobedient and wayward believer becomes a servant of the world’s system and purposes. It is a good reminder.

Third, don’t forget where they were headed – God preserved their place. It is good to recognize He knew them, but even better to see that He had a future place for them. Though they were in captivity, they were able to reassemble in the places God gave to them, because God kept their place for them. They could not expect this from God, and He was under no obligation to do it, but He was preparing to “restore the years the locusts had eaten.”

Note one more thing about this sterile looking list… the number of the journey was not fixed, because people changed their minds. The difference between the numbers here and in Nehemiah 7, (a cross referenced list) is likely due to the fact that some gave their names at first to return but later changed their minds, and vice versa. Even in the face of a new life, second chance restarts are HARD, and not everyone who begins the journey will see the choices through!

They were people who had a name—whose family had made a name for themselves. They had land and possessions in their family names. The Parosh estate, the Arah plantation, the Zattu place. They were the “old money” Jewish names in Babylon. But notice that that’s not the only laymen listed. From verse 21 through 35, they’re grouped according to what town they’re from because they didn’t have a big family name. They probably didn’t own land in their family names. They were the working class folks. In our day, they would be the ones who make it paycheck to paycheck. They’re the people who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the inheritance tax, because they’re spending their kids’ inheritance now. Now, let me ask you—which group had a harder time packing up and leaving Babylon? They both did. What a difficult thing it would be to leave the security, heritage and tradition of the old home place. On the other hand, what a difficult thing it would be to leave when you have no idea where the next paycheck’s coming from. But these are the kind of laymen it takes to accomplish God’s work. He calls people from all different backgrounds, and of all different means and abilities.” (Sermon central illustrations).

The fact is that some people will start to rebuild life, but like a New Year’s resolution or gym membership – they will find the practice hard. People like the results by loathe the processes. Don’t be surprised is some don’t stick with the task.

Third, you will need intercessors.

The next list included those who stood before God on your behalf:

Ezra 2:36 The priests: the sons of Jedaiah of the house of Jeshua, 973; 37 the sons of Immer, 1,052; 38 the sons of Pashhur, 1,247; 39 the sons of Harim, 1,017.

Note that God superintended the high number of intercessors for the people – about a tenth of the company: total were above 42,000 (2:64), and four families of priests made up above 4200 (2:36-39). Since the work of the priest was to stand in representation of the people, they would need a lot of intercession to restore them to their place. In our day, it is worth recalling that many restorations come where many prayer warriors fight. We lack transformation power when we lack intercessors!

Three priests were heads of courses (cp. 1 Chronicles 24:7, 8, 14). The fourth was singled out, and is strangely the name Pashur. Could these be the posterity of that Pashur that abused Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1)? Many scholars think this is exactly that story and that is perfect – God bringing blessing out of a cursed man’s life. Isn’t that the essence of the restart? Though the man was negative and hurtful, God made his loin fruitful and his posterity blessing! Can we not see God’s mercy in this act?

Fourth, you will need spiritual direction from models.

Levites were spread around the land during the kingdom period by God to show the people how to walk with Him. Note the inclusion on this list:

Ezra 2:40 The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74.

Look at what disobedience did to their ranks. Observe the diminished number of them! In earlier times the Levites were endowed with more duty than the priests (2 Chronicles 29:34), but not on the return. It appears being AMONG the people made them LESS DISTINCT, instead of better examples. It is also true that God uses different people at different times. In one time a specific group is the critical element, in another – God changes the landscape and suits a different group to carry the load.

When I was young the “door to door” visitation people were vital to the growth of a church. We gathered and went out on Tuesday night and knocked on doors to share Christ. There are still some that think if their church isn’t growing it is because people aren’t doing what used to work.

During this transition, God took the work of the Levites and turned it more toward an emerging learned group that would later be simply called “rabbi”. (“Rabbi” – pronounced “rah-vee” in Hebrew – literally means “my master”; from the word “rav,” whch means “master.” In modern Hebrew, “rabbotai” is the equivalent of “gentlemen.” Public announcements begin with the phrase: “G’virotai ve-rabbotai…” which is simply “Ladies and gentlemen.”)

Don’t miss that a restart team still needs models. The critical work of the Levites was practical training in everything from sacrificial practices to directions for around the Temple Mount. They were modelers that lived in every region, and servants that worked in the Temple of God. How critical! If we are to reset our lives to God’s standards, we will require practical models.

Fifth, you need people who lift you.

In every re-start team, you will need encouragers. I would argue you need them in every successful life. In this case, worship leaders helped the team to reset and grow.

Ezra 2:41 The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128. 42 The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, the sons of Shobai, in all 139.

Though it is true that worship is not singing, it is equally true that music can be a chief aid to worship and its setting. Among the children of Levi were those who were called to draw the people to worship through song. God created music as part of the first world of spiritual beings, and God Himself is a singer.

God was joyous over their return as He promised to Jeremiah (32:41: “And I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul”.) He wanted some music for the return, and He added the leaders of worship to the mix of the return. Without WORSHIP there is no real return to God. Without MUSIC, the journey is a cerebral one, and does not mix the beauty of the heart! Don’t forget to include people in your life that will call you to worship and celebrate God’s goodness!

Sixth, you will need caring friends.

Sometimes you need people to work beside that aren’t evaluating your life, or working to help you grow, they are just people who work with you and make you laugh. In the case of rebuilding the Temple, it took many “behind the scenes servants” to help reset the work and grow it.

Ezra 2:43 The temple servants: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, 44 the sons of Keros, the sons of Siaha, the sons of Padon, 45 the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, 46 the sons of Hagab, the sons of Shalmai, the sons of Hanan, 47 the sons of Giddel, the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, 48 the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda, the sons of Gazzam, 49 the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, 50 the sons of Asnah, the sons of Meunim, the sons of Nephisim, 51 the sons of Bakbuk, the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, 52 the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, 53 the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Temah, 54 the sons of Neziah, the sons of Hatipha. 55 The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda, 56 the sons of Jaalah, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, 57 the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth-hazzebaim, the sons of Ami. 58 All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon’s servants were 392.

Though we haven’t spoken much about it, this was a rebuild of a ministry of God among men – and ministry doesn’t just happen, it is planned and executed by people who work at it. God provided the returning group with men and women who would serve in many areas to make the whole program come together and not miss the depth of blessing that comes with INVOLVEMENT. The idea of service is not simply to fill the need – it is to wrap yourself in the objectives of God for one another.

There is a very common question on both scholarship and college admittance applications. Many of those forms ask the question, “Are you a leader?” One time, an honest young lady came to that question on a college application. She wrestled with the answer for a long time. She knew what the answer was supposed to be. She was supposed to talk about all the wonderful leadership qualities she had. But she also knew that she didn’t have those qualities. She knew she wasn’t a leader. So, should she be honest or give them what they wanted to hear? Since she was such an honest young lady, she gave the honest answer. She wrote down that she wasn’t a leader and mailed in the application. Of course she expected the worst. Here’s the letter she received back: “Dear Applicant: A study of our application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new freshman leaders. We are accepting you to our college because we feel it necessary for them to have at least one follower.” (Sermon central illustrations).

Seventh, you may need supporters to work with you.

God took the time to list people with their assets..

Ezra 2:64 The whole assembly numbered 42,360, 65 besides their male and female servants who numbered 7,337; and they had 200 singing men and women. 66 Their horses were 736; their mules, 245; 67 their camels, 435; their donkeys, 6,720. 68 Some of the heads of fathers’ households, when they arrived at the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, offered willingly for the house of God to restore it on its foundation. 69 According to their ability they gave to the treasury for the work 61,000 gold drachmas and 5,000 silver minas and 100 priestly garments. 70 Now the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants lived in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.

Though not everyone had a title, everyone was on the same mission and would need to sacrifice to accomplish the rebuild. The supporters were the mass of un-named caring workers and givers that made the journey and its results honoring to God. It is extremely rare that one can come back from darkness without supporters. We all seem to need them sometime. They are the people we call on for help and resource as we learn to honor God with our lives! The key to their life work was the word “willingly”. They gave because they knew INSIDE that it honored God. The worked to please Him, even at sacrifice to themselves. They were not perfect, but they were willing!

Finally, there is a short list of people we dare not follow those who don’t have the qualifications to lead.

Listen carefully, there will always be people who will feel qualified to lead in a work, but should not be allowed…

Ezra 2:59 Now these are those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan and Immer, but they were not able to give evidence of their fathers’ households and their descendants, whether they were of Israel: 60 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 652.

God said that He chose those who would have spiritual leadership over His flock. He gave them the position by virtue of their BIRTH, not by an earned degree. Without that birth, they could not begin to serve in the post. In that same way, we all have the gifts that place our work in the body of Messiah by means of a NEW BIRTH. Our gifting is not our own – it is the work of the Spirit of God at our salvation. We are appointed to serve according to our gifts. They must be developed, but they are bestowed. Those who have no evidence of that gifting must not be placed into the position. How often I have sat and listened to a man that should never have been given a pulpit. How many times I have watched a man of mercy try to teach. We must be careful not to place people into positions because of the influence of their family, or the misplaced desire of their heart. We must carefully gauge their giftedness, and then set them on the task of becoming proficient within their gifting.

Evidence was demanded – and so it should have been. Even now, we can’t just take the ones that speak well and let them lead. Some couldn’t demonstrate God specified qualifications that allowed them to lead.

Ezra 2:61 Of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and he was called by their name. 62 These searched among their ancestral registration, but they could not be located; therefore they were considered unclean and excluded from the priesthood. 63 The governor said to them that they should not eat from the most holy things until a priest stood up with Urim and Thummim.

Spiritual leadership is serious business. We dare not simply “take their word for it”. The people sought God and sought evidence, and both were necessary.

Before we leave this chapter, let’s also recall that real leaders – LEAD. They don’t need titles or perks to influence people. They see the need and they find a way to act:

In a Japanese seaside village over a hundred years ago, an earthquake startled the villagers late one autumn evening. Being so accustomed to earthquakes and not feeling another follow, they soon went back to their activities without giving it another thought. An old farmer was watching from his home on a high plain above the village. He looked out at the sea and noticed that the water appeared dark and was acting strangely, moving against the wind and running away from the land. The old man knew what that meant. His one thought was to warn the people in the village below. He called to his grandson, “Bring me a torch! Hurry!” In the fields behind him lay his great crop of rice that was piled high in stacks that were ready for the market; it was worth a fortune. The old man hurried out to the stacks with his torch. In a flash the dry stalks were ablaze. Soon the big bell pealed from the temple below: Fire! Back from the beach, away from the sea, up the steep side of the cliff came the people of the village, running as fast as they could. They were coming to try to save the crops of their neighbor. “He’s mad!” they said when they saw that he just stood there watching them come and staring out toward the sea. As they reached the level of the fields the old man shouted at the top of his voice over the roaring of the flames while pointing toward the sea, “Look!” At the edge of the horizon they saw a long, thin, and faint line – a line that grew thicker as they watched. That line was the sea, rising like a wall, getting higher and coming more and more swiftly as they stared. Then came the shock, heavier than thunder; the great wall of water struck the shore with a fierceness and a force that sent a shudder through the hills and tore the homes below into matchsticks. The water withdrew with a roaring sound. Then it returned and struck again, and again, and again. One final time it struck and ebbed, then returned to its place and its pattern. On the plain no one spoke a word for a long while. Finally the voice of the old man could be heard, saying softly, gently, “That is why I set fire to the rice.” He now stood among them just as poor as the poorest of them; his wealth was gone – all for the sake of 400 lives. By that sacrifice he will long be remembered, not by his wealth. He was not saddened by what his sacrifice cost him; he was overjoyed at what was saved. (A-Z Preaching Illustrations).

A second chance is a new day – a new opportunity! Don’t mess up the restoration by haphazardly putting together a losing team! Assembling the right team is essential to set the second chance on a positive path.

Second Chances: “A Fresh Start” – Ezra 1

I blew it smallSince all of us regularly “blow it” in moves in our life, even in some critical areas, we tend to like the idea of second chances. Let’s face it: we all have made mistakes that made a recovery necessary. Whether your mistake was not following directions, or getting distracted and not taking care in what you were doing, it is nice to know you can get another try.

When I was working in computer robotics for a company in Elkhart, Indiana, I worked on panel assembly of punch press electrical panels, used in various industrial applications. We assembled both robotic tables and arms and the electrical box systems that made them operate. I didn’t know how everything worked, because I was an assemblyman, not an electrical engineer. My job was to build the interior electrical system according to the print the engineer made. One day my supervisor came to me and offered me a chance to do something with a small “pay bump”. Being newly married, I jumped on the opportunity that moved me off the line and into the “label shop” for a time, before I was eventually moved up to the assembly training room for new hires. My job in the label shop was to engrave the fronts of the panels in anodized aluminum, punching holes on a press in the flat metal surface, and then putting the whole metal panel onto an engraver and adding the names of each button or switch.

Engraving is an unforgiving process. If I slipped while the machine was running, a week’s work was probably gone and I would need to start over. If I mislabeled the device, someone in the field could lose a finger, arm or leg – or even a life. The labels needed to be exact, correctly engraved at the right depth and flawless in wording. It was a work that required concentration. It was the first time in my life that I used earplugs, not because of noise, but because I needed to concentrate. I now use earphones regularly to work, even in my study, to write and to stay intensely focused on work. In critical work, we need concentration. In work that offers no “second chance” we need to act deliberately.

That is what makes second chances so attractive – we know ourselves well enough to recognize that our concentration isn’t always at the optimum level, or even at the level we need it to be. That isn’t only true on the job; it is true in our spiritual life. Who hasn’t gotten spiritually distracted and allowed compromises in life that are embarrassing to admit? Even worse, who hasn’t deliberately ignored the warning signs of the Spirit and blatantly sinned, focusing on what we want NOW more than what we truly want in life. The good news is that God offers many of us a second chance. We must not depend on it, for it isn’t always a part of the plan. When the Lord offers GRACE, we should thankfully receive it. Second chance opportunities come when God moves, but He expects us to recognize the signs of a “second chance” moment and act on them when He opens them.

Key Principle: When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

To understand why the Book of Ezra is a reflection of a “second chance” requires a few moments of recalling history.

God set up the kingdom of Israel by His own providence. He gave the people a place to build and operate His Temple, as well as the Laws that showed them how to be good citizens and properly show Who He is to their neighbors in their character and behaviors.

The people rebelled. God sent prophets to call them to change direction – the Biblical term for “repentance”. The people ignored the calls. God split the kingdom. The people missed the cue of discipline. God brought plagues and punishing defeats to them. The people yawned and continued in disobedience. God took the northern section of the land, and the cousins of Judah into Assyrian captivity. The south deepened sinful practices. The Lord finally carted off the people of Judah and their nobles to Babylon and gave them two generations of “time out” to consider carefully the many messages of warning God gave them. The people wept, prayed and waited. They asked for another chance to follow God and show the nations Who God is.

One day, the long and dark tunnel of captivity seemed nearly over. God offered the people the second chance he foretold through prophets. He opened the door for it through a pagan king named Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE) through what historians refer to as a “turning point” in world history. While Judah was captive in Babylon, world forces were changing and allegiances were being realigned.

The once invincible Assyrian Empire that swallowed the northern kingdom of Israel had already (by 612 BCE) died a violent death. When it was overturned, it broke into four kingdoms (Lydia in what is now Turkey, Media (north of the Persian Gulf), Neo Babylonia (in what is now Iraq) and Persia (in what is now modern Iran). The division yielded rulers of various strengths, but eventually the Persians emerged the winners. The royal family of Persia (descendants of Achaemenes, called the Achaemenids) took the other kingdoms and began to dominate the region. The people were different than all others of the region. The other kingdoms spoke a Semitic language (now found in languages like Arabic and Hebrew). The Persians (and their modern descendants in Iran) were originally Indo-Europeans, with a language base closer to our own. They originated as a people out of southern “Steppe region” (southern Russia today) and poured south about 1000 BCE. By 700 BCE they become politically unified – but they were marginal to world politics until the coming of Cyrus the Great. He changed the world in 559/8:

He Cyrus the Great conquered the Median Empire to His north, expanded his power and captured Babylon, transforming the invader to the greatest imperial power of the ancient near east. By his death Cyrus ruled from the territory of modern Afghanistan to edges of Modern Greece. Even some Greeks came under his control of Persians when the Lydian Empire (King Croessus) fell.

The significance of the rise of Cyrus and the Indo-European Persians was this: Cyrus didn’t want all the captives of former wars to lived in their uprooted locations. He wanted to send them all home – and that opened the door for the Hebrew second chance. God was at work in a complex historical frame, setting the stage to keep His promises. The truth is that all human history is exactly that story – God at work in the complexity of the world to move His story forward.

With all that going on, how can a believer recognize God offering a second chance to him? How can he or she know that a turn in the road of history is about to open a new door?

Six Signs a Second Chance Moment is coming:

The first two signs regard how we get ourselves ready for this move of God:

We need to be prepared for a work of God, and we need to know how to recognize when God is at work. How can we do that? It all begins with how we view what is going on in the world around us.

(Preparation) First, we must tune ourselves to see major events of the world as part of God’s continuing work:

Look at the way the text opens:

Ezra 1:1 “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,”

You should know that a fresh start in your life won’t require a good track record in your past. The words “first year of Cyrus” (538 BCE) in Ezra 1:1 are a reminder they were behind the woodshed when the whole story began. They were standing in a place of judgment, but God wasn’t done with them. Maybe it has been so long since your life, your family, your relationships, your finances and your choices looked like something God could use, that you believe you are beyond the renewal of God’s work in your life – but you are flat out wrong. He can change you even if you don’t really know what a GOOD FAMILY is. He can make you a good wife or husband no matter where YOU HAVE BEEN, what YOU HAVE SEEN and what YOU HAVE DONE.

You should also know that a fresh start in your second chance WILL require that you recall that God is at work, even when you weren’t paying attention! Remember Ezra 1:1? The writer said God was working through Cyrus: “To fulfill the Word of the Lord”.. (1:1b) Even though they didn’t see God’s hand at work in their lives, He was moving to change everything about their lives.

Did you notice the writer told the story of Cyrus in a way that only a follower of God would tell it? The fact is that believers watch the news with different eyes. They try to evaluate the waves of world political development through two filters.

The first is the filter of Biblical principle – this one helps us to recognize what we are FOR and what we are AGAINST, regardless of our personal political party affiliations.

When a new video exposing the barbarity of abortion providers is released, we aren’t as concerned about the editing process used in the video as we are about the cavalier attitude many in our society exhibit in the face of the sacredness of human life and the horror of the precious lives of little children being wasted and destroyed. Is that because we have no compassion for a raped woman? No. It is because we see life as defined in the Bible as sacred, and sacred things are handled with the utmost care.

When a nuclear deal with Iran offers that country a release of massive amounts of money without demanding they abandon their openly affirmed international terror apparatus and its stated goals, believers take a stand on behalf of God’s clear admonition to be wise about our dealings and supportive of our allies basic safety.

A second filter isn’t about principles, but about prophetic truths. This one is more speculative, because we don’t know the TIMING of God’s promises, but we know that all that He promises will come to pass. There are two balancing factors here. On the one hand, clearly we are correct by viewing all of the events of human history as playing into the final story of God. Ezra 1:1 is a prime example of how a believer sees the world in that way. At the same time, we have a counter-balance in Acts 1:6-7, where Jesus corrected the disciples from getting distracted by their prophetic understanding when it distracted from their mission. God wants us to recognize He is in control and the story is continuing by His guidance, but He doesn’t want us to get so caught up in interpreting the signs of the times that we are distracted from our mission of sharing His love with people.

In the end, believers have to balance their understanding of the news with their anticipation that God has something unfolding. It isn’t any different than how we view daily personal events. We aren’t to complain when they are troublesome, but rather ask God: “What am I to be learning from this?” When they seem like they will be positive, we ask: “How can we use this to further your kingdom, Father?” We recognize God is at work, but we don’t overplay our knowledge of exactly what He is doing – because this side of Heaven we are never really sure.

Why mention it then? Because God reminded us in Ezra 1:1 that HE is behind what is going on in the affairs of men. What men mean for evil, God can easily use for good. It isn’t hard for Him, for the relative size of the earth and its inhabitants is tiny compared to the God Who hung the whole of the cosmos in the heavens. When we get discouraged, we need to remember that things are not out of God’s control…EVER.

(Recognition) Recall that Biblically speaking, God often uses unregenerate men and works His plan:

Ezra 1:2 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

We have to remember that God is not “at a loss of options” when people don’t believe in Him. Both He and His enemy use people that do not believe all the time. God is not in need of Washington, Brussels, Beijing or Tehran to acknowledge Him to use them for His purposes. Daniel quoted Nebuchadnezzar the King when he said it this way (Daniel 4:17):

This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know, That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest of men.”

Cyrus was speaking, but God was working. That is important to remember, and important for the writer to make clear. Cyrus wrote a number of these letters, each for a different god and a different temple. He wasn’t a believer, but rather a pragmatic man who had a vision that was assisted by people going home and opening up their old temples and religious structures, while they pledged allegiance to him and his empire.

Ironically, Cyrus’ message as recorded here was the truth. Whether he knew it or not, the Lord God of Heaven did in fact give him all the kingdoms he knew about at the time, and the Lord DID call him to send Jews back to build the Second Temple as a replacement for Solomon’s Temple, which had been destroyed two generations before.

It may be hard to understand why God chooses to use people that do not know or recognize His authority, but I personally find it comforting. We don’t need a Christian President to allow God to keep working through our country. The courts don’t need to be run by followers of Jesus to give proper justice in the short term. God can work through the mouth of a donkey, so I assume He can do the same through the voice of a sitting Senator. I mean no disrespect to them, but the suggestion that God needs a human voting body to get His work done seems to me to disrespect the Lord of Heaven! Would I like to see men who love God running the nation? Sure, but it isn’t required. Here is the point:

We aren’t ready for God to give us a second chance if we don’t recognize that He is in control and can use anyone to get His gift to us. If we don’t see that, we will mistake providence for coincidence.

The next two regard actions we should engage in when the time comes for a second chance:

(Participation) Expect to materially support calls to obedience of God’s revealed Word:

God opened the door, but He also gave opportunity to His people to join Him in meeting the need. This is the privilege most often only enjoined by the sensitive believer. The text revealed the prodding of Cyrus:

Ezra 1:3 “Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. 4 And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

God opened the king’s mouth and gave people two options to respond to the second chance – a personal one and a communal one. If someone felt they could personally go back to Judah, they should prepare to make the journey. If they were, let’s say, physically unable to make such an arduous expedition, they could support it materially with an offering.

(Comprehension) Active support must come from leaders to do God’s bidding:

The people couldn’t be expected to get “on board” without leadership examples – so God provided them. Keep reading:

Ezra 1:5 Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. 6 And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.

One of the many reasons every generation needs godly leadership in its ranks is not JUST for theological discussion – it is for life by example.

Just like Judah’s return, a national revival can be a second chance for a country. Church restarts are second chances to reach a community. A marriage to a believer after you come to Christ and realize how badly you acted in your first marriage before you knew Christ can be a second chance. A restored relationship with an adult child long astray can be a second chance.

Here is the point: When God offers a second chance, godly people support what God is doing both in participation and in support. Believers have to grow in maturity and sensitivity and measure the value of support of a work by what it is producing in spiritual quality. Sometimes the second chance is individual, but other times it is God opening a door of opportunity for a whole community of faith.

The final two ideas regard what we should recognize during and after a second chance move of God:

(Celebration) Expect God to supply what believers cannot when they are following His lead:

Ezra 1:7 Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods; 8 Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. 9 And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives, 10 Thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.

The record isn’t an inventory; it is a celebration of thing God did! The historian Josephus Flavius in Antiquities of the Jews (XI,1,2) recalls the ancient tradition of Daniel’s presentation to Cyrus. The story is related that when Cyrus the Median Prince took the city of Babylon, he met the aged Daniel, who read to him from Isaiah 44 and 45 the story of the prophecy where Cyrus was named 150 years before his birth. It is not a Biblical account, but that misses the point. The memory of Jews was that it was God’s faithfulness to His Word that pushed Cyrus to action! Long before Cyrus was BORN, Isaiah prophesied:

Isaiah 44:24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself And spreading out the earth all alone, 25 Causing the omens of boasters to fail, Making fools out of diviners, Causing wise men to draw back And turning their knowledge into foolishness, 26 Confirming the word of His servant And performing the purpose of His messengers. It is I who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited!’ And of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built.’ And I will raise up her ruins again. 27 “It is I who says to the depth of the sea, ‘Be dried up!’ And I will make your rivers dry. 28 “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’”

When God’s people believe God’s Word, and they LIVE it out, in spite of the world around them – they become a powerful tool in His hand. The contrast will immediately be noticed. Though scoffed at by some, it will be the point of gravitation for others, who are buffeted by this world’s troubles and need a place of refuge. The stability that comes from obedience and trust in God and His Word will provide for them a place!

Lest the world become doubtful that Cyrus really DID what Scripture prophesied, we should make note that in 1879 the “Cyrus cylinder” was found – and a copy can still be seen in the lobby of the UN building in NYC. It is hailed as “an ancient declaration of human rights.” It records Cyrus, a servant of the god Marduk, sending people home to build their temples and shrines. He may have seen it as a human rights issue, but God was keeping an ancient promise through him.

(Reflection) Remember that God keeps inventory of His things – nothing and no one is lost:

Ezra 1:11 All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.

When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

She was on her third marriage and fourth child when she first heard of Jesus. Looking back her life seemed like a plane crash in a forest. There was a long burned chasm of pain leading to the burned shell of a life. Yet, she found her Maker, and her new life commenced. This new life wasn’t life as it was meant to be, for her choices had long since dried up that option. Rather it was an exciting second chance. “How do you hit ‘reset’ on a new life anyway?” She thought.

Ezra 1 offers important answers from God:

First, respond to God’s grace over your sin, and then get ready for the wave of God’s grace for your future.

Don’t forget that the commitment of obedience among God’s people is what God is calling for in the second chance. Those who trusted the promises and stepped out in obedience experienced the deepest blessing.

The text recalls that God led them through the process of change that was a very slow and conscious set of choices – what to take, what to leave…. So it will be with your fresh start.

The story made clear that some went on the journey, but others could not go – so they provided support. That is why the BODY becomes so important to launching fresh starts in life. Alone we cannot do what God has called us to do. Following Jesus demands that I get involved in a contact sport of connected-ness with others who are making the same journey.

Not everything is new in a “fresh start” second chance life. The mortgage is still there. My job may not change. For some their spouse is still there. Their kids are still… well, kids! How can someone like that get a fresh start?

Here is the truth: I CHANGE FIRST, then I am amazed at how God changes everything around me and how I see it!

When God’s people gave their part (1:7) God provided what could not have been gained by any other means – His blessing followed their commitment! The articles were many (1:9-11) and the miracle beyond anyone’s imagination. God can call back into service what was long forgotten blessing at His will. If you are new to a walk with God, I can believe this one will be hard for you. You haven’t yet really experienced how incredibly creative God is! You have experienced it, but you just weren’t able to properly understand it. God is not lacking resources. He has all that is necessary to tell His story. The problem is, the story He wants to tell isn’t all about my comfort and my prosperity – it is all about His nature and Majesty. When I learn to sing the song God gave me to sing with joy, He provides new music, day by day!

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers, he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a two-gallon, wide-mouthed pickle jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class answered, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand into the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question. “Is this jar full?” “NO!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good.” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager student raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!” “No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.” What are the “big rocks” in your life? You will need to order the change of your life by dealing with them first.

It all comes down to this: I cannot start new on my own. I cannot do this transformation work alone. I need God’s Word, lived obediently in community with God’s people and proclaimed faithfully in the world by God’s people so that it can provide the environment for new life to be nurtured from the ashes of the old! That is why I am tied to a living and growing body of believers. I cannot find another way to follow God’s Word without it.

When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

Let me remind you that you don’t have to understand what God is doing and where He is leading you, you have to learn to hear His voice from His Word and follow obedient to your Master’s will. He will not lead you astray. Millions have trusted Him in darkness and storms before you, and Heaven is filled with those who know His faithfulness. When the redeemed join in the chorus of Heaven, listen to their song:

Revelation 4: 9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

Later in Revelation 5: 11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

You hear no complaint in their voices. You hear no indignation in from the tears they shed. They demand nothing. They simply see the TRUTH. God DID CREATE all and it is FOR HIM. All the world and all its history was for the purpose of proclaiming HIS STORY to the universe. His greatness in unparalleled and His Majesty unmatched. He didn’t start being GREAT when I started recognizing Him – He always was. He always IS. He doesn’t require the world to see Him to be Who He is. He invites us to let Him show us how a second chance works.