Just 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 infrastructure…They 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 infrastructure…Tom 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 infrastructure…John 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?