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.