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!