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 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, more with subtle influence than overt zeal. That is a matter of some concern for those who are paying close attention.
That isn’t all bad. 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 NOT 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 and 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 changes (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.
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.
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.
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.
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 faced 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.
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 to whom the order applied, and whether they were in fact following it. Part of facing opposition is taking people’s various positions and not mis-characterizing 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.
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, and 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…