We're coming to the end of the book of Ezra today. Ezra's a book about the completion of the second Temple and the return of God's people to Jerusalem after the exile, at the lowest point of their history. You can summarize the theme of Ezra in one word: restoration. And so we've been talking about what we can learn about restoration in our own lives.
Today we come to the end. The end of a book is when we usually expect that the crisis has been resolved and things are looking up. In this case, the crisis of the exile and the destruction of the Temple has been resolved, but there's a fresh crisis.
The fact that Judah faces this crisis after all that God has done to restore them teaches us something. We never arrive, at least not in this life. The crisis they faced is a crisis that we continually face.
I don't want to preach this passage today so much as walk us through it in three stages. I'd first like to look at the problem, then I'd like to look at confession, and finally I'd like to look at the resolution to the problem. The problem, the confession, and the resolution. In between each of these sections, I'd like to give us some time to reflect and even to respond to what we're going to read.
Ezra 9:1-2 says:
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, "The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness."
Here's the problem. "The people…have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices." They have intermarried with the neighboring peoples. The prophet Malachi, who lived at this time, even hints that people had broken their marriages to marry daughters of foreign gods.
Let's be clear about what the problem was not. The problem was not interracial marriage. That's a good thing for us since one of the things that makes Richview unique are the number of interracial marriages we have, which is a great thing. The concern with marrying outside of Judah was not racial; it was religious. Verse 1 mentions "detestable practices." Deuteronomy 7 says:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
The problem wasn't racial; it was religious. The problem is that they were not distinct from the practices of other nations, and their worship was compromised. They were expressing their devotion to pagan gods as well as to YHWH. A Jewish settlement at Egypt at this very same time went through the same problem, and was gradually assimilated and disappeared. When God's people lose their distinctiveness and compromise on the worship of YHWH, they eventually become assimilated and disappear. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Matthew 5:13). When we lose our distinctiveness, we lose our relationship with God and we lose our usefulness.
Notice the end of verse 2. "And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness." Not all of the leaders, of course – it was leaders who raised the concern in verse 1. But there is a danger that the very people who are supposed to be spiritual leaders are instead leading the way toward disobedience. That's one reason, by the way, that you need to pray for those in leadership. The Bible tells us that they're going to have to give account for your souls, and those who teach are especially going to be held to a higher standard. When they go off track, they can lead the way toward unfaithfulness.
So let me pause right here. The problem is unfaithfulness. The problem is that God's people don't always act as God's people. They aren't distinct from the ways of the world. What's our problem?
Ron Sider wrote a book recently with the subtitle Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? He suggests that we have the same problem that the people in Ezra's day did. We are the same as our non-Christian neighbors in rates of divorce, premarital sex, domestic violence and use of pornography, and are actually more likely to hold racist views than other people. We suffer from materialism, individually and even as churches. Our charitable giving has decreased even while our income has risen. Although today's North American Christians are collectively the wealthiest Christians in the history of the world, we don't take care of the poor, he says. And on it goes.
What is our problem? In what ways are we being unfaithful as the church at Richview? What I'm talking about here is conviction. Now listen, there's a good and a bad way to go about this. I'm not asking you to wallow in guilt or to beat ourselves up this morning. Instead I'm asking for us to pray with the psalmist: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).
And we can do this without feeling insecure. Tim Keller says:
The gospel gives you psychological freedom to handle the wrong things that you will do. You won't have to deny, spin, or repress the truth about yourself. These things don't make it impossible to know who you are. Only with the support of hearing Jesus say, "You are capable of terrible things, but I am absolutely, unconditionally committed to you," will you be able to be honest with yourself.
I'm going to invite you to spend a few minutes praying, especially in the context of our whole church but maybe also personally, the words of the psalmist on the screen. "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).
When Ezra heard about the problem, his response was extreme. Ezra 9:3-4 says:
When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.
Then after hours of this, he prayed a prayer of confession. Some call Ezra's prayer the "theological high point of the book." It is a magnificent prayer.
I want to notice a few things. Ezra prays as if the problem is his. Ezra identifies with the people in their sin and sees the sin as a collective one, even though he personally wasn't guilty. I've noticed a huge difference in churches between the people who say, "They have a problem" as they point a finger, and those who say, "We have a problem." When we're part of a church, the community of God's people, we confess our corporate sins together, even though we personally may not be guilty ourselves.
Ezra begins his prayer with a general confession. "I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens" (Ezra 9:6). He then remembers the sins of previous times (verse 7), recites God's mercy and goodness (verses 8-9), further confesses Israel's sins (verses 10-12), and then appeals to God (verses 13-15). Listen to how he ends his prayer: "Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence" (Ezra 9:15). In a way there is no resolution, no solution. Ezra just throws himself on behalf of the people on God's mercy and confesses his sin before God.
A denominational leader recently talked about the churches that had turned around within his region. He said none of the churches turned around until the people got serious about prayer. He said:
In our churches, often the turnaround began when we said to the church, "Call a day of prayer." And here's how the day of prayer started. We had the pastor and board stand and lead in prayers of confession, asking God to forgive them for being a disobedient congregation and not taking seriously the great commission to make disciples.
A pastor friend of mine started a church in Portland. They only ever grew to about forty or fifty people for the first few years, all of them Christian. One day the pastor, Rick, realized that he only hung around people who were like him, who shared the same views, held the same belief. He read every how-to book on how to reach people, and began to realize that the problem wasn't really a how-to problem. It was a want-to problem. He didn't want to reach out to those who were unlike him. He really didn't care.
He decided to call for a weekly meeting, every Wednesday night, to repent – something, he says, that was pretty hard to market. They began to meet and to repent of the fact that they didn't care, that some of them hated their neighbors. They continued to pray this way for nine months. They confessed, just like Ezra confessed. And it eventually led them to change their hearts.
When God really begins to move in a group, it often begins with corporate confession. When we confess, we reach new levels of honesty. "For him who confesses, shams are over, and realities have begun" (William James). Confession prepares us for what God is going to do among us. Max Lucado writes:
Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field. Before the farmer sows the seed, he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps. He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared. Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord."
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
We've already asked God to reveal areas we need to deal with. Let's spend some time confessing them before the Lord.
Prayer of Confession:
Merciful Lord, we confess that with us there is an abundance of sin, but in you there is the fullness of righteousness and abundance of mercy. We are spiritually poor, but you are rich and in Jesus Christ came to be merciful to the poor. Strengthen our faith and trust in you. We are empty vessels that need to be filled; fill us. We are weak in faith; strengthen us. We are cold in love; warm us, and make our hearts fervent for you that our love may go out to one another and to our neighbors. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Ezra concludes with a chapter that can only be called disturbing. Someone has said that it's the most distasteful chapter in Ezra, and ranks among the most distasteful in the whole of Scripture.
At the end of chapter 9, Ezra has prayed, but there's really no solution offered. Everyone is still overwhelmed with guilt and there's no suggestion of what to do. It's looking hopeless.
Then somebody comes up with an idea. Ezra 10:3-4 says:
Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it."
And this is exactly what they did. We learn in this chapter that 110 had taken foreign wives, and some of them had children.
The problem is that this seems unusually harsh. It seems extreme to require these marriages to be dissolved. We have no idea what provisions, if any, were made for them. There are even debates about whether or not they chose to do the right thing.
If you want to see something ugly, the effects of sin are always ugly. Justice here looks incredibly harsh, and it conflicts with our sense of the loving thing to do to these foreign wives and children.
But then we see, in the middle of the ugliness, some hope. Verse 19 says of some of those who were guilty, "They all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering." They put away their wives, but then they availed themselves of the provision that God had made for sin in a sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice, of course, that anticipated the sacrifice that Jesus would one day make. Why could God forgive these people's sins? We know that sin has a cost. Somebody has to pay it. We know this instinctively. Whenever we do something wrong, it comes with a price – a price that's too steep for us to pay. Many of you have paid a part of the cost of the sins committed by others. It's why you have scars, why you've been hurt. Sin always has a cost, and someone has to pay it.
But the one who paid the ultimate cost was not the wives or children in Ezra's day. The one who paid the ultimate cost for their sins was Jesus. "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood," Paul writes (Romans 3:25). "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, his first thesis said, "All of life is repentance." If there's one thing Ezra teaches us, it's that the work of restoration is never done. Just when you think we're restored, another issue comes up that needs dealing with.
But when we see how accepted and loved we are because of Jesus, the more often we'll repent. And the more we see our own flaws and sins, the more electrifying and precious God's grace will appear to us. God's grace will drive us to confess our sins, and our sins will drive us back to the beauty of God's grace found in Jesus Christ.
Sin and its consequences are ugly, and the only cure for the depth of the ugliness of sin is the beauty of the cross. That's where I want to live. Let's pray.
We thank you this morning for the cross.
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
And grant to me Thy grace.
Thank you, Lord, for the cross. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.