June 21, 2020 Sunday School: Letting Go and Grabbing Hold - Bernie Shoemaker

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

The Word: Ezra 9:5-15

How many of you completed your homework? Good, I see those hands. Now if I was in my classroom I would have asked someone to tell us about Ezra. Then I would have asked if anybody could add anything else. So here is what we found out.

We found out that Ezra was a direct descendant of Aaron. Ezra was not only a priest, but was also a scribe and teacher well versed in the Law of the God of heaven. He was commissioned by Artaxerxes, king of the Babylonians, to return to Judah and Jerusalem to teach the laws of God. He was to appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates. Ezra was also to lead a new group of Jews to Jerusalem along with their families. Artaxerxes also gave him silver and gold along with animals for the house of God.

How many of you know where you were on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated?

Although this used to be an expression of universal experience, that event in 1963 is now a distant memory for a small group of society and irrelevant to most of the younger generation.

Maybe these apply better to you.

. . . the Challenger space shuttle tragedy

. . . the fall of the Berlin Wall

. . . 9/11

Even though 9/11 seems recent to most, it is already 19 years in the past, and an entire generation exists who was not alive at that time. Instead, this generation has grown up hearing stories about where their grandparents were on November 22, 1963, and where their parents were on September 11, 2001.

In today’s scripture study, almost 60 years have passed since the completion of the temple. The newest generation of these Israelites had not experienced the exile, the return, or the rebuilding.

The second half of the book of Ezra shifts from the rebuilding of the temple to practical and ethical matters. Ezra returned to the land of Israel (ca. 458 BC) with the blessing of the Persian government to instruct the people in “the Law of Moses” (7:6). By the time Ezra reached Jerusalem, the people had been living in the land for roughly 80 years (they began to return around 538 BC); amounting to two generations that had grown up in the land since the initial resettlement. Over this period, the people had become lax in their adherence to God’s instruction as proper religious training waned among the community.

One of the main concerns that had developed among the people (including the priests and Levites) centered on the practice of intermarriage with foreign (idol-worshiping) spouses. The people had reverted to the customs and practices of their ancestors that had brought God’s judgment upon them and drove them into exile in the first place (Josh. 23:6-13). This harsh reality confronted Ezra when he reached Jerusalem, causing him great sorrow. As a priest concerned about issues of purity and holiness, Ezra was deeply distraught over the actions of the people (see 9:2: they “have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them”. Those who were also appalled and shocked over the faithlessness of the people trembled at the words of God as they gathered around Ezra (9:4). Ezra, in a posture of humility and contrition, mourned over the peoples’ disobedience and offered prayer on behalf of the community.

This week’s study passage focuses on Ezra’s emotional prayer in response to the circumstances he faced. Let’s see through Ezra’s eyes how they had strayed spiritually and their need for forgiveness.

A. Ezra’s Sorrow Over the People’s Sin (Read Ezra 9:1-7)

Verses 1-4 give us the background for Ezra’s prayer that starts in verse 6.

Kevin Mellish, one of the lesson writers, writes: Ezra began his prayer with a statement of confession, including a rehearsal of the community’s sinful past. As a priest, Ezra was qualified to serve as a mediator on behalf of the people before God, yet he identified as one with them as well. His prayer, for example, gives evidence of this in that he begins by speaking in the first person singular (“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you”) and then switches to the first person plural form (“our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens”), thereby showing his solidarity with the community.

Even though Ezra did not commit wrong, he experienced embarrassment and shame for what the people had done; so much so that he was not able to lift his head before God. The accumulated effect of the history of the sins of the community, extending from Israel’s ancestors all the way to the present generation, had taken a heavy toll. Sin had been such an integral part of Israel’s story that Ezra did not see a time when the people were not steeped in their guilt. It was understandable, therefore, that Israel had suffered terrible consequences for repeated disobedience. The Mosaic covenant stipulated the expected norms of behavior and the terms of punishment if Israel did not abide by the terms of the covenant (Deut. 28). The people were subjected to foreign kings; they experienced the sword (death) and captivity (exile) and were subject to pillage and humiliation as a result of their continuous failure to live by God’s covenant standards. Even after their release from exile, the community continued to experience the consequences for disobedience in the form of shame as they remained subject to Persian control. (Kevin Mellish)

Ezra began his mission with passionate intercessory prayers of confession and repentance. Note the key words in verses 5-7 that illustrate the depth of his response. (Self-abasement, torn clothing, falling on knees, ashamed, disgrace, guilt.) Verse 3 reads in part: “I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard”. This was a common practice in the Near East at that time to show grief and sorrow.

What is intercessory prayer? Have you experienced mourning over the spiritual condition of a loved one? How does it compare to grief over a death?

B. Ezra Remembers God’s Mercy (9:8-9)

The second part of Ezra’s prayer shifts from a tone of sorrow (vv. 6-7) to words of encouragement and hope (but now). Despite the catastrophic experience the people had endured through destruction and exile, God continued to show covenant loyalty to them. God did not forget the covenant He had established with Israel’s ancestors, and because of God’s great mercy, He had not abandoned them completely (Deut. 4:31 He is a compassionate God. He won’t abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant He made with your ancestors—He swore to them that He’d keep it! [VOICE]) God preserved a remnant in order to continue the covenant relationship that had existed before Israel’s captivity.

As evidence of God’s goodness, God helped the people rebuild the temple structure and establish a firm place in his sanctuary. The knowledge that God’s presence would continue with the people, evidenced by the temple structure, provided a sense of hope that lifted the spirits of those who were subject to the Persian authorities.

Even though the people of God did not enjoy political autonomy, God did grant them favor in the sight of their Persian overlords. Cyrus granted the people the right to return home and rebuild the house of God, and Darius supplied the necessary resources to assist in the completion of the project.

C. The Peoples’ Response to God’s Goodness (Read Ezra 9:10-12)

Verse 10 marks another transition in Ezra’s prayer with the words but now. After reciting the history of Israel’s sinful past (vv. 6-7) and considering God’s gracious activity on behalf of the people (vv. 8-9), the only thing left for Ezra and the community to ponder was the question, “What now?” Ezra admitted that the community had forsaken the instructions and warnings given by the prophets regarding the land they were getting ready to (re)inhabit. From the time of Moses onward, the land of Canaan was not only a land of promise, but it also represented a land of great temptation. The Canaanites, the other peoples who lived in the land had polluted it by their immoral behavior (Lev. 18:25 [NIV] Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.) As a people who had been called by God to be holy and separate from the nations, the Israelites had been warned repeatedly about associating with the people of the land and adopting their ways, lest they too contaminate the land and be “vomited out” from it (Lev. 18:24-28; Deut. 7:3; 11:8; 18:9).

In light of the religious practices/customs of the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, the prophets consistently warned the Israelites about forming intimate relationships with them, whether it be friendships or marriage arrangements (see Exod. 34:12-16). These types of associations served as a source of temptation that could turn the hearts of the people away from worshiping God to honoring the deities of the nations. A cursory reading of the books of Judges through Kings, for example, demonstrates that Israel’s infidelity to God originated when the Israelites intermingled with the people of the land. Joshua even warned the people that if the Israelites intermarried with the Canaanites and served their deities, they would “perish” (or “be driven out”) from the land that God had given them (Josh. 23:12-13).

D. Ezra’s Final Appeal to God (9:13-15)

Ezra recognized that God’s mercy had prevented the Israelites from experiencing a greater punishment than they had deserved. In light of the grace they received, how could the people revert back to their old ways and intermarry with idol worshipers who commit such detestable practices? Considering that intermarriage with foreign spouses and the subsequent adoption of their detestable practices is what led to their exile in Babylon, it seems inconceivable that the people had not learned from their previous mistakes. In Ezra’s mind, God had every right to destroy the people completely and leave no survivors for committing the same sins that had led to their recent downfall.

Considering the current circumstances, the only thing Ezra could do was make a final plea to God and appeal directly to God’s righteous character. By drawing attention to God’s righteousness, Ezra understood that God was faithful to the relationships He established. The fact that God left a remnant among the people only illustrated God’s commitment to the covenant He had made with Israel, even when the Israelites did not warrant or deserve such consideration (cf. Hos. 11:8-9): “Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”

Ezra’s sense of grief over the moral laxity of the people provided the necessary impetus for renewal and restoration. As we review God’s call to renewal through the ministry of Ezra, we are also confronted with the truth that compromising influences need to be confessed and eliminated from our own lives as well.

Followers of God need to be “confessing Christians” in several ways: 1) by confessing their faith in God and the biblical/theological standards by which they commit themselves to live in communion with others of like Christian faith; 2) by the admission and confession of faults, weaknesses, and offenses against God or others, for forgiveness, cleansing, and consecration of life to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit.

· Where are you so close to crossing the line that you need God’s firm hand to guide you to safety today?

· Where have you sinned by crossing the line and need God’s gracious forgiveness today?

· In what ways could you be more attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit?

In what ways will you commit to walk with Him this week in joyful obedience?

Pray a prayer of confession and repentance to God. Asking that His grace will guide you through all circumstances. Invite God’s Spirit to show you any areas of your life where you might be compromising your witness?

Read Ezra 10 to get the results of Ezra’s prayer.

Material for this lesson is found in:

Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20

Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20 (Jim Edlin lesson writer)

Reflecting God Summer 20 (Kevin Mellish lesson writer)

Holy Bible (various translations)

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