PRAYER OF INTERCESSION & LORD'S PRAYER:
Most gracious God, hallowed be Your name. Help us to honour Your name in what we say and what we do as we worship here this hour, and as we go about our daily life in the week to come. May Your gracious presence surround us this day, so that obedience to Your Word becomes a joy rather than a burden. May the depth of Your grace, the width of Your love, the height of Your joy, inspire us, here and now, to more fully be Your people, folks known not by forced friendliness, but by gracious attitude. We look to You for this, God, because on our own, we are tempted to be just the opposite. Empower us with Your Spirit. Let us pray together the words our Father taught us, saying;
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
The Offertory Prayer:
Lord God, thank you for the blessings You have given us year after year. Help us to wisely use the time You have given us, while we remain here on earth, to serve You through all the people around us who are in need. Amen.
Ezra & Nehemiah
How many of us faithfully read our Bible every day? I know I should, but there's always that "something" I just have to do first. I belong to that group of procrastinators, the people who say we're too busy today, but maybe tomorrow I can spare a few moments. The Bible spans a period of 4000 years, or forty centuries, and I, for one, have only skimmed the surface of the amazing stories, poems, songs and prophecies.
At one time I could name all the books of both the Old and New Testaments. I know the familiar stories, like Adam and Eve, Moses, Abraham, King Solomon and David, and I'm familiar with the New Testament stories of Jesus and the disciples. But there are some people, especially Old Testament characters, with whom I am not that familiar. I've heard their names, but I don't really know who they are or what their 'claim to fame' is.
Two such people are Ezra and Nehemiah. I definitely knew their names, but who exactly were they, and what did they do? I decided to find out! I discovered that Ezra was a preacher and administrator. Nehemiah was a foreman and soldier. Both were inspiring to those who sought to please God. Both were faithful to God and their life callings to the end. I'd like to take you on this journey with me and dive into the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah, two great books of the Old Testament.
There was in the city of Shushan, the Persian capital, a Jew named Ezra. He was a priest and a scribe. He read and studied the law of God and the scriptures. Ezra was the very best type of scribe. He was pious, a lover of the Lord, and wholly given to doing for his people. He gathered together all the copies of the law of God that he could find, and then had them multiplied by his helping scribes. He then gave the copies to those who wanted them. So Ezra did a great service, even to us, in preserving these laws and the word of God.
Later, Ezra decided to go back to Jerusalem. He talked to the Jews in Babylon and Persia and got many of them to agree to go with him and strengthen the work in their homeland. During the captivity, when the temple at Jerusalem lay in ruins, the Jews made in the different cities where they were scattered, meeting places called synagogues. In these synagogues, the people were instructed. The law of God was read to them, and also the prophets and the histories, and they were taught to sing the psalms. But God still intended to make the temple at Jerusalem the centre of his worship.
Ezra was greatly respected and honoured by King Artaxerxes. And when he told the king what was in his heart, to help build up the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem and the people of God, Artaxerxes encouraged him and gave him help. He made a proclamation that all Jews who wanted to go with Ezra should do so. And he gave great treasures of gold and silver and other precious things. And he ordered the governors of the provinces near Jerusalem to help also.
So Ezra gathered the people together on the river of Ahava some distance from Babylon. He took all the gold, silver and other precious things which the king and the people had given, and started for Jerusalem. The company were four months on the way and they went without soldiers of the king to guard them, for Ezra trusted in God, and he led his people to trust in God also. And God brought them safely through to Jerusalem.
Ezra found a good deal of disorder in the city. The first leaders had died, and those who came after them were careless. Though the temple had been completed and its services were going on, many of the Jews were backsliding and doing the bad things their fathers had done. Especially did they transgress God's commandment by taking wives from among the Samaritans and heathen about them.
With fasting and prayer and exhortations, Ezra stopped this and had the men get rid of their foreign wives. He gathered all the men of the land together in Jerusalem, read them the law and received their confessions and promises. There was a great reformation brought about by the teaching of Ezra, and the Jews in Jerusalem and Judah began to prosper in the ways of the Lord.
Now we fast forward thirteen years after Ezra led his company to Jerusalem and began to teach the people the law, and we encounter another Jew, a young man, who was high in favour with Artaxerxes. This young man was Nehemiah. He was cupbearer to the king.
One day Nehemiah had a visit from his brother Hanani and some other Jews who had just come from Jerusalem. Nehemiah asked his brother how things were there, and Hanani said they looked very bad, for the walls were broken down and the gates were burned, and all the Jews were in great reproach among the people around them.
Nehemiah was so distraught that Artaxerxes noticed and asked what was the matter. Nehemiah answered, "I pray that the king may send me to Jerusalem, that I may rebuild it." The king agreed and Nehemiah travelled to Jerusalem with some of his brethren and with an armed guard which the king had furnished. When he reached the city, he didn't tell anyone at first that the king had given him authority. But by night, taking a few of his men with him, he rode all around the walls of Jerusalem and saw just how broken down they were. In the morning he called the rulers together and said, "You see how Jerusalem's walls are broken and many of the houses inside are still not built. Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem."
They just looked at him, thinking, no doubt, "Here, all these years we have lived this way, and there is just no hope of anything better. We haven't the money or the strength to rebuild the city." But then Nehemiah told them that he was the king's high officer, and that the king had told him to come and rebuild the city. And so the people got to work and built.
But there were enemies who didn't like it when they heard that Jerusalem was to be made strong. These enemies mocked and they conspired, trying to frighten Nehemiah. They tried to ambush him, and they threatened to come up with an army and fight the Jews. So Nehemiah armed his people and set half of them to stand guard while the others built. This action frightened his enemies and they decided to leave Nehemiah and the Jews alone. In 52 days the wall was finished and the gates were set up. Most of the houses, though, were not yet rebuilt, and there were very few people actually living in the city.
More than that, the people complained that their rulers, their own Jewish princes and elders, oppressed them, taking the greatest portion of the grain and produce they raised, and also took their money. The people had sold their land, and some of them had sold their sons and daughters to be servants, just so they could raise enough money to pay the taxes and the interest that the rulers charged. At this, Nehemiah became very angry and he called the rulers together and reproached them for treating the people so badly. They were afraid of him because the king had given him authority. The nobles promised they would give back the land and the children, and they gathered more of the people into the city and built it up.
It was at about this time that Nehemiah had found Ezra, the scribe. He was still living and working for the people. But Ezra didn't have the authority that the king had given Nehemiah, and the wayward ones among the Jews had disregarded him and had created all this bad state of affairs. Now, however, he joined with Nehemiah and the two of them brought the people up to a better state.
In the seventh month the called the people together for the great feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. Ezi.a read from daylight to noon from the book of the law of God. You see, the people in Jerusalem didn't have the book, and what they might hear once in a while from the priests and Levites was easily forgotten. So now they found out they had been transgressing the law in many ways, and they mourned. But Nehemiah and Ezra told them to rejoice, for the Lord forgave them. The people all listened and pledged themselves to obey the law.
The people would backslide one more time and again Nehemiah set to work to bring them up to the mark. Great were the toils, earnest were the prayers, and mighty were the labours of this man of God. He was not a prophet, and neither was Ezra, but they were great servants of the Lord. Ezra taught the law of God, he multiplied the scriptures and he set up schools to teach young and old. Nehemiah established the government and created respect for the law. They fixed the nation of the Jews. Never again did the Jews worship idols or false gods. And so the labours of Ezra and Nehemiah were not in vain. It wasn't easy to reform God's people. It required great sacrifice and commitment. Likewise, it isn't easy to reform God's people today, either, but we must have the commitment necessary to stand for truth and make the sacrifices needed, to always follow the law of God.
BENEDICTION & CHORAL AMEN:
As we go forth from this place today, let us never forget that Christ is at the foundation of all we are and all we do. Let the world see that we are Christians. Be proud to show the world who we belong to.