Today we are finishing our walk through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.These books can feel disappointing when read, but in the disappointment there is potential for change. In seeing and feeling the disappointing moment there is hope in Jesus. These narratives point towards the need for Jesus, the Messiah.
There are countless things to continue to keep grasping from these narratives.As always be encouraged to be a Bible reader. Here are some of the narratives we have seen.
Rebuilding connection with God.
Outsiders offering help and being rejected. Return from exile.
God’s plan and our part to play.
Waiting for the messiah.
Jesus’ validating those who Israel would have called “enemy” or “outsider.”
Seeing God’s faithfulness.
Coming back to relationship with God.
The new Moses and the new Joshua.
Divorcing Samaritan women and children.
Radical external change without a change of heart.
Jesus’ call for internal change.
Synergy and opposition.
Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
Threats and insults.
Last week we ended our conversation with the question What is key for you in following through what God has placed before no matter if you are supported or opposed?
Think about this for our conversation today.
What are the costs of life being easy?
What are the costs of things going your way?
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a declaration that the narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah are about things going okay. They didn’t. But it’s important to see how ease and challenge affect us.
Don’t you want to arrive?
Don’t you want to make it?
Don’t you want to finish?
Don’t we all want things to be easy?
Don’t we all want things to be at least easier?
No question about it. We don’t enjoy pain, but we can miss it when we think life is all about “arriving.” Economically, relationally, vocationally, within faith.
The problem with “arriving” is that atrophy often shows us quickly.
Atrophy - gradual decline in effectiveness or vigor due to underuse or neglect.
This can happen in fitness and it can happen in relationship with God. It comes back to a conversation that we saw as flawed last week.
I just want to get to a place where God is happy with me.
And then I can breathe for a moment.
But if we think we’ve “made it” and we pause, spiritual atrophy is right there to take us down.
Think about your most cherished relationships in life. What if you treated them like you’d already “made it” and there was no more work to be done?
The end of Nehemiah is rather predictable. The people run back to their historic failures.
Why would anyone do this?
Why would anyone go back to what has hurt them in the past?
Why would anyone go back to the things that caused their struggle in the past?
Why would anyone go back to what they know will not end up well?
Why would anyone do something so stupid? I can’t even imagine
Except that I can because I have.
Why do people repeat failures?
This moment at the end of Nehemiah feels cinematic. Imagine the end of Lord of the Rings but with less wizards.
[cue the cinematic background music]
Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
- Nehemiah 8:5-6
Nehemiah joins in.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
- Nehemiah 8:9
There is this euphoric moment of celebrating how far they’d come.
The temple is up.
The Torah is restored.
The wall is fortified.
The exiles are back.
We have had issues.
We have failed.
We have doubted.
We have turned away.
We have wondered.
We have done terrible things.
We have left important things undone.
And now put it in writing, put our names on it, those things will never happen again.
How powerful. That’s the end, right?
Not according to chapter 13.
While Nehemiah was away the people immediately drifted from God. Again. They immediately returned back to the failings found in their history.
They had built a partnership with Tobiah (an enemy to the work of rebuilding the wall.) They had not cared for the priests as they should have. They were not keeping the sabbath. They were intermarrying with outsiders.
So now what?
Weren’t we just celebrating how great things were?
In this pain and sorrow Nehemiah has a moment where he asks God to be sure to remember him, and then things end.
Wow. What a story. Another question to help our conversation.
What excuses do people give for falling back into old destructive habits?
Celebrating the moment when I’ve “made it” and then almost immediately returning to my failures is something I wish I could say has never happened. The reality is though, it ponts me toward Jesus.
This is not a moment to look down on the people in Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a moment, again, to use their narratives as a mirror to be personally challenged, focused and encouraged.
What I see in Ezra and Nehemiah, and the challenges they face, points me toward Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The beatitudes. A beatitude is a declaration of supreme blessedness.
Ah yes. Supreme blessedness. When I arrive/succeed/accomplish/etc.
But, Jesus verbalizes the complete opposite to what would have been expected.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- Matthew 5:3-12
Process this tension.
Just before he gives his picture of building a firm foundation, Jesus brings up a recurring theme of the relationship between trees and their fruit.
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
- Luke 6:43-45
I feel two responses that I can run to from hearing Jesus’ words.
I need to force out better fruit. (a fruit-focused response.)
I’m the worst at this.
Jesus doesn’t like me.
I need to do better.
I need to perform better.
I need to make it.
I need to focus on what type of tree I am and the fruit will show up. (a tree-focused response.)
Who am I in Christ?
How is life shaping me?
How am I being animated and motivated by my relationship with Jesus?
How are my challenges bringing my need for God into focus?
How are my successes pointing me towards my dependance on God?
In the middle of all of the efforts and failings, and changes and going back to past failures, and right in the middle of the craziness that 2020 has been, we end our series with this.
What are the internal changes that you are embracing and encouraged to follow through with right now?
Take It Deeper Questions
Read Matthew 5:3-12
If our culture would write a version of blessed statements, what would they be?
What is your version of personal blessed statements?
How have Jesus’ blessed statements come to a different light in 2020?
What are the internal changes that this year is giving you opportunity to embrace and follow through with?
Bible Reading Plan
2 Corinthians 1
2 Corinthians 2
2 Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 4
2 Corinthians 5
2 Corinthians 6