Cultivating our Hunger for the Lord

Relevant Text: Ezra 8:21
Full Text: Ezra 8; Act 8

Appetite | What’s the best way to ruin your appetite for Christmas dinner? Open your stocking and dive into all the candy canes and peanut butter cups and chocolate bars. Then, when it comes time for dinner, you’ll be too full for the roasted turkey and cornbread dressing and pecan pie. Yes, the more you want to enjoy Christmas dinner, the less you eat on Christmas morning. The same thing goes for feasting on the Lord and His promises. When we fill up on the junk food of this world [1], His banquet table loses appeal. In fasting [2], however, we can cultivate our hunger for God and intensify our longing for Him [3].

Protection | Before the second wave of exiles got on the road to Jerusalem [4], Ezra announced a fast: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God” [5]. Their purpose was “to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” [6]. Ezra wanted to magnify the Lord’s sovereignty – especially in the sight of the king: “For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him’” [7]. And God responded in mercy: “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty” [8].

Prayer | Lord, When the Israelites sought you through fasting and prayer, they expressed their humility and dependence on you. They were desperate for your protection on their 800-mile journey home to Jerusalem [9]. We, too, have a long road-trip ahead of us on our journey home to you. And we admit that we cannot make it safely without you – for we know that we are not in charge of this world; you are. Thus, we rely on you, not ourselves. So please demonstrate your wisdom and power and authority in our lives for your own name’s sake. When we fast, even as our stomachs ache for food, intensify our hunger for you [10]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] The junk food of this world is its empty promises and entertainment. Instead of feasting on His truth and promises, we often stuff ourselves with “life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (Lk. 8:14 NIV1984) and “the desires for other things” (Mk. 4:19 ESV). And just as our stomachs are not tempted to get full on potted meat food product or blood sausage, we are also not tempted to fill up on the evil and wicked things of this world. Instead, we fill up on junk food – things that look and taste good but don’t ultimately satisfy. In Jesus’ parables, he gives very interesting examples – new land, new livestock and even a new spouse (see Lk. 14:12-24). Elsewhere, he cites, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (see Mk. 4:10-20 ESV). Thus, in fasting, we reorient our hunger for God, making fasting a lover’s quest, not a legalist’s victory (see Phil. 3:8-11).

[2] Fasting does not have to be denial from food. As Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not … be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.” (1959-1960). One thing to note, however: fasting is not dieting. To fast from sugar or chocolate for the purpose of cutting out calories is not fasting; to fast from sugar or chocolate because you love it and think that abstaining from these things would remind your to hunger for God is fasting.

[3] The Bible never promotes self-denial as an end in itself, e.g., “Then he [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Lk. 9:23 ESV, emphasis mine). Instead, the Lord wants us to enjoy the fullness of Christian liberty (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-3; Col. 2:20-21). Yet, the Bible talks about fasting – that is, exercising self-denial – as a means to increase our hunger for God.

[4] Ezra 1-6 (first wave; about 50,000 exiles returned home), Ezra 7-10 (second wave; about 8,000 exiles returned home)

[5] Ezra 8:21 ESV

[6] Id.

[7] Ezra 8:22 ESV

[8] Ezra 8:23 ESV

[10] In Heart of Darkness, Conrad Joseph Conrad writes about how intense physical hunger can lead to desperate measures: “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.” Likewise, we can intensity our measures to find and seek God when we fast and pray for His presence.

The Great Mercy of God Through Encouragement and Warning

Relevant Text: Acts 7:51-52
Full Text: Ezra 6, Acts 6
Weekend Text: Ezra 7-8, Acts 7-8

Trial | The first martyr was a deacon – not a disciple, missionary or preacher. Stephen was a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” [1] and “full of grace and power” [2]. Yet, his opponents hated him. When they took him to trial for opposing God [3], he defended himself with a story – a long history of Israel’s repeated rejection of the Lord and His prophets. Then he concluded: You stiff-necked people … you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One[4]. In other words, in embracing Jesus as Lord, he wasn’t the one rejecting God; they were!

Grace | For Stephen, that speech led to execution. For us, it’s an encouragement and a warning. It’s an encouragement because it shows how patient God is. He won’t turn away because we’ve sinned once or twice … or even seventy times seven times [5]. If we repent, He’s eager to forgive. Yet, his speech is also a warning because it shows that God disciplines the unrepentant. It may seem harsh to talk about His punishment, but it’s actually loving and gracious. It awakens our hearts to the truth that we must worship Jesus as Lord. In fact, one man heard Stephen’s speech of warning and never forgot it – Paul. Just days after he approved of Stephen’s execution, Paul received the outpouring of God’s grace when Jesus appeared to him. And he never “got over” it. He never stopped preaching about God’s great and long-suffering mercy to him – the chief of sinners [6].

Prayer | Lord, Stephen’s words of encouragement and warning are filled with grace. Today, if we will repent, you are eager to pursue us – no matter how sinful we may be or how undeserving we may feel. As David – another great sinner – sang, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” [7]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 6:5 ESV  |  [2] Acts 6:8 ESV  |  [3] Acts 6:14 ESV. See also Acts 6:11.
|  [4] Acts 7:51-52 ESV  |  [5] Matt. 18:22  |  [6] See 1 Tim. 1:12-17.
|  [7] Ps. 103:8-14 ESV

God Has Plans for You Tomorrow

Relevant Text: Ezra 5:17 (underlined)
Full Text: Ezra 5, Acts 5

Plot | Suspense is the key to great stories. No one wants to read about Jack and Jill meeting in college, having 2.5 children, vacationing in the Hamptons, climbing the corporate ladder, and then retiring in Florida. There needs to be some struggle, some hopeless moment. Jack needs to fall down and break his crown and Jill needs to come tumbling after. They need to deal with unemployment, infertility, financial insecurity, inoperable sickness, etc.

Point | Ezra is a great story. It opens with the exiles returning home to Jerusalem [1] and rebuilding the temple while singing: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” [2]. Everything seems wonderful. Until, that is, their neighbors successfully convince the king to quash their plans. So, the temple is rubble for fifteen years – no worship, no sacrifices, no presence of God. Imagine their discouragement – especially after having been in exile for the past fifty years! What was God doing? Then a new king comes into power and considers the matter: See whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem[3]. As a result, not only does he let the Israelites resume construction, he also pays for it out of his own royal treasury!

Patience | Yes, we love to read great stories. But most of us hate to live them. After all, our lives are not books; we can’t see how many pages are left for the all-wrapped-up-in-a-bow ending. Yet, the message those remaining pages signal is the same if you’re reading this today: The Author of your story is not done yet. God has plans for you tomorrow and the rest of your days. We can’t assume too much in the middle. He wants our lives to be great stories of His excellencies [4]. Yes, there are suspenseful times because we aren’t the writers, but we know the One who is and He has promised: “For those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” [5].

Prayer | Lord, We confess that we have indicted you in the middle of your work in our lives when things have seemed hopeless and impossible. Yet, we trust that you are working out a million things to make our lives great stories of your grace and power. Therefore, guard us from presuming too much and increase our faith in you. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Ezra 1-2  |  [2] Ezra 3:11 ESV  |  [3] Ezra 5:17 ESV  |
[4] See 1 Peter 2:9-12.  |  [5] Rom 8:28 ESV

What Is the Secret to Effective Testimony?

Relevant Text: Acts 4:19-20 (underlined)
Full Text: Ezra 4, Acts 4

Effective Speaking | Some people are expected to be effective speakers – they’re well-educated (Clinton) or well-trained (Reagan). But how does an uneducated and unskilled person become a good orator? After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples regularly preached the gospel. Once, after healing a lame beggar, Peter and John were arrested for publicly preaching to over 5,000 people. The next day, the Jewish leaders asked them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” [1]. Peter answered that they preached in the name of Jesus – “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [2]. Then, Luke notes, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” [3]. What was the secret to their testimony?

The Non-Secret | Although education has value, it will not turn anyone into a courageous and clear spokesperson for the truth. We don’t need to be formally educated to boldly communicate the gospel. Even Jesus himself surprised the Jewish leaders for his boldness apart from education: “How is it that this man [Jesus] has learning, when he has never studied?” [4]. Should we attempt boldness any differently? As he said, ”A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” [5].

The Secret | The secret to their testimony was their knowing Jesus. Our courage comes from spending time with him. As Peter said to his inquisitors, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” [6]. They saw and heard what Jesus said and did because they spent time with him. Thus, they were confident in the truth and able to proclaim it boldly. Let us also, therefore, speak with clarity and courage because of the time we have spent with him.

Prayer | Lord, Like the disciples, as we spend time with you, we cannot help but testify boldly with our lips and with our lives about what we have seen and heard. Your Word is truth because it brings us into the light of the Living Truth, Jesus Christ. May we not pursue effective testimony apart from spending time with you and, for those of us who feel uneducated or unskilled, let us boast in our weaknesses that your power may dwell in us all the more [7]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 4:7 ESV  |  [2] Acts 4:12 ESV  |  [3] Acts 4:13 ESV  |  [4] John 7:15, ESV  |  [5] Luke 6:40, ESV  |  [6] Acts 19-20, ESV  |  [7] See 2 Cor. 12:9.

How to Obey When You’re Afraid

Relevant Text: Ezra 3:3
Full Text: Ezra 3, Acts 3

Fear | When your boss asks, “Have you done such-and-such yet?”, you only have a moment to respond. It’s either yes or no. It’s that simple … or is it? When I was working on Capitol Hill for then-Congressman Joe Scarborough, there were always a hundred things going on. Constituents and lobbyists were arriving for meetings, bells were ringing for votes, deadlines were approaching for articles, planes were being reserved for travel. Each day was a chaotic whirlwind. Thus, there were times when Joe asked, “Have you done such-and-such yet?”, and the truth was, “No.” If the task was simple, however, I always wanted to say, “Yes,” and then do it as soon as he walked away without him ever noticing. Yet, in the moment between his question and my answer, I was making a major decision: Whose opinion did I care more about – Joe’s or God’s? I knew that Joe wanted me to get the job done, but I also knew that God wanted me to be truthful. How could I choose to obey God when I feared losing my job? [1]

Despite | In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah, exiled the Israelites, and destroyed the Temple. Fifty years passed, during which time the Babylonian Empire fell and the Persian Empire grew. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia sent the exiles home [2]. When they returned to Judah, they “assembled as one man in Jerusalem” [3] and began rebuilding the temple. But they ran into a problem – their neighbors set out to intimidate them because they didn’t want the temple to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, the Israelites continued despite their fear of the peoples around them[4]. Yes, they were afraid and their fear was real. Yet, their fear didn’t keep them from obeying God. They obeyed in faith because they longed for the joy of the presence of the Lord in the temple more than they feared their neighbors.

Prayer | Lord, Thank you for the testimony of the Israelites because it foreshadowed the obedience of Jesus. In the garden, as he anticipated the suffering and death that would happen if he obeyed you, he sweat blood in agony. Yet, in that moment, he prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” [5] – because he longed for the joy of our salvation that would come through obedience [6]. Today, we pray that our joy in you and in obeying you would overcome our fear of others. Amen. [7]

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Footnotes

[1] No, Joe never threatened to fire me over a task forgotten! Yet, I’m sure, depending on the level of importance of any given task, I would have definitely gotten in trouble! We were – and remain – great friends because he is such a delight to work with! Nonetheless, I was a nervous 22 year-old with her first job when I worked for him. There is fear in such a heart no matter how great the boss is!  |  [2] See Ezra 1  |  [3] Ezra 3:1 NIV  |  [4] Ezra 3:3 NIV  |  [5] Lk. 22:42 ESV  |  [6] See Heb. 12:1-2.  |  [7] For an excellent sermon on how to confront all kinds of fear, see Charles Spurgeon, Fearing and Trusting – Trusting and Not Fearing (10 January 1913).


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