Ezra and Nehemiah

Ezra’s Fast

Rather than look back on last week’s sermon, I’d like to look forward to this week’s sermon (which I haven’t yet written!).

The passage I want us to focus on is Ezra8:21-23, where Ezra calls the people to fast and seek God. Before we look to see how we might apply this passage in some way to our own situation its important we grasp something of what fasting is all about!
Fasting isn’t something that gets much attention in the modern western church and my guess is that many Christians would consider fasting to only be the realm of those ‘super’ Christians who are spiritual enough ie not them! But Jesus says (Matt6:16) ‘When you fast…….’ His instructions on fasting seem to be given with the assumption that fasting is part of regular spiritual practice – the norm rather than the exception.
Through the bible fasting is understood as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. It is a spiritual discipline that focuses, not on ourselves, but on The Lord. Fasting is something we do unto God. As it says in Ezra8:21 fasting is something whereby we ‘humble ourselves’ before God. In humbling and denying ourselves we submit ourselves to God alone. Fasting coupled with prayer is something that seems to bring greater death and power to our intercessions. (Matt17:21) And fasting reminds us  that we are not primarily sustained by food but by God – at the end of His 40 day fast Jesus said ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt4:4)
I feel it right to call the church to fast and pray in the near future, but first I wanted us to get a grasp of what this neglected Christian practice was about!

Discussion Starters:
In one word what is your first reaction to the thought of fasting?
Is fasting seen as part of regular practice for regular Christians? How often do you fast? When and why do you fast?
What things hold us back from fasting?
What is the purpose of fasting?

Further study:
Luke4:1-13
Isaiah58:1-7
Dan10:1-14
Neh1:4-11
Acts13:1-3
Acts14:19-23

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Ezra the man in the book

This week’s sermon was on Ezra 7, focusing on verse 10.
Click here to listen to this weeks sermon.

In Chapter 7 we finally meet Ezra in person. Ezra is sent to Jerusalem by king Artexerxes to teach the people of Israel. The type of characteristics that qualify Ezra for this job are found in verse 10.
‘For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.’
Ben pointed out that this verse is a model for us as Christians who are sent out into the world to make disciples, we are to be disciples who make disciples.
Ben emphasised 4 points in this:
1. Ezra set his heart. Whilst God moves people’s hearts there is a partnership in relationship with God where we are to respond towards God ourselves.
2. Ezra set his heart to study the law. Ezra rely on his own theories or ideas but studied dilegently the law of the Lord.
3. Ezra did the law. His study was not just theoretical but became real in practice
4. Ezra taught the law. Having studied and practised the law, Ezra could teach the law with integrity and effectiveness.

Discussion starters:

How well do we do with the discipline of discipleship? How do we go about setting our heart towards God?
Is discipleship something private or something worked out in community? How good are we at being accountable in our discipleship? How bold are we at encouraging each other on in our faith and study of God’s word?

How do you go about studying the bible? What are the difficulties, what things help, what things distract…….?

How do we go about doing what the bible says? Where are the struggles – in interpretation and also implementation? Use personal examples.

How comfortable are we with the label of ‘bible teacher’? How aware are we that we may be the only bible teacher that some people may know.

Forgetting and Remembering

This week’s sermon was on Ezra 5-6 and Hag2:1-5, and looked at the things we and God remember and forget.
Click here to listen to this weeks sermon.

In the story of Ezra 5-6 we focused on how people forgot and then remembered what God had spoken and done. The remembering came by people searching the archives to find what God had previously done and by the prophets speaking God’s word. Throughout the story of the bible God doesn’t forget His promises, but His people more often than not do. Whilst the Lord remains faithful to what He has said people often doubt and fear because they have forgotten what God has spoken and promised. But whether God’s people remember or not, He still remains faithful and doesn’t forget! It is when God’s people remember what God has spoken that faith, strength and hope cause them to rise up to action!

But strangely the story also relies on the forgetfulness of God. If God had called to mind His people’s sin then He would have had very good reason to forget His promises towards them. However, He chooses to ‘remember their sin no more’ (Jer31:34) and as a result remains with His people as He promised 1000 years previously (Hag2:5). Grace works itself out when God’s forgetfulness as well as His remembrance come together.

The gospel message rests on the things God remembers and the things God forgets, in that He remembers His promises and forgets our sins! Too often, however, we remember what God forgets ie our sins and the sins of others, and forget what He remembers ie His great covenant promises.

Discussion Starters:
How can we continue to remember and not forget what God has said?
Call to mind and share God’s promises – both His promises to all people but also things we have heard God promise this church in the past.
How good are we at continually forgetting sin?
Are there sins of the past that we have started to remember and how do we go about forgetting them?

 

Facing Opposition

This week’s sermon was on Ezra 4, and looked at how we deal with opposition.
Click here to listen to this weeks sermon.

One of the things that Ben said on Sunday that leapt out at me was that ‘Who we are is more important than what we build.’ Any number of good things can be built, any number of good works can be done, but if the are not built on and by Jesus, they are only good things but not God’s things. When opposition comes it is tempting to find the easy route and end up doing and becoming like the world to avoid the opposition rather than maintain our distinctive (holy) identity that is found in Jesus Christ alone.
Coupled with this Ben said that the church is too often known for what it stands against rather than what it stands for; what our identity isn’t rather than what our identity is. Whilst there are many things we do stand against as God’s holy people, we must celebrate and be clear about what we stand for and what our identity is. In doing so we will be able to preach both sides of the gospel message – what we are saved from and what we are saved into.

Spend some time reflecting on what the church stands for (rather than against) and what our identity is.
Get used to positive affirmation of who we are and what our faith in Christ stands for.

Building Priorities

This week’s sermon was on Ezra 3, and focused of the priority of worship.
Click here to listen to this weeks sermon.
The message journeyed from Ezra3:2, where the the first thing that was built was the altar -indicating that worship was the people’s first priority – to Rom12:1, where the call is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices – indicating that in Christ, worship becomes our only priority. Through Jesus we are redeemed and brought into right relationship with God so that we can worship Him with our whole lives.
Within the story of Ezra3 I felt there were 2 key challenges that face us as individuals and as a church. These challenges related to the fact that both the city walls and the temple structure were built after and not before the altar. The walls were security for the people and the temple a worship venue that brought safety and comfort. However, the people didn’t need walls to worship, neither did they need a temple to worship, all they needed was an altar!
1. As individuals do we build our own ‘walls’ of security before we feel we can worship God?
If so what are they?
How can we be renewed in our minds and lives to make worship our priority?
2. As a church, particularly as we wait for the building works to be completed, do we wait for the conditions to be right before we worship or serve God?
If so in what way?
How can we ensure we continue to serve God whether we have a venue to meet in or not?

God moves hearts

On Sunday we began our journey in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ben gave a great overview of the two books and described an overarching theme in the books of relationship between God and His people. Whilst the rebuilding of the temple and city walls was important, it really only symbolised how God was rebuilding relationship between Himself and the people.
The key thing we begin with, is it is always God who initiates relationship with His people. It’s not so much I found Jesus, but Jesus found me, and it has been like this from the very beginning (Gen3:9). At the beginning of the book of Ezra we find it is God who moves king Cyrus’ heart (Ez1:1) to commission the rebuilding, and God who moves the people’s hearts (Ez1:5) to return to Jerusalem to start the work. Relationship is initiated by God and looks for a response in people. As Ben pointed out in Ps127, whilst it is the Lord who builds there are also labourers who work with Him in partnership and relationship.

Discussion starters:
Do you feel the Lord has stirred your heart to action? If so in what way?
Encourage each other with what God is stirring up among us as a church and how we all fit into it.
How should we pray in light of the understanding that it is God who initiates the building project of relationship? (How did Daniel pray? Dan9)
Are we aware of the work that God wants to do in us in bringing us closer to Him, as well as people who do not yet know Him?
Have we experienced ‘projects’ where the Lord hasn’t stirred people’s hearts but they have happened anyway? What is the outcome?
Have we experienced ‘projects’ where God has stirred hearts? How have they gone?