Who are you? Really? Japanese? Korean? American? African? An office worker? A teacher. A missionary? A housewife? A student?
Are you single? Married? Divorced? Widowed?
Are you a person that has got everything together? Are you a person whose life is completely messed up?
Who are you? When you look in the mirror what do you see?
We started a series a few weeks ago called Refresh. And for a lot of us, we do need a fresh start. We look at ourselves in the mirror, and for whatever reason, we don’t like what we see.
And for a lot of us, the reason is that we’ve forgotten who we really are. So who are we? Really?
That’s a question that the Jews were facing. Because of their sin, God had turned his back on them, and allowed them to be defeated by the Babylonians, and they were exiled to Babylon for 70 years. And yet, God never truly abandoned them.
We saw a couple of weeks ago, that even in the midst of their exile, God had a plan. Their 70 years in Babylon was no accident. God told them, “Settle in Babylon. Raise your families. Pray for Babylon. And in 70 years, I will bring you back. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)
When the 70 years were over, God did bring them back. We saw in Ezra 1-6 how God used the governor Zerubbabel, and the priest Joshua to lead about 42,000 people back to Jerusalem. And though they faced a lot of opposition, they were able to rebuild their temple, and to some degree reestablish their lives.
And now as we look at Ezra 7, about 57 years have passed since the temple was rebuilt.
But there was a problem. In a lot of ways, the Jews were still a broken people. If you look at the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, you see a lot of problems the people had at that time. They questioned whether God really loved them (Malachi 1:1-5). The priests’ worship had been reduced to a show, and they taught the people to worship the same way (Malachi 1:6-2:9). And as we’ll see later, many of their marriages were a mess as were their kids. (2:10-16)
Does this sound familiar? A lot of us come to God in a broken state. But then we hear the gospel, and we discover the forgiveness and the love of God. Suddenly, we have new life and new hope.
But then life hits us in the face again. Trouble comes. Hurt comes. Pain comes. And soon, we start questioning if God really loves us. Our worship of God becomes a show. Everyone around us thinks we have it all together. But our personal lives have become a mess. And the main reason is that we have lost our identity. We have forgotten who we really are. And because of that, we need to do what the Jews did: we need to rediscover our true identity.
How did the Jews rediscover their true identity? God sent them a man named Ezra.
Ezra was a priest, and if you look at verses 1-5 of chapter 7, you see his background. He was the descendant of the first high priest of Israel, a man named Aaron. Now at the time, Ezra was living in Babylon, but apparently, he had heard of the problems that his people were having in Jerusalem. And so he asked the king, Artaxerxes, for permission to go back to Jerusalem. What was his purpose? To help his people re-establish their identity. What identity? Their identity as God’s people. Look at what the king wrote to Ezra.
You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand…And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. (7:14, 25)
In short, the king was telling Ezra, “Go and check on your people. Make sure that they are living as the people of God. Teach them the words that God has given you as to how to live.”
This was no Jewish believing king telling Ezra to do this. This was a pagan king. But that’s not all. The king also gave him gold and silver to buys animals to sacrifice to God, and he returned some of the things the Babylonians had taken from the original temple in Jerusalem when they had conquered the Jews. (7:15-18)
And so Ezra went back to Jerusalem along with about 5000 people. When they returned, they offered their sacrifices to God, and Ezra started to teach and lead the people in God’s ways. As he did, they started to remember who they were.
What is our identity? Like the Jews, we are God’s people. And when you are feeling broken like the Jews were, that’s what you need to remember. You are still God’s people. You may be broken. Your marriage a mess. Your family a mess. Your finances a mess. Your whole life a mess. But you are still God’s people. What does that mean, to be God’s people?
It means that you are a people chosen by grace.
Why in the world did God choose the Jews to be his people? It certainly wasn’t because they were better than anyone else. Their forefather Abraham had been an idol-worshiper. A liar. A coward. His son had been a liar and a coward too. His grandson had been a conman. Their descendants time and again turned their backs on God.
And yet, while not all these Jews could rightfully be called God’s people, some were. (Romans 9:6-8) And you always could tell who they were, because though they fell, though they were messed up, nevertheless, God in his grace worked in their lives, and in the end, they always turned back to God, and he gave them new life.
I don’t know about you, but there were many times in my life where I questioned whether I was a Christian or not. I first prayed to become a Christian when I was around 7 or 8, and I probably prayed to receive Jesus as my Savior a dozen times after that. Anyone here identify with that at all?
I don’t know why I was so uncertain. Probably a lot of it was that I was just not a very good Christian. My non-Christian friends would ask me, “Are you a Christian?” And I was so insecure, and afraid of their reaction that I would avoid their question. I had no boldness at all. I could also look at my life and see so many flaws and sins in my life.
But here’s what I can tell you as I look back on my life now. I can see that through all my uncertainty, God was working in my life. When I sinned, I felt guilty. I never became hardened to sin to the point that I didn’t care. I always cared. And as I look back, I can see God steering my life. I can see the people that he brought in my life to teach me his Word. To teach me to become more like Jesus. To encourage me to get involved in ministry. To eventually bring me here to Japan.
I can tell you two things about my Christian experience. First, I have seen God work in my life. And second, I deserve none of it. God worked in my life even though I have struggled with sin. He worked in me even though there were times I ran from his plan. And he just kept drawing me near.
Even now, I am nowhere near the Christian I should be. I struggle with pride. I struggle with lust. I struggle to be the man God has called me to be. And yet, I can see that for some strange reason, God never gave up on me. And it gives me confidence that he never will.
That’s how it was with these Jews. They messed up so many times. But God continued to work in their lives. Not because they deserved it. But because of God’s grace.
How about you? Some of you may have given your lives to Jesus and been baptized. But you still question whether you truly belong to God. Let me ask you something. You may not feel like a good Christian, but can you look back on your life and see God’s grace and work in your life, drawing you to himself and leading you?
Despite the fact that you may struggle with sin, and despite the fact that you fall, do you still have a desire to please him? If so, I would say don’t beat yourself up about your struggles. It’s not the people that struggle with sin that worry me. It’s those who don’t care. If you care about the sin in your life, I think that’s evidence that God is working in you.
And the thing to remember is, he doesn’t continue working in you because you deserve it. He works in you because he has chosen you as his child, and he loves you. And each day, whether you see it or not, he is pouring his grace on you. That’s what it means to be the people of God. So rest in that grace. You don’t need to earn God’s favor. You already have it. And he won’t stop working on you until you are completed.
The apostle Paul wrote this:
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)
So as God’s people, then, how then do we live. I think we can find the answers in the passages we just read.
First ground yourself in God’s word. That’s what Ezra taught the Jews to do. But as you do, can I give you a hint as to how to ground yourself in his word? Always read it with a focus on the grace you have received. Let me give you an example,
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (Ephesians 5:1).
Question: What words impress you the most from that verse? For many people, it would be the words, “Follow God’s example.” In short, “I’ve got to do better to become more like God.”
But those aren’t the most important words in that passage. The most important words are, “as dearly loved children.” When you read, that’s where your initial focus needs to be. Not what you should be. But what you are. Who you are. You’re God’s beloved children. And it’s when you truly understand who you are, and the love God has for you, that’s when you start to desire to become more like him. We become like children wanting to please our daddy. We no longer fear disappointing or angering him. Instead, we love him, and want to be like him.
The second thing is to make your life a life of worship. The Jews offered sacrifices of animals. We offer a different sacrifice. Take a look at Romans 12:1.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)
Let me ask you again: What words impress you the most from this passage? Again, it’s so easy to focus on the words, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” And that’s important. We are to give our lives to God. He doesn’t want a dead sacrifice. He wants someone who has offered everything to him. That’s the sacrifice that pleases him. But if you focus on those words, “Living sacrifice,” you’ve again missed an extremely important point. God has shown incredible mercy to you.
What does that mean exactly? Two things. First, you are far more sinful and flawed than you even realize. I don’t about you, but that thought scares me. Because I can see some pretty ugly sins that I struggle with now. But what do I not see? What do others see in me that I don’t? What pride? What ungraciousness? What selfishness? And more importantly, what does God see that no one else does? God is a holy God. And he sees every single sin and flaw that we have.
If you think that you’re pretty good as a Christian, that you’re not so bad, then you don’t truly comprehend God’s mercy in your life. We are far more sinful and flawed than we know.
But the second thing mercy means is that we are far more loved and welcomed by God than we could ever hope. Than we could dream. That’s the mercy of God. Do you understand God’s mercy? That’s what you need to understand first. And then from that understanding of mercy, flows a heart of true worship. A heart that is overjoyed to offer themselves as living sacrifices. But how do we ever come to understand that mercy and love that God has for us? Let’s look a little further into the story.
Take a look at chapter 9, verses 1-2.
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
What was the problem here? Probably, as Ezra taught the people God’s law, they noticed that God had told them not to intermarry with the people around them. Why? Because they were racists? No, because they were God’s people. And the main point was that they were to separate themselves from people whose practices are detestable to God. What did that mean? In those days, it primarily meant idol worship. And often times in their idol worship, the surrounding peoples would commit sexual sin and child sacrifice. And God said, “Don’t mix with people like that.”
Unfortunately, there were many that didn’t obey. In fact, from Malachi, it seems that people were actually divorcing their wives who loved God in order to marry these idol worshipers who didn’t. (Malachi 2:10-16)
What was Ezra’s response,
When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. (9:3)
As God’s people, we are to be separate from the sin that wrecks our relationship with God. We are to keep far from it. But how do you react when God reveals your sin? So many people take sin lightly. I think a lot of Christians know sexual sin is wrong, and they take it seriously. But it always amazes me when Christians can lie without blinking an eye. And they justify it by saying, “Well it was a white lie. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.” Or they have a problem with their temper. They simply can’t control it, and they say, “Well, it’s just me. I can’t help it.” When God reveals your sin, can you say that you are appalled by it. Or as the Japanese puts it, do you actually turn pale when you realize how God sees your sin?
It says something interesting in verse 4.
Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles.
Do you tremble at God’s word? Or do you take his word lightly? God said this to one of his prophets Isaiah.
These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
When you read the Bible and God shows you your sin, do you tremble at the weight of God’s word? Or do you say, “Well, that was for the people back then. It’s doesn’t apply to me.” You will never understand mercy, you will never understand grace as long as you keep making excuses for your sin. On the contrary, your heart will start to harden to God. And the ironic thing is, many times you start thinking you’re okay, and then you start judging other people for their sins. But all the while, you shut yourself off to the mercy of God. You are more sinful and flawed than you even know. Can you say that? Do you really believe that?
Ezra did. Look at his words.
I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. (9:6)
Then he remembered God’s mercy to them.
But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. (9:8-9)
God did the same for us. When we were slaves to Satan’s kingdom, God showed us mercy and rescued us. He gave us new life and rebuilt our lives. How then, can we go back to our sin? When you sin, do you think about these things at all? Do you think about the mercy God has shown you? If that mercy doesn’t drive you to repentance, then there is something seriously wrong.
You cannot claim to be a Christian and live in unrepentant sin. Because by doing so, you are spitting on Jesus and all he did for you on the cross. You’re saying, “I don’t care what you did. I’m going to live my own way.” That kind of attitude shuts you off from the mercy of God. And if you take that attitude, all that’s left for you is judgment. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
But for the Jews, God’s word and his mercy drove them to repentance. It says in chapter 10, verse 1-2,
While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel.
Two things to note here. They acknowledged their sin and how bad they were. But in the midst of it, they remembered grace. They remembered that despite their sin, there was still hope for them if they would only repent. Still, it was a miserable day. Ezra called all the people into Jerusalem to repent. And look what it says,
And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. (10:9)
I can’t think of a more miserable scene. Sitting in the pouring rain, mourning over your sin. But as they did so, they found mercy. They found grace. They turned from their sin. It took time. It took three months to deal with their sin. And it may take time for you to completely deal with yours. It may also be painful.
For these Jews, they needed to separate from their unbelieving wives and children. Now I am not saying that if you married a non-Christian, that you need to divorce that person. Paul gives us specific instructions for that situation in I Corinthians 7. If you have questions about that, please ask me after service.
But if you are in sin, you need to divorce yourself from that sin. Whether it is sexual sin. Whether it is selfishness. Whether it is brutal words coming out of your mouth. Whatever it may be. God doesn’t promise, though, that sin and its consequences can be dealt with in a moment. It often takes time. And again it can be painful.
But from the moment you repent, there is grace. How about you? Have you had that moment? That moment of sitting in the rain, in tears because of your sin? Or do you still take your sin lightly?
Now some of you may be feeling pretty bad right now. But if you are God’s people, don’t lose hope. You were chosen by God by grace. You were saved by grace. And by grace, God will work in your life until you become the beautiful person he created you to be. God had his chosen people in Jerusalem. And he sent Ezra the priest to help accomplish his purpose for them.
But God sent an even greater priest for us. Jesus came and died to take the punishment for our sin. And because God became a man, he understands us. He understands why we struggle so much with sin. He understands our weaknesses. And because of that, the writer of Hebrews tells us this.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Are you broken? Have you messed up your life? If you’re a Christian, remember who you are. You are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. God has poured out his grace and mercy on you. So approach his throne with confidence. And he will make you whole again.
Small group questions:
1. Read Ezra 7:14,25. How did God use Ezra to bring lead the Jews back to Him?
2. Have you ever doubted whether you really are a Christian? If so, why? How did you become a Christian? In what ways did God lead you to that point? In what ways did he lead you after that point? If God in his grace chose you and worked in you then, what does that tell you about what he’s doing now? If you’re not a Christian, can you see ways that God is trying to bring you to himself?
3. Read Ezra 9:6-9. What did Ezra realize about the sins of the Jews? What did he understand about God’s grace toward them?
4. “You are far more sinful and flawed than you realize.” “You are far more welcomed and loved by God than you could ever imagine?” Can you say that you have really grasped these truths in your life? Why is it important to truly understand both these truths? How would it change the way you see yourself and others? How would it change the way you see God?
5. When you read Ephesians 5:1 and Romans 12:1, what words do you focus on? Why is it important to focus on who we are (God’s beloved children, and people God has shown mercy to) before we look at what we should be (imitators of God and living sacrifices)?