A HEARTFELT PRAYER

EZRA 9

16 JUN 2013

 

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Three theologians were having a deep theological discussion about prayer while they were walking down the street.  More specifically, they were talking about the most effective positions of prayer.  The discussion got pretty intense so they stopped on the sidewalk to try and make their points.  It just so happened that they stopped underneath a telephone pole where a lineman was up in the air working on the cable.  Not noticing the lineman, they continued their theological debate.  The first theologian made the case that the key to powerful prayer was in the position of the hands.  He said he always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of worship.  The second theologian disagreed with him.  He said that the only position of real prayer was always on your knees.  The third theologian said they were both wrong.  He put on his most pious expression and said that the only position worth its salt was to pray while stretched out flat on your face.  The lineman finally had enough of the theologians, and he threw in his two-cents worth.  He said, Fellas, the most powerful prayer I ever prayed wasnt when I had my hands folded the right way.  It wasnt when I was knelt on my knees.  And it wasnt when I was stretched out on the floor.  The most powerful prayer I ever prayed was when I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground.

            Ezra felt a lot like that in our passage for today.  He felt upside down dangling from a power pole.  Open your bibles and turn with me to Ezra chapter nine.  We will begin with the first verse.  Listen to what had him in so upset.

 

            After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, "The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.  For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons.  Thus the holy seed seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.  When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled.  Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.

 

            The second half of this chapter will resonate with us but the first part of the chapter may not.  Given the times in which we live, the prohibition against mixed marriages seems outdated, backward, even somewhat racist.  If Ezra was appalled at the mixed marriages, we are equally appalled at the racial overtones.

            Over breakfast this past Thursday, I came across an article in the Omaha World Herald by Josie Loza.  Maybe you saw it.  The headline reads, "Thank you, Cheerios, for help in easing my heart." 

 

            In the mail last week, I received a hurtful and hateful letter about my man's skin color.  The letter came from someone who saw a photograph of me holding my biracial daughter and became upset.  My initial thought:  I'm in love with a man who is black.  Get over it.  Of course, the letter upset me.  Who wouldn't be upset?

            A day later, a Cheerios commercial featuring a white mom, a black dad and their biracial child popped up on TV.  The 30-second clip ended with one word, "Love."

            It was as if someone was wiping away the tears at the corners of my eyes.  I clapped after watching the commercial ... and then I read that the company had to disable its YouTube comments because of the negative remarks about the commercial left on the page. 

            Really, people?  Why is there so much hate in the world.

 

            Given our modern day sensibilities about such things, one reads this denunciation of mixed marriages in our passage and says, "Really, people?"  Of course, we understand the Israeli track record, how when they married people outside the Jewish community they tended to slide into idolatry, so we understand the concern behind the denunciation, but it's a little like having women wear burkhas.  The problem is not women, it's men, and the problem was not really other races, it was the Israelites who too frequently gave up the core of who they were when they joined in marriage with other races.  So, it's not so much saying the Israelites were better, it's was more like saying, "You are weak.  You are not strong enough to stay true, so avoid mixed marriages.  Separate yourselves because you won't stand strong." 

            So that's what triggered Ezra's fervent prayer.  That's what had him feeling like he was hanging upside down on a power pole.  He was extremely concerned about what mixed marriages would do the people of Israel, and even though the prohibition may not resonate with most of us today, it certainly did with Ezra.

            Another part of the passage, however, does resonate with us.  This part of the passage is as relevant today as it was back then.  It has to do with Ezra's prayer of confession, which many consider to the be theological highlight of the book.  It begins with Ezra's being unable to look God in the eye.  Listen to the opening words of his prayer.  Verse six ...

 

            O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my fact to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens." 

 

            As we take a closer look at his prayer, I want us to note three things.  First, note how Ezra prayed as if he was a part of the problem.   Note how he uses the word "our" and not the word "their."  Note how Ezra identifies with the people in their sin even though he personally wasn't guilty.

            Because the younger children at the Catholic parochial school often forgot their sins when they entered the confessional, the priest assigned to the school suggested that teachers have the students make lists. The next week when one child came to confession, the priest could hear him unfolding paper.  The youngster began, "I lied to my parents.  I disobeyed my mom. I fought with my brothers and..."  There was a long pause.  Then a small angry voice said, "Hey, this isn't my list!"

            Ezra could have easily said, "Hey, this isn't my list!" but he did not.  He included himself in the confession.  As 21st century American Christians, we often have a hard time getting the concept of us and we."  We have difficulty understanding that we are part of the problem.  Ezra did not.  If Ezra was not guilty of this particular sin, he was certainly guilty of other sins.  So he ends the pray of confession (verse fifteen) with the words, "Here we are before you in our guilt."

            Second, he did not offer any excuses.  Listen to him.  Verse seven,

 

            From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case.

 

            And skipping to verse 10

 

            And now, our God, what shall we say after this?  For we have forsaken your commandments, which you have commanded by your servants the prophets ...

 

            After reflecting on their history and their present situation he's at a loss for words.  "Our God, what shall we say after this?   We have no excuse.  We have been a major disappointment and You have been good and gracious, and I don't know what to say because weve repaid all your goodness with more sin.

            What a breath of fresh air.  Most of the time, we work really hard to set up our defense. Well God, I sinned because Im human.  I lost my temper but she set me off.  I quit going to church because Sunday is my only day to relax.  I don't give money to charities because you don't know how its going to be spent.  We can be masters of excuse making.

            But how did Ezra react?  Lord, we've sinned against You."  No excuses.  No buts.  No "granted we sinned, but ..."

            The Prussian king Frederick the Great was touring a Berlin prison.  The prisoners fell on their knees before him to proclaim their innocence except for one man, who remained silent.  Frederick called to him, "Why are you here?"  The man offered no excuses.  He said, "Armed robbery, Your Majesty."  "And are you guilty?"  "Yes indeed, Your Majesty, I deserve my punishment."  Frederick then summoned the jailer and ordered him, "Release this guilty wretch at once.  I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it."

           

            Third, he recognized the grace of God.  Verse eight ...

 

            But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by The Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in this holy place.

 

            And verse thirteen ...

 

            After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less that our iniquities deserve ...

 

             Maybe you recall Jimmy Stewarts prayer in the movie Shenandoah.  Sitting down to dinner with his family he prayed, Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it.  Sowed it.  Harvested it.  We cooked the harvest.  We wouldnt be here, we wouldnt be eatin if we hadnt done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food were about to eat.  Amen. 

            Thats not how Ezra prayed.  He saw everything as being provided by the grace of God.  It was the grace of God that had gotten them to this place.  It wasnt anything that they had done.  By God's grace they were able to stake their meager claim in Jerusalem.  It wasnt their methods that had brought them thus far.  It wasnt Ezras brilliant leadership skills.  It wasnt the peoples extraordinary abilities.  It was the grace of God and God's grace alone that provided for them, and Ezra recognized that in his prayer.

            Let me close with a quote from Max Lucado.  He writes,

 

            Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field.  Before the farmer sows the seed, he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps.  He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared.  Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts.

 

            Let's stand and sing.