23 Jun 2013


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          Have you ever seen the documentary series Hoarders that airs on A&E?  The series depicts the real-life struggles and treatment of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding.  At the end of each episode, on-screen text reports the short-term outcome of the cleanup effort, including the subjects' decisions on whether to seek further assistance from organizers or therapists. The show even provides six months of aftercare funds to pay these professionals and, occasionally, to carry out vital repairs to the home.  Hoarders debuted as the most-watched series premiere in A&E network history among adults aged 1849 and tied for the most ever watched A&E series in adults aged 2554 demographic.

            Of course, the clean-up specialists and the therapists are professionals, so they know how to deal with such people, but after walking into a hoarders home with the purpose of cleaning it up, my question would be, "Where does one begin?" 

            Well, I find myself asking the same question when it comes to the final chapter in the Book of Ezra.  The chapter raises so my questions it's hard to know where to begin in cleaning up the issues raised in this chapter.  Let's begin reading and I'll show you what I mean. 


            While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.  So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.  Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.  Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore.


            Where does one begin with all clutter in this chapter?  Maybe we should begin with the God's stance on divorce.  In the Old Testament, divorce was permitted (Deut. 24:1), though it was considered a serious undertaking and one which, according to the Book of Malachi (2:16), God "hated."   So maybe divorcing foreign wives was simply choosing between the lesser of two evils, choosing divorce over the danger of falling into idolatry by adopting the religious practices of a foreign spouse.  Or maybe we should begin with scale of these divorce proceedings, and question the lack of provision for the divorced women and children.  These women and children would probably have returned to their own families who, hopefully, would have taken responsibility for them.  We simply don't know what, if any, provisions were made since the chapter is not concerned with other matter.  Or maybe we should begin by asking about the hero in the Book of Ruth, a woman named Naomi, who was a Moabite, not an Israelite.  Of course, this foreign wife, named Naomi, adopted the religious practices of her husband, so maybe that doesn't apply.  Or maybe we should begin by looking to the New Testament and remembering the Apostle Paul's counsel to believers who are married to non-believers.  He counseled the believing partner to stay in the marriage and to see the situation as an opportunity for winning the unbelieving partner to Christ.  So did God's concern about about his people falling into adultery by marrying people of different beliefs, change with the coming of Christ?

            There is a lot to clean up here in this chapter, and to tell you the truth, I'm not up to it.  I rather focus on something else this morning, but before we go there, let me say just one thing.  When pondering all these questions about divorce and mixed marriages, let's acknowledge the great challenge Ezra faced in rebuilding the nation.  As he sought to implement the stipulations of Artaxerxes's edict to reconstitute Israel as a religious community under the political domination of Persia, he concluded, rightly or wrongly, that this redefinition of Israel's identity demanded a purification of the people on religious grounds.  It was not the racial or national ties that were at issue for Ezra, it was the religious practices that the foreign wives brought to their marriages and the effects those practices could have upon family and community structures that concerned Ezra.  In reconstituting, redefining Israel, Ezra chose to eliminate those influences and effects. 

            OK, enough of that ... let's finally turn to what I believe is incredibly applicable to our day and time, and specifically, let me point out three great things to bring to church with us each Sunday.  To do that, we need to read the next section of the chapter beginning in verse six.


            Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God, and went to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night.  He did not eat bread or drink water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles.  They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, and that if any did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all their property should be forfeited, and they themselves banned from the congregation of the exiles.  (In other words, miss this meeting at your own peril). 

            Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month.  (In other words, late December, the coldest time in Israel.)  All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.  Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel.  Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.  Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, It is so; we must do as you have said.  But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open.  Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter.  Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.  Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them.

            Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of families, according to their families, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter.  By the first day of the first month (that is three months after the cold, rainy assembly in late December) they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.


            The returned exiles brought three great things with them when they assembled before Ezra.  We would do well to bring the same three things with us when we come to church. 

            First, they came with open hearts.  What is an open heart?  An open heart is a heart that is ready to hear from and be confronted by God, and it's so much easier for the God if the Spirit of God does not have to pry open closed hearts with a spiritual crow bar! 

            The late Lewis Grizzard, a humorist and author of many columns and books, was scheduled to have open-heart surgery the next morning.  His minister came to visit him and Grizzard confessed to his minister that he had not exactly been a paragon of virtue and asked if there were still time to repent.  The minister looked at his watch and replied, "Yes, but I'd hurry if I were you."

            In a sense that what's Ezra said to these people.  "We don't have time to lose.  We don't want to push God any further on this.  We've seen in the past where that has led us," and the people were open to what he had to say.  Two people had closed hearts, a guy named Jonahan and a guy named Jahzeiah, but the rest of the people were ready to hear from God. 

            So that's one thing to bring with us to church, an open heart.  Second, they came with the right attitude, particularly an attitude of worship.  Ezra says the people "trembled," not just because of the cold rain but also in expectation, reverence of what God was going to say to them about this matter of foreign wives. 

            Let me be honest, one thing I love about this church is all the buzz before the worship service.  I love the friendships and the catching up with one another, and the energy in the sanctuary before worship.  That's also one thing I wonder about as well.  In our joy of being reunited with one another, I wonder if we may have lost something when it comes to preparing to worship. 

            It was a different time and a different place, a decade ago, but years ago I would travel to other congregations consulting about small group fellowships in the church.  They would invite me in and I would do a seminar on Saturday and they would often have me stay over to preach on Sunday morning.  Now, it's been ten years since I've done this, but I remember a very proper Presbyterian church in Richmond, Virginia, which, as many of you know, was the capitol of the Confederacy during what they refer to as the War of Northern Aggression.  Anyway, two things struck me as I walked into the sanctuary minutes before the service was to begin.  First, there were no open neck shirts, like I'm wearing today, in the sanctuary.  Every man wore a tie and women even came to church with hats.  Everyone wore their Sunday best.  But what struck me most was the quiet in the sanctuary.  During the organ prelude almost everyone had their heads bowed in prayer.  They came with an attitude of worship.

            I'm not suggesting we change anything, I like it the way things are now, but sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't benefit from a little quiet prior to worship.  Not a lot, maybe when the organ prelude begins we could cease all the visiting and focus on meeting God and listening to God in the service.  Maybe we could reverently bow our heads and silently say, "God, I want my heart to be open to you today.  Speak to me.  Tell me what need's changing." 

            I don't know, maybe that's going too far.  Maybe that would change who we are here at Anderson Grove, but sometimes I wonder.  Sometimes I wonder if it might not be for the better, for some reverent silence and prayer when the prelude begins.  I think it would go a long way to establishing a proper attitude for worship.

            Then, thirdly, they brought with them a determination to act.  After coming with open hearts, and the right attitude, Ezra's congregation decided to act.  I love the response to Ezra's message.  Verse twelve:  "Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, 'It is so; we must do as you have said.'"

            Someone said, "If the devil cant stop you from coming to church he at least wants to stop you from acting on what God tells you to do."  And Old Redlegs has been pretty successful in that regard.   One of Gods purpose in gathering us for worship is for us to leave different people than when we came, with marching orders in hand.  Often we don't.  Now, a lot of time's that's my fault.  The Spirit has not spoken through me, but sometimes she has.  We just have decided to ignore the marching orders.

            When it comes to possessing a determination to act, I think of a moment in General Stonewall Jackson's famous valley campaign.  Jackson's army found itself on one side of a river when it needed to be on the other side.  After telling his engineers to plan and build a bridge so the army could cross, he called his wagon master in to tell him that it was urgent the wagon train cross the river as soon as possible.  The wagon master started gathering all the logs, rocks and fence rails he could find and built a bridge.  In the middle of the night the wagon master woke up General Jackson to tell him all the wagons and artillery had crossed the river.  General Jackson asked where are the engineers and what are they doing?  The wagon master's reply was that they were in their tent drawing up plans for a bridge.

            We need to be more like the wagon master and less like the engineers.

            Three great things to bring with us to worship.  An open heart.  The right attitude.  A determination to act.  Amen.