9 Jun 2013


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            How many of you have ever been to the River City Roundup?  According to their web site, the Roundup originated on the back of a napkin during a Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben meeting, and it has been held here in Omaha since 1982, at first at the Omaha Civic Auditorium and currently at the Century Link Center.  The River City Roundups major events include the Ak-Sar-Ben Rodeo, the Douglas County Fair and the Ak-Sar-Ben 4-H Livestock Exposition.  By the way, in the 80's I was asked to give the invocation at a rodeo held at the Omaha Civic Center.  I don't recall if it was the Ak-Sar-Ben Rodeo.  Anyway, the guy in charge told me I might need to ride a horse to the center of the Rodeo and give the prayer.  He said that they hadn't quite worked out the details of the invocation, but seeing the fear in my eyes about getting on a horse, they decided to have me offer the invocation from a stage platform at the corner of the rodeo ring.  Thank God.  To this day that has been my one and only rodeo prayer. 

            I bet a lot of cities located near rivers have their own version of River City Roundup.  I know Sacramento does and Edmonton does to name two, and this morning we turn our attention to one of the first ever "River City Roundups," the roundup Ezra put together.  Look with me at verse fifteen.


            I gathered them by the river that runs to Ahava, and there we camped three days. 


            A couple of things I want to point out here.  First, we don't really know where that particular river happened to be.  In all likelihood it was one of the many streams and canals that flowed into the Euphrates river.  Apparently, it passed by another river city, a river city named "Ahava," and many of you are familiar with that name, especially if you have ever been to Israel because that's the name of a long line of Israeli beauty products.  Second, I want to point out the size of the group who had gathered to join Ezra in heading back to Israel.  I skipped over the first fourteen verses of the chapter as it's boring to read with a lot of hard names to pronounce.  Suffice it to say the number of people listed there total 1754 individuals, but that number only has to do with the adult males.  If we factor in the women and children Ezra mentions later in the chapter, the count soars to around 5,000 individuals.  That's a significant "River City Roundup."

            Now, this may seem far afield, but bear with me for a moment.  What do you do after you get in the car and head home from the church building?  Do you know what I usually do?  I listen to Trudy solve problems.  She's a real estate broker and the first thing she does when we get in the car after worship is check her messages to see if an agent called her with a problem.  If so, she calls the agent back and works with the agent to solve the agent's problem.  Sometimes it's as simple as where does the agent find a particular form and sometimes it's as complicated as how to handle multiple offers on a property. 

            Well, today as Ezra gathers at the river with 5,000 of his closest friends, he faces a problem, and we can learn a lot from him when it comes to handling problems.  He does three things here, which I admire.

            First, he recognizes the problem.  Let's read the second half of verse fifteen.


            As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendants of Levi.


            We dont like problems, and because we dont like problems, we usually have a number of less than helpful ways of dealing with them.  One, we might try to ignore them, hoping it will go away, but it usually does not.  It just gets worse.  Another less than helpful way to deal with a problem is to overreact, throwing gasoline on the fire, making the problem worse.  Still another less than helpful way is to attack the symptoms rather than the real problem, but Ezra did not do any of these things.  Instead, Ezra recognized the problem for what it was.  And it was a big problem.  As he gathered all these people on the banks of the Ahava canal he noticed the absence of Levites. 

            Now, why was that a problem?  Because the Levites had been called by God to serve in the temple.  God set the Levites apart to assist the priests.  Without Levites, the priests would have to perform tasks that would keep them away from doing the primary work God called them to do. Now, if you were here when we looked at chapter two, you remember that in the first remnant that returned, there was also a tremendous shortage of Levites.  There should have been about ten times the number of Levites compared to priests, but there were actually less Levites than priests in that group.  Fast forward eighty years and there was an even worse ratio.  We dont know how many priests Ezra had with him, other than himself, but we do know he didnt have any Levites.  Not having Levites was a problem, and he identified it as such. 

            That brings us to the second thing I admire about Ezra.  He came up with the right solution to the problem.  Verses sixteen and seventeen.


            Then I sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, who were leaders, and for Joiarib and Elnathan (Elnathan must have been a popular name, because that's the third person in his list with that name) who were wise, and sent them to Iddo, the leader at the place called Casiphia, telling them what to say to Iddo and his colleagues the temple servants at Casiphia, namely, to send us ministers for the house of our God. 


            Solutions are easy to come by.  The right solution is not.  A man was in a classroom learning how to become a truck driver.  The instructor gave him a scenario. He said, Youre in an 18-wheeler with a heavy load and youre driving on a two-lane road through the mountains.  Youre co-driver, Ed is asleep.  There are six trucks behind you that all pull out at the same time to pass you as youre going up a hill.  Theyre still in the left-hand lane as you crest a hill and see the same thing coming at you from the other direction.  Six trucks coming at you in your lane and one coming at the six who are passing you.  What do you do?  The student didnt even have to think about it.  He said, Id wake Ed up.  That threw the instructor off a little bit, so he asked him, Why would you do that?  Because Ed aint never seen a wreck like this one before!  That was a solution, but it probably wasnt the best solution, and Ezra had a solution that was a whole lot better than waking up Ed to watch the crash.

            He knew the problem was that he didnt have any Levites.  So he sent people out to get them, and note whom he sent.  He sent eleven people, nine leader types and two men of wisdom.  In other words, he sent out people of influence and persuasion.  Furthermore, Ezra sent them out with very clear direction.  He told them where they were supposed to go.  He told them whom they were supposed to see when they got there.  He even told them what they were supposed to say when they met with Iddo.

            Thirdly, and this is what I admire most, he let God be in charge of the result.  Verse eighteen.


            Since the gracious hand of our God was upon us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the descendants of Mahli son of Levi son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and kind, eighteen; also Hashabiah and with him Jeshasiah of the descendants of Merari, with his kin and their sons, twenty; besides two hundred twenty temple servants, whom David and his officials set apart to attend the Levites.  These were all mentioned by name.


            Any way we look at it, the response by the Levites was pitiful.  Eleven gifted and talented people went out from Ezra to persuade Levites to come with them to Jerusalem.  He sent them to the place called Casiphia.  We dont have any records of any place called Casiphia, but the way its referred to here tells us some things about it.  Many times when the words the place were attached to the name of a locale, it meant that it was a type of Jewish sanctuary.  These sanctuaries were fairly common in Babylon during the exile.  They were what would later become the synagogues we see throughout the Book of Acts.   The way verse  seventeen refers to their leader Iddo as, the chief at the place indicates that Casiphia may have been sort of levitical training facility.  Think of it as Ezra sending the eleven on a recruiting mission to a seminary campus.  And look what they came back with.  Eighteen from one clan and twenty from another.  Out of all the Levites in Babylon, they could only come up with thirty-eight.  Thats pitiful. 

            Now, their pitch must have been persuasive because 220 temple servants decided to go along.  They were the ones who did the jobs that nobody else wanted to do.  They werent qualified to handle the priestly or the levitical duties, but they did whatever they could to serve in the temple.  So how did Ezra react with the scant number of Levites?  Did he wring his hands and say Woe is me?  Did he throw a fit on the folks he sent to do the job?  Did he hang his head and ask, how in the world are we going to do anything with only thirty-eight Levites?  No.  Look at his words in verse eighteen.  They were some of Ezras favorite words.  This phrase occurred three times in the previous chapter and it occurs three times in this chapter.  Reflecting on the results of the recruiting trip, he said, "Since the gracious hand of God was on us ...   In other words, he actually thanked God for the thirty-eight!   And it wasnt like he said, Thanks God even though its not enough.  Even though were going to have to work twice as hard.  Thanks anyway.   No, Ezra trusted God so much that he truly was thankful.  He actually believed that if God gave him thirty-eight Levites, that must have been enough. 

            He trusted God for the results.  Do we trust God for the results even when it doesn't turn out how we wanted it to turn out?  Even though the marriage ends, or the business fails, or the house takes so long to sell, or the trip has to be cancelled, do we trust God for the results?

            Well, four months later they arrived in Jerusalem, having traveled over 1200 miles.  And one of the interesting tidbits about the trip back home is that Ezra did not ask the King of Persia for military protection because he had already asked the King for so much and he didn't want to ask the King for anything else.  After collecting the rest of the Temple treasure, worth about $750,000 today, they headed to Jerusalem .  One biblical commentator put it this way,


            Some thousands of men, women, and children, unaccustomed to travel, undisciplined to order, and without military strength, and with a large amount of treasure tempting the marauding, plundering tribes of the desert -- to accomplish a journey so long and so arduous in perfect safety, is one of the most astonishing events recorded in history.


            And what did Ezra say after the journey?  He said what he often said, "The gracious hand of God was upon us."  Let us pray.