INTRODUCTION: THE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK
‘The dog ate my homework!’ The classic excuse. Anyone ever used that?
The excuse is sin’s subtle sidekick. It’s not my fault. I was tired and frustrated. Everybody’s doing it. I was angry, but they deserved it. It was only a white lie. I was in a hurry. No big deal.
Excuses are our attempt to cancel sin. To downplay, downgrade, diminish. To rationalise. To redefine.
Mark Thompson, principal at Moore College in Sydney, writes “across the world, both inside and outside the churches, an awareness of sin and judgement is conspicuously lacking. In so many churches and Christian lives, the [idea] of sin is either missing or redefined beyond all recognition.”
Consciously or unconsciously, we dress sin up to be respectable or acceptable or ok. We condone what should be condemned. We treat sin lightly.
But here’s the cold hard truth. A monkey by any other name is still a monkey. A pig in a tux is still a pig. Sin, no matter what you call it or how you dress it up, is still sin.
In Ezra 9 and 10 Israel comes face to face with their sin.
Israel is back in the land. They’ve returned from exile. Rebuilt the temple. And are rebuilding the nation under God’s Word. Yet, sin threatens to derail that.
And what these chapters teach us is that sin is serious. And needs a serious solution with serious action. ‘cos holiness matters.
1. THE SIN
So, what is Israel’s sin?
Ezra’s been travelling the country. He comes home, verse 1, to a bombshell. The leaders report that;
Ezra 9:1-2 ” The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples , like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites.
What do they mean not kept separate? Verse 2.
Ezra 9:2 ” 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.”
They’ve taken foreign women as wives.
Perhaps you’ve got a classmate or colleague who’d raise an objection here saying: ‘isn’t that racist! Can’t I marry someone from a different race?”
Well, no, it isn’t racist. And yes, you can.
We’d want to affirm first that God created all people equal and in His image. God is not a racist.
Second. God is, in principle, for inter-racial marriage. God Himself orchestrated the marriage of Boaz with Ruth the Moabite.
Third. God is on mission to explicitly gather people of all colours and languages into His family. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. God’s dream is for one united rainbow people of God.
So, if that’s true, what’s going on here?
Well, the issue here is not ‘racial’ purity, but ‘religious’ purity. It’s fundamentally about holiness.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt in the first exodus. And established them as His people, He set Israel apart as holy. To be his. To be like Him.
Leviticus 19:2 ” Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Leviticus 20:26 ” I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”
Set apart, distinct from other nations. Who were wicked.
Here in Ezra in the second exodus, this list of nations in verse 1 echoes the same list of nations when Israel entered the land in the first exodus. These nations that were all especially anti-god. And despicably wicked.
Verse 1 describes them as neighbours;
Ezra 9:1 ” with detestable practices “
And detestable they were. The sins of these people, verse 11;
Ezra 9:11 ” polluted [and corrupted the land] filled it with impurity from one end to the other.”
Their detestable practices included idolatry, the worship of fertility gods. Rampant sexual abuse and immorality. Child sacrifice. And these weren’t just allowed, but encouraged and mandated.
So God warns Israel to keep separate. Verse 12.
Ezra 9:12 ” do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.”
Why? After the first exodus, in Deuteronomy 7, God says;
Deuteronomy 7:3-4 ” do not intermarry with [unbelievers]. for [what will happen?] for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods.”
And the principle still applies today.
Christians are not to ‘date’ or marry a non-Christian. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14) isn’t only referring to marriage, but certainly includes it. If our closest human relationship is with someone who does not know and love the Lord Jesus, and thus someone with a completely different worldview and basis for morality, then our Christian commitment will be compromised. We may hope we’ll influence them, but it’s already the other way round ‘cos we’ve already compromised our Christian commitment to pursue the relationship in the first place.
I remember a Sydney pastor telling me of a Christian girl who started dating an unbeliever who subsequently became a Christian. And he promptly broke up. Telling her; ‘you’ve not been taking Jesus seriously. You’ve worshipped me over Him.’
For those struggling in these areas it may seem hard. Though the truth is that the path of obedience is liberating and joyful. God isn’t a killjoy. He knows what’s good and best for us, and He wants what’s good and best, and He commands it.
So, this has to do with holiness. It’s about being God’s distinctive people. Holy as He is holy.
And it also has to do with protecting the holy offspring. Verse 2 speaks of having;
Ezra 9:2 ” mingled the holy race [literally,] mingled the holy [seed or offspring] “
God promised to reverse the fall. And rescue His people through His messiah. Who would be the offspring of Eve, and the seed of Abraham. In other words, it would be through a Jewish Messiah that God rescues and unites people of all nations. b. Unfaithfulness
Psychology teaches that the presenting problem is not often the real problem. That’s there usually an underlying, more fundamental issue.
The presenting sin here is marrying foreign unbelieving women. Yet it’s only an expression or symptom of what’s really wrong. The fundamental underlying sin is at the end of verse 2.
Ezra 9:2 ” [That] the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
The fundamental sin is unfaithfulness to God. Their God. Who’s good and gracious. Their God. Who set His affection on them. Their God. Who, in unfailing love, bound Himself to them in covenant. Their faithful God.
Yet they’re unfaithful. Which means a failure to put God
first. After the first exodus, when God established Israel as His people, He commanded them;
Exodus 20:3 ” You shall have no other gods beside me.”
God who loves us, who created us, who saved us, wants to be first in our hearts. No rivals. No other gods.
Our God of love and mercy rightfully demands our exclusive allegiance. Our undivided love. Our uncompromised obedience.
And yet the history of Israel is a lowlights reel of unfaithfulness on ‘repeat’. Solomon married foreign wives and thus led Israel into idolatry. Gomer’s repeated adultery to her husband Hosea illustrated Israel’s unfaithfulness, their forsaking God and running after other gods. Spiritual adultery. Spiritual prostitution.
God isn’t first in their hearts. They love and desire other things.
Some of us here will have heard these harsh words. Yet just imagine hearing from your husband or wife, or from a parent. ‘i don’t love you any more.’ I’d imagine it’d be worse to hear them say ‘i love you’, and yet for them to be sleeping in someone else’s bed.
That’s what Israel did. Isn’t that what we do.
God is not first. We love something or someone else more than him.
For Israel, sin comes from within. And it comes from the top.
Ezra 9:2 ” [It’s] the leaders [verse 2] the leaders and officials [who] have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
Israel’s leaders have led. Badly. In the wrong direction. Away from God.
2. EZRA’S REPENTANCE
Ok. First big point. Israel’s sin. unfaithfulness.
Second big point. Ezra’s repentance. And it’s model repentance.
I’m not sure Elton John and I would ever have too much in common. Though I do agree with him that; ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word.’
It’s not easy to admit we’ve done wrong.
And even if we do, it’s easy to play it down. Brush it off. Make light of it.
When Ezra faces up to sin, he is utterly appalled. Verse 3, and verse 4. appalled.
A deep shame and an internal disgust. That finds outward visible expression. He tears up his tunic. Verse 3. And his cloak.
When frustrated we say; ‘I’m tearing my hair out.’ We mean it metaphorically. Ezra does it literally.
Others gather round Ezra in verse 4. This is public repentance. Not for show. It’s genuine.
Ezra 9:5 ” [Ezra] fell on [his] knees [verse 5] with [his] hands spread out to the Lord [his] God.”
Now remember chapters 7 and 8. Ezra is the one bringing back the word of god. And that’s really important. Because the Word of God is the catalyst and cause of their repentance.
Ezra 9:4 ” everyone [verse 4] who trembled at the words of the god of Israel gathered round because of this unfaithfulness “
Repentance is always a response to God’s Word. To hearing and believing God’s Word.
‘cos God sets the standard. he
is the standard. And His Word shows we don’t measure up.
Friends, if we just listen to ourselves, we’ll never repent. ‘cos each of us has a ‘inner lawyer’.
Our inner lawyer ‘justifies’ our actions. They always make a good case for why we’ve done something. They always manage to make sinful behaviour seem reasonable. They always plead with extenuating circumstances.
When we listen to our inner lawyer, we’ll feel justified with even our most sinful deeds.
Which is why you and I need to stand in front of the mirror
of God’s word. In the light
of God’s Word.
So that we see the ugly truth. To see ourselves as we are. sinful. Wretched.
Then we’ll hold up our hands. No excuses.
Note also that Ezra’s repentance is tied up with the evening sacrifice. Verses 4 and 5 again.
Every evening Israel sacrificed a lamb, and the whole animal was burnt up. The sacrifice served two purposes. It made atonement for sin. And it expressed wholehearted re-dedication to God. Remove sin. Re-commit to holiness.
And then note that in all of this Ezra’s response is to speak to god in prayer. Repentance is a response to God’s Word. And repentance, first and foremost, is a response in words to God. We confess.
And Ezra’s prayer of confession is very personal.
Ezra 9:6 ” I [verse 6] am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you “
It’s personal. And yet corporate. Ezra is not personally guilty of the sin, and yet He identifies fully.
Ezra 9:6-7 ” our sins [verse 6] are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. 7 From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings “
We live in a ‘blame culture’ and a ‘cancel culture’. A culture that’s quick to find fault in others. And point fingers. Which at the same time promotes self-righteousness. Looking down our noses at others. While making excuses for ourselves.
Ezra could so easily have pointed the finger. But he doesn’t.
He confesses, verse 10.
Ezra 9:10 ” we have forsaken [your] commands “
Ezra 9:13 ” our evil deeds [verse 13] our great guilt “
He doesn’t downplay or deflect. Doesn’t rationalise or minimise. Doesn’t pass the buck.
Ezra 9:10 ” we have forsaken “
And Ezra acknowledges that their sin deserves to be punished. As unholy and unfaithful they’re guilty. condemned. damned.
In stark contrast, god is holy, and faithful, and gracious.
Ezra 9:9 ” [He, verse 9] has not forsaken us he has shown us kindness he has granted us new life “
Thank God for His mercy. That He does not treat His people as they deserve.
We’re sinful. But the
Ezra 9:15 ” Lord, [verse 15] the God of Israel, you are righteous.”
people before a holy
Ezra 9:15 ” Here we are [verse 15] before you [O Lord] in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
We can’t stand ‘cos we’re the antithesis of God. He is light; we are darkness. He is the standard of what is right, we are the epitome of what is wrong. He is perfect, holy, righteous. We are, at our very best, filthy rags piled in a heap of trash.
We’re guilty as charged. No defence. No mitigating factors.
Ezra 9:15 ” not one of us can stand in [His] presence.”
The wages of sin is death. To be banished from God’s presence. To be exiled eternally.
If we got what we truly deserved, not one of us would finish the breath in our lungs. We are damned and destitute. Helpless and hopeless.
What you and I so desperately need is a sacrifice. A sacrifce with a pleasing aroma to cover our stench. A sacrifice with blood shed to pay our wages, the penalty of sin. A sacrifice that cleanses and removes guilt.
3. ISRAEL’S REPENTANCE
Second point, Ezra’s repentance, leads to israel’s repentance. Third point. Don’t underestimate how God can use you. He uses one
man to spark national
Chapter 10 verse 1. A crowd gathers. And with Ezra they weep bitterly.
Shekaniah steps up. Verse 2. He calls it as it is.
Ezra 10:2 ” We have been unfaithful to our God [there’s the fundamental sin. How so?] by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us.”
Shekaniah speaks for Israel. We want to rectify, to put things right. To produce deeds in keeping with repentance. So verse 3.
Ezra 10:3 ” let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children [And] let it be done according to the Law. [God’s Word.]”
Verse 4. Shekaniah says, ‘Ezra! Lead us! We’re right behind you.’
Ezra is a man with a mandate. He calls a national men’s meeting. Within 3 days all the men are gathered, outside the temple, in the rain.
Ezra makes public the accusation of unfaithfulness. And commands repentance. Verse 11.
Ezra 10:11 ” Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.”
There’s loud agreement! No arguments, except for 4 guys who are named and shamed in verse 15.
And then follows a 3 month long programme of investigation. Culminating in a list of 111.
Which isn’t a name and shame list. These guys are doing the right thing – repenting. This is a list of restoration. Those who’ve done wrong, made right and been forgiven.
Now, I don’t know about you, but as I read this chapter I’m horrified at them having to ‘send away’ their foreign wives.
Though we should remember a few things. That, as Malachi explains, Jewish wives had been abandoned in favour of foreign wives. That these foreign marriages were unlawful. That the foreign wives are idiolators. They don’t worship God. That being ‘sent away’ wouldn’t have meant abandoned, but rather sent back to their own people. And that even though God hates divorce, He did allow it because of Israel’s hardness of heart.
So this ‘sending away’ of foreign wives really serves as a classic example of how sin and its consequences are horrific.
Now we do need to be careful when drawing implications for today. God’s people are no longer centralised or localised in one nation. Jesus makes a difference. God’s family are now made up of all nations and scattered among the nations. The Apostle Paul specifically makes clear that, if you are married to a unbeliever, don’t divorce. Instead, be holy, be distinctively Christian, in the hope of winning your partner to Christ. However, if they abandon you then you are free.
LESSONS TO LEARN
Let’s wrap up with three big lessons.
a. Take Sin Seriously
First, take sin
Don’t sweep it under the carpet. Don’t downplay or minimise. Don’t blame-shift. Don’t dress it up.
Unfaithfulness is highly offensive to God. And damages ourselves and others.
We should take a good long honest look in the mirror of God’s Word. And tremble.
And be appalled. Ashamed. Disgusted. We ought to feel the weight and gravity of our offence. And plunge the depth and enormity of our depravity.
Confess. Repent. Turn your back on sin.
b. Take Jesus Seriously
And turn to Jesus
. Lesson 2. Take Jesus seriously.
Your guilt leaves you vulnerable, condemned. Without a case to plead, unless you know Jesus.
‘cos Jesus is the Messiah, as promised coming from Jewish offspring. Jesus isn’t an evening sacrifice. He’s the one perfect lamb. The once for all sacrifice. That took our punishment, and removes our guilt.
Jesus, on the cross, was cast out from His Father’s presence so that you and I may stand in His presence, forgiven, cleansed. Made holy through the blood of Christ.
It’s not that we receive less than our sins deserve. It’s that we receive the complete opposite. Instead of darkness, light. Instead of enslaved to sin, freedom. Instead of exile, paradise. Instead of hell, heaven.
We’ll enjoy, not a brief moment of grace, but an eternity. Because;
Isaiah 66:2 ” [God] looks with favour [grace]: [on] those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at [His] word.”
Plumbing the depths of our sin helps us all the more grasp His grace. And yet the flip-side is even more true. As we grasp His grace through Christ crucified we see all the more clearly the gravity and depth of our sin.
Self-justification is enslaving and exhausting. Confession is liberating.
c. Take Holiness Seriously
Repent. Turn from sin. Turn to Jesus. And then lesson 3. Take holiness
In coming to Jesus we’re purified. We’re set apart to be His people. And called to be who he has made us. holy as he is holy.
We’re in the world, but we’re not of the world. God’s children are to live distinctively Christian lives. We’re to be involved and engaged in the world. But we’re to be separate from worldliness.
The apostle James teaches us;
James 1:27 ” to keep [ourselves] from being polluted by the world.”
The apostle Paul says;
2 Corinthians 6:14 ” what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
2 Corinthians 7:1 ” let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates “
Paul urges us to;
Ephesians 5:1 ” as [God’s] dearly loved children live a life of love “
Ephesians 5:3,4 among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.”
Ephesians 5:8,11 ” [So] Live as children of light Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness “
Taking holiness seriously will mean taking radical decisive action to separate ourselves from sin. Not even a hint. Nothing to do with.
And we have help. God gifts us with His holy Spirit. Who indwells. Who empowers. Who sanctifies.
And we have the help of each other. To confess to. Be accountable to. To correct, rebuke and encourage. To love each other enough to both call out one another for sin and comfort one another with His grace.
Today, everyday, is a great day to repent. trust Jesus. And enjoy His grace and forgiveness.