Friday, January 23, 2015

Christmas night, morning

Laying out food for the reindeer ...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ezra's Godly Example

My Sunday School lesson for Jan. 11 ...

Sunday we finished our look at the book of Ezra, focusing on how his obedience to God allowed him to be a godly example as he led exiles home to Jerusalem to bring the spirit of worship back to Israel.

FIRST THOUGHTS

*** Let's talk role models. Who does our culture look to as role models? (Athletes, musicians, actors/actresses, politicians?)

Last year Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps was busted for driving 84 in a 45 mph zone and ended up with his second DUI. What difference does Phelps’ breaking the law make to his fans? What potential harm may his actions have on others?

Charles Barkley, NBA Hall of Famer and never one to mince words, once famously told a TV audience that he is not a role model.

Another NBA Hall of Famer, Bill Bradley (also a former Senator from New Jersey), had a different view, saying that “Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds. Athletes, in times of difficulty, can be important role models.”

*** Which of these two views about athletes as role models falls closest to your view? Why? What are some key characteristics that make a person worthy of being thought of as a role model?

--- Raise your hands if you have thought that you were the only one not to have your stuff together? Sometimes we can lose sight of the long-term when we are bogged down in the things that we feel are holding us back, even if it's just a messy house and wild kids!

*** In today’s study, we’ll take a look at Ezra—priest, religious scholar, and student of God’s law—and identify the qualities and characteristics that made him such a worthy role model.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

*** Last week we talked about the first wave of exiles returning to Jerusalem in 538 B.C.

--- The restored Jewish community rebuilt houses, towns, even the Lord's altar and temple. But hearts still had to be renewed.

*** Fast-forward 80 years to when Ezra led a new wave of Jewish exiles back to Israel in 458 B.C.

---Ezra led the people by example for a deeper commitment.

EZRA’S HERITAGE (Ezra 7:1-6)

1 After these events, during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra—Seraiah’s son, Azariah’s son, Hilkiah’s son, 2 Shallum’s son, Zadok’s son, Ahitub’s son, 3 Amariah’s son, Azariah’s son, Meraioth’s son, 4 Zerahiah’s son, Uzzi’s son, Bukki’s son, 5 Abishua’s son, Phinehas’s son, Eleazar’s son, Aaron the chief priest’s son— 6 came up from Babylon. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which Yahweh, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he requested because the hand of Yahweh his God was on him.

*** Ezra had a strong family line.

--- Going back to Aaron, the chief priest and brother of Moses, this sets up that he had the proper credentials as an important figure. He was the right guy to restore proper worship in Jerusalem.

--- Ezra’s ancestor Seraiah [sih RIGH uh] had been the chief priest in Jerusalem at the time of the city’s destruction in 586 B.C. He and other key leaders were captured and executed by the Babylonian king (see 2 Kings 25:18-21). Their families and many other Jews were then taken as captives to the land of Babylon.

--- Azariah [az uh RIGH uh], served as chief priest in Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah. Azariah’s administration of the temple offerings yielded a surplus, motivating the king to prepare additional chambers in the temple. Extra officers were appointed to supervise the distribution of the offerings (see 2 Chron. 31:10). Perhaps, Azariah’s legacy to Ezra included the gift of administration.

--- Hilkiah [hil KIGH uh] was high priest during King Josiah’s reign in Jerusalem. This priest discovered the lost scrolls of the law in the temple. The reading of the law to the king sparked a season of spiritual and cultural renewal in the land (see 2 Kings 22:8–23:27). Perhaps the stories of Hilkiah’s achievements prompted Ezra’s zeal for teaching God’s Word and calling for repentance as the proper preparation for sincere worship.

--- Zadok [ZAY dahk] served as high priest during King David’s time. David assigned him the responsibility of leading the Levites who brought the ark into Jerusalem (see 1 Chron. 15:11-12). An important aspect of their preparation was personal purification before transporting the ark of God.

--- Phinehas [FIN ih huhs], Aaron’s grandson, displayed zeal for the Lord during the Israelites’ wilderness journey. He intervened when an Israelite man brought an idol-worshiping woman into the Hebrew encampment to live. God granted Phinehas a permanent covenant of peace and priesthood in light of his zeal (see Num. 25:6-13). Ezra may have gained courage and boldness from Phinehas’s example.

--- Eleazar [el ih AY zuhr] was a son of Aaron. Eleazar’s two older brothers died under God’s judgment, because they offered false worship (see Num. 3:4). Eleazar distinguished himself as the priest in charge of the Levites who served the sanctuary of the Lord (see Num. 3:32). At the end of Aaron’s life, God commanded Moses to take Aaron’s garment and place it on Eleazar. The act symbolized Eleazar’s ascension as high priest (see Num. 20:23-26).

--- Shallum [SHAL uhm] was included in the priestly genealogy but without any notable deeds. Ahitub [uh HIGH tuhb] is known only as the father of a priest whose loyalty to David cost him his life (see 1 Sam. 22:11-16). Amariah [am uh RIGH uh], Azariah [az uh RIGH uh], Meraioth [mih RAY ahth], Zerahiah [zer uh HIGH uh], Uzzi [UHZ igh (eye)], Bukki [BUHK igh (eye)], and Abishua [uh BISH yoo uh] also appear to be without special distinction.

--- You know who else had a strong heritage? Jesus! Matthew went through the whole genealogy to show how Jesus descended from the Old Testament's "Who's Who" list.

--- QUESTION - How would you describe your spiritual heritage? Who are one or two persons who served as your spiritual role models?

*** Verse 6 - "The king had granted him everything he requested because the hand of Yahweh his God was on him."

--- Even King Artaxerxes recognized Ezra’s expertise in understanding and teaching God’s law.

--- God’s providential hand appears in every act leading to the return of His people and the restoration of the nation. God not only used faithful believers like Ezra, but He moved pagan rulers like Artaxerxes to participate in His plan. Ezra recognized God had put this matter into the king’s mind. The glory and praise belonged to the Lord alone (see Ezra 7:27-28).

--- God chose Ezra to be His instrument in bringing the covenant people back to Him. God gives believers spiritual gifts to serve His people, placing believers in positions where they can best use their gifts and talents.

--- QUESTION - How do you recognize God’s favor on a person? How can you see God’s hand in developing you for use in His kingdom?

EZRA’S JOURNEY (Ezra 7:7-9)

7 Some of the Israelites, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants accompanied him to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, during the seventh year of the king. 9 He began the journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month and arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month since the gracious hand of his God was on him.

*** Ezra brought exiles back who knew how to get the community worshiping again.

--- Priests and Levites served in the Lord's house. Then you have to have a choir, right? The gatekeepers and temple servants helped to maintain the temple and its activities.

--- QUESTION - Think of who we would bring if we were called to bring worship on the road? Would you be able to be used, and in what role?

*** It was a long trip.

--- In two ways: The returnees fulfilled decades of hopes and dreams. And the trip took a long time, 4 months over hundreds of miles. That's a lot of walking (about 10 miles per day), camping, trying to find food, and anticipating getting to a home they've never seen.

--- The king granted Ezra incredible amounts of gold and other provisions for the task. However, he did not send troops to guard the caravan. So Ezra led the people in three days of fasting and prayer for God’s protection before proceeding to Jerusalem (see Ezra 8:21-23).

*** God is with those who work for Him.

--- Note the phrase “since the gracious hand of his God was on him” in verse 9. Note that a very similar phrase appeared back in verse 6.

--- Ezra couldn't have done it without God's hand.

*** QUESTION - How have you recognized the Lord’s hand working in your life?

*** We can see how God’s hand was on Ezra during his journey to Jerusalem. Let’s see what Ezra planned to do once he had arrived there safely.

EZRA’S GOAL (Ezra 7:10)

10 Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.

*** Ezra gave a whole-hearted effort.

--- He had made up his mind to teach God's Word to His people and lead a spiritual revival.

*** QUESTION - What motivates a person to move from studying God’s Word to obeying it? What can hinder a person’s obedience? Does obedience lead to more discovery of the truth?

*** Ezra the teacher.

--- Think of something you have taught to someone else (examples: cooking, auto repair, knitting, carpentry, painting, etc.). What makes a good teacher?

--- Knowing the subject matter is key in teaching. He had to study and obey before he could teach. Teaching others the truths of God requires us to be a student of God’s Word and an example of obedience.

*** Like Ezra, Paul was a role model for the New Testament.

--- Paul wrote in Philippians 3:17 - "Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do."

--- The saying goes, "Forget your past. Jesus has." Paul knows that his testimony is powerful, but the power comes not in what he was, but in what he is doing for God then and now.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** Think back to Michael Phelps and his disobedience to the law.

--- Question: What could he do to restore trust that he will obey the law in the future?

*** Evaluate your own potential as godly role models.

*** Think of the ways Ezra placed himself in a position to be used by God. What step can you take to place yourself in a position to be used by God?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cooper and Penny's gingerbread house

God Ordains Restoration

My Sunday School lesson for Jan. 4 ...

This week we started our two-week study of the book of Ezra and how 40,000 Israelites returned from exiles full of joy and worship.

FIRST THOUGHTS

*** Happy New Year!

What are the kinds of things you are looking forward to in 2015?

Are there any resolutions you would like to make? Is anyone resolving to be better about finances this year? Losing weight? Organizing? Or are we afraid to make resolutions because we so often fail miserably at them?

Does anyone have any resolutions dealing with the Bible, prayer, church?

This week we start studying the book of Ezra as we experience a life of new beginnings for the Israelites who were returning from exile. They focused first on restoring a relationship with God.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

*** The book of Ezra.

*** Ezra is most likely the author of both Ezra and Nehemiah, which might have originally been one book. Ezra is also believed to possibly be the author of the books of the Chronicles. Ezra was a priestly descendant of Aaron and a scribe who lived at the time of Nehemiah. Ezra led the second return from Persia (ca. 458 B.C.), so the completed book was written sometime in the next several decades (ca. 457–444 B.C.).

*** The book of Ezra takes place during the Jewish exile.

--- The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

--- The Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jerusalem) fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

*** King Cyrus of Persia allowed Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple.

*** The first six chapters of Ezra describe the return of 40,000 exiles to Judah in 538 B.C.

--- “Notice though in verse 5 how it wasn't just a select group but everyone whose heart God had moved. God was going to fulfill his purpose for the people and He was going to do a work among those that would hear Him and respond. Are we listening to God today? God wants to do a work through you and me the question comes if our hearts are open and willing to respond.” – Bro. Joseph

--- Led by Jeshua and Zerubbabel, returnees rebuilt the altar and reestablished significant festivals, but due to opposition by groups around Jerusalem the work on the Temple stopped for several years.

*** In today’s lesson, we’ll explore parts of Ezra 3 and 6 as we talk about how worship was restored for the people who had been away from their homeland and their temple for so long.

THE ALTAR REBUILT (Ezra 3:1-7)

1 By the seventh month, the Israelites had settled in their towns, and the people gathered together in Jerusalem. 2 Jeshua son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests along with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his brothers began to build the altar of Israel’s God in order to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. 3 They set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening on it to the Lord even though they feared the surrounding peoples. 4 They celebrated the Festival of Booths as prescribed, and offered burnt offerings each day, based on the number specified by ordinance for each festival day. 5 After that, they offered the regular burnt offering and the offerings for the beginning of each month and for all the Lord’s appointed holy occasions, as well as the freewill offerings brought to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, even though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid. 7 They gave money to the stonecutters and artisans, and gave food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so they could bring cedar wood from Lebanon to Joppa by sea, according to the authorization given them by King Cyrus of Persia.

*** The Israelites settled in back home and immediately began restoring worship and rebuilding the altar.

--- The people had a common goal in wanting to see the altar rebuilt and a common bond of faith in God; with that in their favor, they were prepared to accomplish great things.

--- Have you ever built anything that required a lot of help? Participated in a Habitat for Humanity project? Or like us, just got all the family together to build a backyard playground?

--- QUESTION - What makes community and unity so important when tackling group projects? How does worshiping God unify people?

*** The people’s observance of Mosaic law shows that their hearts were seeking God’s will sacrifices, offerings, and sacred gatherings. Their actions reflected hearts that were rightly aligned with God.

--- It would seem that they learned their lesson of willful and extended disobedience that led to their exile.

***Jeshua and Zerubbabel.

--- Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, most likely is the same person mentioned in Haggai 1:1,12 as “Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.” Zerubbabel is described as the “governor of Judah” in Haggai 1:1.

These two men represented the religious and civil arms of the Jewish community; they joined together to lead an important task in the restoration of God’s covenant people.

--- The biggest concern was from other groups that took advantage of the exile to grab land and resources from Israel. The rebuilding was a threat to their power.

--- It doesn’t take outside armies to take away your worshipfulness. Christy lost her grandmother the day after Christmas. Wende lost her mother the day after Thanksgiving. That can sap the joy of the season right out of you.

--- The restored Jewish community had lapses in their commitment. Sometimes they became intimidated by the enemies of God. However, that’s exactly when the Lord providentially arranged for an Ezra or a Nehemiah to come on the scene. Just as God had positioned Esther for “such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14), He would position Ezra and Nehemiah as the leaders to advance the purposes He had for His covenant people.

--- Question - What can a believer do to overcome the fear of being opposed in the practice of his/her faith by non-Christian interest groups?

--- When God calls His people to accomplish some great task, He always provides what they need to succeed. Consequently, the Jews were able to hire stonecutters and artisans to help with the rebuilding effort. Wood was in scarce supply, so they purchased timber from the renowned cedar forests in Lebanon. They bartered with the residents of Sidon and Tyre, offering food, drink, and oil in exchange for cedar timber. Huge logs were floated on the sea to Joppa and then transported inland to Jerusalem to be used in the temple construction.

THE TEMPLE FOUNDATION REESTABLISHED (Ezra 3:10-11)

10 When the builders had laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple, the priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the Lord, as King David of Israel had instructed. 11 They sang with praise and thanksgiving to the Lord: “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever.” Then all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid.

*** The Temple is ready to be rebuilt.

--- It was all very formal with robes and trumpets and cymbals and worship. Think of the groundbreaking ceremonies we hold, with leaders and their shovels, or using giant scissors to cut a giant ribbon. It's a celebration of something new to come.

*** God gets the glory.

--- When we open up a new building or structure, we often give credit to any number of people or organizations that made it possible—builders, architects, designers, donors, etc. In verse 11 we read how the Israelites gave it all to a faithful God.

--- The people shouted with joy and sang with praise. Surely there was some foot-stomping and hands in the air. They were having some revival up in there!

--- What is a favorite chorus or song that our church sings to express gratitude to God at special times?

WORSHIP RESTORED (Ezra 6:19-22)

19 The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. 20 All of the priests and Levites were ceremonially clean, because they had purified themselves. They killed the Passover lamb for themselves, their priestly brothers, and all the exiles. 21 The Israelites who had returned from exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the Gentiles of the land in order to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. 22 They observed the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with joy, because the Lord had made them joyful, having changed the Assyrian king’s attitude toward them, so that he supported them in the work on the house of the God of Israel.

*** The Israelities feasted during festivals of worship, Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

--- And you thought Southern Baptists were stereotyped as eating every time we get together!

--- God is big on feasting. Why? For enjoyment, encouragement, & to establish a lasting culture (e.g, Christmas). They lasted several days.

***The Israelites celebrated with joy in their worship.

--- They certainly still had issues to deal with, since surrounding ethnic groups didn't want them to return.

--- It would be easy for them to adopt an attitude expressed by Norm on "Cheers:" “It's a dog eat dog world, and I‘m wearing Milkbone underwear.”

--- But they were free to worship in obedience to God's Word again, and their religious life could be renewed.

*** As true worship became reinstated in the national character, the Jews had to reject false gods and unclean, sinful practices.

--- Israelites in exile and back home intermarried with pagan families and adopted pagan ways. Before they could worship God they had to cleanse themselves.

--- Jesus Christ came into this world to cleanse us of our sins. Believe in Him and you can partake in a pure worship with joyous, repentant and grateful hearts.

--- QUESTION - How do you prepare yourself spiritually to worship the one, true God?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** We are all restoration projects.

--- Are you more of a fixer-upper person, or do you prefer new things? (Note that there are many people who have a knack for restoring items so that they take on a new beauty as they are remade - an old car, an antique piece of furniture, making clothes. If someone in your group does, enlist them to share briefly about the commitment - time, money, effort - it takes to bring an object like that back to life. Compare it to Ezra’s efforts to rebuild and restore worship in Jerusalem, once the building began on the altar and the temple.

--- The Book of Ezra invites us to enter the exiled people’s experience as they returned to the land, rebuilt the altar and temple in Jerusalem, and found a restored relationship with God. Imagine, however, the cost for God to restore His covenant people from exile. He had banished them into a foreign land as captives because of their stubborn idolatry and wickedness. Yet He also promised to one day restore them. This involved opening the way for them to return to the promised land but also, and more importantly, to return spiritually to their first love—the Lord God. Their hearts needed to be transformed, so that they could offer God the sincere, genuine worship He had prescribed in the law.

--- God’s ultimate restoration project is the restoration of sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. In Christ, broken and empty people are made new! They receive God’s guarantee of eternal life in heaven.

*** Think about your attitude and examine whether you have a proper attitude of worship as you serve. Ask God to search your heart for sin.

*** Are our worship experiences joy-filled? Think of ways you can increase the joy in your worship.

*** Ask God to prepare our hearts for this new year.