Friday, July 26, 2013

Generous Gifts

Scriptural Reading: Ezra 8:24-30
Devotional Reading: Mark 12:38-44

As I sat in the doctor’s office my eyes searched for reading material to pass the time. Surveying the magazines I came across the 2012 Special Edition of Giving, a magazine for The Foundation for Barnes Jewish Hospital. The magazine demonstrated generous gifts from donor to our neighbors in needs. The stories of a couple of recipients illustrated in the magazine were those who received the gifts of a lifesaving liver transplant and a lung transplant. The President of Barnes Jewish Hospital indicated the charitable gifts were needed for support in the purchase of special equipment, for education and scholarship funds, and assisting the patients with treatment when they are not able to meet the need, such as paying for medication or transportation. The statistics for 2011 indicated the Foundation was the source of $497,415 scholarship awards to the School of Nursing due to the charitable gifts. The Barnard Cancer Information Center served 26,851 people due to the charitable gifts given to the Foundation. Lives were saved. Lives were touched. It could have been you. But giving for the benefit of your neighbors is Christ-like. It is what you should do. When you give, you show love. Jesus taught love of your neighbor as the latter of two great commandments to be kept at Matt 22:39b, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He advised the Pharisees of the first commandment at Matt 22:37b, 40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (NKJV) Since we have been commanded to love God with all our might, we should also give with all our heart, with all our soul, and with our entire mind. On the subject of giving the Apostle Paul declared at 2 Cor 9:6-7, “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly nor or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” (NKJV)

As we continue this quarter of study entitled “God’s People Worship” we are mindful of: (1) how Christian worship compares today both in its devoted and revered practices and its disrespectful practices and (2) what we can learn from God’s relationship with the worshipping ancient Israelites that will help us honor and worship Him today. We are in Unit II – “Worshipping in Jerusalem Again (Ezra)” of the three units of the quarter. This is the final lesson of a five-lesson study of worship in Jerusalem after a remnant of Israel returned home from exile in Babylon during the time of Ezra.

Ezra went up from Babylon (Ezra 7:6-9) in the first month of the seventh year of King Artaxerxes’ reign and returned to Jerusalem with a second group of exiles in the fifth month of that year. God once again demonstrated He was in control over the enemies of the Jews. King Artaxerxes gave Ezra a letter and issued a decree to all the treasurers which gave Ezra all he requested and abundantly more.

The road up to Jerusalem from Babylon was dangerous with many thieves along the way. The mileage for the direct distance was 520 miles. They were to take the circuitous route around the danger. It was a much longer journey with 900 miles between the two cities. Approximately 80 miles northwest from Babylon Ezra gathered them by the Ahava River that runs to the city of Ahava. It was there they camped for three days and he took an inventory of those traveling with him. He discovered, as recorded at Ezra 8:15b, “As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendants of Levi.” (NKJV) Ezra had collected freewill offerings of gold, silver, and temple artifacts for the Temple in Jerusalem from the pagan king. However, according to the Levitical Law, only the priests and the Levites were to handle the sacred things of God. But where were the Levites that had remained in Babylon after the first exile led by Zerubbabel? For whatever reason, the Levites had decided to remain in Babylon. Once Ezra noted the absence of the Levites, he commissioned eleven of the leading men who were traveling with him to go to a place not far away called Casiphia, and to inquire of the leader, whose name was Iddo, to send “ministers for the house of our God.” Thirty-eight Levites and two hundred and twenty Nethinim (servants) answered the call because “the gracious hand of our God was upon us”. (See Ezra 8:18-20 NKJV) Among the thirty-eight Levites were Sherebiah and Hashabiah. Ezra then proclaimed a fast for a safe journey to Jerusalem and God answered their prayer. (Ezra 8:21-23)

With much care Ezra sought to remain within the confines of the Levitical Law during the journey in handling the sacred things of God. He declared at Ezra 8:24-27, “And I separated twelve of the leaders of the priests – Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brethren with them- and weighed out to them the silver, the gold, and the articles, the offering for the house of our God which the king and his counselors and his princes, and all Israel who were present, had offered. I weighed into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, silver articles weighing one hundred talents, one hundred talents of gold, twenty gold basins worth a thousand drachmas, and two vessels of fine polished bronze, precious as gold.” (NKJV) These men were set apart from human involvement and bound by their office to take care of the things of God. They represented the twelve tribes of Israel, although only the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained after the exile. It is believed that most of the inhabitants of the remaining ten tribes became the Jewish Diaspora by dispersing into Gentile communities. Some of the descendants of the ten tribes had joined the two surviving tribes of Judah and Benjamin when it was time for worshipping God at the newly built Temple in Jerusalem. They were represented by the number of priests and Levites because they were part of God’s community, the twelve tribes of Israel. The priests and Levites were trusted with money and valuables that had been given to the Temple or use for the Temple. Ezra was a priest and a scribe (lawyer) who kept good records. He wanted to make sure that all monies and valuables contributed to the house of God by King Artaxerxes, his advisers, the princes, and the Jews who remained in Babylon would make it safely to the Temple in Jerusalem without harm to anyone. The silver, gold, and other valuables were meticulously weighed among the twelve leading priests and twelve Levites to carry from the camp at the Ahava River to Temple in Jerusalem.

Ezra then instructed the priests and Levites by reminding them of their faithfulness to God. He advised these priests and Levites, now stewards of the treasury of Temple at Ezra 8:28-30, “And I said to them, “You are holy to the Lord; the articles are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the Lord God of your fathers. Watch and keep them until you weigh them before the leaders of the priests and the Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel in Jerusalem in the chambers of the house of the Lord.” So the priests and the Levites received the silver and the gold and the articles by weight, to bring them to Jerusalem to the house of our God.” (NKJV) Ezra demanded integrity as they now were set apart and handling God’s property. He advised they were holy just as the vessels and the freewill offering were holy. Jesus taught that some scribes used their position to seek the best, covet applause, pretend in the face of man, praying long prayers for the sake of appearances, etc. (Mark 12:38-40) Yet those scribes are not truly set apart for the will of God, preferring to appear as if they do His will. These twelve priests and Levites were consecrated and dedicated to the Lord. Attack on any of them during the journey by any would-be robber would be the same as an attack on God. They were to watch and protect each other as they carried God’s property during the journey until it was measured out in weight before the chief of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. And it is written at Ezra 8:31-33b, 34a, “Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road. So we came to Jerusalem, and stayed there three days. Now on the fourth day the silver and the gold and the articles were weighed in the house of our God…with the number and weight of everything.” (NKJV) God kept them and they were granted a safe journey.

People give freewill gifts to the house of God in different ways. Some give weekly, others give biweekly, and still others give once per month. Some members bring their gifts while others send their gifts. Some churches have instituted an e-giving (electronic giving) system to assist parishioners in giving to the house of God. Giving unto God is a heart matter. Freewill offerings were first mentioned in Ex 35:29 The people gave with willing hearts to God. Are you grateful for all He has done for you? Think about your freewill offerings to the house of God.

Written by Deborah C Davis

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