Friday, July 19, 2013

Preparing for a Journey

Scriptural Reading: Ezra 8:21-23
Devotional Reading: 2 Chronicles 7:12-18

My girlfriend and I were returning to St. Louis from a church convention in Ohio. She was driving and I was the passenger. Before we left we had prayed to God for a safe passage and protection as we traveled home. On the way it began raining horribly and we were at the point of deciding whether to pull over. It was getting darker and it did not seem to be a good idea for two women to think about pulling over on the highway approximately 150 miles from home. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the car to the right of us hit a deer that had wandered on the highway. I was speechless and I pointed instead. When the deer was hit by the car to the right of us, it was flung in front of us where it was repositioned to the left of us. Everything happened so fast; my girlfriend reacted appropriately. She continued to drive and we prayed to God for protection. We had no idea if there was damage to the car that would cause us to be stranded, but we knew we had Jesus as the co-pilot. Approximately 50 miles from St. Louis we noticed it was necessary to buy gas. We were hesitant to stop, but our belief in God’s protection allowed us to push through. The gas was purchased as we refused to look at the hood of the car to see if it were damaged. God received all the glory when her car arrived in St. Louis. In fact my girlfriend was able to drive the car another week before she took it to the repair shop. The mechanic advised her that many items under the hood were in such disrepair or missing that he could not believe we had made such a long journey in the car’s condition. She told him we rode in on “the wings of the angels.” I agree. God dispatched his angels to take care of us when we began praying to God for protection in the name of Jesus. Christ taught at Matt 21:22, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (NKJV)

Although we did not fast prior to our journey, the Bible describes four major types of fasting which stimulates prayer. 1) The regular fast is the traditional fast. Most people still drink water or juice during this fast. 2) The partial fast is a restriction of certain foods, such as a diet of vegetables and water; no meat or wine (Dan 1:12; 10:2-3). 3) The full fast is a complete fast of no food and no drink (Es 4:15-16; Acts 9:9). People are advised to be very cautious as to how long they remain on this fast. 4) The sexual fast between the husband and wife is to be made by mutual consent for a time in order for sincere prayer unto God (1 Cor 7:3-6). There are modern fasts that are not mentioned in the Bible. For example, Christians today give up entertainment such as TV, electronics, etc. for a period of time to concentrate on their prayer life. All prayers do not include fasts. Their prayers must be sincere. Solomon prayed sincerely to dedicate the Temple unto God (2 Chron 6:12-42) and the Lord acknowledged his prayer stating in response at 2 Chron 7:12b-15, “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my eyes attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.” (NKJV) We must be serious when we communicate with our Father God through His Son. Prayer is no joking matter.

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 fourth 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.

God used King Cyrus of Persia in his first year as ruler of Babylon to permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem after seventy years of Babylonian captivity and rebuild the Temple. He returned the gold and silver that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. Cyrus also commanded their neighbors to contribute. Approximately 50,000 Jews, a remnant, returned to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel. They were so happy for the blessing some of the heads of the fathers’ houses contributed gold and silver for the house of God and garments for the priests. The people then went to their various cities to settle until the seventh month of the first year. When the seventh month arrived the returning remnant gathered to build an altar for burnt sacrifices unto God. They proceeded to keep all of the feasts and give the required and freewill offerings to the Lord. With the monies they collected during the freewill offerings, the gold and silver returned by King Cyrus, and monies received by King Cyrus, they were able to contract with the masons and carpenters. They also gave food, drink, and olive oil to the experienced seafarers who would bring the cedar logs from Lebanon. (See Ezra 3:1-7) In the second month of the second year the returning remnant gathered to begin building the Temple. As soon as the foundation was laid, the work ceased, and the people began to worship the Lord, celebrating they had been restored to the land of their fathers and their goal of completely rebuilding the Temple was in sight. (See Ezra 3:8-13)

The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard what sounded as a community rejoicing with shouts from far away. When they heard the Israelites were building a temple, they offered their assistance as they pretended they worshipped Him alone. (See Ezra 4) Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the heads of the families saw through their scheme and denied their offer. Then the enemies bribed officials who wrote and told lies to “frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (Ezra 4:5b NKJV) However, God was with the Israelites. He sent the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to encourage the Jews to continue building the Temple in spite of the enemies. Further, He caused King Darius to pursue the same policy as King Cyrus, thwarting off the enemies. The Temple was completely built four years later, in the sixth year of his reign. Ezra 6

More than fifty years elapsed between chapters 6 and 7. During that time Darius was succeeded by Ahasuerus (Xerxes) as king of Persia and the events in the book of Esther took place. After him, Artaxerxes came to the throne. (Ezra 7:1) Although Ezra was not a prophet or a high priest, he was a Levitical priest and a scribe. He had made it his mission to collect and publish all the books of the Old Testament. Ezra desired to learn and teach about God. He 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 that he requested and abundantly more. See Ezra 7:11-26 Included in the letter he decreed at Ezra 7:13, “that any of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom who freely offers to go to Jerusalem may go with you.” (NKJV) In his prayer of thanksgiving for such favor from the Lord, Ezra prayed at Ezra 7:27-28, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.” (NKJV)

The road up to Jerusalem from Babylon was dangerous with many thieves along the way. The mileage for the direct distance is 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? Did they not want to go to the land of their fathers to worship God in the Temple in the city of Jerusalem? Did they not go due to fear? Or were they in a “Babylonian comfort zone of belief” that they would always be allowed to worship their God because the king in charge would allow it? For whatever reason they had, the Levites had decided to remain in Babylon. Once Ezra noted the decision 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)

Having solved the dilemma with the Levites, Ezra further prepared his caravan for the journey ahead by declaring at Ezra 8:21, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions.” Ezra was encouraging those traveling with him to fast and concentrate on their prayers to God. In their prayers they would humble themselves before Him and seek His face. In order to rebuild their lives and reach their new destination, they had to be humble themselves before God and turn from wicked ways. In their prayers they would request God to provide a safe journey for themselves, their children, and the possessions they owned and that had been received as a freewill offering for His temple.

Ezra had the utmost confidence in God and His power, faithfulness, and as a protector. He obviously told King Artaxerxes and now, during this time of danger, he exclaimed at Ezra 8:22, “For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.” (NKJV) Ezra could not step back now and solicit the assistance of an ally to fight their battles against the enemies. Since he stated his belief in God, and everything he studied proved his belief, how would he teach otherwise if he solicited assistance from an ally? He would be ashamed. Stand strong on the belief that God is in control and ever faithful at all times, including times of danger. He is our strong protector.

The people trusted God on the journey to Jerusalem as stated in Ezra 8:23, “So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.” (NKJV) Four months after they set out on the journey they entered Jerusalem without having encountered any danger. They fasted and prayed to the only escort they needed. God is good! He answered their prayers for a safe passage for themselves, their children, and all the possessions.

Have you ever incorporated a fasting discipline into your prayer life to open a greater spiritual connection to God? I am not talking about fasting to lose weight or for everyone to know about. That is so fake. I’m talking about a true connection with God when you just want to be close to Him. You don’t want to ask for anything. “We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, The One who is and who was and who is to come, Because You have taken Your great power and reigned.” (Rev 11:17 NKJV)

Written by Deborah C Davis

No comments: