Unchanging Purpose <\n>in a Changing World
Background Scripture: Nehemiah 9:1-37.
Devotional Reading: Luke 15:1-10.
At last we have arrived at one of the most controversial passages in Ezra and Nehemiah.
“And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (9:2).
Why are Ezra’s words the source of controversy for modern readers?
Because his stated attitude toward non-Jews and determination to dissolve all marriages between Jews and non-Jews is in sharp contrast to the example of Jesus Christ.
Jesus broke a number of fiercely held customs in ministering to non-Jews and even on occasion commending them instead of his fellow Jews.
If we assume that Ezra was voicing the will of God, how can we resolve this apparent conflict?
It occurs to me that this conflict rests on an assumption that may be in error, that the will of God remains exactly the same from the time of creation to our own and on into the eons of the future.
After all, God doesn’t change his mind, does he?
As Time Goes By
I submit that God’s purpose remains constant, but as time goes by and the world and its peoples change, the means of achieving that purpose are altered and changed.
Jesus’ world was not the same as the world of Ezra nor our world. We may counsel people considering mixed marriage that there are real impediments, but not necessarily immovable objects, to their union.
Just this past week I overheard a man telling someone else that, prior to his marriage, he basically didn’t practice any religion, but his wife’s influence has changed all that.
Just yesterday, I was talking with a friend, and he reminded me of all the substantial changes — sometimes unbelievable changes — that have taken place in our lifetimes.
So the point is this in regard to outsiders, Ezra may have been in perfect step with God in the fourth century B.C.
But Ezra is not Jesus and, if the examples of Ezra and Jesus are in seeming conflict, it is to Jesus that we look, not Ezra.
Still, Ezra’s concern is not totally irrelevant for our times. There is always the possibility that we will be influenced and shaped by ideas, goals and practices that are contrary to the discipleship of Jesus.
If we cannot maintain our faith in those circumstances, then it would be better to ward off those influences.
Note that the great change in the Jewish community that Ezra is seeking is preceded by the people’s recognition of their sins, their confession and experience of being released from their burden.
We can seldom gain the power for changing our direction until we have experienced release from our sins.
As a pastor, I almost always provided in the worship services a time of quiet self-examination, a prayer of confession and pardon. I have been disappointed to find that lots of churches no longer include confession and assurance in their services of Holy Communion.
Why has that happened? Is it because we have moved beyond the consciousness of sin and redemption?
The only ones of us who do not need recurrent confession and pardon are those who have not and will not have sinned — and I don’t know any of those, do you?
Our Acts And God’s
If you study the ninth chapter of Nehemiah, you will probably notice that it has two major themes: one, what God has done and, two, what the people have done.
Verses 6 to 15 acknowledge what God has done and it is all blessing and grace for the people. Ezra recognizes the Lord as creator (9:6) and as preserver of his people Israel (9:7,8) and deliverer (9:9-15).
This passage beautifully illustrates the often repeated observation that the Jews did not try to define God; instead they told of what God had done and was doing.
All too often we get encumbered with definitions, when our witness to what God has done, is doing and will do is much more persuasive.
When we get to “what did the people do?” there is a long list and it is not commendatory: they did not obey (9:15, 29), were not mindful of God’s wonders (9:17), and wanted to return to their Egyptian slavery (9:17, 36).
They also worshipped graven images, blasphemed (9:18,26) and killed God’s prophets (9:26). Their actions were presumptuous.
In contrast, God forgave them (9:17), did not forsake them (9:19), instructed them, fed them with manna, governed them with kingdoms and multiplied their descendants (9:23).
What a contrast. That is what they did and what God did.
More to the point: what about us? What is God doing in our world and how are we responding?