“Prayers for Desperate Times—Ezra’s Prayer”
Ezra 9:1-10:2 January 25, 2009
SI: We’re in the middle of a nine week study of prayers for desperate times.
We’re looking at nine different believers in the Bible who were facing
an overwhelming crisis, and they prayed, and God answered.
This morning we’re looking at an incident in the life of Ezra.
Ezra was a priest and Bible teacher who moved from Babylon to Jerusalem
to help rebuild the Temple.
Remember the setting for the Book of Ezra.
The Israelites had been exiled for their idolatry.
For years, for generations the Lord had warned them that if they kept
turning away from him, it would lead to exile, but they persisted.
So finally God sent the Babylonian Empire against them.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, destroyed Temple, took people into exile.
But God was gracious. After 70 years he called them out of exile.
He worked through Cyrus, the King of the Persians, to make a way
for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
The Lord was giving them another chance.
He was saying: You are still my people.
I still want you to be a part of my salvation plan for the world.
Rebuild the Temple.
Be the people I’ve called you to be.
Get yourselves ready for the Messiah.
Ezra wanted to be a part of that work. It was a good time to be in Jerusalem.
A fresh start. New beginnings. And Ezra was excited to be there.
But after he had been there for just a few months,
he discovered something that plunged him into a crisis—a crisis of guilt.
INTRO: I had my car worked on this week.
So I rode my motorcycle and a few mornings it was in the 20s.
I covered up every part of my body with lots of layers, except my face.
I have an open face helmet, that’s what I like.
I didn’t think I would notice much, but I did.
The exposed skin, especially on my cheekbones and under my chin,
was hurting so bad when I got where I was going I could barely stand it.
Guilt is like that. A part of us is exposed—by the Word of God,
by the Holy Spirit working in our consciences—and that exposure hurts.
Sometimes it hurts so bad that we can’t stand it.
Ezra experienced the pain of guilt.
He tore his clothes, he pulled out his hair, he was in great distress, and he prayed:
“Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it
not one of us can stand in your presence.”
Have you ever felt so guilty, so painfully exposed,
that you couldn’t stand in God’s presence?
A Christian is by definition a person who is forgiven. We all know that.
A Christian is a person whose guilt has been atoned for on the cross.
And yet, it is still possible for a true Christian to go through a crisis of guilt
that is so painful and so spiritually debilitating that he feels like
he can’t stand in God’s presence.
What brings on a crisis of guilt for Christians?
Two kinds of sins: heinous sins and recurring sins
A heinous sin is one that is very offensive to God.
All sins not the same to God.
All offend him, but some more than others.
There are factors that make sins more heinous in his eyes.
Your position. The harm done to other people, especially spiritually.
How deliberately you carried out your sin.
How much you knew about the Bible and God’s law.
How many times you pushed aside the warnings and roadblocks God set up.
How long you tried to cover up.
In both teaching and example the Bible speaks of heinous sins.
And next to heinous sins are recurring sins.
Sins you’ve committed and suffered for and repented and asked forgiveness.
And the Lord has been gracious and set you on a path of restoration.
Then you do it all over again.
That can plunge a Christian into a crisis of guilt.
This passage in Ezra is not about your daily sins and weaknesses.
The little things you should have said or not said.
The failures and faults you see in yourself daily.
You need to just confess those things and move on.
This passage is about heinous sins and recurring sins
that cause a crisis of guilt in the Christian.
Guilt and pain that is so great that you can’t just confess and move on.
Maybe you’ve experienced that level of guilt and maybe you haven’t.
Not all Christians go through the same desperate times.
But if you have, or if you are even now exposed and in pain—
Ezra’s prayer shows the way for true relief.
Two things are necessary to get relief from a crisis of guilt:
1. You must grieve over your sin.
2. You must find comfort in your Priest.
MP#1 You must grieve over your sin
First, you must grieve over your sin.
You must express your grief to the Lord in prayer.
When we were living in St. Louis, Allison and I went to the funeral
of the brother of one of her students. I was in seminary, Allison was teaching.
The grown brother of one of her students passed away and she said—
I’m close to this girl, we need to go to the funeral.
This was an African-American family
so the funeral was a cross-cultural experience for us.
Most of the service was completely familiar—music, Scripture reading, message.
But the part that was very different for us was their expression of grief.
They wailed, they screamed, they threw themselves down on the casket, on floor.
Neither one of us had ever seen such physical expressions of grief.
It was a lot like what Ezra did.
He tore his clothes, pulled out his hair and beard, threw himself on the ground.
Those behaviors sound strange to us.
If we saw someone tearing their clothes and pulling out their hair,
we would try to restrain them. We would think they had lost their mind.
But Ezra had not lost his mind. He was grieving.
Those were common expressions of grief in Hebrew culture.
And that helps us understand the prayer that follows.
Ezra’s prayer, from beginning to end, is expression of his grief over sin.
There is no fear in this prayer. He doesn’t pray, Oh no, God’s going to get us.
Or, oh no, now things are going to be bad for us because of what we’ve done.
He grieves. He mourns. He tells God why this has made him so sad.
Let’s back up a bit.
What was the sin that caused Ezra such grief?
He found out that many of the Jews who had returned from exile
were marrying unbelievers who lived in the land.
This was the sin that had gotten them exiled in the first place.
Early in Israel’s history, before they had even come into the Promised Land,
the Lord had said, don’t let your sons marry Canaanite women,
don’t let your daughters marry Canaanite men.
They will turn your hearts away from me.
Now the issue never was race. It was always faith.
“The holy race” is another way of saying, believers in the Lord.
Rahab was a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite.
Both married by princes of Judah and became ancestors of King David and Christ.
But both Rahab and Ruth converted.
They gave their hearts to the Lord of Israel.
It was a matter of faith then and it still is today.
The New Testament command is, “Do no be yoked together with unbelievers.”
But what happened over and over in Israel was that believing Israelites
married unbelieving Canaanites and their own spiritual lives were undermined.
And their children grew up in homes
where one parent believed in the Lord, and one believed in Baal.
Guess what mostly happens to children who grow up in that spiritual climate?
They rarely choose the Lord.
And Baal worship doesn’t seem that bad. Dad does it. Mom does it.
That led to a general turning away from the Lord,
a rejection of the prophets, and then the Babylonian captivity.
Then after the captivity, God had graciously allowed the Jews to return.
They had a second chance, they were rebuilding the Temple—
and Ezra found out they were doing the same thing again.
That led him to pour out his grief to God in prayer.
Look at the things he grieved about:
He grieved that they didn’t learn their lesson the first time.
Lord, why didn’t we learn by looking at all the devastation this sin
caused our forefathers? Why were we so quick to pile up guilt again?
They had this painful history, and didn’t learn from it.
He grieved that God had been so good to them lately,
and that they had sinned against God’s grace.
Lord, you’ve given us a new place, and you’re restored things,
and you’ve given us a second chance to be part of your mission,
and you’ve worked out so many details, and now we’ve done the same
thing to you all over again.
He grieved for the effect this might have on their children.
Lord, you gave us a second chance to make this land our children’s inheritance,
and now here we are corrupting this land again. We’re ruining our children’s
spiritual inheritance with our sin.
He grieved that they had angered God.
Lord, our forefathers made you angry and you had to punish them and you
were right to do so. And we have made you angry and deserve punishment.
It’s not punishment that Ezra feared, it was guilt that would separate
them from fellowship with God.
Here’s how this applies to us today:
If you are in a crisis of guilt—
If you have committed a heinous sin, if you have fallen again into an old sin—
and if the guilt of that is overwhelming you—
you will be tempted to respond with fear or by trying to atone.
Oh no, what’s God going to do to me when the hammer falls?
Or, how can I pay for what I’ve done and atone for my sin?
As a Christian, both of those responses are beneath you.
Through Christ, the fear of judgment is gone and your sins are atoned for.
This is how you need to pray—like Ezra.
You need to come to the Lord, rip that scab of guilt open and grieve.
Grieve over how you knew better but did wrong anyway.
Grieve over taking his grace for granted.
Grieve over the harmful effects and wasted opportunities.
Because the Lord comforts those who grieve.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
That’s Jesus’ promise to you, and he will do it.
You can’t change the past. What’s done is done.
But as you grieve over it, in prayer, to the Lord, he comforts.
That brings us to the second point.
MP#2 You must find comfort in your Priest.
The most interesting thing about this passage is that Ezra grieved and confessed
even though he was completely innocent of this sin.
Ezra had not married an unbelieving Canaanite woman.
Other Israelites had.
And when Ezra found out he didn’t say:
You people have sinned.
You people have trampled on God’s mercy.
You people need to repent.
He said “We.” He spoke of “our guilt” and “our sins.”
And he grieved as if these were his very own.
The reason Ezra did that is because he was a priest.
And that’s what a good priest does.
He identifies with sinners and represents them to God.
He stands in between. He is a substitute.
The contrast is often made between Ezra and Nehemiah—and it’s a funny contrast.
Nehemiah is the book right after Ezra.
It was written during the very same time—rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was a godly man, committed to the Lord’s mission just like Ezra.
But Nehemiah wasn’t a priest, he was a governor.
When Nehemiah found out about this intermarriage thing,
he confronted a number of Jewish men had married Canaanite women,
and he says, “I beat them and pulled out their hair.”
So the point has often been made that when Nehemiah confronted sinners
he pulled out their hair, when Ezra confronted sinners, he pulled out his own hair.
Of course Ezra pulled out his own hair.
Because as a priest, it was as if he himself had committed the sin.
Even though he had not sinned, he stood before God as a sinner in their place.
There is one more detail in story that drives this home idea of priestly substitution.
After Ezra tore his robes and pulled out his hair he did not pray right away.
He just sat there, as he says, appalled and trembling.
And he waited to pray until what had happened?
Until after the evening sacrifice.
After an unblemished lamb has been slain, and its blood sprinkled on the altar,
after that, Ezra the priest, grieving the peoples’ sins as his sins, came to God.
In the person of Ezra we have a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ.
He is your perfect Priest.
During his time on earth Jesus was subject to every temptation, but without sin.
He knows how hard it is to resist temptation.
And then he took on all your sins.
He did completely what Ezra tried to do.
“He became sin who knew no sin.”
And as your sin-bearer, Jesus suffered.
His clothes were torn from him.
Isaiah says his beard was pulled out.
He became the evening sacrifice on the cross.
Now, in heaven, glorified. He is still your Priest.
He sympathizes. He grieves. He intercedes.
He is for you, not against you—even in your worst sin.
Even when you are a repeat offender.
So even as you grieve, you have to start looking away from yourself,
and whatever it was that you did—and focusing on your Priest Jesus.
There is a book on the book table called To End All Wars by Ernest Gordon.
Gordon was a 23-year-old officer with the 93rd Highlanders
when he was captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore.
He and thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand were taken
to POW camps in the jungles where they worked as slaves to build a
railroad the Japanese hoped to use for an invasion of India.
Gordon was typical of many young men of his generation, spiritually speaking.
He was a decent man. Knew about Bible and Christianity but didn’t know Christ.
However, he came to know the Lord in a personal way in the camp.
And he began to see life in a new way.
He began to see Jesus Christ and his sacrifice more and more vividly.
He began to see Christ’s priestly work of substitution.
One incident Gordon witnessed epitomized this for him.
They had finished work on the railroad one day and tools were being counted.
This is what happened:
The day’s work had ended; the tools were being counted, as usual. As the party was about to be dismissed, the Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He insisted that someone had stolen it to sell to the Thais. Striding up and down before the men, he ranted and denounced them for their wickedness, and most unforgivable of all their ingratitude to the Emperor. As he raved, he worked himself up into a paranoid fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. No one moved; the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence.
‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked.
To show that he mean what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it to his shoulder and looked down the sights, ready to fire at the first man at the end of them.
At that moment [a man] stepped forward, stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, ‘I did it.’
The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hate; he kicked the helpless prisoner and beat him with his fists. Still the [man] stood rigidly to attention, with the blood streaming down his face. His silence goaded the guard to an excess or rage. Seizing his rifle by the barrel, he lifted it high over his head and, with a final howl, brought it down on the [man’s] skull, who sank limply to the ground and did not move. Although it was perfectly clear that he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when exhausted.
The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guard-house no shovel was missing.
Why did that man stand up and take the blame for something he didn’t do,
even at the cost of his own life? Love. Love for his comrades.
It was a priestly act. An act of substitution.
And it was love that motivated Christ to die for you.
And that same love still motivates him.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
I know some people struggle with the doctrine of predestination.
They immediately focus on the negative—
What about the people God didn’t choose?
But the Bible doesn’t focus on that—focuses on the positive.
He chose us in him before the creation of the world.
In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons.
What that means is that Jesus did not die for the mass of humanity—
and you are just a part of that mass.
It means he died for you. You personally were on his mind on the cross.
Your name was on his lips in eternity past when he talked to the Father
about his chosen ones, and their terrible sins and the terrible price that
he would pay so that you could be his forever.
Knowing his love, and your sin against that love is even more reason to grieve.
But it’s also where you find comfort.
This is the glory of the Gospel. The is the glory of the Christian faith.
This is what sets apart Jesus from all others.
He is our priest, who came and lived and died and now intercedes and pleads for
and refuses to let any sin you commit, no matter how heinous, no matter
how besetting to separate you from his love.
Latch on to that. Sing about it. Ponder it.
When guilt for what you have done is excruciating. Exposed and hurting.
Turn to Christ your high priest and find comfort in him.