These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
I wanted to take a break from our series to look at something that I consider to be extraordinarily important for us as a church plant. It’s a principle of faith we see in the Bible that the church seems to have all but forgotten. You can see it here in this passage in Ezra:
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Look at the decision Ezra makes to refuse protection from Artaxerxes (the Persian Emperor) as he and his fellow Israelites begin the dangerous journey to their homeland. He does it as an act of faith in the God they professed. This is fascinating and important. We see the same kind of principle at work in other stories. When Abraham refuses to accept any of the plunder from the king of Sodom after the battle of the kings (in Genesis 14) he does so in order to demonstrate that his wealth is to be seen to come from God alone (see v.17–24). When God whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 as they are about to face a Midianite army of 135,000 we see the same kind of faith at work (see Judges 7). We could go on.
What is happening? What are we meant to see here? I think there are two basic impulses that drive the decision-making of these men of faith.
First, there’s a concern for God’s glory. They have an overriding concern for how God appears before a watching world. In every case they refuse the safe option in order to show that God is real and that he’s able to take care of his people.
After all, the Israelites had a claim to uphold that their God was the true God. But it would have been easy for foreigners to look on and question that. Artaxerxes could easily have scoffed at Ezra’s faith in God given that Ezra (and the Israelites) should not have been in exile in the first place. Foreigners like Artaxerxes would hardly have concern for the subtleties of why the Israelites had been exiled at all; they only understood the language of power. And so, in the way Ezra is able, he seeks to demonstrate God’s power and give God glory before a watching world. It seems to me that as the modern Western world watches the church get weaker and weaker there is an urgency for us as believers to have the same drive to seek to demonstrate God’s glory.
Second, there’s a need (on the part of God’s people) to put their faith to the test. Now I know there’s a wrong way to test God. Jesus made that clear, but that has to do with a demand for God to act, coming from a position of questioning him (the verse Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6.16 has to do with the Israelites cynically testing God in the wilderness). I also think there’s a right way to test God, in the sense of deliberately depending on him, taking him at his word, trusting his promises are good. I’d also argue that God takes pleasure in this kind of faith (see Hebrews 11.6). And what’s more, God’s children need to exercise such faith, since it’s only in such situations of utter dependence that we can touch the Rock and feel his presence with absolute certainty. That is why George Muller set up his orphan house to take care of thousands of orphans. He wanted to show Christians and non-Christians that faith in God works.
Now, why is this important for us? For a few reasons.
For one thing, we’re called to exercise this faith personally. While I don’t want to downplay the importance of day-to-day faithfulness and plodding on in the Christian life, I also think it’s possible to live a life that is altogether too safe, a life in which you never actually rely on the promises of God or discover his reliability. The life of faith, in contrast, will be a life with some extraordinary steps in which you discover God’s supernatural intervention. Your decisions will be guided by the primary concern as to how you can glorify God, and you’ll trust him for the rest. You’ll make sacrifices. You’ll take risks.
Furthermore, we’re called to exercise this faith as a church. It’s possible to build a church without much faith. This is happening around us all the time when churches operate on the same principles the world does — find out what is most marketable and give it to people. So, if people want entertainment then entertain. If people want to feel good about themselves then only speak positively. If people want a soft message then don’t talk about sin. Paul warned us about this, but it seems that many are paying no attention. It’s possible to grow a church this way. But a church that has the kind of faith that Ezra had — a concern to glorify God and trust his word — will understand that genuine salvation and spiritual renewal has to be a work of God. Such a church will seek to follow God’s leading in his word and by his Spirit and won’t capitulate to the spirit of the age. She will trust that God can build his church when we think and act as though he is real.
It’s important to see that Ezra didn’t see such faith as passivity (do nothing and watch what God does) or pointless risk. Instead, he sees God’s promises as conditional. In fact, there are two conditions he mentions: “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.”
First, the negative. God is against all who forsake him. That was why the Israelites had ended up in exile in the first place. God’s promises don’t work regardless of how his people live. They’re covenant promises, which means there is a requirement on the part of his covenant people to be faithful to God.
Second, the positive. God favours those who “seek him”. The particular way Ezra and his companions demonstrate this is revealed in the next verse: “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” There is a powerful lesson in here for us. If we want to exercise the same kind of faith — a faith that refuses to build church by worldly methods that don’t glorify God or show he’s even real — we can’t just sit back and do nothing! We’re called to seek him urgently and passionately in prayer and fasting.