Personal lessons on fasting
- Fasting is hard. I’m so used to eating – more, snacking. Too often eating is my escape from performing a task, focusing on an issue, or even praying and seeking God. I’m learning more how to incorporate God as my priority approach throughout the day. Fasting provides a necessary urgency and alertness to pray.
- Hydration is helpful. Drinking water fills some of the void of food. Hydration may also cause other issues with the body, but the tradeoff may be worth the extra calories.
- Gratefulness for a meal is increased when other meals are missed. Most of my in process 40-day experience has been to fast 1-2 meals a day. By the end of the day I’m thankful to have a plate of food before me. I’m also humbled by those around the world who eat only 1 or no meal a day for involuntary reasons. Further, this gratefulness has taught me to savor a meal and having table fellowship, rather than rush and devour food to move onward in another activity.
- Fasting and prayer is enhanced by others. I must admit, I wasn’t certain how the church would respond to a corporate challenge to fast. Baptists love their fellowship feasts! Some of those closest to me had discussed some days or even up to a 21-day fast. However, I felt convinced we needed to start with a 40-day fast.
- 40 in the bible stands out in a significant manner.
- 40 symbolizes an exodus from the wilderness… which if I’m honest, sometimes I feel the weight at spbc. I want nothing more than to follow God’s firey holy presence.
So, I wasn’t certain who would actually join me and how others would participate. I knew fasting from food would hit people differently – especially some of our older members. My aim hasn’t been legalistic but more trusting our focus to surrender and commit to God in deeper ways as a church. And I’ve slowly been hearing testimonies of church members taking more seriously the call to pray and fast – and that has sincerely encouraged me. A pastor can have a fair amount of discouragements – so it’s the little testimonies that bear fruit and sustain the pastor’s long-term ministry.
All this to say, when you know others are sharing the journey with you, then it is easier to keep going.
- Fasting is ordinary. For me, not much extraordinary has happened (29 days Feb 2). The miracle in my life is the routine relationship with Jesus. The reality of becoming more aware of my need for God; more aware of His presence and convicted to pray; more attuned in listening to others of God’s kingdom – this is the miracle of God at work in my life. So, fasting is a discipline that is keeping me focused on the ordinary radical nature of the Christian life.
Jesus said fasting and prayer were expected of His followers. He also said His house/church would be a place of significant prayer. So, if Christians are not praying significantly and if churches are not gathering to seek the Lord in prayer – I’m not certain they can truly be called a church or a Christian. Personally, I’m sincerely disappointed by the lack of corporate prayer at our church… but knowing any growth, especially spiritual growth takes time and perseverance is what keeps me going.
All of this brings us to our text.
EXAMINE Ezra 8:21 – 10:17
- Book of Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book and divided around 15th C and in all our English Bibles.
- Ezra name means “Helper.”
- Ezra was essentially a preacher, while Nehemiah was a govt official project manager.
- Neither are well known, and the books are without popular stories.
- Both have highs and lows.
- Ezra is a preacher of the word and helps others understand Scripture, but he commands God’s people to divorce wives and children.
- Nehemiah rebuilds a wall to protect a city, but he also is violent at end of leadership.
- OT covers 1,000 years of history from time of Israel in Egyptian slavery to becoming free and established as a nation, then conquered and exiled, until the time of Ezra-Nehemiah when Israel was allowed to return home to Jerusalem, with 42,360 returned (Ez 2:64)
- Ezra-Nehemiah cover 100-year span, starting around 538BC.
So, why are we studying these books over next several weeks?
- All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for truth in salvation and training in righteousness.
- Books teach us God’s movements through people & empires.
Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
God softened and sovereignly moved the kings of the land to allow His people to return to Jerusalem. First there was King Cyrus of Persia who started Israel’s return from exile (Ez 1:1-4). After some opposition, another King Darius reinforced the decree of Cyrus and the temple rebuild was completed and dedicated to the Lord (Ez 6). Yet, another King Artaxerxes sends Ezra and many other Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ez 7).
Ezra 7:27-28 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors… I took courage for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.”
While the temple was rebuilt, now Ezra’s role was to rebuild the community. We will examine his approach about rebuilding a faith community (Ez 8-10).
Later, King Artaxerxes is used again by God to send Nehemiah to renovate the city of Jerusalem with rebuilding a protective wall (Neh 1-2). While Nehemiah will overcome significant opposition, he will build the wall in 52 days. Lessons from Nehemiah’s leadership abound and we hope to make positive applications when we study the book. Yet, in spite of all the positive political renewal, the revitalization in the community, and rebuilding of the city, there was still an empty inability for the people to stay revived. Unfortunately, the people profaned God’s name with idol worship and not prioritizing the temple or Sabbath and entered unhealthy relationships. So… “Nehemiah confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair… and chased away the priests” (13:25, 29).
- Books ultimately teach us that reform and renovation is empty apart from the Redeemer. They point us to the reality of our need of a Savior. God’s law was a tutor – representing God’s standard, revealing human sin, and reflecting our need of a Savior (cf. Gal 2:15-24). God’s people do not need a new temple, a new political party, or a big new wall – instead it needs new hearts.
As it was prophesied in the OT
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers… But this is the covenant I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people…for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-33)
Enough introduction… how did Ezra seek to revitalize the community of God’s people?
- Ezra raised the spiritual temperature (8:15-23).
Upon gathering people for travel to Jerusalem, Ezra noticed there were no sons of Levi – the priests were missing! It seems the priests either do not know their identity (genealogy) or they do not want to act on their identity. God gave them their position, but they were failing to put their calling into practice.
à Have you ever felt called to do something but then didn’t act on it?
à Bible calls followers of Jesus a kingdom royal priesthood – bridging others to God (1Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6)
Ezra called all the people to fast and pray, seeking God. Notice also the prayer concern for our children – future generations. If one generation is not serious about God, the next generation will be casual and careless. Further, consider the prayer of safety for children in light of today’s culture of abortion. Let us pray and fast for life!
One of the reasons we are fasting is to raise the spiritual temperature among God’s people. There’s an old saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The spiritual implication is that faith vibrancy can become viral.
-Illus: A coronavirus has started in China and spread to 18 other countries, including recently a case in the USA. The virus has killed 170 people and there are 7,800 cases confirmed and dangerous. The effects of the outbreak are rippling through cities and crippling every domain of industry: schools not opening, hospitals cannot contain patients, business shutting down, tourism fading, and influencing daily life.
We want our Christianity to be contagious that it impacts every region and realm. God’s hand of favor is upon His people when we spend time in His presence and the glow of His glory shines in our life to light the darkness around us.
à Commit to raising the temperature in your spiritual life through personal prayer/fasting and gathering with Christians for prayer-word-fellowship. It’s what the early Christians did (Acts 2:42-47) and there is no excuse for Christians to not do so today – look at the persecuted church who does it at threat for their lives!
- Ezra repented the sinful practices (9:1-9).
The Israelites had intermingled their faith with those of pagan neighbors. Rather than being a light unto the nations, they allowed ungodly beliefs and behaviors to filter into their lifestyle. Ezra prays with grief – “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ez 9:6).
Side note: Ezra (nor God) isn’t condemning multi-ethnic marriages. Joseph had a wife from Egypt (Gen 41:45), Moses had a wife from Midian (Ex 2:21) and later Ethiopia (Nu 12:1), Boaz married Ruth the Moabite. The Bible affirms one race for humanity (Acts 17:26) and there is no distinction of equality among ethnicities (Rom 10:12-13; Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-19; Col 3:11). The concerning issue is not multi-ethnic but multi-faith marriage. God does not want Christians to be unequally yoked (2Cor 6:14) and expects godly offspring in marriages (Mal 2:15-16).
Ezra confesses the sin of his people and the people gather to repent (Ez 10:1-2). In this case, their repentance is proved genuine through their putting away of ungodly wives – and not remarry. Divorce was counseled not to escape a marriage but to eliminate further sinful lifestyles drawn after idols and away from God (cf. God’s example to divorce Israel Jer 3:7-23).
à Sin hinders our prayers
Ps 66:18 “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not listen to me.”
Prov 28:9 “One who turns his ear away from the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”
Isa 59:2 “your iniquities have separated you from God and your sins hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
1Pet 3:7 “live with your wives in an understanding way… so that your prayers are not hindered.”
2 Chronicles 7:14 “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
à Is there a relationship that needs severed in your life? Is there an app that needs deleted off your electronics? Is there an activity that needs closure?
Ezra 10:4 “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.”
- Ezra reinforced accountability.
The end of the book is a listing of ~128 names of those men who had “married foreign women and some of the women had even borne children.” Can you imagine having your name inked forever in Holy Scripture for a sin you had committed?
This sad reminder is that we can make idols out of spouses and children. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Jesus’s statement is not about detesting what is good but determining what is best. His words show us who, what, and how to prioritize our life.
While the people of Ezra’s day were listed by their sin, today because of the grace of Jesus Christ, God lists us by our salvation. You see, the devil knows you by your name and calls you by your sin, but Jesus knows your sin and calls you by your name.
Isaiah 43:1 “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”
Martin Luther “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”
à Our accountability starts and stops with Christ but is expressed through His church. If our fellowship with His people declines our faith in His person dwindles.
à Ezra had the backbone to stand up and lead for God. We need this leadership.
Ezra ends without a mark of success…
- Life success is often determined after you die; the legacy you leave behind for others to follow. Who is following in your footsteps? Whom are you passing faith? If you are not passing faith, do you really possess it?
- Success is ultimately defined by having your name in God’s book of life.
- The greatest hindrance of the church is often not outside but inside. Let us pray and seek the Lord with fervency.