I don’t know if I’ve ever consider the book of Ezra (also Nehemiah, Haggai & Zechariah) as helpful resources for church planters but a recent reading taught me a number of important lessons.
First a little bit of background; after years of rebellion Israel & then Judah are defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and carried off into exile in Babylon for 70 years. In that time Babylon is in turn defeated by the Persians. King Cyrus adopts a different strategy and resettled captive peoples back in their lands, where they will be subject to Persia. Both Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus fulfil different prophecies of Jeremiah – showing the God of Israel to be sovereign over the kings of nations.
The people of God return to their land to rebuild the temple and the ways of God only to find that the people living there no longer follow the old ways, it’s mixed with other things – it’s not as it used to be. Today we live in nations where once there was worship of God, but we return to find that the house of God needs rebuilding, the people have aligned themselves with other gods, there is work to be done.
WE NEED GOD TO MOVE HEARTS & OPEN WALLETS
We read in Ez 1:5 – ‘Everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord’. I don’t know about you, but you can tell when someone’s heart is not in it – when they are with you but not heart and soul. There’s a difference and what we need is people whose heart has been moved by God.
It also reminds me that our hearts need moving, we can be comfortable and complacent. Yet God is speaking about the state of His house, and He will call people. Our job is not so much to recruit but to call on God to move hearts for our nations and cities. If we truly believe that Jesus will build His church then we need the moving of hearts to be a work of God. That’s not to say we can’t ask people, of course we can, we don’t know whose heart God may be moving – but the persuading, the calling, the desire is something that God does best. And even as church plants we need to be seeking an atmosphere where people’s hearts are soft towards God so that they will respond to the promptings in their heart.
But note the next verse:
All their neighbours helped them by giving them many things: silver utensils, gold, supplies, pack animals, other valuables, and offerings for the Temple.
Their neighbours in effect took up an offering to equip them in the task ahead. There’s no question that church planting requires financial resourcing to back up the people who are going. This is always a huge challenge but the key here is that those sending saw it as much their mission as the mission of the ones going. Ownership of church planting from churches is important and difficult because all too often it ends up being out of sight, out of mind. The moment that happens then the ownership begins to slip. We have relationships with churches that own what we are doing and for others we are simply pictures on a board, there’s no ownership.
WE NEED TO KEEP OUR EYE ON THE TASK
The returning Israelites arrive in their new land and begin to sort their life out. Seven months later they’ve begun to have life in their new land figured out but they’ve not yet started on the temple. Now this is interesting because I’ve on any number of occasions told people ‘Just take the first year to find your feet, don’t stress the church stuff, just get life functioning’ and I think that’s generally sound advice. Unless you’re one of God’s prophets. In which case you get told off.
The first chapter of Haggai is essentially a call to get off your backsides and get going. The problem was they hadn’t only just got settled but they had got comfortable, instead of just sorted houses, they became focused on improving their houses and lives. They had forgotten the call and the task. We need to make life work, but we also need to remember why we are where we are – we are about building the Lord’s house.
WE NEED TO REMEMBER TO CELEBRATE
When the builders started to lay the foundation of the Temple, the priests in their robes took their places with trumpets in their hands, and the Levites of the clan of Asaph stood there with cymbals. They praised the LORD according to the instructions handed down from the time of King David. They sang the LORD’s praises, repeating the refrain: “The LORD is good, and his love for Israel is eternal.” Everyone shouted with all their might, praising the LORD, because the work on the foundation of the Temple had been started. Many of the older priests, Levites, and heads of clans had seen the first Temple, and as they watched the foundation of this Temple being laid, they cried and wailed. But the others who were there shouted for joy. No one could distinguish between the joyful shouts and the crying, because the noise they made was so loud that it could be heard for miles.
They finally begin work on the foundation of the temple. Not that they had finished anything, but that they had started something. In fact their celebration of starting something was so raucous, so loud, so emotional that no-one could tell the difference between wailing and shouting for joy and the noise could be heard for miles.
I know we may not want to disturb our neighbours (just last week I talked with a church planter who had problems with the neighbours because of the groups singing) but is there something here for us? Nothing motivates your people like a celebration and not even of finishing anything but of starting something. We have begun, we are doing this, the Lord is with us. Let’s have a party!
When they finally finish the temple (Ez 6:15-22) their party lasted a week. In church planting, it can sometimes feel like you are always starting and never finishing. There’s always work to be done but if we forget to stop, praise the Lord, celebrate not just the accomplishments but the attempt then people’s heads go down. A church of life and celebration is an attractive place to be. These guys have fun!
WE WILL FACE OPPOSITION AND IT COULD LAST FOR YEARS
How’s that for encouragement? But Ezra 4:4-6:12 is basically a list of opposition that lasts for decades – the Israelites’ enemies appeal to king after king to delay, hinder and obstruct the temple building. 30 years pass between chapters 6 & 7. No one wants difficulty, we all want it to be easier but the uncomfortable reality is: we have an enemy who is opposed to the building of the Lord’s house and who will use any possible means to delay, hinder, obstruct and ultimately demolish and destroy.
WE NEED THE ENCOURAGEMENT & CHALLENGE OF THE PROPHETS
The Jewish leaders made good progress with the building of the Temple, encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They completed the Temple as they had been commanded by the God of Israel and by Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, emperors of Persia.
The prophets called the people out of their comfort zone and spoke the word of God but they also had a ministry of encouragement. This is one of the great blessings of prophecy. We are encouraged in our building as we hear the words of God to us now. It is important to make space for this and to encourage those with prophetic gifts to use them, because we will make ‘good progress’ as we do.
WE MAY NEED A SECOND WAVE OF TEAM MEMBERS
Ezra was a scholar with a thorough knowledge of the Law which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given to Moses. Because Ezra had the blessing of the LORD his God, the emperor gave him everything he asked for. In the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes, Ezra set out from Babylonia for Jerusalem with a group of Israelites which included priests, Levites, Temple musicians, Temple guards, and workers.
Ezra wasn’t among the first set of builders but came as part of a second wave of returnees. You’ll note that in that second wave are priests, musicians, guards, workers and Ezra a teacher and scholar.
I think this is something that church planters often long for but often don’t know what to do about. An initial team has set out, a base in a city has been established and a group is emerging and what we then desperately feel we need is a second wave of helpers with some crucial gifts – worship leaders, workers, teachers. But we look around and do not know how to get those people or where they would even come from.
The challenge is then for us not to look to our home country but to look to the Lord. Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers. That doesn’t preclude us asking people. In chapter 8 Ezra lists able, competent men who were needed but came because he sent people to ask them to come. Ezra asked for help, send us these people – and through God’s grace (v 18), they came.
And for those that come we should commend them, first wave or second wave. It requires courage whether you’re first or second wave and it helps if others go with you (Ez 7:28).
WE SHOULD SAY BOLD THINGS OF GOD THEN FAST & PRAY
There by the Ahava Canal I gave orders for us all to fast and humble ourselves before our God and to ask him to lead us on our journey and protect us and our children and all our possessions. I would have been ashamed to ask the emperor for a troop of cavalry to guard us from any enemies during our journey, because I had told him that our God blesses everyone who trusts him, but that he is displeased with and punishes anyone who turns away from him. So we fasted and prayed for God to protect us, and he answered our prayers.
I like this Ezra refuses to ask the King because he has told him that God will provide for His people. Then they realised they really were in need, the result – it was time to fast and pray.
Jesus promised He would His church. Let us speak boldly of our God and then drop to our knees in prayer.