January 19, 2023
FASTING FOR A RETURN TO GOD – Ezra 8:21-27
Listen to Sunday’s sermon on Fasting For a Return to God found in Ezra 8:21-27.
On Sunday, January 15, 2023, Pastor Eric welcomed the members of the congregation and reminded them that today marks the seventh day of our collective 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting. We humbly ask the Lord to guide us, our families, our church, and our world in this new year.
Furthermore, Pastor Eric thanked everyone who signed up or sent an email indicating their willingness to participate in some way. He expressed his gratitude because, as he explained, things typically occur when God’s people earnestly seek Him.
In conjunction with the fast, we have produced a series of instructional videos entitled The Prayer Academy, which are intended to train and instruct people in the art of prayer.
Read Colossians 4:2
Colossians 4:2 states,
Continue praying, keeping alert, and always thanking God.
We are called to devote ourselves to prayer. Hence, the purpose of The Prayer Academy is to assist us in dedicating ourselves to prayer during our time of fasting.
This month alone, our website received over 24,000 visitors, most of whom were seeking information on prayer and fasting. This indicates that there is an increasing thirst for God and a greater understanding of the effectiveness of fasting and prayer. We will gather for prayer and worship at 4:00 p.m. this afternoon, and on the following three Sundays, during which we will also bring to God the many prayer requests we have received.
Read Isaiah 56:7
The Lord Jesus Christ said,
My house shall be a house of prayer.
Jesus did not say, “My house shall be a house of programs” or “My house shall be a house of sermons.” Rather, He said, “My house shall be a house of prayer.” We must therefore make this house one of prayer.
As Pastor Eric pointed out, it is astonishing that we can attend a service such as this one today and sit there as though we were seated in a theater; listen to the Worship Team sing beautiful songs about God; hear the preacher deliver an inspiring message about God; then go over to Sean’s Café to converse with our brothers and sisters about God, and still never address our heavenly Father directly. Yet, Jesus describes His Father’s house as a house of prayer: a place where we pray, hear from the Lord and dedicate our lives to Him.
Ezra – The Context
Read Ezra 1:1
The book of Ezra describes the period when the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem and were rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed. Following a period in the Promised Land, the Jews were exiled to Babylon for 70 years after failing to heed repeated warnings and for walking away from the Lord. Their lengthy exile ended when King Cyrus, also known as Cyrus the Great, was set to conquer Babylon in 539 BC, but the Lord unexpectedly used him to begin the process of returning His people to their homeland.
It is recorded in Ezra 1:1 that,
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy he had given through Jeremiah. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom.
The Hebrew word translated as ‘stirred’ means to awaken the heart, or to awaken someone who has fallen asleep. Thus, King Cyrus was about to grant the Jews the right to return to Jerusalem. Not only would they be allowed to leave, but building expenses would be covered by the royal treasury. This is particularly noteworthy since Cyrus was neither a preacher nor a prophet, nor was he a Jew. It is also worth noting that despite his polytheistic beliefs, he was respectful of conquered people. The famous Cyrus Cylinder, widely regarded as the world’s first charter of human rights, was among the decrees he issued to protect the right of conquered people. He is reputed to have adopted a policy of religious tolerance based on his own beliefs. It can therefore be concluded that God stirred up the spirit of an unbeliever. The life of the King of Persia demonstrates that an individual like Cyrus can be used by God; as such, we should pray for Cyruses in positions of authority, since their actions have a significant impact on our lives.
Read Proverbs 21:1
Proverbs 21:1 reads,
Just as water is turned into irrigation ditches, so the Lord directs the king’s thoughts. He turns them wherever he wants to.
In other words, it is possible for God to change the heart of a difficult boss. The hand of the Lord can touch a Cyrus today in order to provide us with the material and authority we require in this world. Similarly, He may do so with an authority figure in our life, such as a boss, who appears to be hindering our progress or who does not hold the same values as we do. In fact, it may even be the government itself, since the book of Ezra describes a Persian government that is not loyal to God.
Our hope is never placed in a man. In spite of the fact that we value men and their influence, and we understand that God grants certain men authority, we do not place our hope in them. Our hope rests in the Lord. Although God employs men to accomplish His purposes, our hope and our gaze should remain fixed on Jesus and not on other people. Men are merely instruments in His hands. As Christians, we need to place our faith in a greater source because, sometimes, when we look to people whom we believe the Lord will work through, the favour never materializes. It is not uncommon for God to work through unexpected means. The decision rests with Him. We must direct our gaze upward and place our trust in the Lord.
Read Ezra 3, Nehemiah 1 and 2
Pastor Eric then directed us to the eighth chapter of Ezra. As part of the reconstruction of Jerusalem, Ezra was one of three key individuals, namely, Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, Nehemiah, a layman, and Ezra, a priest. In Ezra 3, Zerubbabel reconstructed Temple; Nehemiah rebuilt the wall (Nehemiah 1 and 2); and Ezra restored the worship and declared a fast.
What was Ezra’s Fast about?
Read Ezra 8:21-27
Pastor Eric would like to propose to us today that Ezra’s fast was primarily intended to uphold God’s honour.
Ezra’s fast aimed:
1 – To preserve God’s reputation
Read Ezra 8:22-23
Fasting was Ezra’s effort to preserve the Lord’s reputation. He feared that the king of Persia might develop a negative view of God.
According to Ezra 22-23,
For I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and cavalry to accompany us and protect us from the enemies along the way. After all, we had told the king that our God would protect all those who worshiped him, and that disaster could come only to those who had forsaken him! So we fasted and begged the Lord to take care of us. And he did.
In requesting protection from the king, Ezra feared that the ruler would doubt his prior statements regarding his firm faith in God’s guidance and protection. Thus, Ezra did not wish to undermine his previous statements by requesting military escorts from him. Certainly, the king would have granted Ezra military protection had he requested it. However, Ezra chose to fast and pray to God out of fear that his request would adversely affect the king’s perception of the Lord. This speaks volumes about the man’s faith. To him, the image of God in the world was of utmost importance. This is not exclusive to Ezra. Numerous accounts in the Bible describe people who were concerned about God’s reputation.
Read Numbers 14:13-16
Here are a few examples:
Moses appealed to God on behalf of the Israelites in Numbers 14:13, when He threatened to destroy them because of their sins. In a desperate attempt to persuade the Lord, he stated,
But what will the Egyptians think when they hear about it?’ Moses pleaded with the Lord. ‘They know full well the power you displayed in rescuing your people.’ They have told this to the inhabitants of this land, who are well aware that you are with Israel and that you talk with her face-to-face. They see the pillar of cloud and fire standing above us, and they know that you lead and protect us day and night. Now if you kill all your people, the nations that have heard your fame will say, ‘The Lord had to kill them because he wasn’t able to take care of them in the wilderness. He wasn’t strong enough to bring them into the land he swore he would give them.
To Moses, maintaining God’s reputation was of paramount importance.
To ensure the honour of God, Joshua encouraged the Israelites to obey all of God’s commandments.
Read Psalm 9:11
In Psalm 9:11, David stated,
Oh, sing out your praises to the God who lives in Jerusalem. Tell the world about his unforgettable deeds.
He expressed the desire to live a life that would honour the Lord.
The purpose of Ezekiel’s prophecy was to encourage Israel to repent and restore God’s reputation among the nations.
The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt under Nehemiah’s leadership in order to provide relief from the shame that had been brought upon God’s people and ultimately affected the reputation of God.
Read 1 Corinthians 10:31
In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul stressed the importance of living a life that would bring honour to the Lord.
These are just a few examples of people who were mindful of God’s reputation and sought to honour His name.
In today’s world, what has become of the Ezras whose primary concern is how others perceive the Lord rather than how others perceive them? Where are the Ezras who are eager to give God the glory for the miraculous events that are about to occur? There is a need for more Ezras who are concerned about preserving and enhancing the reputation and image of God rather than seeking to gain recognition for themselves. As outlined in Scripture, God’s glory is wholly unique and exclusive to Him. In light of this, we should strive to emulate Ezra’s concern for protecting the Lord’s reputation.
New Beginning Church in Rockland was founded on the principle that those who have had adverse experiences with churches in the past need a new beginning.
Our church provides the opportunity for a fresh start. Although we are far from perfect, our goal is to become God’s dream church that will lead people on a meaningful journey with the Lord. You may have been disappointed by men in the past, but the Lord will never let you down. It is Pastor Eric’s prayer that you will be blessed with a fresh start with God. The Lord’s name is well known to many individuals, but it is misused, which is why we are endeavouring to glorify it in the Clarence-Rockland area.
In the course of this fast, will you join us in praying that the community will perceive the Lord as omniscient? Are you willing to join us in fasting and praying in order to raise awareness of God’s all-knowing, sovereign, holy, just, righteous, and loving nature? It is important to understand that His love for you is unconditional, meaning that no matter what you do, you cannot alter His feelings for you. If He were to take a photograph of you today, He would be pleased with what He would see. However, Pastor Eric is not suggesting that He would leave you that way. You are so loved by God that He will continue to transform and sanctify you throughout your lifetime.
Fasting is not about earning God’s love. He loves you very much, regardless of whether you fast a single day or not at all. Nothing can change that. It is our prayer that more people will experience His mercy, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness, reliability, and trustworthiness.
Read 2 Samuel 24:14
Although we may sometimes feel that men do not understand us, it is comforting to know that God always sees the desires of our hearts. Since the Lord knows what we are thinking before we utter a single word, we do not need to justify ourselves before Him. Pastor Eric compared this to what occurred in 2 Samuel 24:14. “David said to Gad, ‘I am in great trouble. Let the Lord punish us, because the Lord is very merciful. Don’t let my punishment come from human beings!’” God became angry with David for taking the census. As a consequence of his sin, David was forced to choose to either suffer a famine, flee from his enemies, or be struck with a plague. As a result of choosing the plague, the Lord sent a pestilence that resulted in the death of 70,000 Jews. Rather than opting for a famine or fleeing from his enemies, which would have required him to rely on human mercy to some extent, he opted to rely on God’s mercy instead.
As a means of maintaining a good reputation and therefore ensuring their success, companies invest considerable resources and time in promoting their brands. How many of us realize, however, that as followers of Christ, we should also strive to promote and protect His reputation by spreading His Word and living in accordance with His teachings?
Ezra’s fast aimed to safeguard God’s reputation.
2 – To seek God’s wisdom and protection
Read Ezra 8:23, 21-27
Among those embarking on a long and dangerous journey back to Jerusalem, a city under Persian rule, were Ezra, his children, and twelve priests. In carrying valuable materials across unfamiliar terrain, they were at risk of facing resistance from the locals or their authorities, being robbed, threatened, or even killed; therefore, they needed protection.
Pastor Eric is convinced that a few good men around Ezra approached him and asked, “Hi Ezra, what is your strategy to ensure that we are not attacked, injured or robbed? Will you request that military personnel guard and protect us?” Ezra undoubtedly replied, “No. We preached the gospel to the king. Our message to him was that God is with those who seek Him and turn to Him for guidance. We will not reverse course and declare that we actually require their protection and contradict our message.” One of them surely asked, “What will you do then?” Ezra replied, “We are going to fast and pray and beg God to take care of us, and He will.” “So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer.” (Ezra 8:23)
How many of us declare a fast and pray from the outset when in danger or in need of protection? How many of us, as a first step, attend prayer meetings such as the one we will hold tonight? How many of us initially seek assistance from God rather than calling someone, posting a message, or sending a tweet?
Read 1 Samuel 8 and Psalm 20:7
Being the Creator and Sustainer of all things, God wishes that His children would rely on Him in all circumstances. It is not wrong to seek assistance from others. In fact, there are times when we are required to do so. However, our initial response should be to seek God’s help and guidance first. When we need assistance, we should turn to the Lord, for He desires that His children be reliant on Him at all times. His power, knowledge, and ability know no bounds. He can meet all our needs. No human king or leader can equal His ability to protect us.
There are parallels to this in 1 Samuel 8:4-5, 1 Samuel 8:6-9, 1 Samuel 8-11:18.
Despite Samuel’s efforts, the people failed to listen to him. God did not intend for them to have a king to rule over them. He wanted to be their King. It was His desire to serve as their leader, to provide for them, and to protect them. He was the Sovereign Leader of Israel, but the people wanted a man to reign over them, so God granted them their request.
Although he had favour with the king, Ezra sought assistance and guidance from the Lord. It was not that he was rude to the Persian king, but rather that he had faith in God. He knew where his help would come from. Ezra’s fast was intended to safeguard God’s reputation. It also intends to assist us in seeking the Lord’s guidance and protection in times of danger or need today.
3 – To help God’s people walk in sanctification
Read Ezra 9:1
The ninth chapter of Ezra describes Ezra’s struggle with internal issues. He now faced internal problems rather than external ones. Some of the people returned from Babylon physically, but not spiritually. Their physical bodies returned to Jerusalem, but not their hearts. Ezra initiated this whole reform as a result of their lack of full commitment to the Lord. Ezra 9:1 states,
But then the Jewish leaders came to tell me that many of the Jewish people and even some of the priests and Levites had taken up the horrible customs of the heathen people who lived in the land – the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites.
The Israelites began to embrace the abhorrent practices of the people of the land. A number of them practiced some form of idolatry, such as worshipping other gods. Child sacrifices were commonplace. Participation in sexual immorality, such as incest and temple prostitution, was widespread. Consuming forbidden foods was also prevalent. Furthermore, there were instances of people disrespecting the dead through grave robbing. As the exiled people and their leaders assimilated into the land’s culture, they became increasingly like its ungodly inhabitants.
Read Ezra 9:2
Ezra 9:2 tells us how Ezra reacted to this.
When I heard this, I tore my clothing and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down utterly baffled. Then many who feared the God of Israel because of this sin of his people came and sat with me until the time of the evening burnt offering. Finally, I stood before the Lord in great embarrassment; then I fell to my knees and lifted my hands to the Lord, and cried out, ‘O my God, I am ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you, for our sins are piled higher than our heads and our guilt is as boundless as the heavens. Our whole history has been one of sin; that is why we and our kings and our priests were slain by the heathen kings – we were captured, robbed, and disgraced, just as we are today.’
Ezra, who was concerned about God’s reputation, was broken by the Israelites’ sin and their refusal to obey the Lord. As a result, he pleaded with God on behalf of the Jews, humbled himself, and began to fast for the sake of his people. Part of Ezra’s fast involved praying and asking God for forgiveness, not for the world, but for the Church. Repentance should be a priority for us as well as for others. We are good at asking others to repent, but we must be equally concerned about our own repentance.
Read Matthew 5:13-14
What does God initially see when He looks at the city of Rockland? He sees the Church. The Lord sees His people. It is in God’s house that judgment begins. As Christians, we are at the forefront of God’s judgment because He has called us to be His ambassadors. Our role as ambassadors of Christ is to be the salt and light in this community. We are to be witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ presence in our lives. As Christ’s followers, it is our responsibility to share His message and His love with others, as well as to pray for them. It is for this reason that we are here.
Read Deuteronomy 28:13
Too often, people look to the government for guidance in their Christian lives. They essentially ask the government to serve as a model for godly living, but in reality, it is the other way around. It is the Church’s responsibility to serve as an example. The Church is the head and not the tail. The Church is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are the voice of Jesus. The world’s first exposure to the Bible will be through us. We are not to rely on the government, we are to rely on God. He placed us here to make a positive difference in the world.
Read 1 John 1:9
Sin should break us. Our sincere remorse should prompt us to fast and cry out, “Lord, we are sorry for the sins of Your people. We recognize that sin hinders our ability to effectively reach the lost. It restricts the scope of our lives. We humbly request that Your Church be cleansed, so that we may turn from our wicked ways and allow revival to occur.
There is a need for revival in the Church. Like Cyrus, we need God to stir up our spirits. When we are stirred by God’s Spirit, we experience a deep sense of compassion and love for others, especially for those who do not know Jesus. Thus, we begin to view the world from the Lord’s perspective, and we become concerned about His reputation.
In fasting this year, we are asking God to open new doors, create fresh opportunities, perform more miracles, and advance His purposes in our lives. There will undoubtedly be challenges along the way. As the saying goes,
New levels bring new devils.
Read Psalm 121:2
Whenever the Israelites were close to conquering a part of the Promise Land, they encountered enemies, giants, opposition, and resistance. It was necessary for them to confront these challenges. The appealing aspect of challenging situations is the fact that we do not face them alone. God guides us through adversity. We should echo the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 121:2 who says, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” We do not know what He will do, how He will do it, or when He will do it, but we are confident that we will receive assistance from God.