It can be a wonderful thing to be part of A GROUP. A group can achieve extraordinary things. Two weeks ago we were at Kyckstart. 3000 young people – most of whom are keen to love and follow Jesus – can have a powerful, life-changing impact on a teenager.
But a GROUP can also be DESTRUCTIVE AND DANGEROUS. A MOB MENTALITY can cause people to do things they’d NEVER do on their own. Like the hooligans who brawled after the soccer match between the two Sydney teams. Sydney Olympic and Bonnyrigg Eagles.
And so, some people argue, you need STRONG LEADERSHIP. Tell the people what to think. Show them where to go. Don’t give them choices. Control their options. It looks like those two soccer teams will be booted out of the competition by the governing body.
Others say, NO. Strong leadership isn’t the answer. For better or worse, a DEMOCRACY is always best. Whatever decision MOST PEOPLE MAKE is the right one.
It’s really a question of your POLITICAL LEANINGS. Are you Left Wing or Right Wing? Is power best seen in the hands of the people, or the leaders?
There are dangers on BOTH SIDES.
On the one hand. Right wing. There are the dangers of DICTATORSHIP – Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Or Adolph Hitler in Germany. Greater democracy would have helped to MODERATE what these individuals got up to.
But there’s also the flip-side. The left wing. The dangers of mob-rule. A new movie, Hotel Rwanda, describes the real-life events in Rwanda in 1994. When nearly 1 million people were massacred.
When Hutu extremists took over Rwanda, their first goal was to exterminate all the Tutsi (whom they called “cockroaches”). With the U.N. stuck in red tape, and most of the world turning a blind eye, there was little to stop the Hutus from slaughtering the Tutsis.
Perhaps a stronger government, or tighter UN control, could have helped to stop that massacre.
The individual VS the group. There are dangers at the extremes of BOTH positions.
And it’s a question for the Christian church too.
In some churches you can see the dangers of too much power resting with ONE PERSON. With no accountability structures. Leadership that ABUSES its power. Riding roughshod over people. That’s how cults begin.
Other churches show the consequences of NO LEADERSHIP. They’ve just rolled along for decades. Either doing NOTHING. Or doing the WRONG thing. Well-meaning people following the crowd, or doing what they’ve always done.
Tough decisions are needed. A direction needs to be set. But no-one has the courage to bite the bullet. And the church fades into insignificance, or death.
The Presbyterian system tries to avoid the dangers at either end. We differ from other denominations in our emphasis on ELDERS. Leadership is by GROUPS.
It’s not the minister who makes decisions, but it’s the elders – of whom the minister is just one member.
But that doesn’t mean the group is ignored. Good eldership listens to the concerns of the members.
And in the worst cases, when the elders aren’t considering the congregation, they can appeal to the PRESBYTERY. Which is ANOTHER group of ministers and elders ABOVE our Leadership Team.
They’ve got the authority to question us, to discipline us. Even to fire us. Which, unfortunately, is sometimes necessary. Often because elders DON’T lead WELL. When they DON’T do things in the best interests of the group.
I’d like to think we’ve got a good BALANCE between the individual leader, and the group.
And as we turn to the next part of our story in the book of Ezra, these questions rise to the surface. What DOES make a good leader? How much emphasis does a good leader give to THE GROUP? To their input. Their talents and energies and directions.
And how much does a good leader just power off in the direction THEY think is best/ OBLIVIOUS to what the REST of the group thinks?
As we work through these chapters, there’s a question I want you to be asking. IS EZRA A GOOD LEADER? Why, or why NOT?
The best man for the job (7:1-10)
We take up the story in Ch 7. And it begins with the words, “after these things”. If you work out the dates, we’ve actually jumped forward 58 years between end of 6 and start of 7. Two generations!
And we’re introduced for the first time to Ezra. The guy whose name is at the top of the whole book. Who probably wasn’t even BORN when the temple was completed back at the end of Ch 6.
These FIRST ten verses/ give us a THUMB-NAIL SKETCH. A summary of the whole events of Ch 7 and 8.
And what we see is that Ezra’s THE BEST MAN FOR THE JOB.
Quite a history
Look at his ancestors for example, in v1-5. It’s quite a history. From his Dad, right back to Aaron – the first chief priest. This guy’s got better bloodlines than Phar Lap.
But not just HISTORY. HE’S done pretty well for himself as well. In v6 we see he’s a “teacher well-versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given.”
This guy knew the law BACKWARDS. It wasn’t uncommon that these experts would learn the Genesis to Deuteronomy WORD FOR WORD.
Learning, keeping, and teaching God’s Law
But it’s not just KNOWLEDGE. This guy knew how TO PUT IT ALL INTO PRACTICE. Look down to v10.
For Ezra had devoted himself to the STUDY and OBSERVANCE of the Law of the LORD, and to TEACHING its decrees and laws in Israel. NIV
LEARNING, KEEPING AND TEACHING God’s Law. He knew all the THEORY. But he also PUT IT INTO PRACTICE. But that wasn’t all, he saw the importance of TEACHING IT TO OTHERS.
And that’s a great mark of someone who’s a good leader of God’s people. Someone who KNOWS, KEEPS, and TEACHES God’s Word.
A blank cheque (7:11-26)
Well, that’s Ezra – the man for the job. Let’s have a look at what the JOB/ WAS.
It seems Ezra must have approached King Artaxerxes with a pretty BOLD approach. Because v6 (the second half) tells us that the King RESPONDED BY GRANTING HIM EVERYTHING HE’D ASKED FOR.
Which is basically a blank cheque. Look at the king’s letter from v11. Skim through it with me. All the things that Ezra’s asked for.
V13 – Any Israelite who wanted to, could return to Jerusalem with Ezra.
V15 – Take the King’s gift of gold
V16 – Plus any gold and silver from the Jews in Babylon.
V17 – Then buy plenty of animals to sacrifice in the temple.
V18 – Do what you like with the change!
V19 – Make sure you put the temple articles you were given into the temple
V20 – And anything else you need, just pick it out of the royal treasury. – wheat or wine, or oil or salt.
And to top it all off, v24. I’ll just waive any taxes or duty for everyone who goes with you!
But perhaps what was DEAREST to Ezra’s heart, was what the king wrote about GOD’S LAW. Look down to v25.
Ezra 7:25: 25 And you, Ezra, in accordance with THE WISDOM OF YOUR GOD (that is, his law), which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to ADMINISTER JUSTICE to all the people of Trans-Euphrates-all who know the laws of your God. And YOU ARE TO TEACH ANY who do not know them. NIV
Ezra was given the authority to do what he wanted most– to teach the people God’s Law, and to see it change the society.
Introducing…. Ezra! (7:27)
And so, the king’s letter finishes. Another incredible example of God working through foreign kings / to rescue his people. First Cyrus, then Darius. And now Artaxerxes.
If you stop and think about it, it should make you just shake your head in amazement.
Which is just what EZRA thinks! Immediately, in v27, we’re introduced to EZRA HIMSELF. He jumps out of pages at us, as we hear his reaction FIRST HAND. In the FIRST PERSON.
27 Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way 28 and who has extended his good favor to ME before the king and his advisers and all the king’s POWERFUL OFFICIALS. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on ME, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me. NIV
This is great news. Perhaps more than Ezra even expected HIMSELF.
You get the impression he wasn’t the most NATURAL leader. Perhaps more comfortable in the library than the speaker’s platform.
That to approach the king with his bold request wasn’t the most natural thing Ezra ever did. They were POWERFUL officials.
See how it was only because THE HAND OF THE LORD HIS GOD WAS ON HIM that he TOOK COURAGE to gather leading men to go to Israel with him.
HE was TIMID. But at the same time, it brings a smile to his face to remember how God was working in the events that unfolded.
Timid, but rejoicing.
& Co. (8:1-20)
The first part of Ch 8 outlines the group he managed to assemble. Including an emergency call for some Levites – a NECESSITY for Ezra’s task of teaching God’s Law.
Travelling Mercies (8:21-36)
Then from v21 to the end of the Ch, we read of the TRAVELLING MERCIES. How God watched over them as they made the 1000 km journey back home.
Let me make a minor point from this section. You can see it from v21.
Ezra, in talking up his plan to the king, had HAPPENED to mention that his God was POWERFUL. And would WATCH OVER HIM. And so now, as Ezra planned his trip, he was embarrassed to ask the king for an armed guard. What sort of a God would need puny soldiers to watch over his treasure?! Look at it there in v22.
I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” NIV
So Ezra figures the best thing he can do … IS PRAY. To LOOK to the one who can protect and deliver them. Which he, and everyone else, does for THREE DAYS. Prayer and fasting.
And v25 tells us that God ANSWERED his prayer.
And down in v31, it says
Ezra 8:31-32: The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. NIV
Does that mean WE are to do THE SAME? Ignore EARTHLY actions because we trust God to look after us?
- Cross the road with our eyes closed?
- Not bother with car insurance?
- Not seek medical attention?
- Not contribute to superannuation?
All because you decide God is protecting you!
That MIGHT be right for a particular person/ at a particular TIME. But not ALWAYS. Ezra himself seems to be struggling with the issue. As if it’s not an open and shut case.
And he takes PLENTY of OTHER precautions to make sure the treasure doesn’t get lost or stolen on the way. So it’s not like he CONSISTENTLY applies this principle.
And his successor, Nehemiah, has no problems using a king’s guard in Ch 2 of Nehemiah.
So, rather than seeing this as an EXAMPLE for us to FOLLOW. I think we need to just take it as part of the story. To help us build up our picture of what Ezra was like. To view it as evidence of the humanity of the bloke.
He was undecided on things. He wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing at times. But it was his faith in the God who had strengthened his hand, and guided his steps, which was his CRUCIAL quality.
And the same could be said for us.
Whatever the situation is. And whatever the decision you MAKE about it. Make sure you do it with FAITH that God is powerful and can work ANY outcome. And that he is WISE AND LOVING, and will always work what’s BEST for us.
Better than we deserve (9)
Back to Ezra. And so, we come to the end of Ch 8, and Ezra and the people make it back to Jerusalem. Where they rest. Where they count out all their treasure. And where they offer a huge thank offering to God for all his goodness.
Ch 9 takes up the story about four months later. Presumably, Ezra’s been going about his teaching and judging work. When a group of the leaders came with a problem. Lots of the Jews had married OTHER NEIGHBOURING PEOPLE.
Seems pretty harmless. WE marry people from other nations ALL THE TIME. Harmless, until you recognise the idolatry these other nations were involved in. The detestable practices. The wickedness.
But perhaps the SCARIEST bit/ is when you remember the warnings God had given the people against intermarriage back in Deut. Like Ch 7 v3
Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. NIV
In fact, part of the reason for God’s punishment of exile IN THE FIRST PLACE/ was Israel’s sin of intermarriage and idolatry. And here they are, doing exactly the same thing again. It’s a TERRIBLE discovery.
Notice it’s not even Ezra who points it out. It’s come from the PEOPLE. Some of the leaders.
Is that because Ezra hasn’t NOTICED? Or because he figured it was better if the INITIATIVE CAME FROM THE PEOPLE. From those who had most to LOSE by the announcement.
Either way, look at what he does next. He doesn’t rush out and start an inquisition. Action begins with his own RE-action. V3.
When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice. NIV
He shows his grief in a public way, in a public place. And like-minded people gather around. And towards the end of the day, when there’s a good crowd. He moves to part 2 of his plan. V5.
Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the LORD my God 6 and prayed: NIV
Praying before all those who were grieving for the people. And he prays up a storm. One of the greatest prayers in the OT. One of my favourites.
And what I want you to notice is the way the identity of the INDIVIDUAL and the GROUP are intermingled. Ezra himself hasn’t done anything wrong. But he stands WITH the people. And bears part of the guilt. He BELONGS to the people of God, and will bear the punishment that’s coming.
“O MY God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because OUR sins are higher than our heads and OUR guilt has reached to the heavens. 7 From the days of our forefathers until now, OUR guilt has been great. Because of OUR sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. NIV
And he goes on to remind God of his wonderful MERCY. In not punishing them as much as they deserved. How they’ve been given this glimmer of hope. To be back in THE LAND, with a TEMPLE, and a remnant of faithful PEOPLE, even a FOREIGN BENEFACTOR.
And he finishes his prayer, throwing himself, and all the people, on God’s mercy. V15.
O LORD, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.” NIV
Promises, promises (10)
Next, we come to part 3 of his plan. Because during the prayer, the crowd has CONTINUED to build. All gathered around him. And all of them were weeping as well.
And once again, it’s not Ezra who takes the lead. Look at v2 of Ch 10.
Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 3 Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. 4 Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” NIV
Ezra’s made his feelings obvious. But he hasn’t set out a plan. It takes ONE OF THE CROWD to offer a suggestion. And to encourage Ezra to get the ball rolling. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it
So Ezra calls a meeting. And everyone assembles. And as they stand there in the rain, miserable, a voice of reason is heard.
“Let’s not make a hasty decision NOW. It’s too important to RUSH INTO. Appoint a group to investigate it properly. Then we’ll deal with it.”
Not the first large group to appoint a committee to investigate further! Nor will it be the last!
And Ezra is a leader who LISTENS to his people. He even records the names of the four guys who voted AGAINST the motion. Individuals matter!
And so, within a fortnight, the committee reports back. And the long list of culprits is presented. Each one had married a foreigner. And, presumably, even though we’re not told so, they DIVORCED them.
And so we come to the end of the book.
What opinion do you have of Ezra? Is he a good leader, or not?
How much has he actually DONE? And what slant do you put on that?
Is he an incompetent, ineffective, puppet? Who just stumbles along, pushed by everyone else?
Or is he a scheming Macchiavello who manipulates people into doing what he wanted all along.
Or is he just a great example of a good, godly leader? Who LOVES God’s law, lives it out, and teaches it to others? Who’s humble and reluctant to take the lead. But who knows what’s right, and will do it when he needs to.
Who trusts the Spirit of God working in the GROUP, so that he can let THEM set the running. Who has the wisdom to know that the most effective change is change that the GROUP owns.
If that’s the right way of reading Ezra – and I think it is – then God’s given us A GREAT EXAMPLE on which to model OUR leadership.
Both for those of us who are LEADERS, and for those who are part of THE GROUP – the sorts of things we should be looking for, and expecting to see, in our leaders.
But there’s another application as well. And it’s to do with this idea of the INDIVIDUAL/ and the GROUP.
YOU, AS AN INDIVIDUAL, ARE CONNECTED TO THE GROUP. You have a RESPONSIBILITY to the group. Something is missing when you aren’t here at church. Or when you arrive late. Or when you don’t contribute.
You are part of the body. You are valuable and important. And the body doesn’t work properly without you doing your part.
You’re NOT insignificant.
There’s a connection. When one suffers, all suffer. When one laughs, all laugh. When one weeps, all weep. At least, that SHOULD be the case. Are we connected like THAT with each other? Or is it that we can’t wait to run off back to our individual lives.
Ezra recognised the power of the group. And the significance of the individual within that group. Of diversity within unity.
All good leaders will do that. And all good GROUPS will DEMONSTRATE that.
Let me finish by reading how Paul put this same idea. In 1 Cor 12.
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. … 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.