Guilt gets a bad press today.
Many secular counsellors would say it’s unhealthy to feel guilty. We need to let go of our sense of guilt. And if someone is trying to process issues and problems in their life, the last thing they need is to be made to feel guilty for things they’ve done wrong.
The same thinking runs within the church. Christians have traditionally talked about sin. Every Sunday, at each of our services, we confess our sins. But there are voices saying that’s profoundly unhealthy. Recently, there was a suggestion that we shouldn’t ask people to turn away from sin when we baptise them. It’s just too negative.
If you live in a world that is negative about guilt and sin, Ezra chapter 9 comes as a sharp contrast. Ezra becomes aware of his people’s sin, and his response is genuine grief and deep confession. But it’s a counter-cultural response to our ears, so it’s well worth tuning in. We’ll look at Ezra’s view of God, and his view of us, and then we’ll see that his response makes a lot more sense.
But before we do, let’s recap where we are. It’s the year 458 BC.
Ezra, a priest and devoted student of God’s law, has just arrived in the city of Jerusalem.
He came from Babylon. God’s people had been unfaithful to God. They’d mixed their worship of God with the practices of other gods. So God had sent in the Babylonian army to destroy their city, burn down their temple, and take them into exile.
But 50 years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus king of Persia ordered the Jews to return to their homeland.
God wants to bring his people back to worship him, to love him, to have hearts that are loyal to him. The book of Ezra tells that story.
First, we’ve seen the people return to rebuild the temple, so they have a place to worship. Then, 60 years later, a second group come back from Babylon, led by Ezra himself. This second half of the book is not about the people rebuilding a temple, but God rebuilding his people. Restoring them to himself.
Issue of Intermarriage
And when Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, he finds things have gone very wrong.
Verses 1 and 2: “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’”
Ezra is absolutely appalled. But we may struggle to see what the problem is.
How could it be such a disaster if the Israelites have been marrying foreigners?
First of all, let’s be clear that the problem is not race. This is not some far-right, nationalistic thing. Moses himself married a foreigner. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ brother and sister criticise him because his wife was black. God had no problem with that. But he did have a problem with Moses’ critics. He basically says to Moses’ sister, Miriam: “You want white skin? You’ve got it.” She contracts leprosy.
God wants to see nations come together. The first half of the book of Ezra closed with the temple rebuilt. They celebrated the Passover, and the festival included many foreigners. Here’s Ezra chapter 6, verse 21: “So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.”
God has no problem with race. The issue was one of religion. The foreigners who celebrated the Passover were those who separated themselves from the practices of their neighbours, and worshipped the one true God. The people they’d married in Ezra 9 were those from other nations who had not done that. As verse 1 says, the people “have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices.”
You have to know a little of their history, because the people had forgotten.
The return from Babylon has been described as a re-run of the Exodus from Egypt. After the people left Egypt, some of their neighbours felt threatened by them. Through a man called Balaam, they tried to put a curse on them, but it failed. So their second strategy was to persuade the beautiful Moabite women to intermarry with the Israelites, so the people would worship their gods, and not be loyal to their own God. That did not fail. The strategy succeeded. And God judged his people.
The people have just returned from exile. The reason they were exiled was because they had not been faithful to God. They’d worshipped the gods of their neighbours too. And if you read the story, starting with King Solomon himself, you’ll see that this happened because they intermarried.
And here they are, back in their own land, and already they’re marrying those who worship other gods. Nothing less than the spiritual survival of the nation is at stake. This is not about race. It’s about religion. It’s about uncompromising loyalty to God.
That’s why it’s such a disaster.
So Ezra is distraught. And Ezra prays, and his prayer is reported here.
And what drives it is his view of God, and his view of humanity.
God is incredibly gracious
Start with his view of God.
God is incredibly gracious. God is incredibly gracious.
There are all the blessings the people enjoyed in the first place. They were given a good land to live in, a beautiful temple to worship in, a special place in God’s heart, and so on.
But then things went wrong, and by rights God should have cut them off completely. But he didn’t.
Look at verses 8 and 9: “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: he has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.”
God didn’t cut them off. In exile, he preserved a little remnant, kept his purposes alive. Now he’s brought them back. They’re still slaves, part of the Persian empire, but they’re back in the land, they’ve rebuilt the temple, and the city wall is going back up.
God is good.
The other way God’s goodness comes across is by speaking. Verses 10-11 say this: “But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets …” What you then get strings together what God said in a number of places in the law and the prophetic writings.
But the point is this: God speaks. He’s not silent. He hasn’t left his people guessing what he’s like and what he requires.
God could have left us guessing. He could have left us to study the world, and to piece together the clues we can find. What do we think? Is there a God? What might he be like?
It would be a bit like fossil hunting? Some bones are found deep in a desert in South America, and scientists have to try and work out what kind of animal this might be.
God could be like that. The odd beautiful sunset here. An emotional reaction to something here, a strong sense of love and affection. And we try to reassemble the deity who’s left these clues.
But we don’t have to do that. Because God has stepped into the open. He’s spoken, using real human speech, using words.
God is incredibly gracious.
We are persistently rebellious
But the character of God is only one half of the data that drives Ezra’s prayer of confession.
The other half of the picture is what we are like. Ezra knows that we are persistently rebellious. We are persistently rebellious.
First of all, our sin is rebellion. Verse 2, we are a “holy race”, God’s chosen people. So when we sin, it’s unfaithfulness to him. Verse 6: Our guilt has reached to the heavens. We’ve sinned before God. Verse 10: “We have forsaken the commands you gave”. We’ve decided that what God has to say does not matter. And looking ahead to next time, chapter 10, verse 2: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us.”
Our sin is not just doing something unfortunate. A mistake here or there. An error of judgement. It’s an act of rebellion against the God who has loved us and blessed us.
But not only is our sin rebellion, it’s persistently rebellious.
There’s this terrible sense of “here we are again” about all this. The reason they went into exile was because the people were not loyal to their God. They worshipped and served other gods. Yet, amazingly, God gave them another chance. He did not punish as they deserved.
What did they do with that second chance? Verses 14 and 15: “Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the 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.”
Imagine the person who’s got themselves into chronic debt through gambling. Everything is under threat – including the house. Until a rich uncle offers to transfer enough money to clear the debt, pay off the mortgage, and throw in 5 grand spending money so you can celebrate being free. This is like using that 5 grand to fund a trip to Vegas, to see if you can turn that 5 grand into 20 grand.
Because it’s rebellious, it’s God you need to turn to.
Because it’s rebellious in the face of God’s incredible generosity and kindness, it’s an appalling abuse of the most amazing privilege.
And because you’re doing this again and again, you’ve run out of excuses.
You have no right even to ask God to forgive you. You’re just broken.
That is why Ezra prays as he does.
God is incredibly gracious. We are persistently rebellious.
In Jesus, we experience God’s grace
We read this scene as New Testament Christians. That doesn’t actually mean that we don’t need to bring our sins before God. In fact, it means we have more reason to pray in the way Ezra prayed.
Jesus transforms this situation in three wonderful ways.
Firstly, he’s the one that makes it possible for God to forgive us.
We’ve seen two things about our sin that are in complete tension. On the one hand, our guilt is great. Our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt reaches up to heaven. But on the other hand, God does not treat us as our sins deserve.
How can he? If our guilt stacks up so high, he must punish. He would be wrong to turn a blind eye to such brazen rebellion. And yet he spares us, he goes light on us, he’s kind.
When we get to Jesus, we find out how he’s kind. He’s kind because God’s judgement fell on Jesus when he died on the cross. Jesus was punished for the things we have done wrong. God treated Jesus according to what our sins deserved. Which means, wonderfully, he does not need to treat us according to what our sins deserve.
The second way Jesus transforms this is that he’s the one who breaks the cycle. As I say, there’s that terrible sense of déjà-vu in this prayer. That sense of “here we are again”. The people sinned; God spared them; and they used their second, third, fourth chance to blow it yet again.
Jesus doesn’t just forgive us and tell us to try harder. He puts his Spirit in us to change us from within. To give us new hearts. To make us new people. People who, little by little, are transformed into the people God wants us to be.
One day Jesus will return, and he’ll give us new bodies that never sin again. He’ll break this cycle of endlessly failing, and endlessly coming back to God for forgiveness yet again.
Jesus makes it possible for God to forgive us. Jesus breaks the cycle. And third, Jesus gives us security.
These people lost most of the blessings of being God’s people because of their rebellion. In the New Testament, God is clear that every genuine Christina remains a loved member of God’s family even if they are in deep rebellion.
The language the New Testament uses to describe what God does with us is that of a Father’s discipline. Hebrews chapter 12 says that any father who loves his children will discipline them. When we rebel against God, he acts like any loving father. He disciplines his children. He takes away things we enjoy. He makes life uncomfortable.
But not because he’s kicking us out. Because he loves us, and he’s bringing us back to himself, bringing us to greater maturity.
Jesus takes what Ezra knew of God, and what Ezra knew of human nature, and he transforms it.
Ezra knew that God is incredibly generous, but we are persistently rebellious.
In Jesus, forgiveness becomes possible, the cycle of endless rebellion is broken, we are lovingly disciplined by God our Father.
Which means that Ezra’s prayer becomes a model prayer for Christians like us.
We see here the deeply serious, deeply tragic, rebellion in our hearts. This is what we were like before we became Christians. This is what we are still like whenever we turn from God our Father.
And yet God is gracious, so gracious. He does not treat us as we deserve.
So, like Ezra, as we turn to pray, we must bring our sin before him.
Note how he does. It’s almost embarrassing for someone British to read this.
His sin brought him deep distress – he tore his clothes.
His sin grieved him – he pulled out his hair.
His sin was a weighty matter – he had to sit down.
The prayer of confession in the 1662 Prayer Book get much closer to the emotion Ezra felt. Listen to these words, familiar to some of us: “We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.”
The trouble is, it’s possible to use a prayer like that, which someone else has written, and fail to feel any of the emotion that is written into it. Even a pre-written prayer that captures Ezra’s emotion does not guarantee that we will feel this way about our sin.
Too easily, we Christians don’t feel the tragedy, the weight, the sorrow, the grief of our sin. We say sorry to God like it’s no more serious than admitting we’ve just eaten somebody else’s favourite chocolate.
This chapter wants to shape the way we see God, and the way we see ourselves.
Our sin is deeper and far more tragic than we ever realised.
God is more gracious, forgiving and transforming than we ever dreamed.
So let us bring our sin before God.