One Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man. The religious leaders were furious, because it was the Sabbath and it was supposed to be a day of rest.
And in response to their accusations, Jesus said this…
"My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working."
God is always at work, says Jesus. The question is...where? Where is God at work right now?
Look at v1a…
"After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia…"
In chapter 6 the people finished re-building the temple in Jerusalem, and celebrated the Passover for the first time in 70 years. Chapters 1-6 were all about the first wave of Israelites who had left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem, led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua.
Now in chapter 7 we start the second half of the book. We've jumped forward 60 years to 458 B.C. There's a new king in Babylon called Artaxerxes.
And, as we'll see, there's also a new wave of Israelites returning to Jerusalem, this time led by Ezra. And if chapter 1-6 were all about rebuilding the temple, chapters 7-10 are all about restoring the law.
"After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest-- this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him."
Ezra was a teacher, part of the tribe of Levi, a descendant of Aaron the first high priest, and he loved God and he loved God's law. That's about all we know of Ezra. And yet we're told something incredible in v6…
"The king had granted him everything he asked."
King Artaxerxes, the king of the Persian Empire, gave this man called Ezra everything he asked! Ezra chapter 7 is really a record of all the amazing things that the king gave Ezra. And right at the beginning Ezra tells us the reason why King Artaxerxes gave him everything he asked for.
Look at v6 again…
"…for the hand of the LORD his God was on him."
God was at work in Ezra's life. God was blessing Ezra. And the first blessing that he received was that he wasn't going to go to Jerusalem alone.
Look at v7…
"Some of the Israelites, including priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants, also came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes."
Just as we saw back in chapter 2, so now in the second wave there are priests and Levites and singers and gatekeepers and temple servants who decide to make the journey. That was the first blessing. And the second blessing that Ezra received was that they had such a good journey, vv8-9a…
"Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month..."
The journey was usually long and dangerous, as we'll see next week in chapter 8. But again Ezra sees that "the gracious hand of God was on him." And it continues.
In vv 12-26 we have a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes sent along with Ezra. It was a letter that Ezra could show to the people who lived in the land that they were travelling to, and again throughout the letter we see the hand of God at work.
In v13 we're told that anyone who was an Israelite in the kingdom of Persia was allowed to go with Ezra. In v14 Ezra is given authority to make sure that God's law is being obeyed! And the blessings keep coming, vv15-16…
"Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem."
Not only does the King give Ezra permission to leave, to take with him whoever he wants, and to have authority to implement the law…he and his advisors even give Ezra silver and gold to help them serve God! And look at how he wants this money to be spent, v17…
"With this money be sure to buy bulls, rams and male lambs, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and sacrifice them on the altar of the temple of your God in Jerusalem."
The King of Persia is paying for the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem!
And the money doesn't come with strings attached. Ezra and the other priests aren't going to have to say, 'This sacrifice was brought to you by our sponsor Artaxerxes' every morning and evening! No, as it says in v18 they could use the money as they saw fit in accordance with the word of God. Artaxerxes even goes as far as saying, v20, that anything that Ezra might need is to be supplied by the royal treasury. But it doesn't stop there.
Artaxerxes also makes sure that the local governors and rulers of the area around Judah, called Trans-Euphrates, would help Ezra in his mission. In vv21-24 he makes sure, once again, that everything Ezra needs is catered for. He even makes sure that the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and temple servants can never be made to pay taxes!
Now of course we need to remember that Artaxerxes isn't doing this because he worships God or wants to be nice to Ezra, look at v23…
"Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and of his sons?"
His motives are political and self-serving. Artaxerxes is hoping to keep the local gods happy. And we know from history that he had the same policy with other nations that he conquered. But Ezra also knows that behind all the decisions that Artaxerxes makes, the hand of God is at work.
Ezra knows, as it says in Proverbs 21 v 1…
"The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases."
Ezra is experiencing the kindness and blessing of God. Finally look at vv25-26…
"And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, 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. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment."
Ezra is given authority to set up a legal system in accordance with the Bible. To make sure that the people living in the land know and obey God's law.
King Artaxerxes gave Ezra everything that he asked for. And he knows, and he wants us to know that it was all because "the gracious hand of God was on him."
Ezra looked at his life and he knows that he is…
1) Seeing God's blessing
All the permission and authority, the people who go with him, the safe travel, the financial and political help. All of it, Ezra knows, is God's doing. Ezra can see God's blessing all over his life.
And the question that this chapter challenges us with this evening is…Can you do the same? Can you see God's blessing in your life? Do you see the gracious hand of God at work in your life?
Now perhaps our natural instinct is to say, 'Well of course Ezra could see God's blessings, they were everywhere in his life! He was showered by God's blessings…but I'm not.' 'My life isn't like Ezra's, I've never experienced blessing like that.' Perhaps that's what you think, but I wonder…is that true?
Above my desk there is a photograph of me and my best friend in Boston. We're smiling and having a great time.
Have you got any photos like that? Maybe you've got albums and albums full of them, maybe all the memory on your computer is filled up with them.
All of them photos of people, that God has brought into your life…Or places that God has given you the chance to see…Or memories that God has given you. Birthdays and Christmases and holidays you've enjoyed.
As I looked at that picture of me and my best friend in Boston, it made me realise…My best friend is called Gayles, and she's my wife. God has given me a wife and a daughter. He's given me a Mum and a Dad, in-fact he's also given me a step-Mum and a step-Dad.
Maybe you have parents? Maybe you are parents? Maybe you have a brother or a sister, or a son or a daughter or a grandparent or two that God has given you.
As I looked at that picture it reminded me…that I can see. God gave us vision, sight. Mine's not all that good sometimes, but God also gave me glasses, so that I can see better (!) He gives us hands that can touch and feet that can take us places, and tongues that can taste. And food that we can enjoy. He gave us hearts that can love, and he has given us people who love us.
As I looked at that photo that is stuck to my shelf, which is screwed into my wall, which is part of my office, I remembered that God gave me a house to live in. And a job that pays the rent on my house…And a church family who love God's word enough that they give money to support me so that I can spend all my week in studying God's word so that I can teach them.
And I could see that photo because light was coming in through the window, because God gave us the sun, and seasons and daytime and night time. And that reminded me that he gives us sleep because we get tired, and he gives us homes to keep us warm. And he gave me a reason to get up in the morning.
He made me and he loves me, and he wants me to live my life for him.
Can you see God's blessings in your life? Can you see all the ways in which the gracious hand of God is at work in you? Let me suggest, if you can't…then perhaps you're not looking closely enough.
Or perhaps it's been too long since you stopped to take a look? When was the last time you stopped and counted your blessings? You should try it.
And the test, to see if you're really seeing God's blessings in your life, is found in vv27-28.
After Ezra has given us this great long list of the ways in which God has richly blessed him, what does he do? He does the only thing you can do. He praises God, vv27-28…
"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 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."
Are you seeing God's blessing in your life? The blessings are there, but do you see them? Are you praising God? Do you want to praise God? If not…then perhaps you're not seeing God's blessing?
Again and again and again in this chapter Ezra recognises the hand of God at work in his life. But that's not all. There's another theme that runs through this passage.
Look back at vv 1-5. The first things we're told about Ezra is his heritage. We're told that Ezra was in a special position because he was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the first High Priest. And that meant that Ezra was allowed to serve as a priest in the temple.
But that's not all. In v6 we're told…
"He was a teacher well versed in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given."
In other words, Ezra knew his stuff. He worked hard, he studied hard. For, v10, "Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." Ezra had committed time and effort and energy to knowing God's law. And not just studying God's law, but to keeping God's law.
v11 tells us that same thing again, Ezra the priest and teacher was "a man learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the LORD." And we see the same thing again in v14 and v21 and v25.
Now why does it keep telling us that? Why does it keep telling us that Ezra was not only in a privileged position as a descendant of Aaron, but that he knew God's law and loved God's law and kept God's law? Well I think that answer is that it's teaching us about...
2) Being God's blessing
Ezra recognised that God's hand was on his life. He praised God for his grace and favour in making King Artaxerxes look kindly on him and give him everything he asked. But he also lived his life planning to be God's blessing. He made the most of his situation. He worked hard and he studied hard. He grew up ready to be God's blessing to others.
If you were here at my ordination last November you may remember that there was a moment in the service when I had to stand before the Bishop and answer a series of questions. One of the questions was this, "Will you be diligent in prayer and in the reading of Holy Scriptures, and in such study that help to a fuller knowledge of them, turning aside from studies for self-indulgence and worldly gain?"
After the service we had supper with all of my family who had come to support me, and they asked me about that question. Why did I have to promise that as one of your pastors I would study the Bible and things that would serve the church, and not things that was simply for my own enjoyment? Now to be honest at the time I wasn't sure that I really understood. But now I think I do, because that's what Ezra did.
Ezra chapter 7 isn't just about seeing God's blessing it's about being God's blessing. Ezra had lived his life getting ready to be God's blessing.
Let me ask you, what are the positions that God has put you in? Maybe you're a parent, or a grandparent, or a son or a daughter, or a brother or a sister or an uncle or an aunt? Well, if you are, then you're in a position to be God's blessing.
Maybe you're a godparent? Maybe you're a godparent to a child whose parents aren't Christians? What a wonderful position to be God's blessing. Maybe you're a boss, or an employee? Maybe you're the customer of the same shop week after week? Maybe you work in a shop and see the same customers come in week after week. You're in a position to be a blessing.
I love that part of 2 Timothy we read earlier where Paul says to Timothy...
"I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also."
Lois, had been a blessing to her grandson, and Eunice had been a blessing to her son, how? Well as it tells us later on in that letter, by teaching Timothy the Bible since he was a child.
But being God's blessing is not just about the position you're in. Ezra didn't just sit around being Aaron's descendant, waiting to be a blessing.
No, he prepared to be a blessing. He studied God's word, he loved God's word and he obeyed God's word, so that he could be a blessing to others.
Why do you come to church? Or go to homegroup? Or read the Bible on your own? Very often it can be only for ourselves can't it? We come to church so that we can learn something, or go to homegroup so that we can grow. Which is great. But how about coming to church for the sake of your children? Or your grandchildren? How about learning God's word and obeying God's word for their sake?
How about coming to church in the evening for the sake of the kids that you teach at Sunday school in the morning, or reading God's word and being familiar with it so that, when you get the chance, you can be a blessing to your next-door-neighbour?
The challenge of Ezra chapter 7 is not just to pray that you would be God's blessing to others…but to prepare ourselves to be God's blessing.
One day God may give you a husband, or a wife. Well, prepare to be God's blessing to them now, by studying God's word and obeying it.
Maybe God will one day call you to be a leader in a church, or the manager of a department, or a neighbour to someone who is lonely. Well, prepare to be God's blessing to those people now by studying God's word and living for him.
Do you see the call of Ezra 7? Ezra models for us in his life, the importance of seeing God's blessing and praising him. But also of being God's blessing and preparing ourselves for him.
God the Father, as Jesus said, is always at work. He is at work in your life, showering you with blessings every day, if only you would stop and see them. But he also wants to be at work through your life, using you to be his blessing to others.
Let's pray that God would help us to do that.