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March 2004

Taking sin seriously

When Ezra tore his clothes, plucked his beard and ‘sat down appalled’, he was experiencing conviction of sin (Ezra 9:3). He did not mourn his personal sin, of course, but that of his fellow repatriates — who had been freed from captivity only to inter-marry with idolatrous Canaanites (9:1-2).

Nevertheless, Ezra identified with his fellow Jews in such a real sense that their sin became his sin, and their guilt his guilt. He did not simply confess their sin (9:5-6) — he felt its burden with deep distress.

Taking responsibility

Today we seldom follow godly Ezra. When we see our brethren deviate from God’s ways, we are quick to distance ourselves from them. We seize the moral or doctrinal ‘high-ground’, condemning those we count transgressors.

We forget the apostolic exhortation: ‘Restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:1-2).

Ezra neither excused nor condoned the sin of his countrymen. Quite the reverse. But instead of standing in judgement upon them, he stood alongside them in their shame and humiliation (Ezra 9:6).

Should we not do the same? We belong to a generation that has turned its back upon God, despite his notable mercies in past times. We need to confess the sins of our nation, pleading for God’s mercy on our land.

Should we not also take responsibility for the parlous condition of the church? It is never our fault, of course. Haven’t we been faithful in doctrine and pure in worship? But are we altogether without guilt before God?

Like Ezra we need to spend more time humbling ourselves before God than grumbling about others. For we too are part of a failing, prayerless, self-indulgent church.

Seeing our poverty

Ezra’s inner conviction was revealed by outward action — he tore his clothes. This pictures the sinner’s abject poverty before God.

The phrase ‘from rags to riches’ describes a rise from poverty to wealth. When Ezra reduced his clothing to rags, he portrayed this process in reverse. A people so recently enriched by their deliverance from Babylon had made themselves poor through their transgression.

So also the church of today has impoverished itself by leaving its first love — love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Even we who are orthodox often sideline the Lord of glory, becoming preoccupied with academic discussion, outward form, internecine squabbles and empty novelties.

In many churches neither Christ nor the love of Christ are easily discerned.

Yet, amazingly, we cannot see it. None of Ezra’s fellow Jews were affected as he was. Even those who uncovered the problem reported it to Ezra with matter-of-fact resignation (vv. 1-2).

We also can regard the church’s travails with bored indifference. Like the Laodiceans, we may even congratulate ourselves on having ‘need of nothing’ — not knowing that spiritually speaking we are ‘wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked’ (Revelation 3:17).

Trembling at God’s word

Ezra sat before God, humiliated by the sins of his people. But then something unusual began to happen — ‘everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me because of the transgression…’ (v. 4). Silently, one by one, other people became affected by Ezra’s shame and desolation and gathered round him.

A God-given conviction of sin in a few can become infectious. May we not hope that many in our own day, trembling at the word of the living God, might gather to mourn and pray for mercy?

Ezra sat fasting until the evening sacrifice (v.5). That sacrifice changed everything. Shell-shock was suddenly replaced by supplication; the plucking of the beard by a spreading of the hands in prayer.

The shame and humiliation remained, but were now expressed in confession, as Ezra cast himself and his people on the mercy of God. Action replaced paralysis. Why?

Perhaps the evening sacrifice reminded Ezra of Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I have cried to you O Lord … If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared’.

So also will our perception be changed as we look to the sacrifice of Calvary — to ‘Christ who died … is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us’ (Romans 8:34).

Only the risen Christ can give the repentance we need and deliverance from our spiritual poverty. We must cry to him.

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