"How can we turn the cultural tide for the sake of our nation?" That was the key question for our Men's Conference last month. The title of the conference was 'Contending for Truth', and that's my title today as well, as we start a new series called 'Issues Facing Christians'. What does contending for truth mean? It really means sticking up for the truth in front of other people when you get the opportunity – especially when those you're talking to don't agree with you.
Now at that Men's Conference we heard two extremely helpful talks on Contending for Truth, by Ian Garrett and Jon Teasdale. And there doesn't seem much point in me repeating what they had to say. Instead, I strongly recommend that you find the time to watch them (assuming you weren't there). They're just as relevant for women as for men. You can find them here: http://clayton.tv/new/0i0/3048 and http://clayton.tv/new/0i0/3049.
What I do want to do today is a kind of case study in contending for truth from the Old Testament. The other sermons in this short series are case studies of issues that are current for us – the sanctity of life, wealth and poverty, gender identity. Come and hear those if you can. Today we're going to think about what happened in the time of Ezra. But first I do want to set the scene by taking a look at what Jude says in the New Testament. So:
1. Hear the New Testament Call to Contend
Could you find in the Bibles the little Letter of Jude? Take a look, then, at verses 3-4. This is God's word to us through Jude:
"Beloved, though I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
Those are two crucially important verses for our times. I want us to notice a number of things there. For one thing, let's be clear that contending is not what we want but it is what we need. Jude just wanted to be positive, and to rejoice in the Lord Jesus and how he has rescued us through us his death and resurrection. And isn't that what we want to do if we are believers? But he knew that we'll never be able to bear clear and powerful witness to saving truth if we're not prepared to call out falsehoods and lies that damage and enslave people. We don't want to contend, but we need to.
And the reason that we can do that with confidence is that God's truth has been revealed and is unchanging. We have that truth in the Scriptures – the Bible. That fact that in the modern world we can stream TV programmes on our smart phones doesn't mean that we know better than God and can change or reject his truth without massive damage.
And the damage is very real. That's why Jude is also clear that false teaching is deadly. It creeps in unnoticed at first. It perverts God's grace. It promotes immorality. It rejects the Lordship of Christ. So this kind of false teaching twists the fact that God is full of grace and mercy out of all recognition. It is a rejection of Biblical faith. It promises everything but slams shut in people's faces the only door to peace with God. In the words of Jude, those who teach such things …
"…pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
So this matters. It could not matter more. And therefore we must respond to God's call to contend for the truth. We must hear this New Testament call to contend. That's point one. Then point two is this:
2. Learn from an Old Testament Case Study
It's always good to see principles in action, and to see how they work out in practice. And the Bible is full of examples, not least in the Old Testament. The circumstances were different, but God was the same, and there is much to learn. So I want us to turn now back to that reading we heard earlier from the Book of Ezra. This case study in contending for truth is in chapters 9-10. I want to draw out seven lessons in contending for truth from what happened here. But before we get into those, let me set the scene for what's going on.
The background is this. The people of Israel were God's chosen people – the forerunners of the church. God chose them and called them to be holy so that through them he could bless all the nations of the world. To become a blessing they had to be radically different from the godless, immoral and idolatrous pagan nations around them. Because of the danger of being dragged away into immorality and idolatry, their men were forbidden to marry pagan women from the surrounding nations. They had to be faithful to the living God who had called them.
But instead, they were unfaithful. They wanted to be like the godless nations around them. So they engaged in all of what the Bible calls 'the detestable practices' of those pagan nations. Instead of changing the nations around them, they were changed by them. As a result, they came under God's judgement. Jerusalem, their capital city, was destroyed. They were taken into exile. They were ruined. The parallels between their experience and what has happened to the church in the Western world over the last 50 years are striking.
Two generations later, the survivors were allowed to return to the ruined city of Jerusalem. Some of them did. But even after the disaster that had befallen them, had they learned their lesson? No. Many of the men once again began to marry women from the pagan nations around. They married them despite the clear commands in God's Word that they were not to do so because of the great spiritual danger that would put them in. And they did it despite the fact that this was exactly the kind of behaviour that brought them to ruin and exile before. Some of them, at least, were actually divorcing their Israelite wives so that they could marry these pagan women. The prophet Malachi makes that clear.
Ezra was an Israelite priest and Bible teacher who was in exile and came back to Jerusalem some years later, into this community of returned Israelites. At first he didn't realise the extent of this potentially ruinous disobedience. He began systematically teaching the Bible to the people – teaching the truth into this situation of grave error. And that's when things erupted on this pagan marriage issue.
Unquestionably these chapters, Ezra 9-10, make for a disturbing, challenging section of Scripture. We can't deal here with all the questions they raise. But that's what happens when a nation gets itself systematically into a spiritual and moral mess. There is an inevitable tragedy. There is no easy way out. Only through a painful encounter with the living God and his Word of truth can peace and hope be found in the end. The sinful, disastrous behaviour has to stop – in this case these pagan marriages that will drag Israel back into catastrophe if they're allowed to continue. The mess has to be unravelled. And that's what happens in these chapters. Read the details for yourselves. Here are those seven lessons in contending for truth from this painful episode in Israel's history.
i) Get Familiar with the Story of God's People.
We need to know about what happens here with Ezra. A major part of their problem was that they so quickly were forgetting what had got Israel into such a catastrophic mess. So they were just repeating the same mistakes and heading for the same disaster. They should have known, and we need to know, from the history of our ancestors in the faith, that unfaithfulness is disastrous; and that revival only comes by the grace of God through repentance and faith.
ii) Be Someone who Trembles at the Words of the Living God.
Some of the leaders of the Israelites came to Ezra and admitted to him to what had been going on with these pagan marriages, contrary to God's Law and his purposes for his people. Ezra was horrified. Ezra 9.3-4:
"As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because the unfaithfulness of the returned exiles, gathered round me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice."
There are basically two different approaches to the Bible and its teaching that we can take. We can look for loopholes – trying to find ways round it, trying to find ways not to take it seriously without outright rejecting it. Or we can tremble at it – aware that we are listening to the very words of the living God, and knowing that the only right response is to understand, believe and obey. We will never contend for the truth of God's Word if we haven't first learned to tremble at it.
iii) Have your Eyes Open to what is happening in Church and Society.
Not only must we have our ears open to the words of God, we must have our eyes open as well. If we shut our eyes to the reality of what is going on around us, of course we'll never be useful to God in trying to change things for the better. Ezra's reform began when some of the Israelite officials faced up to what was going on among them, and approached Ezra with the facts. Burying our heads in the sand might seem easier. But if we do that, we simply allow a bad situation to continue to slide, and to get worse and worse.
iv) Contend both Collectively and Individually.
There is here a significant collaboration between the individual Ezra, who certainly gives a lead in his response to the situation, and also the wider group of God's people who have seen the need for fundamental change. We need both if we are to contend for truth effectively in our church and society. We need to stand together with others who see the issues and are ready to act. But then some individuals have a particular calling which may be more public. If that's you, then be prepared if necessary – and it often is – to stand alone. Stand together, but be ready to stand alone. 500 years ago Martin Luther was prepared to stand alone, trembling as he was before the Word of God, and he triggered the Reformation in the church then. Bishop J. C. Ryle, a great contender for truth in the Church of England in the 1800s, once wrote, in words that I personally have found to have great force and relevance:
"We want more boldness among the friends of truth. There is far too much tendency to sit still, and wait for committees, and number our adherents. We want more men who are not afraid to stand alone. It is truth, not numbers, which shall always in the end prevail."
v) Feel the Seriousness of the Situation.
We have already heard how appalled Ezra was at what he found out. This is what happened next – from verses 5-6:
"And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God saying: "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.""
How we feel these things will vary. Our personalities differ widely. That's fine. But the seriousness of unfaithfulness to God in our church or our society has to impact not just our minds but our hearts. If we're going to put our heads above the parapet and contend for truth in a potentially hostile environment, then it's not enough for us to think about the truth superficially. We have to feel it deep down in our hearts. Like Ezra, we have to be appropriately appalled, and prayerfully ashamed. Then we'll be ready, with the help of God's Spirit who lives within us, to act on the next lesson:
vi) Speak Humbly but Boldly.
This is where the rubber hits the road. This where the contending takes place. If we're ready and willing to speak up, then God will give us opportunities. But we must always remember that in such situations there are two kinds of speaking that need to be going on. So speak on your knees to God in prayer. And speak on your feet, as it were, to church and society.
Ezra first fell on his knees in prayer, pouring out his heart to God. And then, as verse 5 says, Ezra arose, to challenge the leaders of Israel to action. By that time the Spirit of God had been at work in their hearts too, and they were ready to listen. Ezra humbled himself before God and the people, identifying himself with the sin that had got them into this mess. And then from that position of humility he spoke with great boldness. So speak humbly but boldly.
vii) Act when you can.
You might not be able to do more than speak up when the opportunity is given to you. But sometimes there are things we can do to further the work of revival and reform. And timing is crucial. It is far better to work to prevent the slide towards patterns of unfaithful behaviour. Once they are embedded in the life of church or society it becomes very difficult and painful to turn back the tide. You can get into the tragic and unavoidable situation of having to choose the lesser of two evils if things are going to be put right. So act to avert tragedy before it is too late. But act to bring about radical reform when necessary.
Much more needs to be said – so do watch those talks from the Men's Conference. But let's hear the call to contend for the truth. And remember those lessons from Ezra. Think of them as relating to our ears, eyes, feet, heart, mouth and hands. Ears open to God's Word. Eyes open to see what's going on around us. Feet on which to take our stand. Heart to feel. Mouth to speak. Hands to act. As the grieving Israelites, moved by the Spirit of God, said to Ezra (verse 4):
"Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it."