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“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21”
It is interesting how throughout history bodies of water, and in particular, rivers, seem to mark spots not only of reflection but also spots of embarkation to new opportunities. For Julius Caesar it was the Rubicon River. He stood there in 49 B.C. The order came disband his armies and give up the struggle to conquer Rom. He pondered the dilemma. He could give up and give in or cross the river and press on. However, once the Rubicon was crossed, there could be no turning back. Caesar made his decision and the rest is history. For George Washington it was the Delaware River. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware and marched on the enemy troops at Trenton. He went on from there to establish the greatest and most unique nation in world history. For General George Patton it was the Rhine River. This river marked a significant crossover point in the fall of Nazi Germany.
The fact that bodies of water often mark spots of embarkation to new opportunities is never truer than within the pages of the Bible. Moses had his Red Sea. For him it was the point of embarkation out of bondage toward the Promised Land. Joshua had his Jordan River. It was the crossover point into the Land of Promise and new challenges and opportunities. Elijah had his own Brook Cherith which prepared him for a life of ministry and power. For Jacob it was the river Jabbok. Israel sat down by the rivers of Babylon, hung their harps on the willows, and lost the song in their heart as they were captive to Babylon.
As the remnant of the children of Israel left their captivity, they made their way back to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra. They never made a more important stop on their pilgrimage en route to restoring and repairing their lost heritage than the stop at a little-known river mentioned in only one chapter of the Bible called the river of Ahava. They once knew such glory. Jerusalem! The Temple! But for a time they had been taken into captivity, stripped of their pride. They hung their harps on the willow trees and could not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. But now they were returning under the leadership of the likes of Ezra and later Nehemiah. Yes, they were returning to be used of God in restoring the glory of the house of the Lord.
We often hear a lot about what happened when the remnant returned to Jerusalem. In Nehemiah’s book we read how the walls were completed and how Ezra stood to read the Word of God, and all the people gathered as “one man” in the square and wept as they heard the Word of God. However, we seldom hear about one of the most important parts of their journey. They made a strategic stop along the way. Ezra “gathered them by the river that flows to Ahava, and camped there three days” (Ezra 8:15). The Bible goes on to record that Ezra “proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21). They stopped at the river of Ahava to seek the Lord for two things — to humble themselves and to find the right way home.
These men and women had been through difficult times. Their leadership had failed them in the past. They had some leaders that were more interested in self-serving than they were in leading the people. Their leaders had used their people to build their own positions instead of using their positions to build their people. They had been without direction for a period of years. They had hung their harps on the willow trees. They had no spirit of conquest. They longed “for the good old days.” Now Ezra comes on the scene and God appoints him to lead them back Jerusalem to restore their lost heritage. He is no real hero. He is simply God’s appointed leader in God’s own time.
There is a sense in which we see many of our own churches’ pilgrimages here. Like Israel of old, we know what it is to have seen the glory. Perhaps some of us have had leadership difficulties in the past. Some have hung their harps and longed for the good old days. Sometimes we forget how greatly God has blessed our churches.
We are on the march. But we need to make an important stop at our own river of Ahava. Why? To humble ourselves and seek from Him the right way for us; He is not through with us yet. We also are going to seek the right way for “our little ones,” those who are coming after us, and seek the right way from Him for “all our possessions.” It is interesting that Ezra adds this in Ezra 8:21 along with seeking the right way for our families. Why does He deal with our possessions? Because Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
We are living in a time when churches all over the Western world need a new paradigm, one that goes beyond the traditional dimension of properties and buildings and programs, a new paradigm that touches a world. As many of our churches stand at the banks of the river of Ahava, we have a unique opportunity. What has happened to many churches in America over the last twenty years? One of the reasons God has blessed us in so many ways is that we have given ourselves to so many people and so many ministries outside our walls. Our world mission projects literally are around the world today. They are out there from hospitals in India to seminaries in Canada, hundreds of other projects where our churches have given so sacrificially not only of our money but also of our time and talents. We have not awakened to the fact that our own local bases are in need. Like Jerusalem, some of our own walls are beginning to break down. This is particularly true in some of our children’s areas. Many have already lost a couple of generations to the church.
The Western church needs to camp here at our own river of Ahava for a while. Why? “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21). When I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, we called a fast. There was nothing legalistic about it. We challenged each other to fast on Fridays (sundown Thursday to sundown Friday). Then we received a love offering for some much-needed remodeling of our present facilities and upgrading of much of our equipment. As pastor, I certainly could identify with Ezra who went on to say, “So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me” (Ezra 7:28). As pastor in Dallas, I lived with these words of Ezra for the many weeks we challenged our people according to Ezra 8:21.
Many people in our churches have disposable income. Giving a worthy offering on a special day for some is not much of a sacrifice. Others wonder, “Where will we ever get anything extra to be able to give to the Lord through this offering?” I remind you of the words of Solomon in Proverbs 13:23. He said, “Much food is in the fallow ground of the poor.” What does this mean? Fallow ground is ground that hasn’t been plowed or planted in a long time. The Bible says there are resources available of which we’re not even aware but will be as we pray and fast and seek the Lord’s will and way. One of our deacons related to me the story of a lake lot he had owned for years. It had simply been sitting there with nothing happening, and it dawned on him that this lot was “food in the fallow ground” that he could sell and bring to the Lord’s offering. There is probably enough jewelry in safe deposit boxes in Dallas that hasn’t been taken out in years to educate all of our young preachers and send all of our missionaries to the field!
When Moses raised the money for the building of the tabernacle, the people prayed, met God in the offering, and brought their offerings for God to Moses in such a fashion that he had to stand up finally and say, “Please don’t bring any more. We have more than enough for the task. Yes, Lord, do it again! Do it again, Lord, like you did in 1 Chronicles 29 when David raised the money for the temple in Jerusalem. Do it again Lord like you did when Ezra went back to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra said, “The freewill offering of the people and the priests, are to be freely offered for the house of their God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 7:16). LORD, DO IT AGAIN!
Lord, do it again. What will it take? It will take four things to awaken the church. The “where” is important. The “what” is impassioned. The “why” is imperative. And, the “who” is implicit.
The where is important
“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava…” Ezra 8:21
It was “there at the river of Ahava” That Ezra camped with his people for a certain period of time. They were on their way out of years of bondage. Ahava preceded the blessing of the rebuilding of the temple. As they camped at Ahava, they were not what they were going to be, but they were not what they used to be either. There is a sense in which most of us find ourselves at this strategic point of our journey at our own river of Ahava.
These men and women of old were about to make a momentous decision to leave the relative security and comfort of a life in exile to which they had become accustomed and comfortable. This can happen in a church when they’ve lived without really being challenged for a period of time. The Jews I exile under Artaxerxes found favor and were granted permission to take a remnant back to the Holy City. The river of Ahava was a separating point between the two places. It was the place along the journey where they either went forward or turned back to be content with an existence outside Canaan.
The church stands on the brinks of our own river of Ahava. We can exist a few more years as we are, but we will not settle for that. We have seen the glory in the past. We’re at a place in our own pilgrimage that calls on us to do the impossible and become true crossover people. As we stand at our river, we can look both ways. We can look to Babylon which would be the easy route. It’s the way that calls for no real sacrifice. Or, we can go on up to Jerusalem where the Lord has called us. The “where” is an important point along our journey. Ahava is the deciding point.
There are many of us at our own personal river of Ahava, that place where we must decide to go on or turn back, for some of us in relationships with others or even in our relationship with Jesus Christ. The “where” is important. The river of Ahava is the separating point.
The what is impassioned
“… I proclaimed a fast…” Ezra 8:21
What did Ezra do there at the river of Ahava? He “proclaimed a fast.” They fasted for three days. They were impassioned. If the Lord is to do it again with us, it will take our men and women beseeching Him with prayer and fasting. Fasting most often appears in the Bible in connection with prayer. Down through the centuries the people of God have practiced fasting; that is, doing without food for a certain period of time. Why? To focus our attention on our prayer need. To allow every simpler hunger pain to remind us of our point of prayer. It is a personal discipline. People in Bible days fasted at many times and for many reasons. They fasted on the Day of Atonement. They fasted in times of need, such as war (Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 7:6). They fasted in times of sickness (2 Samuel 12:16). They fasted in times of mourning (1 Chronicles 10:12). They fasted in times of repentance (Nehemiah 9:1). They fasted in times of danger (Esther 4:3, 16). They fasted in times of preparation for ministry (Exodus 34:28, Daniel 9:3). In the midst of fasting, the Bible warns about making it a show for others to see (Jeremiah 14:12). In fact, Jesus rebuked the religious phonies of His day who put ashes on their faces to look long and drawn during days of fasting so that people might look upon them and see them as spiritual. He told us when we fasted that we should wash our face and get well groomed so as not to be a show for those around (Matthew 6:16-18). True fasting is always accompanies by prayer, humility, and confession. God seems to honor our turning aside from time to time from ordinary pleasures and pursuits in order to humble ourselves and to seek from Him the right way.
Ezra stood on the banks of the river of Ahava with the vision of rebuilding the broken walls. He had a vision of what could lie ahead for the Jewish people. Therefore, he called his people to get on their knees and to seek God in humility for the right way. A leader is not a leader without a vision and without calling his people to prayer. There’s never been a greater need for us to get on our knees and stay there until God directs each of us His way as we plead with Him to “do it again.” The “where” is important. IT was there at the “river of Ahava,” the separating point. The “what” is impassioned. They got serious in seeking the Lord with prayer and fasting.
The why is imperative
“…that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way…” Ezra 8:21
Why did Ezra proclaim a fast at the river of Ahava? That he and his people might humble themselves before God and seek from the Lord the right way. They could have gone back to Jerusalem with self-determination and pumped up positive mental attitudes with the idea that “we can do it” in our own strength. Or, he could have played the guilt game and sought to get the people to give of their time and treasures and talents through motivating them by guilt. He could have played the grudge game and sought to get them to give out of a grudge, not because they wanted to , but because they felt they had to. Instead, we join him in simply beseeching the Lord and learning more about grace giving — meeting God in the offering and giving as He puts it upon our hearts.
Why should we fast? To humble ourselves before God. And to seek from Him the right way, to depend upon Him. It is imperative to seek from Him the right way. The Hebrew translation means that we are to seek from Him the straight journey, the direct road so that we would not be turned aside by those who seek to get us off track. There are always those people in the Bible and people today who seek with their own agendas to try to get us onto detours, dead ends, cul-de-sacs or even side streets. They “why” is imperative. For us, it is to humble ourselves before God as a church and to seek from Him the right way.
The who is implicit
“… for us and our little ones and all our possessions.” Ezra 8:21
Now, for whom are we going to beseech God over the next few weeks? First, for “us.” Sometimes when we’ve been a Christian for years, we think we no longer need to seek from Him the right way for ourselves. Some Christians seem to get on automatic pilot and sail along through the Christian life with nothing ever being fresh and new in the way of seeking from God the right way day by day. There are a lot of things in our own personal lives and in our church life for which we need to seek the right way for us. There are many prayer needs at this particular point of our juncture. God is not through with us yet. There are some who have been coasting for a time, some who are just waiting to get back in the joy of the Lord. We need direction individually.
This is for us. Every single one of us is important to God. No one else has a fingerprint like mine, or a DNA like yours. There are many people in our churches who do not have much time left to do something big for God. Many of our people have resources that ought to be in God’s work.
Ezra says we are to seek the right way not only for us, but also our “little ones.” Ezra was wise enough to know that there was a whole generation coming after them for whom they had a responsibility. We used to sing a song that spoke volumes to my heart. The song related our hope in saying, “May all who come behind us find us faithful.” Many of us rejoice in the wonderful church facilities we have had through the years because of the tremendous sacrifices of those who went before us. Now we must pass the baton to the next generation, and I wonder if those who come behind us will find us as faithful as those from whom we’ve enjoyed the blessings over these last years. Many of us have children and grandchildren who will learn about Christ and receive Him as a personal Savior in our churches. Our children and the children of adults we will reach in the future may never know the true way unless we cross our own river of Ahava and are faithful in our own stewardship. Some of us have never had to make significant sacrifices for what we’ve enjoyed for years. Someone else did — another generation. But now it is our turn. When Israel was on their way back to Jerusalem, they were called upon to “Go through, Go through the gates! Prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway! Take out the stones, lift up a banner for the peoples!” (Isaiah 62:10). They were to prepare the way, pave the way, and point the way. But why? They were already on the way. They were already there. They built up the highway and left the banners to point the way for those many who were coming after them. We too have an obligation to pave the way so it will be easier for those who come after us to get home. It is no wonder, Ezra said, that we were to seek the right way not only for us, but also for “our little ones.”
Finally, he said we were to seek the right way from God, for us, our little ones, and “all our possessions.” It dawned on them that they were stewards and that they needed God’s direction, the right way, not only for themselves and their children, but for all their possessions. We are but stewards passing through this world. We own nothing. We are but stewards. Some of us have sought the right way for ourselves and for our children, but have never thought of asking God what we should do with our possessions.
The children of Israel never had a more important stop on their pilgrimage back to rebuild the glory of Jerusalem than at the river of Ahava. Nor will we at our own river of Ahava. It is the palace where we proclaim a fast, humble ourselves, and seek from Him the right way for us, our little ones, and for all our possessions. Ezra 8:23 records, “So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.” I pray that this verse will be written all over our churches. In fact, this has been the testimony of God’s people down through the centuries. Ezra goes on to say that, “Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road” (Ezra 8:31). The Jews returned to Jerusalem, and they turned over their treasures. The journey which began with a fast ended with a feast, and the chapter concludes with these words, “So they gave support to the people and the house of God” (Ezra 8:36).
Here we are. Lord, do it again. What will it take? It will take stopping by our own river of Ahava on the way back. The “where” is important. It will take getting serious with God in prayer and fasting. The “what” is impassioned. It will take humbling ourselves before God and seeking from Him the right way. The “why” is imperative. Finally, it will take seeking the right way for us, our children, and all of our possessions. The “who” is implicit.