Fasting for Future Grace (Ezra 8:1-36)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

Fasting humbles us in the dust and prepares our hearts to seek abundant grace from the only one who can give it… When I think about the most important breakthroughs in my life, the vast majority of them were preceded by periods of fasting. And as we implore God for future grace in the life and mission of this church, and our own lives and families, we must fast.

Fasting for Future Grace

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 5, 2020

How should we respond to abundant grace? For the Christian life is one of abundant blessings. God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28). Indeed, we rejoice with the apostle Paul when he says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). 

The earth and the riches will be yours in Christ. Even the poorest Christian on this side of glory will be unimaginably enriched with every spiritual and physical blessing in glory. God has saved us from the pit of hell and adopted us as sons. Life simply cannot get better than that. We are abundantly and thoroughly blessed by grace.

So should we respond? One of the most significant pitfalls for God’s people is taking him for granted. The times of spiritual peril came when Israel responded to God’s abundant blessings with astonishing indifference. That apathy turned to spiritual decline and waste that left them physically and spiritually bereft. 

The New Testament also gives too many examples of churches and people who looked like they were Christian, but their spiritual apathy led them to fall away from the living God. Indeed, we all know people who have walked down the same ruinous path. Taking God for granted has disastrous consequences. 

Ezra’s generation is rising out of the devastating consequences brought on by their forefathers. But now, God is blessing them once more. How will they respond? Ezra gives us a godly example of how to respond to God’s abundant grace. He shows us that God’s people are by no means to rest on their laurels. They are not to take God’s blessings as an assumed guarantee of future grace. When significant needs lay ahead, Ezra shows us that the mark of godliness is to fast for future grace.

Beloved, the good hand of our God is with us. But we need to learn how to respond to past and future grace. Ezra shows us that to seek for God’s favor is to fast for future grace. We will unpack Ezra 8 in two parts.

1. The Good Hand of God Gives Abundant Grace (Ezra 8:1-20)

The phrase ‘the hand of God’ is used three times in chapter 8, following a fourth usage at the end of chapter 7. The text is clearly showing us that it is God who is providing Ezra and the returned exiles with abundant grace. 

In chapter 7, Ezra says, “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me” (Ezra 7:28). God has given Ezra abundant favor in the eyes of the pagan king Artaxerxes who sends Ezra to Jerusalem to put in place a leadership system to ensure that God’s people follow God’s law. More than that, Artaxerxes gave Ezra resources for that mission that would amount to millions of dollars in today’s terms. Ezra lacked no good thing in respect to legal authority and financial recourses to fulfill his mission. The hand of God was on Ezra indeed.

Now Ezra 8 gives us the description of Ezra’s process of gathering leading men and taking them to Jerusalem. Again, we will see that the good hand of God is with him. Verses 8-14 give us a list of the volunteers to leave all that they know to return to the land of promise. Amazingly, all but one of these groups is a descendent of those who left eighty years earlier with the first wave. The fact that family members chose to remain in exile shows the remarkable tension that God’s people faced between settling for the securities that they had in Babylon and taking the step of faith needed to follow God back to the land of promise.[1] Nevertheless, the fact that Ezra has an army of nearly 1,500 men is a clear sign of God’s favor.

Ezra confronts a significant challenge in verses 15-20, but here again, the good hand of God comes to the rescue. Just as many of the Israelites struggled with leaving the comforts of home in Babylon, so did the Levites. Ezra gathers the returnees to the camp at the river Ahava, on the outskirts of Babylonia. He reviews the people and the priests, and he discovers that the ministers are missing! The very people who are central to Ezra fulfilling his mission have not shown up! This startling absence of leadership would be like gathering people to plant churches in a distant land, only to discover that you have no pastors to lead them. So Ezra sends some leading men to find them. Here again, God provides.

And by the good hand of our God on us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah with his sons and kinsmen, 18; also Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, with his kinsmen and their sons, 20; besides 220 of the temple servants, whom David and his officials had set apart to attend the Levites. These were all mentioned by name.

—Ezra 8:18-20

The resounding theme in Ezra is that it is God who builds his house. It is God who provides and supplies every step of the way. Is it deliverance from external persecution? God grants it. Is it a lack of material provision? God gives it. Is it a lack of ministers? It is God who provides them. Every step of the way, God is supplying his abundant grace for the mission.

When we look to the Bible, we discover that the good hand of our God has provided for our greatest need in Christ. The prophet Isaiah proclaims the coming of our suffering Messiah when writes, 

The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.  

—Isaiah 52:10

Jesus has come to provide for our every need. He leads us as our prophet, priest, and king. He lived the perfect life that we failed to live, and he suffered the wrath of God to satisfy the punishment that we deserved. And in Christ, we have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. As Paul proclaims in Romans 8,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?          

—Romans 8:28-30

Beloved, God has bared his holy arm, and he has provided for every need we could ever possible imagine. But what about right now? Are we only talking about future blessings? Does he also provide throughout our journey to glory? Let’s not forget about Jesus’ intercessory role today. Jesus stands at the right hand of the Father in glory. From the throne of God, he continually provides us with all that we need to accomplish his mission. Jesus gives the leaders to equip the church, and he gives the spiritual gifts to the congregation for the common good (Eph. 4:7-12; 1 Cor. 12:7). 

Moreover, God has promised to supply the sower with seed bountifully. As we give our resources, God also provides us with more, so that we can offer more. Recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians,

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.         

—2 Corinthians 9:8-11

Beloved, whether it is the need for human resources or the need for finances, it is the benevolent hand of God that provides for us still today. All of these blessings flow from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gives them to us so that he might accomplish his mission through us. Remember, it is God who builds his house, and it is God who supplies the parts and the labor to get the job done. Both in Ezra’s day and ours, it is the good hand of our God that provides us with an overwhelming abundance of grace.

Nevertheless, there are always shortages and needs that we must deal with in a godly way. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38). If Jesus supplies them, why do we need to pray for them? Here we need to turn to Ezra’s timely example of how we should respond to God for our future needs. He gives us an example of how to fast for grace.

2. Godly People Fast for Future Grace (Ezra 8:21-36)

Fasting today is mostly relegated to those who want to lose weight. But the biblical basis for fasting is to humble ourselves before God to implore him for future grace. Future grace is the need that we have for our future physical and spiritual needs. There may be significant hurdles that lay ahead for you, for the church, or for the spiritual mission you serve. Regardless of the requirement that you perceive, fasting is a proper response to God’s grace past, present, and for the future.

Now, Ezra is about to lead a massive wave of men, women, children, possessions, and livestock 1500 km through the desert to Jerusalem. He knew the risks—exposure to the elements and, worse yet, ambushes from bandits along the way. But note his response. Ezra did not presume upon God. Yes, God has abundantly blessed him up to this point. It could be so easy to assume that God will be there along the way, without evening giving a thought that you should ask him. But Ezra does no such thing. He calls for a fast. He writes,

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.    

—Ezra 8:21-23

Ezra did not presume upon God for a safe journey. Note his godly disposition in this section. There is a lot that we can learn about the attitude of godliness in response to a daunting task. It is an attitude that is vital for us still today if we want to see God’s favor in the work that he has called us to do. So what does fasting involve?

First, fasting involves humility. We see in verse 21 that Ezra calls for a fast that they might humble themselves before God. Nothing reveals your weakness quite like fasting. Take the proudest man, let him go without food for seven days, and you’ll see him waif away. Fasting reveals our dire need for food. More so, it shows our desperate need for God. Fasting reveals our weakness and inability to survive without dependence on something outside of us—food and the God who provides it.

Second, fasting involves prayer. Fasting prepares our hearts to seek God for the significant needs of life. The total dependence on God that we discover through fasting brings us to a place where we can implore him for our greatest needs. Look at the desperate nature of the words used in this section: ‘seek,’ ‘implore,’ and ‘entreat.’ These are words used by hungry men, pleading for food. Fasting puts us in a position to beg God for abundant grace, because only he can give it.

Third, fasting involves shame. Ezra is ashamed to ask the king for protection on the journey because he told the king that, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him” (Ezra 8:22). Shame prohibits Ezra from seeking human help, even from the strongest man. It was a theological test, and he passed. When facing the significant hurdles in our lives, we should be ashamed to seek first the aid of man. While asking others for help is almost always excellent and appropriate, our instinct should always be to seek first the assistance of our Heavenly Father, who gives to the one asks. Fasting enables us to do that.

To summarize, fasting humbles us in the dust and prepares our hearts to seek abundant grace from the only one who can give it. We should remember that this is a practice that Jesus expects of us. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his disciples were not fasting, he replied,

“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” 

—Matthew 9:15

In the book of Acts, it was through prayer and fasting that the Lord set apart Paul and Barnabas for the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2). Then after additional prayer and fasting, they sent them off (Acts 13:3). Setting aside time for corporate prayer and fasting was a staple of the early church. As Paul and his men appointed elders in every town, they committed them to the Lord with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23).

When I think about the most important breakthroughs in my life, the vast majority of them were preceded by periods of fasting. And as we implore God for future grace in the life and mission of this church, and our own lives and families, we must fast.

Therefore, in the spirit of Ezra and the early church, I would like to declare a “First Tuesday Fast” for the life and mission of First Presbyterian Church of Norway. On the first Tuesday of each month, I am inviting you to join Deborah and my family in fasting over lunch. Devote the time that you usually use to eat, for prayer instead. I pray that God will use this regular act of humility to lavish future grace us. So again, I invite you to join us in a monthly “First Tuesday Fast.” The first fast will begin this Tuesday.

Looking back to Ezra, God honored their fast. The good hand of God delivered them from the hand of the enemy, and he brought them safely to Jerusalem. God continued to provide for their needs and fasting prepared the way for revival, which we will read about in the coming chapters.

Beloved, God has abundantly provided for our church, but we are ever in need of grace for our life and mission—not to mention for all the people and families involved. Fasting draws our eyes to heaven where Christ is, at the right hand of the Father. He is the arm of the Lord that provides for our every need. In abundance or want, fast for grace. May fasting create in us a greater longing for Christ, and for the future grace that only he can give.

[1] Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (vol. 12; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 73.