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Ezra in Paris

January 5, 2009

I read through Ezra and Nehemiah Saturday; I’m fairly certain this was the first time I have read straight through both books in one sitting. It gave me a better sense of the co-occurrence of events in both books, but I really read them through to prepare for a new study my pastor began Sunday.

Two things in particular stood out to me. The first was Ezra’s constant attribution of all he accomplished to “the good hand of my God on me.” Ezra and Nehemiah were motivated to do well for God, and to receive his kind hand upon them. They could do well only with God’s kind hand, and they desired to do well in order to continue receiving this blessing.

The second thing was the pagan Persian king’s motive for doing good. He provided everything necessary for Ezra and Nehemiah to restore the temple of “their” god. This is a king who had been around, conquering the world as he had, and he’d seen a lot of gods at work, or at least seen them worshipped.  Something about the God of Israel impressed him. The king’s interest in the Jews’ restoration of their temple was the kind hand of their God on him: he coveted Ezra’s prayers “for the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:10; 7:23.

That was 538 BC. There’s no question Ezra faced challenges: Jerusalem was rubble, the temple had been leveled. But the faithful were willing to work.

This is now. I took a hard swallow looking at some numbers pertaining to the Church today. I was looking through our denomination’s newsletter last night. It’s a heartening publication, with features about what our churches abroad are doing. We don’t have missionaries in remote African jungles or atolls populated by cannibals. We have them in places like France, Switzerland, and Canada. This isn’t because those are cushy spots and we happen to have members conveniently fluent in the necessary languages. The jungles and atolls might have higher numbers of converted Christians in their populations than our civilized allies in Europe and Canada.

While this seems slightly incredible and the criteria cannot be evaluated in a poll, 81% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, according to this Gallup Poll.   According to my denomination’s newsletter, the percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian is 4.1% in Switzerland, the heart of the Reformation, and, perhaps less surprisingly, 0.8% in France.

I can’t think of another trend that is advancing as rapidly as secularism in Europe.  But when I was in Switzerland in 1981, I noted a national pride in the Swiss Reformer Zwingli on the part of people who never attended church, and a sense that it was nice to have all these old churches because they made charming concert venues.

I have little to say about this, except that I am jolted and yet not really surprised.  Although God created man in his own image and gave him reason and muscle by which to live, man was not conferred with the ability or the right to vote on his creator’s existence.  But the natural man does boast the pluck to presume such a right.

As we heard in church yesterday, if we will handle the Word of God properly, we will surely enhance our new year.

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