Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rebuilding the Temple: Ezra's Journey

Last week we talked about how Israel was taken into captivity in Babylon. And during that time God continued to be with his people, even after they had failed him so completely. He worked through people like Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abendigo. Daniel saw many dreams and visions, and even saw the coming of the messiah, and the end times.

So now we talk about the return home. And we see two predictions made, by Jeremiah and Isaiah, old testament prophets being fulfilled here. First of all God proclaimed through Jeremiah these words from Jeremiah 29:10, “This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again.”

So God made it clear, Israel would be in Babylon in captivity for 70 years, but then would return home.

God also spoke through the prophet Isaiah, who wrote these words from Isaiah 44:28, “When I say of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,’ he will certainly do as I say.

He will command, ‘Rebuild Jerusalem’; he will say, ‘Restore the Temple.’”

And that’s exactly what happens as we’ll see. You can open your Bibles to Ezra chapter 1. And it says, “1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy he had given through Jeremiah. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom:

2 “This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a Temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Any of you who are his people may go to Jerusalem in Judah to rebuild this Temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives in Jerusalem. And may your God be with you! 4 Wherever this Jewish remnant is found, let their neighbors contribute toward their expenses by giving them silver and gold, supplies for the journey, and livestock, as well as a voluntary offering for the Temple of God in Jerusalem.”

So they gather up their supplies, and it says God stirred in the hearts of the levites, the priestly class of the Jews, to lead this effort. They gather up everything they need, and Cyrus even provides for them the original artifacts from the original temple that was pillaged by Babylon, to take with them to rebuild the temple.

In total 42,360 men returned to Israel. In chapter 2 of ezra it’s actually documented how many men came from each tribe and their various lineages. 42,360 men, so if we add in women and children, it’s probably around 100,000 people who returned to Judah from Babylon.

We see two main leaders emerge from this group returning, their names are Jeshua, he is the prophet/priest figure, and Zerubbabel, the political leader. As we’ve seen in previous books of the Old Testament, in Israel there would always be a prophet and a king.

So they gather supplies and take donations from people and they begin work on rebuilding the foundation of the temple, just where the original sat. So imagine this, you’ve come back to Judah, to Jerusalem, the capital. And it’s in ruins. I mean it’s burned out. And you’ve gotta somehow try to rebuild. And not only that, the city and the lands of Judah are now occupied by foreigners who have claimed the land and begin to live there while you were away in exile. It’s an enormous task before them.

Have you ever had to come back from exile in your life? Can you relate to finding burned out ruins around you? For me I can relate in some ways. For about 10 years in my life I went into a sort of exile. I rebelled against God and my upbringing and turned toward self-destructive ways. And during that time, my whole life burnt up. It was in ruins. So returning home, when I became a born again Christian, I found endless ruins of what had once been my life. And I had to set to work to rebuild and become who I was always meant to be.

Maybe you’re in that process right now, in some ways. Keep rebuilding. Don’t give up. And I guarantee you that you will face opposition just as the Israelites did. But keep rebuilding. Don’t let anyone stop you.

So the Israelites led by the Levites, the priestly class begin working and they complete the entire foundation of the temple. It says this in Ezra 3:10-13, “10 When the builders completed the foundation of the Lord’s Temple, the priests put on their robes and took their places to blow their trumpets. And the Levites, descendants of Asaph, clashed their cymbals to praise the Lord, just as King David had prescribed. 11 With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the Lord:

“He is so good!

His faithful love for Israel endures forever!”

Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s Temple had been laid.

12 But many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. 13 The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud noise that could be heard far in the distance.”

So you’ve got this very powerful moment where they are celebrating the new foundation, but also this sadness and weeping in the crowd from the older people there who saw the original temple that Solomon built and they’re overwhelmed with sadness because the new one is nothing compared to the old.

Then it says in Ezra chapter 4:1-5, “The enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were rebuilding a Temple to the Lord, the God of Israel. 2 So they approached Zerubbabel and the other leaders and said, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God just as you do. We have sacrificed to him ever since King Esarhaddon of Assyria brought us here.”

3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders of Israel replied, “You may have no part in this work. We alone will build the Temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, just as King Cyrus of Persia commanded us.”

4 Then the local residents tried to discourage and frighten the people of Judah to keep them from their work. 5 They bribed agents to work against them and to frustrate their plans.”

So we see a serious problem arise here. The foreigners living among them want to help rebuild the temple, but Zerubbabel says no. And it’s right that he did because they were obviously up to no good. Once he refused they did everything could to stop the process.

So these forces trying to stop them actually send a letter to the king of Persia saying that the Jews are planning to rebel, and he listens to them, and basically orders the construction of the temple to stop. So these rebels take the letter they received go to the temple construction site and force the Israelites to stop building. And construction is halted for 14 years!

During this time two prophets were at work in Israel, Haggai and Zechariah. And they prophesy about the rebuilding of the temple repeatedly during this hard time. Jeshua and Zerubbabel are afraid of the enemies surrounding them, but with the support of Haggai and Zechariah they gather their courage and finally begin to rebuild the temple once again.

Once again the rebels and foreigners try to stop the building of the temple, but the new leader of Persia, Darius, actually finds the original decree of Cyrus indicating the Jews should rebuild the temple, and actually encourages them to rebuild it, instead of stopping them, like what happened in the past.

For me all of this, the back and forth, rebuilding the foundation, then being forced to stop, then the prophets rising up, then continuing to rebuild, and then support from Darius, is all an indication of spiritual warfare.

You’ve got the will of God, the rebuilding of the temple, up against the will of Satan and evil, which is to stop the rebuilding. And it goes back and forth. This is often, very often replicated in our own lives.

We see a family member or friend we’ve been praying for, for years, and they are struggling and then they come a bit closer to God, you see some encouraging signs, and then they fall away again. Then they come closer, then something happens that drives them away.

Or in our own lives. I’ve seen this happen so often, like in some project I’m working on, or with dinner church, trying to start that up and get it going. Or even with resurfacing the parking lot. We’d get everything on track, and then something would happen to really set us back. We’d have help in the kitchen, then those people would leave, we’d have a musician, then they’d disappear. We’d gather a new family, then they’d vanish again. With the parking lot project, delay after delay, problems with the company, problems with the weather, it seems like it’s always a battle.

This happens in our lives, not just around us, but inside of us. We start doing well. We overcome a sin, maybe we quit smoking. Then Satan does something to tempt us, we overcome the temptation, then a family member dies, then we have back problems, then we face discouragement and depression, and it’s always a battle isn’t it? Always a battle.

The word of God tells us that Christians will have many troubles, but that God delivers them from them all.

So after 14 years, they get back on track, and their enemies try to stop them, but they fail. And the temple is at last completely rebuilt.

Everyone gathers together, and they celebrate the Passover, the classic Jewish festival where they celebrate God delivering them from slavery in Egypt, and reminds them of the blood of Passover lambs that was placed on their doors, so the angel of death would “Passover” them. And of course this blood sacrifice points us forward to the coming of Jesus, when his blood would be poured out on the cross, so that Jesus would become our Passover. That our sins would be wiped out and removed, if we put our faith in Christ.

So they celebrate the Passover. And it’s a mighty celebration. They celebrate the festival of unleaven bread, reminding them of how they trekked into the wilderness, out of Egypt, with bread and bitter spices, for a long long journey. So much of what we do as Christians, just like the Jews did, is to remind ourselves of what God has done for us. We so easily forget and get led astray into secular nonsense and sin. That’s why we remind ourselves, every Sunday about what Jesus has done for us. It keeps us on the right track. That’s why we celebrate thanksgiving, reminding ourselves that God provides for our needs. That’s why we celebrate Christmas, it reminds us of the birth of Jesus and all that it brought. And that’s why we celebrate Resurrection Sunday, to remind us that Jesus died and rose again for us. Just like the Jews celebrated the Passover, the festival of booths, and others, it was all designed, to remind the Jews continuously of the God who they so often would lose track of, and fall away from.

Ok so, now, fast forward 35 years after the celebration of the rebuilding of the temple, and we see Ezra. The man named for the book of Ezra. He finally enters the story. And he is actually still back in Persia, but he leads another group back to Jerusalem. He is supported by the then King Artaxerxes and encouraged to go and enforce the law of Moses in Israel.

It’s interesting to note that during the 35 years in between the temple rebuilding and Ezra’s trip to Israel, is most likely when the events of the book of esther take place. And probably explains why there is such a shift in support for the Jews by then King Artaxerxes.

But you’re probably wondering, why was it necessary for Ezra to return to Israel at this time? I’m sure everything is going great in Israel now right? They’d learned their lesson, they rebuilt the temple, obviously they must be serving the Lord completely now right? Unfortunately no.

During the gap between the temple rebuilding and Ezra’s return, the Israelites had once again fallen away from God, and began to inter-marry with the foreigners around them, and to practice iniquity. So when Ezra arrives, he expects to see a holy nation that is living for God. But instead he finds trouble once again.

So when Ezra arrives, his mission is really to once again call the people back to God. They’d lost touch yet again, and begun to practice evil.

It says in Ezra 9:1-4, “…the Jewish leaders came to me and said, “Many of the people of Israel, and even some of the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the other peoples living in the land. They have taken up the detestable practices of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. 2 For the men of Israel have married women from these people and have taken them as wives for their sons. So the holy race has become polluted by these mixed marriages. Worse yet, the leaders and officials have led the way in this outrage.”

3 When I heard this, I tore my cloak and my shirt, pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat down utterly shocked. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel came and sat with me because of this outrage committed by the returned exiles. And I sat there utterly appalled until the time of the evening sacrifice.”

And Ezra prayed, ““O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you. For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.”

So when Ezra arrives he calls everyone to prayer and a holy fast. This is a great thing to do if you’re struggling in your walk with God or your friends are struggling, then it’s time to pray, fast, and consecrate ourselves anew before God.

So Ezra is actually laying face down in front of the rebuilt temple, utterly horrified, and more and more people are gathering around him, as he does this. Kind of a beautiful moment. He is alone in weeping, praying and fasting, and slowly others join him. Then more join him. And more. And pretty soon there is a giant crowd around the temple weeping and praying with Ezra. I love that. Eventually they beg Ezra to stand up and tell them what to do. And he calls them to repentance. The leaders send out letters calling all Israelites to return from exile to Jerusalem. And they do.

The people repent, they divorce the pagan wives they had taken, and turn away from the false religions of the peoples around them, and they return to God. The last chapter of Ezra, lists all those who had taken foreign wives and then repented. Praise God. The people once again returned to God. The entire nation of Israel was once again filled with the Jews who had returned from Exile.

In conclusion today, what a crazy ride it has been for Israel, don’t you think? We can think all the way back to Abraham, and how God promised to make a great nation out of him, then, we saw Israel in captivity in Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, Joshua leading them in to take the promised land. The judges, the kings, the division of the kingdom into north and south, the destruction of the north at the hands of Assyria, and the captivity of the south in Babylon, now they return home, and once again attempt to be all they are called to be as God’s chosen people.

Next week we’ll examine the events of the book of Esther, and how one brave woman did great things for God.

As we transition into our time of response, let’s focus in our walks with God. Do we need to repent of false ways? Do we need to re-consecrate ourselves to God? Come forward to the altars, talk to God right now, respond to this message God has given us.