Starting Again (November 24, 2019)
Ezra 3:10-13; Haggai 2:3-5
The last couple of weeks we were discussing a time at the end of the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom falls to the Assyrian empire, which takes up just slightly more than the land that is currently in modern day Syria. But that Empire comes and destroys the Israelites in the north. And they actually continue south, and they siege the city of Jerusalem. We’re told that God himself fights off the Assyrian army. So the Assyrians are turned back from the southern kingdom of Judah. Eventually the Assyrian empire is defeated by the Babylonian empire, which took up roughly a little bit more than modern-day Iraq. And the Babylonians, after conquering Assyria continue down, and they show up at the gates of Jerusalem. And this time the Judahites were not as faithful as they were when the Assyrians were attacking. And the Babylonians capture Jerusalem. They take the king and several nobles off in chains into exile in Babylon. And they establish a puppet kingdom. But eventually that king rebels and the Babylonians come back and sack city of Jerusalem again. This time they destroy the Temple; they take away all the riches and even more nobles. They put in place a governor. The kingdom, the monarchy, the line of David has, at least for the moment, been ended.
Yet the Babylonians didn’t scatter conquered peoples around the whole empire, but they did take the leaders of the people into exile. And so they would take them and they brought them over to Babylon. And they formed a community there. And this is where they began to write down the Scriptures in earnest. Most of the Scriptures, particularly the Scriptures dealing with the history of the kingdoms were written by this group of people sitting in Babylon and trying to preserve who they were. They were trying to preserve their culture, and their people, and their identity. They were in Exile for 70 years.
Toward the end of those 70 years, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians, which at that point in time was an empire that spanned roughly more land than the nation of Iran and maybe about half of Afghanistan with it. So you can kind of get a sense that we’re beginning to expand the power of the nation that is in control over Judah.
The Persians were even kinder than the Babylonians to conquered people. They would let you live together in your homeland, so long as you pay tribute. Now, Scripturally speaking, God puts that in the heart of the king of Persia so that Judah could return home. And in chapter 1, toward the end of this 70 year exile, We read a letter from king Cyrus of Persia: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
So we see here in the narrative of Scripture that God has put on the heart of the new king of Persia to send the people back. The promise of return that the prophets had said would happen at the end of the period of the monarchy, the people now experience. They are to rebuild the Temple. And furthermore, God is providing for the rebuilding of the Temple; not only from the Royal treasury, but by decree of the king, other kingdoms and other people are to provide some amount of help and aid to the rebuilding of this Temple as well. God makes it possible. Ezra gathers a group of people together. And this small group of people travel back from Babylon to Jerusalem, coincidentally almost the exact same trip that Abraham made from Ur to Canaan. I just find that to be interesting.
We’re told that some of the people who follow Ezra back to Jerusalem had been alive when the people were in Jerusalem previously; that they had actually been taken into exile. If so, they would’ve been very young, because seventy years would have passed, and they would have to still be alive. But most of these people had only heard stories of Jerusalem. Most of these people have never seen it before.
I don’t know what they expected to find. I think maybe they had hoped that the people left behind had tried to rebuild a little bit, tried to make the city home again or something. But whatever they expected to find, they didn’t find it. What they found was a small farming village that had no stone left upon another. The Babylonians had wanted to teach the kingdom a lesson that would last. And because of the actions of a king several decades before, they knew the wealth that was present in the city at the Temple. And they had taken everything from these people. There was nothing left. But these people had a job to do, they had been called by the Lord. They had a mission from God. Ezra was saying, “Let’s get going!” And they set off to build the temple with the wealth from the king, and Cyrus actually gave them back as much of the stuff that Babylon took from the Temple as he could find. And they got to work.
Now, one of the interesting things about finally being at the time where they were writing down the Scriptures as opposed to telling stories from generation to generation is that you begin to have more than one account of the events. It’s interesting that we almost never preach on the rebuilding of the second temple, yet it’s the most accounted for in the Old Testament. Really only the life of Jesus shows up as often as this event.
It takes, by best estimate, about 150 years to complete the Temple. There are several things that happen in the midst of this. We see in the book of Ezra that Ezra leads a small group back to the city, and they begin to build the foundations of the temple. That’s the Scripture that was read today. They lay the foundations of the Temple.
And then a couple of things happen. One, those people who had been here before, who had been taken away from Jerusalem and now returned, remembered back to what the temple used to be. And they knew that this foundation was a lot smaller than the foundation of Solomon’s temple. And they began to weep. Second, I think the realization of just what they were being called by God to do, and how hard it would be, began to hit the people at about that same time. And third, about that same time as well, the people around Jerusalem who would lose power and influence and status if the city of Jerusalem was built up to be a powerful city in the area, began to mire the project in red tape. They began to complain to the King and governors in hopes of putting the project on hold; as if they were suing someone and putting it in an injunction on it. They just mire the whole thing in bureaucracy. And eventually the people lose energy, and lose the will to continue the project. The foundations are laid, but nothing else seems to be done.
The story picks up in two of the small prophet books in the back of the Old Testament. In fact, one of if not the smallest of those is the book of Haggai, which was read as well this morning. Two prophets are sent to the people to get them motivated and moving again. You can see part of Haggai’s pep talk to the people in what was read here today. Basically what they say is, “yes, this temple is smaller than the previous one. Yes, the foundations are smaller. Yes, the city is in ruins. But it doesn’t matter because God is still with us. The size of the building, the way the building worked in the previous Temple, wasn’t the important part about the Temple. Thinking that is what got you guys in trouble the last time! The important part about the Temple was that God was present within the Temple. That is still true. So let’s get going.”
And they do get moving again. And the people around try and stop it again, but they push through. And they get about half done. The book of Nehemiah tells us that they get about half done, it tells us that when you went to go get wine, you want 20 vats, but 10 vats are there. You go to get grain and only get half of what you want, etc. But importantly, they get started again before ultimately stuttering and stopping again.
So God works again. This time he stirs the heart of the cupbearer of the King. And the cupbearer of the King would’ve been in the Persian capital. One thing we see is that the people have begun to disperse out into the surrounding kingdom of Persia. This would continue into the Greeks, and ultimately the Romans, setting the stage for Paul’s journeys. This cupbearer would’ve been a member of the community in the capital of Persia, which is the same community that we see in the book of Esther. The King sees that his heart has been troubled, and hears that he longs to return home to Jerusalem and to restore the cities honor by restoring the wall. So the king allows them to gather together a whole second group of other people. And they return to the city of Jerusalem with the appointed purpose of rebuilding the walls.
When Nehemiah gets there, the surrounding communities again feel threatened and they try to mire the project in red tape and bureaucracy again, but Nehimiah has none of it. We’re told that they build the entire wall around the city, which is very significant distance, in a matter of weeks. And with the walls, Jerusalem becomes its own province, and they are able to finally finish the second Temple, roughly 100 to 175 years after they started.
What we see throughout this whole tale of rebuilding is God‘s providence toward the people. However, each person seems to respond differently to how God is acting in the lives of the people. We’re told in Ezra that there were people who were but overjoyed and anticipating what is coming in a joy filled state. They were cheering at the foundations. And there are people who are weeping over what was lost. A group looking forward and a group looking back. But I think it is important to note and remember neither one is judged for their cheering or for their weeping. No one is criticized for not having enthusiasm for what God is doing in their midst, but also no one is criticized for not remembering what God had done. We see that as we live life trying to serve God that we can experience serving God in different ways; and each way we experience it is valid in God‘s world. But of course we also see that while God is fine with whatever emotions you may be feeling, you’re still called to act and do what God called you to do. Don’t make a God send two prophets to you.
And we see here that God, through the prophet Haggai, makes a very important point that what matters is not what the building looks like, but that God is present in it; that the stained glass windows, the piano and the organ, or the guitar, or anything like that. That’s all good. They point us to what really matters. But the church building and the people inside will constantly change and look different. As long as God is with us it is fundamentally still the same church.
Of course the lessons of today don’t have to apply to things as large as rebuilding the Temple of regrowing the church. The lessons from today, and the pattern we see these people go on today, is something that we experience anytime we embark on a project for God. For instance, anytime we decide we’re going to have a new prayer routine, such as “I’m gonna pray five times a day, every single day.” If you read your newsletter this month, I said “let’s all give one prayer of thanksgiving every day to God for the month of November.” If we embark on something like that, we can see this pattern. Or if we say “I’m going to read through the entirety of Scripture,” through any of the methods that are popular we can see this.
We start off gung ho, ready to go. And then at some point the size and scale of the project that we embarked upon hits us. We get to week two of our prayer plan and we realize that we have to do this every day. By now, we’ve run out of things to be thankful for. We get to Genesis Chapter 22, and we open our Bible in the morning and ask if we really have to read another genealogy of who gave birth to who. We get to the third Sunday of a commitment of going to church every Sunday, and we go, “you know, I’m really tired. And the Chiefs kick off at noon. Maybe I won’t go today.”
Just like a New Year’s resolution. Sometimes these things are New Year’s resolutions. If you’re still doing your New Year’s resolution on January 12 you’re doing pretty good. We face this pattern when we try and do big things, and make important changes in our lives spiritually or physically. And the lesson we see from this is that God calls us in those moments simply to restart. So whatever big project you’re thinking, whatever is in your mind that you committed to that is falling away because life keeps happening and the world is weighing you down; Haggai calls you to restart. Church, let’s get going. Amen.