Our Sunday night theme that our series will center on is Return, Rebuild, Renew. I believe we need this theme after what we have gone through with this pandemic. It is time to hit the reset button. It is time for us to find a new beginning. It is time to return, rebuild, and renew the work of God for 2022. So this is what we are going to look at this year on Sunday nights. We are going to look at different books of the Bible that will encourage us return, rebuild, and renew ourselves to the work. We are beginning our journey in this theme in the book of Ezra.
One of the amazing pictures of God that we are repeatedly presented with is that we have a God who will make a way for his people. Even when circumstances appear impossibly dark, God will make a way for his people. The history of God’s people looks to have come to its cataclysmic, destructive conclusion. When you read the Kings or Chronicles account, Israel’s history ends with Jerusalem destroyed and the people taken into captivity in Babylon. How can God ever be with his people if they refuse to obey his word, defile the promised land, and must be taken off the land for their disobedience? But listen to the opening words of the book of Ezra.
God IS In Control (1:1-2)
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: (Ezra 1:1 NIV)
Now sometimes we read this and think that Cyrus as a Gentile king just decided one day to let the people of Israel leave captivity and return to their homes just like the prophets said. It is amazing that the prophets did foretell of this event. The prophet Jeremiah said that after 70 years that the people would return to the land (Jeremiah 20:10-14). Isaiah specifically named the ruler as Cyrus who would release the people so they could go home to rebuild Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28). But carefully look at Ezra 1:1. “The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.”
The Lord stirred Cyrus to do this. Sometimes we think that God only worked through Israel and did not do this with worldly kings and leaders. But rules over all leaders and works through leaders to accomplish his purposes. Notice that Cyrus even recognizes this. Look at Ezra 1:2. Cyrus says that the Lord gave him all the kingdoms of the earth and charged him to build the Lord a house in Jerusalem. God gave him Cyrus his rule over Persia. God stirred him up to make this proclamation. God charged him to build the temple to the Lord in Jerusalem. I want us to see that God is at work to do his will. I also want us to see that God is at work during times that are hopeless and dark. Sometimes we think that God cannot be at work when times are dark. But God is always showing that he will make a way in times are dark. God was going to make a way for Abraham even though it looked like he was going to have to offer his son. God was going to make a way for Moses even though it looked like God’s people would forever be enslaved. God was going to make a way for Jesus even though it looked like Herod was going to kill him. God is always making a way in the darkness. God is in control. The darkness is not in control. God is in control and he is accomplishing his will through this world and in spite of this world. Believing this truth is important. I want to show us why in the next few verses of Ezra.
God Stirs Hearts (1:3-11)
So the call is made throughout Cyrus’ kingdom that whoever is among God’s people, may God be with that person and go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the Lord’s house (1:3). Further, let the people of the region support this return to the land by giving the people who return silver, gold, goods, and livestock, along with a freewill offering for the temple (1:4). It is a picture of a new exodus. Just as Pharaoh let the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, now Cyrus is letting the people out of Babylonian captivity. Just as the people of Israel plundered the land as the Egyptians voluntarily gave them gifts (Exodus 3:20-22), now the people of the land will voluntarily support the return and work of God’s people in Jerusalem. Notice in verse 6 that the neighbors supported the people with those very gifts. God is restoring the fortunes of his people. Not only do the people of the land support those who will return with a variety of wealth and gifts, but King Cyrus will also. In verse 7 we see Cyrus bringing out the articles of the temple that had been captured by the Babylonians and giving them to Sheshbazzar who will bring them to Jerusalem. Isn’t it amazing that when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple 50 years earlier that they kept the temple articles? Isn’t it also amazing that when the Persians destroyed the Babylonians that these articles were still preserved so that it would be possible for God’s people to bring the articles back? This is what God said through his prophet Jeremiah. God said that he would return his people with the articles of the temple (Jeremiah 27:21-22).
Now why is this so important? Did you notice the repetition of this chapter? In verse 2 the message is that Cyrus was charged to build a temple to the Lord. In verse 3 the proclamation states for the people to go to Jerusalem to build a temple to the Lord. Verse 4 describes the gifts for the temple of God in Jerusalem. Verse 5 the people prepare to go up and build a house for the Lord. Verse 7 reveals the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord. It is all about the temple. What is God saying? We have talked about how the temple represented God with his people. This is certainly a key aspect of what is happening. God is restoring his relationship with his people. But there is something else that is symbolized by this return to build the temple that the scriptures promised. This call to build the temple also represented God restoring his people (cf. Deuteronomy 30:1-10; Ezekiel 37:26-28). God has come back to be with his people and he is restoring the fortunes and blessings to his people. The new exodus has come.
So who is going to go back? Now we need to understand what the people are being asked to do. Returning to Jerusalem is not a glamorous calling. It is not a convenient or easy calling. These people who are being called to return have not lived in the land for about 60 years (597 BC invasion and exile to 539 BC call to return). This means that the vast majority of the people who are asked to return have never lived on this land. Most were born and raised and were married and had their jobs in Babylon. They have been there all of their lives. Not only this, but there is nothing in Jerusalem to return to. To go to Jerusalem is to leave everything that you have and go to nothing. There is no city because it has been destroyed. There are no farms or fruitful land to come to. The land is empty. The city is in rubble. You are leaving everything and returning to nothing. If this was not enough, the journey was not an easy journey. It took more than 4 months to travel back to Jerusalem. The people are going to have to give up everything to start over to return and rebuild. But this is the call. Who wants to go back and build a house for the Lord? Look at verse 5.
Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:5 NIV)
God moved the heart of Cyrus so that he made the decree to return to build a temple to the Lord. Then God moves the heart of his people to make preparations to go to Jerusalem to build a temple to the Lord. Chapter 2 records the names of the brave people who left it all to return to nothing. It is astonishing that anyone would volunteer to leave home and prosperity for the nothing that lies ahead. But God writes the names of these people, like a names on a memorial wall, so that we would see that God knows who have a willing heart to restart the work for the Lord. But the number is small. Ezra 2:64 says that number was 42,360 (2:64). This is a staggeringly small amount of people who are willing to make this sacrifice. It is a small amount of people who have the heart to restart.
Now what does it mean that God moved these people’s hearts to rebuild? One option is that God directly selected just a few people to want to come back to Jerusalem to build the temple. But I do not think this is the right answer. Surely God would want all of his people to return from captivity. Further, later in the book we are going to read about people like Ezra and Nehemiah who have a zeal for the Lord that lead them to act. The other option is that the way God stirred up the hearts of the people is through the events that took place. When God moved Cyrus to give the decree that the people could return to Jerusalem to build a temple with the supplies needed to do it, this was the way God was stirring up the hearts of the people. God was giving the people a reason to be excited. God had come through on his promise and was now about to reestablish his relationship with his people as seen through the temple project. God moved the hearts of the people through the offer to return to God and be his people again in the promised land.
These people are very excited for the return and for the work. When the people finish making the journey to Jerusalem, the people gave a freewill offering toward the rebuilding of the temple (2:68). Verse 69 gives the tally. Converting the amounts of money then to what that would mean today is always difficult. But please note that this is estimated to be about 1100 pounds of gold and 6300 pounds of silver. Their hearts were moved for the work so greatly that they gave a ton, even though they had left so much behind.
Now we might wonder what all of this has to do with us? But these events in Ezra with the building of the temple, the return of the people, and God with his people were all pointing to the era in which we live. God will appoint his king with all authority on heaven and earth, calling for all to return to build him a house, whoever whose spirit God has stirred. God has made it possible through Jesus for people to come and worship him. God has made a way for his people to exit the darkness and come to him. God has come back to be with his people through Jesus. The proclamation of this good news is going throughout all the earth. Who wants to leave behind what they have so that they can go and worship the Lord?
What lies ahead for us? Is the journey going to be easy? No, the journey is going to be difficult and costly. Is everyone going to be favorable toward us as we do the work? No, there is going to be resistance. Is there going to be wealth and comfort while we do this work? No, there is nothing in Jerusalem except the need to rebuild the walls. Then what is the offer? The offer is very simple: you can go and worship the Lord. Many of the Jews in captivity appear to have preferred their comforts, their wealth, their work, and their security rather than return to the land to worship the Lord. There was no apparent physical pay off for leaving Babylon and returning. The decree was simply that you can go back, do strenuous work, give what you have, so that a temple can be built for the Lord. A small number said they would make the sacrifice, make the journey, endure the difficulty, and restart the work. God wrote their names down. What about you? We have lost a lot in these two years. We have lost people, momentum, resources, and more. Do you have a heart to restart? You may have lost your faith in these last three years? Do you have a heart to restart? You may have lost your zeal and fire? Do you have a heart to restart? Are you ready for a new beginning? Whose heart will respond to the Lord’s call, stirring them up to return to the work God has called for us to do? Even when circumstances appear impossibly dark, God will make a way for his people. We will talk more about our calling as we go forward in this series. But tonight ask yourself if you have the heart to restart? Will you respond to God moving your heart to do the work before you?