Seizing New Opportunities

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews and we’ll be moving on to new scripture to study. The bad news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews. There was a lot of good information in there, wasn’t there? I learned a lot about angels, Jesus, and good solid Christian character. I’m going to miss Hebrews.

For the next month we’ll be studying Ezra, then in January we’ll move on to Nehemiah, then by February we’ll be in the book of Esther. There will be a brief intermission around Christmas when we study Psalm 139.

God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? As some of you know, I got called away on business this week. I’ve added it up; I was home 9 days in November, and I was supposed to be home this last week and was sent out of town again. I prayed to God; His promise is that if you are doing His work, He will provide all you need, but I was wondering where I was going to find the time to study and prepare. I left Sunday evening with all my study materials, and the plan was to return Thursday and prepare for this lesson on Saturday. Then, after I got there, I found out I had to stay longer than expected; I’d be arriving Saturday evening, last night. I continued to pray; my faith is that the Lord God’s will is always done. I boarded the plane only 20% finished with preparation and a plane flight that was too short to finish preparing.

Be careful what you pray for, God will answer you in ways you do not expect. I’m sitting on the plane, waiting for takeoff. And waiting and waiting… and it dawned on me that I’m wondering where I’m going to find the time to finish preparing, and here the plane is delayed, giving me even more time. I whipped out the laptop and got to work. I’m still not sure I’m 100% ready today, but God gave me ample time. All the credit goes to God, all the rambling incoherency goes to me. And if I start to ramble too bad, I’m going to fake some sort of jet lag induced seizure to distract you.

And have you ever prayed for patience? What happens, how does God answer a prayer like that? That’s right, he tries you with so many activities and events and crisis at once. How are you going to learn patience unless you have emergencies going on all simultaneously?

About a year ago, Diane & I were considering going on a mission trip to Kenya. God had moved her heart to go, and eventually my stubborn heart got out of the way and God moved mine, too. Diane tells the story so much better than me, so I’m going to ask Diane to tell you all about it. No, I’m just kidding, I’ve been traveling so much, I haven’t had much chance to tease my sweetheart. We prayed for the funds to go, and for a while we weren’t sure we were going. I think Diane gave up for a while. We kept praying, and eventually we relied on faith. We just planned on going as though God had already provided. And then all at once, just before we were to leave, God provided everything we needed.

I know some of you have been Christians for a lot longer than me; in fact, before I started studying the last few weeks, I wasn’t sure who Ezra was. Some jazz singer, maybe. It’s only been 8 years since I’ve given my life to Christ, but God has answered so many prayers in the last 8 years. The most amazing is when God repaired our marriage; that was an absolute miracle and completely unexpected that He could repair a marriage that had broken and divorced. Your marriage is a miracle, too, don’t ever take it for granted. Before you were married, did you expect your spouse would be like he or she is? Of course not, God answers prayers in expected ways. Sometimes really unexpected.

I just realized this week another miracle – before I gave my life to Christ, I used to get depressed at Christmas. I even knew why – nostalgia for happy Christmases past, the whole family under the tree opening presents. Then I grew up, and my parents divorce and then my own shattered Christmas for me, and I knew it was never going to be the same. What I realized this last week is that since I gave my life to Christ, I have not been down at Christmas. In fact, this year I’m almost downright giddy. I realized that getting down was my selfish state of mind, it’s all about me sort of thing. It never was about me. It’s all about Him. He is the reason to celebrate.

Yes, God answers prayers and fulfills His promises, and that’s what we’re going to study. So today we’re going to study the book of Ezra, so let’s turn to the book of Jeremiah. Bear with me, we have to get the history.

Jeremiah 29:10

During the time of Jeremiah, the Israelites were in rebellion to the Lord. For centuries, the Lord’s people refused to live up to the terms of the covenant with the Lord. First God unleashed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom Israel, and still the southern people of Judah continued their defiance. God then unleashed the Babylonians against them. Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians (modern day Iraq) against Jerusalem and the soldiers destroyed the city, slaughtered many of the Jews, and looted the temple. The survivors either fled to Egypt or were hauled off to Babylon as slaves.

The prophet Jeremiah told the Jews that this period of captivity will last 70 years, and during this 70 years the Jews formed unhappy communities there and put down their roots. They were very bitter about their slavery, even though Jeremiah had warned them this captivity was due to their disobedience. They had no temple and they were unable to offer the sacrifices in the law of Moses.

So what happened after the seventy years? Now we have to back up to the prophet Isaiah to see the Lord’s prophecy fulfilled.

Isaiah 44:24-28 (shortened), “This is what the Lord says – your redeemer, who formed you in the womb. I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, … who says to Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited’, of the towns of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt,” and of their ruins, “I will restore them,” … who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”

And the people were like, “Cyrus? Who is Cyrus? Billie Ray Cyrus? Don’t Break My Heart, Achy Breaky Heart Cyrus?” And they continued to wonder this until the 70 years of captivity were up

Meanwhile, in a land far, far away, the king of Anshan was getting ambitious. He built a mighty army and attacked his grandfather in Persia which is now modern day Iran. The king then conquered Sardis in Lydia (which is now Turkey), and then turned his attention to Babylonia. In 539 B.C., Babylonia fell to the king of Ashan and became the new ruler of the captive Jews living there. This king’s name was… that’s right, Cyrus. Amazing. Coincidence? I think not.

*Now* we can begin the book of Ezra.

Ezra 1:1
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 to put it in writing:

The Jews were not free; instead of the Babylonians, the king was now Cyrus. But while the Babylonians ruled by intimidation and fear, Cyrus chose a different method. Give the people what they want, and the people will be loyal to you. Sort of like the Democrats.

Ezra 1:2-4
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
” ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’ “

Was King Cyrus a believer in the Lord God of heaven? Nope, he’s just lying through his teeth and I’m not going to draw any more parallels to any particular political party. Cyrus created a new policy to honor the customs and religion of the people he governed. An historical clay cylinder called the Cyprus Cylinder contains a letter to the local Babylonians where Cyrus also claims to be an instrument of the Babylonian god Marduk and asking for their blessings. You know, just giving the people what they want and pretending to be one of them. Dang politicians.

So how is it that the Lord God put this in Cyrus heart? Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Yes, God in in charge of all authority on earth, whether that authority knows it or not. God is in charge. And Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” The Lord’s will be done, whether you’re a believer or not. As a politician, Cyrus ends up doing the will of the Lord, for the Lord God can use anybody and anything He wishes. Cyrus thinks he’s building his own kingdom, but God is using Cyrus for a far greater purpose.

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. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

Notice that the proclamation provided a choice. The people did not have to go back to Jerusalem. The younger men who were physically able to reconstruct the temple had been born sometime during the last 70 years in Babylon. They had never been to Jerusalem, never seen a sacrifice offered, never offered one of their own. Now they were being given a chance to leave a place they had known all their lives and go to a place they had only heard about. They would be giving up comfort of their old home they had grown up in to go to someplace unknown. Would they be sent unprepared? Cyrus’ proclamation instructed their the neighbors to help support them financially and materially with their venture in Jerusalem. God takes care of everything! A freewill offering means the neighbors were not forced to give, but asked out of the goodness of their hearts. Something similar happene when God told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and the Egyptians provided them with gifts of gold and silver and clothing. When God leads, He also provides.

Only a small number of Jews returned to Judah. It says “everyone whose heart God had moved”. Were the ones who stayed behind outside of God’s will? I don’t know. What we do know, however, comes later on in the book of Esther – those that stayed behind were the Jews that Hayman almost had exterminated until Esther spoke up. Anybody see One Night with the King? Beautiful movie of the story of the life of Esther and what happened to these Jews. We also know that there were no ill feelings between those Jews that returned to Jerusalem and those that stayed in Babylonia because of the amount of gifts provided.

I think back to the mission trip Diane and I went on. Not everybody is called to be a foreign missionary; that takes a very special spiritual gift to spread the word of God that way. I don’t think I was effective; I served cheerfully to the best of my ability; providing medical care and services and monetary help was very rewarding, but door to door evangelism to people that don’t speak the same language as me isn’t my calling. I guess I’m saying I probably identified more with the Jews that stayed behind.

Just because God doesn’t call us to be a missionary doesn’t mean He doesn’t call us to help. If our means allows, we should support those in the field, and back them up with prayers and encouragement. For every missionary out in the field, it can take ten or more people supporting them with money, food, clothing, medical care, bibles.

Verse 7 of Ezra also says “Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.”

Where did Cyrus get these vessels of the Lord’s house? In the book of Daniel, he records what happened that night Cyrus appeared in Babylon. The Babylon ruler Belshazzar was having a drunken feast: “Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, and his wives and his concubines drank in them. They drank wine and praised the god of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood and stone. That very night the city of Babylon was captured.

When we get to verse 9, we see what Cyrus returned to Jerusalem:

This was the inventory:
gold dishes 30
silver dishes 1,000
silver pans [b] 29
gold bowls 30
matching silver bowls 410
other articles 1,000
In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver.

Ezra Chapter 2 gives us a list of people with unpronounceable names returning to Jerusalem. Would somebody like to volunteer to read them all? I thought not. I want to look at a couple of the names on the list though – verse 2 shows a Nehemiah, but this is not the same Nehemiah we’ll be studying next month. There’s also a Mordecai listed, but this also isn’t the Mordecai from the book of Esther.

Verse 7 is Elam. Verse 31 is… the other Elam. How would you like to be known through history as “the other Elam?” Hi, I’m Elam, but not *that* Elam. I’m the other Elam. Nice to meet you, I’m the other Nehemiah. And I’m the other Mordecai.

Look down at v23, there were 128 men of Anathoth. When Jeremiah made that prophecy that God would restore Judah after 70 years of captivity, God also had Jeremiah in Jeremiah 32 to buy a piece of land as a sign that Judah would be restored. Jeremiah’s act was one of faith. God promised He would return them to their land and He did. There’s a little town called Anathoth to this day where Jeremiah purchased the land. When the men of Anathoth returned, they had a lawful claim to the land Jeremiah had purchased.

I find all the people listed in Ezra 2 intriguing – just like the body of Christ has many parts – a hand, a foot, I’m a big toe – we see here that God uses the Jews in many roles. Some to rebuild the temple, some to give out the Word of God, some going as missionaries and others supporting the missionaries. Someday, we will receive rewards in heaven for the work we do; all of our work will be inspected and judged and the worthless work will be burned away by fire and only the precious work of the Lord remains. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” The work we do is what God calls us to do, and each part of the body needs each other part.

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.

About 50,000 Israelites had returned and settled in and around Jerusalem with the money and materials that were brought to begin the work on the temple. The first priority was the rebuilding of the altar, which of course the rebellious people didn’t do right away. We find out elsewhere in the book of Haggai the first thing they did was build homes and Haggai had to rebuke them for putting their selfish needs before the Lord.

So after a good rebuking, they got down to work building the temple. Under the law of Moses, Jews had a sacrificial system of atonement we studied in Hebrews. The phrase ‘the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem’ showed their solidarity and unity of purpose. The two men who lead the rebuilding were Jeshua, a priest and descendant of Aaron and Zarubbabel, a descendant of David. Both the priestly and royal branches of Jews worked together to reestablish the Mosaic covenant. Then is ways they built the alter despite their fear and in accordance with the Law of Moses. It sounds like such a simple formula – read the scriptures and work together as one without fear. Now there’s a goal for a church.

I think fear is still common – I think about the Christians that may be working at Best Buy or Home Depot or Kroger where they are discouraged from saying “Merry Christmas” and told to say “Happy Holidays” instead. I tell people that I don’t celebrate “Winter Holiday” because it’s pagan. I celebrate Christmas!

Working together as one has a more positive example just this week. I got a few emails this week telling me about Angels of Light I missed this week – that is such a wonderful service and it is so rewarding to see so many people working together as one.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD :
“He is good;
his love to Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.

The foundation for the alter was finally complete, and the Jews couldn’t wait to celebrate. The Mosaic covenant was being followed exactly as described by Moses. This same order was followed when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 16:5-6, and when the ark was brought to the temple in 2 Chronicles 5:12-13. The priests wore their ceremonial robes, the descendants of Asaph and the priest performing sacrifices and others playing cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. The Jews knew this time the Lord was making this temple possible and wanted to give praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for His love for them. The temple worship has been restored after 70 years, just as prophesied.

When we receive gifts, most of us remember to say thank you. Sometimes we forget what gifts we have, though, and don’t thank our Lord for them. The privilege of worshiping Him is a gift that the Jews didn’t have, and we’re losing, too, in part of the world and in this country, too. Fifty years ago it was unthinkable, but now our government compels children to attend purely secular public schools where the pagan “Winter Holiday” is celebrated instead of Christmas, and instead of being taught that sex is a gift reserved for married couples, the children are taught sexual activities with cucumbers. We’re losing monuments and crosses that reflect the Judeo-Christian ideals this country was founded on, and “Merry Christmas” is considered unwelcome. Let’s give thanks we’re not yet like the Jews in Babylonia and can worship our maker freely. Count every blessing, name them one by one and Praise God for all that He hath done. When the Jews realized what they had lost during captivity, they praised God for His sovereignty, faithfulness, forgiveness and restoration. Let’s not take that for granted.

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

There were two types of people present during the dedication of the temple. On one hand were the younger generation that had never seen the original temple built by Solomon. To these younger people, this was a wonderful time. A new temple, new opportunities to worship and serve the Lord. The other group were the old-timers who remembered the old temple and were making comparisons. “Why this old temple is nothing compared to the one in my day. Why, our temple would eat this temple for lunch. It was worth making the journey, and we didn’t mind all the walking to get here. We’d walk uphill to get here. Both ways. We gave everything we had, even the shoes off our feet. The walk back was uphill, too, but now we were barefoot. And on cold, icy days, we’d have to strap barb-wire to our feet to keep from slipping.”

The old group wasn’t exactly encouraging to the younger group, were they? Being critical of something is really easy; being encouraging is much harder. I was recently reminded of this while I was out of town yet again, griping about… well, let’s just say I thought this trip was much ado about nothing, mountains made from molehills. Reading some scripture in the middle of the week about encouraging one another as long as it is called Today cut me to the heart about my disobedience. I had developed some old person “the old way is the right way to do this” philosophy. Younger hearts are what we all need.

As we close the first three chapters of Ezra, let’s remember that God’s will be done. He can use the unbelievers for his will in order to faithfully fulfill His promise and He sometimes answer prayers in unexpected ways. Let’s remember that sometimes God calls us to take action, and sometimes God calls us to be the supporting people. Let’s remember that when we are in accordance with the scripture, we become like one body in unity in purpose. And let’s remember to give thanks and praise for our almighty Father in Heaven from whom all blessings flow.

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