“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14
Our God is a god of resurrection, of rebirth, of new life. He takes that which is null and void, utter nothingness, and creates light and dark, earth and sea, and all the cosmos. He takes that which is dead, be it mud or dust or stones or dry bones, and he breathes his Spirit upon them and they become living beings. He takes that which is evil, sinners like you and I, and gives them a spiritual bath, and they become holy, as He is holy. This is the message of Easter, and one of the causes of our celebration not just last Sunday, but throughout this whole season of Eastertide.
Although we are starting a new preaching series through another book of the Old Testament, we remain very much on topic with this Easter celebration. The book of Ezra is the story of God giving his people a new life, a rebirth, a resurrection. You may recall a few weeks ago we read about the destruction of Jerusalem and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. That was the death of Israel as a country; God’s people would never again be an earthly kingdom. But now, in the opening chapter of Ezra, we see Israel rising again from the dead. And, just as Jesus’ resurrection body was somehow a little different from its former life, so too is Israel being restored in a different manner than its previous state.
Actually, this had already happened before in the life cycle of Israel. Roughly a thousand years earlier, they entered into Egypt as a family of less than 100 people, and eventually emerged a small nation. Now, they entered into Babylonian captivity as a kingdom, and are emerging as a religious organization – a church!
The Story of Ezra 1
We begin around the year 538 BC, about fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem. You may recall that Jeremiah’s prophecy for this exile was that it would last seventy years. It’s difficult to get exact chronologies with ancient history like this, but it does seem that, in God’s great mercy, he relaxed his sentence of exile just a little bit, and allowed the exiles to begin to return home twenty years early.
Whateverso, it is critical to note that in the very first verse of this book, Ezra tells us that God “stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia.” Just like in the other historical books of the Bible, we find the emphasis that God is also the god of history. He oversees events and guides people toward the decisions that advance his will and his plan for salvation. In this moment of history, Israel was dispersed and as good as dead, so it required a powerful king to make their restoration possible.
Why would Cyrus do such a thing? Sometimes people read his proclamation, note how accurate his description of God is, and conclude that he was a convert to Judaism. As awesome as that would be, it was not the case. He honored the gods of many cultures, especially the Babylonian gods. In his polytheistic worldview, he seemed to believe that all the local gods were responsible for his phenomenal rise to power, and so he sought to honor and thank them by having their temples repaired and their respective worship patterns properly restored. He did this in Babylon, in Egypt, in Jerusalem, and likely other places too. As far as he was concerned, as long as he makes all those gods happy, they’ll continue to support him and his dynasty.
Verse 4 has some features in its wording especially tailored to pop out to the reader of the Bible. First it mentions “survivors,” highlighting the trial of God’s people under an oppressive exile, and second it mentions “silver and gold” as gifts that people should give them to assist their return home. Both of these are major echoes of the story of the Exodus! There, Egypt was plundered as the Israelites up and left that land. Now the same kind of thing is happening again; God’s people are going home, and are given a kick-start in money and supplies.
The discerning reader may at this point may propose an objection. Verse 5 notes that only the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are mentioned; what about the other ten tribes? This is the reality of what is called “the faithful remnant.” Already in the book of 2 Chronicles, members of the ten northern tribes were increasingly invited to unite with the tribe and kingdom of Judah for the purpose of worship and obedience to the Law of Moses. Now it’s final; God’s faithful people, the true Israel, is just the tribe of Judah and whoever joins with them. This also sets us up for the situation found in the New Testament: Judea is the region faithful to the Bible, Samaria is the northern region that rejects the teachings of the Prophets, and Galilee is sort of a northern colony that’s faithful to the ways of Judea. The true Israelites are not God’s people according to flesh and blood anymore, but by faith. The same is true today: none is born a Christian. And even though infants and young children are baptized, salvation comes to those who have faith in Christ. God’s people are not just a remnant, they are the faithful remnant.
And so the final few verses of this short chapter continue on with an inventory of Temple articles that are collected, mostly from Babylon, and assembled to be brought back to Jerusalem. Again, Cyrus was doing this sort of thing for lots of other temples too. In most cases he was making sure that the statues and idols and images were being restored, but since the Jews didn’t use those things, he had to settle for these pots and basins and other utensils instead, which were prescribed for use in the worship of God. We in the liturgical tradition can appreciate this sort of thing – it is difficult to celebrate the Eucharist without a chalice and paten, for example. And while it can be done with an ordinary plate and cup, there is a certain air of appropriate reverence that’s lost when you do that.
So that’s the story of the beginning of the restoration – or resurrection – of Israel. We’ll look at more of this book over the next few weeks to see how God’s people experienced set-backs and triumphs in the process. I think we’re going to find some very ripe and useful analogies for our own day and age, now that much of the Church has been devastated by the ways and whims of the world and we find ourselves having to rebuild.
For now, though, how does this opening chapter speak to us today? The heart of the message, as I see it, conveniently sits in the heart of this chapter: verse 5. There, we find it says “Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.” Who rose up to answer the invitation of King Cyrus to return home? Yes, some leaders are mentioned, but the middle of the verse clarifies this more carefully: everyone whose spirit God had stirred up to go.
Just as God “stirred up” King Cyrus to add the Jews to his list of people to allow to go home, God also “stirred up” his people to answer that invitation. This is very important to take note of. Remember, they had been living scattered throughout the Babylonian and Persian empires for fifty years. Most of them had never even seen Jerusalem before! When I was small child and learning American history in school, I went home one day and asked my mom “why didn’t the slaves go home to Africa after they were freed?” Surely, I naively thought, they’d want to get away from their former oppressors and back to their ancestral homes. But as my mother briefly explained, and as I came to understand as I got older, it wasn’t that simple. It was a long, dangerous, and expensive journey to take a ship from America to Africa. And in many cases they had been living here for over one hundred years – this was their home now! So they had neither the means nor the desire to go back to Africa; they had a new life here, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For the Jews in Babylonian and Persian captivity, yes, the distance to Jerusalem was shorter and their removal from their homeland more recent, but the same problems apply. Indeed, Jeremiah himself had told them to invest in their captive lands and make themselves comfortable. In 29:5-7, we have a letter that he wrote to the exiles, in which he instructs them “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This doesn’t conflict with the promise that God would bring them home again; it’s simply a reminder that they’re in exile for the long haul.
This issues a challenge for each of us. Although, like in Jeremiah 29, we are called to invest in this world, be wise with our money and resources, raise families, care for the needy, pray for our government leaders, and so forth, we are also taught that our true citizenship is in heaven. While we are called to be obedient and respectful to our earthly kingdoms, we are also called to be builders of a heavenly kingdom. So here’s the big question: what happens when God stirs up our hearts to rebuild Jerusalem? How do we faithfully answer God’s calling upon our lives to pay homage to our true spiritual home? What do we do in this life to “come home” to God?
One of the first things this involves is simply putting our faith in Christ. Do you know and love the Lord Jesus? Is his sacrifice on the Cross something you believe and accept on behalf of your own sins? Is his resurrection life what you desire and accept for yourself? This is, as I said last week, the beginning of the Christian life. It is the faith of the newborn Christian who freshly says “Yes!” to Christ.
Perhaps the very next thing that we do to answer God’s stirring is to worship him. One of the biggest emphases in 2 Chronicles that we saw earlier this year was the central importance of worship, and it will also feature prominently in the book of Ezra. As God calls us to himself, our appropriate response includes “not failing to meet together,” as the book of Hebrews puts it. Come to the celebration of God’s Word and Sacraments, where Christ is proclaimed and offered. I don’t say this out of self-preservation, like I’m concerned about my own interests and income, but out of love and concern for all of you: the spiritual life of each of God’s people is fed through a regular engagement in worship with the rest of the Body of Christ. When we absent ourselves from congregational worship, we starve ourselves.
But then there is yet another level of response to God’s call, God’s “stirring up” of our spirits, and that is the call to ministry. No, I don’t mean this just in the sense of becoming clergymen or pastors or prayer ministers or Vestry members, but in any of the broad aspects of ministry. When the Jews were called back to Jerusalem they had a Temple to rebuild, so they needed Priests and Levites. But they also had a city to rebuild, so they needed builders, specialists, and political leaders to organize them. They were also rebuilding a society and culture, which required people from all walks of life, not just the scribes and lawyers to teach them the Law of Moses which would order their civil life. It is the same today: God has called Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Pastor-Teachers. Some ministry is outward-focused like the apostle and evangelist types, who get out into the world to find new people who need the love of Christ. Some ministry is inward-focused like the prophet and pastor-teacher types, who help make sure the Church grows healthily and faithfully.
So there are these three movements of response to God’s calling – in, up, and out. We first respond within as we put our faith in Christ and commit ourselves to him. We then respond upwards as we join our brothers and sisters in Christ in the public worship of the Church. And finally we respond outwards and we look to the work God has given us to do; to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
Have you heard the stirring of God’s Spirit within you? How have you responded thus far? Have you stagnated in your response? Have you jumped ahead to get involved without first tackling the basics? I’d like to encourage you all to be brave and take the time to pray and listen to God on these matters. When God’s people do this, it not only benefits us as individuals, but as a whole church.
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14