Sermon for Sunday, June 14th, 2020 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Ezr 1:1-11 ESV] 1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king 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, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel–he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” 5 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. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. 7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
New Testament reading:
[Act 24:10-21 ESV] 10 And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense. 11 You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, 12 and they did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. 13 Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. 14 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. 16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. 17 Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. 18 While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia– 19 they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. 20 Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.'”
[Mat 4:1-11 ESV] 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
For the previous 12 (!) Sundays we did not meet for worship here at Unionville Presbyterian Church. The unprecedented times in our world have brought about this unprecedented gap in church meetings.
Services have been cancelled in past ages but never for such a length of time. According to our church records, in the year 1912 there was no preaching for the entire month of August while the pastor was on vacation and pulpit supply was in short supply. There is no record of services being cancelled in October 1918 when services in other places in the nation were cancelled during the height of the Spanish influenza.
In our own lifetimes, prior to these last three months, I’ve only known of church cancellations due the most ferocious of winter snowstorms.
But now we have returned to worshipping the Lord in this place. And we should all be very glad to be returning to church, even if many questions swirl in our minds about what church and life will look life in these times and in the future.
Our return to church today provides a good occasion on which to consider God’s word regarding the return of His people after a far longer gap in worship recorded in Old Testament history. After 70 years(!) of exile in Babylon, some of the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple.
So this Sunday we’ll be taking a break from our regular series in John’s Gospel to consider the “return from exile” in the book of Ezra and some modern applications from this text.
INTRODUCTION – CONTEXT
Since we’ve not been focusing on Old Testament – except for our readings in the yearly Bible-reading plan – it surely of value to refresh our minds on the context of the “return of the exiles.”
For centuries God’s people in Israel were disobedient and did not follow His laws. God had given them the promised land and blessed them with a nation and many descendants. Yet they continue to worship foreign gods. They broke others laws as well, but it was the worship of foreign gods that was perhaps the most egregious.
In time, God sent judgment on Israel for the apostasy that had developed for many years. The judgment came not in the form of a plague, but through masses of foreign armies. First, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They killed many people and took away others. Ten tribes had resided in Israel. These tribes were conquered by the Assyrians and sent away in captivity. They became known to history as “the lost ten tribes.”
A generation later, God sent judgment on the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians were no longer in power. The Babylonians had taken pre-eminence. The Babylonians ruled the known world. And it was they who conquered Jerusalem. In three waves, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and sent its inhabitants into captivity.
The way it often worked in the ancient world is that the conquering nation would take away the learned class of intellectuals, tradesman, and officials. These Jews were taken to Babylon. The few that remained in Jerusalem were not of interest to the Babylonians.
2 Kings 24:14 explains: 14 [Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon] carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.
For seventy years then, the people of God lived in exile in Babylon; their temple destroyed. What worship of God that occurred in these times must have been limited to prayers and family meetings.
Was this then the tragic end of God’s people? No, indeed. God showed His faithfulness in rescuing his people, returning them from exile, and fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah that such would happen.
God’s faithfulness then is shown in these events from our text:
I. THE EDICT OF KING CYRUS
II. THE RETURN FROM EXILE
III. THE FULFILLMENT OF JEREMIAH’S PROPHECIES
I. THE EDICT OF KING CYRUS
The Babylonians were a great empire. The most powerful empire of their time. But there is nothing permanent in human kingdoms.
Earthly empires do not last. Earthly empires have a shelf-life. Consider the Third Reich of Nazi Germany. They said they would last a thousand years. They made it 12. 12 years!
And so the Babylonian empire did not last forever. A new power – the Persians – were arising in the North and in time they would overtake Babylon the Great. The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians. What faith can their be in men and nations?
The Persians then had different policies from the Babylonians. Chiefly, they allowed foreign peoples to return to their nations and to worship in their own ways.
We have evidence of that policy here in the Book of Ezra.
Verses 2 through 4 contain the Edict of Cyrus, king of the Persians, who lets the Jew’s return from exile.
“Thus says Cyrus king 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, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel–he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
This edict is recorded also at the end of 2nd Chronicles.
We know that this is a true account because it is recorded (even twice) in God’s word. But for any who doubted this record, an archaeological discovery changed their minds.
In the ruins of Babylon in 1879 a notable cylindrical artifact was found with cuneiform writing on it. This artifact made of clay – called the Cyrus Cylinder – contains a copy of a similar Edict of Cyrus from that very time. The cylinder doesn’t have the exact text that Ezra has, but it does similarly have Cyrus allowing other peoples to return to their homelands and build temples. This seems to have been his overall policy.
In our times, it may seem that we are at the mercy of governments, just like the Jews were at the mercy of Babylon. But it is the Lord – not they – who is truly in charge. The Lord keeps his people and protects them in all times. And in due time, government policies change and the people of God return to worship. So we should be thankful that God has so worked to have us return to worship today.
II. THE RETURN FROM EXILE
Following Cyrus’ edict, the Jews (some, but not all) returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the temple. We read in verse 5:
5 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.
Judah and Benjamin are the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom. Remember, there were twelve tribes originally, but 10 became the lost ten tribes when conquered by the Assyrians. So only two – Judah and Benjamin – remained. They were brought to Babylon, but now were headed back to Jerusalem.
And those who returned – the whole assembly – was 42,360. (Ezra 2:64)
The temple had been destroyed. Generations had gone and gone. And when the temple was finally built, only some old men could remembered the previous temple and so cry when comparing the new lesser temple.
But God was faithful to His covenant. The unthinkable had happened – the Jews returned from exile and built their temple. They were even given back the treasures of the old temple. The sacred vessels. Verse 11 tells us that “all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400.” These had been kept by the Babylonians in their treasury, but now were being returned to the Jews.
But perhaps all of this wasn’t so “unthinkable.”
III. THE FULFILLMENT OF JEREMIAH’S PROPHECIES
Our text tell us exactly why these events happened – to fulfill the prophecy that the word of the Lord gave by the mouth of Jeremiah.
This is referring to a prophecy Jeremiah gives in multiple places.
[Jer 25:11 ESV] 11 This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
[Jer 29:10 ESV] 10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.
Just as predicted, these things came to pass. The Jews were in Babylon for seventy years. Then God fulfilled his promise and brought them back to Jerusalem.
God was faithful to his promise.
And God IS faithful. He is faithful today as we return to worship.
Let us then look at some considerations for our own lives as we now return to corporate worship.
Consideration 1. God remains faithful today.
First, we know that God remains faithful today.
We are here in corporate worship. We’ve come through times in world history that have been very trying. And it is difficult to conclude precisely what the Lord is doing through this time. Has the Lord brought a virus pandemic upon the world as punishment for rebellion from Him? If so, He would be fully just in doing so.
And you may recall some months ago when I preached on the cycle in the book of Judges. There we saw that the people of Israel in most desperate times would cry out to the Lord for salvation. And the Lord would send a judge, a savior, to rescue the people from foreign oppression. In Ezra’s time we find the people again under foreign domination, this time by the Babylonians. And through Cyrus of the Persians, the Lord frees his people.
This Babylonian Captivity was probably the longest time of foreign oppression in Israel’s history, other than the 400 years in Egypt. But the Lord saved His people from that long oppression. He is faithful. And in our times we can trust that the Lord continues to guard and protect His people. Cycles of virus pandemics may come and go, but God remains faithful forever.
Consideration 2. God works His purposes even through unbelievers.
Second, let us consider the fact that God works His purposes even through unbelievers.
God works in mysteries ways. Who would have thought that the Persians would be the earthly saviors of the Jews? The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus.
In our times, God can work His purposes even through President Trump and Governor Cuomo. I do not intend to be making a judgment as to whether these men are believers or not. I do not know. But I do know that these politicians, like many others, have many detractors.
But we, as Christians, knowing that God works His purposes even through these officials, we should trust in what the Lord is doing, obey the laws of our land so long as they do not conflict with God’s law in the Bible, and we should temper our criticisms. We can all be thankful not to be officials in this period of time. Very difficult decisions had to be made. We each have made these decisions on our own levels; imagine how difficult it is to make the decisions to open or close at the State or National level.
Consideration 3. Let us more greatly desire to worship the Lord.
Lastly, Over the past three months I had numerous conversations with you, the people of this church. And what I saw was an increasing desire to worship the Lord. We should learn through this experience the great privilege we have in coming to worship the Lord. And, I pray, that we each will give greater priority to worship than ever before, knowing the joy that it is, and knowing the pain that comes from not regularly meeting with the body of Christ.
So let us more greatly desire to worship the Lord.
Consider how great the desire was for the Jews to rebuild the temple and again worship the Lord there.
Rebuilding the temple was their highest priority, even before rebuilding their own houses! (Nehemiah 7:4)
Let us do the same. Praising our God who is faithful, we are to prioritize our lives for His glory and thanking him for bringing us to return to worship this morning. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.