Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
(no sermon note)
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
‘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.’
When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day,
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a dispute that arose between God and Satan…one of many throughout the years. As it turns out, heaven and hell are right next to each other and are separated by a big chain-link fence. Well, one day hell was having a particularly big party, and it got a little out of hand. God heard the ruckus and arrived to find his fence completely smashed by the wild partiers. He called the devil over and said, “Look, Satan, you have to rebuild this fence.” Satan agreed. The next day God noticed that the devil had completely rebuilt the fence…but it was 2 feet further into heaven than before. “Satan!” beckoned God. “You have to take that fence down and put it back where it belongs!” “Yeah? What if I don’t?” replied the devil. “I’ll sue you if I have to,” answered God. “Suuure,” laughed Satan. “Where ya going to find a lawyer?!”
Now keep in mind that I’m allowed to be a little hard on the lawyer profession since my own dad is one and I’ve experienced firsthand the life created by such a profession. Let’s just say it’s a profession that creates a lot of drama! I don’t know if it’s the wealth or the cunning nature of the profession that is the source of all the drama, I just know there was a lot of drama in our household growing up. Not unlike the drama shared between God and Satan. Of course, God ought to have expected that Satan would have something up his sleeve in his rebuilding efforts. That’s what Satan is good at! Finding clever ways to take advantage of others! I mean, come on, God! What did you expect?!
Luckily, Satan didn’t have his hand in the rebuilding efforts of the Israelites after they returned from their exile. No, God had full charge of their efforts as we heard in the encouragement and support of King Cyrus in today’s reading. Clearly God used King Cyrus as the key authority to release the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and set them about their rebuilding efforts back in Jerusalem. For weeks now, we’ve been listening to a variety of prophets warn the Israelites of God’s anger over their wayward ways. Several prophets, major and minor, expressed God’s anger in the hopes that they would change their ways and return to serving God and keeping his commands. Yet they persisted in their wayward ways until God finally allowed the Babylonians to destroy their home and temple and enslave them for many years. The Israelites were taken from their homeland and exiled in the Babylonian empire where they could no longer worship God. Not that they were particularly apt to worship God anyway! No, they were in a bad situation of their own making and needed some time to reflect on it.
God eventually showed mercy on his people as we heard last week as the prophet, Isaiah, shared God’s comforting words of hope and renewal. God hadn’t abandoned his exiled people after all. He still loved them and wanted to comfort them. Indeed, God never abandons his beloved children. It’s we who abandon him and get distracted by the temptations of this world. It’s us who stop listening to him! We are no better than those Israelites so long ago! We stop listening and fool ourselves into believing we can get by in this world without him. Oh, how foolish we can be! Thank goodness we are loved the way we are by our God! Thank goodness we know and are loved by a God who believes in second chances…in second chances and third chances and fourth chances and endless chances! And it’s not because we are particularly deserving of such grace. It’s because that’s just how loving our God is. Our God will always want to be in relationship with us and will do whatever is necessary to get us to want to be in relationship with him. Even if that means continuously forgiving us for our stupid, wayward ways! Our God is a good God! Our God is a loving God!
Our God encouraged the rebuilding efforts of the Israelites because He is a God of life. In just a week, we will once again celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And you may ask yourself, “Why do we have to celebrate his birth year after year? I mean, come on, it’s been over 2,000 years that we’ve been celebrating his birth! What’s the big deal about one person’s birth?” Well, on the one hand, we’re indirectly celebrating all that Jesus brought into the world, all the love and healing and wisdom and truth that he shared with us. In celebrating his birthday, we’re celebrating his witness. On the other hand, we’re also sharing his witness with the world. We’re sharing the spark of faith with those around us. It’s the beginning of a new relationship with God! Our relationship with God is renewed each and every year, like an annual subscription to your favorite magazine or organization.
The exiled Israelites were also given the gift of renewed relationship with God. Their hope was finally fulfilled. All those years of suffering and sorrow were heard by God and He restored them and all that they had lost. Their undying faith and hope were finally rewarded. God saved them! God saves us through Christ! Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13) In Christ, we are filled with all joy and peace and abounding in hope. This is the gift of Christ! Joy, peace, hope, all wonderful gifts from Christ! The words of Jeremiah no doubt resonated with the Israelites, “for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11) God listens to our hope, God delivers on our hope, God inspires hope. This is no more evident than in the coming of Christ, year after year.
So as we await the coming of our Lord in the week ahead, let us give thanks for God’s continued love and renewal. The prophet, Isaiah, said it best, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (40:31) Let us eagerly await the rebuilding of our Lord and Savior! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.