Summary: Ezra the scribe knew his people needed to prepare their hearts for the difficult and dangerous journey ahead. In this sermon we look at why we as the church are called to fast and pray together, especially during the season of Lent.
A FAMILY ON THE MOVE
For our family, there is rarely any experience more stressful than preparing for a trip back to Iowa to visit our parents. The kids are always excited about the prospect of staying in motels, of visiting with Grandma and Grandpa, of going out to eat at restaurants, and of taking a break from school. But for Marcia and me, a trip is a major logistical operation. There are bags to be packed, snacks to be bought, vehicles to be vacuumed and checked, and then there’s all the negotiation that goes with trying to figure out how to split our time between two families who live in the same town, so that one family doesn’t feel like we’ve spent more time with the other family than with them.
Then, once we’re on the road, we have to figure out where people want to eat and there’s always someone who suddenly has never liked the place we just picked, even though they begged for us to go there last week. And of course we have to make sure the dog doesn’t run off when everyone gets out for a bathroom or food break, and each time we stop, every single child wants me to buy them some little trinket or piece of candy. In fact, I’ve gotten so good at saying, “Put it back!” It all comes out as one word now, “Pudditback! Pudditback!” And that’s if everything goes perfectly!
On top of all that, there’s the added risk of a blown tire, or engine trouble, or those big Midwestern storms, or all the motels being full because of some conference, or roving bands of Nebraskan marauders. OK, maybe that last one isn’t as big of a risk, but the point is that there is always plenty of uncertainty involved in just going to visit Grandma and Grandpa, and usually by the end of the trip, we’re more exhausted than when we began. We end up needing a vacation from the vacation!
THE SLOW FULFILLMENT OF GOD'S PROMISES
Things weren’t any easier – or safer – for people on the move in the ancient world, and Ezra the scribe, the writer of our passage this morning, knew that. But Ezra was a man “on a mission from God” like Jake & Elwood Blues in "The Blues Brothers." Ezra 7:6 tells us he was a priest and “skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.”(1)
Because of his devotion to God and to teaching the Law of Moses, he poured over the scrolls of the Torah and the Prophets night and day, and over and over he read in them how even though Israel and Judah had been judged to be unfaithful, and so had been sent into exile, with the city of Jerusalem and its glorious Temple destroyed by the Babylonians; God had not forgotten His people, and He promised to restore the repentant to the land, and the Temple with it.
Nearly 30 years after the Temple’s destruction, this promise had begun to be fulfilled, when the Persian King Cyrus, who had conquered the Babylonians, issued a decree that the Jews could return to the city and the Temple could be rebuilt.(2) Ezra 4 relates how soon waves of returning families entered the land, but the plan to rebuild the Temple and the city was frustrated by those already there; people who had been transplanted by the Assyrians even before the Babylonians came to power in an effort to maintain control over their conquered territories.(3) They were worried about losing their lands and their favored position within the Empire, and so wrote to their governors and to Cyrus’ successors saying that in the past Jerusalem had been a hotbed of sedition and revolution, and that it didn’t deserve to be rebuilt.
Despite these struggles, for the next 40 years, small groups of people continued to trickle into the land from Babylonia, and Ezra. 5:2-17 describes how they, being inspired by their leaders and the words of the prophets, began building again. This worried the governor of the province. He thought this nonsense about rebuilding the Temple had been ended once and for all! But God was still at work in his people. They still had a mission. And as they continued, he wrote to the Persian King Darius to ask whether they had the authority to do so.
Darius’ ministers discovered an old scroll in his libraries containing the decree of Cyrus, and so Darius added his own – not only was the Temple to be built, but all expenses would be paid from the Royal Treasury!(4) Those who tried to thwart God’s work would now have to pay taxes to see it accomplished! And if they refused, the decree ordered that the supporting beam would be ripped from their house and they would be impaled on it. Those Persian Kings didn’t mess around!