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Return From Exile: A Metaphor For Life

(Here’s a message that I preached at CrossRoads on 3/6/11.  You can listen to it here if you prefer.)

Whatever it takes, we are going to conclude our series looking at the history of Israel and Judah.  A quick review, Israel and Judah separated into 2 nations.  Israel turned from God and were overrun by the Babylonians.  Later, Judah turned from God and then they were overrun by the Babylonians.  When the Babylonians and Nebuchadnezzar overtook Israel and Judah, they exiled the people and scattered them to different parts of their empire.

Today, we are going to look at the Return From Exile.

When Joe and I plotted out this series and when he told me the sections I would be covering, I thought nothing of doing one single sermon on the Return From Exile.  Then, as I read further, I began to realize that the Return From Exile encompasses the following books of the bible:  parts of Isaiah, parts of 2nd Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and at least Zechariah.  I have never preached a message on one entire book of the bible, much less five or six books of the Bible.

This could be one long message.

Rather than hit on every single one of those books, we’re going to focus as much as we can on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which specifically focus on the Return.  I am going to give you the cliff notes version of the Return from Exile and then we’ll examine some themes that emerge from the return.  In your bulletin, there is an outline of the return so that when you go home and read these books, which you will, you will have a little guidance on what is happening.

Without any further ado, the Return From Exile.

THE RETURN FROM CAPTIVITY

The timeline:  As I already stated, Israel, the 10 northern tribes, were the first to be exiled.  135 years later, Judah, comprising the 2 southern tribes, would be exiled as well.

Judah would be in exile for 70 years.  If we do the math, that means that Israel had been in exile 205 years.

When the Return From Exile took place, it occurred in 3 stages over a 100 year period.  Now that I’ve confused you with numbers, I’m going to start throwing names at you.

Stage one would be led by Sheshbezzar, Zerubabel, and Joshua.  Their focus would be on rebuilding the Temple.  Eighty years later, Ezra would lead the second stage and his focus would be on spiritual and religious reform.  Then, thirteen years after that, Nehemiah would lead the third and final return and he would focus on rebuilding the city’s walls.

That’s the cliff-notes cliff notes version, but now let’s look at some of the details.

The return is set in motion by the demise of one nation and the rise of another.  Persia, led by Cyrus, emerged as a power and overthrew the Babylonian empire.  The areas known as Israel and Judah are under the control of Persia.

In the first year of Cyrus’ reign, he issued a unique decree.  It is interesting to note that this decree is found word for word as the end of 2nd chronicles and at the beginning of Ezra.  Word for word.

In 2nd Chronicles, 36.22-23, “22 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 also to put it in writing:23 “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. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the LORD their God be with them.’”

God had moved the heart of a Persian King to decree that any person of Hebrew descent could return to Jerusalem.

So began the first return from exile.

In Ezra 1.5, “5 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.”

Any person of Hebrew descent can return, anyone from any of the 12 tribes, but only those from Judah and Benjamin are interested in returning.

As Sheshbezzar, Zerubabel, and Joshua prepared to lead about 50,000 people back to Jerusalem, Cyrus also gave them everything that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple so they could use it when they rebuild the temple.  When they arrive, they immediately set about rebuilding the temple.  As soon as they have laid the foundation for the temple, they decide to have a worship service and they gather everyone together to celebrate what has been accomplished.

In Ezra 3:11, “11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD:“He is good; his love toward 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. 12 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. 13 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.

Some people think “this is great, this is awesome, we are finally back,” and then there are those who were around for the previous temple, who knew what it had looked like, and this temple pales in comparison.  They’ve waited and endured so long for this thing.

As soon as they had gathered some momentum, some of their enemies began to increase their efforts to keep Judah from returning to any sort of prominence.

In Ezra 4.4-5, “4 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. 5 They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

Their enemies go all out in their efforts to bring an end to this work, so they appeal to the King, since Cyrus has passed away.  The King demands that the work on the temple come to a stop and he sends his associates to enforce this new decree, which they do.

In Ezra 4.24, “24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

For sixteen years the people stopped working on the temple, and instead they spent their time working on their own homes.  Enter Haggai and Zechariah the prophets.

In Ezra 5.1-2, “1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.

Here’s a taste of how Haggai began his message.

In Haggai 1.2, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, these people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.  The then word of the lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet.  “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house (the temple) lies in ruins?”

With the “inspiration” of these two prophets, the people once again went to work on the Temple.  Opposition would come again, but this time they would keep working.  The writers tells us, Ezra 5.5, “the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews.”

Their enemies tried to get Darius to put an end to this work again, but this time Judah reminded Darius that Cyrus had approved this rebuilding.   Once Darius confirmed that fact, he reversed his decision and allowed the rebuilding of the temple to continue.  And finally, twenty years after they first arrived in Jerusalem, the people finished the temple.

It would be nearly sixty years from then, nearly eighty years from the start of the first return, when the second return, led by Ezra, would take place.

How Ezra, a priest and a teacher, came to lead this second return is unknown to us.  All we are told is that King Artaxerxes, another Persian King, sent Ezra to Jerusalem to teach the people the word of God.  Think about that for a second.  A non-Jewish King sent a Jewish priest and teacher to Jerusalem to teach them about God.  Ezra has only one explanation for why this occurred.

In Ezra 7.27,  “27 Praise be to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way 28 and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.”

There is a phrase that you will see again and again from Ezra, “the hand of the LORD my God was on me.”

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was shocked at what he found.  A number of people who had been part of that first return, who had seen what God had done, but had begun to intermarry with people of other nationalities and who had become devoted to people of other religions and had begun to turn away from God.

Shocked at what he saw, Ezra uttered this prayer in Ezra 9:6, “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. 7 From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.8 “But now, for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. 9 Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.10 “But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’13 “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. 14 Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? 15 LORD, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”

The people then recognize their sin, confess their sins, and then go about dealing with the issue.  We don’t know how they dealt with the issue, because they don’t tell us.

In Ezra 10.16 “Ezra the priest selected men who were family heads, one from each family division, and all of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to investigate the cases, 17 and by the first day of the first month they finished dealing with all the men who had married foreign women.”

Finished.  Done.  We don’t get the details, but we are left with the impression that the people have returned to God and once again begun to live for him.  This marks an end to the second return.

From the end of Ezra to the beginning of Nehemiah, which details the third return from exile, 13 years have passed.

Whereas we don’t know how it is that Ezra came to go to Jerusalem, we are given a first person account from Nehemiah.

Nehemiah had risen to a position of prominence and influence as he worked in the royal court of Artaxerxes as his cupbearer.  His brother had gone to Jerusalem and returned to tell Nehemiah what he saw.

In Nehemiah 1.3, “3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

After a time of prayer and fasting about what to do, Nehemiah made his case to Artaxerxes.  Nehemiah wanted to lead a group back to help rebuild the city walls.  Put this in perspective.  The first group, led by Sheshbezzar, rebuilt the temple.  The second group, led by Ezra, initiated religious and spiritual reforms among the people.  The third group, led by Nehemiah, would rebuild the city walls.

Artaxerxes agreed with the request and gave permission as well as supplies to Nehemiah to go and rebuild the city walls.

As Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and began this process, opposition once again arose to their work.  The enemies made noise that they might attack the people.  Nehemiah would not be deterred.

In Nehemiah 4.13,  “13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.  16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.

Despite the opposition, they were able to rebuild the city walls.  Once the walls had been rebuilt, Ezra re-appeared on the scene.  They gathered everyone together and listened as Ezra read the Book of the Law, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, from morning until noon.  As he read those books, the people again realized how they turned away from God, they confessed their sins, and once more they committed themselves to God.  Except this time, they put it in writing and the leaders sealed their names to it.  “This time, we mean it.”

With his job finished, Nehemiah returned to his job with Artaxerxes.  After a period of time, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to check on the city and the people.  Although they’d said, “This time, we mean it,” once more the people had turned their backs on God- they didn’t honor the sabbath, they didn’t maintain the temple, they intermarried with other nationalities, and they worshipped other Gods.  In Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah initiated religious and spiritual reform again.

And that is how the book of Nehemiah ended.  This is how the story of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament comes to an end.  They would remain like this for the next few hundred years.  Except for a very brief period of time they were not a free country, but rather they would be ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans.  This is the culture in which Jesus would be born.

So how does this story about a nation sent into exile and their return have any application to our lives in America in 2011?  What lessons can we take from this?

Many of us can probably identify with this feeling of being in “exile.”

On one level, the Bible teaches that every one of us is at one in exile from God.  We are far from God.  The good news is that Jesus Christ came to bridge that gap so that we would no longer be exiled from God.  By believing and following Jesus, we are no longer exiled from God.

On another level, there are other ways we may feel in exile.  Emotionally.  Spiritually.  Perhaps it’s a relationship.  Or maybe someone we know and love is far from God.

Perhaps that feeling of exile comes from a calling of God that just isn’t happening at this time.

Or maybe God has put a particular ambition or dream or desire within our hearts and it feels like it is in exile.

This past week, Seth Godin released his new book, Poke the Box, which is a phenomenal and inspirational book.  It’s about go and do and start something.

But in the situations we are talking about, if we could do something, we would do something.  In this exile, we can’t do anything about it.  We need God to do something.

What can we learn from their story?

TIME

A few months back, I had to go to the doctor.  After a long time in the waiting room, the nurse finally called my name and led me to the examination room.  Her last words to me were “The doctor will see you shortly.”  After 15 minutes, I thought they were busy.  After 30 minutes, I thought maybe they’d forgotten about me.  After 45 minutes, I began to think they’d forgotten about me.  After an hour, I definitely thought they’d forgotten about.

When we are in exile, there is a feeling of being stuck and forgotten.

Israel had been in captivity for 205 years, and Judah had been in captivity for 70 years.  While they were in exile, Isaiah preached about how the exile would end.  Someday.

I would venture to guess that for some people, while in exile, it may have felt like time had stopped.  You can imagine the people’s emotions, “When is that day going to get here?  Is it every going to get here?  We are stuck here.  Things are never going to change.”

Along with that, there is a certain feeling of anxiousness.  Although we might feel stuck, as if time isn’t moving, we are also aware of the fact that time is running out.  Instead of a real hourglass, we have a mental hourglass and we see the time passing by.  When is it going to happen, when is God going to move, because I’m running out of time.

The danger is that we give up.  “It’s never going to happen.  I’m just going to move on to something else in life.  I can’t wait forever.”

That is precisely the situation that the northern tribes found themselves in.  They had been in exile for 205 years.  Think about that.  In our day, that would mean they’d been in captivity since 1806.  Think about how many generations have come and gone since 1806.  The Israelites had given up on God ever doing anything, of them ever getting out of exile.

When God did move the heart of Cyrus and when God make a way for them to return, not a single person from the 10 tribes of Israel were interested in going.  Only people from Judah and Benjamin went, and then only 50,000 of them.

I’m not foolish enough to tell you to disregard that feeling that time is running out.  I have things I’ve been praying about for a very long time that still haven’t happened.  I can see the hourglass that time seems to be slipping away and I wonder, “God are you going to do something?”

When in exile, don’t give up.

LOOK

Here’s the second theme that emerges from this story, Look.  Instead of giving up, take out the binoculars, scan the horizon, and keep a watch out for God.

I don’t imagine that a single Israelite expected anything to change when the Persians overthrew the Babylonians.  Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that in the first year of his reign, Cyrus, a non-Jewish, non-God following person would issue a decree telling them that any Israelite who wanted to go to Jerusalem could go.

And it happened, because of God.

Again, In Ezra 1:1-3, “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 also to put it in writing: “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. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the LORD their God be with them.’”

God moved Cyrus’ heart.  After all this time, after all these years, God moved in a way that the people probably didn’t expect.

Look for God.

When the first returnees came back, got discouraged, and quit.  God sent the prophets to encourage them.

When people opposed the rebuilding of the temple, the people kept working because, as it says in Ezra 5.5 “the eye of god was watching over the elders of the jews.”

Through Ezra’s return, from his ability to return through his travels and his work, he acknowledged all of it being possible by the following phrase, “the gracious hand of God was upon him.”

When Nehemiah led a return, he acknowledged all of it being possible because God happened to be at work.  In Nehemiah 2.7, “the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.”

Even Nehemiah’s enemies took notice of God’s actions.  In Nehemiah 6.16, “when all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our god.”

As you wait for whatever “it” is you are waiting for, be on the lookout for what God is doing.  Don’t give up because it appears to be taking so long.  God sometimes works in ways that we don’t expect.  In this story, he moved the heart of an unbelieving King to let the people return to Jerusalem.

OPPOSITION

The other theme that emerges from this story is opposition.

When God does move, we should not be so naive as to not expect opposition.  Rather, we should expect opposition, because opposition will most likely be there.  I don’t think you can say God does or does not want you to do something based on whether or not you have opposition.

In the return from exile, they faced constant opposition.  Sometimes, it came from within.  “The new temple isn’t as nice as the old temple.”  People kept turning away from God.

They faced opposition from without.  In the first return, their enemies tried scare tactics, sabotaged their work, and appealed to Darius to have the work stopped.

In the third return, Nehemiah had to split the work crews up into 2 groups, one to do the building and one to do the guarding and the fighting.  Some of them worked with swords in their belts.

Whatever you are hoping and needing God to do, expect opposition.  If there isn’t any, great.  If there is, at least you weren’t surprised.

The opposition might come from within- fears and doubts.  The burden is too great.  It’s taking too long.  It’s too hard.  Why are you wasting your time?  It’s time to give up.

Like the israelites, the opposition might come from others.  It could be your friends, your families, your co-workers, anyone telling you “that isn’t possible or you’re wasting your time.”

CONCLUSION

In the midst of that exile, remember this, “anything, anything, is possible with God.”

So perhaps you’re the person is exile from God, far from him.  The good news is that Jesus Christ came to bridge that gap, and that by believing and following Jesus, we are no longer in exile from God.

But perhaps, there is a part of you that is in exile.  Emotionally.  Spiritually.  That relationship.  Someone close to you who is far from God..  A calling that God has given you that hasn’t taken place.  A dream or desire or ambition that God has put within you that hasn’t happened.

As you are in that exile, don’t give up.  Continue to look for God, and when God begins to move in your exile, remember that opposition is likely.

Most of all, remember this lesson from their exile:  Anything, anything, is possible with God.

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