History Part 3 – Coming Home
(Ezra 1:1-7; Nehemiah 8:1-12; Luke 4:16-21)
Last week, 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles told how the kingdom divided into two:
Israel in the north (with their capital, Samaria)
Judah in the south (capital: Jerusalem).
After a spate of awful kings, Israel was invaded in 722 BC by a superpower, Assyria and the survivors were taken into exile. Here’s a useful bit of information for later:
- The Assyrians carried off those they thought were skilled,
- They left behind in Samaria those they regarded as the ‘dregs’,
- And introduced a load of people from the surrounding nations, who intermixed with those remaining Israelites.
- So the rest of the Jews regarded these people with suspicion – not convinced they’re true
- These people were called the Samaritans.
So in the New Testament, when people don’t like the Samaritans, that’s why.
Meanwhile in the south, Judah lasts a bit longer, until in 586 BC a new superpower, Babylon, invades them and destroys the temple, taking the survivors into exile, in Babylon.
Nearly 50 years later, another superpower arrives, and takes over Babylon: Persia, under King Cyrus, in 539 BC.
- For the Jews, this was brilliant news. Whereas Babylon carried its captives into exile, Persia sent them all home.
- So in Ezra 1, we read about Cyrus’ decree, allowing the Jews to go back to Jerusalem (at the British Museum you can see the Cyrus Cylinder, describing Cyrus conquering Babylon and sending people back to their homelands).
- That’s why Isaiah 45 calls Cyrus ‘messiah’, because he performed a messianic task, i.e. setting the Jews free.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Jews going back home to Jerusalem. They’re like diaries, or memoirs from that era, full of eyewitness accounts and lists of names.
- Ezra: priest; scribe (royal administrator); mainly oversees the rebuilding of the temple.
- Nehemiah: experienced official of the Persian royal court; mainly oversees the rebuilding of the city walls.
- They face a barrage of opposition, discouragement and intimidation from their neighbours (including the Samaritans), but Darius (Ezra 6), a later king of Persia supports the Jews.
That’s a really important theme in Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther: we see how international events and the actions of world leaders have significant implications for the little communities of God’s people, for good or for ill.
- Under Babylon, the Jews are exiled.
- Along comes Persia, and they’re freed again.
All the way through Ezra & Nehemiah, their good relationship with the Persian kings means their survival.
In our intercessions we often pray for the world and its leaders, as the church has done for 2000 years, because the decisions and laws they make “out there” / “up there” can make the difference between:
- us worshipping freely and openly,
- or meeting in hiding for fear of persecution, as the early church did under emperor Nero, or the Russian Christians did under Stalin.
Never underestimate the importance of your prayers for our queen and government.
Three key moments to note in Ezra-Nehemiah.
(1) Ezra 3 – Worship Comes First
One of the first things built is the altar (Ezra 3), and around that central point they build the temple and worship is restored.
3:10-11, ‘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…they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord’, and while so many are shouting for joy, an equal amount are weeping because they’re so moved by it.
This says something powerful about the priority and importance of worship. The first thing Ezra’s people wanted to do was connect with God,
- because they knew their life came from that,
- and their identity was founded on that.
- They wanted to proclaim the God who had rescued them from Egypt 1000 years beforehand, and had been with them all along – even in their exile.
- They wanted to celebrate their blessings and express their thanks to God, the source of all that is good and holy in the world.
- They knew that whatever challenges were ahead of them, they could face with the Lord’s help.
- So they turn to him first of all.
There’s a lesson for us as a church – for any church – as we think about our ideas and projects, life together, our identity and purpose – do those things come from a place of prayerful listening and thankful worship?
What about as individuals?
- At the beginning of St. Benedict’s Rule he instructs his disciples ‘every time you begin a good work, you must pray to [the Lord] most earnestly to bring it to perfection.’ (Prologue 4).
- When we arrive begin our work in the morning, wherever the location, is our first thought a prayer that God might be glorified in it?
- If we can’t pray before something we’re about to do, what does that say about the thing we’re about to do?
(2) Nehemiah 8 – Understanding the Scriptures
Once all the people are settled in the land, Ezra gathers them together, and stands on a raised platform to read the Scriptures to the gathered people.
- This is exactly what happens every time we gather as a church – someone someone reads the Bible readings from a raised lectern.
- It’s an important statement about where our identity comes from, and what has authority in our community – we are people of this book, and through it, we hear the word of the Lord.
But Ezra doesn’t just read it.
- He interprets it for the people and explains it so that everyone understands it, and through that process they heard the word of the Lord come to them in their situations and circumstances, and it touched them to the heart, some wept, all rejoiced.
- That’s why we have not two but three readings in this service, followed by a sermon.
The Bible/ Scriptures, have such an important role in the Christian faith, of being
- not only a record of people’s experiences of God having spoken to them in many and different ways,
- but also as words through which God speaks to people in an ongoing way. They continue to play a role in the way we hear God.
- What part does this book play in your life? The time we spend in this book will be something of an measure of our spiritual health as Christians.
(3) Ezra 9 / Nehemiah 9 – Prayers of Repentance
In chapters 9 of both books, Ezra prays long prayers lamenting the fact that his people, even though back in the land making a new start, have deviated from their inherited identity and traditions, married foreign women who are influencing them to worship others gods – just what happened with King Solomon.
The prayers are heartfelt and powerful, but the drastic solution is difficult reading. All the Jewish men are forced to divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away.
- On the one hand we can see the importance of this fragile Jewish nation desperately trying to hold on to its identity and ethnicity after the trauma of exile, under threat of vanishing through mixing with other nations.
- On the other hand, we feel for the wives and children who are sent away – is it their fault? what happens to them?
- There might be a lesson in there somewhere about choosing carefully the things we commit to, and keeping a distance from the influences that might distract us from God.
- But I’m glad of the New Testament’s teaching that in Christ Jesus, all barriers of ethnicity are broken down and that the church is one body made of all nations – ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
Although many Jews went back to Jerusalem with Ezra and Nehemiah, some chose to stay in Persia. Esther is a story from that Jewish community.
King Xerxes chooses Esther as his new queen, and foils the plans of the wicked prime minister, Haman, who wants to have all the Jews killed, just because one of them (Mordecai) didn’t bow down to him.
Esther foils Haman’s plan by going to intercede with the king on their behalf – hugely dangerous because presenting yourself to the King un-summoned was punishable by death. But she goes for it, and succeeds. Haman is hanged (on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai) and the Jews survive, and the Jews commemorate it to this day with a feast called Purim.
It’s a story about the bravery of one woman who prayerfully risks her own life for the sake of her people. One day Jesus would lay down his life for all people, and said to his followers, “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
That is what Jesus has done for us, and he hopes to grow and nurture in us, as his followers, the same powerful, compassionate love.
Sermon By Rev. James Pettit on 12th July 2015