UNFINISHED HOPE | Week 4: Unfinished Unity
Topic: Old Testament
Christopher Rich – October 15, 2017
UNFINISHED HOPE | EZRA-NEHEMIAH | Wk 4
Unfinished Unity | Ezra 4-6
Introduction | Unfinished Renewal
Good Morning Welcome to Damascus Road where we are Saved by Jesus Work, Changed by Jesus’ Grace, and Living on Jesus’s Mission. Today we continue UNFINISHED HOPE - Our Ruins His Restoration our sermon series looking at the books of EZRA-NEHEMIAH. The two books of Ezra-Nehemiah are one united text with three accounts of different leaders (Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah) returning to rebuild different aspects of the city (altar/worship, community/law, and walls/structure) facing opposition, overcoming, celebrating but then seeing the efforts backslide and fail. There is great hope when the process is going, but each time that hope is not fully realized it is unfinished. Through these cycles of recognition, return, rebuild, and regression we are reminded of the simple truth that Our efforts on our own will never be sufficient to overcome our ruins. They will always be fragile falling back to decay. The city has been decimated, the temple destroyed, and the people deported, and vessels of worship desecrated. God’s people have been in exile for a few decades, been released and journeyed from exile to Holy city retuning to a home they’ve never known. God designs the restoration in His people to produce lasting renewal. He doesn’t start with the structures or the laws, He starts with the hearts. The first wave was not the builders, but he brought back worshippers. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at building something if the object of and nature of your worship is distorted. How God’s people came to their own ruin was from worship problems, not a skill or ability issue. You want renewal, have right worship. These are saved, free people no longer in captivity. Right worship has been restored. Now endurance, discernment, overcoming adversity, humility and unity take center stage. They have begun the mission with some success, but work still remains and opposition is still at hand. The first of these cycles of renewal and regression comes when the unity of people and purpose is challenged and opposition threatens to derail the work God had given them.
PART I | Unfinished Unity | v4:1-6
Ezra 4:1-6 | Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers' houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
The beginning of the mission is cause for celebration, but the continual advancement of it has opposition. We met the “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” They see the mission advancing and they ask to join it! Previously you’ve seen in Ch 3:3 there was “fear of the people of the land” So how will this overture be received? Is it genuine? Because this section is a bit complex to both interpret and apply we need walk in tension open handedly, so let’s take this first at face value. The people of the land said. “Let us build with you” why? “for we worship your God ….as you do.” They’re saying “Hey we’re on the same team.” We’ve been following the God of the Bible since we’ve been brought here generations ago. Our traditions are the same/similar. They were making a claim on their doctrine. We want to join your mission because we serve the same God. This is difficult to discern their motives. Can we unify on this mission of renewal?
2 Kings 17:33 | So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.
This verse is talking about the spiritual heritage of those settled by Babylon in the area around Jerusalem. They claim the God of the Bible, but also some other gods. This is more than a coexist bumper sticker, this is like the gal who was an Episcopal and wanted to be a Muslim imam too. We’ve got great confusion over what worship looks like. So while they say they’re on Team Jesus they’ve got a bunch of other jerseys too. Can we build with you? No… none of this is for you. We’ve got this! We are God’s saved people who are a family on mission to together and we’ve been given a clear commission from God and the King for US to do this. We will do this alone. You will have NOTHING, no part, no cooperation/contribution in this mission. They were being shrewd in not wanting worship to be polluted, yet they forgot a key promise of God.
Isaiah 60:10 | Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.
Should they have rejected the help? YES! They’re maintain purity! NO! They’re working against unity! This is complicated because it’s not quite as simple as good guys and bad guys or stay on mission or fail. They were isolated in their mission. They missed sight of the purpose of the mission in the first place. The purpose is not to have a temple rebuilt or a church replanted but to bring people back into the presence of God who have been separated and corrupted by sin and idolatry. The exiles were practicing ridged cultural isolation. And I understand it. They had just come out of exile imposed by generations of not remaining faithful to God as they engaged with others. The mission wasn’t just tangible but was to build a renewed kingdom culture of restored worship. What an opportunity do directed them to the truth and disciple them AS THEY BUILD TOGETHER. Sometimes isolation is necessary for things to maintain purity, but sometimes it can cross the line and lead to unnecessary divisiveness and cause greater misunderstanding even mistrust. When is unity helpful or purity harmful? What unites us? What is necessary to divide over?
Sometimes we’re so focused on maintaining the purity of worship “sound doctrine” but become ineffective evangelists and insufferable to other believers because we spend so much energy in arguing with other Christians about doctrine (or even things less serious) we ignore the mission. Other times we’re so focused on maintaining unity at all costs and seek to be inclusive we can miss how the Gospel is exclusive. How do we navigate this? What should drive our decision making in this regard? We have Jesus as our guide.
Mark 3:38-40 | 38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us.
Kingdom of God is far bigger than we typically believe. AND is far more exclusive than we typically practice. We can and should unify around the person and mission of Jesus. We can unify when there is alignment and remain distinct where things are either unclear or noticeably different. We can remain distinct from a world indifferent or opposed to Jesus and unify with our brothers and sister from different tribes where we see our mission are the same. This doesn’t mean we are not unique and distinct church with specific in how we engage in the mission we’ve been commissioned to do. But we don’t forget the Great Commission to make disciples isn’t just the mission statement of Damascus Road but is to be the mission statement of all of Jesus’ church. So were we see others about that mission we cheer for them and continue on our part of it. Inside our church we hold our distinctions but welcome participation from those who don’t.
You might be asking yourself I am not sure if I am sold out to... XYZ… can I still help with the mission? YES!!!
Was this a mistake to refuse them? I am not sure. But what can we learn? Sometimes even with the best of intentions, leaders can unnecessarily alienate for the purity of the mission. I get this, we are only 10 months into this new season of our church. We have clarity on what our mission is and confidence in our commission to pursue the mission. But I believe, we could have been more intentional in including those who wanted to help with the mission. If you’ve felt, or know of people, who have felt alienated, please know the Gospel is big enough unify and we are always ready to begin again the work we’ve been called to do here. Grace overcomes resistance, and it make partners on mission who are unlikely in the world. Opposition is present.
Ezra 4:4-6 | 4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. 6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
So we don’t know if the people were adversarial and the leaders were just using good discernment to exclude them, or if the people were genuine in their desire to help and join the mission and became opponents after being so clearly rebuffed. What we do know is this led to great adversity and opposition for the people who were on mission. The opposition was constant drumbeat. It grew in intensity and even began to make it back to the king of Persia. By this time it was a new king, not Cyrus but Ahasuerus-Artaxerxes-Darius (The guy had a few names). Rather than the surrounding people being partners they were now problems. Being a in culture of opposition and hostility can begin to wear down resolve. Things shift from “we’re not for you” to “we’re against you” and there is a drive for the government to be involved. The outward hostility (some even that they contributed to) can easily turn to inward apathy. Work slows down and some is even abandoned entirely. There is a letter written to the king saying the people and the city are “wicked and rebellious” hurtful, seditious. If they succeed in their mission you won’t get any tax dollars from them again. They won’t be patriotic Medo-Persians. If you let this continue they will take over the entire region and you’ll lose control of this area.
4:21-24 | 21 Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. 22 And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?” 23 Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes' letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. 24 Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
You can create enemies unnecessarily by being too narrow. Opposition and hostility can lead to a more difficult mission but if we’re not careful it can discourage and derail it. That is the case here. Opposition is now official oppression. The work ceases for roughly 16 years. The mission had more than just slowed down, or stalled out, it had stopped. Momentum and enthusiasm that was present at the beginning is lost.
PART III | Renewed Mission | 5:1-2
EZRA 5:1-5 | Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.
People were reminded of the truth that God had saved them for a purpose, that the purpose was for restored worship. Restored worship required being on mission and working towards building the temple and community beyond their own self interests. Your houses are great but the temple is in ruins, time to rebuild! Deep apathy from systemic opposition can only be truly transformed to action through the prophetic words of God who speaks life into death. Remembering the character and promises of God fuel leaders to rise up, get to work, and call others to join and renew the mission at hand. This isn’t a manufactured man-made thing. God sent His prophetic word and this inspired them to be on mission. It wasn’t a great Brave heart speech it was a lot of “thus says THE LORD.” God speaks people, respond work renews, and the people around are starting to take notice because their mission is advancing. The come to them and say who told you, you could do this? Who’s leading the charge? How will they engage when challenged this time? First, they don’t stop working, but they are also graciously and humble.
Ezra 5:11-13 | 11 And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia. 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt.
We serve the Creator, the God of Israel. We’re the sons of sinners, but we know we’ve been set free and we’ve been called for the purpose of restored worship. So they know they serve God, but they also responded to the man made, but God allowed authority and said “search the Persian constitution.” They appealed to civil authority….civilly. They had been falsely accused of being wicked and rebellious, but when the government officials came and had to engage with them, they weren’t rebels, they were respectful. We see opposition was turned to favor, as God again moved in the heart of a King.
Ezra 6:7-10 | 7 Let the work on this house of God alone. Let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.8 Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God. The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River. 9 And whatever is needed—bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, or oil, as the priests at Jerusalem require—let that be given to them day by day without fail, 10 that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons.
Work renewed. You have an ominous cloud of opposition lifted by the light of fresh optimism shining through in the news of great favor from God directed through the laws and edicts of the Persian King.
God’s people were able to be on the mission they were called to by God AND able to navigate the environment around them. This could only be attributed to the hand of God. We cannot become discouraged to the point of disengagement. We need endurance, patience, and hope that the God who with His mighty hand has saved us for a purpose will also empower and equip us for the mission He has given us to pursue. God is faithful to what He has promised, we walk, we work, and wait in ordinary ways. We engage with the world around us with wisdom, humility, and resolve, while looking to God be the one move in extraordinary ways beyond our capability to bring heart changes, and provide what we need.
EZRA 6:14-15 | 14 And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; 15 and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.
Continued to work encouraged and empowered by God’s word through His prophets. They word of God was not a one-time event that reignited their zeal, only for them to take over on their own power and again say “we’ve got this!” God’s word was regular fuel to sustain their mission. It gave them purpose it also drove them to a place of unity with those that otherwise would have been outsiders.
Zech 2:10-11 | 10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. 11 And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.
These words reminded them they were not alone but with God was with them working in and through them. We see the mission was one of unity around right worship of God. That was exclusive in who was being worshipped. The Gospel is Exclusive. It was also attractive and inclusive of all who were drawn to worship our God. The Gospel is inclusive. The result is a people who experienced the truth that God finishes what He starts. The temple comes to a point for them and their generation that was “mission accomplished”.
PART III |Unity Celebration | v19-21
19 On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. 20 For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were clean. So they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. 21 It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. 22 And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.
There was a culmination of this season of mission. A hundred years had passed since God’s people had celebrated Passover where God’s might hand saved His people from slavery and captivity in Egypt. Here at this season it was fitting to restore worship in by keeping Passover for the same God had delivered them from exile. There is a congregation of celebration that was BOTH unified AND purified. They were connected without compromise. Verse 21 we see there are people who enjoyed the Passover feast who were returned exiles. We also see it was enjoyed by “everyone who had joined them”. There is no confusion that this was some great COEXIST temple where everyone got together but still held on to their previous identities, their previous idolatry. God will not be second. Because when He is second it means something less than or false has been placed first. Those who joined the mission and become part of the people of God sharing in the meal of God’s mercy and deliverance are those who had not just “joined them” but had also “separated them from the uncleanness of the people of the land” This is what is necessary to have true unending and uncompromising unity with the people of God. It requires repentance, turning from sin to Jesus. It requires renouncing your idols and self-centered identity. “I am no longer who I was that worshipped what I willed and join with those who were either unclear on where they stood or clearly hostile in relation to God.” I am now an individual created in the image of God, unified with God and His people. (Gal 2:20) This is the unified life we have exclusively in and through Jesus. The life we now live mirror the response of these people as we worship of God in response to who He is and what He’s done.
We see we have been made joyful by God. God intervenes in the hearts of men to overcome oppression even the opposition in our own hearts to God. And He empowers “He aided them, literally strengthen their hands.” us to live out the mission He’s called us to. So we have a unity that comes through remembering a meal of mercy, communion (Jesus in our place) where celebrate salvation for those who Trust Jesus.