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Making the Most of the Time: A Time To Rebuild
Ezra 1:1 - 1:7
May 17, 2020
Reverend Jason Harris
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We are entering into a new phase in this crisis. After two months of living under stay-at-home orders resulting from the coronavirus, many people are wondering how and when we can come out of this lock-down. We’re still facing a difficult road ahead.
On the one hand, we know that the virus has claimed roughly 90,000 lives in the United States thus far, and the fact that the virus appears to spread so easily significantly raises the level of risk to ourselves and others. At the same time, millions of people who have lost work or who cannot earn money by staying at home are facing financial ruin. And, the stay-at home orders are leading to unintended consequences of their own—such as a rise in domestic violence, child abuse, and substance abuse coupled with a mental health crisis. The isolation and loneliness that we all feel only compounds our struggles with depression and anxiety.
All of this creates the perfect storm. We’re dealing with a triple threat to our physical health, economic health, and emotional health—which no doubt will affect us spiritually as well.
For myself, I can say that I’m not always fully in tune with my feelings. Sometimes I’ll have to ask my wife: “Ashley, How am I feeling today?” Sometimes—not always—but sometimes she has a better sense of how I am feeling than I do. Some of you are probably nodding your heads because you know what that is like.
I am normally relatively even-keeled and do not get too easily flustered. But I noticed last week that I was feeling a little more anxious and restless than usual. I wasn’t sleeping all that well. Then I slowly realized what was bothering me. I feel a responsibility to come up with a plan and lead the church well through the crisis. But it’s very hard to plan when there are so many unknowns, and the ground continues to shift underneath our feet. The situation is constantly changing, and there are so many variables outside our control. But simply acknowledging that frustration and talking and praying about it—helped me reclaim a sense of poise.
All of which prompts me to say that if you are not yet part of an online community group, you really should join one so that—together—you have a dedicated group of people with whom you can weather this storm. And if you simply need someone with whom to talk or to pray or if you need counseling, we have a team of leaders ready to make themselves available to you. So please reach out to us. We are here to help.
We’re in a tough place as a society. Of course, we know re-opening too soon could lead to more outbreaks of the virus. But waiting too long will lead to massive repercussions of a different kind. So where do we go from here? We know that eventually we’ll get through this and the crisis will be over.
But the question is how do we get from A to B? How do we rebuild? I’ll tell you where my mind goes when I ask that question—it goes to an obscure little book in the Old Testament that most people never bother reading called Ezra.
I know, you didn’t wake up this morning thinking about Ezra, but what can I say?—I’m a minister! You may not know a lot about Ezra, but it’s a great story and there are a number of parallels with our own situation today that I think you will find encouraging.
We’ve been living through a period of exile in which we feel cut off from friends and colleagues and the people we love. The story of Ezra begins with exile.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up somehow I missed that one of the most distressing and harrowing experiences of God’s people in the Old Testament was the exile. Maybe it was too dark—too gory—for kids and that’s why they didn’t cover it in Sunday School. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know. But if you asked me to outline the Old Testament, I could list off the key players—Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David—but then it got really confusing with a bunch of kings and prophets whose names I could never keep straight. After David I would skip ahead to John the Baptist and Jesus. Somehow I missed the exile.
So, in case you are anything like me, let me explain. What’s the deal with the exile? The long and checkered history of the kings of Israel that began with Saul and David ended in disaster. The empire of Babylon, located in present-day Iraq, laid siege to the city of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar and then eventually broke through the city walls. They completely destroyed the Temple and razed the city to the ground. They captured the last king of Judah named Zedekiah along with most of the residents of the city. They bound them all—except for a few—and took them back to Babylon where most would spend the rest of their lives in exile.
The prophets had foretold that all of this would happen, but Jeremiah promised that after 70 years of captivity, the Lord would fulfill his promise and bring his people back home because he had plans for them—plans to give them a future and a hope. Isaiah said that only a remnant would return. But with that remnant, God would restore his people.
Now scroll forward 50 years and Cyrus the King of Persia defeats the Babylonians and suddenly the exiles’ fortunes have changed dramatically. And this is where the story meets up with our passage today from Ezra chapter 1. This passage reveals to us 1) a God at work, 2) a people restored, and 3) a temple rebuilt. Let’s quickly look at each of those aspects of the story and consider how they might apply to us today.
First, we see that God is at work. Verse 1 tells us that in the first year of King Cyrus, the Lord “stirred up the Spirit of Cyrus” so that he made a proclamation through his kingdom and put it into writing. This is a rather remarkable statement because Cyrus was a Persian who worshiped his own gods, but the God of the Bible is at work even in his life to prompt him to make this proclamation.
You might have your doubts, but this is one of those places where archaeology supports the Bible. Archaeologists have actually found this proclamation which is inscribed on what they call the Cylinder of Cyrus. This cylinder confirms what we read in the Book of Ezra and provides us with an exact date for when this happened—538 BC.
Notice Cyrus and the Persians decided to take a very different approach towards their subjugated peoples than Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem they decided to completely vanquish the people and that meant extinguishing their religion. They completely destroyed the temple and stole all the silver and gold vessels used in worship as spoils of war.
Cyrus and the Persians, however, saw this as counter-productive. It was in their own best interest to allow people within their empire to worship freely. So Cyrus diplomatically allowed his subjects to return to their sacred cities and to rebuild their temples. His only request was that the people would pray for him on a daily basis – regardless of which god they served. That is what we see here. Cyrus not only grants God’s people permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple but he returns all the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen.
Cyrus was clearly a pragmatist, and he had his own reasons for the people to return to Jerusalem. It would be easy to assume that God had nothing to do with his decision and we could write God out of the script. But verse 1 makes clear that – perhaps even unbeknownst to Cyrus—the LORD is the one who stirred up his spirit to issue this proclamation.
That’s what I find fascinating about the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. There are no overt miracles. At times these books may read a little dry and seem a bit pedantic. What’s with all the long lists of names and numbers and utensils? It would be rather easy to assume that God was absent during this period of history. And yet over and over again we are told that one imperial decision after another is quietly initiated by the Lord who stirs up the spirit of one leader and then another. And in verse 5 we read that it was also God who roused the hearts of each volunteer who decided to make the trip home and restore the city.
That’s a good thing for us to remember during this moment of crisis. At times we may look around and it may seem as if God is absent. There may not be any overt or obvious signs of his activity. We might think that anything good that is happening right now is simply the result of basic human kindness and nothing more. But Ezra would tell us to guess again. God is at work. We can rest assured that—as for them so for us—God is working silently working behind the scenes of history to give us a future and a hope.
This passage not only speaks to us of A God At Work, but also a people restored. In verse 4, Cyrus refers to the survivors. Let each survivor receive gifts from neighbors in order to speed them on their way. That word “survivor” would have reminded people of the word Isaiah had spoken in Isaiah, chapter 10: Though God’s people would be carried away into exile—a remnant would return. Just as God stirred the spirit of Cyrus to issue the proclamation, so God stirred the spirits of the exiles to return—not only to their homes but also to their God—in order to rebuild the community of God’s people.
What’s interesting is that in the past, the people of Israel were often led by a single, towering figure—like Moses or David—who seemed to overshadow everyone else. But in this book, while there are leaders, the emphasis lies not on a single personality – no matter how gifted or charismatic—but on the community as a whole. They understood. It’s going to take all of us to restore God’s people.
We’re experiencing something similar right now. As I mentioned in a recent update, with so many people coming and going in the city all the time, it hasn’t always been easy to determine who is part of our congregation at any given moment. This crisis has led us to try to personally contact everyone we can recall seeing in recent months in order to check in on each person’s status and address any needs. At this point, our list of contacts includes 650 people—and counting. All that to say, if you haven’t heard from us yet, please make sure we have your most current contact info.
One thing that we have learned so far is that many people have left the city. There’s still quite a few here in New York and many have only left the city temporarily. But there are a lot of you who almost literally feel like you are living in exile—you’ve been exiled from the city and you’re back living in your parent’s basement or over the garage! How did that happen? Many of you are trying to make decisions about when or if you will come back to New York. Your lease may be up soon and you understandably have to figure out if it makes sense to renew your lease in the midst of so much uncertainty.
But I’m confident that “the exiles will return.” People will start coming back to the city. And together God will use us to help restore the community of the church in New York.
The question that you need to ask is whether the Lord is stirring your spirit to step into the fray. We are becoming increasingly more aware of those who are struggling with isolation and loneliness and financial insecurity. So ask yourself: Is the Lord calling you to pray for a friend or counsel them over the phone? Is the Lord calling you to tend to the sick or to provide meals for the hungry? Or maybe like those neighbors in Babylon who sped the exiles on their return home with gifts, perhaps the Lord is calling you to provide the financial resources to meet the needs of our church and city. The point is we’re going to need help. And it’s going to take all of us.
But what I especially would like you to see is that when people started returning to Jerusalem, they didn’t just return to their homes, they returned to their God with renewed focus and commitment. Perhaps God has taught us a thing or two during our time of exile. Maybe the prolonged period of isolation has forced us to slow down enough to be able to do a little self-reflection.
I know that I have. I’ll share with you some of the things I’ve been thinking about. New Yorkers are notorious for being overly focused on their career goals and creative projects—often at the detriment of their relationships - and pastors are no exception. As a consequence of our drive and ambition, it’s easy to get so caught up in our objectives that we neglect some of the important things like our relationships—with friends, with family, and ultimately with Jesus.
For myself, I consider it an incredible privilege to be your pastor. And I want to lead the church well so that Central is a place—where people consistently hear the gospel and experience the life change that Jesus brings—where people form deep, lasting relationships with one another despite their differences—and where we all use our unique gifts and opportunities to serve each other and make New York an even better place to live and serve and work and play. Those are all good goals and godly ambitions, but I have to admit that I’ve got my perfectionistic tendencies which means that I can be hard on myself and I can get so preoccupied with what I need to accomplish.
I have been praying about how I don’t want to be like that. I want to be a person who is better at making time for other people. I don’t want to let relationships slip. I want to love people well. I want to be an encourager.
And as it pertains to my relationship with God, I’ve recognized my own poverty of spirit. I’ve realized that I am always so busy doing things for Jesus, that I don’t take enough time to simply enjoy Jesus. I’ve got to slow down enough to experience the truths for myself that I am constantly trying to share with you.
Those are some of my recent ruminations and perhaps you can relate in your own way. But what I want you to hear is that whether or not God is calling you to return to the city, he is always calling you to return to him.
And that’s what we see in Ezra’s day. God was at work to restore his people and to rebuild the temple. The magnificent Temple that Solomon had built had been completely destroyed and left in ruins. But God’s people began streaming back to Jerusalem to rebuild a sacred space in which to worship God. Ezra reminds us that this happened in fulfillment of the words of Jeremiah. One of the things I love about this is that it took 50 years for this to happen rather than the 70 years that Jeremiah spoke of. And Jesus promised us in the gospels that this would not be the last time that God would shorten the days of trial because of his overflowing mercy. Perhaps our time of trial will be cut short, too, and we will recover from this epidemic sooner than we think.
But this, too, has been much on my mind. How and when will we put this sanctuary back to good use? I wish that we could open up the doors and pack the place out today, but I know that can’t happen right now. And I wish I could at least say something definitive—like we can bring 50 people into the sanctuary on this date and 100 people on that date. But unfortunately we don’t have that kind of certainty either. Instead we’re going to have to be flexible as we try to rebuild our church.
A few weeks ago, one analyst introduced some helpful language to describe our strategy for dealing with the coronavirus. He calls it the hammer and the dance. The hammer refers to strong aggressive measures to squelch the spread of the virus. That’s what we’ve been living through for the past two months. The dance refers to the time between the hammer and the introduction of a viable and accessible vaccine. He calls it a dance because our strategy will depend on the situation as it unfolds in real-time.
So, for example, if the number of cases in New York continues to decline and some of the restrictions are lifted, then we’ll be able to invite more people into the sanctuary to worship with us in person—taking all necessary precautions, of course, in terms of wearing face coverings, remaining six feet apart, and implementing proper protocols for disinfecting the building. But if there is a spike in cases in New York and more restrictions are put in place then we will have to reduce the number of people worshipping in the sanctuary. We’re going to have be nimble and flexible. We’re going to have to learn how to dance.
But like those exiles in Ezra’s day, our calling is much larger than simply rebuilding a church. The temple was not an end in itself—it was a means to an end. They rebuilt a great temple in order to rebuild a great city. Likewise our task is to help rebuild Central in order to help rebuild New York.
Imagine what New York could be like on the other side of this crisis. Imagine the impact that Christians could have now if the Lord rouses their hearts to return from exile and serve the city. Imagine the lasting impact we could have on our friends, and neighbors and colleagues. You’ve got to ask yourself: What If? And Why Not? What if God used this time to reweave the fabric of our city for generations to come? And Why Not?
We’ve got to dream of the possibilities. We know that it’s not going to be like this forever. We will crush this virus. And we have to live with the end in mind. We have to anticipate the future in our thoughts and actions now. We don’t know how and we don’t know when—but we do know that…
We will see our friends again. We will go back to work and we will go back to school. We will go to birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. We will dance together at weddings and mourn together at funerals. We will see shows on Broadway and live events at Madison Square Garden. We will attend the Opera and hear the Philharmonic. We will go to MoMA and the Met and cheer at Yankee Stadium. We will walk the Highline and climb the Vessel. We will sip coffee at our local spot and eat out at our favorite restaurant. We will laugh with our friends and we will hug our grandparents. Maybe we’ll be even get a haircut or have our nails done! And we will worship and pray and sing—We will hear the gospel and we will celebrate communion—in this church!
But you know what? That’s not even the best part. All of that will just be a sign of something better still to come. Do you realize that the very same temple that the exiles rebuilt in Jerusalem was the one that Jesus said would be destroyed After all those long years of waiting and after all that hard work of rebuilding, Jesus warned that the Romans would tear it down to the ground just like the Babylonians had done centuries beforehand.
But Jesus told us not to worry. If the temple were destroyed, he would raise it up again in three days. Later, the disciples understood that Jesus was talking about the temple of his body. The true place where heaven and earth come together is in the person of Jesus. That’s why we can meet with God no matter where we are - when we worship Jesus in Spirit and in truth.
And though the exiles journeyed back in Jerusalem to rebuild a great city for God. That too was only a SIGN of something better. Jesus promised that one day he would usher in a new creation, and we would stream into a new Jerusalem. In the New Jerusalem promised in the Book of Revelation, there is no temple because the whole city has become the dwelling place of God. In that new city, heaven and earth will be one and God will dwell in the midst of his people. We don’t know how and we don’t know when, but in that city there will be no need for the hammer. There we will learn an entirely new kind of dance.
Will you please pray with me as we conclude?
Father, during this time of exile and uncertainty, help us to return to you with renewed focus and commitment. Enable us to see the ways in which you are at work even now to restore your people and rebuild your church, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
2 “Thus says Cyrus king 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, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. 7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.