Reading: Ezra 1
Background We are continuing our series on Oddballs and Misfits of the Bible, and not only are we picking some obscure books of the Bible but we are also jumping back and forth between the Old and New Testament.
And so, it may be helpful to first orient ourselves with Ezra. Where is his book in the Bible and where is he in the historical timeline?
We are way past Moses and the Exodus, past King David; Babylon had taken Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple that Solomon built, taken the best of brightest from the land, and exiled them to Babylon.
For the Jewish exiles, this was beyond traumatic. They had lost their home, their land, and their Temple upon which their whole religious practice centered. What do you do after all that? How do you go on?
It was a hard choice for all of them as they lived in Babylon. The other tribes of Israel had been taken away years ago by the Assyrians, and they disappeared; they faded away as they assimilated into the other nations.
Judah and Benjamin were the only ones left. Were they going to drift away like the other tribes in exile, and forsake their special calling? Some did just that. They were able to rise through Babylonian society and make a good life for their family.
But there was also a remnant who held onto the faith of their fathers and mothers. Babylon could’ve become a graveyard for their people, their history, and their faith, but a miracle happened—Babylon actually became a time of great spiritual vitality and renewal for this righteous remnant in exile.
The stories that had been passed down from generation to generation, as far back as anyone could count, were finally being put down on paper. They no longer had a Temple to unite them in worship, so what were they to do? The Law did not allow for them to set up a Temple outside of Jerusalem.
This isn’t like a church that was destroyed, and you just start a building campaign and construct a new one somewhere else. No, the Temple could only be in one particular spot, in one particular city.
Instead of sacrifices in Jerusalem, adherence and devotion to the Law became the way to live out one’s faith outside of the Promised Land. And really, it took losing everything to remember what they had.
This is exactly what the prophets had warned about all along while they were living in their land. They warned the people that they had strayed from God’s path, and if they didn’t shape up, God would have no choice but to send them away from the land that he had given them.
But the prophets also promised that God would not forsake them. In fact, he was going to write a new covenant not in stone but in their hearts. And that’s exactly what the exiles in Babylon found—the remnant that stayed faithful were transformed into a people who devoted their whole lives to living out the Law. This was how they could continue to be faithful and worship God without a Temple.
And then, in the depths of this spiritual renewal, a savior arrives on the scene. Cyrus, the king of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allows the exiles to go back home. This was his policy for all the different people groups that Babylon displaced over their reign.
Cyrus was a gracious and generous ruler who wanted people to have as much autonomy as possible—he was even kind to the merciless Babylonians that he had just defeated.
Our reading today is Cyrus’ decree, and what’s so amazing in this document is that he even ensures that everything that was taken from the Temple in Jerusalem is returned to the Jews. Thirty gold dishes, 410 silver bowls, and the list goes on.
He wants to make sure that they go back to their home with something tangible from their past. They may have to rebuild their Temple, but they’ll at least have something from the original one to put back in it. Their past has not been utterly erased.
The story of Ezra can be broken down into two sections, separated by many years, and there are two goals: rebuild the Temple and cleanse the people.
Chapter one sets us off on the first goal, but for us today we’re not going to make it very far, so you’ll have to read the rest of it this week.
For this one Sunday that we get with Ezra, I want us to imagine what it must have been like for that first group of people who decided to leave the comfort and beauty of Babylon for a home that may have felt more like a second exile.
They had been gone for roughly 70 years. Only the oldest members had ever lived there, they were the only ones who remembered what Jerusalem looked like in all of its glory before the Babylonians tore down its walls.
What must it have been like to travel a few months by caravan up the Euphrates, and then west through the desert, until they make their way southward and arrive in a land they have not seen in a lifetime?
A land that was familiar and yet different. But even more than what they saw before them, they as a people were not the same anymore. Exile had done something to them, they had changed in that time—grown and learned so much while being away from their homeland.
And so, the real question they must’ve asked, and the one I pose to you today is: What is it like to come home and everything has changed?
I think many (if not all) of us have experienced returning to a familiar place after years have gone by, only for it to feel a little strange upon our return. Maybe it was coming home after being on a powerful spiritual retreat, or after the first semester of college or a year abroad.
Maybe it was returning to a beloved childhood home or a favorite place you had with someone who has passed away. Maybe it’s a spot you used to love going to before you and your ex broke up or showing your child a place you loved when you were their age.
What is it like to be in a place that is so familiar and yet you and that place have changed?
In my own life, it seems like there is some mourning that is involved in those moments. The world which I knew is not the same, but neither am I. I have the tendency to hold onto the past, to dwell in those memories (and maybe you do too).
But what does it look like to be informed by the past, but not defined by it? Maybe one way to think of maturity is that it’s the ability to learn from the past and hold loosely on to the future.
If we’re able to do that, then the present moment becomes more manageable, and it might even lead to a perspective we’d otherwise be too anxious or angry or distracted to have.
Exile was traumatic for the Jews, but it was not the last word for them, and it was never God’s intention that it would be his last word for them either.
In reality, God didn’t sit back in Jerusalem when they were led away in shackles. He met them in Babylon. He’s the one that inspired the people to take seriously the situation they found themselves in, to reckon with it and not hide from it. And look what happened to them? They were reborn.
God was with them in their leaving and in their return—he was, after all, the one who inspired Cyrus to let them return to their homeland. He was not the source of all their hardship, rather through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah God was promising that a new day was going to dawn on these exiled people, and that hope would shatter their darkness.
There would be a new Exodus for this righteous remnant.
As we journey through the Great Fifty Days of Easter, I can’t help but be amazed at the resurrection seeds that are planted here in Ezra, some 500 years before Jesus.
But it also reminds me of what God is all about. Even when everything seems lost, you can hear the faint drumbeat of new, abundant life in the distance.
I’m beginning to think more and more that we Christians share a commonality with the exiles who wandered back home after many years. We’re taught in our faith that in baptism we die with Christ and rise with him in those waters. We become heirs of a kingdom that is unseen, and like those in exile, we wait and pray that God’s promise will one day be fulfilled.
But it’s hard to trust sometimes, isn’t it? The knicks and bruises that we accumulate along the way, the trauma that we may experience—it can weaken our faith, or at the very least, we long even more to enter the land of our inheritance.
Nothing seems to be such a stark reminder that we have yet to enter the eternal promises of God as when we see the violence playing out in Ukraine and in the streets of Khartoum, Sudan. But it’s not even that far away with the seemingly daily headlines of people being gunned down in our schools and offices (and even when someone simply knocks on the wrong front door).
When you follow Jesus, the whole world is a familiar home that also feels a little strange.
As the singer/songwriter Jon Foreman puts it so eloquently in one of his songs:
“Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth Where every son and daughter would know their worth Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth.”
For the Jews, I wish I could say they entered the land and had it all figured out; that they quickly built the Temple and got right back to how it used to be in the time of King David. But that’s not what happened.
They stumbled their way through it. They laid the cornerstone for the Temple and those who remembered seeing the original cried because they knew it was not going to come close to the beauty of Solomon’s Temple. It then took them over twenty years, and a couple of work stoppages to even complete it.
There were political rivalries and lots of drama along the way, but their belief was that once it was completed, they could place their 30 gold dishes and 410 silver bowls back in their place, and just maybe, the glory of the Lord would return to the Holy of Holies, and they could once again stand at the borderline between heaven and earth, a thin veil separating this world from the eternal.
You see, they’re not so different from us because they longed for heaven in a place called earth.
You and I proclaim that the borderline of heaven and earth was utterly enmeshed and bound together in the person of Jesus, and we as his followers are called to point people to the promise that he gives to this broken world.
Because behind all the gunshots, the air raids, the talking heads, and countless advertisements, off in the distance there is the faint drumbeat of resurrection.
Wait! Can you hear that? Do you hear it?