If you were here two weeks ago when we last looked at the book of Ezra, we ended on a slightly scary and somewhat sombre note. As we seek to live for Jesus Christ and to build his kingdom, there is real opposition. We will be opposed. And sometimes that opposition will succeed. We looked together at the tactics that the devil will use to oppose us. We concluded that we must not write this off as scaremongering. They had to stop rebuilding the temple for 16 years, which was a very long time.
The question that left us with was what will keep us going. What keeps us building Christ’s kingdom? And what will make sure that things do actually succeed in the long-run?
Today, we’re going to find out. Today’s Bible reading tells how they did actually get there. The temple got finished. The book of Ezra opened in chapter 1 with the people being sent back to their own land to rebuild the temple. Today, the first half of the book reaches closure, as that temple is completed and dedicated.
God gets the last word, not the opposition. The people get there.
What we get here is the most spectacular turn-around after the apparent failure we had last time.
And if we want to know what will keep us going, this chapter will tell us.
If we want to know what will ensure God’s good purposes win at the end of the day, this chapter will tell us.
So this morning I want this passage to encourage us to keep going – to keep going as Christians, to keep going building Christ’s kingdom. To help us in this way, I’m going to show you the two things that ensured their success, and then the destination that they arrived at.
So, the first reason for their success: Preaching. Preaching.
The story runs like this. Chapter 4 – the work stalled. Then chapter 5 – the work restarted. What got them to restart? Verses 1 and 2: “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. 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.”
What got them building again was the ministry of two prophets – Haggai and Zechariah. We’re told that they prophesied. Take chapters 5 and 6 as a whole, they’re bracketed with two references to Haggai and Zechariah, like a pair of bookends. Chapter 6 verse 14: “So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo.”
There’s another word for what they were doing – preaching.
It happens we know quite a bit about Haggai and Zechariah, because they’re two of the Old Testament prophets whose prophecies were written down. There are books named after them. The last book of the Old Testament is Malachi, and before that come Haggai and Zechariah.
If you read Haggai and Zechariah, you find a lot more than just motivational pep talks. These weren’t the 6th century BC equivalents of TED talks, designed to get the Israelites all emotionally fired up. It’s not self-help confidence boosting.
Rather, they spoke God’s word into the situation. In particular, they let God tell them how he views the present, and how he views the future. In the present, God has a take on the half-built temple. 16 years is enough time for the weeds to grow up, the building site to practically disappear. God says that he is not honoured by this. They’re prioritising their comfort above God’s kingdom.
He also speaks into the future. “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house and in this place I will grant peace.” Haggai chapter 2 verse 9. But also many prophecies of Jesus are in these books. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Zechariah chapter 9.
If we’re going to keep going, we need God’s view of the world. We need God’s view of history. And most of all, we need Jesus. He is the living Word of God, the Word of God Incarnate. When we look at Jesus, we see what God thinks of life in the present. And we see where God is taking things in the future. The whole Bible is about him.
So we need Jesus. We need the Bible, which is God speaking to us about Jesus. So we too need preaching.
Last time, we said that one of the tactics used by the enemy to derail us is discouragement. He’ll sap our courage. Make us think this is all a waste of time, and we’ll never succeed. If that lie is the only thing you listen to, you’ll believe it. We need the voice of God to cut in and speak clarity and perspective.
One piece of Greek mythology was a poem called the Argonautica, which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts as they go to retrieve the golden fleece. They sail past the sirens, mythical creature that were half bird, half woman. They sat on the rocks and sang so beautifully that every passing ship was drawn to them, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks.
Jason and his crew survived. They had taken Orpheus on-board ship. Orpheus played his lyre as they approached the sirens, music even more beautiful than the sirens sang. So the sailors had his voice in their heads, and did not turn aside to be ruined.
“And soon they saw a fair island, Anthemoessa, where the clear- voiced Sirens, daughters of Achelous, used to beguile with their sweet songs whoever cast anchor there, and then destroy him. … And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens' voice.”
If all you hear are the many discouragements we face, your efforts to build your life around Jesus and his kingdom will be dashed on the rocks. We need to hear a more beautiful voice, that of the Lord Jesus, cut through the sirens.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that this is one great blessing of hearing the Bible preached. It clears away the fog. Clears my head, so that I come away seeing the world the right way up again.
Here’s the first reason for their success: Preaching.
The second reason for their success is providence. Providence.
That’s an old-fashioned word. It means the way that God is in charge of everything, and achieves his purposes, even when the human actors on the stage of history have other plans.
These chapters are bookended by references to Haggai and Zechariah – preaching. In between we see what made a difference humanly speaking.
In chapter 4, the work was stopped by a letter sent back to Persian HQ. Now, 16 years later, another letter, but this one is very different. These people seem genuinely concerned to enquire. They’re not raking up trouble. They’ve just seen the new temple shooting up, and want to check it out.
And God ensures it all checks out brilliantly. They tell King Darius to check the royal archives in Babylon. Amazingly, the document turns up in Ecbatana, King Cyrus’s summer residence. What are the chances that the needle turned up in the haystack where nobody was even looking?
And so Darius writes back. Not only are Tattenai and Shethar-Bozenai not to interfere with the work. They’re to fund the work, providing anything that might be needed.
The Bible books of Daniel and Esther both show God at work behind the scenes in royal pagan courts to protect his people. Chapter 6 verse 11 deliberately echoes those books. Anyone who gets in the way of Zerubbabel and the others building the temple is to be impaled on the ruins of their own house.
And so the temple was finished. Chapter 6, verses 13 and 14 sums up what’s just happened, and records the achievement. It was down to two things, verse 14: “So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia.”
Preaching. And the decrees from various kings of Persia.
It’s the most extraordinary turn-around of fortunes. It’s amazing how God could use a pagan king to carry his purposes forwards. It’s amazing how generous God is to provide the people with all they need. It’s amazing how generous the king can be when God wants him to be.
Now, of course, we mustn’t be naïve. There’s no guarantee in the short-term that God’s people will find the civil authorities to be our allies. We’ve only just had chapter 4. There we saw how the enemies complained to the civil authorities most dishonestly to get the work stopped.
But if we take the long view, we see here that God really is in total control. He will achieve his purposes. Nobody can stand in his way. Indeed, the secular powers will even be the instruments God uses to advance his purposes.
The best example of this is the death of Jesus. The ultimate moment of defeat. And yet, behind the scenes something else was happening. After Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples are being forbidden from preaching. As they turn to prayer, the look back on Jesus’ death as being just such an example. Here’s what they pray, Acts chapter 4, verses 27 and 28: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
When Pilate and the religious leaders thought they were silencing Jesus for good, God was the one pulling the strings. Through their actions, Jesus died for the sins of the world. The story ends with death defeated and Jesus alive forevermore.
In Iran, it is illegal for Christians to speak of their faith with those who don’t share it. For this reason, it’s illegal to hold church services in Farsi. The Telegraph reported in December that the Iranian government had arrested and imprisoned 114 Christians, just the latest in a long line. And yet, the church in Iran is growing explosively, faster than at any point in Iranian history.
But here’s the other thing that’s happening. Many of those Christians are fleeing, and seeking asylum in Western countries. And as they do, they meet fellow Iranian refugees, and they get to share their faith. I keep hearing stories of Iranians becoming Christians in this country. They meet their fellow countrymen, who would not be here if the authorities had not driven them out of Iran.
God will win. And he uses the activities of secular powers to achieve his purposes. And even at those times when they most think they’re stopping God, that’s when he’s able to use their own strength to achieve his purposes.
This is what gets the temple built. God’s providence.
And if we are going to keep going, we need to know that God is in control, because it sure doesn’t often look that way. Which is why we need to hear the word of God to tell us that this is how things work.
So, we’ve seen that God will win, and God will get us there. We’ve seen two ways he’ll get us there: preaching and providence.
But what’s the end destination? What God does use the preaching of his word and his providence to take us?
The answer within this passage is Passover.
They dedicate the temple. Then they celebrate the Passover. The Passover celebrated their rescue from Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Not only is it the right time of year to do that again – it’s entirely appropriate. He’s brought them back from Babylon, Exodus number 2.
What’s more, the celebration is unmitigated joy. Verse 22: “For seven days they celebrated with joy.” You might remember back in chapter 3 when the foundations were laid: Some rejoiced, but others wept. Here there are no more tears. It’s just sheer joy.
This rejoicing crowd is an international crowd as well. Verse 21: “So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.”
There was nothing nationalistic or racist about these people. They were joined by those of other nations who separated from their neighbours to worship the Lord, the God of Israel.
God had acted. God had brought these people. So they celebrated, with great joy!
The book of Ezra has been all about their efforts to rebuild the temple. But we’ve seen a few times that the purpose of the temple is more important than the actual stones. The purpose of the temple was to gather in God’s presence, to worship God. The physical building is the means to that end. The climax of Ezra 1-6 is not the last stone being laid. It’s a time of worship. A time of song. A time of feasting together in the presence of God. Celebrating God’s power and his faithfulness.
That’s the destination. That’s why God raised up preachers to keep their eyes on him. That’s where God moved in his providence to reach.
In fact, the important thing here is the celebration and the worship. The first festival at which they got to do that was Passover. So the heading for the destination could just as well be “party” as “Passover”.
This is the destination. And this is also a third thing that will keep us going in the face of opposition. We need to see God’s providence, that he is in control, but we also need to see the wonderful future God is taking us to.
When Jesus Christ returns, there will be the most wonderful party. It will be a celebration at which God is at the centre – celebrating his faithfulness and his power. It will be a truly international celebration – we’ll be joined by those of every tribe and language, every tongue and nation.
God in his providence will get us there. We need his word preached to keep our eyes on that. Then we’ll keep living like those who are heading to this great celebration, and we’ll keep labouring to build the kingdom, the people of the Lord Jesus Christ.