If you’re trying to achieve something, there are many obstacles.
It might be a business, a community project, a building, a sports team.
Including being discouraged at the small scale, and little progress.
Including complacency from those you look to for support.
Including opposition from those who don’t want to see your project succeed.
The same applies if what you’re building is the kingdom of God.
If you’re trying to build up a church,
if you long to see others become Christians,
if you want to see Christ’s gracious rule take deeper root in every area of life.
The same obstacles can kick in.
Discouragement at small beginnings. Complacency from those whose help we need. Opposition from outside.
This is nothing new. The people in our Bible reading faced these obstacles back in the 5th century BC. Which means this chapter will help us overcome those three obstacles: discouragement, complacency, opposition.
But before I show us, let me remind us of the background to this chapter, and indeed this book, of the Bible.
Brief Recap of Ezra
The book of Ezra spans a period of about 80 years.
God had given his people a temple and the city of Jerusalem. But they’d been disloyal; they’d worshipped and served other gods. So, after many warnings, God sent the Babylonian army in. They flattened the city, burnt the temple, and took the people into exile.
50 years later, the Babylonian empire was conquered by Cyrus King of Persia. Cyrus gave the order that the Jewish people could go home and rebuild their temple. We read in Ezra chapters 1 to 6, how they returned. In spite of opposition, the temple was completed in the year 515 BC.
There’s then a gap of some 60 years. God doesn’t just want them to have the structures of their worship in place, a stone temple. He wants them to love him and worship him from their hearts. That’s the job of Ezra the priest. In 458 BC, Ezra leads a second group back from Babylon to Jerusalem. We read about them in the second half of the book, Ezra chapters 7 to 10.
As we’ve worked our way through this book, we’ve been careful to apply its lessons correctly. They built a temple, but we don’t need a stone temple. Jesus fulfilled the temple. Everything they needed a stone temple for, Jesus is for us.
But the New Testament then describes the Christian church as a living temple. One made not of stones but of people. So as we watch them build the temple, we learn about what it means for us to build God’s kingdom, his family.
Today, we hear of Ezra’s 900 mile journey back from Babylon to Jerusalem. The story is told in such a way as to encourage the people of Ezra’s day. They could so easily give in to the three great obstacles: discouragement, complacency, opposition.
I hope this chapter will sustain us too, as we seek to build God’s kingdom. And if you’re here today as someone who is still looking into the Christian faith, then building the kingdom may not yet be your concern. But there are some great lessons here for you, too, as you keep looking into all this.
God doesn’t need large numbers
First, then, the threat of discouragement. Ezra chapter 8 tells you that God doesn’t need large numbers. God doesn’t need large numbers.
Chapter 8 is all about Ezra’s journey back to Jerusalem. But three times the story of that journey is interrupted. And the first is a list of the names of those who returned. Verses 1 to 14.
And the main thing to notice is that there weren’t that many of them.
Back in chapter 2, we had a similar list of those who returned 80 years earlier, the first lot. Each of the family names here also features in chapter 2. But not all of them. So this group doesn’t contain all of the families we had before. It’s a smaller list.
What’s more, not everyone who could return did return. So some of these families returned in chapter 2, but others stayed in Babylon to come back now, 2 generations later.
But even at this stage, the whole family didn’t come. In verse 13, we read of the descendants of Adonikam. The 60 who came back from his family are called “the last ones”. That probably means they were the last of that family in Babylon. But only his family saw the last ones leave Babylon. All the others still had some stay behind.
And let’s look at the total numbers here. The history is older than Ezra chapter 2. The book of Ezra deliberately borrows a lot of language from the Exodus. The number who left Egypt in 1450 BC was 603,550. Ezra chapter 2: 42,360. This is just 7% of the scale of the Exodus. And now, Ezra chapter 8: How many? About 1 and a half thousand. And a few hundred Levites join them later in the chapter. A total of less than 2,000. Absolutely tiny.
And, yes, when this list says it’s the number of men, it does mean “men”. As we see in verse 21, children and presumably women are extra. But that was also the case at the Exodus and in chapter 2. So still, a tiny number.
And yet big enough for God to work with. Big enough to accompany Ezra on his mission. Big enough to see that the silver and gold reaches Jerusalem safely.
The names are divided into precisely 12 family groups. The same as the number of tribes of Israel. This is enough people for God to be bringing his people home, big enough to ensure the story of Israel carries on.
You may be familiar with the story of Gideon in the book of Judges. The Israelites were being oppressed by the Midianites, and God raised up Gideon to liberate them. Gideon quickly attracted a willing army, 32,000 of them. But God said this was too many people. He couldn’t save Israel with an army of 32,000. Only when most of them had been sent home, and he was left with an army of just 300, was God able to use them.
Time and again this is so. When Jesus returned to heaven, he left behind a group of 120 followers. That’s it. God’s plan to save the world and to build a church in the hands of just 120.
Jesus himself taught this. Remember the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13. The seed is tiny, you can barely see it. But the black mustard tree is the largest plant you’d find in any allotment. Jesus’ kingdom grows from very small beginnings into something with a global impact.
We often assume that we need numbers to make an impact. And we forget that God plus one is a majority. By God’s grace, our church here is gently growing. But it’s still very easy to be discouraged at the small numbers. There are other churches with many more people on a Sunday. Here we are, and whatever we set our hand to do, it’s the same people every time that do it.
God doesn’t need large numbers.
And here’s a take-home lesson for you if you’re still trying to decide if Christianity is for you. Don’t despise something because it’s small. Maybe you wonder: If Jesus was for real, would not more of your friends follow him? God often works with just a small group. Because that way, he takes the glory.
God doesn’t need large numbers.
God needs to use our gifts
That’s the threat of discouragement. Second, let’s look at the threat of complacency. Here’s the second lesson from this chapter: God needs to use our gifts. God needs to use our gifts.
Or, to put it another way, God may not need large numbers, but he chooses to need those of us he has got.
Here’s the second pause in Ezra’s journey, verses 15 to 20. Ezra realises that the 1,496 people do not contain a single Levite.
Who were the Levites? Israel had 12 sons, which gives the twelves tribes of Israel. One of those sons was Levi. From Levi’s tribe came two brothers Moses and Aaron. God set apart all the descendants of Aaron to serve as priests.
The rest of the tribe of Levi were the Levites. They had special jobs to help the people in their worship. They set up the furniture, the bread, the lamps as Israel worshipped. When they worshipped in a tent, the Levites had to put the tent up and take it down when it was time to move. They carried the tent and its furnishings, the holy things, to make sure everything was done properly. God set them apart for this special job. It was a privileged calling.
It would be a disaster if the group that returned did not contain any Levites. In verses 24 to 30 they got their usual job: They were to carry the silver and gold set apart for God’s temple.
Not only was it a disaster that there were no Levites. It was also a huge shock. A scandal. When Ezra asked for people to accompany him to Jerusalem, what would you expect the Levites to do? Shouldn’t they be at the front of the line to volunteer? This is the moment they’ve been trained for, bred for, prepared for? Finally, they’re chance to serve has come.
But, no: They’re more comfortable in the lives they’ve made for themselves in Babylon. They have families, homes, jobs. So they had no interest in serving in the temple at Jerusalem.
Having said which, those who do then come can be commended for their dedication. Ezra spends just 12 days gathering Levites together. And in that time, these 260 Levites make the decision to leave everything and go. That’s a big decision to make in under a fortnight. So all credit to them.
Once again, this needs care as we apply it. We don’t need priests or Levites today, because we don’t need a temple. But God had given all these people different roles in serving God’s people.
The risen Jesus also gives gifts to his people. Time, talents and abilities – that we can use in building his kingdom. The gift of teaching, the gift of fixing issues with buildings, the gift of working with children, the gift of caring for the sick, the gift of befriending people, the gift of a well-paid job that means you can fund gospel work, and so on.
So we all need to ask: What abilities do I have that I could put to use to help build Christ’s kingdom here in Kemsing? We’ll all be good at different things, and have different amounts of time and energy. But a healthy church doesn’t have passengers. What’s your part in all this?
Most of us won’t even be called to leave everything behind in order to use those gifts for God’s kingdom. But we mustn’t be too settled, too comfortable, to leave building Jesus’ kingdom to others.
And if you’re still looking into the Christian faith, Jesus is not just asking you to give intellectual assent to him. To tick a few boxes. The call to follow him is a call to roll up our sleeves, and to join in building his kingdom.
God needs to use our gifts.
God calls us to pray
That’s dealt with the threat of discouragement: God doesn’t need large numbers. The threat of complacency: God needs to use our gifts. Then there’s the threat of opposition: God calls us to pray.
Having gathered the Levites, there’s yet another pause before we actually get to Ezra’s journey. This time, it’s a pause to pray. Verse 21: “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.”
The people are about to embark on a journey of 900 miles. They would carry some valuable possessions. The gold alone weighted three and a half tons. And they were a small group of a couple of thousand, not really able to defend themselves. They were in great danger of robbery.
What’s worse, the king had offered them an armed escort, and Ezra had refused it! Why? Verse 22: “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” “God will look after us!”
Well, he would. And he did, as we find out. But that is not cause for presumption. Not cause to relax and know that God will look after us. It was cause to fast and to pray. And God answered, verse 23: “So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” As we’re about to find out, verse 31: “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days.”
The Bible is full of many very precious promises to God’s people. And yes he does promise to be with us, to help us, to sustain us, to protect us.
You might think there’s therefore no need to pray. God will look after us whatever, so why pray. Not for Ezra. For him, the fact God would look after them was an incentive to pray. God calls us to pray.
For an analogy, consider Jesus’ teaching to his disciples the night before he died. It’s in John chapters 13 to 16. He said that his disciples would experience trouble in the world. He promised to be with them, to protect them. He said this so that they might know God’s peace in the midst of trouble. In the midst of all those promises come these words: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
Jesus’ promise to be with us and to look after us is an invitation to pray.
Once again, there is the opportunity to register to vote in future elections. If you live in the UK, a citizen of Britain, Ireland or certain Commonwealth countries, and are of age, you can vote. Does that mean there’s no need to register? Of course not. The fact that you’re qualified to vote is an incentive to apply to do so, not a reason to do nothing.
It’s the same with God. This is one of the great privileges we have as Christians. Not only do we have a God who is more than able to look after us. He also gives us access to bring our requests and our needs before him. His power, and the access he gives, are not reasons not to speak to him. They’re an incentive to use the privilege we have.
You can tell how much a Christian believes that God is the one who can defend us. You can tell how much a church believes that God is the one who can navigate us through all the difficulties, through the opposition. You can tell it, by the way we pray, or don’t pray.
God calls us to pray.
Working to build God’s kingdom can be fraught with difficulties. But as we watch God at work in Ezra’s day, we see how to navigate some of those difficulties.
Don’t be discouraged: God doesn’t need large numbers.
Don’t be complacent: God needs to use your gifts.
Don’t be prayerless: God can look after us. So God calls us to pray.