God, Help Us Return to You

Ezra 3

Well, good morning, Saylorville!

If you brought a copy of Scripture with you this morning, and even if you didn’t, the words will be up on the screen. But if you did, go to Ezra, chapter three, as we continue in our series, “God Help Us”. Anybody here need help from God? Yeah, me too.

When my wife, Marilyn and I were dating some 26 or 27 years ago, we were both widow and widower, so we had a lot in our past. So we thought it’d be wise to go down memory lane. I visited her place and she came and visited my place… my happy place at 115 Locust Street in Waterloo, Iowa. I took her there, except it was not the same… not even close. The house was run down. The garage roof had caved in. It was grown over and in ruins. There was even a perception of evil all around the house and the neighboring homes. I won’t get into why. We were afraid almost to get out of the car.

When the children of Israel, the Jews, returned from the Babylonian captivity of 70 years, most of them had never seen Jerusalem.  (Only a very small percentage, the old codgers, and we’ll come back to them were the only ones who had seen the former glory). They had heard about the land flowing with milk and honey, the glory of Jerusalem and the temple, but when they arrived, it was not the same… not even close. It was run down, grown over, and in ruins, and evil surrounded their old home.

I had just been visiting my old home. They were going there to live. But… Where to begin? They’ve been away for so long. The place was in a shambles and so were many of their lives. If you recall, five out of six of the Jews stayed in Babylon, now Medo-Persia. These 50,000 or so… how would they return to God?

I wonder if the condition of the temple and the Jews describes a number of you here this morning or you watching online. You know of God, but you don’t really know God. And if you do know God, you’re far from God. And hence the message, God help us return to you. How do we do that?

The prophet Zechariah records one of the most beautiful declarations of God to his people that had gone far away from God. And here it is,

Zechariah 1:3, “Return to me says,” the Lord of Host, “that I may return to you.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Some of you need to hear that this morning. You don’t want to hear, ‘You wicked sinner! Look at what you’ve done to your life. And now all these other lives, look at the shambles all around you. It’s your fault.’ You don’t need to hear that right now. You need to hear “Return to me and I’ll return to you.”

But what does that look like, returning to God? To review, (we just started this series last week) you go to Israel. You just plop yourself in the middle of the Old Testament without a whole lot of contact. Let’s go back to the kings, after the days of the Judges, God gave Israel kings. He gave them three united kings; Saul, David and Solomon. They were kings over the United Empire of Israel. At the end of Solomon’s reign, the kingdom split. You had the 10 tribes of Israel [Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon and Zebulun] to the north and the two tribes of Judah [Judah and Benjamin] to the south. These years were disastrous years. There were no good kings in the north, and only a handful of good kings in the south. By and by, they rebelled against the living God. They turned from God through their sin. In 722 BC, Assyria assimilated those northern tribes and disbanded them. In 586 BC, in the third wave from Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar took the children of Judah (and actually there were remnants of all 12 tribes in that) and took them to Babylon as Jeremiah predicted, to 70 years of captivity. Then God would raise up, of all things, a pagan king. We talked about him. His name, Cyrus, is actually listed 150 years earlier in the book of Isaiah. God raises up Cyrus who takes it upon himself (he may not even be a follower of God) to release the Jews to go back from the area of Babylon, now Medo-Persia, to the Promised Land. [A map of the Medo-Persian Empire is shown on the screen with the location of Babylon in the east with an arrow representing the direction they would have traveled west along the fertile crescent to Jerusalem.] It would be quite a trip and would have taken about four months to get there. But here’s the point. The Jews had returned to the Promised Land… but had they returned to God?

Some of you have returned to church. Here you are. Are you returned to thinking religiously? You’re doing religious things. You’re thinking about God, but have you actually returned to him? Hence the title of the message, God, help us return to you. If you’re going to return to God in accordance with this passage in chapter 3, as we’ll be getting to it, it’s going to involve at least four things; rejecting, rebuilding, remembering and rejoicing. So let’s look at the text.

Ezra, chapter three:

Ezra 3:1, “When the seventh month came…”

(and that’s significant because in the seventh month you’ve got all kinds of festivals taking place including Passover and Tabernacles, which is actually mentioned here.)

1 “When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priest…”

(A little clarification… Ezra, for whom the book is entitled, is a priest. He’s not even around yet and won’t be for several decades, actually. Jeshua is the guy running the priesthood now, and then Zerubbabel. Don’t name your kid Zerubbabel, but he’s a pretty cool guy. He’s the governor, the one who led this trip back.)

“… and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen…”

(And now watch this…)

“…and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands…”

(We’ll look at them next week in chapter four.)

“…And they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.”

For God to help us return to Him, the first thing that has to happen is rejecting. If you’re going to return to God, you’ll do so by rejecting the sins that have held you. The children of Israel are literally held in captivity for 70 years. It was a four-month journey to go from the area of Babylon to Jerusalem. I say four months. It’s not like they were dating this idea. They weren’t going back [to Babylon.].

I’m reminded of Alexander the Great 200 years later. He would rise up and actually go up against the Persians. One of the stories about him says when he landed on Persian soil… (Listen to this military guys!) he burned the ships while they were in the the harbor, and he looked at his troops and said, ‘We must win!’ There was NO going back!

When God says come to Him, when you come to Jesus, (those of you who have and some of you who still need to) the Bible says,

2 Corinthians 5:17,”If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away.”

What does that even mean? We say, ‘Well, it means your sins are forgiven, you have a place in heaven.’ All that’s true, but practically speaking, what does it mean? Pragmatically speaking for things to pass away, I think, the answer to that is actually given to us by, of all people, Solomon in the Old Testament. When he wrote the book of Proverbs, he said in chapter 28, in verse 13, listen to this, he said,

Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,

but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

Have you ever read that? If you’re a person here who is covering your sin, even now as we speak, you ain’t going nowhere! You won’t prosper, you won’t go forward. It’s the one who confesses them, acknowledges them, and then forsakes them that has mercy. The great Southern Baptist preacher, Vance Havner probably put it best when he said,

“We cannot expect God to take away our sins by forgiving them, if we will not put them away by forsaking them.” Vance Havner

That’s worth repeating. “We cannot expect God to take away our sins by forgiving them, if we will not put them away by forsaking them.” Go ahead and say it, Wow! Does it apply?

Speaking of burning your boat, I worked very closely with a young man who, when he was really young, came to Jesus, then walked away from God. Then, through a series of circumstances, God got ahold of his life. One of the first things he did when he repented and turned back to God was he went to a house where (he told me just the other day) that a dozen or so guys were doing drugs… where he used to do the same thing. He declared to them, ‘I am following Jesus Christ. I still want to be your friend, but I’m not going to come back here and do this anymore,’ and immediately there ensued criticism and guys arguing with him. There were a couple of guys who said it was cool because he was doing what he wanted to do. His little brother happened to be in that group and heard him and realized then God was doing something in his life. It had an impact on the little brother who would repent of his own sin, trust Jesus as Savior and is now in ministry… Amen?

If you’re going to return to God, you’ll do so by rejecting the sins that have held you. What are those sins?

Secondly, by rebuilding your broken altar. You see that in verse two. They rebuilt the altar. Just imagine, they’re going to this place, and it’s a shambles. There’s brick and mortar all over the place. They would have had to clean it off to find the very place where the altar was. The Jews found the original altar visible in the remains, but that was about it. Here’s the point. Before everything else, even before the superstructure of the temple was built, even before the foundation of the temple was built… they started with the altar. I love this! I absolutely love this! Later on in verse 8, the altar itself is called, (Wait for it…) “The house of God.” The altar is called the house of God. Why is that? Because the house is where somebody lives. And God had said of the altar back in the days of Moses when he gave them instructions for the tabernacle, he said, ‘Build the altar,’ he said,

Exodus 29:43, ”There I will meet with the people of Israel…”

God meets you, he meets me, no matter where you are in your walk with God, whether you know God, walk away from God, or you’ve never known God… He meets you at the altar. That’s where you need to go.

The great Baptist Bible expositor, now with the Lord, Alexander Maclaren, wrote this about this passage. He said,

“There cannot be a temple without an altar, but there may be an altar without a temple.”

Alexander Maclaren

God meets men at the place of sacrifice, even though there be no house for His name. Today, there’s only one altar, the cross of Jesus Christ… Amen? And it is indeed called that. The writer of Hebrews actually says,

Hebrews 13:10a, ”We have an altar…”

…and the writer even referred directly to the cross of Jesus.

Listen to me. You can change a thousand things about your life, but you will never know God, much less return to God, unless you come to the altar, the mighty cross of Jesus Christ. That’s where God meets people… Amen? And by the way, you don’t need to rebuild this cross. Just return to it. Your life right now might be in ruins, but the cross of Jesus Christ remains upright in place and ready for you to return. I keep hearing the voice of God saying, “Return to me. I’ll return to you.” Do you want to return to God this morning and reject the sins that have held you? Reject them, and rebuild your altar.

Thirdly, you’ll do it by remembering God’s kindness in your past. Ezra 1:1 refers to the seventh month where so much celebration takes place. This is the month of Passover. This is the month of the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Look at verse four,

Ezra 3:4-7, ”…And they kept the Feast of Booths.”

(Instead of Booths, some of your Bibles might say Tabernacles)

“…as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required, 5 and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts of the LORD, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the LORD. 6 From the first day of the seventh month

from the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD. But the foundation of the temple of the LORD was not yet laid. 7 So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink…”

Eight times it mentions offerings that they gave… Why? Because it’s the first time they’d offered anything in 70 years! So they made sure they were giving themselves and their monies to God.

Historians tell us that in Babylon there were 50 different pagan temples. These children of Israel grew up around idolatry and sensuality. In fact, there were 180 outdoor shrines to the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of war and sex (the same goddess that some of you are worshiping right now).

Out of all these feasts, Ezra specifies one. Did you catch which one it was? I mentioned it a few times… the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. A Tabernacle was a tent. The greatest and highest of all Feasts is Passover, for sure, but the happiest of all is Tabernacles. That was party day for the Jews. It was a huge celebration! They loved the feast of Tabernacles. In fact, the ancient rabbis called the feast of Tabernacles simply “the holiday”. To this present day, Orthodox Jews live in tents during that week. They remember… the goodness and kindness of God during the wilderness wanderings for 40 years when God provided manna for them every single day. Thank you, God… Amen? If you’re going to return to God, you have to remember His kindness towards you.

Jesus addressed returning to God to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2. Remember the Ephesians? They had a lot of things going for them, but they had left their first love.

The very first word to them out of Jesus’ mouth is “Remember.” Now think with me on this, every one of you here. He said,

Revelation 2:5, ”Remember therefore from where you have fallen; Repent, and do the works you did at first.”

You’re not going to repent and you’re not going to get back on the spiritual saddles, so to speak, until you remember the kindness of God in your life. Remember from where you have fallen. Now think of that word “remember” as a point of reference. You should write that down. It’s a point of reference. It’s some time in your life where you began to slide backwards. It might have been something small or big. It could be something you looked at, a person you encountered, a temptation that you gave into. Whatever it was, there’s a time. Remember Jesus said, “From where you have fallen.” That’s a point of reference. You’re not going to repent until you go there… Go there to that time, and repent and then do the first works. If you’re a Christian in this room or watching online and you’re in a funk right now, remembering is the key to coming out of your funk! When the psalmist was in a bad place, when he was in a funk, he said,

Psalm 143:5, “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands.”

… and he came out of it, just like you will.

The forefathers of the Jews had spurned God’s kindnesses. They’d spurned his goodness. That’s why they went into captivity. For the returnees, remembering involved many sacrifices and giving. By the way, you show me a Christian who doesn’t give out a gratitude and I’ll show you somebody who might NOT be a Christian! Remembering can be the very thing that can  bring both great conviction, but it can bring you out of it as well, out of this muck and mire you’re in.

There’s an old hymn that’s a favorite, I’m sure, of some of yours. It’s certainly one of mine. It’s “Come Thou Fount.” Remember that one?

“Come thou fount of many blessings, tune my heart to sing thy praise.”

Remember that? The author was Robert Robinson. As the story has it, he wrote that hymn when he was very young and fervent pastor. Then, through a series of circumstances, he wasn’t walking with God. He had turned away from God. He was in a stagecoach with a young lady next to him one day who had the hymn in her hand and was singing it to herself. And then she said to Robert Robinson, “Have you ever heard this hymn?” To which Robinson said, “Ma’am, I’m the unhappy man who wrote that hymn.” Think about that. Remember from where you have fallen. Repent and do the first works. Remembering, not just from where you have fallen, but also remember the kindness of God to keep you from falling into the pits of hell!

Fourthly and finally, if you’re going to return to God, you’ll do so rejoicing in what God has done… Right?

[The Israelites] got the altar… it’s up. They outline the foundation… and look at verse 10.

Ezra 3:10-11, “ And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priest in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with symbols, to praise the Lord according to the directions of David, king of Israel, 11 And they sang responsively…”

(that means back and forth toward one another, like we’ve done here from time to time)

“…praising and giving thanks to the Lord, (saying) “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord had been laid.”

Hallelujah! It had been exactly 70 years since the first deportation had taken place and these Jews had been taken to Babylon. And here they are now singing to one another. Like Paul says to both the Colossians in 3:16 and the Ephesians in 5:19,

Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

Ephesians 5:19, “… addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”

Notice what it says at the end of verse 11,

Ezra 3:11, “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,

“For he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.”

They shouted with a great shout! Note the emotion here!

We tasted this emotion just a couple of weeks ago in those baptisms on Easter! Throughout the whole service there was music, and there were tears, and there was joy, and there was singing, and there was praising, and there was clapping… Right?! All of this was evidence of the saving power of God on full, irresistible display!

Spurgeon, before the worship of words ever started, wrote these words from Psalm 150, this great praise song.

[Psalm 150:1 , “Praise the LORD!

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in his mighty heavens!

2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;

Praise him according to his excellent greatness!

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;

Praise him with lute and harp!

4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;

Praise him with strings and pipe!

5 Praise him with sounding cymbals;

Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!

Praise the LORD!]

Spurgeon said,

“Are there not periods of life when we feel so glad we could dance for joy? If men are dull in the worship of the Lord our God, they are not acting consistently with the character of their religion.” C.H. Spurgeon

So here are [the Israelites], shouting and giving praise to God… How cool is this?!

But sadly, not everyone was clicking their heels, raising their hands, praising the Lord, and shouting for joy. There was a cacophony going on. That’s a funky word. “Cacophony” means bad sound. You want to hear it? You can almost hear it in these words. Skip down to verse 12.

Ezra 3:12, “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the Father’s houses, old men, who had seen the first house…”

(that Solomon’s Temple. These guys are probably in their 70s or 80s, okay?)

“wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid,”

(‘It’s not as big of the other one!’)

Though they shouted out loud for joy, so that the people could not…

(Look at how pathetic this is!)

the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping f  or the people shouted with a great shout, the sound was heard from far away.”

The old codgers… Do we have any old codgers here? (I guess I’m one of them.) Both Haggai and Zechariah, who were contemporaries of Ezra, confirmed this, by the way. They confirmed it was the old guys who were complaining. (‘I mean, it’s not as big, oh my goodness. It’s not like it used to be.’) I’ve got news for you. It’s never like it used to be! It’s true. This new temple would not be as glorious as Solomon’s. It wouldn’t have the ark. It wouldn’t have the Shekinah glory. It certainly would not have the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, or its splendor. In fact, it’s been estimated that if Solomon’s temple could be built today, the way it was built in Solomon’s day, it would be worth $8-10 billion. There’s was NOTHING like it!

God was NOT happy with these complainers! Through Zachariah who spoke to Zerubbabel (Remember… it’s Zerubbabel who led them here and led the alter and temple reconstruction), Zachariah said to Zerubbabel from God,

Zechariah 4:10, “ For whoever has despised the day of small things…”

I’ll tell you who… the old codgers. That’s who! It’s as if God was saying, ‘Isn’t it enough that you’re back… and I’m with you?!’ Amen? He’s saying ‘Rejoice!’

I get it, though. I love the past, too. I’ve been around long enough to love the past. And in fact, as we’re rounding the horn to this wonderful new construction to the glory of God. We’re even doing the outside of the church differently. I told our guys “I want to create like a time continuum of our church to celebrate the things that God has done.” Many of us have seen the iconic picture that was there on the north side. Many wedding pictures have been taken below the old [concrete] ’Saylorville Baptist Church’ sign. I envisioned cutting the whole thing out just like it is, and putting it on a stand to create this timeline. Wouldn’t that be cool? (Please, two of you say yes!) Because the response was, “That’s going to be cost prohibitive.” (groans) I don’t care how costly it is! It’s part of our past. So that was the plan. Until just a few weeks ago, when our administrative pastor came to me and said, “Pastor, I have good news, and I have bad news.” “Well, what’s the good news?” “The good news is your office is almost complete. You’re going to have not one, but three windows!” Yes! (I didn’t have any windows in my last office.) “What’s the bad news?” “Well, while they were cutting out the middle window, they cut right through that old sign and destroyed it.” Yeah, I was ticked! So much for preserving a piece of the past. But Abe’s point was, let’s focus on the future. You know it’s hard to move forward when you’re always looking back. I’ve said this in another message a long time ago. Concentration on the past is a momentum killer in the present.

These Jews were back home… Hallelujah! And, no… it was not going to be the same, but it never is the same. When someone says, ‘It’s not the same as it used to be,’ I always say, “I hope not!”

Saylorville Church, God has done great things for us and is doing great things for us… Rejoice! Some of you, like these Jews, have been away a long time. Long is a relative term… maybe months, and for some it’s been two, three, four years or five years you’ve been away from God. Why not return home? Why not hear God’s voice…?

“Return to me. I’ll return to you.”?

Some of you are outside the family of God right now… and Jesus is knocking at your door.

Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. He who will hear my voice, invite me in. I’ll dine with him…”

…eternally. Why not invite Jesus in to your heart for supper? A meal that never, ever ends… Amen? That’s not going to happen unless you come to the altar. You can change a thousand things in your life. But if you never come to the altar, the cross of Jesus, nothing’s going to matter. It’s all just behavior change. It’s not internal. God wants to meet with you. That’s where he meets with you… at his altar. Will you meet with him? Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You. Thank You for the stories of the Old Testament that point us to You and eventually to Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the greater altar, His cross, and glorious resurrection! We thank you for this great story that reminds us that you are a compassionate God, and you so desire us to come back to you. I pray for those in this room right now who would acknowledge they have slid away from you. They’re not walking with you as they once did. But they’ve heard your voice, even this morning say, ‘Come back to me. Come to the altar. I’ll come to you.’ If that’s you, dear friend, would you respond to God? I pray for those who’ve never been to the cross of Jesus, never repented of their sin, never believed on the Lord Jesus’ glorious death and resurrection. If that’s you, friend, trust him today. God, we give you the praise for all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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