If you brought a copy of Scripture with you, you can find the book of Ezra. You might want to start with the table of contents, but you’ll get there, I’m sure, as we begin a brand new series, “God help us!” Can you relate to that statement?
Is anybody here a movie goer? What kind of movies do you like? Do you like thrillers? Drama? Do you like romance (audience laughs) or do you like what my wife calls ‘shoot ’em up’ movies? I don’t like those. (audience laughs) Here’s my real question. Do you have to have a bow on the end of every movie you watch? Nice little ending… Good guys end up good… Bad guys get killed and all that stuff… Lovers come together. My wife hates it when the credits go up and they haven’t even gotten married! It’s like, ‘What happened to them?!’ I said, “Honey, they’re fine.” [LAUGHTER]
I have a movie in mind, which will go unnamed. The actors are powerful, and the plot line just pulls you in right from the very beginning. It’s just a WOW movie to me, except the ending is so frustrating! There’s no real ending. It’s not the ending I expect anyway. Not that I want it to be a predictable ending, but in this movie even the bad guy is still alive.
I got to thinking about this, and I thought, that’s really reality. Isn’t it? That’s kind of life. Isn’t it? Life isn’t always fair… Amen? And our happy endings are sort of fleeting. They come and they sometimes go just as quickly. Do they not? And then there’s all that awful waiting in between, while you’re waiting for God to intervene, to do something. Some of you are doing that right now. You’re in that valley and you’re just waiting, and it’s so difficult.
Movies can be so misleading.
The Jews actually understood this feeling. They’d been to the proverbial mountaintop, only to return to the valley again and again, both in biblical and extra-biblical history. But it just reminds me that the Bible is a book of reality. It does have the greatest ending. Does it not? We all agree with that. But until then, there are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of mountaintops, a lot of valleys and a lot of anti-climactic endings… not a lot of bows. Take, for instance, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. (They’re just one book in the Hebrew.) Talk about anti-climactic.
I preached through Nehemiah years ago during another building campaign. Everybody preaches through Nehemiah when they do a building campaign.
At the very beginning of Nehemiah, the walls are being built in record time…  days! The enemy said, ‘If a fox jumps on that wall it will tumble down!’ Instead, [the Israelites] say, ‘We’ll put two choirs up there!’ Remember that? [Nehemiah 4:3; 12:27-43] In Nehemiah 12, you’ve got a choir coming from this side. You’ve got another choir coming from the other side. They converge in the middle singing to the glory of God, and the Bible tells us the joy of Jerusalem was heard afar off! Amen?! Bring up the credits! Except… there’s a 13th chapter. Nehemiah had gone away and when he comes back, he finds out that his enemy has an apartment that he’s renting out in the temple! They’re not obeying the Sabbath, and he’s got to implement all these things… What an anticlimactic ending! But that’s sort of how life is. Isn’t it?
God had raised up enemies to deal with his disobedient children, the great king Nebuchadnezzar being one. Through a series of invasions, beginning about 608-609 BC all the way through 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem… destroyed it! He destroyed the temple completely, and carried away all of those precious temple treasures along with a lot of key people (This would have been in the time of Daniel) who were taken captive to Babylon. Daniel was God’s man on the scene. He’d seen it all. He’d experienced Nebuchadnezzar, the miracles and the prophecies that came to pass. Then Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, was the one (remember?) who was having that drunken orgy in Daniel chapter 5, and God’s finger appears writing on the plaster, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN,” meaning ‘You’re finished!’ That’s what it says it in the Hebrew. That very night, Belshazzar is killed! The kingdom is overtaken by the new kingdom, Medo-Persia, and King Cyrus. All that takes place before this happens here in Ezra, chapter 1. That’s setting you up.
What happened is really fascinating! Babylon was considered an impenetrable city. It was a wonder of the world. You couldn’t get in there! The mighty river Euphrates went right into the center, under the temple wall and fed the entire city. In Daniel chapter 5, the Persians came and they actually diverted the entire River Euphrates temporarily! They lowered the depth, walked right into the wall and destroyed Babylon. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, when the great king, Cyrus, came and took over Babylon, the aged Daniel, who was still alive, presented to him a scroll of Isaiah and showed in the scroll, written (wait for it…!) 150 years earlier… Cyrus’s own name! Can you imagine?! Well, let’s just look at it. Look at Isaiah 44.
Isaiah 44:24-28, 24 “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who forms you out of the womb, I am the Lord who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by himself, 25 who frustrates the signs of liars, and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish, 26 who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, she shall be inhabited. And of the cities of Judah, they shall be built. And I will raise up their ruins 27 who says to the deep, be dry, and I will dry up your rivers, 28 who says of Cyrus,” (By the way, a lot of people think that’s a prophecy of when the Persians lowered the water level of the Euphrates and walked underneath the wall.) “He says to Cyrus,“ (See it there?) He is my shepherd.” (This is 150 years before Cyrus is even born!) “He is my shepherd and he shall fulfill all my purpose; saying of Jerusalem ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
Pretty cool, huh? In fact, within a year ( that’s where we’re at) in Ezra chapter 1, in 539 BC, Cyrus (possibly due to Daniel showing him that he is the prophetic fulfillment of God himself) took it as his divine responsibility to let the Jews go back and rebuild the temple of Jerusalem that’s all in ruins. In fact, there’s even a cylinder called “the Cyrus cylinder” found in the late 1880s. It’s a fascinating piece of Persian cuneiform. This cylinder describes his exploits, including his allowance to send the Jews back to Israel. Cyrus was not a Jew. We don’t know if he became a follower of God. He was just sort of inspired. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that Cyrus did release the Jews after 70 years to go back to rebuild the temple. So, Jews to this day, revere the memory of Cyrus.
They don’t just revere the memory of Cyrus. They revere the memory of President Harry Truman [as well]. Remember him, “The buck stops here” Harry? If you know anything about recent history, one of the most astonishing things that no one thought would ever happen was the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel. In 1948, when Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, signed their Declaration of Independence, they were now a nation with Muslim nations all around them threatening to push them into the sea. Eleven minutes after Ben Gurion signed that declaration, President Truman signed his agreement and said, “This is a nation!” That’s why they revere him! In fact, just a couple of years later, Truman was invited by his other Jewish friend to a ceremony at a Jewish seminary in New York. While he was there, his friend introduced him to the Jewish audience as “the man who helped create the state of Israel.” Truman responded and said, “Helped create the state of Israel?” He said, “I AM Cyrus!” That’s quite a bold statement! Wouldn’t you agree? He said, “I AM Cyrus.” Truman understood his Bible. He saw himself as a modern-day Cyrus, allowing the Jews to exist in their own country. This is where we meet Cyrus in Ezra 1. The year is 539 BC. The 70 year captivity is coming to a close, and God’s help for Israel would come from the unlikely source of a pagan king. It often comes from unlikely sources. Does it not?
Let me just say this. As our church enters the final stages of the construction and remodeling, we remember God has helped us… Amen? Over the past quarter of a century, God has taken this church from 300 to over 1400. God has saved hundreds and hundreds of souls and just as many have been baptized. We’ve sent out missionaries, we have started churches, we have created and expanded virtually every ministry under this roof, all of it only with the help of God. “Without Me, you can do nothing.” [John 15:5] That’s what Jesus said, not me.
Just the other day, as they were moving into their new facility and his new office, Josh Daggett, our second church planter, sent all the Engaged Network leaders a picture. Josh keeps records of everything. The picture is of pages of names, maybe even some of yours who were being prayed over to be saved. We were also praying about churches being started. This is a reflection of the beginning of our time in 2004 of every week fasting and praying for the souls of men and for the planting of churches. “Without God’s help, we can do nothing.” That’s what the scripture says. [Psalm 54:4] “Behold, God is my helper. The Lord is the upholder of my life.” Amen?
The book is named Ezra, but we’re not going to meet Ezra until chapter seven, about 80 years later. Our title is “God Help Us Believe!” Ezra’s name literally means “God helps.” His name was a perpetual reminder to him and to everyone around him that we need God’s help. We always need to be in that place where we’re not totally satisfied. We need God. When we get to a place where we’re smug, God help us evermore so! This reminds us that we still need God’s help to believe, to work, to trust, to grow, to repent and to obey.
Our theme and our construction is “Transformed from the inside (what?) … inside out.” If the inside of our building is not a reflection of the inside of our hearts and lives, then we are false advertisers, plain and simple. Our lives should be a transforming work from the inside out, like Paul who said to the Corinthians, “You are our letter… known and read by all.” [2 Corinthians 3:2] Have you ever read that? So with that in mind, Ezra chapter one.
Ezra 1:1-5a; 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 King 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 and goods and with beasts, besides goodwill offerings for the house of God that’s in Jerusalem.” 5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers of the house of Judah and Benjamin…”
By the way, remember this is Persia. It used to be Babylon, and it was Nebuchadnezzar who took Judah and Benjamin to Babylon. There would have been remnants of all 12 tribes, but that’s the reason they’re focusing here [on Judah and Benjamin].
5 “…And the priest and Levites, everyone who’s spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the House of Lord that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them, aided them with vessels of silver and gold and goods and beasts and 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 from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 Cyrus, King of Persia, brought these out and in the charge of Mithredath, the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah, 9 and this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver and 1000 other vessels. All the vessels of gold and silver were 5,400. 11 All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.”
So, based on what you just heard historically, how God worked providentially, and from this text, I want to focus on what happens when God wants to do a work. When God wants to do a work, he moves in the hearts of key people. He did it then. He does it now. You see it in Ezra 1:1;
“The Lord stirred up the spirit (I love that!) of Cyrus king of Persia.”
Many of you remember this story because I’ve shared it before. In 2005, we did a remodel of this building. We added a little section off to the north, and we were rejoicing that we did it without borrowing. At that point, we were a church of 500 people, and the most spiritual thing we could do is have a gymnasium [said facetiously] Amen? So we took up an offering for a gymnasium. it was so pitiful, I didn’t even tell the church what it was! It was so bad. I was so miserable that we weren’t going to get that gym. I came into church on a Monday morning muttering to myself (because that’s what you do when you don’t get your own way… Right?). So, I’m sitting down with Kevin Thomas, our counseling pastor at the time, who just said in passing, “Well, maybe it’s time we plant a church.” I wish I could tell you what went on in my heart in that moment! I mean, it was very charismatic like! I didn’t see angels, or lightning bolts or anything like that, but it was like, my heart was on fire! It was like God himself had stirred my heart! I said, “That is exactly what we’re going to do!” At the exact same time up in Elgona, Iowa, Dave Heistercamp, who I had mentored a few years earlier, had gone up there to Pastor a church. He had been praying secretly with his wife that God would open up a door for them to plant a church. He wasn’t even telling me about this, and we were friends! They were begging God because they’d run up against all these walls of legalism and stuff, so they were praying that way. On that day, in that office when Kevin Thomas said those words, I called Dave Heistercamp, and the rest is history! When God is going to do a work, he moves in the hearts of key people.
Secondly, he wills in the hearts of key people. God doesn’t just stir up our minds, make us emotional, give us the heebie-jeebies. He does something to move us. Look at Ezra 1:1b;
“…the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation…”
His heart was stirred. He issues the proclamation, frees up the Jews. Listen. When God is in something, it doesn’t just become an idea that gets kicked around. It becomes an action that gets implemented. Yeah, I’ll read that again. When God is in something, it doesn’t just become an idea that gets kicked around. It becomes an action that gets implemented.
Warren Wiersbe said, “Our dreams should be blue prints for action and not escapes from reality.”
Just the other day, I met with a man. He told me he felt that God was leading him to do a certain thing, And when that certain thing presented itself… he didn’t do it. So I’m wondering, was God behind this? The Bible tells us,
Philippians 2:13, “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to do for his good pleasure.”
Have you ever heard that? It’s God who’s working in us, both to will and to do, because when God does something, it’s not just an idea that gets kicked around. It’s an action that gets implemented.
Thirdly, when God is going to do something, He wants to do a work that’s his work… not mine, not yours, but God’s. He leads others (listen to this) he leads others to supply resources for the journey. This is a big, big deal! When it comes to us as a church family, when it comes to individuals, when they consider planting a church and all of the what-ifs and wonderments and all of these things, Proverbs 21:1 says,
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
Have you ever heard that? That’s pretty cool stuff. And that’s what’s happening here. Is it not? Remember the Exodus when God decimates the entire country? …Nothing left! I mean, if I’m an Egyptian, I’ve got no crops. I’ve got no cattle. There’s nothing left. I’m hoarding anything I can hold on to. Right? But God promised the Jews that when they went to the Promised Land the Egyptians would cough up all kinds of stuff… gold, silver, garments and everything. And that’s exactly what happened! Right? The same thing is happening here! Not only does he stir up Cyrus, he stirs up the entire Persian culture! It isn’t just Egyptians that are coughing up gold and silver. The Persians are! The writer of the proverb says,
[Proverbs 16:7], ”When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”
God never sends his people on a journey empty handed. He supplies what they need when they need it.
[Philippians 4:19] “My God shall supply (What?) ALL my needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Again, God will never send you on a journey empty handed. He will supply what you need and when you need it. You can be confident of that. This text teaches this.
We should have learned this from the great missionary himself, Hudson Taylor. His answers to prayer are just so worth reading and rereading. They’re so encouraging… extra-biblical, but so encouraging! He famously said,
“God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” Hudson Taylor
So take that to the bank! Seriously.
Cyrus, in Ezra 1:7, even brought out the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen 50 years earlier! So they even had everything they needed to rebuild the temple and get it going again.
Here’s the point. If God has called you, stop worrying about the supplies. (Did you hear that John Nemmers?) He’ll lead others to supply, and you can count on that, because that’s how God does things. And I praise God for the suppliers that he raises up in our church to make things happen… Amen? And many of you are a part of that.
Number four. When God wants to do a work… and this is really huge… he moves the right people to make the right move.
In Ezra 2:3-67 (and you’ll thank me for not reading it) there are a list of families. When you crunch all the numbers, it comes to about 50,000 (42,000 servants and singers in all of this) who return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament scholar, Walt Kaiser, did an investigation on this, and estimated that 50,000 left Persia and went to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. That’s one out of every six. In other words, five out of every six Jews stayed in Persia. What would you have done if you would have had an opportunity to leave and go back to Jerusalem? Would you have done it, or would you have stayed? I mean, history tells us that if you plopped a Jew down anywhere he would have thrived (Right?) wherever they were. It’s been 50 years since the fall of Jerusalem. Most of these people that were going had been born in Babylon! In fact, Zerubbabel (in Ezra 2:3) you see his name, “Zerubbabel.” His name literally means “planted in Babylon.” He was born in Babylon. It’s the only thing he’d ever known.
Sadly, that’s the basis by which some of you will stay here because, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything about that part over there. I’m not going.’ Are you kidding me?! We don’t stay or go based upon conveniences… or we shouldn’t anyway. But many of us do.
I remember when a country church with a couple dozen farmers asked me to be their pastor. I really struggled with it! I was so excited about the potential of being a pastor, but I was so worried. I didn’t know beans about farming (no pun intended), and so I was pleading with God as to what I should do! In my normal course of Bible reading, I came to Hebrews 11:8 which says,
Hebrews 11:8, “Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going.”
… and I knew right there and then God was telling me to go, and I DID go! But I had to do it against all of my personal proclivities (which is what we do when God is moving us). Moving for God should never be based on WHAT you know but WHO you know.
It was years earlier that Jeremiah the prophet (alluded to here early on) in Jeremiah 29:4-7 told the Jews when they got deported to Babylon, ‘Get used to living there. You’re going to be there for a while.’ He said, ‘Build houses, get married, have kids, make money, thrive!’… and thrive they did, so much so, that most of them (five out of six) decided, ‘I’m not going back [to Jerusalem].’ By the way, before you criticize them for not going back, consider this. The Bible doesn’t. The Bible does not criticize them for not going. Why do I say that? Because the issue isn’t to guilt people into going or not. It’s to know where your God is leading you… Amen?
Genesis 24:27b “As for me being on the way, the Lord led me…”
That should be our calling card.
In 1 Samuel 30, David was running from Saul. While he was out warring , the Amalekites came in and kidnapped all their wives and the children (Do you remember that story?) and took them away. They’re going to kill David! But David got a plan together. He took [his] 600 men and went after the Amalekites. They’re so exhausted, 200 of the 400 say, ‘We can’t go any further. We’re exhausted!’ So David says, ‘Well, you stay with the stuff, and the rest of us will go after them.’ They do. They go after them and they capture the Amalekites and kill them off. They get every wife and every kid back. It’s happy days again. They’re back on the mountain top! They come back to the 200, and the 400 that went with David said, ‘We’re not giving them anything. They didn’t go with us.’ And David says, ‘Oh, no. They’re going to get just as much spoil as you, because they stayed with the stuff.’
I think when it comes to the choice of going or staying, when it comes to being a missionary or a pastor or helping out in a church plant, and determining whether you’re being led by God or not involves just a couple of things; your motive and your ability. Are you being motivated by God, and what are those motives, and do you have the ability? It’s pretty simple beyond that.
Not long ago, we were looking for someone to fill a position. I interviewed a man that I thought was the perfect fit for the position. He had the character, he had the charisma. I thought he was the guy. We were just in sync with each other. I was all but certain he would say, ‘Yes, let’s take this to the next level!’ Then I called him back, and I said, “What do you think?” He said, “Pat, I’d love to come to Saylorville. This would be such an awesome opportunity… but we’re not going to go.” I said, “Well… why?” He said, “… because we would have to leave family living in this area.” So I said, (because I’m such an encourager) “Bad answer!” Jesus said,
[Luke 14:26] “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Have you read that? Sure you have.
We’re on the cusp of planting a new church out of this church… Hallelujah! Eden Church! Amen! We’ve got seventy-some people… Praise the Lord! We bless the Lord for you. You will be missed. We will be smarting, but God will be glorified… Amen?! Meanwhile, those of us who stay with the stuff, remember, the light that shines the farthest shines the brightest right here at home, or at least it should. That’s why we have to continue to be a beacon of light for evangelizing, for growing, for serving and for helping as God helps us.
And so these Jews, after a wait that must have seemed like a lifetime (and, in fact, it was a lifetime for most of them), they were going home. They were going to the mountaintop… but the valley was right on the other side. God, help us believe that while we’re waiting, you’re working.
Some of you have been waiting a long time (in some cases, almost an entire lifetime). Your heart’s desire, to the best you know how before God, is still in the wait and you’re still in the valley. Job tells us this.
[Job 23:8-10; 8 “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
and backward, but I do not perceive him;
9 on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
10 But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
And so know this while we are waiting, God is still working.]
Secondly, while we are following your lead, we’re confident you’re leading our suppliers. Believe that. The text, other text, and experience itself says, ‘Trust the Lord for the suppliers.’
And finally, while we sing to you on the mountain (because that’s what you do when you’re on the mountain… Right?) Happy days! While we sing to you on the mountain, we’ll cling to you in the valley. The last I checked, I’ve learned the most, not when I’m on the mountain, but when I’m down there… and so do you. So thank God for your valley! Learn from God in this valley, in this wait, whatever it may be, and trust Him, because He doesn’t mess up… Amen?
You know, there is one thing you don’t have to wait for. You don’t have to wait for Jesus to save you. If you recognize, like these disobedient Jews, that you’ve been a rebel, you’ve never acknowledged your sin (My favorite line last Easter, was Luke Hardy’s line when he said, “…And I understood I was a sinner, because …that’s what I was.” I thought to myself, so many of us will just give lip service to that. But it’s almost like he had this ‘Aha’ moment… which is what you need if you want to have your sins forgiven.) If you’ll recognize that [you’re a sinner] like Luke did, you believe that Christ died and rose again for you, you don’t have to wait. The waiting is over. Salvation is there. Forgiveness is there, and you’ll become a child of God… Amen? Trust Jesus. In the meantime, let’s wait while we’re in our valleys. The mountain top is coming when we never have to descend again.
Our Father, that’s our prayer. We’re grateful to you. We thank you for this opening message and introduction to Ezra. And Lord, we look forward to what we’re going to learn. I pray we’ve learned something today. You are the providential God. You’re the God of history. You had all of these things figured out, even naming a pagan king 150 years before he was ever born! These are the things that should inspire us and remind us. When we can’t see you in the valley, you’re there and you’re working. May we trust you to that end, each and every one of us. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. And all God’s people said… Amen.