Thursday, November 16, 2006

Making Contact: God's Mysterious Ways

[In this new series, Making Contact, I present a series of short (almost) daily considerations of Biblical texts that I hope you'll find helpful. The idea behind the name is that in the Bible, we make contact with the God Who has revealed Himself to humanity to millions of people over thousands and thousands of years. God can make contact with us today. The texts are based on the daily lectionary found in the Lutheran Book of Worship.]

Making Contact: Ezra 1:1-11
1In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a 2 written edict declared: 3Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them! —are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; 4and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

5The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. 6All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. 7King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; 10gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred ten; other vessels, one thousand; 11the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

A Few Thoughts
Early in the Sixth Century-BC, Jerusalem, the once-proud center of Israel's religious and political life, fell to the conquering armies of Babylon. The nation of God's people had long been split into two kingdoms: Israel (or Samaria) to the north, whose religious and political life was centered on the town of Samaria and Judah or Judea to the south, centered in Jerusalem. By the time the Babylonians took the holy city, much of the south and the north had been in that conquering country's hands for a while.

To the prophets and eventually, most descendants of Abraham, Babylon's success in conquering God's people represented judgment from God. They had been arrogant. They had compromised their faith, worshiped other gods, countenanced dishonesty and unethical behavior from their religious and political leaders. In a theocratic nation like Israel, such violations of God's will could not long be tolerated by God.

And so God had allowed Babylon to conquer His people. The Babylonians, in turn, sent many thousands of Hebrews back to their country as slaves. This was the famous Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah, the prophet, had said that this captivity, would last about seventy years, that after chastening His people, God would send them back to rebuild the nation He had given them.

In 559-BC, Cyrus became king of the Persians. Twenty years later, he led his armies as they conquered Babylon. (That's 539-BC, to which our text refers as "the first year" of Cyrus' rule. It was the first for the Babylonians now under Cyrus.)

There may have been sound political reasons for Cyrus to allow the captives to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild their city. But whatever his reasons, God's people were sure that the unseen hand of God was at work.

A few points...
1. To obey God is nothing more than to trust in--or to believe in--Him. Whatever takes highest priority in your life is your God. Indeed, from a Biblical perspective, to worship God involves a lot more than ritual action. God actually disdains ritual action if it isn't part of a life that keeps Him first. God's people were convinced that the reason for their captivity was that they had chased after--believed in or worshiped--other gods.

2. Sin has its consequences, even if they're only of the internal, psychological variety. Sin can leave scars. But even scars can be God's gracious reminders of the path of better living.

3. God never gives up on us. He didn't give up on Israel and He won't give up on you. If you call on Him, He will hear you. All who turn from sin and trust in Christ can know His presence always.

4. God can use people and events we wouldn't expect to accomplish His purposes. It would seem unlikely that a Persian king would prove to be the benefactor of Israel. But Cyrus the Great was a benevolent ruler who set the people in all of his conquered territories to worship as they chose. He didn't believe in the God of the Hebrews; he was a worshiper of Mardok. Yet through Cyrus we see exemplified a principle I've been teaching my Catechism students for more than twenty years: Either God gets His way or God gets His way. Cyrus freed God's people at precisely that time chosen by God. (See Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10-14)

Prayer: God, through Jesus Christ, I see that you are for me. Help me to put you first in my life. Forgive for failing to have done so in the past. Help me to learn the lessons about Your tough love that I can see from those times when I've exiled myself from You. Amen

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