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One Characteristic of the New People

September 9, 2018, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev Enoch Keong (Ezra 1:1-11) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ezra
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Ezra 以斯拉记

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Title: One Characteristic of the New People
Date: 09 September 2018
Preacher: Rev Enoch Keong

“New” is our theme for this year, a theme that carries with it 3 sub-themes. We have already heard from the pulpit sermons based on the Gospel of John and also the Book of Ephesians when we unpacked the first two sub-themes. This morning we will move on to the 3rd sub-theme “New People” and begin a new sermon series based on the Book of Ezra.

Friends, do we consider ourselves as the new people of God? What are some characteristics that we think such a group people should have? What we called the new people of God would not be “one of a kind”, as in having characteristics that we don’t find in others. And needless to mention, the new people of God are no religious fanatics that would look strange or odd in the eyes of others. But there are certain characteristics that we should find in them, and we will zoom in on one such characteristics this morning.

But to get to that, we need to first get ourselves familiar with the historical setting where our story took place.

Our passage takes us to the year 539BC, the year where Cyrus, who is also known as Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonian empire. In the same year he issued the edict we find in Ezra 1:2-4, where he granted the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

In the opening sentence of the edict, Cyrus addressed Yahweh as “The LORD” and “The God of heaven”. He also declared that it was this “God of the heaven” who has given him all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged him to build God a house in Jerusalem. The addressees and the things said in this opening sentence seem to suggest that Cyrus had become a convert of Judaism. If not, why would he acknowledge Yahweh as God and Lord, and declared that what he had was from Yahweh? And if he wasn’t a convert to Judaism, then did Ezra made this up? For what was the likelihood for the king of the new and great empire to have acknowledged the God of a small, defeated and disgraced kingdom, and attributed his victory to such a God? But both of these assumptions are actually off the mark.

There’s this historical artifact called the Cyrus Cylinder, some of us might have seen it in the British museum or have seen photos of it. It is a clay cylinder on which the Persians recorded their country’s history. On the Cylinder, we will find this. Cyrus acknowledging that Marduk, the God of Babylon, had chosen and declared him to be the ruler of the world. And in a separate line on the Cylinder, he acknowledged that for the land of Ur, the hometown of Abraham, it was their God, the God of the Moon, that had granted him the victory.

When we check against the Cyrus Cylinder, we find these entries of him attributing his victories to the local deities of the places he had conquered.

And we begin to see, it wasn’t that Cyrus had converted to Judaism when he said that Yahweh had granted him victory. And don’t be mistaken, Cyrus was not a polytheistic. He only worshipped the Persian god, Ahura Mazda. So what is happening here?

The answer is simple. Unlike the previous empires in the Mediterranean region, where conquers would shame a country and at the same time their gods. Just like the way the Babylonians desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. The Persians tried a different tact – tolerance. With a tolerance policy in place, the Persians allowed the subjects within the empire to retain their culture practices and to continue with their traditional worship. So, when Cyrus acknowledged that it was Marduk, the God of the Moon and even Yahweh that has granted him victory, He was but expressing diplomatic courtesy. In other words, he was just saying that in those territories, the gods of the lands had allowed him to be the winner.

In alignment with the tolerance policy, we also read from the Cylinder these words of Cyrus,

“I returned to these sacred cities…, the sanctuaries which have been in ruins for a long time,
the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries,
I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations…"

And also this,

"May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily
Bel and Nebo for long life for me…; to Marduk, my Lord, may they
say this: "Cyrus, the king who worship you, and Cambyses, his son…" [1]

By reading these entries, we can roughly see how the edict in Ezra came about. At the same time, we can be quite certain that the edict was not made up by the author of Ezra.

What the Persians gave was freedom, what they hoped is that the subjects would return the favor with loyalty and that the empire may in turn enjoy stability. That’s the way the Persians run the empire.

The author of Ezra was probably aware of such a religious policy, and had heard of the friendly treatments by the Persians toward the various nations. But he insisted that there’s something more to it beneath the surface of things. To him, things happened the way they did because God was fulfilling the words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah (v.1). For the author of Ezra, such an understanding must be communicated, must be understood by the people, must shaped the way God’s people see things, because to be able to see God at work behind the scene is one definitive characteristic of the new people of God. So he didn’t wait another minute, but spelled out that God was at work in the very first verse of the book. He just had to get this message across.

And what did Jeremiah prophesy? “Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields! The LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple” (Jer 51:11 ).

Speaking about something more to it beneath the surface of things, I have a personal story to tell. I told the same story to some of our young people previously. About 20 years or so ago, there were 2 lady-missionaries-to-be who came to my home church (Pilgrim Presbyterian Church. Or what I like to call the grand-daughter of Jubilee Church). The two ladies, one from the United States and the other from Germany. They were with us for some time before they departed for Thailand for long term missions. We were told back then that missionaries from American churches were much better supported compared to missionaries from Germany. So, when they were about to depart for Thailand, my friend and I thought we would like to give some support to the German lady. The way we thought of doing it was this. We would each pray and decide on our own how much to put into an envelope, we won’t tell each other the amount that we will be giving, we will each give according to our personal conviction, and pass her the envelope when we beat her farewell. Things went according to plan. Come that day, when we sent back to the mission agency for the last time, we passed her the envelope, we said our goodbyes, and we were about to leave the place. Then we saw her running out, her face beaming with joy. The intensity of that joy was beyond what we had expected. And there’s of course a reason for her being filled with such joy.

It was the first time that the German lady ever stepped into Asia, she came because God has called her to go and love Thailand. During the transiting period in Singapore, she went buy a camera at Funan Centre, or Funan Digitalife Mall before it was closed in 2016 to be rebuilt. What happened was that she forgot to keep the change before she left the shop. When she returned to request for it, the staff insisted that the change had been given and that she had taken it. Imagine the disappointment and frustration she would have felt as a person who came all the way from Germany to Asia, to love the people, to share the gospel, but only to be taken advantage of even before the work officially began. What happened next, interestingly, was that the amount in the envelope passed to her turned out to be the amount that she had lost at Funan Center. That’s the reason behind her joyousness, and I believe she was at the same time comforted by the gift we gave.

There’s something more to it beneath the surface of things. This saying is true with regards to the edict, says the author of Ezra. It is true, at least to my friend and I, with regards to gift given to the lady missionary. And it is also true with regards to the exiles that chose to return to Israel.

“Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites”. The tone of the verse seems to suggest that the exiles were ever-ready to return home and to rebuild the temple. But let’s look at the verse one more time. How come that there were only people from the tribe of Judah and Benjamin, and also the priest and the Levites in the group of returnees, what had happened to the rest?

Well, a few decades has passed since the Israelites were away from their homeland, they had probably settled down rather comfortably by then in foreign lands. Not only so, they were rich enough to have even aided those who were returning, with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares. Looking at how things were going for themselves, some would have thought, “maybe we should only consider returning on a later date, or just stay put; especially since the new government is friendlier than the Babylonians.”

Yet there was indeed something more to it beneath the surface of things, and that something is the stirring of peoples’ heart by God. On the surface, Cyrus had adopted a tolerant religious policy, unlike the previous superpowers in the Mediterranean world, and the edict came about because of it. On the surface, my friend and I were convinced that German missionaries were less well supported, and we just want to show some support. On the surface, opportunity came and some Israelites responded positively to the Cyrus edict. But beneath the surface of things, it was because God was at work behind the scenes, and good things happened.

And may it be a foreign king who had a different faith, or God’s own people sent into exiles who had either been faithful or remained faithless for the longest time, it says here that God stirred their hearts. And shouldn’t this very thing that God did, emphasized and repeated in opening chapter of Ezra, tells us something? I think it does. I think it tells us that as Christians, the new people of God, more than any others, we should always look beyond and beneath the surface of things. Using Christian lingo, we are to look to God in all things.

Friends, as the new people of God, we not only need to have an inkling that God is at work. Like, “Yah, I think that God is at work.”

That’s not good enough, that’s not biblical enough. As the new people of God, we are no less than what First Peter calls the Royal Priesthood of God. And what do priests do? Priests are the middle man. But we are not middle men between one man and another. We are middle men between man and God, and God and man – full time. And if that is our calling and our role, friends, when can we not have a vision of God in things, in situations, in life?

Life is about managing. We manage situations, we manage people. We manage friends and family members, colleagues and bosses. We manage those who favor us and those who dislike us. We manage those who would help us and those who would tend to create troubles for us, by choice or by accidents. We manage a lot more. Can and will God do something beneath the surface of things with them and with us to bring about good outcomes? Would God, in unexpected ways, move friends and foes, even people in power who does not share the same faith to do godly things, even the furthering of the gospel? The book of Ezra suggests so. So at all times, look to God, who has actually come so close to be our brother and our friend, in Jesus, to journey with us in our pilgrimage. At all times, look to God.

Look to God. I am not sure if it sounds to too simplistic and reductionistic to us, since life is so complicated. But may I say that more often than not, acts of faith are done not after complex calculation but with constant contemplation; constant contemplation on God and him at work.

In other words, as Christian we don’t just pray and sit. Rather, in looking to God, we pray, we hope, we act, we make attempts, and only after that, that we the priests let the individual matters rest. Amen? Amen.

[1] Derek Kidner, “Ezra and Nehemiah”: TOCT, Downers Grove: Illinois: IVP, 1979. 18.

Ezra 1 (Listen)

1:1 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:

“Thus says 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. 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. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”

Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. Cyrus the king also 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. Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.