Trouble Despite Obedience
A Sermon for March 13, 2022
Veterans Memorial Chapel
This is a synopsis, or quick review, of the sermon for March 13, 2022. I am only hitting the highlights of the message, not reproducing the entire sermon.
Our Scripture Reading this morning was Psalm 126, while our sermon text is from Ezra chapter 4. Psalm 126 is a praise and joy Psalm, written as the grandchildren of Judah’s exile are allowed to return to the land that God had promised them and their fathers. Imagine the joy and excitement as these exiles are allowed to return and settle in the land of their ancestors. They say in the first verse, “We were like those who dreamed.” From birth they had learned at their parents knees the stories of God choosing them as the blessed people of God and had given them the “promised land.” Yet their parents had rebelled and were forced out of their land by the Babylonians. And now as young adults, they were being resettled in their land by the Persians, just as God had promised. The joy they felt was inexplicable.
Now returning to the land was not without its hardships. They were returning to a land of rubble. Their city and villages were still heaps of rocks and burned remains of bygone days. Nothing had been cleared and no rebuilding or planting had taken place in 45 years.
I believe they knew that life would be busy with hard work as they cleared their fields to grow their food, and the villages to find shelter. Ezra chapter 3 tells that in the Fall, as soon as they had their first garden produce, they cleared the Temple site in Jerusalem, and began sacrificing on it, even before getting the Temple building built. Yes, hard work was characteristic of this noble band.
But soon came opposition to their labor. Their neighbors had been settled in the land to their north by the Assyrians when Northern Israel had been carried away captive in 722 BC. They began to oppose the work of building the Temple.
Perhaps this was because the Judeans were going to be a threat to their olive oil export monopoly. Or perhaps they were afraid the Jews would over run the countryside. Whatever the reason, they came to try and stop the work.
Their “first plan” was to try and make friends with their Jewish enemy. They came and asked to help build the Temple (Ezra 4:1-3). When these people had been imported to this area, they asked the Assyrians to send some Israelites and priests back to the land, so they could teach them about the “God of the land.” In so doing they would know how to appease Him, as they did all their gods. The Bible says they “feared the Lord and served their own gods” (2 King 17:24-33). Now these same neighbors wanted to dilute the Jewish belief in the One True God, by getting them to recognize and affirm the other Samaritan gods.
Judah had gone into captivity for worshiping false gods. The temptation here is to coexist with their neighbors in such a way as to accept their neighbor’s worship of the “True God” and at the same time adapt to worshiping their neighbor’s gods. Zerubbabel rightly did not allow them to join in the construction project. The worship of “false gods” had caused the exile. Zerubbabel did not want to repeat that offence against the True God.
So, the enemies moved on to a “plan B.” They began “project discouragement” (Ezra 4:4-5). The neighbors set out to discourage, and intimidate the Jews, to slow, if not stall, their building project. They also bribed the Persian officials who provided materials and permits for the building. The job seemed to drag out, only furthering the Jews’ frustration.
One must ask, why is this happening? Why did God lead them to take a big step of faith in His service, only to seemingly slam the door shut in their face? When they were all excited about the move, why did He suddenly put them in a trial that makes things so hard on them? This story is epic, in that we all face the same type scenario. We step out with a new project or opportunity God has opened to us, then suddenly, we face opposition, sometimes so severe it stops us in our tracks.
“Plan C” of the Samaritans opposition was a “smear writing campaign” to the emperor who followed Cyrus. I will not read all the details. Both the letter and response are written out in verses 6-23. They write the emperor about the building project and include lies (the Jews were building a city wall) and innuendo (they plan to rebel). Unfortunately, the scheme worked, and Emperor Artaxerxes (Cambyses Xerxes) issued a “stop work order.”
At that point, “plan 4” is put into action, “dismantle and destroy the work.” In Ezra 4:23-24, the enemies of Judah came with the force of the “stop work” order, and not only stopped the work “by force,” but it appears they also destroyed the building that had been going on for a number of years under Cyrus and his son Artaxerxes (minimum of 9 yrs). The work would be stopped completely till the 2nd year of Darius, (18 years from Cyrus’ decree).
If the story ended here, we would be left to wonder if God knew what He was doing, or if He was not strong enough to finish what He began. But the story does not end here. We will see next week that God does move in His people’s hearts and even in the hearts of a pagan leader to see His work go forward.
Sometimes we look about us and say, “What is happening?!” or “Why are things as they are?” even when we are trying to follow God’s plan for us. What we need to know is we must trust God to do what He will at His right time. We don’t know what is ahead. We follow God, and yet have challenges and trials which seem to slow and even stop our progress. Yet we know God is working all this together for His perfect will (Rom 8:28). May we have grace to follow.
God Bless each of you,
CH Jim Odell