Second Chances: “A Fresh Start” – Ezra 1

I blew it smallSince all of us regularly “blow it” in moves in our life, even in some critical areas, we tend to like the idea of second chances. Let’s face it: we all have made mistakes that made a recovery necessary. Whether your mistake was not following directions, or getting distracted and not taking care in what you were doing, it is nice to know you can get another try.

When I was working in computer robotics for a company in Elkhart, Indiana, I worked on panel assembly of punch press electrical panels, used in various industrial applications. We assembled both robotic tables and arms and the electrical box systems that made them operate. I didn’t know how everything worked, because I was an assemblyman, not an electrical engineer. My job was to build the interior electrical system according to the print the engineer made. One day my supervisor came to me and offered me a chance to do something with a small “pay bump”. Being newly married, I jumped on the opportunity that moved me off the line and into the “label shop” for a time, before I was eventually moved up to the assembly training room for new hires. My job in the label shop was to engrave the fronts of the panels in anodized aluminum, punching holes on a press in the flat metal surface, and then putting the whole metal panel onto an engraver and adding the names of each button or switch.

Engraving is an unforgiving process. If I slipped while the machine was running, a week’s work was probably gone and I would need to start over. If I mislabeled the device, someone in the field could lose a finger, arm or leg – or even a life. The labels needed to be exact, correctly engraved at the right depth and flawless in wording. It was a work that required concentration. It was the first time in my life that I used earplugs, not because of noise, but because I needed to concentrate. I now use earphones regularly to work, even in my study, to write and to stay intensely focused on work. In critical work, we need concentration. In work that offers no “second chance” we need to act deliberately.

That is what makes second chances so attractive – we know ourselves well enough to recognize that our concentration isn’t always at the optimum level, or even at the level we need it to be. That isn’t only true on the job; it is true in our spiritual life. Who hasn’t gotten spiritually distracted and allowed compromises in life that are embarrassing to admit? Even worse, who hasn’t deliberately ignored the warning signs of the Spirit and blatantly sinned, focusing on what we want NOW more than what we truly want in life. The good news is that God offers many of us a second chance. We must not depend on it, for it isn’t always a part of the plan. When the Lord offers GRACE, we should thankfully receive it. Second chance opportunities come when God moves, but He expects us to recognize the signs of a “second chance” moment and act on them when He opens them.

Key Principle: When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

To understand why the Book of Ezra is a reflection of a “second chance” requires a few moments of recalling history.

God set up the kingdom of Israel by His own providence. He gave the people a place to build and operate His Temple, as well as the Laws that showed them how to be good citizens and properly show Who He is to their neighbors in their character and behaviors.

The people rebelled. God sent prophets to call them to change direction – the Biblical term for “repentance”. The people ignored the calls. God split the kingdom. The people missed the cue of discipline. God brought plagues and punishing defeats to them. The people yawned and continued in disobedience. God took the northern section of the land, and the cousins of Judah into Assyrian captivity. The south deepened sinful practices. The Lord finally carted off the people of Judah and their nobles to Babylon and gave them two generations of “time out” to consider carefully the many messages of warning God gave them. The people wept, prayed and waited. They asked for another chance to follow God and show the nations Who God is.

One day, the long and dark tunnel of captivity seemed nearly over. God offered the people the second chance he foretold through prophets. He opened the door for it through a pagan king named Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE) through what historians refer to as a “turning point” in world history. While Judah was captive in Babylon, world forces were changing and allegiances were being realigned.

The once invincible Assyrian Empire that swallowed the northern kingdom of Israel had already (by 612 BCE) died a violent death. When it was overturned, it broke into four kingdoms (Lydia in what is now Turkey, Media (north of the Persian Gulf), Neo Babylonia (in what is now Iraq) and Persia (in what is now modern Iran). The division yielded rulers of various strengths, but eventually the Persians emerged the winners. The royal family of Persia (descendants of Achaemenes, called the Achaemenids) took the other kingdoms and began to dominate the region. The people were different than all others of the region. The other kingdoms spoke a Semitic language (now found in languages like Arabic and Hebrew). The Persians (and their modern descendants in Iran) were originally Indo-Europeans, with a language base closer to our own. They originated as a people out of southern “Steppe region” (southern Russia today) and poured south about 1000 BCE. By 700 BCE they become politically unified – but they were marginal to world politics until the coming of Cyrus the Great. He changed the world in 559/8:

He Cyrus the Great conquered the Median Empire to His north, expanded his power and captured Babylon, transforming the invader to the greatest imperial power of the ancient near east. By his death Cyrus ruled from the territory of modern Afghanistan to edges of Modern Greece. Even some Greeks came under his control of Persians when the Lydian Empire (King Croessus) fell.

The significance of the rise of Cyrus and the Indo-European Persians was this: Cyrus didn’t want all the captives of former wars to lived in their uprooted locations. He wanted to send them all home – and that opened the door for the Hebrew second chance. God was at work in a complex historical frame, setting the stage to keep His promises. The truth is that all human history is exactly that story – God at work in the complexity of the world to move His story forward.

With all that going on, how can a believer recognize God offering a second chance to him? How can he or she know that a turn in the road of history is about to open a new door?

Six Signs a Second Chance Moment is coming:

The first two signs regard how we get ourselves ready for this move of God:

We need to be prepared for a work of God, and we need to know how to recognize when God is at work. How can we do that? It all begins with how we view what is going on in the world around us.

(Preparation) First, we must tune ourselves to see major events of the world as part of God’s continuing work:

Look at the way the text opens:

Ezra 1:1 “Now 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, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,”

You should know that a fresh start in your life won’t require a good track record in your past. The words “first year of Cyrus” (538 BCE) in Ezra 1:1 are a reminder they were behind the woodshed when the whole story began. They were standing in a place of judgment, but God wasn’t done with them. Maybe it has been so long since your life, your family, your relationships, your finances and your choices looked like something God could use, that you believe you are beyond the renewal of God’s work in your life – but you are flat out wrong. He can change you even if you don’t really know what a GOOD FAMILY is. He can make you a good wife or husband no matter where YOU HAVE BEEN, what YOU HAVE SEEN and what YOU HAVE DONE.

You should also know that a fresh start in your second chance WILL require that you recall that God is at work, even when you weren’t paying attention! Remember Ezra 1:1? The writer said God was working through Cyrus: “To fulfill the Word of the Lord”.. (1:1b) Even though they didn’t see God’s hand at work in their lives, He was moving to change everything about their lives.

Did you notice the writer told the story of Cyrus in a way that only a follower of God would tell it? The fact is that believers watch the news with different eyes. They try to evaluate the waves of world political development through two filters.

The first is the filter of Biblical principle – this one helps us to recognize what we are FOR and what we are AGAINST, regardless of our personal political party affiliations.

When a new video exposing the barbarity of abortion providers is released, we aren’t as concerned about the editing process used in the video as we are about the cavalier attitude many in our society exhibit in the face of the sacredness of human life and the horror of the precious lives of little children being wasted and destroyed. Is that because we have no compassion for a raped woman? No. It is because we see life as defined in the Bible as sacred, and sacred things are handled with the utmost care.

When a nuclear deal with Iran offers that country a release of massive amounts of money without demanding they abandon their openly affirmed international terror apparatus and its stated goals, believers take a stand on behalf of God’s clear admonition to be wise about our dealings and supportive of our allies basic safety.

A second filter isn’t about principles, but about prophetic truths. This one is more speculative, because we don’t know the TIMING of God’s promises, but we know that all that He promises will come to pass. There are two balancing factors here. On the one hand, clearly we are correct by viewing all of the events of human history as playing into the final story of God. Ezra 1:1 is a prime example of how a believer sees the world in that way. At the same time, we have a counter-balance in Acts 1:6-7, where Jesus corrected the disciples from getting distracted by their prophetic understanding when it distracted from their mission. God wants us to recognize He is in control and the story is continuing by His guidance, but He doesn’t want us to get so caught up in interpreting the signs of the times that we are distracted from our mission of sharing His love with people.

In the end, believers have to balance their understanding of the news with their anticipation that God has something unfolding. It isn’t any different than how we view daily personal events. We aren’t to complain when they are troublesome, but rather ask God: “What am I to be learning from this?” When they seem like they will be positive, we ask: “How can we use this to further your kingdom, Father?” We recognize God is at work, but we don’t overplay our knowledge of exactly what He is doing – because this side of Heaven we are never really sure.

Why mention it then? Because God reminded us in Ezra 1:1 that HE is behind what is going on in the affairs of men. What men mean for evil, God can easily use for good. It isn’t hard for Him, for the relative size of the earth and its inhabitants is tiny compared to the God Who hung the whole of the cosmos in the heavens. When we get discouraged, we need to remember that things are not out of God’s control…EVER.

(Recognition) Recall that Biblically speaking, God often uses unregenerate men and works His plan:

Ezra 1:2 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

We have to remember that God is not “at a loss of options” when people don’t believe in Him. Both He and His enemy use people that do not believe all the time. God is not in need of Washington, Brussels, Beijing or Tehran to acknowledge Him to use them for His purposes. Daniel quoted Nebuchadnezzar the King when he said it this way (Daniel 4:17):

This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know, That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest of men.”

Cyrus was speaking, but God was working. That is important to remember, and important for the writer to make clear. Cyrus wrote a number of these letters, each for a different god and a different temple. He wasn’t a believer, but rather a pragmatic man who had a vision that was assisted by people going home and opening up their old temples and religious structures, while they pledged allegiance to him and his empire.

Ironically, Cyrus’ message as recorded here was the truth. Whether he knew it or not, the Lord God of Heaven did in fact give him all the kingdoms he knew about at the time, and the Lord DID call him to send Jews back to build the Second Temple as a replacement for Solomon’s Temple, which had been destroyed two generations before.

It may be hard to understand why God chooses to use people that do not know or recognize His authority, but I personally find it comforting. We don’t need a Christian President to allow God to keep working through our country. The courts don’t need to be run by followers of Jesus to give proper justice in the short term. God can work through the mouth of a donkey, so I assume He can do the same through the voice of a sitting Senator. I mean no disrespect to them, but the suggestion that God needs a human voting body to get His work done seems to me to disrespect the Lord of Heaven! Would I like to see men who love God running the nation? Sure, but it isn’t required. Here is the point:

We aren’t ready for God to give us a second chance if we don’t recognize that He is in control and can use anyone to get His gift to us. If we don’t see that, we will mistake providence for coincidence.

The next two regard actions we should engage in when the time comes for a second chance:

(Participation) Expect to materially support calls to obedience of God’s revealed Word:

God opened the door, but He also gave opportunity to His people to join Him in meeting the need. This is the privilege most often only enjoined by the sensitive believer. The text revealed the prodding of Cyrus:

Ezra 1:3 “Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. 4 And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

God opened the king’s mouth and gave people two options to respond to the second chance – a personal one and a communal one. If someone felt they could personally go back to Judah, they should prepare to make the journey. If they were, let’s say, physically unable to make such an arduous expedition, they could support it materially with an offering.

(Comprehension) Active support must come from leaders to do God’s bidding:

The people couldn’t be expected to get “on board” without leadership examples – so God provided them. Keep reading:

Ezra 1:5 Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. 6 And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.

One of the many reasons every generation needs godly leadership in its ranks is not JUST for theological discussion – it is for life by example.

Just like Judah’s return, a national revival can be a second chance for a country. Church restarts are second chances to reach a community. A marriage to a believer after you come to Christ and realize how badly you acted in your first marriage before you knew Christ can be a second chance. A restored relationship with an adult child long astray can be a second chance.

Here is the point: When God offers a second chance, godly people support what God is doing both in participation and in support. Believers have to grow in maturity and sensitivity and measure the value of support of a work by what it is producing in spiritual quality. Sometimes the second chance is individual, but other times it is God opening a door of opportunity for a whole community of faith.

The final two ideas regard what we should recognize during and after a second chance move of God:

(Celebration) Expect God to supply what believers cannot when they are following His lead:

Ezra 1:7 Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods; 8 Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. 9 And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives, 10 Thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.

The record isn’t an inventory; it is a celebration of thing God did! The historian Josephus Flavius in Antiquities of the Jews (XI,1,2) recalls the ancient tradition of Daniel’s presentation to Cyrus. The story is related that when Cyrus the Median Prince took the city of Babylon, he met the aged Daniel, who read to him from Isaiah 44 and 45 the story of the prophecy where Cyrus was named 150 years before his birth. It is not a Biblical account, but that misses the point. The memory of Jews was that it was God’s faithfulness to His Word that pushed Cyrus to action! Long before Cyrus was BORN, Isaiah prophesied:

Isaiah 44:24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself And spreading out the earth all alone, 25 Causing the omens of boasters to fail, Making fools out of diviners, Causing wise men to draw back And turning their knowledge into foolishness, 26 Confirming the word of His servant And performing the purpose of His messengers. It is I who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited!’ And of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built.’ And I will raise up her ruins again. 27 “It is I who says to the depth of the sea, ‘Be dried up!’ And I will make your rivers dry. 28 “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’”

When God’s people believe God’s Word, and they LIVE it out, in spite of the world around them – they become a powerful tool in His hand. The contrast will immediately be noticed. Though scoffed at by some, it will be the point of gravitation for others, who are buffeted by this world’s troubles and need a place of refuge. The stability that comes from obedience and trust in God and His Word will provide for them a place!

Lest the world become doubtful that Cyrus really DID what Scripture prophesied, we should make note that in 1879 the “Cyrus cylinder” was found – and a copy can still be seen in the lobby of the UN building in NYC. It is hailed as “an ancient declaration of human rights.” It records Cyrus, a servant of the god Marduk, sending people home to build their temples and shrines. He may have seen it as a human rights issue, but God was keeping an ancient promise through him.

(Reflection) Remember that God keeps inventory of His things – nothing and no one is lost:

Ezra 1:11 All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.

When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

She was on her third marriage and fourth child when she first heard of Jesus. Looking back her life seemed like a plane crash in a forest. There was a long burned chasm of pain leading to the burned shell of a life. Yet, she found her Maker, and her new life commenced. This new life wasn’t life as it was meant to be, for her choices had long since dried up that option. Rather it was an exciting second chance. “How do you hit ‘reset’ on a new life anyway?” She thought.

Ezra 1 offers important answers from God:

First, respond to God’s grace over your sin, and then get ready for the wave of God’s grace for your future.

Don’t forget that the commitment of obedience among God’s people is what God is calling for in the second chance. Those who trusted the promises and stepped out in obedience experienced the deepest blessing.

The text recalls that God led them through the process of change that was a very slow and conscious set of choices – what to take, what to leave…. So it will be with your fresh start.

The story made clear that some went on the journey, but others could not go – so they provided support. That is why the BODY becomes so important to launching fresh starts in life. Alone we cannot do what God has called us to do. Following Jesus demands that I get involved in a contact sport of connected-ness with others who are making the same journey.

Not everything is new in a “fresh start” second chance life. The mortgage is still there. My job may not change. For some their spouse is still there. Their kids are still… well, kids! How can someone like that get a fresh start?

Here is the truth: I CHANGE FIRST, then I am amazed at how God changes everything around me and how I see it!

When God’s people gave their part (1:7) God provided what could not have been gained by any other means – His blessing followed their commitment! The articles were many (1:9-11) and the miracle beyond anyone’s imagination. God can call back into service what was long forgotten blessing at His will. If you are new to a walk with God, I can believe this one will be hard for you. You haven’t yet really experienced how incredibly creative God is! You have experienced it, but you just weren’t able to properly understand it. God is not lacking resources. He has all that is necessary to tell His story. The problem is, the story He wants to tell isn’t all about my comfort and my prosperity – it is all about His nature and Majesty. When I learn to sing the song God gave me to sing with joy, He provides new music, day by day!

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers, he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a two-gallon, wide-mouthed pickle jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class answered, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand into the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question. “Is this jar full?” “NO!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good.” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager student raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!” “No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.” What are the “big rocks” in your life? You will need to order the change of your life by dealing with them first.

It all comes down to this: I cannot start new on my own. I cannot do this transformation work alone. I need God’s Word, lived obediently in community with God’s people and proclaimed faithfully in the world by God’s people so that it can provide the environment for new life to be nurtured from the ashes of the old! That is why I am tied to a living and growing body of believers. I cannot find another way to follow God’s Word without it.

When God opens the door for a second chance, His people should recognize and respond properly.

Let me remind you that you don’t have to understand what God is doing and where He is leading you, you have to learn to hear His voice from His Word and follow obedient to your Master’s will. He will not lead you astray. Millions have trusted Him in darkness and storms before you, and Heaven is filled with those who know His faithfulness. When the redeemed join in the chorus of Heaven, listen to their song:

Revelation 4: 9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

Later in Revelation 5: 11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

You hear no complaint in their voices. You hear no indignation in from the tears they shed. They demand nothing. They simply see the TRUTH. God DID CREATE all and it is FOR HIM. All the world and all its history was for the purpose of proclaiming HIS STORY to the universe. His greatness in unparalleled and His Majesty unmatched. He didn’t start being GREAT when I started recognizing Him – He always was. He always IS. He doesn’t require the world to see Him to be Who He is. He invites us to let Him show us how a second chance works.