Second Chances: “In the Eye of the Storm” – Ezra 5 and 6

tornado“Stay inside!” he shouted as she emerged from the root cellar. “Pull the door closed and don’t come out until I return and tell you it is safe!” She was afraid. There was no way she could sit and wait through the long night without him. “Please let me help you save the animals!” she protested. “Go back inside and take care of the children. Do what needs to be done. Feed them and comfort them. I will do what must be done out here. You must trust me, I will be fine!” His voice trailed off as the darkness grew over the sky. The powerful storm approached, and she returned into the cellar and lit the kerosene lamps, and pulled the children close to her side. She would have to trust him, and that was difficult for her. Yet, she would do what she needed to do… she would listen, obey and wait for the outcome. What else could she do?

Anyone who has truly lived has seen a storm coming, and faced the uncertainty of it. It was dramatic when the dark clouds pressed to the ground and thundered across the Kansas prairie toward Dorothy’s farm. We watched wide-eyed and saw the whole house lifted and tossed to Oz. The truth is, most storms aren’t nearly so dramatic looking to others – but they feel like the uprooting of our lives to US. This lesson is about holding on tight through the storms – and if they haven’t come to you yet… they will come. Don’t fear! God is in the storms, and some of your best growth and most meaningful moments will be found in the storms.

We’ve been walking through the Bible’s “Book of Ezra” and looking at what happens when God offers us a second chance in our life. We noted their story was one in which God was returning Judah as a nation to their homeland from captivity, as He promised, for them to make another attempt at becoming the lighthouse for God He always intended them to be. Their story offers us a moment to contemplate a very relevant question from the many of us who came to Jesus only after they have climbed from the ashes of our own bad choices… It is a relevant question for all of us because we met Jesus after many of our attitudes and our understandings were formed badly in a lost world.

Before we look at the story, let me remind you that normally preaching is a called to action — things we can do, attitudes we can grasp, life traits we can model. Crowds respond well to the idea that they can control things by doing right. Yet the broader understanding of the truth is found as we mature in our faith, and grow to conclude that only some things are in the grasp of the believer. There are many times in our lives when we are called to act, but there are other times in our lives, where the most important thing is not our action but our firm grip of dependence upon God and our understanding that many things are beyond our control. Some of these are what we call the storms of life.

Pastor Jim Drake wrote an interesting word on this:

Several years ago, when we lived in Mississippi, we were members of a small church called Bel Aire Baptist Church. That little church was a blessing to our family. That’s where I was ordained as a deacon. That’s where our oldest daughter was baptized… Well, several years after we’d moved away, we got word that they’d called a new pastor in 2003. God blessed his ministry tremendously. The church grew to the point where they had to go to two services and were starting a huge building program. Well, just about a month ago, toward the end of February, we got word that the pastor was diagnosed with cancer. Around three weeks later on March 14th, he was in the presence of Jesus. When I saw that, the first thing I thought was, “Why God? After all the years of struggling that church went through! After spending years without a pastor, after Hurricane Katrina, after all the years of praying for growth? Why? …Then when it finally started to happen—You take their pastor? Why?” He continued: “Oh me of little faith!” Jim said. His wife writes a weekly column for the local newspaper. Listen to what she wrote when they found out about his cancer. She wrote about the big C. “The big C is not cancer, but rather: Christ, Calvary, the Cross, Crucified, Curses broken. Spirits of infirmity — Cast out, Captives freed, Covenant, Commandments. Commitment, Church, Confession, Clean. Communion, Conqueror and Crown.” The big C isn’t cancer. The big C is Christ.”

That godly woman couldn’t look to physical victory. She didn’t have an action plan to take away the cancer from her beloved husband. She couldn’t band the church together and promise them if they would pray, he would be healed. She couldn’t cling to promises of “abundant life blessing in the here and now” that some preach on the airwaves. No, that wasn’t God’s direction for her. She had two things she could do: Lean her weak spirit on Christ and believe that she was made for eternity. God hadn’t forsaken her, and she hadn’t failed. Her husband got his reward, and she gained deeper trust in the Rewarder. God didn’t need her to DO anything; He wanted her to receive something – a greater understanding of Him.

Listen to a song that “Casting Crowns” sang that drove home the point.

“I was sure by now, God, You would have reached down, and wiped our tears away. Stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining… As the thunder rolls, I barely hear Your whisper through the rain: “I’m with you”…and as Your mercy falls, I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away.

And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm.

I remember when, I stumbled in the wind, You heard my cry to you and you raised me up again. My strength is almost gone. How can I carry on if I can’t find You? …But as the thunder rolls, I barely hear You whisper through the rain: “I’m with you!” And as Your mercy falls, I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away…

And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm…”

There is a truth that hurts to proclaim, because it cannot be learned when all seems well around us. It is a truth for the mature, not the insecure in their faith. It is…

Key Principle: God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

Let me show you a STORM from the Bible. God called Sheshbazaar and Zerubbabel to take 50,000 Judahites home and rebuild the broken Temple of God. They knew He called them, and they left ready to do what He commanded. Through plot and turmoil, the people laid the foundation of the Temple and the altar was erected, but a plot set up by political hacks stopped the work. The High Priest was under the attack of the wicked one, and the people were parked in their ancient homeland with a half-finished Temple and a stalled out leadership. More than a dozen years passed – some calculate as many as eighteen years in all! Half a generation of disappointment and broken second chance dreams lay like half cut stones strewn across the still dilapidated Temple courts. Time stood still and it seemed like God’s people were moved to Judah, but unable to move forward with their assigned mission. That is where we pick up our reading…when God decided to speak again.

Note the encouragement of God’s Word:

5:1 When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them, 2 then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them supporting them.

What got a demoralized people busy? God’s Word! How did the mere words of these men do that to a people stalled out? In short, they weren’t the words of the men – they were just the mouthpieces of a Holy, Powerful, Transforming God. If you haven’t met Him, this may seem far-fetched. If you have, you know exactly what I mean when I say the Spirit “convicted them.”

If we had time, we could look at the message God gave them. Suffice it to say it was a version of this simple, timeless truth: “Wake up and do what I told you to do. You are not a victim of the King’s policies – you are an agent of free obedience to me! Do what I have said (obey) and let the results be whatever I let them be!” In short, they got busy.

Now is the time I tell you how God stopped the mouths of the lions in the lion’s den. This is the point in the story where I lift your head and tell you the heat of the fiery furnace killed evil men, but there was not so much as the smell of soot on God’s people. Isn’t this where I insert that Haman swung from the gallows and God’s people rejoiced at banqueting tables, celebrating deliverance? No. That isn’t the story. This is the story of a storm, not a Spring morning. The dark clouds haven’t passed…

Note the new attack the enemy formed:

Ezra 5:3 At that time Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues came to them and spoke to them thus, “Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?” 4 Then we told them accordingly what the names of the men were who were reconstructing this building. 5 But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report could come to Darius, and then a written reply be returned concerning it.

If you look, you can see obedience. If you can listen to their heartbeats, you will feel uncertainty. Storms are like that. You see trouble, but you don’t know how bad it will be, and what the farmyard will look like after the storm. You cannot imagine what will happen after it has passed – and you cling to hope that you can survive the emotional blow that comes with the losses. Keep reading…You will see the hacks doing their thing all over again. The chapter before they lied and falsely charged… but that didn’t keep the work from re-starting. The powerful Word of God made the people have the courage to re-new the work even though it was uncertain if God would allow their mission to finish.

Note another political ploy:

Ezra 5 unspooled the royal record of yet another letter to the King, sent by selfish politicians trying to keep power and prestige from slipping away…

Ezra 5:6 This is the copy of the letter …. 7 They sent a report … “To Darius the king, all peace. 8 Let it be known to the king that we have gone to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God, which is being built with huge stones, and beams are being laid in the walls; and this work is going on with great care and is succeeding in their hands. 9 Then we asked those elders and said to them thus, ‘Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?’ …11 Thus they answered us, saying, ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth and are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar … 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. 14 … King Cyrus took from the temple of Babylon and they were given to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor. 15 He said to him, “Take these utensils, go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem and let the house of God be rebuilt in its place.” 16 Then that Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem; and from then until now it has been under construction and it is not yet completed.’ 17 “Now if it pleases the king, let a search be conducted in the king’s treasure house, which is there in Babylon, if it be that a decree was issued by King Cyrus to rebuild this house of God at Jerusalem; and let the king send to us his decision concerning this matter.”

The simple problem was unfolded. The time that passed with the half-finished Temple made the old issue tough for those who wanted to report to the King in Babylon. Much had occurred since the work order was stopped years before. Now the people were working, and the King needed to be informed anew. Hastily, they wrote. They asked for a finding, and the king commissioned one.

Note that God used a lost politician:

Ezra 6:1 Then King Darius issued a decree, and search was made in the archives, where the treasures were stored in Babylon. 2 In Ecbatana in the fortress, which is in the province of Media, a scroll was found and there was written in it as follows: “Memorandum— 3 In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: ‘Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; 4 with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury…

Read the rest of the chapter and you will see the record specified the return of the gold and silver utensils (6:5) and the simple command of the king to the officials in the region: “Back off!” Look down to verse seven…

Ezra 6:7 Leave this work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site. 8 Moreover, I issue a decree concerning what you are to do for these elders of Judah in the rebuilding of this house of God: the full cost is to be paid to these people from the royal treasury out of the taxes of the provinces beyond the River, and that without delay.

The king also commanded they give the needed animals for sacrifice (6:9-10), and followed it with a blistering warning:

Ezra 6:11 And I issued a decree that any man who violates this edict, a timber shall be drawn from his house and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this. 12 May the God who has caused His name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who attempts to change it, so as to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, have issued this decree, let it be carried out with all diligence!”

God clearly rescued the people. If you read line by line the whole of chapter six, you will find words like:

Ezra 6:13 Then Tattenai, the governor … carried out the decree with all diligence, just as King Darius had sent. 14 And the elders of the Jews were successful in building through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. … 22 And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.

“See, Pastor! That is a great story!” you say. The people obeyed, and God delivered. Like the simple formula of a one-hour police drama – the bad guys were jailed and the good guys lived happily ever-after.

Let’s pack up and head home, because we nailed the truth.. GOOD GUYS WIN!”… Not so fast! You missed more than a DOZEN YEARS of the story! You and I press to see the victory and forget the uncertainty of the process on Sunday, and then go back to our Monday lives surrounded by uncertainty and try to connect our Bible lesson to our daily life. Slow down the reading, and think about what we just saw…

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

It is not that God’s control is limited to our belief, but rather when our understanding of His control is not recognized, we cannot celebrate Him – whatever the temporal outcome. In the process of maturing a believer, God offers us an opportunity to rest in the shelter of his arms – and His arms are the prize in the story – not the outcome.

God took the people through a test, so they could experience a deeper sense of His presence! He delivered them because He first put them in the soup of despair and uncertainty! His path to the Promised Land is always through the heat of the desert. For His deliverance, their testimony led to their testing, that opened the door to God’s triumph and their deeper trust. It is an exciting prospect!

The purpose of including the letter in Scripture was to make sure that a record of the testimony of God’s victory would be remembered – but also a careful record of HOW LONG IT TOOK AND HOW HARD IT WAS! Though this may seem obvious, it is necessary for God’s people to consistently offer testimony to the past — to remember the works of God and the victories of God for his people. Especially today, we have become a people without a history. We have forgotten the good things God has done – AND WHAT IT TOOK TO GRASP THEM AS THEY HAPPENED!

On our way to remembrance, note a few details the verses show:

First, note the difference in perspectives. (5:6-9) I was struck by how the unsaved watchers did not evaluate the work from the outside in the same way the Israelites evaluated it from you within. Older Israelites wept at the erected beginnings of the second Temple, moaning because of its smaller size. Yet the description of these enemies reveals that it was an impressive building to those who were in the world.

One of the problems we face as we mature in the Lord is that we forget what it is like to live life out in the world. We forget the harshness when we are surrounded by those who love us. We take for granted one another, and to love that is common among believers. When the church is following God, it is a warm place. It is a place of love and nurturing and care. The world has precious few places that it can describe in those terms. God instituted the family to be a place of protection. God instituted the church to be a place of growth and stability. The enemy is busy attacking both. At the same time, when people come into the midst of a growing and vibrant Bible believing community, they may meet 20 believers and become overwhelmed by the size of the commitment people have one toward another. Inside the church we may feel insignificant, but from the world’s perspective size is measured by the stability, warmth, and helpfulness of the dear ones around us.

Second, note how the people identified themselves and their past. (5:10-16) In the face of the question from the world, “Who are you?”, The people of God did not attempt to make themselves look powerful. They identified themselves as the servants of God. They made clear what their objective was in the project they were working on. They even included the story of how they both had and lost the blessing of God in the past. They explained their own sin and their own unworthiness, and how God turned his face away from them because of their own behaviors. All this led to their explanation of God’s second chance for them — the unworthy being granted good things from God.

It is easy to forget that while the administration was searching for the documents, the believers continued to work with the threat of permanent interruption over their head.

They had done what they could do. They explained their purposes, that they served the God of Abraham, and that they did not deserve the blessing that they were receiving. They offered a testimony of Divine rescue to those around them. Now all they could do was to keep going and to trust that God would take them through the test they were facing and lead them out the other side. They were listening to Haggai and Zechariah, and acknowledging that if God said BUILD, failure to continue was nothing more than defiance – and that wasn’t what the people of God were to do when God spoke.

Was there a benefit to the more than a dozen years of delays? Sure, there was!

• God used the prophets to deliver greater truth to the people about Him, and about their own need to search their hearts.

• God used the record search to explain more carefully the long-forgotten terms of the building given by Cyrus so long ago. The temple platform was to be 90′ x 90′. The building of the temple was to include a three layer Temple built at the taxpayer’s expense. Because God brought to light the letter, the believers needed no longer to fear the attacks of those around them that were shrouded in the lie that they were acting illegally.

• In 6:6-18) God did more than simply endorse the project. God offered a clear moment of rescue, when he stepped into the opposition and told adversaries to “back off”.

• Perhaps nowhere in the passage is the triumph more clear than in the closing verses of this section (6:12-18). Darius is recorded to have said that the work was being built to honor and glorify God (6:12). The governors were diligent to do exactly as they were instructed, and the Jewish people were able to complete the building of the temple by mid-March 516 B.C.E.

As the governors beyond the river no doubt were weeping, the Jewish people were sacrificing 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs and some male goats, many of which were no doubt derived from the territories beyond the river.

The people of Zerubbabel were called to:

• Move ahead with God’s stirring from His Word.
• Move forward with limited provisions to do God’s work.
• Move beyond their personal level of comfort and convenience.
• Move ahead without stalling over the enemy’s distractions.

The people were called to take God’s Word and live it – when it was both unpopular and increasingly perilous. Yes, they prevailed…but for a long time they had no idea whether God would save their skins – they only had a promise for their souls!

In 1877, Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce Indians of what is now Oregon, was a warrior. He was recalled as great by William Tecumseh Sherman, and lauded as the “Red Napolean” before he surrendered to the American Army. Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood claimed to have taken down the great chief’s words on the spot of is surrender: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead…The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say no and yes. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, Have run away to the hills And have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are- Perhaps they are freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sad and sick. From where the sun now stands – I will fight no more forever.”

Can you hear the pain when he surrendered to his enemy? His recalled later the promise he made to his father on his father’s death mat. His father said to him: “My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” How painful his surrender was! Yet he was BROKEN.

That is what happens when hope is lost and the physical world is the measure for success… but that is not how we are to see the tough challenges of our day. Remember?

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.

The fact is that God is not broke and He has not finished with us. He has all the resources necessary to complete all the objectives He has called us to do.

Sometimes we take on things God didn’t tell us to do. We operate without the necessary systems to check that we are operating in accordance with God’s Word. We overextend ourselves by taking on things with no plan or mechanism to cover the difficulties. God is not honored by the half done projects that were hastily conceived and poorly planned by his people. We must be careful.

More than that, we must do more to ensure that we are in fact working in the work of God, working by the word of God, and working for the glory of God. Far too much is done for ourselves and by our own rules. When we get in a jam, we look up to God and ask for him to rescue us, and we ignore that we have not called on him, nor sought him in the whole project until we could not complete it.

It is in the storm that God shows up in a fantastic rescue. He shows us Who He is – and that is a great prize! Go back to the words of the song we heard earlier and now hear the end – because I skipped it:

“And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands. For You are who You are No matter where I am! And every tear I’ve cried, You hold in Your hand. You never left my side… And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm…

I lift my eyes unto the hills, Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, The Maker of Heaven and Earth… I lift my eyes unto the hills, Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, The Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

The song writer understood. The storm was painful. It was unsettling. It was where his pretense fell away and his expectation was refined to the simplest component. He found God close. That was what the storm was supposed to do for him…

God can hide in storms both a challenge to stand on God’s Word, and a special encouragement when we do.