Wednesday, January 14, 2015

God Ordains Restoration

My Sunday School lesson for Jan. 4 ...

This week we started our two-week study of the book of Ezra and how 40,000 Israelites returned from exiles full of joy and worship.

FIRST THOUGHTS

*** Happy New Year!

What are the kinds of things you are looking forward to in 2015?

Are there any resolutions you would like to make? Is anyone resolving to be better about finances this year? Losing weight? Organizing? Or are we afraid to make resolutions because we so often fail miserably at them?

Does anyone have any resolutions dealing with the Bible, prayer, church?

This week we start studying the book of Ezra as we experience a life of new beginnings for the Israelites who were returning from exile. They focused first on restoring a relationship with God.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

*** The book of Ezra.

*** Ezra is most likely the author of both Ezra and Nehemiah, which might have originally been one book. Ezra is also believed to possibly be the author of the books of the Chronicles. Ezra was a priestly descendant of Aaron and a scribe who lived at the time of Nehemiah. Ezra led the second return from Persia (ca. 458 B.C.), so the completed book was written sometime in the next several decades (ca. 457–444 B.C.).

*** The book of Ezra takes place during the Jewish exile.

--- The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

--- The Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jerusalem) fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

*** King Cyrus of Persia allowed Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple.

*** The first six chapters of Ezra describe the return of 40,000 exiles to Judah in 538 B.C.

--- “Notice though in verse 5 how it wasn't just a select group but everyone whose heart God had moved. God was going to fulfill his purpose for the people and He was going to do a work among those that would hear Him and respond. Are we listening to God today? God wants to do a work through you and me the question comes if our hearts are open and willing to respond.” – Bro. Joseph

--- Led by Jeshua and Zerubbabel, returnees rebuilt the altar and reestablished significant festivals, but due to opposition by groups around Jerusalem the work on the Temple stopped for several years.

*** In today’s lesson, we’ll explore parts of Ezra 3 and 6 as we talk about how worship was restored for the people who had been away from their homeland and their temple for so long.

THE ALTAR REBUILT (Ezra 3:1-7)

1 By the seventh month, the Israelites had settled in their towns, and the people gathered together in Jerusalem. 2 Jeshua son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests along with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his brothers began to build the altar of Israel’s God in order to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. 3 They set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening on it to the Lord even though they feared the surrounding peoples. 4 They celebrated the Festival of Booths as prescribed, and offered burnt offerings each day, based on the number specified by ordinance for each festival day. 5 After that, they offered the regular burnt offering and the offerings for the beginning of each month and for all the Lord’s appointed holy occasions, as well as the freewill offerings brought to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, even though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid. 7 They gave money to the stonecutters and artisans, and gave food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so they could bring cedar wood from Lebanon to Joppa by sea, according to the authorization given them by King Cyrus of Persia.

*** The Israelites settled in back home and immediately began restoring worship and rebuilding the altar.

--- The people had a common goal in wanting to see the altar rebuilt and a common bond of faith in God; with that in their favor, they were prepared to accomplish great things.

--- Have you ever built anything that required a lot of help? Participated in a Habitat for Humanity project? Or like us, just got all the family together to build a backyard playground?

--- QUESTION - What makes community and unity so important when tackling group projects? How does worshiping God unify people?

*** The people’s observance of Mosaic law shows that their hearts were seeking God’s will sacrifices, offerings, and sacred gatherings. Their actions reflected hearts that were rightly aligned with God.

--- It would seem that they learned their lesson of willful and extended disobedience that led to their exile.

***Jeshua and Zerubbabel.

--- Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, most likely is the same person mentioned in Haggai 1:1,12 as “Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.” Zerubbabel is described as the “governor of Judah” in Haggai 1:1.

These two men represented the religious and civil arms of the Jewish community; they joined together to lead an important task in the restoration of God’s covenant people.

--- The biggest concern was from other groups that took advantage of the exile to grab land and resources from Israel. The rebuilding was a threat to their power.

--- It doesn’t take outside armies to take away your worshipfulness. Christy lost her grandmother the day after Christmas. Wende lost her mother the day after Thanksgiving. That can sap the joy of the season right out of you.

--- The restored Jewish community had lapses in their commitment. Sometimes they became intimidated by the enemies of God. However, that’s exactly when the Lord providentially arranged for an Ezra or a Nehemiah to come on the scene. Just as God had positioned Esther for “such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14), He would position Ezra and Nehemiah as the leaders to advance the purposes He had for His covenant people.

--- Question - What can a believer do to overcome the fear of being opposed in the practice of his/her faith by non-Christian interest groups?

--- When God calls His people to accomplish some great task, He always provides what they need to succeed. Consequently, the Jews were able to hire stonecutters and artisans to help with the rebuilding effort. Wood was in scarce supply, so they purchased timber from the renowned cedar forests in Lebanon. They bartered with the residents of Sidon and Tyre, offering food, drink, and oil in exchange for cedar timber. Huge logs were floated on the sea to Joppa and then transported inland to Jerusalem to be used in the temple construction.

THE TEMPLE FOUNDATION REESTABLISHED (Ezra 3:10-11)

10 When the builders had laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple, the priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the Lord, as King David of Israel had instructed. 11 They sang with praise and thanksgiving to the Lord: “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever.” Then all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid.

*** The Temple is ready to be rebuilt.

--- It was all very formal with robes and trumpets and cymbals and worship. Think of the groundbreaking ceremonies we hold, with leaders and their shovels, or using giant scissors to cut a giant ribbon. It's a celebration of something new to come.

*** God gets the glory.

--- When we open up a new building or structure, we often give credit to any number of people or organizations that made it possible—builders, architects, designers, donors, etc. In verse 11 we read how the Israelites gave it all to a faithful God.

--- The people shouted with joy and sang with praise. Surely there was some foot-stomping and hands in the air. They were having some revival up in there!

--- What is a favorite chorus or song that our church sings to express gratitude to God at special times?

WORSHIP RESTORED (Ezra 6:19-22)

19 The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. 20 All of the priests and Levites were ceremonially clean, because they had purified themselves. They killed the Passover lamb for themselves, their priestly brothers, and all the exiles. 21 The Israelites who had returned from exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the Gentiles of the land in order to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. 22 They observed the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with joy, because the Lord had made them joyful, having changed the Assyrian king’s attitude toward them, so that he supported them in the work on the house of the God of Israel.

*** The Israelities feasted during festivals of worship, Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

--- And you thought Southern Baptists were stereotyped as eating every time we get together!

--- God is big on feasting. Why? For enjoyment, encouragement, & to establish a lasting culture (e.g, Christmas). They lasted several days.

***The Israelites celebrated with joy in their worship.

--- They certainly still had issues to deal with, since surrounding ethnic groups didn't want them to return.

--- It would be easy for them to adopt an attitude expressed by Norm on "Cheers:" “It's a dog eat dog world, and I‘m wearing Milkbone underwear.”

--- But they were free to worship in obedience to God's Word again, and their religious life could be renewed.

*** As true worship became reinstated in the national character, the Jews had to reject false gods and unclean, sinful practices.

--- Israelites in exile and back home intermarried with pagan families and adopted pagan ways. Before they could worship God they had to cleanse themselves.

--- Jesus Christ came into this world to cleanse us of our sins. Believe in Him and you can partake in a pure worship with joyous, repentant and grateful hearts.

--- QUESTION - How do you prepare yourself spiritually to worship the one, true God?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** We are all restoration projects.

--- Are you more of a fixer-upper person, or do you prefer new things? (Note that there are many people who have a knack for restoring items so that they take on a new beauty as they are remade - an old car, an antique piece of furniture, making clothes. If someone in your group does, enlist them to share briefly about the commitment - time, money, effort - it takes to bring an object like that back to life. Compare it to Ezra’s efforts to rebuild and restore worship in Jerusalem, once the building began on the altar and the temple.

--- The Book of Ezra invites us to enter the exiled people’s experience as they returned to the land, rebuilt the altar and temple in Jerusalem, and found a restored relationship with God. Imagine, however, the cost for God to restore His covenant people from exile. He had banished them into a foreign land as captives because of their stubborn idolatry and wickedness. Yet He also promised to one day restore them. This involved opening the way for them to return to the promised land but also, and more importantly, to return spiritually to their first love—the Lord God. Their hearts needed to be transformed, so that they could offer God the sincere, genuine worship He had prescribed in the law.

--- God’s ultimate restoration project is the restoration of sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. In Christ, broken and empty people are made new! They receive God’s guarantee of eternal life in heaven.

*** Think about your attitude and examine whether you have a proper attitude of worship as you serve. Ask God to search your heart for sin.

*** Are our worship experiences joy-filled? Think of ways you can increase the joy in your worship.

*** Ask God to prepare our hearts for this new year.

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