We're beginning a brief series today on Ezra. Ezra is a book of hope that comes during one of the darkest periods in Judah's history. Judah, by the way, was the southern kingdom of what used to be the united nation of Israel before it split in two. The book of Ezra provides some hope at one of the darkest periods of Judah's history, and I think it will provide some hope for us too.
Today's message is for those of us who know that we're not where we ought to be, who are going through a hard time in part of our lives. Maybe it's a marriage that's disappointing. It could be feeling like we're trapped in a dead-end job, or that there's a really tough situation in our family that we can't fix. Maybe it's that feeling of helplessness – we can't overcome a bad habit or a besetting sin.
I think everyone here knows what it's like to be going through a low period and to feel helpless to do anything about it. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic either. It can just be that sense that things aren't all that we'd hoped they'd be. We wanted more.
So what I want to ask you this morning is where in your life you are dissatisfied. It could be a relationship, or your spiritual life, your job, your family, the church. Where do you really feel like you're at a low point, somewhere in your life where you really need to be restored? I'll give you a minute to think about this.
Before we look at a message of hope that comes in the middle of a dark period, let's begin by reviewing the background of how Judah got into the mess.
God had rescued a group of people from slavery in Egypt and had promised to make them a nation – Israel – and give them land. When he rescued them out of Egypt he promised them:
The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deuteronomy 28:9-11)
God had promised to make them a great nation, that all of their enemies would be defeated, and they would know nothing but prosperity if they followed the God who had rescued them out of Egypt. That's how it was supposed to be.
But things hadn't worked out very well. If you read the Hebrew Scriptures, you find out that they never lived up to their end of the deal, and they had never experienced everything that God had promised. But things were never lower than right before the events described in the book of Ezra.
In 587 BC, after a two and a half year siege, Jerusalem was conquered. The Temple – the center of worship – was destroyed. The king's sons were killed right before his eyes, and it was the last thing that he ever saw because they then put his eyes out. The Davidic monarchy – the line of succession from the greatest king of Israel, King David – had fallen apart. Israel had ceased to be an independent nation. And the best of the population had been sent to exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles away. Everything had fallen apart.
They were at the lowest point in their history. What do you do when your hopes have been dashed, and you're ready to give up hope in some area of your life?
Ezra brings a message of hope in one word: restoration. The passage we're going to look at tells us two things that we need to know when we're at our lowest. The two things that we need to know who's in charge of restoration, and what confidence can we have that restoration will happen?
First, who causes restoration? Who is in charge of restoration?
Look with me at Ezra 1:1-4. It says:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
"This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: "'The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you—may their God be with them, and let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'"
So Judah is in exile and really has no hope of seeing things change. Jerusalem is decimated. There's nothing they can do to go back.
But then something happens. This king comes to power named Cyrus. Cyrus started out as a nobody. Over time, he rose from a virtual nobody to kingship over what was Babylon. He founded the Persian Empire, which superseded the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus says in verse 2, "The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth." He wasn't exaggerating. According to one inscription, Cyrus ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen.
In the first year of his reign, he completely reverses Oriental policy. He decides it would be a good idea to restore the captives, and not only restore them but provide them with all the gold and sliver that had been taken from the Temple. Suddenly, out of nowhere, they're restored.
Question: what is the cause of this restoration? Why was Judah restored when they were at their lowest point, and they couldn't help themselves? At the human level, it just looks like the arbitrary decision of a new king. It looks like a coincidence or that it's just a random thing.
But Ezra gives us the reason why they were restored. In verse 1 he says, "The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus." God, who raised up nations to chastise his people, now raised up a ruler to restore his people. It was all in God's hands.
Do you know what Ezra is saying? He's saying that restoration is God's work. Judah didn't do anything to restore itself. It was a sovereign act of God in which God moved the heart of a king to accomplish his purposes. Restoration is God's work.
The question for us is: Is restoration still God's work today? Does God still restore lives and marriages and churches and relationships, or is it all up to us? There's a whole school of thought that says it's up to us to restore ourselves. Many people think that the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves."
I was thinking about this the other day when I heard about Lindsay Lohan, the actress and singer, in the news. Her estranged father's said that she's unfortunately addicted to alcohol and painkillers. Her father's said, ""First she needs to get clean, then she needs to let God in her life."
It got me thinking. A lot of us try to get clean and then let God into our lives. We try to deal with our problems in our own strength and then turn to God. We try to restore our lives and marriages.
But fixing ourselves never works. It just doesn't. The Denver Business Journal reports that self-help is a $6 billion dollar a year industry, but despite all of the books and seminars, "the goals go unmet – the 20 pounds always stays on, the pocketbook is always empty and life's desires remain unfulfilled." Even if it did work, it would lead to moralism and pride. We become boastful, proud of our own efforts.
But here's the message of Ezra – actually, the message of the whole Bible. It's not our job to restore ourselves. Restoration is God's work. God doesn't help those who help themselves. He actually helps those who are completely helpless, who don't have a chance of restoring themselves. "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6).
This takes huge pressure off of us. We don't have to fix our own lives. We don't have to fix our churches and our marriages. We don't have to be our own savior, because God has provided a better Savior for us than we could ever be.
Let me put it this way. Is the Bible good advice or is it good news? How you answer that question makes all the difference in the world. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that advice is counsel about something to do that hasn't happened yet, but you can do it. If the Bible is good advice, then the pressure's on us to follow that advice. But it will crush us, because no ordinary person has ever been able to follow the advice in Scripture. Nobody has ever been able to do what God commanded.
But what if the Bible is good news? What if the Bible is about a God who did what we couldn't do for ourselves, who stood as our representative and obeyed on our behalf, who took our sin so that we could be sinless, who forgave us and reconciled to God and at this very moment is interceding for us at the right hand of God? What if the Bible is good news not about what we have to do but what Christ has done on our behalf? And what if we let that good news transform us in every area of our lives – our work lives, our marriages, our churches?
And what if we see this good news as not only what saves us, but which gives us everything we need to live the Christian life? Some of us who were saved by the gospel are trying to live by our own power. But ongoing restoration is God's work too. Listen to this:
"The gospel" is not just a way to be saved from the penalty of sin, but [it] is the fundamental dynamic for living the whole Christian life – individually and corporately, privately and publicly. In other words, the gospel is not just for non-Christians, but also for Christians. This means the gospel is not just the A-B-C's but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not accurate to think "the gospel" is what saves non-Christians and then what matures Christians is trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart, and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on. (Tim Keller)
I don't know where in your life, or in the life of this church, you need restoration. But I will tell you this. The answer is not found in trying harder or trying to fix yourselves. The answer is the gospel. God is still the one who restores, just as he did in the time of Ezra. It makes all the difference in the world whether you are trying to save yourself, or if you are trusting what God has already done in Christ and allowing him to transform you. Restoration is always God's work.
Whose job is restoration? It's God's job. I want to look at one more question from this passage.
What confidence can we have that restoration will take place?
Restoration is God's work, we've discovered. But the second question is what confidence can we have that restoration will take place?
To answer this question, we need to look at some of the background of the restoration in Ezra's day. Notice verse 1: " In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia…" What does he mean when he refers to "the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah"?
In Jeremiah 29:10-14, the prophet wrote:
This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."
This must have seemed impossible. "When seventy years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place." The deportation to Babylon started in 605 BC. That would make the 70th year 538 BC. Cyrus began his reign over Babylon that very year. God got the work done. He did what he had promised and arranged the timing just as he had said. God gets the work done. We can trust God's timing even when it doesn't make sense to us, even when it doesn't look like he'll get the work done.
But there's more. This is going to be so hard for you to believe that you'll be tempted to look for some other explanation for how this happened. 150 years before Cyrus came to power, the prophet Isaiah said this in Isaiah 44:24 and 28:
This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself…who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid.'"
A few chapters before in Isaiah 41, Isaiah reported God's words:
Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment.
Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service?
You know who he's talking about there? Cyrus. Not only did God get his work done, but God gave the exact timeline and fulfilled it just in time. He even gave the name of the king that he would raise up 150 years before this king came to power.
You're either going to dismiss this all as a fabrication after the fact – or you'll bow down in worship to the God who reigns over history. "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes" (Daniel 4:25).
His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?" (Daniel 4:34-35)
If you find this hard to believe this morning, I don't blame you. But the Bible teaches us that God does what he says he will do. Restoration is God's work, and because he is faithful, he always gets the job of restoration done.
Paul writes in Philippians 1:6: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Even when it looks like nothing's happening, even when things look hopeless, God is carrying on his work in you, and he will complete it. He will use people you won't expect, but he will get his work done. He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion. You can bank on it.
And if you need restoration in your life, and who doesn't, know this: God keeps his promises, restores his people, is in control of history, and one day will ultimately restore all things. We don't have to fix ourselves. We don't have to fix our marriages. The Bible, the gospel, is the good news of God acting to restore everything – all creation – through Jesus Christ. We can be transformed, not by what we do, but by what God has done for us through Christ. That's where the real power is. Restoration is God's work. He, not us, will get it done.
Father, we need restoration. Our lives do. Our marriages do. Our hearts need restoration. And so does our church.
Thank you that you are the God who has taken on the work of restoring and renewing all things. What we could not do for ourselves, you do through history, and most powerfully through the death and the life of Jesus Christ.
May we today stop trying to act as our own savior, and instead trust in the one who restores all things. It's in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.