5 May 2013


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           I love so much about spring.  Leaves budding.  Baseball starting.  Temperatures rising ... at least most years!   I dislike one thing, however.  I dislike the beginning of allergy season that will run all the way until the first freeze in the fall.  For me it starts with grasses and ends with ragweed, and my eyes water and my nose runs and sometimes I begin to sneeze and don't stop sneezing until a dozen sneezes later.  If it weren't for my allergies, spring and what it brings, would be my favorite time of year.

            And with all my sneezing what phrase do I often hear?  I hear, "God bless you!"  I looked up the history of the link between a sneeze and that phrase, and I discovered a number of theories.  One explanation holds that the custom began in AD 590 when the outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome.  At the time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague.  Saying "God bless you!" became a common effort to halt the disease.

            Another explanation suggests that people once believed that a person's soul could be thrown from their body when they sneezed, and at the same time opened the body to invasion by the Devil or evil spirits.  In the same vain another theory originated from the belief that sneezing was the body's effort to force out an invading evil presence.  In these cases, "bless you" or "God bless you" was used as a sort of shield against evil.  A fourth and final theory, springs from a legend that held that the heart stops beating during a sneeze, and that the phrase "bless you" encourages the heart to continue beating.

            Of course, God's blessings come at us from all sorts of directions.  Sometimes God's blessings come as quickly as a sneeze and at other times they arrive at a snail's pace.  Sometimes they come in the midst of a crisis and other times in joyous events.  Sometimes God's blessings are difficult to spot and other times they are as obvious as the nose on one's face.  This morning we are going to look at three blessings that came the remnant's way while rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.  So, take out your bible and follow along as we unpack the fifth chapter of the Book of Ezra.  Chapter one.  Verse one.


            Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah 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. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set out to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God, helping them.


            Let me bring you up to speed if you missed last Sunday.  The Samaritans, a mixed raced people who lived in the northern part of Israel, had gotten the building project shut down.  They weren't an environmental group.  They did not advocate for spotted owls or baby seals, but they did have a fear of the Southern Kingdom of Israel rising to power once again, and they got their feelings hurt when they offered to help with the building of the temple, but Zerubbabel and Jeshua, turned their offer down, and they became angry and they got into the ear of the Persian governor of the area, making false accusations about the Jews and the rebuilding project, and as a result the project was shut down.  In fact, as we pick up the action in the first verse, building had ceased for 15 years.

            And as a quick aside, I forgot to mention something last week.  The Samaritans after being rebuffed by Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the elders of Israel went on to build their own temple up north, and if you wonder why the Jews of Jesus' day hated the Samaritans so much, you can track it back to the spurious accusations they made against the returned Jews which resulted in the halting of the rebuilding project.

            After this fifteen year delay two of God's prophet's, Haggai and Zechariah, light a fire under the leadership of the people and they commence building once again.  Let's continue on.  Verse 3. 


            At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River (that would be the Euphrates River and the Persians set up 20 provinces lumping Syria, Israel, Phoenicia and Cyprus into one of them) and Shethar-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus, Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?  They also asked them this, What are the names of the men who are building this building?  But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report reached Darius and then answer was returned by letter in reply to it.


            All this brings us to the first blessing the remnant received.  God blessed the remnant, and particularly their leaders, with audacity.  Armed with the word of God from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, they boldly, they audaciously, started building once again.

            Of course, when the Samaritans noticed the resumption of construction, they tipped off Tattenai, the Persian governor of the area, and so he traveled to Jerusalem from Damascus where he lived in search of answers to two questions.  He wanted to know who gave them permission to start building again and what were the names of the people in charge?  Now, that visit would have been intimidating.  He probably came down with his royal entourage and in his best vestments and he asked them an authority question and a name question.  The authority question may not have been all that threatening, but the name question, well that would be scary.  The remnant knew that if King Darius had a list of their names, he could have them all killed for treason, for disobeying the order to suspend building.  That's what he told them in his letter summarized in chapter 4 - stop building.  So naming names would have been intimidating. That would have been scary.  But what did they do?  They responded with audacity.  They did not hide what they were doing.  They told Tattenai what they were doing.

            In the early 16th century Henry VIII was the king of England.  As the king of England, he was also the head of the Church of England.  As such, he would call for the bishops to preach to him. One day, he called Hugh Latimer to preach for him.  Well, Bishop Latimer certainly did.  He laid it on him.  Remember, Henry VIII was a very immoral man. The only reason he formed the Church of England was because the Catholic Church excommunicated him for his many divorces.  He was an immoral man who thought he could have his own little church with puppets for preachers, but Bishop Latimer was no puppet.  So when he came to preach to King Henry, he laid it on him and the king didnt like it.  When Latimer finished, the King ordered him to come back the following Sunday prepared to apologize for the offense he had given.  Well, the following Sunday arrived, and Bishop Latimer stood before the King, and do you know what he did?  He preached the same message he had preached the week before.  Of course, that kind of boldness can get you killed, and it eventually did. He was burned at the stake by King Henry VIIIs daughter, Mary, also known as Bloody Mary.  As the fire began to burn his body, this is what he said: We shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by Gods grace shall never be put out.   That is boldness.  That is audacity.  Buoyed by words of the prophets, that's what the remnant possessed.

            Second, God blessed the remnant with a fair assessment.  Follow along as I read Tattenai's report to King Darius of Persia.  It begins in the middle of verse seven.


            To Darius the king, all peace!  May it be known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built of hewn stone, and timber is laid in the walls; this work is being done diligently and prospers in their hands.


            In other words, the project impressed Tattenai.  This wasnt just some sort of flimsy structure.  They were building with high quality materials, using great stones.  The Hebrew literally means "stones of rolling" that is to say stones so large they needed to be rolled, and the work seemed to be going efficiently.  Let's continue.


            Then we spoke to those elders and asked them, Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure? We also asked them their names, for your information, so that we might write down the names of the men at their head. This was their reply to us: We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. But because our ancestors had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia.


            Note, the Babylonian captivity had served it's purpose.  The remnant understood why they had been deported.  It wasn't because God had abandoned them and it wasn't because God was mean.  It was because the remnant's ancestors had angered God by continually ignoring God's commandments. 


            However, King Cyrus of Babylon, in the first year of his reign, made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt. Moreover, the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem and had brought into the temple of Babylon, these King Cyrus took out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to a man named Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor. He said to him, Take these vessels; go and put them in the temple in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site. Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem; and from that time until now it has been under construction, and it is not yet finished. And now, if it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem.  Let the King send us his pleasure in the matter. 


            Note, the fair assessment.  This was in contrast to the assessment Tattenai's predecessor had made to Darius.  Tattenai's predecessor wrote a letter to Darius based purely on hearsay, on information the Samaritans had provided him.  Not Tattenai.  He went to investigate for himself and after the investigation he let the king know what he and his entourage saw.  Tattenai described a little bit about the construction.  Then, in verses 11-16, the letter moves from their description of the work to what Zerubbabel and Jeshua had said about the resumption of the construction, and heres the amazing thing.  Tattenai fully reported what the remnant had to say about their work.  Right down to each and every reference to God.  He gave them a fair assessment. 

            Wouldn't that be nice if media sources did the same?  Wouldn't it be nice if MSNBC did not lean so far to the left and Fox News so far to the right?  Wouldn't it be nice if people of faith were portrayed a little less negatively on TV and in movies? Wouldn't it be nice if Tattenai were in charge of network programming?  God blessed the  people with a fair assessment.  We'll see the result of that fair assessment in the next chapter, but here's a hint.  It's another blessing.

            Then one last blessing and we are done.  We already read it, but skipped over it.  Thirdly, God blessed the remnant with advocacy.  Verse five.


            But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report reached Darius and then answer was returned by letter in reply to it.


            The eye of God was upon them.  In other words, God had noticed their predicament and God was in their corner.  God was on their side.  I'm reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in this Letter to the Romans (8:31).  He wrote, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" 

            Trudy and I went to see the movie "42" on Friday night.  It's the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.  In the movie there is a key scene when Jackie Robinson is being heckled by fans in Cincinnati.  He's out in the field playing first base.  In the midst of the cruel heckling, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, from nearby Louisville - a man from the South, goes over to Robinson and puts his arm around him.  That moment helped tip the scales in Jackie's favor.

            If God is for us, who can be against us?  The next time we face something tough, something challenging, why don't we picture Jesus walking over to us and putting his arm around us?  Let's never forget that his eye is upon us and he sees what we are facing and he is not only with us, but he is also for us.  What a blessing.  What a blessing.  Amen.