RESTORING A REMNANT

EZRA 2

14 Apr 2013

 

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             Its difficult to find anything more boring to read than a list of names, but thats where we find ourselves this morning.  Our passage for today is sort of like reading through a phone book.  By the way, what do you do when you get a new phone book?  If you are like me the first thing you do is look up your name in the book.  That's the one and only thing I look forward to seeing when getting a new phone book, but what about the list here?  We are not going to find our names listed here.

            Of course, even though we are not going to find our name in this list of names in the second chapter of Ezra, that doesnt make it any less important.   When I come upon a chapter like this my mind goes to what the Apostle Paul wrote in II Timothy 3:16.  Maybe you remember it:  All scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.   How much scripture is inspired according to the Apostle Paul?  According to him "all" scripture is inspired by God, so our task today is to see the profitability in this seemingly mundane passage of Scripture.

            Now, unlike a lot of the name lists in Scripture, this one isnt a genealogy.  No list of so and so begat so and so who begat so and so.  Instead, what we have here is really more like passenger manifest, a list of people heading back home from Babylonian captivity. 

            Last week we looked at restoring resources.  We looked at how Cyrus of Persia, who shortly after conquering the Babylonians, issued a decree allowing the Israelite exiles to go back home, and as a part of the decree he restored, he gave back, the Temple vessels and utensils that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple and took to Babylon with him.  Today we turn our attention to another restoration, this time God's restoring a remnant of people to begin reconstructing the Temple. 

            Those of you who sew are familiar with the term "remnant."  I'm somewhat familiar with remnants because my wife Trudy sews, and every now and again she drags me, that's a rather pejorative statement, "drags me," maybe I better say "escorts" me to Hancock's or Jo Ann's Fabrics.  For the uninitiated, remnants are discounted, small pieces of fabric.  They are usually available near the cutting table in fabric stores and they are usually the end of the bolt of fabric, but also can be pieces of fabric with slight damage.   

            The term "remnant" is a recurring term in the Bible and the Anchor Bible Dictionary describes it as "What is left of a community after it undergoes a catastrophe."  For the exiles heading back home to Babylon they had experienced a catastrophe, at least their parents and grandparents had.  They had been defeated by the Babylonians, had their Temple destroyed, and had been taken into captivity.  Now, after seventy years of exile, they were headed back home.  As we consider this first wave of people heading back home, Ezra will lead the second wave, I want us to look at the four categories of people listed here.

            The first category of people headed back home are leaders.   Their names are listed in the second verse, and if you were here last Sunday, you will recognize the first name, Zerubbabel, who was of the line of David, and was the prince of Judah.  Now these leaders had their work cut out for them.  They had to get over 42,000 people to follow them, but it wasnt like they were just getting them to follow them down the street.  They were leading them from a place that had been their home for as long as they could remember.  The majority of them grew up there.  They had raised kids there.  They had built lives there.  They were comfortable there.  Think about how comfortable you would be in Bellevue, or Papillion, or Omaha if your family had arrived here 70 years ago.  And now God placed this group of leaders in a position where they were to lead them away from what had become familiar to them.

            Contrast their task to that of Moses.  The situation was a lot different for Moses. In Moses day, the Israelites were being used as slave laborers.  The Israelites of Moses day were far from comfortable, and that wasnt the case with the Israelites of Zerubbabels day.  Things werent too bad for them.  They were allowed to own their own land and pretty much live like regular Persians.  Thats what the Persians were looking for anyway.

            So, imagine their sales pitch.  Hi, Im Zerubbabel and these are my partners:  Jeshua, Nehemiah and so on and so forth.  My, what a nice house you have.  And what a great piece of property!  Were here to ask you to leave all this and come with us to the destroyed city of Jerusalem.  Once we get all the rubble cleared and the temple and wall rebuilt, youll just love it.  Oh, by the way, we're going to ask you to help us clear the rubble and rebuild the temple and the wall.

            Imagine trying to sell that!  But they did.  Not all the Israeli exiles followed them home, but a good number of them did, 42,000 in all, plus their servants.

            The second category of people heading back home are laypeople.  When you have a child headed to college, you learn how to fill out scholarship applications.  There is a very common question on both scholarship and college admittance applications.  Many of those forms ask the question, Are you a leader? One time, an honest young woman came to that question on a college application.  She wrestled with the answer for a long time.  She knew what the answer was supposed to be.  She was supposed to talk about all the wonderful leadership qualities she had, but she also knew that she didnt have those qualities.  She knew she wasnt a leader.  So, should she be honest or give them what they wanted to hear?  Since she was such an honest young woman, she gave the honest answer.  She wrote down that she wasnt a leader and mailed in the application.  Of course she expected the worst.  Heres the letter she received back:

 

            Dear Applicant, A study of our application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new freshman leaders.  We are accepting you to our college because we feel it necessary for them to have at least one follower.

 

            Out of over 42,000 people, God only called 11 people to be their leaders.  God called the rest of them to follow their leadership, and notice how the author grouped the people in verses 3-35.  The ones in verse 3 through verse 20 are grouped according to their family names.  But the ones from verse 21 through 35 are grouped according to the town they were from.  Why the difference?  One reason could be because that describes the class of people they were.  The ones who were grouped according to their family names were probably what we would consider upper crust folks.  They were people whose family had made a name for themselves.  They had land and possessions in their family names.  The Parosh estate, the Arah plantation, the Zattu mountain home.  They were the old money Jewish names in Babylon.

            But notice that thats not the only people listed.  From verse 21 through 35, theyre grouped according to what town theyre from because they didnt have a big family name.  They probably didnt own land in their family names.  They were the working class folks.  In our day, they would be the ones who make it paycheck to paycheck.  Theyre the people who dont spend a lot of time worrying about the inheritance tax, because theyre spending their kids inheritance.  Now, let me ask, "Which group had a harder time packing up and leaving Babylon?"  Well, I think it was a tie.  What a difficult thing it would be to leave the security, heritage and tradition of the old home place.  On the other hand, what a difficult thing it would be to leave when you have no idea where the next paychecks coming from.  But these are the kind of people it takes to accomplish Gods work.  God calls courageous, adventurous people from all different backgrounds, and of all different means and abilities to get done what God wants done.

            The third category of people headed back home was the religious professionals.   And boy, did they have a lot of religious professionals.

            First, we have the priests and the Levites, people born into their position.  You might remember how the tribe of Levi was the only tribe not to bow down and worship the golden calf, and because of that God set them apart to deal with matters of worship.  You also may remember that you had to be Levite to be a priest, but not all Levites were priests.  Priests dealt with sacrificial issues and the Levites dealt with the other matters related to worship.  Originally, King David had organized the priests into 24 family groups.  The sad thing about the priests in our passage is that they only represented 4 of the 24 groups.  The situation with the priests was sad, but it was nothing compared to the situation with the Levites. The Law originally provided for many times the number of Levites as compared to priests.  In other words if there were 10 priests, there might be well over 100 Levites, but heading back home there were less Levites than priests. 

            In addition to the priests and Levites, note verse 41: "the singers."  In other words, God stirred the choir to head back home.  And verse 42 shows that God also called the gatekeepers, whom given their job description in I Chronicles 9, we would call "ushers" today.  The priests and Levites were called by birth.  The singers and ushers were called by task.

            So were that last group of religious professionals mentioned in verse 43, the temple servants.   The Hebrew literally means "the dedicated ones," and as seen in verse 55 some of these temple servants, these dedicated ones, had descended from the time of Solomon.  Now, what's important to remember is these temple servants were descended from people that Israel had once conquered.  And instead of killing them, the Israelites allowed them to be circumcised and serve in the temple.  Think of them as people who love the Temple and love worship and faithfully work behind the scenes to make sure things run smoothly.  A number of you here today would be in the temple servant category given all the time and energy you give to the church, working behind the scenes.

            So let's sum up.  Thus far God has stirred the hearts of leaders, lay people and now religious professionals to rebuild Israel.  That leads us to the final category of people headed back home.  Look with me at verse 59:  "The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their families or their descent. whether they belonged to Israel."  And then note verse 61, Also, of the descendants of the priests, and they are listed and then this comment in verse 62.  These looked for their entries in the genealogical records, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.

            The fourth category of people headed back home is leftovers.    When growing up our kids were leftover snobs.  As an adult our daughter still seldom serves leftovers.  I think our daughter-in-law has trained our son to eat leftovers, but growing up neither of our children liked them.  And here's the point.  Thank God, that God is not a leftover snob, and as we look at verses 59 through 67, one thing strikes us: what a hodgepodge of characters!  Israelites who couldnt prove their lineage.  Priests who had misplaced their ordination certificates.  Male and female servants.  A hodgepodge of people, the outcasts of the time, but all equally important for the work God was asking them to do.  God called them all.  From Zerubbabel and Jeshua to the lowest maid-servant, God called them to rebuild their lives in Israel.

            God is still in the calling business and God calls each of us to build the new Israel, the church.  Whether you are a leader, a layperson, a religious professional or a leftover, God is calling you to do what you do best to the honor and glory of God.   Quoting Jesus (Matthew 16:18):  I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  And hes asking us to leave the comfort of our surroundings and assist in that building project.  Amen.