The grandboys who live nearby knocked early this morning. Oak had a new bike and wanted to show me, having handed down his old one to Roan, who rode it wobbly and proudly, just learning to ride a bike this week.
“Wanna ride the trails with us?”
I’m glad God gets the importance of bike rides with grandkids. I used to think he’d be more pleased if I stayed home and read his words first thing.
But now I understand that riding bikes with them is a way God’s love puts skin on. Plus, it’s fun. The most important part of my day is loving them the way he loves me, which means playing pretty much anytime they wander by.
Thanks for the freedom, God. Thanks for the love. You’re always surprising me with who you are.
2 Chronicles ended yesterday with Judah’s destruction by Babylon. The most grievous thing was the loss of their gorgeous temple. Those who weren’t killed were carried off into exile to become servants of King Nebuchadnezzar. The land had its sabbath rests while they were gone, fulfilling Jeremiah’s word that it would rest for as many sabbaths as they neglected to observe it–seventy years’ worth, 2 Chronicles 36:21; Leviticus 26:35.
Cyrus, the king of Persia, came to power over Babylon, and in his first year ruling there, decided to build a temple to “the Lord, the God of heaven,” because God moved his heart to do so. Cyrus gave God’s people permission to return to Jerusalem to begin the work of rebuilding, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.
The book of Ezra starts right where 2 Chronicles ended–with Cyrus’ proclamation that anyone who wanted to go and help, could, and that those who didn’t should help with contributions. Neighbors gave the returners gifts for the new temple–silver and gold, goods and livestock, and freewill offerings, among other things. An itemized list of the valuables Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple he destroyed is given, because Cyrus returned these things to God’s people, down to the last silver serving spoon, Ezra 1:1-11.
Then there are the lists of people who return by families, by hometowns, and by occupations. Priests and levites, worship leaders, security guards, and servants are named and counted, a total of about 50,000 men plus women, children, and slaves, Ezra 2:1-65. The grand total of the returning exiles is believed to have been about 150,000 (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezra-2/).
I’m trying to care about all these details. But I have to admit, So what? comes to mind first. So what that all these anonymous people of so long ago made the trip home? So what that the king of Persia gave them permission to go? So what that some were priests and levites and singers? I decide it’s time to take a break since my computer locks up along with my mind. I cannot type a word.
I take a walk around the front circle to clear my head, and it’s then when more “who God is” surprises flood in. Turns out, there are quite a lot as I think through my list of “so whats.”
“So what” is that God keeps his promises to his people. God’s plan to bring them home after their exile is unfolding right on schedule. Jeremiah had said that captivity in Babylon would last 70 years, and sure enough, 70 long years of waiting later, Cyrus comes to power and gets this crazy idea in his first year.
God is in charge of all our days and months and years, and he’s working to bring about good for us, keeping his promises to bless us, even when we can’t tell he’s doing a thing.
“So what” is that God doesn’t hold grudges against his people, even for egregious sins. The Israelites were regularly engaging in sex with prostitutes in God’s temple and calling it worship, just to name one of many they were doing when Babylon came in. God doesn’t kick them out of Jerusalem and say “good riddance.” He kicks them out to get their attention, and when they repent, he brings them back in love and forgiveness. If he did this for them, surely he does the same for us. God doesn’t change, ￼Mal 3:6.
“So what” is that God rules over all the power and wealth on the planet. God moves in Cyrus, the most powerful pagan king on earth, to send his people home to build a temple for worship. God even sets up a GoFundMe for it. Cyrus calls on all Jews to donate, most of whom have gotten comfy in captivity and stayed behind. What’s more, Cyrus says his flunkies in other kingdoms have to contribute, too.
Powerful people and big budget needs don’t intimidate God. He’s the King of Kings, after all. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He turns the hearts of kings anywhere he wishes. What’s a few tons of gold to him? Not a lot, as it turns out. Proverbs 21:1.
“So what” is that God calls on the lowly to do this important work. He didn’t bring back a mighty government or a king. He didn’t bring bankers or builders, doctors or lawyers, entrepreneurs or economists to rebuild the temple and reestablish a nation that once boasted millions.
He first brought in only a few thousand people of humble backgrounds, who wanted to make the trip. Who were these? Besides priests, they were butchers, bakers, security guards, song leaders, supply managers, storage room keepers. These were the occupations of the Levites, the tribe of people God had set aside to do the work of the temple.
There were also temple servants–log splitters and water carriers–who had descended from Gibeonite neighbors. These were the ones who deceived the Israelites when they first arrived in the promised land and as a result, became their servants, Joshua 9. God included these? Yep. God’s always been about bringing in all nations and races and peoples. With God, bygones are long-gones (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezra-2/).
And there were the descendants of King Solomon’s servants, thought to be foreign born and grafted in to be part of God’s people, too, as God has grafted in any non-Jew, before or since, who wants a relationship with him (http://enduring word.com/bible-commentary/ezra-2/).
The only mention made of occupations in these two chapters has to do with the work that’s done at the temple, which was mainly serving. God has brought back everyone involved in worship, even before there’s a temple to worship in. And as far as I can tell, there’s no grading expert or contractor in the bunch to jump on an excavator or lay down some blockwork.
There’s also no meeting of the big dogs for how they’ll govern themselves, or even for how they’ll buy and sell with the locals. While a building and a government and an economy matter in a society, none of of them matter most.
What matters most is who people worship. It’s who or what we worship that drives our hearts, our families, our communities, and our nations. It’s not politics or finances or healthcare or education. Who we worship determines who we are and what we do and sets us on the path to freedom or bondage. It’s as true today as it was then.
Ole’ Cyrus gets it because God’s given him the 411. He’s proof that no one and nothing is too hard for God to influence. It’s God’s plans and purposes that stand–not man’s. And he doesn’t need city planners and a lot of powerful people to build his kingdom. He uses who he chooses, and sometimes it’s those who don’t even know who he is. And often, it’s the last folks you’d expect.
When God keeps his word to restore Israel, he does it by bringing in the worship team and starting church. He does it by restoring worship between himself and his people first, because worship matters most. It’s what we were created for. It connects us to the source of life with all the trimmings. It brings heaven to earth.
It’s those on bottom, whose hearts long for him because they’ve learned how much they need him, who worship. What God wants are humble servants who know his word and hang out with him. These are the folks he fills with himself to do what they cannot do without him–spread the good news of his love to everyone.
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
Paul comes in, as if right on cue, and says the same thing with different words:
“…God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise;
God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” I Cor 1:27.
This is the God who uses temple workers to jumpstart a nation, a crucified Savior to bring life to thieves and crooks, and ordinary people preaching, telling one another the good news of his love. How absurd!
Why does God work like this?
Paul says it’s so that no one can boast before him that their goodness or giftedness made any difference. It’s the work of God’s Spirit in us that breaks hard hearts and transforms broken lives, bringing each of us into his kingdom, 1 Corinthians 1:29-30, 2:5.
Only God can do a thing like this.
I love the way Psalm 27 ends:
“Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord,” 27:14.
Why wait for the Lord?
Because as we saw in Ezra, he’s in charge, and he keeps his promises to take care of us. We can trust a God who keeps his words, no matter what.
Our job isn’t to take charge and control the story he’s telling. It’s to join up with him as he tells it. Waiting. Being strong. Taking heart. And oh yeah, in case we forgot, waiting some more.
I get stronger by waiting and trusting him to act, not trying to figure out how he needs my help. I join in what he’s doing to bring love and peace on earth by depending on him to supply what I cannot. Love and peace are not in my wheelhouse.
Waiting enlarges my perspective, makes me soft, and reminds me that I’m weak and need help, just like everybody else. There’s a lot of “work” I do when I wait for God to move, since not surprisingly, waiting isn’t in my wheelhouse either. I have to repent a lot.
But the waiting encourages me, too. I “take heart” as I watch him work in a friend’s heart. Or when he resolves a situation with my enemy. Or when something knotty seems to “just work itself out.”
Waiting reminds me who God is–and who he’s not.
And that helps me to let go of a lot of stuff and to take heart, because God…
…lets bike rides with little boys be part of how I love.
…forgives and loves even big, fat sinners and has brought that good news to earth in Jesus.
…keeps his promises to me and to everyone who trusts.
…holds all the power in the universe and yet uses the humble to carry his message of love, because he is “gentle and lowly in heart” himself, and it’s only the humble who get him, Matthew 11:29.
God is a God NO ONE could have dreamed up.