28. Expectations Recap 3

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 28. Expectations Recap 3

We have come to the end of this part of the series that took us through historical characters in the Old Testament and concluded at the beginning of the Gospels with Simeon. From now on we will consider expectations in the more familiar form of ‘hope’ that is now part of our Christian lives as a result of the work of Jesus. But before we do that, we will do what we have done twice before in this series and have a Recap to cover those studies since Recap 2, to highlight and hold on to the key points that have been made in these latter studies.

In the studies prior to this we had seen David chosen by Samuel, David having to wait some time for the fulfilment of that anointing to become king, and David slaying Goliath. Moving on from there we then considered the growing awareness that David had that he was in fact there by the working of God. We saw that we can have expectations formed by a word from God coming but, very often, the ‘vision’ has to die as we wait for the Lord to bring it about. Once He starts bringing it into fulfilment, we then have the challenge of believing that is what is happening and cooperating with Him in that.  We realise that our earlier expectations were real but now they become more concrete, we might say.

Following David, we then considered his son, Solomon who, as his father was clearly in his last days, first worked at removing remaining ‘belligerents’ from the previous reign and then, when confronted by the Lord in a dream, recognised the difficulty of the task before him and his need of the Lord’s wisdom, which had then been granted him. Solomon’s expectations of the future before him as the king following in his father’s footsteps were quite realistic. He knew it would be difficult and he recognised his need. We asked the question whether we too recognise the need for the Lord’s wisdom in our lives as we look forward to the things before us.

As we watched the dividing of the kingdom after Solomon died, we considered that variety of expectations that people have of God and suggested that it was inadequate expectations of God that were behind all that happened in both the northern and southern kingdoms. The north stumbled over idol worship and never recovered from it. We saw the number of times the Lord spoke into the situation but His determination was to divide the kingdom after Solomon’s disobedience, and pondered on reasons why it should be. The primary reason seems to be to double the chances of future kings getting it right. The opportunities of Israel – north or south – to get it right with God, were thus doubled. The tragedy is that both kingdoms failed to get it right. It was, therefore, also a double opportunity for sin to be revealed through these two kingdoms and perhaps as we compare them as we read about them, their failures are accentuated in the comparison. We also noted that an observation of history reveals that what we see in Israel is repeated again and again in the nations of the world. Sin is clearly the motivating force behind multiple wars at national or international level and family divisions at individual level.

Jumping to the end of the existence of the southern kingdom, the north having passed away long before, we saw Jeremiah speaking to the nation in the years running up to the exile and pondered on the folly of the nation that (unlike the rest of the world) had amazing records of their dealings with God through well over three centuries, and marvelled that they obviously disregarded or forgot these. These was a people who had received prophetic words galore and who knew what was expected of them after they had entered into the covenant with God at Sinai.  Although words of hope were brought through Jeremiah, the main thrust of his ministry had been a call to repent. He laid out clear cut expectations of what would happen if they failed to heed him, but nevertheless their lived in deception with the expectation that it would be ‘all right’. It wasn’t.

Staying with Jeremiah we observed the circumstances that rolled out in the final destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the life of freedom that was granted to Jeremiah by the Babylonians. We saw how a remnant gathered after the Babylonians had left, leaving behind a governor, and we saw how some of that remnant killed the governor and then made everyone decamp to Egypt despite Jeremiah bringing a clear warning against doing that. It is a story that tells us that even if we are God’s servants, the ways of this fallen world may carry us into circumstances we wished we didn’t have. But the biggest lesson, as we watch Jeremiah continue to prophesy in Egypt, is the call to faithfulness regardless what we expect of the days to come. As a subtext to that story, is the awareness that in this fallen world, changing hearts does not come easily and often it seems, it is only the pressures of trials and tribulations that will truly change a heart towards God.

Following the years of the exile, we recognised that humanly speaking Israel’s expectations of the future had diminished to zero unless they heard and believed Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ prophecy. It was possible to maintain good expectations for the future only if they held on to God’s recent word to them. We are not called to have faith built on the obvious, because more often than not, the Lord does not reveal how He will bring about that which appears impossible to us at the moment. Israel could not have foreseen the coming of Cyrus and God’s ability to move on him and get him to send Israel back to their land to rebuild the temple. Similarly for us, we have to recognise that we may have expectations from the Lord in the form of personal prophecy, but more often than not we will not have a clue how that can come about, but it will. You cannot foresee a miracle! That is the shortcoming if expectations!

The years passed and then a man named Nehemiah heard the state of Jerusalem. Yes, the temple had been rebuilt but basically the city was still a demolition site. His heart was moved in anguish and the end result is Nehemiah back in Jerusalem rebuilding the walls of the city.  The expectations of the majority did not include the rebuilding of the city. It was down to one man to have such a hope and, we believe with God’s support, he brought it about. The expectations of just one person can change history; such is the significance of the individual – you or me? The Lord looks for those who will stand in the gap, who will intercede, or who will step up to serve, people who say we do not just have to accept the status quo if it runs contrary to God’s heart.

And so we eventually arrived at the New Testament and bedded these historical reflections of expectations of men or women of the Old Testament, and we did it with, again, just one man, Simeon, a man who was righteous and devout, a man of the Spirit, a man open to the leading of the Spirit and a man that God used to encourage His two servants, Mary and Joseph. Again, and we must emphasise it, it was just one man in Israel who was alert to the purposes of God being unfolded before him. He challenges us to be people who, similarly, will have our eyes and our hearts open to be alert for the moving of God.

Each of this last set of studies since the last Recap, have been about individuals:

  • David, who began to realise that the expectations he had as a result Samuel’s anointing, were now starting to be fulfilled.
  • Solomon, who realised that with the task of leading the nation before him, he needed the wisdom of God to match the expectations that he had of that role.
  • The two kings who caused the kingdom to be divided, whose expectations of God were too low, so that they failed to heed the opportunity to be godly kings.
  • Jeremiah, the faithful prophet of God in all the years running up to the destruction of Jerusalem, who recognised that his expectations for the future of the nation depended entirely on how the kings would respond to God’s word. One way – repentance – would result in future hope and continuation. The other way – rejection – would result in destruction and restoration only seventy years in the future.
  • Jeremiah, again the faithful prophet, but prophesying to the remnant escaping to Egypt. His expectations were not to do with his end but with his ability to keep on being the mouthpiece of God, wherever he was. His expectations were all about faithfulness.
  • Cyrus, who came to understand he could be God’s means of His people returning to their land and rebuilding the temple, an expectation probably no one else had had before that!
  • Nehemiah, one man whose expectations flowed against the general tide of acceptance of the status quo, a man whose heart moved him into dangerous territory to fulfil a hope that surely was based on the heart of God.
  • Simeon, another man on his own, who set his heart towards God and caught the heart of God as He brought His Son to the temple, so that His servants could be encouraged. Simeon’s expectations were based on the heart of God and thus caught the move of God.

This is the message of this last set of studies: individuals are important in the kingdom of God and the expectations we have of God are all-important: that we are called by God with a purpose, to achieve that purpose we need His wisdom, His power and His leading, that is at the heart of godliness, called to be witnesses to Him, to remain faithful regardless of what anyone else may be doing, open to Him to do what only He can do – a miracle to open a door or fulfil a vision, called to have hearts that can be moved by Him, called to be Spirit-people who can be led by Him, people who are called to achieve the impossible  because we are simply vessels of God. May we learn these things.

 

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26. Heart Cries

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 26. Heart Cries

Neh 1:3,4  They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven

In the previous study we noted that it is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430, and we briefly noted that Ezra starts off with God prompting king Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to the land to rebuild the Temple, in accordance with the word He had spoken through Isaiah a century before, and more recently through Jeremiah. Dates are significant in all this, so please try and cope with them all.

The start of Ezra identifies the time as “the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,” (Ezra 1:1) which was 538BC. The temple rebuilding appears to have started in the Spring of 536BC (Ezra 3:8) and was completed in 516BC (Ezra 6:15) The traditional view of dating has Ezra arriving in Jerusalem in 458BC and Nehemiah arriving in 445BC.

The start of Nehemiah indicates a date of 446BC when Nehemiah first heard about the state of Jerusalem. So, looking at the big picture, Cyrus starts the temple rebuilding rolling in 538, but Nehemiah doesn’t get the city rebuilding under way until 446 which is roughly a ninety-year gap.

Now the interesting thing about Jeremiah’s word, which was, “This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jer 29:10), is that that seventy years was not tied to specific events. I have already suggested that between the destruction of the temple and the completion of its rebuilding, was exactly seventy years, but the words here “for Babylon” may indicate that the time frame is more to do with Babylon itself. Now Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 605BC and started the deportation of the Jews then, and the first returning Jews seem to have come somewhere about 536/537 but such dates have a certain measure of leeway and so it is possible that the seventy years refers to the start of the deportation to the start of the return which again appears to be just about seventy years.

Varied Expectations: Now here is the point. These studies are all about ‘expectations’ and we saw in the previous study the possible absence of any expectations in respect of Jerusalem after the Exile in those who hadn’t heard Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word, and the possible long-term expectation of those who had heard it and believed it.  So the initial return was accompanied by plans to rebuild the temple – and that happened. Then comes standstill and what we haven’t noted yet is the state of the city itself. This is where we come to the start of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah Moved: Nehemiah was in Susa, which was the major city of Elam (Neh 1:1) where King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1) reigned, possibly the winter retreat city of the Persian kings. When some of the men return from Jerusalem he questions them on the state of Jerusalem (v.2) and is told, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (v.3) From his descriptions in chapter 2 the city is still in ruins. Yes, the Temple has been rebuilt but it is a single restored building in the midst of a demolition site. This is the city of God and it has remained like this for almost ninety years. Nehemiah is devastated and “he sat down and wept” and for some days he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (v.5) It is only then that he composes himself enough to pray (see 1:5-11) and only after he has prayed does he risk speaking to the king (see 2:3-5).

One Different Man: So, back to our expectations. Everyone else for the past ninety years had focused on the wonder of the Temple being rebuilt – and it was wonderful! – but the fact was that the city of God, Jerusalem, was still a landscape of rubble, and was clearly going to stay like that. Now what is intriguing about all this is that we are told that the Lord prompted Cyrus to start the Temple rebuilding, but the city rebuilding was left until one man heard and was moved to tears by the state of the city. Everyone else seemed content to live with the fact of a devastated city; Nehemiah was the one person moved to bring change. How many times, I wonder, does history pivot on the moving of one person?

Gap Fillers: As I said, what is intriguing is that the Lord didn’t command the rebuilding of the city. It was almost as if He was watching and waiting for someone to catch His heart and do something about it.  Years before, Ezekiel had prophesied, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezek 22:30) Previously he had prophesied, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD.” (Ezek 13:3-5) Psa 106 describes how Moses had been a ‘gap-filler’: “So he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.” (Psa 106:23) Moses had stood before the Lord to intercede for His people. The prophets of Jeremiah’s day were supposed to fulfil that same function, but they failed to do that.

And Us? Here is the point. The Lord looks for those who will look with His eyes on His people and intercede on their behalf before Him. Nehemiah saw the city in his mind’s eye when told about it, and wept before the Lord for it. How do we feel about the declining state of the Church in the West? As I have asked before, do we see a living body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit who testifies in power with revelation, wisdom, prophecy and insight and who back it with works of healing? Is the ‘body’ full of grace and truth? Does it so reveal its Lord that people glorify Him (Mt 5:16)? If not, are our hearts moved in anguish to pray?

Years before Haggai had prophesied to the people who had paused up on rebuilding the Temple and challenged them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag 1:4) i.e. why are you more concerned for your materialistic lives than for God’s house – which in our case is the ‘church’? Are we happy with the state of the church that we see in our land? Really? Is it impacting the world and seeing the world being purified by its presence? Sadly the state of the western world is a downward spiral and the Lord looks for men and women who will stand in the gap, men and women who are not afraid to stand out as holy, utterly different, filled with goodness and love, people of faith who will cry out to the Lord for His people and this world, people who will make themselves available to Him to go and take part in the ‘rebuilding’.  May He find that in you and me.

25. But God

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 25. But God

Ezra 1:1   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 to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing.

In the previous study we considered Jeremiah’s faithfulness in a time when the Lord’s judgment came on Jerusalem and the Exile took place. The city and the temple are destroyed but seventy years later the temple is rebuilt and re-established.  Wow! How such a simple sentence whisks over such significant happenings. How easy it is to do that! It is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430. So, let’s look at Ezra first and then Nehemiah tomorrow.

Listeners? There are, essentially, two sorts of people in this world: those who listen to God and those who don’t. Which sort are you and me? The first I hope. Those who don’t, end up listening to the skeptics, the doubters, the agnostics and the atheists – and are depressed! Now yesterday we saw how a small remnant in Jerusalem ended up in Egypt, but the majority of the Israelites were now in Babylonia. Their world had come to an end.

False Expectations: This is all about expectations, remember. Their expectations had been positive. They had thought they were invincible and they thought their world would go on and on and on – because they were ‘the people of God’. Jeremiah had challenged this mentality with a word from the Lord: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” (Jer 7:4) This was God’s temple and surely He would look after it and it would always be there? That had been there expectations for the future. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both warned otherwise but the people ignored them.

Nebuchadnezzar had come in 605BC and Daniel and his friends had been taken. Just the top people; fine! Then he came again in 597BC and Ezekiel and some ten thousand Jews were taken to Babylon, but the poorer, more ordinary people, were left. Yes, we can handle this; it will be all right, the Temple is here and so God will look after us. But then Nebuchadnezzar came again and in 587BC Jerusalem AND the Temple were utterly destroyed, and the vast majority of the remaining people also taken to Babylon.  The bottom had fallen out of their world! It was the end of Israel. Now their expectations for the future were zero.

Listeners and Believers? But this is where we come back to my original comments about people who listen to God and those who don’t. Perhaps we should add a rider: those who listen to God and believe what He says, and those who listen but cannot accept what they hear. The fact is that Jeremiah had brought a word of hope that we briefly noted two studies back: This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious 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 upon 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.” (Jer 29:10-14)

From the year of the destruction of the Temple to the year the rebuilding was completed, was exactly seventy years. The people had started returning earlier but God’s yardstick for measurement was the presence of the Temple, His dwelling place in the midst of His people. So anyone who had heard of Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word could be living in hope – but seventy years is still seventy years and for many that would have been beyond their lifetime. Their expectancy of seeing the new Temple would have been small – yet it still did bring a hope for the future of Israel.

But then we come to the matter of belief. You have just witnessed the utter destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple and you have been herded like cattle out of the Land up to Babylonia where you have been settled. You have little hope of any change – but God has said…..

Will you believe? How can such a thing take place? These Babylonians have had enough of Israel and so have deported us and put foreign peoples into our land. How can this ever change? How can we ever get back to the Land? How can the Temple ever be rebuilt? Surely, in the light of all that has just been happening, that is impossible. This must be at the heart of all these studies on expectations. Will we base our expectations on what God says, not what we can see around us?   Faith is about believing God and living in the light of what He has said. You may not be able to work out how His word can be fulfilled; the only important thing is that HE has said it and if He says it, it WILL be!

But however….. the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia”.  The Lord may have spoken about your future, about your partner, about your childlessness, about your unsaved children, about your job or about your ministry and humanly speaking you just can’t see how it can possibly be. Your expectations are zero – except God has spoken. If you were a Jew in exile you couldn’t have guessed in a million years how it could all change – but it did.

God moved Cyrus: We don’t know the exact detail, but it did happen. Did Cyrus come across the Hebrew scrolls from many years before, the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah who had written decades either side of about 690BC, a little over a hundred years before the time we are considering: “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.” (Isa 44:28) and “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free.” (Isa 45:13) Somehow or other the Lord spoke into Cyrus’s heart and he decreed, “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. Anyone of his people among you–may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.” (2 Chron 36:23) And that was it, and it was done!

Well, we’ve said it already, but let’s reiterate it: will your expectations be based upon what God says? When you hear it, will you believe it, regardless of the circumstances? THIS is what provides a stable foundation in an uncertain period of history.

Walk to Restoration

WALKING WITH GOD. No.41

Ezra 1:5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites–everyone whose heart God had moved–prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.

We now move from what you might have considered a very negative aspect of walking to a much more positive one. We have now moved on hundreds of years. Nearly seventy years have passed since the Temple was destroyed and Judah and Benjamin had gone into exile. Humanly speaking, it had been the end of the nation of Israel. They now only existed as a people being amalgamated into the life of Babylon. There was however an echo of hope from the past: “This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer 25:11) That prophecy still hung in the air, brought years before by Jeremiah before he was carried off to Egypt.

Indeed there had been, centuries before, an even more amazing prophecy through Isaiah, (I am the Lord) 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.(Isa 44:28) That had come long before the exile, leaving the listeners wondering what that was all about. Now, the Jews find themselves in Babylon under the reign of a king called Cyrus. Dare they hope? The hope is fulfilled: “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 to put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1). Before they knew what was happening Cyrus made this proclamation: “Anyone of his people among you–may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD , the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.(v.3)

Now to catch the full significance of this, we have to think about the significance of the Temple in the life of Israel. THE thing that marked Israel out from every other nation in the world, was the fact that God had made His dwelling in their midst. From Sinai onwards He had commanded them to build a Tabernacle: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” (Ex 25:8,9). Established in the land, it was Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Lord filled with His glory on completion (1 Kings 8:10,11). The Temple was thus the central point of focus for the Israelites, the place of encounter with God. When it had been utterly destroyed it was as if the Lord had cut off any means of communication with them (though of course He continued to speak through prophets such as Daniel).

When Cyrus made this proclamation to the Jews, it must have appeared beyond their wildest dreams. It wasn’t merely going back to Israel, it was going back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, to re-establish the place of encounter with God. The Exile had been a terrible act of discipline, needed to shake Israel free from their godlessness and unrighteousness, but discipline only lasts for a while. God’s intent is not to pursue pain in His children, but to restore their hearts to Him and to restore the relationship with them. As the Jews prepared to return to Jerusalem this was a major walk of restoration. Their hearts were being restored to the Lord, the place of encounter was being restored and their relationship with the Lord was being restored.

Now how does this apply to us today? Well it happens in small ways and big ways. In small ways it probably happens fairly regularly for some. Every time we sin, we offend God and grieve His Holy Spirit and there is a break in our fellowship with Him. Yet He encourages our speedy return: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Confession is the way back. Indeed Jesus has been praying for that to happen: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” (1 Jn 2:1). That happens on in the short term, but sometimes there are times when our relationship with the Lord drifts and, in all reality, it is not very real. Then something seems to stir within us. (it is His Holy Spirit) convicting us, nudging us to return. The Lord’s desire is NOT that we have a half-hearted relationship with Him where we simply nod at Him on Sundays. No, He wants a daily, living, vibrant relationship with us. For some of us, we need to make the walk of restoration. It’s time to come home, to come to the place of encounter with God, to pick up a regular and real relationship. Perhaps this page is the equivalent of Cyrus’s proclamation for you. Come home; come back to the place of close encounter of the God kind.