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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:Share in the Joyous Feast
Text:Ezra 6:19-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 108:1,2                                                                                          

Ps 139:1,13

Reading – Ezra 6; Luke 22:14-23

Ps 126:1,2,3

Sermon – Ezra 6:19-22

Ps 105:1,5,15

Hy 62:1,2,3
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if there’s ever a special occasion, we like to celebrate it with a meal. If someone graduates from school, or has a significant birthday, or if there’s a wedding, we get together for something to eat and drink. For food can be very festive. We see this in the Bible too. Think of all the feasts God gave his people—several times a year, they’d get together for a festive meal in God’s presence.

Well, the Israelites in the days of Ezra had much to celebrate. So in our text we see them share a holy meal! And what they rejoiced in was far bigger than a birthday or anniversary. For after decades in captivity, God’s people could go back to their land and rebuild the temple. That’s the story of this book, and the one that follows, Nehemiah.

            The books of Ezra-Nehemiah originally formed just one volume in the Hebrew Bible. And though Ezra isn’t mentioned until chapter 7, he’s thought to be its author—probably of Chronicles too. About this Ezra we know a few things. He was a priest in Aaron’s line. And when he was in Persia, he was also a scribe in the royal court, with access to many key documents, like that decree of Cyrus, and that of Darius, recorded in our chapter.

            Ezra certainly was witness to momentous times for God’s people. For just as there had been a few waves of exile from Israel, so there were various returns to the land. First, Zerubbabel, together with about 42,000 people. Ezra would lead a second wave, and in the future there’d be more. God’s people were coming back!

When you compare them, this return from exile was a lot like the exodus from Egypt. For both saw the building of a house for God, and the re-institution of God’s law among the people; both saw challenges from surrounding enemies, and the temptation to intermarry with unbelievers. And just like the exodus had been centuries before, the return from the exile was a new beginning, a time of revival for God’s people. And yes, how better to celebrate this salvation than with a meal? This is our theme, 

            The returned exiles joyfully celebrate the Passover:

1)     the deliverance that made it possible 

2)     the purification that made it proper 

3)     the joy that made it powerful  

1)     the deliverance that made it possible: The book of 2 Chronicles ends with Jerusalem in ruins, the temple destroyed, thousands dead in the streets, and many more taken into exile. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not all gloom and darkness, either. For we are told that Judah’s captivity will be for a set amount of time, “until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths.” There’d be seventy years of rest for the land, seventy years of purification for the people. It wasn’t an indefinite sentence: there was hope for release.

            And then if you keep reading in 2 Chronicles 36, you hear Cyrus declare his intention to build a house for God at Jerusalem, and say that any Israelite was free to go home. Of course, a lot has happened since then. By the time we get to our text, that first decree is more than twenty years in the past. For the return from exile, and also the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, had proceeded in fits and starts.

Doesn’t that happen so often with God’s people when we carry out our labours for the Lord? Enthusiasm wanes after an initial burst of excitement; worldly distractions emerge that keep us from progressing on the way; and even the opposition of unbelievers can deter us. We see some of these things in the book of Nehemiah, and then also in the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Though graciously delivered from her bondage, the Lord’s people still needed to be prodded and coaxed along.

            At any rate, the reconstruction of the temple is begun in 536, a couple years after Cyrus set them free. We might criticize the people for having a short-lived enthusiasm, but let this be said: they knew it was a priority to get the temple back in working order. For they might’ve said, “Let’s get those city walls rebuilt first. Or let’s get all this rubble cleaned off the streets.” But this came first: God’s temple, and holy worship.

Why, even before it’s completed, before the foundation is laid, we read that the people begin to offer daily sacrifices at the temple site—it was enough to be on that holy ground. They also observe the holy feasts again, together with the required offerings. You can sense that the people have learned something in exile, that the whole reason we’re alive, the reason that God has delivered us, is that we might worship him. It’s what comes first.

            Thus the reconstruction begins. The foundation stones are set, masons and carpenters are brought in, even wood is imported from Tyre and Sidon, as Solomon had done before. No, it’d never be able to match the glory of Solomon’s temple, but that mattered not. This would be a place to meet with the LORD!

            But it’s then that troubles begin. There is local hostility, because this temple wasn’t just a temple. Such a project had political overtones—surely going together with hopes that David’s dynasty would also be restored. And such things didn’t sit well with the surrounding peoples, those who’d come into the land while the Israelites were gone. So they opposed the project, and they successfully brought the whole thing to a halt, for several years.

            When the LORD finally stimulates the people to resume, their renewed efforts draw the attention of the Persian officials. By this time, the reign of Cyrus was over, and Darius had succeeded him. Tattenai, his governor in the province “Beyond the River,” takes note of the rebuilding, and reports back to the king. A search is made to see if the reconstruction of this temple has been authorized—as indeed, it had.

            This was enough for Darius, who instructs his governor, “Let the work of this house of God alone” (6:7). More than that, he ordered, “Let the cost be paid at the king’s expense from taxes on the region beyond the River… And whatever they need—young bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the request of the priests who are in Jerusalem—let it be given them day by day without fail” (vv 8-9). Then the king goes on to warn that any further opposition to the project will be punished severely.

            That’s a stunning turn of events! No wonder the Israelites are joyful, we read in verse 22, “for the LORD… turned the heart of the king…toward them.” They looked behind the scenes, and they recognized this wasn’t just a stroke of good luck, or the result of lobbying. This was the LORD revealing his kingship over all, exercising his dominion for the good of his people. Like the Proverb says, 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes.” The LORD turned the heart of Darius toward them, so this deliverance and restoration were possible, from start to finish.

Not only were the exiled people of God free to return to their land. Not only were they permitted to rebuild the temple. Not only did they receive federal funding for the project. But they even benefitted from royal protection, to see it through to completion. Because god was directing things, no detail was overlooked, no need unmet.

            And isn’t that like a picture of our salvation in Christ? The Lord has done it all. It began with his plan and promise, to redeem sinners from condemnation. Then God worked that promise out, sending his only Son to die on the cross. What’s more, God gave his Spirit, so that we could believe in his Son, and receive the salvation He prepared. And then God also enables us to endure in the faith, to withstand Satan’s attacks and progress in holiness, right to the end. So you see again, it’s all the work of our God: his is the planning, his is the saving, the enabling and reviving, and finally, the persevering. No detail overlooked, no need unmet. Praise God for his sovereign mercy!

            So it is that the temple is restored by the sixth year of Darius’ reign, and worship is fully restored. And in all their joy and thanksgiving, the Israelites have a festive meal: “the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month” (v 19). We know the people had already begun observing the feasts. But this is something special; the author draws our attention to it, that now, after so long, the Passover is kept.

            Why is that significant? Just think of what the Passover was. It was a celebration of deliverance, a remembrance of salvation! Centuries ago, God had brought his people out of Egypt. With signs and wonders, by his mighty hand and outstretched arm, the LORD had saved his chosen ones from misery. With the atoning blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts, the Israelites had marked their deliverance with a meal—a simple meal, but a meal of great joy. And every year after that, the people would recall their astonishing deliverance by observing the Passover. Eating and drinking, they would celebrate what the LORD had done.

            How fitting then, that about a month after the temple is completed, the returned exiles have opportunity to share in the Passover once again. It commemorated redemption from Egypt, but how could they not also think of their new deliverance, from bondage in exile? As they ate and drank, they had to think of how the LORD had brought them out, yet again: away from captivity, out of the darkness, back into a place of safety and peace. This was yet another miracle of God’s grace, to be remembered, to be exulted over. The events were different, but the pattern was clearly the same: Contrary to all expectation, beyond all deserving, at great cost to himself, the LORD God delivers his people from their misery.

And beloved, that again points us to the work of Christ. We read from Luke 22, part of the closing hours of our Saviour’s life. It’s no coincidence that precisely now the Passover will be observed. The Lord would again move hearts—the heart of Judas, and the hearts of the leaders, and Pilate—and He’d see to it that the Lamb is slaughtered at just the right time.

Jesus is with the disciples in the upper room, with the Passover meal prepared before them. And He says, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (v 15). This was something He wanted, because it would so clearly reveal him as the promised Saviour. For the salvation of his people from bondage, his blood would be shed.

            This is what we the church of Christ, may remember and believe. Not just when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but every day—every hour: that God has graciously delivered us from sin! He’s moved men and nations, He’s sent his Son and Spirit, worked faith and repentance—done it all, so we can be forgiven, restored to him, and so we can live forever.

2)     the purification that made it proper: The boys and girls among us know that it’s good to wash your hands before eating. Especially if you’ve been playing in the sandbox or petting the dog, you should give your hands a good scrub. Being clean is a way to stay healthy. The Israelites knew that too, because we read that before they partake of this special meal, there’s a purification of the people and the priests.

            Such cleansing was necessary because they’d been so utterly defiled. One cause was how they’d spent up to seventy years living in a pagan land, among the uncircumcised and unclean. But besides that was their sin. That’s what uncleanness is really all about, anyway: the stain of transgression, our moral contamination before God. You get dirty by sinning! And God knew how dirty they were: they needed seventy years of scrubbing.

            So now, before they’ll partake of this special Passover meal, before the offerings will be made, they also need to be purified. We notice that the cleansing begins with the priests, those who will lead in worship. Because sadly, they’d also led in disobedience. Back in the days of Hezekiah, for example, there were not enough priests to work in the temple—because too many had disqualified themselves for service by their sin. But now we see the outworking of repentance, beginning (as it should) with the leaders.

We read in verse 20, “For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean.” The law said this would be done with water, washing the body and cleansing the priestly garments. But it wasn’t just about being outwardly spotless. As the text says, they were “ritually clean:” ready for God’s service, set apart from contamination, in reverence for the holiness of God. In such a spirit they’d be able to carry out the offerings.

And it wasn’t just the priests who prepared themselves for the Passover. There was a spirit of repentance that swept through all the people! Verse 21 says that “the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the LORD God of Israel.” Some of the new population in Israel’s land caused trouble (as we saw before), but others were converted to the true faith. So these too, would partake in the Passover. For God’s law always said that the “strangers among you” could participate in the feasts and worship.

But not before they “separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land.” They needed to confess their uncleanness before the LORD, be circumcised, and renounce their idolatry. They’re willing, and in this there’s another encouraging development: the community of God’s people is growing, even from the outside. In a contrite spirit, they’d all be ready to receive the forgiveness of their sin.

Now, when we read in our passage about cleansing and purification, two points have to be made. First, this is a wonderful outworking of the people’s revival. They knew themselves to be sinners before a holy God, and so they sought to be sanctified before him. This was a genuine effort to be holy before God: not just outwardly, but inwardly. The people were putting off the contamination of sin, seeking atonement for transgression—and why?

Because now they wanted to be that holy people God called them to be, in fellowship with a holy God. The return from exile meant nothing unless they also returned to the LORD. They couldn’t draw near to his presence unless they were purified. They couldn’t eat that meal until they had washed their hands and consecrated their hearts.

Beloved, that’s always an essential part of our walk with God: having a true and humble knowledge of our sin and misery. If you don’t realize your own sinfulness, and if you don’t grapple with how unrighteous you are in yourself, you’ll never seek cleansing—and you’ll never come to trust in God’s promise of forgiveness. So it’s good that the priests and people of Israel go through this process, for behind it is a real awareness of just how far a sinner stands from God—and behind it is also a real longing to come back.

But a second thing must be said as well. It sounds misplaced or even unkind to say it, when our text describes such a hopeful developments. But ultimately, these rituals of purification, and these sacrifices of atonement, don’t measure up. They’re not enough. They’re at best a temporary fix. Did you notice how our text refers to the “Passover lambs?” (v 20). Plural: not one was needed, but many. Hundreds. And not just this year, but every year, when the Passover rolled around again. To say nothing of how day after day, morning and evening, the smoke of other sacrifices would ascend from this rebuilt temple.

Which again gets us looking ahead. We look from our text to that day when John the Baptist noticed Jesus approaching, and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The Lamb. The one, the only, the final—our Passover Lamb.

For his sinful people God would provide purification from sin, but it wouldn’t be with water, nor with the blood of cows and sheep. It’d be with the very life of his Son. Think of that last Passover, when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to [his disciples], saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19). “It’s given for you,” He says, “it’s for the baby, for the little boy, for the teenage girl, the student in college, the husband and wife and widow. It’s for you.”

“Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (v 20). “This is real blood, effective blood, atoning blood,” says the Lord. “You’ve waited a long time for it, but this alone will cleanse you and make you holy, so you can stand in the presence of God forever.” What the people of Israel celebrated in shadows, we celebrate in the full light of the Son. Again, this is our privilege, not just at the Lord’s Supper every two months, but every day of our lives. We are forgiven!

And just as for the Israelites, purification is needed. We have been cleansed, but as the forgiven in Christ, holiness must be our ongoing concern, our continued project. “Without holiness no one will see God,” the Scriptures tell us. So, James writes, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). If we will partake of God in Christ, if we will live in his grace, then we too must be busy with putting away every contamination of sin, “all the filth of the nations.” Someone who has truly received the forgiving grace of God in Christ will make this holiness his constant aim. 

3)     the joy that made it powerful: So was it like it once had been? Was this celebration like the liturgy in Solomon’s day, when those tens of thousands of offerings were made at the temple? Well, if worship was a numbers game, this Passover wouldn’t make the cut. But as God tells us so often, it’s not the amount of our gift, nor the quantity of our sacrifice, but it’s the heart behind it. There wasn’t as much pomp and plenty as before, but there was just as much purity and joy. This was the true glory of it, the spirit that made this worship so powerful. There is no beauty like the beauty of holiness!

            To underline the spirit of it, the author mentions “joy” two times in verse 22. “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy.” This was the festival which followed on the days after Passover, for seven days—and it was seven days of joy! And again, summarizing the mood of the people: “the LORD made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king…toward them.”

This was a genuine celebration. It’s easy enough to worship out of habit or superstition; to mouth the words of the Psalms, and to stand up at the right time. But these people really wanted to be in God’s presence; they rejoiced to be in his house. Like never before, there was an appreciation for the blessings of deliverance. God had given this joy; He had provided every reason for thanksgiving.

And what was the effect? It was said of the strangers and foreigners among them, but it surely could be said of all the people, that they came to worship “in order to seek the LORD God of Israel” (v 22). This is exactly what had been missing in Israel for so long. God had been far away, but it wasn’t because God had moved. It was because the people hadn’t looked for him. Now, however, there’s a genuine love and desire for God. They sought him! And they found him, because they sought him with all their heart. What a joy this gave to their humble Passover celebration, knowing that God their Saviour was near!

That’s the impulse that must continue to live us, among the people of God: a joyful seeking after the LORD. It should be even stronger now, in Jesus Christ. For we’ve learned of his greatness and nearness in even more powerful ways, seeing how God has saved us through his only Son. We have such great reason for joy—yes, even if we possess little (like the people of Israel), or even if we have much to grieve. Even then, there is great joy in Christ.

This calls all of us to have that new and holy desire, “to seek the LORD God of Israel.” Let us seek him, while He may be found. Let us draw near to him, that He may draw near to us. Let us celebrate his wonderful deeds of salvation—yes, we celebrate in the gift of Lord’s Supper, and in the gift of every day. For in Christ, He is our God, and our gracious Saviour. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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