The story of the priest Ezra and the exiles who returned to Jerusalem in the Old Testament is not that much different from the journey of Christians today as we move from a place of spiritual darkness into a mindset of hope and joy in Christ. Just as the exiles made a physical journey, the members of Neighborhood Misawa are starting a spiritual journey into closer fellowship with Christ. This is our journey of hope. But first, let’s see who Ezra was, and who exactly these exiles were that we’re discussing.
This story takes place in a city called Babylon, about an hour outside of modern Baghdad in Iraq. In 586 B.C., the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. All the people who survived were captured and taken all the way back to Babylon. The people of Israel remained in Babylon for 70 years. Then the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree that the Jews could return to their homeland, rebuild their capital city, and rebuild the temple of the Lord. Ezra gained permission from King Cyrus to return to Jerusalem. On the way out of Babylon, Ezra and the people with him stopped by a canal to seek God for the journey.
Ezra chapter 8:21-23 (NIV) There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
- “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey” (v.21).
This month, I would like the church to join my wife and myself as we seek the Lord for his presence, his glory and his power to manifest here in northern Japan. We are praying for God to protect us, and guide us as a church. And we are praying not just each member, but also our children, and our careers. We pray that God would have his hand on every aspect of our lives as we walk together on this journey of hope. Just like Ezra’s trip back to Jerusalem was a community event, so it is with us.
- “For us and our children, with all our possessions” (v. 21).
—– Our spouses and children are walking with us on this journey to Jerusalem. We __cannot neglect___________ the task of praying for our children, family members and spouses. We cannot travel into the presence of God, the beauty of God, and leave his promises and blessings all to ourselves. They need hope, just like we do. Our bosses need a lot of hope, and so do our co-workers! This brings us to our next point. There will be difficulties on the road to heaven, the road to a Christ-centered life. There will be enemies on this journey of hope, who try to rob us of our joy. Ezra was ashamed to ask the king for help, but we can go to our king Jesus without shame!
22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road (v.22)
This means that we must trust in God, and not in man, in order to make the changes that need to take place in our hearts as we move forward in our relationship with Christ. But we will face opposition, and danger along the way. Just as the trip from Babylon to Jerusalem was a long trip, it will take a lifetime for us to develop Christ-like character. We need God’s hand upon us, because there will be dangers along the way.
There was a reason the king of Persia volunteered to send a military escort with Ezra and the exiles. First off, Ezra had a prominent position in Babylon. He was a priest and a scribe. As a scribe, it meant that he copied scrolls and wrote them down. Ezra had wealth and security, yet he left it behind to follow God’s will. In the same way, as we fight to shake off the influence of this world and the darkness of the ungodly lives we are trying to leave behind in our spiritual Babylon, our place of spiritual captivity, in the same way we have to change our minds about the way we understand life in order to follow Christ. There will be many obstacles trying to destroy our hope on this journey.
- It took six to eight months to travel to Jerusalem— The journey was about 547 miles, and they were traveling mostly on foot. After traveling a certain distance they would pitch tents at night. In modern times, a flight from Baghdad to Jerusalem would take 1 hour and 47 minutes!! Don’t be discouraged because you don’t see the results or the fruit of your faith in Christ. It’s not a marathon. What’s important is that you grow in your faith, not how fast you grow.
- In the ancient world, caravans often got raided — travel was very dangerous in the time of Ezra. This is why he and his people stopped to proclaim a fast and pray for safe travels. Many caravans got robbed by raiding parties. The men were often killed, the women were forced to be wives or concubines, and the children captured in these raids were often sold into slavery. Do you realize that Satan has bandits and thieves lying in ambush, to steal away your hope as you travel to a place of intimacy with Christ?
- The bandit called worry —- worry can rob you of your reliance on God. I sometimes worry about how our church will grow. How will our church raise money? How will we reach the military community? But God has a manual for these things.
- The bandit called fear —– Sometimes I experience fear. Sometimes I am afraid my sermons won’t be very good. Sometimes I am afraid that the church won’t grow, that we won’t reach any lost souls. What do you fear? Just as God was with Ezra, he will be with us on this journey of hope. So don’t be discouraged
- The bandit called discouragement —– Don’t be discouraged if you have loved ones who don’t know Christ. Don’t be discouraged if you keep getting schedule changes, or assignment changes, or if things keep changing at work. God is still in control. Also, let’s trust God in how we relate to each other.
- The bandit called conflict ——- When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and sent the exiles to Babylon, they became Babylonians for 70 years. When they left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem, they spoke Aramaic, and didn’t understand Hebrew. Many of the people couldn’t read the Hebrew Scriptures, so translations had to be made. When the people came back to Jerusalem, they felt entitled to the land. But some people had been left behind who felt like they deserved the land. In the same way, our church is very diverse. We have people who are Japanese, Filipino, and many different shades of American here. We come from different backgrounds and have different ideas about how to worship, and how to evangelize. So conflict will arise. But we can remember that we are all headed to the same place. That place is fellowship with Christ, and intimacy with Christ. That is our spiritual Jerusalem.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be afraid of these bandits who might try to attack us. Christ has soldiers and horsemen who will fight for us. The book of Hebrews says that the angels minister to those who are heirs of salvation. The book of Psalms says that the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him. When we look to God for hope, his hand will be upon us.
- “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him” (v.22).
I love how gospel singer Israel Houghton puts it. He says God’s not mad at us; he’s madly in love with us!! Sometimes we’re afraid because we think he’s looking to punish us. But his hands aren’t balled into fists; they are open to receive our every need. Satan will attack our places of work, our relationships, and even our physical belongings. He cannot defeat us, but Satan’s greatest strategy is to _distract___________the saints. We will face opposition. But let us pray that we _____finish strong_______________.
CONCLUSION: WE WILL GET THERE!
Ezra 8:31-32 (TNIV) On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days.
If we flip to the back of the book, we win! If we remain faithful, if we follow Christ, who Ezra represents in this passage, the Bible says we will arrive at our destination, that is, eternity with Christ. So let us trust him. Return from your exile into Babylon. Get on the road that leads to Jerusalem, to a walk with Christ. Join us in this journey of hope.