Sunday, Aug. 27th's fabulous message “The Return Home” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 19 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
The Return Home
First United Methodist Church, August 27, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
I've just returned home after 10 days of vacation in Florida. It was very good. But it's good to be home: back to green grass that grows too fast, fresh picked tomatoes from my own backyard and mosquitoes. J I've been gone for longer periods of time. I took a sabbatical in 2015 and was away from home for 7 weeks. That time away was important, but it felt really good to get back home. Scott and I lived in Colorado for 3 years while he was in seminary. Loved it. It was an important time of learning and growing up for us—but then we had a choice to stay there or to come back home to Indiana, and here we are. This is home.
Each of those times away from home were choices we made. None happened against our will, and still, when it came time to come home, it was very good. Felt good. Felt right. Still, it's hard for me to imagine how good it must have felt for the people of Israel to come home from Babylon after being gone for 70 years. They hadn't left home because they wanted to; at that time it wasn't their choice to make. Some only "knew" home from the stories told by their parents and grandparents…after 70 years, a whole generation had passed away and a new one was born. And yet, they knew they were coming home. Finally. And it was very good.
This week's reading in The Story is from Chapter 19 entitled The Return Home, and it includes the accounts of Ezra, and prophesies of both Haggai and Zechariah. It's all about coming home.
For 70 years, the southern kingdom of Judah has been in exile. This happened as consequence to their failure to honor God, to worship God, to be a representative of God to other peoples and nations. God had chosen them—had promised them through David—that the Messiah would come from them. But their disobedience—particularly if God wouldn't have seemed to care about it—would have communicated a confusing message about God's nature, and God's hope for us as God's people, about God's desire to redeem us and to make us whole.
So they have been in exile in Babylon these 70 years—and it's time for them to come back home—to Jerusalem. There are (at least) 4 lessons here for us to learn about coming back home. They're important because maybe you or someone you love has drifted away from God…or maybe someone is estranged from family, or has made some poor choices. Maybe you or that friend can see that life isn't working so well right now, and you'd like to come home. This morning we'll talk about a roadmap back.
The first lesson is this: God can make a way, even when we can't seem to, no matter how hard we've tried, no matter how much we would like to. I thought I'd describe this in a much simpler way: God will make a way, but I didn't want the tune of that song to start playing over and over in your head, so I avoided saying that. J
Seventy years before, when the people of Judah were being forced from their homes and making their way to Babylon, the hope of returning someday seemed no more than a dream. Though they and their ancestors had made choices along the way that had brought them to this point, they couldn't undo the past or change history. They couldn't erase Ahab or the other kings who "did evil" in the eyes of God, they couldn't undo their deportation. They didn’t have the power to do that. But, God had the power to redeem their situation. And that’s what God did.
In our scripture this morning we read the words of Cyrus and can't help but perk up. Really? After Nebuchadnezzar had carried everybody off, after all of the elaborate furnishings had been scavenged from the temple and the city of Jerusalem burned—destroyed…then, Babylon is crushed by Persia and their king Cyrus is an advocate. Ready to send them home. To restore and renew Jerusalem and the temple—and to pay for it. He doesn't even believe in God, and yet he's doing this. How could that happen but through an act of God? This God of theirs—who after all they’ve done, as unfaithful as they've been—still longs for his people to come back home.
Later Jesus would tell a story about a young man who insists that his father give him his inheritance (even though dad isn't sick and hasn't sold the farm and hasn't begun making plans to do that). His father agrees, and off the young man goes, quickly spending everything he's been given. He ends up working for a pig farmer and realizes the pigs are eating better than he is. So, he goes back home, ready to beg for his father's forgiveness. But before he gets the chance to do that, his father sees him coming and runs out to greet him. Dad's ready to throw the best party in town to celebrate that this wayward son of his has come back home (Luke 15:11-32).
That's what is happening for Judah…God makes a way for the people to go back home. There's not a thing that the people can do on their own to make that happen. And it can be like that for us, too. We can change ourselves (with enough prayer and effort and determination), but we can't change other people…we can't undo what’s been done. But God can make a way back home for us. Whether it’s back into the arms of God, through the addiction, back into the fold of the family…whatever it might be. We may not have a clue of how to do it, but God can make things happen in a way that we couldn’t have otherwise hoped for.
But…when that happens, or perhaps if it’s going to happen: things need to be different. That’s point 2. We can’t keep doing the things we’ve always done and expect different results. Things need to be different.
When you turn back to God, or to your family, or your sobriety, or whatever it might be, things can’t be the same.
There are 2 major changes in the way Judah is acting now versus before:
First, they didn’t re-instate a king. If you remember, God didn’t want Israel to appoint a human king. God wanted to lead them directly. But they wanted to be like the other nations and so God allowed it. And, these kings too often led them away from God. Now that they’ve come back home, they have the attitude “been there, done that.” The next king to sit on the throne of David will be Jesus, who is God in the flesh.
The second thing they did is this—(do you remember what it was? the first thing they did when their feet hit the soil of Jerusalem?) Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices (pg. 264, The Story, Ezra 3:3)
They built an altar to God. What are they doing? They are putting God first in their life. When you return back home to God, this time God can’t take second place. You worship, no excuses. You listen to God’s word (for us, we read it!). You bring your decisions and requests to God in prayer for direction and grace. You offer God thanks for your food, for all the ways you’ve been blessed. You say yes to God without hesitation or compromise.
You can’t do the things you used to do. You can’t hang with the people you used to hang with. Things have to be different.
Third: You need to stay alert to distractions; to the “enemy’s” schemes.
Here’s an unfortunate fact of life: there will always be someone who likes things just the way they are, who don’t want you to change, or to get better, or to be successful, or do anything that might impact them, because they’re okay with the way things are right now.
For Judah, their primary enemy was the surrounding nations who remembered when Israel was an unstoppable force in the world. This move to “Make Judah Great Again” isn’t making the other nations happy.
Their first scheme was to “infiltrate.” They offered to join up with Judah to help them build the temple around the altar to God. But Zerrubbabel, Judah’s governor at that point, knew that wasn’t a good idea. He told them, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us (pg. 265, The Story, Ezra. 4:3).
But their enemies didn’t stop with that. They used discouragement, fear, intimidation and bribery. And it worked. The people of Judah stopped working on the temple and it laid dormant for 10 years. One day they have the most powerful king in the world opening up his pocketbook to fund the entire project and to protect them from their enemies—and then, nothing. They get stuck.
What did they do instead? They turned their attention to building their own homes and their own businesses and lives. They switched their priorities: Me first, God second.
Which leads us to the final point: Remain open to correction.
God sent 2 prophets to confront them and get them back on track. The purpose isn't to tear them down. God’s desire was and always is—to get people back on track.
Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: Is it a time for you yourselves to living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?
Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. “Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. "Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands" (The Story, pg. 266-267, Haggai 1:3-9).
God sought to correct the people, to turn them back. To show them that they were off track, focusing on the immediate and the short term and losing sight of the big picture and what was truly significant.
We can remember back over Israel's history when it wasn't God's desire to have a structure built that would contain God's presence. But now that they have returned home, God knows how important the temple will be as a center for community, for worship, for teaching, for uniting the hearts of the people with the heart of God. And so through the voice of the prophet, God calls them back.
There are times when we need that correction, that redirection, as well. We often don't want it. We're not always teachable, and I doubt that any of us "enjoy" being confronted. But there are times when the message being shared is important for us and so we should be open to listening.
But here's the thing: if "your" prophet is someone who doesn't know you, or who you know is more about bringing you down than building you up, then you don't need to ponder every word…but, if it's someone who knows you, or you know wants the best for you, it's good to listen, to consider what they have to say. That doesn't mean that they're automatically "right" but, it's worth praying about/thinking about.
Back to Judah: When Haggai and Zechariah deliver the news to the people, they do the most unexpected thing. They listen and the work on the temple resumes and is completed. Once again the people experience the wind of God's blessings at their backs.
So…the people have come home. They can see that God has made a way for them. They've learned that things need to be different than what they once were. They know there will be distractions/people and situations—that will get in the way of what they're attempting to accomplish…that can cause them to lose track of their priorities. And so they need to be open to correction/coaching/guidance, because sometimes others can see what we're doing or not doing more clearly than we can.
We can come home, too, if we've drifted away. That's good news. Amen.