Exercise more, eat less, drink less, smoke less, spend less time on Facebook.
Apparently they are the top 5 New Years' resolutions that British people make.45% of us make them… And only 8% of us keep them!
This evening we're going to start a new series. From now until Easter we're going to be looking at the book of Ezra. And tonight Ezra chapter 1 is going to suggest to us three resolutions that we might like to make for the coming year.
Ezra chapter 1 verse 1…
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia
But the author of Ezra doesn't want us to just jump in. First of all they want to remind us when all this took place.
It was "In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia"
Which is great, if you know your Middle Eastern ancient history, but not much good if you don't! So let me try to help.
Around 2000 years before Christ was born, God appeared to a man called Abraham. God promised Abraham 1) that he would make his descendants into a great nation, 2) that he would give them the land where Abraham lived, called Canaan and 3) that he would bless them and they would be a blessing to others. Prayer, Land, Blessing.
Abraham had a son called Isaac, and Isaac had a son called Jacob, and a son called Esau. And Jacob had 12 sons, who would end up being the start of 12 tribes that became a nation. Jacob was given the name Israel, and so the nation coming from him was called Israel. One of his sons was called Joseph, his brothers didn't like him so they beat him up and sold him as a slave and he ended up in Egypt.
While he was in Egypt God gave Joseph the ability to interpret dreams and make wise decision, so Pharaoh, the king of Egypt made Joseph his second in command. When there was a famine in the land Joseph invited his family to come and live with him in Egypt and they stayed there for the next 400 years. By that time the family had grown to 600,000 people. They had become a great nation!
But they didn't live in the promised land and they weren't a blessing. In fact, the Egyptians hated them so much they made them their slaves. So God sent his people someone to lead them out of Egypt. His name was Moses and he lived around 1500 B.C. Moses led the people, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness where God gave them the law, summarized in the 10 commandments.
Then Moses led them to the edge of the promised land, and for 40 days spies went in to take a look around.
When they came back they told everyone that the land was wonderful, but the people were enormous! The people refused to enter the land. So God punished them by making them wander in the desert one year for every day they had spied out the land. So for 40 years they were homeless in the desert, and then God sent them a new leader called Joshua.
Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land. So they were a great nation (promise 1) and now they were in the land (promise 2) But they didn't trust God. They rebelled against them. And so God sent them judges. But slowly thing got worse and eventually the people cried out to God and asked him to give them a king. Now they didn't need a king, because God was their king. But they wanted a king, and so they picked Saul, because he looked good!
Saul, was a bad king, so God sent them a new king, a man who loved God, called David, and he lived around 1000 B.C. Now David certainly had his faults, but God blessed David. It was the closest they ever came to fulfilling all three promises of people, land and blessing. They were the golden years. But they didn't last for long. David's son Solomon, started off well as king. He built the temple where God met with his people and they worshipped him, but towards the end of his life he began to forget the LORD. His son, Rehoboam, was even worse. He was such a bad king that 10 of the 12 tribes decided to leave and set up their own kingdom. They were the 10 tribes in the North and they chose a king for themselves called Jeroboam.
They set up a Northern Kingdom kept the name Israel. God sent them prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, to bring them back to him. But the people would not listen. In fact things got so bad that in 722 B.C. God sent the Assyrians, who were the world superpower of the day, to wipe out the Northern kingdom of Israel.
The two tribes in the South became a kingdom called Judah. They survived the Assyrians, and they had a few good kings, and God sent them prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But eventually they went the same way as Israel, and so in 586 B.C. God sent the new superpower, Babylon, to come and attack them. Their king, Nebuchadnezzar, came and destroyed the temple and took away all the best and brightest from Israel. He left only a few poor people in Jerusalem and took everyone else, people like Daniel, as prisoners to Babylon. It's a time the Bible calls the Exile.
Now there was no great nation, they had been kicked out of the land, and God was against them not blessing them.
It looked like the end of God's promises. It looked like God had failed.
That's when we get to the book of Ezra. And the first thing we see in the book of Ezra, is that despite everything…
1) The Word of God Prevails
Look at vv1-5…
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: "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: " '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 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. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.' " 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.
Just when it looked as if God's promises were going to fail. When the Northern Kingdom had been wiped out and the Southern Kingdom had been taken into exile. Suddenly, in 538 B.C. Babylon was conquered by Persia, and Cyrus king of Persia makes a proclamation that the Jews were allowed to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple!
And the first thing that the writer of Ezra wants us to know is that it all happened just as God's word had said it would.
Look at v1 again…
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
Do you remember, Jeremiah was one of the prophets that God sent to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah spoke to the people just before Babylon attacked, and this is what he said in Jeremiah 25…
"I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon," declares the LORD, "and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants ...This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years."
Then in chapter 27 he adds...
"They will be taken to Babylon and there they will remain until the day I come for them," declares the LORD. "Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place."
Even before the Babylonians had attacked, God told his people that their time in Babylon would be 70 years and then he would bring them back. And so it was. The Word of God prevailed.
And God didn't just reveal these events through Jeremiah. About 400 years before the book of Ezra, the prophet Isaiah said this…
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.'
400 years before Cyrus was even born, before Persia had even become a superpower, God said that he would raise up a man called Cyrus and use him to let Jerusalem be rebuilt and the temple be restored. One of the main lessons that we're going to see running through Ezra this term is that God keeps his word. The word of God always prevails.
And so the first New Years' resolution that Ezra encourages us to make is this. Get to know God's word.
Make it your ambition this year to read God's word, more. Because the more we read God's word, the better we will understand who God is and who we are. The better we will understand our lives, and the world around us. When we read God's word we see God's plan. We don't have to be pastors or prophets to know who God is or why God made us or what his plans are for our lives. We just need to read it.
If you never read the Bible outside of church, why not start this year? Start with Matthew and try reading one chapter, every day. It will change your life. Or if you usually spend 10 minutes reading the Bible, maybe 3 times per week, then why not start reading the Bible for 15 minutes, 4 times per week. If you read the Bible in the morning, but usually forget what you read by lunchtime, like me, then why not pick one verse or one sentence from your morning reading and just try to remember that. Write it on a post it note, or put it at the top of you to-do-list.
This year why don't you resolve to get to know God's word, better. Because the word of God prevails.
Secondly we see...
2) The Will of God Prevails
God's plan from Abraham onwards was to have a great nation, living in the promised land, blessing them and them being a blessing to the people around them. That's God's plan.
In fact that's basically God's plan for the whole of human history, from Genesis to Revelation. So when God's people were divided in two, and Assyria wiped out Israel in the North, and Babylon took over Judah in the South. It looked like the plan had failed. But the will of God prevails.
God had a plan to bring the people back and to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and bless his people again.
And what's fascinating in Ezra 1 is how God's plan works. Look again at vv2-4...
This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: '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 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. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'
Now that is an incredible this for Cyrus to say isn't it? Not only does he permit the people to return home, he makes sure they don't go empty handed! In fact it almost seems that Cyrus might even have faith in "the LORD, the God of heaven." But he doesn't.
Earlier we read from Isaiah 45...
This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus... For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me
In 1879 something called the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered. Here's a picture of it, it's on display at the British Museum. The idea is that you role it and it prints a letter. This letter was written by Cyrus king of Persia, and it shows that whenever he conquered a kingdom he would send the slaves home and encourage them to worship their own gods. That was his strategy to keep the peace in his empire.
So in Ezra 1 when Cyrus sends the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple it's not because he worshipped or even acknowledged the God of the Bible. He didn't. He was an enemy of God. But God used Cyrus' actions to achieve his own plans.
Do you see? Even when God's enemies seem to prosper. Even when we can't possibly see how. The Will of God prevails.
If God wants to use Cyrus king of Persia as his servant to restore the temple Jerusalem, he can. If he wants to use Kim Jong-Un to grow the church in North Korea, he can. If he chooses to use the policy of the Islamic State to promote the gospel across the Middle East, he will. Whatever happens in this world, even when it is evil and wrong, God rules over it all and he uses it to achieve his good and perfect will.
Now I know that brings up a lot of questions, but it should also bring us great comfort. We may not understand why God allows some things to happen, or be able to see how he will use things to achieve his goals. But we know God, and we know that he loves us and we know that he will ultimately works all things for our good and for his glory. And so the second New Years' resolution from Ezra 1, is to trust God's will and his ways.
How do we do that? Well I think the best way to do that is to pray.
If you're someone who gets anxious about things or who easily forgets that God is in control, then make sure that you're also someone who prays. Remind yourself every day of the truth that the will of God prevails. Remind yourself when you read the paper of hear the news or feel worried, that God is at work in all things, and he is a good God. Pray, and ask God to help you see the world through the eyes of faith, trusting that even in the most unlikely situations and through the most unlikely means, the will of God always prevails.
And finally in Ezra 1 we see...
3) The Worship of God prevails
The end of Ezra chapter 1 seems strange doesn't it? Why are we told in detail that king Cyrus dug out, 30 gold dishes, 1000 silver dishes, 29 silver pans, 30 gold bowls, 410 matches bowls and 1000 other articles for the temple?
Well, do you remember from last year how the book of Daniel started?
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god
It was Nebuchadnezzar's way of saying 'My god is better than your god.' I destroyed your temple, my god has beaten your god. But now, in Ezra 1, those items come back.
The temple is going to be re-built. The worship of God prevails.
God made us to worship him. Just as a hammer is designed to knock in nails, and an ipod was made to play music.
So we were design and made to worship God. That's our purpose.
And God has declared that his worship will prevail. There will always be people who worship God. In fact one day, when Jesus returns, the only people who will survive and go to heaven will be those people who worship God. The final resolution Ezra encourages us to make, is to make worship our priority.
Whatever you do, every day in 2015, decide to do it as an act of worship. If your boss asks you to write a report, well then think to yourself, 'I'm going to honour the gifts God has given me and worship him by doing a great job.' When you're feeding your kids or making a meal for friends, make it an act of worship. Say to yourself, 'Every day God provides for me in the most wonderful ways, now I'm going to worship him by providing something wonderful for my wife, or my friends or my sister or whoever.' Make what you do, worship.
And make worship what you do. Make it a priority. Stop and say grace before every meal, thank God and worship him, even if you eat by yourself. Get an early night on a Saturday so that you're at your best to worship him as you teach your Sunday School class the next morning.
In Ezra chapter 1 and throughout the whole book we're going to see history unfolding according to God's plan.
His Word, his Will and his Worship always prevail. So why not plan, this coming year, to read his word, and trust his will and be part of his worship, every day.