It Cannot Be the Same: How Then Should You Return After Being Cut Off & Cast Out?

Today’s selected reading is found in the Old Testament book of Ezra, which describes the time period when the children of Israel would return to the land after spending seventy years in captivity. More specifically, today’s passage is found in the first three chapters of this Old Testament book. When you come to this particular portion of Scripture you will quickly encounter a time period that would and could not take place until the southern kingdom of Judah—in all reality the whole of the people of Israel—had spent seventh years in captivity in the midst of the land of Babylon. In order to truly understand the words which are found in the Old Testament book of Ezra, it is necessary to turn and direct your attention to the final words of the previous book of Second Chronicles. In the final chapter of the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles you will encounter and come face to face with the invasion of the southern kingdom of Judah, the capturing of the fortified cities of defense throughout the land, the siege of the city of Jerusalem and the ensuing famine which took place therein, and ultimately the breaking down of the wall of the city, the breaking down of the gates thereof, and the destruction of the Temple of the living God which was present in the midst and at the very heart of the city. What’s truly astonishing about the final chapter of the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles, however, is when you think about and consider the fact that although it describes the destruction of both the city of Jerusalem, as well as the Temple of the LORD which Solomon had built—even the captivity of the people of Judah—it would conclude with a powerful message of hope, promise and fulfillment. Although we find and read within the final chapter of the book of Second Chronicles a powerful description of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple which Solomon had built, and even the captivity of the people of Israel, we also find it not only concluding with a powerful prelude to the book of Ezra, but we also find it concluding with a powerful message of hope, a powerful message of trust and confidence in the living God. It’s worth noting and pointing out within this chapter that everything which happened to the city of Jerusalem, everything that happened to land of Judah, and everything that happened to the people which dwelt therein was to fulfill the prophetic word of the LORD which came through Jeremiah the servant of the LORD. Before we attempt to delve into the words which are written and recorded within the Old Testament book of Ezra it is first necessary to consider the words which are found in the final chapter of the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles, as well as the words which were written and recorded in the Old Testament book of Second Kings, and even the prophetic book of Isaiah. I am absolutely convinced that we cannot truly begin to understand what took place in the Old Testament book of Ezra until we first come face to face with the destruction which ensued in the midst of the city of Jerusalem and the land of Judah. Consider if you will the words which are found in the Old Testament books of Second Chronicles and Second Kings, as well as the prophetic book of Isaiah:

“Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem: and he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD. And when the year was expired, king Nebuchadnezzar, sent and brought him to Babylon, with the goodly vessels of the house of the LORD, and made Zedekiah his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem. Zedekiah was one and twenty years old when he began to reign, and reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD his God, and humbled not himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of the LORD. And he also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the LORD God of Israel. Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the LORD which he had hallowed in Jerusalem. And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remember. Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon. And they burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill threescore and ten years” (2 Chronicles 36:9-21).

“And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he, and all his host, against Jerusalem, and pitched against it; and they built forts against it round about. And the city was besieged unto the eleventh year of king Zedekiah. And on the ninth day of the fourth month the famine prevailed in the city, and there was no bread for the people of the land. And the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between two walls, which is by the king’s garden: (now the Chaldees were against the city roundabout bout) and the king went the way toward the plain. And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho: and all his army were scattered from him. So they took the king, and brought him up to the king of Babylon to Riblah; and they gave judgment upon him. And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon. And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which is the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, came Nebuzar-adan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem: and he burnt the house of the LORD, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about. Now the rest of the people that were left in the city, and the fugitives that fell away to the king of Babylon, with the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzar-adan the captain of the guard carry away. But the captain of the guard left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen. And the pillars of brass that were in the house of the LORD, and the bases, and the brasen sea that was in the house of the LORD, did the Chaldees break in pieces, and carried the brass of them to Babylon. And the pots, and the shovels, and the sniffers, and the spoons, and all the vessels of brass wherewith they minister, took they away. And the fire pans, and the bowls, and such things as were of gold, in gold, and of silver, in silver, the captain of the guard took away. The two pillars, one sea, and the bases which Solomon had made for the house of the LORD; the brass of all these vessels was without weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and the chapiter upon it was brass; and the height of the chapiter three cubits; and the wreathen work, and pomegranates upon the chapiter round about, all of brass: and like unto these had the second pillar with wreathen work. And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest, and Zephaniah the second priest, and the three keepers of the door: and out of the city he took and officer that was set over the men of war, and five men of them that were in the king’s presence, which were found in the city, and the principals scribe of the host, which mustered the people of the land, and threescore men of the people of the land that were found in the city: and Nebuzar-adan captain of the guard took these, and brought them to the king of Babylon to Riblah: and the king of Babylon smote them, and slew them at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was arrived away out of their land. And as for the people that remained in the land of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had left, even over them he made Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, the son of Shahanna ruler. And when all the captains of the armies, they and their men, heard that the king of Babylon had made Gedaliah governor, there came to Gedaliah to Mizpeh, even Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and Johanna the son of Careah, and Seraiah the son of Tanhumeth the Netophathite, and Jaazaniah the son of a Maachathite, they and their men. And Gedaliah sware to them, and to their men, and said unto them, fear not to be the servants of the Chaldees: dwell in the land, and serve the king of Babylon; and it shall be well with you. But ic are to pas in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of the seed royal, came, and ten men with him, and smote Gedaliah, that he died, and the Jews and the Chaldees that were with him at Mizpeh. And all the people, both small and great, and the captains of the armies, arose, and came to Egypt: for they were afraid of the Chaldees. And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, that Evil-merodach king of Babylon in the year that he began to reign did lift up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison; and he spake kindly to him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon; and changed his prison garments: and he did eat bread continually before him all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual allowance given him of the king, a daily rate for every day, all the days of his life” (2 Chronicles 25:8-30).

As you read the words which are found within these two chapters you will get a strong sense of the events which took place in the final weeks and months within the southern kingdom of Judah. It is within these two chapters and passages of Scripture that you find and discover the great destruction that not only befell the southern kingdom of Judah, but also the city of Jerusalem. Moreover, you will find and read within these two chapters the great devastation and destruction that took place within the city of Jerusalem as not only was the king’s house destroyed and burned with fire, but so also was the Temple and house of the LORD destroyed. Above and beyond the devastation and destruction which took place in the midst of the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem we also find and read of a great captivity and carrying away of the people of God. It is within these chapters where we not only discover all of the events which transpired in the midst of the land of Judah, but we also come to understand that the events which took place did so because of the great transgression and rebellion which had so permeated and saturated the land. What’s more, is that it is in these chapters we come face to face with the incredible reality that the events which took place within the southern kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem took place according to the word of the LORD of Jeremiah the prophet who had spent a considerable amount of time prophesying according to the word of the LORD during the days of Josiah and the kings which would come after him. Even more than this you will find that perhaps one of the much less noted reasons and purposes for the captivity and carrying away of the people of God was to allow the land itself to rest, to lie fallow, and to essentially reset during and over a period of seventy years. If you continue reading within Scripture you will encounter and come face to face with the tremendous reality that the people of God would remain captives in the midst of the land of Babylon for seventy years, as each year they were in captivity would represent one sabbath which the land was not able to enjoy. If you take the time to do the math you will find that seventh sabbaths would take place over the course of four-hundred and ninety years. Stop and think about the fact that for nearly half a millennia the land of Israel—later the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah—would not enjoy, nor would it experience a sabbath rest in the seventh year, which was commanded by the living God. For every sabbath year the people of God neglected, rejected and had forsaken they would spend a year in captivity, which would in fact total seventy years in the midst of the land. To help you understand this even more, it’s necessary to journey to the prophetic word of the LORD which the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed and declared in a letter that was sent unto the captives which were taken into Babylon. Beginning to read with and from the first verse of the twenty-ninth chapter you will find the following words which were sent unto the inhabitants of Israel which were now captives in the midst of the land of Babylon:

“Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon; (After that Jeconiah the king, and the queen, and the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the carpenters, and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem;) by the hand of Elasah the son of Shahan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, (whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent unto Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviner’s, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD. For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive” (Jeremiah 29:1-14).

The words which you find in the prophetic book of Jeremiah the prophet of the LORD are a clear and powerful declaration and statement to the captives which were living and dwelling in the midst of of the land of the Chaldeans in Babylon. Those words which he declared unto them by the mouth of the LORD not only encouraged them to seek the peace of the city wherein they dwelt, but also to continue and carry on with their lives as though they were still in the land of inheritance, promise and blessing. What’s more, is that the prophet Jeremiah would declare unto those who were carried away as captives into the land of the Chaldeans that they would not depart from the land and return unto their own until the LORD had performed His word concerning them, for they would remain in the land of the Chaldeans for seventy years. It should be noted that when we encounter and come to Daniel’s tremendous prayer of repentance while living and dwelling in the land of the Chaldeans—in the first year of Darius the Mede—he would discern and understand by the prophetic word which was spoken unto Jeremiah that seventy years had been decreed for the children of Israel to live as captives in the midst of the land of the Chaldeans, and that they would and could not return unto the land until those seventy years had been fulfilled and completed. What we read and what we find in the midst of the Old Testament book of Ezra is a powerful declaration and statement of return, as once the seventy years of captivity and exile had been completed, the living and eternal God would not only return them to the land, but would also restore them to the place promise, blessing and inheritance. The interesting thing that should be worth noting and mentioning is that even though the children of Israel were able to return to the land, and even though they were able to return to somewhat of a sense of what their fathers had known as “normal,” it would be entirely and altogether different. There is not a doubt in my mind that although there was a remnant of the people of God which did in fact return to the land of Israel—to the land of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—it would be altogether and entirely different from what had been experienced in days prior. In fact, even as you read the opening chapters of the book of Ezra and find the foundation of the Temple of the LORD being laid, there were those ancient men who saw the glory and splendor of the former house who wept and cried out bitterly because what was before them was nothing like what had been previously in the midst of the land.

RETURNING TO THE LAND, YET NOT RETURNING TO “NORMAL.” RETURNING TO THE LAND, YET RETURNING TO “A NEW NORMAL.” I sit here this morning and I can’t help but think about and consider the absolutely tremendous and astonishing reality that although we come to the Old Testament book of Ezra and find a people returning unto the land—returning to a place they had longed for and desired after—they would return to a place that had been allowed to lie rest for seventy years. For seventy years the land of Israel was at peace and was at rest in the midst of the earth, as the people of God were and had been removed from the midst of the land. When the time did in fact come for them to return to the land, it should be wonderfully and powerfully noted that they would not return to things the way they were previously used to, and would essentially have to start all over. If there is one thing the prophetic book of Ezra presents us with, it’s that in the process of returning to the land, it would not come without the tremendous responsibility, task and assignment of rebuilding that which had lie in ruins for seventy years. What’s more, is that I can’t help but see a powerful picture of a “new normal” that would be present in the midst of the land of Israel, for although they would return to the land that was theirs according to promise and inheritance, things would be entirely and altogether different from what they had experienced previously. I can’t help but wonder what the ancient men and fathers who were present in the land before the captivity thought and felt as they returned to the land after seventy years in captivity. It is important that we recognize and understand that included in those who would return to the land of Israel were those from previous generations which had lived and dwelt in the land during the days of the invasion of the Babylonian army, and who had seen the devastation and destruction that had come upon the city of Jerusalem, the wall and gates of the city, and even the house of the LORD. There was a generation that lived to remember the devastation and destruction which took place in the midst of the land, and even when they returned and came unto the land once more, they would undoubtedly still have in the back of their minds the thought of those days when the Babylonian army would surround and lay siege to the city of Jerusalem, when the famine, pestilence and the sword would come upon the city, when the walls would be broken through, when the gates would be burned with fire, when the people were carried away captive, and when the Temple and house of the LORD would be destroyed. Undoubtedly those days of devastation and destruction would be engrained into the psyche and memories of those ancients who would return to the land of Israel as I am sure it was a mixed bag of emotions.

THE MIXED BAG OF EMOTIONS IN RETURNING! The more I think about and consider the words which are written and recorded within the Old Testament book of Ezra, the more I can’t help but stop and consider the fact that although the people of God would return to the land that was theirs as an inheritance, and although there were those who would return to the land which they had left and been carried away as captives all those years earlier, they would return to what could only be defined as “a new normal.” Although they would return to the land, and although they would be permitted to essentially rebuild the ruins which had remained in the land for nearly three quarters of a century, there would be a new normal for them, as things would undoubtedly not be the way they used to. In all reality, if there is one thing we must recognize and understand concerning the return of the people of God, it’s that things could not continue the way they had been prior to the captivity and prior to the exile. Although they would return to the land of Israel, and although they would be permitted to return to the place of inheritance promise and blessing, they could not carry on the way their fathers had done prior to the captivity and prior to the exile. Oh it was true that the LORD would allow them to return, but it’s absolutely necessary and imperative that we recognize and understand that their returning did not mean, nor did it give them the license and freedom to do things as they had previously done. This is an incredibly powerful prophetic picture of what is taking place within our generation right now, as the language of return is at the forefront of countless news outlets and media outlets, as people within and throughout this nation—even among the nations of the world—are yearning and desiring to return to what they had known before. During the days and times we are living in—not only is there the language and desire of returning, but there is also the language and desire of returning to what men and women think and believe is the normal they knew before all this took place. I continue to get the strong sense that as the process of returning slowly begins to unfold within our culture and society, we cannot, we dare not, we must not return to what we knew as “normal.” In fact, I would dare say that what we considered “normal,” was and has been rejected by the living God, and what we considered as “normal” was really our own adaptation, modification and transformation of the original design, intention and pattern of the living God.

The people of God would be permitted to remain in the midst of the land of Israel, and yet even in their returning there was one thing could not do—namely, return to the way things were prior to the captivity and prior to their exile. If in the process of their returning to the land they also returned to the way things were and the way things had been prior to the captivity and exile, they would undoubtedly run the risk of a second captivity and a second exile. It’s interesting and worth noting that there would essentially be two distinct captivities and two exiles that would take place and be present in the history of the Jewish people. The first captivity and exile would be in direct relation to their treatment of the land, and their iniquity and idolatry in the midst of the land, while the second captivity and exile would be in direct relation to their treatment of the Messiah who would be manifest among them. As I sit here this morning I can’t help but wonder if what we just experienced, and what we are still experiencing is not directly connected to our iniquity, to our idolatry, and to our treatment of those things which are sacred, and yet even in the process of our returning we must be absolutely careful how we treat the Messiah who is Jesus the Christ, the eternal Son of God. We dare not, we cannot and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely tremendous reality, for the people of Israel would be carried away as captives from the midst of the land because of their treatment of the land, and because of their iniquity, their immorality, and their wickedness before and in the sight of the living God. It was true that the LORD would indeed allow them to return, however, it’s necessary that we recognize and understand that even in their returning they needed to recognize that they could not return to life the way they had known, and to life the way it was lived in the days prior to captivity and exile. There were those in the midst of the land of Israel who witnessed and beheld the devastation and destruction which had taken place all those years earlier, and had witnessed being carried away as captives into the land of the captivity, and in all reality, I would dare say that they served as the greatest witness and the greatest testimony for that generation which would return to the land. We dare not, we cannot and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely incredible reality, for although the living and eternal God would indeed return them to the land, and although He would restore them to their place in the midst of the nations and peoples of the earth, there was within their returning a warning and word of caution concerning the temptation to also return to their ways. THE WARNING IN THE PROCESS OF RETURNING! THE WORD OF CAUTION IN THE PATH OF RETURNING!

I am absolutely convinced that in the process and path of the people of God returning to the land of Israel, there was a tremendous and powerful word of caution and warning which was taking place among them, for even in their returning they would and could not return to the way things were prior to their captivity, and prior to their exile. If the people of God returned to the land, and yet did not learn that which the living God desired to teach them in the midst of the land of the Chaldeans, and if they did not learn the lessons the living and eternal God desired to teach their fathers through the devastation and destruction which came upon the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem in the midst of the land, there would be a tremendous danger of repeating the same mistakes which they had made prior to the departure. During these days and over the past two months we have witnessed a tremendous departure, as men and women have not only had to depart from what they thought and believed was “normal,” but they had also entered into their own period of exile and captivity. Although no American was ever in true captivity, true isolation, and true exile during this time, there was and there were underlying tones of exile and captivity, as every state within the country issued “Stay at Home” orders. For more than two months men and women, children and teenagers, young adults and families were instructed to shelter in place, and to remain in their homes in order to help slow the spread of the virus. I am sure there were quite a few Americans who felt as though they were in their own exile and their own captivity during these days and times as countless lost their jobs, and were forced rely on the Federal government to sustain them through stimulus checks, through unemployment benefits and the like. In all reality, I can’t help but get the strong sense that during this time there was a great need to do exactly what Jeremiah urged those who were living and dwelling as captives in the midst of the land of the Chaldeans to do. Jeremiah instructed and encouraged those who were captives to submit themselves to the Babylonians, and to seek the peace of the land into which they were and had been sent. During this time within our nation we have honestly seen anything but seeking the peace of those in authority over us, as we have seen countless protests and demonstrations demanding that business, cities, towns, states, churches, and even the economy reopen. There have been businesses and establishments which have been in absolute defiance to state and federal governments, as countless individuals have demonstrated a rebellious spirit before and toward the authority which the living God. There have even been pastors which have threatened to sue state government and officials over the doors of churches being closed in the midst of this time. It’s very important for us to recognize and understand that during this time there have indeed and have in fact been countless thousands—if not millions—of Americans who have submitted themselves to state and federal government, yet there have been countless who have resisted and defied authority, and have essentially rebelled against the government.

The more I look upon the days and times we have walked through and are still walking through, the more I can’t help but get the strong sense that there have been countless Americans which in their attempt to protest their rights, and protest the closure of business, houses of worship, parks, basketball courts, etc., they have been doing nothing short of demonstrating and open rebellion toward those in authority and those in government at this time. What’s more, is that I would dare say there have been countless men and women who have not only rebelled against state and federal government, but who have also rebelled against the authority and the living God. There is not a doubt in my mind that this current virus and pandemic which we have been experienced is a powerful warning and word of caution from the living and eternal God, and we have had the tremendous and incredible responsibility to quiet and still ourselves in order that we might hear and listen to His voice. What I fear is that during this time there have been countless men and women who have been just like Zedekiah king of Judah who not only attempted to rebel against the king of Babylon, but who also attempted to flee from the midst of the city in an attempt to escape. It’s worth noting that not only do you find Zedekiah and others with him rebelling against the king of Babylon, and even attempting to flee, but even when Gedaliah was appointed governor over those who remained in the midst of the land of Judah, they attempted to flee from the land and escape into the land of Egypt. Those who remained in the land would slaughter Gedaliah governor over the land, and after slaughtering him, they would attempt to flee and somehow escape into the land of Egypt. We dare not and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely tremendous and incredible reality, for I am convinced that it is a powerful picture of how many Americans during this time have responded to the current crisis and pandemic we have faced. I am absolutely and completely convinced there have been countless Americans who instead of submitting to the authority that is in place, and instead of seeking the peace of the town, city, state, and country where they are living, they have not only rebelled, but have also attempted to flee in their own ways from that which the living and eternal God has ordained during these times. Through the various protests and demonstrations, as well as through those businesses which chose to reopen in open defiance to state and federal government recommendations and guidelines, and even those who sought to sue state and local government officials there has been those open defiance and rebellion during this time. We dare not, we cannot, we must try and ignore this, for there is absolutely no mistaking this reality within and during these times, for it has been right in front of our faces the entire times.

I sit here today thinking about and considering the events which have taken place during these days and times in which we are living, and I am absolutely and completely convinced that there have been a number of men and women—even religious men and women, and those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ—who have not only resisted authority during this time, but who have attempted to operate in open defiance before government officials and leaders. I find myself thinking about and considering the narrative that is before us during these days, and it is absolutely and utterly shocking—even appalling—to think about how openly defiant and rebellious men and women have been, and all in the name of their rights which they feel have violated. We cannot afford to miss and lose sight of this absolutely tremendous reality and concept, for even in the process of our returning—or at least returning as we would like to define it within our own hearts and minds—we are running the risk of returning to the same patterns, the same habits, the same desires, the same passions, the same sins, the same transgressions which we were guilty of before. Within and throughout this time there have been countless men and women who have cried out for the opportunity to return to normal, to return to their jobs, to return to life as they knew it, and even to return to what they knew before, and yet the truth of the matter is that there have been a lot of individuals who have cried out for this, and in the process of crying out for the ability to return, have also moved and operated in open defiance before the throne of the living God of heaven and earth. In all reality, I fear that even after we begin returning to our places of employment, and even after we begin to returning to some sort of life as we knew it prior to the pandemic, we are running the risk of returning and repeating the same underlying mistakes, sins and transgressions which we were guilty of before. It’s interesting to read the words which are written and recorded within the Old Testament books of Second Kings and Second Chronicles, for within these passages we find the language of rebellion against the king, as well as the language of returning, as there was a remnant of people who were able to return unto the land of their fathers, and unto the land of their ancestors. There are in all reality two fears that I have during this time as I engage in this writing, for I fear that in our rebellion we are actually operating in open defiance before the throne of God in heaven and His authority which has been present during these days and times. What’s more, is that I fear that even in our returning we run the risk and might very well play a dangerous game with returning to what we would like to be normal as we once knew it, and yet we continue on living as though the pandemic and crisis never took place, and as though we haven’t all received a tremendous warning from the living God.

The language written and recorded in the books of Second Chronicles and Second Kings speak of the people of God being carried away as captives into the land of the Chaldeans and living as exiles in the midst of the land, and I can’t help but get the strong sense that during this time—not only have we been confronted with the reality of a form of captivity and exile as we have been forced to remain within our homes, but we have also been asked to submit ourselves to the authority that has been present before us during these days and times. There have been countless individuals who have cried out in the midst of this affliction, this captivity and this exile, and have cried out for the opportunity and ability to return to what many have considered to be “normal,” and yet I fear that when we are finally able to return to our jobs, and to those recreational activities which we used to enjoy, we might also find ourselves returning to old patterns and habits which we demonstrated prior to the crisis. The children of Israel were permitted to return to the land of Israel, and yet when they returned they would return to the same land, yet there was something drastically different about the land when they returned to it. It would be the same land their ancestors had dwelt in throughout the centuries and generations, and it would be the same land which some who returned to the land had known prior to the captivity and exile, and yet life as they knew it would be completely different. Not only would they have to engage in the task and assignment of rebuilding from the ruins that were present in the land, which were left by the destruction and devastation of the Babylonians, but they would have to essentially reinvent themselves in this land. There were some who would enter into the land of Judah who had never seen it before, for they were born in the midst of captivity and exile. There were those who would be born in captivity and exile, and would grow up in the midst of that captivity and exile, and who would enter into a land which they perhaps heard of from their fathers, and from their ancestors, and they were now seeing and witnessing that land firsthand for themselves. Oh, I can’t help but be absolutely and entirely gripped and captivated with this language of returning for the people of God, for although they were indeed permitted to return to the land which had been promised and sworn on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they were returning to what I am absolutely convinced was a “new normal.” Life in the Promised Land would not be the same as it was in previous generations, and in all reality, it could not and should not have been the same as what it was in previous generations. There was a new normal that would need to be invented and created in the midst of the land, for seventy years had passed, and for seventy years the land had lie in ruins and rest. RETURNING TO RUIN AFTER REST! When the people of God were permitted to return to the land of Israel after seventy years of captivity, they would be returning to a land which had the ability to rest for seventy years, as essentially the pause and reset buttons were both pushed at the time of their captivity and the devastation and destruction of the Babylonians. As the people of God returned to the land of Israel after spending seventy years in captivity, they would return after a tremendous and powerful period of pause and reset had taken place, for they would return to an entirely new opportunity to do things drastically different than their ancestors and fathers had done before them.

IN RETURNING YOU MUST DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY! There is not a doubt in my mind when reading the words and language of the final verses of the book of Second Chronicles, as well as the words which are written and found in the book of Ezra that although the children of Israel would be permitted to return to the land, there was a great and tremendous challenge to return to the land, and yet live entirely and altogether different than their fathers and ancestors had before. The tragic reality concerning this—and at the risk of getting ahead of myself—you will find that later on in the book of Ezra those who returned to the land would give themselves to some of the same sins and transgressions as their forefathers and ancestors did. When we speak of the language of returning it is absolutely necessary that we understand that in the process of returning there is a powerful invitation to hit “reset” within our own hearts and lives after having a period of time to reevaluate ourselves, and choose to do things completely different. It’s worth noting that when the people of Israel returned to the land of Israel they would indeed need to engage in the process of rebuilding, and yet the very first thing we find them rebuilding—and not even necessarily rebuilding, but also repairing—is the altar of the LORD in the midst of the land. It is absolutely incredible that when you read concerning the decree of Cyrus king of Persia that allowed the people of God to return to the land, you will find that at the very heart of their returning was the Temple and house of the LORD. We cannot, we dare not, we must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely critical reality, for it would be very easy to allow ourselves to get caught up in the reality of returning to the land and simply returning to rebuild houses, to plant vineyards, to sow in fields, and to reestablish life as it has been before the captivity and exile, and yet the truth of the matter is that when we read of the return of the people of God to the land of Israel, we don’t find the main and underlying focal point of their returning to the land to carry out their own agendas, their own desires, their own plans, their own imaginations. What we find in the process of their returning to the land was their returning to build and rebuild a house unto the LORD their God. For seventy years the people of God had been living as captives and exiles in a strange and foreign land—interestingly enough the land which their forefather Abraham had been called out of—and the Temple of God had not been present, nor in existence within the earth, nor in the midst of the land. Truth be told the main and underlying reason for the people of God returning to the land was to rebuild the Temple and sanctuary of the LORD their God.

The entire premise of the Old Testament book of Ezra surrounds the rebuilding of the Temple of the LORD, and their return to a “new normal” would have at the very heart of it the rebuilding of the Temple and house of the LORD. We cannot and must not allow ourselves to forget about this and miss this point, for I would dare say that in our process of returning to what we would like to think is “normal,” we must recognize and understand that at the very heart of our returning is not commerce, is not business, is not economic stability, is not employment, and is not anything materialistic in nature. Our returning—particularly and especially to the church buildings and houses of worship—is a return to the house of the LORD, and a return to the altar. For seventy years the people of God had been without the altar of the LORD among them in their midst, and during those seventy years they were tempted to not only bow down before the golden image Nebuchadnezzar had built, but also to pray to no one but the king of Persia. Pause for a moment and think about the fact that there in captivity there was the absence of the altar of the LORD, and essentially before them—and quite possibly in its place—was a golden image of the king of Babylon. It is absolutely necessary that we recognize and understand this reality, for it is this reality that helps us understand the tremendous significance of the people returning was not to jumpstart their economy once more, was not to build and rebuild houses, was not to jump start agricultural realities among them in their midst, nor engage in their own agendas and endeavors. At the very heart and forefront of their returning would be a return to the altar and the rebuilding of the Temple. RETURNING TO THE ALTAR AND REBUILDING THE TEMPLE! If you remember nothing else from the Old Testament book of Ezra you must recognize and remember that in their returning there was not only a call to return to and repair the altar of the LORD, but also to rebuild the Temple and sanctuary of the living God. We dare not and must not miss this, for even in our attempt to return to houses of worship and church buildings we must recognize and understand that in that returning is a call to return to the altar, and to rebuild the Temple and sanctuary of the living God. I fear that there are countless who will return to the pews of churches, and who will return to churches and houses of worship during this time, and who will completely neglect, abandon and reject the altar of the LORD, and the sanctuary of the true and living God among us in our midst. Even in our returning to the church buildings and houses of worship we must recognize and understand that we have not been called to return to “church” as we know it, and even more than being caught up in the reality of a physical building made with human hands, our focus and focal point should be on the altar of the LORD among us in our midst.

WORSHIP OVER SECURITY! THE ALTAR OVER GATES! THE TEMPLE OVER WALLS! I find it absolutely incredible to read the progression in Scripture, for what we find in Scripture is that the book of Ezra is placed before the book of Nehemiah in the canon of Scripture. It is absolutely necessary that we recognize and understand this, for this reality highlights and underscores the reality that the main and underlying point of the return of the people of God to the land of Israel was not to jumpstart the Israeli economy once more, nor to give themselves to sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting, and even building and rebuilding their own homes. The underlying premise and point of their returning to the land of Israel was to rebuild the Temple and sanctuary of the living God, which would begin and have at the very heart of it the altar of the living God. As I sit here writing these words I can’t help but think about the countless churches and houses of worship that might very well return to the pews and chairs in church buildings and houses of worship, and yet neither the altar of the LORD, nor the sanctuary of the LORD are at the forefront of their returning. I find it absolutely incredible to declare that if at the very core, if at the very heart, if at the very foundation of your returning the altar of the LORD and the sanctuary of the living God is not present, then you have sorely missed the point and have come out of this crisis and captivity having learned absolutely nothing. I would emphatically and wholeheartedly declare right now that during this time discernment is at a premium, and there is a great need for wisdom, for knowledge, and for understanding, as the Spirit of the living God is indeed and has indeed been speaking to us throughout this whole crisis. It is absolutely necessary and imperative that we recognize and understand that in our process of returning we are and we have been called to return to the altar of the LORD, and to once more offer sacrifices and offerings which are pleasing and acceptable in His sight. I fear that when many church goers and parishioners and congregants return to the church buildings and houses of worship there will be many who will completely forget and perhaps even ignore that in our return to the houses of worship and church buildings we have been called to a return to the altar of the LORD, and to once more offer sacrifices and offerings which are pleasing and acceptable in His sight. There is not a doubt in my mind that when men and women start returning to the church buildings and to houses of worship there is a great need to return to the altar, and to return to the place of sacrifice and offering before the LORD. We cannot, we must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely incredible reality, for I fear that in our returning to the pews and chairs of our churches we might neglect and even ignore the altar of the LORD. I am absolutely convinced that during this time there is not only a tremendous and powerful call to return to the altar, but also to return to the place of fire, to the place of sacrifice and to the place of offering. Consider if you will the words which are written and recorded in the opening chapter of the Old Testament book of Ezra, beginning to read with and from the first and opening verse:

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the free will offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem. Then rose up the chief of the feathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all the new whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem. And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered. Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods; even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasur, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives, thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand. All the vessels of gold and of silver were fife thousand and four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand. All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1-11).

IN RETURNING, RETURN! IN RETURNING TO THE LAND, RETURN TO THE ALTAR! IN RETURNING TO THE ALTAR, REBUILD THE TEMPLE! The Old Testament book of Ezra is not only a powerful book and testament of the people of God returning to the land which they had been cut off and removed from, but it is also a powerful testament and testimony to the people of God returning to the land to build the altar of the LORD once more, and to rebuild the sanctuary. What we must understand is that their returning to “a new normal” would and could not be without the altar of the LORD among them in their midst, and it would and could not be without a sanctuary before and unto the LORD their God in their midst. What is so absolutely and incredibly powerful about this reality is that the rebuilding of the Temple would be a wonderful and powerful testimony and declaration that the LORD their God who had not only removed and cut them off from the land, but also returned and restored them to the land desired to dwell among them in their midst. The very fact that the Temple and sanctuary of the living God would once more be present among them would be a tremendous and powerful sign that the people of God had been restored to the land which they had been cast forth out of, and cut off from. We must recognize and understand that in their returning to the land—in their returning to a new normal—they would and could not have that normal without the altar of the LORD, and without the Tabernacle and sanctuary of the living God. The people of God would and could not return to the land, and begin carrying out “a new normal” without the altar of the LORD and without the sanctuary of the living God being present among them in the midst of the land. The LORD would indeed allow them to return to the land, and to return to that which they were cut off from, and that which they were removed from, and yet He would not allow them to return without an emphasis placed on the altar of the LORD, nor His holy sanctuary and Temple. Please don’t miss and please don’t lose sight of this, for at the very heart of their return would be a return to the altar of the LORD, and a return to that place of worship, that place of sacrifice and that place of offerings once more. The people of God would indeed and would in fact be permitted to return to the land, and yet their new normal would need to have at the very center and heart of it the place of worship and prayer before the LORD. It would be the ancient Hebrew prophets that would speak to the house of God as being a house of prayer unto all nations, and the people could not have the land without the altar. YOU CANNOT HAVE THE LAND WITHOUT THE ALTAR! YOU CANNOT HAVE THE LAND WITHOUT THE SANCTUARY! Oh how absolutely remarkable it is to think about the fact that when the people were permitted to return to the land they knew and were very much aware of the fact that their return was made possible by the decree of Cyrus the king of Persia, and their return would have at the very heart and foundation of it a return to the altar, and the rebuilding of the Temple and Sanctuary of the living God.

As I continue to ponder and meditate upon our “need” and our desire to return to life as we once knew it—a reality which I am convinced is nothing more than a pipe dream and smoke and mirrors—we cannot and should not make any attempt to return to it without and apart from the altar and the sanctuary of the living God being at the very heart and foundation of it. For two months many of us have been living in a form and type of captivity and exile in our homes as we have been forced to shelter in place to slow the spread of this novel coronavirus. It has been during this time of self-quarantine, this time of self-isolation, as well as during this time of “captivity” and “exile” that we have been essentially and effectively cut off from all those things we were so used to having in our daily lives. During this time we have been cut off from restaurants and bars alike. During this time we have been cut off from movie theaters, bowling alleys and pool halls alike. During this time we have been cut off from outlet stores and shopping malls alike. What’s more, is that we have even been cut off from churches and houses of worship, as we have been forced to essentially go virtual. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder if during this time we have been prepared, and are continuing to be prepared for a time when we might be cut off from the same things we have been cut off from now, and might be forced to go underground in order that we might avoid persecution and avoid exposing ourselves to the hatred, animosity, cruelty and malice of men. Is it possible that the living and eternal God cut us off from our churches and from our houses of worship in order to move us from houses of worship to homes of worship. THE TRANSFORMATION FROM HOUSES OF WORSHIP TO HOMES OF WORSHIP! It is absolutely amazing to think about and consider how changing one little word can radically transform how we interact as the body of Christ, and how we interact as the people of God. I fear we have forgotten that in the days of the early church when it first began they gave themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the breaking of bread from house to house. There is a part of me that can’t help wonder if during this time the LORD is calling and bring us back to our roots and to our spiritual heritage as a people who meet in homes of worship rather than rely on houses of worship.) I cannot help but get the strong and undeniable sense during this time that as surely and as certainly as we have allowed ourselves to get caught up in “houses of worship,” the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is in fact drawing and calling us into the place of “homes of worship” where we commit ourselves to dwelling and moving in community once more.

When and as I read the words which are written and recorded in the Old Testament book of Ezra I cannot help but find a people returning to a place that some were familiar with, yet were returning to a place that was going to without a doubt have a new element of normal to and for them. Although the people of Israel were permitted to return to the land of Israel, they were called to return to the altar of the LORD, and to the sanctuary of the living God. What’s more, is that they were called to return to the land, and yet diligently strive to ensure that in their process of returning they did not repeat the mistakes, the iniquities, the transgressions, the sins, the idolatries, the whoredeoms, and the practices of their fathers. They would and could not live and dwell in the land without the altar and the sanctuary of the LORD among them in their midst, and they would and could not live and dwell in the land continuing on in the very same things that cause them to be removed, cast off and cut off from the land. As surely and as certainly as there was indeed a powerful invitation to return to the land, there was with that call and invitation a need to return to the altar, and to return to the place of sacrifice and worship before the LORD their God. Think about and consider the fact that for at least seventy years they had been without the altar of the LORD, and without the ability to offer sacrifices before and unto the LORD their God. Now that they were back in the land they would once more have access to the altar, and would once more have the ability to build the sanctuary of the LORD their God among them in their midst. Oh that we would recognize and understand that whatever this “new normal” looks like for us during the upcoming weeks, months, and perhaps even years, we cannot pursue this “new normal” absent and without the altar of the LORD, and without His holy sanctuary among us in our midst. With that being said, it is necessary that when I write and speak of the sanctuary among us in our midst, I am not referring to the four walls of our church buildings with its pews, chairs, pulpit and platform. What I am speaking about is that place where the presence and glory of the living God can dwell in the midst of us, and that place where His holy and consuming fire might once more be present among us in our midst. As I bring this writing to a close I leave you with the words which are found in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ezra beginning to read with and from the first and opening verse, for it is within this passage we find the people not only returning to the land, but also returning to the altar, as the very first order of business they engaged in once in the land was returning to the altar and once more offering their gifts and sacrifices before and unto the LORD. Consider if you will the following words and please recognize and understand that which we as the people of God have been and are being called to during these days and within this generation in our process of returning—not only returning to the houses of worship and church buildings, but also returning to some form and some type of what we would like to think is what we used to believe was “normal:”

“And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. Then stood up Joshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builder the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt offerings morning and evening. They kept also the feast of tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number, according to the custom, as the duty of every day required; and afterward offered the continual burnt offering, both of the new moons, and of all the set feasts of the LORD that were consecrated, and of every one that willingly offered a free willing offering unto the LORD. From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt offerings unto the LORD. But the foundation of the temple was not yet laid. They gave money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters; and meat, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia. Now in the second year of their coming unto the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, began Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozada, and the remnant of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all they that were come out of the captivity unto Jerusalem; and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and upward, to set forward the work of the house of the LORD> Then stood Jeshua with his sons and his brethren, Kadmiel, and his sons, the son fo Judah, together, to set forward the workmen in the house of God: the sons of Henadad, with their sons and their brethren the Levites. And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the LORD, after the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they say together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the LORD; because He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priest and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off” (Ezra 4:1-13).

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