For the third Sunday in Advent the Narrative Lectionary has the theme of the Rebuilding of the Temple and uses Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13 as the suggested reading. However, since it is a narrative lectionary and the next story will be about the birth of John the Baptist, I suggest painting the picture of post-exilic Israel in a broad strokes. This would include joining the Jewish community during Hanukkah in celebrating the Maccabees fight for freedom. A preacher would have to mention the intertestimental literature, especially the Books of Maccabees. This is something most Protestant congregations never hear about. But it is important for the Christmas story and the New Testament. And it is an exciting story, the draw of narrative preaching.
In one sense it is the story of the great geopolitical empires; Cyrus and Persia, Alexander and Greece, the Roman Republic and the Roman dictatorships. Persia freed the Jewish exiles and supported their rebuilding (Ezra 1:1-4), but then the Greeks after Alexander persecuted the Jews (the setting for the Book of Daniel). Finally, a bunch of rural Jews rebelled and, stunningly, won their freedom (Maccabees). The Roman Senate supported them before the Caesars grabbed absolute power. Imperial Rome betrayed the Jews and imposed the Herods as puppets, setting the stage for the Christmas story and the New Testament events.
The base for these events seems to have been a far-reaching commission granted to the priest-scribe, Ezra, by the Persian government to order the new Jerusalem community. He seems to have brought a revision of the Torah with him from Babylon. Richard Friedman has claimed, in Who Wrote the Bible (pp. 159, 232) that Ezra gave Israel the edited integration of the J, E, P, and D sources that we know as the Torah. Historically,I don’t think we can know how much Ezra contributed to editing the Torah. The main thing that seems historically true is that he used it to suppress intermarriage of Jews and most Gentiles. A probable scenario is that the Persian government became displeased with Ezra’s stewardship and eventually recalled him .
There are many controversial historical problems with the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. Editors altered the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for a long time after those figures had died. You have to look at Haggai, Third Isaiah and parts of Zechariah, which may be earlier.
If I were preaching this I might use the short summary in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 as my text. It has a short version of the Cyrus’ decree (so it could be the base for later additions in Ezra) and it has the added blessing /exhortation translated in The Message this way:
“All who belong to God’s people are urged to return—and may your God be with you! Move forward!”
Possibly this is old and addressed to the actual returnees. At least I am not thinking of another relevant context for it.
But the idea that God is with you, but you have to take some initiative and act, could be a theme for the whole story: returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the Temple, rebelling against the Greeks, establishing a Jewish state, and struggling against the Romans.
Some Christians, because Jesus and some of the prophet’s before him were so distrustful of relying on human strength and power politics, tend to downplay the initiative people need to take against tyranny. It seems to me the story puts this in some kind of balance.
On the one hand, Ezra and Judas Maccebeus illustrate the need for exhortation and human initiative to take on building and even military projects (Ezra needed armed force to protect his Temple construction). On the other hand, the grace of God apart from human initiative may reveal itself in Cyrus’ unexpected decree , the Hanukkah oil, and the birth of Jesus.
After the Holocaust and other mass murders of the twentieth century and indiscriminate terrorist butchery now, I struggle with how much human initiative we need to take against the dark side. Yet in the lighting of holiday candles I see a flame that still burns, sometimes with white-hot zeal for liberty in the face of affliction and sometimes with the cool light of waiting for God’s kingdom.