Worship Among the Ruins
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The people have been away for years. They have not been able to worship together in the place they used to worship together for years. There are not that many of them. You might say that their numbers as a people reflected a shadow of their former selves. The first thing they do together is worship together.
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to be looking at a story of return, rebuilding, and renewal. We’re going to be looking at the story of how the promise relayed by the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled. The story of a governor and priest working hand in hand, a priest/scribe who studied practiced, and taught the word of God, and a man called Nehemiah. Along the way, we’ll run into the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who lived in Jerusalem in the years that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe. One might wonder why we look at stories of ancient Israel – what do they have to do with us as followers of Christ in 2021? As followers of Christ, we are descendants of Abraham – the offspring of Abraham as Paul put it in Galatians 3 – children of the promises of God. We make sense of our lives through stories. We remember stories of God’s faithfulness – God’s promise-keeping – and how people responded to God’s faithfulness, in order to be able to live ever more fully in the promises of God now as God’s people and ask God to help us to know what they mean for our own present and future.
As far as our own present goes, we’re coming out of a kind of exile ourselves. A pandemic exile and we’re not fully out of it yet. For the people of Israel, the things that defined them like political structure and the great Temple of Jerusalem that Solomon had built were no more. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The city was destroyed. Its walls were destroyed. The Temple was plundered and destroyed. The sacred objects of the Temple had been carried off and were used by Babylonian royalty to mock Israel’s God. Had God forgotten his promises? What did it mean for a people who had returned to live as those called by God – those called to be set apart? What does it mean for us? What does it mean to be people of God without a building or at least not meeting in a building? What does it mean to be a people who have returned, and who long to be rebuilt and renewed?
We see from the beginning of the story that God’s hand is at work, as it will be at work throughout this history that we’re looking at; not in grand miraculous ways but in ways that are largely unseen and might even be unnoticed. The thing is, the Lord is stirring hearts.
The Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Persians. In the first year of King Cyrus, God stirs the king’s heart to order that any Israelite who wants to return to Canaan may return. God stirs up hearts to return. For what purpose? To worship God. There were not that many of them compared to what they had been numbers-wise. Around 50,000. This is not to knock the people who don’t return by any means. Years later, Ezra and Nehemiah will both emerge from the community still living in exile. God is at work there too. Our story though is about the people whose hearts God has stirred to return. They get a lot of help. They get help from their neighbours. I’ve found it to be true throughout my own life that God provides the help that we need – often it comes from unexpected places. Help comes from King Cyrus himself! They load everything up and we can’t help but think of this as a kind of second exodus.
Once again, God is delivering God’s people. This is what God does. We didn’t read a great deal of chapter 2 and it might seem a little daunting. Again, we may wonder what all these lists have to do with us. To this, I would reply “Say their names.” Saying names humanizes events. The people with whom we are connected in God’s story are not simply a nameless faceless mass. They had parents and children and hopes and dreams and challenges. We’re humanized and oriented with others. One might wonder why all the details about what they were carrying, how many animals went with them. The thing about this story (and really any good story) is that it looks back to the past. We don’t look back to the past for its own sake. We look to the past to remember. Someone has said that without memory we cannot hope. Hope is based on memory. We have a kind of second exodus here, don’t we? In this, we are reminded of God’s first delivering act – bringing a people out of slavery. They had gone to Egypt as family and emerged as the beginnings of a nation. Here we have a group of people being delivered from exile, out of which will emerge a few hundred years later the beginnings of the church - a people called to offer sacrifices of praise. We remember that God has delivered us and we remember what God has delivered us from as a worshipping community.
I say worshipping community because as we consider chapter three, we see that worship lies at the heart of this community. As our story begins we have a people who are among ruins. One might wonder what the best course of action should be in such a situation. Return, rebuild, renewal is the title of our series. They’ve returned, surely they should start getting on now with the rebuilding. They’re living in some fear of the surrounding people. Surely they should do something. Build a wall, some sort of structure for defense. Our story tells us the first thing we should do when we’re afraid when we’re feeling anxious when we’re feeling uncertain. Sometimes it’s hard to make a start. I remember visiting one of our family here at Blythwood recently and talking about worshipping online. I was telling them how easy to get used to it was, which was a good thing. They said, “You have to make sure you don’t get too used it.”
What a prophetic word. As welcome as online worship has been and continues to be where it’s necessary, we are called to be people who worship together. If worship is not considered essential to this faith community or any faith community that one might be part of who is hearing this, then we are getting it wrong. In the midst of fear. In the midst of political instability. In the midst of the power of empires shifting. We are reminded that the Lord is stirring hearts. Hearts are stirred here to worship together. The community is declared first and foremost to be a worshipping community. We’re talking about remembering our identity. Who are we as a people of God? We are a people who are called to worship together. One of the themes that keeps recurring in Ezra/Nehemiah is the image of the hand of the Lord being upon them. What a wonderful image. If we are not a people who worship together, how would we ever be able to say that the hand of the Lord is upon us? It’s the first thing they do. Before they make a budget. Before they order materials from Lebanon. Before they call a business meeting.
The people gathered together in Jerusalem. The people of God gathered together. When we talk about the unity of the family of faith, we’re not simply talking about how nice it is when we’re together and we can all get along. We’re talking about God making us into a new family in which barriers and divisions are broken down. A family whose unity and interdependence and dependence on God is acknowledged in our worship together. It’s my prayer that God will stir our hearts to desire this. We neglect worship together at our peril, I believe that. May the Spirit of God inspire us with scenes like this one. “When the seventh month came and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God.” We’ll be talking more about the law of Moses and grace in the weeks to come I’m sure, but for now, you may be wondering what this talk of altar and sacrifice has to say to us for whom the sacrifice has been made. We’re talking now about worship together, about how we acknowledge the one who has made the sacrifice. What is a good and fitting and proper response for us who pledge our allegiance to Christ? “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5) When we remember Paul’s appeal in Romans 12 we see how it all comes together. “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) We talked about the living of our lives as a continuous act of thanks to and service to God. We don’t do this on our own like rolling stones, no direction home, like a complete unknown, but as stones in house, or bricks in a spiritual wall (seeing as we’ll be looking at wall construction in some weeks). Worship together.
There’s a particularly apt detail here too about which festival they were keeping. It was the festival of booths. It’s apt, as Sukkot is starting tomorrow. It’s the time when boots or tents are set up. People eat in them or even sleep in them. It calls on the memory of God sustaining the people of Israel for 40 years after the exodus from Egypt when they lived in temporary shelters. It’s perhaps when things are most precarious that we are reminded of our need for God. How apt that we’re outside looking at this story, living with precarity (including the unknown of the weather). It reminds us of the fragility of life and the fragility of those things on which we are tempted to depend. Someone has put it like this – “It is far more difficult to hear the message of the fragility of life and the fact of dependence upon God for each succeeding breath amid the settled affluence… that so many in the modern western world enjoy. Yet all our securities are ultimately illusory. Any attempt to peel them away, whether by temporary abstention from some of the good things of life, or whether by deliberate exposure to and sharing of the hard realities experienced by the poor and disadvantaged, can only be salutary.” It can only be a good thing. May our worship outdoors remind us of the fragility of life and our complete and utter need for God.
Who is good. Whose steadfast love endures forever. This is the song that is sung. The people have been brought back. “But now in Christ Jesus, you were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” This by God’s grace. Once we didn’t have a song. The people of Israel hung up their harps on the trees by the rivers of Babylon. They couldn’t sing. Have you ever experienced something like this? The sorrow is too acute. The grief is too acute. We don’t feel that we can celebrate. We don’t feel that we can sing. The people have been brought back and the foundations of the temple are laid and the priests are in their vestments and they’re stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets. The Levites are ready with their symbols and King David had already done the composing and arranging and everyone knew what to do.
The people who were without a song are no longer without a song and they give thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
We’re heirs of the promise in Christ and we sing, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever and ever.
And all the people responded with a great shout. We talked last week about tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. Sometimes they flow simultaneously. At the end of our passage in we have the sound of weeping mixed with shouts of joy. Some people in the crowd remembered what the temple of Solomon had been like. Its grandeur. We might remember when churches were full twice on Sunday and Wednesday night too. We might remember when there were 300 of us and this might cause us to weep. What do we do with this?
Remember that we are holding three things together simultaneously. We’re looking at stories of the past to be reminded of God’s faithfulness; to be instructed in how we praise God together. We look to the present and ask God to stir our hearts and make us one people, worshipping Him together and praising Him together. We look to the future too because the people of God are always people who are awaiting the fulfillment of a promise. For the people in Jerusalem, it was the restoration of the temple. Of course, this promise pointed forward to the one who said “Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” Christ our temple. God with us. We’re waiting now for the city that has no need for the sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. This might cause us to weep with a loud voice in the midst of shouts of joy, but listen to these words of Haggai for such times:
2 In the second year of King Darius, 1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
Yet now take courage, dear friends. “I am with you according to the promise that I made you,” says our God. We have a response to make and we’re going to be talking about different aspects of our response to God in the weeks to come. Today it’s worship together. As we make a start, may God stir our hearts to respond to Him together in worship, praise, and adoration. May this be true for all of us. Amen