- 1 Peter 2:4-10;
- Ezra 2:68-3:13
The word of the Lord this morning comes from Ezra 2-3 under the heading “A New Beginning – rebuilding from the ruins of destruction.” This is the second in the series about the return of God’s people after their 70 years of deportation to Babylonia because of their covenant-breaking. Last week we saw how God kept his promise: he stirred the heart of Cyrus to make it possible for the leaders to show the people the way back home. Those who followed them did so because God stirred their hearts to go back. God is always behind the movement of his church towards the purpose He called it. For the church to achieve that purpose God provides, just as He did in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
When the people returned to Israel, what they found was a devastating sight of destruction. Where once stood the magnificent temple of Solomon, were heaps of rubble. The city walls were torn down into mere stockpiles of rocks and waste.
Our fathers had it right when they compiled the old church documents. The Shorter Catechism begins with this question. “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, “What is the most important aspect of being a Christian?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The most important purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him in everything we do, for all times.
So, when the remnant of Israelites returned to Jerusalem God put it in their hearts to, through restored worship, unity, focused progress, sacrificial giving and praise enjoy Him.
What was the main reason why God had sent his people in captivity? Wilful disobedient worship! It was not that they stopped worshipping. No, they just worshipped according to their own preferences. This was true about their sabbaths and their everyday living as God’s people. The priests enriched themselves from the sacrifices which belonged to God; the prophets proclaimed man-made visions which were not from the Lord; the kings disregarded the Law of the Lord and caused blood to run in the streets of Jerusalem. And of course, the hearts of the people were far from the Lord. Micah 3 sums it up:
“Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord, and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us.” (Micah 3:11, NKJV)
Micah also said about the people:
“Do not prattle,” you say to those who prophesy. So they shall not prophesy to you; disgrace will not overtake us. You who are named the house of Jacob: “Is the Spirit of the Lord angry? Are these His doings? Do not My words do good To him who walks uprightly?” “If a man should walk in a false spirit and speak a lie, saying, ‘I will prophesy to you of wine and drink,’ Even he would be the prattling prophet of this people.” (Micah 2:6-7 11, NKJV)
One can only argue that the 70 years in captivity made the people think about their worship. Even in Ezra 2:62, we find a sign of them taking God’s principle for worship seriously. When it came to the choice of priests, they made sure:
“These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.” (Ezra 2:62, NIV)
Not everyone who presented as a priest was accepted.
The church of Jesus Christ today need to heed this. God’s worship is extremely important. In fact, worship and the way the church worship is never a choice of people; we can only worship the way God has ordained worship.
The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it as such:
The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
We can only worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- We approach God in the Name of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- We have no other mediator, no saint, no earthly name, no angel.
- We pray to God in the Name of Christ, being led by the Holy Spirit; we pray for living people, no dead people; we pray in reverence, humility, passion, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue or language.
- In true worship the Bible is central, the preaching must be sound, in obedience to God, with understanding, faith, and reverence.
- The singing must be with grace in the heart, and Psalm-singing must be restored.
- The sacraments must be duly administrated and received worthy as sacraments instituted by Christ.
- All parts of the ordinary religious worship of God must be holy and in a religious manner.
- Daily family and private worship, and so more public assemblies should not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected or forsaken.
If anything, public worship in our day must be restored or we run the risk Israel ran. There is a lot to be said about joyful worship (we will come to that a bit later), but disorderly which is fun-driven is not biblical worship. Biblical reaching is far more than psychological therapeutical sessions; Biblical singing is theology in song, and not a preferred style of beat and band; the sacraments are not an optional extra for the long-winded, but signs of God’s grace to his covenant community. Prayer in a foreign language in a church is of no use and is too easily confused with soothsaying and fortunetelling. God’s will is open and declared in the Bible; besides this Word, we need nothing.
The saying is true: don’t go to the church closest to you and closest to your choice; go to the church closest to the word of God and his declared will.
In accordance with what was written
- Morning and evening sacrifices: This was a pleasing aroma before God and symbolised the communion with God. With it, prayers were offered to God. (Numbers 28:3-8). How is it with our prayers?
- Feast of the tabernacles: A festival to remember God’s miraculous deliverance from slavery and sin. Do we still have the sense of how horrible sin enslaved us and how God rescued us in Jesus Christ?
- Burnt offerings: It was to teach Israel that their sinfulness required a complete and continual atonement and consecration. This sacrifice, offered every morning and evening, pointed to Christ’s atoning death for sinners (2Cor 5:21) and His total consecration to God (Luke 2:49). It spoke of Christ’s passive obedience and His submission to the penalty required by human sinfulness. It also refers to His perfect obedience to God’s law by which He did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.
- New Moon Festivals: The sins committed and not atoned during the previous month were covered by the offerings of the New Moon. For us it means continued communion with God through confession of sins and reception of Gods’ grace in Jesus Christ
- Free-will offerings: These were the beyond-and-above offerings. It expressed special thanksgiving for the continued blessing from God – without blemish and defect.
The returned captives expressed their unity under God.
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. (Ezra 3:1)
Seventh month? Why? That’s what God commanded through Moses.
Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present offerings made to the Lord by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the Lord by fire. It is the closing assembly; do no regular work. (Leviticus 23:33-36)
Unity in the church is important.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:24-26)
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. (1 Peter 3:8)
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)
Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. (Ezra 3:3)
Persecution: fear for the people of the land. This was real for the unwalled city. Chapter 4-6 sketches the historical, political and cultural situation of threats from foreign people who had occupied the land while the people of God were in captivity. They were not happy with the Israelites claiming it as the Land of Promise. Jerusalem has been as flash-point ever since. This persecution is nothing new to the church. It happened even with the first church in Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. (Acts 4:18-21)
But as with the first congregation in Jerusalem God’s people after captivity understood their place within the community of God.
- According to their abilities (Ezra 2:68-69)
- Selling what they had (Acts 2:45)
- The honour of God who saved from sin
- The common good of the body of believers
Praise and joy
- Trumpet (Ezra 3:10)
- Praise and thanksgiving (Ezra 3:11)
- Joy and weeping (Ezra 3:13)
- Weeping: Lost glory through sin
- Joy: Restoration by grace
My dear friends in Christ, how we need restoration of worship in the modern church. I contend for
- reverence for God
- obedience to his Word—even if we don’t necessarily “like” the style of worship. We need to rid ourselves from consumer-driven worship.
- joyful singing which proclaims the greatness and gracious deeds of God, and not the “me-centred” sentimentalism of Christian pop music;
- reverent, humble and earnest prayers, and not self-centred instructions to God as if He is a benevolent senile grandad who could not care to write another check.
- Worship is God’s worship. It belongs to Him; He calls the shots, not us.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 12 January 2020