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11.20.11 Laying the Foundations, Ezra 3 Sermon Outline

by on November 22, 2011

When the ancient Israelite Exiles returned from Babylon in 539 BC, they modeled the principle of “first things first”: they started worshiping God. But the life of faith can’t stop there.

Summary points

  • The essence of biblical worship
  • The renewal of worship today
  • Three ways to overcome intergenerational tensions in worship
  • Staying the course through challenging times
  • Thoughts for reflection or discussion

In 587 the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and deported the prominent citizens, decimating Jewish society at the time. In 539 Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Exiles to return, commanding and even paying for them to resume worship. This they did, according to Ezra 3, beginning with the fundamental practice of worship, which is morning and evening sacrifice. When we read “sacrifice” in the Bible, we must hear “prayer” today. So the first thing they did was worship God each morning and evening in prayer.

It is remarkable because the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the city was vulnerable to attack from neighboring peoples. Despite this—or perhaps because they knew that walls don’t protect Jerusalem, but rather God—they rebuilt the foundations of the altar and began with worship.

Beyond morning and evening sacrifices/prayers, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, which is a reminder of God’s providence (it’s a harvest festival) and God’s deliverance (the booths they constructed being a remembrance of their journey through the Wilderness from Egypt. As part of this renewal of worship, and fundamental to it, was the refrain found throughout the Bible: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

This is the essence of biblical worship: morning and evening prayer, seasonal festivals of remembrance, and the proclamation of God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness. But there is more here. When they rebuilt the altar, they did so on foundations that were already there. This is a principle we should remember today. Designing worship requires some “liturgical archeology”—seeking for the best of what has gone before, and using it in service to today.

But they also conscripted Levites who were 20 years old to supervise the work. These are young adults who never saw the Temple since they were born in Exile. They grew up seeing the grandeur of Babylon, and undoubtedly incorporated some of their own young and different experience into the new design of worship. Worship in Jerusalem following the Exile was led by a new and younger generation, building on the best of what went before.

Today is no different. Worship and ministry must change to keep up with the times. But it must not abandon the foundations upon which it rests. We have to listen to the elders to help us identify the foundations, but we have to allow the younger generation to build upon them. Whenever we do this, it creates intergenerational tensions as happened even in Ezra 3. How do we manage these tensions?

First, everyone has to agree to subordinate their own generation’s preferences to God’s purposes. All the Exiles, from the oldest to the youngest, agreed that resuming worship was the highest priority. When we submit ourselves to a higher purpose, the personal preferences that divide us melt away in relativity. We realize that it is better for us to be together in diverse worship than to be alone in small homogeneous groups.

An example: I heard of a comment between two elderly folks about a teenager in worship whose dress, in their opinion, revealed too much. Wardrobe standards have changed since these two elderly folks were teenagers. They were openly critical of the young woman instead of rejoicing that she was with them in worship. Should the young woman receive too much of this attitude, it won’t be long before she joins the vast majority of her friends who don’t worship on Sunday.

Second, to overcome intergenerational tensions, everyone has to remember and hope in God’s promises. At the rebuilding of the Temple, there was a great sound heard by all the surrounding people. It was a mixture of weeping and shouts of joy. Haggai tells us the younger generations were rejoicing because the Temple they had only heard about was being restored. But the older generations cried from despair that this new Temple didn’t compare with the glory of the one they saw destroyed. If you have ever said to yourself, “Back in the day, our church had . . ,” you know the heartache of the older generation.

Haggai’s prophecy redirects our attention to faith in God’s promises. Don’t worry about what things look like now, or compare them to how they once looked. God will shake heaven and earth and make the new Temple glorious, and most importantly, God will grant peace between the generations.

Third, we can help overcome intergenerational tension by replacing a critical spirit with generous participation. Instead of standing aloof and lamenting what is, we should roll up our sleeves and make things better. My mentor’s church has a policy that the leadership will not receive suggestions about “ministries someone should do,” because almost everyone in the church can come up with something they think the church should do. In his church, if someone has an idea for a ministry that should be done, they have to start setting it up before brining to the leaders of the church. This policy helps dampen the critical spirit that causes despair.

The initial enthusiasm and good start of 539 had waned by 537, and work on the Temple stopped. But in 520, Haggai and Zechariah started preaching convicting messages, goading the people to finish the work in only five years. What was the content of their messages?

First, they asked the people how they could come to worship in a “house of God” that was incomplete and in disrepair, and then return home to houses that were fully and beautifully restored. Second, they pointed out how the people’s personal ambition had left them empty. They harvested much only to discover they didn’t have enough. They earned much only to realize it did not satisfy. The physical message was embarrassment—you’ve taken care of yourselves while neglecting God. The spiritual message was existential—you will never be satisfied until you attend to the things of God.

In 2012, Faith Presbyterian Church needs to build upon these foundations. Putting first things first, we must build upon the foundation of worship. But we must not neglect the foundation of our witness in the process. Today, as in Ezra’s time, our witness includes our “Temple”—our building—which sends a message to our neighborhood about our priorities. If our building and grounds are in disrepair, people will conclude we don’t care much about God.

But witness also comes through our ministries, for the new Temple of Christ is his people (see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). In 2012, we who call Faith home are called to support the church financially and with our participation. In this way we will worship aright and bear witness to others that God is with us and with them. With Christ as our cornerstone, God’s purposes as our guide, and faith in God’s promises, let us in 2012 rejoice and build upon what God has done in 2011. Amen.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  • In your church and in your life, have you put first things first? How prominent are sacrifice and prayer in your life? What can you do to make these higher priorities in your life?
  • What are some of the things you count as part of the “glory days” of your church? Are these things part of the foundations that new generations should build upon? Or are they things you need to give thanks for but let go of so God can do something new?
  • Think about the things you don’t like about your church. Are you doing anything to help, or are you letting a critical spirit discourage you?
  • In considering your financial commitment to your church, compare how concerned you are about your own life and the life of your church. Do you agree that your spirit will never be at rest until you care as much about God’s house as much as you do your own? What difference will this make in your financial contribution to your church?
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