Today our church held its first services for four months. Instead of one, we had two. They were short, limited, with few people (as many members are waiting to see how we manage services safely to limit the risk of spreading Covid-19). We were unable to sing, I had to preach a shorter sermon so that the services met the government guidance that they should be completed in the shortest reasonable time, and we were unable to have meaning fellowship after the service.
So we approached our worship time with mixed feelings. Yet the Lord was gracious to us, we were able to hear His word and raise our hearts to Him.
The recorded sermon for those who were unable to attend is in the video below (this was recorded yesterday but in the sanctuary). The notes underneath are sent to the people who have no access to the internet (they are slightly different from the sermon as they have a different audience).
The book of Ezra is an account of the people of Israel returning to the land after the exile to Babylon. For some of us, the last four months have felt like exile.
Although we know that the church is not the building, Lansdowne is a precious place for many of us: it is the place where we have met with God, and He has spoken to us from His word. We have seen baptisms and weddings. We have said goodbye to loved ones.
Today, services resumed in our building. In a sense, those who are able, have led the “return from exile.” But it is not the same. We had to sit away from each other, we couldn’t sing or shout “amen.”
As I prepared for this Sunday, Ezra 3 kept coming back to my heart. In this chapter, the people are back, they are seeking to rebuild, but it is not quite how they remembered it from before exile. While there is joy, there is also sorrow (v11-12).
They also have to face hardship; they are under pressure and are surrounded; they are fearful (v3).
Although our circumstances are different from those in Ezra, the challenges, and the tension between rejoicing and sorrow, are similar. If you are receiving these notes, it is because you are not able to come to church. So that causes sorrow but, at the same time, you can rejoice for those who are able to go back.
For those who were able to go back, there was a mixture also. Yes, we were back (and that is a cause for joy), but it is not church as we remember and long for, and that is a cause for sorrow.
Despite the challenges for us (and for the people in Ezra 3), we can learn from this passage the things that are really important about building the church and be encouraged that, even in the day of small things, God is working His purpose out.
I) Unity (v1)
They gathered as “one man.” Although this isn’t physically possible at present, the principle applies to us. The principle is unity of purpose. Even when we can’t meet, we can (and should) be united in our purpose and prayers for God’s glory and the building up of the church.
As we will see in a moment, they started building the altar and worshiping according to God’s word. So true Christian unity is according to the word of God and standing together in the truth (Philippians 1v27) even if other churches deny the truth.
And we can pray for each other and encourage each other in the Lord.
II) Leadership (v2)
The building of the church doesn’t just happen. God uses godly leaders. These leaders arose to build the altar. They led by example. Let’s remember to pray for our leaders, that the Lord would help us to lead wisely, especially in these difficult days.
III) The foundation of the cross (v3)
They start with sacrifice – they needed to be in right relationship with God. We don’t offer sacrifices because the Old Testament sacrifices point to THE sacrifice, the Lord Jesus. He is the One that brings us into right relationship with God. He is the foundation.
Churches have all kinds of activities and great celebrations and missions and everything, but if Christ and His cross is not the centre and foundation of all we do, then we are nothing.
We are saved through His sacrifice. We are kept saved through His sacrifice because it is a once for all sacrifice to cover all of our sins. We will stand in glory because of His sacrifice.
So we might not have many of our normal elements of worship, but we have Christ our Saviour. He has remained our Saviour through lockdown, He is our Saviour during this time of limited services. Nothing changes this glorious truth.
IV) The foundation of the word of God (v2-6)
They had come back to rebuild the temple. But the foundation of what they do is “what is written in the law of Moses.” That is, the word of God.
Through the word of God, they looked back to the Feast of Tabernacles (or booths, v4). In this festival they remembered the Lord’s salvation from Egypt and His guidance through the wilderness. They remembered that they were a people who were to walk with Him as pilgrims – guided by His presence.
And so, we look back in Scripture and see our deliverance through the cross, we see the truth about our Saviour. We see the truth about our God, who He is, what He has done. We see the truth about how He calls us to live as His people. We see His great and precious promises.
Every true church must be built on the foundation of the word of God. Even though this season has been very different, nothing has stopped the word from being preached. It has been preached throughout lockdown and it is being preached now.
Also, God hasn’t changed. He is the same today, and we can trust Him.
V) They persevered (v3-9)
They built (v3), even though they were fearful. They realised what they were doing was so big, but they did it anyway. Fear didn’t stop them. Fear shouldn’t stop us.
The ESV translation correctly suggests that they built the altar and offered sacrifices because fear of the people around had come upon them. Fear cast them upon the Lord – they realised they needed Him. For us, the trouble caused by Covid-19 shows how much more we need the Lord and how we need to seek Him with the whole heart.
They persevered further (v6b-9). They didn’t stop with the altar but moved on to start the foundations. These verses point back to the building of Solomon’s temple. Ezra is telling us: it may be different than before, but this is still God’s work.
Church today may look different, but it is still God’s work.
VI) They celebrated but they grieved (v10-13)
They celebrated with (v10-11) with similar words to those used at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. They had arrived back in the land because of the goodness and covenant love of God. WE have persevered through lockdown, and some have been able to return to worship services, because of His goodness and covenant love.
We are able to listen to the Word of God at home and we are still standing by His grace because of His goodness and covenant love.
But they also grieved (v12) because they remembered the old temple, and this was so much smaller. Was this right?
Yes and no. There was something to celebrate for the foundation being laid, just as there is something for us to celebrate with limited services resuming. At the same time, grief was also appropriate because the people of Israel had lost so much due to their sin and the exile. For us, too, it is so different, and we have “lost” something of what church is meant to be. For them, and for us, this should lead to prayer and a longing for more.
So, yes, grief is right, but it is also wrong. Look up Haggai 2v3-9 and also Zechariah 4v10. Both these prophets were writing in the same period as Ezra, and they speak to the people about the smallness of the new temple.
According to Haggai, they had missed the fact that, though it was small, it was still God’s work: “Work, for I am with you… My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not!” (Haggai 2v5-6)
They also missed God’s wider plan: “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2v9). In this place where this small and, apparently, insignificant temple stood, one day Someone would come, the One whom this temple represented. He is the One who would say “destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” Jesus was the fulfillment of the temple. He is the One who was the glory far greater than Solomon’s temple. This new temple was small but it was pointing to and preparing for something far greater.
And so with us. We might not have church as we want it to be, but we still have Christ. The point of any gathering of God’s people is Christ. Is Jesus exalted? Is He sought? Is He proclaimed? Do we meet with Him? We have to answer those questions with, “yes.”
We might not have the songs, we might not have the handshakes and hugs. But we have Him. We have His word where He speaks to us. We have Him present with us by His Spirit. We have these things whether we are able to meet together or not.
So we have cause to rejoice, even though it might be small and limited, if it exalts Christ. And that is the most important thing.
Also, these small things we have now point us to something greater. The God who tells us not to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4v10) is using the small thing of our small church to build up a people for HIs glory, to show you His Son more clearly, to change you into the likeness of His Son. It is His purpose to give you strength on the way to glory when you will not need a temple but you will be in the immediate presence of the Holy One.
So, yes, grief is appropriate. It is not what we hoped for. It is not everything that we long for. But, there is more to come.
But there is cause to celebrate also, though not simply because some are able to attend services in our building. This is not the most important thing. The things we need to celebrate more are not the fact that we have started services, but the glory of God in His word, the wonder of the cross, the greatness of our Saviour, the presence of God by His Spirit.
We rejoice that even in these days of small things, the Lord is at work. He is building His church. He is spreading His word around the world and He is preparing His people for that great day.
So, let’s keep going. Let’s keep trusting and let’s celebrate the things that really matter.