Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My Take on Ezra: The Hard Work of Worship

I’ve been reading the book of Ezra, in the Old Testament and of course, the Hebrew Bible.

The Book of Ezra opens with a decree of Cyrus (king of Persia) which permitted the Jews to return to Judah to rebuild the Jerusalem temple (Ezra 1:1-11). Isaiah, the prophet, prophesied about 300 yrs earlier that a king named Cyrus would fulfill God’s will and allow the Jews to go home to Jerusalem and sure enough, three centuries later, God puts the idea into Cyrus' head to let the Jews return to build the Temple.

Once again, we see God providentially at work behind the scenes orchestrating His will and good pleasure. He's been doing this from the very beginning and He's doing it where you live and work right now as well.

Even though Cyrus the Great allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem, not everyone packs up and leaves. In fact, very few do, and those who ultimately return don’t do it all at once. Most of the Jews in Persia are well-established having been there for over 60 yrs. already. Many followed Jeremiah’s advice and bought property in Babylon and settled down.

The Jews who decide to return to Jerusalem do so ultimately under the leadership of Sheshbbazzar and this first group doesn’t seem to have been very large. But they had the financial backing of those who remained in Babylon. It seems that Sheshbazzar and his fellow returnees began laying the foundations of the Temple (Ezra 5:16).

Eighteen years later, Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, arrives in Jerusalem (520BC) with 42,360 Jewish returnees to rebuild the Temple. They start by rebuilding the central altar, which allows them to offer sacrifices to God. They then begin work on the Temple itself. When the foundation is laid, most of the people shout for joy. However, those familiar with the first Temple see the diminished size of the new foundation and they weep out of sadness, realizing that this Temple will in no way compare to Solomon’s glorious structure.

The Bible says that only those whose hearts were moved turned their hearts toward home, and that number was 42,360. The rest of the Jews had grown comfortable. Why go back and face such hardship? Only those upon whose hearts God moved were willing to make the commitment. And their desire was to get back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple which was their central focus of worship where sacrifices and offerings to the one true God would be offered once again and where God would dwell in the midst of his people.

In reading Ezra, I've been struck at the importance of worship in the lives of these Jewish exiles.  Here they had spent 70 yrs in captivity and even though they were treated well and had a comfortable lifestyle, their hearts were drawn back to Jerusalem for one reason: to rebuild the Temple and to worship Yahweh.

Worship is what it’s all about, and sadly, it’s the hardest part of being a Christian. To truly worship God is work. It’s a sacrifice and we seldom do it. Even at many of our Sunday worship services in churches across America, I doubt that God is truly worshipped. We sing three or four hymns and think we’ve given God His due but in reality, we’re just going through the motions. Real worship is life-transforming. Real worship leaves you in awe. Real worship brings God’s presence into the picture and when He shows up, who knows what will happen? We could speak in tongues, or spend hours praising His name, or fall on our faces in silence. One thing is for certain, when God shows up, we aren’t checking our watches wondering if we’ll get to our favorite restaurant before the church crowd shows up.

Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman said this:
23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24 ESV)

Worship is a big deal with God. I’ll continue this in my next post.

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