Today’s reading is Ezra 3. It’s a chapter about worship and recognition. The worship goes to God and God alone. The recognition is of God’s holiness and our unholiness.
The people of Israel came to Jerusalem in the seventh month, Ezra tells us. That would have been the seventh month after the annual Passover celebration. Passover is the feast that commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The whole Israelite year revolves around the Passover – remembering how God brought the people out of slavery and into freedom.
But the seventh month is important, too. God ordained three holy festivals in the seventh month. You can read about them in Leviticus 23:23-44. Included in those is the Day of Atonement, which marks the cleansing of the people from their sins (Leviticus 16). Another of those festivals is the Feast of Booths when people would spend seven days living in “booths” to remember the exodus from Egypt and the time they lived in temporary shelters as they traveled.
These feasts point us to Christ. Jesus fulfilled for all time the Day of Atonement when he died on the cross – wiping away the sins of the world. And Jesus taught in Jerusalem during the Feasts of Booths. Specifically, he taught about the Holy Spirit. See John 7.
In Ezra 3, the people built an altar during this seventh month. We are told they set the altar in its place and “fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands.” The peoples of the lands were worshipping other gods, and they may have been worshipping other gods on that very spot, at the ruined temple. The people of Israel may have had to tear down another altar to build theirs. In any event, they were doing something – worshipping the One True God – that the people around them didn’t like.
God deserves our worship, and it shouldn’t matter to us what the world thinks. Before we do anything else – before we do any good work for the people around us – our first obligation is to God. The problem for Israel always had been the way in which the nation strayed from that first obligation and fell into idolatry by giving worship to false gods. And so the first step of the people of Israel in their return to the land was to offer worship to God as his holy people.
It makes me think about whether I do this today. Am I faithful in worshipping God first – and only worshipping him? Have I allowed other things to creep in and take my attention away from him? Is there anything that I’ve put before God in my life? Do I recognize that I am to be devoted only to him?
Seven months after the rebuilding of the altar, the people began work on the temple itself. Naturally, as I read this portion, I was drawn to the reaction of the people of Israel. The older folks – the ones who had seen the original temple – wept when they saw the new foundations. But this weeping was blended in with the rejoicing of others – weeping and joyful shouts that were heard from “far away.”
What a scene that must have been! My thought is the older folks wept because they began to realize more fully, as the foundation for the temple was put in place, that the cost of the nation’s sin was very high. The high price of sin was placed as a visual illustration in front of them. “Look at what happened to the temple,” they may have said. “It would still be here if it weren’t for our sin.” And, of course, the destruction of the temple meant God no longer dwelt among the people. His house was gone.
In Christ, weeping and rejoicing go together. If you recall from our reading of Matthew, Jesus’ first sermon was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). To enter the kingdom of God requires repentance – a turning away from our old lives, from our sins, and embracing the good news of forgiveness that Jesus brings.
And repentance is recognition. We recognize who we are on our own as people prone to sin. And with that recognition can come a holy grief. We weep for the time we’ve lost. We weep for the missed opportunities. We weep for the amount of “life” we failed to live because we were dead in our sins.
And then we rejoice. Never forget to rejoice – because the news is good! The “temple” of God has been rebuilt, and nothing can destroy it. God always will dwell with us in the temple that is Christ. Remember in the last chapter of Matthew how Jesus promised his disciples to be with them – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).