Next week we will be observing what is commonly known as Reformation Sunday. It is the day we commemorate as the initiation of the Reformation, where Martin Luther pinned his 95 thesis to the wall in Wittenberg.
(I bet it will be something of a Reformed "Year of Jubilee").
Most people think of the reformation as a time when doctrines of the church were reformed. But that is not the best way to think of it. It was primarily a reformation of the church. The Church of Rome had become plagued with all kinds of corruption. One of the great plagues upon the church was the rampant immorality of the priests. But a greater scourge was the corruption of its worship. It was run through with superstitions: images were venerated, there was no real reading or preaching of God’s word, the Lord’s Supper had all kinds of perversions, such that the people were only allowed to partake of the bread (only the priest was allowed to drink the wine). The list might go on.
But when the reformation came to a city, the greatest change could be found on Sunday morning in the churches.
As a matter of fact, this is what lead to the term “puritan.” The puritans were given that name mainly as a derogatory term. They had wanted to purify the church and, in particular, purge the worship of God of all of its non-biblical baggage.
Surely there are many things that can be said of the Reformation. There were many changes that took place. But when it is all said and done, it may be said that the movement was a reformation of the worship of God.
And that is a truth that is really universal. It is not just something that happened 500 years ago. It happens everywhere the Spirit of God is active: Wherever reformation comes to God’s people, you may see it reflected in their worship.
And this morning I want to talk about the worship of a reformed and restored people. What does it really look like? God has laid out for us a small picture here in these first 6 verses. In this passage Ezra recounts for us the re-institution of the sacrifices of Israel. It is worship 2.0, you might say. The people are seeking to worship the Lord. And we see that it is nothing other than a reformation.
When we look at this passage, we see the worship of a reformed people. And this passage really captures some of the main principles that characterize the true worship of God.
The first thing I want you to see is the priority of worship.
I. The priority of worship
The first thing we notice is that worship is the first thing.
You would think that getting the temple together would be the first item on their agenda. After all, the decree of Cyrus was that the people were to go back for that specific purpose. And certainly, it would be nice to have a place to worship before you started the act of worship. But (as verse 6 tells us) before they even begin the work of clearing out the land and putting in a good foundation, they erect an altar and start slaughtering cattle.
Why is this? They knew that there was something much more important than the actual building. The worship of the Lord took a primary place. It was much more fundamental because God was much more important to them than a structure.
But we might think of it in more personal terms too. Keep in mind that the people have probably been back in the land for only a couple of months. Perhaps three, maybe four months. That’s not a lot of time if you think about it. It is not a lot of time to get your house in order. Think of all that had to be done. They not only had to find (maybe build) a place to live, but there’s also provisions they need to make for income. They had to get jobs. They needed to start their business or get their farms up and running. Maybe they needed to get their cattle or sheep. All this would have taken time. And the festivities they have here (the feast of booths) would take them away from their homes for at least a week, if not more with travel time.
But what does the text say at the very beginning? It says that they came out en mass. They assembled together as “one man.”
Here again you have a testimony to how important the act of worship was for them. Their main priority was not their personal comfort. It was not their future prospects or their investments. The thing that lay foremost upon their hearts was God and the exalting of His name.
Let’s remember from this how important the worship of God should be for us. When God ranks highest with us, his worship is foremost among our pursuits. We will assemble as families around our tables at home to seek his face and sing his praise. We will assemble together as a corporate entity each Lord’s Day to enter into his presence. If the Spirit of God is pulsating through our innermost being then we will have a deep appetite for the worship of God and there’s a sense in which we cannot wait for it.
This is something that should mean a lot to us in our day. We are living in a day where worship is an option. It is great if you do it, but there might be other things that take precedent. A kid’s sporting event or a trip to grandma’s house are often given a greater priority. People will even try to be spiritual about it. They will skip out on the worship of the Lord and say that they need to rest up or “spend time more with their family.”
Sure rest and family time are important. But they are not as important as the adoration of God.
This is a sure mark of revival in the hearts: It is that your idols are dashed to pieces and the worship of God is given its proper place. When the idols of our lives have been removed, we have time and place for communion with God. We will arrange our lives around it. It will order everything else on our schedule of things to do. We yearn for it and cannot wait to be involved in it.
For Israel, this is a monumental thing. They had been exiled for their lack of worship. Now, in their return, they mark a new beginning with God. And we see that the worship of God is the chief thing upon their hearts.
But when you look at this passage, you not only see how worship ranks among reformed people, you also see how it is regulated.
II. It is regulated
You might have noticed the repeated ways that this passage cites the law’s regulations regarding worship. At least four times it points out that all that they did was according to what God had revealed in his word.
It starts in verse 2 when it says that the sacrifices were re-instituted “as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God.” Then in verse 4 it repeats the phrase, “as it is written.” And the same verse talks about the number of burnt offerings. And it says that they offered them “according to the rule as each day required.” That is saying, we looked to the rule book (God’s Word) and we saw that God required so many sacrifices on this day and so many sacrifices on this day, and so many sacrifices on this day.
And there is one more reference to the law. It is found in verse 5. It is talking about the offerings for the new moon festivities and the different holy days. And it sums it up by saying “all the appointed feasts.” The key word there is the word appointed. In other words, they were not celebrating any pagan feasts or Hallmark holidays, but only the ones that the Lord had instituted in the Scripture.
What is the point here? The point is that the worship that they were offering was pure worship. Their worship wasn’t guided by their own whims and imaginations. They weren’t out to suit their own personal preferences or design a service that would be attractive the nations around them. Their aim was to please God in their worship. So they looked into the word of God to find and sought to follow God’s will for worship.
That was part of their problem in the first place. That was part of the reason that led to them being expelled from the land. They had begun to pollute the sacrifices and introduce all kinds of innovations into their worship. Rather than following the regulations God had laid out in Scripture, they had started to take the pagan forms of worship and integrate them into the worship of the Lord. They used images and sought to worship God by means of them.
Think of Jehu. Jehu was a leader in the Northern tribe. He was perhaps the best of them, though all of them were bad. But Jehu sought to rid Israel of the Baals. He sought to make it so that the Lord only was worshiped. But he did not take down the images. So he wanted the worship of YHWH, but he wanted to worship the Lord by means of these golden calves. So, despite his best intents, we are told that “He did evil in the sight of the Lord.” He was just another evil king in Israel.
You can also think of Uzziah. Uzziah was a pretty good king, but he had one fatal flaw. You remember that he took the liberty of going in and offering incense to the Lord. The only thing was that he was not authorized to do so. As a result, the Lord struck him with a disease and he eventually died. The point is that you are not allowed to worship God on your own terms. Innovations are not allowed.
If you don’t worship “by the book”, it really isn’t worship. It is profaning God’s worship and it is just as bad as offering a sacrifice to some foreign deity.
This is quite a lesson for us in our day. When it comes to the worship of God, we must be careful that we do not exceed the boundaries that God has laid down in his word. True, New Testament worship isn’t as ornate or involved as OT worship. We don’t have sacrifices and incense and offerings of food. But we do have specific things that have been prescribed. It is a more word based form of worship (the reading and preaching of the word, the singing of psalms, hymns & spiritual songs, the sacraments, and prayer).
What we do here from week to week may be thought of as pretty bland. But that’s okay, because that’s the way God wants it.
Contrast this to what goes on in much of the evangelical world today. There is something of an “anything goes” approach to worship as churches seek to increase their attendance numbers.
But even though all these excesses and entertainments pollute the church, we will do well to imitate the practices of the returning exiles. Worship that is pleasing in the sight of God will abide by the regulations that God has given.
When the Spirit of God moves people will not only put a priority on worship, but they will seek to worship Him aright. But as we look at the returning exiles, we not only see its priority and regulation. We also see that it is a faith filled worship.
III. It is faith-filled
Look at verse 3. Notice what it says. Why is it that they built the alter and set it in its place? What was it that stirred them to start offering these sacrifices? It was because they were afraid. It says that “fear was upon them because of the peoples of the lands.”
Now, some of our Bibles translate this differently. Some make it sound like they were afraid, but despite their fears, they pressed on and built the altar. But the best translations will say that they built the altar because they were afraid. That’s what the passage is really saying. It wasn’t that they were courageous. It was exactly the opposite. They were terrified. That’s why they started to worship.
Their worship was, in other words, an act of faith.
Really, to understand this you have to think back to what the Israelites did before they went into exile. Before the exile what did the Israelites when a foreign power threatened them? They would usually go and form an alliance with some other kingdom. They would call upon Egypt or some other pagan king to come to their aid. Or, worse yet, they would run and sacrifice to Baal or Molech. They would invoke the protection of a foreign deity.
Here in our passage we find that instead of running to some other presumed power, they threw themselves at the mercy of God. They recognized that their only security is ultimately in the Lord.
This kind of reminds me of the old story about the old town of Feldkirch, Austria. In 1799 the armies of Napoleon appeared on the heights that overlooked the town. It was Easter Day, and the rays of the rising sun glittered on the weapons of the French, as they appeared drawn up on the hills to the west of the town. The Town Council was hastily called together to consult what was to be done.
After much discussion, the dean of the Church rose and said, “My brothers it is Easter Day! We have been reckoning our own strength, and that fails. Let us turn to God. Ring the bells and have service as usual, and leave the matter in God’s hands.”
They agreed to do as he said. Then from the church towers in Feldkirch there rang out joyous peals in honor of the Resurrection and the streets filled with worshipers hastening to the church.
The French heard the sudden ringing of the joy bells with surprise and alarm. They concluded that the Austrian army had arrived to relieve the place. So they hastily fled, and before the bells had ceased ringing not a Frenchman was to be seen.
There’s an interesting piece in the book of Deuteronomy. Chapter 28 lists the blessings that the Israelites would receive if they obeyed. And it is a long list. One of those blessings is that they will have security. If they were careful to seek the Lord and follow His commands, the Lord said he would cause one Israelite to chase a thousand of their enemies. The enemies who rose up against them would be defeated before them.
It would seem that these Israelites had learned to believe in God and trust his promises. They understood that the Lord their God was the only means of deliverance.
This is the real heart of reformed worship. We have outward ceremonies and rites that we do, but the ultimate act of reformed worship is the faith in which it is all performed. It is the disposition of the inward man that is completely reliant upon God and recognizes that Christ is the only true means of deliverance.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.