Have you ever returned home from holiday, and struggled to decide what to do first. There’s a car full of luggage to unload. The heating is turned down to frost levels. There’s two weeks’ post on the doormat. You discover you forgot to do the washing up before you went away. And to empty the bin. Everyone’s hungry. And what you really need is a cup of tea. So many things to do. But what are the priorities? What do you do first?
We’ve been following the story of the Jewish exiles as they returned home from Babylon in the year 539 BC.
Last time, we looked at the list of those who returned. Each one a hero, their hearts in tune with God’s agenda. They left the comfort of their life in Babylon, to go and rebuild the ruins back home, where God was building his kingdom.
Today, we watch them now they’re back home. They haven’t just got 50 years’ worth of junk mail waiting for them. Everything is still in ruins. What’s more, we get a hint in verse 3 that there could be hostility from those living round about; they were vulnerable to attack. What are their priorities? What will they do first?
And as we watch them, we’ll find that these faithful Israelites point us to Jesus, the ultimate faithful Israelite. And as they do that, they’ll help us as we think through the priorities for our lives as well.
To help you know where we’re going, I’m going to give you the one big priority these people had. I’m then going to break that one priority down into 3 much more specific priorities, and it’s in those specifics that we’ll find the application for us today.
The priority of worship
What, then, was their main priority? It was worship. We see here the priority of worship.
They came back from Babylon specifically to rebuild the temple. Their houses needed rebuilding too, but the temple was their priority, so that’s what they did.
At the end of chapter 2, they all settled in their own towns. They went back to their ancestral lands, back to where their grandparents lived before the exile, to start to rebuild their lives.
But then, chapter 3 verse 1, after they’d unpacked and made a cup of tea, we get this: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem.” The seventh month of which year? Well, by chapter 3 verse 8 we’re starting the second year since they returned, so this must be their first year back. They’ve been back less than six months.
They’ve barely had time to unpack, before they gather together to work on the temple, and to worship.
And of those two, the worship matters more than the temple.
Look at verse 6: “On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.”
The temple is not built yet. But they start to worship.
Imagine you’re building your own house. This is like installing the fitted kitchen before putting in the foundations and walls. This is like getting the landscape gardeners in before the walls go up.
It seems loopy, but the purpose of the temple is more important than the fabric of the temple. They haven’t come back because of the stones that need arranging into a building, but because of what the temple was for. They’re here to rebuild the temple because they’re here to worship. So worship takes priority even over putting up the building.
That’s their main priority. Worship.
But we need to be more specific. Their priority of worship comes out in 3 specific priorities that we see here.
The priority of assembly
Number 1: The priority of assembly. The priority of assembly.
I’m not talking about putting up the building. This is not flat-pack assembly. This is assembly as in assembling together, gathering.
Look again at verse 1: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem.”
You could easily miss this, but actually it’s emphatic. Literally, they assembled “as one man”.
You get the same phrase in Nehemiah chapter 8, when the people gathered again about 95 years later.
It’s significant because of the context. The exile to Babylon was a scattering. God wasn’t just bringing his people back to their homeland. He was bringing them back together.
When you look at the whole Bible, the significance becomes even clearer. Part of God’s judgement is to scatter us, to divide, to separate. When God moves to turn judgement into blessing, he gathers, assembles, unites.
The book of Deuteronomy was written as the people were about to enter the land the first time. Up to that point, they’d offered sacrifices wherever they lived. But God said that when they entered the land, that would have to change. God can only be worshipped on his terms. So each person can’t just do as they please. God would choose a place, and set his name there. The people had to gather, and sacrifice there.
The exact place was not important. Initially it was Shiloh. Then it became Jerusalem. What mattered was, they came together, at God’s place. If you want to meet with God, and you ask the question: “My place, or yours”, God always says “mine”.
“The people assembled together as one, as one man, in Jerusalem.”
I showed last time how Jesus fulfilled the temple. In the past, to meet God you went to a building. Now Jesus has died and risen, we don’t meet God in a building; we come to him.
Which brings us together. Although we mustn’t forget that we become Christians one person at a time. There are no “plus one” passes into heaven. When Jesus returns, he’ll be pleased to welcome into his new creation everyone he knows personally. You don’t get to bring a friend, and you don’t get brought along as somebody else’s friend.
But when someone becomes a Christian, we baptise them, in church. When you join yourself to Christ, you become part of his people. There’s no such thing as a lone Christian. Every Christian is part of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. They’re a member of his church all around the world, and they’re a member of whichever local church they attend.
So when we say that worship is a priority, we also say that coming together, assembling is important. It’s not a duty. It’s one of the great privileges of being a member of God’s family. We belong to those he’s gathering from every nation on earth to be his special, dearly loved people. So we get to come together, to worship our God, in the way he invites us to do.
Increasingly, the world around us devalues being physical with other people. We can chat over FaceTime, use Skype or Zoom instead of travelling to a work meeting, and maintain long-term friendships on Facebook.
Ask the question why we need to come to church. What can we do here that you can’t do on your own? You can read the Bible at home, listen to a sermon online, pray, stick on a Christian CD and sing along. But the one thing you can’t do is gather together with other Christians, to encourage one another, to be physically in the same room at the same time to worship – together.
The priority of assembly.
That’s one specific way their priority of worship works itself out.
The priority of sacrifice
Here’s the second: The priority of sacrifice. The priority of sacrifice.
Look again at exactly what they did, verse 2: “Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.”
Or verse 6: “On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.”
It’s more specific than just saying that worship matters more than buildings. They didn’t just prioritise worship. They specifically prioritised burnt offerings.
These were animal sacrifices where the whole animal was consumed and burnt up. Not all Old Testament sacrifices were like this. The whole animal was burnt. Most commonly this was used as a sin offering. The symbolism is that, because of my sin, I deserve to be totally destroyed. But I offer an animal instead. The animal is totally destroyed, and as the smoke goes up to God I ask him to accept this animal’s death, this animal’s destruction, in place of me.
The people had to do this morning and evening. God is holy. Sinful people like us can have nothing to do with him unless our sin has been dealt with. If we tried to approach God in our sin, we’d be utterly consumed in an instant. But instead an animal could be consumed instead of them. Then their sin was dealt with, and they could approach God and live.
Not that the animal could actually deal with their sin. Of course it couldn’t. The New Testament book of Hebrews explains the two big problems. Number 1: We are intelligent, reasoning, thinking beings. No animal goes to its death willingly, knowingly, lovingly. How can an animal be an acceptable substitute for a human being?
Number 2: They had to kill animals day after day, morning, evening, morning, evening forever. If the animal had really dealt with their sin, they wouldn’t have had to kill another one the next day.
The reason the animal sacrifices worked was because they pointed forward to Jesus. He did the job perfectly.
Jesus was not unwilling. He was an intelligent, reasoning human being like us, and his death was the ultimate free act of love. And Jesus does not need to be killed again and again. He died once for all, and now sin is dealt with.
So their priority, when they arrived back at Jerusalem, was to get the burnt offerings going. They could not worship God, could not draw near to God, could not be the people of God, could not know the blessing of God, unless their sin was dealt with.
And as I said at the start, they point us to Jesus, the perfect faithful Israelite. He also realised that we could not worship God, could not draw near to God, could not be the people of God, could not know the blessing of God, unless our sin was dealt with.
So he cut short the decades he could have spent healing the sick and teaching about God. He willingly allowed himself to be hung on a cross, so that all God’s anger and judgement could fall on him. And now he’s alive, and we can trust him, and know God for ourselves.
Like these Israelites, fresh back from Babylon, Jesus knew the priority of sacrifice. Unless our sin is dealt with, nothing happens. And his conviction about this led him to the cross.
It’s wonderful to know God today. There’s no better way to go through life. God may use you to do all kinds of wonderful things for him, and in his name. But it all starts at the foot of the cross. It starts with sacrifice. Until we each kneel down before the Lord Jesus who died for us, to have him deal with our sin, we cannot worship, we cannot be part of God’s people, we cannot be used by God to bless others.
The priority of sacrifice.
The priority of story
There are two specific ways their priority of worship comes out. The priority of assembly. The priority of sacrifice.
Then, third: The priority of story. The priority of story.
They built the altar. They got the morning and evening sacrifices going again. And then this, verse 4: “Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.”
We’re told that all this happened in the seventh month. That was a big month in their year. It was actually in the autumn, but imagine I wrote a similar story about events today. If the story began and ended by telling you that the events happened in December, you’d be thinking Christmas.
Month seven was a busy time for them. Three of their annual festivals took place that month. The Day of Atonement couldn’t take place without a temple, but Tabernacles was the other big one.
It celebrated their departure from Egypt by acting out part of the story. The kids must have loved it! Everybody had to camp out each Autumn, to remember how they lived in tents as they travelled in the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land.
It was an annual celebration of the fact that God brought them safely to the Promised Land. It was a celebration of God’s goodness and his faithfulness. They entered back into the story, acted it out, brought it alive tangibly, re-membered what God had done.
As they returned from Babylon, they had to remember together the story of which they were a part. They were the people God had rescued from Egypt, led through the wilderness, brought to the Promised Land.
Ask these people who they are, and their answer is a story. Their identity is bound up in a story, God’s story, their story. And as they returned, their priority was to reconnect with that story.
There’s an American Psychology professor by the name of Dan McAdams who has developed a theory he calls “Narrative Identity”. His theory is that most people build up a narrative of their life’s story. You remember the different chapters of your life, the scenes that were a crashing disaster, the highlights, the turning points that rescued or shattered a chapter, and so on. And you see who you are by the story that you tell.
Now there’s a lot to his theory, and I’m not on top of all the details. But there’s one particular idea that I do want to commend, and that is the idea of a master narrative. Some communities begin to develop, he says, not just a narrative of each individual, but a master narrative of the whole group. Collectively, this is our story. And then, as we tell our own stories, we’re telling them on the canvas of the master narrative, our collective story.
Well, we too have a story to tell. It’s the same story as the Israelites of old; we’re just further down the tracks. So we can tell of how God rescued us from Egypt, too, because we’re their successors, part of the people of God.
But we have more chapters. We also tell the wondrous story of the Jesus who was born at Bethlehem, who worked amazing miracles. Of the Christ who died for us and rose again. Of his ascension to the Father’s side, and the gift of the Spirit poured out from heaven. Of the fact he will one day return to this earth in power and great glory.
This is his story. This is our story. And it’s a priority for us to tell the story, to know our story, to strengthen our sense of identity in this story. So, we read together from the Bible episodes from the story of which we are a part. And we share bread and wine together. A tangible way of entering into the story for ourselves, acting it out, remembering it.
We need to know who we are. We are Christians. We are in Christ. For us as for them, our identity is a story. The priority of story.
So here then are the priorities of these people, as they make worshipping God what they’re all about. The priority of assembly, of sacrifice, of story.
It’s the same for us. There is nothing more important than coming to Jesus so he can deal with our sin. Then he gathers us together, to worship God. And as we do so, we relive the story which forms the canvas of each of our own stories, our identity rooted in God and his great acts to draw us to himself.