I had the opportunity to share an expanded version of these thoughts with Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church on March 13, 2022

Text: Ezra 3:1–13;   John 4:23-24, Philippians 2:12b-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, 2 Chronicles 5:11-14

As a church planter, I can’t tell you how many times great, God loving people said to me or my team, “Hey, let me know when you have a ‘church’ and we’ll come visit.”  What they really meant was, “When you have a building of your own, we’ll come visit.” 

How often have you tied a building to a church body or to The act of worship?  It’s normal to associate a particular location with a church body.  We see that all over the New Testament in Paul’s writing.  In fact, there are four churches on the island of Wrightsville Beach and ours happens to be the Baptist Church.  After hurricane Florence, our building flood from a failure in our fire suppression system.  Pretty freak situation where we literally flooded from the inside.  God kicked us out of our beautiful facility and for a month we met just across the bridge at a town park looking at our tattered building off in the distance.  We moved back into the sanctuary for worship after about a month, but we weren’t able to use the rest of the facilities until January of 2019!  It was a challenge, but God used that season to drive home the point that the people are the church, not a building.  In fact, we spent that entire fall serving families and church bodies all over the Cape Fear whose homes had been damaged by the same storm which removed us from ours.  

In the time of Ezra, worship WAS tied to a specific location and. building.  The temple which hosted the very presence of God in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the national expression of worship was halted as the people who lived through the Persian invasion were led away to Babylon as exiles.  There were those like Daniel who got it and would continue their personal worship of God (Daniel 6:10), but as a whole the nation longed to be able to get back to their place of worship which had been taken away from them.  

So, when King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the temple would be rebuilt, the people of Israel must have been ecstatic!  (Ezra 1:1-11). The work of rebuilding was undertaken with great energy, skill and precision.  Everyone was engaged.  

When the foundation of the temple was laid, they held a massive worship 

celebration.  That foundation wasn’t solely made of stone, however.  We learn in Ezra 3 that worship of God was a crucial part of the very foundation being laid for future generations.

10 When the builders completed the foundation of the Lord’s Temple, the priests put on their robes and took their places to blow their trumpets. And the Levites, descendants of Asaph, clashed their cymbals to praise the Lord, just as King David had prescribed. 11 With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the Lord:

“He is so good!
     His faithful love for Israel endures forever!”

Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s Temple had been laid.”  (Ezra 3:10-11 NLT)

Worship Comes First

We often say that Baptism is an outward expression of what has already taken place in the heart.  The same is true of Worship.  As a pastor I can’t lead my congregation to a place I’ve not been personally.  Same thing goes for any church “professional.”  We can’t lead you or your family into a place we aren’t personally and regularly spending time.  Choir, band, soloists, pianists, can’t lead us into a place of genuine worship, unless that’s the very place their heart is.   Worship is something we can’t fake.  Talent can’t take its place, nor can we rehearse our way into it.    

Worship precedes anything else which we might set our minds to do. Jesus was asked about worship by the Samaritan woman at the well.  Her question had to do with the fact that the Jews tied genuine worship to the location of the 1st and 2nd temples which were built on Mount Zion inn Jerusalem.  Samaritans believed the true location for the temple to be Mount Gerizim near Shechem.   Jesus looked at this woman and told her worship would be hanging and in fact that change had already begun.  It would no longer be tied to location and rules, but would take place in the spirit from a posture of truth.  

“23 But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24 NLT)

Over almost 30 years of ministry, I have found that:

We can mistake talent for worship. 

We can mistake a well rehearsed production for worship.

We can mistake style for worship.

Some prefer southern gospel, some prefer contemporary bands, some prefer solos, others prefer choir, some prefer hymns while others prefer contemporary music. 

We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of worshipping God from a position of preference.  We worship from our heart – our spirit, wherever we find ourselves, with the understanding that God alone is worthy of our worship.  He knows us as we are, inside and out.  So we don’t come with pretense or for personal gain, but solely for the purpose of honoring who He is and what He means to us.  Your car radio or your playlist on Spotify are proof that you have preferences when it comes to music.  Some don’t even listen to music, they prefer talk radio or podcasts.

But you see, music is only one expression of worship.  

11 With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the Lord: “He is so good!
    His faithful love for Israel endures forever!” Then they shouted!  They celebrated because the foundation had been laid for the temple!” (Ezra 3:11 NLT)

Generations to come would honor the Lord at that location, but before the visible work even started on the structure, they knew worship of God was the most important thing they might do!  

Let’s be honest, if there are two of us in one room, we probably have three opinions between us.  There will always be a difference of opinions as far as what we prefer about any topic.  But we can’t let those differences come between us.  When we do, we aren’t able to worship in spirit and truth as Jesus says we should.  So often what happens then is we put on our church face, fake a smile and pretend we have it all together as we look down on others who don’t hold the same opinion.  

Speaking to the church in Philippi about having a Christlike attitude and shining for Christ from the inside out, Paul gave this instruction:

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. “13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. 14 Do everything without complaining and arguing. . .  (Philippians 2:12b-14 NLT)

To the church in Thessolonika, Paul gave the instruction to be thankful:

18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT) 

In all things and at all times we worship God.  

There is something unique and vital in the worship of the people of Israel as they rebuilt their place of worship.  They were UNIFIED in purpose. When we are unified in spirit and in purpose our worship is powerful. It is meaningful and it honors God!  Those placed in charge of rebuilding the temple of God in Jerusalem knew that unified purpose and worship came before the construction of the building itself.  Honoring God with genuine worship is always the most important thing you or I can do.  

What happened before the amazing time of worship we see in verse 11?

“1 In early autumn, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled in Jerusalem with a unified purpose. Then Jeshua son of Jehozadak joined his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his family in rebuilding the altar of the God of Israel. They wanted to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, as instructed in the Law of Moses, the man of God. Even though the people were afraid of the local residents, they rebuilt the altar at its old site. Then they began to sacrifice burnt offerings on the altar to the Lord each morning and evening.

They celebrated the Festival of Shelters as prescribed in the Law, sacrificing the number of burnt offerings specified for each day of the festival. They also offered the regular burnt offerings and the offerings required for the new moon celebrations and the annual festivals as prescribed by the Lord. The people also gave voluntary offerings to the Lord. Fifteen days before the Festival of Shelters began, the priests had begun to sacrifice burnt offerings to the Lord. This was even before they had started to lay the foundation of the Lord’s Temple.” (Ezra 3:1-6 NLT)

They knew worship was the most important action which could take place.  They knew why and whom they were worshipping! Worship Comes First,  Here’s the other half of this:

God’s presence is ushered in by unified worship

While the Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant and hosted the presence of God, the Shekhina glory, five altars were used in the temple, each of which represented different expressions of their worship of God as prescribed by the Lord.  Worship is the entry point into the presence of God, and Hebrew life was centered around it.  

For 70 years the people of God had been separated, not just from their homeland, and from the temple, but from the altar.  As Cyrus decreed their return and the rebuilding of the temple, this would be the first time Jews would be able make sacrificial offerings at the very location where the glory of God had dwelt for generations before. 

When the original temple built by Solomon was completed, the Ark of the Covenant was carried into the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Holy of Holies.  As those carrying the Ark exited the Holy of Holies, the most amazing worship experience of all time began!  There was nothing quiet about their worship in the house of God that day and it was their celebration and unified praise and purpose which ushered in the very presence of God!

When I read what happened in this time of worship, It is painfully clear to me that as cultured, “churched” people today, I’m including myself here, we are far to focused on what pleases US about worship!  

We focus on the talent, the sounds, the aesthetics of the space – traditional space vs blacked out room, hymns vs contemporary, the volume, the visuals, the instruments – piano vs band, soloists versus choir.  

I’m afraid our worship today is focused on what we prefer rather than focusing our hearts, minds and energy on honoring the Lord and what would most please Him.  I believe this grieves the heart of God.  It illustrates for me that we have completely missed our purpose for being here!

Just after placing the Ark of the Covenant in the first temple, this took place:

11 Then the priests left the Holy Place. All the priests who were present had purified themselves, whether or not they were on duty that day. 12 And the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and all their sons and brothers—were dressed in fine linen robes and stood at the east side of the altar playing cymbals, lyres, and harps. They were joined by 120 priests who were playing trumpets. 13 The trumpeters and singers performed together in unison to praise and give thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments, they raised their voices and praised the Lord with these words:

“He is good!
      His faithful love endures forever!”

At that moment a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. 14 The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:11-14 NLT)

Worship ushered in the very presence of God! LOUD, Unified worship.  There wasn’t one person or group complaining about the worship leaders or their choice of songs, style of singing or their instruments of choice.  There wasn’t a member of the choir singing with a sour expression on his face.  EVERYONE was unified in one purpose – to WORSHIP their Lord and God.  

It was all about HIM!

We see an almost verbatim repeat of  the same celebration in the book of Ezra after the foundation for the second temple was completed:

10 When the builders completed the foundation of the Lord’s Temple, the priests put on their robes and took their places to blow their trumpets. And the Levites, descendants of Asaph, clashed their cymbals to praise the Lord, just as King David had prescribed. 11 With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the Lord:

“He is so good!
     His faithful love for Israel endures forever!”

Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s Temple had been laid.

12 But many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. 13 The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud noise that could be heard far in the distance.” (Ezra 3:10-12 NLT)

While there would be many similarities between their worship and place of worship, it would just be different on that side of exile.  Some wept because they knew what God had done in the past. Some shouted because of what they anticipatedGod would do in the future.   Together it was a joyful sound that pleased the Lord and was a witness to everyone in the community!  I believe this is one aspect of worship today which we completely miss.  It is perfectly fine that some long for what used to be, but our future rests with what might one day be as we stand on the foundation laid by those who have gone before us.  We don’t look down on those who long to worship with hymns or formal style.  Nor should we speak poorly of those who long for a new sound.  Psalm 91 calls us to do just that!

Worship which took place as the foundation of the second temple was completed must have been the most amazing experience.  In both tears and in celebration, the sound was so loud, so unified, that people could hear them for miles!  

Can you just imagine what might change across our cities, counties, states, even across this nation,  if our worship were unified in Spirit and in Truth?  If we stopped complaining and focusing on what we don’t like and focused all of our energy into worshipping the Lord from the depths of our being?  

Yes, He has done great things in the past, but He will also do incredible things in the future if we could just stay out of His way and worship Him in spirit and in truth today!

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