This is the last Sunday of January. Many of us have forgotten the New Year promise card, though Pastor tries to remind us every week. Most of us would have already forgotten about our New Year resolutions. But the fact is that we are still in the beginning of a brand new year. So I wanted to focus our meditations around that theme.
All of us know that our God is a God of New beginnings. We might have heard many sermons on that topic. Let us remind ourselves about this fact first.
There are many new beginnings in the Bible. Let us look at a few of them. Many of them are found in the book of Genesis itself. The Creation: Genesis 1: 26-31, being the very first one. The Triune God were “having a ball” creating the universe, and all the living creatures, having fun and fellowship with each other, when they decided to create man in “their” image. Vs 27 repeats the fact that Man and Woman were created in His image. However, after the Fall, earth became a place far from the perfect paradise that God intended it to be. Humanity forgot God frighteningly fast. But one man remained faithful to God (Gen 6:22) and God decided to redeem mankind through that one man, Noah (Genesis 8:1 and Genesis 8:15-22). This was a new beginning all over again. This was just one of the countless times that God showed His love and patience to Mankind in order to save him.
Despite God’s swift judgment of sin, most people ignored him and continued to sin. But a handful of people remained faithful to God, and one such person was Abraham. Genesis 15:6 and Hebrews 11:8-12 testify this. God made an all new beginning through that faithful man (Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 17:1-8). And then after 400 long years of slavery and suffering, the Hebrews cry out to the Lord and the Lord decides to set them free from slavery. He said “I am concerned about their suffering” and hence chose an unwilling leader to lead them out of the land of slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey, and give them a new beginning (Exodus 3:7-14).
Further into the history, we see that despite God’s explicit warnings about what a king might do, the Israelites insist on a king and the Lord “gives in” to their wishes. However, God continues to be concerned about His people and soon rejects the first King, in Saul and then anoints David as the future King and thus gives Israel a whole new beginning again (1 Samuel 8:7-9, 1 Samuel 16:1-7).
Another new beginning is the Return of the Exiles: (Ezra 1:2-4, Haggai 2:6-9 and Zechariah 9:9-11) . We have to get into a little bit of history here. It was in 538 BC that the King Cyrus of Persia allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. This happened exactly after 70 years as prophesied by Isaiah 44:28-45:6. It is believed that Daniel had a role here, and possibly he would have shown Isaiah’s prophesy to King Cyrus. We see Daniel fervently praying for the end of exile in Daniel 9:4-19. After the first group of Jews ( Believed to be around 50000) came back to Jerusalem, they started rebuilding the temple.
So God is a God of new beginnings. He continues to give us multiple chances at life. Even when we disobey him and continue to sin, God forgives us and calls us back. That is God’s attribute. But let me turn the table around. How about us? What do we learn from these new beginnings? What is our response when God gives us an all new beginning in life? Each of the new beginnings given in the old testament has valuable lesson for us. Let me focus on the last one about the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Let us see what happens in Ezra 3:1-13. The exiles have walked about 4 months to reach Jerusalem. They have left everything they had, and had to make new beginning for their lives, they had to set up residences, they had to find livelihood, they had to settle down, they had so many personal things to see to. But we see them getting started on one thing. They get started on making a new beginning with God. They get started on Building the House of the Lord, the temple. How about you and me? How many new beginnings have the Lord given us? And have we responded by making a new beginning with God? Are we focused on building the House of the Lord, the church? This question is very relevant for BBF today, as we go through a number of trials and tribulations. So let us see what the exiles did while building the House of the Lord. Let us see what we need to do to build the house of the Lord up!! I see three things standing out from this part of the scripture.
1. Begin with God: Firstly we see that they did not make excuses about having to settle down in their own personal lives before beginning the work on the House of the Lord. Their settling in time was fairly short, two to three months. They did not say “wait, let me build my house first, let me get my business going and steady, let me have my babies, let me put my children to the best schools around, let me get my car, let me save enough to have a comfortable life etc”. They just got going, they got together to build the House of the Lord.
The first thing that they started to build was the altar. This is significant. Altar is the place of sacrifice, altar is the place of worship, it is the place of forgiveness. In other words, when God gives us a new beginning, we should “begin with God”. They knew that the completion of the temple will take time, but they did not want to wait for worshipping the Lord. You see this with Abraham too. Whenever he reached a new place, the first thing he did was to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Building of the altar was very small step, but a very significant step. The altar gave hope to all who came to the city. Let us look at BBF. This is a small congregation, but if we stay focused on Jesus Christ and the salvation He brings, this small congregation could be a beacon of hope.
2. Obey God: Another significant thing that we see in this incident of new beginning is that of obedience. The verses we read tell us that everything they did, they did because the word of God told them so. Why did they build the altar and offer burnt offerings. Because Moses had told them to do so (v2). Why did they keep the feast of tabernacles? Because, “as it is written” (v4). They were obeying the word of God when they were given a new beginning.
3. Give cheerfully: The third thing that we notice here is that all of them gave cheerfully and generously towards the building of the House of the Lord. We see the “giving” even before the altar was built in Ezra 2: 68, and then in Ezra 3:7 we see that they also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa. Building the house of the Lord requires giving of our talents, time, and money. When God gives us a new beginning, do we honor him by giving our resources?
So let us ask ourselves, about BBF. How much are we committed to building up this house of the Lord? Are we sensitive to the call of the Lord, to build this up as a congregation that worships the Lord? Are we willing to give our resources to build this congregation up?
Let me also draw attention to the response of the people to momentous event of laying the foundation of the new temple. Verses 11 and 12 present two contrasting reactions to the laying of the foundation. In v11, we read that the people were overjoyed that the foundation was laid. However in v12, we read that the older generation, the generation of people who have seen the glory of the original Solomon’s temple wept. Some of the modern transliterations like the message bible puts it as weeping with joy, but some of the old commentators ( eg, Mathew Henry) gives a different picture here. The people were weeping because they knew the glory of the previous temple and also knew that the new one was going to be far inferior in glory to the first one. They were lamenting the disproportion between this temple and the former. You see a group of people rejoicing because they were able to make a small beginning, and another group lamenting because the small beginning is not god enough.
Let us pause here, for a moment and think about ourselves. Many of us would possibly have come from mega churches, have had our ancestral congregations that were big and mighty. BBF is a small congregation. Are we in the category of people who give a shout of joy to the Lord for the “small beginning” or are we in the category of people who lament the disproportion between other congregations and ours?
Let me try and explain why I chose the book of Ezra to preach on today. The book of Ezra introduces and entirely new period in Israel’s history. It is the beginning where Israel becomes a worshipping nation, it is the time when they change from being a nation to a church. Till the exile, they were focused on fighting their enemies. From now onwards, they are focused on fighting sin and spiritual compromise.
Thus Ezra leads up to the greatest miracle, the mightiest new beginning of all. Jesus Christ: (John 10:10, I Peter 1:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17) The previous instances were new beginnings of history, this one is the new beginning that you and me are part of , that you and me are living. This is not history, this is present. We are living the new beginning that Jesus promised, that God gave through the two human impossibilities of the Virgin’s womb and the empty tomb. And this new beginning has a promise attached to it too. As the prophet Isaiah says in Isaiah 43: 18-19
“Forget the former things: Do not dwell on the past, See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert; And streams in the wasteland.”
And Jesus Christ confirms that promise. “I am making everything new!” And “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 21: 5-6). This is really the new beginning for us. The hope filled beginning of a new year, a new year when we can truly trust and know that we are really the people that God is talking about in Revelation 7:14-17 And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This is the new church, this is what we look forward to. Let us pray that God will take BBF to new heights to glorify Him.
“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”