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Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Price of Drifting

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled into their towns, the people assembled together in Jerusalem. Jeshua son of Jozadak and his brother priests, along with Zerubabbel, the son of Shealtiel, and his relatives, went to work and built the Altar of the God of Israel to offer Whole-Burnt-Offerings on it as written in the Revelation of Moses the man of God. Even though they were afraid of what their non-Israelite neighbors might do, they went ahead anyway and set up the Altar on its foundations and offered Whole-Burnt-Offerings on it morning and evening. They also celebrated the Festival of Booths as prescribed and the daily Whole-Burnt-Offerings set for each day. And they presented the regular Whole-Burnt-Offerings for Sabbaths, New Moons, and God’s Holy Festivals, as well as Free-Will Offerings for God. They began offering Whole-Burnt-Offerings to God from the very first day of the seventh month, even though the Temple of God’s foundation had not yet been laid. (Ezra 3:1-6)

The seventh month for Israel was Nisan, a period of time from about mid-March through mid-April, when the moon aligned for the beginning of the barley harvest. The people of Israel were once again settled into the places of their residence. Life had a sense of order for those who had returned from captivity. The people began to assemble together in Jerusalem – the center of their worship.

Jeshua was the designated High Priest of the time. Jeshua was of the Levitical order of priests. He was a direct descendant of Levi, the third son of Jacob. The Levites had been given a special place of privilege and great responsibility for the Jews – they were appointed by God to carry out the offerings, sacrifices, and special feast days for the nation of Israel. They were to live a purified and set apart life, dedicated to the service of God. They did not receive a portion of the land when God divided the nation of Israel among the 12 tribes – they received their provision through the tithe, portions of sacrifice, and their places of service.

The first act of restoration that occurred was the rebuilding of the Altar. Without an altar, no sacrifice could be offered. The first sacrifice they offer is the whole burnt offering. This offering was referred to as both the burnt offering and the whole burnt offering in Old Testament writings. It marked the offering that would be wholly consumed on the altar, with no portion of it going to the priests. The purpose of the offering was atonement – the bringing of the reconciliation of God and man through the sacrificial death. It was symbolic of the sacrificial death of Christ that would come many years later. The idea of the sacrifice is one of repairing relationship, satisfying debt, or making amends.

Their first act as a restored people was to ask God to repair their relationship. They yearned for the debt of their sin to be fulfilled. They had wandered into many practices that God had identified as those that they should avoid and had paid a great price of the loss of freedom, loss of land, and loss of their center of worship.

The same thing occurs for us when we selfishly choose our own way, ignoring the warnings God gently provides. We drift ever so slowly into a place of compromise, choosing that which satisfies our immediate urges. We gradually begin to shift in our attitude toward God, his Word, and his worship. We are not sensitive to his opinions that are clearly outlined in the scriptures – choosing instead to shift our opinions to those that will fit our mood, situation, or deep-seated heart desires. We cease to give God his rightful position in our lives – choosing to be leader or controller of our destinies.

The price of our subtle drifting is greater than we first imagine:

The loss of freedom – becoming completely bound to that which we choose over obedience to what God desires; constrained by that which entices us away from sacrificial obedience to God’s revealed will.

The loss of locale – as drifting begins to occur, we soon lose interest in the things of God that once pulled us close with his people, kept us close to his breast, and filled us with such a sense of unique identity.

The loss of our worship – compromise always affects our worship – for what is at the center of our focus is that which we will ultimately bow down to.

The whole burnt offering was the normal sacrifice that the Israelite would offer when they were in right relationship with their covenant-keeping God. It was offered every morning and evening. The sacrifice was always a lamb – wholly consumed by the fire, with nothing left for human consumption. The people who returned with Ezra were beginning to re-establish the normal course of their spiritual life – the system of sacrificial worship was important to the Jew because it was the method they connected with God.

We no longer offer animals upon a physical altar. We no longer have to perform these sacrificial offerings of blood sacrifices, drink offerings, grain offerings, or scapegoats. We simply come before a holy God, hearts open, spirits ready, based on the sacrificial work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He was the perfect sacrifice – the perfect blood offering. Yet, God calls us each to come before him sacrificially – presenting ourselves as an offering to him, avoiding the tendency to become so affected by our culture around us that we forget that he has called us his holy people.

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going to work, and walking around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to our culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Rom. 12:1-2)

The sacrifice we offer in coming before God in worship and praise is a yielded life - a life unaffected by the culture around us; a life that embraces all that God designs and provides. The restored Jews were simply worshiping in this manner. They were returning God to the center of their daily practice again. They were yielding to his purposes. The best we can do is to yield – fixing our attention on him, recognizing his hand upon our lives, and then trusting him for the restoration he so freely brings.

The feasts or festivals were significant seasons of dedicated worship to God. They were originally established during the time of Moses and point toward specific components of God’s character, his plan of redemption and the special graces he extends to his people.

The Feast of Booths is also referred to as the Feast of Tabernacles. It was celebrated at the end of the harvest season for Israel (usually in mid to late October) and was held for a period of eight days. It has a historical significance of reminding the Israelite of the time their forefathers wandered in the wilderness, dwelling in tents. This was a very jubilant time for the nation – many sacrifices were offered during the celebration. It was the last feast celebrated each year for the Israelite.

As Israel entered the Promised Land, they were instructed to commemorate the Feast of Booths as a remembrance of those long years living in their tents. It was symbolic for Israel of entering into the rest that is only possible as a means of redemption. During the Feast of Booths, the whole burnt offerings were given. The priest would prepare the offering by cutting it, washing it, sprinkling the blood on the altar, and then lighting the fire that would ultimately consume it. Just prior to the fire being lit, the priest would lay his hands on the offering’s head as a means of identifying with the offering. These offerings signified surrender – surrender of the one giving it and the one offering it. This type of offering was considered to be an offering given as a means of “approach” – they secured the people’s access to a holy God. The animal offered had to be without spot or blemish – perfect offering.

It was symbolic of the perfect offering of Christ – a life given to satisfy God’s requirement of a blood sacrifice for the atonement of man’s sin. The Israelite could only look forward to this through the symbolism of their worship – we can walk in this through our connection with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In the offering, we can see a picture of the surrender of the entire being – self no longer at the forefront, but yielded in submission to a holy God.

They gave money to hire masons and carpenters. They gave food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and Tyrians in exchange for the cedar lumber they had brought by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, a shipment authorized by Cyrus the kind of Persia. (Ezra 3:7)

There was a personal investment in their restoration. They gave of what they had to provide for the rebuilding of the Temple. The best we can do is to give of what we have. We must never lose sight of the underlying cooperation of Cyrus to provide for this work. Scripture clearly tells us that God orchestrates the leaders of the land. He was using Cyrus as a means to accomplish his purpose of re-establishing his people and his worship.

It is also interesting to note that the returning Jews were a little concerned about their non-Jewish neighbors – afraid of what they would think of their return, of their worship, of their rebuilding. It is almost always an uncomfortable thing for us to “stand out” among people as unique. Yet, God has always called his people to stand as a unique witness of his glory and honor – and in so doing, he uses us to win over those we stand as a witness among.

But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you – from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted. Friends, the world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of you soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives. (I Peter 2:9-12)

Obedience costs us something. Sometimes it is our physical property – such as a monetary offering. At other times, it is our reputation, time, or just a sense of security. Regardless of the price, the sacrifice of obedience yields a greater return than the selfishness of concerning ourselves with what “the neighbors” will think.