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Sermon preached on Ezra 3, 6:13-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Thanksgiving and Dedication Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/18/2022 in Petaluma, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
The book of Ezra records how God’s people rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon. Our reading in chapter 3 records their beginning of the work and chapter 6 records their completion of it. I thought this record would be a fitting passage to reflect on this evening in our Thanksgiving and Dedication Service for our new building. To clarify, our building is not a temple. What the temple in Jerusalem was under the old covenant is realized in the new covenant spiritually whenever God’s people gather together for corporate worship. Yet, there are several analogies here with our situation that I believe will make for some edifying application this evening.
The first thing I would like us to recognize then is all the joy and thanksgiving and praise that is going on here as they begin the work and ultimately dedicate the new temple to God. One way we see this is the way the text connects their work with the temple with the joy of their annual feasts. Chapter 3 references them starting the temple work with a celebration of the Feast of Booths. And chapter 6 references them dedicating the temple and then celebrating the Passover with the Feast of Unleavened Bread afterwards. These feasts were naturally a time of annual joy and thanksgiving and praise to God. The worship component can be seen especially by all the sacrifices that attended them. I will have more to say about these feasts in a moment, but for now I do note providentially that the timing for our Thanksgiving and Dedication Service coincides with our upcoming national day of Thanksgiving. In fact some people had mistakenly thought this service was intending to be a traditional annual Thanksgiving service and I had to correct them. But we do have much to be thankful for this year as a congregation.
So then, notice their joy and praise when they lay the foundation. In chapter 3, verse 10, we see the priests lead the people with loud and ornate praise, with their trumpets and cymbal in their vestments. They sing to God that refrain common in several psalms, “He is good; his steadfast love toward Israel endures forever.” The people all give a great shout of praise. All of it can be heard from far away because it was boisterous. Likewise, when the temple is completed, we see a similar celebration. A huge amount of animals are sacrificed to God as a sin offering in chapter 6, verse 17. Verse 16 specifically describes such a huge act of worship as what they were doing to dedicate the temple and how it expressed their joy and celebration. So, we see that the people from start to finish dedicated that temple to God in joy and thankfulness that it would be a place of praise and worship to God. So then, surely by extension it is fitting that we this evening recognize how God has provided our congregation a place for us to worship him. It is quite appropriate that we set aside a time of special thanksgiving and praise for this new place. And if you are so inclined, may you also be pleased to give offerings to God by making use of the offering box in the back. This is a time quite appropriate for us to worship our God in thankfulness for his great provision for our church and its ministry.
As we note the joy and celebration that bookended the construction of that temple, let us not overlook the fact that it took approximately 22 years from start to finish to complete this temple. That’s why we had to skip from chapter 3 to chapter 6 to see the start and the finish. They began the work in approximately 371 BC. They finished the work in approximately 353 BC. But they weren’t actively working on it the whole time. For a large part of that time, the Samaritans petitioned the government against their building project and got the government to halt the project for a time. So, the government oversight and local opposition resulted in a significant delay in being able to complete their building project. Does that at all sound familiar? From our first visit to this property to holding our first worship service it was 2 years, and 92 days. That seemed so long, and it was surely the most frustrating season of my service as your pastor. But yet that timeline wasn’t 22 years. Our building project timeline suddenly doesn’t seem so long now does it? And so, while it took 22 years, they sandwiched the start and finish of the temple construction in worship and thanksgiving. Today, we likewise dedicate this building with worship and thanksgiving now that it’s complete.
So then, I wanted us to relate and connect with their joy and worship and thanksgiving. But the other thing I wanted to consider this evening is their temple construction in relationship to their annual feasts. The text interestingly coordinates celebrating certain feasts in relation to their temple building, and I believe we can draw some additional application out of considering the feasts in relation to the temple construction. So then, let me make sure everyone has the appropriate background here. God’s people under the old covenant had three big feasts. These were the big religious holidays. While not the same, we have our nation’s big upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Well, they had three big holidays. They were matched with the calendar in terms of the agricultural harvest. And they also were paired with theological significance. And therefore, there was an order both chronologically and theologically for their feasts. The first feast was Passover. It represented the beginning of the harvest season with the barley harvest and it also was to memorialize how God redeemed the people out of the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The second feast was the Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost, and it coincided with the wheat harvest and it also was to memorialize how God gave both the law and the tabernacle to the people at Sinai, so God and his Word would go with the people wherever they went. The third feast was the Feast of Booths also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. It represented the end of the harvest, sort of like our Harvest Festivals and Thanksgiving holiday. But theologically it memorialized how after the Exodus from Egypt God had the people wander through the wilderness for 40 years living in temporary shelters (i.e. booths or tabernacles) until he finally settled them into the Promised Land (then they were able to get rid of their temporary shelters with permanent homes). So then, these three feasts span the agricultural harvest season on the annual calendar: Passover, then Pentecost, then Booths. But they also memorialize God’s redemptive history among his people from the initial exodus from Egypt, to a time of sojourning in the wilderness, to the final settling in the Promised Land in a place of peace and rest.
That’s the background now for thinking about these feasts in conjunction with the people rebuilding the temple. In chapter 3, God’s people here have just returned to Jerusalem after the exile, where they had again been in bondage, first to the Babylonians and then to the Persians. They start to rebuild the temple with celebrating the Feast of Booths. That surely seemed very fitting for them. You might recall that when Solomon built the temple, he dedicated it in conjunction with celebrating that Feast of Booths. When you look back at that in 1 Kings 8, it seems that Solomon was very intentional in timing out the dedication of the temple with that specific feast. Remember that the Feast of Booths represented God’s people leaving behind their tents to be permanently settled in their homes in the Promised Land. The last tent to be retired was the Tabernacle that Solomon replaced with the temple. So, the Feast of Booths as the last of the three feasts represented an arrival and culmination of God’s good promises by being finally settled in the Promised Land.
And so, while the text here draws a connection with the start of the temple rebuilding and the Feast of Tabernacles, I think we should recognize that while the people might have at first thought this was a reprise of Solomon’s dedication, it was premature. First off, they weren’t even free of bondage yet, since the Persians still governed them. Second, the temple was not even built yet, they were only just beginning. Third, even when the foundation was laid, their great joy had to compete with their great sorrow for how inferior it was to the previous temple foundation Solomon had laid. If God’s people thought their return to Judea and starting to rebuild the temple was effectively reexperiencing the significance of the Feast of Booths, I think their celebrations were greatly premature. To clarify, of course they should celebrate the three annual feasts, but my point is that the text seems to show them making a connection between the temple building and the significance of that feast in the way Solomon did. But instead of it looking like a grand reprise of what Solomon did, it actually comes across more like a bad parody.
So then, when decades later they finally finish the temple, I think it is a much more fitting that the feast that is connected then with their dedication service is then Passover. That is the first of the annual feasts and really represents just the beginning of God’s redemption and the associated liberty. For God’s people at this point after returning from exile, their redemption from bondage was only just beginning to be realized, and they weren’t truly and fully settled in liberty and peace, even with this temple being completed.
That is some assessment of the connections being made here in Ezra with the temple rebuilding and the feasts. Let me then offer some applications to our situation here with this building dedication and our service of thanksgiving. My premise for application is that these three feasts of the old covenant also typologically picture our redemption as Christians in redemptive history. What Passover, then Pentecost, then Booths commemorate become a typological picture of our redemptive history timeline. Think about how we see this shown in the New Testament. Jesus began our redemption at the cross, which happened to be at the time of the Passover celebration as we see in the Gospels. Then the book of Acts records the Pentecost feast as when the Spirit of God has poured himself upon us the church while we are sojourners in this world. But you notice the Feast of Booths isn’t recorded in the New Testament as signaling some event in new covenant history like Passover and Pentecost was. The reason is simple. It hasn’t happened yet. What the Feast of Booths represents for us in redemptive history hasn’t happened yet. Passover represents the beginning of the redemption in Christ which has already happened, and Pentecost represents what is currently happening, that is, our current state as spiritual sojourners. But the Feast of Booths would represent our arriving and settling in the eternal promised land of the glory of the age to come. That hasn’t happened yet. That won’t be realized until Jesus returns.
My point of application here is that while here in Ezra they seem to identify themselves first with the Feast of Booths and then with Passover, we should actually identify our timeframe right now with Pentecost. Right now, the Spirit of God is upon us his people like one big tent. God’s people don’t have a physical temple but together we are effectively a spiritual tabernacle here on earth. That’s where we are at in redemptive history, at Pentecost, not the Feast of Booths. So what’s my point? The point is to say that with all the excitement of our new building, it is not a temple in the biblical sense, nor have we now finally “arrived” in the glory days of our church and can be at “rest” and “settled” now. As I make this point, I think we all say, yes, pastor, of course. But I admit I am tempted to feel like it. I’m tempted to put too much significance in finally having this building, to feel like we’ve finally arrived as a church. But our theology must keep things in proper perspective. As an example of this perspective, we won’t take this building into the new creation. When the new creation finally comes, 1445 Technology Lane A1 won’t survive the transformation.
So then, what of our building and all our celebrations tonight? There are several important exhortations we can make tonight even though our building is not a temple or our final home. I’ll give you three.
First, our new building is a tool and a venue, so let us make good use of it. While our worship is in spirit and truth ultimately, it nonetheless has to occur somewhere at some place. As we have guests from various churches tonight, we recognize the church universal meets in specific physical locations throughout the world. There is something very practical about that in a good way. And this new building will meet those practical needs. And so, in God’s providence, now he has our church meeting here. It is the venue for where our ministry will occur. It becomes a tool to support the kind of ministry we will do here. We thank God for this tool and venue as we know it has already begun to serve our practical needs. And we ask God to bless the use of such a tool and venue.
Second, since our building is here, in this community, it represents how God has called us to be missional and apostolic here. We are to evangelize the people around us. In one sense, that is the whole north bay since we have members spread throughout it. But it especially now is right here in this section of Petaluma. We don’t build a physical temple under the new covenant, but we do strive to build a spiritual temple, brick by brick, made up of one convert at a time.
Third, our new building is a trust from God that will require stewardship. We will need to be good stewards in how we use it, how we maintain it, how we show hospitality through it, and especially how we conduct ministry in it.
In conclusion, if we see that redemptive-historically we are in the time represented by Pentecost and not the time of the Booths, that means we are in the typological equivalent of that wilderness wandering period. We are on the way, but not yet arrived. That makes us sojourners in this world. And Christ has told us that this time of sojourning is to be a time of ministry and service and witness. Let us be about such here in our new church home.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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