Ezra 3:10-13 & Acts 10:25-34

Foundations of Worship

I wonder if anyone remembers a TV show called James May’s Toy Stories. In each episode James would aim to make something life size with toys. So there was a life size Spitfire made out of Airfix and a Scalextric track the length of a real race track. We’ve been rewatching them recently- I’m a real sucker for TV shows about communities coming together to do something. This week we watched one about Lego. James had a vision of a life size house made out of Lego. One of the benefits of lego as a building material is that it is easy to put together in lots of different configurations. One of the downsides is that it comes apart quite easily. Spoiler alert – they do manage to build the house, though the bed isn’t very comfortable and there are some worrying cracks.

For those of us who have had youngsters in the house who liked playing with lego, and building models, I wonder if anyone else has had the experience of hearing yelling from another room, and at the root of the dispute is the fact that one child has broken another child’s lego model.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I wonder how many of us feel over the last 18 months that our lives, or aspects of our lives, that seemed to fit together quite well, have come apart – a bit like a lego model under too much strain. Now we’re surrounded by the bricks, and are faced with the task of putting them back together again. Maybe we just want to get on with putting everything back as it was. Maybe we feel like this might be an opportunity to put things back in a different shape.

As the vicar here, serving this church and community, it certainly feels a bit like this for me. A whole load of the bricks of church life and community life came apart. We put some of them back together. We’ve still got quite a lot to do, and part of the work of that is deciding what should go back the same, and what should be reshaped. When we were planning the sermons for this term, Heather suggested that as we were starting things up again, and rebuilding things, it might be helpful to look at the restoring and rebuilding of a community in the Bible and see what we might learn from that. One of our values here at All Saints is Loving God, and one of the ways we express that value is by taking seriously what God says in the Bible.

So, over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the temple, and the community of God’s people, in the accounts of two of the leaders at the time, Ezra and Nehemiah.

It might be worth taking a moment to locate ourselves in the history of the people of God – where were they? Why were they there? What had happened to them? What’s the back story? What was the equivalent of the Covid pandemic for them?

Many centuries before this, the people of God had been enslaved in Egypt. They were oppressed and forced to labour in building cities for the Pharaoh. God heard their cries, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land. After a long journey through the wilderness, God’s people came to Canaan, the land God had promised their ancestor Abraham and settled in. A kingdom grew up, with the great Kings David and Solomon among the first kings. But things went wrong. The kings and people stopped following God faithfully, started worshipping other gods, and turned their backs on God’s way of life.
After many warnings from God’s messengers, the prophets, the land was invaded, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and many of the people were forced into exile, in Babylon. But, among the warnings that the prophets had shared were promises, that they would return to Jerusalem, and it would be rebuilt. And over the next month or so we are going to explore the story of that rebuilding, of the way in which God kept that promise.

In Chapter 1 of the book of Ezra we can read of the permission given by Cyrus, King of Persia for the people of God to return to Jerusalem, to take some of the treasures that had been looted from the temple, and to rebuild. In chapter 2, there is a long list of the names of those who returned. In chapter 3 they begin the rebuilding of Jerusalem, starting with the place of worship, the altar and the temple.

I think it’s really important that we note that this comes first. The worshipping life of the community is the foundation for the rebuilding. Physically they had only got as far as laying the foundations of the place of worship, but they had already broken the instruments out to praise God, to thank God, to place God at the centre of all that they were doing.

When James was planning his life size lego model, the first thing they did was make a perfectly flat and level platform to build on. When you’re building a normal size lego house, a good base board is always a good start. When we’re thinking about rebuilding our lives as we come out of Covid, it seems to me that putting in strong patterns of worship at the foundations would be wise.

Now in lockdown we haven’t been stopped from worshipping, but it has been different. We know from the stories of the people of God in exile, such as the account of Daniel and the Lion’s den, that God’s people had not stopped worshipping God, but there was something about coming back to Jerusalem that released a new depth and connection in worship.

The emotions that are released during worship can be mixed, we see this here. Some people were full of joy, some were weeping for what had been lost. As we come to worship we can bring all that is in our hearts – our joy at being back together, and being able to celebrate, and our pain and grief over the things we’ve lost. Worshipping God isn’t about sticking a fake grin on and pretending all is well.

It is about choosing to acknowledge and declare that God is good, even when things are difficult. Music can really help us in this. It gives us words when we can’t find our own, and melodies that travel deep into our souls and memories.

In a previous role I used to take communion at home to a gentleman who had had a stroke. His speech and memory were badly affected. After a few visits, I found out from his wife that he had been in a choir and had loved to sing hymns. The next visit I took along my iPad with a couple of hymns recorded on it, and he sang along with us – he could sing what he couldn’t speak, and he could remember all the words. As we continue exploring what it means to be a Dementia Friendly Church, we know that music is going to have a significant place in how we walk with people living with dementia in ways that enable them to express their faith.

The second reading that we heard happened about 500 years later, in the years following Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul was travelling around the near east, telling people the good news of Jesus, and had got himself arrested, with his travelling companion Silas. They were beaten and imprisoned. Chained up and thrown into a cell. So what they do? They praised God. They lifted their voices and started singing. An earthquake began, shook the place they were, and they were freed. The jailer was amazed, wanted to hear their story, and came to believe in Jesus, and was baptised.

For Paul, worship was so foundational in his life, so woven through his whole life, that it was his natural reaction. It was just what he did. And worship led to freedom. His freedom physically, but more importantly, the freedom of the jailer and his household from sin and death.

So, how can we make the worship of God, worship that builds freedom, foundational in our lives? Well, one thing I think that we might have learnt from lockdown is that worship can happen anywhere. We kind of knew that before, in theory, but many of us have had the experience of joining in worship with others in our front rooms in ways that we never have before. I wonder for how many of us, this is the first time that hymns or other worship songs have been played in our houses?

Perhaps we can take this forward into our post-lockdown lives. Not necessarily watching church services, but having worship music on our music players. How about, “Alexa, play my worship mix?”

I know that UCB radio and having worship music on in her house has been an important part of Sarah’s journey of faith over the years. Loius’ mum and dad and godparents have promised this morning to help him grow in the faith. One way you can do that is to model worshipping God and teach him songs of faith. There’s loads of great stuff out there for preschoolers.

We also have opportunities to get together and worship. We will be starting up Ignite again next weekend, our monthly Saturday evening of extended sung worship and prayer. We can just get together and express one of our other values – celebrating, as we worship God, the master builder, who keeps shaping our lives, making us more like Jesus, our Lord and Rescuer.

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