Tri-City Chinese Baptist Church

English Worship, February 18, 2024

February 18, 2024: Message: Glory in the Lowest | Scripture: Ezra 3:8-13 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy

Worship Songs: O Great God | Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery | Crown Him With Many Crowns

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If able, please stand with me as I read to you from Ezra 3:8-13.  TWoL: 8 Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the LORD. 9 And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers. 10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.

I remember the first time that my father explained what money was to me in a way I could understand.  It involved buying candy at the hospital that my mom works at, and, like all hospitals, they charged a premium on snacks and confectionaries.  The thing is, I really wanted a bag of Skittles.  I asked my dad for money in order to buy it, but on this occasion, he said no, and I couldn’t understand why. 

So, he told me that candy from the hospital was very expensive, and that he didn’t want to waste money buying something there for $3 that was 50 cents everywhere else.  It was the first time, in my memory, that he used the phrase, “Mommy, daddy aren’t moneybags”—a phrase he’d use fairly often throughout my childhood.  And I recall in that moment thinking to myself that, one day, I would become rich enough to buy Skittles for anyone who asked.  My life would be so big and so full of wealth that I’d never have to say something like, “that’s too expensive.” 

Turns out, God has an incredible sense of humour, and he led me to become a pastor in a religion that many think is dying, and I became a pastor here—at a small, predominantly Chinese, Baptist, community church—the kind of church that, by definition, screams insignificance to the world.  Yet, the reason why I find this all kind of funny isn’t because I think my life to be unsatisfying or unfulfilling, but because for all my own insignificance—for all of our insignificance as a church—I, personally, have come to see more clearly and joyfully the incredible significance of our God and his love for that which is insignificant. 

Simply by being here and doing what I do with all of you, I’ve seen, firsthand, that the most effective way God works in our lives isn’t through the endless pursuit of that which is bigger, brighter, or more influential in the eyes of the world, but in the realization that the pursuit of God is big enough—that he is significant enough—and that he means to show us the depth of his love and faithfulness in our littleness. 

And this is what Ezra 3:8-13 means to remind us about: that God, in his sufficiency—in his significance—displays his significance in his use and love of the insignificant, and we—his people—those who have been saved by him—we’re not to discount that.  We’re not to discount him and his joy over lowly creatures like us.  God intends to display his glory in the insignificant, and we are to prepare our little selves in whatever way he intends to display it. 

Now, we don’t know exactly how all of history will play out.  But he gives us enough in his Word, and in our text, to assure us he is leading us and calling us, even in our insignificance, to take action as he leads.  And the first action he calls us to is to…

1) Take Meticulous Care of the Details

I was in a conversation recently with a friend who was describing to me his struggle with certain sins, and he mentioned to me about how he desired to be free from the things that led him into doing what he shouldn’t.  He lamented the temptations, the allure, stages that essentially made it impossible for him to escape falling and failing, and he asked me how he might avoid those temptations—how might he not even have the desire to go and pursue his sin anymore?

And my answer is probably something all of us have heard before but, maybe, have forgotten along the way, namely, the practical defeat of sin doesn’t begin with trying to white knuckle ourselves through temptation, but figuring out what gives rise to the temptations in the first place.  By the time the temptations come around, and you’re giving thought to them, it’s most likely that the battle’s already been lost.  But if we’re proactive in seeing the patterns of our desires—if we can take ourselves out of or remedy the situations that lead us not only to the sin but to the temptations themselves, then we, by God’s grace, decrease our chances of falling into the actual sin by leaps and bounds. 

What needs to happen isn’t just battling temptation but battling the foreground to our temptations—the small, minute details that lead us farther and farther from the narrow path.  It’s a process—a difficult one—a long one to identify what these patterns are and to build habits that guard us from falling into them.  And it’s this kind of habit building—this kind of guarding against patterns—that we see at work here in the midst of these Israelites. 

They’ve been without a temple for nearly 50 years by this point—50 years without knowing the presence of God—50 years of wondering if they’d ever know it again.  And yet, even as they come back to Judah, they have to wait.  They have to wait until the end of the time of atonement in the seventh month.  They have to wait until all the other feasts and festivals are completed.  They have to wait until the second month of the next year to build the temple, even though the exile was over. 

They’ve been waiting and waiting, and yet, what is it that they do in their waiting?  How do they spend that time?  Did they expect everything to fall into place when the time came?  Did they expect that they’d be able to avoid running back into old patterns of sin simply because they’ve returned to the land?  No, they prepare themselves.  They set themselves apart by observing and taking care of the details. 

Verse 8 is most illuminating in this.  The main verb in that verse is in the middle of the sentence.  It says Zerubbabel and Jeshua make a beginning.  They get things started.  And this, dear brothers and sisters, is often the greatest stumbling block for us isn’t it?  Just to show up—to get things started—to figure out what details in our lives need organizing. 

And what they do to start isn’t glamourous or flashy.  Notice, they aren’t calling for the Shekinah glory of God to descend upon them and strike down the enemies of the land.  No, they start with the little things.  They show up.  They order themselves according to God’s instruction—to the Bible.  They establish their responsibilities and the steps that need to be taken so that when the more significant things come, they’re not left unprepared.

And the application for us is to ask how seriously we take our waiting?  Israel’s been waiting for God to return and look how intentional and anticipating they are for it.  Are we that same way?  Do we long for the return of our Christ, and if you do, have you put in the work to get things started—to make a beginning—to prepare yourself for his coming.  I remarked a couple of weeks ago that a lot of us are keen on seeing our church grow, but I cautioned such a desire not because it’s bad, but because, in my estimation, we’re not ready for it. 

I may have told some of you about a church that I know of that was suddenly growing—went from 50 to 120 people seemingly overnight, and yet, in all that growth, they weren’t ready for it.  People weren’t challenging themselves in their holiness or in their spiritual disciplines.  Men weren’t discipling other young men not just because they were unwilling but because they, honestly, had nothing to give—their own lives were filled with spiritual weakness.  Women neglected younger women.  All of them weren’t growing in their theology—reading and studying things that pushed them in their minds, which is usually reflective of a sluggishness in our hearts. 

And what I’ve found is that as long as we desire for large scale, glorious things to appear now, on our terms, or on the world’s terms—whether in our churches, in our communities, or in our own hearts—we will be tempted to ignore the seemingly lowly and weak efforts like growing in our own faithfulness.  The kinds of effort that are necessary for those larger things to flourish—that will allow for those larger things to be about the One who is larger and more glorious than ourselves. 

At any give time, we start to think we’re more important—our time is more valuable—than what God wants and values for us, or in where he’s leading us, and we go astray from the small acts of obedience that he’s set before us—the killing of sin and the turning of our eyes together towards the cross and the love of God displayed for us there—and we trade these small, seemingly insignificant disciplines in for those big, interesting pursuits. 

You know what that is?  It’s treason.  It’s narcissism.  It’s idolatry.  It’s taking the cross and saying it’s not enough.  It’s taking God and saying he’s not enough.  And God is reminding us in this text that we aren’t ready for the big things if they’re what’s most important to us.  He makes those little things—the small details—our task, for now, because he means to increase our pleasure, our good, our hope in him before anything else. 

Don’t let your outsized aspirations for your life, for your people, and for your church get in the way of how God intends to work in you through the “insignificant” details.  Get ahead of and reorient those patterns that increase temptation and the opportunities for sin.  Discipline your heart to love reading and memorizing your Bible and God-honouring theology.  Invest in the immediate needs and burdens of those around you, especially your church.  Find your sufficiency and contentment in the faithfulness of God over the little things as he cultivates in you the same, significant desires for insignificant things.  Then…

2) Take Time to Remember God Ordains

Here in verses 10-13, we get to crux of the passage where, after Israel’s preparations, and as they begin to lay the foundation of the temple, there are two parties.  The first contains the young, new generation that is coming into Judah for the first time, and they are found to be rejoicing and giving thanks according to David’s instructions—according to the Bible. 

But then there’s this second group—the wizened, grey-haired, elders of Israel who see this new temple as nothing more than a shadow of the glory days that have passed.  This temple will be insignificant and small compared to the grandeur of Solomon’s masterpiece, and their dreams of coming out of exile and re-establishing the old ways, they seem impossible now as the temple foundation is laid.  To them, this was a sad day because God is far more awe-inspiring and terrifying than whatever this lowly recreation was lying before them. 

Now, what I should mention is that this reaction by the older generation is not unwarranted.  They had the right belief, coming back into the promised land, that God would magnify himself once again in their midst, avenge them from their enemies, and restore their fortunes as his people.  We read this as prophecy, particularly in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  The dry bones of Israel shall be brought back to life (Ez 37).  The messianic saviour shall come (Is 53).  A new covenant will be established, and the law of God shall be written upon their hearts (Jer 31). 

So, as these exiles are coming back into Judah, they thought this was it.  They believed all their troubles were behind them, and Zion—the mountain of God—would be established in this place—in Jerusalem.  But then the stones are laid, and all that rises as they’re put down is dust and dirt.  God and his house aren’t supposed to look like this.  God’s mission in the world, in their minds, cannot result in such small, insignificant things, and they’re dismayed by it and rightly so.  God is a big God, and nothing he accomplishes is insignificant.  And yet, God also means to teach us two lessons in this:

The first is that while our God is a God who is worthy to be glorified and worshipped on a universal scale, he is not a god who feels rushed by our insecurity or by our expectations.  In fact, he tells us in multiple places throughout Scripture that his kingdom will be the result of a multitude of insignificant days—that he does not seek to appease our impatience. 

From the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 12, 15, and 17, we’re informed that all who belong to God’s nation will come from an old man and his barren wife who have their child when he’s a hundred.  And then Scripture ends with the book of Revelation, which is a manifesto dedicated to the idea that these days we live in are imperfect and are passing away, and that they are preparing us for a coming, greater day. 

The whole Bible shows us God does not do things right away or even when we want him to do things.  Rather, he does things according to his wisdom and time, so that we might know it’s about him and his grandeur and not ours.  Yes, something greater is coming, but until it does, we are called simply to bring him glory in the little ways that we can. 

I like how one author puts it: “how do we honour a significant God who does not operate on our time?  We honour him by praying for and desiring the significant, while being intentional about our accountability day-after-day for that man who feels trapped in his sin.  We’re to hope and ask for revival and renewal in our churches, while waking up early, putting breakfast together, and spending time with our children.  We’re to anticipate the glory of God rending the heavens open and ushering in the new age, while also understanding that it is glorious to share the gospel with that neighbour who’s lived beside us for 15 years.  It’s declaring the breath-taking mysteries of Jesus on Sunday, and then sitting with the lowly, broken sinner and hearing her story on Monday.  The great day of God is on its way, but until that day, don’t discount the significance of the insignificant.” 

Secondly, we’re not only to take time to remember that God’s glorious plan will not be revealed to us when we expect it, but also, it won’t be revealed to us in the way (how) we expect it.  What I find has disabled us is that Hollywood or other outlets have skewed our understanding of what exactly should count in our minds as being significant.  Right?  We expect flashes of lightning!  We expect signs and wonders! 

Yet, what does Jesus himself say in Matthew 12:39-42 as the Pharisees come to him asking for a sign?  He tells them only those who are evil and adulterous—those filled with selfish vainglory—seek a sign, but no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah—that is, as Jonah was in the fish for three days and nights, so too shall Jesus die and remain dead for three days, and on the third day, he will rise and call his people to repentance, and they will not hear.  Rather, it’s the Ninevites—the Gentiles—who will hear—those unexpected, insignificant people, and they will repent, and they will be God’s holy people—his mouthpiece, his glory, his joy. 

See, what I’m saying is that nothing God accomplishes is insignificant.  There is a deep significance in our lowliness not only because it is leading to some future day where we will see God’s grandeur and glory, but even now, his salvation of us in our insignificance is the proof of his grandeur.  Even now, we are his glory through him who has brought many sinful sons and daughters to glory. 

This is the gospel, here, in Ezra 3:8-13—that God is actively using what is lowly to display his majesty—the insignificant to accomplish the significant!  And he foreshadows it in this second temple—though it does not shine like Israel’s elders expect it to now, it symbolizes that God is doing great things.  And both young and old were missing it.  The young were missing it because they thought the temple to be the most wondrous thing, rather than a shadow or a precursor to something greater, and their praise was boisterous and overly exuberant—all while ignoring the grief and wisdom of those who witnessed greater things. 

The old, on the other hand, were missing it because they couldn’t see that, even though this temple was a small thing compared to what it used to be, God’s mercy was upon them in that moment.  They couldn’t escape the fact that the house of God used to be great.  The nations would come to them just to see it.  But what they had forgotten was that it was never about the temple.  In fact, if you remember in 2 Samuel 7, even before the temple, God says to David, “I don’t need a house to dwell in.”  They had overestimated that God needed them—that he was dependent upon their works, rather than remembering that he is what made their work glorious.

They were sad because they had made things that were small to God big, and they had misjudged the big things of God and made them small.  And the thing is, we very much do the same thing today.  We tend to strive after and lament missing things that we and the world see as significant while neglecting and rejecting those other things that are actually significant in God’s sight. 

Instead of praying, giving, and fasting in secret, we make social gatherings, fun, and eating our priorities.  Instead of dedicating regular time to our Bibles, we convince ourselves that other things are more pressing.  Instead of proclaiming the gospel as a matter of first importance, we emphasize being friendly and likeable as being more essential. 

And yet, what is the cue that God gives us to show us that, perhaps, we have our priorities and our ideas of significance and insignificance mixed up?  Our God is a big God, yes, and he will bring about big things, but the way he does it is by sending his Son to become small—to become lowly—so that, by his death and resurrection, he might save those who think they’re significant in their own eyes.  Still, he does so not to affirm us in our misperception, but to call us to genuine faithfulness and to see his greatness in little things as those who are little ourselves.  And in our littleness—in our nothingness, we’re now called to take joy in those little things—those acts of obedience—that message we call the gospel—so that we might be a reflection of a significant God who is at work in and amongst us. 

God has not shown us these things to meet our timelines or to appease our carnal expectations.  No, he’s done a far more wonderful thing than that by showing how our small acts of obedience and worship culminate in the glory of his Son—and through him, we, too, are made sons and daughters of heaven. 

3) Take Steps to Anticipate Great Things Together

Yet, what I want to leave you with isn’t only a sense of how God has orchestrated all things in his time and in his way to call us into his unexpected gospel and to adopt us as his undeserved sons and daughters, but to show you how our passage leaves something for us to do.  There’s something deeply distressing in this text in that there seems to be a lack of cooperation and understanding between the young and the old.  And unfortunately, it reflects what our church has looked like historically.

And what both the passage and our history are meant to teach us is that such a separation was never meant to be.  There’s an inherent danger here that the old generation could have discouraged the new, telling them that this temple was nothing like the one that came before—that it ought to be scrapped—that they ought to lose hope.  Yet, on the other hand, the danger for the young men and women would have been the temptation to ignore the sorrow of their elders and to reject their wisdom and experience—to hold the belief that those who came before could teach them nothing. 

I hope you see the applicability in this because both old and young in this case have discarded one another off as insignificant—as ignorant and immature or as obsolete and unnecessary, and yet, this text exists here in Ezra, at least in part, to tell us that the kingdom of God, on this side of heaven, needs both young and old.  They are not to function separately but together, cooperatively, and in mutual understanding of each other. 

Those of us who are older need not only to impart wisdom but to fight to understand the context of those whom we desire to make wise.  I see it so often where churches have old folks who cling to their favourite, unfamiliar songs and stories, and they don’t take the time or effort to understand why younger folks don’t like those songs or don’t relate to those stories.  In fact, they seem disappointed when young people don’t just fall in line, or worse yet, they esteem those who do fall in line, as if being young or as if having a difference in preference is wrong. 

I’ve also seen churches where young people fill the pews, the culture is exciting, and the traditions of old religion are completely absent.  Yet, for those of us who are young, there needs to be a greater deference and a desire to actively seek out the experience of older Christians, if not only to avoid making serious mistakes in our own future ministries or to uncover our own ignorance.  Nothing is new under the sun, yet history repeats itself, and we tend to fall into the same problems, because young people reject the counsel of experience. 

And what we need to hear is this: whether we are young or old, we are all sinners in need of a Saviour—a Saviour who brings us out of our own, individualistic insignificance and makes us, together, significant with him.  We were meant to see those great things not according to our own understanding but in the fact that we’ve been made one body who belong to the one God of the universe.

Apart, we will fail—we fail to live as we’re supposed to live.  Worse yet, we fail to display the impact of the gospel in our lives.  But together, God is glorified, and the sacrifice of Jesus and his unity with Father and Spirit is displayed.  Don’t discount the significance of insignificance.  Seek that which honours God as one people, and he shall display his majesty through us as his unified and glorious church. 

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