On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, though the foundation of the LORD’s temple had not yet been laid.
A new beginning is an auspicious occasion. The captives returned to Jerusalem with a commitment to start anew their journey of obedience with God. Many did not return with them, they remained in Babylon and looked at Israel’s experience of faith in God as a failed adventure, something that they were probably glad to say they had tried and failed and had moved on from.
Many see Christianity in a similar light, as something they tried to become but failed, as something “that did not work for me,” they might say. In much of Europe people see Christianity as something their nation had experimented with but now it is irrelevant to their lives, as something that is too austere, too strict, too foreboding, too difficult for people to follow. Oh, there are excuses by the thousands and often accusations made of hypocrisy among Christians that have no doubt some element of truth in them. Legalistic Christianity especially is influential in creating these feelings of guilt and failure, the type of thinking that puts personal performance ahead of grace, the idea that we are either saved by good works or we are acceptable to God after salvation by our good works, both of which are unbiblical and heretical ideas. Yet many do not understand this and assume that their brush with legalism told them all there was to know about the Christian message.
There are those who come to God dressed in the finest of their good works. They stand like the Pharisee in the temple who prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men.” As Christ said, this does not result in reconciliation with God and is merely an exercise in self-delusion. These are the ones who having begun their “Christian experience” with misshapen notions eventually become discouraged and fall away, blaming themselves for their inability to remain holy or blaming others for their hypocrisy or both. Those were the ones who remained in Babylon.
Others come to Christ with a personal awareness of their failings and a belief that God has acted in Christ to redeem them. They believe that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6), not through their good works but through their faith in His provision. Their pilgrimage may have its ups and downs but they are on a journey with God, one of grace and calling and filled with God’s faithfulness to His people. Those were the ones who returned to Jerusalem.
The first thing the returnees did was to rebuild the altar. The altar stood outside the door of the temple and was for burnt offerings (Exodus 38:1-7 and Numbers 28:1-8) that symbolized morning and evening the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. These offerings, of course, did not really take away sins, rather they pictured the offering of Christ Jesus on the cross, who laid down His life for us (Hebrews 9:11-15 and 10:1-10). They did this before they built the temple and there is a powerful lesson for us in this. They realized that they could only approach God for worship through the altar of His choosing.
Babylon had its magnificent temples and its impressive religious ceremonies, but they understood all of that as mere vanity, empty gestures. But when they returned to God they came through His altar. When we return to God we return through the cross of Christ and the Christ of the cross. We acknowledge Him as God’s answer for our sins and as God’s answer for our sinful nature as well. Here is found the genius of Christian faith and the wisdom of God, that we come to Him at His invitation through His provision to receive His righteousness and follow His will.
But when we do so suddenly the potential of our life is multiplied by eternity’s power. Our failures do not mean God’s failures, nor are they fatal to us. Grace allows us to return, instructs us in the process of returning, encourages us in our journey, and comforts us about our future. What if I fail again? We may ask. O, you will, but you are not acceptable to God because you have never sinned or never will again. You are acceptable to God only through Christ but through Christ you are completely acceptable to God.
Sometimes our personal journey back our personal Jerusalem is after a long time spent in our personal Babylon. But we each visit Babylon in our thoughts every day. This day is a time to reset your thoughts on Christ, on His sacrifice for you, on the altar of God’s choosing, and return to God. Much can be done after we return through Christ, but nothing can be done properly until we return to God through Christ.
Lord Jesus, we thank You for Your grace. Like the tax-collector in the temple we confess our sins and our need, “Be merciful to me the sinner!” But we believe that Christ has provided what we need to be forgiven and we dare to believe that You invite us to come to You. Let our worlds and our lives be reordered in You. Amen.