In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem…..” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved, prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem….
Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles..they returned..each to his own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah: The list of the men of the people of Israel: the descendants of Parosh, 2172; of Shephatiah, 372…the men of Bethlehem, 123; of Netophah, 56…
(Ezr 1.1-5; 2.1-4,21&22))
The great Hebrew Scripture narratives of exodus and exile are associated with lists….huge lists of names and numbers, relating to the people who were involved in these historic events. As modern readers, we are tempted to skip over them – we can’t pronounce most of them, and they mean nothing to us! But consider their significance to generations of Jews, who would trace their own family name back to one of these, and remember with awe that their ancestors were part of those hugely significant events. The inclusion of these names is a reminder that all of God’s work in history has involved individuals, real people like you and me, whose lives were caught up into his overarching purpose.
As those called to be God’s people, we are pledged to obedience and faithfulness (as God enables us), and we are not free to dictate the terms on which we will follow where God is leading – we are slaves to Christ, not his employees and certainly not his employers! If all the exiled Israelites had responded to God’s prompting of their hearts by saying – ” returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple is a great idea…let someone else do it, I am quite comfortable here with the way things are and I don’t like change..”: then there would have been no return from exile. I wonder how those who chose not to go felt in later years? Did they regret their failure to be part of that work of return and rebuilding, or had their faith never been in God at all, but rather in the trappings of prosperity and security which they now found in Babylon?
It is our personal commitment within the body of Christ which leads to corporate obedience. If I choose to delegate obedience to another, what is to prevent them doing the same? It is entirely possible for us to miss out on being part of God’s work in the world – but we will be the losers, and our faith and spiritual health will suffer. Is my trust in Jesus as my Lord, or in the habit of meeting in a certain place at a certain time? Is my faith a matter of habit and laziness – of letting someone else tell me what to think and avoiding the difficult questions and self-disclosure which might prompt self-examination, confession, repentance and change?
Most of us recognise that many formal church structures are collapsing, and that perhaps it is time for far-reaching change if we are to support local believers in authentic witness and outreach to our communities. What will my response be to change that hurts? Will I reject it and cling to my own comfort, or will I allow Christ’s love to compel me along the difficult path, trusting his provision and enabling? If each member of the church in turn says, “Change is good, but let other people change, I am comfortable here”, then there will be no corporate submission to God’s leading into new things. We will have shown that even the abundant grace shown to us in Jesus, and all the lavish promises of God are not as valuable to us as our comfortable traditions.
Change starts within each one of us….
Do I worship Jesus as Lord of my life? Then I must at the least be willing to set aside anything which hinders his work – including cherished music, forms of worship, translations of scriptures – and also to make myself available to do things differently – perhaps to learn in new ways, to be more active in sharing with others. The pain or struggle of doing this will be real, but is his love not worth anything I can give? What does the old hymn say?
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.”
I hold my personal comfort in an open hand, I offer it to the Lord and say, take this and use it according to your pleasure. I will trust you to be with me, no matter where and when I meet with your people; no matter what we sing – or don’t sing; and to speak to me whether there is an ordained minister present or not! Lead me into whatever you have for me, and I will follow, all that matters is that Jesus is honoured and obeyed.