Text: Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill 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 also 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. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:
“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
When I think back on Advent and Christmas as a child, I remember a sense of magic to it. I get this deep sense of sentimental nostalgia, where I wish I could relive this season now just as I remember experiencing it as a child. But no matter how I try, there is no going back. For me, that day has passed (though I now find joy in the season in different ways.)
I imagine that you, also, have experienced something like this. It might not be about Christmas, but perhaps it is about a time gone by. Maybe you look back to a time in your life when you were young, or your children were young. Maybe it was a time when everything in your life just felt so right. Maybe you look back to a time when the church was full, or when everyone knew their neighbors. Maybe you look longingly back at the time when you could let your children play outside without having to supervise them and you could leave your doors unlocked. We look back, and we long for those days, but no matter how we try, there is no going back.
In this passage from Ezra, we see some of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who experience this deep longing and grief for what once was. As we have been reminded in texts from previous weeks, the exile that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under Babylon was incredibly significant and disruptive to the life of the people of Israel. Though the exile was not particularly long, it challenged the people in major ways. The Temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed. Many people had been taken from the land. They had to figure out what it meant to worship God away from Jerusalem and without a Temple. It was HARD.
But now, the Persian king, Cyrus, had allowed the exiled people of Israel to return home. He allowed them to rebuild the Temple. For many, it was, in fact, a time of celebration. Rebuilding the Temple was a fulfillment of God’s promises. So why wasn’t everyone rejoicing?
For those who remembered the days of the first Temple, this new Temple paled in comparison. The first temple was built under the powerful and autonomous Kingdom of Israel. It was built with the great wealth of Solomon. It was the Temple of the “Golden Age.” This new Temple was built only under the auspices of the Persian king. It was built with much more meager resources. It could not compare to the Temple of days gone by. And so, the elders grieved. They had lived long enough to remember what once was, and they longed for it. They wept because they know no matter how hard they tried, there was no going back.
While we can relate to this passage as individuals, I think we can also relate to this passage as the Church. There is a general sense among those who have been Christian for a long time that we have long left behind the “Golden Age” of the church in America. Among many, perhaps yourself included, looking to the future does not bring about shouts of joy or a sense of excitement, but instead deep lament over what has been lost or left behind.
Moving into the future can be scary. It can be overwhelming. Change always brings some kind of loss. While the rebuilding of the Temple was certainly a time for celebration for many as God’s promises were being lived out in a new way, it was also a time of grief for others. This passage speaks to a new beginning and a new expression of the shared life of the people of Israel, but shouts of praise could not be distinguished from the sound of weeping. The sound and the deep emotions behind both are to be honored.
So know this today: if you are excited and thankful for new expressions of Church that are taking place in our midst, you are heard. But also know, if you are weeping and longing for what once was, you also are heard. And in it all, God is with you.
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o Where do you look back longingly in your own life?
o Where do you look with excitement or anticipation of the future?
Identify a change that has taken place in your life where you are now grieving the loss that has come through that change. Name it. Validate it.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about days gone by. Sit down and make a list of things that you are grateful for in the present, and things you are hopeful for in the future. Give thanks to God for them all.
Lord God, you are the giver of hope and new life. You constantly bring about the new and the good in me and in the world around me. I give you thanks for what you have done in the past, and I ask you now to help me look to the present and the future, and to find hope even in the midst of loss and change. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.