by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons, Designated Conference Minister
Preached February 14, 2016 at Congregational Church of the Valley, Scottsdale, AZ
“On the tenth of Tevet, 425 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar [King of Babylon] began the siege of Jerusalem.
“Thirty months later, in the month of Tammuz, after a long siege during which hunger and epidemics ravaged the city, the city walls were breached.
“On the seventh day of Av, the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Nebuzaradan, began the destruction of Jerusalem. The walls of the city were torn down, and the royal palace and other structures in the city were set on fire.
“On the ninth day of Av, toward evening, the Holy Temple was set on fire and destroyed. The fire burned for 24 hours.
[Jewish] “Sages taught: When the first Holy Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended the roof and declared: “Master of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. A hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire (Talmud, Ta’anit 29b).
Everything of gold and silver that still remained was carried off as loot by the Babylonian soldiers. All the beautiful works of art with which King Solomon had once decorated and ornamented the holy edifice … [t]he holy vessels of the Temple that could be found… The high priest Seraiah and many other high officials and priests were executed. … Many thousands of the people that had escaped the sword were taken prisoner and led into captivity in Babylon, where some of their best had already preceded them. Only the poorest of the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to stay on to plant the vineyards and work in the fields.
“Jeremiah, [who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem], also promised that the Jewish people would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.”
Today’s reading from Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13 is the beginning of that story.
2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild
God works in and through people not like me.
I notice first in today’s text that God speaks to people of different political and religious and ethnic and cultural heritages than the ones described in Scripture as Israel. God’s speaking isn’t limited to me, or people like me, or my religion, or my country, or my friends.
God has a long history of transforming people once enemies into friends. God has a long history of speaking through people and nations that appear on the list of ‘not God’s people,’ people we may have placed on the list of ‘not friends’ or even ‘enemies.’ God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, in circumstances apart from the expected!
Ezra 2:59ff tells the story of a group of people who wanted to go with the Jews to Jerusalem – people whose spirit God had stirred for the endeavor – but who could not prove that they were Jewish. These people, too, became part of the most important resource in accomplishing God’s tasks: people. Think of it, the all-powerful God who spoke into being the universe, the earth and everything in her, repeatedly chooses to work through people to accomplish the divine will rather than to speak it into being. And God was willing that any person who responded to the Spirit’s stirring should be included in the work of rebuilding the Temple.
What a powerful lesson for us in today’s world! In this time of hate and discrimination disguised as religious freedom, in this time of anti-Muslim vitriol, God’s speaking isn’t limited to us – to Christians, to evangelical Christians, to Americans.
In Ezra’s day, God proved that God is not limited to the religion or the followers of the religion revealed in the Judeo-Christian sacred texts. What would have happened if Ezra had taken the position that God could only speak through him, or people like him, or people of his cultural, religious, or national heritage? God’s activity in the world to bring us Jesus, divine activity that we celebrate this Advent season would have been halted in its tracks!
Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.
8 In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, …10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,
In the second year, not the first, not immediately. Later. After a time for adjustment. Lesson #2: Essentials need tending to immediately. Everything else can wait awhile. Sacrifices burned on the altar from the very beginning; in fact, sacrifices by ones who remained in Jerusalem probably never stopped. But the extras, like maintaining the building that was the Temple itself, could wait. 70 years it waited. And 2 more years it waited. Finally, after folks had established themselves in the new land, the new culture, the new religion, in their homes with their families, then they began work on the structure that was the Temple.
The first thing the returned exiles [did was] rebuild their own lives. They [did] not go straight to the task at hand. This is significant because it implies that God is interested in re-establishing people’s homes before God’s own temple. The priority is not to focus on the bricks and mortar of our faith, but in the re-establishing of right relationships with each other. [Families and the] community come first.
There is always a debate in doing mission work as to whether to fix people’s relationships with each other, with the land, with health or with justice before doing any work reconnecting people with God and faith. This story of Ezra seems to suggest that grounding ourselves in good relationships with each other comes before whatever the task at hand might be.
The future isn’t supposed to be like the past.
The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be. Most of the people who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians had long died. Their children had children. And those children had children. While some of the exiles returning had seen Jerusalem in its last days, the majority of the people returning with Ezra were one or two-generations-removed from the Jerusalem and the Temple they were hoping to rebuild. Most of them had never lived in Jerusalem or sacrificed at the Temple or even seen the house of God they were commissioned to rebuild! It had been 70 years!! In terms of the Exodus story, that’s twice as long as it took the generation whom Moses led out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.
In that 70 years, without access to the Temple or the Altar, the Israelites had become the Jews. New traditions that weren’t in their Bible had developed. New theology and interpretations of Scripture had arisen. Judaism had been conceived. Of course the future was going to be different.
But that didn’t stop some people from grieving a past they couldn’t recreate instead of celebrating the future that they had the chance to birth.
10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites…with cymbals, …11 and they sang responsively, “For [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, 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 so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Ones who were grieving their inability to return to the past forgot that rebuilding is never about returning things to exactly the way they were. Rebuilding is about being sure the best of how it was shapes how it will be. And in our text the author says the ability to make that distinction is what separates ‘old people’ from ones who remain ‘young at heart’ forever.
The Jews in Ezra’s day were called to determine what it meant to live into a new future that God was actively creating in their midst. But what that future would look like was only beginning to emerge when the exiles returned, and with mixed results. The former glory of God’s presence and of the temple was lacking in this new iteration of the temple according to some. The new temple, moreover, was to be under the patronage of a foreign ruler (Cyrus), not an autochthonous ruler like Solomon or David. And finally, whereas Solomon’s temple was built while his kingdom was militarily strong (2 Chronicles 1:14-17), the new altar was established while this small band of Jews was still under threat (Ezra 3:3). The future, indeed, would not be the past. What gives continuity to the past, present, and future, however, is the faithfulness of God.
To be vital, to be faithful to the person and work of God, Ezra and the exiles had to see themselves and the events in their lives as God at work in their midst for their day.
Rebuilding is resource-intensive.
Rebuilding is a resource-demanding endeavor. Vv. 2-3 list people as the most important of those resources; v. 4 reminds us that rebuilding takes money and goods. Cyrus’s decree is honest about the investment rebuilding requires:
4 and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
5 …everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. 7 King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar …All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
Churches evolve over time. People who are a church mature and die, and join as new members and move away. Children grow up. Pastors leave and pastors arrive. With those events, the ways in which a congregation relates to one another and relates to God evolve too. And every so often a decree comes forth, a door open for a church, in a big way, to be reconsidered, revalued, repurposed, reorganized, revitalized, re-resourced, rebuilt, and yes, sometimes even reposed. Every so often God stirs spirits for a new work. People are called to make choices about how they will, or if they will, participate in the make-over. Choices need to be made with intention and with prayerful discernment about what parts of the past and its traditions are so important they will be carried into the new future, and what parts of the past are ready to be laid to rest in order to realize that new future. The question, then, is if and how you will be a resource for what God is actively doing among you.
God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, and in circumstances apart from the expected!
Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.
The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be.
Rebuilding is a resource-demanding; it takes everything all of us bring to the table.
How are these lessons from Ezra playing out in your life? In the life of your church? How can these lessons empower us to do new ministry that leads people to life-transforming experiences? Will you be a contributor or a complication to the rebuilding effort? Amen.
 Spill the Beans. Issue 17, p. 23