Rev. Teri Peterson
Ezra 1.1-4, 3.1-4, 10-13
13 December 2015, NL 2-14, Advent 3 (Giving Voice to God’s Promise)
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
‘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. 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 the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; 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.’
When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighbouring peoples, and they offered burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day,
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, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
‘For he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 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, 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.
It’s been nearly 60 years since my grandparents left their hometown to begin a life adventure that would end up taking them across the country, 3000 miles away from their families. And yet a few weeks ago, my grandmother, who now lives alone on the farm they bought in western Oregon 35 years ago, told me that she didn’t have any holiday travel plans, and that was okay because, and I quote, “I haven’t been home for Christmas in such a long time anyway.”
Even after 60 years away, and 35 years living in one place, she still talks about “going home” as if home is somewhere else.
The Israelites in exile have been waiting for around 60 years too. A few are very old, having left Jerusalem when they were very young. Some have never seen home, but have grown up on the stories. Some aren’t really sure what’s going on, but their families are leaving the only home they’ve ever known to go someplace important. And then there are the people who never left. The ones who were too poor to be worth anything to Nebuchadnezzar when he was taking people into exile had lived under siege, had teamed up with their neighbor tribes, and had grown up with the ruined Temple, the formerly glorious house of God, in a heap at the center of their former capital city. After all these years of making do, now the others come back, with money and the Temple furnishings and a jubilant attitude.
The returnees, who are pretty well-off thanks to the generosity of King Cyrus and their Persian neighbors, gather supplies and get to work. First the altar—because they were in fear of their neighbors. Remember, these neighbors are the remnant, the poor Israelites who weren’t taken into exile because they weren’t important enough. Many of them had intermarried with other tribes in the area, and they had all been living relatively peacefully for decades. But they are poor and they are different, so they are scary. The returnees build the altar real quick so they can offer sacrifices and beg God to keep them safe from those people.
Once that is done, they get to work on the rest of the Temple. Solomon’s Temple had been enormous, and covered in gold, and completely destroyed all the way down, including the foundations. So the people begin pulling stones and dirt together and laying a new foundation. It’s in the same spot where the old Temple was, but it isn’t the same footprint because the king of Persia had given instructions as to the size he was willing to pay for.
When the foundation was ready, they all gathered together to celebrate—the people who had returned, and the people who had never left. They stood on this foundation with the altar in the center, and they celebrated with a brass band and cymbals and singing and shouting and cheering. I imagine the sound was similar to the one we will hear when the Cubs win the World Series next fall.
And at the same time, in the middle of the cheering, some are grieving. Home isn’t the way they remember it. Even in the midst of a great celebration, there is also great loss—they persevered through so much, watching the temple destroyed, being taken from their homes, raising families among strangers, and now returning and working so hard to rebuild with their own hands…only to be disappointed to discover that they couldn’t truly go home again, because both they and home are different now.
In the coming chapters, they will use their grief as the fuel for trying to return their nation to its former glory. They will work hard to make Israel as great as they remember—and the first step in that work will be to look at those people who were left behind in the land and force them to get rid of their wives and children who come from other tribes. In their sadness about change, and their desire to go back to what they know, they forget that the reason they are home at all is because God anointed a foreign king with the Spirit, and used that foreign king and their foreign neighbors to get them to this point. They forget that these neighbors are their fellow children of God, and that they have been commanded to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been sent—and the one to which they have been brought back. They gloss over the commandment to welcome the stranger. They’re focused so intently on their own desires, they’ve lost sight of God’s. All that matters is getting back the way it used to be.
Meanwhile, those who see the past differently, or who know it through their parents’ oft-told stories of God’s faithfulness, see possibility and joy: the foundation is laid and a new thing has begun. They have heard the words of God’s instruction in the Torah, they know God’s promise is true even if the packaging changes, they see the Temple rising in the center of the city, and they are ready to enter a new era in their relationship with God and as a community of God’s people. They wait with eager longing to see how God will make God’s presence known in their midst.
This Advent season is one of both celebration and grief, a season where sometimes it seems as if everything has changed. Even as we look toward the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christmas, we also see the fear around us, and the desire to go back to what we remember—whether that was really how it was or not. At the holidays, we just want one day when everything feels familiar. And at the same time, in the midst of the cheery jingle bells, there are also empty chairs at the dinner table and traditions that aren’t the same without everyone there and a 24 hour news cycle filled with pain. We await the kingdom of God coming to earth…and the cheering and the weeping mingle together so that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
The second temple would never be the same as the first. But it was still a place for gathering to meet God and learn from one another. It was still a reminder of who God is, and who God calls them to be. It was still a witness to the ways they got it wrong, and a place to start the process of making amends. The walls of this new temple soaked up shouts of joy and tears of grief, and encouraged people to persevere in trusting God’s promise. Because whatever else has changed, God is faithful, God is present, and God’s love endures forever.
As we come yet again to a beloved and holy time and place and story, I wonder what we are hoping God will do. Are we walking toward the manger with a Christmas card picture of how God should look and act, or a heart ready to receive all the dirty and glorious diversity of the people called to the stable? Because the incarnation of God cannot be an excuse to exclude or oppress our neighbors. Are we following the star, planning all the things we want to see under the tree, or preparing to give God something extravagant, knowing we may never see the return on that investment? Because the presence of God in our midst will always call out our best, most abundant and generous selves. Are we looking for the Christ child to follow him where he is going, or to try to lead him where we are going? Because God can and will use the past to build the future, but that future is not ours to map out. We are promised a future with hope—not a future with our every desire. Will the foundation we lay this Advent season be one on which God can build a house for all nations, a place of peace and justice and hope and love, a place where God is seen, in the flesh, maybe even in our flesh as the body of Christ?
May it be so. Amen.