This past Thursday I had the opportunity to preach at our midweek service. I find midweek services to be really refreshing.
I’m not really doing anything fancy. There’s no special music. No vestments. It’s just me and a dozen (or fewer) people gathered together for Word and Sacrament.
The best part is that I, as the preacher, have the freedom to preach on anything I want… It doesn’t have to tie into the lectionary, or our current sermon series. I can choose any text or topic I want.
So, for this Thursday, I chose Ezra. I’d never preached from Ezra before, so I thought it would be good for me. I also assume that most people don’t regularly read the book of Ezra, so it would be a good refresher for all of us.
The text I used was Ezra 3:8-13.
For context, Ezra is all about the return to the Promised Land, after the exile. It has been a less than stellar 70 years for the people of Israel. But they get to go home. They get to rebuild. And when they return to the land, when they arrive at Jerusalem, they know they need to dedicate a space to the worship of YHWH. They need to erect an altar for sacrifices; they need to rebuild the Temple.
So, in the second year, they re-lay the foundation.
This is accompanied by all sorts of celebration: priests in vestments, trumpets blowing, cymbals clanging, and the people begin to sing responsively. They quote the Psalmist saying,
“For He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.“
And the people all shout together! They praise the LORD because the foundation of the Temple has been re-laid. Israel has been delivered from captivity! The exile is over. This is a triumphant day for God’s people!
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of the house being laid, 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 with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.“
These men had seen the first Temple. They remembered how things used to be. They probably remembered the horrors of watching the first Temple burn to the ground, along with the city of Jerusalem, and everything else they had lost in the last 70 years, including their loved ones. They’re coming to grips with the consequences of sin.
And their weeping is so loud that it is indistinguishable from the roar of the crowd celebrating the new Temple. It is one, great, unified shout.
Celebration and lament. Joy and sorrow.
Maybe this is a depressing way to start your week. But I think there’s something to be gleaned from Ezra 3.
Grief and sorrow are as inextricably a part of our human experience, as joy and celebration.
I think there’s something beautiful to the display of communal lament that takes place in Ezra 3. I hope you have a community where you feel comfortable sharing your grief.
Furthermore, I want to emphasize that it is ok to grieve what’s been lost, even as you celebrate what’s new (this is something that Summer and I are learning to do). These things shouldn’t separate us from one another, they should further unify us. The men who had seen the first Temple don’t separate themselves from the people. They don’t isolate. They don’t leave the celebration. They need to be there; it’s important for them and for the rest of the people that they are present. All of them will be a part of this new thing that God is building.
I guess I would finish by saying this: don’t miss the opportunity to be a part of and celebrate what God is doing now. Things will never be exactly like they were before. Never. We (as individuals and as the Church) don’t get to go backwards.
So, our calling is forward, even as we wrestle with what’s been lost. To be unified. To join God as He builds something new.