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. (Ezra 3:10-13, NIV)
The people had been away from home for a generation. What grabbed my attention this week is the reaction of the people when the foundation of the temple was laid … crying and shouting. Those who knew the old temple wept, and the younger ones shouted for joy. The text does not say why the older priests and family leaders wept, but we can imagine that the tears were both tears of joy and tears of grief. There is a bittersweetness to coming home when “home” is just not the same.
I found an old highschool/college journal of mine as we were cleaning out a closet this weekend. It was written in November of my freshman year of college. I had just turned 18 years old. I wrote, “I am so much different now than I was when I left for college only a few months ago. I’m grown up now.” Yeah, right, just like we all think … but there is some truth in the fact that I HAD changed, even if I wasnt yet “all grown up”, and we can never really go back home to the way things were.
In addition to hosting international students for five years, I volunteered with the organization, AFS, as a trainer and liaison to students. When we prepared the high school students to return to their home countries after being in the United States for a year, we talked about the unexpected culture-shock they’d experience when they got home. It was often more difficult to cope with than the culture shock they expected coming here. Two things contribute to that. First, the young people had adjusted to a new normal, their expectations were different, they’d been changed by their lives here. When they went “home” they would “see” their own family and culture through a new set of eyes. The familiar will seem strange. And, secondly, their own families and hometown have not stood still while they were gone … they, too, are different. Friends will have new romantic partners, new teachers might have come to the school. Because they’d have changed too, they’d respond to the student’s change and growth in new and different ways. You really can’t go home.
After years in exile, after the God of the Israelites moved the heart of Cyrus, the King of Persia … the King announces he will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Those who wish to return to work on the temple may do so, bringing gold and silver and other resources of the people with them. “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.” (Ezra 1:5, NIV)
We cannot know exactly how each person’s “heart was moved” by God, I can only assume the people and families who went back to rebuild Jerusalem went with a set of expectations … maybe a yearning for the way it was, maybe a love for the stories that their parents or grandparents told them of the way it was, maybe the hope for a place to belong, maybe the desire to do something new, maybe to leave a broken relationship … whatever it was, the fulfillment of those expectations were symbolized in this groundbreaking ceremony … the emotions were high … and loud. Shouts of joy look to the future and what will be; tears of grief look back to what was lost.
We’re experiencing that same juxtaposition in the Church today. In fact, this time in the life of the church is being described by some as the Church in exile i.e. living in a strange land, surrounded by a culture which may or may not embrace our faith, our values, our heritage … a culture which no longer shares our memories. There are some of us who yearn for the way things were. We miss the traditional hymns, the large choir, the inspirational preacher, the huge Sunday School. Our hearts are moved to restore the way it was so that we can be at peace knowing that our grandchildren will be able to experience Church just like we did. But our grandchildren are not like us. They don’t read books, they use iPad apps. They don’t write thank you notes, they tweet. They don’t listen to pipe organs, they download lady gaga. When the Church is left in the hands of our children and grandchildren … when they lay the bricks of the foundation of the temple … they don’t see the grandeur and glory of what was, they will only imagine what might be. When they build the new temple, it WILL be different. The memories are gone, the potlucks may be replaced by community gardens, the choir will be transformed into a praise band or a drama team. The people may gather in jeans and Uggs instead of their suits, dresses and patent leathers. The weddings may be between two people of any of the 50 gender identity options on Facebook. The new temple’s foundation may not be all that we had hoped it would be. As the bricks are laid, we realize it may last longer than the temple we loved, but it may not be as brilliant or golden. There is both joy and loss in that realization. There is no place like home, because home was fifty years ago. Home is different now. God is restoring … not by turning back time, not by putting things back the way they were … but by re-creating, by doing something new. Just as God always does.
After seventy years in exile in Babylon, this week finds some of the elders of Judah and Benjamin returning to Jerusalem to begin the process of rebuilding. Of course, it doesn’t go smoothly, but, for once, the problem is not primarily the result of God’s people Cyrus sends the people to rebuild the temple, but those currently living in Jerusalem aren’t happy with the changes in the status quo. It seems that, at least for now, the Jews have learned their lesson, and are looking to place God first in their lives.
In particular, I see this in Zechariah’s prophecy: (Zechariah 8:19-20)
The word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be season of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace.”
I haven’t spent a lot of time with the discipline of fasting, other than doing a fast-a-thon in high school.. I do know that I don’t tend to be thinking about things like “joy” or “gladness” when I’m hungry. But that’s exactly what Zechariah is telling Judah will be the case. What that tells me is that, in God’s kingdom, times of dedication to God will be of such joy that the discomfort of the hunger will be overwhelmed to the point of insignificance.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I certainly wish I had that sort of relationship with God. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, that prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. It certainly wasn’t by the time of Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus would not have had to say (Matthew 6:16)
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
Has anyone else ever experienced that sort of all-consuming joy in the midst of what would normally be considered and unpleasant activity, as a part of a spiritual discipline? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.
This week we’ll be reading the story of the return from exile. That’s Chapter 19: The Return Home. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Ezra 1-6, Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1; 8. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory