“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 neighboring 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 forever toward 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. --Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13 (NRSV)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As most of you know, I spent Thanksgiving week with my son and daughter-in-law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although I was with my family and we had a wonderful time together, I still wasn’t completely home. Home for me, even after all these years of being away - home for me is Timber Lake, South Dakota.
How many of you are going home this Christmas? What are some of the things that you look forward to when you go home?
Today’s story is a story of going home. Since September, we’ve been following the stories of the people of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. At times, these stories have been difficult. We heard of separation and division. Of battle and loss. Of good kings and evil leaders. And, then, last week, we heard of the story of the exile of God’s people. Carried away from home by their Babylonian captors. Scattered across the empire. All of God’s people taken away from home. From the place they love, the place promised to their enslaved ancestors, the place given to Israel after the exodus. The people of God exiled.
But, today’s story is one of going home. We heard this possibility promised last week in Isaiah - that God would raise up a Messiah to return Israel to their land out of exile. We know that, from the theological perspective of Israel, this Messiah was Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia. We heard, in our opening verses, the official proclamation of Cyrus, issued throughout the empire to all of the diasporan Jews: Go home! Go back to the land of Judah, your home. To Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God.
But this wasn’t all that Cyrus commanded. He also commanded those living among the dispersed Jews to send them off with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with other gifts for God’s house in Jerusalem. Everything they would need to return home, to restore their lives, and to begin to rebuild the temple. Our reading tells us that the whole assembly together totaled 42,360, not including the 7,337 male and female servants, the 200 male and female singers, the 736 horses, the 245 mules, the 435 camels, and the 6,720 donkeys - a total of 57,373 men, women, and beasts. What a procession this must have been as Israel went home!
It was in the seventh month after their return, that all of them gathered in Jerusalem at the temple - or what was left of the temple - this place had been the center of their religious life, where they had experienced the presence of God. They gathered around the ruins of the temple as one. Then, they rebuilt the altar on the very spot where the original had been built. And then, as one people, they worshiped God. Home. Together. Giving thanks to God for their return.
The next step for them was to rebuild the temple. They hired masons and carpenters. They bartered with neighboring people to bring cedar wood by sea. All of this had been authorized by Cyrus - this promised Hebrew Messiah. In two years time, they were ready to build. Once again, all of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to mark this new beginning. When the builders laid the foundation stone of God’s new temple, our story tells us that the priests, clothed in their vestments and carrying trumpets, and the Levites with their cymbals - all of them rose up to praise the Lord, using the very words or words similar to the psalm we spoke earlier. “God is good. God’s graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. But, I know that when I went home for the first time after having moved and lived away for a few years in a very different place, things were not the same. Even though they may have looked the same and the people were the same, for me, things felt different. Perhaps it was because I had changed. Perhaps it was because I had experienced so much in those few short years. Isn’t that often what it’s like? That as time passes and our life happens, we change. Maybe what we remember from the past isn’t quite what it was. Maybe we’ve learned to think in a different way as a result of new experiences. Maybe we’ve gained a new understanding about life. Maybe we’ve lost things or loved ones. Or shed old ideas. For whatever reason, when we’ve returned home, thinking we would get it back, that things would be the same, it’s not. So much so that coming home doesn’t feel like coming home.
This is what was happening to many of the Israelites in our story, particularly, those who were older. Who had experienced loss and sadness. Who had felt the pain of exile. Who had known the grandeur of the previous temple and could easily see that this new temple was not like the old. That it was much less. That is wasn’t the same, but that it was very different.
And so, as the others shout with joy and thanksgiving, they weep with sadness and other bittersweet emotion. The sounds of joy and sadness intermingled. So much so that they could not be distinguished from each other. Heard at a great distance. With shouts and weeping mixed all together.
For many of us, Advent can be a very similar time of mixed emotion. As we anticipate Christmas, it’s hard not to feel somewhat bittersweet. To feel as though joy and sorrow are wrapped together. Intermingled. Almost hard to separate. Because life now is not what it was. What or whom we’ve lost will not return. What we remember in our pasts are no longer how things are.
Nevertheless, like Israel, we are invited into this place - into worship with all of our emotion, with our joy and laughter and with our sadness and tears. That we might experience the presence of God. That we might remember God’s faithfulness. And that we might trust that God is working to make all things new.
Because this was God’s promise for Israel. This is God’s promise for us. Amen.
Preached Sunday, December 15, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13; Luke 2:25-32; Psalm 102:12-22.