Welcome Back. It Looks a Bit Different...(June 28, 2020)
Ezra 3:10-13; Haggai 2:3-5
Welcome Back. It Looks a Bit Different…
This is one of my favorite Scriptures to read and preach on because it is often so relatable to where we are; and never more so, it feels like, than this week. This is the story of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the beginning of rebuilding of the temple, the temple that we see Jesus walk through. A little bit of the background; we looked at this last fall, in fact we looked at this exact Scripture last fall, as we were going to the story of the Old Testament. And actually the reason I wanted to go through the story of the Scriptures was so that you had these things in your mind when you might need them. This is a time where we need them. But, in case you forgot, the southern kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians. At that time Jerusalem itself was destroyed: the walls were torn down, importantly the Temple was torn down. This is the temple that Solomon had built it all of its glory and majesty, and the Babylonians take it all down and carry the loot of the Temple and a lot of the nobles of the area off into exile. They settled them in Babylon, and they put all the valuables of God’s temple in their temples to their gods. It’s a national tragedy.
And that’s how it stays for about 70 years, and then Persia conquers the Babylonians. And the Emperor of Persia says “OK, everyone can go back.” And so they’re finally allowed to go back, and a group of the people gathered in Babylon, and they gathered up all the valuables they can find from the Lord‘s Temple, and they put it all on a bunch of camels, and they begin to walk back to Jerusalem. This is the story of them returning, and it takes place in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah, and some of the prophets. And when they get back there’s a lot of energy behind getting back to normal, behind just getting back to the way things were in the good old days of yesteryear. And so they begin immediately to build the temple because that is what they’ve been focusing on, what they lost was their ability to worship their God the way they had worshiped and they want that back. The first thing they do, the thing with the most energy, is to rebuild the temple. Before they even built the city walls, which is the protection of that day and age, they went to build the temple. Worshiping their God was more important to them even though their own safety.
And so they lay the foundations. But once they lay the foundations something interesting begins to happen. There are some, not all and not even a majority of the delegation, but some who were old enough to remember Solomon's temple, who are old enough to remember with the way things used to be. And they look out on the foundations as they are laid and notice that these are smaller. This just isn’t going to be the same, it’s not gonna be what we used to be. The foundations are smaller, the walls are therefore closer together, also the walls are going to be shorter. They look around at all of the valuables they’ve collected and they recognize that this is not going to have the same splendor. There’s not going to be as much gold and silver. And they begin to cry. They’re overcome by emotions and these older individuals begin to cry. Meanwhile the younger people who don’t remember what used to be, who just see the foundations of the temple, start shouting for joy that worship can come back. Ezra tells us that the crying and the shouts of joy could not be distinguished from one another. The energy with which both were happening was as strong.
I think there may have been a fear among the people, a fear that if there was a lower quality of temple, then there might be a lower quality of worship. Maybe the fact that they couldn’t produce what the people could produce in Solomon's time, indicated that there was somehow a lower quality of worship of God amongst the people, and a fear perhaps that a lower quality of worship of God would equate to a lower quality of blessings from God. Maybe there was a bit of fear that God would think that they loved him less. This is a group of people who have suffered immense trauma. They had to have been pretty young when the exile happened. And their entire life has been defined by exile; their entire life has been defined by this national tragedy, that was considered to be an indication that perhaps God didn’t love them as much, or at least that God was at least disappointed with them. And I could see a fear of a final rejection from God.
And God clearly hears this, because God sent prophets to them with a message of hope, a message of acceptance, and a message to persevere. And the one that I like to read from this time is Haggai; which is the one we read from here. And God gives his message to address the fear of the people, and also to push them to get to work. Hear those words that I read this morning again: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
We are gathered in a building together for the first time in 2 1/2 months. Now the church never closed, and we have been worshiping our God, but it might’ve felt like an exile. When I made the decision to close the building, I can tell you that I did not expect it to be 2 1/2 months before we were back inside. I expected it to be 14 days. And there were people when the exile was happening who were prophesying that they would be back here before the next harvest. If it felt like an exile, there are a lot of parallels. And now we’re back, maybe you have that same energy that these people had as they returned it to Jerusalem to get back to worshiping our Lord.
And now you see the foundations. It’s not the same. Some of you walked in and there’s a sign that says you can’t sit in your pew. I tried to keep as many as I could open, but some of you have to sit in another pew. It’s not the same. When you walked in, the door was open for you. You received hand sanitizer instead of a bulletin. The greeting time is not happening. The music is different; we’re not singing, but rather listening and meditating. It’s different. And it might not even feel like church. I will tell you, the music is the most important part of church to me. I was evangelized by Charles Wesley, I was evangelized not by sermons but by hymns and anthems and choirs. It crushes me not to sing. That is still where I feel the most connected to God in worship. Yet it is the safe and loving thing to be doing right now. It may not feel like church to you. Maybe you’re feeling some of those same feelings of those standing around the foundations of the second temple; whether you are shouting for joy or crying. Or both; it’s possible to be shouting for joy with tears in your eyes.
The message for today is a lesson from church history, which we should always be open to learning from. Today, I remember that worship has always been changing. There have been some changes throughout the centuries. Did you know there are hymns in the Scriptures? Yes, there are hymns in the hymnal, but did you know there are hymns in the Scriptures? There is one in Exodus, called the song of Miriam. The Magnificat, we love that Scripture in Christmas, that is a hymn. There’s a hymn in Phillipians; the earliest Christian hymn that we know of. And of course there are 150 hymns that we call Psalms. You may notice there’s no music recorded with those. Yes, it probably was set to music when they were first written, but the hymn is not the music but the words. And when we read the Psalms, sometimes we put them to music but most times we don’t. They can stand on their own. And reading through the words, listening to the words and meditating on them is powerful worship as well.
Eventually we would start setting specific chants to go with them. And for hundreds of years we worshiped with chants. Some of your favorite memories of Church in your youth probably come out of this tradition. If you were in a church that started each worship service with “kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison,” that is a chant. In the back of our hymnals are things called Psalters. I don’t know if you ever were in a church that had a psalter every week, but what that is was that you would read the words of a psalm and then there would be a chant as a chorus. It comes out of this tradition. For hundreds of years that’s what we did. Then we had an organ and a harpsichord (now piano), and we start playing the the tunes from the pub songs, from the the drinking songs of the time, and we start playing those songs with new Christian words to the songs, so that when the new Christian would walk past the pub they would now hear the words of God in their head instead of hearing in the words of the drinking song. And now many of us, myself honestly included, can barely imagine worship without those drinking songs with the words of God attached to them. And if we could imagine that, we’re likely imagining praise bands that are kind of a current trend that we might be headed to in the future. The reality is that all those were worship, all those are valid. Worship in churches has changed throughout the centuries, and it will continue to change and look different.
The way the church building looks changes. We began in homes. Then after Christianity becomes the official religion of the empire, we have massive cathedrals with beautiful Stained Glass and gorgeous paintings. And now we have small buildings with less Stained Glass. There are churches where there’s no Stained Glass allowed. There are churches with us no music aloud. The church changes, buildings change, hymns change, worship changes; but God remains with us.
The one constant between everything I just described is that God was with them. That is the primary message that God had through the prophets to the people surrounding that foundation of the second temple, which was so much smaller than the first one with so much less gold around. The main message God had for them, here again, “I am with you...according to the promise that I made for you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you. Do not fear.” The last words of Jesus before he left and ascended back into heaven were, “and I am with you, even to the end of the age.”
Jesus states that wherever two or three are gathered to worship the Spirit is present. Not “whenever two or three are gathered with the singing.” Not “whenever two or three are gathered with a greeting time, the Spirit is present.” Not “whatever two or three are gathered in a church building, but definitely not on Facebook.” But wherever two or three are gathered, the Spirit is present.” That is the message to us: God is here, God still loves us. It may be different today. It may not be normal, and frankly I don’t know when normal is coming back. I know it will be back, but I don’t know when. But I can tell you that God is present this week, that God is present next week, that God will be present the week after that. And for that, we are thankful; none more so than me.
So praise God today, whether in joy or in tears, or in both. Praise God today. And then, when you leave this place, do the work of God. Do the work of love in your own personal world. Thus says the Lord, through the prophet Haggai, to his people; then and now. Amen.