Church families are returning to their buildings once again in the UK and Ireland, after a break of almost four months. For many this is a welcome signal that some semblance of normality is once again being recovered, for others it is a time of intensified anxiety over what feel like huge steps forward in terms of human contact. In this article, based on a sermon I preached on our first evening back together as church family in Millisle, I want to share some thoughts from Ezra 3 which could provide some co-ordinates about how to move forward with confidence, realism and faith in a post lockdown world.
Ezra and Nehemiah are both books about rebuilding. One is concerned with rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, the other with rebuilding the temple. Both sets of construction arose out of conflicts within and without, and both were undertaken in the wake of 70 years of bitter providence in Babylonian exile. For that period God’s people had not been in God’s place, and his praise had not sounded from Zion. Meeting and ministering together in accordance with the Law had been outside of their grasp.
These, then, are texts which touch on regathering, which capture the trials and triumphs of seeking to re-ignite and re-establish the work of God. Their relevance is immediately apparent in our current context where churches find themselves at the pivotal point of reassembling. Ezra 3 depicts a crucial moment in the temple rebuilding project, an early victory which would presage the final completion of work given to Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and their colleagues. From their experience returning churches might helpfully lift some lessons, as well as echoing the sentiments of these ancient workers.
For the pilgrim builders going back from Babylon was not the easiest option. The command from Cyrus to return might have seemed like the best of dreams, but the reality of coming into the precincts of Jerusalem must also have carried a nightmarish feel. 70 years in exile is a long time, and being in Zion was a grandfather’s memory, distant thunder from a bygone age.
Returning to the city entailed tough decisions. It meant a temporary sense of homelessness, it represented disconnection from the majority of God’s people who had put down roots in their adopted nation, and it demanded a pioneering spirit which was willing to leave behind the settler’s comfort. Going back to rebuild meant moving into reclaimed territory, whose stones and dust were charged with the trauma of the inglorious moment in Judah’s history when she was overrun and overridden by God’s enemies.
Ezra 3:8 depicts this narrow band of builders giving themselves to see God’s house set on its feet again, to retrieve reality from the rubble that Nebuchadnezzar had strewn behind him. It is a touching truth that’ Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning with the rest of their kinsmen‘ (emphasis added). This would mean clearing the debris of neglect, it meant marshalling resources to rebuild, and spending their energies when they had little left. To encourage their hearts in such labours they would need to keep the structure that was to come clearly blueprinted in their minds.
These individuals showed diligence in labour and diligence in logistics. They were willing to undertake the work and oversee the workers, to spend time organising and strategising so that God might be glorified.
In all of this we see our exile palely reflected. Our time away from gathering is not that of two generations, nor has it been at the hands of a hard nosed enemy like Babylon, but our sense of loss has been real, our rankling against the experience of enforced disconnection has been palpable. For many returning to our buildings is not glorious or glamorous, but low key, beneath the radar, attended by problems, restrictions, and intrusions. Our calling now, however, is to diligence, to bear the sweat, and the hardship of putting down the foundations again, raising up a work again, praising God’s name together all the while.
One of the beauties of Ezra 3 is that it does not merely present us with a project, but with progress. The foundation of the temple is established, bricks begin to rise where once rubble had been strewn, there are hints of a new work to be done. The celebrations that vv11-12 depict are not on the grounds of the work’s greatness, but because God is gracious and has brought them to this point.
The pilgrim builders sing antiphonally that God is good, that his covenant love still stands, and endures forever towards his people. Through all of the changes and challenges, through all of the gall of setbacks, God has been good, and they will praise him for his grace. They pull out all the stops, assembling trumpets and cymbals, and priestly vestments, vocally and visibly stating that the God who has brought them out, and brought them back, will bring them through.
With less fanfare, and most likely without singing, we can mirror their sentiments. Never before in my ministry have I so valued being able to enter a church building, and see the faces of God’s people. We have been made painfully aware that gathering is a grace from God, that to unite in our presence and in our praise is something which does not come from our hands, that is not something which we have as a bill of rights. When we come together we should express our delight, and pleasure in God, and our praise of his name that we are back again meeting as his people, with much more work ahead of us.
Mingled with the merry hearts of worshippers in Ezra 3, are the lamenting souls of the seniors. There are some present who ‘had seen the first house’ (v12). They had beheld the redolence and majesty of Solomon’s temple, they had been present when gold and silver were as common as city street dust, and when God’s presence had filled the Most Holy Place. They had imprinted on their minds in high definition the literal glory days, and what was happening now seemed paltry and minuscule by comparison.
These were not a band of grumpy old men, but people who were genuinely grieved that things were not the way they once were. Their voices lift in either harmony or cacophony with the voices of the singers, so that rejoicing and lament among God’s people becomes indistinguishable. One group are full of laughter and joy that the building has begun, the other are full of lament and jadedness that the building is so small. Both of these aspects find their proper place among God’s gathered people, both of these scores are part of the symphony of setting up a place for God to be glorified again, after a period of decline.
For all of this disappointment, however, there is hope – short term and long term. In the short term the song of God’s praise is heard by those far away (v13). The voices of praise and complaint combine to bear witness to the world that God’s people are together again, albeit with tears and tough miles ahead. In the short term even an imperfect gathering is a powerful testimony.
Long term, Haggai 2 sheds light on this moment for us. God sees and understands the problem of those who ‘saw the house in its former glory’ (Haggai 2:3), and who saw the new work as though it were nothing. God’s remedy is to promise his presence, to encourage them to work, to still their fears, and to stretch their focus to a wider horizon than their work seems to warrant. This building will be the theatre in which the great moment of history and redemption will be played out, in which God’s fearful deliverance will be realised, in which God will grant a peace to his people that they have not formerly known, and when the ‘latter glory will be greater than the former’ (Haggai 2:9). God’s Son himself will walk these precincts, his feet will fall on the ground above these founds, and that arrival will both secure and foreshadow the moment when he finally appears among his people, when heaven and earth are forged into a temple which will tower over all eternity.
Beyond their current crisis is cosmic consummation which will outweigh all of the woe they feel in their day of small beginnings. Our regathering to worship is not of the same significance as the laying of the temple foundation, but we are inching closer to the moment that Haggai highlights, and our scraping in the rubble of an inglorious return should be charged with a view of the final edifice of a new world where righteousness will forever dwell.