T HE BOOK OF EZRA recounts the restoration of God’s people after a long exile. I thought of this story when preparing for our return to worship in the sanctuary. Obviously, our story and theirs is not the same. But similar in some respects.
In 587 B.C., the Babylonians completely destroyed Jerusalem after a 30-month siege. They destroyed the temple, and took the upper crust of the population to exile hundreds of miles away. This is the low point in all of the Old Testament. It was as if God had turned his back on his people.
But then a new king takes power in Babylon. This king, Cyrus, allows the Jews to go home. After seventy years of Babylonian captivity, more than 40,000 people of all ages walk four months to stand in the rubble of Jerusalem. They are overwhelmed at the devastation even 70 years later.
For three months, they do nothing but get their bearings. But after three months, they come together and stand outside in the rubble of the temple and they worship.
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A FEW MONTHS LATER, they gather around an outdoor altar to sacrifice burnt offerings. They continue to gather and offer sacrifices. They bring their offerings. Worship resumes but without a building. This beginning is nothing elaborate. The very basics; nonetheless, it is worship.
You see, the central practice of the church is the activity of worship — glorifying and enjoying God. Whether outdoors or in a sanctuary or from home, it is this practice that most clearly sets the church apart. But there’s something about gathering — even around a makeshift altar, or the front yard of the chapel, that most clearly displays our calling and constitutes the church as a community.
For these folks in Ezra, it’s a slow process. They gather after a time away, a very long time away. First the altar is built, then the foundation for the temple is laid. They gather on the property.
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THERE ARE TRUMPETS and cymbals. We might say shakers and homemade rhythm instruments. They worship as they can with what they have. They gather as the people of God. We gather as the church.
People shout with joy when the foundation is laid. With praise and thanksgiving they sing from the psalms, “God is good. God’s love toward Israel endures forever.” Everybody is excited that communal worship is happening.
Beyond that, the people have mixed reactions. Some are sad. Some shout in despair. Some cry out in disappointment. Some who remember what Solomon’s temple looked like 70 years ago. They remember what worship looked like before and they are disappointed in what it looks like now.
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IT’S BEEN A SLOW GO for us. Exile in March. Some gatherings outdoors. Rainouts. Heat. Frustration that things are not moving faster.
I suspect there are disappointments today as we “reopen” our sanctuary. You remember what worship was like back in the day — way back in March. Hugging. Handshakes. Singing. Choir. Doughnuts. No masks. No rules. More people present.
You rejoice that we’re back, but you’re sad that is seems a poor reflection of what was. It is less than what it was. Discouragement at how long before it is “normal.” Or if it will ever be normal again.
Who will no longer attend because they got out of the habit? Who will continue online worship because it’s safer — maybe because it’s easier? Who gave up months ago and have gone somewhere else?
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THERE WAS GREAT JOY on the day of celebration with the laying of the foundation, but also disappointment as the new temple was not measuring up to the old temple.
As I reflected during the season, I felt a slight (not complete) resemblance between our situation and that of God’s people when they were living in exile, away from the Promised Land and in the foreign land of Babylon.
There was a sense in which life as we know it had been so altered that I felt like I was living in a strange land. Not being able to gather in-person for church felt like their experience in which they could no longer go to the temple for worship.
We wondered how long this would last and were longing for life to return to some semblance of how it was before, just as the people of Israel did when they returned from exile.
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BECAUSE OF THAT FEELING, when things started to reopen a bit and the church community could gather again, my mind moved to the way the people of Israel returned from exile. I discovered an interesting similarity (again noting there are differences) in that their return was not immediate,but gradual.
You actually see three different phases of their return from exile in Ezra and Nehemiah. All the people didn’t return from exile at the same time. It was over a period of many years that people made the four-month trip from Babylon to Jerusalem.
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AS I THOUGHT about their return, I couldn’t help but think that our return as a worshiping community will come in various waves as we navigate this pandemic — and some might never fully return but remain as part of the worshiping community online. This recognition helps as we have in-person services, not expecting all to come back at once and to understand that it will take time.
Recognizing how God used the Jews who remained in exile to further His kingdom makes me wonder what could happen in this world of online worship services.
In this time as we “re-enter” life, we need to remember that we may at times take steps backward as we go forward. But we need to look at our hearts in this time of disruption and make sure they are focused on God first — that He is the foundation of the rebuilding that we are doing.