November 17, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Background to Scripture:
In 597, the Babylonians conquered Judea and over a period of 15 years, deported the Jews into exile in Babylon. (There were three deportations of Jews to Babylon — 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE.) In 539 BCE, the Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to go home, though Judea would no longer be an independent nation but would be considered a province of Persia. This is called the period of the Restoration and the Biblical books referring to the period of the Restoration are the last chapter of II Chronicles, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, the prophets Joel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
As we saw from the book of Esther, some Jews continued to live in Babylon but those that did return to Judah found the land to be impoverished and the city of Jerusalem in ruins. The Persian policy was to maintain control throughout their empire through local governors and so Emperor Cyrus authorizes Zerubbabel to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem which would function not only as a place of worship for the Jews but as the administrative center for the Persian government where the High Priest would “rule” as the local arm of the Empire. The first few chapters of the book of Ezra record the administrative letters that went back and forth from Persia and Judea during this period as well as census data about the families of the returnees — pretty dry reading but perhaps appropriate to a Sunday when we are having our semi-annual meeting. God can be found not only in the stories and the people of the Bible but in the dry details of administrative minutes!
Anyway, in spite of their careful planning, Zerubbabel and his fellow returnees didn’t take into consideration the fact that not all of the Jews had gone into exile but some had remained behind in Judea. Back during the deportations, the Babylonians had only taken the officials and politically important people into exile, leaving behind the “hoi poloi,” who continued living their “unimportant” lives in Judea, raising families, and working the land. Many of these people were resentful that the exiled officials who had been absent for over a generation were now coming back and taking over as if they never left. When Zerubbabel begins his Temple rebuilding project, the old time residents of Judea write to the the Emperor in protest and he puts the Temple project on hold. More official letters go back and forth, but it’s not until a new Emperor comes into power that things get rolling again and the Temple reconstruction begins in earnest. Ezra, the book’s namesake, doesn’t even make his appearance until chapter 7 after the Temple is finished because he has to wait until Judea has a religious center again from which the priests can operate. At that time, Ezra comes to Judea with a second wave of returnees to work on rebuilding the community, and re-establishing Mosaic law in the land.
Today’s scripture is from Ezra 3:10-13 and describes the mixed emotions of the people when the foundation for the new Temple is laid.
Ezra 3:10-13 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.
It was to be a great day. For forty years, the people had anticipated this day, held it tenderly in their minds like an beloved infant upon which they would bestow all of their dreams for the future, for it was the day when they would finally be going home.
Some of the Jews didn’t even know what home looked like. Born in the great city of Babylon, with its towers scraping the sky, its fine shops, and its magnificent Hanging Gardens, many of the Jews knew of Jerusalem only through the stories their grandparents had told around the evening fire, but in those stories Jerusalem radiated a holy splendor. King David traipsed through their imaginations downing giants and driving off enemies with the sheer force of his personality; Solomon reigned over a mighty empire whose reputation, the elders whispered in awe, had reached even the ears of the Queen of Sheba, and in every story, in every memory shared, there at the center glowing like a jewel, perched the Temple on the mount of Zion. Though most of the Jews exiled to Babylon had died years ago, though the young men and women sitting at those evening fires had never seen that Promised Land, home could not be anywhere for them but Israel. And now, after decades in exile, they were finally going home.
It’s easy for us to imagine the excitement of the Jews when the Persian emperor Cyrus declared that they were free to return to Jerusalem because we ourselves have lived through historical events as liberating as that one: the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s that led to the demise of Jim Crow laws, the end of apartheid in South Africa when the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandala finally won freedom with his country, the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. How many families kept apart by that wall in Germany said to themselves as the Jews in Babylon had said, “Finally, we will be reunited with loved ones so long gone from us. Finally, we will know peace in our own home.”
And so, in great anticipation of dreams too long deferred, the Jews began their trek home, every step drawing them nearer to the legendary land where shepherds could become Kings, where the rivers flowed with milk, and honey dripped from every branch. Imagine, then, the devastation of their hearts when they at long last gazed upon Jerusalem and saw not glory but desolation.
One year, after a tsunami tore through eastern Asia, many western countries sent naval ships carrying medical personnel and supplies to aid the victims. One British Naval doctor was given orders to bring medical care to an isolated part of Sri Lanka which, due to its inaccessibility, had yet to receive any help in the storm’s aftermath. Upon arrival, the doctor, her staff, and several reporters headed for the local hospital, expecting to find large numbers of patients waiting for medical help, but to their shock, they discovered instead, a hospital in ruin. Rubble surrounded the entry way and equipment lay broken in the battered rooms. The hospital staff had abandoned the grounds unable to provide any help to the people, so instead of lines of desperate patients clamoring for her assistance, the doctor found no one at all. The doctor gazed sadly upon the devastation around her and said to the reporters, “We have brought completely the wrong things with us – just medical supplies [but] what these people [really] need is a bulldozer…”
The Jews returned to Judea carrying treasures and supplies for the Temple, anticipating the fulfillment of a dream long deferred, but as they looked upon the devastation of the city of Jerusalem, and the broken columns and rubble of the Temple’s fallen walls, they realized that what they should have brought was the ancient equivalent of a bulldozer.
As Christians, we speak often of the creative love of God which is able to enter our lives and restore our broken places, and make of this old worn out self a new creation. God’s love, we say, is a renewing love, a resurrecting love, a restoring love which repairs our wounded hearts and makes us whole again, and when we think about how that happens, we always envision it as a tender remaking of our lives.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” we say breathing in the peaceful assurances of those words. “God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me besides still waters. God restores my soul.” In marvelous and gentle ways, we proclaim, God will take this old person that is me, battered by the world and by my own sinful mistakes, and turn me into something shiny and new. The possibility of resurrection is at the center of our faith, and gives us hope that we don’t have to be defined by the past or by that which has kept us in exile for so long but that instead, through the grace of God, we can be freed to a new life of peace and joy. This is without question the promise of our God who saves, who saved the people from the oppressive powers of the world when Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and who saved us from the power of death itself in that moment when Jesus stepped out of the tomb. We are not wrong in believing in God’s promise of new life, but perhaps we have to admit that we might be wrong if we assume that God’s salvation of us and recreation of us will always be gentle. The Jews returning from the Exile had prepared themselves to meet the God of comforting wonder who would restore the dreams of their people, yet as they looked at the Temple mount suffocating under the weight of broken stone, they must have thought, “We don’t need God’s rod and staff; we need God to give us a bulldozer.”
Though we pray for the tender hand of God to guide us to new life, sometimes a gentle prodding is not going to get the job done. Our past may be choked with the debris of broken promises, hurts we have caused, mistakes we have made, and wounds that we have nursed in resentment and refused to allow to heal. The paths we have chosen may have led us into inescapable spirals and dead ends. Our battered hearts may be hardened that a gentle compassion like a quiet spring rain can’t penetrate the rock that our hearts have become. God promises that new life can grow in us but there are times when we have made such a mess of things that God may have to take more forceful steps with us.
“Yes, new life can come to you as I promised,” God will say in response to our prayers, “but first you’ll need some heavy equipment, so here I am,” and we look up to see God coming at us seated on a mammoth bulldozer.
This past week I was cleaning out my basement trying to get rid of some of the debris of three kids — outgrown skis, old game boxes, school notebooks, and six bins of clothes that Stacy will never wear again — when I came across a thirty year old video called, “Road Construction Ahead.” I don’t even have a VCR anymore but I was very reluctant to throw out that video because it brought back such memories. Someone in the church had gotten it for my oldest son John when he was three years old — Loretta Smith, maybe? — and it was his favorite video, one he would watch over and over and over again. Unlike John’s Disney movies that were works of animation art or his PBS videos that had redeeming educational lessons, “Road Construction Ahead” was thirty minutes of front loaders, bulldozers, dump trucks, and back hoes tearing up the ground. There was no plot, no artistic vision, no fancy cinematography, no underlying moral lesson, not even any narrative: just thirty minutes of trucks moving earth. John loved it and I suspect that even at the age of 32, he would still stop and watch if it appeared on the screen before him. From an early age, John was fascinated by road construction not just because of the big vehicles but because he loved to tear things apart to see what was inside or dig in the earth to see how big a hole he could make. I have a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon on my refrigerator in which six year old Calvin swings a hammer and shouts, “I have a hammer! I can put things together! I can knock things apart! I can alter my environment at will and make an incredible din all the while. Ah, it’s great to be male.”
I’m sure that there are young girls who have just as destructive of a streak as Calvin, or as my son John did when he was young, and though it can be difficult to cope with that as a parent, it also has its advantages. When my father died and left behind a sailboat so suffering from dry rot that it was neither seaworthy nor sellable, John and his cousin Michael Anna jumped at the chance to use crowbars and hammers to reduce the boat to pieces so we could cart it to the dump. When I had a broken treadmill in my basement, the Bellow boys quickly volunteered to reduce it to scrap metal and if the laughter coming from my basement that day was any indication, they completely enjoyed the work of destruction. And I completely enjoyed getting the useless treadmill out of my cellar.
Before you can plant, you may have to dig up. Before you can build, you may have to tear down. Before you can restore the Temple, you may have to call in the road crew.
So too in our own lives, there will be times when we have gone so far astray that what we need is not the gentle love of a shepherd God who will comfort us and speak tenderly to our hearts; we need a God who thunders in on a bulldozer ready to clear out the rubble and trash that we have accumulated over the years of our lives and is now blocking our way to the peace we so desire. The preacher Anne Le Bas says, “‘Feel-good’ faith is not enough. We need real change, real hope, real liberation, real goodness to take root in us. And that doesn’t come until we acknowledge what is wrong.”
God declares to us that there are times where the clutter of unhealthy habits or the immobile structures of oppression need to be removed from the landscape before anything new can be built up and so God sends us a Savior who not only blesses little children but also challenges the pride of the religious authorities. God sends us a Savior who not only lifts the paralyzed man to his feet but also tosses tables around in a fury as he purges the Temple of the money changers. God sends us a Savior who not only feeds thousands of hungry people on a hillside but who also demands in no uncertain terms that the rich man divest himself of his wealth if he wants to have any claim on the Kingdom.
“The proud shall be scattered, the powerful brought down, the rich sent away empty,” the Bible warns. Our Savior is a man who will dare to plow through the injustices of our society with the force of a bulldozer if that is what we need to clear our way to wholeness and peace. And if we have things in our own lives that need to be uprooted before we can plant, God will send a road crew to do that. When we pray for peace — whether it be in our world, in our communities, or in our own troubled lives — God may not always answer our prayers by sending a gentle Savior. We have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that God will decide we need a whole road construction crew to prepare the way first.
That British doctor with the Royal Navy returned to Sri Lanka the next day with shovels and trash bags, and managed to clear a room in the rubble where they could attend to the most urgent medical needs of the people. It wasn’t a six lane highway, but it was a start.
Get out your shovels, your trash bags, your hard helmets, your picks, your front loaders, and even your bulldozers if necessary and start to toss out the old hurts that you have refused to let go of, plow through the habits that are suffocating your life, remove the barriers that have been standing in the way of reconciliation, abandon paths that have led you only to dead-ends and dare to build a new route. Clear the landscape of your lives in order to make a place where mercy and peace can dwell. Have the courage to pray for a bulldozer.