Ezra 1:1-11, 2:64-70; Nehemiah 1:1-2:8

November 28, 2021

  • Advent 1

I really wanted to begin with some joke about all the people who went home over Thanksgiving during the last several days and who found out the locks were changed.  Hopefully, that did not happen to any of you, but the joke just never materialized.  Sorry.  I’m going to get right into a day and age before locks and keys, but the people here were still locked out.

A couple of weeks ago, you might remember we were at the end of the story of Israel.  The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom were both destroyed, vanquished, and the people were hauled off into captivity.  The Northern Kingdom conquered by Assyria was never seen, again.  The Southern Kingdom was conquered by Babylon, and the best and the brightest were taken off to serve the Persians in captivity.  The is the Exile period of the Bible.

Psalm 137 expresses the tone of the hearts of those who were taken, those who lost Jerusalem, aka Zion:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.                                                                                                                                     On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

We have probably all had times of our lives when we had to be away from home for a period, maybe even doing something we did not necessarily want to do.  Being drafted into service is one obvious example that pops into mind.  We have a history of vets in our church family and some Korean War and maybe Vietnam vets in our church family still.  Even if someone believed in the fight and felt the duty to serve our nation at the risk of their own life, there must have been times of severe homesickness in which they would have given anything to be back home, safe and sound.  This idea also lives with those who have had to leave home to reside in skilled care facilities and nursing homes.

In a very small way comparatively, my first experience of summer camp burned homesickness into my young mind at the time.  I cried the whole week at Camp Buck and did not really do much of anything while at the camp.  It was the most miserable time of my life that still haunts me.  The interesting thing about that story is my experience was so bad that I decided to become a camp counselor myself when I was at college down the road.  It was something like overcoming the hurt with new life and healing.  Those later summers ended up being the best summers of my life.  I even met my wife there.

There is no getting around the fact that it is truly difficult to be taken from home and moved to a strange place.  That is jarring on so many levels and creates a distress that we cannot just shake but have to learn to live with it.  We might learn to appreciate a new home as the Jews had to in Babylon.  Maybe it becomes like home to us.  Still, though, it is tough.  Even when we know we really might need to be in that other place for care, deep in the heart, we still want to go home.

While the tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel never got that opportunity, the Southern Kingdom – largely the tribe of Judah with some Benjamin mixed in there, got the chance to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem.  When they were conquered, the capital was destroyed, of course.  The Temple and the city wall would have been two of the most important structures, and they were both torn down. Each of them would have represented Jerusalem’s strength, it’s presence.

One the one hand, we could say it’s a strange story.  The King of the Persians one day seems to wake up and take a notion to send the Jews back home to rebuild and even gives them the Temple objects that had been taken and extra wealth.  Ezra and Nehemiah are both books in the Bible about this very moment in history told from two perspectives.  They each describe this return and rebuilding in very different ways that connect.  Ezra is about rebuilding the Temple and Nehemiah about building the wall.  As I mentioned, the people needed both.  We are not going to go through the stories of either book, though they make for an interesting read.  Adversaries pop up to make trouble for the Jews and to derail the construction in different ways.  While the people are building the wall, the Jews have to build with literally one hand on construction and one hand on their weapons.  There is a lot of letter-passing in the books as people write back to the Persian kings to argue about stopping the Jews.  In the end, the Jews are allowed to rebuild, and they become the new Israel.  They become the nation into which Jesus is eventually born.  I repeat, these books open a new day in the people of Israel that sets the stage for the time of Jesus.  The buildings they build are not all that important.  King Herod ends up rebuilding the Temple, and the walls are significantly improved, but the point is driven home.  The people of God are allowed to come home and start over.

So what would YOU do with that opportunity?

First, you have to reconcile the fact that you are coming home to ruins.  The place is a wreck.  Not only was stuff destroyed but it has also been 70 years.  Other people may have moved in.  The history you were taught has a hard time connecting with the rubble and the trouble.  The best of your culture and its history is lying in a heap of rocks.  When they first begin building the temple, people are crying both for joy and for grief.  The Bible makes a point to say it was not possible to distinguish the different tears.

Anytime we enter change, there is always the loss and grief of what USED TO BE.  Even if the past was not all that great, we still have a hard time beginning a new chapter.  Those Hebrews wandering around in the wilderness in the Exodus wanted to return where?  Oh yes, to slavery in Egypt.  Every NEW day builds on the END of the last day.  That is where growth happens.

The people also knew that they really messed up last time they were there in Israel.  They followed all kinds of bad practices and bad leaders and did not listen to the prophets.  They lost nearly everything because they refused to follow God, so they resolved to do better and to be better once they returned.  That is a big theme of this story.  It was especially tough for people who had married into other peoples and had children.  Nehemiah made them divide up and send the foreign wives and children to their family homes.  That is tough and harsh, and I’m not sure that works very well in the larger story of God’s love, but they were trying to keep their religion as traditional as possible, and they meant keeping out the practices and beliefs of other religions.  Solomon completely lost the war on that front and the nation was split for it.  This was the time for them to recommit to what they thought was right because they needed hope to continue.  Their faith and their hope were integral in this time of building a new city.  They believed God was walking with them into this new day.  They were building to see what God was going to do with them and through them.

Advent is also always a time of looking forward to what God is about to do.  The word Advent means coming.  It is about the coming of Jesus both way back then AND this year and this time, too.  We are looking for his return to fix everything in the world.  We hold Advent with hope and faith and look to how to build on previous years.

If you think about it, God in Jesus made a home among us in the most profound and important way we might imagine.  Every year, we look forward to celebrating his homecoming.  Coming home is not easy.  It can be painful.  We may have to face loss like the Israelites so long ago, but they stuck to it and came home because home is where they needed to be to start, again.

Through this season, I hope you find yourself coming back to your roots, back to important places and people.  We will think about what Jesus’ making a home in our midst means to our lives, our families, and our community.  We will appreciate the gift of Advent leading us to our coming together in Christmas.

Thankfully, we do not have the same pressures on us that Ezra and Nehemiah describe, but we do have the same promise and potential and future to build on yesterday and to look forward to what God is about to do.  We all have a home in our Lord today and every day.  This is a home worth keeping. To God be the glory.  Amen.