God's mercy endures forever

When the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding their beloved temple, we would expect there to be shouts of joy.  What we do not expect there to be cries of grief.  Yet both are precious to God.

Full Text: 

God’s mercy endures forever

December 13, 2015 – Ezra 3:1-4, 10-13

 

            I have here a copy of the bulletin from Sunday, March 31, 1974.  As you can see, it’s a special bulletin with a special cover.  It is for the dedication of Hope’s new sanctuary.

            This dedication took place just more than a year – March 3, 1973 – after a fire destroyed the old sanctuary.  The congregation had reached the point where it needed to refurbish or rebuild.  A fire took care of that decision.  While that made it clear what needed to be done next, I’m sure there was much grief over the loss of the old church.

            I don’t know if March 31, 1974, was the first worship service in the new space.  Nevertheless, it must have been a grand celebration.  At least four clergy, plus Dr. A. P. Nassen, bishop of the Southern Wisconsin District, ALC, led both a morning and an afternoon service.  There was no communion that day, but at the first service, there were no less than seven readings from the Bible, speaking parts for many lay members of Hope, as well as hymns, anthems and festival music from the organ.

            Perhaps some of you were there that day.  Perhaps you remember well the feeling of being able to worship again in a place you could call your own.  Perhaps you had grown closer as a people through the tragedy of losing the building.  Perhaps you were simply glad that a dark period in Hope’s history was over.

            But I also wonder for some of you that, along with the feeling of joy of that day, there was just a hint of sadness, a remembrance of what you had lost and would never recover.  The old church had been a place where you could find God – where you had participated in baptisms and confirmations and weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easters, and, of course, countless Sundays.  It was as place where you could sing and pray and read and hear and feel confident that God was paying attention.

            As beautiful as the worship was for the dedication of the new space, though, as welcoming as this space was, it would never replace what was lost.

 

            If you felt that way, you were not the first to feel joy mixed with tears in worship.  After Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon, he decreed that those who had been held in exile were free to go back go back to their homes, to return to their ancestral lands.  For the exiles from Jerusalem this also included rebuilding their temple, the one that had been burned down by the Babylonians fifty years earlier.

            The celebration that Ezra describes is not at the completion of the building – the returning exiles had neither the resources nor the finances to finish such a project quickly.  Nevertheless, the foundation of the temple was completed.  They now had a space where they could meet God – not where God lived – but where they were sure that they had access to God.

            As Solomon prayed at the dedication of the first temple:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.  (I Kings 8:27-30)

Since that day, this place, this temple, had been the center of Israel’s faith and life.  This place is what connected Israel to God.  This place assured Israel of God’s continued attention and care.  It was the center of their whole world, the axis mundi.

Some of those gathered for that festival of Sukkoth, the dedication of the foundation on which the temple would be rebuilt, would have known the first temple, would have seen its glory, would have felt its power.

Yes, it was a glorious day! But for many, it was also a sad day.  So sad that you could not tell the weeping from the shouting.

 

On March 31, 1974, Dr. Nassen preached on Ezra 3:10-11, but he did not include in his reading v. 12-13.  Perhaps that’s because there was no weeping along with the shouting or that he did not expect any.

Nor do we expect crying in worship.  It happens now and again for a variety of reasons.  But I’m guessing that this Christmas – as with every Christmas – there will be feelings of sadness, of grief, if not outright weeping.  For this Christmas and every Christmas carries with it reminders of Christmases past when certain loved ones were still alive to share them and experience them together.  They may be husbands or wives.  They may be brothers or sisters.  They may be parents or children.

Perhaps for you, a celebration is not for you, does not reflect how you are feeling.  Perhaps the memories of Christmas with that loved one are still fresh, still close.  Perhaps you will come to worship on Christmas Eve or perhaps you will choose to stay home.

I understand that.

My hope for you is not that you will put aside your grief or your loneliness for that person.  My hope is not that you will put on a happy face for your friends and family.  My hope is not even that you will feel free to cry during worship – even the joyous Christmas Eve services.

My hope is that someday you will know that this Jesus – whose birth we celebrate and who himself wept at the grave of his friend – is with you in your grief and your tears.  My hope for you is that someday you might know the worship of God that includes both shouts of joy and cries of tears, that God embraces both joy and sadness, that both are holy to God, that both provide access to God. 

My hope is that someday you will know that all of who you are and all that you have lived are taken up into the steadfast love of God come down to you in Jesus.