In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God.
They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day.
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.Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13
I have a couple important opening questions for us today. How many of you are not from Baltimore? How many of you then go ‘back home’- wherever that might be, for Christmas? I ask this because today’s story is about going back, returning home, wherever that may be, and the many and varied dynamics that come with that journey. It is an account once told and repeated millions of times over and over again; through millennia of human experiences and even in our own lives in ways we don’t often recognize. This story in the Bible is not just about history, but also about us, and how we live our lives with others. It is a good chapter for us in our Advent journey.
The book of Ezra may be hard to locate in the Bible, but it is an essential part of the canon of scripture. For along with its partner book, Nehemiah, without it the Israel of the Bible as we know it would not have existed.
Ezra shares a deeply emotional and theological tale detailing the return of the people of Judah from their exile.
Ezra was a scribe and a priest. He lived from approximately 480-430 BC, in Babylon, as part of the group of Jews living in exile there. His task was to faithfully record both what took place in history and to share what it meant in light of his faithfulness to the prophets and the God of his ancestors. The Kingdom of Persia, under ‘good king Cyrus’ had just conquered Babylon, who seventy years before had overtaken Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and deported most of its residents. Now, the time of exile in Babylonian was over. King Cyrus generously allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
This is a key moment in Jewish history. Their return is filled with deeply mixed emotions. Ezra records this fascinating and redemptive account with a voice that is both compelling and exacting. He mixes passionate emotion and the precise detail of a CPA, detailing the 42,360 men, women and children of varied tribes and social statuses who made up this wave of returning refugees. The returnees themselves comprise a mixed collection of hopes and joys, surprises and disappointments.
A quick census of resettled Jerusalem would reveal three primary groups of residents. There are some Jews who were left behind in Jerusalem seventy years ago who have no connection with those who have returned. There are Jews who return and claim full rights in a land they have never lived in. There are non-Jews who remained in Jerusalem and who now have to defend their claim on their properties. It is a tumultuous time, for sure; full of mixed emotions, relief, despair, hope, anticipation, and so much more.
The center of much of this drama is the Temple, now in ruins, but soon to be restored upon its original foundation. The first temple, built under Solomon, was built with conscripted Israelite labor. That conscription (really, slavery), led to deep divisions among the people. The second temple now will be built with permission and supplies through a decree from King Cyrus. Cyrus instructed that those returning from exile to be aided by people with the means to help them.
Once the temple is in a condition to worship, Jews will gather to celebrate and bring their offerings to the Lord. They celebrate the festival of booths, which is both a harvest celebration and a remembrance that hundreds of years before, during the time of the Exodus, the people were entirely dependent upon God. The celebration itself is received in different ways. During the celebration, many of the young people shout with joy, for they have never known the temple except in a state of destruction. To them, building a new temple signifies a bright future for Israel.
Some of the elders though, remembered what the temple used to look like. They grieve for what once was when they saw the difference in the new temple from how they remembered the previous one. They grieve the irretrievable loss of time and all the memories with it.
The Book of Ezra is centered not so much as a testimony to the rebuilding of the Temple- one of the landmark events in Jewish history (and the central focus of the book of Nehemiah), but rather as a careful accounting of how the Jewish people respond to their relocation; trying as best they could to redeem themselves and not commit the same errors of previous generations, only to be deported once again. Ezra was obsessed with purity and impurity, both in the conduct of worship and within human relationships, often with life-changing implications for whole swaths of the population.
In some ways, the storyline is universal, both in looking back and looking forward. It is a helpful story in different ways. For the elders, looking back causes pain because of the regret over what once was and will never be again. For the young, looking back was a cause for celebration because they could dream of what their future might become. It can be good to look back—remembering our past mistakes can help us not to make the same mistakes again.
It can also be good to look forward — imagining our future can motivate us to do what we need today to make a better tomorrow happen. It can also be good to be fully present right now.
Finally, the book of Ezra shares two lessons pertinent to our day and time, both in Advent and our lives in general. It was the author Thomas Wolfe who memorably coined the phrase “You can’t go home again”, and I have a sense of what he meant (as did the Jews returning to Jerusalem.) Over the past month I needed to return back to my hometown three times for family events; two funerals & Thanksgiving, and each time I gathered with a different set of cousins. Some of them still live in my hometown, some once did and then moved away, and some never lived there but still have very vivid memories of the ‘good old days.’ It is of course the ones who moved away who then return with ‘rose colored’ memories of times long passed, never to be replicated or improved in any way, shape or form. What I noticed from those conversations is that when folks make a fuss over those times now passed, those ‘good old days’ which were immeasurably great, the prospect of times now or in the future being equally good, or even better are intentionally eliminated. In some ways it might be like ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’, looking back when life goes on ahead of you… for life, after all, is meant to move forward in the light of the wisdom of the past.
The second lesson is about those who need to travel, particularly those who are on the road by no choice of their own. In Ezra’s time they travelled hopefully, expectantly. And so also will many people over the upcoming weeks as we approach Christmas. But another huge number of folks will be traveling out of desperation, seeking a safe place to live. Instead of returning home, wherever that may be, they will be headed somewhere new and unknown to them. There will be new things, strange things, dangerous things along their way. The gifts they are looking for are safety, security, a fair chance at a new life.
When I think of reading the story of Ezra in Advent, I think about this: in two weeks’ time, we will read of an unmarried couple who were whispered about in their community because an odd pregnancy, seeking to fulfill the demands of the law. The place where they are legally required to travel to in order to file paperwork is full of outsiders. Even though there are people there related to them by blood, faith, or other ties, they end up in the spare space that belongs to generous strangers. That night, the woman undergoes the most dangerous thing that would happen in her life: she gives birth. Strange men come to see her and talk about night visions in the sky. Later, even stranger men come from further away and tell her of the danger to her and her baby. Her partner is also alerted to this danger and they flee. They go to a place that had once enslaved their ancestors, but there they find safety.
This is the story of Jesus’ family.
But the story is not just about Jesus, or Santa Claus, for that matter, but is essentially about our recognizing the journeys we have taken in life, and the gifts we have received along the way. The story is all about our recognizing how we can be a help to others in their journey, to be a help to the stranger, the wayfarer, the neediest ones in our midst. For then we begin to embody the story of God among us —which is all God asks of us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.