Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13  

December 13, 2015

A few years ago, my younger sister and I rode with my parents to Iowa over Memorial Day weekend to put flowers on the graves of some of my mom’s relatives. We drove through Charles City, my mom’s hometown, and we drove down the street where she grew up, only to find that the house was gone and a gas station now stood in its place. We drove by her aunt’s place, a place where we remembered picnics and family gatherings, but her aunt is gone and someone else lives there. We then drove out in the country to the spot on the river where my grandparents lived – a place where we celebrated Christmas and spent summer vacations – grandma’s house with the vast garden and the swing hung from the trees just at the river’s edge. But grandma has died and hadn’t lived in Iowa since the early 90s. Families have come and gone from that once familiar house. Iowa is where my mom is from, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like home anymore.

The Israelites, in exile for 70 years, are experiencing a kind of home coming in today’s reading. Many of them were dragged from Jerusalem, kicking and screaming, by the Babylonians. Their temple, the very house of God, had been leveled. They have been under Persian rule, the Persians having conquered the Babylonians – because there is always a bigger bully. And now, King Cyrus is moved by the Holy Spirit to let the people re-build their temple, to go back home and lay the foundation for the new house of God.

We can imagine a joyful homecoming, just as I initially did for my mom. But the reality is, life has gone on without them. Their home has become home for other people. And these other folks, as you can imagine, aren’t all that pleased that these “new” folks are coming in, perhaps wanting things to go back to the way they were.

I wonder, did it feel like coming home? Did it look familiar and unrecognizable at the same time? And what was it like to go to the place where the temple had been, to see the ruins of that once sacred Temple? To see God’s very house destroyed.

We are told what it was like. Hear this again from the reading today:

10 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; 11 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.

So there is great celebration of what God has done – to bring about this new temple! The priests are at the ready – they sing and they pray with loud shouts to God!

But mingled in with this great celebration is the sound of grief, of mourning – now mixed in with the sounds of celebration and you cannot tell one from the other:

12 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, 13 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.

There are many of you who have experienced the crumbling of community, the fracturing of a foundation, the ending of what you knew to be church. Many of you were part of meetings where cries of anguish and cries of celebration were uttered at the same time, indistinguishable one from the other in the cacophony that is anguish and joy mingled together. Something ending and something beginning at the same time can make only this sound.

If you are new to River of Hope, perhaps you don’t know this birth story of this community. Two former ELCA churches in town, Christ the King and Faith, both voted to no longer be affiliated with the ELCA. But instead of those buildings falling down and people being dragged away, like the Israelites experienced, many of you simply found yourselves with no other choice but to leave those communities you had known as home. The place and the people where you’d raised your families and celebrated the joys and endured the sorrows of life together. What a time of grief, what a time of exile you experienced in the in between times before River of Hope was born.

I can only imagine the joy and the sorrow mingled together at the farm, where you first worshipped together, in hope for a new future, a new Temple, so to speak, a new foundation being laid. Which meant that the rubble had to be cleared away, which takes time, doesn’t it? That in order for a new thing to be born, well, you had to let go of that old thing.

If this is not your story, I know that each of us has places that are sacred. Places that seem to connect us with God in a profound way. Places that perhaps, in your own life, have shaken apart. Places where you’ve been left. Places that you’ve had to leave. Places that no longer exist. Your marriage, your friendship, your neighborhood, your sense of family.

The importance of the temple to the Israelites cannot be overstated. It is where God lived – it is where community gathered. As you may or may not know, the temple is rebuilt. It takes 25 years to do it. And it becomes a place where Jesus frequents: it is the place where he goes as a child, slipping away from his parents and then when they finally catch up with him and locate him there, he wonders why they had any doubt they’d find him any place else. The temple is where Jesus would teach and preach. It was also the place where he saw abuse of power in the name of God and chased the money changers out, declaring they’d turned his Father’s house into a den of robbers and thieves. Ultimately, Jesus challenges the nature of the temple to all Jews at the time, declaring to them that he’d destroy the temple only to build it back up in the 3 days time.

Jesus would come to threaten the very thing they labored to build. Jesus would threaten the institution of church. Jesus would threaten their idea of God being located in one place at one time. What Jesus was telling them is that God is not limited to the confines of any building, to any one place, no matter how holy it is deemed.

Jesus pointed to himself as the temple, as the house of God. And then Jesus points to you and to me. We are what make up the church. Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, that is church. We are a church without a building, for the most part, and it frees us to be the church with skin on, the church that goes out, the church that is the living, breathing promise of Jesus Christ.

We are building a foundation – and it’s grounded in God through the love of Jesus Christ. We are the body, sent out to welcome the stranger, to redefine church, to redefine home. Just as the Canadians lead the way in showing welcome to Syrian refugees in search of home, so we too are sent out to make way for Jesus who will come to us as a refugee, turned away at every door, born in the unholiest of places to show us the way home. Here and now. And forever.