Read the Scripture for this sermon here.
Congratulations, people of God, as of today’s reading, we’ve made it through the Old Testament story. We’ve seen God working in partnership with humans from the creation onward, through post-menopausal pregnancies, all night wrestling matches and flaming foliage. God has bound themselves to humans through covenants on stone tablets, between widowed women, in a dancing display down the streets of Jerusalem. God has remained with the people even when they split the nation bearing God’s name, even when the people worshipped other gods leaving just one prophet to call down fire from heaven, even when they rebelled against the loving parent who raised them from infancy. God has promised renewal in many voices: a green shoot growing out of a dead-looking stump, a rediscovery of the gift of the Law, a righteous branch from Jesse’s tree, a super highway across a flattened wilderness.
And none of what God has partnered with us in doing has gone quite as we expected. We didn’t think 90 year olds could have babies, or that Moabite women could be the very presence of God. We didn’t know how to feel when the nation of Israel split in two, or when Josiah renewed the covenant with a people who were doomed to destruction. And while we hoped with Isaiah and Jeremiah for the stump’s resurrection and a level playing field, we couldn’t completely shake off the grief of the losses that lead to destruction and exile in the first place.
So we come to this moment in Ezra,a complicated homecoming for God’s people, having been released from exile by the new empire’s King, Cyrus of Persia. He sends them home to rebuild the temple destroyed 70 years earlier, loading them up with silver, gold, livestock, and other gifts. They immediately get to work, settling back into the land and clearing away the rubble of the temple.
But before anything else can be built, it is time for the Festival of Booths, the Jewish festival celebrating both harvest and the people’s reliance of God’s provision. They need an altar to offer sacrifices, but there’s not even a foundation on which to set it on the temple mount. So they build an altar amidst the rubble, a powerful witness to God’s presence even in the midst of life’s chaos.
The next year, they complete the foundation, and there is a huge celebration. Trumpeters and responsively singing priests are stationed to lead the people in praising God for their steadfast love which endures for Israel forever.But listen again to how the people respond as they are led in worship: read verses 11b-13The young people rejoice as instructed, because they are so glad to have a temple to worship in, like they’ve always dreamed about, like they’ve heard stories about, like God promised long ago. But the old people know that this celebration is complicated, that this temple is so much less than it once was. Their joy at being home is mixed in with years of suffering the loss of life as they knew it. And all that feeling, that joy and grief is jumbled up into one loud shout of the people of God, so that you can’t even tell who is wailing and who is trumpeting.
I can’t think of a moment in scripture that better represents either the current state of mainline Protestant denomination in the US, or my own feelings about Christmas this year. Most of the young churchgoers I know, as well as the pastors my age and younger, are excited about how the church has changed and the ways in which faithfulness is being expressed today. To us, it feels more authentic than it ever has, more like the church we’ve always dreamed of. We are celebrating the new shoots springing up with our generation.
Others, for whom the church has always been a place of stability and comfort, are distressed at the change and long for the days when the pews were full and Sunday School classrooms bursting at the seams. There is very real grief for a way of being church that exists in fewer and fewer places, grief over feeling like an exile in the place you’ve called home your whole life.
When we gather to worship here in this space, it is important to remember that both young and old raise their voices together, and that while your song might be praise, the neighbor beside you sings their grief. Like the shout of the congregation gathered on the new temple’s foundations, the voice we raise here at Bethlehem contains both exultation and lament. There is so much to rejoice over, as we will witness when a multitude of children gathers at our second service to tell the nativity store, many of whom are new to this congregation within the time that Pastor Jay and I have been here.
But in that time also, things have been lost. Hundreds of members have died, the Nordic Bazaar has ceased to exist, staff members have left. Others have left Bethlehem because the ELCA has changed too much, in directions they couldn’t see as faithful. These are things to grieve, even as we celebrate.
Personally and professionally, I am glad for stories like this one which remind us that God is able to hold space for all that we bring to worship and to life. God receives both our shouts of joy and cries of grief as proper worship. God never demands that we cover over our true feelings, or leave our complicated natures at the sanctuary door. That is truly good news for my Advent, which equally embraces the joy of my children experiencing the wonder of the season, even with a gaping hole in the midst of our family.
So if I have to leave you with one thing as we transition out of the Old Testament and into the story of Jesus, it is this. In God’s story, there is space for you and all the complications of your life. Whether you are grieving or grateful, or both at the same time, your voice is welcome among the congregation of God’s people. Whether you are excited about all the new things in your church and your life, or whether you can only look at them and wish they were like the old things, God is building a foundation that will support an abundant life in your future and the church’s. For God is good, even when the rest of the world is not, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.