An encouraging sermon from Duncan about those times we we feel that we are in exile, and that it is hard to sing God’s song in dark and difficult times.
This morning, Duncan was preaching on Ezra 13:1-13.
Rebuilding the Temple
The Jewish people, having been allowed to return after a 50-year exile in Babylon, begin to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Duncan gave us part of the ‘back story’. The original Temple, constructed during the reign of King Solomon, was a magnificent structure, incorporating much gold and precious materials. Its dedication was a very significant moment in Israel’s history.
‘He is good: his mercy endures forever,’ the people sang. (2 Chronicles 7:3)
In the passage we read today, the people of Israel are standing among the ruins of the former, magnificent building, and are laying the foundations of its replacement. And yet, still they are singing the same song.
‘He is good: his love towards Israel endures forever.’ (Ezra 3:11)
Between these two days lay years of struggle. After Solomon’s death, the Jewish nation was divided into two: Judah, and Israel. Subsequently, the great Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonian Empire, and the majority of Jews (from both of the two kingdoms) were driven into exile.
This destruction was the cause of profound religious and psychological trauma. Duncan described it as a ‘twin-tower moment’ for the Jews. They had expected the Temple to last forever – for was it not the dwelling place of the eternal God? In exile, they had re-think their faith – how did faith in God work when there was only mourning, and darkness, and the absence of that which had been symbolised by the reassuring bulk of the Temple, towering benignly over Jerusalem.
We were sitting by the rivers of Babylon. We wept when we remembered what had happened to Zion…. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while we are in another land? (Psalm 137:1,4)
Duncan highlighted the relevance of this to us as Christians. Perhaps at time we feel as though we are exiles, living for God in an alien environment. Over the last 55 years – in just three generations in other words – membership of the Church of Scotland has declined by around 80%. And this is the story across the Western Word. When Duncan felt a call to the ministry some thirty years ago, it was even being predicted that by 2015 the Church would have closed its doors
Singing God’s song in a dark place
The challenge, Duncan said is to ask how we sing God’s song in a strange land, when it seems the tide of society is moving in a different direction.
But in fact, Duncan said, the people of Israel were never more creative than when they faced darkness and testing in a strange land.
And so there is hope in the passage – we are part of God’s story, a story bigger than any one denomination or any one group in Scotland. And so, despite our sense of exile, we have every reason for hope.
It isn’t primarily ‘down to us’. We are part of God’s story, and God is good; God’s love endures forever. God makes promises; God holds the future.
A pagan king was God-prompted
It’s really significant, Duncan said, that in the story God moved the heart of King Cyrus. (Ezra 1:1) prompting him to let the Jewish people return to Jerusalem. He was the pagan king of Persia who conquered the Babylonian Empire. Yet Isaiah described him as ‘God’s anointed king’ (Isaiah 45:1) – precisely the same term used to describe Jesus. Isaiah quoted the Lord: ‘’He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please’ (Isaiah 44:28) Prompted by God – and he acknowledged this prompting – Cyrus permitted the Jewish exiles to return home.
‘We should expect to be in for a few surprises as to who God calls as his anointed ones,’ said Duncan. ‘This opens up al sorts of surprising possibilities as to how God can and indeed will work if we have eyes to see.
Duncan pointed out the time references in the story ‘when the seventh month came’ (Ezra 3:3), ‘in the second months of the second year.’ (Ezra 3:8) When God moves, Duncan told us, things can progress very quickly. Just 14 months after their return from exile, the people were celebrating the foundation stone of the new Temple.
Duncan went on:
I’ve just come back to Hilton after a break of four months when I had time to reflect on 25 years on ministry here.
My sense of our shared life over the past few years has been the feeling of exile, of dislocation. We went through a generation of a crowded church, and the excitement of all kinds of initiatives, locally and globally. We sent many people out into ministry. We were a church people looked to for inspiration and ideas.
And then things have become much more challenging – although many good and innovative things are still happening in Hilton Church, and there’s been an encouraging turn towards prayer within the church.
Things rise, and things fall. We have felt the winds of change and decline which is the story of the church across the western world, and its created all kind of questions and doubts.
I don’t know what the future holds for Hilton Church. I don’t know what God’s plans are. But I do have an abiding sense of hope and trust. That when we catch sight of whatever it is God is leading us to, things can actually change very fast. I have seen it so often in the past.
A challenge for leaders
But for the Jewish leaders, that foundation-laying ceremony was a time of pastoral challenge. The sounds of both joy and weeping were commingled. (Ezra 3:12-13) Our memories of the past play a significant part in determining how we react to changes. ‘Worship unlocks a tide of emotion,’ Duncan said. These Jewish leaders were able to unite the people both in their joy and their mourning, to unite them in the common task of rebuilding the Temple.
And that’s the challenge facing any movement, any church. ‘How to unite people with varying outlooks and varying emotions about the past and the present into a body of people who have a common vision and purpose for God.’
‘And so,’ Duncan concluded, ‘we live hopefully and we wait and we watch for God’s timing.’