God’s Story, Our Story: Waiting Forward
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
I’ve already bought my tickets. In fact, I bought them a couple months ago.
Tickets to the opening night of Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens, which happens to be this Thursday, December 17th. A group of us from the staff are going together, and I’m taking my oldest daughter, Emma.
I’m not going to lie. I’m pretty excited. It’s made this Advent season swell all the more with anticipation. I grew up on Star Wars; it was tethered into the fabric of my childhood. I had all the toys, know the original movies by heart. And now to see my daughters catch the Star Wars fever is kind of crazy…and glorious!
Here’s something that I read this past week in an interview with the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, featured as the cover story in Time Magazine. After the disappointment of the three prequel movies that came out a decade ago, Abrams said the secret to his approach with this new film is that he has “returned to the future of the past.”
That phrase grabbed me. The future of the past. What Abrams means by it is that he went back to what made the original films so effective, using original sets and physical costumes instead of CGI, trying to give the new movies a sense of being connected to the past films. But Abrams was insistent: he’s not just repeating the past. No, this new movie, while connected to the past, is a “new creation” (his words!). His goal is to carry the story forward into a new future.
What does all of this have to do with the story we heard a moment ago from the OT book of Ezra? Well, this is precisely what God is doing among his people in the opening chapters of Ezra. This is a story about the future of the past! God is doing a new thing connected to the past, a new thing that is carrying God’s Story and their story forward into a hopeful future.
We heard last Sunday through Stacy Duensing’s beautiful sermon that the Israelites, God’s people, were in exile. Because of their disobedience, God handed them over to the Babylonian army who besieged the holy city, burnt down the Temple, and carted them off into captivity.
But after years of exile, God comes to them through the prophet Isaiah and speaks these words of grace: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, her penalty is paid, and she has received from the LORD’s hand double for her sins.”
Stacey reminded us about God’s covenant promises—that God has given us his word that he will be faithful to his people even when they are not faithful to him. Though they were in exile, God would give them hope and a future. That was Isaiah’s message.
And this was also the message of another prophet named Jeremiah. Jeremiah said it a bit differently, but his words pulse with the same good news: “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:10-11)
In our text today from Ezra we see God doing what he promised through his prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the 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…
God is doing a new thing! He has set in motion his plans and purposes for his people, and God is doing it through a pagan king of all people! The Israelites had been waiting for God to come and rescue them. And now the time came for God to make good on his promises.
So this is the story of God’s people in exile beginning to return home. King Cyrus, the Persian ruler who is now an instrument of the Lord, permits a wave of the exiles to return to the ruined city of Jerusalem and rebuild the holy temple, the house of the LORD.
If some of this sounds familiar, it may be because we spent this past summer in the book of Nehemiah, which goes hand in hand with Ezra. Nehemiah, the cupbearer of another king, King Artexerxes, who would return to Jerusalem to help rebuild the wall.
But before Nehemiah, this wave of exiles goes first. And a priest name Ezra goes with them. A couple other priests, Zerubabbel and Jeshua, go also. And once they arrive and get settled, the first thing they do is build an altar.
Why an altar? To symbolize that worship of Yahweh, the LORD God, was at the center of their identity as a people. To remind them that their story was part of a much bigger story—the Story of God. To remind them who they are and whose they are.
Then, they went to work laying the foundations of a new temple. All of this was possible because the Spirit of God was at work among them. God had stirred not just King Cyrus, but God was stirring the hearts of his people.
This new thing that God was doing pointed them backwards—to the past. We need to always being listening for echoes of other biblical stories whenever we read a Bible passage, and there are a few really clear echoes in this part of the story that we must not miss.
God was doing a new thing that pointed them back to creation. Listen to this line in Ezra 3:8: “In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel son of Shealteiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of the people…”
They made a beginning—or more accurately, God was making a beginning. Just like God did in the beginning when he created the heavens and the earth. Through his Word and Spirit, God is making a new beginning for the exiles who are returning home.
But there’s another echo here. The new thing God is doing pointed them back to the Exodus, when God rescued them from slavery and brought them through the wilderness to the Promise Land. Ezra-Nehemiah is a story about a second Exodus. God is bringing his people out of bondage and into a new life of freedom.
There’s one more echo we shouldn’t miss. God is also doing again for them what he did through David and Solomon, building a house in which God will dwell with them in a powerful way. A new temple!
All of this, then, is an occasion for rejoicing! It’s no surprise that when the foundation of the temple is laid, the priests lead God’s people in celebration. “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” It was the same song many of them who were alive to experience the first temple sang at its dedication. “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.”
God is doing a new thing, a new thing that connected with the past, and it moved people to shouts of praise. But this new thing wasn’t going to be the exact same as the past. It wasn’t a return to the way things used to be. You can’t go back to the past. God was doing a new thing now, and that meant that while it was continuous with the past, it was also something different. To borrow J.J. Abram’s pithy phrase: this was the future of the past.
And that’s why you also get this reaction among many of the Israelites that day: “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept aloud 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.”
God is doing a new thing, empowering the Israelites to build a new temple. But there were those present who remembered the first temple. And they saw that it was not going to be just like the old one—it didn’t compare to the glory of that first temple they carried in their memory. And so they wept. They lamented because, with this new thing God was doing, they were also experiencing loss. Perhaps the reality hit in that moment that they couldn’t go back to the way it used to be.
We know what this is like, don’t we? The reality of life is that change happens. Sometimes that change is something we desire, other times it is change we dread. But even when change is a good thing, it always brings with it a sense of loss. Always.
During my first five years here at Fellowship, I met weekly with Wes Kiel, a wise, seasoned pastor who served as our interim for a year after Ken Eriks left his role as lead pastor. In the midst of several changes that were happening at the church, I recall a conversation we had. “Wes,” I said. “I can’t wait until we get through this season of transition and things settle in.” Wes smiled and replied, “Brian, when do you think the church will not be in transition?” He went on, “On this side of heaven, there will always be transition. Because God is always bringing change in the life of his people. The question is, ‘How will we respond to that change?’”
I’ll never forget that conversation. And as you might suspect, I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week. I didn’t pick this text for today—it is assigned in the Narrative Lectionary. But in the providence of God, I can’t imagine a more appropriate Scripture passage for us to hear today. And not just for today, but I think for this season in our church’s life and ministry.
We have had a lot of changes over the past few years. Staffing changes. Program changes. Changes underway with our building. Changes in the makeup of our congregation as some people have left and others have joined. Changes with the deaths of people whom we love.
Now add the changes that you’re experiencing in your own life and family, at work, in your neighborhood, and in our community. Yes, change is simply a part of life. It happens whether we are ready or not. And change is hard. For some of us, it may be especially hard.
But I do think Wes Kiel is right. On this side of heaven, there will never be a time when we, as God’s people, are not “in transition.” That’s because the world is not yet what it’s supposed to be. And we are an Advent people—not just for the month of December but as we live in between the times. We live in “the already/not yet”—Jesus has already come to us in the child born in Bethlehem, and we’re still waiting for him to return as the exalted King. God’s kingdom has already come, is breaking in among us now, and we’re still waiting for God’s kingdom to come in its completion.
And that means change. I think Wes is right on another key point: the question for all of us is, “How will we respond to change when it happens?”
It’s okay to grieve change when it happens. It’s okay to feel sad, scared, and even angry. This part of Ezra’s story (and so many other parts of the Bible, like the Psalms) invite us to be honest about our loss. We can lament. But at some point we have to make a decision. Will we trust God and step into the new thing God is doing, even though it may be different from the past? Or will we try to get back to the past, which is impossible but does get us stuck in the present—and often stuck in a place of cynicism, bitterness, maybe even despair.
When God does a new thing, he points us back to the past. But not to get us to try to return to the past. But because by remembering the past—and especially God’s faithfulness in the past—God moves us forward into a hopeful future.
A while back Pastor Marijke introduced me to the West African word “sankofa.” In the Anken language of Ghana, sankofa literally means, “looking backward to move forward.” Sankofa is also a word picture—a symbol of a bird in traditional African art. The bird has its head turned backwards while holding an egg (representing the future) in its beak. It is a powerful symbol of the truth that we move forward into the future by looking back into the past.
James K. Smith (professor at Calvin College) puts it this way: “When Christians remember, we are not retreating to the past; we are being catapulted toward the future. God’s people inhabit time in this strange tension, where we are called to remember so that we can hope. When Jesus enjoins us to eat and drink in remembrance of the Last Supper, he also points us toward the future: we celebrate the Lord’s Supper ‘until he comes,’ and so the remembrance is really just a foretaste of that coming feast. [Communion propels] us toward the future with hopeful expectation. Christians inhabit time as a stretched people.” (Discipleship in the Present Tense, p. 49).
So to be disciples, to be the body of Christ together, means we live as a “stretched” people, stretched in between what God has done and what God has yet to do. Advent is a season of waiting and watching for the new thing that God is doing. But that waiting and watching is not passive—it is active. We wait and watch forward, stepping into the new thing God is doing. We wait forward into the future of the past.
Usually this will include grieving, and yet we grieve as a people who have hope. Because while change is inevitable, one thing does not change: God and his promises. “There is no shadow of turning with thee.” God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is our rock and our foundation. Jesus Christ is the anchor of our hope, the NT writer of Hebrews tells us. An anchor that doesn’t keep us stuck in the past or hold us back but steadies us and holds us up securely as we move into the wide open sea of God’s hopeful future.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.