Reading from Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
The book of Ezra was once combined with the book that follows it, Nehemiah. It’s part of the theological-historical narratives of Scripture from the Second Temple time period. While the author is attempting to capture history, the author’s higher purpose to offer meaning to the events that have happened. This is extremely important because the Israelites were stripped of their land, their God was defeated, and his Temple was destroyed. Who were they as a people?
Ezra starts during Cyrus’ reign as the king of Persia, yet another empire that conquers peoples, lands, and nations. Cyrus, who defeats the Babylonians has a different approach to ruling – he believes that the way to a happier (or at least less revolting) empire is by having a united empire, which means that the people who are conquered are allowed to practice their own religion. In this Sunday’s reading, we hear about Cyrus’ declaration that the Israelites who have been in captivity in Babylon can return home and that they are to rebuild the temple of their God.
We then hear about the restoration of worship in Jerusalem and the beginning of the laying of the foundation for the Second Temple. Things seem to be moving in a positive direction for the Israelites. But… What follows the assigned reading for Sunday is reality. There have been people still living in the land during the exile – fellow Jews who were not considered important enough to haul off to captivity. There is rivalry between the former exiles and the people who stayed. There is mistrust. There are efforts to stop the building of the temple.
The perception of the ideal versus the reality is a consistent sub-theme of Scripture. And the question is where is God in the midst of such conflict? Is God only present in the ideal? Or is God also present in the midst of strife? Yes is the answer – meaning God is always present, regardless of whether the situation is idyllic or messy. It’s often a matter of whether our eyes are adjusted to seeing God in our midst and hearing God’s voice in the noise.
In this passage of Scripture we hear about joy and weeping simultaneously. So much so that “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping…” (Ezra 3:13). As with the idyllic/strife motif, joy and weeping are linked together. And the question we have is which is it? The answer is both. Our Lutheran faith teaches us to live in the paradox of both/and. Our world will be full of both joy and weeping, often happening at the same time, and even at the same event. Our faith teaches us to move towards the idyllic while also being in the strife. Both are real and give us meaning, although sometimes that can be difficult to grasp.
Questions for Reflection – Where in our lives are we in joy and experiencing weeping at the same time? How is God present in these moments? God doesn’t stop the strife in order to clear the way for the idyllic, but rather often uses the times of strife to show Godself to us. God doesn’t wait for the perfect to show then show up. God shows up and because God is present, the moment is transformed. Where do we encounter God in the difficult times of life and how is God transforming those moments and our lives?