One of the beauties of Ezra 3 is that it does not merely present us with a project, but with progress. The foundation of the temple is established, bricks begin to rise where once rubble had been strewn, there are hints of a new work to be done. The celebrations that vv11-12 depict are not on the grounds of the work’s greatness, but because God is gracious and has brought them to this point.
Church families are returning to their buildings once again in the UK and Ireland, after a break of almost four months. For many this is a welcome signal that some semblance of normality is once again being recovered, for others it is a time of intensified anxiety over what feel like huge steps forward in terms of human contact. In this article, based on a sermon I preached on our first evening back together as church family in Millisle, I want to share some thoughts from Ezra 3 which could provide some co-ordinates about how to move forward with confidence, realism and faith in a post lockdown world.
Ezra and Nehemiah are both books about rebuilding. One is concerned with rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, the other with rebuilding the temple. Both sets of construction arose out of conflicts within and without, and both were undertaken in the wake of 70 years of bitter providence in Babylonian exile. For that period God’s people had not been in God’s place, and his praise had not sounded from Zion. Meeting and ministering together in accordance with the Law had been outside of their grasp.
These, then, are texts which touch on regathering, which capture the trials and triumphs of seeking to re-ignite and re-establish the work of God. Their relevance is immediately apparent in our current context where churches find themselves at the pivotal point of reassembling. Ezra 3 depicts a crucial moment in the temple rebuilding project, an early victory which would presage the final completion of work given to Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and their colleagues. From their experience returning churches might helpfully lift some lessons, as well as echoing the sentiments of these ancient workers.
For the pilgrim builders going back from Babylon was not the easiest option. The command from Cyrus to return might have seemed like the best of dreams, but the reality of coming into the precincts of Jerusalem must also have carried a nightmarish feel. 70 years in exile is a long time, and being in Zion was a grandfather’s memory, distant thunder from a bygone age.