Return of the Jews

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

December 14, 2019

Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

As we’ve learned throughout the fall, the Jews had been carted off to exile in Babylon initially in 586 BCE.  Their temple destroyed by Nebachadnezzer. Their lives upended. But then Persia had become the dominant power in the Near East in 539 as Babylon waned, and the Persian leader Cyrus allowed them to return home. Some stayed in Babylon, because they had been there long enough to build lives and find jobs.

Some went back to Judah. There was a return of the Jews. They came home and discovered they had some work to do. Homes needed to be rebuilt. Fields needed clearing. The temple was still in ruins.

It is exhausting to think about what would have faced them after the exile. Many of them going “home” to a home where they’d never lived. They’d only heard about it from their parents and grandparents as they told stories of the good old days around the fire at night.

It is possible that a few of the Israelites remembered the Temple from before exile— remembered the hymns they used to sing, remembered the way the classrooms were overflowing with kids, remembered when everyone who was anyone got all dressed up and went to the Temple each week—but the Temple had been destroyed 66 years previously in 586 BCE. So anyone who had seen the first Temple would have been old when Cyrus sent them home, and they had been very small kids when the Temple was destroyed.

Other than the clever sermon title, I’m not sure there is a great tie in to the Return of the Jedi film and our text this week, other than the idea there are things worth fighting for. In the film, people take great risk, and people die, in order to protect their home and the homes of others, from the agenda of the Empire, which promotes death, division, and dislocation—turning everyone into refugees, on the run and seeking a safe home.

The rebel forces were outnumbered and out-matched in terms of fire power. It might have been easier for them to just stay in their proverbial Babylon and not fight to return home. Fewer Ewoks would have died, for sure.

I don’t begrudge the Jews who didn’t return, the ones who stayed in Babylon and just made it work, accommodating to the Empire around them.

It makes me appreciate, though, those who did return. It would have been dangerous and exhausting. And how would you keep your anxiety at bay, wondering what you would find when you got there, and not knowing what was going to happen?

The third of the original Star Wars film was called Return of the Jedi, not Return of the Jews. Jedi had been functionally extinct for years before Luke Skywalker undertakes the training, becoming something the world had only talked about around the water cooler for the past 30 years.

The Hebrew people were also returning to something they no longer remembered. Life in Jerusalem was a very distant memory. The Jedi do not return to the way they had been in the past. Return from exile does not restore the past. It connects a thread from the past to what you are building in the future.

The text tells us that Cyrus didn’t just send them home to rebuild their own homes. But to rebuild God’s home, which was also lying in ruins.

And the people do it. They set aside their own home repair projects and contribute their time and talents to rebuild the Temple. And when the foundation is laid—not just when the construction is completed— when the foundation is laid, people stopped to praise God.

For God is good,

for God’s steadfast love endures forever towards Israel.

And people cried out when they saw the foundation. Some cheered, presumably in hope that things were looking up, and that the future with hope they’d been waiting for might actually arrive. Some cried, because they remembered what had been there before, remembered all that had been lost, remembered those who hadn’t made the journey home.

That’s the pain in going home again. As we celebrate what is new, we remember what is lost.

My grandparents bought a lake cabin a long time ago, when my dad was a little kid. The lake is what I think of when I think of “home”. A number of years ago, a horrible wind storm went through Spokane, and a tree fell right across the middle of the cabin. It was total loss.

I remember being grateful that nobody was in the cabin when the tree fell. And I know stuff is just stuff. And it was an old cabin, without amenities and what my parents are still rebuilding will be much more comfortable.

I’ve thought of Ezra as it’s been rebuilt. There have been sounds of weeping from my family as we remember our lifetimes’ worth of memories in the cabin that is no more. And sounds of weeping because of the construction delays, and cost overrides.

There’s also cheering because there is radiant heat in the floor and plumbing that is winterized.

Ezra reports:
And the people could not distinguish between the sound of the joy and the sound of the weeping.

That is good for us to remember in these Advent days. To remember that excitement about new things and returning home is mixed together with sadness and anxiety about what has passed. It’s a ‘both and’. And so we give space for people to mourn, and to not be all ho ho ho jolly all the time.

This story from Ezra, read during Advent, helps me focus on just what foundation we’re supposed to be laying right now. What is it we’re returning to?

We will be breaking ground in February or March, when the ground is thawed, on our remodel of our facilities. What will we be building into the foundation of this place for a new generation? Which part of our past will be built into the foundation of the future God is dreaming for us.

Are we seeking to repair and build a world for God where all are welcome and safe and provided for? Or a world concerned only with private security and wealth? Are we building only our own lives or are we building a home for God too?

Frederick Buechner wrote:

“the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”

As we move through the Advent season, drawing ever closer to Christmas, may we have grace for each other as we remember it is a busy time, with lots of building projects.

May we have compassion for others as we remember that it can be a painful time, searching through rubble, seeking reminders of days gone by.

I pray that in the midst of it all, we seek to lay a good foundation, for a world where people find the security and shelter of home, and where we lay a solid foundation, so people will know of God’s love for generations to come, and so they will find their way home to Christ, so their hearts may rest in him.


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