Jeremiah 29:10-14; Ezra 3:8-13

First in the series “A Future with Hope”

There’s a saying you may have heard: “You can never go home again.” When we go back to a place that was familiar, it’s not the same as it was before. We must adjust our thinking and consider who we are and where we are going.

Several years ago, my home church undertook an expansion and renovation project that doubled the size of the building I once worshiped at and was active in. They invited me to come back and preach on the morning of the dedication day. I saw old familiar faces from my youth and young adult years, and I also saw lots of fresh faces I didn’t know. The former Sanctuary and Sunday school space is now a fellowship hall and the chancel area, a small chapel. There are new classrooms, a new Sanctuary, modern restrooms and nursery, and a gathering area. None of that felt familiar. The New Hope I had known was still there and yet it was also gone. 

Life changes us and our circumstances. God, in God’s grace, offers us the opportunity to change. 

Going on vacation and coming home from vacation can be similar. I’ve discovered that when I go on vacation, it takes the first several days to a week to change my body’s rhythm. My body remembers, and as the next Sunday approaches, I feel anxious that I’m not ready for worship – no sermon written, no service planned. It feels strange. Then there are several days that is the “golden period,” where I’m in the rhythm of vacation – able to relax and not think about church and work. Then, there’s the third phase – the last several days before coming home. My body and mind start to work back into the rhythm of church and work life. We get the car loaded up and drive back to Findlay. We get to our house, unpack the car, settle in, and say, “It’s good to be home.” I feel normal, natural, familiar, good to be back in a place where I know who I am.

Throughout our time apart during the pandemic, worshiping virtually together, we all dreamed of the time when we could gather again in person. We imagined what a great homecoming it would be, as everyone who used to be part of our congregation all returned to the same space, and we resumed life the way it was in February 2020. In fact, some have come back, while others have not. For some it’s about the fear of the current delta variant or other new variants. For Medical vulnerabilities keep some away. For some parents, it’s the fact that their young children aren’t yet vaccinated. Still others simply find it psychologically difficult to reenter society and the church now. Others have become detached from our church, and some who never really were attached simply fell away. Some who are here are familiar faces, and there are also new faces. For all of us, the present feels foreign, not what we were used to or expected, and our future feels uncertain. What does it mean for us to come home and to look to the future?

You may be surprised to learn that there is literature in the Bible that can help us address this very situation. It comes from the Old Testament during the time of the Babylonian Exile. We don’t usually spend much time thinking about this, but it makes up a large part of the Old Testament. It includes all or parts of the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Obadiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, many of the Psalms, and other books.

In Biblical history, the nation of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC. The Babylonians left many Jews in place, but they also had the policy of relocating a significant group of people, including leaders, merchants, and businesspeople to Babylon to maintain control of the territory. These Jews settled in Babylon; they started businesses, established schools and synagogues; they raised families. They participated in the economy, assimilated into the culture, and became part of the empire. They got Babylon into them.

I’ve studied the book of Nehemiah before, often to examine leadership principles it illustrates. But then, one day, I read the last chapter of Nehemiah, and discovered that it doesn’t end with fireworks and success. Despite Nehemiah’s success in rebuilding the wall and renewing the covenant, the people fall away from God. Nehemiah cursed his own people and prayed, “Lord, I hope you’ll be good to me for putting up with these people.” He learned that consistent prayers, a great strategic plan, and outstanding implementation weren’t enough. He got the people out of Babylon, but he couldn’t get Babylon out of the people.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount three waves of Jews returning home to Jerusalem under the leaders Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah. These returns start about 50-70 years after the Exile and span several generations. Each comes with its own set of goals and faces its own challenges. Yet each time the story is unfinished. They do what they set out to do, but they never know if they have truly succeeded or not. 

For all the people who did return to Jerusalem, there were many more who never came home from Babylon. They had established lives and livelihoods, built successful businesses, and integrated into society. Over time, Babylon felt more like home than Jerusalem did, especially for those born in exile. When people are displaced, some people will not find their way back home. Others will come in waves as they are ready and as circumstances make them able. The magical day when everyone comes running back never materializes.

The magical day when the pandemic is finally over and everyone comes home to church will not happen, despite how much we want to pray for it and pretend that it will. We will have to calibrate to a future that is not what we had in the past. This moment is our time to seize the new opportunity God has for us. It is a future with hope. 

The first wave people left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest between 538 and 520 BC. They thought that the key to the people’s happiness was returning to the Temple for worship. Since the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonian army, they knew they would have to build it back better, and then everyone would be happy. 

The first thing they did when they arrived in Jerusalem was to lay the foundation for a rebuilt Temple. They put up an altar, and they resumed the worship of God. The Levites took their places to praise the Lord, just as King David had prescribed centuries earlier. They sang responsively, “For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” (Ezra 3:11) They worshiped God who is good all the time, God who loves us forever. It must have been a beautiful sound, as they sang and shouted their praises to God.

But there was another sound. Many of the older priests and Levites who had been alive to see the glory of the former Temple wept aloud when the saw the Temple’s new foundation. The new Temple paled in comparison to the memory of the previous one. The scripture describes this moment this way: “…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.” (Ezra 3:13)

For some that day, it was an exciting new moment, a new Temple to worship in. But for those who recalled the former Temple, nothing in the present could stack up to the pictures they had in their minds of the past. Our memories are often selective. We usually remember the past – the “good old days” – as better than it was; we forget the struggles and hardships. We can become so attached to the past that we are forever looking backward rather than forward. There’s nothing in the present or the future that can compare to what was, so we cling to our memory of the past, focus on it, long for it. We get so fixated on what we think we remember that we lose the capacity to celebrate what God is doing right now and look forward to what God is about to do.

The honest reality is that the Church had some preexisting conditions leading up to the pandemic, and the pandemic didn’t just aggravate those conditions – it accelerated them. That happened medically for some, too. A person I know developed COVID last year and experienced a serious heart attack. The doctors said his COVID brought on the heart attack sooner than it would have come otherwise. 

For the Church prior to the pandemic, comfort and complacency were two preexisting conditions. We were accustomed to a long slow slide in attendance and membership. We were comfortable with church the way it was, if it took care of us and fulfilled our preferences and desires, if we could meet with our friends and do things the way we like to do them. We became complacent in our Christ-given mission to seek and save those who don’t yet know Jesus. We didn’t notice or mind that we lost connection with the culture and the people around us, and so we lost our sense of urgency to grow as disciples ourselves who could then disciple others. 

Then the pandemic came, and we were caught off guard. We suddenly lost our comfort, too. We couldn’t meet in person. Everything was strange and unfamiliar. We wanted to go back to the past – at least as we remembered it.

Here’s the thing. The pandemic didn’t surprise God. God knew it was going to happen. That doesn’t mean God caused it, but God knew it was coming. And here’s the other thing: God always uses these moments to bring about a new future. 

The Apostle Paul later, while he was imprisoned and persecuted by false teachers, wrote, “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14)

Christians need to live with an eternal perspective that starts right now and goes to forever. When we look back, it should be with gratitude for what God has done for us. We also look forward with praise and celebration, expecting what God is going to do. The prophet Isaiah, writing to the Jews in Exile, proclaimed the word of the Lord: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) 

God sent another prophet, Jeremiah, to speak to the Jews in the late sixth century. His book contains lots of prophecies of doom. But there, right in the middle of doom, he includes a letter with these words: “… I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” God will bring them back to their home in Jerusalem, but only after 70 years of exile. They will return, but it will be different. 

Then these familiar words of reassurance: “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.” (Jer 29:10-11) God has plans for our lives – for your life and for my life and for our lives together as a church, a community, a nation, and a world. God’s plans are for our welfare, for our good, not to harm us. And God’s plans offer us a future with hope.

It can be tough to go back and to come home. It can be hard to know if we succeeded or failed.

But the rest of the story is the best of the story. All these events lead to the situation into which Jesus Christ comes into the world. They lead to his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing; to his life of engaging with people of all kinds and accepting and loving every kind of person he met, inviting them all into the Kingdom of God. These events lead to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension and to the offer of new, eternal life to everyone who receives and believes him.

Though life changes, exiles disrupt and displace us, and pain happens to us, God’s word never fails. We need to remember as we live into God’s promise to bring us back and look forward to a future with hope.

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