The year is 537 BC. The place is Jerusalem. The Jews have just returned from a long captivity in Babylon. Some have been gone from their homeland for 70 years. Others for 50 years. They were sent into captivity as part of God’s judgment on generations of disobedience. Now at last the first wave of Jews is returning to the land. But everything has changed. The countryside is in the hands of their enemies. The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins. The walls have been torn down and buildings have been looted. Worst of all, the temple built by Solomon 500 years earlier is no more. It’s gone. Utterly destroyed. The Babylonians took the gold and the silver and everything else of value. The Ark of the Covenant is gone, the altar of sacrifice is gone and the temple implements are gone. In its place lies a field of rubble.
So the Jews go to work with vigour and determination. The older folks who could remember Solomon’s temple were at least 65 years old. Meanwhile, 2 generations had been born in Babylon. Those young people had no memory of the glories of Solomon’s temple. Having grown up in pagan Babylon, they cheered the beginning of a new temple. But to the old folks, it was pitifully small when compared with what they once had known. Their disappointment was so great that they wept while others rejoiced.
Everyone knows disappointment sooner or later. Friends break their word, marriages end in divorce, our children move away and never call us, colleagues betray us, the company lays us off, doctors can’t cure us, our investments disappear, our dreams are shattered, the best-laid plans go astray, other Christians disappoint us, and very often, we disappoint ourselves. We live in a world of disappointment, and if we do not come to grips with this truth, we are doomed to be unhappier tomorrow than we are today. We are disappointed when things don’t go the way we thought they were going to go. Wrong expectations lead to disappointment, and disappointment leads to despair.
Why were the old people disappointed? They remembered how good things used to be. Because they were living in the past with all its glory, they could not deal with the present reality. If we are ever going to overcome that sort of disappointment, 3 things are necessary. We must do what the Jews did in Ezra 3.
1. A New Dedication—Rebuild the Altar v. 1 - 6
They built the altar even before they started rebuilding the temple. Why? Worship must always come first. Out of the rubble of their past disobedience, they first made sure they were right with God. The altar was the symbolic centre of OT religion. It was the place where they brought their lambs, goats and bulls to be offered to the Lord. Without the altar there could be no proper worship, no assurance of divine protection, no guarantee of forgiveness, no access to God and no lifting of the burden of guilt and failure. The altar was the link between God and man. During all the years in Babylon, the people had no altar and no clear access to God and no assurance of forgiveness. Disobedience had taken the altar away and broken their fellowship with God.
We all need a new beginning with God. Sometimes we need a new beginning because of our own sin. Sometimes the circumstances of life have so defeated us that we need a fresh start. Sometimes we feel that hope is gone forever. In those moments, we must do what the Jews did. We must return to the altar of sacrifice. We all need the healing that comes from the cross of Jesus Christ. Will God take us back, or will he turn us away? The answer is yes, he’ll take you back, but you’ll never know until you make that journey on your own. No matter how great sin may be, if we turn to the Lord, he will abundantly pardon. “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7: 18).
2. A New Obedience—Relaid the Foundation v. 7, 8
Having rebuilt the altar, and re-established their relationship with God, the Jews proceeded to relay the foundation of the temple. This involved a massive cleanup effort. I am struck by 2 facts:
A. They committed themselves to follow the Lord in the details
They followed the details of what God told Moses to do. Nearly 1000 years had passed since God had spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. Lots of water had passed under the bridge in the intervening centuries. Empires had come and gone, Israel itself had gone through the conquest, the period of the Judges, the reign of the 3 great kings, Saul, David and Solomon, then the bizarre period of the divided kingdom, and finally the humiliation of total defeat and exile in Babylon. Now it was time to start over. What do you do then? You go back to the basics, back to the drawing board, you go back and read the instruction manual so you don’t make the same mistakes all over again.
B. They relaid the foundation in spite of their enemies
Those enemies would do everything to discourage them, to harass them, to oppose them and to stop them altogether. In fact, the enemies will succeed for a period of time. It takes courage to stand against a hostile world. When the enemy lines up against you, what will you do then? You put faith ahead of your fears.
Put it all together and it looks like this. In spite of the rubble and in spite of the opposition, and in spite of all that had happened in the past, the people of God banded together and got to work. They raised money to buy new cedar logs, they organized their workers into teams and everyone pitched in and went to work. They picked up those huge boulders and dragged them to the side. They cut down the bushes, dug up the weeds, cleared out the broken timber and the jagged pieces of metal. Little by little, day by day, week by week, they worked to clean out 50 tears of neglect. Do not miss the point. When you are disappointed and don’t know what to do, take a lesson from the Jews. Do what you know is right!
You can’t stay in bed forever. Someone has to mop the floor. Someone has to take out the rubbish. Someone has to open the office. Someone has to turn on the lights. Someone has to pay the bills. Someone has to fix the motor. Someone has to enter the data. Someone has to make the presentation. Someone has to make the lesson plans. Someone has to see the patients.
Don’t let your discouragement keep you from doing what you know you have to do. If you can’t keep your big promises, keep your small ones. If you can’t follow the big plan, follow the small one. If you can’t see 10 steps into the future, then take 2 or 3 steps. Just take the next step in front of you. “The smallest act of obedience is better that the greatest intention.” Better to do a little than to sit around dreaming about doing a lot. Do what you know needs to be done, and do it for the glory of God.
3. A New Priority—Resolved to Praise the Lord v. 9 - 11
Once the foundation was laid, the people and their leaders stopped and gave thanks to God. This is united, public praise. It is intense, emotional and God-centred. When they sang, they declared, “He is good,” not “We are good.” They didn’t say, “We did this with God’s help,” even though that would have been true. They openly gave God all the credit. They did not wait until the building was done to praise the Lord. Even though laying the foundation was significant, there was a mountain of work left to do. Years would pass before the temple was finished. This was only the first step, but they stopped anyway and gave thanks to the Lord.
It is a great advance in the spiritual life if you can praise the Lord even when things are not going well. In the midst of the devastation of Jerusalem, with only the foundation of the temple relaid, with rubble on every hand, still the people said with one voice, “God is good.” That’s true faith. Anyone can praise God when the sun in shining, all the bills are paid, your marriage is strong, your kids are doing well, you just got a raise and the future is bright. It’s something else to praise God when things are far from perfect. It’s a great thing to be able to look at your life and say, “It’s not what I wish it was, but God is still good to me.”
So why did the young people rejoice? Because Babylon was all they had known. They had never seen Solomon’s temple, didn’t remember its glory and hadn’t witnessed its destruction. All they knew about that, they had heard from their parents. The older generation told them tales of the glorious old days. But they knew none of it by experience. So when they saw the temple foundation relaid, to them it was an amazing answer to prayer. It was the closest thing to a temple they had ever seen. This was a time to celebrate the goodness of the Lord.
But do not be overly hard on the old folks. They remembered how good things had been, and what had been lost. It was well that they should weep, and even better that they should pass on the lessons learned through bitter experience many years earlier. It is still true today:
The young need the old to remind them of the past.
The old need the young to encourage them about the future.
Four Life Lessons
A. Yield your memories and your dreams to the Lord.
Was your past better and happier than your present? Yield it to the Lord. Was your past filled with sadness and pain? Give that to the Lord, too. Do you have great dreams, bright hopes, big plans for the future? That’s wonderful. It’s good to dream big, but in all your dreaming, and all your hoping and all your planning, yield it all to the Lord. Lay it at his feet and say, “Your will be done.” Take the past with its happiness and sadness, take the future with all its unlimited possibilities, and give it all, past and present, to the Lord who spans the generations. Say to him, “Lord, you are the God of yesterday and you are the God of tomorrow, I yield them both to you so that I may live for your glory today.”
B. Accept your present situation as from the Lord.
To “accept” does not mean passive resignation to the problems of life. This is not a call to give up and stop fighting for what you believe in. But it does mean accepting the reality that you are where you are right now because this is where God wants you to be, because if God wanted you to be somewhere else, you would be somewhere else. Only those who have a high view of God can come to this conclusion. Sometimes you must come to this certainty by a conscious choice of the heart. Blessed is the person who can say, “I am here by the sovereign choice of a loving God, and I know my Lord makes no mistakes.” This does not mean it is wrong to change your situation if you need to (and if you can), but it gives you the bedrock confidence that Higher Hands are at work in your life and that you are being led by the Lord. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23: 4).
C. Resolve to obey God right where you are.
Disappointment may cause us to become bitter, and bitterness may make us lethargic toward the duties of life. We may find a thousand excuses not to do the things we know we ought to do. Little by little things begin to slide, jobs are not done, chores are not finished, projects are left uncompleted, phone calls are not returned, appointments are not met, messages are not answered, papers are not written, goals are not met and down we slide into a bottomless pit of despair. The answer is so simple that we often miss it. Resolve in your heart that you will obey God right where you are. No excuses. No delays. No hoping for better days, happier times, or more favourable circumstances. If things aren’t what you wish they were, roll up your sleeves anyway and go to work. Who knows? Your willingness to do what needs to be done may change the way things are. Even if the situation does not improve, you can hardly make it worse by doing what needs to be done. If you somehow make it worse, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you made it worse by doing your duty, not by giving up and throwing in the towel. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).
D. Praise God for his goodness in spite of your circumstances.
This is what the people of God did in Ezra’s day. They rolled up their sleeves, got to work, and as they worked, with the fulfilment of their dreams still far in the future, they offered public praise to God. If this were a parable, I would say, “Go and do likewise.”
As we come to the end of this message, there is much to think about. God’s grace is so great that, no matter how great our sin, there is always the possibility of a new beginning with him. When we have been humbled by God, our praise will be sweeter because it will be unmixed with sinful pride.
I’d like you to say the next two sentences aloud:
It is better to begin small with God than not to begin at all.
It is better to rejoice over what you have than to weep over what you used to have.
How long are you going to allow your future to be defined by your past? How long will you choose to stay in your disappointment? Don’t despise your present because it’s not what you wanted it to be or because it’s not what your past used to be. Lay your disappointments at the foot of the cross. Let Jesus have them. Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there. Give thanks for all your blessings. Then by God’s grace, move forward with your life, determined to serve the Lord. Amen.