December 6, 2015
“Returning and Rebuilding”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13; Luke 2:25-27
1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.
3 Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem;
4 and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
3 When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem.
2 Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God.
3 They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening.
4 And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day,
10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that 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.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,
28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I’m sure every pastor has their own way of writing a sermon, their own way of listening for God’s leading and responding with words on paper. Frequently the sermons I write are sermon I need to hear, and I am grateful that you join me for the journey.
When I sit down to write, I usually know what the ending will be, what the point of it all is, though I oftentimes don’t know exactly how we will get there.
The struggle, for me, is finding where to begin – where is the open door to walk through to begin the sermon journey?
I’ll begin where I am, and maybe you are too – I am heartbroken. At the moment it feels like we are a people walking in darkness. There have been more mass shootings in our nation this year than days in this year.
We are still reeling from several significant international terrorist attacks which have claimed the lives of hundreds of people, and as I sat down to write this, details were still rolling in about the San Bernardino shooting, which was not the only shooting on Wednesday.
We live in fear.
A few weeks ago I visited one of our members in the hospital, and arrived to find her waiting to be released to go home. So after some words to her about how wonderful it was to see her well again, I turned to her spouse sitting in the room, who says to me, “So, tell me, what is going on in this world that scares you?” And I thought to myself, “Can’t we at least begin with the weather.”
But I’ve been carrying around his question as we have begun Advent, because although it might be a strange way to begin a conversation, it is an Advent question.
Where are you experiencing darkness?
What about this world in not right?
The past weeks have shown us that we are afraid of the stranger, we are afraid of those who practice a different religion than ourselves.
We are afraid when our neighbors look different from us.
Economic inequality and racial injustices have created explosive tensions in cities around our nation, and we see violence everyday on the news.
At our Women’s Faith Study, one member shared that at her daughter’s church they are doing lock down drills for the Sunday school classes in case of an attack. My own children have done the same in our preschool.
We distrust our politicians and political candidates.
We fear cancer, disease, dementia.
Around the world, we lament over the hundreds of thousands of peoples who are fleeing profound violence and oppression, we weep over the millions of people enslaved, we feel helpless in the face of the 18,000 children who die each day from preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, or the 1 in 3 women on the planet who will beaten or raped in their lifetime.
For me, one of the reasons I believe that there is a God is because I look at the world around me and I am burdened by the sense that this world is not as it should be, it is broken, it is fallen, and there must be another, bigger story that gives meaning, that explains what has happened.
And I am a Christian because I have the profound sense that I need a savior, and I cannot save myself, and the world needs a savior, and all of creation needs a savior.
I am a Christian because Christianity tells the story about how God created this world and us for something good, and still there is evil and sinfulness, and still God loves us and wants us, and wants to be near us, and entered into this broken world himself, and brought light that the darkness could not overcome, brought hope for this life and the life to come, and told us that what we see is not the whole story – love has already won, and we are waiting to see its completion.
We are waiting, but we already know the end of the story.
We are like Simeon who embodies the waiting of centuries of his people. He has been waiting a lifetime, and when he holds the baby Jesus he says, my paraphrase, “I have seen God’s salvation, and I am at peace. Whether I live or whether I die, I am at peace.”
We are waiting, but we already know the end of the story, and we ourselves are even called to work towards the end of the story.
And that is where the words of Ezra matter to us this Advent season.
We hardly ever hear from Ezra.
Ezra recounts for us the history of how God uses a foreign king to call back his people. God’s people were walking in darkness. Their temple, the only place they knew they could find God, had been destroyed.
Much of the peoples of Judah had been forcibly removed from their land, carried off by a foreign conqueror. They were far from home, and far from God.
They wondered where God was.
How could God allow such suffering and oppression?
And they waited. Cyrus the Persian tells the people to go home and recreate God’s temple. Return and rebuild.
Those are powerful instructions for people who feel far from home and far from God. Return and rebuild. Those are profound words for Advent, for those of us who are waiting in this world which can feel dark and uncertain, this world in which we can feel far from home and far from God.
What do we do while we wait?
Return and rebuild.
Usually during Advent we run into John the Baptist – he appears in every account of Jesus’ life that we have. In fact in Mark’s account of Jesus life, which is the earliest account we have, John is the Advent story. And do you remember what he preaches? Repent. And we’ve talked before about how that really meant, especially to those who first heard it, “Turn around, and go home. Turn around and return to God.” Return.
So what do we do during this time of waiting, this Advent waiting. Turn around, return.
Where are you lost?
Where have you strayed in your life?
Where have you strayed from who God created you to be?
What are you doing that is not life-giving?
Where in your life are you far from home?
Where in your life are you far from God?
Repent, turn around, return, go home.
Return and rebuild.
What is broken in your life? There is a great deal broken in the world – we feel that deeply. Much of it we have little power to change and so we pray.
But there is also a great deal broken in ourselves, in our lives, in this community right around us. What do we rebuild?
God calls us to re-creative work.
What is broken? A relationship, we have broken plenty of those. A couple weeks ago, in one morning, I offended two people I care about, without even trying, and I knew it the moment I saw their faces. We break things all the time.
Is the brokenness in our workplaces, in our schools, in our community?
Is the brokenness injustice or inequality?
Is it children who need a stable place to live?
Is it the need for more affordable housing?
Is it better care for the addicts and those who struggle with mental illness?
Is the brokenness people who are alone?
Another one of our members in the hospital made me keenly aware of how alone we can get. Her children lived far away and rarely called, she rarely had visitors.
Perhaps the brokenness we need to rebuild is in our own hearts. We know the things that fester inside us.
Return and rebuild this Advent season.
As we await the hope and light of Jesus Christ coming into this broken world, bring hope and light. Return to God and rebuild the broken places.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Arise, Shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you” (Is. 60:1-2).
And again from Isaiah, some of the very words that Jesus uses to describe what he was here to do and teach, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:1-4)
Return and rebuild. Amen.