Read Ezra 3
One of the phrases we’ve been hearing over the last few weeks is the “new normal”. We know that the MCO cannot last indefinitely, and so we’re preparing ourselves for that time when we will eventually emerge. The question, however, is this: what sort of “new normal” will we emerge into? What sort of expectations should we have as God’s people?
The book of Ezra is set during the return from exile. In the book of Chronicles, the book ends with God’s people in exile. But it also ends with a word from King Cyrus, their Persian overlord, that suggests God’s people can return home. That’s where Ezra picks up the story, who reveals Cyrus indeed did allow all exiles to return home and rebuild the destroyed temple.
In today’s passage, we could look at Ezra 3 through one spotlight, and focus on the work of rebuilding the temple. However, I want to us to look at this passage through another spotlight, one that might not be immediately obvious but is also present. This spotlight focuses not so much on the work, but on the people themselves. For many of them, they were entering a “new normal”. The returnees were a mixed group – some older folk who still remembered the past from long ago, and others who had grown up in exile and never even lived in Jerusalem before. So as we follow this spotlight, what can we learn about God’s people, not just then, but now?
Notice 3 things about ourselves:
1. The condition we’ll be in. As the people settle into their new surroundings, notice one emotion that emerges, verse 3. There was fear. More specifically, it was “the fear of the peoples around them.” These would have referred to the peoples of Samaria, Moab, Edom and so on who had since settled down in Judah and beyond. Perhaps they looked around and saw worship being offered to foreign gods around them, which made them feel threatened. In any case, their surroundings filled them with anxiety. Certainly, as we emerge into new surroundings, fear of the unknown, fear of a world that is different from before could fill us. It’s almost to be expected.
However, fear need not necessarily be a bad thing. For these returnees, it pushed them to be more careful in the rebuilding of the altar. In verse 2, it is built “in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses”, a fact stressed again in verse 4 – “in accordance with what is written.” In verse 3, it is built “on its foundation”, or perhaps another way of putting it is “in its place”. And so while fear is present, so is faith. They remembered that the altar was first built by Abraham as a sign that he was putting his faith in God, that he believed he was connected to God. In verse 4, they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, which would have been celebrated by camping out in makeshift tents, as they remembered their wilderness wanderings of the past, and the fact they depended wholly on God.
So as we enter the “new normal”, what should we expect as God’s people? We should expect a condition where we’ll be fearful. Indeed, there’ll be a certain frailty to us – not a flattering word! Will we as a church be able to navigate the future? Will we survive? That’s to be expected. But we can also exercise faith too. Fear can push us to faith, which in turn pushes us to fealty (loyalty).
2. The confidence we can have. Indeed, that faithful fealty eventually leads to bolder action in verses 7 onwards. God’s people begin rebuilding the temple. In verses 8-9, we notice that there is careful supervision, and that all the people were involved, not just a few! And so they were beginning to exhibit a quiet confidence that they could still carry on the work of God. In verse 11, as they sing with praise and thanksgiving, there is an echo that the promises of Jeremiah 33:10-11 is being fulfilled, where God has promised to restore them. As God’s people saw the temple being rebuilt, they became confident that God was indeed good.
So it is with us. The pandemic has brought an unexpected gloom unto us. But as we keep walking with God, as we seek to do his will, as we choose to worship him with all our lives, in big ways and small, we can have confidence God will be good to us. His love will be shown to us. That is true, whether in the old or new normal.
3. The caution we must heed. However, that is not the end of Ezra 3. In verse 12, some of the older folk began to weep. They remembered the glory of the older temple, which had been destroyed, and they began to be filled with nostalgia. They compared the new temple to Solomon’s temple, and found it lacking. Verse 13 brings matters to an anti-climax. The note of joy and worshipful attitude was now being muted. The prophet Haggai might have been present, and he certainly did warn against such an attitude later on in Haggai 2:3-5, reminding the people that God was present with them even when it didn’t seem glorious.
That is the caution we must heed. As we enter the new normal, it’s all too possible to look back and keep comparing the present with the past. It’s possible to keep saying how everything was great before, and terrible now. At its worst, such an attitude disrespects what God is doing today. It might not look glorious, but then the cross didn’t look glorious. It also tears down rather than builds up the New Testament temple of God – the church.
So what sort of new normal would we emerge into? I didn’t answer that question, because I don’t know. But what sort of expectations should we have as God’s people? Ah! Ezra 3 has helped us here. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Let’s make it our foundation as we face our future.
- Pray that as we face our “new normal”, that we will do so by turning any fear we have into faith, being confident that God remains good, and so showing our fealty to him by living according to his Word.
- Pray for all students everywhere, as they have to face the big disruptions to their education and academic years. Pray for them, along with the teachers, to be able to adjust, and to still be able to learn from this time in a way that would ground them well for the future.