And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2008, I felt like life as I knew it was over. The stiffness and pain in my hands impacted daily activities, like preparing vegetables for dinner, or holding a pen to write a check. I had trouble squeezing the handle of the pump to put gas in my car. There was one morning when I couldn’t turn the knob to open the door and get out of my own bedroom. Creative pleasures like knitting and playing the piano seemed sure to be over for me.
I felt trapped, waiting to learn if medication would help, unsure of the long-term prognosis.
A friend who had been living with the same chronic illness since childhood pointed me to this section of Isaiah. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” I read in verse 3. Was this a commandment or a prophesy? Strengthening my weak hands and firming up my stiff and painful knees seemed unlikely, even impossible.
Isaiah points to the time when all the things holding us captive will be reversed, the prison doors opened, the locked windows thrown wide, the time when joy deferred becomes joy unstopped. Both Psalm 146 and its alternate choice, the Magnificat, lay out God’s plan for upsetting earthly power structures. And in Matthew 11, an indirect conversation conducted by messages to and from jail shows how the expectations John the Baptist had for the Messiah have been upended by Jesus.
Most of the time we are in the prison cell with John, feeling the limits on our power to affect change, wondering if any of the things we planned will ever come to fruition, waiting on God to show up in the form we expect and prefer. To that, we are all captive. And yet here we have this promise of God’s Holy Way, running like a ribbon of road through scripture. The reversals we hope and pray for are the will of God, who will bring wholeness, freedom, and joy.
Sometimes I am immobilized by a sense of my weakness, my feebleness, my “what I do doesn’t matter-ness.” My illness feels like a trap. I feel a kinship with Mary and wonder if she felt captive to the appearance of the angel and the overshadowing power of the Most High. She wondered how it could be possible, this commanding prophesy, this prophetic commandment.
Still, she said yes to it. She embraced God’s reversal of her life, of the expectations everyone else had for her, of the limits she held for herself. If you preach the Magnificat, I hope you will add the three words the lectionary leaves off, “And Mary said…”
Those words remind us she was a prophet.
Whatever is binding us, stalling us, holding us captive, may we, too, embrace the reversals promised by God and be released for joy.
Even though I moved from Maine to Pennsylvania for the very good reason of joy and love, and even though my mostly grown-up children were happy for me, this life-changing adjustment came with some mixed feelings. In a way, I went into exile, which may sound weird to you if this is the place that has always been home. My kids, you see, all grew up in Maine. One arrived there as a toddler; the other two were born in Portland.
Their first visits here had a tentative quality. My oldest teared up when he saw the Lobster license plates on a shelf instead of on the back of my car. I remember saying to Kathryn that I would understand it if they didn’t come here for Christmas, and when the middle child told me he had figured out how they could all get to my new house on December 23rd, I was beside myself. I made elaborate plans for the menu and the things we would all do together. But I remained afraid that it would feel entirely different, and they would never want to come again. What could I offer them here? I didn’t even have the right kind of dog anymore. Home didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t smell right.
The people who came together in chapter 3 of Ezra came from two different parts of a divided community. The Babylonian Captivity came to an end when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and scripture tells us God stirred up his heart to send the people of Judah home, and not only that, to rebuild the House of the Lord previously flattened by the Babylonians.
Some of the people who gathered for the laying of the foundation represented the great deportations to Babylon. There were three of them over 20 years or so, the last one around the time of a great siege and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Those exiles to Babylon were the upper-class families, the educated, the religiously powerful, the gifted among the artists and scholars.
The other group of people are those who had stayed behind; as I mentioned last week, they were folks of a lower social class, people who were not as impressive or important, people less useful to the culture and economy of Babylon. These people stayed behind in Jerusalem they lived through two sieges. They lived in occupation, and they lived in the grief of having no religious gathering place.
There may have been a few very old people among them who remembered Solomon’s temple, but as Ezra’s story begins, 65 or 70 years had gone by since the Babylonian forces destroyed it, and more like 90 since the first exiles left Jerusalem, so the chances are slim there were a lot of people who had first-hand memories of the old Temple.
And I would imagine there was some resentment or suspicion of the more socially prominent people whose families had spent at least 65 years in Babylon, and who returned carrying gold and silver and 100 priestly robes, already dressed for success to make new lives in Jerusalem. All we know about the people who wept is that they were older, and they were from the priestly families. Whether they were descended from the remnant left behind to serve or those who left and came back again, the story does not tell us. But it’s a classic human story, isn’t it? First the people let the Temple go to rack and ruin under wicked kings, and then Josiah refurbished it, and when they were threatened by enemies they came to care about it, and when it was gone they grieved for it as if it had always been held in the highest esteem.
65 years is a little longer than this church has been around. I’ve heard some stories from people who grew up here about what it was like when they were young, where they sat, and who was kind to them. Don went to Sunday school in the train room. Jane remembers folding chairs in the sanctuary. Maybe some of you remember when the additions were built and old spaces were put to new use in the life of the church. These stories are within the lifetime of people still among us, but go back another decade to the group that met in the Fire Hall, and the people who know the stories are mostly gone.
That’s just a few years less than the length of time that passed from the year the temple was destroyed until they began to lay the foundation for the new one. Many shouted for joy, so loudly the sound traveled far away, while others wept, just as loudly. In the midst of the emotion of the day they represented a longing for the way things used to be, a nostalgia for the past, and a wistfulness for missed opportunities.
Why is this a story for Advent? We can make the connection to joy, which is our word for the day. The people are on the whole joyful about beginning to rebuild the temple. The very beginning of Ezra is also the very end of Second Chronicles, which some people call the Fox News of the Old Testament: a bit sensational in its storytelling. If you were to look at the Bible in the order that the Jewish people put it together, you would find Second Chronicles not nestled here right before Ezra but at the very end of the book. It holds the promise that the people have returned to the land where they were meant to live. They have returned to the place where they believe they have the best chance of finding God again.
But we don’t just get the happy ending of Second Chronicles here. it’s a little more complicated than that. When they laid the foundation for the new Temple, to some of the people, it just felt like a building, nothing special. The Ark of the Covenant had gone missing. (In the universe of Indiana Jones, it’s carefully lost in a giant warehouse.) More seriously, how do you reconstruct a space known as the Holy of Holies, the mystical core of the Temple where the most revered and respected priests came as close as any human beings could to the presence of God? Can you build a Temple of dreams and simply hope that God will come? At the same time many shouted for joy, so loudly the sound traveled far away, others wept, just as loudly.
The New Temple just didn’t feel like the Old One.
It didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t smell right.
Or maybe I’m confusing it with any other new space human beings come to inhabit.
That first Christmas my kids spent here in Pennsylvania had its tense moments. We had to get used to cooking in a different kitchen. We deliberately added new items to the Christmas dinner menu so that it wouldn’t be too much like the things we had always done in Maine. We worshipped in a church where we had never all been together before, and the weirdest thing of all for them may have been that their mom was not the pastor.
I watched them learn to make Swedish meatballs, a dish that reminded us of their Swedish grandmother, but one we had never made together before. I watched them master cranberry balsamic glazed brussels sprouts and whiskey-glazed carrots like the Pioneer Woman cooks. I watched them snuggle up with the step-dogs they were just coming to know and love.
By the time they came for a second Christmas last year, Kathryn and I had moved to the manse behind Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church, a house that had been a rental for many years. When we first got there, it didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, and believe me, it didn’t smell right.
Again I wondered how it would go, and again they all arrived to make Christmas with us. We found our way around another kitchen, repeating some new favorite recipes and adding back some others. I taught them a two-handed solitaire I knew in childhood, and soon we were playing it six-handed with the little kid who is now a brother to them, showing him no mercy and teaching him their – well, my – fierce will to win.
We bounced back and forth between two churches and had a wonderful time just being together. The little manse took on a glow of love and joy. There’s still a little wistfulness for some things we lost, but as a wise friend of mine says, “we have to find joy where it is.”
The Second Temple was never the same as the First Temple. It never came to feel right. People were waiting for what they used to have, but the Holy of Holies remained empty. God never did return to dwell among them in that same form.
God came to them in the person of Jesus Christ.
And maybe that’s what makes this a good Advent story. The people wanted a Temple, and they shouted for joy to see it being built again, but they wept because they knew something was missing. They needed something more. Like us, they lived in a world full of hard experiences, and like us they had a long wait for the next coming of God-with-us.
Joy may be the hardest of the Advent words to live into in times of struggle. But think of those people going to the Temple with joy and proclaiming God’s never-ending love. Think of them proclaiming it even though that Temple was just not right.
Joy is not a sugar-coated happiness like Christmas cookies.
It’s not the “ooh” and “aah” we hear when we open presents and find a new iPhone.
It’s not the superficial display of a dramatically choreographed light show.
Joy is a claim we make, a truth we declare: no matter how our lives change, no matter what we lose or gain, no matter what we build or see slipping away, we rejoice because God’s steadfast love endures forever.