If you have difficulty in trying to get an understanding of just what took place when the Hebrew exiles returned to Jerusalem, you are in good company. Most scholars believe that some portions of the book got misplaced in their chronological order, leaving us to wonder whether Ezra and Nehemiah worked at roughly the same time, whether Nehemiah preceded Ezra or that Ezra preceded Nehemiah. It adds to the confusion to realize that Ezra doesn’t refer to Nehemiah in his book and Nehemiah does not refer to Ezra in his. But, as I indicated last week, we don’t have to solve these problems – and they may never be solved – because these two books, even in their present form, can still speak to us and our time.
We know that the 10 tribes of Israel – the Northern Kingdom – were carried into captivity in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians. Despite much speculation, we really don’t know what happened to them. They have disappeared into history. Although the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem were unharmed in 722, in 587 B.C. the cream of Judea’s citizenry was carried off by the Babylonians who had replaced the Assyrians as the power of the Middle East. Jerusalem became the abode of Judean Jews not carried off, as well as Samaritans and other non-Jews. A new generation
It was approximately 70 years that the Judeans were in captivity. Most, if not all of those who would “return to Jerusalem” had not lived there previously, but were born and grew up in Babylonian exile. So the dream of return to Jerusalem and restoring the Temple was kept alive by the exiled parents who passed it on to the generations that followed them. The prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, also were instrumental in encouraging the exiled Jews to return (Ezra 5:1). And Ezra, a priest from a high priestly family, played a keyrole in instituting reforms in the religious life of the exiles and encouraging them to return.
So, what does this have to do with us? Few of us have lived in captivity. But, as we get older, we are sometimes captive to our memories and our own views of how things were and ought to be. We have probably known churches that were content to resist any changes to congregational life. An apocryphal story tells of a pastor newly assigned to a church in a semirural area becoming suburban. As he inspected the church, he spied an elderly man and said, “Well, oldtimer, I guess you’ve seen a lot of changes in your time.” The “old-timer” cleared his throat and replied, “Yep, and I’ve been agin’ every one of them, too!”
A renowned scientist once observed that most of the changes in science are made possible not because the majority of scientists are persuaded to accept new views, but because scientists who would not accept changes in their thinking eventually die and are replaced by those who are willing to move on. That is human nature, but as Christians we are called to rise above the limitations of human nature. In each parish that I have served, I have found people who focus on what their church has been, while others have fixed their sights on what that church can become. But our focus is not a matter of one view prevailing over the other, but an appreciation of both the present and future that can grow out of a congregation’s heritage.
The exiles returning to Jerusalem had a motivating appreciation of what Jerusalem and the Temple had meant to those who had been carried off into exile. But, when they arrived in Jerusalem and beheld the tragic ruins of its walls and Temple, on the strength of what they had been told, they were motivated to remain, restore and rebuild. Old icon, new view
I have been associated with First United Methodist Church, (FUMC) of Dallas, for 36 years, 13 of which I served on its staff as a minister until I retired in 1994. It is incredible how much this church has changed in that time, while retaining a rich heritage and outstanding record. (Five of its ministers became bishops). But most importantly, for the last 15 years it has reached out to serve the community in ways that would not have been considered likely when I first arrived there. Our Crossroads Community Center last year fed 1.1 million meals to 13,525 needy people of Dallas, and provided tons of clothing. This has been possible because it is a congregation and staff that has not been content to sit on their laurels and thus were able to pass on to new generations a sense of purpose that remains secure, even as the ways in which that purpose is worked out are constantly changing.
We recently completed a modest building project at FUMC that gives us an airy, new entrance hall, a central area for meeting and greeting, as well as some additional educational space. The project involved tearing down a wall that for many years had shuttered all windows on the west side of the sanctuary. Yesterday we had an opportunity to see, for the first time in anyone’s remembrance, the sun streaming through the west windows. Looking up through a new roof window we saw the steeple of our church presiding over both the new and old of FUMC.
Christ’s call to us as his followers does not mean that we give up the “old” at the price of the “new,” or vice versa. It is an opportunity to build upon the “old” in order to do whatever “new” thing God gives us.