– Excerpts from Ezra chapters 1-6 ‘Return from exile – we meet Zerubbabel’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
Well, here we are back in the Old Testament. This morning we start our journey into the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Originally Dan and I had planned to simply look at the character of Ezra but we were not far into that before we realised that Ezra needs Zerubbabel and Nehemiah nearby in order to get the full story. The two books, Ezra and Nehemiah, were originally one and it is assumed that they were written by the same author. Somewhere along the way, in compiling the modern Bible the two books became separated, but that hasn’t stopped it still making sense to read them as one. Over the next few weeks, we will be meeting the three characters, Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, who each had a part to play in leading the Israelites back to undertake the Temple rebuild. Today we start with Zerubbabel, who is named as a Governor (or Prince) of Judea, the province where Jerusalem was in at that time.
So, it might help to begin with a quick recap of the context: The story begins some fifty years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Israelites to Babylon. Cyrus the king of Persia has heard God say that it was time to send some of the exiled Israelites back to Jerusalem to begin the rebuild of the temple. It’s important to note here that not all of the Israelites were forced to leave Jerusalem to live in exile, there was a group who remained. There were also those who chose to remain in Babylon when others returned to Jerusalem for the rebuild. But it was Zerubbabel who King Cyrus sent to lead the initial group back from Babylon to Jerusalem with the single aim of rebuilding the Temple so that a worshipping community, could be enabled. The worshipping community was the intended outcome and it was believed that the Temple was essential in order to achieve this. Sixty years later Ezra goes to Jerusalem to teach the Torah (the law) and rebuild the community and then Nehemiah follows to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. All three leaders encountered opposition to their work. The rebuild that Zerubbabel undertakes is not straightforward – they often aren’t! The first opposition he met was from the Israelites who had remained in Jerusalem; they wanted to help with the rebuild but Zerubbabel refused their offer, saying that ‘building the Temple of our God is not the same thing to you as to us’. That soon became apparent as the Israelites who had stayed saw the rebuilt Temple and were not happy. The opposition that Zerubbabel encountered meant the work was started, stopped, started again before it was finally completed. I do wonder how far through this we will get before you start to hear echoes of the Christchurch rebuild or some of the church rebuilds that you may be aware of. Some of the struggles certainly resonated with what I am aware of around the city!
There are some similarities in each of the experiences of the three characters Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. Each one is prompted to go by the king of Persia who has heard God say that this should happen. Each one is offered leadership and support in their efforts. And each leader then encounters opposition in their efforts, which they each overcome but maybe not as we might expect. None of them get what they expected or hoped for, in the manner that they expected or hoped for.
The decree that Cyrus made, following his prompting by God, to allow some of the exiles to return to rebuild the Temple was the fulfilment of the earlier prophecy of Jeremiah. And within that lay a variety of hopes. Firstly, the hope that exile would not be the end of the story for the people of Israel. Secondly, the hope that the line of David had in a future Messianic King. Thirdly, the hope that the rebuilt temple would be where God’s presence would dwell with his people. And fourthly, the hope that God’s kingdom would come over all the nations and bring the blessing that had been promised to Abraham. It’s important to keep these hopes in mind as we journey with Zerubbabel.
What a great name that is! When one of our grandchildren was on his way, we gave him the name Zerubbabel as a working title; in part as an encouragement to his parents to get on with the process of finding an actual name. Surprisingly, they weren’t keen on Zerubbabel as an option! The name means ‘planted in Babylon’. Zerubbabel represents a generation who were born in exile, under Babylonian captivity. From the relative comfort of our lives that’s not so easy to get our heads around, is it? But there are plenty of examples in our world where people have been forced to flee; exiled to another country where they have to find their way. But the thought of actually being forced out of the land we regard as our place, is unthinkable to us. Maori have a great word for this – turangawaewae, which we might loosely translate as our ‘place to stand’ but more correctly is about a sense of identity and independence associated with having a particular home base. How fortunate we are to be able to take our turangawaewae for granted!
A point here too about the word Israelite or people of Israel. I keep bandying these two phrases about but we need to remember that the state of Israel as we know it was not created until 1967 – in most of our lifetimes. So, the Israelites in this story were in a sense a stateless faith community that descended from the twelve tribes of Israel (or Jacob as we knew him prior to his battle with an angel). With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the Israelites were scattered across the near East in what was part of the centuries long Jewish Diaspora.
I encourage you to read the whole six chapters in your own time. There is a lot of detail in there but you might find that helpful in setting the scene. But for today I want to make these points from the story thus far:
First point: Cyrus heard God prompt him to let some people go back to Jerusalem because the temple needed to be rebuilt.
Second point: Zerubbabel, as the leader, had one motive in rebuilding the temple, he wanted to enable a worshipping community, because worship was the ‘reason-to-be’ for God’s people. He believed that creating a space where God could dwell would mean that God would dwell there. The two points in the build where God was expected to make a fiery presence known were the laying of the foundation stone and the final opening and dedication ceremony. Even now these two moments are the two that we celebrate.
Third point: It didn’t happen –God’s presence was not experienced as they expected.
Sometimes I think we don’t learn well. This is a very good story about God’s dislike of being put in a box. Zerubbabel built the temple to ‘house’ God. And we still talk about church buildings as being ‘houses of God’, despite knowing that God will be where God wills – inside and out there. We set aside spaces for the purpose of worship but we all know that our experiences of God are often far from any area set aside for this purpose. We meet as a ‘church’, a body of people with the common desire to worship God and to give thanks for God’s goodness to us. But we can, and do, experience God anywhere.
Which brings me to the third point. What Zerubbabel expected and hoped for didn’t happen. That disappointment feels like a pretty normal thing to experience doesn’t it. A friend of mine told me once that how we handle disappointment tells us a lot about a person and their maturity. At the time I thought that was an unusual thing to say; he was talking about a difficulty he was experiencing in the parish where he was serving at the time. He commented that someone hadn’t handled disappointment well which had left him with a bit of a mess to tidy up. Over the years I have often pondered on this and think he was onto something. I watch our wee 3yr old grandson’s despair when something doesn’t happen as he expected or hoped. How quickly he fires up because he hasn’t yet got a handle on how to deal with disappointment – that’s not unusual in a 3yr old. But it’s not often so easy to manage when that early lesson hasn’t been well learned and it’s carried on into adulthood. It’s what helps to give people an entitled view of life. That idea that we should be able to have whatever we want or whatever anyone else has. What a waste of energy that is! What about a posture of giving thanks for what we do have; and in Zerubbabel’s case an openness to finding God wherever you are. That seems a more life-giving way to live than raging in disappointment because we expected more!
I have been thinking a lot this week about what happens when people don’t get what they expect or hope for when they are shopping in a supermarket and how they might handle that disappointment. I wonder if you have been as surprised and appalled as I have been, to hear that supermarket employees encounter abuse almost every day. Could it really be as simple as, ‘I can’t find my favourite brand of baked beans’ so I will abuse someone who is just getting about their work. Really! How did we get so bad at handling ourselves that they are subject to such abuse? I have no idea what led to the attack in Dunedin, that’s another story but it’s the everyday abuse that has come to light that has so shocked and saddened me. It’s appalling how little disappointment we seem to be able to absorb before we strike out. We all have work to do if we are to help the 3 year old to a better future than that! The rebuild of any community, worshipping or otherwise is never done, it seems.