Let me ask you two questions.
Number 1: What makes you celebrate? What absolutely thrills you, has your phoning your mum or your best friend with excitement, is cause for a celebratory drink or meal, puts a smile on your face for a week?
I’d reckon the safe arrival of a healthy baby in a family is one of them. New job. The all clear at the hospital. She said “yes”. What else?
Then number 2: What makes you weep? What makes you so genuinely sad that real tears flow? Maybe it hurts to think about. But perhaps a bereavement, a break-up, redundancy, unexpected serious illness, a friend’s life falling apart.
Sometimes, the news is so good that all life’s problems vanish from view.
Other times, the news is so bad that it feels like there’s nothing good to celebrate.
Most of the time, life is a bit of a mixture.
Our Bible reading was about some people who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Literally. The chapter ends by telling us how noisy they were being. You’d hear them from far away. But you’d have trouble working out whether you were hearing celebrations or tears. Because there was lots of both.
That’s life. The question is: What was making them so joyful? And what was making them so sad? At the same time.
As we look at this, we’ll see that we Christians have more reason to celebrate than anybody else. But we often miss it, because we look in the wrong place.
But we’ll also see that we Christians have reason to weep that we also often miss.
God made us emotional creatures. This passage will help us see how to respond emotionally to what Jesus has done.
And if you’re still looking into the Christian faith, I want to show you how we’ve got something that is more worth celebrating than anything else in your life. But it’s richer than just making everything light and fluffy. We have cause to weep too, because life now is not as good as it gets.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let me remind us all where we are in the Bible.
Recap: Context of Ezra
We’re working our way through the book of Ezra, which spans about 80 years from 539 to 457 BC.
Here’s the background. God had blessed the people of Israel enormously. About 1000 BC they had a great king, king David, who took the city of Jerusalem as his capital. His son, Solomon, built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The people went there to meet their God.
But then the people turned away from following the one true God, and started worshipping the gods of the peoples around them. After many warnings, God sent in the Babylonian army. They destroyed Jerusalem, and the temple, and took the people into exile to Babylon, modern Iraq.
That was 587 BC. 50 years later, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians. Their king, Cyrus, had a different foreign policy. They resettled their conquered peoples, to live in their own lands. So Cyrus gave the order that the Jewish people could go back to Jerusalem, and rebuild their temple.
Most of the people had made a comfortable life for themselves in Babylon and didn’t want to return. But 42,000 did. The first thing they did when they arrived was to build the altar. They wanted to offer sacrifices to God. Priority number 1 was their relationship with God. Their sin had broken that, and only the sacrifice of animals could repair it.
In our day, we don’t sacrifice animals. Jesus has come. When he died on the cross, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin. We need him, like they needed their animal sacrifices, but we don’t need any other sacrifice.
So they’re back home. They’ve got their sacrificial system running again. And now it’s time to build. And today’s story tells of how they got to work, got the foundations laid.
And it also tells how they responded. The celebrations and the weeping we read about in verse 13 are their response to seeing the temple foundations go in.
Let’s look at those two responses. Let’s see why they were celebrating, and why they were weeping. We’ll find God telling us how to respond emotionally to all he’s done for us in Jesus. He’ll tell us what we’ve really got to celebrate, and what we really should be weeping over.
To help you follow where we are, I’ve got two headings for us:
Rejoice over the small signs of God’s faithfulness
Number 1: Rejoice over the small signs of God’s faithfulness. Rejoice over the small signs of God’s faithfulness.
They were overjoyed. They organised a fantastic worship service with full orchestra. We’re told that the sound could be heard from far away. But we need to notice two things about their rejoicing.
The first is that they were rejoicing over God’s faithfulness.
The story is deliberately told to highlight the continuity with what God had done in the past. God was not doing a new thing. He was picking up where he left off. He was keeping his promises from way back. The people may have had to go to Babylon for 50 years, but God had not forgotten his purposes. He’d not forgotten his promises. He’d not forgotten the story.
Lots of details shows this. They used the people of Sidon to cut cedar wood, which they floated as logs from Lebanon to Joppa. The work began in the second month of the year. The Levites supervised the work. Their singing was accompanied by trumpets and cymbals. They sang a refrain from the Psalms: “He is good; his love towards Israel endures forever.”
Now, sometime, you might read 2 Chronicles chapter 2, which tells of Solomon building the first temple. Guess what. He got the people of Sidon to cut cedar, floated from Lebanon to Joppa. He began in the second month. Levites supervised. Their singing was accompanied by trumpets and cymbals. They sang a refrain from the Psalms: “He is good; his love endures forever.”
Quite striking, don’t you think?
And the words of their song underlines this even further. The word “love” doesn’t do justice to the word it translates. This refers to God’s settled determination to be bless his people, to be faithful to everything he’s promised to do for them.
The reason they’re so joyful is not because of the building that’s going up. The building is a symbol of something wonderful. It’s a symbol that God is good. That God is faithful. That he hasn’t gone away. That he’s going to keep every single one of his promises.
Isn’t it amazing to know that God is good. That in the driving seat of this universe is someone who is good, and who will never break a promise. And then to know that you are one of the people he has promised to bless.
That was where these folk were. That is where every Christian is today. That is why they celebrate.
So they rejoice over God’s faithfulness.
The second thing to notice is that they rejoice over something really rather small.
The foundations have been laid. That’s all.
Indeed, this is highlighted when you consider Solomon’s temple. I showed us earlier how nearly every detail deliberately copies Solomon’s. But here’s one difference. When Solomon built the first temple, the equivalent party happened when the building was finished. But here it happens when the foundations are laid.
Our church hall burnt down 5 years ago. We’ve been trying to rebuild it for longer than that. I don’t doubt that when we finally get the new one up, there’ll be some kind of party to celebrate. But it would be odd to have a massive opening ceremony and a party to celebrate the trenches being dug for the footings. It’s too early.
But that’s precisely what they do. Because of what it celebrates.
We’ll think in a minute what this means for us. It means that Christians have a lot more to celebrate than perhaps we realise. Rejoice over the small signs of God’s faithfulness.
Weep over the large remainder of God’s promises
Let’s think about their weeping. Here’s heading number 2: Weep over the large remainder of God’s promises. Weep over the large remainder of God’s promises.
Mixed in amongst the music and the shouts of joy is the sound of weeping. It was the older ones who wept, who remembered the first temple.
Why were they so upset when they saw the footprint of the new temple?
Some people think it was because the new temple would not be as good as the old one. But that can’t be it. It’s too early to see how much gold was going to be used, or anything like that. All they can see is the size, and actually the new one is slightly bigger than the old one. We get the dimensions in chapter 6.
So it must be something else. Here are some of the suggestions I’ve found.
Perhaps it was because they knew that the ark of the covenant was never going in. The old temple was amazing because God himself lived there, symbolised by the gilded wooden box called the ark. But that was lost at the exile, and never recovered. So as big as this temple was, it would never be God’s home as the old one was.
Or perhaps it was because the new temple was bigger, but not by much. The prophet Ezekiel had foretold a new temple, but his was the size of a small country. Those who saw the first temple can see that the new one is basically the same size. This is just setting up the old structure again. It’s not the wonderful, global, new thing God had said he would do.
Or perhaps it was because they remembered the nation’s sin that led them to lose the first temple. The bottom line is, this is just another building. It doesn’t solve the real problem, which is the sin in their hearts. So this new temple is so fragile. It seems inevitable that it too will be lost.
We cannot know the exact reason. But all those possible reasons have in common the idea that God had promised something far bigger than this. He had promised that he would live with his people forever, that he would give us new hearts so that he never takes away his blessings from us, that this would be for people of every nation.
Their weeping shows that they can see this is not it. This is not all there is. This is not all they get.
God has something far bigger, and wonderful though this temple is they had been hoping for more.
When I was an undergraduate, we didn’t eat much fruit. And when we did, it was usually the cheapest apples. This was a time when tropical fruit was not as available as it is now, and one day me and my housemates splashed out on a fresh pineapple. We had a slice each, and left the other half in a bowl on the kitchen table.
I was so excited, I told another friend that he just had to see our fruit bowl. He came round, expecting to find a bowl overflowing with many types of fruit. Instead, his words were: “Is this it? Half a pineapple?”
We all know the mismatch between advertising and reality. It is more of a problem when you order online, and something comes that looked so good in the picture. But when you open it, you’re disappointed. It wasn’t at all how you’d imagined.
Well that’s what’s going on here. They’re weeping because what God has promised is so amazing, but this isn’t it.
Weep over the large remainder of God’s promises.
New covenant joy and tears
They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So they did both.
They rejoiced over the small signs that God is faithful.
They wept over the large distance still to travel to everything God had promised.
And this was recorded by Ezra in his book so that God’s people of every age might see God’s faithfulness and rejoice, and might weep whenever we see how far we have to go.
We need to take care as we come to this. We are New Testament Christians. We aren’t building a temple. We don’t need a temple. Jesus is everything the temple stood for. If we want to meet our God, we go to him.
But we are still part of the people of God. We are those to whom God has made many great and precious promises. God is still at work to keep them. We too can see his faithfulness all around us, and we can also see how far we still have to travel.
When someone says to you: “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”, it’s because there’s two sides to the coin.
We live in the world after Jesus came. In Jesus, God fulfilled his plan from centuries before. There’s now a human being on the throne of the world again. We can be forgiven for everything we’ve ever done wrong. We can be adopted into God’s family. We can be let into God’s thinking and his plans for the whole of history. These aren’t just the foundations of the temple. This is the spiritual temple going up.
We Christians sing whenever we come together. We sing because we’ve got something to sing about. God is good!
And yet how far we have to come. God has promised a future for his people where sin, suffering, death, sadness and evil are no more. And yet how far we are from that. We must wait for that until Jesus comes back. There is bad news as well as good news. Most days there will be things that make us weep. We mustn’t stop celebrating God, because of that. But neither must we feel it’s wrong to weep, because God is at work.
If it’s true in Jesus, it’s true in our own lives as well. If you’re a Christian, hopefully you can testify to God’s faithfulness to you over the years. Maybe they’re small signs that he’s at work, but they’re signs all the same. Learn to spot them, and to celebrate. An old sin or habit no longer getting the upper hand. A moment of crisis that God got you through. His faithful hand guiding and leading you through life. Specific prayers answered. Praise God – he’s faithful.
But don’t we also know how far we have to travel. The times our love for Christ goes cold and stale. The habit we just can’t kick. The unkind word that somehow still comes out. It’s right to weep that we’re not yet the people God wants us to be. And to do so at the same time as we celebrate his faithfulness.
This works at the level of our church too. God is working his purposes out. We need to learn to rejoice over every small sign of that. Some Christians get so wrapped up in all that’s not right in their church that they lose the ability to rejoice when God is faithful. Every step forward, every time someone becomes a Christian, every baptism, every confirmation, every person who comes to an event we run for people to find out about the Lord Jesus, a growing number of children and young people. Each of these little signs is wonderful. Rejoice!
But other Christians are so good at spotting the reasons to praise God that they lose the ability to weep at what is still not there. Whenever we as a church harbour sin, or experience little divisions, it’s tragic. For all it’s wonderful that our numbers here are gently growing, we serve a village of 5000. Don’t you long for the other 98% of our village to worship with us? We should, and we should weep that there’s so far still to go.
We’ve been reading a story of some people who don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They do both, and so should we.
The bottom line is this: In the Lord Jesus, in the lives of his people, in the church, God is doing something absolutely amazing.
We really do have something to celebrate!
And if the foundations are worth celebrating, how much more wonderful will the whole thing be, when everything God has planned and promised is said and done?
And this is something we have the opportunity be a part of.