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Looking Back…and Looking Forward

Ezra 3.1-13

 

Today is a day to celebrate! Today we dedicate our new worship space, really our fully remodeled church as a whole. We want to do this in two ways – introduced by two separate (but short) sermons. By looking back, and then looking forward. First, we will look back, remembering how and why we got here, and celebrating why this is such a big day. Then, we will look forward, praying for God’s blessing on this new space, and celebrating together the meal of unity.

In the first sermon, we look back. A few weeks ago, we explored the story of Solomon building the Israelites’ holy space. Today’s passage tells about the re-building of it. Following the building of the original Temple, God’s people were exiled to Babylon, until the next superpower – the Persians – allowed the Israelites to return and rebuild their city and their Temple. As soon as they returned to the site of the old Temple, the priests and leaders of the congregation began to worship on the ruins of the old space. But as they worshipped, they also built. They re-built the Temple on the old foundations, hoping to one day return it to its former glory.

As they worshipped, they built. Sound familiar? Kind of like holding worship services in a sanctuary with concrete floors, perhaps? Or in a gym for a few weeks.

The parallels between this story and ours are fascinating. One of the first celebrations that the Israelites conducted when they returned to the ruins of the Temple was the Feast of Tabernacles. This yearly festival was a harvest-time feast, like our Thanksgiving. It was a reminder of the bounty that God had given the people. And to celebrate, they constructed booths, or tabernacles, or tents, in order to remember the times that they wandered through the wilderness, living in tents, on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.

Today, the hope is that this morning’s service is something like the Feast of Tabernacles. Together, we remind ourselves with gratitude of God’s bountiful blessings, and as we also remember the difficult days when we had to live in temporary housing! My hope is that this will be a day to look back – and remember.
First, let us remember our saints. The Spiritual Leadership Team made the decision to do this service of dedication on All Saints Day because of the significance of doing so on a day where we remember and celebrate the saints who have come before. For those of you who might be new to this tradition, All Saints Day is an ancient practice of the Church that helps us to remember those who have died over the course of the last year, and really all our “saints” – those who have blessed us over the generations. This morning, we will celebrate those saints, with a moment of silence for each. The ancient Israelites teach us how to do this today in our passage. The final verses describe a ceremony of dedication of the foundations of the Temple, and it says that many cried out in joy, while others cried out in grief. The oldest members of the congregation remembered in grief and tears. The remembered the first Temple, and once again grieved its loss. They remembered those who had been there beside them through that celebration – and the exile to follow – and grieved that they were gone and buried and would not see the new Temple with their own eyes. And they cried tears of sorrow and tears of joy – which in my experience is a lot like what grief looks like – and together their cries were heard miles away. This morning, we grieve and we celebrate, as tears of joy and sadness flow mingled down.

Next, we remember our story. This marks the 160th year of worship and ministry for First Baptist, and so we want to remember and understand. I have told you before that one of the strengths of this church is our flexibility and unity. For 160 years, we have faced challenges and struggles, but together we have turned our faces toward God, and together God has shown a way. This morning, in a few moments, I will invite Verlin Gilbert to share a summary of our story. Again, the ancient Israelites have shown us the way. The passage says that they “assembled as one person.” With unity, they gathered. And then it says that they shared their resources and bounty with those who could construct a new space of worship. Because they remembered their story, they helped to write the next chapter. Likewise, we remember, so that together we may write the next chapter.

Finally, we remember our sacrifice. The last few years have not been easy ones. But we have made it because of some amazing leadership – leadership that we want to celebrate. The ancient Israelites were led by a priest named Jeshua and a civil leader named Zerubbabel. Together, they recognized the need for creating a new space for worship and made it happen. You have done the same thing. You took a tough look at your welcome and worship space and said that it would not do. It would not do to have water pour into the nursery carpet every time we got a hard rain. It would not do to have rainwater flowing through our heating and air conditioning ducts on the floor, circulating moisture every time we turned on the switch, growing mold behind the walls and ceilings. It would not do to have a welcome space that told visitors that they weren’t really welcome. And it would not do to have to put up this sign, which used to sit out front during our first service. It says “Service in Progress. Please Enter through another door.” Our building literally told people “Welcome to Our Church, please go to the back door.” But you said, “this will not do,” and so today, we don’t need this sign any more. And when we say we Welcome, Worship, Work, and Wonder, we mean it.

Like the ancient Israelites, you said that this would not do, and so you made sacrifices and made a difference. You didn’t complain when you showed up and had to do Sunday school somewhere else, or had to worship in the Roger Williams Room, or had to change your plans because of construction. You showed up to paint walls, and pull carpet out of rooms, and move all of the books in my office! You gave your money to re-build our worship space and our building into a safe and welcoming place. And so, we want to remember and celebrate your sacrifice. After Verlin, I want to invite Craig Weinaug – the chair of the capital campaign and our own modern-day Zerubbabel – to come forward and share a word of gratitude. Just like Ezra 3, which lists the people who showed up to make the project happen, he will recognize our hard workers, and say thank you.

So, this morning, as we remember our saints, remember our story, and remember our sacrifice, let us do so with hearts of gratitude and thanksgiving!

 

Ezra 6.16-22

We have taken time to look back and celebrate. Now is the time to look forward and dedicate. Again, we return to the story of the Israelites and their return from Exile to the ruins of the Temple to re-build it. In the passage Melissa just read in Ezra 6, it is five years after the first passage in Ezra 3. The Temple is now completed, and they are ready to celebrate.

In a way, this passage is a little bit anti-climactic. After all of the lead-up and build-up, you would think that the party would be a bigger one. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the work was not yet done. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah together tell the whole story – rebuilding the altar, the Temple, the wall, the city. It was a work that continued on, beyond chapter 6, even after the celebration was over.

And the second reason the story is a bit anti-climactic is this: the people didn’t need a huge party; they just wanted to get back to normal. It had been years that they had been exiled, away from the Temple and their home. And now, they could return to normal – a new normal. The prayers of worship could now be given in the newly constructed Temple. The sacrifices and offerings could be made in the way that the Scriptures had told them to make them. And they could finally celebrate the Passover. Remember, the Passover was – and is – a spring festival that was meant to help the Israelites re-covenant with God, looking forward with anticipation to a new day and a new beginning. It celebrated the story of the first Passover – the escape of God’s people from the Egyptians and into a new freedom. Johanna Bos tells us “At Passover, God’s gracious activity in the past is gratefully remembered to lend hope for the future.”

The parallels here are fascinating. Five years ago last summer, we started the conversation about what it would take to fix the building. Shingles were falling off the roof. Water was leaking in all over. Five years later – just like the Israelites – here we are.

Meanwhile, like the Israelites, we still aren’t completely done. We have A/V work to do. We have to figure out new chairs sooner rather than later. We pause to celebrate and dedicate like the Israelites did, but there will be more.

Finally, in the same way, this morning’s celebration is an opportunity for us to enter a “new normal.” This morning, I have invited several of the youth of our congregation to lead us in a responsive prayer of dedication. As they represent a new beginning for us, they remind us of God’s blessing today and in the future. Next, like the Israelites came and offered their offerings and sacrifices in the new Temple space, we, too, bring forward our tithes, gifts, and offerings before God. And finally, just like the first meal in the new space, we celebrate together the Lord’s Supper. For it was Jesus’ gathering with his disciples at the Passover meal that gives us our celebration of communion. It is thus appropriate to celebrate during this service of dedication our communion together. So as we celebrate with prayers, offerings, bread, and cup, may we recognize that God is giving us a “new normal”, and we are thankful for the gift.

 

 

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