Reflection: No Going Back

by | Dec 16, 2019

All the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy.

Ezra 3:11b-12

We are coming close to Christmas.  Churches are deep in their Advent activities and getting the word out for their Christmas Eve services.  For Presbytery staff, we are more closely involved in year-end activities, but honestly Presbytery-related business is fairly quiet since most folk are involved in Christmas plans.  However, because our January Presbytery meeting is January 14th, 2020, we are already looking ahead to that meeting.  There are a few important items of business that will be considered in that Tuesday evening meeting at Monte Vista Grove:

  • We will examine for ordination Peter Hawisher, who has been called to Radford Presbyterian Church in Virgina.  If the way be clear (as we say), he will be ordained at First Presbyterian Pomona on Sunday, January 19th, at 6 pm.
  • We will consider the recommendation of COM to adopt a revised and expanded minimum compensation policy for San Gabriel Presbytery pastors.  This was discussed at our last Presbytery meeting, and there will also be a pre-Presbytery meeting at 6 pm on January 14th for people who have questions.
  • We will consider the recommended agreement by which Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church would be dismissed to ECO with their property.  There will be another pre-Presbytery meeting for those who want to discuss the proposed dismissal more closely.

Since the Presbytery office will be closed December 23-January 1, we are trying to work ahead.  As announced last week, Twila French is passing the baton to Ally Lee, who is learning how to support the Presbytery meetings.

But I jump ahead.  We are still in Advent, still trying to imagine what it was like for that occupied nation, having already waited for centuries for the restoration of Israel, perhaps wondering whether the promises voiced by the prophets would ever be fulfilled.

Yesterday I heard this text from Ezra.  It struck me, partly because we don’t pay much attention to Ezra, but moreso for the surprising relevancy of the text.  This passage reports the rebuilding of the Temple, an important sign of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the exiles were allowed to return from Babylon.  This might be an architectural, religious symbol of restoration that foreshadows the restoration of the nation, the chosen people of YHWH.  The building of the Second Temple was accompanied by many nods to the raising of the First Temple, perhaps to confirm the legitimacy of this new house of God.

In spite of the great celebration for the building of the new temple, there were some who wept at the sight of this new structure.  Can’t you just hear their words and bittersweet feelings, which are repeated countless times in our churches today?  “It’s just not the same.”  “I remember how beautiful it was, the real Temple, when I was brought there as a child.”  “We are just getting settled; it’s too much and too fast to take on this huge project right now.”  “We did fine without; why are these people trying to come back and act like the last 70 years never happened?”

This last statement might have come from a different group.  Since the Babylonians exiled the leaders of Judah, there were people left behind to make do.  So the return of the exiles (the old leaders) and their attempts to rebuild and regain their status as leaders may not have been totally welcomed by those who managed to live amidst the ruins of Jerusalem.

I have worked with enough churches in their transformation efforts to realize that even when the transformation is good, and even when the oldtimers rationally understand that the change is faithful and helpful, there is yet sadness that we can’t go back to our most beloved memories of the past.  There are leaders of old who wonder why the old ways don’t work anymore, and there are more recent leaders who resent efforts to go back to the “good old days,” and may even resist any contribution the oldtimers might want to make.

Too often we confuse “restoration” with “transformation”—the people of Israel kept yearning for restoration, but the Bible tells us that while we can hope for restoration in our relationship with God, there’s no going back to our past lives.  Early on in my biblical studies, it was pointed out that the culmination of God’s plan of salvation is not a return to Eden.  Indeed, we do not go back to a simple life alone with God in a garden, but celebrate the triumph of a wounded Lamb amidst throngs of believers in the eternal city.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, let us consider how radically different he was from the new King David, the restorer of all that was, whom the people of Israel were expecting.  And likewise, may we accept in faith that the birth of Jesus in our hearts is not a sentimental return to what was, but a new dawn to a future that we cannot even imagine.  May we recognize, and share, the myriad ways that God’s future, a time not just of restoration for some but of new life for all, is held in the potential of that little baby in Bethlehem—but also in each of us, as children of God.  Let us trust that whatever we loved in the past is not as great as the glory of what is to come.

Looking ahead for the Dawn,