November 10, 2002
The year is 537 B.C. The place is Jerusalem. The Jews have just returned from a long captivity in Babylon. Some have been gone from their homeland for 70 years. Others have been gone for 50 years. They were sent into captivity as part of God’s judgment on generations of disobedience. Now at last the first wave of Jews is returning to the land. But everything has changed. The countryside is in the hands of their enemies. The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins. The walls have been torn down and buildings have been looted. And worst of all, the temple built by Solomon 500 years earlier is no more. It’s gone. Vanished. Utterly destroyed. So complete was the work that it seemed as if the temple and all its glory had been some strange dream. The Babylonians took the gold and the silver and everything else of value. The temple itself was razed. The Ark of the Covenant is gone, the altar of sacrifice is gone, and the temple implements are gone. In its place lies a field of rubble.
So the Jews go to work with vigor and determination. First, they rebuild the altar (vs. 1-6). Second, they relay the foundation of the temple (vs.7-9). Then they pause for a public praise celebration (vs. 10-11). In the midst of the cheering and the singing, a strange thing happens: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:12-13). The young folks danced and cheered while the old folks wept bitter tears. And the shouts of joy mixed with the weeping so that no one could tell them apart. What a strange scene.
If you do the math, it all makes sense. The temple had been destroyed in 586 B.C. Fifty years later the Jews return from captivity and begin to rebuild it. The older folks who could remember Solomon’s temple were at least 65 years old. Meanwhile, two whole generations had been born in Babylon. Those young people had no memory of the glories of Solomon’s temple. Having grown up in pagan Babylon, they cheered the beginning of a new temple. But to the old folks, it was like comparing a tarpaper shack to the Taj Mahal. How pitifully small it seemed to them when compared with what they once had known. Their disappointment was so great that they wept while others rejoiced.
Everyone knows disappointment sooner or later. Friends break their word, marriages end in divorce, our children move away and never call us, colleagues betray us, the company lays us off, doctors can’t cure us, our investments disappear, our dreams are shattered, the best-laid plans go astray, other Christians disappoint us, and very often, we disappoint ourselves. We live in a world of disappointment, and if we do not come to grips with this truth, we are doomed to be unhappier tomorrow than we are today.
English author Joseph Addison declared, “Our real blessings often appear to us in the shape of pains, losses and disappointments.” We have all heard the story of Alexander the Great who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law, said, “I have accomplished nothing worthwhile in my life.” John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the U.S.—wrote in his diary: “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations.” And this is the epitaph written by famed author Robert Louis Stevenson: “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.” Cecil Rhodes opened up Africa and established an empire, but what were his dying words? “So little done, so much to do.” Joe Torre is the manager of the New York Yankees. Years ago he was the broadcaster for the California Angels (now the Anaheim Angels). During a broadcast one night, he mentioned that a little boy had asked him before the game, “Didn’t you used to be somebody?” And perhaps you’ve heard Abraham Lincoln’s reply when he was asked how it felt to lose the race for U.S. Senator to Stephen Douglas in 1858: “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe: I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.”
Dr. Jerome Frank at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore talks about “our assumptive world.” He means that we all make certain assumptions about life. Often our assumptions are unstated. Deep down, we believe that if we do certain things, others will treat us in a certain way. We assume that we have earned certain things out of life. If those expectations are not met, we are disappointed. There is a strong correlation between good mental health and having assumptions that match reality. And there is a high correlation between misplaced assumptions and a variety of emotional problems, including depression. Put simply, we are disappointed when things don’t go the way we thought they were going to go. Wrong expectations lead to disappointment, and disappointment leads to despair.
Why were the old people disappointed? They remembered how good things used to be. And because they were living in the past with all its glory, they could not deal with the present reality. If we are ever going to overcome that sort of disappointment, three things are necessary. We must do what the Jews did in Ezra 3.
I. A New Dedication—Rebuild the Altar
The returning exiles began by rebuilding the altar so they could offer sacrifices to God. Verse 1 notes that all the people (“as one man”) assembled in Jerusalem. The two key leaders knew what to do. Jeshua the high priest and Zerubbabel (the man who led the exiles back from Babylon) led the people in reconstructing the altar of God. When it was finished, they began to offer the morning and evening sacrifices as God had mandated in the book of Leviticus. Then they made offerings for the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 4). “After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred feasts of the LORD, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the LORD. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, though the foundation of the LORD’s temple had not yet been laid” (Ezra 3:5-6).
They built the altar even before they started rebuilding the temple. Why? Worship must always come first. Out of the rubble of their past disobedience, they first made sure they were right with God. In a sense, by making sacrifices first, they were saying, “Lord, we want to get right with you.” The altar was the symbolic center of Old Testament religion. It was the place where they brought their lambs, goats and bulls to be offered to the Lord. They killed the animal, poured out its blood, and burned the flesh before the Lord. Without the altar there could be no proper worship, no assurance of divine protection, no guarantee of forgiveness, no access to God, and no lifting of the burden of guilt and failure. The altar was the link between God and man. During all the years in Babylon, the people had no altar and thus no clear access to God and no assurance of forgiveness. Their disobedience had taken the altar away and broken their fellowship with God.
There are times when we all need a new beginning with God. Sometimes we need a new beginning because of our own sin. Sometimes the circumstances of life have so defeated us that we need a fresh start. Sometimes we feel that hope is gone forever. And in those moments, we must do what the Jews did. We must return to the altar of sacrifice. For Christians, that means returning to the cross of Jesus Christ where his blood was shed for our sins. That’s why I often say, “Run to the cross!” And not just for the unsaved but for Christians, too. We all need the healing that comes from the cross of Jesus Christ. And we need it every day.
The Man Who Denied God
Often we wonder if God will take us back, or will he turn us away? The answer is yes, he’ll take you back, but you’ll never know until you make that journey on your own. Several months ago I was the guest host on Open Line, the question-and-answer program heard nationally on the Moody Broadcasting Network. With about three minutes left in the program, I took one final call. As soon as I heard the man’s voice, I knew he was distraught. He proceeded to tell me a story unlike anything I have ever heard before. “I used to be a Christian but my wife left me for another man. When she told me she was leaving, I got angry and ripped up the Bible in front of her. Then I denied God in the name of the Trinity.” His voice broke and he started weeping. “I know it was wrong to do that, but I don’t think God will ever take me back. What can I do?” I glanced at the clock and saw that we had about 90 seconds left in the program. It was a dilemma because this was the kind of call you wish you had a whole hour to discuss. But the seconds were ticking away and I had to say something quickly. “Sir, I don’t have much time, so let me tell you this one thing. I know God loves you just the way you are and he will take you back.” “But I ripped up the Bible in front of my wife.” “Sir, I know God loves you and he will take you back.” “But I denied God in the name of the Trinity.” “God loves you and he will take you back.” The man wept openly as I said those words. Now we were down to the last 30 seconds. “We’re almost out of time so I want you to listen carefully. Your broken heart tells me that God will take you back. The Lord never turns away a broken heart. When this program is over, I want you to get on your knees, put the Bible in front of you, tell the Lord you know the Bible is the Word of God, and ask him to forgive you. And I want you to renounce your denial of faith. Tell the Lord that you know he is God, and ask the Lord Jesus to forgive you. Ask him for a fresh start. If you do that, you will not be turned away.” With that, our time ran out and the program was over. I never heard from the man again. I don’t know if he took my counsel or not. But I am sure I told him the truth. No matter how great sin may be, if we turn to the Lord, he will abundantly pardon. “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).
II. A New Obedience—Relaid the Foundation
Having rebuilt the altar, and thus re-established their relationship with God, the Jews proceeded to relay the foundation of the temple. This involved a massive cleanup effort. Remember that when they came back, they found a city basically turned into rubble, like Berlin at the end of World War II. And where Solomon’s temple had been, they found a field of rubble—piles of rocks, smashed bits of wood, with weeds and bushes growing up amid the debris. When they first saw it, there was nothing that looked like a temple. Nothing. All had been destroyed, torn down, and then burned. “Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, as authorized by Cyrus king of Persia. In the second month of the second year after their arrival at the house of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work, appointing Levites twenty years of age and older to supervise the building of the house of the LORD” (Ezra 3:7-8).
As I study this story in its larger context, I am struck by two facts: First, they committed themselves to follow the Lord in the details of life. Verses 2 and 4 emphasize that when they rebuilt the altar, they did it “according to the Law,” that is, they followed the details of what God told Moses to do. That’s significant because nearly 1,000 years had passed since God had spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. Lots of water had passed under the bridge in the intervening centuries. Empires had come and gone, Israel itself had gone through the conquest, the period of the Judges, the reign of the three great kings, Saul, David and Solomon, then the bizarre period of the divided kingdom, and finally the humiliation of total defeat and exile in Babylon. Now it was time to start over. What do you do then? You go back to the basics, back to the drawing board, you go back and read the instruction manual so you don’t make the same mistakes all over again. That’s what they did in Ezra 3.
Second, they relaid the foundation in spite of the enemies all around them. As the story unfolds in the chapters that follow, those enemies will do everything they can to discourage them, to harass them, to oppose them, and to stop them altogether. And in fact, the enemies will succeed for a period of time. It takes courage to stand against a hostile world. When the enemy lines up against you, what will you do then? You put faith ahead of your fears.
Put it all together and it looks like this. In spite of the rubble and in spite of the opposition, and in spite of all that had happened in the past, the people of God banded together and got to work. They raised money to buy new cedar logs, they organized their workers into teams, and everyone pitched in and went to work. They picked up those huge boulders and dragged them to the side. They cut down the bushes, dug up the weeds, cleared out the broken timber and the jagged pieces of metal. Little by little, day by day, week by week, they worked to clean out a half-century of neglect.
Do not miss the point. When you are disappointed and don’t know what to do, take a lesson from the Jews.
Do what you know is right!
Do what you know is right!
Do what you know is right!
You can’t stay in bed forever. Someone has to mop the floor. Someone has to take out the trash. Someone has to open the office. Someone has to turn on the lights. Someone has to pay the bills. Someone has to fix the motor. Someone has to enter the data. Someone has to make the sales presentation. Someone has to review the charts. Someone has to make the lesson plans. Someone has to see the patients. Someone has to grade the papers.
Don’t let your discouragement keep you from doing what you know you have to do. If you can’t keep your big promises, keep your small ones. If you can’t follow the big plan, follow the small one. If you can’t see ten steps into the future, then take two or three steps. Or just take the next step in front of you. Motivational speaker John Maxwell said, “The smallest act of obedience is better that the greatest intention.” He’s right. Better to do a little than to sit around dreaming about doing a lot.
If you cannot obey God in some grand gesture, then obey him in the small things of life. Do what you know needs to be done, and do it for the glory of God.
III. A New Priority—Resolved to Praise the Lord
“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: ‘He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.’ And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid” (Ezra 3:10-11).
Once the foundation was laid, the people and their leaders stopped and gave thanks to God. This is united, public praise. It is intense, emotional and God-centered. When they sang, they declared, “He is good,” not “We are good.” They didn’t even say, “We did this with God’s help,” even though that would have been true. They openly gave God all the credit.
I am struck by the fact that they did not wait until the building was done to praise the Lord. Even though laying the foundation was significant, there was a mountain of work left to do. Years would pass before the temple was finished. This was only the first step, but they stopped anyway and gave thanks to the Lord. What a lesson that is for all of us.
Yesterday Marlene and I were on North Avenue going to pick up our lawnmower from the repair shop. We happened to tune in while a preacher was talking about the importance of praising the Lord. He made the point (loudly) that praise is a choice, not a feeling. “You aren’t supposed to wait until you feel like praising the Lord. You’re to praise the Lord at all times whether you feel like it or not. Many times you won’t feel like praising the Lord. That doesn’t matter. Praise isn’t about your feelings. Praise is a choice we make without regard to our feelings.” He was exactly right. Don’t wait until the victory is won to praise the Lord. Stop and praise him before the battle is begun. Then praise him in the midst of the conflict. And praise him even when things seem to be going against you. Do what the Jews did and praise him for a good beginning. That will put your soul in the right place to continue to work with joy in the days to come.
It is a great advance in the spiritual life if you can praise the Lord even when things are not going well. In the midst of the devastation of Jerusalem, with only the foundation of the temple relaid, with rubble on every hand, after returning to find their homeland controlled by their enemies, still the people said with one voice, “God is good.” That’s true faith. Anyone can praise God when the sun in shining, all the bills are paid, your marriage is strong, your kids are doing well, you just got a raise, and the future is bright. It’s something else to praise God when things are far from perfect. It’s a great thing to be able to look at your life and say, “It’s not what I wish it was, but God is still good to me.”
Why Young and Old Need Each Other
So why did the young people rejoice? Because Babylon was all they had known. They had never seen Solomon’s temple, didn’t remember its glory and hadn’t witnessed its destruction. All they knew about that, they had heard from their parents and their parents’ friends. The older generation told them tales of the glorious olden days. But they knew none of it by experience. So when they saw the temple foundation relaid, to them it was an amazing answer to prayer. It was the closest thing to a temple they had ever seen, and they saw no reason to weep. This was a time to celebrate the goodness of the Lord.
But I do not think we should be overly hard on the old folks. They remembered how good things had been, and they recalled what had been lost through disobedience. It was well that they should weep, and even better that they should pass on the lessons learned through bitter experience many years earlier. It is still true today:
The young need the old to remind them of the past.
The old need the young to encourage them about the future.
Four Life Lessons
As we stand back and survey this amazing, touching episode, four lessons stand out to help us overcome the disappointments of life.
A. Yield your memories and your dreams to the Lord.
Was your past better and happier than your present? Yield it to the Lord. Was your past filled with sadness and pain? Give that to the Lord, too. Do you have great dreams, bright hopes, big plans for the future? That’s wonderful. It’s good to dream big, but in all your dreaming, and all your hoping, and all your planning, yield it all to the Lord. Lay it at his feet and say, “Your will be done.” Take the past with its happiness and sadness, take the future with all its unlimited possibilities, and give it all, past and present, to the Lord who spans the generations. Say to him, “Lord, you are the God of yesterday and you are the God of tomorrow, I yield them both to you so that I may live for your glory today.”
B. Accept your present situation as from the Lord.
To “accept” does not mean passive resignation to the problems of life. This is not a call to give up and stop fighting for what you believe in. But it does mean accepting the reality that you are where you are right now because this is where God wants you to be, because if God wanted you to be somewhere else, you would be somewhere else. Only those who have a high view of God can come to this conclusion. Sometimes you must come to this certainty by a conscious choice of the heart. Blessed is the person who can say, “I am here by the sovereign choice of a loving God, and I know my Lord makes no mistakes.” This does not mean it is wrong to change your situation if you need to (and if you can), but it gives you the bedrock confidence that Higher Hands are at work in your life and that you are being led by the Lord. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 KJV).
C. Resolve to obey God right where you are.
Disappointment may cause us to become bitter, and bitterness may make us lethargic toward the duties of life. We may find a thousand excuses not to do the things we know we ought to do. And little by little things begin to slide, jobs are not done, chores are not finished, projects are left uncompleted, phone calls are not returned, appointments are not met, messages are not answered, papers are not written, goals are not met, and down we slide into a bottomless pit of despair. The answer is so simple that we often miss it. Resolve in your heart that you will obey God right where you are. No excuses. No delays. No hoping for better days, happier times, or more favorable circumstances. If things aren’t what you wish they were, roll up your sleeves anyway and go to work. Who knows? Your willingness to do what needs to be done may change the way things are. And even if the situation does not improve, you can hardly make it worse by doing what needs to be done. And if you somehow make it worse, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you made it worse by doing your duty, not by giving up and throwing in the towel. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).
D. Praise God for his goodness in spite of your circumstances.
This is what the people of God did in Ezra’s day. They rolled up their sleeves, got to work, and as they worked, with the fulfillment of their dreams still far in the future, they offered public praise to God. If this were a parable, I would say, “Go and do likewise.”
Rough Seas Make Great Sailors
And let this be the basis of your thanksgiving. God’s goodness is proved not only in what he gives, but also in what he allows. Hard times are hard precisely because they force you out of your comfort zone. They put you in a place where you are virtually forced to trust God. They move the spiritual life from theory to reality. You can hear all the sermons you want about how God takes care of his children, but it’s not until you experience it for yourself that those truths become the liberating foundation of a life that cannot be blown away by the winds of adversity. Here’s a quote I found this week: “One can learn about sailing in the classroom, but it takes rough seas to make a great sailor.” Well said. You can read about sailing until you know all the nautical terms by heart, but you’ll never learn how to sail, much less be a great sailor, until you take your turn at the helm while your sailboat fights through a squall off Cape Fear. When the waves are pounding, the wind is howling, and the rain rolls across the deck in horizontal sheets, then you’ll learn how to sail and how to survive. If you don’t learn at that point, you probably won’t survive. When the storm has passed, you will thank God for the knowledge and confidence that could not have come any other way. There are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity. So give thanks to God even though your circumstances are not the best.
Better to Begin Small
As we come to the end of this message, there is much we need to ponder. For one thing, God’s grace is so great that, no matter how great our sin, there is always the possibility of a new beginning with him. The very fact that the Jews returned from Babylon proves this fact. No matter how checkered your past may be, the grace of God is always greater than your sin. While the scars of the past may be with you forever, those scars do not determine what your future will be. So if you need a new beginning, turn to the Lord with all your heart because he will not turn you away. There is a second truth the flows from the first: When we have been humbled by God, our praise will be sweeter because it will be unmixed with sinful pride. The Jews could never say, “Look at us, we did it, we brought ourselves back from Babylon.” No way. God humbled them, he punished them, and when the time came, he brought them home again. And he gave them the strength to relay the foundation of the temple. Human pride had been crushed years earlier. Now God alone would get the glory.
Let’s close with two statements I would like you to repeat out loud. That’s right. Wherever you happen to be right now, I’d like you to say the next two sentences aloud:
It is better to begin small with God than not to begin at all.
It is better to rejoice over what you have than to weep over what you used to have.
Disappointment is a tricky emotion. It’s not wrong to remember the past and it’s certainly not wrong to grieve over what you lost. If our loss was caused by our own stupid choices, then grieving may keep us from making the same mistakes again. But eventually there comes a time when we must move on. At that point our beginnings are likely to be small and insignificant. Do not despair. From tiny acorns mighty oaks someday grow. When God wanted to save the world, he started with a baby in a manger. Small beginnings are no hindrance to the Lord. Go ahead and get started. You never know what God will do.
How long are you going to allow your future to be defined by your past? How long will you choose to stay in your disappointment? Don’t despise your present because it’s not what you wanted it to be or because it’s not what your past used to be. Lay your disappointments at the foot of the cross. Let Jesus have them. Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there. Give thanks for all your blessings. Then by God’s grace, move forward with your life, determined to serve the Lord. Amen.