This event – the laying of the foundation of the Second Temple, following the return from exile in Babylon – is a major historical “hinge.” It both connects the past with the present and the future and separates what is past to those at the event from their present and future. That's a complicated idea, so let me just tell you the story.
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Judah in 597 BC, taking most of Jerusalem’s royal family and social/intellectual elite as captives to Babylon. He left one member of the royal family – Zedekiah – as a puppet-king, with instructions to keep the remainder of the people in line. Zedekiah rebelled, so Nebuchadnezzar came back, and in 587 – ten years after the first conquest - sacked the city, broke down the city wall, and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, leaving not one stone stacked upon another. He’d already carried off most of the Temple’s furnishings after the first siege, but now he razed the building itself. Jerusalem lay desolate for 49 years thereafter, a ghost city with only the poorest of the Judans left in the area.
Well, Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great in 538 BC, and the leading Jews – as the Judans are now called – were allowed to go back to Jerusalem if they wanted. Many went, including the priest Ezra, and the foundation for the Second Temple was laid in the next year, 537 BC. It took 21 years to complete. This was the Temple Jesus knew. It was finally destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Meanwhile, many Jews stayed in Babylon – and in other places. This was the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora – the dispersion – wherein Jews lived in many countries, speaking their languages, while maintaining a separate identify as the chosen people of God.
In our Scripture reading today, we see the celebrations on the day when they laid the cornerstone of the Temple.
And all the people shouted 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 fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy . . .The destruction of the temple was 50 years before, and all these men had been taken to Babylon. They are now at least 55 or 60 – and older. Are they weeping for joy because the temple is being renewed? No, their weeping is contrasted with the joy of the others, who were too young to remember the former days. So maybe they are weeping because they think this temple can never be the equal of that one, and so much that was so precious is now gone for good, and they will never see it again.
Remember, this new Temple’s foundation is being laid in a city that is still, for the most part, a town of shacks and rubble, with no defensive walls, no political stability, no commerce. They could see the magnitude of the job ahead, but they could not imagine how it would be accomplished, or how greatly it would be accomplished. But it was.
Ezra began a cultural salvage job the like of which had never been seen before. He and the generation that he led are called the The Men of the Great Assembly in Jewish history. Under Ezra’s leadership, not only was the Temple rebuilt, but all that could be salvaged of Israel’s past was found and set in order. From this came what we call the Old Testament, for what was in existence before this time was now set down in definitive, authoritative editions, and what was scattered and fragmentary, they researched and composed themselves. And so the Law, the Prophets, and the Books of Wisdom were brought into their present form.
Not only did they finish and set forth what Jews call Tanakh – and we call the Old Testament – it is to this generation we owe the very idea of scripture: of an authoritative book, with a fixed text, that reveals the Word of God and the reception of which constitutes the People of God. In effect, they replaced the Ark of the Covenant with a Holy Book, and they placed it in the hands of the people, led by the priests and rabbis.
The Men of the Great Assembly also wrote the synagogue liturgy. They created the feast of Purim. And they did many other things, which taken together defined the religion of Judaism. They took everything essential about their beliefs, their identity, and their covenant with God – all of which had been thrown into doubt when they were dragged off to Babylon – and re-issued them in new form (but essentially the same) for the generations to follow them. It was a staggering achievement.
You’d think no one could ever achieve such a thing again in history, but . . . fast forward to the 5th Century AD. Christianity, which grew out of Second Temple Judaism – indeed, which saw the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of that Judaism – has spread throughout the Roman Empire. It only became a legal religion in AD 313, but then it became the official religion of the Empire in 380. So thoroughly had Christianity penetrated the intellectual and spiritual life of the Empire that it was now sometimes hard to separate the idea of “Christian” from the idea of “Roman” – to be one implied the other.
But then, throughout the 400s, a series of mass migrations, of invasions by Germanic barbarians – some heretics, some heathens – overran the Empire in the West, and the Empire was broken up into a hodge-podge of separate kingdoms – of Visigoths, Suevi, and Vandals, of Burgundians, Ostrogoths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and finally, the Lombards: the ancestors of the nations of modern Europe. The Roman Church – which had just gotten really comfortable as the leading element in Roman society – now found itself having to explain its beliefs to people who didn’t speak Latin or Greek, who had very different cultural and religious identities.
So, the Church set out to translate the Gospel, in its entirety, into this new cultural milieu, explaining who God is and what Jesus did, the nature of sin and salvation, the meaning and practice of the sacraments, and all the rest of it. They set themselves to convert the Germanic peoples and teach them to be Christians – and they succeeded. They did it so well that many people now think of Christianity as a Western European religion, instead of a Near Eastern one.
And with the Gospel came all the tools to understand the gospel: the Bible itself, as well as art and literature and science, habits of thought, a common history – all of which helped explain the Gospel and make it at home in the new Europe that we now begin to call “medieval” - a blending of Greco-Roman antiquity and Germanic warrior tradition. The very idea of the medieval knight, for instance, using his skill at arms to defend the poor and do justice, is just the Germanic warrior ideal infused with the values of the Christian saint.
Well, fast forward again to the second half of the 20th Century, to a time we call the post-war Baby Boom, and the experience of the Boomers - those born between the years 1943 and 1960, among whom we find your beloved pastor. For us Boomers, our entire life has been a long, roller-coaster ride of constant change.
I remember while growing up and going through elementary school, secondary school, and then college, that my class always seemed to be either the first group to do something, which then became standard for years and years, or the last group to do something, after which that tradition was scrapped. Remember “senior cords?” Not if you’re younger than I am! I think there were only two or three of us – all of us with older siblings – who painted our pants with cartoons and slogans in the old tradition our senior year.
“New” became the fashion, and then a fever. If something was “New” it was automatically assumed to be better than something “Old.” By the time I was all grown up, the world that I knew as a young child - the world of my parents, that I expected to inherit and inhabit – was all but gone. And I’m not talking about simple stuff like new products, new technology, or pop culture fads. I’m talking about ideas, about political principles, about whole subjects taught in school.
My older sisters wrestled with ponderous and important books like Moby-Dick in their literature classes. When it came time for my class to study the great American novel, we read the sci fi paperback Alas, Babylon.
I took Western Civilization in college, even as they were chanting on the Berkley campus, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go” – because what was Western Civilization, after all, but a series of massacres and rapes and political oppression by dead white males? Today, in many colleges, no comprehensive course in our history is required, and what is offered does not explain Western Civ, but only debunk it.
I took a degree in English, and was always grumped that I couldn’t find an undergrad course in Old English in the course catalog. That was once a staple of the discipline, but now it was just for grad students. But then when I returned for grad school, they no longer offered it because it wasn't considered important any more. Today, people earn degrees in English where the sum total of what is learned is what Tom Shippey calls “a weary trawl through various approved victim groups.” And as for grammar, well, it isn’t taught much today because the professors themselves weren’t taught it, either, and don't know any.
And I don't mean to just rant on about the loss of the past. What this all means is that when you step outside our comfortable little box called “Church” and try to explain to someone who doesn’t understand Christianity what, exactly, we believe – and why we believe it – why we do what we do – and what is negotiable and what is not . . . Well, even if you know what you’re trying to say, chances are the people you’re talking with have no connecting links to help make sense of what you’re telling them. They don’t know the Bible. They don’t know our theological lingo. They don’t know any history. Indeed, all they have is one dominant idea with which to make sense of the world, and that is that the difference between Good and Bad is in how it makes them feel.
When I began my ministry, I thought that we were on the cusp of a new age, like the Christians of the 5th Century, and that what we needed to do was to translate our faith and all the stuff that helped you make sense of it into terms that people born on this side of the divide could grab hold of. Well, the divide has gotten a lot wider over the last forty years, and the need has gotten much, much greater. The nominal Christians are fading away. There are no longer people hanging around who know church and are just needing a push and a prayer to be saved. We aren’t going to advance the cause of Christ just by revving up the people who still attend church, or by swapping members with other churches through transfer growth. The target audience for all of us is now the people who mentally and spiritually inhabit the post-Christian world: those are the people we’re going to have to explain ourselves to, if Christianity is to become their religion.
We are faced with an enormous cultural salvage job. We have to lay the foundation of the Church for a new age – one that doesn’t remember what the Church used to be, or why it mattered. But the Good News we offer still needs to be the Good News – the Gospel. Just dressing up Church in new slogans won’t cut it. Dropping robes for polos and khakis won't make it. Making Church “easier” isn't good enough. Leaving unpopular parts out? Nope.
We’re going to have to grow spiritually and intellectually and make ourselves personally accountable for how we live our lives if we’re going to re-create and re-present faith in Christ to the people of our day and the days to come. We’re going to have to reclaim our past, before it’s gone, so that we can make a future for those Christ calls us to reach.
Facing the magnitude of the task, we might well weep to see just a few stones placed in that new Church that needs to be built. But we need to have faith in the eternal God, in Jesus “who is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,” and set ourselves to build again, and to see it through. To do the hard work of sharing the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that the as-yet unbelieving people of today can understand, and respond to.
God speed the work. Amen.