Third Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2023

Posted on December 18, 2023, Pastor: Pastor Lara Forbes

Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service. 

December 17, 2023

Third Sunday of Advent

Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
Luke 2:25-32

Worship Service Video Sermon Video Sermon  Audio

Sermon Text:

Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1]On the cover of your bulletin is a photo of the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael, commonly known as Coventry Cathedral. It’s in its third iteration as a church building. The first was St. Mary’s, which was founded in the 12th century and destroyed in the early 16th century.

The second was St. Michael’s, which was constructed in the Gothic style of architecture beginning in the 14th century. It stood until it was nearly destroyed in the Coventry Blitz during World War II.

The current cathedral has a completely different architectural style. It was built next to the ruins of the old one, and the ruins were intentionally left in place. On the exterior, the two buildings are connected by a breezeway.

Inside the current building, not pictured in the bulletin, the Great West Window looks out onto – and into – the ruins of the old building. Together, they symbolize not only the destruction that happens during wartime, but also peace and reconciliation.

When I first read today’s reading from Ezra, this is the image that came to mind for me. Rebuilding among the ruins of what was before, because that’s what the Judeans did when the exile ended. Ezra tells us that the first thing they did was rebuild the altar – not the Temple itself, but the altar.

They reestablished worship of the God of Israel in the midst of the rubble before they did anything else.

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been hearing some of the significant events in biblical Israel’s history. Last week’s reading from Isaiah offered words of comfort and hope to the people that had been forced into exile. And now, today’s reading tells us that the exile is over.

There are about 500 years between the return from exile and Jesus’ birth, and this is one of the few stories that fills that gap.

King Cyrus was a real person. And when his Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, he returned all captured peoples to their lands as a way of instilling loyalty and allowing religious autonomy. So, the Judeans weren’t special in that regard. But from the Jewish perspective, Cyrus’ act of returning them from exile is interpreted as God working through him.

One of the other things we learn from Ezra’s telling of this story is that not everyone in Judah had been forced to leave. It was only the wealthy and powerful people who’d had to go. Everyone who was poor and without social status stayed behind and lived in what was left.

What we also learn is that not everybody went back. Time didn’t freeze during the exile; people didn’t just wait it out. The prophet Jeremiah told the people, “When you’re in Babylon, live your lives. Plant a garden, have a family, contribute to the society in which you’re living.”

And they did. Many people were born in exile and living there was what they knew. In the same way, the people who remained in Jerusalem also built lives in what had been a war zone.

So, when the exile ended and people started to return, there was conflict between the two groups. Both had endured trauma, and both had continued living their lives in new ways, but separately from each other. So, together, they had to figure out how to move forward into a new beginning.

And it wasn’t easy.

When the foundation of the temple was laid and the dedication began, not everyone was happy about it. The priests were ready in their vestments and with their trumpets. The festival they celebrated, the Festival of Booths, commemorates God saving the people from Egypt. So, it was an appropriate first festival now that the people had been saved from exile.

But it was still bittersweet, because people who were old enough to remember the temple as Solomon had built it, wept because this new one wasn’t as glorious.

Neither group was right or wrong. All of this was new for all of them. In a sense, they were being carried forward to a place they didn’t expect to be – trying to determine what it means to live into a new future that God was creating in their midst.

And what held the two groups together was remembering that both peoples are the people of God: they’re all descendants of the promise. And the words that they spoke, “For God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever” can be said in times of both joy and sorrow, because they’re always true.

As we think about this reading and the rebuilding of the Temple during Advent – the beginning of our church year – it’s natural to also think about the past and future of the church today. To think back on how the church as an institution has changed over the decades.

To reminisce and remember about the people who helped build our congregation, and the collective memory about them that we share.

But this is a new year, a new beginning. So, we can’t just look backwards. We owe it to ourselves to look ahead, to new possibilities.

We know that the church has changed a lot in recent years, both as an institution and our own congregation. That’s as it should be. But some of those changes are scary. Faith communities that were strong even just 10 years ago are unsure about what the future holds. And it’s emotionally complicated to look back at what was and grieve because it’s gone, while looking forward at what could be and experience joy because of it.

For the last couple of years, we’ve been in conversation about those changes with other ELCA congregations in East King County. The most recent gathering of pastors and executive leaders was about a month ago.

Each of our congregations is facing issues of declining membership and income; concerns about staying relevant; and the recognition that if we continue to operate solely as individual congregations, none of us will survive in the long term.

So, there was conversation about what could happen if we’re willing to be bold and prayerful. The possibilities include: excitement and vitality in our mission; sharing of resources – including pastors and staff; greater impact within our community; becoming a beacon within the faith community and being a model for others.

To accomplish these possibilities, we need to identify the strengths of each congregation and each pastor – allowing them to be better utilized; we need to come together to support our community in more meaningful ways; and to collectively engage in activities for worship, outreach, youth ministry – and we’ve already started doing some of those activities.

As we continue to engage in these conversations and move forward, we recognize that there’s fear around losing identity and community; there’s potentially a mindset of scarcity. And we recognize, too, that there are logistical pieces that need to be addressed – like each congregation having its own constitution and bylaws.

And all of this information that I’ve just given is on p14 in the January issue of the Voice monthly newsletter. It was emailed last week. It’s available on the website right now. And the hard copies should arrive in your mailbox this week. Please read it. Read the whole newsletter – but especially read this article. And share your questions, concerns, and your ideas. And, most importantly, pray for this process.

We have some very concrete next steps for this process. But in the same way that we didn’t get to where we are today overnight, none of these possibilities will come to fruition overnight, either.

We’ll get glimmers of it every now and then. It won’t always be easy. There will probably be moments of weeping along with moments of joy – sometimes at the same time.

It’s new territory for all of us as we determine what it means to live into a new future that God is creating in our midst. Remember the photo on the front of today’s bulletin – that the past is connected to the present and future.

What holds us together is remembering that we are all people of God. And that God is good, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. Wherever we end up, we hold onto that because it’s always true. Thanks be to God! Amen.