4th Sunday of Easter (A)
May 3, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is Ezra 3:11, And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” 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.”
In 587 BC, one of the saddest events in Jewish history occurred. Technically, they weren’t called Jews yet. They were Judahites, people from the Kingdom of Judah, which included the capital city of Jerusalem. The story, found in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, is filled with intrigue, war, broken alliances, and ends with the destruction of Solomon’s magnificent Temple. Nebuchadnezzar, tired of Judah’s rebellion, destroyed Jerusalem, enslaved the people and burned the Temple to the ground. When all was said and done, very little of the once great city remained standing.
Ezra, who may have written 2 Chronicles said that this terrible event with its aftermath of death and destruction could’ve all been avoided. He said, “The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against His people, until there was no remedy.” If only they had listened to God’s Word. If only they hadn’t enjoyed idolatry and sins of the unbelievers around them. If only they had acted like God’s people who lived in the shadow of God’s magnificent house, they never would’ve been punished. God is slow to anger, yet there comes a time when He does get angry, and the Judahites felt the heat of His anger.
The Lord is slow to anger, He’s also abounding in steadfast love so their punishment would last only seventy years. In time, God sent Cyrus the Great to conquer Babylon and allow the Judahites to return home. He even allowed them to take with them the beautiful Temple furnishings that had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar.
Upon their return to Jerusalem, one of the first things they did was begin raising funds to rebuild the Temple. The day they finished laying the foundation was a day of great celebration. Ezra says the people “sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, ‘For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD.” Because of their sin, they had lost the Temple, now because of God’s enduring love, they were getting it back.
Fifty years after the Temple was completed, the Lord sent Ezra to Jerusalem. First, he led them in the confession of their sins, afterwards he read them the Scriptures. Confronted with God’s Word, the people were wept bitterly over their sins, until Ezra encouraged them to have joy. He said, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep…Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” This is a message of forgiveness! Their sins are forgiven because God is steadfast in His love. In response to this great news, the people rededicated themselves to God and vowed to put their sins behind them.
Today is a great day here at Emmanuel and we praise God for it. “For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” What a great day to celebrate our return to corporate worship. We understand that not everyone can be here in person, so we’re still separated from some of our Christian brothers and sisters. We know though, that you’re with us in spirit, if not also watching on the computer or listening on the phone. They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and I think we all know that feeling now about church. We sometimes take worship for granted, that we can do it when we feel like it, but recently when we’ve felt like it, we haven’t been able to.
This whole thing should really make us think. The people of Jerusalem and Judah lost what they had because of their sins. They said, “But our fathers…refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…and they sinned against your rules.” Did we lose these past seven weeks of corporate worship because of our sin and our refusal to obey? I’m not definitively saying that Covid-19 is a plague sent by God. I do think it’s possible that God could be punishing us, so we can clearly experience the consequences of not taking Him, His house or His Word seriously. One of the focal points of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is Sabbath rest and worship. This is time that’s set aside specifically for God, and we must admit that we don’t always take the Sabbath day or worship seriously.
After this period of forced exile from the church and the Divine Service it’s time for us to rededicate ourselves to God. It’s an occasion for us to once again focus on setting aside time for worship, prayer, and fellowship with other believers. Emmanuel had a Sabbath rest of its own, empty for seven weeks, this rest is over and the Emmanuel once again raises it’s voice in joyful praise.
We have repented of our sins and the period of grief and mourning is over. We “sing responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” We praise Him precisely because He is merciful and we don’t deserve it at all. In the book of Nehemiah the people confessed that God had repeatedly gave them second, fourth, sixth chances to do right. He gave them plenty of opportunity to stop their behavior and when they didn’t, they were punished. But the people also acknowledged that God kept His promise to bring them home, to love them, and to cherish them.
God keeps His promises to us as well. He promises to forgive our sins, and He does. He has promised to love us forever, and He does. He gives us multiple chances and even though we fail, He keeps forgiving us. He is merciful and slow to anger all because He loves us. And to prove it, He sent His Son who died for everyone! The people of Judah were forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are too. We’ve repented of our sins and God has heard our confession. He forgives us and tells us that today is a holy day, a day not of grief or mourning, but a day of celebrating His steadfast love and mercy, a day of celebrating our forgiveness.
So today is a day of joy and celebration, even if smiles are hidden behind masks. It’s a day of joy as we celebrate our reunion. It’s a day of joy as we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. I can’t tell you that we won’t be cut off from God’s House again, I’m sure it will happen sometime. But even when we’re cut off from church, we’re not cut off from God. He is the God who has mercy and abounds in steadfast love! We are not cut off because the Resurrected Jesus is the one who maintains His Church, the Church that is gathered and the Church that is separated. Let’s use this time of joy as a time to rededicate ourselves to Him in thanksgiving for not just bringing us back together but for all the blessings He bestows upon us that flow out of His steadfast love.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen