Listening to the elders’ announcement Sunday, preparing us for the difficult and lengthy process involved re-opening church for Sunday services, coupled with Joel’s sermon on Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2, I was reminded of Isaiah’s word to exiles returning home from Babylon in chapters 56-66. How they longed for life to return to what it once was during Solomon’s glory. Imagine their joy after years of waiting, Cyrus’ decree finally came and 50,000 zealous Jews started the long trek back to Jerusalem. But sadly, their idyllic visions of the promised land and temple were quickly dashed when they returned from Babylon. Rather than being welcomed with open arms, they faced fierce hostility. The work on the temple, which began with enthusiasm, was soon abandoned, as workers lost interest and settled down to the mere task of survival.
In the face of such an momentous struggle, it took prophetic vision (Haggai, Zechariah) and the tenacious fortitude and endurance of leaders (Ezra and Nehemiah) to get things going again on the right foundations with no compromise. Finally the temple was complete in 516 B.C., but it did not appear as large and glorious as the original and the people were discouraged. To counter their despair, Haggai prophesied that “the latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former…And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Hag 2:9).
God never walks backward in history. He is always going forward. The temple was not restored like it once was. Instead, as Joel taught us Sunday in John 2, it became a signpost of the greater temple to come, the one to whom all the nations would come and worship. Those in Jesus’ day who clung to the way things were, were keenly disappointed when the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. But those who saw life through the lens of the prophets beheld the glory of God “tabernacling” (John 1:14) among them in the person of Jesus, and after the resurrection, wherever two or three gathered in his name, he was present among them through his Spirit (Matt 18:20).
I must admit that I was discouraged thinking how long it may take for things to return to “normal.” But after Sunday’s message I thought that, maybe going forward, we will find ourselves more like the early church, less dependent on buildings, large congregational services, trained professionals, and fellowshipping in fixed circles of relationships. Perhaps we will we have more frequent meetings in small groups with more saints taking the initiative to use their gifts of leadership, evangelism, teaching, encouragement, service, mercy, hospitality and so many more. Perhaps, through our new technology we will venture further afield to find fellowship, instruction and opportunities to witness in new ways. Perhaps by enduring the trials of a longer period of decentralization, we gain an opportunity to build a firmer foundation and strengthen muscles that may have atrophied. When our in-person worship services resume, we can have a stronger complement of intentional community and outreach. What a sweet day that will be, when we can regain genuine eye contact, hugs and spontaneity. To God be the glory.