I have a confession to make. I am nostalgic. Not just a little bit, but excessively so. Moving back to St. Catharines has been painful for my family. Everywhere we drive, I point out the old schools I used to attend, the department stores where I used to beg my mom to buy toys for me and places where I used to get my comic books. No matter where I go, I find memories that are fresh and meaningful.
My nostalgia is just as strong when it comes to church. When I was a child attending church, I didn’t think much of it. I went because my parents went. I didn’t think that it was that fun at the time. But recently when I took a walk through the church I grew up in, which is now closed down, there were some powerful memories. I remember standing at the main doors at the back of the church handing out bulletins with my cousin. I remember ringing the church bells (okay that part was fun). I remember lighting the candles and carrying the cross as a server. I even remember my first epileptic seizure I had, sitting in the choir pews during a service. When we walked downstairs into the fellowship hall, I remember the two large rooms that were partitioned for each of the Sunday school classes. This church that by its end had no children, was once able to divide up Sunday school into grades because there were so many children. It was a powerful time for me immerse myself in thoughts of those good old days.
I will not apologize for being nostalgic. I think it is dangerous to forget the past and it is important to learn from the past. But it is not good to live in the past.
There are times that I get thinking about how much I miss my parents. I get completely focused on the good old days growing up in Merritton. I have to shake myself out of that and remember that I have a family right now that needs to be enjoyed. I can think about the memories of the past, but as a husband and a father, my job is to build new memories for my family today.
Churches are known for holding on to the past. There was a pastor sharing with other pastors at a ministerial and he told his colleagues that his goal was to bring his church into the 20th century. They corrected him by saying, don’t you mean the 21st century? He replied with, one century at a time, one century at a time.
Thankfully, the Bible wrestles with these same questions and gives us some important insight.
What God Was Doing in the Temple
What we are going to look at are some of the most important events in Old Testament history. After the time of King Solomon, Israel was divided into Israel and Judah. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Some time later, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Not only did they conquer the nation, they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. We need to remember that the temple is not just a worship building, the way our church buildings are. The temple was the place where God actually dwelled. When that temple was destroyed, it was devastating to the people. The temple was the only place that they could offer sacrifices. The people were lost without their temple.
But God was not done with his people. God used the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, to both send back the exiled Jews to Jerusalem and to provide materials for the rebuilding of the temple and the walls. This was no easy task. There were people on all sides trying to stop their efforts. For a while it looked like it was a hopeless situation. But against all odds, the work continued.
That brings us to our passage. At this point, only the foundation of the temple had been laid but that was far more than what many had expected. This called for a great worship service with priests and Levites and musicians to celebrate what God had done. We are told that there was a loud noise from the crowd at this event.
But a discerning ear would notice that there were two different sounds coming from the crowd. One was shouts of joy. These were mostly by the younger generation. They were looking at what had been accomplished and were overwhelmed with joy. God was so good! God had performed a miracle in the midst of very difficult circumstances and here was the foundation of the temple, the place where they would soon be able to perform sacrifices again. This was absolutely incredible!
But there was another group. These were of an older generation. This is not a judgment against age, rather you would have to be older to know what they knew. These people were old enough to remember Solomon’s temple before it was destroyed. When they remembered the grandeur of the first temple and then looked to the foundation of the new temple, they wept for grief. This new building project did not even begin to compare with the magnificence of what Solomon had built. This was not a time to rejoice, this was a time to grieve. The good old days were long gone and apparently they were not coming back.
Here we have a loud commotion in response to the same thing: the foundation for the new temple. One group saw something that filled them with joy, the other with grief. How could there be such radically different responses to the same event?
What God is Doing in the Church
Let’s hold on to that thought as we mover forward a couple of thousand years to this church. We are having a worship service, just like the Jews had after the foundation was built. If we were to let ourselves go and give up all our inhibitions, what kind of noise would we make?
Would this be a time of grieving or a time of rejoicing? As a nostalgic person, I have some sympathies with that older generation that mourned during the time of Ezra. I’m old enough to remember the way things used to be, not with this specific congregation, but with church in general. I remember when there was a much larger portion of our community attended church at least occasionally and many of them regularly. Attending church was part of being a respectable citizen. Those of you who are long time members of this church can remember the way things used to be. You remember when the pews were full, there was a bigger choir and children were everywhere. I don’t have to go into all the details, you know the way things have changed. What stops you from rejoicing? It is those memories of the good old days. When we use the past to measure the success of today, we are not impressed with the results.
But maybe you are not grieving. Maybe you are rejoicing at what is happening at our church. I don’t want to put words in your mouth so I will share what I see. It has now been one years since I have been your pastor. I see what things look like now and I have no emotional attachment to the Queen Street Baptist Church of twenty-five years ago.
This is what I see. I see the type of church that most churches wish they were. We are a church of many cultures, languages and nationalities. I regularly hear leaders of what would be considered very successful churches struggling with how to get what we have right now. I see a church that is multi-generational. Yes there are some gaps in the ages, but we are not a old church, even though I hear people say so on a regular basis. Many of the churches I have attended would love to have the range of ages that we have. And when I say that we are multi-generational, I don’t mean just there are different ages in the same building. There is interaction between the generations, which is exactly what we need. I see a church where people are welcoming to those with disabilities and treat them with respect. I see a loving community who are friendly to new people and caring toward each other. I see a church that has a hunger to worship God and to study the Bible.
If I had to summarize the two reactions from our passage in Ezra, I would say that one group longed for what God did in the past and the other group was seeing what God was doing in the present. As I was going over this passage, I noticed something for the first time. The people were longing for the good old days were not judging the final product but only the foundation.
What do we see when we look at this church? We live in a different day. Cultural Christianity is dead people attend church only if they want to and no longer because of social pressure. We are building a new temple in a new era. No, things don’t look exactly like they did decades ago. And no, we are not finished yet. We have only built the foundation. But what a foundation it is! When we look at what God is doing right now, without comparing to the past, there is a reason for joy. Open your eyes to the ways in which God is working all around us and within us.
I would never want to be misinterpreted as someone who speaks bad of the past. I am nostalgic by nature and I tend to reflect on the good old days. I don’t think that is a bad thing. The people who started this church in 1833 were doing a new thing. They had obstacles to face and culture to interact with. By trial and error they found, through God’s leading, the way ministry needed to look in their context. They had the unchanging gospel in an ever-changing world.
We live in a culture that is changing far faster than they could have ever imagined. And we need to do exactly what they did. They saw what God was doing then and we need to see what God is doing now. Don’t be afraid to learn from the pass but don’t use the past as the measure for our success. When we stand before God, we will not be judged by how we compared to the past but by what we have done with what God has given us.