Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
Third Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2015
First Christian Church
When I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan last spring, a memory came back to me as I went down a certain road. The memory was seeing those auto carrier trucks lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on the eastside of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back, because as I drove down this road, it ocurred to me that I didn’t see those trucks anymore. It was a reminder that things had changed.
What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. I’ve passed by the old Buick complex which took up several city blocks. It was almost a city in itself. But the plant shut down and now there are acres and acres of nothing but concrete slabs where a factory stood. My mother can attest that a number of auto plants that were once the engine of Flint are no longer there. The AC plant that made auto instruments and where my mother worked for 25 years is also a distant memory.
As the market changed and technology changed, less people were needed to work in the huge plants. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.
Such a massive change has brought changes in Flint as well. I’ve told you about the well-kept houses that are now trashed. Stores have closed up and people have moved. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists and it is heartbreaking to me because I knew what things were like in the good days.
But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story that is growing up right alongside this sad story. Last summer, Daniel and I walked down Saginaw Street, the main drag in town in downtown. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine.
It’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like my hometown will have a future, just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to.
We are looking at the book of Ezra this morning and the focus is on a homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Baylonians around 585BC. It was Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a far away land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folk decide to make the journey back.
They come back to a Jerusalem that was in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. As we read in today’s text the people get to work to creating a new temple that happened to be financed by Persia. It took a while, but after some time, the temple was completed. This is where something interesting happened. The younger folks who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple were excited. They only had tales about what life was like back in the homeland. They now were home and had a place to worship God. But the passage notes that the older folks were sad. They remembered what the old temple looked like and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It also wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, what they felt was a sense of everything that they had lost. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. They had to live in this new reality, but it seemed to pale in comparison to the what they remembered.
The passage ends with this odd mixture of joy and sadness taking place at the same time.
Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. These days people cling to the past in the attempt to hold on to something in a changing world. And there has been a lot of change. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one thought same sex couples could ever marry legally, but now here we are. We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Changes in immigration laws have brought people from around the world to become Americans. Many come from places people know little about and in some cases they worship religions we aren’t very familar with. People who were born male are now saying they always felt female and start appearing as women. All of this can be bewildering. Change is not always wonderful, it can be scary. Maybe that’s why so many people seem attracted to a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan is to “Make America Great Again.”
This time of year is always an odd one. There is a festive atmosphere that can put most anybody in a good mood. But while there is joy, there is also sadness. It was last year, that I was laid off of my job two days before Christmas. Some people are dealing the loss of a loved one or dealing with being newly divorced. In the midst of this joy there is also sadness.
For a lot of reasons, we want the security of yesterday. The present doesn’t always feel so good.
But the thing is, God knows all of this and is present with us. Go back to Ezra 1 and we see God is the one that persuades Cyrus to sent the Jews back home. As we read last week, God is there wanting to bring us comfort as we face the future. What the older folks missed in their sadness of the lost temple is that there was a new temple- a place where God can dwell and one where the people can worship. And God can also give us a space to mourn and even there we don’t mourn alone.
Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, our salvation. But it also reminds us why we wait. We wait for someone will join us in our sorrow and give us strength to move into a new future, a future that is better than we can ever imagine.
I’ve wondered what the people in this congregation were thinking when they sold their old building near downtown St. Paul to move here. I was never in that building, but in hearing from some of you, it was a sight to behold. But I also know it was getting harder and harder to pay for the upkeep of this large sanctuary. I wonder what it was like to worship there for the last time. I wonder what it was like to get used to moving here and if some people thought this place wasn’t as grand as their old home. Moving a church is never easy. And it probably wasn’t for you all.
And then there was the change when your pastor for 20 years left. A number of people stopped coming and the ones that remained wondered if they could continue. It felt hard being so few, but you came together and worked to keep the doors open and to be open to new adventures.
So many churches hang on for dear life, clinging to buildings that have outlived their usefulness long ago. They remember how things were and wish it could be like that again. But the stay put, afraid to face an unknown future. That could have been your experience. But it wasn’t.
In each of those experiences, God was with you. God never left. When we mourn what we have lost, a lost past, a lost building, a lost loved one, we know that God is there. We can make those changes, we can face the future because we have a God that is always with us as we step out in faith to do mission in the world.
I miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I know others are also missing something or someone. But I also know that our God is with us in the changes in our lives. We know that hope is on the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.