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Joy and Weeping

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3.10-13.

Sometimes these posts of mine can be a bit academic as I dig into the Greek or Hebrew that lies behind the text so as to uncover the treasures that are hidden there; but this morning’s post is not going to be like that at all. It is simply a reflection on the service in my church on Easter Sunday morning, triggered off in me the moment this random passage from the book of Ezra appeared on my screen.

The event being described in these verses is the beginning of the re-building of the temple in Jerusalem in the Spring of 536 BC, not long after the Jewish exiles had returned from their seventy year captivity in Babylon. And the re-building affected those who witnessed it in two very different ways. Those who were old enough to remember the old temple — Solomon’s magnificent temple — wept for what had been lost and could never be replaced. (The new temple was to be a pathetically small and inglorious affair compared with the old.) But those who had been born during the captivity and knew nothing of the old temple were shouting with joy that they were now actually getting a temple at all in which to praise the God who had brought them to their ancestral home. Both reactions were noisy, and the noise was such that “no one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping”.

I felt something of that on Sunday morning as we sang and shouted our Alleluias and proclaimed our He-is-risen-indeeds. For I was somehow aware that not everyone was rejoicing in our celebration of the Resurrection … not everyone was “giving thanks to the risen Lord.” I was aware of those there in church who last Easter were wives but who this Easter are widows. Those who last Easter were employed and who this Easter are redundant. Those who last Easter had their mobility but who this Easter can hardly walk. Those who last Easter were in good health and who this Easter are sick and getting sicker. For them, one and all, it was a hard thing on Sunday morning, “with praise and thanksgiving to sing to the LORD: ‘He is good; his love … endures forever'”; and I’m not sure that they all managed it. “Where is God’s goodness and love to be found in all the loss/anguish/pain/disappointment/fear that I’m experiencing? Where is the resurrection victory over sin and death and sickness and evil to be found in what I’m going through?”

The answer (and I’m convinced it is a real answer to those questions) is to be found, I see now, in the reading we had on Sunday morning from John’s gospel — chapter 20 verses 1 to 18. It described the visit of Mary Magdalene to the tomb. She was weeping on Easter Sunday morning too. “Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb” (John 20.11). And even seeing two angels and talking with them didn’t stop her crying. She was still weeping when she encountered the risen Jesus whom she didn’t yet recognise. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” And at that, Jesus, with just one word, stopped her weeping and turned it into cries of joy. He simply spoke her name. “Mary” (John 20.15-16).

If I can only get to the place where I can hear Jesus speak my name, I will have reached the place where my tears can cease. He is the Resurrection and the Life that enters every loss, every pain, every disappointment, every fear … and transforms it. I say “transforms it” because the hard truth is that the loss is still there, the pain is still there for the time being. Mary rushes to throw her arms around Jesus. “I’ve got him back again. Now it can all be as it was before!” I hear her saying to herself. But Jesus stops her in her tracks and says “Not yet” (John 20.17). The victory is both now and “not yet”. The day when all that is lost will be restored is coming. The day when all sickness and disease will be dismissed is coming. The day when all evil will be destroyed is coming. But it is not yet. The day has dawned. There are glimmers of its light in the here and now … but it is not quite yet.

What is fully now, however, is the “Neil” spoken in my heart. If only I will hear that one word, it will speak to me this morning of a sure and certain hope that will stop all my tears and fill my heart with joy. And it will do that too for everyone who was weeping (even if just on the inside) in our church on Sunday morning.

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