Preacher Revd Neil Summers
At the end of that first lesson from the book of Ezra, there is a very revealing commentary on human nature. The writer shows us that when faced with a great challenge, some people respond in one way and others in an opposite way. Listen again to what we heard: And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
So, considering they were all witnessing the same event, why were some wailing loudly and upset, when others were shouting for joy? Well, we need to put the passage into its context, as this was in a critical period of Hebrew history. After fifty years in exile in Babylon, Cyrus, the Babylonian ruler, sent thousands back to Judah and encouraged them to start re-building the Temple. The Temple for them was the focus of their national as well as religious identity. To re-build it was to re-build hope and a sense of purpose as a nation. The exile had taken place in 587 BC and this part of the book of Ezra covers the later period 538 to 516 BC. So picture a bewildered gathering of people, newly-returned from living in a foreign land, anxious about the threat from the nations and tribes around them. They knew that to survive this next precarious stage of their existence they needed God’s favour. Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews had helped them in the past. He had allowed judgement to fall at the exile, and now they needed his help again. The priests had set up an altar, but now the important work had started on re-building God’s Temple. The foundations were laid. So the priests led the worship with voices raised and trumpets sounding and the Levites banging cymbals. And the people responded with shouts of praise and hearts of hope – but not all of them. Some of the older people wept, because they remembered the former house of God, now destroyed, and maybe they could not believe it was possible to match it. Their pain and humiliation was too great. Maybe they thought, ‘we can never build again a Temple worthy of Yahweh – it’ll never happen.’ Later in the process, the prophet Zechariah had to speak against such defeatism. ‘Do not despise the day of small things’, he told them. It is one of the jobs of a prophet to articulate a vision of something better and to encourage people to work for that vision. To say to the people: Do not fail to do the little that you can, for the sake of the much that you cannot. Yes, we are starting small, but foundations are laid one brick at a time. It is worth doing the little, so that the much may have a chance to happen.
We need such prophetic voices today, and we have them, if only we would open our ears to them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they don’t always, or necessarily, have any religious motivation. We need them in a world where the divide between rich and poor seems to grow ever wider; where political, nationalistic and religious conflicts do so much damage to innocent people; where human life is too often regarded as cheap and expendable, and human potential and flourishing is disregarded; where there are so many threats to the environment, as resources are despoiled or wasted. There are prophetic figures, and there are prophetic organisations, too: those who believe that that the world can be changed for the better. Those who say ‘yes, the world has much that needs changing, and the challenge is huge, but we can begin with the little that is possible.’
Today marks the start of Christian Aid Week, one such agency for change. Christian Aid is an organisation that insists the world can and must be transformed to one where everyone can live a full life, free from poverty. It works globally for profound change that eradicates the causes of poverty, striving to achieve equality, dignity and freedom for all, quite regardless of faith or nationality. It is part of a wider movement for social justice, providing urgent, practical and effective assistance where need is great, and tackling the effects of poverty as well as its root causes.
We all know the scale of world poverty is enormous. In the face of it, many lose heart and are tempted to do what those elders in Jerusalem did – sit down and weep. But others say that the world can be made better, even on the smallest local scale, one person at a time, one project at a time, one brick at a time, if you will, in establishing a new building – a new future. And although the big picture can often seem depressing and hopeless, sometimes to the extent that we are tempted to ask ‘Why bother?’ in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, there is, in reality, quite a lot to shout about and rejoice in. CA has brought hope to tens of thousands and empowered many people and communities to re-build their lives. It is an organisation that, alongside others, seeks to make real the type of transformation Paul speaks of in that passage we read tonight from his letter to the church in Ephesus. In this Easter season, as we continue to think through the implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul writes of the transforming power of Easter. As human beings, he says, we are reconciled to God in one body, thereby bringing hostility to an end. Jesus is our peace: he has broken down the wall of hostility. We are fellow citizens one with another, he says. That has big implications for us here as part of the Christian community in this place, and for how we relate to each other locally. It has equally big implications for our relations with, and responsibilities towards, our fellow citizens on the global scale.
In the face of often overwhelming and appalling suffering and need in the world, it is sometimes easy to despair, and to wonder why God doesn’t intervene and put things right. But the Christian conviction is that God has intervened in Jesus, decisively, once and for all. Whatever needs to happen subsequent to that is down to us. The divine has made our humanity home. If we take that seriously, all local, small-scale and broader, global scenarios are potentially open to transformation. So let’s not be defeated by pessimism. Rather, let any tears we shed be a spur to action. Christian Aid Week reminds us all we have a chance to be part of building a better, fairer world, a chance to change lives both here and for many of the world’s poorest and neediest, even if it is just one brick at a time. May we be found among those who rejoice at what can be done and not those who weep at what can’t.