BEFORE THE CROSS | God’s hope chases away overwhelming feelings

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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Have you ever been discouraged or felt overwhelmed by something you had to do? If so, the readings this week are for you. But to understand why, it's necessary to know the context of the readings.

We hear this week from Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah. All three lived and ministered right after the Babylonian Exile — let's use 520 BC as a date.

The Exile was a disaster for Israel. Many Israelites were killed; much of the leadership was deported to Babylon. They lost the Promised Land, their sovereignty as a nation, the Davidic kingship, and the holy city Jerusalem. As a crowning symbol of this, Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. They thought they had lost the heart of their identity.

The Exile produced a profound crisis. But, as often happens, hard times also brought about a great renewal in the people's relationship with God. And when the Exile ended, they were sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild. On one level they were sent back to rebuild the Temple. But that was also symbolic: they were going to rebuild the nation, starting with its heart.

When they returned to Jerusalem, though, no matter how excited they had been at the prospect of rebuilding, they were overwhelmed at the magnitude of the task. And being overwhelmed gave rise to discouragement. The people were disheartened; the project stalled.

This was the context into which Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah spoke. All brought prophetic messages that breathed life back into the people. Even if it wouldn't have its former splendor, the Temple would be rebuilt. Even if they didn't have the Davidic kingship, they could look forward to a Messianic future. Things would be different, yes — less glorious on a human level. But the key was that God was going to dwell in their midst. Therefore the renewal of their religious and political life would be built on solid ground. And, as we know, the Messiah — the definitive Temple of the new Jerusalem — would be born in Israel in this post-Exile context.

That provides hope for us any time we face shifting landscapes, both institutionally as a Church and personally as followers of Jesus. Perhaps our parish or our school doesn't look the way it once did. Perhaps we have to imagine a new future for them. Perhaps we've experienced our own personal "exile" in work or family or life's dreams.

When that happens, discouragement is one of the enemy's greatest tools. A quiet voice whispers: "You can't rebuild this. If you try, it will only have a shadow of its former glory. It probably isn't worth doing."

Will we listen to that voice and give up, as the Israelites were tempted to do? Or will we listen, instead, to the one who speaks today just as He spoke through these prophets 2,500 years ago: "But the key thing is that I am still in your midst. I will be with you. It may look small, but I will be your solid ground. And that promises a great future."

Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah spoke to a people who were discouraged and tempted to give up on the task of rebuilding. They gave God's people the courage to start small, and trust that building on solid ground would be enough. We'd do well to hear them again today. 

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