Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” 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.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
We are going to do a quick thought experiment.
If you are comfortable doing so, take a moment, perhaps close your eyes if you need to, and I want you to think back to an experience of deep joy that you have experienced. See if you can remember a time in your life, a moment or a period of time, for which the feeling of joy was inescapable.
What is joy?
If you were to define it, what words would you use to explain what it was?
See I have a hunch that joy is one of those feelings that can be difficult to put words to, and yet we know it when we see it. We might be journeying through life when suddenly the light bulb hits us and we say to ourselves: THIS is joy.
This probably makes me a cliché, but I don’t care: when I think back on my brief life so far, the most palpable experiences of joy that I have had have been moments of connection between myself and other people. The moment I held my daughter and my son for the first time. Saying “I do” to my husband. The recognition that a friend whom I love dearly “sees” me and loves me despite my me-ness.
But then there are also other experiences of joy, aren’t there? The feeling of victory when we finally understand an idea or concept we have long wrestled with. The experience of intellectual breakthrough of the student or the academic, in which that which was once murky becomes blazingly clear. The moment when a community no longer feels like another place you go, but a home, a family, a sanctuary. I could go on, but what is the common thread of these experiences? What binds them together?
I wonder if joy is not something that we experience when we find ourselves connected: when the deep yearning at the heart of our soul is met by the reality of the world. When we find that we are not alone, but are bound together: to God, to one another, to ideas, to a place, to the world beyond us.
Certainly, the Israelites in Ezra found their joy in their connection to the land of their ancestors. In our scripture today, they have finally returned after a long exile. Finally, they can be a people of the land. Finally, they can worship their God without fear. Their joy ought to be complete. And yet, as they look upon the ruins of their Temple, as they see that the land of their memories does not hold up to the reality, their joy is tempered. Scripture tells us that even as many shouted for joy, others wept aloud, so that the people could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.
They could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.
There is something so utterly true about that statement—the line that separates joy and pain is narrow indeed. And many of our moments of profound joy are also tempered by experiences of deep struggle, pain, and frustration. The experience of childbirth. The struggle of the academic and the student to understand. The mystery that so often attends the dance of friendship.
And what of us? Our church recently had cause for rejoicing as we welcomed new members in our midst. For us, this is cause to celebrate, for our family is growing. Our connection is cause for deep and lasting joy.
But we also find ourselves with Simeon, the man of the Temple, whom we know from scripture has been waiting for God’s consolation and peace. Like we who wait and watch in Advent, he has been waiting on God. We do not know how long he has been waiting, but he must have been patient. He knew what it means to keep watch. To be attentive.
And it is worth it, because in the moment of truth, Simeon does not delay. According to Luke, Simeon is waiting for Jesus in the Temple, and his joy is found in the moment when his soul’s desire—to experience God’s redemption in the Messiah—is met by its fulfillment in Christ.
Now, lets be honest and admit that for some, this might have been a moment of despair: to be told that the one you were waiting for was not what you thought it would be. To follow God and find that your Messiah isn’t rich or powerful, he has no skills or abilities that would make him great. He’s just a baby. And yet, Simeon is overcome. He cannot contain his joy. He doesn’t just wait for Mary to come to him—Scripture tells us he goes to the boy and takes him in his arms. He is so overcome by joy, he doesn’t stop to wonder what it all means. He simply rejoices.
Perhaps Simeon knows something that we need to learn: that joy is experienced in connection, but it is also found in assurance: that God is in control, that things will be as they should be. It is a disposition towards the world, not naïve or simplistic, but deeply cognizant of the reality of the landscape around us. Also deeply attuned to God’s plan for us, but open to the fact that God moves in mysterious ways.
Joy is found it the recognition that all of the pain and darkness of this world—all of our fear of the unknown, of the stranger, all of our tendency towards violence, towards war, towards aggression—these are not God’s plan for us. No, God’s plan for us looks less like a drone strike and more like a stranger rejoicing over a poor baby from Nazareth. God’s plan looks like hope for the hopeless, light in the darkness, and peace—true peace—on earth for all of God’s creation.
So let us learn from Simeon. Let us make room in our lives to pay attention to what God is up to. May we rush to greet the Messiah when we see him. May we long to hold the joy of the world in our arms, and share it with one another, so that our joy may become theirs.