At the moment, we are reading through Ezra in Morning Prayer. The back story is this: Solomon had built a great temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, which was one of the wonders of the world; the Babylonian Empire arose, and defeated Solomon’s descendants, taking the people into exile, in waves, and eventually destroying the temple; the Persian Empire arose, defeating the Babylonians and freeing all captives to return home, in order to rebuild economically productive vassal states; the Jews returned to Jerusalem, in waves, the first wave building a new temple (under Zerubbabel), the second wave being a mass return of people (under Ezra), and the third wave rebuilding the city walls (under Nehemiah).
This morning we read Ezra chapter 3, which ends:
‘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.’ [emphasis mine]
It is easy to read this as offering a choice that has to be made: between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between nostalgia that blinds us to what God is doing today and eyes of faith that can see God at work even in the smallest of beginnings. Even as the people rejoice, there are naysayers, who will not join in.
That would certainly be the way to read this text through the cultural lens of an obsession with youth.
But life is more complex than that.
The past is not uniformly better than the present. Nor is the present uniformly better than the past.
The young rejoice that they have, at last, for the first time in their lives, a home of their own. They rejoice that they have, at last, a place to worship in a way that is fitting to them.
The old rejoice that they have lived to see God bringing his people back home, out of exile. That God had not forgotten them, or abandoned them, even if he had humbled them. They rejoice that the young will have a future in a place of their own, and because they see a desire among the next generation to worship God.
But they also weep for what has been lost, and will not be again; even as they rejoice at what has been done and will be. The two responses are simultaneous. They co-exist. They cannot be distinguished.
It is not a matter of choosing between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between recognising what was, and is, and is to come. It is a matter of choosing to embrace – and choosing to allow ourselves to be embraced by – both joy and sorrow; both lamenting and welcoming; both loss and gain.
It is the difference between judging one another across the generations, and honouring one another across the generations. There is a wisdom to these ‘old people’ (which is not true of all old people) – a wisdom they can invite ‘young people’ into, because even though the young have not shared the exact history, that history is their heritage, their (old and young) shared story.
The verses immediately before the ones I cite above record a time of worship in which the people ‘sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
Perhaps only those whose faith allows joy and sorrow, lamenting and welcoming, loss and gain, can sing these words from the heart.