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Tape on the pews: As we return, let’s not repeat a failed restoration

OKLAHOMA CITY — There’s tape on the pews.

It’s blue and green, and it tells us where to sit. Blue rows only. We usually end up near the back. Our regular spot is taken when we get there.

We sing with masks. It’s … not great. We can’t pass communion. We bring our own — or we use the “rip-n’-sips” with the bread that I still think is really Styrofoam. 

Also not great.

Until recently our Bible class met mostly online. We’re starting to get back together in person now, but the specter of the virus hovers over our gatherings.

I walk a lot — through my neighborhood, around campus. I’ve met a few folks. I listen to God’s word on the AirPods I won at the Evangelical Press Association convention in 2019 … y’know, back when I attended things. 

I made it through one of those “Bible in a year” deals. The passage that’s stuck with me came from Ezra, of all places. It’s an Old Testament book that gets passed over a lot. There’s no ark, no giant fish, no crossing the Red Sea. It’s not a prophecy, either. Jesus never quoted from it. 

Scholars think it’s the first part of a story that concludes in the book just after it, Nehemiah. (Thank you, Bibleproject.com for that tidbit.) Ezra-Nehemiah is the story of three guys who try to restore Jerusalem in the years after the Babylonian exile. 

The first guy is Zerubbabel, who rebuilds the temple. Ezra, a priest, shows up some 60 years later. (He first appears in chapter 7 of the book that bears his name.) Then Nehemiah comes to rebuild the wall.

Back in Ezra chapter 3, when Zerubbabel lays the foundation for the rebuilt temple, there’s a big ceremony to praise the Lord. Many of the Israelites shout for joy. “But many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud,” we read in Ezra 3:12 (New Living Translation). 

Maybe these were tears of joy, perhaps? But if you read the prophet Haggai, a contemporary of Zerubbabel, it’s pretty clear what the problem is: 

“Does anyone remember this house — this Temple — in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all!” (Haggai 2:3)

In other words, there’s tape on the pews.

Keep reading to the end of Nehemiah, and you’ll see that the restoration these three men seek doesn’t really happen. The people neglect the temple, violate the Sabbath and intermarry with nonbelievers. Nehemiah gets so mad he starts beating folks and pulling out their hair! His final words are basically, “Well, God, I tried.”

The restoration fails because the people’s hearts aren’t right. 

And here we are in 2021, crawling back from our exile of isolation in fits and starts. I lament what I fear we’ve lost and gnash my teeth for what I can’t yet reclaim.

I need to stop looking back, lest I become a pillar of salt. I pray for a new heart, the heart that God’s people needed back in Zerubbabel’s day. 

I pray for a new heart, the heart that God’s people needed back in Zerubbabel’s day.

No more quarreling over nonsense. No more pulling out each other’s hair.

Thankfully, Haggai also has some words of encouragement: “Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you.” (Haggai 2:4)

Then God declares that he will “shake all the nations” and fill the Temple with a glory far greater than its past glory. “And in this place,” God promises, “I will bring peace.”

We all know who came next.

ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @eriktryggestad.

Filed under: COVID-19 covid19 Ezra Haggai Insight Insight Nehemiah Opinion pandemic

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