Sermon by Dean Alan Culpepper at McAfee’s 2015 Commissioning Service
Graduates, tonight we commission you to lay a new foundation and make a new beginning, so let me speak to you first. We challenge you, like those brave souls in Ezra’s day, two and a half millennia ago, to go out and lead the people in rebuilding the place where they have met God. Hear their story again.
- Hear the Call to Make a New Beginning
When Judah fell to the Babylonians in 588 B.C., Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and the leaders of the people were deported to Babylon. There the cry was heard, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” But over time they settled into their new surroundings and raised families. Fifty years passed. Any Israeli sociologist in the year 540 B.C. would have had serious doubts that Judaism would survive, at least in Palestine.
But then God intervened in a surprising way. Cyrus the Persian came to power and decreed that the Jews could go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and the city walls. Some did not want to leave Babylon. Others heard the call, packed up their families, and made the long trek back to the land that had been given to their ancestors, to be part of this new beginning—to build a new temple!
Graduates, the church today is not in ruins, but it is severely challenged. I can’t remember a time in my lifetime when the church was in greater need of dedicated, educated, capable and compassionate spiritual leaders. Lavish buildings, built to serve churches in their heyday, forty, fifty, or sixty years ago, no longer fit the needs of the church today, and in many instances just keeping up the church buildings takes a disproportionate share of the church’s resources. Many churches have a majority of older members, perhaps with some young adults in their twenties and thirties, but not many leaders in their forties and fifties. Changing social patterns, more sports events on Sunday, other ways to find community through the internet and leisure activities, and disaffection with organized religion have greatly impacted church attendance in America. Just this week, Pew Research published findings that show a marked decline in church attendance and a rise in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation since 2007. One out of four adults in America did not go to church even once last year. Many others attend irregularly. As a result, the church is in decline. Bill Wilson, at the Center for Healthy Churches, said recently that every church in America that is forty years old or older and has less than 1,000 members is in decline. There may be exceptions, but the pattern is there.
Many churches are under stress, therefore, looking for ways to stay afloat and reach out to their communities. Some are finding new energy in going back to their roots, others are becoming centers for community ministries, and others are finding growth through offering distinctive worship experiences. There is no one key to success. Each church is different and each success story is different, so it is a time that calls for the best in new leadership.
Tonight, we challenge you, graduates, like the Jews in Babylon centuries ago, hear the call to rebuild the community of faith. Will you take on that arduous challenge? It will almost certainly require personal sacrifice. You will be frustrated at times by the church’s lack of vision, commitment, and support, but I can think of nothing more urgent, more fulfilling, or more important that you can do with your life than step out in faith to be one of a new generation of builders wherever God leads you.
- Call a New Generation of Levites
The first temple had been built by King Solomon, and it was magnificent. The temple was built with stone that was finished at the quarry, so the building took place in silence—no hammer, ax, or chisel was heard on the temple mount while the temple was being built. The interior walls were lined with ornately carved cedar panels. The inner sanctuary housed the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It was inlaid with pure gold. The altar also was overlaid with pure gold. Solomon put two giant cherubim in the inner sanctuary, with wing spans that reached from one wall to the center and touched the wing of the other cherub, so that together their wings spanned the sanctuary and made a covering over the ark. They too were overlaid with gold. The floor was gold, and the doors were olive wood, carved with more cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. You can read more of the details of its ornaments in I Kings 6—enough to say that it looked, well, it looked for all in the world like heaven. The covenant with King David had been fulfilled, and God’s presence dwelt with Israel. Could there ever again be such a magnificent temple?
Here is where the passage I just read from Ezra 3 picks up the story. In the second year after their return, it says, Zerubbabel “made a beginning.” The people who had returned from Babylon, apparently together with some of those who had been left in Jerusalem, the priests, and the Levites gathered, and they did a remarkable thing: they appointed the Levites “from twenty years old and upward, to have oversight of the work on the house of the Lord” (Ezra 3:8). They did not just tell them to carry wood and set stones – they appointed the young Levites to be overseers of the work! Apparently they lowered the age for Levites perhaps because they needed more overseers. Before that, Levites had to be thirty in order to serve (e.g., 1 Chron 23:3).
Now let me speak not to the graduates but to the rest of us who have gathered to celebrate their accomplishments. The returning exiles were able to make a new beginning because they made a place for a new generation of leaders. We have been excited to see more churches calling younger ministers and female ministers this year. Doors are opening, and here is where you can make a difference. Trust in the commitment and the abilities of these graduates and their peers in seminaries around the country. We need their leadership now more than ever. It is time to hand over leadership to a new generation with fresh energy and vision, capable young leaders who can make a new beginning. If the church today suffers from a lack of leadership, it is not because there are no leaders but because the church is unwilling to give them a chance. I challenge you to be part of this new beginning. When you are looking for someone to lead your church, be an associate minister, or lead one of your ministries or mission efforts, call a young minister—or call a female minister. The challenges we face are too urgent for us to go on denying female ministers an opportunity to serve, and refusing to give younger ministers a chance to rise to the challenge.
III. Sing a New Song
Now let me speak to all of us. When the foundation was laid, Ezra tells us, they held a great celebration. The priests blew their trumpets, and the musicians clashed their bronze cymbals. There was a great shout from the people because the foundation of the house of the Lord had been laid, but not everyone was excited. Many of the priests and old people who had seen Solomon’s temple fifty years earlier wept. Haggai 2:3 may help us understand their response. The prophet says, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” The foundation was not nearly as grand as that of Solomon’s temple. Many of the older people could remember how it was fifty years earlier, and this new temple was not at all like the old one.
Maybe they were also put off because the celebration was different too. Instead of the ram’s horn, the shofar that had traditionally been blown, the priests’ trumpets were long, thin, silver instruments, and they were sounding cymbals—cymbals!—which only appear in the temple liturgy after the return from Babylon. Perhaps the music was too brassy for those who remembered the dignity of Solomon’s temple. Still, Ezra is careful to tell us that they followed the direction of King David. They sang Psalm 118, the same psalm the Levites had sung when Solomon brought the ark to the temple (2 Chron 5:13). And then there was the tension between those who had returned from exile and those who had been left in Judea. Eventually, Ezra and Nehemiah forbade the returnees to marry any of the local population (Ezra 10; Neh 13).
So, while some shouted for joy, others wept. They sang a new song, but their shouts were mixed with the cries of those who wept, and the noise was so great that even those at some distance away from the temple could hear them. Here, at the end of the chapter, we meet a new group: those who were not part of the rebuilding of the House of God, those who lived in the area and watched what was happening at the temple.
Do I need to draw out the parallels between this passage in Ezra and what is happening all around us? Last year an old friend in Arkansas—who is 84 now—called me and asked, “Do you know that these younger ministers are different? They see and do things differently than we used to!” In some churches we have an eighty-thirty split, and the older generation weeps because the new beginnings do not look anything like the church the way it was in their younger days. The younger generation is leading in non-traditional directions, singing a new song, and breaking down social barriers that have stood for too long. But both generations are deeply committed to the church. Both shouts of celebration and tears of distress arise not from indifference but from deep commitment. The church is negotiating what to keep and what to build new, where to follow tradition—the psalms of David—and how to sing new songs—with trumpets and cymbals. Both the old wisdom and the new voices are important, and those who live around us are watching to see what will happen. Can we find a way to work together, and build on old foundations but build new structures? Can we make a new place where we and those who live around us can meet God in our own time?
I believe we can. Tonight we start a journey to make a new beginning. We commission a new generation of leaders for the church and join in singing a new song. The church is waiting. The world is watching. Let’s go! We have work to do!
This sermon was written for and delivered at McAfee School of Theology’s 2015 Commissioning Service at Smoke Rise Baptist Church and is published by persission.