Michigan Transitions – D

Once I’d been here and observed people and the environment, I tried to engage in a little amateur anthropology. Sure, being in the upper mid-west and being in the northwest, or even being in southern California aren’t really big differences. It’s not like I found myself in Zaire, after all.

But that’s the challenge, isn’t it? There are differences, even though they are subtle, and it is important to attempt to understand them in order to determine how you will respond to the differences.

Much of what I learned came from people already here. People who were born and raised here, but had travelled and spend significant time in the places I was formed in, were able to give me a perspective. “Where you’re from, things seem to be like this …, but around here, it’s more like ….”

I’ve had to come to grips with my “sub-culture perspectivalism.” That is, my perceptions are shaped by my formative environment. I was born and raised in southern California. That, right there, is a sub-culture apart from most of the rest of the nation of the United States of America. I am a “SoCal boy” and my formative years were spent living a mile away from the Pacific Ocean. The rest of the country was about football or hockey; we were about surfing and volleyball. Southern California, because of the movie and television industry, became the media capital of the country. Though all the media money was in New York, much of the creative talent was in my neighborhood.

I grew up in suburban sprawl, pleasant weather, and was surrounded by people who came from somewhere else. In fact, that “somewhere else” was a subliminal message: “Where I came from was not good.” That is, the east coast, mid-west, and south were places that were bad. California was the land of “opportunity,” meaning that the rest of the country were places of stifling tradition, oppressive conflict, and narrow-minded bigotry. That was the worldview that formed me.

So here are a couple more differences:

  • One of the natives here in Michigan says that they are not an optimistic people. Life is hard, the future is not always bright or hopeful, and it is entirely possible that things will get worse. This is in stark contrast to the “California mindset:” life is good, the future looks better, and we can have hope. I’m not really convinced that mid-westerners are pessimistic, but there is a mindset of “toughing it out.”
  • Mid-westerners are rooted people. They frequently live within 10 to 20 miles of where they grew up. They are in weekly physical contact with family members. Their friends have been friends since elementary school. By contrast, the west coast is full of people who got there by up-rooting and travelling to a mostly unknown place. West-coasters are mobile people who will not find it hard to move from Portland to San Francisco because of job relocation. “Our real friends will keep in touch and we’ll make new friends when we get there.” Family ties are a bit looser in the west – it is not as important to visit mom and dad every weekend. In fact, because family and friends are more scattered, it gives an excuse to travel frequently to visit.


Michigan Transitions - C

So our transition to Michigan first began when I started looking for a job. When I got a nibble from the church, I began investigating the area much more thoroughly. This involved research on the web and even talking to some people who’d lived in or even just visited Michigan and the Detroit area.

The next phase was an actual visit. This helped me to put together things that weren’t clear in my data-only investigation. Now I was able to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears.
After a second on-site interview with my family, we compared notes and impressions and all of us had favorable responses. The area seemed very much like a flatter, yet prettier, version of southern California. There were more trees, the roads were wider and had more green strips, but there was still the energy and fun of being in a large suburban community.

The next phase of the transition was the acceptance of the ‘job offer’ and then solving the problem of how to get me relocated to Michigan. We decided that I would go, set up ‘camp’ in a small apartment, and get established in my job while the rest of the family would stay put and concentrate on getting the house ready for sale.

To do that, my wife and I took a cross-country road trip so that I could have my car with me at my new ‘home.’ That turned out to be much more of an adventure than we’d anticipated. We got right in the middle of a record-breaking storm and had awful weather all the way across the mountain and plains states. However, providentially, we were always able to travel during daylight hours. That’s not, “travel comfortably,” but we were able to make time and distance. Once we reached Chicago, my wife took a plane back to Washington and I continued on by myself arriving safely.

I was able to secure a condominium ‘house-sit’ and set up my bachelor life while getting oriented to my new job. About two months later, I flew back out to Washington and drove my wife and son across country (much different route, this time!) to join me.

During those couple of months while I was ‘bach-ing it,’ I certainly learned something about getting around in the snow. What was ironic was that this season was the worst snow in decades for the area. So it was a ‘baptism by snow.’ Fortunately, I learned enough quickly enough about driving in the piles of white stuff to avoid any accidents.

As one who was born and raised in the Los Angeles metro area, driving skills were Very Important. As I have travelled and moved place to place, for some reason I am very sensitive to the "car driving sub-culture." How people drive their vehicles is usually the first thing my mind registers as, "Hey, people do things differently around here."

A couple of driving-in-the-snow tips:
  • your 4-wheel drive only helps you go in one direction: straight. It does not help you stop any better. You also need an anti-lock braking system to help you from skidding.
  • Additionally, losing traction when turning is a common occurrence. Your tires are designed to start and stop in a straight line – they are not so good at holding you on a curve in slippery conditions. For the nerds: think "lateral forces."
  • Different snow drives differently. Very cold, powdery snow is actually not so bad for traction; especially if there’s a wind: it acts almost like sand. The worst is melting snow – the combination of ice, water, and snow makes the road “slick as snot.” Typical was the snow that piles up before the plows push it away – it almost looks like stiff oatmeal as your tires go through it.
  • I found that, generally, the colder the weather the better the snow traction.

General driving observations:

  • There is an odd thing here: the "Michigan Left." In the Detroit area on major streets, the Wise Men of Traffic Control have decided that drivers can not be trusted to make left hand turns as the rest of the country does. They have very wide medians and expect you to first make a right turn, cross over all the lanes of traffic, and then pull into a special turn lane that is put into the median. If you check out Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_left) you can get the full scoop. Check out this animated website (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdot/MDOT_Roads-Travel_mich_left_213414_7.swf) to understand this more clearly. From my perspective, all this does is add milage to your trip and provide even more opportunity for accidents as you cross all those lanes of traffic or become confused as to how to handle an intersection - or even if there is an intersection.
  • As mentioned before, the road conditions are much poorer than in the west. Whoever the road engineer geniuses are who devised the Michigan Left apparently wasted all that brainpower on making it more difficult to get from place to place rather than thinking of better ways to make a road bed less prone to pothole-ing.
  • Drivers here, as befits residents of the Motor City, are more aggressive. But they frequently drive faster than they are competent. I say this not only as I observe driving behavior, but as I observe the pragmatic results. Already in our time here, we have seen one accident happen right in front of us and another that must have occurred less than two minutes before we got there, as well as seeing a few post-accident scenes on the streets here. Even after 30+ years in Los Angeles traffic, I don't remember seeing so many accidents in such a brief amount of time.
  • On the freeways, tailgating is frequent. Sometimes its of the aggressive sort: "Hey, I wanna go faster - get out of my way!" But it is also of a nonchalant sort: "You're going 65 mph and that's a good speed. I'll go 65 mph, too - three yards off your rear bumper."
  • Cell-phone use while driving has not be prohibited here, yet. And it does show. There are many times when somebody will be traveling slow in the fast lane, you pass them, and see that they are talking on their cell phone. The other tell-tale sign is weaving or poor lane placement (having the car way over on either the right or left part of the lane - or crossing it). It is true that distracted driving prevents you from concentrating on all the things you need to do to drive well in a fast-paced environment.
  • People around here do use their horns more. On the west coast, it was rare that somebody would use their horn to "send a message" of contempt or anger. Horn use was almost always "Look out! Do you see me?" Here, there is more horn use of the "sending a message" sort.
  • There are several controlled intersections where there is a small sign posted prohibiting turning right on a red light. The vast majority of these are unneeded (frequently posted in intersections that have left-hand turn light control) and seem posted to become a revenue-producing opportunity for the local law enforcement departments.


Michigan Transitions - B

So what have we done, so far, in transitioning from Washington to Michigan?

The first point to make is that I’m a pastor and my move from Washington to Michigan was occasioned by my accepting a pastorate here. So the first step in transition was the candidating process itself.

Initially, I was contacted by the leadership of this church about an application that I’d sent to them. All that I knew about the area was that it was north of Detroit, Michigan. I did know a bit about the church from its website. Helpfully, the church had pictures of the building and people so I could get some sense of what the surrounding neighborhood was like. I had no idea what the area was really like when I sent the application. When I was contacted, I immediately attempted to orient myself to the area.

One of the first steps was looking up the city the church is in – Sterling Heights – in Wikipedia.

I then looked at satellite pictures using Google Earth. I found out, for example, that Sterling Heights is home to a couple of automotive and aerospace assembly plants. So that tells me that there is a manufacturing base to the local economy.

I then found out that Sterling Heights (#61) was on the Money magazine’s list of the top 100 medium-sized cities in the United States (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/bplive/2008/snapshots/PL2676460.html ). That was fortunate as that article let me know about the city’s strengths and relative weaknesses. I then began to appreciate that Sterling Heights was a mid-sized suburban city within the state of Michigan.

I then caught some news and was interested to see that the McCain-Palin campaign stopped for a major event in the city – which told me that the city had some importance in the area.

I started doing some searches using Google maps such as “banks,” “restaurants,” “school,” and even “church.” I learned that there was a clear shopping district, that the area seemed solidly middle-class, and there were several churches nearby. Barb and I joked about seeing some of our favorite restaurants were nearby.

So I constructed a tentative 'mental model' of what Sterling Heights was like. Of course, after collecting such raw “data,” the key thing was the first visit where I could see with my own eyes what the place was like and adjust my model. I was pleased – the place seemed even better than I’d thought. After meeting the people and joking about being a west coast boy out of his element, that actually helped to bring out – in natural conversation - potential differences and points of adjustment.

A couple of first impressions:
1) this place is flat. On the west coast, there’s always a mountain range in view and so it is pretty easy to get your bearings. Here, you have to be a bit more aware of the sun’s position and how the streets are laid out.
2) The road surfaces are not very good. Now the reason is plain – this part of the country regularly gets freezing weather and develops pot holes and cracked concrete.
3) Drivers are more aggressive here. This is actually a welcome change. I grew up in the Los Angeles basin where, it was once quipped, “you’re either the quick, or the dead.” Washington and Oregon drivers, by comparison, drive like old ladies. I appreciate driving in a place where people actually seem to want to get somewhere.

So the first phase of our transition was just getting good information about the place.


Michigan Transitions - A

Several of my friends have been asking and asking again about how are we adjusting to life in Michigan.

For Barb and me, this seems like such an odd kind of question. It is asked so frequently that it almost seems like some sort of group obsession. Right there, I’m trying to understand why people are so very interested.

The first thing is that some people just can’t understand moving such great distances. There are some people for whom great change is a very frightening prospect. I remember when we were living in Santa Maria, California in the late 1980’s and I’d made the decision to move to the Thousand Oaks area to attend law school at nearby Pepperdine University. One of our friends, who couldn’t have been 30 years old yet, was simply amazed that we would move “so far” to do something “so different.” This guy was so rooted to the area – even the valley – that he was born in that he couldn’t imagine relocating. I was struck by the thought that this 28 year old guy was already thinking like an old man.

Even when we candidated for this church, one of the questions that was asked was, “How can you move so far away from your friends and family??” That is, from Washington to Michigan. There are several answers to that question, but the primary one was that Jesus wanted us to. Beyond that, the reality is that real friends stay your friends. Our society is more connected over farther distances than at any other time in history. It is a relatively trivial thing for me to be in immediate contact with a friend in Southern California. Distance isn’t the issue. Actually, time zones present the greatest challenge!

Additionally, we are located nearer the bulk of our family now than when we were on the west coast. The hardest thing, in terms of family, is that both of our daughters are on the west coast. As parents, we can no longer respond as quickly or immediately as we were accustomed to. However, that separation has more to do with our daughters’ stage in life relative to our own. We are becoming empty-nesters.

Even more so, unlike my young old-man friend above, Barb and I have always had an adventurous streak in us. We have always relished travel and the challenge of adapting to new places and people. We’ve moved several times now and realize that, wherever we go, we’ll make new friends, keep the old ones, and enjoy the new place. We’re pretty resilient.

The other part of the insistent question, "how are you adjusting?" is just the nature of relationships here in Michigan. The vast majority of people that we know here are in our church – the church where I’m a pastor. They really can’t ask about my work because I can’t tell them that much. They can complain about the jerks and idiots who they work with. I can’t complain. (snicker) That last sentance is pretty ambiguous!

Additionally, lots of what I do can be confidential in nature and there’s only so much I can share. Even if I chat with people socially, they tend to steer away from talking about my ‘work.’ So what’s left to talk about? Well, I’m new to the area so … “How are you settling in?”

I’ll blog a bit more about our transition as time goes on.


Easter 2009 (Deleted Scenes)

I’d mentioned last month that I was trying to figure out how to restructure my blogging activity. I came up with one thought, which was also confirmed by my friend, Doug, of writing on “deleted scenes” from sermons I would deliver. The idea is that there are several thoughts that I developed in preparation for my eventual sermon that, for various reasons, didn’t make it into the ‘final cut.’ Some of these ideas aren’t completely thought out so are a bit raw.

This blog is on the ideas that didn’t get into the Easter sermon.

Easter Isn’t About “Church”

One of the things that people get confused about Easter is that it’s a ‘holiday’ rather than a “holy day.” Easter, properly understood, is not truly about clothes, candy, or even “church.” For most Christians, they can see the first two points but get confused about the last: “Wadda mean, Easter isn’t about church?” Well, the first thing to get straight is that Christianity itself isn’t about church, it’s about Jesus. Once I put it that way, nobody’s going to disagree.

But here’s where Easter becomes “religious.” There are make-believe “Christians” who have no living relationship with Jesus (though they for bizarre reasons still call themselves “Christians”), who really believe that if they merely attend church on Christmas and Easter, that’s “good enough.” This is so mind-boggling to me that I don’t even know where to start. Christianity is not about attending church. While authentic Christians do attend church, their relationship to God is not about their church attendance but their relationship to the real savior, Jesus. So called “Twice-A-Year ‘Christians’” are not real Christians. That’s what I mean when I say that Easter is not about “church.”

Pagan Easter

There’s a lot of virtual ink spilled on the web about the pagan influences upon Easter. Several will spout the party line that Christians just glommed on to pagan springtime festivals and created Easter from whole cloth. Unfortunately, they just don’t have the historical facts. While it is true that the church took the then-nasty “Saturnalia” festival and redeemed it into a celebration of Jesus’ birth [see blog post on 10Dec2009], the exact opposite occurred with Resurrection Day.

Now it is clear that there are pagan Vernal Equinox celebrations. And it is also clear, in hind-sight, that some of the elements of those celebrations have made their way into the holiday we now know as Easter. As with Christmas, there are both pagan and Christian elements associated with the holiday. But no thoughtful Christian will say that the centrality of Easter lies in the Bunny, eggs, flowers, or mere “rebirth of nature.”

It is a clear fact when Jesus rose from his death by execution. It was early morning on the first day of the week after the Passover. The calendar for the Passover was very clear at that time and relied on the Vernal Equinox for its calculation. The date for Jesus’ resurrection is a very specific day of the week and season of the year. What has been annoying is to see a variety of pagan practices worm their way into this celebration. I am frequently tempted to refer to the pagan-secular part of the holiday as “Pseudo-Easter” and the authentic Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection as “Resurrection Day.”


One of the things I’m surprised still occurs in church life is the weird way people pray. they don’t pray as if Jesus were real. There are people who still pray using “King James” pronoun language: Thee, Thou, Thine, and other phrases. It is as if the people who pray in this way believe that unless they use these kinds of ‘special words,’ God will not be pleased with them. This is very much like the thinking behind magical incantations: if you say the right words, in the right way, in the proper sequence, then you can manipulate the spiritual world.

If we believe that Jesus is real, then it seems to me that should change our “prayer language.” Prayer, for the child of God, is not magical incantations but family talk. The pagans, who don’t know God as Father, have every reasonable expectation that God is not happy with them. Pagans live in fear of a capricious god who needs to be appeased and may Zap them if they do the least little thing wrong. Christians should see God as their Father and talk to them as such. That was the instruction that Jesus gave his disciples about their prayer life: “Our Father, who is in heaven…”

Never in my life did I ever approach my own father, Warren S. Messelt, with words like this: “Oh my father, that thou would live forever! I beseech thee for thy good grace to bestow upon me thine favor and that thou wouldest bless me with thy good gift. I petition thee that thou wouldest grant me thy blessing and permit me to operate thy automobile this evening that I mayest fellowship with my companions. So be it.” If my dad heard me say something like that, he’d be pretty ticked.

I think that our prayer life indicates our relationship with God. Now I am not advocating disrespectful prayer such as: “God-Dude – I need a car!” When Jesus said we should pray to God, we should address God respectfully. But to use language that is foreign to us is to slip into an attitude about prayer that is very un-Christian.


Jesus, Man for The Nations

A few days back I was thinking about how great Jesus is. There is a translation that says that Jesus is the “desire of the nations.” That is, that all people find in Jesus the highest, best, and most valuable. I started thinking along these lines:

For the nature lover, Jesus as the creator, is responsible for natural beauty
For the nerds, Jesus as sustainer of the universe, is keeper of quarks, bosons, and the atomic forces
For the emotionally mature, Jesus is lover of our souls and forever faithful
For the busy, Jesus accomplishes all that he intends to do
For the environmentalist, Jesus is the redeemer of creation
For the elitist, Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords
For the socialist, Jesus is the son of a working-class family
For the artist-writer-musician, Jesus is the theme of the greatest creative efforts our culture

… and so forth. You get the idea: Jesus is example, guide, teacher, and hero. Jesus is frequently treated in this way - which is right - but Jesus is more than just a hero. We properly admire a hero but realize that 'veneration' or 'worship' of a hero is wrong. When we make Jesus into just a hero, we rob him of his rightful place and role as person worthy of real worship.

Some years back I realized that I’d come to view Jesus merely as a hero. Sure, Jesus was really smart, all “together,” insightful, courageous, compelling, the kind of guy people liked to be around, etc. But then I was confronted by my low view of Jesus. This is devastating for someone who calls themselves a “Christian.”

You see, everybody likes Jesus. Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, intellectuals, and even Jews admire Jesus. Why? Because they see Jesus as a "hero." But that picture – while certainly accurate – is not complete. Those very people – very much – want to ignore all the things that Jesus said and did that they don’t like. This is weird but it has come up often. Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian, liked many of the things that Jesus said. But the things that Jefferson didn’t like? Well, Jefferson didn’t merely ignore those things, or even just cross out those parts from his Bible; Jefferson physically cut those passages out of his personal bible.


For a couple of hundred years now, so-called ‘scholars’ (with increasingly less actual evidence to support this), have claimed that the un-popular bits of what Jesus said were just made up by his followers to advance their own agenda. This is very postmodern as it feeds into the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ that helps define postmodern thought. Think of “The DaVinci Code” and you’ve got the picture. More recently, a group of Christian scholars assembled and voted as to which of Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament were truly authentic to Jesus. I believe the current count, according to this group, is only 18% that is “really” Jesus. Bizarrely, they began with the assumption that what’s recorded in Jesus’ biographies is inherently unreliable. What is not widely known is that while this project, called the “Jesus Seminar,” was initially represented by reputable scholars, those people rather quickly abandoned the ship and the project has become the laughing-stock of even scholars hostile to Christianity. Basically, Jesus Seminar people are just making it all up as they go along.

The point of all this is to show that the “Jesus As Merely Hero” movement has been quite popular to the ‘chattering classes’ for a while now.

Here’s the thing: Christians don’t think of Jesus as their hero. That is, while he is their hero, he is so very much more. Jesus is God. As God, Jesus should be worshipped. Jesus should be venerated. But even more, Jesus should be loved and obeyed.

Now lots of people “love” Jesus, but they suddenly get cold feet when it comes to actually obeying him. And, for their excuse, they will frequently claim that Jesus is “misunderstood.” Again: Wow. The moment that their hero actually makes a claim on their lives – to live differently, think differently, relate to people differently – well, their story changes.

So, as a Christian, when I reduced Jesus to mere hero I was also reducing his claim to my life. I was removing his right to judge me and expect me to live the way he wants me to. That isn’t Christian – that’s pagan. When I realized that I my functional theology about Jesus was becoming rather pagan-like, I realized that I had a choice: What do I really believe about Jesus?

As a complete geek-analytical type and a lawyer, I reviewed the evidence. It came out even more compelling for me: Jesus’ rightful place is as boss of my life. And that recommitment to the supremacy of Jesus has significantly fueled my spiritual growth for the last several years.

So should you, as a non-Christian – but especially if a Christian - have thought that Jesus was merely a hero; then I would challenge you to examine that conclusion even more. A really bright man who died when I was a 'wee tyke' said something to this effect: “Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

(for a detailed review of the ‘trilemma’ argument, I found this to be interesting: http://www.tektonics.org/jesusclaims/trilemma.html)


Pastors, Maturity or Elitism?

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready…” 1 Corinthians 3:1-2

Spiritual elitism is a subtle sin. It is sin because a significant component of elitism is pride. Pride, said one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, is the first – maybe even the root – sin.

One of the factors that brought me into vocational ministry in mid-life was a season of spiritual renewal that started about ten years ago. Several things converged together to create a storm that re-awakened my love for Jesus, my desire to serve him at a greater level, and to sharpen my biblical-theological understanding. In summary, my spiritual life ramped up.

As I entered into this new ‘neighborhood’ of faith, I had to realize that not everyone around me was in the same place. I had to fight the idea that I was in a “better” spiritual place than my other friends. In fact, one of the minor frustrations that some of my other pastoral mentors have admitted to is a relative lack of faith in their congregations and even in church leadership. Certainly, your average spiritually-healthy full-time vocational pastor should be more spiritually mature and is committed to living a life of faith in service to Jesus than most of his congregation. But that can be frustrating. The pastor says: ‘I see the blessings that can come into your life if you’d trust God more fully, but you don’t want to really do that.’

I wonder if Paul was a similarly frustrated: “I’d really want to get you folks to a greater level of maturity, but you are acting like babies. Since you aren’t ready to go further, I can’t treat you like grown-ups so that’s why I treat you like babies.” Ouch.

Now I think there is a distinction between understanding that your spiritual journey is a bit farther down the road than some others of your friends, and the sin implied in thinking that you are better than those who haven’t travelled as far. Paul was also careful to recognize this sin – especially in the context of church leadership – when he refers to Proverbs 16:18 (‘Pride goes before a fall’) in his first letter to Timothy (3:6). And again, Paul says this to every Christian when he warns us to understand ourselves rightly (Rom. 12:3) – not too high or too low.

I’m still coming to grips in understanding this distinction because this is an area where I fall into sin. But I think the distinction is this: a proper pastoral concern for his flock’s relative immaturity focuses on them; but spiritual elitism is self-centered and is much more about the sinner’s reputation, esteem, and ‘position.’

This is where Paul’s frustration comes in: he cares very much for his friends at the church he planted and wants them to enjoy more blessings in Jesus. But they are so distracted by personality cults, ‘toleration’ and moral relativism, dysfunctional conflict, weird ideas about marriage, superstitions, money, church time, spiritual gifts, and a confused understanding about the gospel. All of these problems are preventing many of the folks in the church from living the lives that God wants for them. This is frustrating!

This would be like a parent who watches his children divide up Halloween candy and get into a terrible fight over one piece of Tootsie Roll while completely missing the pile of candy that they each have in front of them. The mature parent doesn’t point out the silliness of their fight because he or she wants to appear wise and morally superior; no, the mature parent realizes that the kids are missing the overwhelming blessings of a sugar-induced coma because of a very minor thing. They want their kids to learn perspective: don’t focus on the little thing, consider the big pile in front of you – especially when the little thing is keeping you from the big pile.

So from this section of scripture, I see some interesting pastoral applications. And my conclusions is this: a pastor has to be just a tad set apart to help people along on their spiritual journey. As Eugene Peterson says: “It is the pastor’s responsibility to keep the community attentive to God.” (Working the Angles, 2).


Nehemiah Thoughs

I was chatting with one of our people here at the church about the sermon series we’re doing on the book of Nehemiah. We’ve been studying Nehemiah since the first of the year and are just about to finish it up.

One of the things that we chatted about was the implication that the Ark of the Covenant – the golden box that symbolized God’s relationship with the Jews – was missing. The Ark seems to have been a casualty of war when the Jews were taken to Babylonia. Not only is the Ark not mentioned after the Jewish exile, but it is notably absent from the depiction of Emperor Titus’ sacking of Jerusalem contained on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

The tragedy of this loss is profound. The Ark was the symbol of God’s relationship to the Jews and presence among them. After they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple, and even rebuilt the walls, they must have been excruciatingly disappointed that their Temple was – in essence – empty.

That is the real judgment of God upon Israel and Judah. After hundreds of years of God telling his people (through his ‘prosecuting attorneys,’ the prophets) that the people should “shape up, or ship out.” The people did not shape up. So God shipped them out. Now the death, destruction, and displacement of The Exile is one sort of judgment. But after rebuilding Jerusalem, the true horror of God’s judgment becomes apparent: God is no longer with us.

And this is affirmed in the structure of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first 39 chapters are Isaiah’s statement that the Jews are 'hardened, blatant sinners headed off to exile and death.' Then, suddenly, Isaiah begins chapter 40 with words of comfort. And he signals when that comfort would come in verse 3: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” For Christians, it’s pretty clear whose voice this is: John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:1-3). So what does this mean? There are two descriptions of historic periods given by Isaiah. The first is the Exile given in chapters 1 through 39. The second is the coming of Messiah heralded by John the Baptizer in chapters 40 through 66. Note there is – for Isaiah – silence about God’s dealing with the Jews from the point of the Exile to the point of Messiah’s coming.

A Psalm (22), recognized at the time as being about Messiah, begins with these thoughts: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Several hundred years prior to the Exile, King David had connected a sense of separation from God with a promise of Messiah.

And that’s the true judgment of God for the Jews: a partial separation. For Ezra, Nehemiah, and the others of this period, things look very bleak. Of course, several hundred years after the Exile, Jesus – on the cross – uttered the opening sentence to show that he was the fulfillment of that promise.

Still, some interesting things happen during that post-Exile time. First, the people – recognizing the severity of their judgment – resolve “Never again!” There forms a revival movement to obedience of God’s commands. The reasoning is clear: “If God judged us because of our disobedience, then we will make absolutely sure that we obey from now on!” This movement led to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

At the same time, many scholars believe that Ezra restored the scriptures, re-instituted Temple worship and sacrifice, and generally provided the intellectual leadership to revitalize Judaism. The difference is so striking that today scholars refer to “Second Temple Judaism.” From the time of Ezra to the time of Jesus, Judaism never again fell into the idolatry that plagued them from the time of Solomon’s death until The Exile (“First Temple Judaism”).

Additionally, Temple worship became so consistent and coherent that another movement arose that recognized and affirmed the power of Temple worship – Sadducees. While Pharisees emphasized Bible and obedience, Sadducees emphasized the Temple. These are gross generalizations, but my intent is to help you understand why the two groups formed and what they became by the time Jesus came around.

My point here is to recognize that this time of Ezra and Nehemiah seemed – to the people that lived it – a depressing, tragic, and empty time. But in fact, it was the seeds for a revival of Jewish religion that remained strong even after the Jews were crushed by Rome in 70 A.D.