Message from Tim


Starting Over

‘Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.’ For those of us who think of that as a ‘new song’, it is a sobering thought to realise that Ruth Lake penned it nearly 50 years ago, back in 1972. The words are taken from Isaiah 35:10, where the prophet paints a glorious picture of God’s people coming home from exile.

However, the reality of their return did not match expectation. We looked at Nehemiah over the summer and the book starts with Nehemiah in Susa, a city to the east of Babylon, asking his brother for news of those who had survived the exile and were now living back in Jerusalem. The news was not good: the walls of the city were in ruins, its gates destroyed by fire, and the people were in trouble and disgrace – and this was ninety years after the first exiles had returned.

In that period, plans to rebuild the temple and the city walls had been repeatedly frustrated by local opposition, leaving the people intimidated and demoralised. This opposition, combined with a lack of finances, meant that rebuilding the temple took twenty years, and when completed, it was a disappointingly modest structure compared to the glorious temple Solomon had built at the height of the nation’s prosperity. Now a succession of failed harvests left the people struggling to make ends meet; some of them even had to resort to selling their children into slavery to survive. Worship at the temple was sometimes lacklustre and perfunctory. Even though they were home, it may be that a sense of unfulfilled expectations left the nation feeling that they were somehow still in exile, still waiting for God’s redemption.

And what about us? We have survived the ravages of covid, though it has bereaved some of us and left others of us struggling with the ongoing debilitating symptoms of long covid. Some still do not feel it is safe to gather with lots of other people in church, while others have got out of the hang of coming to church and are left feeling in limbo. Some who have returned to church have been frustrated by masks and social distancing and the need to book into services. Others have had a sense of alienation because post-covid worship services look and feel disconcertingly different. There is the harsh reality that we are finding it difficult to run even a truncated church programme because so many people have had to step down from responsibilities they previously held. And to crown it all, we learn that the government is carefully paving the way to go back on its summer promise of an ‘irreversible’ opening up of society by reintroducing winter restrictions. In this kind of scenario, our natural (fleshly?) human tendency is to lapse into despondency, maybe even a degree of disillusionment.

I don’t write these words to depress you! But I think that we must brace ourselves for the realisation that, although we have survived covid, it is going to take a long time for us to recover, and the road ahead may well be tough and difficult. But I cite the experience of the returning exiles to make the point that perhaps we should not be surprised at this. Their experience was not that God let them down – after all, bringing them back home from Babylon was little short of a miraculous deliverance – but perhaps their expectations that everything would just slot into place for them were unfounded.

Yes, they had kept the faith during the long years of exile, but coming back did not mean that they could now put their feet up. On the contrary, they had to find God’s grace to meet a whole set of fresh challenges. And one way or another they found that grace: God came through for them and the temple and city walls were eventually rebuilt, but God did it with them, not for them.

Perhaps what we need going forward is a kind of ‘holy stubbornness’, a determination to carry on and to realise God’s purposes for us in a new and changed environment. As we begin to get wearily to our feet, we find that God is there waiting to lift us up and work alongside us in the months that lie ahead. If you feel that God is calling you to be part of the process of rebuilding, can I invite you to consider three questions:

  • How will I serve?
  • What will I give?
  • When will I pray?

Lastly, with due deference to Isaiah, perhaps our theme song for this coming autumn should not be about returning to Zion with singing and everlasting joy. I think that maybe Timothy Dudley-Smith strikes the right note:
Lord for ourselves; in living power remake us – self on the cross and Christ upon the throne, past put behind us, for the future take us: Lord of our lives, to live for Christ alone.