Everyone who has ever had expectations knows disappointment. Friends break their word, marriages end in divorce, our children move away and take our grandchildren with them, doctors can’t cure our ailments, people use us for their own ends, our investments go bust; but often our biggest disappointment is ourselves and what we have or have not done. We live in a world full of disappointment, and if we do not grapple with this reality, we are doomed to be unhappier tomorrow than we are today.
We have all heard the story of Alexander the Great who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. The self-written epitaph on the gravestone of accomplished author Robert Louis Stevenson reads, “Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, and failed much.” Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees and broadcaster for the California Angels, mentioned that a young boy asked him before a game, “Hey, mister. Didn’t you used to be somebody?” Perhaps you’ve heard Abraham Lincoln’s reply when he was asked how it felt to lose the senate race to Stephen Douglas in 1858. His reply was cryptic: “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe: I’m too big to cry, but it hurts too much to walk on.”
Dr. Jerome Frank at Johns Hopkins University states, “We all have assumptions about life. We believe that if we do certain things, others will reciprocate. We assume that we deserve certain things from life. And when those expectations are not met, we are disappointed. There is a strong correlation between mental health and having assumptions that match reality. There is also a high correlation between unrealistic assumptions and the problem of depression. Simply put, unreal expectations lead to disappointment.”
In all likelihood, you are or have recently been struggling with disappointment. Although I may not be given to introspection and dissection as much as some, nonetheless I have found myself at times with very little excitement about the future. As a Christian, I affirm that a sovereign God controls every detail of my life, so this negative thinking about God’s poor superintendence in some situations has left me feelings guilty at times for assailing the character of God. I have come to realize that there were often issues in my past that were not dealt with properly, resulting in a dark pall being cast over everything in the future. Ezra 3 provided some valuable insights for me from the people of Israel.
The year was 537 B.C., and the Jews had just returned to Jerusalem from 70 years of captivity in Babylon—God requiting them for their years of disobedience. The countryside was in the hands of their enemies while the beloved city of Jerusalem lay in ruins.
But these industrious Jews went to work on the capital city with determination. They rebuilt the altar, relaid the foundations of the Temple, and then enjoyed a public celebration. The young folks cheered, anticipating the opportunities of being a restored people; but the old folks wept, remembering the former glories of Solomon’s Temple. A curious mixed response; the same event held very different perspectives, producing very different emotions. The young need the old to remind them of the past. The old need the young to encourage them about the future. As the people of God, we need each other. It is important and healthy to yield both our memories and our dreams to the Lord. You can’t anticipate the future until you resolve the past.
They rebuilt the sacrificial altar in front of their watching enemies. This is Spirit-inspired dedication!
The returning exiles began the rest of their lives by rebuilding the altar so they could offer sacrifices to God. “As one man” (v. 1), they assembled in Jerusalem. Here are differing personalities with varying needs submitted to God for the mutual benefit of all. God had moved in hearts, and self-centered motivation melted away. God’s glory was foremost in this assembly.They built the altar even before they started rebuilding the temple. Why? Worship precedes everything else. From the rubble of their past disobedience, they first made sure they were in fellowship with God. By their sacrifices they were saying, “Lord, we want to get right with you.” The altar, the symbolic center of Old Testament worship, was the link between God and man. During their years in Babylon without an altar, the people had no clear access to God and no assurance of forgiveness. Their disobedience had cost them their fellowship with God. They were painfully aware of what their forefathers had lost, and they anxiously sought to restore the means of biblical worship.
Thank God for new beginnings. Sometimes we need a new beginning because of our sin. Sometimes the circumstances of life have so defeated us that we need a fresh start. Sometimes we feel that hope is gone forever. Sometimes we realize our sins or our predecessors have left us in the rubble. And in those moments, we must do what the Jews did. We must return to the altar of sacrifice. Christian, that means returning to the cross where Christ’s blood was shed for our sins. We all need the healing that comes from the cross, and we need it every day.
No matter how great our sin, if we repent, the Lord will abundantly pardon. “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18). These feeble Jews publicly dedicated themselves in front of scoffing pagans who held only contempt for these sacred acts.
They relaid the temple’s foundation in spite of their worker shortage. This is heartfelt obedience.
To relay the foundation of the temple involved a massive cleanup. Jerusalem looked like Berlin at the end of World War II. Where Solomon’s Temple stood, they found a pile of rocks with weeds growing up amid the debris. I am struck by two facts: First, they committed themselves to follow the Lord in the details of life. Verses 2 and 4 emphasize that when they rebuilt the altar, they did it “according to the Law.” That is significant because nearly 1,000 years had passed since God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. Lots of water had passed under the bridge in the intervening centuries. Empires had come and gone, Israel itself had gone through the age of conquest, the period of the judges, the reign of the kings, and the defeat and exile to Babylon. Now they wanted to start over—which means you go back to the instruction manual so you don’t make the same mistakes all over again.
Second, they relaid the foundation in spite of the enemies all around them. As the story unfolds in the chapters that follow, those enemies did everything they could to discourage them, to harass them, and to stop them altogether. In fact, their enemies succeeded for a period of time. It takes courage to stand against a hostile world. When the enemy lines up against you—put your faith ahead of your fears! The Scriptures allude to the fact that they had only a partial complement of the priests as well. There will always be a worker shortage in the service of God, but we cannot let that stop us from doing the work that needs to be done.
Altogether the picture looked like this. In spite of the obstacles, the opposition, and a checkered past, the people of God banded together and went to work. They raised money for materials, they volunteered for the work, and they strategized for success. I love that spirit, don’t you? There have been many times in my pastoral experience when I wondered, “Am I the only one who cares about this? Why aren’t others stepping forward to meet this need?” Success will draw many followers, but before success is ever experienced, someone has to count the cost and pay the price.
Don’t let your discouragement keep you from doing what you know you should do. If you can’t follow the grand plan, follow the small one. If you can’t see 10 steps into the fog, then take two steps in the light. John Maxwell said, “The smallest act of obedience is better that the greatest intention.” Determine you will obey God in all things.
They resolved they would praise God in the midst of their enormous task. This is God-pleasing celebration.
Once the foundation was laid, the people and their leaders stopped and gave public thanks to God. It was intense, emotional and God-centered. When they sang, they declared (v. 11), “He is good,” not “We have done good.” They gave God all the credit, which ensured His continued attention upon their endeavors.
They did not wait until the building was done to praise the Lord. Even though laying the foundation was significant, there was a mountain of work left to do. Years would pass before the Temple was finished. This was only the first step, but they stopped and gave thanks to the Lord. What a lesson! In the seven-year relocation journey of our church and school, there have been many highs and lows. One reoccurring practice observed along the way has been for us to recount the working of God on our behalf. We have celebrated not only the major miracles of land and large gifts but also the small victories that occurred before zoning boards and city councils that could have been easily overlooked. The old saying, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step,” is true in ministry. Celebrate Him in the midst of your trials as well as in your triumphs.
Praise the Lord at all times. Many times, you won’t feel like praising Him, but praise isn’t about your feelings. Praise is a choice we make without regard to our feelings. Don’t wait until the victory is won to praise the Lord. Stop and praise Him before the battle is begun. Then praise him in the midst of the conflict. And praise Him even when things seem to be going poorly. Accept your present situation as from the Lord. Only those with a high view of God can do this.
With only the foundation of the temple relaid, rubble all around, and their homeland controlled by their enemies, still the people said with one voice, “God is good.” That is true faith. Anyone can praise God when the sun in shining, the bills are paid, your marriage is strong, your kids are doing well, and the future is bright. It takes faith to praise God when things are far from perfect and when the journey is just beginning. It’s a great thing to be able to look at your life and say, “It’s not what I wish it was, but God is still good to me.”
There are three summary statements that I would encourage you to affirm regularly:
I understand it is better to begin small with God than not to begin at all.
I will rejoice over what I have rather than weep over what I have missed.
I will not allow my past failures to determine my future obedience.
Les Heinze has been serving as senior pastor of Red Rocks Baptist Church (formerly known as South Sheridan Baptist Church) in Lakewood, Colorado, since 1990. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible and a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He also received the Doctor of Sacred Ministries degree from Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI). God has blessed him and his wife, Starry, with three children.