Formations 10.30.2022: Rebuilding the Altar

Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-6

I sometimes get prophetic fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it’s important for churches to have hard conversations about topics that people might prefer to avoid. That’s what Jesus did when he challenged the religious status quo on questions of ritual purity, Sabbath-keeping, the dignity of women, the inclusion of Samaritans and Gentiles, and a host of other issues. One could make a case that the religious authorities crucified Jesus precisely because he would not let these issues go.

But I would respectfully suggest that there is more to church than prophetic ministry. There’s a time for prophetically pushing the boundaries, calling people to radical discipleship, pressing for needed change. But there is also a time for pastoral comfort, for offering refuge and a sense of stability.

When the exiles returned from Babylonia, this was what they needed. They had weathered about as much change and as many hard conversations as they could manage. With the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire, the new king, Cyrus of Persia, decrees that all those who had been displaced by the former regime are now allowed to return to their ancestral homelands.

For the Jews, this edict marks the formal end of their Babylonian exile. But now what? How can you return to normal when nothing has been normal for fifty years? When all the old signposts have been torn down? When nothing is where it used to be?

When they arrive in Jerusalem, these former exiles build an altar where the temple of God once stood and simply celebrate God’s providence. Of all the things they needed in that moment, the most important was a sense of security, of refuge.

The time would come for Ezra and Nehemiah to spur them to action, for Haggai to demand they rebuild the temple, for Zechariah to challenge their complacency. We’re never through with prophetic ministry. It’s just that sometimes we need to breathe.

Rebuilding the altar is not the same as resting on one’s laurels, but it is a confession that we need God’s presence more than we need anything else. And all the things the prophets will soon enough begin to demand of them flow from just this sense of the divine among us.

If you’re going to change the world, the best place to start is in a sanctuary.


• Where do you find peace and refuge in turbulent times?
• How does tradition and stability provide a foundation for prophetic ministry?
• How can believers today celebrate God’s goodness while admitting that things are not yet entirely as they should be?
• What touchstones remind you of God’s presence and encourage you to move forward in God’s name?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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