Weeping While We Work

When you are part of a church for any length of time, you inevitably experience the ups and downs of church life. I attended the same church for two decades and saw leadership change many times over, membership rise and fall, and the life of the church thrive in some seasons and shrivel in others. In the midst of all the changes, there were times when it was hard to keep pushing forward and to continue in my labors for the church. There were many disappointments, sorrows, and griefs to endure. At times, it was tempting to give up all together.

Whether we are called to full-time work in the church or serve as a lay-person participating in the life of church ministry, our labor is hard. There are battles we face from within and without. The work is exhausting and unending. We deal with the “shoulds” of how things ought to be, were meant to be, and wonder if our labors are even worth it.

Working to Build

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us about what happened with God’s people when they returned home after decades in captivity. A new ruler took over the empire and decreed that the Israelites could return to their homeland. While not everyone returned, many did.

Ezra 3 tells us that after their return, the Israelites went about rebuilding the altar to make sacrifices to the Lord. Then they began the work of rebuilding the temple. When King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem, he burned down the temple Solomon had built. Needless to say, they had to start over. Not only did they have a large task ahead of them, but people in the surrounding area did not want the temple to be rebuilt because it meant that the nation was regaining their power and status. They went to great lengths to prevent the building efforts. The corresponding, but later account in Nehemiah, tells us the locals also attempted to thwart the rebuilding of the city wall around Jerusalem as well.

As they laid the foundation for the temple, Ezra 3 says, “when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets…And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of father’s houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy” (3:10, 11-12).

The old men remembered the temple in its glory days, before they were taken away into captivity. They remembered the beauty of what it had been. In looking at the foundation they just built, they knew it would never be the same. So they wept in lament.

Yet in their grief, they worked.

Working in the Church Today

What does the account in Ezra have to do with us today? The actual temple in Jerusalem is long gone, destroyed again in AD 70 by the Romans. The temple in the Old Testament was never meant to last forever. It served a purpose until it came to fulfillment in Christ. He is the new temple and we work to build his body, the church (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Like those old men in Ezra, we might look at our labors for the church and remember what once was. We might grieve that the church is not what it should be. Whether we remember times of great revival in church history, or strong leadership, or church purity, we remember those times and grieve. We also grieve because we know what God calls the church to do and be but sometimes what we see in reality pales in comparison. We long to see the church grow and thrive and spread throughout the world. Instead, we hear accounts of false prophets and abuse. We see massive congregations made up of people with little faith. We see the influence of the world creep into every crevice of church life. Like the old men in Ezra’s day, we ought to weep. We ought to cry out to God in lament and pray for a spiritual renewal and awakening in the church.

It’s easy to look at our work for the church as resembling a crumbling foundation— like the Israelites faced— and respond with cynicism. We can say, “Why bother, it’ll only get torn down again.” We can look at the people around us in our churches and think, “They don’t care. Why should I?” We can look at the church’s place in the world and think that the world’s influence is too big and too strong to resist. And in our cynicism, we shrug our shoulders and cease our labors.

Or we can find ourselves useless in the church, merely bodies taking up space, checking off the boxes but giving little to the work of building the Kingdom. We can slink in the back row just as the pastor starts preaching and leave before the benediction. We can make up excuses to stay out of church life. We can hoard our time, gifts, and resources and keep them for ourselves rather than use them to build the church.

There are still others who may look at the work of the church and give up altogether. They may think the foundation is so weak, the work so shoddy, it’s not even worth the effort. Like many in today’s church, they simply walk away.

It’s true, our labors for the church is hard work. Like the work the Israelites faced in Ezra and Nehemiah, it may seem an impossible task. We face countless barriers and enemies who don’t want us to succeed. Our own sin often waylays us (as it did for the Israelites in Ezra 9). But we must remember that our efforts for the church are not wasted. The work we do is not on a physical building, as it was in the case of Ezra; rather, we work for an eternal Kingdom. The work we do to spread the gospel, build unity among brothers and sisters, speak truth in love, serve those who are in need, disciple and teach, and use our gifts to keep the church body functioning— all such labor is an investment in a lasting building, one that cannot be demolished or destroyed. Our efforts are not for our own church but for Christ’s church, of which he is the head. Just as God ruled and reigned over the events that took place in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, He rules and reigns over His church today. He will complete the work He began. God went to great lengths to redeem and create the church; nothing will keep Him from perfecting it.

When we look at the rubble and the work yet to be done in building the church, let us weep. When church life is hard, disappointing, and heartbreaking, let us lament. But while we weep, let us also work. For our labor is not in vain.

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