You cannot read through the Old Testament without noticing that the concept of captivity is a major theme. There were, of course, the children of Israel who spent about 400 years in captivity in Egypt. And then later, the Jews spent 70 more years in Babylonian captivity. Altogether, the words “captivity” and “captive” are used over 400 times in the Bible.
Think for a moment about how we use the word “captivity”. We sometimes talk about animals in a zoo that are living in captivity. Animal rights advocates will argue that animals kept in captivity may eventually adapt to their new environment, but they are traumatized in the process, and after some period of time, they can’t go back to their natural habitat. They’ve been changed by their captivity. Perhaps that sounds familiar to some of you.
Captivity is defined in this way: “Captivity is the condition of having your freedom limited involuntarily. Captivity is being confined, or trapped, or restricted or controlled against your will.”
And using that definition, we could say that the COVID pandemic over the past couple of years has been a time of captivity for all of us. Our freedom has been limited, our choices have been restricted, our lifestyles have been confined, our behavior has been controlled, and in some ways, we have all felt trapped by the pandemic.
Most of us assumed that once the vaccinations became available, that we’d all just pick up and continue from where we left off in March 2020, but that hasn’t happened. But hopefully, we areat least moving toward a less-restricted time. Slowly, our freedoms and choices are being restored.
But it’s important for us to understand that the world that we are returning to is a lot different from the world that used to be. I would compare it to how a soldier feels when he or she returns from deployment. When they come back home, they find that things have changed. And during their time away, they changed too. So, as many of you know all too well, there is often some degree of difficulty in re-entering normal life, because normal has changed!
And I think millions of people around the world feel that same way as we look to resume our lives. As much as we might like for them to, things are never going back to the way they were before the beginning of the pandemic. The world has changed, this church has changed, and you have changed. And, as a result, we’ve all had to make some adjustments.
Even the notion of accepting a “new normal” is difficult for us – what exactly is our new normal? Sociologists have come up with a term to describe what we’re going through. It’s called “ambiguous loss”. “Ambiguous loss” is where we have experienced some sort of trauma and we know that things are different than they used to be but we don’t yet know exactly what that means for us.
The one thing we do know is this – things will never be the same. You will never be the same. This church will never be the same. So, as we begin a new year, I want to try to help us to make the adjustments that we need to make so that we can resume church life successfully as best as we can with God’s help.
In many ways, God is giving us all an opportunity to reset our lives. Instead of just returning to the same old patterns and behaviors and habits and hang-ups, God is giving us the opportunity to begin building better, more balanced and healthy lives.
Fortunately, the Bible gives us a lot of encouragement and practical advice on how to do this after experiencing a time when our choices and freedoms have been restricted.
In the Old Testament, there are five books that were written to God’s people to encourage them and to tell them what to do after they were released from 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Those five post-captivity books are the books of Ezra (who was a priest), Nehemiah (who was a civic leader and builder), and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi who were prophets of God.
So, what I want to do this morning is to share with you some of the principles that God gave his people through these five men, to help us as we begin to resume our lives, and build even better, stronger, more Christ-centered lives, after our time in captivity.
The first principle is found in the book of Ezra.
1. Expect to have mixed emotions both in your own life and in the lives of the other members of this congregation.
When the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, they found their homes, the city, and the temple — their place of worship — in ruins. Everything had been destroyed. And so, the first thing they did — their first priority — was to start rebuilding the temple so that they would have a place to worship God together.
They started laying a foundation for this new temple. And that resulted in a variety of emotions among the Jews. To most of the people, it brought great joy, the excitement of having a temple after 70 years of not being able to worship in the temple. But, to those who were older, it also brought back memories, and they felt grief and sadness as they remembered what worship used to be like back in the old days, back in the old temple. Things were different now, and it’s not as good as it used to be.
In Ezra 6, beginning with verse 8, “After their arrival at the Temple of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel…and all who had returned from captivity to Jerusalem began to work. They chose Levites twenty years old and older to be in charge of the building of the Temple of the Lord….The builders finished laying the foundation of the Temple of the Lord.
“Then the priests, dressed in their robes, stood with their trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, stood with their cymbals. They all took their places and praised the Lord just as David king of Israel had said to do. With praise and thanksgiving, they sang to the Lord, “He is good; his love for Israel continues forever.” And then all the people shouted loudly, “Praise the Lord! The foundation of his Temple has been laid.”
But many of the older priests, Levites, and family leaders who had seen the first Temple cried when they saw the foundation of this Temple. Most of the other people were shouting with joy. The people made so much noise it could be heard far away, and no one could tell the difference between the joyful shouting and the sad crying.” (Ezra 3:8-13)
Don’t be surprised if you feel mixed emotions, or even conflicted emotions, as we come together and worship God this year. On the one hand, we feel a sense of joy that we’re able to be back together and meet in person, but at the same time, there’s a sense of sadness because things aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic. It’s absolutely normal to feel that way. In fact, you may have conflicting emotions – joy and sadness – all at the same time.
Yes, we’re glad to get back to life together, but just like those former captives, we feel happy, relieved, confused, frustrated, and grieved all at the same time. It can take a while to sort out all those mixed emotions, but that’s to be expected, so don’t be surprised.
You’ve had almost two years to adjust to new patterns of living, new behaviors, and new habits. Most of us adjusted to those new ways of doing things – in fact, many of us found aspects of it that we actually liked – but, as time progresses, things will likely get disrupted time and again.
And for some, the feelings of sadness are there because of what we’ve lost. Here in America, families are grieving the loss of over 800,000 family members who have died because of COVID. But even many of those who haven’t been touched by the virus itself, have had losses — lost jobs, lost graduations, missed celebrations and family events like weddings, family reunions, and baby showers. Some of you had loved ones die and you couldn’t travel to their funerals. So, yes, there’s a reason for great sadness.
The Bible tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). That’s called empathy. And it’s important to keep that in mind, because as the story from Ezra tells us, not everyone is going to react to our return in the same way. In Jerusalem, some of the people were excited at things getting to normal and other people were sad.
You need to understand that, in the same way, not everyone in this church is going to react the same way that you do to things getting back to normal. There are some who will be excited, there are others who will be fearful. And it’s important that we show empathy toward others who may have had a different pandemic experience than we had, and show grace to others who may not always act the way that you think they ought to act. Because, just like in the days of Ezra, there will be a mixture of “joyful shouting” and “sad crying”. Expect these mixed emotions.
The second principle we learn about returning from captivity is this…
2. Think About What You Have Learned
Any time we go through a difficult or painful experience, it is important for us to learn something from that experience. Someone has said, “Forget what hurt you in the past, but never forget what it taught you.” In fact, I believe that God often allows us to go through difficult times for the express purpose of teaching us something. And if we don’t learn anything, God may have to send us through those difficult times again until we do learn something.
As restrictions are eased up and opportunities open up in the future, before you rush off and start doing a bunch of new things, it’s important to pause for a moment and consider the lessons that you’ve learned over the past couple of years. Even better, write them down so that you don’t forget them! Write them down so you can review them! Write them down so you can share them with your children and their children. Don’t let these past two years be wasted! Make sure that you take some time to reflect on what you have learned.
Paul said this to the Galatian Christians, “You have experienced many things. Were all those experiences wasted? I hope not!” (Galatians 3:4, ICB)
If you can’t identify and write down some lessons that you learned over the past couple of years – then for you, that entire time was wasted! All the pain and the frustration you have experienced has been of absolutely no value to you at all.
The Message translation translates this verse: “Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!” (Galatians 3:4, TM)
So, let me give you a homework assignment for this week: I’ve listed on your outline some starter questions that I’ve borrowed from Steve Gladen. These are questions that are designed to make you think about what life lessons you have learned during the pandemic. And I want you all to take some quiet time and ask yourself: what did I learn over the past two years? Then write down your answers. You might start a journal, and the first page would be this — life lessons learned during the pandemic. Here are some questions to get you started:
- What have I learned about what matters most?
- What have I learned about what doesn’t matter?
- What have I learned about my weaknesses?
- What have I learned about my strengths?
- What have I learned about my relationships?
- What have I learned about the pace of my life?
- What have I learned about God?
- What have I learned about the world and the culture I live in?
- What have I learned about using my time?
- What have I learned about money?
- What have I learned about happiness?
After you spend some time with these questions, you may want to share your answers with your husband or wife or some other Christians. Maybe these would be some good questions to reflect on as a family. Maybe ask one question each evening at the dinner table, and let everyone contribute their thoughts.
But, however you do it, make sure you take some time to think about what you have learned.
The third principle we learn for resuming life after captivity is one we get from a prophet named Haggai.
3. Evaluate Everything You Did Before
Don’t just automatically restart doing everything you were doing before the pandemic. It’s likely that some of those activities you were doing you shouldn’t restart. God is giving you an opportunity to reset your life. To establish new habits and new patterns. To start doing things you’ve always wanted to start but didn’t have time because you were busy doing other things.
And there may be some things that God wants you to stop doing because they were harmful or not helpful to you. God is giving you an amazing opportunity to reset your life, to reset this church and to build a better, more Christ-centered life. But it has to begin with evaluating and analyzing and examining what you were doing before and then deciding whether you should restart doing that or not! Listen to what God said through Haggai:
“This is what the Lord Almighty wants you to do: Take a good, hard look at your life. Think it over! You’ve spent a lot of money, but you haven’t much to show for it. You keep filling your plates, but you never get filled up! You keep drinking but you’re always thirsty. You put on layers of clothes, but you can’t get warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it! So, give serious thought to your ways!” (Haggai 1:5-7, Mes/NIV)
God says, you need to take a good look at all of your frustrations and your lack of fulfillment and then ask yourself the question, WHY? Why am I so unfulfilled? And if what I was doing before the pandemic was so unfulfilling, then why would I repeat it now just because I have the freedom to do so? And so, instead of trying to jump back into life just as it was before, try to come up with one or two things you learned from your time in isolation that you need to change, and use this opportunity to do so.
So, let me give you a second homework assignment. Instead of making a “To Do” list, start with making a “Don’t Do” list. What are some of the things you used to do that are not productive enough to start doing again? Examine your personal life. Examine your involvement in this church. Before the pandemic, were you just gathering with other Christians or were you truly building Biblical community? Were you just chatting with people, or were you truly sharing Jesus? Were you just wandering through life, or were you becoming closer and closer to Christ? Were you just talking about the Bible, or were you putting God’s Word into practice?
Before you get in a hurry to restart doing something you used to do before the pandemic, make sure you do what Haggai said and “give serious thought to your ways.” Before you get all excited about all of your restored freedoms, make sure you think carefully first. Some things are not necessarily wrong; they’re just not necessary! So, evaluate everything before resuming it! This is your chance for a reset.
Which leads me to the fourth principle….
Don’t be in a rush to restart everything all at once! For one thing, you don’t have the same energy level that you did before this pandemic! Go slowly.
Now I know that we’ve all been eager and in a hurry for this pandemic to be over. And we’ve all felt a little bit impatient. But God knows what he’s doing. And his timing is always perfect. And you need to trust him:
To those Jews who were in a hurry for everything to go back to the way they imagined things were in the past, the prophet Habakkuk had this to say:
God says, “At the appointed time that I have decided, everything I’ve planned will happen. You can trust what I say about the future, but it won’t happen all at once. It may seem that it’s taking a long time, but be patient and keep on waiting, because the vision will surely happen!” (Habakkuk 2:3, CEV)
This might be a verse you want to write out on a card and put in your refrigerator or screen saver as a reminder to be patient. To engage slowly. To not get in too big of a hurry.
This is such a common problem among humans that God had to remind his people of this principle of pacing themselves many different times. For example, hundreds of years earlier, when the Israelites were getting ready to possess the land of Canaan, that land that God had promised to them, God warned them that it would not be an instant thing. That their entry into the land would be gradual. God had a plan, and part of that plan included a slower timetable than most of the people wanted.
God told the Israelites in Exodus 23, “I’m NOT going to get rid of all your enemies in a single year, because the land would then be deserted and unmanaged, and wild animals would multiply quickly beyond your control. So, instead, I will drive them out slowly, little by little, until you’ve grown strong enough to take full possession of your land!” (Exodus 23:29-30)
I want you to notice that God’s slower timetable is always for our benefit! I understand that you’re in a hurry, but God isn’t. God says, “I’m not going to get rid of this problem instantly. Instead, I will remove it gradually, so that you can grow strong enough, to take full possession of all the blessings that I want to give you.” You might want to write this down: In God’s sovereign plan, delays are always for our benefit!
So, there’s one more principle for resuming life after the pandemic or any other crisis or life-changing event. We get this principle from the prophet Isaiah. Now Isaiah lived before the captivity in Babylon, but he predicted it long before it happened, because God told him it would happen.
And even more than that, Isaiah tells us what God wants us to do after any period of captivity. He knew that once the captivity was over, people would be longing again for the good old days. But Isaiah knew the good old days weren’t coming back. You can’t go back to a bygone era. You can only go forward in life. It’s a waste of time to try and make things the way they were in the past. The past is past! It’s never coming back again! And that’s not a bad thing because our God is a God of newness! He does new things all the time!
So, Isaiah says to….
5. Embrace the New Things God is Doing
You can’t turn the clock back. What is past is past! It’s never coming back! So instead of bemoaning the loss of a bygone era — in your life, in your family, in your church, in your nation, or in the world, God wants you to do this instead – to embrace the new things God is doing.
To embrace something is to accept it and love it and be content with it.
In Isaiah 43, “The Lord says, ‘Forget the former things, and do not dwell on the past. Instead, look at the new things I am going to do. They are already starting to happen. Can you see what I’ve begun to do?” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NCV)
Now before you can embrace and accept and enjoy all the new things that God is doing, you first have to be able to SEE the new things that God is doing!
So, let me ask you this: Can you see it? Are you looking for it? If you’re always looking backwards at the past and always longing for the way things to be the way they used to be, that’s like trying to drive your car looking constantly in your rearview mirror instead of looking at what lies ahead. And if you do that, you’re guaranteed to crash!
There’s nothing wrong with grieving what we have lost. Grief is a legitimate and healthy response to loss. But it’s important that we keep our eyes focused on the future and what God wants is to do next!
And so, I would encourage all of you to pray, “God, I know that you’re going to do some really great and new and exciting things in the future, and I want to be a part of that.”
Even though Isaiah lived long before the Babylonian captivity happened, God gave him a glimpse of what it would be like after they all returned to Jerusalem. And as I read this passage, I think about how encouraging this should be to all of us.
God said to the Jews, “Even though your land was unused and abandoned, it will soon be too small for all the new people – more people than you know what to do with! Your captivity will seem far away! And the new generation born in exile will return and say ‘We need more room! It’s crowded here!’” (Isaiah 49:19-20, NLT/Mes)
So, let me ask you this question — would you rather moan and complain about the past that is lost and is never coming back, or will you commit yourself to use your energy to look for and to see and to embrace all the new things that God is going to do through your life and through this church? It’s your choice!
- Expect to have mixed emotions
- Think about what you have learned
- Evaluate everything you did before.
- Don’t be in a hurry.
- Embrace the new things God is doing.