I started this blog in 2011 and now it has finally got a name. If you’ve been a long-term reader (thank you!), you might have remembered this blog was called ‘Rong’s Place’ until about three weeks ago (and filled with ugly ads). It was the temporary name when I first set up the blog and couldn’t think of anything good ever since. And it’s been nine years, this blog stuck with this most-unimaginative name. Why? Firstly since I’m a Christian, I wouldn’t settle for anything except something Christian. But it’s hard to come up with something not cheesy, not over-zealous and therefore weird, not entirely obscure and therefore random. And most of all, I want a title that’s meaningful, everyday-ordinary sounding and beautiful. I knew plenty of such gemstones of phrases are scattered throughout the pages of the Bible. I just hadn’t dug any up (because I don’t read my Bible deep enough). Until I came across ‘A Day of Small Things’. It unbelievably hits all the right notes.
So where did it come from? A big shout-out and thank-you to Rachel Jones and her brilliant book Is This It? which I reviewed here. It’s a story of regret turning to joy, discontent with the here and now turning to the expectation of the glorious future…
What’s the story
After decades of exile in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Led by Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home. Two years after their return to Jerusalem, “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak and the rest of the people (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work. They appointed Levites twenty years old and older to supervise the building of the house of the LORD…(1)”
“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD… all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD… But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise…(2)”
What is this in front of our eyes? A mere shack compared to King Solomon’s Temple, where the walls were lined with boards of cedar, the floor with boards of cypress and the whole place overlaid in gold, where palm trees, pomegranates and lilies grew abundantly on walls and pillars. Above all, the glory of the LORD filled the temple. God lived among us.
But whose fault was that? It was us who blew it all. A memory too tragic and humiliating to retell. 500 years after Solomon built the temple, Nebuchadnezzar and his army ransacked the temple and the royal palace, besieged the city, and emptied it out of its treasures as well as its people, and finished it all off in flames. Everything Solomon had made was taken away, gold, silver and bronze, more than ever could be weighed. The city walls toppled. The priests and officials executed. The merciless Babylonians captured the king and killed his sons before his eyes. They put out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon. “So Judah went into captivity, away from her land.(3)”
Seventy years. Now we’re back with Zerubbabel. Jerusalem lies in waste, the walls are rubble and weeds grow wild. If only we had listened to the warnings of the prophets, if only we had obeyed the LORD, if we could relive the past, we wouldn’t be taken captive to Babylon, Solomon’s Temple would have still been here and God would still be living amongst us. This temple foundation in front of our eyes is far from complete. We’re back in our land, but never again can we go back to the golden days of King Solomon.
I can remember less than ten years ago when both galleries in our church were filled during evening services. I can remember when the international fellowship was so big we had to hire a separate church to fit everyone in. I can remember when there were four PAs working in the international ministry alone and we had two weekends away a year. It seems that as a local church we’re living ‘the day of small things’. There is much lament on the state of sex education in schools and the marginalisation of the Christian faith in society at large in recent years. ‘Fifty or even just ten years ago, this would be unthinkable.’ It seems that as Christians we’re living ‘the day of small things’. Many older Christians who have seen the ‘glory of Solomon’s Temple’ equivalent pine for the good old days when the church bells summoned the whole parish under one roof in their Sunday best. We sigh and frown over our state now. Will the church come out the other side of COVID-19 weaker or stronger? I can’t tell.
To the disappointed and regretful Israelites, “the word of the LORD came to [Zechariah the Prophet]: ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?'(4)”
The LORD described Israelites’ situation at the time as ‘the day of small things’. It was certainly not optimistic and it looked like nothing compared to the golden days. But do not ‘despise’ it. And the LORD will rejoice when Zerubbabel and the people finish the humble-looking temple. It might not look as impressive but the LORD is pleased with the faithful work.
Woody Allen says…
In Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, the nobody writer from 2010 got transported to 1920s Paris where Cole Porter played Let’s Do It live at Jean Cocteau’s party and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald looked and behaved just as he imagined them to do. His eyes popped meeting Hemingway and his humble novel was critiqued by Gertrude Stein. He adored the 1920s and went back night after night. Until he met this charming girl who lived in this golden age of his opinion but she, instead, prefered the time of the 1890s. When they got to the 1890s, Gaugin and the art and literature giants much wished to live during the Renassaince. He had this lightbulb moment that the ‘golden age’ is always in the past, in the memory.
When Solomon’s temple was destroyed, the golden age was done. In a sense, Israelites went into a forever exile. Even after they physically returned to Jerusalem, spiritually things were never the same. There was this perpetual longing for a true home, where everything could be good and right. But the past has passed and they had nowhere to turn.
Do you know what I mean? Have you ever sensed this longing? For a home with neither negligent workaholic father nor oppressive ‘tiger’ mother. A home that smells of cakes baking, not the fear of empty cupboards. A city with no hateful graffiti or broken windows, where you feel safe walking home alone in the dark. A world that’s full of wholesome beauty and powerful kindness, no spreading disease choking people to death. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; … They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.(5)”
There was never a world like this no matter how far back in time you go. Unless you go all the way back to Genesis 1 in the Garden of Eden, which none of us have ever seen and we all know what happened there. If that was a broken dream, shall we just settle with this unsatisfying reality with a sigh, ‘that’s all, that’s it’?
But Haggai the Other Prophet says, no. Yes listen to my fellow prophet Zachariah and get on with life in the day of small things. But do you know, there is something better to come? A life where everything is good and right, and immensely satisfying, and it will never end:
“‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, Zerubbabel… Be strong, all you people of the land… and work. For I am with you… In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory… The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty…(6)”
I think this is clear enough without paraphrasing. A greater glory will shake the heavens and the earth. God promised that he is with us now and the best is yet to come.
When will this be?
600 years after Zechariah and Haggai, the temple building had seen a few more layers of plaster. It looked not bad at all. “As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!'(7)” Just like the younger generation at Zerubabel’s day, they thought the temple was magnificent. We might have said the same thing if we had the chance to see it. But if you know the history, the Jewish temple was once again destroyed, and to this day has never been rebuilt. Jesus said at the time, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.(8)”
He did as he said he would, with his death and resurrection on the first Easter day. And this ‘temple’ Jesus raised is filled with greater glory than Zerubbabel’s temple, greater than Solomon’s temple, greater in SO many ways. As Easter 2020 approaches, how should I think about all these? What should I do with my unsatisfying ‘days of small things’?
Someone much clever than me had thought this all through. “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” (from Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis, obviously, who else can it be?!)
Thank you for reading all the way till the end. This is a very long explanation of my blog title. I’m clearly overthinking it! But this is my hope for this space. I’ll take the advice of Zechariah, Haggai and C.S.Lewis, to never despise the day of small things with all the earthly blessings, and be strong and work. But I should never mistake them for the real thing to come, and look forward to my true home. May all the future posts reflect this in my life, and may my writing “help others to do the same”.
9 April 2020
(1) Ezra 3.8
(2) Ezra 3.10-13
(3) 2 Kings 25.21
(4) Zachariah 4.9-10
(5) Isaiah 65.20-22
(6) Haggai 2.2-9
(7) Mark 13.1
(8) John 2.19
Photo by Robin Spielmann on Unsplash.