Sunday’s sermon: Joy That’s Bittersweet

joy bittersweet

Text used – Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13





  • Are you all familiar with the idea of the tongue map?
    • Concept that various areas on your tongue contain different taste receptors
      • Back of the tongue = bitter
      • Sides (toward the back) = sour
      • Sides (toward the front) = salty
      • Tip/front = sweet
    • Well, I was prepared to use that as my sermon illustration this morning, so I started looking into it a little more deeply, and I discovered something: the idea of the tongue map is … a myth.[1]
      • Origin in some research done by a German scientist back in 1901 – research confirmed that there are parts of our tongues that are more sensitive to flavor in general (more taste buds concentrated around the edges of our tongues) → The problem arose in the way the scientist presented his finding. It was a vague graph that was ambiguous to read at best. The graph made it look like different parts of the tongue were responsible for different tastes as opposed to showing that different parts of the tongue are more sensitive or receptive to taste in general.
      • Taste map itself (as its been taught for decades) came from a Harvard psychology professor in 1940 who decided to reimagine that original (inaccurate) graph and drew up the taste/tongue map we know today

tongue map

      • Tongue map = concept that’s been debunked for a long time
        • Questions started with medical experiments in 1965
        • Continued by American researcher in Florida in 1993
    • I have to be honest with you: when I learned that what I thought was going to be a great sermon illustration was actually completely untrue, I was a little confused for a bit. But then I did a little more reading, and I discovered that in the last 15 years, researchers have discovered that the way our tongues and our taste buds distinguish between these different flavors – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and the fifth flavor umami (a savory flavor that the original researchers didn’t test or name) … The way that our tongues and taste buds distinguish between these different flavors is through receptor proteins in the cells in our taste buds.[2]
      • Bitter receptor proteins = different than sweet receptor proteins = different than salty receptor proteins … and so on.
      • Receptor proteins ≠ grouped in specific areas of the tongue (as originally presented by the tongue map) but exist simultaneously side-by-side
    • So I started thinking about this information, and I realized that even though it wasn’t what I had originally been thinking about, it works even better than I had initially thought it would. You see, we find ourselves in Advent – in this time of waiting: waiting for Christmas, waiting for a star and angels and shepherds, waiting for the birth of the Messiah. And we’re waiting with sweet joy knowing that the birth of this baby will bring about salvation for all … but we also wait knowing the rest of the story, knowing how that salvation will have to come about: through the bitterness of betrayal and arrest, trial and false conviction, crucifixion and death, and ultimately resurrection.
      • Also cannot inhabit this space of holiday preparation without acknowledging that it’s not a holly jolly holiday for everyone
        • Those grieving and missing people
        • Those dealing with difficult family dynamics in this season when Hallmark pushes harmonious family togetherness
        • Those dealing with financial struggles and all the stress that presents in the face of the giving expectations of this season
        • Those battling illnesses and those watching loved ones battle illnesses
        • Those who don’t have a home to take refuge in
        • Those who are barred from being with their loved ones by distance, work commitments, prison, and other reasons
        • Words from Julie Beck a few years ago: “This year the sweetness of Christmas has been dented … light shines in the darkness but it is very still and very, very small.” → not the reality for everyone this holiday season, but it is certainly the reality for some
  • So here we are in this time of year sitting simultaneously with both the sweet and the bitter, holding them both in tension with one another, and in that space, we hear this morning’s Scripture.
    • Context:[3]
      • We’ve talked about the Babylonian captivity a number of times.
        • 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (modern day Iraq) conquered the southern kingdom of Judah → deported all the best and brightest of the people of Israel (scholars, politicians, priests, etc.) and forced them to live in Babylon
        • Captivity ended when King Cyrus the Great of Persia (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonian empire in 538 BCE
    • Today’s passage = the end of that captivity! → reading = 3 separate parts to the story
      • Pt. 1 = declaration of the end of captivity – text: In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia’s rule, to fulfill the Lord’s word spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Persia’s King Cyrus. The king issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom (it was also in writing) that stated: Persia’s King Cyrus says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has commanded me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. If there are any of you who are from his people, may their God be with them! They may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.[4]
        • Doesn’t stop there → instructs all the Babylonian neighbors of the exiles Jews to supply them with silver and gold, goods and livestock = “spontaneous gifts for God’s house in Jerusalem”
        • I want you to stop for a minute and imagine what this must have been like for the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon for so long.
          • Imagine the initial fear they must have felt – people of Israel had been conquered so many times, and there they were in a foreign land being conquered yet again → The previous conqueror had torn them from their homeland and their families, their friends and the heart of their worship. What would this new conqueror do? Would he be better? Would he be worse? What did this Persian King Cyrus have in store for them?
          • Imagine the shock and disbelief when they heard the decree – that they were not only to return to Jerusalem but that Cyrus was going to help them “build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” → Remember, the First Temple was destroyed in the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem. The siege itself took a few months with the Babylonian army pressing closer and closer to the heart of Jerusalem – breaching city walls, destroying homes and property, bringing the famine and disease that were inevitable with any and every siege, and killing thousands of Israelites in the process. When they finally reached the Temple, they set fire to it. According to the Talmud, the fire began just after the conclusion of Sabbath worship (Friday), and by Sunday night, the Temple was completely destroyed.[5] There would certainly have been Jews in exile who would have remembered that horrible experience. And yet here they were a generation later, not only being released from their forced captivity but being encouraged to return to Jerusalem and being provided with assistance in rebuilding the Temple.
            • Importance of the Temple = only place in which holy sacrifices could take place
      • Pt. 2 = return and the beginning of the building process
        • Text gives us a little bit of the passage of time: When the seventh month came and the Israelites were in their towns, the people gathered as one in Jerusalem.[6] → And what was one of the first things they did once they finally returned to Jerusalem? – text: [They] started to rebuild the altar of Israel’s God so that they might offer entirely burned offerings upon it as prescribed in the Instruction from Moses the man of God.[7] → Before building walls, before building any kind of sanctuary or seating, before worrying about any of the other sacred accoutrements, they built the altar so they could worship.
          • Powerful thing to imagine: brand new altar built there among any remaining rubble from the first Temple, open to the air and the elements and the sunshine and the desert wind, people gathered around it in a crowd for the sole purpose of worship
          • Not just a simple “one and done” worship – text: They celebrated the Festival of Booths, as prescribed. Every day they presented the number of entirely burned offerings required by ordinance for that day.[8]
            • Festival of Booths (a.k.a. – Festival of Tabernacles or Festival of Shelters) = harvest festival → Each family present for the celebration would construct their own booth with palm branches and an open roof as a reminder of when their ancestors wandered in the wilderness.[9] So even in the midst of the sweet joy and celebration of this new Temple, this new beginning, this return to their holy homeland, the people of Israel held the sorrow and bitterness of many forms of exile in their memories and in their worship.
      • See that in pt. 3 of the story = the people’s reaction → best illustrates both the bitter and the sweet in this Scripture reading
        • Speaks of the joy of the priests as they fulfilled their duties and the foundation of the new Temple was laid
          • Priestly garments and trumpets and cymbals
          • Text: They praised and gave thanks to the Lord, singing responsively, “He is good, his graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”[10]
        • Speaks of the enthusiastic, jubilant response of the people – text: All of the people shouted with praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid.
        • But in the same breath, it also speaks of the people’s lament and grief for the experiences they’d had, the first Temple that they’d lost, and the pain that they’d suffered at the hands of others. – text: But many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted with joy.[11]
    • Final verse = crux of it all: No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.[12] → And there it is. The sweet, sweet joy of a new beginning inhabiting the same space … the same worship … the same breath as the bitter pang of grief and loss and pain. Joy and pain that had lived side-by-side in the hearts of those in exile for so long. Joy and pain that couldn’t help but be built into the walls and woven in the rich fabrics of the tapestries for that new Temple as it grew up on the site of the destruction and desecration of the old Temple. Joy and pain that would be incarnate in that little baby for whom we wait – a baby who would be born to save the descendants of those rebuilding that Temple, who would teach and worship himself within its walls, who would be tried and convicted within its walls as well, who would hear both the sweet joy of “Hosanna!” and the bitter pain of “Crucify!”
      • Fellow clergywoman and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Wrenn: Ultimately, this is a story of redemption, but painful redemption; of return, but a return marked with grief; of rejoicing, but of a joy that is inextricably linked to the losses that came before. It is a story of ambiguous joy—and are not our lives? For that matter, is that not the core of Advent itself?[13] [PAUSE] Amen.

[1] Steven D. Munger. “The Taste Map of the Tongue You Learned in School Is All Wrong” from The Smithsonian, Posted May 23, 2017, accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[2] Munger,

[3] “Babylonian Captivity” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[4] Ezra 1:1-3.

[5] “Destruction of the First Temple” from, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[6] Ezra 3:1.

[7] Ezra 3:2.

[8] Ezra 3:4.

[9] Rabbi Jack Zimmerman. “Sukkot, The Feast of Booths (known to some as the Feast of Tabernacles)” from Jewish Voice, Published Dec. 2, 10215, accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[10] Ezra 3:11.

[11] Ezra 3:12.

[12] Ezra 3:13.

[13] Rachel Wrenn. “Commentary on Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13” for Working Preacher, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

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