Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ezra

Ok, let’s begin with a little quiz to see if you’ve been listening.

Have a glance (you don’t even need to read it all) at Ezra chapters 2, 8 and 10. So which stream of writing does this book belong to? That’s right – it’s those boring Priests again with their lists of funny names and tedious attention to detail. We’re going to find the same in our next book, Nehemiah, in chapters 7, 10 and 12, so that looks like a priestly work too. These two books tell a complimentary story of what happened when the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and much scholarly dispute has raged about the exact chronology of the two books and the relationship between them, not least as the character of Ezra plays a major part in the book of Nehemiah. But leaving that aside, the two books are basically about rebuilding, Nehemiah, as we’ll see next week, with the city walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra with the worship and right ordering of society.

Ezra was a priest and a teacher of the law, so when King Cyrus, who had conquered Babylon right at the end of 2 Chronicles, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, he was sent along to help them rediscover the Law’s teachings, which had been so long neglected, even before the exile. This necessitated the rebuilding of the Temple, so that the right sacrifices could once again be offered. This work went ahead, and soon the altar was functioning again, although it was not long before subterfuge and opposition from ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin’, almost certainly Samaritans, remnants of the old Northern Kingdom who had become tainted by their syncretistic religion and intermarriage, halted the work. Finally, with royal help from King Darius of Persia, the Temple is completed and rededicated, and the Passover is celebrated. Once the physical building had been completed Ezra is sent to rebuild the spiritual life of the nation, but he soon discovers what he believes is the root cause of a major problem: the people had intermarried with the surrounding nations, a concern, you’ll remember, of the Deuteronomic historians. When you took a foreign wife you almost always took her foreign gods too, so all kinds of practices contrary to Yahweh’s Law had become part and parcel of their lives.

Ezra turns to prayer, and confesses to God the people’s infidelity, and as he does so, using, interestingly, the first person, the people catch his broken heartedness and join in with the confession. Eventually the foreign wives are sent packing, but not before the careful chronicler has written down a list of all the guilty parties.

We can read this book as being about the primacy of worship, about the need for integrity as we worship, and the opposition which will surely come as we seek to live with that integrity. We’re going to see a load more opposition next week, and some pretty dirty tactics, and I am reminded that in a church where political correctness has removed most of the language of spiritual warfare from our liturgy and hymnody, we can easily lose sight of the battle which rages all around us. But then as Keyser Soze said: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’

I personally love the idea that what the community really needed, perhaps more than it needed carpenters and stonemasons, was Bible teachers. In the next book we’re going to see the power of the teaching ministry in action, but I find it interesting that for all their concern about the right ordering of worship the Priests have written up not the story of a superstar worship-leader but a humble scribe. Maybe today’s church could listen to that a bit more.

Reflections on Discipleship – No longer my own

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

This week, in Methodist churches everywhere, Christians will be using the start of the New Year to renew their covenant with God, a kind of spiritual new year’s resolution. A wonderfully powerful prayer will be used, and I’m glad that the compilers of the Anglican Common Worship texts were able to nick it and make it part of our corpus too. You can see the text of the prayer here, but I want to reflect on just one line:

I am no longer my own, but yours …

Right there you’ve got a pretty good definition of discipleship: a disciple is someone who is no longer their own master or mistress, who belongs to someone else, and who therefore has surrendered the rights to their own lives, and living them their own way. The prayer continues:

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will …

Like slaves we have no rights of our own: we belong to a master who has full rights over us. Of course slavery is only a helpful metaphor if it is a redeemed one. We have not been stolen by a cruel trader who only wants to use us; he will not beat us up, mistreat us or overwork us to the point of death; we are not commodities to be bought and sold. But we have willingly surrendered our lives to the one whose yoke is well-fitting and whose burden is light, whose service is perfect freedom, and who employs us so that we can become all we have potential for within us. So slavery, yes, but not as we know it Jim. To this kind of ‘slavery’ disciples gladly submit, joyfully counting it the greatest privilege.

But there is another thought which comes out of this prayer. In fact it comes less out of the text of the prayer and more out of its use. The slavery picture again breaks down, because this covenant is one which needs renewing. I would guess that it was pretty rare to hear slaves revowing themselves to their masters once a year, as I suspect it is today to hear young girls trafficked for the sex trade pleading annual submission to their masters. The whole point is that once you’re in, you’re in. It’s getting out which is the issue, not deciding to stay in. But our heavenly master, whose service, we said, is perfect freedom, invites us to think about it and deliberately decide to stay. Our master does not captivate us against our wills: the door is always open, and has been ever since Jesus asked his disciples ‘You don’t want to leave too, do you?’ (John 6:67). Sadly many do take the long walk, so this time of year might be a good one to remind ourselves that only in Jesus are the words of eternal life to be found, and to commit ourselves to another year of following him, learning from him, and going in his name.