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.

OT Lectionary April 17th Maundy Thursday Ex 12:1-14

The gospel writers disagree about the exact relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover meal. But there clearly is a link, and the story of the first Passover can help in our appreciation of this most holy day. The essence is that it is a night of God’s dramatic judgement on a nation whose monarch has consistently refused to comply with God’s instructions to him, preferring to keep Israel as his slaves, working in appalling conditions and under cruel domination. To our minds it seems profoundly unfair that just because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart the entire Egyptian nation should be bereaved, but God’s ways are different from ours, and we are reminded not of the unfairness of a vindictive God but rather of the awesome responsibility of leadership. Politicians make bad decisions and nations suffer: it was ever thus, and continues to be so today.

 

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But it is also a night of rescue, as the people God has called as his own find their freedom from slavery and oppression, and begin a new journey to a home of their own. The blood on their doorposts provides a dramatic symbol of the cost of their freedom, and this most momentous of events becomes the turning point for Israel, the night to which all further generations will look back as their reference point.

These twin themes of judgement and rescue come hand in hand in Holy Week too: evil is defeated by the shedding of the blood of an innocent victim, and there is freedom and the beginning of a homeward journey for God’s people. It is symbolised, perhaps a bit strangely, in both cases, by a meal. The blood of the Passover lamb becomes the wine shared by Jesus’ disciples, but it is wine which refers both backwards and forwards to shed blood. The Israelites eat with coats and shoes on, ready for their escape; Jesus finds nourishment before his journey through death and hell to resurrection. And Christians down the ages have tasted the wine which speaks of the shed blood of redemption. The author to the Hebrews tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness for sin (9:22), and so the Christian community is constantly reminded of the cost of their salvation in the context of a celebratory meal.

What a bittersweet night this is! We eat and drink to celebrate but also to remember death and sin. We are rescued and saved, but at the cost of enormous pain and suffering. Our journey begins, but will take us a lifetime to complete. And at the centre of it sits Jesus, both Moses the host at the feast and the silent sacrificial lamb. Only later, in Gethsemane, does his anguish reveal itself: for now he is content to share a meal with his beloved friends.

Passover reminds us graphically of the cost of our salvation: on this of all nights we must not take it lightly, seek cheap grace, or forget those who suffer innocently because of the hard-heartedness of others.