Sunday, January 24, 2010

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Nehemiah 8
81all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Poor Ezra. Moses has Charlton Heston, David has Richard Gere, Noah has Steve Carrell, and even Joseph has Donny Osmond. But poor Ezra, he has no one.

Now, the attractiveness of a story or character makes a movie deal obvious. If Ezra had animals, two by two, fleeing the flood of the whole earth, a movie would be a lock. If Ezra could come up with a really nice coat, maybe of many colours, a movie might happen. If Ezra parted even some minor body of water, or had that snake-staff thing going on, movie for sure.

Poor Ezra. He will have to settle with being credited with the reinvention of the Jewish religion, and by extension the Christian faith too. He will have to take solace in preaching the world’s first sermon, and defining the idea that scripture is always understood in context. He will have to be content with being the number two figure in Judaism, because in our faith, he’s barely on the map.

So for today, it’s time to give Ezra a little airtime, maybe the first draft of a good script, where the true hero of public worship can come forward and get some long overdue recognition. And maybe, we’ll find, he has a thing or two to teach is yet, about the centre of our faith, and the way we live in a community just like this one.

Ezra, to begin, was an exile. He and his family found themselves in Babylon with the rest of the elite from the former Jerusalem and surrounding area. He was likely the son of someone important, and likely received the kind of education reserved for the sons of important people, even in exile.

He came to the attention of some high Persian official, maybe even King Artaxerxes himself, and was selected to return to the Holy City of Jerusalem and begin again. He was given the gold to make a proper start, and the blessing of a foreign occupier to reintroduce the Hebrew religion to the centre of the Hebrew world. How to do this was largely left up to Ezra.

We get the sense from reading Nehemiah that the population was feeling badly. Consistent with many of the other good stories in the Bible, a lack of direct oversight led to all sorts of problems. Just as Moses had to contend with some golden livestock, Ezra was confronted with foreign wives, and by extension, the religions of foreign wives. He was not pleased.

Ezra’s solution was to read “the law of God” from morning to noon, before the entire assembly, but with a twist. Ezra and the religious leaders added another layer:

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

In other words, they preached. There, amid the ruined city of Jerusalem, sometime in the vicinity of 538 BC, Ezra invented something that you’ve been enjoying ever since. Perhaps I overstate. However you see this selfish little time I take each week, the events recorded that day constitute an important starting point in the history of western thought. For it was at that moment that the sacred text of a people was made the subject of wider interpretation.

Put another way, Hammerabi had a code and plenty of people followed the code, but the Law of Moses was a code to be explained so that everyone gathered might understand. They were given the ‘sense’ of the reading, which takes the Law of Moses (Torah) and gives it meaning in a new setting. A product of the ‘early Israel’ that met God for the first time, the Law of Moses had new lessons to teach in the ruined city of returned exiles. And so Ezra preached.

The complete sermon is gone now, and we are left with the Coles Notes version that appears near the end of our passage today. Again, we know that the people were distressed, uncertain what God required in this emerging era, and feeling more than a little guilty over the whole “foreign wives” thing. So the message is unexpected, a new note in the otherwise sad song of return:

‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Prepared for a golden calf-style response, this ever-surprising God says “eat like the French and help those with nothing.” You can hear the gasps of relief, the wide-eyed delight of an astounded people. That’s it? We forgot your Law and we flirted with other gods and this is our punishment? Eat butter and drink Spumante Bambino? That’s right, God says through Ezra, eat butter and maybe try something a little nicer than Spumante Bambino. Maybe a Shiraz or a Cab Merlot: for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

For the joy of the Lord is your strength. The strength of our relationship with the Living God is the joy that God finds in us. Think about that for a minute. We have richer lives, deeper meaning, and better work because God is joyful just knowing us. Here is another way of saying it, Psalm 149, still best in the KJV:

For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation.

Here is same message that Ezra shares. God takes pleasure in us, and will encourage us in the important work of caring for the meek. The meek will be beautified with salvation, made new because this too is the work of God. Take pleasure, be a delight for me, and care for those with empty bowls and lives devoid of pleasure.

So let’s go one step further, and stay on the theme of pleasure. Jesus is tempted in the desert, and wanders his way to John the Baptizer, and submits to baptism in the Jordan. Here we pick up the story:

16As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

This child of mine, whom I love, delights me. And Jesus was just the first. The same can be said about this morning, because God is still speaking: “Owen, this child of mine, whom I love, delights me.” And God said it before: “Ivy, this child of mine, and Pat, and Dave back there, all whom I love, delight me.” Every baptism, throughout time, the message is the same: God takes delight in God’s children, blessing each one and naming each his own.

But poor Ezra. He gave the first (and still one of the best) sermons, and gets no movie, no holiday, no theme park, only the confidence in knowing that he reinvented one of the great religions and helped create our own. He reintroduced us to our God, not the angry, vengeful God that struggled with human disobedience from the very beginning, but the God of new beginnings, of cities reborn and faith rediscovered, the God of enjoying the gifts of the earth, and sharing all we have. Ezra found the Law and made it a gift once more, understood in a new context, and in a new way, as the life-giving Word that only God could share.


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