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In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes “But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We who were far away have been brought back. We’re looking through these weeks of fall at the story of the people of Israel who are brought back in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. We talked last week about why we have stories like these in our canon. Is it not just ancient history? We remember those with whom we are connected through faith in Christ. We praise God for God’s hand at work in this history and we learn from it – we learn what it means to be God’s people and what it means to apply our lives to the story of God.
I have to pause here for a moment and say that I believe it behooves us to think of God’s story as one to which we are called to apply our lives. Oftentimes Biblical stories and principles are read and taught, and we are told to consider how they apply to our lives – as if they’re something we should insert into our lives in much the same way we would insert other things that are good for us, like a healthy diet or exercise, or self-care or any of the things which we are invited to apply to our lives. I have found for myself, and I would challenge each and every one of us, to ask the question “What does it mean in my life to apply my life to the story of God – the story of creation and fall and promise and redemption and promise and consummation.” I want to commit my life to this story.
The thing is, it’s not just about the Christian leader. One of the things about the stories in Ezra and Nehemiah is the focus on the community. Up to this point in the Old Testament, the stories that we read are often about one leader – Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, David. At this point, the focus seems to shift to the community of the people of God at large. Of course, at the same time, we recognize the two men for whom these books were named. These two men act as catalysts for the community of returned exiles who are looking to return, rebuild, and be renewed. Today, Ezra strides onto the scene. Ezra. Short for Azariah. God has helped. A man who took the word of God seriously. A man whose task was to catalyze renewal. At this point, the renewal that we’re talking about is the renewal of the heart. I’m glad for this because if there is one thing I find myself in need of, it’s a renewal of my heart.
Do we seek to be renewed at Blythwood? It should really be what any church of any time seeks, but at times perhaps the need for renewal is felt a little more keenly. Our situation is more precarious, perhaps than we’ve ever experienced, or that we’ve experienced in a while at least. We’re reeling a bit I think. We can talk about rebuilding an institution or renewing an institution. In our story so far, we’ve seen the return of a group of exiles from Babylon. Last week we looked at the first thing that they did together. They worshiped. They sang. A people who once did not have a song now have a song. We’ll continue to look at the good and fitting and proper response of this church (or any church) to having been brought near by the blood of Christ. We’re talking “Return, Rebuild, Renew.” By the end of chapter 6, the temple has been rebuilt, and the people once again worship.
The problem then is the same thing as the problem today. The renovation or rebuilding of an institution without the renewal of people – without the renewal of hearts – will mean that the institution will be empty. It won’t mean anything. The rebuilding, realigning, reconfiguring, rebranding of an institution such as a church without a renewal of hearts will be meaningless. It might even mean the building becomes a drain, a millstone around the neck even. This is serious stuff. Ezra was a serious man and we have much to learn from this catalyst.
We look at these stories because they’re the story of God and the people of God. We read these stories to be reminded, to learn from them, to praise God for God’s hand in them, and to ask “What do these stories mean for our present and future?” So what was going on here as Ezra was sent by King Artaxerxes? It’s 60 years after the temple has been rebuilt. We read in places like the end of Isaiah or the prophet Malachi what the situation was in Jerusalem. Isaiah 58:1-7. Malachi 1:6-8. We don’t read these to say “Tsk tsk those Israelites just didn’t get it did they?” and congratulate ourselves on how much better we get it. We read them because we don’t get it either. Because our hearts are in need of renovation. Because we need to be taught. Because there is a gap between what we say we believe and how we act. Because we need to ask ourselves questions. We read a verse like Psalm 3:6 – “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” – and say “Great!” The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Are we really acknowledging him in all our ways.”
Ezra the Scribe – A Man of God’s Word
Are we? What then should we do? Into the middle of this situation and these questions strides Ezra. God has helped. It always starts with God. Who is good. Whose steadfast love endures forever. This was the God to whom Ezra belonged. His lineage went all the way back to Aaron. He was a scribe – those whose task it was to preserve and communicate the legal traditions of Israel. He was skilled in the law of Moses. The word here for skilled also means quick. Quick with the law of Moses.
We have to stop here for a moment. When we talk about the law of Moses, the word of God that Ezra held in his hand, we’re talking about the Pentateuch. This was a question on Jeopardy recently – The first five books of the Old Testament. What is the Pentateuch? People sometimes say things like “In the Old Testament, God was all about law. In the New Testament, God is all about grace.” The grace of God always came first. The people of Israel were delivered from slavery before God gave them the gift of the law, which detailed how they were to respond to their deliverance and God’s steadfast love for them. Grace always comes first. We are not the people of God because we conform to a law, but because God has by grace delivered us in the person of Christ Jesus and in the life, death, resurrection, ascension of the promised return of Christ Jesus. The law, or ethical command, was summed up by Jesus as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” This law represents the good and fitting and proper response to God’s grace, and may it always be our prayer that God is leading us in God’s way of love. Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it – and to call his followers to an even greater righteousness. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Serve God and not wealth. Beware of practicing your piety to be seen and well thought of by others. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We read some of what Paul had to say in Romans 12:9-17. The commands of God. End of digression.
Ezra had set his heart on these things. He sought them. Not only seeking to obey them but as someone has written, deep engagement with them. This is a model for a Christian teacher. For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord. Deep engagement with the word of God. And to do it. Just do it. He lived it. And to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel. Teach it. Hold your teachers up to this standard. Hold me up to this standard. We all have a part to play in this seeking, living, teaching of course. We never come to an end of learning in the Christian life. It’s not just about the leaders remember. Teachers can’t teach without people who long to learn. We want to be a people who are renewed. Are we studying God’s word together? Are we seeking to put God’s word into practice together? Are we teaching and learning together? Ezra provides the model. Someone has written of him –
“He is a model reformer in that what he taught he had first lived, and what he lived he had first made sure of in the Scriptures. With study, conduct and teaching put deliberately in this right order, each of these was able to function properly at its best: study was saved from unreality, conduct from uncertainty, and teaching from insincerity and shallowness…”
Ezra the Worshiper
We see worship going on here in a really wonderful way. In 7:27-28 where Ezra’s voice breaks into the story for the first time. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty officers.” Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors whose steadfast love endures forever. “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.” We are not called to do these things on our own.
There is so much more detail in the story of the people who return with Ezra and it’s wonderful. Again we’re hearing Ezra’s voice in what is essentially a memoir. I came across a great definition of the difference between an autobiography and a memoir, by the way. An autobiography focuses on a person, where a memoir focuses on the historical events in which a person took part. Ezra and the people going with him are facing precarity. We talked about precarity last week and how it can drive us toward God (and I pray that it does). They’re leaving known lives of comfort in Babylon to head out into the unknown. The first thing they do after they gather, is wait. “I gathered them by the river that runs to Ahava, and there we camped for three days. As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found none of the descendants of Levi.” Where are the Levites? We can’t go without Levites! “Since the gracious hand of our God was upon us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the descendants of Mahli, son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and kind, eighteen;”
We do well to examine ourselves as a group in case there is someone or something missing. Discerning God’s will for the future of our congregation is like setting out on a journey, isn’t it? A journey in which the destination isn’t known. Before they set out, Ezra and the people pray for a safe journey themselves, for their children, and all their possessions. They commit everyone and everything to God in prayer.
What are we missing as the people of God at Blythwood Road Baptist Church? Are we a praying church? Are we praying together? We have two meetings in the month of October which have to do with seeking God’s will for us here. One is with a church called Sanctus. One is with a member of our CBOQ family to speak of revitalization and renewal. Before each meeting, we’re going to have a time of prayer together. Are we going to be a church that prays before we set off on this journey together? Might we even fast on those days? If I told you I would fast on those days set aside for prayer together, would you join me? Will we be able to say with Ezra, “So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty?”
Without a renewal of heart, how could we ever claim that the hand of our gracious God is upon us? May God give us all the will to study, do, teach and learn, to worship, and to come before God as one in prayer. May this be true for all of us.