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It seemed they came out very early this year with boxes of fun-size chocolate bars - the kind you might buy for Halloween. It was so early it made me wonder if it was a back to school thing. A couple of weeks ago I bought a box when they went on sale and let’s just say it didn’t last as long as it might have. This past Saturday I said to Nicole “Oh look they’re on sale again – we’ll need to make sure we make it last longer this time.” “What do you mean ‘we’?” said Nicole. “Corporate sin, corporate confession!” I said.
That’s as light as this is going to get this morning. This is one of the tough ones. If you’ve been around Blythwood for any length of time you know we don’t shy away from passages that might be considered more difficult or more challenging. This story is a difficult one. Is it speaking of racial purity? Doesn’t it seem rather harsh that the foreign wives are sent away, along with their children (who must have been frightened and bewildered)? It’s a tough story and it should be because I think confession is a difficult thing.
It’s a difficult thing to look back over a day or a week or a month and think about where we went wrong. And we go wrong. Mourning is not looked on in this world as something we should seek out, including mourning where we go wrong. Corporate confession has been a part of the practice of the people of God for thousands of years now. We’re asking ourselves throughout this series – “What do these stories tell us about how we are to live as the people of God?” What are the practices in which we are called to engage? How are we called to walk together in Christ?
The Apostle Paul put it well - “Walk in a manner worthy of your calling.” The word from God was “Be holy as I am holy.” The words from the Son was “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
When we consider those words, we’re in a good position to realize we need help from outside ourselves in this. To come to God in abject need as a starting point and really that’s all we need to come to God with – our need for mercy, for grace. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus to kick off the Sermon on the Mount. And then this. “Blessed are those who mourn… I’m going to leave the second part for a while because there is grace. There is always grace. Blessed are those who mourn – and part of the meaning of this beatitude is the mourning of sins. Both our own and each others’. We’ll get to the second part of this beatitude. We’re not left in our mourning. But it will take a while.
The problem in the text and the problem with us is that we keep on missing the mark. There continues to be a gap between what we believe as followers of Christ and how our belief is not reflected in our thoughts words and deeds. “Not reflected” is in some cases putting it mildly, as our thoughts, words, and deeds can run completely counter to what we believe.
So we are called to examine ourselves. “Search me O God, and know my heart,” the Psalmist sang. “Try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me and lead in the way everlasting.” Let that be our song. We examine our faith community. Let us examine our faith community the same way that the returning Israelites examined theirs. Do not let us dismiss this story because we think it smacks of racial superiority or speaks against mixed marriage. Major figures in Israelite history had foreign wives after all. Joseph. Moses. David. The line of David (which of course is the line of Christ) features a woman from Moab called Ruth. Let us remember rather the theological truth to which this prohibition pointed. The prohibition dated back to the original exodus and the original entry of the children of Israel into the promised land. “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you…Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deut 7:1-6) The idea here is most simply put in this way- that we should not let other commitments get in the way of our commitment to God.
“Luckily that never happens to me,” we say. Of course, it happens to me. It happens to all of us. We live in a state of continuing fallibility. “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom 7:18) You may be saying “Don’t say such things, what an unappealing message!” It’s honest though, and I think people are craving honesty. We don’t worship together/pray together/engage in God’s word together simply so we can feel good about ourselves and go on our way. It’s tough I know. We like to feel good about ourselves. I suppose this is why a lot of churches shy away from this sort of thing – corporate confession. We do so at our peril. We’re looking at practices through these weeks in which the community of God engaged. We’ve looked at worship together. We’ve looked at teaching (and learning) and prayer together. This morning we’re looking at confessing together. I’ve no hard evidence about this, but when you hear stories about churches and individuals in the church going wrong (and we can go so far wrong), I often wonder how many of these churches are engaging in a time each week when they mourn their sins before God and cast themselves on God’s mercy together.
It should make a difference. Let us examine ourselves. It might even move us to tears. There’d be nothing wrong with that. Blessed are they who mourn. Blessed are those who mourn their own sins and the sins that are going on around them. We’re called to be a community of people that look different. The Lausanne Movement is a global mission organization. About a decade ago they formulated a document called the Cape Town Commitment. Here’s part of it:
The people of God either walk in the way of the Lord or walk in the ways of other gods. The Bible shows that God’s greatest problem is not just with the nations of the world, but with the people he has created and called to be the means of blessing the nations. And the biggest obstacle to fulfilling that mission is idolatry among God’s own people. For if we are called to bring the nations to worship the only true and living God, we fail miserably if we ourselves are running after the false gods of the people around us. When there is no distinction in conduct between Christians and non-Christians—for example in the practice of corruption and greed, or sexual promiscuity, or rate of divorce, or relapse to pre-Christian religious practice, or attitudes toward people of other races, or consumerist lifestyles, or social prejudice—then the world is right to wonder if our Christianity makes any difference at all.
A community of people whose values are different. A community of people whose commitments are different. How are we doing with that? How am I doing with that?
You know I like to talk about the tensions we live in as followers of Christ. It’s funny how we can be reminded of them in the most unlikely places. Nicole and I once parked on Mccaul St. to visit the AGO. There’s a bistro there (fancy pub?) called Sin and Redemption. The amazing this is that it’s right across from St. Patrick’s Church. It’s funny how theological reflection can be sparked! As followers of Christ, we’re both saints and sinners. Delivered by God’s grace, set apart, transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Amen. At the same time by no means immune to missing the mark. We are people who say at the same time with the apostle Paul “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” and “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Who has plucked me like a burning brand from the fire? The God to whom I belong. The faithful one, even when I am unfaithful.
Unfaithfulness is the root of the problem here in the story. Ezra is made aware of it around 5 months after he arrives in Jerusalem. We talked about looking around last week and asking what are we missing here in the faith? What is keeping us from being returning and being rebuilt and renewed? The officials approached Ezra. It’s not just about the leader, it’s about everyone, and here a group of people come to Ezra and say “We have been unfaithful, and our officials have led the way.” Ezra sits. I like that Ezra’s first reaction is often no action. He sits. He mourns. He tears his garment and his mantle (like his clothes and his coat). The people who tremble at the word of God sit with him because we’re called to do this together. They’ve been worshipping and studying and doing and teaching/learning and praying. The thing is, once you’re engaged in these sorts of practices, you’re coming to an ever-greater awareness of who God is, wholly holy. In coming to an ever-increasing heart knowledge of how God loves, we come to an ever-increasing knowledge of how and when, and where we fall short. Miss the mark.
I want us to note here that this is not some sort of top-down condemnation or punishment being imposed from above here with the leaders and people of Israel. This is no top-down judgement being visited on the people from a self-righteous leader. Look at how Ezra identifies himself with the people of God here. Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt.
There is always grace of course. There has always been the grace of God. “But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by the Lord God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, that he might brighten our eyes… For we were slaves, yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love.” And we say thanks be to God for his indescribable gift as we come before him to confess. In the midst of this living between sin and redemption; in the midst of being at the same time sinners and saints; we hold onto truths like this – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteous.” (1 John 1:9)
The people join in. The action is public. “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel. The people wept bitterly.” It is decided that wives and children will be put away, and again this is difficult. We may say “Well this didn’t come from God, or even Ezra. It’s not meant to be prescriptive for the church today.” It’s still difficult.
In the midst of this difficulty, as I said, let us not miss the point being made and ask ourselves the question – “What is the thing or what are the things that we need to put away?” As individuals. As churches. We’re going to have a chance here to take public action too. Remembering the second part of the second Beatitude – “for they will be comforted.” In confession, there is grace and assurance of pardon. In confession together we carry one another's burdens. The group of people in Jerusalem came together to make a covenant of renewal together. Today we’ll come together to mark the new covenant – forgiveness, and transformation in Christ as we’re invited to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer of Confession
Our God, our iniquities have risen higher than our heads. Our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. Not one of us can stand in your presence. We have forsaken you. We have failed to acknowledge you in all our ways. We cry out Lord have mercy on us.
Lord fill us with dismay at our sin. As we look within, may we see ourselves as you see us – covered by the grace of your Son. Teach us what it means to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Remind us that we have a great high priest whose name is love, and help us to walk as people worthy or your calling on our lives. We cry out Lord have mercy on us.
Fill our hearts with wonder at your love for us. Fill our hearts with wonder and a desire to be transformed into the very image of your Son who loved us even unto death. Teach us what it means to die to ourselves, and in so dying, to find life. We cry out Lord have mercy on us. Lord thank you for the words you spoke through your prophet Hosea (6:1-3). We cry out, Lord have mercy on us. And all God’s people said “Amen.”