Pastor's Ponderings: Old Testament Bible Study of Ezra 1:5-11 (October 26, 2023)
My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Maine with the news last night about the mass shooting in that state. This seems to be another situation in which a community member who was well known and a productive person, lost his way to mental illness and the paranoia that so often, in some way, moves its victims to violence. I pray that the Lord will be merciful to him, and certainly hold before those who have lost loved ones, the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. I pray that the Church will be there in all of its iterations bringing Christ's Love and Peace for all of those who grieve this horrific situation. As Christ has said, these folks are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, in spite of the distance between us in miles. Today my heart hurts for all of these people in Maine. And yet, the horrific war in the middle east holds up the willingness of two groups of people to wreak mayhem, and rain down death on one another. There are obviously historic differences between these people all of the way back to Abraham in the Old Testament. Though I could go on about the problems in both communities of people, problems of the heart, and the refusal to let the Spirit move them all to compassion for one another's plights. May God's love for all of these people transform their hearts to work as hard for peace as they have worked to bring mutual destruction upon one another. You too have my prayers for peace in your life.
This week on Sunday we celebrate the Reformation. It has now been 506 years since Luther, Melanchthon, and other reformers began the process of challenging the theology of the Catholic Church. Instead of works righteousness the reformers came to understand that we are all justified by God's gift of Grace and His gift of faith in Jesus Christ. Our works are simply acts of thanksgiving and compassion for all that God has already accomplished in our lives through His Son. We are saved only by Christ's merit, not our own. We cannot earn our salvation!
Today in our bible study of Ezra, we are faced with an all too familiar circumstance. In order to understand the importance of what is happening in this passage, we must first go back to the time of the exile of Judah and Jerusalem in 597 and 587. It was a brutal time when the people of the southern kingdom were taken away to Babylon. Often, they could take nothing with them, and for some who had been the most resistant, a journey with the muscles of their butt cheeks pinned to one another by large pieces of iron. We can only begin to imagine the terrible time that this was for those who became its victims. Even the real symbol of the people, the Temple, was looted and destroyed, parts of it with important articles of faith and its practice destroyed. Then, to add insult to injury, the Babylonians took the temple treasures that they had carried off and placed them in their own temple to their god Marduk as a constant reminder that Marduk was more powerful than YHWH, the God of Israel. YHWH is unpronounceable and if it could be pronounced, it is a name too holy to be spoken. It is interpreted in the Bible as LORD. During this time in captivity, it was the prophet Jeremiah who worked to remind the people that the LORD had not forgotten them, and that in the future, (70 years) they would return to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem. Though there would be few, if any, who had ever been in the homeland, the traditions were carried by the people, and during the exile the religious leaders that are called Pharisees came into existence. If the people had any doubt the LORD had abandoned them, this passage is an indication that the LORD'S Hand had been involved from the very moment of their arrival in what had become Persia with a new ruler named Cyrus. Cyrus certainly would have been unlikely to send the Jews home, yet through what we must see as the action of the LORD, Cyrus would do exactly that, and not only that, but he would empty the Jewish Temple treasures out of Marduk's temple where they had been safe and return them to be taken back to the second Temple that would be built in Jerusalem.
Today, our world experience has shown us how difficult it is to be told that you must evacuate your home for your own safety, or for other unimaginable reasons in our nation, in the face of war. In Gaza we have seen burros carrying large loads of home belongings, and a few pickup trucks too. How could you possibly figure out what would be your greatest treasures in your home that would come with you if you could only fill your car where people would not be sitting? We have enough trouble packing the van for a 7-day trip, but to have to put a whole life's treasures into such a small place, I don't know. But there is more, when you had the opportunity to return, there would be nothing there. You would have to start from nothing again. And how would your church fit into all of that? No place to gather, no instrument led music and singing. How would you move forward to be certain that your family and other families could still be involved with a sense of what had been so holy before its destruction? And then someone would come up with the altar Misal, the Cross from the chancel west wall, and some of the communion ware that was used every week, and greatest of all, the large lectionary Bible. The feelings of desperation would be softened, and perhaps a new vision for how to continue would be reached. In all of this it is important for us to know that the LORD is always involved in what is happening to us, and God knows what it will be that will change our hearts and move them to see His Light and Love once again. The same was true for the Jews in exile.
Our next passage will be Ezra 2:1-67. This is a big passage to consider in one day, so depending on how it goes, we may take several weeks to get through it.
God bless you and keep you. Wherever you go, go with God. (“Vaya con dios” in Spanish)
In Christ's love, Pastor Taylor