Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ezra - breaking barriers down

It has to be one of the finest treasures in the British Museum.  But when I put it into a Google search trying to track down a good picture I was surprised where google took me.

II Chronicles finishes and Ezra opens with a quotation from a Decree of King Cyrus of Persia.  When the Babylonian world power crumbled and Persia and Cyrus were in the ascendancy Cyrus took the decision to allow all those peoples who had been taken away from their homeland and cast into exile by the Babylonians to return home.   What’s more throughout the Persian empire returning exiles would be permitted to rebuild their temples and places of worship.

For the people of Israel that meant a return from exile and the re-building of the temple.  And that’s what the books of  Ezra and Nehemiah are all about.

What’s remarkable is that in the British Museum is a very small cylinder with a tightly packed text inscribed on it – and it is one of presumably many edicts written by Cyrus and sent out throughout the empire setting out this decree.  It is so close to the edict recorded in the Bible - it’s a thrill to see it and to see from the Persian side a record of this very same edict.

When I googled it what surprised me was that the search engine did not take me to the British Museum as I had expected but to many exiled Persian groups around the world and in particular to a presentation American groups had arranged when they presented the then General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, with a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder.  It was the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights – and those groups were celebrating what they considered to be the earliest known declaration of human rights in the Cyrus Cylinder.

We are entering the last lap of our read through the Old Testament.  I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are grouped with the other historical books in our English Bible Old Testament.  They re-tell the history of the other books and push it beyond the exile to the return.  And the inspiration of the Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures was to put them into chronological order.

It’s intriguing that in the Hebrew Scriptures these four books are placed at the very end of the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings.  Ezra and Nehemiah come first, and then the Hebrew Scriptures come to a climax with a re-telling of the story of the people of Israel in I and II Chronicles.

If II Chronicles finishes with the Cyrus edict and Ezra begins with it, the way of arranging the books in the Hebrew Sctipures is telling.  This last set of books opens and closes with the Cyrus edict.    What frames the final set of books we are going to look at is the edict that enables the people to return from exile and once again be a nation with a land, a temple and a faith to share.

The first six chapters of the book of Ezra set the scene for the second half of the book that describes the work Ezra himself did.

After listing the returning exiles Ezra tells of the way worship is restored in Jerusalem and the foundations of the temple are laid.  The book ties in with the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah and tells of the way the building of the temple is delayed until finally the temple is re-built and dedicated to the glory of God – and the Passover is celebrated.

As that celebration is described two things emerge that are to play a really important part in the thinking of the people as they return from exile, build their temple and establish themselves once again as the People of God.

As the returned exiles keep the Passover we read that ‘both the Priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean.”  As the Passover lambs are killed the Passover is eaten by the people who had returned from exile and also by all wh9o had joined them and, [and this is the key phrase] separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord the God of Israel.
What’s of paramount importance for the returning exiles is to establish their identity.  That’s done in two ways – they are true to the God of Israel and they are different from all other peoples around them.

Into this situation comes Ezra.  He comes from a family that traces its roots back through the family of High Priests.  It was one of his ancestors, Hilkiah who had been High Priest when in the reign of the young King Josiah the book of the Law had been discovered during a refurbishment of the Temple in Jerusalem just before the rise of the Babylonian power that had resulted in exile.  It was a family that traced its roots back to Aaron.

Ezra had been exiled in Babylon.  He is described as ‘a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (7;6)’

I think that’s  a very telling sentence.  It was in the period of the exile that scribes and experts in the law had pored over all the law codes, and documents that had been rescued from the ruins of the Temple and in all likelihood they had assembled them into the kind of shape that we would recognise in the Pentateuch.  They ensured that the Law, the  Torah, could be contained on scrolls that could be easily copied out so that there was no longer any danger they would be lost in some cataclysmic event.

The hand of the Lord was upon Ezra.

Ezra has the support of King Artaxarxes to restore the people and to lead a group of people who will be servants of the temple and play a key role in the restoration of Jerusalem, the Temple and the people of God.

It’s moving to read in chapter 8 of the trust Ezra has in God as he makes his return.

When he arrives in Jerusalem one thing in particular disturbs Ezra.  And that is the way so many people priests included have inter-married with women of other nations.

Ezra takes his stand on the need for purity of race.  And so in 9 and 10 is an account of the removal of all foreign wives and their children.

This is a theme that emerges as the Hebrew Scriptures come to an end.  It is a very powerful theme in these books.  And it is one that we have to address.

It is something that you can trace through among the Jewish people.  The identity of the Jewish people is preserved by avoiding marriage outside the Jewish people.  Purity of race is tied up with identify of faith.

That notion comes across into Christianity.  The importance of keeping personal identity – not mixing with others is instinctively there … and often made explicit.  It is taken to extreme in the closed brethren community whose meeting house is being demolished opposite the manse – it’s not just inter-marriage that is not allowed, but you must not mix with others.  You must keep yourself separate.

It’s there in some measure in all sorts of settings – you see it played out in all sorts of different contexts.  It ties in with a very basic kind of human instinct that wants us to stay with our own.

What do we make of this?  Should we be building up our own identity to the exclusion of others?  Or is there another way/

But there is even within the Hebrew Scriptures a conversation going on.  Is this the only way?  It is not without significance that the book of Ruth is in the way the Hebrew Scriptures are arranged in the same section of the Writings as Ezra and Nehemiah – if you are steeped in the approach of Ezra and you read the story of Ruth it comes as a great shock when at the end of the Book you discover that Ruth, the Moabitess Woman, is the Great Grandmother of none other than King David.  David the product of a mixed marriage.  That’s shock and horror to the reader of the book of Ezra.

By the time Jesus comes on the scene this conversation is very much to the fore.  There are a whole range of responses to this question evident at the time of Jesus.  There were two schools of thought among the Pharisees – one very much more hardline in separation and purity than the other.  But at every turn inside the Jewishness of Jesus’ day is a commitment to identity of race.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way the Samaritans were treated.   The Samaritans trace their roots to the people who stayed behind in and around Judea when most were exiled. They kept their own Torah – but they didn’t include the prophets or the writings in their Scriptures.  They worshipped on their own mountain at their own shrine.

Take seriously Ezra and you will reject the Samaritans.

It is not insignificant that when we arrive at John 4 the narrative begins in the middle of the controversies there are in different ways of being Jewish.  The Pharisees, some of whom are more hard-line than others, are concerned that Jesus has taken on the mantle of John the Baptist who has positioned himself in the line of the prophets who speak truth to power … and they are scandalised that Jesus has gained more popularity than John in the number of baptisms his disciples have been carrying out.

So it is that Jesus leaves Judea in the south to head for Galilee in the north – But, John tells us, he had to go through Samaria

He arrives at Sychar, near Jacob’s well, and it’s about noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink.

That elicits a shocked response from the Samaritan woman.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Then comes the explanation in brackets (Jewis do not share things in common with Samaritans).  That explanation is a direct allusion to all that Ezra stands for in chapters 9 and 10 of Ezra.

There then follows a conversation about living water … the subject moves on to the question of the woman’s five husbands and the man she is with now.

Then the Samaritan woman it is who recognises that Jesus is ‘a prophet’.

She sums up the theological divide.

Verse 20

Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

That is the classic position spelled out in Ezra.

As Jesus responds he is convinced that the days the prophets spoke of, not least in the final chapters of Isaiah were breaking in – when Gentiles would stream into the kingdom as well.

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Jesus locates himself within the Jewish traditions.  He affirms the tradition that includes Ezra  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; for salvation  is from the Jews.

But then he goes on to suggest that ‘the hour is coming … and what is more ‘is now here’ when something else comes into play.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

That’s it – something new has broken in.  A new way of being.

How we worship is important – but its identity is preserved in how we worship and how we live our lives – it is not in the exclusion of some.  There is a move towards embrace and inclusion in what Jesus stands for that is worked out in his relationship with the Samaritans.

There is much that we can treasure in Ezra … but much from which we must move on.  If we don’t we are in great danger of the kind of exclusivity that in Bosnia, in Rwanda and in so many places leads to ethnic cleansing and even to genocide.

Out of the maelstrom of the Bosnian conflicts Miroslav Volf wrote a powerful book called Exclusion and Embrace.  In it he explores the challenge we have as Christians to keep our identity and in some way learn from Ezra, while at the same time being true to Jesus in reaching out and embracing ‘the other’.

“If we, the communal selves, are called into eternal communion with the triune God, then true justice will always be on the way to embrace- to a place where we will belong together with our personal and cultural identities both preserved and transformed, but certainly enriched by the other.”[1]

[1] Volf, 225

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Daniel - a vision for a jubilee

Don’t we do things well!

I think there are occasions when you can take a real pride in what we do.

And this was one of them.

It was basically such a simple idea.  A Jubilee New Testament using the latest edition of the New International Version.  Sue recalled how each member of the Sunday School on 31st May, 1953 was given a little Coronation Testament and so Sue ordered fifty of the Jubilee New Testaments.  It was great handing them out this morning.  And if anyone wants one we can order more!!!

Do you know more than 650,000 have been sold for this weekend making it the best selling paperback so far this year!

And then the lunch.

Such a simple idea.  Everyone  having lunch at the same time – just a Sunday lunch with invitations from around the country.

Nothing elaborate – just a lunch.  And to think people all over the country were sitting down to lunch with friends and neighbours.  And we had more than 80 including half a dozen of the households from the houses immediately around the church!  What a simple yet thrilling thing to do.

And then there was the flotilla.  One of our neighbours wanted to be back for the start at 2-30 as their sister was rowing.  Someone else had someone in the family sailing.  I visited Raymond and Brenda who took a great pride in the Evesham mayor’s narrow boat that had sailed the canals all the way from Evesham to be part of the procession.

A wonderful gift of a book.

A wonderful meal together in the community.

Wonderful pageantry!

One thing is without a doubt this weekend – for an 86 year old to have been doing their work for 60 years … and still to be going strong is simply remarkable.

And one of the things that keeps her going is simply the faith that has meant the world to her down through those years.  Wasn’t it interesting hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking of her wonderful sense of humour, her willingness to tease and to  be teased, and the deep and profound faith she is all too willing to share.

Good to read the statement issued jointly by the Presidents of CTE – our own Michael Heaney included.

'We join the nation in its rejoicing at Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. As we celebrate, we give thanks to God that her personal commitment to her role as monarch, and her service to the people of the United Kingdom, are grounded in a deep faith in Jesus Christ which is an inspiration to countless citizens of nation and Commonwealth.  Her understanding of the wholeness and harmony of the nation is a crucial factor in strengthening our commitment to one another. 

There can be no better way for the Christian Churches to celebrate the Jubilee than to take the opportunity to dedicate themselves anew to the service of God, and to seek the common good through love for their neighbours near and far.

We acknowledge gratefully Her Majesty’s faith and her dedication to service, and assure her of the prayers and good wishes of her fellow Christians for the years of her reign yet to come. We pray that all may be inspired by Her Majesty's service: that together we may create a nation where all know they have the dignity and value of the children of God.'

On the threshold of the Year what a Christmas message she gave – so straightforwardly and simply a Christian message.

In a funny kind of way the three elements of today come together in our reflections this evening.

I start with the gift of a Bible.

There are many powerful passages that speak in the Bible.  One of the strengths of the particular New Testament we had to share this morning was the couple of pages at the outset that have suggested verses to read at times of difficulty and anguish.

Addicted? Afraid of dying?  Angry?  Anxious?  Depressed?

Verses to turn to.

Overwhelmed by a sense of the world falling apart about your ears?  Be it personal circumstances, national calamity or world-wide problems?  Again the Bible has something for all occasions.

The Book of Daniel is one of those books for such occasions as that.  The first half is a powerful antidote to the fear that can be so destructive when the world seems against you.  Stand up for what you believe!  Dare to be a Daniel!  And in the fiery furnace there will be another presence with you, alongside you, to comfort and protect you.  In the Lions’ Den there will be the angels of God watching over you to shield and defend you.

And faced with a world that falls apart – hold on to those visions that speak of an ultimate victory through so much that is destructive.

Those visions spoke volumes to people who had come through so much oppression.  As the Babylonians gave way to the Persians, the Persians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Syrians and Egyptians, and then all to the Romans – there was a power that seemed to have the last word.

But the vision of Daniel go beyond that.  The powers that be won’t have the last word.

And the vision seems to be inspired by something grand and full of pomp and ceremony.  Make no mistake about it the Babylonians could do it, the Persians could do it, the Greeks, the Syrians, the Egyptians and the Romans – they could all do it.  They could stage pageantry at its finest and at its most splendid.

It’s as if Daniel asks you to imagine in your mind’s eye the most regal and splendid of all the greatest royalty imaginable.  And today we can do just that.  It’s a coronation in 1953, a state opening of parliament, and a flotilla of boast such as has not been witnessed on the Thames for 500 years all rolled into one.  Imagine the splendour.  And then magnify it ten fold and a hundred fold and a thousand fold.

This is the vision Daniel has

“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat. 
His clothing was as white as snow; 
    the hair of his head was white like wool. 
His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him. 
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
    and the books were opened.

And this Ancient of Days won the victory over all that was going wrong.

And then comes the crowning vision …

Beyond all human majesty … one came in that vision to the Ancient of Days … and he was one ‘like a Son of Man’

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Jesus faced the oppression of a mighty power and as he approached his death this was exactly the vision he drew on.  Hold on to this vision he urged his followers and God will be with you … you will share in the victory.

Through death and resurrection those followers of Jesus sensed a remarkable victory Jesus had won … and they looked to him as the one who reigned supreme in the power of his kingdom.

That’s the vision to hold on to – those wonderful words in Revelation 5!

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, 
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb 
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

This is a remarkable vision to hold on to.

And where do we sense the reality of the conviction contained in this book?  Where can we sense the wonder of that vision of ultimate glory?

It is as we gather round to eat the simplest of meals and anticipate a heavenly banquet beyond all our imagining.

And here at this table in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup we can sense the wonder of that love of God that nothing can separate us from.