A third advent sermon on Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13
The Old Testament is full of stories that tell the history of the Israelites. It’s a library of books that were written by different people in different places for different reasons. We have books of law and books of history and books of poetry and books of wisdom and books of prophecy.
And, every once in a while, if we’re able to take a step back, we notice something remarkable about these books. They don’t only include the positive sides of the story. They also include the negatives. The criticisms.
For every good king we read about, there’s a prophet, saying, “Hey! Wake up! You’re still missing something here!”
For every good character we read about, we read about many of their dark sides and their penchant to lie, steal, kill, commit adultery, and ignore the poor around them.
We so desperately want to create categories of people and kingdoms and stories and label them as either good or bad, but if read these stories carefully, they just don’t give us a lot of fairy tale endings.
It takes as mature person to criticize their people while remaining among them. It takes a mature person to criticize their faith, while remaining within it. It takes a mature person to criticize their country, their church, or even themselves and their family, while remaining in it.
Today’s story is one of those stories.
So let’s pull out the old map, because trying to read these Old Testament stories without knowing what’s going on is always a bad idea.
The Israelites were in Egypt as slaves. Moses led the out, and then spent 40 years wandering the desert. Then they set up a kingdom here, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get along, so it split into two. Then the big bad Assyrians came and wiped out the Northern Kingdom. Then the big bad Babylonians came and wiped out the Assyrians and took most of the Southern Kingdom back to Babylon, and this is called the exile. And then the big bad Persians came and took over the Babylonians, and then Cyrus, King of the Persians, tells Ezra to lead the Jews home to go and rebuild their temple.
And this is where we pick up the story. After getting beaten up and kicked around and kidnapped and killed for the last two hundred years, the people were going home.
Oh yeah, we’re going home. Kind of like how you feel after a long weekend at your in-laws. Only imagine living there for decades. See ya! It’s good to be home.
Only, we read in verse 3 that when they went home, the land wasn’t empty. People who were left behind from the exile were still there. Foreigners who moved in to the land, armies had left people there after conquest. The land wasn’t empty, and Ezra and his people were afraid. Afraid of the conflict that might arise. Afraid that their hopes and dreams might be dashed. Afraid that their safety was at risk. Afraid that the houses their grandparents had built were being lived in by others. Afraid of people who were different than them. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid.
This is also why some of these Old Testament stories are great. They’re quite universal. We are still afraid today.
Some of us are afraid of Muslims. Some of us are afraid of going bankrupt. Some of us are afraid of dying. Some of us are afraid of being labelled a failure. Some of us are afraid for our safety. Some of us are afraid of not having enough money to retire. Some of us are afraid of losing our jobs. Some of us are afraid that Christianity will lose its perceived influence. Some of us are afraid that we’re not doing enough good in this world. Some of us afraid of our futures.
This is universal. It’s okay. We’re all afraid of something.
Now, satistically speaking, we live in the best time in the history of the world. Most of us in Canada are going to have the highest quality of lives every available to humans, ever, and what do we with that? We buy cell phones for our children in elementary school because of safety concerns.
I read recently that in some schools, one quarter of kids in grade 4 have cell phones. In every instance, the parent cited safety as the primary reason to get one. I told this stat to a bunch of teenagers, and they all laughed. “Of course we told our parents we needed cell phones for our safety. We knew that was our best chance of getting one!”
We are afraid. How we’re afraid may look different to each of us, but we are afraid.
I’m going to say two things about being afraid.
Number one. We are not allowed to put our own safety before that of others while claiming we follow Jesus. No. Can’t do it. I know why we do it, because who doesn’t want to be safe? But when we use the excuse of our safety to deny the opportunity to love of others, we are not following Jesus. Putting your own security and safety before the well-being of others is something that Jesus didn’t say.
Can you imagine Jesus not talking to some people because he was afraid of them? Or not healing them? Or not having supper with them? Or not hanging out with them? Or not living with them? He did his ministry with enemy soldiers and violent revolutionaries and sex workers and tax collectors and foreigners and people with communicable diseases, and never once cited his safety as a concern.
And he ended up on a cross, while loving and forgiving the people who were killing him. We shouldn’t act surprised, because this is exactly what Jesus invites his followers to.
If taking up our cross to follow Jesus doesn’t mean to embark upon a life that risks suffering, loss and even death, then what does it mean? (Brian Zahnd).
Doing to others as you would have them do to you does not include any clauses about risk and safety.
So we do not get to say that we are putting our trust in Jesus and then put our own welfare before that of others.
That means that we open our doors to refugees.
That means that open our doors to Muslims.
That means that we don’t talk poorly of others in our coffee shop conversations.
That means we don’t spread falsehoods and on Facebook and fact check any pictures we share.
That means we don’t advocate violence against others.
That means we don’t blame helping others for health care wait times or tax rates or housing availability.
Jesus asks us to take up a cross. Surely, then, we shouldn’t be surprised when we actually have to do so.
Do to others as you would have them to unto you.
We all have our own fears, anxieties, our own doubts, sin… Our own issues. But when we don’t acknowledge them, and seek healing for them, what we end up doing is projecting them onto a different person, or a different group. It’s called scapegoating, and it is evil. As soon as we scapegoat another group, as soon as we blame another group, as soon as we name ourselves as better than someone else, or more deserving than someone else, then ever so slightly we open the door to bullying, exclusion, racism, violence, genocide, and crucifixion. If you want to see the devil work wonders in our world, check out all the scapegoating. When we say that we’re just being safe, we have to help those at home first, that they’re different than us so they wouldn’t fit in, it is the Devil masquerading as an angel of light.
When we hear someone blame another group for something, chances are that it’s a form of scapegoating.
Have we been paying attention for the past few months?
We’ve scapegoated Muslims.
We’ve scapegoated refugees.
We’ve scapegoated Syrians.
And we in the church are equally to blame. We have a long and proud history of scapegoating other groups. We love circling the wagons and creating enemies and getting everyone riled up and afraid.
We’ve scapegoated other religions.
We’ve scapegoated other denominations.
We’ve scapegoated sexual minorities.
We’ve scapegoated political parties we disagree with and people who don’t vote like us.
We’ve scapegoated people who don’t believe the same doctrine as us.
As Canadians, are we able to learn from our own history?
We’re turning 150 years soon. And in those years,
We’ve scapegoated Jews.
We’ve scapegoated Chinese.
We’ve scapegoated Japanese.
We’ve scapegoated Muslims.
We’ve scapegoated the French, the English, the Germans, the Irish, the Ukrainians, and the Mennonites.
We’ve scapegoated women.
And sweet mercy me have we every scapegoated First Nations people.
When we, as humans, are afraid, we have the capacity to do terrible things to others.
CBC has shut down the comments section on its website for articles on First Nations people because of the racist comments people were writing.
The Holocaust museum in New York issued a statement comparing the rhetoric around Syrian refugees to the rhetoric of Jewish refugees pre-World War II. Pre-Holocaust, Canada only let in 5000 Jewish refugees, with one official even saying, “None is too many.” The Holocaust killed 6,000,000 Jews.
When we are afraid, and when we blame other groups for our problems, we can do terrible things.
You may not have noticed, but almost every pronoun I have used this sermon is in the first person, using either “I” or “we.” Why? Because the first step to not scapegoating is to not use “us vs. them” language. It’s hard, and it’s sloppy at times, but talking about others as “we” at least attempts to see our connection to others, and our own ability to make mistakes, whereas talking about “them” easily turns into “enemies.”
Now, back to the story of Ezra for a moment. I am fully aware that me up here preaching to not be afraid doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all going to go home not be afraid anymore.
Our text this morning tells us that despite their fears, Ezra and the Israelites kept building the temple.
And when they were done, they sang the following:
“God is good. His love towards Israel endures.”
In this story, the Israelites had been kicked around, killed, and kidnapped for almost two centuries, and what are the words from their lips?
God is good. His love endures forever.
They gathered together to remind themselves that even though they are afraid, there is a different story to listen to. Sometimes we have to turn off the news, turn off social media, turn off the coffee shop banter… Sometimes we have to turn our heads a bit and listen real carefully.
God is good. His love endures forever.
The story is there. It’s always been there. We’ve heard it before. Are we listening?
God is good. His love endures forever.
Our story of Ezra ends with something unique. It’s one of those parts of the story where they’re quite mature in writing down what actually happened.
Ezra and the people left Babylon, lived with their fears, remembered that God is good, and finally rebuilt the temple. And when it was done, some of the people were letting out whoops of joy and excitement and acting like the Winnipeg Jets were back in town!
But others… they wept. They remembered what the temple was like, and realized that this temple, in comparison, stunk.
They realized that the future was not the past.
Similar to us, our future is not our past.
We don’t know how Canadians are going to respond to an increase in refugees and Muslims.
We don’t know who the Americans are going to elect President.
We don’t know what our current government is going to do, and what will happen again in 4 years.
We don’t know what our families are going to look like, what our jobs will be like, what our church will be like, what our country will look like.
All that we know, it that the future is probably not going to look like the past.
That’s what the Israelites realized all those years ago. And that’s what we’re still realizing to this day.
As we all look to an unknown future, with all our own fears, are we listening?
Are we able to hear?
Are we able to trust?
Are we able to trust God?
Trust that God is with us?
O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.