I am always reading something.
When I left a previous parish in 2004 I joined a book club. Before that I would rarely read a book cover to cover. I would read relevant bits of a theology book or a commentary for a sermon. But this book club experience changed my life.
And I love nothing better than a good complicated story.
Back in September I began reading the “Harry Potter” stories by J K Rowling. If you read them as they were published you had a year or so between volumes. Reading all seven in a row gives a sense of an epic tale that is well developed, complex and has you eventually racing to get to the end. Now I am reading the Narnia Chronicles of CS Lewis – another great collection of stories that create an epic tale. And after that I think I will get into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkein.
I tell you this to set the scene for dipping into the Old Testament Story we read today. We really have there something like a “screenshot” within a two-hour movie. It is a small part of a much bigger tale, yet it captures a vital moment in the life of Israel.
The Book of Ezra is both a Sequel and a Prequel. It is a sequel to the stories recorded in The Chronicles and a prequel to the stories that are told in the Book of Nehemiah. They don’t exactly fit together and historians have difficulty with some of the details, but these accounts of the restoration of the Jewish Exiles to their homeland are shaped in such a way that they have much to say to us even today in this faraway place.
In a nutshell, what happened was, many of the peoples of Judah and Israel were taken from their homeland into Exile by the conquering Babylonian and Assyrian empires. You may remember some of the sayings of the prophets reporting God’s instruction that they settle there, marry the locals, have children, and wait.
After many years, Ezra and Nehemiah were the heralds who told the people it was time to go home. Nehemiah got the government to give him what he needed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then he was ready for the rebuilding of the houses for the exiles to live in.
So he organised all the work to be done, despite political opposition, and then got all the people to pack up and come home. Seven months later this happened.
I wonder if you were able to imagine the scene. Over 50,000 people were involved in this repatriation. Our story-teller would have us see all of these people – men, women and children – gathered just inside one of the great Gates of the City. There, from dawn until noon, Ezra the priest and scholar of the law read to the people from the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy).
But much more than that happened. Ezra was reading out in Hebrew, but the people spoke Aramaic now, so the words needed to be translated. But because they had been away from the temple so long the words also needed to be interpreted. I think we at Holy Cross understand the subtle difference between “translated” and “interpreted” – when I preach to the Nuba I need an “interpreter” to take my words and explain what I mean.
Some people think this story is in fact a story of the beginning of the tradition of sermons, of preaching, of taking the words of our sacred texts and explaining them so that they mean something particularly for us today. I like that idea.
This story also marks the beginning of something that we take for granted – the idea of a divinely inspired anthology of literature that we believe expresses the will of God for his people. The sense of this did not exist for the Jews before this or in any other religious culture.
I want to draw your attention to two important things that this story points us towards.
This story describes an event which marks the beginning of the life of this newly reunited community of Israel – and this act of “beginning” takes the form of them listening together to the words of the Law, which they heard as the very voice of God, calling them back to living in relationship with God.
This same sense of “beginning” with the words of Scripture is found in our Gospel story where Jesus reads those famous words from Isaiah and says to the people “Today all this has come true in this place.”
I think we here, as a Community of the Holy Cross, were similarly started up with the words of Scripture calling us into being together as a community of God’s people in this place.
But there is something else in this story that we need to take notice of. Here the word of God is read, heard but also interpreted. This process of explanation is the bit that enables the changeless words of Scripture to speak meaningfully into our ever-changing lives and experience as the people of God. Generally it is not helpful to just read the words and leave them at that – in fact we really can’t do that because in hearing them our minds and hearts will be “interpreting them” – looking for meaning.
This, I think, sums up the work of our life in God – that we make time to spend with these texts, listening for the voice of God for you each day. Over the years we have developed all sorts of spiritual practices to help us do this, but it is appropriate that we be reminded time and again that we live by this divine word, ancient and fixed, yet ever new. In hearing and obeying these things our life in God will grow every day.
As we approach Lent and Easter, I want to encourage you to see this time as an opportunity to join together, as we are planning to do, in our study of The Heart of Christianity. In these sessions we will be exploring together what the words of the Bible mean when we take them altogether as pointing us towards the heart of our faith. And doing this together is a vital expression of what it means for us to be God’s people in this place. We will be listening for the voice of God. We will be taking a few more important steps on the Way that Jesus has called us to follow him on.