Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ezra and the Guys

We started a new Bible study at the Oregon Prison Friday Night Bible Study, having finished a very satisfying read-through and discussion of the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

I decided that we should head back into the OT, having read everything biblical that St. Luke had researched and written. Someone in the group said "Nehemiah!". I thought, ok. How about Ezra first, then Nehemiah, and let's throw in Ruth since we will have worked so hard to find Christ in the first two books and would by then be thinking in terms of types and foreshadowing. And maybe, just maybe, we'll do Job as well. Oh, gluttony, thou art my constant companion.

So, five of us. One guy begged off, had to get a haircut. I don't even want to think of his answer when asked about this before the Judgement Seat. But I've been there, I've been there. I sold a piece of land; I just got married. I've occupied this land my entire life.

Mike is an overweight white former CEO of a medium sized company from which he stole 1.6 million dollars. He has just been diagnosed as a diabetic. He started our readings in the Book of Ezra, which proceeded around the table to Dale, another white guy I haven't learned a lot about; to Udell, a large, handsome black man of surpassing humility; to Ken, who has been laying a cross on my shoulders lately in this modest enterprise. I'm having to seriously earn my chops with this black man from the deep South. So it always goes.

Here is the thing about Ezra: we had to spend a little time establishing the context. So I spun a tale of fierce pride and presumption--of complete cultural forgetfulness; of the leaders of Israel being dragged through holes in the fortress wall by rings in their noses, into slavery; of Assyrians and later Babylonians who did not suffer fools lightly nor did they mind plundering the Hebrew women and the Hebrew gold. They all got the picture. Seventy years in suspended animation, except Jews never suspend the merchanting of their collective lives. By the time they were given the surpassing gift of a return ticket to Palestine, they had 7,337 servants attending to their needs, and some very nice dinnerware.

Through which mask of God did they receive this gift?

It was in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia. It was done to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah, that suffering servant. Cyrus, the pagan king, spoke these rather astounding words:
"The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
"Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem."
Off they went, four months perhaps of desert travail to get to the rocky upland of Jerusalem. And you think: This is the will of the Lord.

And you think: Nothing can stop them now! The returning Hebrews had Cyrus and God on their side. The slope-headed, neanderthal, out-of-touch hicks who had taken up residence in Jerusalem and the adjoining lands didn't have a prayer.

Ah, but as Luther says somewhere, when God begins a great work, it always seems that nothing happens for awhile. And when it does happen, a cross is soon laid on the shoulders of that undertaking.

And so it always goes. The Hebrews started well, rediscovering the cities of their Fathers, and laying down roots. Brother Zerubbabel, and his bro Jeshua (The name of our Lord) set up the altar of the God of Israel on its foundations. And later, having purchased cedar from Lebanon, and having hired masons and carpenters, they laid the foundation of the temple, the work which Cyrus had freed them to do.

A strange thing happened at the dedication of the foundation of the temple. A spontaneous cheer of wild joy, and at the same time a wail of tears, rose from the peoples assembled, and could be heard from afar off. "...the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people..."

Why the tears? Why the sorrow? Ken thought it was tears of joy. He was ready to move on. I pointed out that it was the old men who were weeping--those who remembered the first great temple, the temple of Solomon (when times were GREAT). I wanted Ken and the others to understand how something can be a source of great rejoicing and at the same time a source of great sorrow. Jesus wept at Lazarus' tomb, and then proceeded to call him back to life. We rejoice as we are delivered out of great trauma while at the same time marvelling at the depth of our sin.

Can we weep and rejoice at the same time?

It is simul iustus et peccator all over again. It is Romans 7 writ large, and updated. And Ken got it. A light flashed across his face, and with that old smile of his and that slow drawl, he admitted--YES! He remembered times when he saw the glory of God and it reminded him of the depth of his sin. I cried YEAH, KEN! THAT'S SANCTIFICATION, BABY! God is making you holy, dude!

Later, quietly, Udell mentioned that he had never gotten anything like this out of Ezra. I mean, he'd READ it, but had missed a lot. I had to agree with him: Ezra is not the first place I turn when I rummage through my Bible. Just buried treasure, awaiting discovery, is all it is.

Soon enough organized resistance, to the building of this temple and the general settling in of these Hebrews, grew among the people dwelling in the land, and the officials from Babylon who oversaw the administration of Palestine. Spies and saboteurs tried to infiltrate the ranks of the naive refugees from Bablylon. Failing that, they started a letter writing campaign to the new administration in Babylon. And the work was halted, and the hope of the people must have wilted.

Would God start a project, grant the Hebrews freedom to return to their ancient homeland, and then lose interest? It must have looked like this to them. And so ensued a short exchange among us about the promises of God versus the View On The Ground, and why the whole conundrum itself is what calls forth faith.

I'll see where it goes from here, come next Friday night at the prison.


Ethan said...

Y'know, I kinda wish I could be there. I got a lot just out of reading this post. Seeing the glory of God and being reminded of the depths of sin--sounds utterly familiar.

This sounds like an excellent thing you're doing.

Bruce Gee said...

I wish you could be there too! But my teletranporting device blew a celectnoid crystal last week and a new one can't be gotten at Weaver Auto Parts. In fact the nearest is two galaxies, three planets, and a fractional meson away. Plus, you get here, and the prison guards are gonna wanna do a background check on you. Takes time, eh?

Unknown said...